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Joseph Smith Papyri

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Joseph Smith's Papyri
by Woody Brison

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In 1966, a dozen scraps of ancient papyrus were discovered in a New York museum.   Researchers identified them as Egyptian papyri belonging to Joseph Smith the Prophet, due to a famous picture on one of them.  Speculation arose that the long-lost ancient document, translated by him as the Book of Abraham, had been found.

It was indeed a heady idea that Joseph's translation abilities could be checked by comparing his output against his input, for previous to this he had translated the Book of Mormon by the gift and power of God.

After a brief background intro, I will quote a number of witnesses who saw Joseph's source document, then I will compare their descriptions to the papyri that were found.   I will leave the identification to you.

Egyptian Artifacts Hit the Big Time

French armies under Napoleon occupied Egypt in 1798, and with them went a whole troop of scientists.  As a result all Europe became enchanted by the ancient ruins and tombs, and in the following decades, there was a gold rush for Egyptian antiquities.   Museums could get rich if they could display a few mummies, papyri, or gems; people would pay to see them.

There was a man named Antonio Lebolo who profited by this enchantment.  Born and raised in the north of Italy, he served in Napoleon's army.  Consequently, he had to find another place to live after Napoleon's defeat.  He went to Egypt and was licensed by the Viceroy and the French Consul to deal in mummies and other artifacts. [DONL p. 37-62]

In about 1820 a tomb was opened across the river from Luxor. Lebolo soon arrived and acquired the mummies [MJSP, p.4]. He finally went back to Italy, but there he died, and his possessions were sold to settle his debts.

A group of investors purchased a number of his mummies and sent them on tour through the cities of America.  They chose one Michael Chandler of Philadelphia as curator [DONL p.87-89]. (Chandler said Lebolo was his uncle and had willed them to him.)  He took possession of the unopened coffins in the New York customs house, hoping there would be treasure in them.

Chandler Looks for Treasure, Finds Rolls and Scraps

"On opening the coffins he discovered that in connection with two of the bodies, were something rolled up with the same kind of linnen, saturated with the same bitumen, which, when examined, proved to be two rolls of papyrus, ...

"...two or three other small pieces of papyrus, with astronomical calculations, epitaphs, &c. were found with others of the Mummies...

"He was immediately told, while yet in the Custom House, that there was no man in that city, who could translate his roll; but was referred by the same gentleman, (a stranger,) to Mr. Joseph Smith, jr." [OCL]

So, as Chandler toured the cities of America exhibiting the mummies and papyri, he directed his course to Kirtland, Ohio, where the Mormon Prophet lived.

Chandler Displayed Papyri in Excellent Preservation

In Philadelphia, he obtained a certificate from six or seven medical doctors, recommending the exhibit to the public.  Oliver saw this and copied it. With their signatures and professional honor they proclaimed, "The papyrus, covered with black or red ink, or paint, in excellent preservation, are very interesting." [OCL]

Black and red ink is a common feature of ancient Egyptian documents: they often had notations in red, called "rubrics", added to the original (sacred) text in black.  The excellent preservation is also believable. A papyrus rolled up tightly, wrapped like a mummy in linen which is in turn saturated with petroleum varnish, lying undisturbed inside a closed coffin, in a sealed tomb, in the dry climate of Egypt, has little reason to decay.

In the course of his travels, Chandler sold some of the mummies and papyri.   "...eleven Mummies were taken from the catacomb ... Seven of the said eleven were purchased by gentlemen for private museums, previous to Mr. Chandler's visit to this place, with a small quantity of papyrus, similar, (as he says,) to the astronomical representation, contained with the present two rolls, ..." [OCL]   When he arrived in Kirtland, 1835 July 3, he had four mummies left.

Two Papyrus Rolls Arrive in Kirtland

Joseph Smith examined these papyri and noted that there were "two or more rolls of papyrus covered with hieroglyphic figures and devices." [HC, 2:235] The Latter-Day Saints were excited at the thought that their Prophet might translate these ancient documents, as he had previously the Book of Mormon; so money was raised and the whole remaining exhibit purchased from Chandler.  He departed, probably glad to be finally rid of it.

Starting to translate them, Joseph discovered that "one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham, another the writings of Joseph, etc., -- a more full account of which will appear in its place, as I proceed to examine or unfold them." [HC 2:236]

During the following months, Joseph Smith labored daily, as time allowed, to create an "alphabet and grammar" of the written symbols and to translate the Abraham roll, assisted by several scribes.

