Letters To A Mormon Elder

by James R. White

I remember encountering two Mormon missionaries outside the Mormon temple in Provo, Utah, a few years ago. My companion and I began to talk with them, and in the course of the conversation the topic of the Book of Abraham came up. They had no idea what we were talking about -- they did not know what the Book of Abraham was. Seemingly, they are not alone in their ignorance of this small book in the Pearl of Great Price. Many LDS today have no idea what the Book of Abraham is about, much less how this one book, more clearly than any other, shows the error of believing in Joseph Smith as a prophet.

Many others have taken great time and effort to fully discuss the issue of the Book of Abraham. Jerald and Sandra Tanner's discussion in Mormonism: Shadow or Reality? (pages 294 -- 369) is extensive. I will not even attempt to summarize all the material that is available on this topic. With the "discovery" of the original papyri fragments upon which Joseph Smith based his "translation" of this little five-chapter book, whole volumes have been published discussing this or that aspect of the issue. Unfortunately, the majority of those volumes had only one purpose -- to obscure the fact that Joseph Smith, though he claimed to be able to translate the Egyptian characters from the papyri, most obviously could not. Mormon apologists have done everything in their power to keep this information from the average Latter-day Saint. Some have latched on to completely unrelated issues in a hopeless attempt to save Joseph Smith from exposure on the basis of his complete mistranslation of the Egyptian language -- all to no avail.

There is no need to go into the actual papyri that were turned over to the LDS Church in the late 1960s -- anyone who has a copy of the Book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price has all the information he or she needs to discover that Joseph Smith utterly misunderstood the meaning and significance of the Egyptian papyri that had come into his possession in July of 1835. Here is the story from the Documentary History of the Church, 2:235-36:

On the 3rd of July, Michael H. Chandler came to Kirtland to exhibit some Egyptian mummies. There were four human figures, together with some two or more rolls of papyrus covered with hieroglyphic figures and devices. As Mr. Chandler had been told I could translate them, he brought me some of the characters, and I gave him the interpretation . . .

Soon after this, some of the Saints at Kirtland purchased the mummies and papyrus, a description of which will appear hereafter, and with W. W. Phelps and Oliver Cowdery as scribes, I commenced the translation of some of the characters or hieroglyphics, and much to our joy found that one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham, another the writings of Joseph of Egypt, etc . . .

It is important to note that Smith claimed to translate these items, in the same way he had claimed to translate the Book of Mormon. If, upon examination, it is discovered that Smith could not translate the Egyptian characters that he claimed resulted in the scant dozen pages of the Book of Abraham, how can we believe that he was able to translate the more than 500 pages of the Book of Mormon from "reformed Egyptian"

The modern editions of the Pearl of Great Price include this information at the beginning of the book:

A Translation of some ancient Records, that have fallen into our hands from the catacombs of Egypt. -- The writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus.

If indeed these were the actual writings of Abraham, they would constitute the greatest archaeological and historical find of all time. They would predate the earliest manuscripts of the Bible by a thousand years and more. The introduction claims that what follows is a translation of these records -- I keep emphasizing that because, in light of the discovery of the actual papyri themselves, some have attempted to escape the meaning of the word "translate" and have attempted to substitute some other idea to explain Smith's "translation."

Is it very likely that Smith would have found such an incredible treasure in the possession of a traveling showman and his mummies? Probably not, but it is certain that Smith was convinced that he had the writings of Abraham. His "translation" was safe at the time -- if there were five people in the United States who could have challenged his "translation," I would be surprised. The study of Egyptian was in its infancy at the time, so claiming to give "translations" by supernatural power was something that could not be tested. Of course, today things are different. We can read Egyptian now, and, as I've mentioned, with the original papyri in our possession, we can find out just how well Joseph Smith did in his "translations." Without getting into all the battles about the papyri, I will give you the translation of the segment thereof that is identified as being the specific portion used by Smith as the basis of the Book of Abraham. Please remember that the Book of Abraham is five chapters long. Smith "translated" those five chapters from the following:

Osiris shall be conveyed into the Great Pool of Khons -- and likewise Osiris Hor, justified, born to Tikhebyt, justified -- after his arms have been placed on his heart and the Breathing Permit (which [Isis] made and has writing on its inside and outside -- has been wrapped in royal linen and placed under his left arm near his heart; the rest of his mummy-bandages should be wrapped over it. The man for whom this book has been copied will breathe forever as the bas of the gods do. (Klaus Baer, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Autumn 1968, pp. 119 -- 20)

What Joseph Smith thought was the writing of Abraham was in fact a common artifact of Egyptian burial ritual --hundreds of examples of this kind of literature are to be found in museums around the world.

