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The following is Part 1 of a two-part series on the Book of Abraham. To read Part 2, CLICK HERE.
Prologue: The Book of Abraham and Challenges from Scholars at the Maxwell Institute
I was recently contacted by a member of the Church who was ready to abandon his testimony after listening to a seminar at BYU from the Neal A. Maxwell Institute. Two professors in January 2019 shared their insights on the Book of Abraham based on their years of study in preparing a major volume on the Book of Abraham for the Joseph Smith Papers Project. The book, The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations, Volume 4: Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts (Salt Lake City, UT: Church Historian’s Press, 2018), was edited by Robin Scott Jensen and Brian M. Hauglid, the two prominent professors who gave the seminar. That volume, hereafter JSPRT4, is a wonderful accomplishment in many ways, making a treasure trove of historical documents available for scholarly work. Because of the high profile nature of the extensive and visionary Joseph Smith Papers Project (see JosephSmithPapers.org), it is natural that the editors of a volume might have many speaking opportunities, especially on something as interesting and also perplexing as the Book of Abraham. But why would their seminar cause such damage to a member’s testimony?
When I reviewed the seminar on the Maxwell Institute’s website, I was troubled by the stance of the editors. They discussed the apparent problems with the Book of Abraham, but none of the strengths. They pointed to things where Joseph seemed to be wrong, but never mentioned the many things that now appear to be plausible or right. There was no reference to extensive scholarship on the Book of Abraham and the ways of approaching that problems that previous scholars have pointed to, and spoke as if the problems they were pointing to had no resolution. I could see why someone unfamiliar with the debates on the Book of Abraham could conclude that there was no room left for belief that Joseph Smith had translated the Book of Abraham with the power of God.
There are many times when the proclamations of scholars clash with religious belief. Sometimes good scholarship leads the way to revising old misunderstandings, and other times when questionable scholarship undermines faith improperly. In this case, there may be some unfortunate biases that have influenced the work and teachings of two prominent scholars. Their particular perspectives should not be viewed as definitive or endorsed by the Church. It’s possible for since and devout members of the Church to hold their particular viewpoints, but it’s important for members to recognize the gaps in their work in order to leave room for other possibilities. It’s also important to understand that the overt attacks on the Book of Abraham by some critics of the Church rest on some of the same assumptions made by the scholars in questions. Here I will explain why I believe those assumptions are clearly in error.
The apparent editorial bias in JSPRT4 and in the Maxwell Institute podcast is discussed in detail in a recent publication at The Interpreter. See “A Precious Resource with Some Gaps” by Jeff Lindsay. While we should recognize the immense value of the documents and transcripts provided in this work that involved contributions from numerous parties, the gaps in the commentary and other aspects of the text include several major issues:
- Lack of Acknowledgement of Past Scholarship
- Lack of Balance in Interpretive Remarks
- Overlooking the Role of Hebrew Study on the Book of Abraham Project
- Errors in the Assumed Dates of Key Documents
- Granting Improper Credibility to a Key Claim of Book of Abraham Critics Regarding the Twin Book of Abraham Manuscripts A and B
- Improperly Downplaying Common Knowledge about Champollion and the Nature of the Egyptian Language
- Missing “First Aid” and Ignoring the Positives
Before discussing any of these (#5 will be treated in the most detail), let’s step back and understand why the Book of Abraham is so controversial, why some people have left the Church over it, why that’s a poor decision, and why inadequate scholarship in JSPRT4 and other presentations may unfairly and improperly contribute to the problem when it could have helped strengthen respect for the Book of Abraham as scripture.
Basics of the Book of Abraham Controversies
The Book of Abraham was translated by Joseph Smith. It’s origins are briefly summarized in the Gospel Topics Essay:
In the summer of 1835, an entrepreneur named Michael Chandler arrived at Church headquarters in Kirtland, Ohio, with four mummies and multiple scrolls of papyrus…. By the time the collection arrived in Kirtland, all but four mummies and several papyrus scrolls had already been sold. A group of Latter-day Saints in Kirtland purchased the remaining artifacts for the Church. After Joseph Smith examined the papyri and commenced “the translation of some of the characters or hieroglyphics,” his history recounts, “much to our joy [we] found that one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham.”
For years it was believed that the entire collection of papyrus scrolls was lost, but a number of fragments were found in 1967 in the Metropolitan Museum of New York City and were then returned to the Church. Critics claimed that the original papyri Joseph had translated were now found and since they had nothing to do with Abraham, they claimed to have sure evidence that Joseph was a fraud. An excellent overview of the history and key issues around the Book of Abraham is found in John Gee’s An Introduction to the Book of Abraham. Valuable resources on many related issues are available at Pearl of Great Price Central, FairMormon.org, The Interpreter (MormonInterpreter.com), and the Maxwell Institute materials now housed at ScholarsArchive.byu.edu.
