The Book of Abraham Facsimiles
The Facsimiles of the book of Abraham and their interpretations by Joseph Smith are accepted as part of the canonical text of the book of Abraham. They are scripture. The originals of the three facsimiles of the book of Abraham were part of the papyri Joseph Smith purchased from Michael Chandler in Kirtland, Ohio, in 1835. As you read this article, please have the facsimiles from the book of Abraham available for your perusal.
An important part of the Joseph Smith papyri consisted of what is now called the “Book of Sensen” (also called the “Book of the Dead” or the “Book of Breathings”). The word Sensen (Egyptian snsn), which is often translated “breathing,” is a technical religious term that refers not merely to breathing but to a state of glorified existence to which the righteous deceased could look forward in the hereafter. To refer to the Book of Sensen as a “Breathing Permit” or “Breathing Text” does not really reflect the quality of life it was intended to secure for the deceased. This life included association with the gods and an anticipation of a future resurrection. A more appropriate interpretation for the word Sensen might be “breath of eternal life.” Facsimiles 1 and 3 were, respectively, the opening and closing vignettes (illustrations) of the Sensen text found on the Joseph Smith Papyri.
The Sensen text was intended to serve two purposes. First, prior to the death of an Egyptian it was an initiation guide, used to prepare him for entrance into the realm of the gods after death. Second, it was buried with the Egyptian who had died for his use on that final journey into the hereafter. The Sensen text was thought to protect, preserve, and enliven the body of the deceased, enabling the body to continue its relationship with the ba (spirit) and ka (the intelligence, essential nature, or life-force of the deceased). If the ba and the ka could not find expression through the mummy (continue their relationship with the body) or through statuary or portraits placed in the tomb or coffin—all in the likeness of the deceased—then the ba and the ka would cease to exist. Also, if the name of the deceased was not written and spoken by a descendant or priest in a temple, the ba and ka could not survive.
Let us consider the history of Egyptian funerary rituals which resulted in the practice of placing a copy of the Book of Sensen in the coffins of deceased Egyptians. Prior to considering this history, however, let us keep two dates in mind. First, the prophet Abraham is thought to have lived at a time in Old Testament history centering on approximately 2,000 BC. The second date to keep in mind is that on which the Joseph Smith papyri were actually written and buried in the coffin in Egypt in which they were later found by the Italian explorer Antonio Lebolo in 1831. The text of the papyrus indicated that its owner was Osiris Hor (Greek “Horus”), the son of Remni-qai and Qaikhebyt. It has been dated with reasonable assurance to AD 60 or a little later. The name of the deceased owner of the papyrus (Horus) is found on the Sensen text (PJS X and PJS XI) and on Facsimile 3. It is the same name that appears in the line of hieroglyphs at the bottom of Facsimile 3 and above the left-hand of figure 5. The name Osiris Hor appears a total of six times in the Sensen text and twice in the Facsimile illustration. The context in which the name appears on the vignette provides an appropriate setting for an individual intent upon entering the presence of the gods (as the conventional interpretation of the illustration would suggest). The Sensen text reads “Osiris Hor declared to be justified.”
Egyptian funerary practices evolved throughout three thousand years of history in response to an increasing concern with the afterlife by an ever increasing number of Egyptians. In the fifth dynasty of the Old Kingdom (2467-2345 BC), lavish Pyramid Texts—inscriptions on the walls of burial chambers within pyramids—assured the happy afterlife of the deceased. These were later supplemented and replaced by coffin texts—afterworld texts written directly on coffins—during the First Intermediate period (2160-2040 BC). Later on, in the late kingdom period (747-343 BC), these coffin texts were supplemented and to some extent replaced by papyrus rolls containing texts from the Book of Sensen, buried inside the coffin with the mummy of the deceased.
The original of Facsimile 1 is part of the papyri fragments the Church acquired from the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1967. Actually only about two thirds of the Facsimile was recovered, as there is an irregular horizontal tear in the facsimile, and the upper third is missing. There are two incidental differences between our present Facsimile 1 in the book of Abraham and this original version from the Joseph Smith papyrus. For one thing, the original papyrus has hieroglyphic text on both sides of the facsimile and near the center, just above the arm of the priest. Our book of Abraham Facsimile 1 does not include this hieroglyphic text. Another change is that the book of Abraham version shows the priest standing behind both the legs of the individual on the altar and behind the lion couch. The original version on the papyrus show him standing (rather illogically) behind the legs of the victim but in front of the lion couch.
Even though Facsimile 3 was not found in those materials purchased by the Church from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it is believed it was a part of the Sensen scroll because other Sensen papyri contain vignettes similar to the scene shown in Facsimile 3.
