(Signature Books) Chicago—In 1835 a traveling curiosity peddler of Egyptian mummies arrived in the small town of Kirtland, Ohio. He caught the attention of Joseph Smith (1805-44), the controversial founder of the Mormon religion.
Smith secured a large sum of money from his followers ($2,400, or $60,000 in today’s dollars) to purchase four Egyptian mummies with scrolls of papyri. Smith announced that he could do what no one else could do: translate the ancient hieroglyphics. Smith asserted that the papyri contained the writings of the biblical prophets Abraham and Joseph. He titled his translation of the papyri the “Book of Abraham.” Smith’s translation contained several images from the papyri and in 1851 was published as part of the Mormon scripture called “The Pearl of Great Price.”
Now, for the first time, the surviving papyri have been translated into English in their entirety. In analyzing and translating the ancient texts, Robert K. Ritner, foremost American scholar of Egyptology, has determined that they were prepared for deceased men and women in Thebes during the Greco-Roman period. They have nothing to do with Abraham, Joseph, or a planet called Kolob, as Smith had claimed.
“Except for those willfully blind,” writes Professor Ritner of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, “the case is closed.” In his new book, The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri: A Complete Edition, he also accuses two scholars of Egyptology at Mormon-owned Brigham Young University of borrowing and distorting his own writings in trying to defend Smith’s interpretations as authentically translated Egyptian. Smith’s translation narrative tells of a young Abraham who is about to become a human sacrifice at the request of his father. It also tells of a human pre-mortal existence and teaches that the Egyptian pharaohs were cursed by God (leading to the Mormon priesthood restrictions on African Americans). It also established the Mormon theology for multiple gods.
The Mormon Church restricts access to the original papyri, which it owns. Ritner gained access to high resolution scans through a third party. He concluded that the papyri are ordinary Egyptian funeral texts, with possibly a few interesting side notes. For example, one of the Smith papyri is the “Document of Breathing Made by Isis” and is the oldest known datable copy (pre-150 BCE). Otherwise, Ritner states, anyone investigating claims of ancient evidence for Smith’s translation should not “waste his time,” although he does admit “that the study of the Mormon period of Egyptomania is interesting by itself...”