But I said I wasn't going to go into the papyri, as that is a rather complex issue. I said that anyone who had a copy of the Pearl of Great Price had enough data right there to see that Joseph Smith did not have the slightest idea about what was before him on the Egyptian papyri. This data is to be found in the "facsimiles" that are printed as part of the Book of Abraham. These pictures include an explanation below them, supposedly providing us with Smith's interpretation of what we see in the graphic. By examining these and comparing Smith's explanation, we will see that he was completely in error in his idea of what the Egyptian papyri represented. And, in fact, this is just what some individuals did around the turn of the century -- they tried to point out to the LDS people that Joseph Smith, based only on the explanations of the facsimiles in the Book of Abraham, had made many gross blunders in his identifications of the figures in the pictures. However, while the original pamphlet printed on the subject created quite a stir in Utah, it was quickly answered by a Mormon "scholar" and the whole issue sort of "went away." Only later was it discovered that the "scholar" was not a scholar at all, and had faked his doctoral degree.

Here is Facsimile #1:

Here is how Smith explains the main characters in this facsimile:

Fig. l. The Angel of the Lord.

Fig. 2. Abraham fastened upon an altar.

Fig. 3. The idolatrous priest of Elkenah attempting to offer up Abraham as a sacrifice.

If you were to take this facsimile to any expert familiar with Egyptology and Egyptian magic and folklore, and were to ask him to identify the same figures, this is what you would discover:

Figure 1 is actually the soul of Osiris (it should have a human head, but the papyri shows that this section was damaged, and both the bird's head and the human head on the black, standing figure were "drawn in" and that in error).

Figure 2 is Osiris lying upon a funeral bier. Egyptians believed that Osiris had been killed by his brother, named Set, and that his body had been discovered by Isis (whom we will meet in a moment) and was embalmed by Anubis, who is Figure 3. Smith made Osiris' soul into the angel of the Lord, turned Osiris into Abraham, and changed Anubis into "the idolatrous priest of Elkenah." The scene depicted here, as I said, is a common one in Egyptian funerary literature.

Let's skip to the third of the three facsimiles. Here is what it looks like:

How does Joseph explain this? Here are his words:

Fig. l. Abraham sitting upon Pharaoh's throne, by the politeness of the king, with a crown upon his head, representing the Priesthood, as emblematical of the grand Presidency in heaven; with the scepter of justice and judgment in his hand.

Fig. 2. King Pharaoh, whose name is given in the characters above his head.

Fig. 3. Signifies Abraham in Egypt as given also in Figure 10 of Facsimile No. l.

Fig. 4. Prince of Pharaoh, King of Egypt, as written above the hand.

Fig. 5. Shulem, one of the king's principal waiters, as represented by the characters above his hand.

Fig. 6. Olimlah, a slave belonging to the prince.

In reality, this scene (which is found again in other Egyptian funerary texts) shows the god Osiris enthroned toward the left of the picture (figure 1), before whom a man (figure 5) is being led by the goddess Maat (figure 4) and the god Anubis (figure 6). Isis stands behind the throne (figure 2). So, Smith has identified the Egyptian god Osiris as Abraham, the female goddess Maat as a man (the prince of Pharaoh), another female goddess Isis as a male (Pharaoh), and another god, Anubis, as a slave belonging to the prince! It is rather embarrassing to note that the femininity of figures 2 and 4 is rather obvious -- how could Smith have missed it? But this may have been one of the only examples of Egyptian drawing he had ever seen, which would explain his missing such an obvious fact. The "Explanation" claimed that the figures above the scene identified various of the people -- they do not. They identify the man for whom this papyrus, known as the "Book of Breathings," was made -- a man named Hor. The symbols along the bottom read, "O gods of . . ., gods of the Caverns, gods of the south, north, west and east, grant well-being to Osiris Hor, justified . . .

While it may be embarrassing to see Joseph Smith's mistakes in identifying the people who are part of these facsimiles, try to remember, Elder Hahn, that these facsimiles are referred to in the body of the text of the Book of Abraham. In Abraham 1:12-14 we read,

12 And it came to pass that the priests laid violence upon me, that they might slay me also, as they did those virgins upon this altar; and that you may have a knowledge of this altar, I will refer you to the representation at the commencement of this record.

