Decrypting the Mormon Book of Abraham

Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith allegedly translated the adventures of Abraham in Egypt.

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Ancient Mysteries

Skeptoid #168
August 25, 2009
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe
Also available in Russian

Book of Abraham
One of the engravings reproduced from the papyri by Reuben Hedlock, now known to be a burial hypocephalus.
(Photo credit: Public domain)

Today we're going to point our skeptical eye at one of the supposedly ancient scriptures of the Mormon Church, the Book of Abraham. In 1835 the Church came into possession of some Egyptian papyri, said to have been translated with divine guidance by their prophet, Joseph Smith. Smith reported that the papyri were "the writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus." In the book, Jehovah reveals to Abraham the nature of the universe and the order of all things, in a personal conversation, including knowledge of the planet Kolob, which is close to where God lives.

Sometime in the early 1800's, an antiquities dealer named Antonio Lebolo returned from Egypt with eleven mummies and other artifacts, including papyri, from the region around Thebes. Upon his death, the collection was sold at auction, and ended up in an exhibition that traveled the United States, which sold the artifacts off as it went. In 1835 this exhibition reached Kirtland, Ohio, the headquarters of the Latter-Day Saints. The exhibition's proprietor at the time was a Michael Chandler, who was well aware that the church had been founded upon Joseph Smith's claimed translation of gold plates written in Egyptian, which became the Book of Mormon. Chandler gave Joseph Smith a viewing of the collection, which by that time had been reduced to four mummies and a few rolls of papyri containing hieroglyphics, and Smith gave Chandler a cursory translation of some of the papyri.

Shortly thereafter, two church elders, Joseph Coe and Simeon Andrews, purchased the entire collection from Chandler for $2,400, about $60,000 in today's dollars. Smith then took the papyri into seclusion to translate them. At his side were Oliver Cowdery and William Phelps who transcribed. The product of their labors is the Book of Abraham. It's not very long; five short chapters, less than six thousand words. The book includes three Egyptian-looking illustrations done by Reuben Hedlock, a professional engraver who copied them from the actual papyri. The Book of Abraham, with its illustrations, is now included in the Pearl of Great Price, one of the Mormon church's five books of scripture.

Upon Joseph Smith's assassination in 1844, the artifacts were passed to his mother, and then to his widow, who sold them to a collector by the name of Abel Combs. Combs broke up the collection, and about half the artifacts went to the Wood Museum in Chicago, where they were subsequently lost in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The whereabouts of Joseph Smith's papyri remained a mystery for nearly a century, until a scholar named Dr. Aziz Atiya from the University of Utah happened upon them in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art's archives in 1966, recognizing them by one of the illustrations that he knew from the Pearl of Great Price. Upon investigation, it was discovered that the Metropolitan had purchased them in 1908 from the daughter of Abel Combs' housekeeper, including an affidavit from Smith's widow. All of Smith's original papyri had been fragmentary, and these ten pieces probably made up some one-third to one-half of his original collection. The Church bought the papyri from the Metropolitan and brought them back to the Salt Lake City headquarters, where one additional fragment was discovered in the Church's own archives; bringing the total count of Joseph Smith's original papyri that survive today to eleven.

Having the original documents available made it possible for Egyptologists to examine and properly translate them, to see whether they do indeed match what Smith, Cowdery, and Phelps came up with. If they were indeed divinely inspired with translating abilities, you'd think that would be the case. Let's find out.

This is a good time to introduce Thomas Stuart Ferguson, an attorney, amateur archaeologist, author, and Latter Day Saint. Ferguson's lifelong passion was finding archaeological evidence from Mesoamerica that confirmed the Book of Mormon stories. His book One Fold and One Shepherd is considered one of the seminal works on the subject. It was Ferguson who first approached Brigham Young University and persuaded them to create a Department of Archaeology. He founded the New World Archaeological Foundation to bankroll expeditions to Mesoamerica, and even got the Church itself to become a major sponsor of his work.

