The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri (2d ed.): A Book Review

If the writings of Hugh Nibley, Leonard Arrington and Lowell Bennion are the “classic rock” of Mormon studies, and if Hugh Nibley is the Led Zeppelin of classic Mormon studies, then Nibley’s The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment (MJSP), recently released in a new 2nd edition, is Nibley’s digitally remastered “Stairway to Heaven.” [1]

I tried reading this book in its first edition (published in 1975) as a missionary in Switzerland circa 1979. I eagerly read the introductory essays about the Book of Abraham “missing papyrus” theory, what the Hor Book of Breathings (the papyrus text to which Book of Abraham Facsimile 1 was attached) was and wasn’t, what a translation is and isn’t, all written in an interesting and understandable fashion. Then I turned my attention toward the translation and commentary section where Nibley reproduced an interlinear transcription, transliteration and translation of this papyrus text, along with an extensive commentary. Let me put it this way: the introductory portion of MJSP may be likened unto 1st Nephi, whereas the text and commentary portion of MJSP may be likened unto 2nd Nephi. In other words, the text and commentary portions of MJSP were an antidote for insomnia. I staggered my way through this part, understanding, at best, 20% of it. But my patience was rewarded when I finally came upon the appendices which more than justified the purchase price since they contained a treasure trove of early Jewish and Christian documents stuffed full of ritual connections in accessible form for the general LDS reader, including that wonderful text, “The Hymn of the Pearl.”

The second time I tried reading MJSP was in the early 1980s, but only after I had first read the following introductory texts on ancient Egypt: (i) Frankfort’s out-of-date, but still great, Ancient Egyptian Religion; (ii) Budge’s way outdated, but still useful, Gods of Ancient Egypt; and (iii) Mertz’s (then) fairly current Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs: A Popular History of Ancient Egypt. Better prepared, the second time around I understood about 85% of MJSP. In the late 1990s, I read MJSP again and understood about 95% of it, which figures, since that was right at the time when it was becoming clear that MJSP itself was out-of-date. And now we have the new 2nd edition of MJSP published in 2005 by FARMS and edited by John Gee and Michael Rhodes, two prominent students of Book of Abraham Egyptological issues from a “traditional” LDS point of view [2] whose own articles and books, among others, have contributed to the need for such an update.

So, what’s MJSP all about? The subtitle says it all: an Egyptian endowment. This book really was an excuse for Nibley to write about Egyptian rituals and, within the constraints of mere winks and nods, to relate them to the Mormon endowment ritual. There are some interesting parallels which I won’t mention here, some strained, others seemingly on-target.

And, just how “new-and-improved” is the MJSP 2nd edition?

It is a magnificent, beautiful book, completely reformatted, with extensively updated illustrations and indices. The amateur MJSP 1st edition illustrations of Egyptian art have been completely overhauled and replaced with professionally drawn, or even actual photographic reproductions, of these same pieces, often with additional editorial commentary from Gee and Rhodes. In addition, some new illustrations and photos have been added.

However, as noted by the editors, the introduction, translation and commentary contained in the new MJSP has not been overhauled in any significant way; only a few corrections or changes have been made [3]. This is a shame, although, entirely understandable. To completely update the MJSP would take an extraordinary amount of time and expense. My personal choice would have been to not update the text at all, but, instead, include more substantive introductory essays summarizing the last 30 years of the debates engendered by the Joseph Smith papyri and noting the corresponding corrections or updates to MJSP. In any event, MJSP in either the 1st or 2nd edition is an astounding and monumental achievement, in many ways the most spectacular thing Nibley ever wrote, a significant contribution made to Mormon studies and Egyptology.

