SALT LAKE CITY — The Book of Abraham is inspired scripture and probably not a literal translation from ancient Egyptian scrolls by Mormon founder Joseph Smith, the Utah-based church said in a new essay.
The article suggests God may have helped Smith, who never claimed to speak the language it was in, to understand what was in the scrolls.
"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," the article says, "The Lord did not require Joseph Smith to have knowledge of Egyptian. By the gift and power of God, Joseph received knowledge about the life and teachings of Abraham."
The Mormon belief that God provides guidance or inspiration by way of revelations is a fundamental core of the faith, and helps church leaders make major decisions.
The essay marks a departure from past explanations by officials with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and embraces the widely-held view from religious scholars and historians that Smith's work isn't a direct translation, said Armand Mauss, a retired professor of sociology and religious studies at Washington State University.
"It is an official recognition — even a concession — that Joseph Smith could not, and did not, 'translate' any scriptures in the literal, scholarly sense that is usually implied by the term 'translate,'" Mauss said.
The article, posted on the church's website, recognizes that it's impossible to know how exactly Smith used the papyri to write the Book of Abraham. There were no eyewitnesses to the translation process, and only fragments of the scrolls exist today, the article says. It notes that Smith never claimed to know the language it was in.
The church still encourages members to look to the scripture for the "eternal truths it teaches and the powerful spirit it conveys."
The nearly-3,000 word article is the latest in a series of recent online pieces posted on the church website that explain, expand or clarify on some of the more sensitive gospel topics.
Past articles have addressed the faith's past ban on black men in the lay clergy and the early history of polygamy.
In February, a 3,500-word article clarified that members aren't taught they'll get their own planet in the afterlife, a misconception popularized in pop culture most recently by the Broadway show "The Book of Mormon." The essay affirmed the faith's belief that humans can become like God in eternity, but says the "cartoonish image of people receiving their own planets" is not how members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints envision it.
Many scholars have applauded church leaders for finally acknowledging some of the most sensitive parts of its history and doctrine that it once sidestepped.
But not everybody is praising the latest essay. Carl Wimmer, a former well-known Utah legislator who left Mormonism in part because he didn't believe Book of Abraham matched modern translations of the remaining fragments, is critical of the new article, The Salt Lake Tribune reports (http://bit.ly/1tnlSXf)
"It is a positive step toward historical truth that has been overlooked for years and years," Wimmer said. "But it really diminishes the importance of the more controversial aspects and stresses the importance of the parts they want their members to read and understand. I think that's unfortunate."
Some believe the article could be the beginning of new interpretations for other translated scriptures in the religion. Mauss said that by emphasizing that the real value of the Book of Abraham lies not in its literal translation, but in its divinely inspired contents, the article makes a point that might be applicable to other translated scriptures in the religion as well, such as the Book of Mormon, whose historical authenticity has also been questioned.