The question of whether Joseph Smith was a prophet is the key question that the church hinges on. If Joseph Smith was truly a prophet, then maybe the church is true (or maybe another church that traces itself to Joseph Smith is true). But if Joseph Smith was not a prophet, there is no way the church can be true.
One of the reasons believe Joseph Smith was not a prophet is because the Book of Abraham translation is all wrong.
Sometime between 1818 and 1822, an archaeologist named Antonio Lebolo discovered 11 mummies in Thebes, Egypt. Some papyri (literally, papers) that contained ancient Egyptian writing and images were discovered along with the mummies.
By 1833, these mummies and papyri ended up in New York where they were purchased by a man named Michael Chandler who travelled around the eastern United States to display and sell the mummies.
At the time, no one could read ancient Egyptian. Although the Rosetta Stone (which eventually allowed ancient Egyptian writing to be understood) had been discovered in 1799, it took several decades before archaeologists and linguists could confidently read ancient Egyptian. In the United States in the 1830’s, no one was skilled at reading ancient Egyptian.
But wait! Joseph Smith claimed the golden plates were written in “reformed Egyptian” and that he translated this language into the Book of Mormon.
Because of this, in 1835, Michael Chandler travelled to Kirtland, Ohio in the hopes of selling the last 4 mummies and remaining 2 papyri to the church. Joseph Smith felt impressed to buy the papyri and did so.
Later, Joseph Smith inspected the papyri and declared that one of the papyri contained the writings of Abraham and the other contained the Book of Joseph (the character from the book of Genesis in the Bible). Joseph Smith said that he translated the papyrus into what is now known as the Book of Abraham contained in the Pearl of Great Price. For some reason, the papyrus containing the Book of Joseph was never translated.
The text of the Book of Abraham, and the explanation for the images contained in the Book of Abraham all come from Joseph Smith.
Over time, the papyri and mummies were lost and thought to be destroyed in a fire. Then, in the 1960’s, some of the papyri were discovered in a museum in New York City and given to the church. By the 1960’s, the knowledge gained from the Rosetta Stone had spread throughout the world and ancient Egyptian could be read. This meant the writing on the papyrus could be compared to text of the Book of Abraham to see if Joseph Smith translated the words correctly.
The result? Not a single thing was translated correctly.
The picture below1 is the part of the papyrus that was discovered in the museum in New York. As you’ll notice, the head and hand is missing from the character on the left and the middle of the body on the table is also missing.
Below is Facsimile No. 1, as originally published in the March 1, 1842 edition of the Times and Seasons,2 the official church publication at the time. This image was created from the papyrus above. The explanations were given by Joseph Smith. As you’ll notice, a human head and hand holding a knife was added to the character on the left.
In reality, the image should have looked more like this:
Notice the head of the character on the left. It is not a human head. This character is the Egyptian god Anubis, who had the head of a jackal.
The scene being depicted is not an attempted sacrifice. The papyrus says the man on the table was named Hor, not Abraham. Hor is not being sacrificed. In ancient Egypt, Anubis was a god associated with mummification and the afterlife. In this scene, Anubis is preparing Hor’s body for the afterlife.
The jars beneath the table do not represent idolatrous gods as Joseph Smith claimed. These are called canopic jars. In the mummification process, the person’s stomach, intestines, lungs, and liver were removed and placed in these jars. The jars in this picture represent the canopic jars that would have held Hor’s organs.
The big picture is this: there is not a single part of this facsimile, or any of the others, or any text on the papyrus that Joseph Smith translated correctly.
Today, the church tries to make sense of the failed translation by changing the definition of translation. On LDS.org, it says that instead of literally translating the papyrus, the papyrus gave Joseph Smith and opportunity to meditate, reflect, and receive revelation.3 This doesn’t make any sense to me. Joseph Smith said he translated it. Translate means translate, not “translate.” It wasn’t a mystery to him. There are written records demonstrating that he was translating the papyrus. Plus, the very first words at the beginning of the Book of Abraham are:
“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.”
Joseph Smith claimed to receive a lot of revelation in his life. If the Book of Abraham came from revelation instead of a translation, why didn’t he ever say so? The plain meaning of “written by his own hand” means that Abraham supposedly put the ink on the papyrus himself. This was the common understanding of the church until recent decades when the church has tried to offer other explanations as the problems with the Book of Abraham became undeniable.
Here is what I believe: he made it up.