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Eyewitness, Hearsay, and Physical Evidence of the Joseph Smith Papyri

TitleEyewitness, Hearsay, and Physical Evidence of the Joseph Smith Papyri
Publication TypeBook Chapter
Year of Publication2000
AuthorsGee, John
EditorRicks, Stephen D., Donald W. Parry, and Andrew H. Hedges
Book TitleThe Disciple as Witness: Essays on Latter-day Saint History and Doctrine in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson
PublisherFoundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies
CityProvo, UT
KeywordsBook of Abraham; Book of Abraham Translation; Joseph Smith Papyri; Kirtland Egyptian Papers

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Eyewitness, Hearsay, and Physical Evidence of the Joseph Smith Papyri

John Gee

Richard Lloyd Anderson is truly a scholar and a gentleman. I have had the opportunity to witness his kindness on many occasions and have never known him to do anything mean, petty, or unchristian. Nor has this remarkable man been noted for boasting of his achievements; thus few members of the church remember, as does my father, when the missionary discussions were known as the Anderson Plan. I appreciate his graciousness to me not only while I was his student but afterward. While I was his student, he introduced me to many facets of New Testament study that I have since had opportunity to work on at greater length.1 Here, however, I would like to pick up a thread from his Latter-day Saint historical work and apply it to a field that sorely needs it.

In his seminal work, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, Anderson discusses the need for a “safeguard” in historical work to protect against character assassination:

Be sure that all statements come from the witness himself. Courts formalize this policy by various rules against hearsay, for one of the main questions about evidence is its directness, whether it is firsthand. . . . In short, accurate evidence from a Book of Mormon witness must come from the witness not from garbled reports through intermediaries. Almost all of the first generation of anti-Mormon writers ignored this basic rule, and now even educated authors may do no better. . . .

Although we are discussing specific objections to Book of Mormon witnesses, the methods of response should be helpful in similar claims not discussed for lack of space.2

Like the Book of Mormon witnesses, the Joseph Smith Papyri need careful treatment since discussions of the situation have generally been plagued by reliance on hearsay evidence or unwarranted assumptions. This has been true even of the omnium-gatherum approach in which all available evidence is assembled, eyewitness testimony and hearsay being given equal weight.3 I will review the eyewitness testimony to provide two types of reconstructions: the extent of the Joseph Smith Papyri and, to the degree possible, Joseph Smith’s understanding of the papyri. Obviously much more can still be done, but this might lay the groundwork for further research.4

Historical witnesses of the papyri often mingle eyewitness testimony with hearsay. Care thus needs to be taken to separate the eyewitness portions from the hearsay portions of any given witness’s testimony. For example, consider the following statement about the Joseph Smith Papyri: “Then she [Lucy Smith] turned to a long table, set her candle-stick down, and opened a long roll of manuscript, saying it was ‘the writing of Abraham and Isaac, written in Hebrew and Sanscrit,’ and she read several minutes from it as if it were English. . . . Then in the same way she interpreted to us hieroglyphics from another roll.”5 Charlotte Haven, in the same statement, is an eyewitness to some things but a hearsay witness to others. She is an eyewitness that in Nauvoo, there was “a long roll of manuscript” and “another roll”; but when she reports that the manuscript was “written in Hebrew and Sanscrit” she is not in a position to confirm that from firsthand knowledge. Instead she gets her information from Mother Smith who “said she read it through the inspiration of her son Joseph.”6 Thus Haven’s report of the language of the papyri is garbled thirdhand hearsay. Failure to observe what is eyewitness and what is hearsay has caused much confusion over these reports.7 As Anderson has noted, “Hearsay situations raise the question of whether secondhand evidence started with observation.”8 In this case part did and part did not.

The Joseph Smith Papyri

As is well-known, the Joseph Smith Papyri (JSP) were found at Thebes by Antonio Lebolo with a cache of mummies.9 Lebolo commissioned Albano Oblasser to take the mummies to America and sell them. After buying the mummies in New York, Michael Chandler toured the eastern United States with them, selling them piecemeal as he went to pay debts. At Kirtland, Ohio, he sold the remaining four of the mummies to Joseph Smith and others in July 1835 for the price of $2,400. The mummies and papyri traveled to Missouri and Nauvoo. After Joseph’s death, Emma Smith’s second husband, Lewis Bidamon, sold the mummies to Abel Combs, who took them on another traveling show. While keeping some of the papyri, he sold the mummies to the Saint Louis Museum, after which they were sold to the Wood Museum in Chicago, where they were destroyed in the great fire of 1871. The papyri kept by Combs eventually went to Combs’s housekeeper, whose daughter’s widower sold them in 1947 to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who in turn gave them to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on 27 November 1967.

What the Metropolitan Museum of Art obtained and in turn gave to the church were ten fragments of papyri that had once comprised three separate manuscripts, originally belonging to a man named Hor (JSP I, X–XI) and women named Tsemminis10 (JSP II, IV–IX) and Neferirtnoub (JSP IIIa–b). Our concern here is not so much to trace the various places in which the papyri were located and in whose house they were at any given time, but rather to use eyewitness testimony to reconstruct the extent and physical condition of the papyri at the time Joseph Smith owned them and to determine, if possible, what happened to the various rolls. We will examine the eyewitnesses in chronological order.

The Eyewitnesses 1835–1837

The first known mention of the Joseph Smith Papyri is by A. Gardner11 in a letter in the 27 March 1835 Painesville Telegraph.12 On one of the female mummies exhibited by Michael Chandler, termed “No. 1,” “was found with this person a roll or book, having a little resemblance to birch bark; language unknown. Some linguists however say they can decipher 1336, in what they term an epitaph; ink black and red; many female figures.”13 Another female mummy, termed “No. 2,” was “found with a roll as No. 1, filled with hieroglyphics, rudely executed.”14 A male mummy, termed “No. 3,” “had a roll of writing as No. 1 & 2.”15 These can plausibly be linked with the following remaining fragments of the Joseph Smith Papyri: No. 1, with the red and black ink and the many female figures, is the roll of Tsemminis. The cipher 1336 would probably be an attempt to make out the hieratic of dd mdw Ã­n “words said by” in the rubric (called here an “epitaph”). No. 2, from a female and with the rudely executed hieroglyphs, is likely the roll of Neferirtnub, and No. 3, from a male, would be the roll of Hor.

Within a month of the purchase of the papyri, William W. Phelps who at that time, among other assignments, served as scribe to Joseph Smith wrote to his wife in Missouri: “The last of June four Egyptian mummies were brought here; there were two papyrus rolls, besides some other ancient Egyptian writings with them.”16 Thus, at that time there were two rolls and more than one piece of other scattered papyri.

In December 1835, Oliver Cowdery, who like Phelps was Joseph’s scribe and so had worked closely with the papyri, described them as “two rolls of papyrus” filled with “characters . . . such as you find upon the coffins of mummies, hieroglyphics, &c. with many characters or letters exactly like the present, (though probably not quite so square,) form of the Hebrew without points” forming a “record . . . beautifully written on papyrus with black, and a small part, red ink or paint, in perfect preservation.”17 To this he added “that two or three other small pieces of papyrus, with astronomical calculations, epitaphs, &c. were found with others of the Mummies.”18 Cowdery thus indicated that there were several other miscellaneous pieces of papyri besides the two large rolls. The prolix Cowdery19 also described the vignettes on the papyri:

The representation of the god-head three, yet in one, is curiously drawn. . . . The serpent, represented as walking, or formed in a manner to be able to walk, standing in front of, and near a female figure, is to me, one of the greatest representations I have ever seen upon paper, or a writing substance. . . . Enoch’s Pillar, as mentioned by Josephus, is upon the same roll. . . . The inner end of the same roll . . . presents a representation of the judgment: At one view you behold the Savior seated upon his throne, crowned, and holding the sceptres of righteousness and power, before whom also, are assembled the twelve tribes of Israel, the nations, languages and tongues of the earth, the kingdoms of the world over which satan is represented as reigning, Michael the archangel, holding the key of the bottomless pit, and at the same time the devil as being chained and shut up in the bottomless pit. But upon this last scene, I am able only to give you a shadow, to the real picture.20

Jay Todd, years ago, seems to have accurately connected these descriptions with the present papyri fragments.21 The “god-head” representation seems to be from JSP IV; the walking serpent and pillar seem to be from JSP V, thus all from the Tsemminis roll. The description of the judgment scene (which Cowdery got right)22 would match JSP IIIa–b, except Cowdery describes it as being on “the inner end of the same roll,” which leads one to conclude that this was a vignette from Book of the Dead 125 on the Tsemminis roll, and this would seem to be confirmed by a fragment of the text of Book of the Dead 125 included in JSP IX.

