I remember sitting in sacrament meetings as a kid flipping to “The Pearl of Great Price” in my scriptures to look at the interesting Egyptian drawings known as the Book of Abraham facsimiles. To me, these drawings were extremely fascinating. The pictures were said to be copied from ancient Egyptian scrolls that Abraham himself had made. The scrolls contained hieroglyphics that the Prophet Joseph Smith was able to translate, before ancient Egyptian writing had been deciphered using the Rosetta Stone. Since Joseph Smith had the gift and power to translate the Book of Mormon, which was written in “reformed Egyptian”, it only made sense that he would be able to translate the Egyptian found in the Book of Abraham scrolls.
What I didn’t know until early 2015 is that in the original drawings, some parts were missing. When the pictures were copied from the original scrolls to what the LDS church published, these missing parts were filled in. How did Joseph Smith know what to fill in to the missing parts? He wasn’t an Egyptologist, and like I mentioned, no one could yet read Egyptian, so Joseph Smith relied on revelation. Let’s take a look at the original scroll before the parts were filled in:
Notice the head of the figure on the left is missing, along with the upper torso and arms of the person on the table, and a lot of area between the two figures. Joseph Smith had most likely never seen this kind of picture before. In his mind, maybe he thought he had a one-of-a-kind scroll that no one else in the world had ever seen. So what had been lost from the original picture? In the LDS scriptures we find the following:
In Joseph Smith’s version, the figure on the left is a human holding a knife. The person on the table has both hands outstretched as he tries to defend himself. To professional modern Egyptologists, the filled in details are incorrect. Here’s one rendering of how it might have looked (Charles Larson, “By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus”, p. 65):
The figure on the left is the jackal-headed god Anubis, and the person on the table is Osiris. What Joseph Smith mistook for a second hand was actually the wing of Isis, who flies over the dead Osiris to become impregnated to later give birth to Horus. How did Egyptologists come up with the missing details? Because this is a common scene found in other scrolls. Joseph Smith wasn’t familiar with this scene, so he imaginatively came up with a scene of an attempted human sacrifice of Abraham by an Egyptian priest.
Let’s say 10,000 years from now someone comes across a damaged picture that looks like this:
To someone familiar with our culture, it’s not hard to figure out what could have been missing from the picture:
But what if that future person who found the picture didn’t know anything about the culture and stories around Santa Claus? He could imagine just about anything, and if none of his contemporaries knew about Santa Claus, they might just believe his creative interpretation:
That of course looks ridiculous to us, because when we look at the version with the missing parts, we have a pretty good idea what should have been there. At the very least, we know the creative version with the alien and the weapons is most likely not what the original artist had in mind. Joseph Smith’s version that depicts an attempted human sacrifice looks just as made up and out of place to an Egyptologist as does the Santa Claus replaced by an alien. Maybe the human sacrifice and the alien make for interesting interpretations, but they also show a lack of understanding of the original source.
Solving the Mystery of the Joseph Smith Papyri
Examining the Book of Abraham, Chapter 6
A Response to “Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham” by Dr. Robert Ritner
BYU Professor Defends the Book of Abraham (video)