Pearl of Great Price


The Pearl of Great Price is the final book in the cannon of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.  It contains the Book of Moses (a retranslation of portions of the Old Testament by Joseph Smith), The Book of Abraham (a translation from papyri obtained by Joseph Smith and translated by him along with three illustrations or facsimiles),  Joseph Smith-Matthew (a retranslation of The Gospel of Matthew), Joseph Smith-History (a detailed telling of the history of The First Vision and the origins of the Book of Mormon, and the Articles of Faith.

The history of The First Vision is discussed elsewhere.  The Articles of Faith are quite straightforward and will not be discussed here at all.

The retranslations of The Bible (books of Moses and Matthew) are impossible to refute because they were obtained by “revelation” and must either be taken for what they are or not.  They do contain interesting and beautiful doctrine, but like the rest of the Doctrine and Covenants, represent a work that comes directly from God and as such cannot be verified by comparing it to a source document.

The Book of Abraham, on the other hand, is a little different.  The history of this book is very interesting.  The heading of the The Book of Abraham reads:

    “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.  See History of the Church, vol. 2, pp. 235, 236, 348-351.”

The papyri referred to were found in Thebes, Egypt as part of a larger collection discovered by Antonio Labolo between 1818 and 1822.  Sometime between 1822 and 1830, eleven mummies and numerous papyrus fragments were sold and shipped to New York, where they were purchased by Michael Chandler in 1833.  In July 1835, Chandler brought four mummies and a selection of papyri to Kirtland, Ohio, where the Church was headquartered.  Chandler asked Joseph Smith to look at the scrolls of papyrus because of his experience with “reformed egyptian” texts gained in translating the Book of Mormon.  Upon examining the documents, Smith, Joseph Coe, and Simeon Andrews purchased the four mummies and at least five papyrus documents for $2,400.  The Book of Abraham represents a translation from these papyrus documents.

The path of the original papyri becomes fairly interesting at this point.  After Joseph’s death in 1844, the mummies and papyri were in the possession of his mother, Lucy Mack Smith until her death and then with his widow, Emma Hale Smith.  In 1856 Emma sold “four Egyptian mummies with the records with them” to Mr. Abel Combs, who then sold two of the mummies with some papyri to the St. Louis Museum.  They were then sent to the Chicago museum where they are believed to have burned in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.  Mr. Combs’ other two mummies are unaccounted for.  In 1918, Mrs. Alice Heusser, daughter of Combs’ housekeeper, contacted the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art about some papyri in her possession.  They were finally acquired by the museum from Mrs. Heusser’s widower in 1947.

In 1966, Aziz S. Atiya of the University of Utah rediscovered 10 fragments of papyrus in the Metropolitan Museum after he recognized similarities with facsimile 1 in the Book of Abraham.  An eleventh fragment was discovered sometime before 1968 in The Church Historian’s archives.  This fragment was stored with a manuscript of the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar and had been in the archives since 1908.

These eleven fragments make up what is currently known as the Joseph Smith Papyri.  Scholars estimate that these fragments constitute roughly one third of the original collection of documents in Smith’s possession.

As one might imagine, these papyrus fragments have been studied extensively.  Most notably, in 1968, the editors of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, arranged for John A. Wilson and Klaus Baer of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago and Richard Anthony Parker, Director of the Department of Egyptology at Brown University to translate the text from the photographs.  Both scholars concluded that the fragments represent portions of three different ancient Egyptian funerary texts known as:

  1. 1.The Breathing Permit belonging to the priest Hôr, son of the priest Osorwêr and the lady Tikhebyt.”

  2. 2.The Book of the Dead belonging to the musician of Amon Re Neferirnûb.”

  3. 3.The Book of the Dead belonging to the lady Tshenmîn.”

The Book of the Dead and The Breathing Permit or Book of Breathing is the common name for a text that was written on a papyrus scroll and placed in the coffin or burial chambers with the deceased in Ancient Egypt.  The book contained a description of the afterlife and a collection of hymns, spells, and instructions to allow the deceased to pass through obstacles in the afterlife.

An image corresponding to “facsimile 1” in the Book of Abraham is also represented on one of the fragments.  Joseph Smith’s interpretation is provided in the Book of Abraham.  Baer provided a detailed interpretation of the texts of these fragments in 1968.  There is no correlation between the two interpretations.

Of note is the fact that portions of the document known as JSP 1 (pictured below) are missing.  These portions, as they appear in “facsimile 1” differ from what is expected by comparison to other similar “Books of the Dead”.  For example, the figure standing by the bed (the God Anubis) should have the head of a jackal, the bird-like figure in the upper right (the soul of Osiris) should have the head of a human.  This suggests that when these facsimiles were prepared for publication by Joseph Smith (or someone else), these lacunae, or missing parts of the image, were erroneously reconstructed, presumably because they did not know what the correct image should look like.


from the Joseph Smith Papyrus collection

Facsimile No. 1


The Book of Abraham

Numerous scholars have commented that Joseph Smith’s interpretations of the facsimiles included in the Book of Abraham are complete nonsense.  For example, in 1912, Reverend Franklin S. Spalding sent copies of the three facsimiles to eight Egyptologists and Semetists for their interpretations.  Their findings were published in Spalding's work Joseph Smith, Jr. As a Translator.  A few of their comments are noted below.

Egyptologist Dr. James H. Breasted, of the University of Chicago noted:

"... these three facsimiles of Egyptian documents in the ‘Pearl of Great Price’ depict the most common objects in the Mortuary religion of Egypt. Joseph Smith’s interpretations of them as part of a unique revelation through Abraham, therefore, very clearly demonstrates that he was totally unacquainted with the significance of these documents and absolutely ignorant of the simplest facts of Egyptian writing and civilization."

Dr. W.M. Flinders Petrie of London University wrote:

"It may be safely said that there is not one single word that is true in these explanations"

Dr. A.H. Sayce, Oxford professor of Egyptology,

“It is difficult to deal seriously with Joseph Smith’s impudent fraud”

Conclusion:  First of all, I’m no Egyptian scholar, but it seems reasonable to find such funeral documents with mummies.  However, to find christian documents buried with mummies (who were not Christian) seems a little far fetched.  Furthermore, the interpretation of Egyptian hieroglyphics was clearly not one of Joseph’s strengths.  He not only copied these images incorrectly, his interpretation was pure fantasy.  It is difficult to come up with an explanation that can redeem Joseph Smith from this error unless it is that he was so eager to lend credibility to his cause that he was willing to fabricate support for it.  That argument could potentially stand, even if his mission were true.  But it is hard to imagine that God would allow such a fraud to soil Joseph’s reputation after so much work had been done.  To me it seems more likely, that Joseph is inextricably caught in a lie.  The Facsimiles associated with the Book of Abraham are complete fabrications.  Does that mean that the Book of Abraham is not true?  Not necessarily.  But, given the fact that Joseph claimed that the Book of Abraham was translated from these scrolls, and that he used the “seer stone” in the process suggests that the whole work was based on a lie.  We can glean whatever good we can from the book, but I have a hard time believing that it is of divine origin.  In my opinion, the Book of Abraham represents the most damming evidence thus far for the fraud Joseph Smith.  The book of Abraham (and probably the other books of the Pearl of Great Price) cannot be used as proof of the existence of God.