In 1842, Joseph Smith completed another volume of scripture that he titled the Book of Abraham, originally published in the Latter Day Saint newspaper Times and Seasons. Smith began work on the book in 1835 after purchasing four Egyptian mummies and papyri from an entrepreneur of curiosities who passed through Ohio. Following the Napoleonic wars, interest in Egyptian artifacts and language increased, particularly with the acquisition of the Rosetta Stone by Great Britain. In post-Enlightened American society, wild speculations over the mysteries of ancient Egypt popularized.
After purchasing the mummies and their artifacts, Smith attempted to craft an Egyptian alphabet that he could use in translating the papyri. Like many novices who attempted to crack the mysterious hieroglyphs, Smith’s work fell far short of accomplishment. Ultimately, as with the Book of Mormon and translation of the Bible, Smith relied on spiritual means, rather than direct language translation, to produce the Book of Abraham.
Following Smith’s death, the mummies and papyri changed several hands before being sold to the Chicago Museum, which was tragically destroyed during the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. During the 1960s, ten known fragments were discovered in the archives of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and an additional fragment was discovered in the LDS Church Historian’s office. Questions remain over whether other portions may still be missing from the original scrolls that Smith acquired. Some critics of the Book of Abraham argue that the majority of papyri has been recovered, while believing scholars contend that there may still be a great deal missing. Twentieth-century Egyptologists who have examined the remaining fragments of the papyri largely agree that they are part of a standard Egyptian funerary text with no relationship to the Biblical Abraham. Regardless of its origination, believing scholars today marvel at parallels the Book of Abraham contains to ancient Mesopotamian writings that Smith likely would not have had knowledge of.
While questions remain unresolved as to whether other portions of the papyri may have told the story of Abraham, or whether the papyri were simply a catalyst for Smith, early Mormons accepted his claim that it had been authored by the Biblical patriarch, and the volume was canonized in 1880 as part of LDS scripture. The Book of Abraham tells of the early life of Abraham and his encounter with deity. It challenged the Christian tradition of ex-nihilo (“from nothing”) creation by explaining that God organized pre-existent material and speaks of a pre-existent state of mankind. As well, it teaches of a plurality of gods and provided a theological explanation later used by many Later-day Saints to justify restriction to priesthood ordination based on racial lineage.
Gospel Topics Essay: “Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham.”