Mormonism 201

The Case for the Phantom Papyri

By Kevin W. Graham

Our area of concern in this review involves the papyri that were rediscovered in 1967. McKeever and Johnson properly communicate the common LDS position on the papyri, but they offer very little in debunking it. Dr. Peterson, who is offered as the LDS spokesperson stated:

Critics have long attempted to make a case against the book of Abraham. They argue that some ancient texts do not support the book. They point to the fragments of the Joseph Smith papyri that we now possess and claim that since the contents of these papyri bear little obvious relationship to the Book of Abraham, the book is a fraud; but Hugh Nibley has made an exhaustive study of these claims and has shown that the papyri we now have were probably not the ones from which Joseph Smith translated the book of Abraham.[1]

In response to this, our critics unsurprisingly offer us a “challenge” to this claim, as they present to our attention to “Christian researcher” Charles Larson, who, consequently, is responsible for authoring a most histrionic work on the Book of Abraham:

And there could be no question that the Metropolitan papyri were indeed none other than the ones which Joseph Smith had once purchased and used. The reverse sides of the paper to which they were glued contained such things as architectural drawings of a temple and maps of the Kirtland, Ohio area.[2]

The obvious problem with this “challenge,” is that Peterson is discussing whether the fragments of papyri are the ones that Joseph Smith used in translating, while Larson is discussing whether he ever owned the fragments. In other words, Larson addresses the fragments’ ownership while Peterson addresses their role. So this sort of “challenge” is really no challenge at all; it isn’t even an argument. It is a statement of fact with which Latter-day Saints agree.

McKeever and Johnson assert, “we know of no official LDS Church pronouncement that denies the authenticity of these documents.” Precisely. Why would it deny such authenticity? Do they assume “authenticity” is synonymous with “used in the translation?” If so, they must also deal with the fact that the Church has made no official pronouncement verifying such a role in the Book of Abraham translation. It remains an argument from silence. Is it reasonable that the LDS Church be held accountable for believing something, just because it hasn’t made an official pronouncement on the issue?

Next, they offer a needless citation from B.H Roberts that explains how the LDS maintain the Book of Abraham to be authentic. It is agreed that the authenticity of the papyri or the Book of Abraham has never been doubted. Therefore, we must ask ourselves why our authors decided to build this straw man argument to begin with?

The common anti-Mormon argument has always assumed a premise that could not be substantiated by way of historical evidence, and Mormonism 101 makes no secret about adopting this same fallacious premise. This premise assumes that the papyri that were rediscovered in 1967 are the exact same papyri used in translating the Book of Abraham:

1.       The Book of Abraham was translated from ancient Egyptian papyri that were owned by Joseph Smith

2.       The papyri have been rediscovered and Egyptologists today see no resemblance with them and the Book of Abraham.

3.       Therefore, Joseph Smith could not have translated Egyptian and the Book of Abraham is a hoax.

This common argument is very elementary and, on the surface, seems reasonable enough. However, our critics need to demonstrate that the papyri that are in our possession today are the same exact papyri Joseph Smith used in his translation of the Book of Abraham. This is something that none of our critics have yet to accomplish, and McKeever and Johnson are no exception. The weakness of this position is illustrated with their delusion of a “challenge,” which in reality makes no challenge at all. In order for Larson’s commentary to carry a meaningful impact, one must first be confused between what is ownership and what constitutes function. Perhaps our authors assume their readers will come from the same fallacious premise as they have.

Do We Have the Correct Papyri?

Be that as it may, this review will demonstrate various historical evidences that point to a different premise entirely—A premise that suggests the papyri used in the translation are not extant, which will draw conclusion contrary to our critics. The false premise that has been adopted by anti-Mormons has overstayed its welcome. It cannot and will not stand up to historical scrutiny, and must therefore be judged by its merits, not by wishful thinking by the critics and an ignorance of historical accounts. What follows is a series specific points that will help us determine whether or not the papyri used in the Book of Abraham translation are extant.