So imagine Ferguson's excitement at the opportunity to provide a real live black-and-white proof of Joseph Smith's divine inspiration, and an actual historical document, thousands of years old, telling the Book of Mormon stories. Ferguson obtained photographs of the eleven papyrus fragments and sent them to Klaus Baer, a professor of Egyptology at the University of Chicago, and to an unaccredited amateur, D.J. Nelson. He also sent copies to a pair of Egyptologists at U.C. Berkeley, Professor Henry Lutz and Leonard H. Lesko, but provided no information about their origin or anything that might link them to the Book of Abraham. All four men quickly came back with the exact same proper identification of the documents.

They were examples of what's called a hypocephalus, meaning "below the head". This is a round papyrus or other inscribed object placed under the head of a deceased person for burial. No two are the same. They are inscribed with a traditional funerary text, often from The Book of the Dead, and this particular one was The Breathing Permit of Hor. The papyri were merely unremarkable burial trappings, quite likely from Antonio Lebolo's original mummies. They had nothing remotely to do with Abraham, the planet Kolob, or anything else found in Joseph Smith's translation. Moreover, numerous Egyptologists since have examined the widely published photographs, and identified in detail everything found in the illustrations. Again, Smith's own callouts and identifications bear no resemblance to the actual contents. Ferguson said "I must conclude that Joseph Smith had not the remotest skill in things Egyptian-hieroglyphics."

The Church has defended Smith's claim against the findings of academia. Hugh Nibley, a late professor of Mormon scripture at Brigham Young University, was the Church's primary apologist for many years. Nibley's main defense was that the papyrus fragments recovered from the Metropolitan did not happen to be the same ones in which Smith found the Book of Abraham, and thus the different translations; after all, perhaps as much as two-thirds of the original papyri have never been recovered. Ferguson scoffed at this suggestion, pointing out that all three of Reuben Hedlock's illustrations exactly match those in the existing papyri.

Smith, Cowdery, and Phelps had also written the Egyptian Alphabet & Grammar, purportedly a guide for understanding the heiroglyphs in the documents they translated, which has remained in the Church's possession. It makes clear references to the heiroglyphs and their positions on the pages, unambiguously referring to the existing papyri. They are clear, additional evidence that the existing papyri are the ones claimed to contain the Book of Abraham. Nibley dismissed the Egyptian Alphabet & Grammar as "of no practical value whatever and never employed in any translation." I have to agree with Nibley here: They certainly do not seem to be of any practical value, but that says nothing about the finding that they do reference the existing papyri.

The papyri have been dated to the first century BC, about 1500 years after Abraham is claimed to have lived, which makes it difficult to reconcile Smith's statement that they were written by Abraham's own hand. Hugh Nibley came to the Church's rescue again, stating that it's common to refer to a book as having been written by someone without literally meaning that that exact volume was created by a pen held in that person's own hand. The Church itself goes even farther, stating that "Joseph Smith never claimed that the papyri were autographic (written by Abraham himself)", implying that there's still a loophole for Smith's claims to be true.

But this is a tenuous position to which to cling. Joseph Smith's introduction to the Book of Abraham reads:

The writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus.

Joseph Smith also showed a papyrus to Charles Adams, the son of John Quincy Adams, who reported that Smith told him:

This...was written by the hand of Abraham and means so and so. If anyone denies it, let him prove the contrary. I say it.

Tip Skeptoid $2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

Beyond any reasonable doubt, Joseph Smith maintained that his papyri were literally written by Abraham's own hand, and that they told Abraham's story. Both are, beyond any reasonable doubt, untrue.

