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What are the 2 main theories surrounding Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Abraham?

Screenshot of Facsimile 1

In his new book, Let’s Talk About the Book of Abraham, Dr. Kerry Muhlestein addresses questions surrounding the origin of the Book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price and how Joseph Smith may have translated it.

He explains that “the Prophet’s process of translation took a number of different forms.” So what were those forms? And which form was used in translating the Book of Abraham? As a professor of ancient scripture and ancient Near Eastern studies at Brigham Young University and with a PhD in Egyptology from UCLA, Dr. Muhlestein has devoted much of his time to better understanding how this ancient text was received. He recently shared his thoughts on the subject in an All In episode.

You can listen to the full episode by clicking here or by listening in the player below. You can also read a full transcript in our show notes.

The following excerpt has been edited for clarity.

Morgan Jones: OK, so I wondered if you would be willing, one of the things that was most interesting to me was seeking to understand what may be meant by "translation"? There are different ways in which we can explore [how] Joseph Smith was translating these things. Would you mind sharing a couple of those theories?

Kerry Muhlestein: Yeah, I'm happy to do that. It's just good, fun stuff. So this is the kind of the thing I get into. So one of the theories is that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Abraham from the papyri in a manner very similar to [how] he translated the Book of Mormon from the gold plates, right? So we've got the gold plates, and that's written in a language Joseph Smith doesn't know, but it's a text that's actually written on those plates. And Joseph Smith translates from that text into English using the Urim and Thummim and a different seer stone, right? And quite often not looking at the plates, but sometimes looking at the plates it would seem. We don't have a lot of details on that. Again, we like data on all sorts of stuff.

We end up with some fragments, by the way. There are 11 fragments that the Church now has that Abel Combs, the man who bought them from Emma Smith, [had] given to his housekeeper, whose daughter and her son sold them to the Metropolitan Museum of [Art in] New York. And eventually they made their way to the Church. And we do have … that facsimile … on there. And there’s text around that. So, a number of people had kind of assumed that that’s what Joseph Smith translated from. But there are several ways of testing that, including looking at these eyewitness accounts, and it becomes clear that's not what he was translating from.

If he's translating from the papyrus, it's from this large roll. That's what all of them talk about is the large roll that ends up being in the museum that ends up burning. So under this theory, that text actually exists somewhere on that large roll. And Joseph Smith is translating it via inspiration and direct revelation from God. He may or may not be using the Urim and Thummim—the eyewitness accounts aren't completely clear on that. But he's translating them. Everyone who knows Joseph Smith and is familiar with the process uses revelatory language, you know, "by direct inspiration from heaven," "by the power of God," this kind of thing. They don't talk about him translating in any other way, not using alphabets or grammars or anything else. They all talk about this being inspiration.

The alphabet and grammars are another really complicated story I get into just a little bit in the book … we probably don't have time to get into it here. But I can just say it's clear both from internal documents, those documents themselves, and the eyewitness accounts, that's not what he's using to translate. It's coming from God and maybe he's using a seer stone.

So we call that the missing papyrus theory that Joseph Smith was translating from a text that was on the papyrus that is now missing, that's now been destroyed. And Joseph Smith certainly talks about translating from the papyrus. So in some ways, that almost has to be a leading theory, just because of the historical evidence where Joseph Smith is saying that's what he's translating from, and other people are saying that's what he's translating from.

But there are some other theories that are very possible. And I'll tell you it kind of depends on which day and what I've been researching lately what I'd lean towards, but one of the other most common theories is called the catalyst theory.

And that's based on the idea that this process may have looked more like the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible. So think of the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, he has a King James Version of the Bible that's in English, and he's giving us an English text, but the second English text has a whole bunch of stuff in it that was never on the first English text.

Because what happened is that the Bible ended up being a catalyst for Joseph Smith. He opened the Bible, and as he read it, it was a catalyst to open him up to inspiration, and then revelation came to him about text that wasn't in the original text, but that God wanted us to have.

And is it possible that that's what happened for Joseph Smith as he looked at the papyri? That as he looked at them, it served as a catalyst and opened [him] up to inspiration, and he gave us the text that God revealed to him, and he assumed it was on the papyrus. That's absolutely possible. I think that's very, very possible. Is it possible that it's a combination of both?

And by the way, we have just a teeny bit of evidence for that, and that he once speaks of working on the alphabet and grammar and having the principles of astronomy as understood by the ancients unfolded to him. That's very revelatory language, isn't it? That may be the explanation of facsimile two. It might be the translation of Abraham chapter 3. It might be something else. But this idea of working on stuff that's not even fully that … papyri, but loosely connected with it and having it unfold to him—that's pretty interesting revelatory language. And it may be a combination of them. So maybe it really was on the now missing Papyrus, but maybe they served as a catalyst to him understanding and receiving some things. Maybe that's [what] Abraham chapter 3 is—and I'm just totally making this up, right? But maybe Abraham chapter 3 comes from pure revelation, but one and two [come from] the papyrus, or maybe [chapters] 1 through 5 [were] on the papyrus but the explanations for facsimile [one,] two, and … three came as pure revelation, right? I think they had to have, actually.

So I don't know, but those are the two main theories. There are all sorts of little subsets of each of those theories. But the two main theories are that the source was on the papyrus that is now missing, or that the papyrus served as a catalyst to [Joseph] receiving revelation for a text [that] wasn't on the papyrus at all. …We do have enough evidence to discard certain things. We don't have enough evidence to make firm conclusions what it was, but we have evidence to say ‘it was not this.’”

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