Multiple sources associated with the coming forth of the Book of Abraham spoke of Joseph Smith “translating” the text from the papyri he acquired.1 The Prophet himself used this language to describe his own activity with the text. For example, an entry in his journal under the date November 19, 1835, indicates the Prophet “spent the day in translating” the Egyptian records.2 In an unpublished editorial that was apparently meant to be printed in the March 1, 1842, issue of the Times and Seasons (the issue that saw the publication of the first installment of the Book of Abraham), Joseph Smith signaled his desire to “contin[u]e to translate & publish [the text] as fast as possible [until] the whole is completed.”3 What was published with the Book of Abraham was a preface announcing it as “A Translation Of some ancient Records that have fallen into our hands . . . purporting to be the writings of Abraham.”4
On at least one occasion shortly after its publication, Joseph Smith described the Book of Abraham as a “revelation” instead of a translation.5 This raises a question about what these words may have meant to the Prophet and what he may have thought about the nature of the text of the Book of Abraham that he produced. There are plenty of instances where Joseph used the word “translation” to mean utilizing available scholarly tools to convert an ancient language into modern English. This, for example, is how he used the term when studying Hebrew, which he learned from a teacher using a grammar book and dictionary.6 However, as with the Book of Mormon, sources indicate that Joseph professed that the translation of the Book of Abraham came by revelation and the gift and power of God. So, while Joseph appears to have used the word “translation” to describe the Book of Abraham as meaning the conversion of an ancient text into modern English, the means or methods he used to accomplish this translation were uncommon by conventional academic standards—namely, revelation. This is similar to what Joseph said about his efforts to render other ancient scriptural texts into English throughout his ministry. A review of the different texts he produced and how he produced them, therefore, appears relevant to how we might better understand the nature of the translation of the Book of Abraham.7
The Book of Mormon
Joseph Smith’s signature work of scripture is the Book of Mormon, which the Prophet claimed to have translated from ancient gold plates “by the gift, and power of God.”8 While early efforts to decipher the “reformed Egyptian” (Morm. 9:32) characters on the plates evidently did involve some mental effort by the Prophet and his scribes,9 ultimately the translation was revealed through the use of divinely prepared seer stones.10 Because we benefit from multiple eyewitness accounts of those who participated in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, we have a fairly good understanding of how it was produced. “When Joseph Smith began translating the Book of Mormon in 1827, he usually left the plates in a box or wrapped in a cloth, placed the [Nephite] interpreters or his seer stone (both of which seem to have been called Urim and Thummim) in a hat, and read the translation he saw in the stone to a scribe.”11 All of this suggests that Joseph Smith’s mechanism for translating the Book of Mormon, while still conveying one language (Egyptian or Hebrew) to another (English), was more closely synonymous with revelation.12 “This sacred ancient record was not ‘translated’ in the traditional way that scholars would translate ancient texts by learning an ancient language. We ought to look at the process more like a ‘revelation’ with the aid of physical instruments provided by the Lord, as opposed to a ‘translation’ by one with knowledge of languages.”13
The Parchment of John (Doctrine and Covenants 7)
Section 7 of the Doctrine and Covenants was received by Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in April 1829 just before or during the time when Oliver acted as a scribe for the translation of the Book of Mormon.14 When this section was first published in the Book of Commandments in 1833, it was described as “a Revelation given to Joseph and Oliver” and was said to have been “translated from parchment, written and hid up by” a figure named John (presumably the beloved disciple).15 This same description was given when the text was republished in 1835 and 1842 under the supervision of Joseph Smith.16
This revealed “translation” of John’s record was received, like the Book of Mormon, through divine instruments (the Urim and Thummim).17 It is important to remember that during this process Joseph Smith “did not have physical possession of the papyrus [of John] he was translating.”18 In addition, textual analysis of Doctrine and Covenants 7 reveals that when this section was republished in the 1835 first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, it had been revised and expanded from its initial form as it appeared in the 1833 Book of Commandments, indicating that expansion and revision could be included in the scope of Joseph’s work as a translator.19
The “New Translation” of the Bible
Another important effort undertaken by Joseph Smith was what he called a “new translation” of the Bible (see D&C 37:1; 45:60–61; 73:3–4; 93:53).20 Undertaken principally between June 1830 and July 1833, this “new translation” of the Bible (today called the Joseph Smith Translation or JST) was not accomplished by the Prophet carefully scrutinizing Hebrew and Greek manuscripts with the aid of a grammar and lexicon, nor even, apparently, by consulting his seer stone or the Urim and Thummim. Rather, Joseph revised the English text of the King James Version of the Bible by inspiration.21 That revelation specifically was understood to be Joseph’s method in producing this new translation of the Bible is indicated by both evidence from the original JST manuscripts and the recollections of at least one source who claimed to be an eyewitness to the process.22 With language similar to how Joseph Smith described the translation of the Book of Mormon, a superscription in the original dictated manuscript of JST Matthew explicitly designates the text “A Translation of the New Testament translated by the power of God.”23