Oliver Describes the Record

Oliver Cowdery observed, "This record is beautifully written on papyrus with black, and a small part, red ink or paint, in perfect preservation. The characters are 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... The language in which this record is written is very comprehensive, and many of the hieroglyphics exceedingly striking. ... The representation of the god-head--three, yet in one, is curiously drawn to give simply, though impressively, the writers views of that exalted personage. The serpent, represented as walking, or formed in a manner to be able to walk, standing in front of, and near a female figure, ... Enoch's Pillar, as mentioned by Josephus, is upon the same roll... The inner end of the same roll, (Joseph's record,) 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. I am certain it cannot be viewed without filling the mind with awe, unless the mind is far estranged from God: ... I might continue my communication to a great length [!] upon the different figures and characters represented upon the two rolls, ..." [OCL]

Note that Oliver, in all of this, has very little to say about the small fragments.   Most of his attention is on the large rolls, with their "exceedingly striking hieroglyphics" and pictures of earthshaking significance.  He does not give a technical inventory -- it is not clear which details refered to which roll.  We should note that "Joseph's record" could mean either the record of Joseph of Egypt, or the Book of Abraham (which Joseph Smith had and was working on).

W.W.Phelps Describes the Record

W.W.Phelps wrote to his wife: "The last of June four Egyptian mummies were brought here; there were two papyrus rolls, besides some other ancient Egyptian writings with them. As no one could translate these writings, they were presented to President Smith. He soon knew what they were and said they, the 'rolls of papyrus,' contained the sacred record kept of Joseph in Pharaoh's Court in Egypt, and the teachings of Father Abraham." [Phelps]

Only a Fraction was Published

Oliver continued, "When the translation of these valuable documents will be completed, I am unable to say; neither can I give you a probably idea how large volumes they will make; but judging from their size, and the comprehensiveness [compactness?] of the language, one might reasonable expect to see a sufficient to develop much upon the mighty acts of the ancient men of God, and of his dealing with the children of men when they saw him face to face. Be there little or much, it must be an inestimable acquisition to our present scriptures, ...  [OCL]

Five chapters only were published, and then the story seems to be truncated -- Chapter 5 just stops without conclusion or comment, kinda leaving the story dangling [BofA].  The inference is not difficult, that more text existed, but was not published.  With the text of the Book of Abraham, Joseph published three illustrations, designated Facsimiles no. 1, 2, and 3.  Joseph never translated the Book of Joseph to our knowledge.

Joseph published what he published, serially in the Times and Seasons [TAS].   It was reproduced in a pamphlet titled, "The Pearl of Great Price", later adopted as part of the LDS scriptures; and also in the History of the Church.

The mummies and papyri were on display in Nauvoo, and numerous visitors saw them.   Charlotte Haven wrote of being shown them by Joseph Smith's mother, Lucy: "Then she turned to a long table, set her candlestick down, and opened a long roll of manuscript, saying it was 'the writing of Abraham and Isaac, written in Hebrew and Sanscrit [sic],' and she read several minutes from it as if it were English. It sounded very much like passages from the Old Testament-and it might have been for anything we knew-but she said she read it through the inspiration of her son Joseph, in whom she seemed to have perfect confidence. Then in the same way she interpreted to us hieroglyphics from another roll. 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." [HAVN]

Josiah Quincy also visited Nauvoo and saw the mummies and some "parchments" under glass.  Some of his statements seem scornfully recounted, but he mentions a picture of a two-legged snake. [JQFP, p.386]

After he was assassinated in 1844, Joseph Smith's followers moved west to the Salt Lake valley, and his possessions were scattered over time.  Some of the papyri were exhibited by Joseph's brother, and he sold some of them.  Some of the mummies were in the Woods Museum in Chicago, which was totally destroyed in the great fire of 1871.   The large rolls may have been with them.

An Inventory of Chandler's Papyri

1.  One large roll containing the writings of Abraham.  This was in perfect preservation.  The writing on it was neatly written with rubrics.

2.  One large roll containing the writings of Joseph.  These two rolls carried some illustrations, an especially impressive one at the inner end of one of them, a picture of "the Savior seated upon his throne, crowned, and holding the sceptres of righteousness and power".

3.  Two or three small scraps of papyrus containing  or "astronomical calculations, epitaths, etc." "Epitaths" suggests a funerary text, or the sacrificial murder of Facsimile 1, or possibly vertical hieroglyphics such as are seen in Facsimile 3.