#1. Facsimiles 2 and 3 are nowhere to be found in the Joseph Smith Papyri, which were rediscovered in 1967. This alone proves that we do not have access to all that was available to Joseph Smith.

#2. In 1835, the original inventory given in the Painesville Telegraph clearly states the existence of at least three different scrolls. A. Gardner details this in a letter. Therefore there were at least three scrolls available to Smith and possibly more. Thus, while some of the papyri were dismembered and placed under glass slides, it appears that at least two scrolls remained intact.[3] If there were only two rolls it is important to note that the Joseph Smith Papyri were not on them. There were four human figures, together with some two or more papyri

#3. May 1841, Appleby saw “rolls of papyrus.”[4]

#4. In 1842, the fragments we now have in the Joseph Smith Papyri were mounted in "a number of glazed slides, like picture frames, containing sheets of papyrus, with Egyptian inscriptions and hieroglyphics."[5]

#5. In 1843, a nonmember named Charlotte Haven visited Lucy Mack Smith and wrote a letter to her own mother about it:

Then she [Mother Smith] turned to a long table, set her candlestick down, and opened a long roll of manuscript, saying it was "the writing of Abraham and Isaac, written in Hebrew and Sanscrit," and she read several minutes from it as if it were English. It sounded very much like passages from the Old Testament—and it might have been for anything we knew—but she said she read it through the inspiration of her son Joseph, in whom she seemed to have perfect confidence. Then in the same way she interpreted to us hieroglyphics from another roll. One was Mother Eve being tempted by the serpent, who—the serpent, I mean—was standing on the tip of his tail, which with his two legs formed a tripod, and had his head in Eve's ear.”[6]

The sketch described by Charlotte Haven does not exist in any of the rediscovered papyri. Therefore, it can be concluded that this particular papyri is not extant.

#6. In 1856 Gustav Seyffarth described Facsimile 3 as being part of a “roll.”[7] The same description was repeated in the 1863 Catalogue of the Saint Louis Museum.[8] This indicates that the part of the roll that Joseph Smith Papyri I, XI and X came from was still preserved as a roll and that Facsimile 3 of the Book of Abraham was on that roll. This testimony is significant because it proves there is something missing from what was actually used in translation. One is only left to ponder, “Where is the roll?”

#7. The document from which the Book of Abraham was translated was described as "beautifully written upon papyrus, with black, and a small part red, ink or paint, in perfect preservation." This is also supported by a non-LDS reference:

"Oh, here is the Pearl of Great Price," said Brother Horne, picking up that book. "I've seen these records with my own eyes," referring to the Book of Abraham, "and handled them with these hands. Mother Lucy…showed them to me… The records which I saw were some kind of parchment or papyrus, and it contained writing in red and black. Mother Lucy told me that one wasthe writings of Abraham and the other the writings of Joseph, who was sold in Egypt."[9]

#8. The fact that the papyri we now have has paper glued to the backside, only supports the theory that these were parts of the outer edges of a roll which were being set in glass for preservation. The ends tend to wear out faster and the rediscovered papyri show extensive wear and tear over the years. John Gee demonstrates this point when he provides photos of a similar papyrus that is deteriorated on the end, yet beautifully preserved throughout the rest of the scroll.[10] So where are the rolls that were not cut up and set in glass slides?

It has also been demonstrated that the scribbling on the backside of the Book of Abraham papyri were not in Joseph Smith's handwriting; a fact that no anti-Mormon book has dared to mention.