Even for faithful members of the Church, the nature of Joseph’s translation and the specific source for the translation have been a topic of much debate. Many have pointed out that the recovered papyrus fragments need not be the original scrolls Joseph translated, since they may not match the physical description provided by eyewitnesses of the scroll Joseph translated. Since part of the collection was sold and eventually reached Chicago where it appeared to have been destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, it is certain that some of documents Joseph had are now missing. The so-called “missing scroll theory” has been a common defense to claims that the original scrolls have been found, suggesting that there was a translated text from a missing scroll. )
Other theories for the translation include 1) Joseph receiving inspired text that isn’t necessarily directly related to any of the scrolls in the collection, 2) relying on characters from the existing papyri as some kind of catalyst or trigger for associated text from some other source we don’t have, or 3) properly detecting the meaning of the figures associated with our modern Book of Abraham and extracting inspired text based on their meaning. There is much we don’t know about what and how he translated. Some Latter-day Saints might argue that the Book of Abraham is Joseph’s own inspiring fiction, using a fictitious, nineteenth-century Book of Abraham as a vehicle to convey his inspired thoughts about various doctrines, though such a viewpoint on Joseph’s “translation” work would seem to undermine not just the Book of Abraham, but also the Book of Mormon, which was a translation from “reformed Egyptian.”
For a faithful appreciation of the Book of Abraham, the original source of the text, the translation method, and how that text relates to the surviving fragments may be less important than the text itself and its setting in antiquity, but issues around how the translation may have been done are vital parts of popular attacks on the authenticity and antiquity of the Book of Abraham, attacks that have weakened testimonies of some members of the Church. Therefore, properly understanding the issues can be vital in helping members or investigators cope with some of the intellectual challenges that can be posed.
The basic attacks made against the Book of Abraham can sound devastating. When I first encountered these attacks shortly after being called as a young bishop in Wisconsin, I was deeply troubled. The case against Joseph Smith sounded so strong: “Joseph claimed to have translating Egyptian papyri. Now we have found the papyri in an era when scholars can read Egyptian. Now we can see that the papyri have nothing to do with Abraham. Joseph Smith was completely wrong. If he was a fraud making up the Book of Abraham, how can we trust him with the translation of the Book of Mormon or anything else?”
Fortunately, my testimony of the Book of Mormon was solid enough at the time that I was able to put this issue on hold, after prayerfully seeking guidance and feeling that I needed more time and research. I would soon encounter evidence not only of the possibility of a missing scroll or other source for the Book of Abraham, but also abundant evidence for the antiquity of the content of the Book of Abraham and many things that appear surprisingly accurate. Finding that a missing scroll was possible, when the critics that had shaken me made no mention of that and simply claimed that we now had the original papyrus fragments, as if we had all of them. Leaving out vital information and failing to acknowledge any gaps or weaknesses in their theory would soon be identified as a fairly common characteristic of some of our most vocal critics.
Since my early brush with the convincing but questionable arguments against the Book of Abraham, the methodology of our critics has expanded to get into more intricate details with seemingly more convincing arguments. Of particular interest is a puzzling set of documents created in Kirtland, Ohio that are related to the Egyptian papyri. These documents, often called the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, look like efforts to understand or decode “Egyptian.” Quotes are appropriate because much of the “Egyptian” in the Kirtland Egyptian Papers is not even Egyptian, an important fact that calls into question some of the theories that are advanced about the meaning of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers.
Critics often say that these documents, such as three versions of an “Egyptian Alphabet” and a lengthier “Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language” by W.W. Phelps show how Joseph was developing tools to help him translate Egyptian. That’s far from certain.
The Kirtland Egyptian Papers were largely prepared by Joseph’s scribes, though his handwriting appears on part of one document. These documents include an early text called the “Egyptian Counting” document which attempts to give the “Egyptian” numerical system. Strangely, none of the “Egyptian” characters are Egyptian and, of course, none of the contrived pronunciations appear to be Egyptian. What is going on?
Dr. Hugh Nibley suggested that the Kirtland Egyptian Papers was largely an attempt by Joseph’s scribes to crack the Egyptian language using Joseph’s revealed Book of Abraham text as some kind of guide, perhaps in an effort similar to Champollion’s use of the Rosetta Stone. William Schryver has suggested that since the “definitions” given in the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language (hereafter GAEL) are derived not just from language in some parts of the Book of Abraham but also from some portions of the Doctrine and Covenants, as if the effort was not about the Book of Abraham alone and certainly not translating it. Schryver suggests that the exercise was an attempt to create a “reverse cipher,” a system for encoding English text at a time when code words were already being used in the Doctrine and Covenants to hide some things from enemies of the Church.
