The Catalyst Theory of The Book of Abraham
I do not believe that the text that we now have was what Joseph Smith used to translate the Book of Abraham. We have examples of him receiving revelation for texts that were not in his possession. Section 7 of the Doctrine and Covenants is an example of this, as is the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible. Joseph Smith did not use the word translation in the same way that others today use the term, or in the traditional sense of the word. I believe that to Joseph Smith, translation included restoring documents that once actually existed but do not currently exist (D&C 7), sharing prophetic inspired commentary (some sections of the JST), deleting textual errors that have crept into the Biblical text (see some of the JST work in Exodus as a small example), restoring text that was lost (some parts of the JST), and even giving us the words of prophets or their experiences as he saw them (see David Bokovoy’s comments). I will write more about how translation was understood by the prophet Joseph Smith in a later post.
From the Gospel Topics Essay recently released from the Church, we read the following:
Alternatively, Joseph’s study of the papyri may have led to a revelation about key events and teachings in the life of Abraham, much as he had earlier received a revelation about the life of Moses while studying the Bible. This view assumes a broader definition of the words translator and translation. 1 According to this view, Joseph’s translation was not a literal rendering of the papyri as a conventional translation would be. Rather, the physical artifacts provided an occasion for meditation, reflection, and revelation. They catalyzed a process whereby God gave to Joseph Smith a revelation about the life of Abraham, even if that revelation did not directly correlate to the characters on the papyri. 2
This theory assumes that the Book of Abraham was not on the papyri; he received the text by revelation, with the papyri acting as a catalyst. This is a possibility because Joseph used the word “translation” to mean several things, including the process of receiving pure revelation. (Joseph Smith’s revelations call his revision of the Bible a “translation” (D&C 73:4; 76:15; 90:13; 94:10; 124:89), even though he didn’t use any Hebrew of Greek manuscripts. Also, D&C 7: is a revealed translation of a lost record written by the Apostle John.)
- “Joseph Smith as Translator,” in Richard Lyman Bushman, Believing History: Latter-day Saint Essays, Reid L. Neilson and Jed Woodworth (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 233–47; Nibley, Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri,51–59.
- By analogy, the Bible seems to have been a frequent catalyst for Joseph Smith’s revelations about God’s dealings with His ancient covenant people. Joseph’s study of the book of Genesis, for example, prompted revelations about the lives and teachings of Adam, Eve, Moses, and Enoch, found today in the book of Moses.