The Joseph Smith Papyri (JSP) are Egyptian funerary papyrus fragments from ancient Thebes dated between 300 to 100 BC which, along with four mummies, were once owned by Joseph Smith, the founder of the Latter Day Saint movement. Smith said that the papyrus contained the records of the ancient patriarchs Abraham and Joseph. In 1842, Smith published what he said was the first part of the translation of the Book of Abraham. The Book of Joseph is not known to have been translated by Smith.
After Smith's death, they passed through several hands and were presumed to have reached a museum in Chicago and been destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire. Not all fragments were destroyed however, and some fragments were eventually acquired in 1947 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met). The museum knew the importance of the papyri to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), and in 1966, reached out to the church to notify them of their collection. The LDS Church acquired the fragments in 1967. The re-discovery of the papyri sparked renewed interest and scholarship. Due to the importance of the papyri to the Latter Day Saint movement, they have been heavily studied and debated.
There were four mummies, two rolls and various other fragments of papyri purchased by Joseph Smith and his associates. Eyewitness accounts conflict on the gender of the mummies, indicating it was difficult to tell. Oliver Cowdery wrote,
...in connection with two of the bodies, were something rolled up with the same kind of linnen, saturated with the same bitumen, which, when examined, proved to be two rolls of papyrus, previously mentioned. I may add that two or three other small pieces of papyrus, with astronomical calculations, epitaphs, etc were found with others of the Mummies.
According to Cowdery, these two scrolls contained "...the writings of Abraham and Joseph.
William W. Phelps, Joseph Smith's scribe in 1835, wrote in a letter to his wife:
The last of June four Egyptian mummies were brought here; there were two papyrus rolls, besides some other ancient Egyptian writings with them. As no one could translate these writings, they were presented to President Smith. He soon knew what they were and said they, the 'rolls of papyrus,' contained the sacred record kept of Joseph in Pharaoh's Court in Egypt, and the teachings of Father Abraham.
Because the collection was later sold, divided and parts were lost in the great Chicago Fire, it is unknown what the exact contents were. However, based on what is still in existence, we know that there were at least 5 separate funerary documents as shown in the following table:
|Egyptian Document||Text Description||Joseph Smith Description||Joseph Smith Papyri Number||Date Created|
|"Hor Book of Breathing"||Funerary scroll made for a Theban Priest name Horus (also Horos, Hor). It is among the earliest known copies of the Book of Breathing. Sometimes referred to as a Breathing Permit or Sensen Text||"Book of Abraham"||I, torn fragments pasted into IV, X, XI and Facsimile #3||between 238-153 BC|
|"Ta-sherit-Min Book of the Dead"||Funerary scroll made for Ta-sherit-Min (also Tshemmin, Semminis)||"Book of Joseph"||II, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII||circa 300-100 BC|
|"Nefer-ir-nebu Book of the Dead" Judgement Scene||Funerary papyrus scroll fragment made for Nefer-ir-nebu (also Neferirtnub, Noufianoub) showing a vignette with the deceased standing before Osiris, waiting to have her heart weighed on a balance against a feather, to determine if she is worthy of further existence, or having her soul devoured by Ammit||No known description given by Joseph Smith.||III a,b||circa 300-100 BC|
|"Amenhotep Book of the Dead"||Fragment from a funerary scroll made for Amenhotep (also Amen-ophis)||Parts were translated as a short history of a Princess Katumin, daughter of Pharoah Onitas||The papyrus is no longer extant. Characters were copied into a notebook (see Kirtland Egyptian Papers).||Unknown|
|Sheshonq Hypocephalus||A funerary text placed under the head of the deceased named Sheshonq (also Shashaq, Sesonchis)||Facsimile #2 from the "Book of Abraham"||The papyrus is no longer extant.||Unknown|
A scroll from one of the mummies has been identified as belonging to an Egyptian priest named Horos, who came from an important family of Theban Priests of Amon-Re in the cult of "Min who massacres his enemies". His family tree can be reliably reconstructed from independent sources to eight generations.
Antonio Lebolo, from the Piedmont region of modern Italy, had been a loyal follower of Napoleon, serving in his military and law enforcement. In the years following Napoleon's fall from power in 1815, Lebolo left his family and went to Egypt in order to escape the problems of Europe. He had a prominent friend, Bernardino Drovetti, who was also in Egypt for the same reason that gave him a job as his agent in Thebes. Lebolo stayed in Egypt from 1817-1822. Part of Lebolo's employment responsibilities were to undertake excavations of Egyptian antiquities to then later sell. He led teams of sometimes hundreds of locals, digging throughout the Theban Necropolis, in the valley of the Kings, Queens and Nobles. Items that he excavated found their way into many modern collections, including major contributions to the Turin Museum and the Louvre.
Sometime while he was there he excavated 11 mummies and accompanying papyri from which came the Joseph Smith Papyri collection. It appears that Drovetti allowed Lebolo to personally excavate in the Valley of the Nobles, as this collection was personally maintained by Lebolo, and not passed on to Drovetti. It is not known exactly which tomb they came from, however Theban tomb 32, 33, and 157 have been named as possible candidates. Theban tomb 33 is frequently visited by LDS tour groups, and often given as the place where they were excavated based on a description by Oliver Cowdery, however this connection is highly speculative and disputed.
Theban Tomb 32 is presented as a possibility based on Lebolo actually carving his name in the tunnel-passage, and the existence of other finds of his that probably came from this Tomb.
