Updated: Aug 24, 2020
While the Book of Mormon is the foundation of Mormonism, the Book of Abraham is the sidebar that often creates more buzz. While it's small, due to the ability to view some of the existing artifacts, it quickly has become the gotcha keystone to debunking the Mormon religion.
Here are the facts:
Joseph Smith bought some Egyptian papyri (and some mummies) from Michael Chandler in 1835, purportedly to translate them.
There is no good understanding of the mechanics of translation, as there was with the Book of Mormon. However, there is some evidence he attempted to study Egyptian in a scholarly fashion in his diaries. He mentions that is was translated in the introduction.
At some time, Joseph states that they contain writings of Abraham and Joseph. He produces a “translation” of some of the writings, which are reproduced in the Times in Seasons in Nauvoo in 1842.
It was only seven pages in total, as compared to the mass of scrolls. This tells us that he barely scratched the surface of the material in his collection.
The entirety of the collection ends up in the Museum of Chicago, which was destroyed by fire in 1871. Only some fragments remain. It is unclear how much was destroyed and how much of it correlates to the purported translation. Facsimile 1, however, was included in the fragments.
Existing fragment of facsimile 1
The fragments are dated to about 100 AD, which means they cannot have been a direct translation from Abraham—they correlate to Egyptian culture and funerary texts from that era.
More time has passed since these papyri were written till today, then from Abraham to Alexandrian Egypt
There are some proper name anachronisms in the Book of Abraham
There are some internal proofs that give the Book of Abraham some authenticity. For example, Joseph Smith translated a placed called Olishem (a town called Ulishem was discovered in Syria in the 20th Century) and Kokaubeam (a real Hebrew term); he could have cobbled these together with his limited understanding of Egyptian and Hebrew
Although the Gods mentioned in Facsimile 1 do not correlate to their interpretations from the 1st century AD, the heads of the jars have similar astrological and apocalyptic language in the Book of Revelation, providing a possible earlier theme to their understanding.
The theme of the Book of Abraham and the facsimiles present a type of progression that is similar with other gospel themes of sacrifice, atonement, gaining knowledge, then receiving the fullness of the Priesthood, then sitting on the throne with God
So with that in mind, what are some possible scenarios for how the Book of Abraham came into being?
Scenario 1: Joseph Smith made it up as part of his desire to expand a Biblical translation. It was a side project that helped him develop his late temple theology in order to create a secret system to control his new religion.
Scenario 2: Joseph Smith attempted to translate with his limited understanding of Hebrew and Egyptian, but only to a point, and filled in the rest with his imagination.
Scenario 3: Same as scenario 2, but God filled in the holes, perhaps using similar systems he employed with the Book of Mormon—like using the seer stone or other beings.
Scenario 4: The papyri acted as a talisman, directing him to receive revelation that correlated to an earlier time, but the writings had become totally incoherent by 100 AD, thus incurring a completely different meaning by then.
Scenario 5: The papyri was incidental to the Book of Abraham, and only gave him some motivation to get some inspiration.
Scenario 6: It came from Satan or some other malevolent being.
The only possible scenarios given previous analyses in the last post on translation are 2, 3, and 4. Scenario 5 can’t be used, because there is too much tying of the revelation to the scripts, including most strikingly, the facsimiles. Scenario 6 is hard because the passages are too Christian. That leaves us with scenarios 4 and 5.
The problem with Scenario 4 has been that the papyri have historically been represented as direct translations. But in the end, that seems like an argument about semantics, and not one about deliberate deception. If we were to assume, since the gold plates were rarely used to produce the translation of the Book of Mormon, it’s quite possible that the scrolls did nothing more than channel the same effect with the Book of Abraham translation process. In other words, it’s Joseph’s connection to another plane, with assistance from the channeling of the objects, not the objects themselves, that produced the information he gave under this scenario.
