For most people, the idea of translating is fairly straightforward. Conventionally, when someone translates, he reads a document in one language he understands and renders it into another language he understands. The difficulty in assessing the Book of Abraham is that while Joseph Smith says he translated the Book of Abraham from papyrus, he never uses that word in the conventional way. It will be helpful to first look at the other ways Joseph Smith used the word “translate.”
Joseph Smith’s first translation project was the Book of Mormon. It was written in a language he clearly did not know. He never claimed to understand the language it was written in. Instead, he said he was given the ability to translate by the gift and power of God. We don’t know a lot about the Book of Mormon translation process. We know that the Prophet used the seer stones we call the Urim and Thummim, as well as another seer stone he often used. While we cannot nail down the exact details, it seems he often was not looking at the gold plates at all during much of this process. What we can be sure of is that Joseph Smith provided us with a translation of a language he did not know, frequently without referring to the physical text he had. His translation came from God.
The next translation project took place while Joseph Smith was in the midst of finishing the Book of Mormon translation. As he and Oliver Cowdery asked a question, the Prophet was shown in vision a parchment written on by John. Again, it was written in a language Joseph Smith did not understand. This time he never even saw the physical texthe only saw it in vision, and it is not clear whether or not he ever saw the words written on the parchment. It’s possible that he did and at the same time was given the translation of those words. But he may also have seen that the parchment existed and then had the translation of it come to him after the vision. We know very little about the process.
The Joseph Smith’s next translation had very little to do with what most people call “translating.” He looked at an English version of the Bible and provided us with another English version, but giving us things that weren’t at all in the text he was translating from. In this case the text came to him as pure revelation and was not dependent at all on the physical text he had in front of him. This process began about two months after Joseph Smith finished translating the Book of Mormon.
The next translation project was the Book of Abraham, which the Prophet began in 1835, several years after he had begun working on his “New Translation” of the Bible. This process began after he acquired some Egyptian papyri, as outlined in the first column in this series. While some later confidants of the Prophet spoke of his using the Urim and Thummim while translating,[i] the exact nature of this process is unclear.
There is no doubt that the translation was spurred on by the physical possession of the papyri. He certainly did not know the original language the text was written in. It is also clear that Joseph Smith and many of the Saints spoke of the writings of Abraham being on the papyrus, intimating that the process may have been similar to the translation of the gold plates. At the same time, some clues suggest that there was something of a revelatory process akin to the translation of the Bible.
For example, in Joseph Smith’s journal it is recorded that “This after noon labored on the Egyptian alphabet, in company with brsr O[liver] Cowdery and W[illiam] W. Phelps: The system of astronomy was unfolded.”[ii] Most likely this refers to the Prophet’s coming to understand the meaning of Facsimile Two or translating Abraham Chapter three. Either way, the language suggests a revelatory experience that had little to do with what was on the papyrus.
Based on the Prophet’s translation history and the evidence we have, the most likely possible scenarios for the translation process seem to be 1) By the power of God Joseph Smith translated a text that was written on the papyri. 2) As he opened his mind to God because of his curiosity about the text on the papyrus, he received revelation about an ancient text written by Abraham and translated it by the power of God. 3) A combination of the two also seems quite possible, meaning that he translated something on the papyri and received revelation regarding other writings as well.
To more fully understand the process it might be helpful to review what we know of the translation history. It seems clear that Joseph Smith did at least some translation of the papyrus soon after he acquired them. There was then a lull, as no translation appears to have happened during August and September of 1835. October saw a little translation, but November saw a great deal of translation activity. The activity dwindled as December began. There was a specific reason for this, having to do with his desire to learn to translate conventionally.
Joseph Smith recorded a number of times of his desire to learn to read ancient languages. One almost gets a sense that he was grateful for the opportunity to translate when God blessed him with that gift, but that his experience with ancient languages had instilled in him a desire to know those languages for himself and to acquire the ability to translate them whenever he wanted to. His friends, Oliver Cowdery and W. W. Phelps in particular, shared this desire with him. It seems that they made some early attempts to try to figure out Hebrew on their own but gave up on this. Instead, they set about trying to get a few Hebrew grammar books so that they could study them and learn in a more conventional manner.[iii]
In the midst of this Michael Chandler arrived in Kirtland with his papyri.
Very soon after acquiring the papyri Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery and W. W. Phelps began creating their own version of a grammar of the Egyptian language. Nowhere are they explicit about the purpose of this attempt, but we can make a reasonable supposition as to what was going on. Knowing that they were interested in learning languages and given to trying to figure them out on their own, and knowing that as far as they knew, no one was able to translate Egyptian, it seems likely that they felt that they had a translation of some Egyptian characters and supposed that with this they could crack Egyptian and create the first grammar of Egyptian.
This endeavor would allow them to translate whatever portions of the papyri they wanted whenever they wanted. They seem to have been influenced by the common ideas of their time that each Egyptian character conveyed levels of mysterious meaning. They worked on this for a short time but soon gave up. W. W. Phelps would continue the efforts on his own for a while and seems to have reengaged in it from time to time.[iv]
In the midst of this effort, Oliver Cowdery finally acquired the Hebrew grammar books they had been wanting. Immediately they began looking into Hebrew. Sadly, they had purchased grammars that were not intended for use as a learning grammar. The group soon figured out that they could not learn Hebrew from these books and decided to hire a Hebrew teacher. As they embarked on this effort, Egyptian translation efforts ceased and never really resumed. Joseph Smith had finally developed the ability to translate an ancient language on his own, which pushed other translation efforts to the backseat.