One of these corrections actually made in the MJSP 2nd edition translation is somewhat … noteworthy (if you get drowsy here, feel free to skip ahead 2 paragraphs). Until 1998, most published translations of, and articles about, the Hor Book of Breathings mentioned the name of a certain Rmny-q3y, assumed to be Hor’s father, but which in fact was a mistranslation. Richard Parker originated this mistranslation [4], which understandably was followed by Nibley (MJSP 1st edition, 26) and then understandably followed by John Gee [5], although Klaus Baer, in an essay and translation written after Parker’s mistake and known to both Nibley and Gee, translated this word correctly [6]. Marc Coenen matter-of-factly noted this mistranslation in 1998 [7], which note was apparently the source of John Gee’s later public correction of his earlier erroneous use of this mistranslation [8], and which note by Coenen was the source of Robert Ritner’s later, somewhat snide, complaint suggesting Nibley created this mistranslation in the first place and that Gee “confused” it even further [9], although Ritner failed to recognize (i) Gee’s previous corrective note in which Gee apparently notes Coenen’s note and (ii) that Nibley and Gee both went astray following Parker.

Why does any of this matter? First, it shows how difficult this stuff is. Second, it shows how personal some of these issues can become. Third, such information (called prosopographical“) about the owners of the Joseph Smith papyri is actually very important in researching the location of Hor’s burial chamber, the current location of his mummy (if it still exists), the whereabouts of other books possibly owned by Hor, information about his profession and family and, ultimately, a better understanding of Hor’s Book of Breathings among the Joseph Smith papyri.

So, if you want to read up-to-date translations of, commentaries on, and arguments about, the Hor Book of Breathings, etc., don’t read the 1st or 2nd editions of MJSP, but, instead, read the very recent translations and commentaries of Michael Rhodes [10] and Robert Ritner [11], along with the contributions of Marc Coenen [12] and John Gee [13]. For current discussions of the Book of Abraham “missing papyrus” theory and other related topics, read Ed Ashment [14], Charles Larson [15], John Gee [16] and the recent post and comments of some BCC participants.

The upside of all this is with the new-and-somewhat-improved MJSP you no longer have to fork over $150–$300 for a rare copy of the 1st edition. For a mere $45 you can now own the 2nd edition with better illustrations and a few corrections. The downside of all this is, in spite of the editors’ caveats, first-time readers may believe that the MJSP 2nd edition is the latest word on some of these topics, rather than Nibley’s “initial” word that shaped the evolving debate of such topics for the last 30 years.

Conclusion: the new MJSP is a classic rock (and not a roll).

[1] Although these comparisons are really a mere introductory ploy, there are connections between “Stairway to Heaven” and Nibley’s MJSP. Both of them deal with ascension themes and the authors of both works were apparently influenced by Robert Graves’ odd work The White Goddess (New York, Noonday: 1966). For Nibley, see for instance “Three Shrines: Mantic, Sophic, and Sophistic,” in The Ancient State (Provo, FARMS: 1991) 360. For Led Zeppelin, don’t read Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga, by Stephen Davis, p. 132, and especially not any other page in this book, a story that is even more lurid than … the Old Testament.

[2] In the Mormon culture wars I prefer the term “traditional” to “apologetic” and “non-traditional” (or “revisionist”) to “apostate” (or “anti-Mormon”), although when speaking of Egyptological views of the Joseph Smith papyri, “traditional” Egyptological views very often become “non-traditional” Mormon views.

[3] A handful of publications have suggested revisions to Nibley’s MJSP translation of the Hor Book of Breathings. See, for instance, the technical corrections suggested by Robert Ritner in the footnotes to his “The Breathing Permit of Hor Thirty Four Years Later” in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 33/4 (Winter 2000), 97-119, as reprinted with minor introductory changes in “The Breathing Permit of Hor Among the Joseph Smith PapyriJournal of Near Eastern Studies 62/3 (2003), 161-180. Kerry Muhlestein has responded to several of Ritner’s proposed corrections in the footnotes to his “The Book of Breathings in Its Place” in FARMS Review of Books 17/2 (2005) 471-486. [Please note: I can’t make the Dialogue links work to the specific articles, just to the UofU online catalogue.]

[4] Richard A. Parker, “The Book of Breathings (Fragment I, the ‘Sensen’ Text, with Restorations from Louvre Papyrus 3284),” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 3/2 (Summer 1968) 99.

