The Egyptian Book of the Dead is a large body of writings, used from the New Kingdom to the Ptolemaic Period, that is meant to help one obtain a place in the afterlife among the gods. In July of 1835, Joseph and several others purchased a collection of Egyptian antiquities, including four mummies and a number of papyri. Joseph soon announced that among this papyri was a Book of Abraham, which he eventually would translate, publish in the Times and Seasons, which would be printed as part of the British Mission pamphlet A Pearl of Great Price, which would be canonized as scripture in 1880. Interest in the JS Papyri has focused on the papyri thought to relate in some way to the Abraham text, namely the Hor Book of Breathings and the Sheshonq Hypocephalus. But this little collection also included three Ptolemaic era copies of the Book of the Dead. The most extensive fragments are from a Book of the Dead belonging to someone named Tshemmin; one fragment belonged to a woman named Neferirnub. (The third Book of the Dead belonged to someone named Amenhotep, but has not survived.)
The Book of the Dead papyri finally have their day in the spotlight, in the new publication by Michael D. Rhodes, Books of the Dead Belonging to Tshemmin and Neferirnub: A Translation and Commentary (Provo: Maxwell Institute, 2010), volume 4 in the Studies in the Book of Abraham series. This volume is available through the BYU Bookstore, among other venues.
I don’t know Rhodes personally, although I did see him present at a conference once. He has an intriguingly eclectic background. He has spent the last 17 years as a research professor in the Department of Ancient Scripture at BYU, but before that he taught physics at the Air Force Academy. Although he doesn’t have a Ph.D. in the subject, he has strong graduate level chops in Egyptian, having studied at Johns Hopkins, the Freie Universitat Berlin, and Oxford. In 1977 Rhodes published a truly seminal article, “A Translation and Commentary of the Joseph Smith Hypocephalus” in BYU Studies. He has kept the article up to date on his website here. His experience in improving the presentation of the Egyptian material in that article has paid big dividends in his recent publications of the Joseph Smith Papyri. His publication of the Hor Book of Breathings (volume 2 in the Studies in the Book of Abraham series) was simply outstanding, and his new publication of Joseph’s copies of the Book of the Dead follows a very similar format.
The book begins with a concise explanation of what Books of the Dead are, and then moves to a description of the provenance of these papyri. A detailed description of the Tshemmin papyrus follows, including measurements and technical subjects such as the palaeography, orthography and grammar of the text. The text itself is then presented, in both transliteration and translation, using other Ptolemaic copies of the Book of the Dead to fill in gaps. Similar, but of course much shorter, material is then presented for the Neferirnub text, which is the vignette accompanying chapter 125 (a psychostasy or judgment scene). There then follows a section with complete color plates together with hieroglyphic transcriptions of both texts. There are two glossaries: one of gods and place names, and another complete glossary of all words appearing in the texts. A bibliography and index conclude the volume.
This is not a text for your Gospel Essentials class. It is a very detailed and technical scholarly presentation of Egyptian texts. It is a book first and foremost for those interested in ancient Egyptian language and religion, especially of the Ptolemaic period. But it is also a book for serious–and I emphasize serious–students of Mormon history and scripture. These are texts that Joseph studied and proudly displayed, as did his mother after him. Although Joseph never proferred a translation of these papyri, Oliver Cowdery gave a description of them, characterizing this material as a book of Joseph, and describing several of the vignettes (such as a serpent with legs).
I’m interested in languages, and I think Rhodes’ presentation of the text is simply excellent, from plates, to hieroglyphic transcription, to transliteration, to translation, to glossaries and explanations of the particularities of the language. My congratulations to him for a job well done.