That is a fun question.
What we know:
There are two different narratives about the book.
First, Joseph Smith was inspired by or translated a twelve foot scroll in black and red letters. From that he obtained The Book of Abraham.
Second, He then attempted to match up the Book of Abraham with a Book of Breathing, in something that looks like reverse order. But he clearly tried to tie the two of them together.
The Book of Abraham contains the initial text of our temple ritual and several Abraham stories that have been recovered since Joseph Smith’s time but that most agree Joseph Smith did not have access to.
Now it is clear that the Book of Breathing is not The Book of Abraham.
While it has been called a grimoire, a funerary text, and a number of other things, to quote from Wikipedia:
The simple answer is that a Book of Breathing(s) is a shortened Book of the Dead. The longer answer basically boils down to the shorter summary above. A Book of the Dead contained all the information, rituals and related material that someone who died needed in order to ascend back into heaven and be reunited with their souls to breath again.
To quote from Wikipedia again:
- Chapters 1–16 The deceased enters the tomb, descends to the underworld, and the body regains its powers of movement and speech.
- Chapters 17–63 Explanation of the mythic origin of the gods and places, the deceased are made to live again so that they may arise, reborn, with the morning sun.
- Chapters 64–129 The deceased travels across the sky in the sun ark as one of the blessed dead. In the evening, the deceased travels to the underworld to appear before Osiris.
- Chapters 130–189 Having been vindicated, the deceased assumes power in the universe as one of the gods. This section also includes assorted chapters on protective amulets, provision of food, and important places
It is more than fair to say that this is the Egyptian form of the temple ritual that explains the origins of life and how the deceased ascends with glory into the heavens.
We also know that originally Joseph Smith said that the record purported to be by or from Abraham. That has been shortened since by later editors (the “purported” was dropped out).
What we don’t know:
We don’t know how everything fits together. We don’t know where the 12′ scroll is (everyone assumes it was burned up in the fire). We don’t know why Joseph Smith then went back, and with the members of the School of the Prophets he tried to tie The Book of Abraham into the Book of Breathings he had — in an endeavor that was never finished.
Unfortunately the School of the Prophets didn’t keep notes on what they were doing with the Book of Abraham that tell us much and The Book of Abraham was not a finished translation process.
It means that we do not have a complete story that comes together with a neat wrapped conclusion. We don’t even have a complete set of what everyone agrees are the facts.
We do have a strong temple text. We do have Abraham stories that are legitimate.
When we used to study the Book of Abraham in the late 70s we used to study it in connection with Hamlet’s Mill.
Just read the top 3-4 reviews at Amazon to get a good idea of whether or not you want to order the book from inter-library loan. The reviews provide an excellent context for the Book of Abraham as well.
Some people find The Book of Abraham a very strong support for their testimonies. Others have issues. The history and the facts lend themselves to every interpretation you might want depending on what you choose to focus on and the weight you want to give different records of what people thought the facts were.
Which is probably why you were not told more about The Book of Abraham.