The Church Historian’s Press recently announced the release of the latest volume of The Joseph Smith Papers. Revelations and Translations, Volume 4: Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts tracks the development of the Book of Abraham, from the time Joseph Smith and others purchased Egyptian papyri in 1835 through the publication of the Book of Abraham text and its accompanying illustrations in the church newspaper Times and Seasons in 1842.
“This latest volume offers readers an unprecedented look at the manuscripts and earliest publications of the Book of Abraham,” explains Robin Scott Jensen, one of the volume’s coeditors. “But it also takes readers inside Joseph Smith’s study of the Egyptian papyri before he dictated the Book of Abraham—which is a history with which few Latter-day Saints are familiar.”
Recent videos featuring historian Robin Scott Jensen of the Joseph Smith Papers Project summarizes this fascinating history and shows you some of the artifacts that the Church owns today.
In 1835, a man named Michael Chandler arrived in Kirtland, Ohio, and sought an audience with Joseph Smith. Chandler had been traveling throughout the United States, exhibiting a collection of mummies and ancient Egyptian papyri that had been unearthed near Luxor, Egypt. By the time he reached Kirtland, he had sold most of the collection but still had in his possession four mummies, two papyrus scrolls, and additional papyrus fragments. Joseph Smith inspected the artifacts shortly after Chandler arrived, and soon thereafter, Smith and some of his associates purchased them all for the price of $2,400.
Like many of his contemporaries, Joseph Smith viewed Egyptian artifacts with deep interest, wondering what knowledge they might contain about the ancient world, biblical narratives, and divine truths. Soon after purchasing the mummies and papyri, Smith and his associates set about attempting to deciper the Egyptian language by proposing linguistic rules and dissecting individual characters. Around the same time, Smith also dictated to his clerks a first-person account of the biblical prophet Abraham, which Smith said was a translation of the writing on the papyri in his possession. The account, which came to be known as the Book of Abraham, presents a narrative of Abraham's journey from Ur to Egypt, a description of his activities in Egypt, an account of the creation of the world, and doctrinal teaching son topics such as the eternal nature and premortal existence of spirits and the plan for a Savior for humankind.
Seven years after the initial purchase of papyri, Joseph Smith translated additional material from the Book of Abraham and published all that he is known to have translated, along with three illustrations from the ancient documents, in the church newspaper Times and Seasons. Joseph Smith preached doctrines contained in the Book of Abraham both before and after its publication, and the ideas contained in it clearly influenced his theological thought. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints viewed the Book of Abraham as a witness of Joseph Smith's prophetic gift and a continuation of his pattern of revealing sacred texts, including the Book of Mormon, the inspired revision of the Bible, and his many revelations. Wilford Woodruff, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, stated in 1842 that "the Lord is Blessing Jospeh with Power to reveal the mysteries of the kingdom of God; to translate through the Urim & Thummim Ancient records & Hyeroglyphics . . . which causes our hearts to burn within us while we behold their glorious truths opened unto us." While Joseph Smith's work on the Egyptian language and the Book of Abraham does not comport with a modern scholarly approach to translation, Woodruff and other Latter-day Saints viewed the creation of the Book of Abraham text as a revelatory process rather than an academic one.
This volume, the fourth in the Revelations and Translations series of The Joseph Smith Papers, includes three sets of documents: (1) the extant fragments of the papyri purchased in 1835; (2) the documents that collectively compose the "Egyptian-language documents," which are associated with the attempt by Joseph Smith and his associates to decipher hieroglyphic and hieratic characters from the papyri; and (3) the various manuscripts and first print publication of the Book of Abraham text. This facsimile edition presents full-color photographs of all these documents, with corresponding transcripts of the English text. With this unprecedented access, scholars will gain a better understanding of the physical remnants of Joseph Smith's translation process. The introductory material situates Smith's efforts in the broader context of the nineteenth-century fascination with Egyptian history and culture, of his own effort to reveal truths from the ancient past, and of his other translation efforts. The annotation in this volume explores the relationships between and among the various manuscripts. For readers interested in the textual history of the Book of Abraham, the translation process of Joseph Smith, or the way in which nineteenth-century Americans viewed Egyptian papyri, this volume's offerings will be invaluable.