There was an "astronomical representation" or diagram, strongly suggesting Facsimile 2, "contained with the present two rolls", meaning either it was on one of the rolls or among the scraps.  Possibly this was the same as the "astronomical calculations".

4. "A small quantity of papyrus" sold to private museums, lost to our knowledge at present.

Now to Consider the 1966 Finds

The papyri found in 1966 include some ragged little scraps, flaking and falling apart.   They are mounted on cardboard with glue, and Joseph Smith's handwriting can be seen on the cardboard.  There is a map of Kirtland on the back.

The papyri show numerous "lacunae" (gaps) -- almost as much gaps as papyrus.   There is no glue on the cardboard in these areas, meaning that at mounting time, the gaps were already there.  Whoever did the mounting used small fragments to fill some lacunae, in incorrect places and orientations.  From these simple observations, we can conclude that these papyri were not in a state of "perfect preservation" at all when Joseph Smith had them.

One fragment, called Joseph Smith Papyrus no. 1, which I will call J1, has a picture of a man on a lion-couch, with a priest standing by him and a bird hovering overhead.   Careful comparison of this picture with Facsimile 1 shows that they are identical, almost line-for-line.  A lacuna removes the middle section of the man, his arms, and the priest's head; lines drawn on the cardboard reconstruct these.  Obviously, this was the original for Facsimile 1. To the right of this picture are vertical hieroglyphics, and to the left, the material has been cut by knife or scissors.

Another fragment, which I will designate as J11, bears two columns of rude hieroglyphs written right-to-left in horizontal lines, and has a similar cut on its right edge.   The cuts on J11 and J1 match, down to the microscopic fibers of the papyrus, so they were once one papyrus.  The supposition is not outlandish that this cut was made to deliver the picture to the engraver who made the facsimiles.

A third fragment, which I will call J10, continues the text of J11.

These three fragments were all one papyrus anciently, so let's call that J10-11-1. The text is a subset, picked out from here and there, in the larger text of a papyrus in the Louvre, No. 3284 [MJSP, p. 57-65].  Translated, it makes very little sense on the surface. [MJSP p.47]

There is not a single rubric on J10-11-1, not a speck of red ink anywhere.  The writing is messy, and in the last column of J10 it is cramped, as if the writer was a novice and didn't plan ahead.

One Identification

Soon after these papyri were discovered, the theory was advanced that J10-11-1 was Joseph Smith's source text.  Three reasons:

1)  In his book, Abraham refers us to a picture "at the commencement of this record", "at the beginning" [BofA 1:12,14] Facsimile 1 is positioned as a frontispiece.  It appears in the same position in J10-11-1, at the front of a block of hieroglyphics.

Some problems with this:

* This illustration has in fact nothing to do with the text it was next to. While the critics see this as proof that Joseph Smith couldn't read hieroglyphics, I see it as proof that the Egyptians put unrelated pictures with text.   They often did this [MJSP p.3].

* The cut indicates that the picture and the text were not considered by Joseph to be associated -- otherwise why would he mutilate an ancient papyrus of such tremendous value?   One might almost infer that he realized the writings on J10-11 were unrelated scribbles while the picture belonged with the Abraham text on his roll.

* None of the witnesses' descriptions mention this picture on the record Joseph Smith translated.

* Charlotte Haven only mentioned pictures on the second roll, not the first which Mother Smith had been taught to read by her son.

* Some other details don't match (read on.)

2)  There were other papyri in the 1966 group, such as J5, with rubrics and small diagrams, such as one of a woman next to a two-legged snake.  Oliver Cowdery's description of one of the "rolls" described such a picture; so did Josiah Quincy's [JQ] and Charlotte Haven's.  Oliver also describes a couple of other pictures that match generally with pictures on this papyrus.  Perhaps this was the record of Joseph while J10-11-1 was the record of Abraham.

Charlotte however mentions a couple of details she did not likely invent: the snake's tail was on the ground forming a tripod with its legs, and his head was in Eve's ear.   Oliver first says the serpent is walking, but adds, "or formed in a manner to be able to walk" as if to allow for the tail on the ground. This description differs from the picture we have now, so it's hard to feel sure we have the document they saw.

The fact that we have no original for Facsimile 2 or 3 on any papyrus means that we don't have all of Joseph's papyrus.  He didn't make them up, for they are consistent with hundreds of other examples of similar diagrams from all over the ancient Middle East.  Once we admit something is missing, we are on the good road to admitting we don't know what all is missing.

