Joseph Smith, Jr., As a Translator

On December 29, 1912, the New York Times headlines about Joe Smith's Book of Abraham blared, "Sacred Books Claimed to Have Been Given Divinely to the First Prophet Are Shown to be Taken from Old Egyptian Originals, Their Translation Being a Work of Imagination."

The headlines were based on the book Joseph Smith, Jr., As a Translator by F. S. Spalding (Salt Lake City, Utah: The Arrow Press, 1912). In the book, eight experts on Egyptian antiquities found Smith's explanations of the Facsimiles in the Book of Abraham false. All universally respected Egyptologists who have since examined the matter have pronounced Smith's translation of papyri and explanation of Facsimiles completely incorrect. Here are the scholars who caused the 1912 headlines and who showed Smith's translation to be an embarrassment:

"It is difficult to deal seriously with Joseph Smith's impudent fraud. His fac-simile from the book of Abraham No. 2 is an ordinary hypocephalus, but the hieroglyphics upon it have been copied so ignorantly that hardly one of them is correct. I need scarce say that Kolob, etc., are unknown to the Egyptian language. Number 3 is a representation of the Goddess Maat leading the Pharaoh before Osiris, behind whom stands the Goddess Isis. Smith has turned the Goddess into a king and Osiris into Abraham. The hieroglyphics, again, have been transformed into unintelligible lines. Hardly one of them is copied correctly."
Dr. A. H. SAYCE,
Oxford, England.
(F. S. Spalding, Joseph Smith, Jr., As a Translator, Salt Lake City, Utah: The Arrow Press, 1912, p. 23)

"I have examined the illustrations given in the Pearl of Great Price. In the first place, they are copies (very badly done) of well known Egyptian subjects of which I have dozens of examples.

Secondly, they are all many centuries later than Abraham. On Number 2, I think there is—so far as the copy shows it—they name of Shishak, a popular name in Egypt from about 950 to 750 B. C., and such seems to be about the date of the other figures.

Third, as to the real meaning of them: Number 1 is the well known scene of Anubis preparing the body of the dead man: 1. Is the hawk of Horus. 2. Is the dead person. 3. Is Anubis. 4. Is the usual funeral couch. 5, 6, 7, 8 are the regular jars for embalming the parts of the body, with the head of a hawk, jackal, ape and man, of which dozens may be seen in the museums. 10. Are the funeral offerings covered with lotus flowers.

Number 2 is one of the usual discs with magic inscriptions placed beneath the head of the dead. Three fine ones of the same nature you can see in my Abydos 1 LXXVII, LXXIX. The figures are well known ones in Egyptian mythology.

Number 3 is the very common scene of the dead person before the judgment seat of Osiris, which occurs in most copies of the funeral papyri:

1. Is Osiris in the usual form. 2. Is Isis behind him. 3. Is the stand of offerings with lotus flowers. 4. Is the Goddess Nebhat or Maat (too badly drawn to know which). 5. Is the dead person. 6. Is the God Anubis, the conductor of the souls of the dead.

The inscriptions are far too badly copied to be able to read them.

To any one with knowledge of the large class of funeral documents to which these belong, the attempts to guess a meaning for them, in the professed explanations, are too absurd to be noticed. It may be safely said that there is not one single word that is true in these explanations.

If any one wishes to verify the matter, they have only to ask any of the curators of Egyptian museums. Prof. Breasted of Chicago, Dr. Lythgoe of New York, or any one else who knows the subject. None but the ignorant could possibly be imposed on by such ludicrous blunders.