With this understanding, the reader is left to determine the credulity of each scenario. How much does one trust Egyptology and historian experts on the Alexandrian era going backwards to 2000 BC to showcase the improbability of even a cultural drift in context? How complete is that research? Is it okay to be skeptical of the proto-Semitic narratives provided by the consensus of historians? Was Abraham even a real person? Many historians doubt that Abraham existed anyway, so one would have to grapple with that before they started coming to terms with this.
Which brings us to the idea of Abraham being allegorical . . . which has also been similarly leveled about the Book of Job . . . and if so, does it make a difference? Many would like to believe there was a man named Abraham that once lived and that the Book of Abraham includes some of his writings. Nevertheless, it’s the context of the internal text that matters most, and many find it to be beautiful and edifying, if you can stomach a high tolerance for historical and religious narrative ambiguity.
But all of these questions only apply if the scrolls we have found correlate to the Book of Abraham, which isn't a sure bet. Much has been written on the likelihood of that fact with varying degrees of credibility. In the end, while it's a flashy debate, it relies upon lots of assumptions in either direction, and upon the definition of what constitutes a "translation."
The not so sure nail, . . . the Kinderhook Plates
The biggest translation fraud that occurred in Joseph Smith’s life was the debacle of the Kinderhook plates. While only a small blip in Mormon history, the implication have been contextualized as the final gotcha on the story of Joseph Smith's translation abilities.
The facts go like so:
Plates found in Pike County, Illinois by some non-Mormons – there was hope for a translation and that Joseph Smith could do it.
Several years later, William Clayton indicated in Joseph Smith’s words that “I have translated a portion of them, and find they contain the history of the person with whom they were found. He was a descendant of Ham, through the loins of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and that he received his kingdom from the ruler of heaven and earth.”
Parely P. Pratt also indicates that the plates revealed that they were written by a descendant of Ham and that he was a Jaredite
Attempts were made during Nauvoo to verify whether the plates were in fact, authentic. Apparently, they thought it was possible to be duped even then.
By the 20th Century several men came forward to claim they forged them to expose Joseph Smith.
Several tests were made on the plates to prove if they were indeed forged—etched with acid instead of having more ancient origin—results were inconclusive.
By the 1980’s the plates were finally proven to be NOT of ancient origin, using more rigorous tests.
Apparently, some of the characters on the plates have an Egyptian origin. Don Bradley does an interesting take-up of this possibility on the nature of the boat-shaped character on the second plate.
Other Adena-era artifacts have contained this boat-shaped character as well, although many have been labelled hoaxes.
So, what are the possible scenarios?
Scenario 1: Joseph tries to interpret the plates that were brought to him, he's not that interested but he needs to sound prophetic, so he makes up an interesting story. Except this time, he gets exposed.
Scenario 2: Zealous followers William Clayton and Parley P Pratt make claims that are guesses and suppositions that get either falsely attributed to Joseph Smith, or at least exaggerated. Later on, people who want to ruin Joseph Smith's reputation largely springboard their testimonies on the basis of Clayton and Pratt.
Scenario 3: You have a real artifact with real characters, but the one in existence today is a copy of the original. The men that came forward eventually to expose it as a fraud were simply looking to draw attention to themselves in exposing a great Mormon controversy.
The Kinderhook plates are a small microcosm of the larger debate that often surrounds the Book of Mormon, except that you have at least a replica of the source material. In the Anthon transcript, one can see a variation of the boat character as well:
Whether this was used for the forgers to make their forgery, or ties together ancient languages, one can never say. We cannot prove the source material for the Anthon transcript, and while the existing Kinderhook plates have been proved to be fake, one can’t prove they aren’t copies of something else that was authentic. In fact, some of the photos of the plates show that there may be more than one copy of these artifacts. The one with proven etchings maybe a copy of another one. An authentic character seems to make their ultimate origin more compelling than other theories. Like all other things we have examined so far, it all depends on the perspective and credulity of the options offered. I believe the fraudulent consensus is given far more weight than it should.