The Facsimiles of the Book of Abraham

The facsimiles of the Book of Abraham and their interpretation have sparked considerable
discussion. We may divide these into discussions over the copying and interpretation
of the facsimiles.

There is some evidence to indicate that the papyri containing
the facsimiles of the Book of Abraham were already damaged when Joseph Smith
obtained them. The original of Facsimile 1 is now in bad condition with many
missing areas, and much debate has focused on guessing how much of the damage
occurred after Joseph Smith owned the papyrus. A sketch of Fac-simile 2 made
in 1842, probably by Willard Richards, shows areas of that facsimile that
were damaged. Facsimile 3 was apparently destroyed in the Chicago Fire but
seems to have been largely intact when Joseph Smith had it.

The original facsimiles were engraved to size by Reuben Hedlock in 1842. Comparison
of the remaining portions of Joseph Smith Papyrus I with the original publication
of Facsimile 1 shows that Hedlock produced a careful, faithful— though
not entirely photographically accurate—copy of the papyrus. Later versions
of the facsimiles were not as carefully copied as Hedlock’s. The most inaccurate
versions of the facsimiles were originally published in the 1907 edition of
the Pearl of Great Price and perpetuated until the 1981 edition, which returned
to Hedlock’s engraving (see chart on page 7). Unfortunately, many Egyptological
publications, contrary to their normal epigraphic standards, continue to use
the 1907 edition of the facsimiles instead of the 1842 or 1981 edition.

It has been constant practice to compare and contrast Joseph Smith’s explanations
of the facsimiles with those of modern Egyptologists. Joseph Smith’s “explanations”
(found on the adjoining pages in the Pearl of Great Price) are short statements
that serve as a key to identify the figures. The use of the facsimiles as
illustrations of the Book of Abraham is dependent on the text of the Book
of Abraham. Only the subject illustrated by Facsimile 1 corresponds with the
text of the Book of Abraham; the other facsimiles correspond to portions of
the Book of Abraham that were not published. Egyptological interpretations
of the facsimiles begin with the assumption that the facsimiles are standard
illustrations for funerary texts. These interpretations are often hampered
by the lack of good recent Egyptological studies of the class of illustrations
to which the various facsimiles belong. Comparisons between Joseph Smith’s
explanations and those of the ancient Egyptians are generally hampered by
insufficient attention to the problems involved in such comparisons: (1) We
only know what Joseph Smith called the figures in the facsimiles, but we do
not have corresponding portions of the Book of Abraham that would tell the
story portrayed in two of the facsimiles. (2) Some individuals have paid insufficient
attention to the evidence of what the Egyptians thought the facsimiles meant.
In comparing Joseph Smith’s understanding of the facsimiles with ancient Egyptian
understanding of the facsimiles, we are comparing two unknowns. While some
(but not all) studies by Latter-day Saints have been overeager to find similarities
between Joseph Smith’s explanations of various figures and those of Egyptologists,
studies by critics have generally been unwilling to grant that Joseph Smith
could have gotten anything correct, even by coincidence. Additionally, most
studies of the facsimiles (whether looking at Joseph Smith’s or ancient Egyptian
interpretations) have suffered from merely identifying the parts without exploring
how those parts interact to form a whole.

While it would be impossible to briefly summarize the debate on the facsimiles,
the principal issues relating to each of the facsimiles have been as follows:

Facsimile 1: Every figure in this
facsimile has been discussed somewhere. Because the papyrus in its present
state is not as complete as Facsimile 1, however, controversy here has focused
on whether the heads of figures 1 and 3 have been restored correctly, whether
there was a knife in the hand of figure 3, and whether figure 2 had two hands
or one. Some have argued that figure 1 should have a human head and figure
3 should have a jackal’s head. A variety of restorations have been suggested
for figure 2, usually replacing one of the hands with a bird (even though
Egyptians at that time period did not draw birds’ wings that way; see chart
on page 38) and replacing the knife with some other object, varying from the
innocuous to the obscene. The discussion about figure 3 has centered on whether
the head should be that of a jackal or a bald man. Whether the head is a jackal
or a bald man in no way affects the interpretation of the figure, however,
since in either case the figure would be a priest.13
The presence of a knife in the hand of figure 3, while unusual, is
attested by certain observers when the papyri were still intact and by one
observer before Facsimile 1 was made.14
Issues concerning the accuracy of both the artwork and the copying
are routinely clouded by shifting the responsibility of the artwork from the
engraver, Reuben Hedlock, to Joseph Smith, without adducing any evidence to
identify a particular individual with the responsibility for the restorations.

Facsimile 2: This facsimile has attracted
much attention because of its round shape and complicated Greek name, hypo-cephalus.
Nearly every figure in this facsimile has been discussed in various places,
with arguments for and against the explanations provided. Joseph Smith’s identification
of figure 6 as the four quarters of the earth finds substantiation in Egyptological
literature.15 Some have focused attention on how figure 3 (God sitting
upon his throne) is drawn as though it were out of place, but they fail to
acknowledge that the figure finds parallels in several hypocephali. Certain
sectarians have also focused on the identification of figure 7 (God sitting
upon his throne), although their normal identification of that figure finds
no support in any known hypocephali: the only known ancient Egyptian identification
of figure 7 is “the great god.”16
Although it is generally acknowledged that there is
a connection between hypocephali and Book of the Dead chapter 162, the specific
relationships remain inadequately explored.

Facsimile 3: Facsimile 3
has received the least attention. The principal complaint raised by the critics
has been regarding the female attire worn by figures 2 and 4, who are identified
as male royalty. It has been documented, however, that on certain occasions,
for certain ritual purposes, some Egyptian men dressed up as women.17


13. The argument for the identification runs as follows:

(1) Assume for the sake of argument that the head on Facsimile 1 Figure 3 is correct.
What are the implications of the figure being a bald man? Shaving was a common
feature of initiation into the priesthood from the Old Kingdom through the
Roman period. Since “Complete shaving of the head was another mark of the
male Isiac votary and priest” the bald figure would then be a priest.

(2) Assume on the other hand that the head on Facsimile 1 Figure 3 is that
of a jackal, as was first suggested by Theodule Devéria. We have representations
of priests wearing masks, one example of an actual mask, [and] literary accounts
from non-Egyptians about Egyptian priests wearing masks. . . .

Thus, however the restoration is made, the individual shown in Facsimile 1
Figure 3 is a priest, and the entire question of which head should be on the
figure is moot so far as identifying the figure is concerned. (John Gee, “Abracadabra,
Isaac, and Jacob,” Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 7/1 [1995]: 80–82)

14. In 1841, before the facsimiles
were made, William I. Appleby described Joseph Smith Papyrus I thus: “There
are likewise representations of an Altar erected, with a man bound and laid
thereon, and a Priest with a knife in his hand, standing at the foot, with
a dove over the person bound on the Altar with several Idol gods standing
around it” (Gee, “Eyewitness, Hearsay, and Physical Evidence,” 184). In 1842
Reverend Henry Caswall described the same papyrus as containing “‘the figure
of a man lying on a table’ accompanied by a ‘man standing by him with a drawn
knife'” (185).

15. See Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson,
British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt (London: British Museum, 1995),

16. Cairo CG 9446, in Georges Daressy, Textes et dessins magiques
(Cairo: Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale, 1903),
53, pl. 13.

17. More information on this will be forthcoming, but one readily available instance
is recorded in Apuleius, Metamorphoses 11.8.