The editors of JSPRT4, however, state that there is “some evidence” that the Book of Abraham was derived from the GAEL (p. xxv), citing an article from a critic of the Book of Abraham that does little more than offer an opinion that the opening verses of the book are choppy, as if they were plucked from various definitions in the GAEL. That subjective opinion is hardly evidence and overlooks evidence that the GAEL was derived from the Book of Abraham. JSPRT4 makes no mention of the multiple problems with such a claim, some of which are detailed in article mentioned above in The Interpreter. The editors also suggest that the comments in the interpretation of Facsimile 2 “borrow heavily from the Grammar and Alphabet volume” (p. 276), and do not even raise the possibility (and a far more likely one) that the GAEL references to planets, stars, and other topics are based on the interpretation of Facsimile 2 and the related information in Abraham 3.
Understanding the relationship between the Book of Abraham and the human guesswork of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers (hereafter KEP) is vital for coping with the debates around the Book of Abraham. Extensive evidence suggests that the KEP is based on the Book of Abraham, not the other way around. Some of this evidence is discussed in the article at The Interpreter mentioned above, including the following:
- Only three of the characters that are associated with Book of Abraham manuscripts are defined in the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language. Clearly this incomplete and hopelessly inadequate tool was not used to construct the Book of Abraham, but does contain many concepts related to portions of the Book of Abraham, as if the incomplete GAEL was drawing upon the Book of Abraham;
- The dates given for creation of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers in JSPRT4 are improperly early, and when properly evaluated, leave little room for the Book of Abraham translation to follow their creation. For example, documents written by Warren Parrish, said to date as early as July 1835, almost certainly were written after Parrish was hired as a scribe on October 29, 1835, and thus almost certainly follow much (if not nearly all) of Joseph’s translation of the Book of Abraham.
- Detailed analysis of the text in some key documents said to represent original creation of the Book of Abraham translation shows overwhelming evidence that they are derived from an existing document that already contained at least a major portion of the Book of Abraham (to be discussed in detail in Part 2).
- The Grammar and Alphabet document shows significant evidence from the influence of Hebrew study, which may date at least much of the document to after Hebrew study began among the early Saints at the end of 1835 and in early 1836, far too late to have been a source for the related material in the Book of Abraham.
- The Grammar and Alphabet document draws upon specific language in several earlier sections of the Doctrine and Covenants and also includes many characters that are not on the scrolls and are not even Egyptian, indicating that its purpose must have involved something other than translating the papyri to yield the Book of Abraham. At least in part, there is no question that it was dependent upon previously existing documents and some previously known non-Egyptian “Egyptian” characters, including several that Phelps had mentioned in a letter to his wife before the scrolls had come to Kirtland.
Indeed, the premise that Joseph would seek to develop an “alphabet” of Egyptian in order to conduct his translation is fundamentally flawed. Recall that in Joseph’s translation of the gold plates, he did not need to stare at the plates and figure out the meaning of any of the characters. Rather, while the plates were wrapped, he was able to receive a revealed translation by looking at the Urim and Thummim or at a seer stone as he looked into a hat, though exactly what he saw and experienced is unknown to us.
Joseph did not even have physical access to any original source for his translation of the Book of Moses or for Section 7 of the Doctrine and Covenants, said to be a translation of a parchment scroll written by the Apostle John. There is no reason to think that Joseph would now need to develop an “alphabet” or dictionary of some kind to attempt the human work of figuring out Egyptian or whatever the purpose was for the KEP. It is much more logical that the human work of developing the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language would draw upon the existing revealed translation, rather than the other way around. But that flawed premise pervades the editorial stance in JSPRT4 and the editors’ stance in subsequent public comments.
Returning to the list of gaps in the still highly valuable JSPTR4, while we’ll discuss #5 in significant detail in Part 2, here we’ll make brief comments for each point.
- Lack of Acknowledgement of Past Scholarship
The problem here is that in this scholarly work with over 1000 footnotes, the editors appear to have excluded any citation or mention of the one scholar who has done the most to address the many issues relevant to this volume and the study of the Book of Abraham and the Joseph Smith Papyri. That prolific and highly influential scholar, Dr. Hugh Nibley, is entirely absent from the volume, while some far less prolific writers hostile to the Church and the Book of Abraham are cited, sometimes frequently. This appears to be evidence that something other than pure , objective scholarship is at play, which is a real tragedy. Nibley, of course, is famous for defending Joseph Smith and the antiquity of the Book of Abraham. A scholarly work need not agree with the viewpoints of previous scholars like Nibley, but to completely ignore foundational and still relevant scholarship in the field raises serious questions. Could there be some kind of systematic bias against “apologetic” perspectives in this work? Significant, relevant work from others such as BYU Egyptologists and other scholars is also largely overlooked or downplayed.