Before his death on the night of February 18-19, 1830, Lebolo sent the 11 mummies and papyri to Albano Oblasser of Trieste to sell them. The mummies were shipped to New York sometime between 1830 and 1833, where they ended up in the hands of Michael Chandler no later than March 1833. Chandler claimed multiple times to be the nephew of Lebolo, however this is almost certainly untrue. All evidence suggest that Chandler was acting as an agent for an investment group in Philadelphia that had purchased the mummies.
Between April 1833 and June 1835, Michael Chandler toured the eastern United States, displaying and selling seven of the mummies as he went along. In April 1833, he displayed them at first the Masonic Hall and then the Arcade in Philadelphia. His display attracted large crowds wherever he went. The first complete mummy ever displayed to the public in the United States arrived just ten years earlier in 1823, and had set off a mania in the United States for mummies and Egypt. Chandler's exhibit of eleven mummies was the largest ever up to that point in the United States. While in Philadelphia a doctor, W. E. Horner, gathered six other doctors and gave Chandler an unsolicited endorsement of his collection:
"Having examined with considerable attention and deep interest, a number of Mummies from the catacombs, near Thebes, in Egypt, and now exhibited in the Arcade, we beg leave to recommend them to the observation of the curious inquirer on subjects of a period so long elapsed; probably not less than three thousand years ago. The features of some of these Mummies are in perfect expression.-The papyrus, covered with black or red ink, or paint, in excellent preservation, are very interesting. The undersigned, unsolicited by any person connected by interest with this exhibition, have voluntarily set their names hereunto, for the simple purpose of calling the attention of the public to an interesting collection, not sufficiently known in this city."
Chandler had this "Certificate of the Learned" made into a placard, that was circulated wherever he went, including two years later when he arrived in Kirtland. After Philadelphia, the unsold six mummies along with the papyri moved on to Baltimore during July and August 1833. They stayed at the Baltimore Museum, and proved to be very popular. Chandler expanded his stay there from a planned two weeks to five weeks. The following advertisement appeared in several newspapers, placed by the manager of the museum:
"The citizens are respectfully informed that the Manager has received from the vicinity of Thebes, that celebrated city of Ancient Egypt, six strangers, illustrious from their antiquity, count, probably an existence of at least one thousand years anterior to the advent of our blessed Saviour, and contemporaries; if so, of the first Sovereigns of Israel, viz: Saul and David. They are by no means insignificant aspirants to public patronage."
The next documented location of the exhibit was Lancaster, Pennsylvania in late August and then Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in September 1833. They were in Pittsburgh for four weeks during October and November 1833, and at the Western Museum in Cincinnati in December. In January 1834 they stayed in Louisville for a few days. In April and early May, they were show at the corner of Chartres and St. Louis Streets in New Orleans. From May 1834 until February 1835, there is no known record of their whereabouts. In February 1835, Chandler displayed the mummies in Hudson, Ohio, just 30 miles south of Kirtland, Ohio, and the next month it was displayed in Cleveland.
While in Cleveland, a reporter from the Cleveland Whig published in March 1835 a description of the collection:
"The relic forms are of three males and one female-of mature age, and two of them at least, evidently far advanced in life at the period of their deaths. ...There was found deposited in the arms of the old man referred to above, a book of ancient form and construction, which, to us, was by far the most interesting part of the exhibition. Its leaves were of bark, in length some 10 or 12 inches and 3 or 4 in width. The ends are somewhat decayed, but at the centre the leaves are in a state of perfect preservation. ...There is another book, more decayed, and much less neatly written."
A letter to the editor of the Painesville Telegraph for 27 March 1835 described the collection in depth:
"...No. 1-4 feet 11 inches, female-supposed age 60; ... There was found with this person a roll or book having a little resemblance to birch bark; ... ink black and red, many female figures.
No. 2-Height 5 ft 1 1-2 inch; female, suppose age 40. found with roll as no. 1, filled with hieroglyphics, rudely executed.
No. 3-Heighth[sic] 4 ft 4 1-2-male, very old, say 80; ... had a roll of writing as no. 1 & 2; superior head, it will compare in the regions of the sentiments with any in our land; passions mild.
No. 4-Height 4 ft 9, female. I am inclined to put her age at about 20 or 25; others call her an old woman; ..."
Only four of the seven mummies Chandler sold before he met Joseph Smith have a current known location. Two mummies were sold by Chandler in Philadelphia to Dr. Samuel Morton (one of the seven doctors who provided an unsolicited endorsement), who bought it for Philadelphia's Academy of Natural Sciences. These were dissected by Dr. Morton in front of other Academy Members. Dr. Morton was interested in Phrenology, a pseudoscience popular at the time that sought to predict mental traits from the physical features of the cranium. He would remove the skulls from the body, and fill the skull with buckshot and then weigh the skull to determine the cavity size. These two skulls reside in the University of Pennsylvania cranial collection.
In January 1834, while the mummies were in Louisville, Junius Brutus Booth, famous actor and father of John Wilkes Booth purchased two of the mummies, one of which he said had two rows of teeth. Booth had intended to send them to President Andrew Jackson's Tennessee home, but after being told how rare the items were, gave them to John Varden, owner of the Washington Museum of Curiosities. Varden sold his collection to National Museum of Natural History in 1841, where the mummies are most likely located.
Somewhere in Chandler's travels between his exhibitions in Philadelphia and Baltimore, his collection was reduced by three mummies. Coincidentally, in the spring of 1834, a museum opened in Detroit with three mummies, but was destroyed by fire in 1842. Though not conclusive, this is strong circumstantial evidence that they could be the same mummies from Chandler's collection.
