Note: This was going to be the next part of the series on the Egyptian ankh, and its relationship with the papyri and Book of Abraham, but I thought an intro to these first would be a better place to start.
Let’s return again to the subject of the ankh, and related symbols, that we’ve briefly studied, and look to see if these symbols figure at all on the Joseph Smith Papyri. As we’ve seen, these particular hieroglyphs have a strong connection to temple themes, being bestowed by the Egyptian gods in a manner reminiscent of the way eternal life is portrayed symbolically in the temple today. But do these symbols appear on the papyri from which the Book of Abraham was translated, or in the facsimiles, and what does that mean?
Many in the Church probably do not know much about the Joseph Smith Papyri or the origins of the Book of Abraham. And they don’t necessarily care to know. What we know is usually limited to the few facts that the writings were translated from some papyri that Joseph had, which also came with some mummies from Egypt. Beyond this, most other historical issues are beside the point of the actual text of the scripture, which we know is from God by the witness of the Holy Ghost.
But I believe having a deeper understanding and knowledge of the papyri illuminates the Book of Abraham in marvelous ways and is further evidence of the divine calling of the Prophet Joseph Smith, and the restoration of the temple rites in this dispensation.
But first, let’s cover some basics about the papyri’s relationship to the Book of Abraham. The best introduction to the origins of this scripture can be found in John Gee’s excellent summary A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri. It is only 70 pages long, and does an excellent job of briefly describing the history, controversies, and interpretations surrounding the papyri from which the Book of Abraham came forth. Here are some points he makes:
- Michael Chandler arrived in Kirtland, Ohio, on July 3, 1835 and showed Joseph and the saints some mummies and papyri which he had bought from an antiquities dealer in Egypt. ((John Gee, A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri, FARMS (2000), 1-5.))
- Joseph examined them and said that “one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham, another the writings of Joseph of Egypt, etc.” ((ibid., 3.))
- In July 1835 Joseph Smith and others paid $2400 for 4 mummies and “at least five papyrus documents, including two or more rolls.” ((ibid., 3.))
- “Joseph Smith began translating the papyri in early July 1835. The current text of the Book of Abraham was translated by the end of the month.” ((ibid., 4.))
- Joseph continued translating until November 26, 1835. ((ibid., 4.))
- In 1842 the translation began to be published in the Times and Seasons periodical.
- “Only three installments were published, which included about one quarter of what Joseph Smith translated. Unfortunately the location of the original manuscripts of his translation is presently unknown and thus about three quarters of Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Abraham is lost.” ((ibid., 4-6.))
- On November 27, 1967 some fragments of the Joseph Smith Papyri were presented to the Church, their whereabouts being unknown to the Church for over a hundred years. ((ibid., 9.))
- “To the disappointment of many, while these remaining fragments contained the original drawing for Facsimile 1, they were not the portion of the papyri that contained the text of the Book of Abraham.” ((ibid., 9.))
- “Because we do not have all the papyri that Joseph Smith had, and because those that have been preserved do not contain a copy of the text of the Book of Abraham, there is no simple answer to the question, ‘Did Joseph Smith translate the Book of Abraham correctly?'” ((ibid., 19.))
- “Some have reasoned that since the preserved papyri account for no more than 13 percent of all the papyri that Joseph Smith possessed, the Book of Abraham does not match the translation of the preserved papyri because it was most likely translated from a portion of the papyri that is now missing.” ((ibid., 23.))
- “Only the subject illustrated by Facsimile 1 corresponds with the text of the Book of Abraham; the other facsimiles correspond to portions of the Book of Abraham that were not published.” ((ibid., 34.))
The points that strike me most are that the papyri contained some of the writings of Joseph of Egypt too. Unfortunately, Joseph Smith never translated these.
We also only have about one quarter of the text that Joseph Smith did translate of the Book of Abraham. Can you imagine the scriptural treasure if our current Book of Abraham were four times longer? This would make the Book of Abraham closer to twenty chapters long instead of five. Dr. John Gee believes that the text might have continued up until the sacrifice of Isaac. ((Olivewood Bookstore lecture, June 19, 2008.))
Because we don’t have most of the text of the Book of Abraham, we don’t have an explanation of how facsimiles 2 and 3 fit into the broader picture of Abraham, such as is given for facsimile 1 in Abraham 1. The only description we have from Joseph Smith for the latter two facsimiles are an identification of the figures.
We also now know what the Egyptian text says on the other papyri fragments that were recovered, which gives some very interesting insight into our restored temple rites. ((See Hugh Nibley’s The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment.))
In the next part of my series on the ankh we will take a closer look at where these symbols appear in the papyri and facsimiles, and if they correspond whatsoever to Joseph Smith’s descriptions, something our critics vehemently deny.