[5] John Gee, “A Tragedy of Errors,” FARMS Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 4/1 (1992), 105 and 108.

[6] Klaus Baer, “The Breathing Permit of Hor,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 3/3 (Autumn 1968) 116-117.

[7] Marc Coenen, “The Dating of the Papyri Joseph Smith I, X and XI and Min Who Massacres His Enemies” in W. Clarysse, et al, Egyptian Religion, The Last Thousand Years, vol. 2 (Leuven, 1998), 1104, as supplemented by his “On the Demise of the Book of the Dead,” appearing in Revue d’ Egyptologie 52, 69-84.

[8] John Gee, “Eyewitness, Hearsay, and Physical Evidence of the Joseph Smith Papyri,” in in Stephen D. Ricks, et al, The Disciple as Witness: Essays on Latter-day Saint History and Doctrine in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson (Provo, 2001) 212, n. 53.

[9] Ritner, “The Breathing Permit of Hor Thirty Four Years Later,” 106, n. 59.

[10] Michael Rhodes, The Hor Book of Breathings: A Translation and Commentary (Provo: FARMS, 2005).

[11] Ritner, “The Breathing Permit of Hor Thirty Four Years Later.”

[12] In addition to his articles cited in note 7 above, see Coenen’s: “An Introduction to the Document of Breathing Made By Isis,” Revue d’ Egyptologie 49 (1998) 37-45; “Books of Breathings: More Than A Terminological Question?” Orientalia Lovaniensia Periodica (1995) 29-38; and “Horos, Prophet of Min Who Massacres His Enemies,” Chronique D’ Egypte 74 (1999). Eagerly anticipated is the English translation of Coenen’s PhD disseration, a thorough analysis of all ancient Egyptian Books of Breathing.

[13] John Gee, “The Ancient Owners of the Joseph Smith Papyri,” FARMS Preliminary Report (Provo: FARMS, 1999); and John Gee, A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2000).

[14] Edward H. Ashment, “Reducing Dissonance: The Book of Abraham as a Case Study,” in The Word of God: Essays on Mormon Scripture, ed. Dan Vogel (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1990), 221-36; and Edward H. Ashment, “Joseph Smith’s Identification of ‘Abraham’ in Papyrus JS 1, the ‘Breathing Permit of Hor,'” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 33/4 (2000): 121-26.

[15] Charles M. Larson, By His Own Hand upon Papyrus: A New Look at the Joseph Smith Papyri (Grand Rapids, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 1992). A useful, if flawed, summary of non-traditional views.

[16] John Gee, “A Tragedy of Errors“; and John Gee, “Eyewitness, Hearsay, and Physical Evidence of the Joseph Smith Papyri.”


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for the enlightening review, Ed.

    I haven’t purchased it. In general, I tend not to get the revised editions of Nibley works, reasoning that I already have the original editions and therefore I tend to spend my limited funds on completely new books rather than new editions. But I was sorely tempted by the beautiful second edition of MJSP when I was in Utah. Inasmuch as I had almost no luggage space to bring back books, that made my decision not to purchase a little bit easier. But I agree with you that it is a gorgeous book.

    (If I understand it correctly, the illustrations in the first edition were mostly hand drawn by Hugh himself.)

  2. Antonio Parr says:

    Do we need any further evidence that Ed is a lot smarter than all of the rest of us (combined)?

    Fascinating review.

  3. I haven’t read it, but skimming through the introduction, I found Gee’s characterization of it as a “period piece” (I think that was the phraseology he used), as quite interesting. Your review enlightens why he said what he did…and agreed a great review.

    Beyond the older scholarship, how valuable is the text from the winks and nods associated with endowment rituals?

  4. I think that the illustrations in the original were hand-drawn (at least some of them) by Martha Nibley Beck. Is that correct?

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    I think you’re right, John, that Martha did some of them, but I think Hugh did some as well.

  6. Re the original illustrations, the 2nd edition says Martha and Hugh did them, as well as an unknown 3rd artist. I’m claiming it was me.