Looking to make a sale, Chandler brought four mummies, two scrolls and additional papyrus fragments to Kirtland, Ohio in late June, or early July 1835, then headquarters of the church. Upon entering a city to display his mummies, Chandler would post a placard or handbill around the town that speculated on the identity of the mummies: "...These strangers illustrious from their antiquity, may have lived in the days of Jacob, Moses, or David..." He stayed at the Riggs Hotel, and called on Joseph Smith the evening of his arrival. Busy with a commitment that evening, Smith agreed to meet with Chandler the following morning. Joseph Smith was allowed to take the papyrus home, and the next morning, returned them with a short translation of some characters copied down by Oliver Cowdery (see Notebooks of Copied Egyptian Characters). On July 6, 1835, Chandler produced a certificate authenticating Joseph Smith's translation:
"This is to make known to all who may be desirous, concerning the knowledge of Mr. Joseph Smith, jr, in deciphering the ancient Egyptian hierogliphic characters, in my possession, which I have, in many eminent cities, shown to the most learned: And, from the information that I could ever learn, or meet with, I find that of Mr. Joseph Smith, jr. to correspond in the most minute matters."
Given the state of Egyptian scholarship at that time (Champolleon's breakthrough Egyptian Grammar would not be published in Europe till 1836, and dictionary until 1841), it is unlikely that Chandler could so authoritatively make such a claim. According to BYU professor H. Donl Peterson, "At best, [American academicians] could only speculate on the meaning of some of the symbols when they could reach consensus on them."
Shortly after receiving this certification, Joseph Smith, Joseph Coe and Simeon Andrews purchased the four mummies and at least five papyrus documents for $2400, which is about $70,000 in 2019 dollars. Joseph Smith only wanted to purchase the papyri, but Chandler would not sell the papyri without the mummies This was a significant expense for the church, which at the same time was also constructing an expensive temple, and caring for many financially destitute immigrants.Joseph Coe wrote in an 1844 letter to Joseph Smith about how the funds were raised in this financially difficult time:
"I was some-what involved, and unable to sustain a heavier burthen any great length of time. but having all confidence in the utility of the collection, and being assured by yourself that the burthen would be but temporary; that the profits arising from the work when translated would be more than adequate to the defraying all the expence which might accrue by the purchase. I therefore managed the business in relation to the purchase with the same confidence that I had previously done business which I thought would result in the good of the church. Previous to closing the contrat with [Michael] Chandler I made arangements with S. Andrews for to take one third part and yourself & Co. one third leaving one third to be borne by myself. Andrews soon paid his $800 I took $800 out of Geauga Bank which paid a large portion of my share;"
The latter half of 1835 Joseph Smith and his scribes Oliver Cowdery, W. W. Phelps, Frederick G. Williams, and Warren Parrish spent studying the scrolls and translating the first part of the Book of Abraham. It appears that from late July to at least October Frederick G. Williams was in possession of the mummies and according to one antagonistic newspaper, had begun to tour with them. The Cleveland Whig reported, "Williams has commenced traveling about the country, and will, no doubt, gull multitudes into a belief of the truth." A Cincinnati reported that the tour was unsuccessful, "The mummies were soon sent out for exhibition by one of their apostles, but being unsuccessful, he brought them back to Kirtland and threw them aside. There is reason to believe, that many who come here with high expectations, have met with sore disappointments."
In January 1836, work on the translation of the papyri stopped, as Joseph Smith focused on other projects and events, such as the building of the Kirtland Temple, learning Hebrew, and administering a growing church. On February 17, 1836, Joseph Coe was given the mummies and papyri to show and earn money. He hired a room at the John Johnson's inn to exhibit them. The west room on the top floor of the Kirtland Temple was set aside as a translation room, and by August 1836, the papyri had been transferred there. On November 2, 1837 Phinehas Richards and Reuben Hedlock were appointed for "procuring means to translate and print the records taken from the Catacombs of Egypt, then in the Temple." Hedlock would go on in 1842 to carve the woodcuts to the printing plates that became the Book of Abraham facsimiles.
Sometime before spring of 1838 (probably late 1837), at least some of the papyri were cut up, pasted onto paper, and some mounted under glass in frames. Presumably this was to preserve the papyri, as continuous unrolling and handling of ancient scrolls would take a toll. Papyri fragments I and II suffered damage, and patches had begun to fall off. At least forty-seven of these patches were pasted onto completely separate and unrelated areas on papyri fragments IV, V, X, VIII, and IX.
Some of the paper the papyri were mounted on are important and interesting in their own right, containing plans for the Kirtland House of the Lord and maps of northern Ohio. Even though the Papyri would be preserved better if the paper backing were removed, doing so would destroy important historical documents. Church Historian Robin Jensen commented on the dilemma,
"These are very important documents for the LDS Church. Here we have the papyri themselves, both ancient documents, also nineteenth century documents in the sense that they really made a mark, they were part of LDS history, and to divide the ancient context with the nineteenth century context proves difficult."
The year 1837 was a chaotic time in Kirtland with an estimated 10-15% of the church withdrawing membership. The Kirtland Safety Society had failed, and many who had lost significant sums of money channeled their anger at Joseph Smith. This culminated with Joseph Smith fleeing in the middle of the night on January 12, 1838, leaving the mummies and papyri behind. Lucy Smith recalled the troubling time later in life:
The first movement was to sue Joseph for debt, and, with this pretense, seize upon every piece of property belonging to any of the family. Joseph then had in his possession four Egyptian mummies, with some ancient records that accompanied them. These the mob swore they would take, and then burn every one of them. Accordingly, they obtained an execution upon them for an unjust debt of fifty dollars; but by various stratagems, we succeeded in keeping them out of their hands.
Where the mummies and papyri were and when is murky during the next couple months and years. It appears that they mummies and papyri were at one point in possession of the now dissident Warren Parrish, and possibly Joseph Coe. A perplexing legal document signed by Joseph Smith Jr. on January 4, 1838 titled, "Article of Agreement Between Joseph Smith Jun. and Joseph Smith Sr." reads, "I convey the two undivided thirds of records of and box Exclusive of the mummies. ... I do hereby relinquish on the box and records which James Markell has Levied in my favor as the property of J. Smith Jr. and my claim on the same." A Markell family story was related in the 1960s to LDS Church historians states, "Some one, if I remember correctly, related to Joseph Coe got the Records (Papyrus) and these Markells of mine were foxey enough to conn this fellow out of them. It seems he owed Judge Markell some money and Uncle James was deputized to help retrieve the records. It was quite a joke in the family."
The mummies and papyri were hid with the William Huntington family for a time, even hidden under teenage Zina Huntington's bed. When Huntington left to join the rest of the Church in Missouri, the mummies and papyri were sent to a different family. Edwin D. Woolley and his brother Samuel "hired a wagon to bring the mummies and the Record of Abraham, etc" to Far West, Missouri.
The Church in 1838 and 1839 was in constant turmoil, being forcefully expelled from Missouri, Joseph Smith being jailed, and locating a new home in Nauvoo, Illinois. As such, information about the location of the mummies and papyri over the next two years is scant. William Swartzell, described seeing the mummies in his journal that he later published as an anti-Mormon pamphlet. The May 24, 1838 entry states that he saw "Joseph Smith's box of mummies" in Richmond Landing. In his July 26, 1838 entry he writes that he saw men gathering logs for Joseph Smith's house, "in which he intends translating the heiroglyphics[sic] of the Egyptian Mummies."Anson Call recalled decades later that Oliver Cowdery read the Book of Abraham for several hours while at John Corrill's store in Far West (Oliver Cowdery was not in good standing, and it is doubtful he was part of this group).
On October 27, 1838 after the Governor of Missouri issued the Extermination Order to expel the state of "Mormons", Joseph Smith moved his Mother and Father to Quincy, Illinois, who took the mummies and papyri with them.
By 1840 the mummies and papyri had made their way to Nauvoo, Illinois. On June 20, 1840, Joseph Smith asked to be relieved of temporal duties to "engage more particularly in the spiritual welfare of the saints and also, to the translation of the Egyptian Records..." Between March and May 1842, Smith published his translation of the Book of Abraham in the Times and Seasons, promising that more would be forethcoming.
The collection was first located on the second floor of Joseph Smith's log cabin. Elizabeth Clements Kimball was a young girl in Nauvoo, and described seeing them, "The mummies were kept in the attic where they wouldn't be destroyed and in those days there weren't any stairways in the houses such as we have now, and in order to get to the attic one had to climb a ladder which was straight up along the wall." In April 1840, a reporter from the Quincy Whig wrote an article describing his visit to Nauvoo, and seeing the mummies and papyri:
"[Joseph Smith] conducted us, at our request, to an upper room, where he drew aside the curtains of a case; and showed us several Egyptian Mummies. ... The embalmed body that stands near the centre of the case, said he, is one of the Pharaohs, who sat upon the throne of Egypt; and the female figure by its side was probably one of the daughters. It may have been the Princess Thermutis, I replied, the same that rescued Moses from the waters of the Nile. It is not improbable, answered the Prophet; but my time has not yet allowed me fully to examine and decide that point. ...He then walked to a secretary, on the opposite side of the room, and drew out several frames, covered with glass, under which were numerous fragments of Egyptian papyras, on which, as usual, a great variety of hieroglyphical characters had been imprinted. These ancient records, said he, throw great light on the subject of Christianity. They have been unrolled and preserved with great labor and care. My time has been hithertoo too much taken up to translate the whole of them, but I will show you how I interpret certain parts. There, said he, pointing to a particular character, that is the signature of the patriarch Abraham. It is indeed a most interesting autograph, I replied, and doubtless the only one extant."
By February 19, 1843, they had moved to the cabin of Lucy Mack Smith, the mother of Joseph Smith. Lucy began to take the lead on displaying the mummies, in a way to support her in her old age, charging 25 cents for admission. It appears at least one of the mummies bodies had begun to deteriorate. Charlotte Haven, a young girl who visited Nauvoo, wrote to her mother, "[Madame Smith] took up what seemed to be a club wrapped in a dark cloth, and said "This is the leg of pharaoh's daughter, the one who saved Moses." The St. Louis Evening Gazette reported, "In addition to the mummies that were intact, there were some fragments of others, including a limb of that Pharaoh's daughter who rescued Moses when he had been exposed to the crocodiles in the bulrushes of the Nile. The mummies themselves, we were told with the same assurance, were great monarchs, pharaohs, kings, and queens of Egypt! Two were in perfect condition, but the other two were badly mutilated. The skull of one was fractured and a piece of the chest had been torn from the other."
After the death of Joseph Smith on June 27, 1844 the church he led split apart into multiple factions. Ownership of church property became a matter of confusion, as the church was "organized", rather than "incorporated", with Joseph Smith being the Trustee-in-Trust for all church property.William Smith, Joseph Smith's brother, seems to have taken control of the mummies and papyrus at this time. In two letters dated 2 and 19 December 1846, William asked James Strang, a leader of one of the factions vying for leadership of the church, for help transporting the mummies and papyri to Voree, Wisconsin, where Strang had setup his faction's headquarters. The transportation to Voree never occurred.
Brigham Young took his faction away from Nauvoo in 1846, leaving Almon W. Babbitt in charge of affairs. Babbitt wrote to Young on January 31, 1848, "Uncle William has got the mummies from Mother Smith and refuses to give them up." Joseph Smith III recollected later in his life that "Uncle William undertook a lecturing tour, and secured the mummies and case of records, as the papyrus was called, as an exhibit and aid to making his lectures more attractive and lucrative."
At some unknown point, the mummies and papyri clearly were in the possession of Smith's mother, Lucy Mack Smith, who had moved in with Smith's widow Emma Smith, and continued to display them to derive income. On May 25, 1856, just a short couple weeks after the death of Lucy Mack Smith on May 14, 1856, Emma sold "four Egyptian mummies with the records with them" to Abel Combs.
By August 1856, Combs himself later sold "two of [the] mummies, and some of the papyri", to the St. Louis Museum. Upon the closing of the St. Louis Museum in the 1863, these artifacts were purchased by Col. John H. Wood and found their way to his museum in Chicago, c. 1863. Wood was particularly proud of these objects and had them prominently displayed for all to see. Unfortunately, the museum and all its contents were destroyed in 1871 during the Great Chicago Fire, and today, it is presumed the papyri which formed the bases for Facsimiles 2 and 3 were lost in this inferno.
After the fire, however, it was believed that all the papyri sources for the book had been lost. Unbeknownst to most, Abel Combs still owned several papyri fragments and two mummies (the latter have disappeared without a trace). The papyri were given to Combs' nurse Charlotte Benecke Weaver upon his death on July 5, 1892, who in turn gave them to her daughter, Alice Combs Weaver Heusser.
A 1918 memorandum from the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA) records that Huesser brought "eight or ten fragments of papyri" for inspection "in connection with the effort made by Bishop Spaulding of Utah about 1912 to obtain confirmation ... that Joseph Smith's supposed translations of sacred Egyptian texts on which he founded his 'Pearl of Great Price' were a fraud.". Then, in late 1945, a curator at the Museum noticed the memorandum and tracked down Huesser's widower, Edward Huesser, making an offer for purchase of the papyri, which was accepted in 1946 
It was widely believed that the entire collection had perished in the Chicago fire. In the mid-1960s the Metropolitan Museum of Art decided to sell some of its collection. In May 1966 Henry George Fischer, curator of the Egyptian Collection, approached Aziz Suryal Atiya, a visiting scholar from the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, and asked if he would be an intermediary between the museum and the LDS Church, to see if the church would be interested in purchasing their ten fragments. Fischer stated that an anonymous donation to the Met made it possible for the LDS Church to acquire the papyri.
On November 27, 1967 the LDS Church announced in a press release about the discovery of the missing papyrus. The LDS Church published sepia tone photographs of the papyri in the February 1968 Improvement Era.
The role played by Atiya in the discovery has been disputed. He characterized himself as the principle discoverer of the papyrus, relating the story in the Improvement Era magazine as follows:
"While I was in one of the dim rooms where everything was brought to me, something caught my eye, and I asked one of my assistants to take me behind the bars into the storehouse of documents so that I could look some more. While there I found a file with these documents. I at once recognized the picture part of it. When I saw this picture, I knew that it had appeared in the Pearl of Great Price. ... I consider it a great honor to have been able to make this discovery. Great discoveries are always accidental, and this one was as accidental as any discovery I have made--and probably more exciting than all of them. It was an honor to have been able to persuade such an august body as the Metropolitan Museum to present it to another body as august as the Mormon Church. I feel flattered to have been able to do what I did."
The Metropolitan Museum knew what the papyrus were before Aziz Atiya visited. The museum acquisition list for 1947 states "papyrus fragments of hieratic Books of the Dead, once the property of the Mormon leader Joseph Smith." Museum curator Henry Fischer responded in a letter to Atiya:
"Although I was already aware that your version of the discovery of these documents had caused considerable confusion, it was startling to read that you had informed me of their existence. While I have taken pains to avoid any outright contradictions of what you said, I do not see why either I or the other members of my department--past and present--should be put in the position of being ignorant about facts we could not fail to have known."
Scholars conclude that the recovered papyri are portions of the originals partly based on the fact that the fragments were pasted onto paper which had "drawings of a temple and maps of the Kirtland, Ohio area" on the back and were accompanied by an affidavit by Emma Smith stating that they had been in the possession of Joseph Smith.
In addition to the ten fragments that were discovered at the Metropolitan Museum, another fragment was located. In the same article in the February 1968 issue of the Improvement Era that contained the near full size sepia color reproductions of the papyri, Jay M. Todd, Editorial Associate for the magazine, discussed the discovery of a fragment which had been stored with the manuscript of the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar and had been in the Church Historian's archives since at least 1908. Todd referenced an entry in the Church Historian's Office files dated Wednesday, October 17, 1855, describing several items which were being transferred to the newly constructed Historian's Office, including "...three plates of the Book of Abraham" and a "red box with papers, blanks, journal, stereotype and plates."
Todd went on to discuss an entry from a personal journal dated Saturday, July 11, 1846, describing a meeting between "Brigham Young and the Brethren" and Chief Banquejappa of the Pottawatomie [sic] tribe during which the Chief gave Brigham Young "two sheets of hieroglyphics from the Book of Abraham" and a letter dated 1843 that had been given to them by Joseph Smith. Todd referred to the background of the Historian's fragment as "most puzzling" and stated that William Lund and Earl Olsen, assistant Church Historians, did not recall any information about the fragment except that it had been there with the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar throughout their service, which dated to 1911.
The Church Historian's fragment was labeled IX by Hugh Nibley and appears on page 40-H of the Improvement Era article, with the image heading; "IX. Church Historian's fragment" and the text:
With our readers, the staff of The Improvement Era will be looking forward with eager anticipation to additional developments in this fascinating story, and the unfolding of the meaning of the hieroglyphics and illustrations on these valuable manuscripts as they are given by Dr. Nibley in his articles.
Joseph Smith taught that the two rolls were literally written by the Ancient Patriarchs Abraham and Joseph. Independent sources have him pointing to places on the papyri and identifying various hieroglyphics as the signature of Abraham.
Eye-witnesses are consistent that Smith presented the mummies as a Pharaoh and his royal household. Most commonly, Smith and his mother Lucy referred to one as Pharaoh Onitas, his wife and two daughters, one of whom was named Katumin, whose names were obtained through revelation. Lucy Smith would sometimes refer to the one of the mummies as "pharoah's daughter, the one who saved Moses." One eye-witness wrote that he was told the Pharaoh's name was "Necho".
Based on where they were found, and the writings found on them, the mummies are not believed to have been Pharoahs, but priests and nobles from the Ptolemaic era of Egypt (323-30 BCE). None of the names of the Pharaohs or their family have names that resemble "Onitus" or "Katumin". There is a Pharaoh Necho however, but he was buried in Sais, near the Nile Delta, far from where the mummies were excavated.
In total, Eleven papyrus fragments have been recovered, and are designated I, II, IIIa, IIIb, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, X, and XI in the Improvement Era article. Other designations were given by the Met, and various Egyptologists and scholars that analyzed the fragments; however, the designations established by the Improvement Era have remained the most commonly used numbering.
Some fragments were published in the Book of Abraham, but these portions of the papyri have not been recovered.
The table below summarizes different designation schemes:
(at their largest)
|JSP #||Met #||Wilson-Jeppson #s||Photograph|
|First Section of Breathing Permit of Hor||7½ x 4 in
19 x 10 cm
|I||47.102.9||A (photo 1)|
|Sixth Section of Book of the Dead for TaSheritMin||5 1/8 x 10½ in
13 x 27 cm
|II||47.102.10||B (photo 8)|
|Right side of vignette from Book of the Dead for Nefer-ir-nebu||9 5/8 x 7 in
24 x 18 cm
|IIIa||47.102.2||C (photo 5)|
|Left side of vignette from Book of the Dead for Nefer-ir-nebu||10 1/8 x 6 in
26 x 15 cm
|IIIb||47.102.3||C (photo 6)|
|Fifth Section of Book of the Dead for TaSheritMin||11½ x 8 in
29 x 20 cm
|IV||47.102.1||B (photo 3)|
|On the right hand side, the Third Section of Book of the Dead for TaSheritMin||11¼ x 5 5/8 in
29 x 14 cm
|V||47.102.4||B (photo 2)|
|On the left hand side, the Fourth Section of the Book of the Dead for TaSheritMin||11½ x 5½ in
29 x 14 cm
|VI||47.102.7||B (photo 4)|
|First Section of the Book of the Dead for TaSheritMin||Right Side:
5 x 2 7/8 in
13 x 7 cm
5 x 3 in
13 x 8 cm
|VII||47.102.5||B (photo 7)|
|Second Section of the Book of the Dead for TaSheritMin||5¾ x 6½ in
15 x 17 cm
|VIII||47.102.6||B (photo 9)|
|Miscellaneous Scraps of the Book of the Dead for TaSheritMin||10 7/8 -12½ x 3-7¾ in
28-32 x 8-20 cm
|Third Section of Breathing Permit of Hor||11¾ x 4 3/8 in
30 x 11 cm
|X||47.102.8||D (photo 10)|
|Second Section of Breathing Permit of Hor||6¾ x 4 in
17 x 10 cm
|XI||47.102.11||D (photo 11)|
|Hypocephalus of Sheshonq (Facsimile #2)|
|Closing Vignette of Breathing Permit of Hor (Facsimile #3)|
JSP I, X, XI, and Facsimile #3 can be reassembled to partially reconstruct the scroll containing the Breathing Permit, Book of Breathing or Sensen Text belonging to the priest Hôr (also known as Horus). Portions of the papyri from JSP X and XI were damaged, and re-pasted incorrectly into lacunae in JSP IV, but do not belong to JSP IV. The handwriting was identified as being "of the late Ptolemaic or early Roman Period, about the time of Christ". Jan Quaegebeur has suggested a date in the first half of the second century B.C.
This scroll is widely believed by both Mormon and non-Mormon scholars to be the scroll from which the Book of Abraham comes from. This is based on the inclusion of Facsimile #1 (JSP I) and #3 from this scroll in the Book of Abraham, and titled by Joseph Smith as "from the Book of Abraham". Further evidence is that characters from this scroll were sequentially copied into the Book of Abraham translation manuscripts. The official position taken by the LDS church on the papyri is that "Mormon and non-Mormon Egyptologists agree that the characters on the fragments do not match the translation given in the book of Abraham"Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham. Given this, some Mormon apologists have postulated that the Book of Abraham manuscript was appended to the end of this scroll, and is no longer extant. The evidence for this claim is 1840s and 1850s accounts from visitors to Nauvoo who viewed the papyri after they had been separated and framed.
By taking the length of current fragments, plus estimating how much space would have been taken by the missing section of the Book of Breathing, the size of the scroll has been estimated to be between 150 and 156 cm.
The length of the scroll and the possibility that the Book of Abraham could have been appended to the end of it has been the source of great controversy, and much research. It is not uncommon for texts to be appended to funerary rolls, however a non-funerary text would unique. The length of the scroll can also be estimated by looking at recurring damage caused by scroll windings, but even this has been debated. The editors of the LDS church funded Joseph Smith Papers project favored the shorter scroll theory, by relegating the longer scroll estimates to speculative footnotes (see: Controversy surrounding the length of the Hôr scroll).
As of 1998, there were twenty-nine known examples of the Book of Breathings, of which the Joseph Smith papyri fragment is an example. Of those twenty-nine, eighteen have vignettes associated with them. Although no two facsimiles are completely identical, there are common features among all. A comparison of the Book of Abraham facsimiles with these other documents indicates that although the Book of Abraham Facsimile No. 1 (derived from JSP I) is unique, these differences are superficial, and not significant enough to indicate that they are anything other than a representation of an Egyption re-animation scene from the Book of Breathing Made by Isis.
The papyri have been translated several times by both Mormon and non-Mormon Egyptologists. Disagreements between translations are minor, and do not change the main theme of the document. The Breathing Permit begins with a preamble, an address to the deceased Hôr, introducing who he is, and wishing him a good burial east of Thebes.
The second section is an instruction to those caring for the body on how and when the Breathing Permit was to be placed on Hôr.
The last section is the main body of the breathing document. It contains ten paragraphs of various declarations of hope for a successful afterlife, and attestations of ultimate justification and further existence.
The document continues, but the remaining fragments are presumed not to have survived. The traditional Book of Breathing continues for another four paragraphs (paragraphs 11-14). These final paragraphs typically include continued discussion of Hôr entering the afterlife, an abbreviated Negative Confession where Hôr would proclaim before gods and demons that he had not committed a variety of sins, and finally a proclamation of the Hôr's purity and readiness to live forever on earth. This would make up about two more columns.
The culminating vignette, also known as facsimile #3, is the presentation of Hor to the Egyptian god of death and rebirth Osiris (seated), and his wife Isis (standing) after having been judged worthy to continue existence. Hor is adorned in Egyptian festival attire with a cone of perfumed grease and a lotus flower on his head. He is escorted by the goddess of justice Ma'at, and guide of the dead Anubis. At the top of the scene is a row of stars, representing the sky. The presentation of the deceased to Osiris is a common scene in Egyptian funerary literature, and has its antecedent in chapter 125 of the earlier Book of the Dead.
The Egyptian gods and goddesses in this vignette are identified by iconography above their heads. Osiris is adorned in the crown Atef which combines the Hedjet, the crown of Upper Egypt (where Thebes is located), with two ostrich feathers on the side. Isis has a sun disk between two cows horns above her head, and in her hand is a symbol of life called an Ankh. Ma'at is denoted by a feather above her head.
In Egyptian funerary tradition, the god Anubis is a guide to the dead, assisting in leading the deceased through the underworld. Anubis is typically portrayed with a jackal's head to include spiked ears, narrow eyes and long snout. While the spiked ear, and narrow eyes are present, the long snout is not. Close analysis of the printing plates of facsimile 3 indicates that the snout might have been present but chiseled off.
Interestingly, the invocation to Osiris at the bottom of the vignette reads from left to right, not right to left, and indicates the direction the prayer was going (from the direction of Hor/Anubis, to Osiris)
Papyri II, V-IX, and most of IV as "The Book of the Dead belong to the lady Ta-sherit-Min (also Tshemmin, Semminis). Books of the Dead were used from around 1550 BCE to around 50 BCE. Like the Breathing Permit, the Book of the Dead assisted the deceased in navigating the afterlife. Unlike the Breathing Permit, the Book of the Dead was less standardized. Prospective deceased would pick and choose which spells (sometimes referred to as chapters) they wanted in their book to assist them, as such, there is a wide variance between different versions across its long history of use. While modern scholars have cataloged the spells, and given them numbers, these numbers are artificial and would have no meaning to ancient Egyptians.
The spell arrangement and textual variants are very similar to that of other early Ptolemaic era papyrus, including the Ryerson Papyrus. The surviving portion of the Book of the Dead for Ta-sherit-Min includes all or portions of spells 1-7, 10-14, 16, 53-54, 57, 59(?), 63, 65, 67, 70, 72, 74-77, 83, 86-89, 91, 100-101, 103-106, 110 and 125. Portions of the text are only known because characters were copied down.
Oliver Cowdery spoke of this papyrus scroll as "Joseph's record". In an 1835 letter he described various vignettes as follows:
The representation of the god-head--three, yet in one, is curiously drawn to give simply, though impressively, the writers views of that exalted personage. The serpent, represented as walking, or formed in a manner to be able to walk, standing in front of, and near a female figure, is to me, one of the greatest representations I have ever seen upon paper, or a writing substance; ... Enoch's Pillar, as mentioned by Josephus, is upon the same roll.
This vignette is a weighing of the heart judgement scene common in Egyptian funerary literature and corresponds to Book of the Dead spell 125. In the scene, Osiris sits on his throne and presides over the judgement of Nefer-ir-nebu. Prior to her judgement, Nefer-ir-nebu will go before 42 gods and goddesses and give her negative confession, proclaiming innocence to a list of 42 crimes. Her heart is on a scale, where the Gods Horus and Anubis weigh it against the feather of Ma'at, representing truth and justice. If it is neither too heavy or too light, but perfectly balanced, Nefer-ir-nebu will exist forever. If her heart is unbalanced, the beast Ammit will hungrily devour her heart and she will cease to exist.
The ibis headed god Thoth stands by Ammit and records the judgement. In front of Osiris, are the four sons of Horus (see also canopic jars from Facsimile 1 in the JSP I) standing by, protecting the internal organs of the deceased during the judgement. Halfway down the Lilly stand, above two plant shaped wine jars are two human-headed birth bricks called Meskhenet and Shai, gods of destiny that represent the fate of Nefer-ir-nebu.
In an 1835 letter Oliver Cowdery appeared to reference this scene while describing the scroll of Joseph:
The inner end of the same roll, (Joseph's record,) presents a representation of the judgement: At one view you behold the Savior seated upon his throne, crowned, and holding the sceptres of righteousness and power, before whom also, are assembled the twelve tribes of Israel, the nations, languages and tongues of the earth, the kingdoms of the world over which satan is represented as reigning, Michael the archangel, holding the key of the bottomless pit, and at the same time the devil as being chained and shut up in the bottomless pit.
As this papyri fragment came from a different scroll than that associated with the Book of Joseph (Book of the Dead for Ta-Sherit-Min), and the judgement scene is very common, it is possible that he was describing a similar, no longer existing version of the same scene from the Ta-Sherit-Min scroll. It is also possible that Cowdery conflated the two in his mind, thinking that the Nefer-ir-nebu vignette actually came from the Ta-Sherit-Min scroll.
The papyrus is no longer extant. We only know of the existence because characters were copied into two notebooks known as the "Valuable Discovery Notebook" and the "Notebook of Copied Characters". Parts were translated by Smith as a short history of a Princess Katumin, daughter of Pharaoh Onitas. Several Egyptian characters from this section were written down inverted for an unknown reason, and appear as a mirror image.
Modern Egyptologists recognize it as a portion of the Book of the Dead for a man called Amenhotep. Unlike many other Egyptian funerary texts, there is no consistent or standard Book of the Dead, and Egyptians would pick and choose which spells (or chapters) they wanted in their scroll to assist them in the afterlife. As such it is impossible to know how large this Book of the Dead was.
Also known as facsimile #2 from the Book of Abraham, this no longer extant hypocephalus belonged to a person named Sheshonq. Hypocephali were disk shaped writings placed under the heads of their dead. The circle was believed to magically protect the deceased, cause the head and body to be enveloped in light and warmth, making the deceased divine. It replaced the earlier cow-amulet. Hypocephali symbolized the Eye of Ra (Eye of Horus), which represents the sun deity.
Hypocephali first appeared during the Egyptian Saite Dynasty (663–525 B.C.) and their use continued for centuries.Chapter 162 of the Book of the Dead version of that period contain directions for the making and use of hypocephali. No two hypocephali are the same, and there are just over 100 known samples of them.
The scenes portrayed on them relate to Egyptian ideas of resurrection and life after death, connecting them with the Osirian myth. To the ancient Egyptians the daily setting and rising of the sun was a symbol of death and rebirth. The hypocephalus represented all that the sun encircles — the world of the living, over which it passed during the day, was depicted in the upper half, and that of the dead, which it crossed during the night, in the lower portion, where the images are upside down.
Lebolo was dead by 1831, and had left Egypt in 1822, so could not have done any of these things mentioned in the quote at those times.
"The records were obtained from one of the catacombs in Egypt, near a place where once stood the renowned city of Thebes, by the celebrated French traveler, Antonio Lebolo, in the year 1831. He procured license from Mehemet Ali, then viceroy of Egypt, under the protection of Chevalier Drovetti, the French Consul, in the year 1828, and employed four hundred and thirty-three men, four months and two days (if I understand correctly) - Egyptian or Turkish soldiers, at from four to six cents per diem, each man. He entered the catacomb June 7, 1831, and obtained eleven mummies. There were several hundred mummies in the same catacomb; about one hundred embalmed after the first order, and placed in niches, and two or three hundred after the second and third orders, and laid upon the floor or bottom of the grand cavity. The two last orders of embalmed were so decayed, that they could not be removed, and only eleven of the first, found in the niches."
Orson Pratt, in Journal of Discourses, 25 Aug. 1878, 20:65. Coe later remembered that Smith's reason for purchasing the Egyptian artifacts was to produce a translation of the papyri. (J. Coe to JS, 1 Jan. 1844.)
The Prophet Joseph having learned the value of the ancient writings was very anxious to obtain them, and expressed himself willing to purchase them. But Chandler told him he would not sell the writings unless he could sell the mummies, for it would detract from the curiosity of his exhibition.
"Many of the leading Elders apostatized and turned against the Prophet seeking to take his life, but God warned him to rise up by night and depart for Missouri which he did and as fast as possible all the faithful followed, and those who could not do so but were forced to stay another winter were hunted, harassed, robbed and mobbed by apostates and among that number I was one although at the same time my house was a hiding place for old father Joseph Smith his sons Carlos and Samuel and many others. In my house the mummies and Egyptian Records were hid to keep from sworn destruction by apostates."
"The four sarcophagi had been placed in the Huntington home for safekeeping. Apostates and other enemies of the Church in Kirtland, Ohio were attempting to attach all Church property. To protect the mummies from seizure, they were removed from the temple and stored under Zina's bed. These were the mummies purchased by the Church along with the hieroglyphic manuscript of the book of Abraham."
"She was very thrilled at the thought and of course very curious, but she felt it a great privilege to be allowed to see them. The mummies were kept in the attic where they wouldn't be destroyed and in those days there weren't any stairways in the houses such as we have now, and in order to get to the attic one had to climb a ladder which was straight up along the wall. She told Joseph in a very timid voice that she would like to see them, but was a little frightened while climbing the ladder to the attic. But when at the top she saw the room with the curious looking things, and Joseph seeing she was a little frightened stepped to her side, laid his hand on her shoulder and said, "come little one, do not be afraid." He took her by the hand and led her to them saying, "touch them and you will never be afraid of the dead." It was then that he placed his hands on her shoulder and head and gave her a blessing. He told her that when she grew up she would be a nurse and would care for the sick and the dead all her life."