Pray make any use you like of this letters."
London University.
(Ibid., pp. 23-24)

"I have been greatly interested in the documents you have sent me regarding the connection of Joseph Smith with the Egyptian materials purchased by his people in 1835, and concerning the whole situation I should like to make the following statement:

"In 1822 Champollion published the first successful steps in the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics. It was only very gradually after this that he gained the ability to read the simpler and clearer sentences in hieroglyphic records. Little of the language, comparatively speaking, was understood when he died in 1832. He left in manuscript an elementary grammar, which was published by the government, beginning in 1836, and reaching completion in 1841. It would have been impossible for any American scholar to know enough about Egyptian inscriptions to read them before the publication of Champollion's grammar. I may add at this point that American Universities have never until recently given such studies any attention, and there is still only one professorship of the science in the United States, though it is now taught in the leading American Universities.

"It will be seen, then, that if Joseph Smith could read ancient Egyptian writing, his ability to do so had no connection with the decipherment of hieroglyphics by European scholars. Now, according to the statements of Joseph Smith himself, the three Egyptian documents which he publishes in connection with the Book of Abraham in 'The Pearl of Great Price,' were secured by some of his followers, together with some mummies, purchased at Kirtland in 1835. The point I wish to bring out is that the three fac-similes from the Book of Abraham were associated with mummies. This fact is in complete harmony with the further fact that the three fac-similes are part of the usual equipment of the dead in the later period of Egyptian civilization before the Christian era. The three fac-similes in question represent equipment which will be and has been found in unnumbered thousands of Egyptian graves. In accepting them, then, as parts of the Book of Abraham, let it be understood that they were in universal use among the pagan Egyptians, and that for some reason the doctrines of Joseph Smith's monotheistic Abraham were universally accepted and used among the polytheistic Egyptians. In accepting these fac-similes as part of the Book of Abraham it remains then for any one who so accepts them to explain why they were thus universally employed by a people who knew nothing of Abraham's God or Abraham's religion. The point, then, is that in publishing these fac-similes of Egyptian documents as part of an unique revelation to Abraham, Joseph Smith was attributing to Abraham not three unique documents of which no other copies exist, but was attributing to Abraham a series of documents which were the common property of a whole nation of people who employed them in every human burial, which they prepared. This was, of course, unknown to Smith, but it is a fact not only of my own knowledge, but also a commonplace of the knowledge of every orientalist who works in the Egyptian field.

"Taking up these fac-similes now, let us discuss them in order. Number 1 depicts a figure reclining on a couch, with a priest officiating and four jars beneath the couch. The reclining figure lifts one foot and both arms. This figure represents Osiris rising from the dead. Over his head is a bird, in which form Isis is represented. The jars below, closed with lids carved in the forms of animal's heads, were used by the Egyptians to contain the viscera taken from the body of the dead man. This scene is depicted on Egyptian funeral papyri, on coffins and on late temple walls, unnumbered thousands of times. If desired, publications of fac-similes of this resurrection scene from papyri, coffins, tomb and temple walls could be furnished in indefinite numbers.

"Fac-simile Number 2 represents a little disc, sometimes made of metal, sometimes of papyrus, sometimes of woven goods with a smooth stucco surface. It is commonly called among Egyptologists a hypocephalus. It was placed under the head of the mummy and the various representations upon it were of a magical power designed to assist the deceased in various ways, especially to prevent the loss of his head. These did not come into use until the late centuries just before the Christian era. They did not appear in any Egyptian burials until over a thousand years after the time of Abraham. They were unknown in Egypt in Abraham's day.

"Fac-simile Number 3: This scene depicts the god Osiris enthroned at the left, with a goddess, probably Isis, behind him and before him three figures. The middle one, a man, led into the presence of Osiris by the goddess Truth, who grasps his hand, accompanied by a figure represented in black, the head of which probably should be that of a wolf or a jackal, but which is here badly drawn. A lotus-crowned standard (numbered 3) bearing food, stands as usual before Osiris. This is the judgment scene, in which the dead man, led in by Truth, is to be judged by Osiris. This scene again is depicted innumerable times in the funeral papyri, coffins and tomb and temple walls of Egypt. No representation of it thus far found in Egypt, though we have thousands of them, dates earlier than 500 years after Abraham's age; and it may be stated as certain that the scene was unknown until about 500 years after Abraham's day.