2. Lack of Balance in Interpretive Remarks
JSPRT4 is not simply a cut-and-dry presentation of raw data from primary sources, but is replete with numerous explanatory sections and hundreds of footnotes that provide interpretative frameworks for understanding the complex documents associated with the Book of Abraham. Unfortunately, in the numerous editorial decisions about what to say, what to emphasize, how to interpret various clues, and what to overlook, there appears to be a trend to accept secular perspectives regarding the Book of Abraham, with virtually no recognition of the issues and evidences that point to prophetic insight and ancient roots for the Book of Abraham. As detailed in the article for The Interpreter, the editorial decisions reflect subtle but persistent choices that guide people toward one perspective, one that leaves little room to accept the Book of Abraham as a revealed work with ancient roots.
3. Overlooking the Role of Hebrew Study on the Book of Abraham Project
One of the most interesting thing about the work with the Book of Abraham is that the work appears to have ceased in favor of the study of Hebrew. Joseph sent Oliver to the east to obtain books for the study of Hebrew, with Oliver returning with such materials on Nov. 20, 1835. After that, the Saints began delving into Hebrew on their own, and soon realized that they needed outside help. Hebrew scholar Joshua Seixas was recruited to come to Kirtland and began holding Hebrew classes in January 1836.
The editors of JSPRT4 date the undated document of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers typically to the period of July to November 1835, but there are a number of elements in these documents that may point to the influence of Hebrew study, and perhaps to influence from specific Hebrew books such as Moses Stuart’s A Grammar of the Hebrew Language, one of the books we know Oliver Cowdery brought to Kirtland. Consider the beginning of Stuart’s book on p. 10, where the Hebrew alphabet is presented with some other forms of Hebrew letters or other alphabets:
Under the column “Hebrew coin-letter,” we see old forms of several Hebrew letters used on coins, including a form of aleph similar to an upside down A or sideways A and a form of the second letter, beth, which looks like a circle with a horizontally flipped capital “L” descending from the right side of the circle. This unusual character is not found, as far as I know, in the other Hebrew materials available to the Saints in Kirtland nor is it found on the scrolls. It is Hebrew, not Egyptian, and yet it is present in Kirtland Egyptian Papers, in a key document that apparently was one of the first, the Egyptian Counting document.
Here are close ups of key portions of the Egyptian Counting document and Stuart’s Hebrew-coin letters showing the first two rows of entries:
The Egyptian Counting document uses a character for the number 2 that is nearly identical to the Hebrew “coin-letter” character given by Stuart for beth, the second letter of the alphabet, which is also used for the number 2. Of course, it is possible for coincidences in the form of a character to occur, but having a match in form and meaning (with beth as the number 2 in Hebrew and in the Egyptian Counting document) is highly unlikely. However, there could be other sources besides Stuart that could have provided W.W. Phelps with knowledge of the same ancient Hebraic form for beth. While my search of other Hebrew language materials for English speaker prior to 1835 has not yet revealed another source, a 1784 book on the history of writing does list a nearly identical character for beta, along with Greek and other alphabets that might have been of interest to Phelps, had he encountered the book. In Thomas Astle’s The Origin and Progress of Writing: As Well Hieroglyphic as Elementary, the following image shows a portion of a table that includes several archaic forms of beth, including the form seen in the Egyptian Counting document:
While I have found no evidence that Phelps saw or used this book, contrary to the clear evidence that he had access to Moses Stuart’s book and began studying Hebrew shortly after that book became available, Astle’s book was in the Library of Congress by 1840 and at Harvard by 1830, and probably was in other locations in the U.S., although it does not show up in nineteenth century catalogs of several other major or relevant libraries that I have searched (e.g., the Princeton Library from Phelps’ home state and libraries in New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania), suggesting it may not have been a widely available book.
In addition to this interesting old Hebrew letter, there are a number of other clues pointing to Hebrew influence on the GAEL:
- Many “Egyptian” words are similar to a number of Hebrew letters: aleph, beth, gimel, daleth, he, and yodh and possibly ayin.
- The Hebrew meaning of beth as “house” is aligned with its “Egytian” meaning in the GAEL as a place of residence; it is also linked to the numerical meaning of “2” both in the Egyptian Counting document and in other documents of the KEP where it is linked to meanings associated with the concept of being secondary. The numerical meaning of aleph as “1” is also reflected in many of the related definitions for certain “Egyptian” terms.
- The Greek letter iota (like our “I”) is given as the pronunciation of a non-Egyptian “Egyptian” character that has significant associations with the letter “I” and the corresponding Hebrew letter yodh.
- The frequent use of dots within or near characters, especially non-Egyptian characters (characters apparently not found on the existing papyri), are suggestive of Hebrew vowel pointing and other diacritics in the Masoretic text, which can include a dot inside a letter, one or more dots below a letter, and a dot above a letter. Horizontal lines above a few characters in the KEP may also be similar to the rafe, a small bar written above a consonant (showing that a dagesh lene dot had been omitted deliberately, not by scribal error).