None of these manuscripts of the book of Abraham is in Joseph Smith's handwriting. They are mostly in the handwriting of William W. Phelps, with a few short sections written by Warren Parrish. Nowhere in the documents is Joseph Smith designated as the author. Moreover, the Egyptian characters in the left hand margin were clearly written in after the English text had been written. These cannot be the working papers of a translation process. Instead, Phelps and Parrish seemed to have copied down the text of the book of Abraham and were then attempting to correlate that translation with some of the scrolls in the Church's possession. These documents are most likely that preliminary stage of investigation and exploration the Lord prescribed in D&C 9:8 to "study it out in your mind." The Lord expects us to first do all we can to understand something (and in the process discover our own limitations) before we seek for direct revelation from him. This is what Phelps and Parrish were apparently doing, although their efforts were short-lived and unsuccessful. In fact these same men shortly after this began to turn away from the Prophet Joseph and fell into apostasy. If they had been parties to some fraudulent process of producing the book of Abraham, they would surely have denounced Joseph Smith for this, but they never did.[11]

#9. In 1906, while visiting Nauvoo, President Joseph F. Smith related to Preston Nibley his experience as a child of seeing his Uncle Joseph in the front rooms of the Mansion House working on the Egyptian manuscripts. According to President Smith, one of the rolls of papyri "when unrolled on the floor extended through two rooms of the Mansion House.[12] This tells us that at least one roll was about 16 feet long.

So as we can see, there are historical evidences that support the LDS position on the rediscovered papyri. In light of these facts, it cannot be doubted that there were indeed extra papyri that is no longer in our possession.

#10. LDS critics also are quick to point out that the Book of Abraham most certainly involved the Scroll of Hor, and since the extant fragment of Hor has nothing to do with Abraham, then the Book of Abraham is false. However, it is a false assumption to make that an Egyptian scroll would not or could not contain much more than one story. For instance, Egyptologist John Gee points out that further perusal of the evidence will reveal plausibility for such a scroll:

A fragmentary Eighteenth-Dynasty Book of the Dead in Cairo (JE95575) contains account texts on the front side. Papyrus Vandier also has a Book of the Dead on the verso, but the recto contains the story of Meryne, who was sacrificed on an altar (an intriguing similarity to the Book of Abraham). The Book of the Dead of Psenmines and Pawerem both contain temple rituals… Just because the preserved sections of the Joseph Smith Papyri are funerary in nature does not mean that they could not have had other texts, either on the verso or on missing sections of the rolls… Seyffarth’s report indicates that the scroll belonging to Hor contained more than simply a Book of Breathings.[13]

#11 Prior to 1838, Anson Call reported that "Joseph . . . said to us, `Sit down and we will read to you from the translations of the book of Abraham.' Oliver Cowdery then read until he was tired when Thomas Marsh read making altogether about two hours." These men read the translated Book of Abraham for two hours, which takes about one half hour to do so now. A conservative estimate would suggest that the book of Abraham material translated at that point was about four times the length of what we have now. Where did it all go?


The information presented in this review clearly establishes that the “theory” for the missing papyri remains plausible and probable. It is not a denunciation of the papyri’s authenticity, but rather a clear recognition of the logical implication that is confirmed by historical accounts. It cannot be proven that the fragments of papyri we have today were used in the Book of Abraham translation. The anti-Mormon dependency on this assumption should be abandoned before further embarrassment ensues.

Further reading

Nibley, Hugh W. "A New Look at the Pearl of Great Price." The Improvement Era (January 1968 to May 1970). Reprinted as a booklet, Provo: FARMS Reprint, no date. (N-NEP).

Shirts, Kerry. Kerry’s Web site has a wealth of information on the Book of Abraham.

Nibley, Hugh W. Abraham in Egypt. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1981.

Nibley, Hugh W. "Abraham's Creation Drama," FARMS Preliminary Report. Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1999. (N-ABL)

Peterson, Daniel C. "News from Antiquity," Ensign 24/1 (January 1994): 16–21.

Tvedtnes, John A. "The Location of Abraham's Birthplace and the Original Homeland of the Hebrews," Ur of the Chaldeans: Increasing Evidence on the Birthplace of Abraham and the Original Homeland of the Hebrews. Provo, Utah: Society for Early Historic Archaeology, 1985.

