Scholar Says Mormon Scripture Not an Egyptian Translation

The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri: A Complete EditionChicago—In 1835 a traveling curiosity peddler of Egyptian mummies arrived in the small town of Kirtland, Ohio. He caught the attention of Joseph Smith (1805-44), the controversial founder of the Mormon religion. Smith secured a large sum of money from his followers ($2,400, or $60,000 in today’s dollars) to purchase four Egyptian mummies with scrolls of papyri. Smith announced that he could do what no one else could do: translate the ancient hieroglyphics. Smith asserted that the papyri contained the writings of the biblical prophets Abraham and Joseph. He titled his translation of the papyri the “Book of Abraham.” Smith’s translation contained several images from the papyri and in 1851 was published as part of the Mormon scripture called “The Pearl of Great Price.”

Now, for the first time, the surviving papyri have been translated into English in their entirety. In analyzing and translating the ancient texts, Robert K. Ritner, foremost American scholar of Egyptology, has determined that they were prepared for deceased men and women in Thebes during the Greco-Roman period. They have nothing to do with Abraham, Joseph, or a planet called Kolob, as Smith had claimed.

“Except for those willfully blind,” writes Professor Ritner of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, “the case is closed.” In his new book, The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri: A Complete Edition, he also accuses two scholars of Egyptology at Mormon-owned Brigham Young University of borrowing and distorting his own writings in trying to defend Smith’s interpretations as authentically translated Egyptian. Smith’s translation narrative tells of a young Abraham who is about to become a human sacrifice at the request of his father. It also tells of a human pre-mortal existence and teaches that the Egyptian pharaohs were cursed by God (leading to the Mormon priesthood restrictions on African Americans). It also established the Mormon theology for multiple gods.

The Mormon Church restricts access to the original papyri, which it owns. Ritner gained access to high resolution scans through a third party. He concluded that the papyri are ordinary Egyptian funeral texts, with possibly a few interesting side notes. For example, one of the Smith papyri is the “Document of Breathing Made by Isis” and is the oldest known datable copy (pre-150 BCE). Otherwise, Ritner states, anyone investigating claims of ancient evidence for Smith’s translation should not “waste his time,” although he does admit “that the study of the Mormon period of Egyptomania is interesting by itself.”

Concerning the charges of uncredited borrowing, Ritner draws attention to the “striking resemblance” to his own work in later publications by Michael D. Rhodes, an Associate Research Professor of Egyptology with BYU’s religion faculty. “One can legitimately raise the question of plagiarism,” says Ritner. In some cases, Rhodes “tacitly adopted my reading, but failed to remove his punctuation from an earlier attempt to translate the artifacts.”

A fragment from the original Joseph Smith papyri, now “Facsimile No. 1” in the Mormon scripture, “The Pearl of Great Price.” Because of the incomplete nature of the fragment, a contemporary of Joseph Smith filled in the missing portions. Joseph Smith’s text begins, “The Book of Abraham. Translated from the papyrus, by Joseph Smith.”Ritner is equally critical of the work of Associate Research Professor of Egyptology John Gee, of BYU’s Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, and the late Hugh Nibley, a BYU religion professor (BYU does not have a department of Egyptology).

For members of the Mormon religion, Smith’s “translation” remains a product of their faith.

The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri: A Complete Edition by Robert K. Ritner with contributions by Marc Coenen, H. Michael Marquardt, and Christopher Woods is published by the Smith-Pettit Foundation of Salt Lake City, and distributed by Signature Books, also of Salt Lake City. The type was set by the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago.

About the authors and their essays: Robert K. Ritner, Professor of Egyptology at the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, has published over 100 books and articles on Egyptian religion, magic, medicine, language, and literature, as well as social and political history. Christopher Woods is an Associate Professor of Sumerology, University of Chicago (“The Practice of Egyptian Religion at ‘Ur of the Chaldees’”), Marc Coenen has an Egyptian Studies PhD., University of Leuven, Belgium (“The Ownership and Dating of Certain Joseph Smith Papyri”), and H. Michael Marquardt, is author of The Revelations of Joseph Smith: Text and Commentary (“Joseph Smith’s Egyptian Papers: A History”).