When one is to look back over our life, it is often true that we tell ourselves that we couldn’t have predicted we’d be where we are now, ten years ago. The same tends to be true for historical events. When Antonio Lebolo discovered several papyri buried with Egyptian mummies just outside of Thebes in Egypt around 1820, it would have taken a mind gifted with prophecy to predict those small papyri would be considered sacred scripture by the Church of Latter Day Saints some 194 years later.
Lebolo kept the papyri and mummies in his possession until his death in 1830, and by 1833, they were in the collection of Michael Chandler in New York. For the next few years Chandler displayed and sold the artifacts across the United States. Meanwhile, in Kirtland Ohio, the Latter Day Saints were growing in number, around the claims of their prophet Joseph Smith. Smith had claimed to have received and translated golden tablets from a – still undiscovered – ancient Egyptian language known as ‘reformed Egyptian’, into English, directed by the angel Moroni producing tales of an ancient pre-Columbian Israelite civilisation in North America; The Book of Mormon. The clear fraudulent nature of Smith’s claims I wrote on here – “The Mormon Delusion”.
In 1835, two years after collecting the artifacts, Chandler arrived in Kirtland with the papyri and the mummies. The LDS townsfolk – awaiting further revelations from God to His chosen prophet – excitedly pointed Chandler in the direction of Joseph Smith, since they knew he could translate ancient Egyptian following his divine revelations. Smith immediately told Chandler that he’d buy the papyri, and that he absolutely could translate the language, claiming to already recognise several phrases. Excitement gripped the LDS community. When he sat down with his scribes – Phelps and Cowdary – Smith found something astonishing:
“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.”
– One of the scrolls, according to Smith, was written by Abraham himself. It took seven years – and a lot of giving up and moving onto other ideas – before Smith finished his translation into what was now termed the ‘Book of Abraham‘. His followers – including the fourth President of the LDS Church Wilford Woodruff – were convinced in the authenticity of the work, and thus the unique status of Smith as a prophet of God. Writing in the 1840s, Woodruff noted:
“Joseph the Seer has presented us some of the Book of Abraham which was written by his own hand but hid from the knowledge of man for the last four thousand years but has now come to light through the mercy of God.”
– The Book of Abraham has been a central text in the sacred writings of the Church of Latter Day Saints ever since. Most convinced of its authenticity as a text written by Abraham, translated by Joseph Smith.
When examining Smith’s claim, it is important to first note that according to his absurd account, the monotheist Israelites hadn’t preserved the writings of Abraham himself, instead, the ancient polytheist Egyptians had preserved the writings, and stored them for posterity in a tomb. Immediately alarm bells should begin to ring.
In an age of experiment, and discovery, of enlightenment and skepticism, Smith’s claims were tested almost immediately. In the 1850s, renowned Egyptologist Théodule Devéria – responsible for studying a collection at the Louvre – examined Smith’s interpretations, including images Smith had copied from the scrolls to his book complete with interpretations. One of the images:
– According to Smith, figure 3 in this image is the priest of Elkenah about to sacrifice Abraham (figure 2). But Devéria and later Egyptologists – to this day – conclude that figure 3 is in fact Anubis, resurrecting Osiris (figure 2). Smith claimed figure 1 was an angel of God, whilst Egyptologists know that figure 1 is in fact the soul of Osiris in the form of a hawk. The image is actually from The Book of Breathings. The LDS website clings to Smith’s interpretation.
Further, the Egyptologists of the 19th Century concluded that due to the fact that in Smith’s image, the god Anubis (figure 3) has a human head rather than a Jackal’s head, the head must have been missing on the original papyrus, and Smith must just have used his imagination. Later, when the papyrus was actually discovered, it turned out that the head of Anubis was indeed missing, leading Smith not only to invent the translation, but completely redraw Egyptian gods. It wasn’t only Anubis that Smith redrew. Here is the actual papyrus that Smith used:
– You will note the missing head of Anubis, as well as the missing head of Osiris. Osiris should have a human head, but Smith drew him with a bird’s head. Figure 7 on the image is referred to as The idolatrous god of Mahmackrah, when in fact, it is the Nile God Hapi. In fact, every figure that Smith names, he gets wrong. Commenting on another image that Smith had wrongly translated, Professor of Assyriology at Oxford, Archibald Sayce wrote:
“It is difficult to deal seriously with Joseph Smith’s impudent fraud …. Smith has turned the goddess into a king and Osiris into Abraham.”
Conveniently, we don’t have the golden tablets that Smith ‘found’, given that the angel Moroni took them back the moment he’d finished translating them, but the papyri were not from a divine source, they were seen by many – not least because Smith had incorrectly copied a couple of pictures into the book. The scrolls were considered destroyed in the Great Fire of Chicago in 1871, where they were on display in a museum, after being sold by Smith’s widow Emma. That is until they were rediscovered in 1960s, studied by Egyptologists, and translated using modern techniques. Predictably – and confirming Théodule Devéria’s excellent debunking – the translated papyri bear no resemblance to the ‘Book of Abraham’ as translated by Smith, and were in fact simple and common funerary texts from ancient Egypt. The images, and the text; Smith had invented the whole thing.
And yet, despite the clear fraud Smith had committed, and its implications for the Book of Mormon, The Book of Abraham to this day is included in The Pearl of Great Price – the canonical text of Mormonism – and contains LDS doctrine fundamental to the faith, including exaltation and priesthood within the church. Mormon apologists go to great lengths to explain away the fraud. The only explanation I have for this, is that the need and the desire to believe so strongly in a faith that has been ingrained since childhood, and forms a major part of an individual’s identity and community, is stronger for many, than the desire to accept that it might – and quite likely is – not true. There is a refusal to move from the basic position that Smith was a Prophet, and so all explanations that arise seem to be a desperate attempt to save that status. Mormonism seems to me to epitomise that desire to protect a strongly held faith at the cost of critical faculties used far more efficiently in every other context. This is the Mormon delusion.
For Part I of ‘The Mormon Delusion’ click here.