Facsimile 2 was created from a disk-shaped amulet that was placed under the head of the deceased, and hence is known as a hypocephalus (literally meaning “under the head”). The originals of Facsimiles 2 and 3 were not part of the recovered fragments and are lost.
There have arisen four theories as to the nature and origin of the facsimiles and their interpretation as provided by the book of Abraham:
- The non-Mormon theory is that the facsimiles belong to Egyptian funerary texts and have nothing whatsoever to do with Abraham. Though it may seem ironic, we in the Church would tend to agree with this “non-Mormon” theory (see the discussion below).
- Another theory is that the facsimiles originated with Abraham and were drawn by him on the papyrus which also contained his original manuscript. This requires that the manuscripts date to the time of Abraham which is most unlikely.
- The facsimiles originated with Abraham but what we have today is a copy, along with a copy of the original book of Abraham manuscript.
- The most plausible theory is that the facsimiles are illustrations only loosely dependent on the text. They were book decorations or “illuminations” characteristic of the day the papyri were produced, using stock motifs of the art of the time and place the papyri were produced. The facsimiles thus are comparable to commonly used mediaeval illustrations in biblical manuscripts.
The community of professional Egyptologists will not recognize Joseph Smith’s interpretations of the facsimiles as competent scholarship. As a Church, we are certainly willing to acknowledge that Joseph was not an Egyptologist and that he did not render any kind of literal scholarly interpretation of the Facsimiles. We do enthusiastically testify that he was a prophet of God and that he used the facsimiles as a trigger or catalyst for receiving more revealed information about Abraham. Again, we see a phenomenon often repeated in church history. When the prophet Joseph received revelation from the Lord, the Lord seemed to often insist that there was present a “trigger” for that revelation. For example, that trigger for the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible was Joseph’s King James Version of the Bible. For the translation of the Book of Mormon, that trigger was the Urim and Thummim or Joseph’s seer stone. Less often, interestingly, it was the actual plates of the Book of Mormon. The actual receiving of the revelation in these cases was a true and unmitigated miracle. It would seem that the “triggers” for receiving the revelation somehow, symbolically, represented the Lord’s part in that process. Our understanding of the Lord’s use of these triggers or intermediate objects is incomplete.
When the Book of Abraham was published in the Times and Seasons at Nauvoo, Illinois in 1842, all three illustrations (Facsimiles 1-3) were included. It should be noted that when they were found, in their original context with the mummies and with the papyri, they had no connection with the Book of Abraham. They were included as illustrations for the Book of Abraham, however, as mentioned, because they were the catalysts for receiving further information about Abraham. Revelation received under these conditions led the Prophet to the conclusion that the vignettes were in fact related to the text of the Book of Abraham, a conclusion he never publicly questioned during his lifetime. The Book of Abraham is a true and authentic book. Though the Facsimiles may have been adapted out of context, they function as appropriate and meaningful illustrations for our Book of Abraham in our day. Joseph’s “interpretations” of the meanings of these facsimiles actually consist of the additional revelation about Abraham Joseph received using that particular trigger. We need not be beholden to the idea that Joseph’s “interpretations” had anything to do with the meanings the Egyptians might have placed on the facsimiles.
Facsimiles 1 and 3 are located in the Book of Abraham in such a way as to appropriately illustrate the text of Abraham. For example, Facsimile 1, which shows the idolatrous priest attempting to offer up Abraham as a sacrifice, illustrates the first chapter of Abraham. Facsimile 3 does not have the advantage of a text within the Book of Abraham to accompany, complement, and determine the sense in which this Egyptian scene is to be understood. It illustrates, according to Joseph’s revelation about Abraham, Abraham teaching the principles of Astronomy in the Egyptian king’s court. Facsimile 3 (in all editions before 1981) appears at the very end of the Book of Abraham, suggesting that it was intended to illustrate an additional but unpublished text of Abraham. Just such an addition to the Book of Abraham was promised by Joseph Smith. John Taylor became the editor of the Times and Seasons after the publications by the prophet Joseph of all we now have in the Book of Abraham. President Taylor encouraged the saints at that time to renew their subscriptions so that they would not miss the “further extracts.” Facsimile 3 was published in May of 1842, unaccompanied by a text other than the brief “explanation” included with the facsimile. These “further extracts” may well have been anticipated to include the text which Facsimile 3 illustrates. Growing public hostility perhaps made it inadvisable to expose mankind to more scripture with the prospect that it would, if rejected, damn more lives than it would bless. Consequently the “further extracts” never saw the light of day.
- Michael J. Preece