    I said the illustrations were amateurish, but not as a slam. They are actually very reliable and otherwise adequate.

  7. Re #3, there’s something to the ritual comparisons. I’d read last few chapters and the appendices to get the stuff that makes you scratch your head. However, the cause and effect relationship is where the debate is. Nibley downplays Masonic influences in his intro, but I’d say that’s one of the more promising areas of research at the moment.

    I recall seeing on the “Mormon document underground” in the 80s a kind of hand-drawn “family tree” showing how ancient societies’ rituals were possibly related to each other. I’ve got a copy still on file somewhere. I think Hamblin was the creator of this document. It’s interesting stuff.

  8. About 5 years ago an article about Nibley in the SL Tribune said he had been working for a decade on a new book about the Book of Abraham. Does anyone know the status on this? Also, because of the asian/Egypt setting of all this, I would propose a remastering of Zep’s Kashmir as the apt analogy. Or not.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    The book you reference, larryco, is to be called One Eternal Round, and will be on the hypocephalus (i.e., Facsimile 2). I wouldn’t look for it in print any time soon.

    When Hugh finally gave up control of it, a team from FARMS came to his house to take not only the draft manuscript, but supporting papers. There were stacks of paper everywhere. They had to approach the job like an archaeological dig, recording locations and strata and such of where things were when they took them. It will be an immense undertaking to sort through that material and turn it into a publishable manuscript. It will happen, but it will also be a while.

  10. If I understand correctly, Nibley used to joke that he was progressing so slowly on that book because he felt God would not let him die until it was done.

  11. Thanks, Kevin.

  12. Like Stairway to Heaven, this book contains secret messages when read backwards. It also makes about as much sense backwards as forwards.

  13. Kevin, weren’t the illustrations in fact done by Martha Beck, Nibley’s daughter? I believe this came up relative to her book and claims about Nibley.

  14. Clark, the editors of the 2nd edition say that Hugh, Martha and a 3rd unknown artist did the artwork. Martha does mention her role in her infamous book.

    Martha, Martha, Martha. Let’s not get started on her. I will say that after looking at those drawings again, they could give you nightmares.

  15. Kevin Barney says:

    Yeah, Clark, I corrected myself in no. 5, and Ed has also given a more definitive statement from the new edition.

  16. Whoops. I need to update my browser window before posting to ensure people haven’t written posts in between. (grin) Who did the new art? Michael Lyons?

  17. Clark, art “directed” by Michael Lyon–like he’s the executive producer nowadays. It’s his crisp style 95% of the time.

  18. I don’t own the new MJSP, but I dislike the size of the book (it’s bloated) and the look of the dust jacket. It was bad enough when volume 14 of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley appeared with a slick jacket, making the previous volumes in the set look like cheap knockoffs on the shelf. However, I cannot accept the fact that the new MJSP does not carry the time-tested, horizontal-striped cover style of the first 15 volumes in the CWHN set. Is nothing sacred anymore?

  19. Amen to that. I was even dismayed that they changed from the rough-textured dust jackets to the new smooth ones. The inhomogeneity in what should be a nicely matched set on the shelf really sucks rocks.

  20. The rough textured jackets aren’t very durable, though.

    IMHO, all of the CWHN titles should have been in black “scripture” leather, with gold page ends, moire silk lined front and back, with 2 matching page marker ribbons, in a limited and numbered series.

    Or in paperback.

  21. you no longer have to fork over $150–$300 for a rare copy of the 1st edition. For a mere $45

    That is neat. I was really hoping that they would release it in the large format with the rough binding.

    Thanks for the post, and the footnotes.

  22. I bought MJSP-1 when first published mid-70’s and shortly after heard Dr. Nibley speak about it in the little theater upstairs and across from the Varsity Theater in the ELWC at BYU. He signed my copy afterwards. Any idea of it’s market value now? Missing vellum dust jacket and has my notes in the text.

    …I suppose Bro. Hugh’s working on his own Book of the Dead now…

  23. Manaen, go to ABEbooks to get an idea or call Sam Wellers in SLC.

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