- There may be several possible relationships to Hyman Hurwitz’s The Elements of the Hebrew Language, first printed in 1832, with a second edition in 1835, and also Hurwitz’s The Etymology and Syntax in Continuation of the Elements of the Hebrew Language from 1831. These include Hurwitz’s relatively heavy use of the unusual terms (unusual in the early 1800s) “parts of speech” and “signification” that are heavily used in the GAEL. Phelps’ discussion of the “parts of speech” in Egyptian may be influenced by Hurwitz’s’ discussion of “parts of speech” in Hebrew, which is said to emphasize nouns over verbs, which Phelps appears to follow as he lists the parts of speech in Egyptian with a conspicuous absence of verbs.
It would appear that interest in and very basic knowledge of Hebrew influenced the work in the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, which may date parts of the KEP to after the time when Joseph’s translation work had stopped, a possibility that is never considered in JSPRT4. More study is needed on this issue that may weaken the arguments used to paint the Book of Abraham as a work influenced by the KEP instead of being a key source for its creation.
4. Errors in the Assumed Dates of Key Documents
Warren Parrish was hired as a scribe on Oct. 29, 1835, as JSPRT4 recognizes, yet documents he wrote as a scribe are given the improperly early date range of July 1835 to Nov. 1835. For example, both Book of Abraham Manuscript B (in the handwriting of Parrish alone) and Book of Abraham Manuscript C (in the handwriting of Phelps for vv. 1–3, thereafter Parrish) are given a date of July–Circa November 1835 (p. 217). Content from Parrish should clearly be labeled with a date no-earlier than October 1835 (though it’s possible Manuscript C was started by Phelps much earlier). Here John Gee’s assessment is more reasonable: he lists both documents as from Oct. 29, 1835 to April 1836, a range that leaves open the possibility of Hebrew study influence while weakening the opportunity for the KEP to have influenced the translation of the Book of Abraham. But Gee’s plausible assessment is neither discussed nor noted in JSPRT4.
5. Granting Improper Credibility to a Key Claim of Book of Abraham Critics Regarding the Twin Book of Abraham Manuscripts A and B
The issue of the “twin manuscripts” and the story they tell (or don’t tell) is one of the most important issues in debates over the authenticity of the Book of Abraham and the methods of Joseph’s translation. Because it involves some complex details, we will explore it separately in Part 2, and argue that JSPRT4 unfortunately takes a stance that favors the questionable assumptions and interpretations made by critics of the Book of Mormon to undermine the scriptural status of the Book of Abraham. That stance is not supported by careful scholarship and is contradicted sharply by plain evidence that has been overlooked or neglected.
6. Improperly Downplaying Common Knowledge about Champollion and the Nature of the Egyptian Language
The editorial stance taken in JSPRT4 seems to be that the Book of Abraham is a fruit of Joseph’s environment in which society was obsessed with “Egyptomania,” a fascination with all things Egyptian. This Egyptian fascination is said to have led Joseph to adopt old theories about the Egyptian language being mystical, with vast layers of meanings within a single character that only elite Egyptian priests could unlock.
The editors of JSPRT4 seem to minimize the state of public knowledge about the Rosetta Stone and the work of Young and Champollion in understanding the basics of the Egyptian language, raising the possibility that Joseph Smith really may have thought he could translate hundreds of words of text from a single Egyptian character. In this, they are not alone. Brian Hauglid’s coauthor for the forthcoming The Pearl of Greatest Price: Mormonism’s Beleaguered Scripture, Terryl Givens, has expressed similar views, perhaps influenced by the prominent work of Hauglid and Jensen. In a March 16, 2017 lecture at Utah State University, the widely respected LDS professor and writer expressed his views on Egyptomania and its influence on Joseph Smith and the Book of Abraham. Below is my transcription of a segment from the video as Givens explains how he thinks Joseph thought about Egyptian hieroglyphs:
We’ve had a few references today to Nineteenth Century Egyptomania. The point that I want to make is that the kind of Egyptomania that I think might have been most relevant to Joseph Smith’s religious fashioning predates the Napoleonic engagement with Egypt. It goes back to the Early Modern period. And I’m going to just summarize this very quickly for you by saying this, that the notion of hieroglyphs in particular in the Enlightenment and Romantic circles carried echoes of priestly powers of expression and discernment. But the term was also taken to imply an almost mystical concision and economy of expression unknown to modern languages. Many language theorists working in the Nineteenth Century to try to trace language to its Adamic form were convinced that the further back you go, the more compressed and concise language becomes. By the time you get to the hieroglyph, … you have the linguistic equivalent of a kind of neutron bomb, so that the notion being that here is a priestly emblem that has magically and mystically oracularly condensed within itself worlds of meaning which only a priestly power can unlock and allow to blossom into fullness. When I think of Joseph Smith laboring over the Egyptian Papyri and the whole Abrahamic cosmology that emerges out of this, it seems to me that we get a perfect understanding of how the hieroglyph was understood. [emphasis added]
While eloquently expressed, this statement may not accurately represent the views likely to be held by Americans in Joseph’s day. Indeed, this may be the result of projecting the views of Hauglid and others onto the data to see the desired confirmation of those views.