"To sum up, then, these three fac-similes of Egyptian documents in the Pearl of Great Price depict the most common objects in the mortuary religion of Egypt. Joseph Smith's interpretation of them as part of a unique revelation through Abraham, therefore, very clearly demonstrates that he was totally unacquainted with the significance of these documents and absolutely ignorant of the simplest facts of Egyptian writing and civilization. Not to repeat it too often, the point I wish to make is that Joseph Smith represents as portions of a unique revelation through Abraham things which were commonplaces and to be found by many thousands in the every-day life of the Egyptians. We orientalists could publish scores of these 'fac-similes from the Book of Abraham' taken from other sources.

"For example, any visitor in a modern museum with an Egyptian collection can find for himself plenty of examples of the four jars with animal heads—the jars depicted under the couch in fac-simile number one. It should be noted further that the hieroglyphics in the two fac-similes from the Book of Abraham (Nos. 2 and 3), though they belong to a very degenerate and debased age in Egyptian civilization, and have been much corrupted in copying, contain the usual explanatory inscriptions regularly found in such funerary documents."
Haskell Oriental Museum, University of Chicago.
(Ibid., pp. 24-27)

"I return herewith, under separate cover, the Pearl of Great Price. The Book of Abraham, it is hardly necessary to say, is a pure fabrication. Cuts 1 and 3 are inaccurate copies of well known scenes on funeral papyri, and cut 2 is a copy of one of the magical discs which in the late Egyptian period were placed under the heads of mummies. There were about forty of these latter known in museums and they are all very similar in character. Joseph Smith's interpretation of these cuts is a farrago of nonsense from beginning to end. Egyptian characters can now be read almost as easily as Greek, and five minutes' study in an Egyptian gallery of any museum should be enough to convince any educated man of the clumsiness of the imposture."
Assistant Curator, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Department of Egyptian Art.
(Ibid., p. 27)

"The plates contained in the "Pearl of Great Price" are rather comical and a very poor imitation of Egyptian originals, apparently not of any one original, but of Egyptian originals in general. Apparently, the plate on page 50 represents an embalmer preparing a body for burial. At the head, the soul (Kos) is flying away in the form of a bird. Under the bed on which the body lies are the canopic jars to hold the organs and entrails removed from the body in the process of embalming. In the waters below the earth I see a crocodile waiting to seize and devour the dead if he be not properly protected by ritual embalming against such a fate.

"The latter (page 62) is also connected with burial, a representation of the life of the deceased on earth. The hieroglyphics which should describe the scenes, however, are merely illegible scratches, the imitator not having the skill or intelligence to copy such a script.

"The name 'reformed Egyptian' is, if I forget not, a term used in the early days of Egyptian study, before much was known, by certain persons to designate one form of Egyptian script. The text of this chapter, as also the interpretation of the plates, displays an amusing ignorance. Chaldeans and Egyptians are hopelessly mixed together, although as dissimilar and remote in language, religion and locality as re today American and Chinese. In addition to which the writer knows nothing of either of them."
University of Pennsylvania. In charge of expedition to Babylonia, 1888-1895.
(Ibid., p. 28)

"After examining 'The Pearl of Great Price,' by Joseph Smith, Salt Lake City, Utah, The Desert News, 1907, and in particular the three fac-similes, Nos. 1, 2 and 3, I am convinced that the following are facts:

"1. That the author of the notes on the three fac-similes had before him Egyptian inscriptions, either on papyrus or some other material, or else fac-similes of such inscriptions. Compare, for example, No. 2 with the fac-similes of similar hypocephali in W. M. F. Petrie's Abydos, Pt. 1, 1902, Plate LXXVI, LXXVII and LXXIX, in which are sections exactly corresponding to sections in this fac-simile (No. 2).

"2. That the author either knew Hebrew or had some means of arriving at, at least, an elementary knowledge of that language. Compare for example, the transliteration and translation [ayin yod qoph resh] in No. 1, note 12, although the transliteration 'Rankeeyang' is far from accurate.