3)  A document from the 1835 time frame shows some characters from J11 in order down the left margin, with the Book of Abraham text in paragraphs next to the characters.   Could this be an early draft of Joseph Smith's translation?

The text here is not a draft, it is copied neatly in finished condition, just as it was published.  The arrangement of the paragraphs suggests that they were written first -- they don't flow around the characters, but have nice even left margins.  More likely the characters were added after. Possibly someone was trying to see if this juxtaposition made sense.  We know that some of the brethren doubted Joseph's abilities as a prophet, seer and revelator, see DC 67:4-8.

Some More Problems

The word "roll" or "rolls" was used many times to describe the document Joseph translated.  It is hard to think of J10-11-1 as a "roll", for were it to be rolled up, it would shatter.  That's why the Mormons mounted it on cardboard; it was already partly in fragments.  Charlotte Haven said that Mother Smith "opened a long roll"; this could hardly have been a short, brittle papyrus scrap mounted on cardboard!  Joseph, Oliver, and the doctors said it was in a state of "perfect preservation".

The witnesses also said the writing was "beautifully written", partly in red ink, with what looked like some modern Hebrew characters. J10-11-1 has zero modern Hebrew characters, zero red ink, and is anything but beautifully written.

And Now for the Grand Comparison

This table is a summary of the foregoing points:

/Feature\    Document->


Joseph's Source


Two small scraps,
one cut in half

One long roll


Mounted on
heavy cardboard

Unrolled and rolled 
back up at times


Fragmentary and

Perfectly preserved

Ink color

Black only

Black and red


Amateur scrawl

Beautifully written



Hieroglyphics +
Hebrew-like characters


Fac. 1 only

None (uncertain)

Picture Position

At the front, unrelated
to the text that follows

Text puts it at the front

The only correspondence on the chart is the last line. I leave it to you to decide whether these are descriptions of the same document.


My Conclusion

I promised to let you decide for yourself.  Just in case you are curious what I think...

I think it is obvious that Joseph Smith had two rolls, one of which he translated as the Book of Abraham.  He also had several smaller scraps, from which he took at least one of his illustrations.  The papyri that were found in 1966 were some of these small scraps.  Several of his papyri are missing.  This is not a theory, he had at least five different documents. [GEE, search on the word "five"] which are not all represented among what we have today.

Joseph is touted by his critics as stupid, or cleverly devious, [well, which was it?]   Familiarity with his works shows he was not either of these.  The Book of Abraham can't be gotten from J10-11-1, but the critics insist this is proof that Joseph did.

Fortunately or unfortunately, we cannot compare a translator's output against his input if we don't have his input.  We are left to examine other evidence, such as the text itself, and to exercise faith.  Excuse me, I'm going to go read the Book of Abraham again.


Books and periodicals

DC Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints

BofA Book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints

HC Joseph Smith et. al.,  History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Deseret Book Co. 1978.

TAS Times and Seasons.   LDS newspaper, c. 1840's.

MJSP Hugh Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: an Egyptian Endowment, Deseret Book Co., 1975.

DONL H. Donl Peterson, The Story of the Book of Abraham: Mummies, Manuscripts, and Mormonism, Deseret Book Co., 1995.  Review by John Gee

OCL Oliver Cowdery letter to William Frye, 1835 Dec 22.  Reprinted in part in Messenger and Advocate (an LDS newspaper c. 1835), v.2:233-6.

JQFP Josiah Quincy, Figures of the Past from the Leaves of Old Journals, Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1883.

HAVN Charlotte Haven, letter to her mother, 1842 Feb 19, in The Overland Monthly, 1890 Dec. v.16:623-24.

WWP Letter from WW Phelps in Kirtland, Ohio, to his wife Sally in Missouri, 1835 July 20; quoted in full in DONL, p. 4; the reference given is Leah Y. Phelps, "Letters of Faith from Kirtland," Improvement Era 45:529 (1945).



W. Smith's "Criticisms of Joseph Smith and the Book of Abraham"

Jeff Linsay's "Questions about the Book of Abraham"

Hugh Nibley's "Neglected Evidence on the Book of Abraham"

GEE John Gee's "Tragedy of Errors", a review of By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus by Larson

Kerry Shirt's collection of Book of Abraham Articles, Analysis & Reviews

Barry Bickmore's collection of Book of Abraham Links

Russell Anderson's collection articles and links

Last Updated on Monday, 17 May 2010 13:10  

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