The Book of Abraham
In November 1967, when discovered Egyptian papyri were given back by the New York Metropolitan Museum to the Mormon Church, it generated a great amount of excitement in the hearts of Mormons. Finally, there was something concrete and testable that an “angel didn’t take away,” which could once and for all prove to the doubting world that Joseph Smith really was a prophet of God and had a God-given gift, or ability, to translate. We read from The Pearl of Great Price the following introduction to the Book of Abraham:
Translated from the papyrus by Joseph Smith, a translation of some ancient records, that have fallen into our hands from the catacombs of Egypt—the writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus.
These papyri were written in the Egyptian language, and this would prove that if Joseph Smith’s translation of the papyri was correct, it would be possible that he could have translated the Book of Mormon from “reformed Egyptian.” But problems began to surface shortly after the First Presidency had given the papyri to LDS Professor Hugh Nibley of BYU to translate, or to find a translator capable of doing so. (It is of interest to note that it wasn’t given to the current prophet, seer, and revelator of the Church.)
Now, if these papyri were written by Abraham “by his own hand,” as Joseph Smith had said, they would be at least 4,000 years old. After these papyri were evaluated, even Professor Nibley had to agree that they were a production not any older than the first century A.D. Thus, Abraham could not have written them. That was the first blow. The second blow came after they were given to several qualified Egyptologists to translate; they were clearly shown not to be what Joseph Smith had said the Book of Abraham was. Expectations of Church members had been high, as stated by Dr. Sidney B. Sperry, one of the most noted LDS scholars:
The little volume of Scripture known as the Book of Abraham will someday be recognized as one of the most remarkable documents in existence. It is evident that writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, of which our printed Book of Abraham is a copy, must of necessity be older than original text of Genesis…. (Dr. Sidney B. Sperry, Ancient Records Testify in Papyrus and Stone, 1938, p. 83, quoted from Mormonism: Shadow or Reality, p. 294)
Now that the papyri had been located and proven by the leaders of the Church and its scholars to be the very ones Joseph Smith had translated, the question was, do they read the same as Joseph Smith’s translation said? Very quickly they were discovered to be nothing more than pagan burial records called the “Book of Breathings,” a short portion of the Book of the Dead. Egyptologist James Henry Breasted explains that “…the Book of the Dead is chiefly a book of magical charms… it was written by a very superstitious people and is quite different from the religion taught in the Bible” (Development of Religion and Thought in Ancient Egypt, New York, 1969, p. 308, as quoted from Changing World of Mormonism, Jerald and Sandra Tanner, p. 345). Many Mormon writers have admitted that this is the case:
There have been a lot of things written and suggestions made trying to justify the fact that not one mention of Abraham, not his name, not his faith, nothing at all are on the document, claimed to have been “written by his [Abraham’s] own hand, upon papyrus.” (Pearl of Great Price, The Book of Abraham)
LDS doctrine on blacks and the priesthood is (was) based on this Book of Abraham. The Utah Mormon Church has not removed this book from their scriptures nor refuted its doctrine on blacks, but it is interesting to note that in the New York Times, May 3, 1970, the RLDS Church (currently called the Community of Christ), which at that time was led by the direct descendants of Joseph Smith, made this statement: “It may be helpful to suggest that the Book of Abraham represents simply the product of Joseph Smith’s imagination….” The RLDS Church removed the book from among their scriptures. The only change that the Utah Mormon Church made was to allow blacks (in 1978) to have the priesthood.
All in all, thinking people began to see a huge shadow cast on the Book of Mormon. Mormon writer Klaus Hansen made some remarks in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Summer 1970, p. 110:
To a professional historian, for example, the recent translation of the Joseph Smith papyri may well present the potentially most damaging case against Mormonism since its foundation. Yet the “Powers That Be” at the Church Historian’s Office should take comfort in the fact that almost total lack of response to this translation is an uncanny proof of Frank Kermode’s observation that even the most devastating acts of disconfirmation will have no effect whatever on true believers. Perhaps an even more telling response is that of the “liberals,” or cultural Mormons. After the Joseph Smith papyri affair, one might have well expected a mass exodus of these people from the Church. Yet none has occurred. Why? Because cultural Mormons, of course, do not believe in the historical authenticity of Mormon scriptures in the first place. So there is nothing to disconfirm. (Emphasis added)