Hauglid’s co-editor of JSPRT4, Robin Jensen, has expressed a viewpoint similar to Givens’:
While it does not appear that Joseph Smith or his associates drew directly upon earlier scholarship regarding ancient Egypt, they shared with such scholars assumptions about the Egyptian language. For instance, they believed the language was mysterious, symbolic, and closely linked to Hebrew and other languages that reflected a more refined and ‘pure’ language. (Religious Education Review 10/1, Winter 2017)
The view that hieroglyphs were mysterious characters packed with hidden meaning dates back to Athanasius Kircher in the 17th century, but quickly declined with knowledge of the Rosetta Stone. In light of Champollion’s work, by 1831 the North American Review was describing Kircher’s views in this manner: “how utterly baseless, how laboriously absurd was his entire scheme of interpretation.”
Nevertheless, Givens and Jensen (along with Hauglid, apparently) place Joseph into the mindset prior to the Napoleonic engagement with Egypt when the Rosetta Stone was discovered and the world quickly realized that Egyptian was actually a running language with some kind of reasonable relationship to alphabetic systems. Givens implies that Joseph and his brethren were somehow swept up in Egyptomania without being aware of the hottest news in the world of Egyptomania, namely, that the Rosetta Stone had been found. The story of the Rosetta Stone was widely discussed news dating back to 1799, which would later be coupled with the 1822 news that Champollion had begun to decipher Egyptian. These were key drivers for Egyptomania in the 19th century, and cannot be so readily excised from Joseph’s world. Givens’ view arguably would divorce Joseph from his environment in 1835 and from the very Egyptomania that supposedly inspired him.
Of course, the technical details of Champollion’s work were not widely known. In fact, those details may not have lived up to the hype. Champollion’s discoveries were somewhat piecemeal, and still did not allow him to fully read and understand the Rosetta Stone. It would not be until 1858, over two decades after Champollion’s death, that a full translation of the Rosetta Stone would be published in Philadelphia, an effort which required significant work and further advances.
Even if the Joseph Smith of 1835 were still in “uneducated farm boy mode” and had been unaware of the Rosetta Stone and Champollion before purchasing the mummies and scrolls from Chandler, Chandler and the many other educated people who would come to Kirtland to see the artifacts and meet Joseph likely would have broken the well-known news to him.
Givens’ view, romantic as it may be, also requires divorcing Joseph from the Book of Mormon. Joseph’s views on Egyptian arguably should not depart wildly from the views expressed by Mormon in the manuscript Joseph translated. Mormon in Mormon 9:32 tell us that:
[W]e have written this record according to our knowledge, in the characters which are called among us the reformed Egyptian, being handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech.
The reformed Egyptian of the Book of Mormon reflected speech. It must have been phonetic, like the reformed Egyptian script of demotic.
Mormon’s statement is not the only vital clue on the nature of their Egyptian. King Benjamin in Mosiah 1:4 explains that Lehi taught the language of the Egyptians to his children so they could read the brass plates, and so they could teach that to their children in turn. The implication, of course, is that Egyptian is a language you can teach to your children, one that does not require mystic oracular gifts to draw out mountains of hidden text from a molehill of ink.
Apart from indications in the Book of Mormon about the nature of the Egyptian on the brass plates and the reformed Egyptian used by Mormon, Joseph Smith also expressed his viewpoint directly. Regarding the title page of the Book of Mormon, which came from the last plate (not the last character!) in the Nephite record, in 1839 Joseph said:
I would mention here also in order to correct a misunderstanding, which has gone abroad concerning the title page of the Book of Mormon, that it is not a composition of mine or of any other man’s who has lived or does live in this generation, but that it is a literal translation taken from the last leaf of the plates, on the left hand side of the collection of plates, the language running same as all Hebrew writing in general.
It was a running language, with a chunk of language on the last plate corresponding to the chunk of English on our title page, not an utterly mystical language one where each squiggle could be paragraphs of English. With his experience in reformed Egyptian behind him, does it stand to reason that once he saw the Egyptian scrolls in 1835, he would suddenly reverse course and see it as pure mysticism completely unlike Hebrew, no longer phonetic nor a “running language”?