13 1t was made after the form of a bedstead, such as was had among the Chaldeans, and it stood before the gods of Elkenah, Libnah, Mahmackrah, Korash, and also a god like unto that of Pharaoh, king of Egypt.

14 That you may have an understanding of these gods, I have given you the fashion of them in the figures at the beginning, which manner of figures is called by the Chaldeans Rahleenos, which signifies hieroglyphics.

If the facsimiles are not what Smith claimed they were, then the text of Mormon Scripture itself is shown to be in grave error, as he connects the text of the Book of Abraham quite obviously with the illustrations we are here examining. How can one believe that the teachings of the Book of Abraham are correct when that text itself refers to false and disproven "interpretations" of these facsimiles? And, by extension, if Smith was able to make errors of this kind in 1835, why not in 1829 when working on the text of the Book of Mormon or later when supposedly receiving "revelation" from God that is in today's Doctrine and Covenants? All of Mormon Scripture, then, stands or falls together. These blatant errors in the Book of Abraham reflect on all of Smith's writings.

Here is the second facsimile from the Book of Abraham:

The second facsimile in the book is, to me, the most serious, in that the explanation asserts that it contains very sacred, very secret items that "are to be had in the Holy Temple of God" or "ought not to be revealed at the present time." The explanation is very long, so I will only give relevant sections:

Fig. 3. Is made to represent God, sitting upon his throne, clothed with power and authority; with a crown of eternal light upon his head; representing also the grand Key-words of the Holy Priesthood, as revealed to Adam in the Garden of Eden, as also to Seth, Noah, Melchizedek, Abraham, and all to whom the Priesthood was revealed.

Fig. 7. Represents God sitting upon his throne, revealing through the heavens the grand Key-words of the Priesthood; as, also, the sign of the Holy Ghost unto Abraham, in the form of a dove.

Fig. 8. Contains writings that cannot be revealed unto the world; but is to be had in the Holy Temple of God.

Fig. 9. Ought not to be revealed at the present time.

Fig. 10. Also.

Figures 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, and 21 will be given in the own due time of the Lord.

The above translation is given as far as we have any right to give at the present time.

The object pictured in Facsimile 2 is actually a hypocephalus, a common item of Egyptian funeral literature. It was placed under the deceased person's head, and was said to aid them in making their journey through the netherworld by bathing their bodies in light. Many examples of this kind of hypocephalus are to be found. Rather than explaining the "principles of astronomy" as Smith alleged, this object comes directly from the pagan religions of Egypt. Mormon Egyptologist Michael Dennis Rhodes provided a translation of parts of this facsimile in BYU Studies, Spring 1977, page 265. His translation of the edge of the hypocephalus is as follows:

I am Djabty in the House of the Benben in Heliopolis, so exalted and glorious. [I am] a copulating bull without equal. [I am] that Mighty God in the House of the Benben in Heliopolis . . . that Mighty God . . .

Figure 8 is supposed to contain writings that "cannot be revealed unto the world but is to be had in the Holy Temple of God," yet Rhodes translates this section (including figures 9, 10, and 11, the entire left middle section) as follows:

O God of the Sleeping Ones from the time of the creation. O Mighty God, Lord of Heaven and Earth, the Netherworld and his Great Waters, grant that the soul of Osiris Sheshonk may live.

The bottom section, which contains figures that Smith claimed "will be given in the own due time of the Lord," actually reads,

May this tomb never be desecrated, and may this soul and its possessor never be desecrated in the Netherworld.

Egyptologists (Mormon and non-Mormon alike) tell us that the deity seen in figure 7 is in reality the god Min. Min is an ithyphallic deity, that is, a sexually aroused male deity, as the picture clearly indicates. Min is the god of the procreative forces of nature. The sexually explicit nature of this god has caused embarrassment to Mormon leaders. While the original printing of this hypocephalus appears just as the modern version (Joseph Smith oversaw the restoration of the hypocephalus, which had been damaged, and the preparation of its printing in the Times and Seasons of March 15, 1842, as you can see in the Documentary History of the Church, Volume 4, pages 519 and 543), beginning at the end of the last century an "edited" version of the Min figure appeared in LDS Scriptures. Note a comparison between the 1966 edition of the Pearl of Great Price and the 1981 edition:

The modern edition is the accurate one, and shows clearly the pagan origin of these materials. What is Min doing in Facsimile 2? Joseph Smith tells us that he is revealing the grand key-words of the priesthood, with the sign of the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove before him. In reality, he is holding up the "divine flail" in one hand, while being approached not by the Holy Ghost, but by yet another pagan god. The hypocephalus that Joseph had in his possession was damaged at the border so that only the head of the "dove" was visible. So, Joseph had to restore the picture. Did he do so correctly? No, he did not. Below I reproduce for you the same section from another hypocephalus, designated Leyden AMS 62, a hypocephalus that is almost identical in form to the one Joseph Smith utilized:

The being that is approaching Min is not the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove. Rather, it is another ithyphallic figure, specifically, a serpent, probably the Egyptian god Nehebka, presenting to Min the wedjat-eye, the symbol of good gifts.

The single LDS scholar who has written the most on the Book of Abraham, Dr. Hugh Nibley, has written of Min:

As the supreme sex symbol of gods and men, Min behaves with shocking promiscuity, which is hardly relieved by its ritual nature . . . His sacred plants are aphrodisiacal . . . and he is everywhere represented as indulging in incestuous relationships with those of his immediate family; he had the most numerous and varied entourage of all the gods, consisting mostly of his huge harem . . .

The hymns, or rather chanting, of his worshippers were accompanied with lewd dancing and carousing . . . to the exciting stimulus of a band of sistrem-shaking damsels. (Abraham in Egypt, p. 210)

It must be remembered that Joseph Smith said that this figure represented God sitting on His throne! Incredible as it may seem, intelligent, well-read LDS are fully aware of the true nature of the hypocephalus, including the presence of Min and Nehebka. How do they explain this? Mormon Egyptologist Michael Dennis Rhodes, whose translation of the hypocephalus I cited above, said with reference to the Min figure:

Joseph Smith mentions here the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove and God "revealing through the heavens the grand key-words of the priesthood." The procreative forces, receiving unusual accentuation throughout the representation, may stand for many divine generative powers, not least of which might be conjoined with the blessings of the Priesthood in one's posterity eternally. (BYU Studies, Spring 1977, p. 273)

In other words, since the God of Mormonism is sexually active, begetting children in the spirit-world, and Min is obviously sexually active as well, this, then, is the "connection."

May I suggest, Elder, that Joseph Smith was utterly ignorant of what was represented in the Egyptian papyri that lay before him? Incapable of translating the language, or understanding the significance of the figures, he made things up as he went along, claiming God's direction and inspiration as his guide. In the process he demonstrated his own inability as a "prophet, seer and revelator," for he grossly misidentified each of the items not only in this facsimile, but in the other two as well.

Joseph Smith's defenders today seek to find any connection whatsoever between LDS belief and Egyptian religion, even to the point of seeing in the sexually aroused Min a picture of God upon His throne. But to grasp at this straw is to ignore the biblical testimony to the one true God. Isaiah saw God upon His throne in Isaiah 6:1-10, but instead of an incestuous god, surrounded by lewd dancing girls, the angels surrounded His throne and cried, "Holy, holy, holy." God describes the gods of Egypt as "idols" that tremble before Him (Isaiah 19:1); these false gods will literally be captured by God in His wrath (Jeremiah 43:12). God reveals the worship of these gods to be an abomination that brings His judgment (Jeremiah 44:8), and mentions one Egyptian god by name in speaking of the punishment he will bring to pass against Egypt (Jeremiah 46:25 in any modern translation). Those who worship such gods are "defiled" in God's sight (Ezekiel 20:7-8). The Bible has nothing but utter contempt for the gods of Egypt, which would include the abominable figure of Min, identified by Joseph Smith as his God.

Elder Hahn, I can imagine it is difficult for you to believe what you are reading -- but it is just as vital that you remember that at the very beginning I explained to you that I was going to address the topic of Joseph Smith and his claims only because I desire to share the gospel with you, and I must refute Smith's claims and his teachings because they are standing in the way of your acceptance of the truth. Please do not engage in a frantic search for some kind -- any kind -- of "explanation" for Smith's obvious blunders and errors. Rather, recognize the reality of the facts and seek the truth not from Joseph Smith or the system he founded, but from the Word of God, the Bible.

I hope to hear from you soon, Elder. I await your response.

Concerned and praying,

James White