By 1836, after much moving and handling,23 the papyri had suffered damage to the outer edges of the rolls (cf. figs. 1 and 2).24 A transcription of portions of the Tsemmenis roll probably done in 1835 shows squiggle marks used to indicate the edge of the papyrus, showing that portions had already come loose.25 That the papyri were beginning to break into little pieces is demonstrated by the tiny fragments patched in the wrong places in the mounted papyri.26 The backing paper is dated to the Kirtland period. Only the damaged outer portions of the rolls were mounted on paper; the remainder of the papyri, still being in relatively good condition, were left as rolls. This explains all the eyewitness reports and the remaining physical evidence. Joseph Smith’s own concern was shown when he committed the Egyptian antiquities into the hands of Joseph Coe (who had assisted in their purchase) in February 1836: “I complied with his request, and only observed that they must be managed with prudence and care especially the manuscripts.”27 It is at this time, if not earlier, that I suggest the papyri were mounted. The present Joseph Smith Papyri all come from these mounted fragments from the end of the rolls; none of the rolls has been preserved.

In 1837, William S. West described the papyri he saw as “a quantity of records, written on papyrus, in Egyptian hieroglyphics. . . . These records were torn by being taken from the roll of embalming salve which contained them, and some parts entirely lost.”28 This is confirmed by Luman Shirtliff’s examination of the papyri in December 1837. Shirtliff

looked at the parchment or Papyrus as called in the Egyptian language. This Parchment appeared to be made of fine linen cloth starched or sized with some kind of gum then ironed very smooth and written on in characters, figures, hieroglyphics, and conveying the Egyptian language. These sheets were about as large as the face of this book [12 x 15″ ≈ 30 x 37.5 cm] when open. They were rolled up, put in a gum case and laid on the breast of one of the leading men of the Egyptians, when the Mummy or body was found this record was on his breast.29

Thus, by the end of 1837, parts of the papyri were already separated into sheets.

The Eyewitnesses 1838–1856

When the Brethren were driven out of Kirtland in 1838, the manuscripts were brought afterward, in the summer, by Vinson Knight to Far West.30 A visitor from Montrose visited the Prophet in April 1840 and described “several frames, covered with glass, under which were numerous fragments of Egyptian papyrus, on which, as usual, a great variety of hieroglyphical characters had been imprinted.”31

On 5 May 1841, William I. Appleby visited Joseph Smith and wrote an extensive account in his journal. Much of this account copies sections from the Book of Abraham before it was published; we are, however, interested here in the descriptions of the papyri included here within context. Appleby says that he

Saw the Rolls of Papyrus and the writings thereon, taken from off the bosom of the Male Mummy, having some of the writings of ancient Abraham and of Joseph that was sold into Egypt. The writings are chiefly in the Egyptian language, with the exception of a little Hebrew. I believe they give a description of some of the scenes in Ancient Egypt, of their worship, their Idol gods, etc. The writings are beautiful and plain, composed of red, and black inks. There is a perceptible difference, between the writings. Joseph, appears to have been the best scribe. There are also representations of men, beasts, Birds, Idols and oxen attached to a kind of plough, and a female guiding it. Also the serpent when he beguiled Eve. He appears with two legs, erect in the form and appearance of man. But his head in the form, and representing the Serpent, with his forked tongue extended. There are likewise representations of an Altar erected, with a man bound and laid thereon, and a Priest with a knife in his hand, standing at the foot, with a dove over the person bound on the Altar with several Idol gods standing around it. A Celestial globe with the planet Kolob or first creation of the supreme Being a planet of light, which planet makes a revolution once in a thousand years, Also the Lord revealing the Grand key words of the Holy Priesthood, to Adam in the garden of Eden, as also to Seth, Noah, Melchizedek, Abraham, and to all whom the Priesthood was revealed. Abraham also in the Court of Pharaoh sitting upon the King’s throne reasoning upon Astronomy, with a crown upon his head, representing the Priesthood as emblematical of the grand Presidency in Heaven, with the scepter of Justice and Judgment in his hand. And King Pharaoh, standing behind him, together with a Prince a principal waiter, and a black slave of the King. A genealogy of the Mummies, and Epitaphs and their deaths, etc., etc., are also distinctly represented on the Papyrus which is called the “Book of Abraham.”32

Here are the elements of the published Book of Abraham in a journal before its publication. But here also are descriptions of scenes from the papyri that were not published. Important to note are the following: The description of JSP II (“oxen attached to a kind of plough, and female guiding it”), the knife depicted in the hand of figure 3 of Facsimile 1 (which is in the yet-to-be published facsimile but not on the current surviving fragment of JSP I), the distinct difference between the handwritings of the scribes of the papyri, and the recognition of the genealogies of the mummies on the papyri.

The imaginative Reverend Henry Caswall visited Nauvoo on 18 April 1842, just after the Book of Abraham and the facsimiles were published in the Times and Seasons, and viewed the papyri. He reports that they were preserved in “a number of glazed slides, like picture frames, containing sheets of papyrus, with Egyptian inscriptions and hieroglyphics.”33 He further describes the vignettes in a dialogue where eyewitness is heavily mixed with hearsay. One vignette contained “the figure of a man lying on a table” accompanied by a “man standing by him with a drawn knife.”34 The description is plainly JSP I (reproduced as Facsimile 1 in the Book of Abraham). Caswall indicates that a separate papyrus contained “a hieroglyphic representation” with “four little figures” and a “big dog looking at the four figures.” The dog was accompanied by a “person keeping back the big dog.” At another point on the papyrus was a “figure” with “his two wives”; there were “stripes across the dress of one of [his] wives . . . only reaching up to his wife’s waist.”35 This description seems to match that of JSP IIIa–b.

Reverend Caswall’s testimony remains problematical, partially because Caswall fabricated parts of his visit to Nauvoo.36 One might be inclined to think that he just derived his information about the papyri from their widespread publicity except for his description of JSP IIIa–b; this indicates that he actually had a firsthand experience with the papyri. Yet another obstacle remains, since Caswall, a non-Mormon openly hostile to Joseph Smith, describes JSP I as having “that man standing by him with a drawn knife.”37 The existence of the knife has been doubted by many because it does not conform to what other Egyptian papyri would lead us to expect,38 yet it has here been described by a non-Mormon eyewitness whose description of the storage and preservation of the papyri matches that of independent contemporary accounts. It also matches the description William Appleby made before Reuben Hedlock made the woodcuts of the facsimiles. This gives us two independent eyewitnesses to the presence of a knife on Facsimile 1, regardless of what we might think.

Robert Horne is an example of an eyewitness who adds nothing new to the picture but is an independent eyewitness nonetheless. He described the papyri between 1842 and 1843 as “some kind of parchment or papyrus, and it contained writing in red and black.”39

When Charlotte Haven saw the papyri in February 1843, she described seeing “a long roll of manuscript” and seeing “hieroglyphics from another roll.”40 This second roll had several vignettes: “one was Mother Eve being tempted by the serpent, who the serpent, I mean was standing on the tip of his tail, which with his two legs formed a tripod, and had his head in Eve’s ear.” Declaring the female figure to be Mother Eve is clearly an interpretation; setting that aside, the description of the vignette does not match any in the preserved Joseph Smith Papyri, nor should we expect it to. Since the outer edges of the rolls were the damaged ones and thus the ones mounted on paper and preserved in glass frames, the intact center of the rolls remained and were kept as rolls. This vignette was specifically said to be on one of the remaining rolls, not on the papyri mounted in the glass frames, which were the only ones to be preserved down to the present and thus is not part of the Joseph Smith Papyri in our possession.41

When Josiah Quincy saw the papyri in 1844, he described them as “some parchments inscribed with hieroglyphics . . . preserved under glass and handled with great respect.”42 Quincy also described one of the vignettes this way: “The parchment last referred to showed a rude drawing of a man and woman, and a serpent walking upon a pair of legs.”43 Quincy’s description was also told to Henry Halkett, who reported Quincy as saying one of the papyri “had a representation of a man, a woman, a tree, and a non-descript animal.”44 JSP V shows a woman facing a serpent walking on legs but shows neither man nor tree; thus it would seem that Quincy described a different papyrus fragment. This would indicate that not all of the mounted fragments ended up in the batch that went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

While the papyri were in the Saint Louis Museum, Gustavus Seyffarth, who was a rival to Jean-François Champollion,45 viewed at least one of the papyri rolls in 1856 and pronounced, “the papyrus roll is not a record, but an invocation to the Deity Osirus, in which occurs the name of the person, (Horus,) and a picture of the attendant spirits, introducing the dead to the Judge, Osirus.”46 The “picture” described seems to be Facsimile 3. This indicates that the part of the roll that JSP I, XI, and X came from was still preserved as a roll in 1856 and that Facsimile 3 of the Book of Abraham was on that roll. The contents of the Saint Louis Museum were sold to the Wood Museum and moved to Chicago, where the same description was repeated in the 1863 catalog.47 This group of antiquities seems to have been destroyed in the Chicago fire of 1871.