Further evidence against such a view comes from Joseph’s comments on the meaning of the Facsimiles. The four hieroglyphs for the four sons of Horus in Facsimile 2 (labeled as element 6) become a remarkably concise “the four quarters of the earth,” a statement that is actually quite accurate. Other statements he makes regarding the facsimiles and the characters tend to be equally brief. No sign of magical compactness with neutron bombs of meaning waiting to be detonated by the Prophet. That idea died swiftly, though not universally, as news of the translation of the Rosetta Stone spread. It was old news when Joseph saw the scrolls. While it is possible that Joseph and the people of Kirtland had remained in the dark about the Rosetta Stone and Champollion, it seems unlikely. But certainly there was still nothing practical available from Champollion’s work in that day to guide them, even if they had had access to French publications. For that, revelation would be needed, and it seems they then would do their best on their own to follow suit and create their own “Alphabet.”
Unfortunately, Givens’ view on how Joseph saw the Egyptian language may have been shaped by an unwarranted opinion from the editors of JSPRT4, who claim that Champollion’s work really wasn’t well known until decades later and that it did not really change the way typical people thought about Egyptian. Here’s the statement from the opening pages:
Even after Champollion’s groundbreaking discoveries, though, some continued to assert competing theories about Egyptian hieroglyphs, whether they rejected Champollion’s findings or were ignorant of them. Indeed, in America in the 1830s and 1840s, Champollion’s findings were available to only a small group of scholars who either read them in French or gleaned them from a limited number of English translations or summaries. (JSPRT4, p. xviii)
Americans in the 1830s had not heard of Champollion’s work? Only a tiny group of scholars were in on the news? Should we also assume that news of the Rosetta Stone and its related implications had also gone unnoticed in the US?
Even before Champollion made his discoveries and turned his surname into a household term, the discovery of the Rosetta Stone may have begun influencing common knowledge in the United States about Egyptian as an alphabetic language. Witness the history book published in the United States in 1814 by the American clergyman Samuel Whelpley, A Compend of History from the Earliest Times:
It is upwards of 3600 years since Memnon, the Egyptian, invented the letters of the alphabet; about three centuries after which they were introduced by Cadmus into Greece. To perpetuate the memory of events, and to convey ideas to persons absent, invention first suggested the use of figures, or images of things intended. When these were found inadequate, symbols, emblematic of more complex ideas, were adopted. But the defect of these, in expressing combinations and abstract ideas, must have soon appeared: and was probably followed by the discovery, that a certain combination of arbitrary marks might be adapted to the expression of all articulate sounds. This was doubtless the noblest of all inventions, as it has proved a most wonderful means of improving the human mind. It not only answered the highest expectations of its inventor, but doubtless far exceeded all conjecture; as it proved to be the father of all the liberal arts and sciences, and has continued the widening sourer of knowledge, happiness, and admiration to every age.
The most ancient of authentic historians with whom we are acquainted is Moses. He was born in Egypt 1571 years before Christ, at a time, as we have already remarked, when Egypt was the most enlightened of all nations. He, being the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter, was of course educated in all their learning….
When Moses wrote, alphabetic writing had been known in Egypt several centuries, and if, we consider the rapid improvements which that very ingenious people made in art and science, we shall see cause to believe that, in Moses’s time, they had made very considerable progress…. (Samuel Whelpley, A Compend of History from the Earliest Times (New York: Whiting and Watson, 1814), 27–28.)
Is it possible that Joseph and the Saints were familiar with Whelpley? Absolutely, for “Whepleys Compend” (sic) is on the 1844 donation list for the Nauvoo Library and Literary Institute.
It gets even more interesting when we look at newspapers from the early 19th century, where there is abundant evidence that even rural Americans in Ohio were not completely clueless about Champollion. It’s hard to imagine widespread Egyptomania gripping the U.S. with total ignorance of the Rosetta Stone and Champollion. If, however, Joseph and the Saints had heard something of Champollion’s effort to decode Egyptian by using the translation on the Rosetta Stone as a guide to construct his own “alphabet” of the Egyptian language (“alphabet” was the term used in many accounts to describe what Champollion was making), then it would be reasonable that the Saints, too, might attempt to create their own “alphabet” from the translation that Joseph had provided.
7. Missing “First Aid” and Ignoring the Positives
An overarching concern about the approach in JSPRT4 and in subsequent public presentations (lectures and at least one podcast) by the editors is the general failure to include any hint of “first aid” for some of the thorny issues related to the Book of Abraham, as well as a tendency to ignore the many positives that could be at least hinted at for those interested in the strengths of the Book of Abraham and not just the warts.
