Before accepting the conclusions of anti-Mormons, it is wise for Latter-day Saint to first check the credentials and personal claims made by such antagonists. It is unfortunate that some anti-Mormons claim false credentials, so it is only fair that their claims be examined and, if appropriate, be exposed. In the case of claims made by Mr. Nelson and others, Robert and Rosemary Brown have done a valuable service in researching the credentials of such an individual.
Now to address the question of the veracity of the Book of Abraham. On November 27, 1967, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art presented to the Church eleven recently rediscovered fragments of papyri originally purchased by the Saints of Kirtland in July, 1835 (History of the Church, 2:235-36). A twelfth fragment had been in the Church's possession for many years, but the reappearance of those eleven additional papyrus fragments has sparked a controversy which may linger for years to come. The controversy centers around the authenticity of the Book of Abraham and Joseph Smith ability to translate Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Scholars who examined the eleven rediscovered fragments recognized that they did not correspond to the Book of Abraham, but that they were funerary texts from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Anti-Mormon detractors immediately asserted that the difference was "proof that the Book of Abraham was a fraudulent work and that Joseph Smith did not, and could not, translate ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Michael J. Hickenbotham, in his book Answering Challenging Mormon Questions, gives a convincing rebuttal to the critics' assertions, as follows:
Soon after the purchase of the original papyri, Joseph Smith stated that he "commenced the translation of some of the characters or hieroglyphics, and . . . found that one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham, another the writings of Joseph of Egypt" (History of the Church, 2:236). In December of that year, he said that "The Record of Abraham and Joseph, found with the mummies, is beautifully written on papyrus, with black, and a small part red, ink or paint, in perfect preservation" (History of the Church, 2:348). Hugh Nibley points out that the Book of Breathing text is "entirely different" from the record of Abraham described by Joseph Smith. The Book of Breathing papyri were neither beautifully written nor well preserved and were devoid of rubrics (passages in red). Thus, on each of these three points, the Book of Breathing manuscript conspicuously fails to qualify as the manuscript Joseph described (Nibley, Judging and Prejudging the Book of Abraham, p. 6 and The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri, pp. 2-3).
Hugh Nibley further observed that one of the three or more original scrolls was described as long enough that when "unrolled on the floor, [it] extended through two rooms of the Mansion House" (Dialogue, vol. 3, no. 2, 1968, p. 101). He also noted that in 1906, Joseph F. Smith remembered 'Uncle Joseph' down on his knees on the floor with Egyptian manuscripts spread out all around him .... When one considers that the eleven fragments now in our possession can easily be spread out on the top of a small desk ... it would seem that what is missing is much more than what we have (Judging and Prejudging the Book of Abraham, as reprinted in They Lie in Wait to Deceive, p. 243). We should also add that only one of the three Abraham facsimiles were among the rediscovered fragments. This fact alone demonstrates that significant portions of the original scrolls are still lost. The traditional opinion held by LDS scholars has been that the Book of Abraham papyri are among those fragments which are still lost.
An alternate view, which is either expressly stated or hinted at by several LDS writers, is that the text of the Book of Abraham was not actually contained in the papyri purchased by the Saints. This opinion revolves around the meaning of the word "translation" as it was used by Joseph Smith. Kirk Vestal, Arthur Wallace, Eugene Seaich, and James Harris speculate that Joseph did not actually "translate" as we define the term today, but instead produced the text through divine inspiration (History of The Church, 4:136-137). The Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible (D & C 76:15; 93:53; 94:10; 124:89; History of the Church, 1:211, 215, 219, etc.) illustrates this broader usage of the term translate. Joseph restored over 120 verses concerning Enoch to Genesis chapter 5 where only 5 verses exist in our modem Bibles (compare Moses chapter 6). He did not claim to translate this missing text from other ancient sources, but re-stored it by revelation.
These scholars believe that the Egyptian papyri purchased by the Church did not actually contain the text restored by Joseph Smith, but instead contained symbolic references to a more ancient primary document dating from 2500 BC (Vestal and Wallace, The Finn Foundation of Mormonism, pp. 183-86). Because the three Book of Abraham facsimiles also contained many ancient symbols and allusions to this primary document, Joseph Smith used them to illustrate his Abraham text. All of the authors cited above seem to agree that the facsimiles were not part of the original Abraham text but were more likely included because of the deeper symbolism they contained (Seaich, Ancient Texts and Mormonism, p. 106; Nibley, Judging and Prejudging the Book of Abraham, p. 7; Vestal and Wallace, The Firm Foundation of Mormonism, pp. 183-86).
What is important is not that the facsimiles and text are only remotely related (because this is apparent from the Book of Abraham text) but that Joseph Smith explanations attached to the facsimiles are accurate. Vestal and Wallace note that 25 of Joseph Smith 30 facsimile explanations corresponded closely to the interpretation of Egyptologists, while the remaining 5 did not conflict (Ibid., p. 188; see also p. 234 of this text).
That Joseph translation is so similar to those of Egyptologists is even more remarkable when one considers that neither Joseph Smith nor his associates had any prior knowledge of either Egyptology or Egyptian hieroglyphics.
It appears that after the Book of Abraham was completed, Joseph Smith, W. W. Phelps, and others tried to work out an Egyptian grammar and alphabet. In so doing, they attempted to match up the translated text of the Book of Abraham with the Egyptian characters on the papyri. The idea was apparently to use the Book of Abraham as a type of Rosetta Stone or sure translation (Nibley, Judging and Prejudging the Book of Abraham, p. 6; The Meaning of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers). The experiment was doomed to failure, but it nonetheless indicated that: (1) they had very little knowledge of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, (2) they believed the text to be a true translation of papyri scrolls in their possession, and (3) there was no attempt to deceive others by claiming a knowledge of Egyptian hieroglyphics (see Hugh Nibley, Judging and Prejudging the Book of Abraham, p. 5 or Robert and Rose Mary Brown, They Lie in Wait to Deceive, pp. 238-40).
Though the above has been used in an attempt to discredit Joseph Smith
and the Church, it is clear to those that read the Book of Abraham and
study Joseph Smiths explanation of the three facsimiles that this work
was inspired. (Answering Challenging Mormon Questions, pp. 212-14.)