SALT LAKE CITY — A new essay published Tuesday by the LDS Church on its website says scholarly or critical efforts to determine Joseph Smith's ability to translate papyri are "likely futile."
The essay, titled "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham," is about the origins of a single book in the canon of Mormon scripture.
"The veracity and value of the book of Abraham cannot be settled by scholarly debate concerning the book’s translation and historicity," the essay concludes. "The book’s status as scripture lies in the eternal truths it teaches and the powerful spirit it conveys. The book of Abraham imparts profound truths about the nature of God, his relationship to us as his children and the purpose of this mortal life. The truth of the book of Abraham is ultimately found through careful study of its teachings, sincere prayer and the confirmation of the Spirit."
Critics and some scholars have questioned the origins of the book because the only fragments of the papyri that still exist include nothing related to Abraham. The essay addresses the criticism in some detail and includes links to additional responses.
"This Gospel Topic page is important because many people have had questions about the origin of the book of Abraham but have had a difficult time knowing where they can find good answers," said Kerry Muhlestein, director of BYU's Egypt Excavation Project and associate chairman of the Department of Ancient Scripture, in an email.
"The Book of Abraham Gospel Topic page clearly outlines the things we know, and, more importantly, the things we don’t know about the Book of Abraham," Muhlestein added. "It also fits it into the important context of Joseph Smith as a translator and the doctrinal contributions of this valuable book of scripture."
The LDS Church published the five chapters of the Book of Abraham in 1842. It entered the Latter-day Saint canon in 1880 as part of the Pearl of Great Price.
A group of Latter-day Saints obtained four mummies and several papyrus scrolls excavated from a tomb near Thebes in 1835, when an entrepreneur brought them to LDS Church headquarters in Kirtland, Ohio.
The Mormon faith's founder, Joseph Smith, wrote in his history that after he began to translate some of the characters on the papyri, “much to our joy (we) found that one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham.”
That book was the final set of scriptures translated by Joseph Smith. Most famously, he previously had translated the Book of Mormon. He also produced a translation of the Bible. The Pearl of Great Price is chiefly comprised of revelations he received between the founding of the church in 1830 and his death in 1844.
He didn't claim to be an expert in languages. He and the church considered the translations to be inspired, and he used multiple methods, including revelation.
For example, the Book of Moses, also included in the Pearl of Great Price, came via revelation as he studied the Bible. The essay says that the Book of Abraham also could have come that same way as Joseph Smith studied the papyri.
The papyri moved with the church from Kirtland to Nauvoo, Illinois, but after Joseph Smith's death they remained behind with the Smith family when the Mormons moved west to Utah beginning in 1847. The essay says the family sold the papyri and mummies in 1856. Most of the artifacts vanished in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
Efforts to discredit Joseph Smith's translation begin with a facsimile, a type of drawing, included in the book. Some Egyptologists, according to the essay, said his "explanations of the various elements of these facsimiles did not match their own interpretations of these drawings."
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.