Book of Abraham Facsimile 2

Better quality image here.

This is my treatment of a facsimile taken from some Egyptian burial documents dated roughly 200 BC. These scrolls have a pretty long history. I’ll try to offer a brief overview of it.

This image (called a Hypocephalus) can be considered a symbolic cosmological map, usually given to mumified priests and kings to help them navigate the afterlife. This particular Hypocephalus was drawn on a scroll which was something like 40 feet long. The scroll contained several books including the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Book of Breathings, and some translated writings from ancient Hebrew Patriarchs such as Abraham and Joseph of Egypt.

Well sometime in the 1820’s, an archeologist (that term is used loosely; let’s call him what he is – a grave robber) uncovered two sarcophagi and eventually sold them to a man who took them on tour in the United States. In 1835, this man made his way to Kirtland, Ohio, where lived a young man rumored to have the ability to translate ancient documents. Kirtland, Ohio was the headquarters of a fledgling organization called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. That young man was Joseph Smith, who had translated the Book of Mormon from an ancient American-Indian record about four or five years earlier.

Initially Joseph Smith was only mildly interested in the mummies, until he discovered that the burial documents contained, among other things, the books of Abraham and Joseph [of Egypt], sometimes quoted in the Bible and Book of Mormon but generally thought to be lost. Though neither Joseph Smith nor The Church had much in the way of material means, they somehow scraped together the money to purchase the sarcophagi, and Joseph Smith commenced the translation of the scrolls.

Joseph did complete the translation of the Book of Abraham, but the manuscripts have been lost. Luckily, about a quarter of his translation had already been printed, and it can now be found in the Pearl of Great Price.

As for the scrolls and mummies, after Joseph Smith was murdered in Illinois in 1844, they were given to his mother who set up a display people could come see for 25 cents. Joseph’s widow eventually remarried to a low-life who sold off a lot of Joseph’s property to tourists (sometimes while bedding their wives on the side). To make a long story short, one of the sarcophagi and its scroll wound up in a museum which burned to the ground, and the other sarcophagus just disappeared.

The piece of papyrus that this Hypocephalus was drawn on has survived. It found its way to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, who donated it to The Church a few years ago. Unfortunately it’s pretty badly damaged.

I made this image based on several sources, the primary source being Joseph Smith’s explanation of the various figures. The Facsimile that appears in the Pearl of Great Price was made from a wood print and doesn’t contain very much detail. The detail in this image was mostly based on my own interpretation, but I tried to make it as consistent with the explanations given by Joseph Smith as well as contemporary Egyptologists as possible.

It should be noted that the original Hypocephalus was almost certainly not created by Abraham, but was rather a retroactive attempt on the part of these priests to cover all of their cosmological and theological bases. It is evident that a part of the Book of Abraham that has been lost contains information revealed to Abraham by God concerning the cosmology of the Heavenly World (probably similar to what is found in Doctrine and Covenants section 76). This image was probably an attempt by the Egyptian priests to marry Abraham’s revelation with their own pagan conceptualization of the afterlife (hence they use images of Thoth to conceptualize Kolob or the Celestial, Amun for the Terrestrial, Ra for the Judeo-Christian Godhead, Horus for Heaven, etc).

Interesting side-note: Joseph Smith translated some of the hiroglyphic and hieratic used in this image, but some of it he refused, promising that the interpretation would be given at a later date. Most Latter Day Saints don’t realize that in at least one case, that prophecy has come true. Contemporary Egyptologists’ translations of figures 8-11 in the Book of Abraham bare an eerie resemblance to a phrase used in The Temple. Joseph Smith either translated the Book of Abraham by the gift and power of God, or he made it all up. Either way, he didn’t know Egyptian. So if he made it all up, how did he know to use that phrase when restoring the Temple Endowment? Hmm…

  1. #1 by Nathan on September 18, 2013 - 9:08 pm

    Awesome, I’ve been waiting for years for someone with more artistic ability than I to tint these facsimiles with color. I’m amazed that no one has done it yet.

    Your second-to-last paragraph was intriguing. I knew that the current canonized book of Abraham is only about 25% of what Joseph translated (the rest being lost). I had not considered, though, the possibility that we might infer what the remaining 75% talked about by looking at the facsimile interpretations. Very interesting! I’d also not considered before that the hypocephalus might have been made by a later reader trying to encapsulate Abraham’s writings in his own art form.

    Do you have a source for your last paragraph? What did the contemporary translation say, of figures 8-11?

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