The book of Abraham is an inspired translation of the writings of Abraham and is scripture. By studying this book, students can draw strength from Abraham’s example of living righteously while surrounded by wickedness. They will also learn about the blessings and responsibilities they can inherit as the posterity, or seed, of Abraham. In addition, studying this book will provide students with a greater understanding of their premortal existence as spirit sons and daughters of God.
The introduction to the book of Abraham states that it is “a Translation of some ancient Records that have fallen into our hands from the catecombs of Egypt. The writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus.” Abraham was born in Ur of the Chaldees in approximately 2000 B.C. In obedience to the Lord’s commands, he traveled from Ur to Haran, and then to Canaan, to Egypt, and back to Canaan—the land the Lord promised to give to Abraham’s seed.
We do not know when Abraham recorded the writings in the book of Abraham. However, it appears they were originally written while he was in Egypt, though the papyri may be the transcription of a much later date. The Prophet Joseph Smith became aware of these writings in 1835, when a man named Michael Chandler brought four Egyptian mummies and several papyrus scrolls of ancient Egyptian writings to Kirtland, Ohio. Members of the Church purchased the mummies and rolls of papyrus. The Prophet translated some of the writings and began publishing excerpts of the book of Abraham in a Church publication called Times and Seasons beginning in March 1842 at Nauvoo, Illinois.
Several fragments of papyri once possessed by the Prophet Joseph Smith were discovered in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The exact dates of the discovery are unclear; however, it appears the First Presidency learned about them as early as 1965. The museum transferred the fragments to the Church in 1967, and those fragments have been analyzed by scholars, who date them between about 300 B.C. and A.D. 100. A common objection to the authenticity of the book of Abraham is that the manuscripts (papyri) are not old enough to have been written by Abraham, who lived almost 2,000 years before Jesus Christ. Joseph Smith never claimed that the papyri were written by Abraham himself, nor that they originated from the time of Abraham. It is common to refer to an author’s works as ‘his’ writings, whether he penned them himself, dictated them to others, or others copied his writings later.
While translating, the Prophet Joseph Smith may have been working with sections of papyri that were later destroyed; thus, it is likely not possible to assess the Prophet’s ability to translate papyri when we now have only a fraction of the papyri he had in his possession. Neither the Lord nor Joseph Smith ever explained his precise method of translating the book of Abraham. We do know that the translation was done by the Prophet Joseph Smith through the gift and power of God. For more information about the coming forth of the book of Abraham, go to Gospel Topics on LDS.org and search for “book of Abraham.”
In this book, unlike the account of Abraham given in Genesis 12–25, Abraham presented his experiences in his own words. The book of Abraham also gives us more information about Abraham’s early life in the land of the Chaldeans. For example, we learn that Abraham was nearly sacrificed to false gods before being saved by Jehovah (see Abraham 1:5–20). This book also provides distinctive insights concerning the Abrahamic covenant (see Abraham 2:6–11), Abraham’s use of a Urim and Thummim (see Abraham 3:1), and Abraham’s vision of the sun, moon, and stars (see Abraham 3:2–18). In addition, this book contributes significant doctrinal information about subjects pertaining to the premortal life, including the eternal nature of spirits (see Abraham 3:18–21), foreordination (see Abraham 3:22–23), the Council in Heaven (see Abraham 3:24–28), and the planning and the Creation of the earth (see Abraham 4–5).
The book of Abraham is the only book in the standard works that is accompanied by images. The manuscripts Joseph Smith translated to produce the book of Abraham contained Egyptian drawings in addition to hieroglyphic writings. “On 23 February 1842, the Prophet Joseph Smith asked Reuben Hedlock, a professional wood engraver and member of the Church, to prepare woodcuts of three of those drawings so they could be printed. Hedlock finished the engravings in one week, and Joseph Smith published the copies (facsimiles) along with the book of Abraham. Joseph Smith’s explanations of the drawings accompany the facsimiles” (The Pearl of Great Price Student Manual [Church Educational System manual, 2000], 29).
Abraham 1–2 Abraham seeks the blessings of the priesthood. Idolatrous priests attempt to sacrifice Abraham, and he is saved by Jehovah. He leaves the land of the Chaldeans and travels to Haran. The Lord again appears to Abraham, commands him to go to the land of Canaan, and sets forth the blessings and responsibilities of the Abrahamic covenant. Abraham travels to Canaan and continues on to Egypt.
Abraham 3 Abraham is given information about the sun, moon, and stars that can be related to the greatness of Jesus Christ. He also learns about the eternal nature of spirits, foreordination, and the premortal Council in Heaven.
Abraham 4–5 Abraham records the planning of the Creation of the earth and the accomplishment of those plans.