"3. That the author knew neither the Egyptian language nor the meaning of the most commonplace Egyptian figures; neither did any of those, whether human or Divine, who may have helped him in his interpretation, have any such knowledge. By comparing his notes on fac-similes Nos. 1, 2 and 3 with any elementary book on Egyptian language and religion, and especially by comparing the notes on No. 2 with the explanation of the above named plate on page 49 ff. of the work of Petrie already named (the explanation is by A. E. Weigall, Chapter V), this becomes unquestionably evident.

"In general, it may be remarked that his explanations from a scientific and scholarly standpoint are absurd. Compare No. 1, note 1: No. 2, notes 4, 8, etc.: No. 3, notes 2, 4, 5. The word 'Jah-oh-eh' in note 1 of No. 2, which he calls an Egyptian word (!) is his faulty transliteration of the Hebrew [heh vav heh yod]. If Abraham wrote anything while he was in Egypt, it would most likely have been written in the Cuneiform, as that was the langua franca of his day and his own native language.

"Many proofs of the correctness of the above three conclusive points may be offered if desired. A criticism in his explanations could be made, but the explanatory notes to his fac-similes cannot be taken seriously by any scholar, as they seem to be undoubtedly the work of pure imagination."
Western Theological Seminary, Custodian Hibbard Collection, Egyptian Reproductions.
(Ibid., pp. 28-29)

"The Egyptian papyrus which Smith declared to be the 'Book of Abraham,' and 'translated' or explained in his fantastical way, and of which three specimens are published in the Pearl of Great Price, are parts of the well known 'Book of the Dead.' Although the reproductions are very bad, one can easily recognize familiar scenes from this book: 'the body of the dead lying a ba' (bier). The canopic jars containing the entrails under it; the soul in the shape of a bird flying above it, and a priest approaching it, or Osiris seated on his throne, Isis behind him, the Goddess of Righteousness with the feather on her head awaiting the deceased from the throne of Osiris."
University of Berlin
(Ibid., pp. 29-30)

"I have been interested since a long time in the Mormons and Joseph Smith's supposed translations of Egyptian texts. A careful study has convinced me that Smith probably believed seriously to have deciphered the ancient hieroglyphics, but that he utterly failed.

"What he calls the Book of Abraham is a funeral Egyptian text, probably not older than the Greek ages. His figure 1 should be commented upon as follows:

"The dead man (1) is lying on a bier (4) under which are standing the four canopic jars (5-8) and before which is standing the offering table (10). The soul is leaving the body in the moment when the priest (3) is opening the body with a knife for mummification. Fig. 3 may be part of the same papyrus—the Goddess Maat (Truth) is introducing the dead (5) and his shadow (6) before Osiris (1) and Isis (2) before whom an offering table stands (3).

"It is impossible from Smith's bad fac-similes to make out any meaning of the inscriptions, but that they cannot say what Smith thought is clear from the certain signification of the figures 1-5. 6 only may be interpreted in different ways, but never as Smith did.

"Fig. 2 is copied from a hypocephalus of the ancient Egyptians, a magical book on which Dr. Birch has often written in the proceedings of the Biblical Archaeological Society, and Dr. Leamans in the Actes des Congress des Orientalistes of Leyden. None of the names mentioned by Smith can be found in the text, and he has misinterpreted the signification of every one figure: Fig. 5 is the divine cow Hathor, 6 are the four children of Horus as the Canopic Gods, 4 is the God Sokar in the Sacred Book, etc.

"I hope this will suffice to show that Jos. Smith certainly never got a Divine revelation in the meaning of the hieroglyphic texts at all. He probably used Athenasius Kirsher the Jesuit's work, and there found a method of reading the old Egyptian signs very much like his own."
Professor of Egyptology in the University of Munich
(Ibid., p. 30)

Mark Hines 2005