One of the interesting facets of Mormonism is the fact that Joseph Smith can be directly tested as a translator. Joseph Smith purchased two Egyptian papyrus scrolls from a traveling antiquities dealer named Michael Chandler. When he began translating some of the scrolls, he told his followers that he had discovered a scroll with a lost book of Abraham. Then, he said that the other scroll was a lost book of Joseph written by Joseph when he was in Pharoah's court in Egypt. Joseph Smith published his book of Abraham in Nauvoo, along with three facsimilies that he copied from the Egyptian papyri. However, he was murdered before he published more of the Book of Abraham, and the book of Joseph. The papyri were eventually lost, and forgotten.
However, in the 1960's they were rediscovered at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. They were bound to a kind of backing material, and this backing had maps of 1830's Kirtland, Ohio written on it. One of the sheets looked almost identical to Facsimile one from the set of facsimilies published by Joseph Smith. Joseph Smith had written some notes on the Papyri, and he had copied some of the characters in the exact order on which they were found in the papyri. That pretty much sealed the deal that these were the same papyri that Joseph Smith used in translating the Book of Abraham.
However, the disappointment came when Egyptologists went to translate the text. They were nothing more than scrolls from the Book of Breathings, a spell book which enabled an Egyptian man to make it into the afterlife after death.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints makes all of their scriptures available online including The Book of Abraham. I am not yet good enough in Heiroglyphics to translate the Book of Breathings. It is poetry, and poetry is the most difficult writing in any language to translate. However, I have been translating several Egyptian narratives, such as The Shipwrecked Sailor, and The Eloquent Phesant. Thus, I can say with certainty that the style of the Book of Abraham is not something that corresponds to the way Egyptian narratives are written. It sounds much more like a translation from Hebrew, which would make sense, since Joseph Smith was studying Hebrew at the time he "translated" the Book of Abraham. Dr Robert Ritner, a professor of Egyptology at the University of Chicago who was commissioned to do an entire translation of Joseph Smith's scroll, makes the same observation when he says that "The narrative style of the Book of Abraham does not correspond to Egyptian verbiage" [From the Institute for Religious Research's video documentary The Lost Book of Abraham]. Also, my professor, who is both an Egyptologist and a Hebrew Scholar, has told me that scrolls of the Book of Breathings that were put in the coffins of deceased Egyptians was a practice that did not exist until around the time of Christ, thousands of years after Abraham.
It is an interesting, and very fruitful discussion to have with Mormon missionaries when they come to your door. Also, an excellent video documentary put out by the Institute for Religious Research called The Lost Book of Abraham is currently available online. Though it is around an hour long, it is very educational, and well worth the time to sit and watch it:
Friday, November 02, 2007
Egyptian Heiroglyphics, Joseph Smith, Book of Abraham, Oh My!