Even though Joseph was revising the English text of the KJV and sometimes revealing entirely new content (such as much of what is today called the book of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price), he nevertheless called the project a translation. It is possible that part of the process of revising some portions of the text of the JST involved Joseph consulting a popular biblical commentary, although the extent of this influence on the JST is debatable.24 While it is arguable that some of Joseph Smith’s revisions to the KJV Bible convey a more precise reading of the underlying Greek and Hebrew, or that other portions revealed by the Prophet in some way correspond to nonextant ancient manuscripts, a broader view of the types of revisions he made to the Bible suggests that he was doing more with his translation than just rendering ancient languages.25
The Record of John (D&C 93:6–18)
Although not typically thought of as a translation since it is embedded in a longer revelation received by the Prophet on May 6, 1833, it could be reasonably argued that the “record of John” in Doctrine and Covenants 93:6–18 is in fact another translated text and should be included among Joseph Smith’s scriptural translation projects.26 Like the Parchment of John (D&C 7), this portion of Doctrine and Covenants 93 quotes a figure named John (once again presumably the beloved disciple, but possibly John the Baptist27) in the first person and promises that “if [readers] are faithful [they] shall receive the fulness of the record of John” (v. 18; compare v. 6). “Section 93 draws on otherwise lost writings of John,” recognizes one scholar. “It is clear that the revelation restores tantalizing lost texts and promises that even more will be forthcoming.”28 Little is known about the circumstances surrounding the reception of this section.29 It is clear that it was received in the context of the Prophet’s work of translating the Bible,30 but it is unknown if Joseph used the seer stone to see and restore (“translate”) these words from John. There is no evidence that Joseph was physically handling any ancient manuscripts when he received this revelation and rendered these words from John. Whatever the case, this “revelation was bold and new, yet also ancient and familiar. As with so many of Joseph Smith’s revelations, it recovered lost truths that were apparently known to biblical figures.”31
The Book of Abraham
This brings us to the Book of Abraham, the translation of which must be viewed within the broader context of Joseph Smith’s other scriptural translations. When it comes to the nature of the translation of the Book of Abraham, there is not much direct evidence for how Joseph Smith accomplished the work. “No known first-person account from Joseph Smith exists to explain the translation of the Book of Abraham, and the scribes who worked on the project and others who claimed knowledge of the process provided only vague or general reminiscences.”32 John Whitmer, then acting as the Church’s historian and recorder, commented that “Joseph the Seer saw these Record[s] and by the revelation of Jesus Christ could translate these records, . . . which when all translated will be a pleasing history and of great value to the saints.”33 Another important source is Warren Parrish, one of the scribes who assisted Joseph in the production of the Book of Abraham. After his disaffection from the Church in 1837, Parrish reported that in his capacity as Joseph’s scribe he “penned down the translation of the Egyptian Hieroglyphicks as [Joseph] claimed to receive it by direct inspiration from Heaven.”34 Although no longer a believer at the time he composed his letter, Parrish’s statement, like Whitmer’s, emphasizes that Joseph’s claimed method of his “translation of the Egyptian Hieroglyphicks” was revelatory, not academic, but also that the Prophet was still claiming to perform a translation of an ancient language. Unfortunately, Parrish did not elaborate further on the precise nature of this translation “by direct inspiration,” although his statement does, intriguingly, echo the language Oliver Cowdery used to describe the translation of the Book of Mormon.35
Other sources reported that the Prophet used the Urim and Thummim or a seer stone in the translation of the Book of Abraham.36 A hostile newspaper, the Cleveland Whig, relayed in August 1835, “We are credibly informed that the Mormons have purchased of Mr. Chandler, three of the mummies, which he recently exhibited in this village; and that the prophet Joe has . . . examin[ed] the papyrus through his spectacles,” meaning most likely his seer stone, since there is no evidence that the angel Moroni returned the Urim and Thummim (the Nephite “Interpreters”) to Joseph Smith after 1829. The source named by the Cleveland Whig for this claim appears to have been Frederick G. Williams, who was a scribe in the translation of the Book of Abraham, and who, according to the paper, was “travelling about the country” with “this shallow and contemptible story.”37 Because this newspaper’s report is early and names a source close to Joseph Smith, it “should [at least] be taken seriously.”38 But at the same time, because it is thirdhand and hostile, it must be also accepted cautiously. Friendly sources close to Joseph later reported the use of a seer stone in the translation.39 With the exception of Wilford Woodruff, who helped prepare the Book of Abraham for publication in 1842,40 these sources were not immediately involved in the production of the text, and in one instance may have been confusing the translation process of the Book of Abraham with the translation process of the Book of Mormon.41 As with the early report in the Cleveland Whig, they too should be considered seriously but accepted cautiously. If Joseph did use a seer stone in the translation of the Book of Abraham, this would reinforce the point that the method of translation for the Prophet was unique.