Looking through JSPRT4 and its helpful “Comparison of Characters” section (pp. 350–380), students of the Book of Abraham who have heard that Joseph Smith used the GAEL to create his “translation” might be startled to see how very few of the many characters considered in the GAEL are actually used on Book of Abraham manuscripts, and especially startled to see how few of the 28 characters on the Book of Abraham manuscripts are actually found in the GAEL or the Egyptian Alphabet documents. Of those 28 characters, I see only 3 (labeled characters 3.11a, 5.27, and 5.28) that are in the GAEL or the Egyptian Alphabet documents, one of which is part of the 18 characters said to be found on the scroll called the Fragment of Breathing Permit for Horus-A (two more were likely there but were lost due to deterioration of the scroll), with 8 characters apparently not found on the scrolls or in the GAEL or Egyptian Alphabet documents.
If the GAEL shows us how Joseph did the translation, it seems to apply to only about 10% of the characters in the margins of the Book of Abraham manuscripts, which themselves deal with less than half of the Book of Abraham. The numbers raise serious doubts to common theories about the GAEL being a tool used by Joseph to translate Egyptian, as does the presence of many non-Egyptian characters in the KEP. In my view, it would have been helpful for the editors of JSPRT4 to make several such rudimentary observations up front to help readers understand the gaps in some of the arguments used against the Book of Abraham. Such factual observations can certainly be made in an academically appropriate way without appearing to “taint” the volume with apologetics or otherwise lose face before the world.
Of course, it is possible to be a devoted Latter-day Saint and accept some of the narratives of our critics. A sincere member of the Church can believe the Book of Abraham to be inspired or inspiring fiction, a mostly or purely human work that occasionally manages to convey interesting doctrine and uplifting sentiments through a fictional (if not fraudulent) medium. But for those who see the Book of Abraham as a prophetic work with some kind of roots in antiquity, we expect that a Church-publication with these valuable documents should not unnecessarily push the reader toward questionable positions of our critics or leave the reader unnecessarily defenseless against the well-crafted and increasingly disseminated claims of critics. We should expect the publication to not withhold valuable information that can indirectly provide useful “first aid,” or even to at least hint at reasonable frameworks for coping with the challenges to faith that are underway based on arguments related to these documents. Such aid is not to be found in this volume.
Rather than a call to infuse the volume with overt apologetics, this is more of a call to step away from improper bias in the other direction.
As a final observation, there is an unfortunate misunderstanding among many Latter-day Saints that apologetics is the opposite of scholarship. To defend, in some people’s minds, is to lose credibility and to promote blind faith rather than scholarship. But in my opinion, good scholarship is often behind the best work that helps us better understand and respect the LDS scriptures. Today there are many intelligent resources that readers can turn to for appreciating the strengths of the Book of Abraham. Students of the Book of Abraham ought to know, for example, that the time and place of the origin of the Joseph Smith Papyri, namely Thebes around 200 B.C., correspond with the very time and place where there was a fascination with Abraham and Moses among Egyptian priests, making it the time and place where one would expect to find an actual Book of Abraham text in Egypt, if one existed. They should be aware of the general plausibility of many aspects of the Book of Abraham in light of what we can determine about the ancient setting treated in the text.
For those wishing to understand more about the evidences for Book of Abraham authenticity, useful resources include the new Pearl of Great Price Central website, FAIRMormon.org, The Interpreter (MormonInterpreter.com), past works of the Maxwell Institute now partially archived at the BYU Scholars Archive site (ScholarsArchive.com), etc.
Students of the Book of Abraham might benefit from the evidence for the potential authenticity of several names in the Book of Abraham and may be fascinated to learn how the Book of Abraham’s cosmology and its theme of the divine council fit remarkably well in the world of the ancient Near East. They might benefit from learning that there is support for Shinehah as a term that means the sun, or that modern archaeological evidence provides tentative support for the ancient place name Olishem in the right time and place to correspond to the Book of Abraham, etc. Appreciation of the Book of Abraham can increase by learning that the once ridiculed idea of Egyptian priests offering human sacrifice has been shown to have significant support, in part from Kerry Muhlestein’s Ph.D. dissertation and related publications. Sound scholarship can also lead students to awareness of extensive ancient traditions consistent with numerous extra-biblical details of the Book of Abraham, such as the attempt to slay Abraham for his opposition to idol worship, the sin of his father in pursuing idolatry, and many other details. It is useful to know that some elements in the Facsimiles have strong plausibility, such as the crocodile being the god of Pharaoh, the four sons of Horus (Fig. 6 in Facs. 2) representing the “four quarters of the earth,” the association of Hathor (the cow in Facs. 2) with the sun, the association of bird wings with the expanse of heaven and the association of the solar barque with the number 1000, the relationship of Facs. 1 to the hieroglyphic for prayer, etc. While the lofty standard of academic credibility and the dream of objectivity may make it difficult or improper to raise or even hint at such issues in JSPRT4, that volume seems to do too much to underscore the positions of our critics. There is a lack of balance that I hope can be corrected at some point in the future.
The following is Part 1 of a two-part series on the Book of Abraham. To read Part 2, CLICK HERE.