It's not possible to get inside the heads of Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and William Phelps, so we can't really know what their honest intentions were. The most cynical analysis concludes that the Book of Abraham's authorship was a fully deliberate fraud, where all three men knowingly conspired to contrive a Bible-style book to add to their doctrine, claiming the papyri as the source when they well knew that it probably had nothing to do with the story they invented. A more charitable version of events has Smith honestly believing he was divinely inspired to translate the papyri, reeling off the tale as it came to him, with Cowdery and Phelps sincere in their faith and transcribing Smith to the best of their ability. Maybe Smith alone knew he couldn't read the papyri and was making up the story, and hoaxed Cowdery and Phelps. All we can say for sure is that its source is absolutely not what the Church claims it is.

The Church says that the significance of the Book of Abraham is that it is "evidence of the inspired calling of the Prophet Joseph Smith." I can find no rational argument that supports this. It is merely evidence that the talents of Smith, Cowdery, and Phelps, combined with any divine inspiration any of them may have had, were insufficient to translate a document that is a trivial task for any knowledgeable Egyptologist. Honest Mormons should have grave concerns over the Church's continued promotion of a claim proven to be false. It's time for Mormons with intellectual integrity to demand the Book of Abraham be reclassified as not of any divine inspiration, and its authorship properly assigned to Smith, Cowdery, and Phelps, with whatever status the Church likes that does not endorse the bogus translation.

Brian Dunning

© 2009 Skeptoid Media Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Adams, C. F. Diary of Charles Francis Adams. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1844.

Larson, Charles M. By his own hand upon papyrus: A new look at the Joseph Smith papyri. Grand Rapids: Institute for Religious Research, 1992.

LDS Church. "The Book of Abraham." Institutes of Religion. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, 1 Jan. 2008. Web. 12 Jan. 2010. <>

Parker, R. "The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri - Translations and Interpretations." Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. 1 Jul. 1968, Volume 3, Number 2: 86.

Ritner, Robert K. ""The Breathing Permit of Hôr" Among The Joseph Smith Papyri." Journal of Near Eastern Studies. 1 Jan. 2003, Volume 62, Number 3: 161-180.

Webb, R. C. Joseph Smith of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as a Translator. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2004. 3-18.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Decrypting the Mormon Book of Abraham." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 25 Aug 2009. Web. 10 Oct 2015. <>


10 most recent comments | Show all 81 comments

The current tactic of Mormon Apologetics ("Mopologetics") is to assert that the Book of Abraham simply "not central to the restored gospel of Christ."

That's pretty much the only defense left. And it's a pretty poor one. Whether or not the Book of Abraham is "central" to the Church's theology is of little importance, because it *is* central to Joseph Smith's credibility. Joseph testified that he translated the papyrus and the facsimiles by the power of god.

And yet, a plain reading of the papyrus and facsimiles demonstrates that he was wrong on every point. Clearly, Joseph Smith's word (or "testimony," if you prefer) cannot be trusted. What else did Joseph either lie about or at least harbor severe misunderstandings about? It is difficult to know because almost none of what Joseph Smith said has been validated by any real-world, science-based research.

This leaves the last line of defense as those asserted recently in these comments by Andrew (Oregon) and Brandon (Salt Lake City). I know it's true because I feel like it's true, and I don't care that there is no evidence that it's true. What an untenable position to find oneself in, when the original Saints believed that science and reason would validate their beliefs!

I used to "know" that the Book of Abraham was true because I wanted it to be true. A more objective approach disabused me of that notion rather quickly, and all the other notions like it that I held so dearly. And I'm happier for it.

Thayne Warner, Denver, Colorado
August 7, 2012 4:32pm

I would think that the discovery of a court document which shows that before Joseph Smith claimed to find golden plates, and before he claimed to have spoken with the angel, Moroni, Joseph was charged with being a con artist. He told farmers that he could find treasure on their land by placing rocks (an Urim and Thummim) in a hat, and then putting his face in the hat. Since he never was able to deliver his promise to these farmers, he decided to find imaginary golden plates, and thus, the Church of Mormon was founded by a fraud.

