In 1967, a fraction of the papyri was discovered in a museum and returned to the church. None of the characters on the recovered papyri mentioned Abraham or any of the text in the Book of Abraham, but the papyri are incomplete and the essay said it is likely that much of what was available to Joseph Smith is not among these fragments.
"The Gospel Topic page addresses all of these difficult issues head-on, with clarity and full forthrightness," said Muhlestein, whose own work appears in the essay's footnotes three times.
"It is likely futile to assess Joseph’s ability to translate papyri when we now have only a fraction of the papyri he had in his possession," the essay says. "The loss of a significant portion of the papyri means the relationship of the papyri to the published text cannot be settled conclusively by reference to the papyri."
The publication of the essay continues an effort begun late last year by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to provide more information about the faith's history and doctrine through its Gospel Topics section on LDS.org.
The essay focuses on how the Book of Abraham "supports, expands and clarifies" biblical accounts, how the church obtained the papyri, what is known about how Joseph Smith translated them and the role of faith in understanding scripture.
The essay is divided into seven sections covering 2,900 words. There are 46 footnotes. Three-fourths of those are scholarly references, while a quarter are scriptural.
"So often critics of the church have been the ones to articulate the church’s 'position' regarding the translation of the Book of Abraham, and rarely have they been accurate in their representations," Muhlestein said. "This will no longer be the case, we can now see what the church itself has to say about the source of the Book of Abraham and Joseph Smith’s abilities to translate."
Other Gospel Topics pages enhanced or added at LDS.org since early December include "Race and the Priesthood," Becoming like God," "First Vision Accounts," "Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah," "Book of Mormon and DNA Studies" and "Book of Mormon Translation."
The new or enhanced Gospel Topics pages are approved by the senior leadership of the church, the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and are intended to help church members and others learn and understand more about the faith's history and doctrine.
Scholars say the new pages represent an effort by the church to bring more transparency to its history.
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