(RNS) A new online essay by the LDS Church says its Book of Abraham is inspired scripture but perhaps not a literal word-for-word translation of ancient Egyptian papyrus scrolls by the faith’s founder, Joseph Smith.

Joseph Smith used this papyrus fragment as one of the sources for the Book of Abraham, a part of the Mormon scriptures. The difference between Egyptologists' translation and Joseph Smith's interpretations has caused considerable controversy.

Joseph Smith used this papyrus fragment as one of the sources for the Book of Abraham, a part of the Mormon scriptures. The difference between Egyptologists’ translation and Joseph Smith’s interpretations has caused considerable controversy. Public domain image

The article says it is possible that the papyri merely served as a catalyst for revelation by Smith that led to his expanding on the biblical account of Abraham. The book is included in a church volume of scripture called The Pearl of Great Price.

The essay concedes that is impossible to prove or disprove the translation since most of the papyri used have long since vanished and are presumed destroyed.

“This (essay) now allows Latter-day Saints to adopt the view that the Book of Abraham was not on the papyri that Joseph Smith possessed as an acceptable orthodox option,” said David Bokovoy, a University of Utah religious-studies instructor who wrote a book about the Book of Abraham.

The “Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham” essay comes on the heels of other recent postings designed to help Latter-day Saints and others better understand sometimes-sticky theological or historical issues in Mormonism.

Other essays include explorations of the faith’s former ban on blacks from entering its all-male priesthood, its long-discarded practice of plural marriage and its teachings about the nature of God and mankind’s eternal potential.

Smith said he translated the Book of Abraham after obtaining mummies and papyri from an entrepreneur named Michael Chandler after they were uncovered in Egypt by Antonio Lebolo, a former cavalryman in the Italian army.

The essay says no eyewitness accounts have been found about the translation process. It adds that Smith did not claim to know the ancient languages he translated for the Book of Abraham or the faith’s signature scripture, the Book of Mormon.

Philip Barlow, chairman of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University, said such a conclusion is a “two-edged sword.” It allows recognizing that a religious text should be judged on religious grounds, but he notes that most believers also want to be responsive to what scholars and science may show, too.

(Lee Davidson writes for The Salt Lake Tribune.)

22 Comments

    • I joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint in 1966 while a student at UC Santa Barbara. My parents raised me to think independently, value education, and be moderately skeptical while keeping an open mind. Those are the values we taught our children and that are encouraged in the LDS faith.

      • @Wayne Dequer,

        What is ‘moderately skeptical’?
        Not crossing your parent’s claims with questions of your own?

        If so, You’ve been indoctrinated to adhere to your parent’s limitations
        and wouldn’t recognize skepticism at all.

        • Perhaps I wasn’t as clear as I though. My parent were Not Mormons. They were fairly non-religious. I don’t remember either of my parents attending any church even a Christmas or Easter, although my brother and I were sent to a neighborhood Methodist Sunday School for a few months. Our family generally viewed my Dad’s Seventh Day Adventist sisters and their kids as religious nuts. I investigated and joined the LDS faith on my own while a student at UC Santa Barbara in 1966. I seriously investigated for two year and was surprised when they gave me permission to be baptized. Kapish (or Capisce)? ;-)

          • @Wayne Dequer,

            So you just decided LDS made sense.
            Wow.

            I’ve got a bridge to sell you.

      • The Easter Bunny

        If that were true, you’d be willing/able to answer this simple question:

        Question: “What verifiable and objective evidence, if it existed, would be sufficient for you to leave Mormonism?”

        If there’s no such evidence, even conceptually, then you don’t value education, you are not moderately skeptical, and you haven’t an open mind.

  1. The title of this article, “Mormon Church essay says one of its scriptures may not be a literal translation,” is Not the major focus of the essay, “Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham” published by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at https://www.lds.org/topics/translation-and-historicity-of-the-book-of-abraham?lang=eng . It is a careful review of the existing scholarship of what is and what is Not known about the Book of Abraham. What is new, is that it is published on the official Church website which makes access at bit easier and marginally increases credibility of this scholarship for active Church members. I encourage those who are interested to read the actual essay at the link I have provided and draw their own conclusions. See also http://www.jefflindsay.com/LDSFAQ/FQ_Abraham.shtml for even more detail on these topics if still curious.

    • But there is no objectively credible research from sources outside of the LDS or LDS controlled institution. Seriously how different is this from the claims of veracity in “Creation Science Peer Journals”.

      Factual assertions taken as articles of faith of a religion never go over well.

    • The Easter Bunny

      There’s a gaping hole in these sorry excuses the Mormon Church is putting forward: Anyone can look at the facsimiles in the Book of Abraham, and there is universal agreement among Egyptologists that Smith’s explanations of the facsimiles are wrong. Worse than that, these facsimiles contain images of pagan gods.

      The Mormon argument is that Jehovah used papyri full of images of pagan gods to “inspire” Smith. Anyone familiar with the god Jehovah in the OT knows that is simply impossible. The god Jehovah is very clear about having nothing to do with “other gods.” Messing with other gods was a capital offense under Jehovah.

      Yet Mormonism, intellectually bankrupt as it is, has been driven to the point where the best they can do is argue that some common Egyptian funerary papyri, filled with the images of “other gods,” is what the god Jehovah used to “inspire” a modern-day prophet.

      This argument is like saying Mormon President Monson got his inspiration for his last Conference Talk from the latest edition of Penthouse Magazine.

    • Maybe.

      But unless you have influence over people in that religion, or claim it as your own, what you say does not matter. Why? Because they will claim what they want and believe what they want despite you. You never had control over them and their lives. Just as they never had control over yours.

      Unless of course you both encourage and support the existence of a supernatural state gov and intend to use its power as a vehicle to gain this control over your neighbors you would not otherwise have.

  2. I find it interesting when people level accusations of trickery or duplicity regarding the development of Mormonism. It seems to me it isn’t really much different than the histories of other religious doctrines, in that it is a social process of construction–of meaning, community, rationale–and that revelations, translations, and divine intervention are the tools of that process. The difference is that Mormonism happens to be within the purview of “secular” historians, and that we have to ability to weigh evidence against a standard of veracity that isn’t in the nature of religious construction. How is the question of authentic translation of these papyri not asked of a couple of stone tablets i heard of once that broke before anyone could read them?

    • The Easter Bunny

      I find it interesting that you find it interesting. After all, have you *asked* any of the Mormon critics if they level the same sorts of criticisms against the Bible? If not, what’s interesting? Your speculation about how they might answer questions you haven’t asked?

      For the record, *this* critic (an atheist) certainly *does* level that sort of criticism against the Bible. But since the Mormon Church and the Book of Abraham are the subjects in this thread, that’s what people are naturally discussing.

    • @Dennis,

      Don’t worry. All religion is nonsense.
      The LDS is just as full of nonsense
      as all other Jesus stories.

      And it is important to repeat that religion is nonsense.
      The world desperately needs to abandon all of it.

      Your invisible, magical friend is no different from Allah, Yahweh, Thor, Zeus…

      Consider how astoundingly useless these silly things are that they can be so easily interchanged.

    • If you are referring to the Ten Commandments, which I assume you are, it is clear in the Bible that Moses had to go back up and receive the same commandments over again on new tablets, tablets which the people and followers of that day could see with their own two eyes. I’m not going to sit here and try and debunk Mormonism or argue about how no one can show how Joseph Smith logically could translate what was on these mysterious papyri, but I would appreciate if you actually understood the Biblical stories that you are trying to compare these mysterious papyri to.

    • northernwriter

      Those broken tablets and the written stories that emcompass them did not fabricate a people, their history, culture, geography, or languages as do the Mormon writings. Whereas objective research supports the context of the broken tablets, giving them credibility, this is completely lacking from the Mormon corpus.

      Moreover, the Mormon writing (or translations), which claim to be related to the those other scriptures, are not only not consistent with those other writings, but are at serious odds with the other tradition. Consequentlly, no church of any stripe, ever, has accepted communion or fellowship with the Mormon organization.

  3. Charles Freeman

    Wayne, thanks for your straightforward description of your recognition of the fraudulent nature of Smith’s Abraham piece. I wonder if it was likely that this was another face in the hat that contained the magic stone? Apparently, we’ll never know. Although I like to think that some of us are thoroughly skeptical, I know that all of us make associations of events and facts that bear knowledgeable scrutiny. It’s been the method of investigation for primates for millenia. We have learned that there are reasoning errors and mistakes made in empirical evidence interpretation. Joseph Smith wasn’t simply making translation errors. he was committing fraud. His hat tricks as the theological basis for Mormanism was of the same source. You have to have a very high level of suspension of disbelief to give credence to this stuff. Given the significant number of Mormons, it would seem that lots of folks are in this category. The real question, to me, is how these faith based beliefs could exist still. The answer may lay in the success of communities of Mormons supporting each other and, in turn, their religion.

  4. Ronald Pridgen

    I wonder how many will take down the picture of Jesus hanging on the walls in their home? That is a lie we just want let go. I have seen him for myself and I say, there is not visual image under the sun printed image that truly represents the true structure of Jesus. AHO!

  1. […] Lee Davidson, writer for the Salt Lake Tribune, posts for Religion News Service about the Book of Abraham essay released by the church earlier this week, noting in his headline “Mormon Church essay says one of its scriptures may not be a literal translation.” Davidson talked with accomplished University of Utah religious-studies instructor David Bokovoy, who stated, ““This (essay) now allows Latter-day Saints to adopt the view that the Book of Abraham was not on the papyri that Joseph Smith possessed as an acceptable orthodox option.” […]

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