The Extent of the Joseph Smith Papyri

From the eyewitness historical descriptions of the papyri and the remaining physical evidence we can construct the following Egyptological description of the papyri (see fig. 3).48 Book of the Dead of Tsemminis, daughter of Eskhons, was a long roll (estimated original dimensions were 320 x 32 cm),49 whose damaged outside leaves were preserved under glass; remaining fragments are from JSP VII, VIII, V, VI, IV, and II (arranged in that order from right to left). The Book of the Dead chapters covered are BD 3–6, 53–54, 57, 63, 65, 67, 70, 72, 74–77, 83, 86–89, 91, 100–101, 103–6, 110, 125.50 As a late-period copy of the Book of the Dead, it can definitely be said to be Theban, belonging to Mosher’s Style 1a and phase III.51 Fragments from the first quarter of the roll are missing.52 The fragments were separated from the roll and mounted on glass, probably in 1836. The roll seems to have contained a copy of Book of the Dead 125 as well as a vignette of a tree, a man, and a woman, with a snake standing on its legs with his head in the woman’s ear; this is consistent with both the extant chapters and the eyewitness descriptions. The roll and possibly some of the fragments seem to have been destroyed in the Chicago fire. This roll probably dated to the last half of the third century B.C.

Book of the Dead of Neferirtnoub was, from early accounts, apparently a roll of considerable size, of which two fragments remain as JSP IIIa–b, containing the vignette of Book of the Dead 125. Since only the two fragments remain, the rest may have perished in the Chicago fire.

Scroll of Hor (a son of Osoroeris and Taykhebit)53 was a roll of some size (estimated original dimensions are 320 x 11 cm). The outer leaves, separated and mounted in Kirtland in 1836, remain as JSP I, XI, and X (in that order, from right to left). This roll contains the so-called “Book of Breathings Made by Isis” and at least one other text. The relationship of this roll to P. Louvre 3284 needs to be clarified, since most of the translations and commentaries on JSP XI–X are in fact translations and commentaries of P. Louvre 3284.54 One difference between the two papyri is that the terminal comments from P. Louvre 3284 (= column 6) become the preliminary comments in JSP XI (= column 1), and would normally be termed “rubrics” except that red ink was not used in either case.55 Beyond that, the relationship seems to be that JSP XI–X is an abridged copy of the same text as P. Louvre 3284 to the extent that a one-to-one correspondence exists between the columns of the text,56 which leads us to expect that there would have been two other columns on the roll of Hor’s papyrus in addition to the vignette preserved as Facsimile 3 in the Book of Abraham. These columns would contain the abridged version of the negative confession, but no real invocations to Osiris as described by Seyffarth.57 This argues for more than one text on the roll;58 thus we would expect more to have remained on the roll than the two columns of text from the Book of Breathings and the vignette (Facsimile 3). Though the outer pieces ended up as JSP I, XI, and X, the remainder of the roll almost certainly was in the Wood Museum in Chicago and was thus destroyed in the fire of 1871.

The Hypocephalus of Sheshonq (original dimensions are 19 x 20 cm) is preserved only as Facsimile 2 in the Book of Abraham.

Parts of the Unknown Document of Amenhotep, son of Tanoub, are preserved only in a poor copy in Kirtland Egyptian Papers, Egyptian manuscript no. 6.59 The copy is in three columns of text, but how these relate to the original papyrus is unknown. One of the columns contains Book of the Dead 45. The other columns have not been identified as any Book of the Dead or other known text. The different name is what makes it appear to be a separate document.

The Papyri Contents: Pars pro toto?

The Joseph Smith Papyri are generally termed typical funerary documents. Some people assume that if the documents are funerary they cannot contain anything else. Some Book of the Dead papyri, however, do contain other texts.60 For example, a fragmentary Eighteenth-Dynasty Book of the Dead in Cairo (JE 95575) contains account texts on the front side (recto).61 Papyrus Vandier also has a Book of the Dead on the verso (back side), but the recto contains the story of Meryre, who was sacrificed on an altar (an intriguing similarity to the Book of Abraham).62 The Book of the Dead of Psenmines (Louvre 3129) and Pawerem (BM 10252) both contain temple rituals.63 Both Papyrus Harkness64 and BM 10507 (demotic funerary papyri) contain several different texts.65 Just because the preserved sections of the Joseph Smith Papyri are funerary in nature does not mean that they could not have had other texts, either on the verso or on missing sections of the rolls. Arguing from silence is usually considered a fallacy.66 Seyffarth’s report indicates that the scroll belonging to Hor contained more than simply a Book of Breathings; unfortunately, it is unclear exactly what else it did contain, thus providing yet another example of an objective historical fact that is presently irrecoverable by scholarly means and methods.

Hearsay and Joseph Smith’s Understanding of the Papyri

Critics have often engaged in mind reading to say what they believed Joseph Smith thought about the papyri and have often brought forward evidence to support their contention. Unfortunately, the evidence brought forward to support this contention has usually been secondhand or hearsay rather than statements made or published by the Prophet. The latter have priority over the former. Two examples should make this plain.

By the end of July the Cleveland Whig printed the report that “the prophet Joe has ascertained, by examining the papyrus through his spectacles, that they are the bodies of Joseph, (the son of Abraham,) and king Abimelech and his daughter.”67 This account was circulated by five other newspapers as far away as New York and Washington, D.C.68 “For the purpose of correcting these, and other erroneous statements,” concerning both the mummies and also the records, church leaders took pains to point out in an official publication:

It has been said, that the purchasers of these antiquities pretend they have the body of Abraham, Abimelech, the king of the Philistines, Joseph, who was sold into Egypt, &c. &c. for the purpose of attracting the attention of the multitude, and gulling the unwary which is utterly false. . . .

Who these ancient inhabitants of Egypt are, we do not pretend to say, neither does it matter to us. We have no idea or expectation, that either of them are Abraham, Abimelech, or Joseph. Abraham was buried on his own possession, “in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron, the son of Zohar the Hittite, which is before Mamre,” which he purchased of the sons of Heth; Abimelech lived in the same country, and for aught we know, died there, and the children of Israel carried Joseph’s bones from Egypt when they went out under Moses. Consequently, [they] could not have been found in Egypt in the 19th century.69

Neither in their own day, nor particularly since, have the church leaders been given credit for the good sense and critical thinking displayed here. Yet this did nothing to stop the false reports from circulating to this day.

A visitor to Joseph Smith in 1840 reports his suggested identification of one of the mummies:

“It may have been the Princess Thermuthis,” I replied, “The same that rescued Moses from the waters of the Nile.”

“It is not improbable,” answered the Prophet, “but time has not yet allowed fully to examine and decide the point.”70

Though Joseph Smith allowed others to speculate on the identity of the mummies, and in some cases may have passed the speculation on, he had not decided the point. Secondhand sources maintaining he claimed the mummies to be a specific, and especially a famous, individual are suspect and cannot be taken as firsthand accounts of what Joseph Smith thought.