From time to time Joseph Smith brought up the idea of translating more of the Book of Abraham, or of working on the Egyptian grammar again. Phelps maintained possession of their early attempt at creating a grammar. When the Prophet was working on publishing the Book of Abraham in 1842, at which time he may have been translating more of it, his interest in Egyptian seems to have been piqued again, and he went to visit Phelps to look at the grammar. He suggested that they may want to try to create such a grammar again, which suggests that he was not satisfied with the one they had. In any case he never did, and with the possible exception of doing some translation during the days of publishing the record, he never went back to translating the Book of Abraham.
The theory that the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar represent an attempt, led by W. W. Phelps but aided by Joseph Smith, to create an Egyptian grammar using at least something of Joseph Smith’s translation is supported by the fact that it fits in well with what we know of Smith’s other activities. He had been engaged in trying to figure out how to translate Hebrew in a conventional manner by using his own translation work. He gave this up. He then tried to figure out how to translate Egyptian using his own translation work. He gave this up. He finally attempted to learn to translate Hebrew using a very difficult grammar, and gave this up in favor of hiring a Hebrew teacher. At this point Smith excelled in learning Hebrew and never seems to have returned to the idea of trying to pick up a language using less conventional means.
This theory is, so far, the theory that best accounts for all of the evidence. There is a great deal of work to be done here, and hopefully other scholars will devote their time and training to helping us understand this less-than-crucial, though very interesting, issue.
This issue of Joseph Smith’s translation process poses a problem for many people. Very few people in the world could translate any Egyptian at all at the time, and Joseph Smith certainly had no academic training that would have given him this ability. While all can agree on this first point, it immediately forces us to make one of two possible assumptions before evaluating Joseph Smith’s claims of translating from the papyri he possessed: It is possible that divine inspiration was available to Joseph Smith, or he translated the text based on conventional, academic methods alone.
If we do not believe that translation via divine assistance is possible and that the only method of translation is the conventional academic model, then the argument is over. Based on this assumption, Joseph Smith could not have translated the papyri and anything he did with them is false, regardless of how they may or may not match up with other ancient texts or ideas.
Alternatively, we may believe in what the Bible calls “the gift of tongues,” which can include the ability to translate from a language one does not know through conventional means. If we believe this, we may still choose to believe that Joseph Smith was not blessed with such a gift. In this case we will still regard everything regarding his claim to translate as fraud. However, if we believe that God bestowed upon Joseph Smith an ability to translate outside of the conventional method, then the fact that he did not know Egyptian is irrelevant. Our beginning assumption colors how we see the rest of the evidence. If one does not discount the possibility that divine inspiration was available to Joseph Smith, then this whole question is moot.
Did Joseph Smith want to translate using a more conventional method? Absolutely! He wanted to learn both Hebrew and Egyptian in such a way. He prayed that he might be blessed with an understanding of ancient languages.[v] As was mentioned earlier, he eventually gave up trying to use his own translations to try to work out a conventional grammar and hired a Hebrew teacher. Until he hired a Hebrew teacher, was he a failure at translating using conventional methods? Yes. This is why he sought out such a teacher. Does any of this mean he did not translate via inspiration? No, in fact it highlights his desire to be able to learn to translate on his own instead of having to rely on revelation when the Lord saw fit to provide him with it.
Again, it is the original assumptions we make that we must be cognizant of.
I have been privy to communications between scholars who have seen some of the things we have already mentioned wherein Joseph Smith’s interpretations agree with Egyptological interpretations. They have made statements like “It has to be coincidence, Joseph Smith could not translate Egyptian.” They are so dedicated to the assumption that he could not receive inspiration that any evidence to the contrary has to be dismissed. This is simply because it does not fit into the paradigm they have created.
I admit that I operate in a similar way. Because of both spiritual and intellectual experiences, I have made an assumption that Joseph Smith could and did receive inspiration to translate. Thus, just as some look for ways to explain away things that don’t agree with their paradigm, I look for explanations that fit into my paradigm when I encounter something that seems contrary. There is no way around this. Our assumptions inevitably color our conclusions.
All we can do is raise ourselves to safest ground by at least admitting our assumptions, examining them, and operating knowingly in light of them. It is the failure to be transparent about assumptions, or a failure to realize that assumptions have been made, that leads to confusion on the issues surrounding the Joseph Smith Papyri. Most arguments fall away when we are clear about assumptions. Instead we can disagree on which assumption is correct, but admit that given a particular assumption, many conclusions that follow are logical.
[i] At this point, they referred to the Prophet’s other seer stone as a Urim and Thummim.
[ii] Dean C. Jessee, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Richard L. Jensen, eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Journals Volume 1 (2008), 67.
[iii] On his attempts to translate, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sh8kfcQtu60&;
[iv] On the work on the KEP, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XVAEC1wJFqY&;
[v] See endnote ii, journal entry from February 4, 1836.