The Book of Abraham and Translating the Sacred

Brian M. Hauglid

Brian M. Hauglid ( was an associate professor of ancient scripture at BYU when this was published.

More than 136 ago, the Pearl of Great Price was formally accepted as canonical scripture during the October 1880 general conference.[1] Significantly, it contains miscellaneous revelations Joseph Smith received but were never canonized during his lifetime. These revelations directly related to his revision of the Bible (the Book of Moses and Joseph Smith—Matthew), his biographical history (Joseph Smith—History), his correspondence with a newspaper editor (Articles of Faith), and his work on the Egyptian papyri he purchased in Kirtland, Ohio (Book of Abraham).

Two new book projects, both involving BYU Religious Education faculty member Brian Hauglid, seek to engage the growing interest in the historical and documentary evidence related to the Book of Abraham, as well as searching for how the Book of Abraham came to be. The first will be published as a part of the Joseph Smith Papers Project and is tentatively titled The Abraham/Egyptian Papers, Revelations and Translations, vol. 4 of The Joseph Smith Papers, ed. Brian M. Hauglid and Robin Scott Jensen (see article by Robin Scott Jensen). The second publication, tentatively titled Mummies, Manuscripts, and Making Scriptures: The History and Controversies of the Pearl of Great Price, by Terryl Givens and Brian M. Hauglid, addresses the interpretive history of the book while building upon the publication of the Book of Abraham documents.

In recent years, the discussion of the translation of the Book of Abraham and its relationship to the papyri purchased by Joseph Smith during the Kirtland period has, to put it mildly, become quite polarized, and it has become a challenge to the faith of many Latter-day Saints. Manuscript copies of portions of the Book of Abraham dating from the mid-1830s and 1842, the surviving fragmentary papyri, and the grammar and alphabet documents that the Prophet and his scribes produced, present researchers and believers with a bewildering array of questions: What is the relationship between the Book of Abraham and the papyri? Did Joseph Smith translate characters directly from the papyri? Did the Prophet use the papyri primarily as a springboard to revelation? Were translation aids such as the Urim and Thummim or seer stone used in the translation process? If Joseph Smith thought he was translating the papyri but he wasn’t, what, then, does Joseph Smith’s inspired translation process really mean?

Mindful of the range of divergent viewpoints, and a rather problematic historical record, I offer a brief chronological translation outline informed by my own research:

1. Late June/Early July 1835. Joseph Smith purchased four mummies and several papyrus rolls from Michael Chandler while living in Kirtland, Ohio.

2. Summer/Fall 1835. Joseph Smith translated Abraham 1:1–2:18, which produced three Abraham manuscripts (Abraham 1:1–2:18) and the Egyptian alphabet and grammar documents.

3. Nearly seven years pass without any new translation activity on the Book of Abraham.

4. February 1842. Joseph returns to Abraham and begins proofreading Abraham 1:1–2:18 in preparation for publication in the 9th number of the Times and Seasons.

5. March 1–4, 1842. Abraham 1:1–2:18 and Facsimile 1 are published in the Times and Seasons.

6. March 8–9, 1842. Joseph translates Abraham 2:19–5:21 and prepares the text for publication in the 10th number of the Times and Seasons.

7. March 15–19, 1842. Abraham 2:19–5:21 and Facsimile 2 are published in the Times and Seasons.

8. May 1842. Facsimile 3 is published in the Times and Seasons.

While these questions cannot be adequately addressed in this short note, here are a few brief insights I have gained over the past ten years working on the physical evidence related to the coming forth of the Book of Abraham.

In contrast to the notion that the Prophet translated the entire Book of Abraham (and more) in July 1835, my research suggests that the historical record highlights two separate translation periods that produced the current Book of Abraham, one in 1835 (Abraham 1:1–2:18) and the other in 1842 (Abraham 2:19–5:21; see sidebar). Further light is shed on the situation when the 1835 Egyptian alphabet and grammar created by Joseph Smith and his scribes, are added to the discussion.[2]

Another quite forceful thought has arisen out of this research—the Abraham and Egyptian documents provide excellent evidence for Joseph Smith following the scriptural injunction to study questions out in his mind before receiving divine confirmation (D&C 9:8). In other words, to understand Joseph Smith’s role as a translator we must be willing to allow his (fallible) humanness to be a necessary part of his prophetic gifts. Joseph studied and reasoned, doing his part, allowing God to inspire him in his weakness. This point should be foremost in our minds when we encounter ambiguities concerning how the Abraham and Egyptian papers, and the papyri, relate to the translation of the Book of Abraham.