For our second example, Josiah Quincy has often been cited both in and out of the church,71 though the former is ironic since Quincy is clearly mocking the Prophet in his narrative. Yet Quincy was not the only one present at his interview with the Prophet in April 1844 nor the only one to leave a record of the interview. Consider Quincy’s account of Joseph’s statements about the papyri:

Some parchments inscribed with hieroglyphics were then offered us. They were preserved under glass and handled with great respect. “That is the handwriting of Abraham, the Father of the Faithful,” said the prophet. “This is the autograph of Moses, and these lines were written by his brother Aaron. Here we have the earliest account of the Creation, from which Moses composed the First Book of Genesis.”72

Quincy’s traveling companion, Charles Francis Adams, described this a bit differently:

He also conducted them on a tour of his house, where he showed them four Egyptian mummies and explained (for a fee of twenty-five cents) the contents of a manuscript “written by the hand of Abraham” which had been found in one of them.73

Adams’s description of the manuscript as “written by the hand of Abraham” is different from Quincy’s description as “the handwriting of Abraham” and is significant because it more closely matches the Prophet’s published statement that the manuscript was one “purporting to be the writings of Abraham, while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus.”74 Quincy seems to have taken liberties with the wording of the Prophet and garbled it in the process. Published statements of the Prophet take precedence over secondhand garbled remembrances, no matter how well intentioned.

Joseph’s journal entries discuss his understanding of what he did with the papyri.75 Most of these entries refer to exhibiting the papyri to interested onlookers.76 Four entries refer to translating,77 one to transcribing,78 and one to the Kirtland Egyptian Papers.79

The Kirtland Egyptian Papers

The Kirtland Egyptian Papers are a collection of documents, dating mostly to the Kirtland period, in the handwriting of various individuals. They have been grouped into two classes of documents, Book of Abraham manuscripts (hereinafter KEPA) and Egyptian manuscripts (hereinafter KEPE). For a description of the manuscripts, refer to table 1.

The provenance of KEPA 1 differs from that of the other Kirtland Egyptian Papers. It was acquired from Charles E. Bidamon by Wilford Wood while at least some of the others were brought to Salt Lake by Willard Richards,81 and some might have been brought by W. W. Phelps. This has possible interpretive implications for the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, for if W. W. Phelps brought them, they are W. W. Phelps’s notes, not Joseph Smith’s. The scattered provenances of the documents also indicate that we may not possess all the relevant Kirtland Egyptian Papers.

Each of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers needs to be analyzed on its own merits. They are not uniform in regard to handwriting, date, or purpose. None of the manuscripts is dated, though some of them are datable within limits. The purpose seems to be more varied. For example, KEPA 4 appears to be the printer’s manuscript for the first installment of the Book of Abraham, as it covers exactly the same material, matches the printed edition (even in paragraphing), and is in the handwriting of one of Joseph’s scribes at the time. KEPA 5 may have been originally intended to serve the same purpose for Facsimile 2, but plans altered.82 None of the other Kirtland Egyptian Papers appears to be directly connected with the publication of the Book of Abraham. The meaning of each of the papers needs to be carefully ascertained since none of the individuals who were involved in their production seems to have discussed the documents, with the exception of one reference in Joseph Smith’s journal.83

Journal Entry of 1 October 1835

The single entry in Joseph Smith’s journal referring to the Kirtland Egyptian Papers deserves special attention:

October 1, 1835. This after noon labored on the Egyptian alphabet, in company with brsr. O. Cowdery and W. W. Phelps: The system of astronomy was unfolded.84

What editors have done with this entry in Oliver Cowdery’s handwriting shows the need for clarification. Warren A. Cowdery, in preparing the Manuscript History of the Church, dropped some things and added others while smoothing out the English (italics indicate editorial changes):

He stayed at home and labored on the Egyptian Alphabet in company with his brethren O. Cowdery & W. W. Phelps. The system of Astronomy was unfolded.85

B. H. Roberts, in preparing the History of the Church for publication, changed the entry to first person, smoothed out the English, and used later entries to explain the laconic comment about astronomy (again, italics indicate editorial changes).

This afternoon I labored on the Egyptian alphabet, in company with Brothers Oliver Cowdery and W. W. Phelps, and during the research, the principles of astronomy as understood by Father Abraham and the ancients unfolded to our understanding, the particulars of which will appear hereafter.86

Scott Faulring, in editing the Prophet’s journals, thought it necessary to add bracketed material:

October 1[st] 1835 This after noon labored on the Egyptian alphabet in company with Br[other]s O[liver] Cowdery and W[illiam] W. Phelps. The system of astronomy was unfolded [to us].87

Two phrases in the journal deserve clarification for an understanding of what occurred on this date.

System of Astronomy. The phrase system of astronomy has provoked the most emendation. Later that year, Joseph Smith explained to William McLellen, Brigham Young, and Jared Carter “concerning the dealings of God with the ancients and the formation of the planetary System.”88 Warren Parrish expanded this entry from the Prophet’s journal in the Manuscript History of the Church to read that the Prophet explained “many things concerning the dealings of God, with the ancients especially the system of astronomy as taught by Abraham, which is contained upon these manuscripts [the Egyptian papryi].”89 Parrish made these changes nearly contemporary with the journal entry. Within a week of this journal entry, Oliver Cowdery described the papyri as including more than just papyri rolls, noting “that two or three other small pieces of papyrus, with astronomical calculations, epitaphs, &c. were found with others of the Mummies.”90 The Brethren here were referring to a specific papyrus and its interpretation. Joseph Smith specified which papyrus document in a Nauvoo journal entry:

Exhibeting the Book of Abraham, in the original, To Bro Reuben Hadlock [Hedlock]. so that he might take the size of the several plates or cuts. & prepare the blocks for the Times & Seasons. & also gave instruction concerning the arrangement of the writing on the Large cut. illustrating the principles of Astronomy.91

One of the unnoticed things about the original publication of the facsimiles is that Reuben Hedlock produced the facsimiles in the Times and Seasons to size. Facsimile 2 was a separate broadside and significantly larger than the other two; this is impossible to tell from most modern publications, which are sized to fit the available space. (Joseph Smith’s and Reuben Hedlock’s careful epigraphic concerns are underappreciated, particularly when compared with other epigraphic and Egyptological publications of the pre-Lepsius era.)92 This tells us that Facsimile 2 of the Book of Abraham was the astronomical manuscript, which appeared in the very next issue of the Times and Seasons. The journal entry for 1 October 1835 records the revelation of the interpretation of Facsimile 2.

The Book of Abraham as published in the Times and Seasons was not a complete translation, but the publication of the facsimiles illustrates an order to the story. In Facsimile 1, Abraham is saved from being sacrificed; Facsimile 2 contains the knowledge of astronomy revealed to Abraham; and Facsimile 3 depicts Abraham teaching this astronomical knowledge in Pharaoh’s court. The Book of Abraham also gives an outline of its prospective contents:

A knowledge of the beginning of the creation, and also of the planets, of the stars, as they were made known unto the fathers, have I kept even unto this day, and I shall endeavor to write some of these things upon this record, for the benefit of my posterity that shall come after me. (Abraham 1:31)

In its currently published form, the Book of Abraham stops in the middle of a revelation on the creation, given to Abraham preparatory to his entry into Egypt.

A word on the “explanations” of the facsimiles of the Book of Abraham is in order here. Though each facsimile has what is termed an “explanation,” it does not explain much of what is going on in the facsimiles; rather, the “explanation” identifies various elements, which are then explained in the text of the Book of Abraham. As presently constituted, the text of the Book of Abraham stops before the explanation of Facsimile 2 occurs. When Joseph Smith writes on 1 October 1835 that “the system of astronomy was unfolded,” he provides a date for the progress achieved to that point in the translation of the Book of Abraham, a point further along in the Book of Abraham than was ever published. Furthermore, the first hint of astronomical things occurs in Abraham 3:2, which is further along in the translation than any manuscript of the Book of Abraham dating from the Kirtland period (KEPA 1–3). No Kirtland period manuscript discusses the hypocephalus. Nor does any passage in the Book of Abraham really discuss “the formation of the planetary System.”93 That the translation had progressed further than the present Book of Abraham is corroborated by the firsthand report of Anson Call that, in 1838, it took “altogether about two hours” to read the Book of Abraham aloud;94 it takes about half an hour now. This indicates that by 1838, Joseph Smith had translated approximately four times as much as we currently have in the Book of Abraham, and, as we have no record of translation after 25 November 1835, it would seem that most if not all of it had been translated in 1835.

