The Book of Abraham
Although they have a very strong belief in the Bible, Mormons also use some uniquely Mormon books of scripture. These books are the (most famous) Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. The Pearl of Great Price is further made up of smaller books. These are (in order) the Book of Moses, the Book of Abraham, Joseph Smith-Matthew, Joseph Smith-History, and the Articles of Faith. The best known (and most controversial) of these small books is the Book of Abraham.
The Book of Abraham describes, Mormons believe, a key part of Abraham’s life. They also believe that Abraham himself was the author. He lived, at the beginning, in an Egyptian society, a priest of which tried to sacrifice him to the Egyptian gods, as Abraham refused to worship them. An angel of Jehovah saves him. The book further describes those blessings the Lord promised to Abraham and his descendants. Abraham also describes a vision received through seer stones called the Urim and Thummim. In this vision, the Lord teaches Abraham astronomy and about the holy dwelling place of God. Abraham also learned many key principles of what would become Mormon doctrine, such as that men and women lived with God, as spirits, before they were born. The Creation is described in more detail than in Genesis.
The book also reproduces three facsimiles from the original papyri, which are interpreted by the founder and first prophet of Mormonism, Joseph Smith Jr. He also translated the text.
These papyri were bought by Joseph in 1835, with the four mummies they accompanied, from an entrepreneur in Kirtland, Ohio. By this point, Joseph Smith had translated and published the Book of Mormon and the entrepreneur had heard of him by reputation. Joseph inspected the papyri and said a number of things about them which agreed with the opinions of scholars who’d observed them. During his inspection, he found Abraham’s record in the papyri and became very excited. He began translating the papyri immediately after their purchase. Unfortunately for the progress of the record, though, this period of Mormon history was one of constant persecution and Joseph Smith did not complete what would later be named the Book of Abraham in 1842. This was published in the Mormon periodical, Times and Seasons. He never finished the translation of the papyri entirely, however. Joseph Smith was murdered in 1844 and the translation had to be left unfinished.
Joseph’s wife, Emma, kept both mummies and papyri with her in Illinois when most Mormons went west to Utah. Eventually, she sold them. Part of them ended up in Chicago, where they were (everyone thought) destroyed by the 1871 fire. 1966 gave us some fragments of Joseph’s papyri, again, this time found in New York’s Metropolitan Museum. The Mormon Church acquired these fragments, which were placed in its archives.
And the controversy around the Book of Abraham has been centered around these fragments. The fragments are the main point of debate between critics of the Mormon religion and its members. Modern Egyptologists are better versed in translation than Egyptologists of the early nineteenth century. Thus, many believe that today’s Egyptologists should be able to test Joseph’s translation against their own and test Joseph’s claim as a prophet alongside. Other critics claim Joseph’s claim already disproved. The discovered papyri are two thousand years old, not the four thousand that Joseph claimed them to be. However, the content could be four thousand years old, recopied onto a newer papyrus. The New Testament was not, in fact, written during the life of Christ, but decades after it. We accept that we don’t have the access to the original sources that the writers of the New Testament had. And we accept that the New Testament is a true record of Christ, which we should.
The main point of argument about the papyri is the facsimiles—the hieroglyphics don’t correspond to the Book of Abraham, but an Egyptian funeral text, the Book of Breathings. Mind, only one of the actual facsimiles that Joseph used has been discovered, but modern scholarly interpretation of it and Joseph Smith’s do differ.
The translation of Joseph Smith isn’t the same as a translation by a scholar. We must refer to faith to understand, completely, what Joseph Smith did when he translated. In some Mormon belief, the Book of Abraham wasn’t a literal translation, given hieroglyphic by hieroglyphic, but given largely by revelation. After all, the Book of Moses was given entirely by revelation, as was the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible. While Joseph was translating through the book of Genesis, lengthy passages were revealed to him by the Lord, passages not found in the Bible. These passages would form the Book of Moses. Also, Joseph Smith said that Section 7 of the Doctrine and Covenants was a translation of a parchment which the Apostle John wrote. The source of this parchment is never given, though, and Joseph Smith typically described the ways in which he acquired his sources. Thus, the section may have been revealed to Joseph directly by God.
Joseph Smith was not a scholar, nor very learned at all. His translation came by the power of God, not through his educated abilities. The purpose of all his translations was to reveal more of God’s words and purposes.