Tvedtnes, John A. "Abrahamic Lore in Support of the Book of Abraham," FARMS Preliminary Report. Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1999. (TVE-99a)

Gee, John. “A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri”  Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000

Gee, John. "Eyewitness, Hearsay and Physical Evidence of the Joseph Smith Papyri," The Disciple As Witness: Essays on Latter-Day Saint History and Doctrine in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson, edited by Andrew Hedges, Donald W. Parry, and Stephen D. Ricks. Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000.

Rhodes, Michael D. "A Translation and Commentary of the Joseph Smith Hypocephalus,." BYU Studies 17/3 (Spring 1977): 259–274.

Rhodes, Michael D. "The Joseph Smith Hypocephalus…Seventeen Years Later," FARMS Preliminary Report. Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1994. (RHO-94)

Lyon, Michael. "Appreciating Hypocephali as Works of Art and Faith," FARMS Preliminary Report. Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1999. (LYO-99)

[1] Daniel C. Peterson, “News from Antiquity,” Ensign (January 1994), 20, as quoted in Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson, Mormonism 101 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2000), 133.
[2] McKeever and Johnson, Mormonism 101, 20.
[3] Painesville Telegraph, March 1835 ; Jay Todd, Saga of the Book of Abraham, cited in John Gee, "Eyewitness, Hearsay and Physical Evidence of the Joseph Smith Papyri," The Disciple as Witness: Essays on Latter-day Saint History and Doctrine in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson, edited by Andrew Hedges, Donald W. Parry, and Stephen D. Ricks (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000), 178.
[4] William I. Appleby Journal, 5 May 1841, ms. 1401 1, 71–72, LDS Church Archives, cited in Gee, "Eyewitness, Hearsay and Physical Evidence of the Joseph Smith Papyri," 183.
[5] Henry Caswall, "The Mormons," The Visitor or Monthly Instructor for 1842 (1842), 406. Though Caswall freely embellished his accounts later (see Hugh Nibley, "The Greek Psalter Mystery or Mr. Caswall Meets in the Press," Tinkling Cymbols and Sounding Brass: The Art of Telling Tales about Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, edited by David J. Whittaker (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1991), 304–406.); this one is contemporary, and from his description of Joseph Smith Papyrus IIIA-B we know that he had seen the papyri and not just the Book of Abraham facsimiles. It does not matter, by the way, whether the priest is shown with an Anubis mask or not; he is still a priest; Christine Seeber, "Maske," Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 7 volumes (Wiesbaden: Harrasowitz, 1977-1989), 3:1196-1199. John Gee, “A Tragedy of Errors. A Review of Charles M. Larson, By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus: a New Look at the Joseph Smith Papyri,” FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 4 (1992), 93.
[6] Charlotte Haven to her mother, 19 February 1843, in "A girl's letters from Nauvoo," The Overland Monthly, second series, 16 (December 1890),: 623-624.
[7] Gee, “Eyewitness, Hearsay and Physical Evidence of the Joseph Smith Papyri,” 187. Catalogue of the Saint Louis Museum 1859, cited in Todd, Saga of the Book of Abraham, 296–298.
[8] Gee, “Eyewitness, Hearsay and Physical Evidence of the Joseph Smith Papyri,” 187. See also Todd, Saga of the Book of Abraham, 299–302.
[9] Robert Horne, "Reminiscences of the Church in Nauvoo," Latter-day Saints Millennial Star 60 (1893),: 585..).
[10] Gee, "Eyewitness, Hearsay and Physical Evidence of the Joseph Smith Papyri," 182–183.
[11] Michael D. Rhoades, “The Book of Abraham: Divinely Inspired Scripture. A review of Charles M. Larson, By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus: a New Look at the Joseph Smith Papyri,” FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 4 (1992), 121.
[12] Hugh Nibley, "Phase I," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 3/2 (Summer 1968), 101.
[13] Gee, “Eyewitness, Hearsay and Physical Evidence of the Joseph Smith Papyri,” 192.