Egyptian Alphabet. The other phrase that deserves examination in the 1 October entry is that Joseph Smith says that he “labored on the Egyptian alphabet.” It has long been assumed that this was the so-called “Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar” (KEPE 1).95 This cannot be maintained on several grounds: (1) The title given to KEPE 1 is “Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language,”96 whereas other documents, notably KEPE 3–5, bear the title “Egyptian Alphabet”; (2) the handwriting of KEPE 1 is that of W. W. Phelps and Warren Parrish. Parrish was not hired as a scribe to Joseph Smith until four weeks later.97 On the other hand KEPE 3–5 are in the handwritings of the three men whom Joseph Smith identifies as being present on that occasion: Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and W. W. Phelps. Thus the documents referred to, if we possess them at all, must be KEPE 3–5.

Kirtland Egyptian Papers, Egyptian manuscripts 3, 4, and 5, are almost identical in content. The columns on the left are filled with characters from various columns of JSP I, identified by degree (column or line) and part (fragment).98 The copied glyphs indicate that the papyrus has deteriorated since 1835. The English renderings in the last column are not connected with the Book of Abraham or astronomy,99 although they should be were the critics correct. The fact that the only one of these manuscripts to have Joseph Smith’s handwriting on it matches JSP I but not the Book of Abraham would indicate that Joseph Smith did not think that the Book of Breathings was the Book of Abraham.100 The three manuscripts are not copies of each other; free variants and synonyms abound indicating that the manuscripts are independent notes made on the same occasion.101 Thus the labor was on JSP I, but the revelation given on the occasion was about a different papyrus, the Joseph Smith hypocephalus (Facsimile 2).

Consequently the one record in which there is a discussion about the Kirtland Egyptian Papers by someone whose handwriting appears on them (Joseph Smith’s journal entry of 1 October 1835) confirms that the Kirtland Egyptian Papers were not directly connected with the translation of the Book of Abraham at all. The revelation was not dependent on, derived from, or a product of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers. The translation of the Book of Abraham had already progressed far beyond the place where the Kirtland Egyptian Papers were. As is common with most deciphered ancient languages, the decipherment and translation comes first, and a grammar is written after the text is understood.102 Therefore, the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, if anything, may have been the result of an effort by the Brethren to align the Book of Abraham already received by revelation with papyri documents in their possession, although even this is doubtful. The extent of Joseph Smith’s participation in the remaining Kirtland Egyptian Papers is made tenuous by (1) the absence of his handwriting on the remaining documents, (2) the demonstrable independence of the scribes even when working in coordinated fashion, (3) the promises to scribes like Warren Parrish (in whose handwriting much of the KEP are) that “he shall see much of my ancient records, and shall know of hiden things, and shall be endowed with a knowledge of hiden languages,”103 and (4) the well-known fact that “the scribes and clerks often composed and recorded information on their own.”104

The Book of Abraham was located elsewhere on the rolls since Joseph Smith refers to teachings from the Book of Abraham and stated that he learned this “by translating the papyrus now in my house,”105 but the process was not that of a modern Egyptologist. The word chosen to describe the process, “unfolded,” indicates, as elsewhere in the writings of Joseph Smith, that the process was one of revelation and not of research.106 That the Book of Abraham was received by direct revelation is confirmed by the disgruntled Warren Parrish after his apostasy:

I have set by his side and penned down the translation of the Egyptian Heiroglyphicks [sic] as he claimed to receive it by direct inspiration of Heaven.107

The evidence provided by those involved in the translation process indicates that the Book of Abraham came by revelation and not through modern Egyptological methods or the Kirtland Egyptian Papers. The Kirtland Egyptian Papers are at best a by-product of the translation.

The Need for Caution

When a subject is truly brought into focus, different lines of approach converge on the same result. If we rely on hearsay evidence, however, the lines will focus on the gossip about a subject rather than on the subject itself. The preceding examples show the need for more care in gathering and sifting through materials, particularly when trying to determine what Joseph Smith thought he was doing. While some difficulties arise from a failure both to assemble the relevant material and to place the material in its proper historical context (because Joseph preceded and was outside the Egyptological tradition, he used terms that have gone unrecognized and misunderstood; Joseph was then blamed for not being within the tradition or for modern misunderstandings), at least as much havoc has been wreaked by not separating firsthand statements from garbled hearsay. Separating eyewitness from hearsay evidence is the only sound way to make sense of the mess surrounding the Joseph Smith Papyri. As a rule, ancient historians are unaccustomed to having so much information to deal with; normally we have so little information that we must accept any sort of information that can be brought to bear. Too often our attempts to fit the data into our own preconceived notions have overlooked the lesson that Richard Anderson has stressed: Firsthand primary sources take precedence over all others. The Joseph Smith Papyri can only make sense if attention is paid to whether the sources are firsthand for the information we seek. All too often, they have not been.


  1. For instance, I first read Morton Smith’s work Jesus the Magician for Anderson’s class. For a brief evaluation of this wretched work, see John Gee, “Abracadabra, Isaac and Jacob,” Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 7/1 (1995): 67–70.
  2. Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1981), 152–53.
  3. Examples include James R. Clark, The Story of the Pearl of Great Price (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1955); Jay M. Todd, The Saga of the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1969); John A. Larson, “Joseph Smith and Egyptology: An Early Episode in the History of American Speculation about Ancient Egypt, 1835–1844,” in For His Ka: Essays Offered in Memory of Klaus Baer, ed. David P. Silverman (Chicago: Oriental Institute, 1994); H. Donl Peterson, The Story of the Book of Abraham: Mummies, Manuscripts, and Mormonism (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1995). By listing these works in the category of omnium-gatherum approaches I do not wish to say that the authors (compilers?) exercised no critical faculties although they all certainly could have exercised more. Clark had very little primary material to work with. Todd and Peterson (and Richard Lloyd Anderson) have unearthed most of the primary material. Anyone looking for a simple narrative of the papyri will have a difficult time because Peterson and Todd clog their narratives with stories about how they got the information, while Larson seems to have misunderstood and thus mishandled his sources.
  4. I would like to thank Matthew Roper; for many years we have been gathering eyewitness accounts of the papyri and mummies. The thesis on the papyri, however, is my own, and no one else should be blamed for any mistake herein.

I have published comments on various aspects of this problem in a series of review essays: John Gee, “A Tragedy of Errors,” Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 4 (1992): 93–117; Gee, “Abracadabra, Isaac and Jacob,” 19–84; John Gee, “‘Bird Island’ Revisited, or the Book of Mormon through Pyramidal Kabbalistic Glasses,” Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 7/1 (1995): 219–28; and John Gee, “Telling the Story of the Joseph Smith Papyri,” FARMS Review of Books 8/2 (1996): 46–59. It is time that many of these strands were pulled together.