Tom Claypool, Florida
September 3, 2012 11:08pm

The read was interesting but to long.
As was stated in the read we don't know what was going on in Joseph smiths head.
I don't take history to seriously simply because we don't know all the details and most people will not spoil a good story with the truth.
we never know what to really believe.

Paul, Holly Springs NC
November 24, 2012 8:55am

The secret of the BOA is that Smith was taking Hebrew lessons at the time from somebody who was not Jewish and certainly not a Hebrew scholar.

He flaunts his erroneous hebrew words and bad pronunciations.

Abraham learns about the sun and the moon. HAHAHAHA

Kolob is the greatest of all the Kokaubeam that thou hast seen, because it is nearest unto me.

Hebrew Kochavim = stars
Hebrew Kolob [Kelev] = dog
Sirius , the brightest star in the sky is called the Dog star.

This is Shinehah, which is the sun.
[sun in Hebrew is Shemesh]

Olea, which is the moon
[the moon is Yerach, or when a new moon Chadesh]

Ye shall know them by their errors

Bala Bafoofkit, Mountainview
February 16, 2013 11:01am

"I would rather have a mind open by wonder than one closed by belief"

Sheila Swett, New Hampshire
March 28, 2013 6:10am

For whatever its worth (from a former mormon), you left out the most common reasoning from modern apologists today: the manuscripts were merely a tool, a means through which God communicated to Joseph. The message of the book is still true, and the means of translation were just something that worked for Joseph at the time but could have happened a number of ways. Joseph may have been mistaken about the papyrus because he was a mortal; God just used the papyrus as a way of getting Joseph to listen to him.
Yeah, it's still silly. But mormonism does have many intelligent, well-educated people who are GREAT at finding loopholes so their worldview still makes sense to them.

Jenn, Atlanta, GA
May 6, 2013 9:32am

this is what I call misdirection. If one reads the description of what the Book of Abraham papers looked like from multiple sources, one would realized that the facsimiles are not the main origin of the BOA. They were as long as a dining table with the images of the creation with black and red ink. Does that look like the facsimiles. I did not think so. Also, I have just finished reading an article that confirmed ideas of Abraham being sacrificed by his father, some describing the lion couch and being saved by an angel, all from sources that came after Joseph Smiths translation. Believe what you will, I will keep finding more evidences that the Book of Abraham is a sacred text.

Ron Cook, Montpelier
May 26, 2013 8:16pm

Believe what you will, I will keep inventing more evidences that the Book of Abraham is a sacred text.

fixed that for ya...

Jeebus, NY
May 31, 2013 10:30am

American Xtianity is really something to study. Hundreds of various churches and sects.How this is possible,when we have only one Bible " inspired by God", yet we have hundreds of interpretations of something that has, or suppose to have, definitely only one meaning. The only explanation I have is, that this church-business is damn well lucrative. We are afterall in America, where the PROFIT is THE got Almighty above Got the almighty.

Roman Stastny, Calgary
June 26, 2013 10:17am

I thin I see your problem..Inspired by god can mean a lot of things totally disparate to many many interpretations.

The bible as we cultural christians are concerned does not have one meaning at all.

Your last is a bit disingenuous, most people love their communities. Being part of a christian (or jewish) community is about you in that community. Thinking about god is about 10th on the list..possibly 50th on the list.

How does anyone know this? Nobody I know bothers about god when doing the lawn, washing vegetables or going to the toilet.

Run all thoe past community norms and you'll see where religion fits..

We are priveledged in our society to enjoy the benefits of modern religion. The community, the numinous, shared joy and shared celebration without hang ups..

That and its quite funny to watch someone justify his silly notions week in week out from the pulpit.

Even there, secularity has its effect.

If you dont like community, do as I do, fish, surf, swim.

You'll find most folk religious or not in the usa are just a bit uncomfortably just like you!

Sure religion is changing.. its rapid!

Madime Dantefer, Greenacres by the sea Oz
August 14, 2013 2:22am

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