Joseph Smith’s collection of Egyptian antiquities has been the point of much interest, both in his day and ours. Among those things that piqued great attention during the Prophet’s lifetime, and continue to do so today, are his explanations of the drawings (known as vignettes when referring to ancient Egyptian literature) on the papyri he possessed and connections he made between the papyri, mummies, and biblical characters. While we have few statements directly from Joseph Smith himself, there are a number of accounts from people who heard either first- or secondhand the Prophet’s ideas about his collection of antiquities and the meaning of the vignettes on the papyri. Evaluating the pertinent accounts and what they tell us either about the contents of the papyri or Joseph Smith’s prophetic abilities, or both, can become a byzantine endeavor, with no clear-cut way of determining which statements are historically reliable and which are not.
Egyptologist Kerry Muhlestein grapples with the content and history of these accounts, including the evidence that there is enough consistency among them to conclude that Joseph believed several things about the Egyptian artifacts that are not fully congruent with modern academic Egyptology. Muhlestein then offers three different models for understanding this conundrum: (1) that Joseph received no revelation at all regarding the artifacts, (2) that Joseph was fully inspired and correct in all his ideas about the mummies and papyri, and (3) that Joseph was inspired in important doctrinal concepts but not in all things pertaining to the artifacts.