  1. Charlotte Haven, to her mother, 19 February 1843, in “A Girl’s Letters from Nauvoo,” Overland Monthly (December 1890), cited in Todd, Saga of the Book of Abraham, 245.
  2. Todd, Saga of the Book of Abraham, 245.
  3. See ibid., 246–49.
  4. Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, 155.
  5. The story of the Joseph Smith Papyri is told in the sources in note 3 above, with the fullest details in Peterson, The Story of the Book of Abraham; compare Jay M. Todd, “Papyri, Joseph Smith,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 3:1058–60; and Todd, Saga of the Book of Abraham, 275–309.
  6. Various Greek spellings are attested for the Egyptian name transliterated T3-šr.t-Mn, including Semminis and Senminis.
  7. Contra the suggestion by Robert K. Ritner in Larson, “Joseph Smith and Egyptology,” 161; the name need not be “a pseudonym, in the American tradition of Benjamin Franklin’s ‘Poor Richard,'” since the family is attested in the Cuyahoga County census in both 1830 and 1840 (Cuyahoga County Ohio 1830 census, p. 102; and Cuyahoga County Ohio 1840 census, p. 12).
  8. According to Todd, Saga of the Book of Abraham, 133, this newspaper account was first located by Richard Lloyd Anderson.
  9. Cited in ibid., 134.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. William W. Phelps to Sally Phelps, 19–20 July 1835, in Leah Y. Phelps, “Letters of Faith from Kirtland,” Improvement Era (August 1942): 529, cited in Todd, Saga of the Book of Abraham, 172, and in Peterson, Story of the Book of Abraham, 4.
  13. Oliver Cowdery, letter to William Frye, 22 December 1835, printed in the Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate 2/3 (December 1835): 234. Citations of this may also be found in Todd, Saga of the Book of Abraham, 188–89.
  14. Cowdery to Frye, 22 December 1835, in Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, 234.
  15. Oliver’s style follows more closely the writing styles of his day than Joseph’s does. Compare the accounts of Oliver in The Papers of Joseph Smith, ed. Dean C. Jessee (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989–92), 1:26–96, with any of Joseph’s accounts of the same events in the same volume. “Here the reader will observe that the narrative assumes a different form. . . . The writer deemed it proper to give a plain, simple, yet faithful narration.” Joseph Smith History 1834–36, September 1835, in Papers of Joseph Smith, 1:97. This encapsulates the difference between Joseph Smith’s and Oliver Cowdery’s styles.
  16. Cowdery to Frye, 22 December 1835, in Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, 236. See Todd, Saga of the Book of Abraham, 191–92.
  17. See Todd, Saga of the Book of Abraham, 194.
  18. Cowdery’s identification precedes by seven years that of K. Richard Lepsius, Das Todtenbuch der Ägypter nach dem hieroglyphischen Papyrus in Turin (Leipzig: Wigand, 1842), 13–15, and by nineteen years the discussion of Max Uhlemann, Das Todtengericht bei den alten Ägyptern (Berlin: Geelhaar, 1854).
  19. For the travels of the papyri to that point, see Peterson, Story of the Book of Abraham, 43–102, esp. the map on p. 91.
  20. For similar deterioration, see the photos of Papyrus Harkness in Thomas J. Logan, “Papyrus Harkness,” in Studies in Honor of George R. Hughes (Chicago: Oriental Institute, 1976), 150; Theodore M. Davis, The Funeral Papyrus of Iouiya, intro. Edouard Naville (London: Constable, 1908), plate I as opposed to plate XXXIV; Louis Speleers, Le Papyrus de Nefer Renpet (Brussels: Vromant, 1917), plates; CG 40003 (JE 95834) and CG 25095, in Irmtraut Munro, Die Totenbuch-Handscriften der 18. Dynastie im Ägyptischen Museum Cairo, Textband (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1994), 1: plates 55–56, 58–61. The outside of the roll is generally to the right but depends on the direction of the writing; for the usage see the statue of Horemheb (MMA 23.10.1) in Peter F. Dorman, Prudence O. Harper, and Holly Pittman, The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Egypt and the Ancient Near East (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987), 67; see also Jaroslav Černý, Paper and Books in Ancient Egypt (1952; reprint, Chicago: Ares, 1985), 10, 13–14.
  21. Kirtland Egyptian Papers, Egyptian manuscript 8, p. 1, in the Archives Division, Historical Department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (hereafter LDS Church Archives). The name T3-šrt-Mín m3ʿ-hrw ms.n Ns-nsw m3ʿ-hrw is clear in the copy and is also clearly broken by the squiggle marks, starting midword.
  22. See the discussions in Klaus Baer, “The Breathing Permit of Hôr: A Translation of the Apparent Source of the Book of Abraham,” Dialogue 3/3 (1968): 109–34.
  23. Joseph Smith’s Ohio Journal, 17 February 1836, in Papers of Joseph Smith, 2:176.
  24. William S. West, A Few Interesting Facts Respecting the Rise, Progress, and Pretensions of the Mormons (Warren, Ohio, 1837), cited in Todd, Saga of the Book of Abraham, 196–97.
  25. Journal of Luman A. Shirtliff, 1:87–88, cited in Todd, Saga of the Book of Abraham, 200.
  26. See Anson Call, Manuscript Journal, summer of 1838, p. 9, cited in Robert J. Matthews, “A Plainer Translation”: Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible, A History and Commentary (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1975), 98; contra Larson, “Joseph Smith and Egyptology,” 169. Vinson Knight had been in Kirtland on 12 January 1838; Scott H. Faulring, ed., An American Prophet’s Record: The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature, 1989), 191. By “the fall of 1838” he was expelled from Missouri; Vinson Knight, affidavit of 29 October 1839, in Mormon Redress Petitions: Documents of the 1833–1838 Missouri Conflict, ed. Clark V. Johnson (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1992), 261.
  27. The Quincy Whig, 17 October 1840, cited in Todd, Saga of the Book of Abraham, 211.
  28. William I. Appleby Journal, 5 May 1841, ms. 1401 1, pp. 71–72, LDS Church Archives.
  29. Henry Caswall, The City of the Mormons; or, Three Days at Nauvoo, in 1842 (London: Rivington, 1842), 22; also cited in Todd, Saga of the Book of Abraham, 237.
  30. Caswall, City of the Mormons, 22–23.
  31. Ibid., 23.
  32. The standard discussion is Hugh W. Nibley, “The Greek Psalter Mystery or Mr. Caswall Meets the Press,” in Tinkling Cymbals and Sounding Brass: The Art of Telling Tales about Joseph Smith and Brigham Young (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1991), 304–406.
  33. Caswall, City of the Mormons, 23.
  34. Most recently by Stephen E. Thompson, “Egyptology and the Book of Abraham,” Dialogue 28/1 (1995): 148–49 and n. 25. If Caswall did not see the knife, as Thompson argues, why did he not comment on what would have been an obvious discrepancy. Granted that the resultant vignette would not make sense based on what Thompson knows about Egyptian funerary papyri, it is not valid to argue that something does not exist because it does not correspond to what we expect. Nor is it, as Thompson erroneously claims, “unlikely that an Egyptian would ever wish himself depicted being approached by a god with a knife” (ibid., 149). For examples, see Émile Chassinat, Le Temple d’Edfou, MIFAO 27 (Cairo: Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale, 1928–60), 10:2: plates CXLV, CXLVIII, CLIII; Lepsius, Das Todtenbuch der Ägyp-ter, plates LXI–LXIV; Suzanne Ratié, Le papyrus de Neferoubenef (Louvre III 93) (Cairo: Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale, 1968), plate XIII; Jacques J. Clère, Le Papyrus de Nesmin: Un livre des morts hiéroglyphique de l’époque ptolémaïque  (Cairo: Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale, 1987), plates XV–XVI; Eva von Dassow, ed., The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth by Day (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1994), plate 11; Munro, Die Totenbuch-Handschriften, 1: plate 60–61. A jackal-headed figure need not be Anubis; it could also be Isdes, who does wield a knife; see Chassinat, Le Temple d’Edfou, MIFAO 22, 5:143; another jackal-headed figure with a knife appears regularly in the eleventh mound of Book of the Dead 149; see Raymond O. Faulkner, The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead (London: British Museum, 1985), 141.
  35. Robert Horne, “Reminiscences of the Church in Nauvoo,” Millennial Star 55/36 (4 September 1893): 585; also cited in Todd, Saga of the Book of Abraham, 249.
  36. Charlotte Haven, to her mother, 19 February 1843, cited in Todd, Saga of the Book of Abraham, 245. Charlotte Haven’s account of the papyri rolls in Nauvoo is corroborated by a remembrance of Joseph F. Smith, which comes thirdhand through Preston Nibley to Hugh Nibley: “President Smith (as Elder Nibley recollected with his remarkable memory) recalled with tears the familiar sight of ‘Uncle Joseph’ kneeling on the floor of the front room with Egyptian manuscripts spread out all around him, weighted down by rocks and books, as with intense concentration he would study a line of characters, jotting down his impressions in a little notebook as he went.” Hugh W. Nibley, “A New Look at the Pearl of Great Price,” Improvement Era (March 1968): 17–18, repeated in Todd, Saga of the Book of Abraham, 219. From personal inspection of the Mansion House at Nauvoo, I would estimate that no more than 15–20 feet of the papyri could be unrolled at a time.
  37. Contra Todd, Saga of the Book of Abraham, 246–49.
  38. Josiah Quincy, Figures of the Past from the Leaves of Old Journals (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1883), 386. Another edition (Boston: Little, Brown, 1926), 325, is cited in Todd, Saga of the Book of Abraham, 256; and Larson, “Joseph Smith and Egyptology,” 172.
  39. Quincy, Figures (1883), 386; (1926), 326.
  40. Quoted in Todd, Saga of the Book of Abraham, 257.
  41. A clear idea of his own, shall we say, idiosyncratic views of Egyptian hieroglyphs may be seen in Gustavus Seyffarth, “A Remarkable Papyrus-Scroll, Written in the Hieratic Character about 1050 B.C.,” The Transactions of the Academy of Science of St. Louis 1 (1856–60): 527–69, plate XIX, nos. 1–16. Some of Seyffarth’s views of the Egyptologists of his day, especially Champollion, expressed in this work deserve to be quoted: “They [unnamed individuals in New York] were acquainted only with the system of Champollion, according to which nobody, as yet, has succeeded in translating one line of a hieroglyphic, or Hieratic text, down to this day, as is known” (ibid., 529). The work of Heinrich Brugsch (on the Book of Breathings) he dismisses as “nonsense” (ibid., 536). Peter Le Page Renouf’s attack on his work “is written so ingeniously, skilfully, and winningly, that scarcely one reader, except the author and myself, would suspect its deceptiveness” (ibid., 539). His comments on de Rougé and Lepsius may be left to those interested. Suffice it to say, Seyffarth was hardly a mainstream Egyptologist of either his or our day; nevertheless, from time to time he comes up with a correct translation for all the wrong reasons (e.g., ntr ʿ3 “the great god” as “the powerful godhead” in ibid., plate XIX no. 4, section III, lines 8–9, though assigning the meanings to the wrong words).
  42. Catalogue of the Saint Louis Museum 1859, cited in Todd, Saga of the Book of Abraham, 296–98.
  43. See Todd, Saga of the Book of Abraham, 299–302.
  44. My reconstruction previously appeared in Gee, “A Tragedy of Errors,” 108–9, and here is greatly expanded and corrected.
  45. Assuming that the damaged area was a fourth of the original length of the roll. Measurements were taken from the photographs in “New Light on Joseph Smith’s Egyptian Papyri,” Improvement Era (February 1968): 40–41 (also 40A–H), from the rulers shown in the photographs. This produced a calculation of 373 x 34.5 cm. The Turin papyrus of Efonkh measured 57’3″ (≈ 1786 cm) in length; while MMA 35.9.19 measures 174.5 x 14.5″ (≈ 453 x 37.5 cm). The chapters covered by the fragments take approximately one-fifth of the Efonkh papyrus, which would produce a length of 466 cm, a length closer to MMA 35.9.19. I have deliberately rounded down to the average size of papyri in the Ptolemaic period taken from P. W. Pestman, The New Papyrological Primer, 2nd ed. (Leiden: Brill, 1994), 4–5.
  46. The chapters were identified and put in proper order by John A. Wilson, “A Summary Report,” part of “The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri: Translations and Interpretations,” Dialogue 3/2 (1968): 67–85. Wilson and his editor, Joseph Jeppson, however, sowed sheer confusion by renumbering the papyri. For those who would work with Wilson’s article in the future, here is a concordance of the numberings the papyri have had through the years:

JSP #s

MMA #s

Wilson-Jeppson #s



A (photo 1)



B (photo 8)



C (photo 5)



C (photo 6)



B (photo 3)



B (photo 2)



B (photo 4)



B (photo 7)



B (photo 9)

IX = Church


Historian’s Fragment




D (photo 10)



D (photo 11)

Facsimile 2


Facsimile 3






Wilson’s documents A and F are the same document. Wilson’s document H (whose language is Arabic) appears to be a mirage created by Jerald and Sandra Tanner.

  1. See Malcolm Mosher Jr., “Theban and Memphite Book of the Dead Traditions in the Late Period,” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 29 (1992): 145–48, 170–72.
  2. Based on the twenty-one of seventy-nine plates covering the anticipated material in the Turin scroll of Efonkh, in Lepsius, Das Totenbuch der Ägypter.
  3. The name of the mother was misread as a father’s name Rmny-qöi at JSP XI 2/7 by Richard A. Parker, trans., “The Book of Breathings (Fragment 1, the ‘Sensen’ Text, with Restorations from Louvre Papyrus 3284),” part of “The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri,” 99, and followed by Hugh W. Nibley, Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1975), 26 and passim, which was the source of Gee, “Tragedy of Errors,” 105, 108 (a mistake I here correct).
  4. This includes both Baer, “The Breathing Permit of Hôr,” and Nibley, Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri.
  5. The terminology and discussion here follows the lead of Thomas G. Allen, The Book of the Dead or Going Forth by Day: Ideas of the Ancient Egyptians concerning the Hereafter as Expressed in Their Own Terms (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 2.
  6. The information for this comparison can be found in Nibley, Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri, 18–65, but was not noticed by Nibley.
  7. Seyffarth might have mistaken the epithet of Osiris applied to Hor as the name of the god, although this is doubtful for two reasons: (1) Seyffarth consistently renders the term Wsír before a personal name as “the most holy one” (“A Remarkable Papyrus Scroll,” plate XIX no. 11, line 64, and no. 15, line 134). (2) Seyffarth did identify another Book of Breathings as a book of hymns, translating á¸¥3ty-ʿ m šʿy n snsnw ír.n Is.t n sn = s Wsír “beginning of the book of breathings which Isis made for her brother Osiris” as “The Book of Hymns for singing the glories of him who made the Isis (the earth), (the glories) of that invisible being who made Osiris (the sun)” (ibid., 530 and plate XIX nos. 8–9, lines 1–14). Specifically it is the phrase á¸¥3ty-ʿ m šʿy “beginning of the book” that Seyffarth renders as “Book of Hymns” (ibid., plate XIX no. 8, lines 1–4). This indicates that Seyffarth, in identifying a text as an “invocation,” might have read the beginning lines of another text, one after the Book of Breathings.
  8. The frequent and wild variations among Books of Breathings has long been commented on. This trait is especially common among Second Books of Breathings; see Français-René Herbin, “Une nouvelle page du livre des respirations,” BIFAO 84 (1984): 249–50 n. 3.
  9. Photograph of the document in Todd, Saga of the Book of Abraham, 316.
  10. A general discussion of the reuse of rolls may be found in ‚ernyv, Paper and Books in Ancient Egypt, 21–23. Here we are concerned specifically with multiple texts in connection with the Book of the Dead.
  11. See Munro, Totenbuch-Handschriften, 1:191–204, plates 67–71; 2: plates 139–41.
  12. See Georges Posener, Le Papyrus Vandier (Cairo: Institute Français d’Archéologie Orientale, 1985).
  13. See Siegfried Schott, Urkunden mythologischen Inhalts: Bücher und Sprüche gegen den Gott Seth (Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1929).
  14. See Logan, “Papyrus Harkness,” 150–61; Mark Smith, “Papyrus Harkness,” Enchoria 18 (1991): 95–105.
  15. See Mark Smith, The Mortuary Texts of Papyrus BM 10507, Catalogue of Demotic Papyri in the British Museum, vol. 3 (London: British Museum, 1987), 19. This funerary papyrus was found with and written by the same scribe as the Instructions of Onchsheshonqy, which also contains a tale about burning Harsiese on an altar; for the latter, see S. R. K. Glanville, The Instructions of ʿOnch-she-shonqy (British Museum Papyrus 10508), Catalogue of Demotic Papyri in the British Museum, vol. 2, pt. 1 (London: British Museum, 1955); Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature: A Book of Readings (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973–80), 3:159–84; Heinz J. Thissen, Die Lehre des Anchscheschonqi (P. BM 10508) (Bonn: Habelt, 1984).
  16. See David H. Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (New York: Harper and Row, 1970), 47–48.
  17. Cleveland Whig, 31 July 1835, cited in Todd, Saga of the Book of Abraham, 175.
  18. It appeared in the Pittsburgh Chronicle on 13 August 1835, in the New York Sunday Morning News on 16 August 1835, in the Washington, D.C., Daily National Intelligencer on 21 August 1835, in the New York Evening Star in August 1835, and in the Painesville Telegraph on 4 September 1835. Details and quotations in Todd, Saga of the Book of Abraham, 175–79. It is worth noting that like today, the newspapers of that day copied each other, but unlike today the news organizations were much more open about their political biases, as the very titles of the newspapers often proclaim.
  19. Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate 2/3 (December 1835): 233–34; also cited in Todd, Saga of the Book of Abraham, 187–88. This account is usually ascribed to Joseph Smith, but Todd thinks it may have been penned by the editor, John Whitmer (ibid., 187).
  20. “A Glance at the Mormons,” Quincy Whig, 17 October 1840, cited in Todd, Saga of the Book of Abraham, 210.
  21. Perhaps the most notable and influential quotation may be found in LeGrand Richards, A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 406–7.
  22. Quincy, Figures (1926), 325–26.
  23. Martin B. Duberman, Charles Francis Adams, 1807–1886 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961), 92.
  24. Times and Seasons 3 (1 March 1842): 704, cited in Todd, Saga of the Book of Abraham, 233.
  25. An abbreviated discussion appears in Gee, “‘Bird Island’ Revisited,” 226–27.
  26. See Joseph Smith, Ohio Journal, 1835–36, entries for 3, 19, 24, and 29 October 1835; 17, 23, and 30 November 1835; 7, 10, 12, 14–16, 20, and 23 December 1835, in Papers of Joseph Smith, 2:46, 53, 56–58, 85, 88, 92, 97, 101–2, 104–6, 119–20.
  27. See Joseph Smith, Ohio Journal, 1835–36, 7 October 1835, 19–20, 25 November 1835, in Papers of Joseph Smith, 2:50, 87, 90.
  28. See Joseph Smith, Ohio Journal, 1835–36, 26 November 1835, in Papers of Joseph Smith, 2:90.
  29. See Joseph Smith, Ohio Journal, 1835–36, 1 October 1835, in Papers of Joseph Smith, 2:45.
  30. Taken from Hugh W. Nibley, “The Meaning of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers,” BYU Studies 11/4 (1971): 351. Handwriting identifications were by Dean Jessee; I have modified the dates in places.
  31. See Todd, Saga of the Book of Abraham, 281–84, 286, 326–31.
  32. See Joseph Smith, Illinois Journal, 1841–42, 4 March 1842, in Papers of Joseph Smith, 2:366.
  33. There is a reference to “the Alphabet” in Joseph Smith, Ohio Journal, 1835–36, 17 November 1835, in Papers of Joseph Smith, 2:85, but this is (1) a later insertion (2) inserted as the object of the verb “exhibited” and thus provides no evidence for Joseph’s thought.
  34. The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, comp. and ed. Dean C. Jessee (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1984), 60; Papers of Joseph Smith, 2:45.
  35. Papers of Joseph Smith, 1:102, emphasis added.
  36. History of the Church, 2:286.
  37. Faulring, An American Prophet’s Record, 35.
  38. Joseph Smith, Ohio Journal, 1835–36, 16 December 1835, in Papers of Joseph Smith, 2:106.
  39. Manuscript History of the Church, Book A-1, 16 December 1835, LDS Church Archives, 148, in Papers of Joseph Smith, 1:163.
  40. Cowdery to Frye, 22 December 1835, in Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, 234.
  41. Joseph Smith, Illinois Journal, 1841–42, 4 March 1842, in Papers of Joseph Smith, 2:366.
  42. See Ricardo Caminos, “The Recording of Inscriptions and Scenes in Tombs and Temples,” in Ancient Egyptian Epigraphy and Palaeography (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1976), 3–4. The expedition of Lepsius (published from 1849–59) is the only epigraphic achievement he found worthy of mention before 1875.
  43. Joseph Smith, Ohio Journal, 1835–36, 16 December 1835, in Papers of Joseph Smith, 2:106. The only possible passage to discuss this is Abraham 4:14–18, which alludes to this but makes no explicit mention of any specific planets, much less a “planetary system,” or the “formation” of such a thing.
  44. Anson Call, Manuscript Journal, summer of 1838, p. 9, cited in Matthews, Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible, 98.
  45. See, for example, Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Mormonism Shadow or Reality? 5th ed. (Salt Lake City: Utah Lighthouse Ministry, 1987), 311–13.
  46. I have normalized the spelling and capitalization of the title; see table 1 for original spelling.
  47. See Joseph Smith, Ohio Journal, 1835–36, 29 October 1835, in Papers of Joseph Smith, 2:56. Warren Parrish’s handwriting begins with the entry of 8 October 1835, yet indications are present that Joseph was three weeks behind in his record keeping. This was not an isolated situation. When Parrish was sick on 25 January 1836, Joseph “appointed Elder Sylvester Smith acting Scribe for the time being or till Eld[er]. Parrish shall recover his health”; Sylvester Smith’s handwriting actually begins in the entry of 22 January 1836, in Papers of Joseph Smith, 2:160 n. 2, 162. Likewise, on 8 February 1836, “Elder Parrish my scribe, received my journal again” but his handwriting actually begins the previous day, in Papers of Joseph Smith, 2:171 n. 1, 172. One can also observe the brevity of most of the entries between 8 and 29 October 1835, which suggests that the effort was being made to bring the journal up to date quickly.
  48. This use of terminology is discussed in John A. Tvedtnes, “The Critics of the Book of Abraham” in Book of Abraham Symposium (Salt Lake City: Salt Lake Institute of Religion, 1971), 73–74, as well as in Tvedtnes’s footnote in Gee, “Tragedy of Errors,” 114 n. 59. The confusion of the terminology can be seen in Wesley P. Walters, “Joseph Smith among the Egyptians,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 16/1 (1973): 31–32.
  49. This can perhaps best be illustrated by a transcription of the English column of KEPE 4 (p. 1, lines 2–24): “the first being who exercises Supreme power / the first man or one who has kingly power or / a prince universal reighn having geater dominion or power / rolyal family royal blood or pharaoah or supreme power or King / crown of a princys or queen or stands for queen / Virgin unmaried or the priciple of virtue / the name of a royal family in female line / An unmaried woman and a virgin prices of / unmarried man a price / woman married or unmarried a daughter / Crown of a prince or King / the Earth / beneath or underwater / the eye or to see or sight sometimes me myself / the land of Egypt first seen under / what other person is that or who / a government power or Kingdom / the begining first before pointing to / in the begining of the Earth or Creation / Signifys to be in any as light in th[e . . .] / the first Creation of any thing first [. . .] tion / from the first to any Stated period after / from any or some fixed period of time to the beginning .” This is the Book of Abraham? How could anyone get the Book of Abraham from this?
  50. Contra Tanner and Tanner, Mormonism Shadow or Reality? 311–14; Walters, “Joseph Smith among the Egyptians,” 34–37.
  51. For example, KEPE 3 (p. 1, line 15, column 4) reads: “beneath, below, under, water.” The corresponding line in KEPE 4 (p. 1, line 14, column 3) reads: “beneath or underwater.” The corresponding line in KEPE 5 (p. 1, line 13, column 5) reads simply “or water.” Similar variants lead to the conclusion that these are independent notes rather than slavish copies of each other.
  52. “A decipherer, who skips over scruples and difficulties ingeniously, and a philologist, who ponders his results carefully as he forges them into rules, are fundamentally different and must not be mistaken for each other.” Johannes Friedrich, Extinct Languages (1957; reprint, New York: Dorset, 1989), 24–25. It was Richard Lepsius, Heinrich Brugsch, and Adolf Erman who forged the way philologically for grammar books such as those of Adolf Erman and Alan Gardiner. Friedrich (who was a Hittitologist and was himself responsible for the decipherment of Hittite hieroglyphs) documents this progression many times in his book (e.g., ibid., 53–57, 61–68). The time lag between decipherment and grammar is often considerable.
  53. Joseph Smith, Ohio Journal, 1835–36, 14 November 1835, in Papers of Joseph Smith, 2:79.
  54. Howard C. Searle, “Authorship of the History of Joseph Smith: A Review Essay,” BYU Studies 21/1 (1981): 105.
  55. The Words of Joseph Smith, comp. and ed. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1980), 380; see John Gee, “The Role of the Book of Abraham in the Restoration” (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1997), 8.
  56. Noted already in Gee, “Tragedy of Errors,” 111 n. 50. Compare the usage in Doctrine and Covenants 6:7; 10:64; 11:7; 32:4; and 90:14. Compare the use of the word unfolding by Oliver Cowdery in his history, in Papers of Joseph Smith, 1:69.
  57. Warren Parrish, letter to the editor of the Painesville Republican, dated 5 February 1838, in Painesville Republican 2/14–15 (15 February 1838), 3.