Clues from the Book of Abraham text suggest that the Prophet felt free to continually adapt and revise his initial translation. For example, some of the names of the characters in the Book of Abraham were revised in 1842 shortly before its publication.42 Likewise, Joseph Smith’s study of Hebrew appears to have also influenced the final form of the text, because his knowledge of such evidently influenced how he either initially rendered or later revised certain words and phrases in the Book of Abraham’s creation account.43 One of the glosses at the beginning of the book (“which signifies hieroglyphics”; Abr. 1:14) is not present in the Kirtland-era manuscripts, which appears to indicate that it came from Joseph Smith or one of his scribes at the time of the publication of the text.44 Another gloss (“I will refer you to the representation at the commencement of this record”;45 Abr. 1:12) was inserted interlineally, suggesting that “the references to the facsimiles within the text of the Book of Abraham seem to have been nineteenth-century editorial insertions,”46 although this is not the only interpretation of this data point.47 It should not come as a surprise that Joseph Smith (or his scribes) made revisions to the English text of the Book of Abraham and still called it a translation, since he also revised his revelations that comprise the Doctrine and Covenants and the Book of Mormon in subsequent editions after their initial publication.48
Whatever Joseph’s precise method of scriptural translation, which he specified only as being “by the gift and power of God,” more important is what he produced. As Hugh Nibley recognized, “The Prophet has saved us the trouble of faulting his method by announcing in no uncertain terms that it is a method unique to himself depending entirely on divine revelation. That places the whole thing beyond the reach of direct examination and criticism but leaves wide open the really effective means of testing any method, which is by the results it produces.”49 The results of Joseph Smith’s inspired translations are books of scripture that appear beyond his natural ability to produce.
A fuller grasp of this fascinating and important subject therefore includes appreciating how Joseph Smith and other early Latter-day Saints used words such as “translation” and “revelation” in ways that are often similar but also sometimes different than how they are typically used today.50
Gee, John. “Joseph Smith and the Papyri.” In An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 13–42. Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2017.
Matthews, Robert J. “Joseph Smith—Translator.” In Joseph Smith: The Prophet, The Man, ed. Susan Easton Black and Charles D. Tate Jr., 77–87. Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1993.
Muhlestein, Kerry. “Book of Abraham, Translation Of.” In The Pearl of Great Price Reference Companion, ed. Dennis L. Largey, 63–69. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2017.
———. “How Did Joseph Smith Translate the Book of Abraham?” and “What Is the Source of the Book of Abraham?” In Let’s Talk about the Book of Abraham, 52–73. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2022.
Nibley, Hugh. “Translated Correctly?” In The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment, 51–65. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, Brigham Young University, 2005.
Smoot, Stephen O. “Did Joseph Smith Use a Seer Stone in the Translation of the Book of Abraham?” Religious Educator 23, no. 2 (2022): 65–107.
Thompson, John S. “‘We May Not Understand Our Words’: The Book of Abraham and the Concept of Translation in The Pearl of Greatest Price.” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 41 (2020): 1–48.