We need to keep in mind that unlike the Prophet’s other translation projects the Book of Abraham is the only one where we possess an original artifact (the papyrus), possible original documents (the surviving manuscripts), and the finished product (the published Book of Abraham).

With continued study of the physical evidence related to the Book of Abraham, we hope to gain a greater understanding of how Joseph approached the translation of ancient artifacts, and in a positive turn of events, all of the manuscripts and documents associated with the Book of Abraham will soon appear in print. New discoveries have already been made, and more await the careful researcher.

The Joseph Smith Papers and the Book of Abraham

By Robin Scott Jensen

Robin Scott Jensen ( is Associate Managing Historian and Project Archivist, Joseph Smith Papers.

In 1835, Joseph Smith and others purchased four Egyptian mummies with two scrolls and other fragments of ancient papyri. Around the time of the purchase, discoveries of Egyptian artifacts prompted an intense interest of all things Egypt throughout Europe and America. While this widespread interest helped bring the mummies and papyri to Kirtland, Ohio, it was Joseph’s own interest in ancient language that motivated the purchase. Joseph likely sought out the artifacts in hopes of finding ancient truths hidden in the writings. Once purchased, the mummies and scrolls were displayed, and many reported seeing them in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois. But Joseph Smith and his associates did more than display the artifacts—they tried to decipher the ancient language. Following a period of studying some of the papyri, Joseph dictated a manuscript containing the Book of Abraham, which he believed was a translation of the papyri. While significant portions of the papyri collection are missing, the extant papyri in fact contain relatively common Egyptian funerary texts.

While it does not appear that Joseph Smith or his associates drew directly upon earlier scholarship regarding ancient Egypt, they shared with such scholars assumptions about the Egyptian language. For instance, they believed the language was mysterious, symbolic, and closely linked to Hebrew and other languages that reflected a more refined and “pure” language. The documents that were produced as part of Joseph Smith’s attempt to understand Egyptian—including those termed the Alphabet documents and the Grammar and Alphabet volume—have been of interest to scholars for several generations. In addition to these documents, manuscripts of the Book of Abraham from the Kirtland era as well as the Nauvoo era survive. These manuscripts, perhaps more than any other work of Latter-day Saints scripture, provide insights into how Joseph Smith proceeded when translating ancient records. These two sets of manuscripts—the language study documents and the Book of Abraham documents—show a prophet and his associates following precedents (that of translating the Book of Mormon, for instance) and the scriptural mandate to “study it out in [their] mind[s]” (D&C 9:8). The resultant publication of the Book of Abraham in 1842 prompted interest from Latter-day Saints throughout the country.

For generations, the papyri, the various manuscripts of both the Egyptian language and the Book of Abraham, and the first published version of the Book of Abraham have either not been available, or their scarcity has prevented thorough study (original copies of the Times and Seasons, for instance, are difficult to acquire). The recent publication of these documents on the website of the Joseph Smith Papers ( has already prompted discussion and scholarly investigation. An upcoming volume of the Revelations and Translations series of The Joseph Smith Papers coedited by myself and BYU religion professor Brian M. Hauglid will offer readers not only the transcriptions and images of each of these important Joseph Smith–era documents but also a thorough introduction and contextualization of them. Unanswered questions remain regarding the relationships between and among the various manuscripts and regarding the assumptions Joseph and his associates had while attempting to decipher Egyptian and while dictating or copying the Book of Abraham. But the availability of these documents will assist scholars in analyzing the revelatory process of Joseph Smith.


[1] H. Donl Peterson, The Pearl of Great Price: A History and Commentary (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1987), 22–23.

[2] Brian M. Hauglid, A Textual History of the Book of Abraham: Manuscripts and Editions, Studies in the Book of Abraham, vol. 5 (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship).