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The following is Part 2 of a two-part series on the Book of Abraham. To read Part 1, CLICK HERE.
In Part 1, we discussed a recent work related to the Book of Abraham by BYU scholars for the prestigious and inspiring Joseph Smith Papers Project. The work, The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations, Volume 4: Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts, edited by Robin Scott Jensen and Brian M. Hauglid (Salt Lake City, UT: Church Historian’s Press, 2018), provides valuable transcripts and photographs of the many complex papers related to the Joseph Smith Papyri and the Book of Abraham. Unfortunately, as mentioned in Part 1, there are some editorial positions taken which can raise unnecessary doubts about the Book of Abraham and the prophetic work of Joseph Smith.
Some critics of the Church have viewed the Book of Abraham as a serious weakness that can be used to undermine respect for Joseph Smith. Perhaps the most vital tool in the arsenal of critics of the Church seeking to undermine the Book of Abraham and the calling of Joseph Smith as a prophet involves three puzzling Book of Abraham manuscripts, known in JSPTR4 as Book of Abraham Manuscript A, B, and C, that each contain a handful of Egyptian characters (and some contrived non-Egyptian characters) in the margins of an English excerpt from the translated Book of Abraham.
In these manuscripts, a single character may be associated with over 100 words of English. The critics assume that this means Joseph Smith somehow thought a single character could be translated into ridiculously large blocks of text with intricate details decoded from a few strokes of an Egyptian pen. Sheer linguistic idiocy, it would seem – if the assumption is correct that the English is derived from the “Egyptian.”
Of special importance in the debate over the Book of Abraham are the “twin” manuscripts, Book of Abraham Manuscripts A and B, which appear to have been prepared by two scribes simultaneously as text was dictated. They both contain some identical revisions that can be interpreted as the result of someone dictating words then making changes that were recorded by both scribes. Do these manuscripts represent the work of Joseph Smith creating the Book of Abraham and dictating his original text to two scribes? That’s the argument made by critics and favored by our JSPTR4 editors who, at the January 2019 Maxwell Institute lecture at BYU mentioned in Part 1, claimed that the twin manuscripts give us “window” into Joseph’s translation process for the Book of Abraham. But there are many assumptions, some perhaps seriously wrong, that are behind that claim. Rather than giving us a window into how Joseph Smith created the Book of Abraham, these two documents may give us a window into how two scribes used the existing revealed text of the Book of Abraham to help create more material for the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language (hereafter GAEL).
These manuscripts begin at Abraham 1:4. Manuscript A, written by Frederick G. Williams, continues to Abraham 2:6 where it stops in the middle of the verse at the end of a page, as if more had been written on one or more missing pages. Manuscript B tends to have the same mistakes as Manuscript A.
A popular and seemingly potent claim of some critics is that we can see evidence of Joseph “translating” on the fly from the characters in the margins of the Book of Abraham Manuscript-A and Manuscript-B, which show evidence of two scribes simultaneously copying text that someone was reading. (Manuscript–C is in the handwriting of W.W. Phelps for the first 20 lines giving Abraham 1: 1-3, and then it switches to that of Warren Parrish, and shows signs of coming after the first two documents, A and B.)
Manuscript A and Manuscript B both begin with the very same mistakes and corrections, as if the speaker were catching the errors and correcting them on the fly. Manuscript A begins this way, with inserted corrections indicated in brackets:
sign of the fifth degree of the
I sought for <mine>
theappointment whereuntounto the priesthood according to the appointment of God unto the fathers concerning the seed…
Manuscript B has the identical corrections in this passage, apart from a difference in capitalization for “second.” There is clearly an oral process going on. So this is said to give us a window into Joseph’s “translation” showing what is happening as he dictates, showing us how he used a few characters to create large blocks of text. We are supposed to see the original Book of Abraham text being created from mystic Egyptian.
These documents are the “smoking guns” used in making some of the most widely disseminated arguments against the Book of Abraham, and it is crucial that the editorial comments are made with caution and care, and with an awareness of the potential impact that these documents can have when used to undermine testimonies of the Restoration.
Yes, there certainly appears to be an oral process occurring with simultaneous copying, at least at the beginning of Manuscripts A and B. But was it really Joseph dictating? How do we know? This is simply an assumption made by our critics. And was this dictation of text that was being revealed/fabricated on the fly, or was it dictation from an existing manuscript to help two scribes make a copy? The editors of JSPRT4 express their interpretations of these documents as follows:
Discrepancies in the spelling of several words in the two manuscripts suggest that the manuscripts were not visually compared against one another or against a single, earlier version. Given the similarities between the texts of the two manuscripts and the revision process for both, JS may have dictated some or most of the text to both scribes at the same time. In that case, these two manuscripts would likely be the earliest dictated copies of the Book of Abraham. Some scribal errors in the later portion of the manuscript made by Williams, however, indicate that he copied some of his text from another manuscript. JS may have read aloud to Williams and Parris from an earlier, nonextant text, making corrections as he went; he followed a similar process in his work in the Bible revision project.
The third version, inscribed by Phelps and Parrish, silently incorporates most of the changes made in the earlier Williams and Parrish versions. The most complete of any of the extant versions created in Kirtland, the manuscript inscribed by Phelps and Parrish was originally copied into a bound volume, which suggests that it was viewed as a more permanent text, rather than a work in progress. This manuscript also contains prefatory material that does not appear in the other two Kirtland-era manuscripts. This prefatory material contains the most similarities to the definitions in the Grammar and Alphabet volume and was therefore also likely connected to JS’s study of the Egyptian language. Many themes appear in both in the Book of Abraham manuscript inscribed by Phelps and Parrish in the Grammar and Alphabet volume, and three characters that are analyzed in the fifth degree of the first part of the Grammar and Alphabet volume are found in the margin of this manuscript.
JS may have planned to translate more of the Book of Abraham when he moved to Missouri, but the conflict that ensued there, as well as JS’s arrest and incarceration in 1838–39, prevented additional work. JS dictated later portions of the Book of Abraham in Nauvoo in 1842. (JSPRT4, p. 192)
Do these manuscripts represent translation work in progress and give us a window into how Joseph created the Book of Abraham? Could these really be the earliest dictated manuscripts of the Book of Abraham? Do they derive from definitions in the GAEL and reflect Joseph’s misguided personal study of Egyptian? Those are all key talking points for critics of the Book of Abraham, part of the basic fabric for the case against Joseph as a prophet. But a more careful examination of these documents reveals the questionable scholarship behind such arguments.
A careful look at the twin manuscripts A and B shows what was being dictated was an already existing text, not one being created. Fortunately, the editors of another volume in the JSP series, Documents: Volume 5, January 1835–October 1838, recognize this: “Textual evidence suggests that these Book of Abraham texts were based on an earlier manuscript that no longer exists.” (Brent M. Rogers et al., editors, The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents: Volume 5, January 1835–October 1838 (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church Historian’s Press, 2017), pp. 74-75.) The supporting footnote explains:
Documents dictated directly by JS typically had few paragraph breaks, punctuation marks, or contemporaneous alterations to the text. All the extant copies, including the featured text, have regular paragraphing and punctuation included at the time of transcription, as well as several cancellations and insertions.
This point should have been made in JSPRT4, not out of a shameless desire to support apologetics, but to point out something distinctive and obvious about the manuscripts that, incidentally, weakens a common argument from Book of Abraham critics. The apologetic argument need not be explicitly raised, but the evidence pointing to existence of an earlier manuscript is relevant and important and should not be brushed aside in favor of anyone’s personal theory that these documents show a “window” into the live translation process of Joseph Smith.
Further, the evidence suggests that the most likely source of dictation was not Joseph Smith but one of the two scribes who was initially reading aloud for the benefit of the other. The most plausible scenario to account for these documents is that Warren Parrish was dictating for the benefit of his fellow scribe Frederick Williams as they both made copies of an existing text, but when Parrish left at one point, Williams began copying visually from the existing manuscript and then made a classic blunder typical of visual copying, not taking oral dictation.
Why would Parrish stop writing while Williams continued? If these manuscripts were being prepared after self-directed or tutored Hebrew study had commenced in December of 1835 or January of 1836, then one possibility for Parrish running out of breath in the scribal work for Book of Abraham Manuscript B could be his respiratory illness that began in December 1835 and continued to afflict him in January 1836, so much so that he wrote the following to Joseph as he temporarily backed down from his writing work: “I have a violent cough and writing has a particular tendency to injure my lungs. I therefore with reluctance send your journal to you until my health improves” (Warren Parrish letter to Joseph Smith, quoted in Dean C. Jessee, “The Writing of Joseph Smith’s History,” BYU Studies Quarterly 11/4 (1971): 439–473, citation at 448). Parrish would return to his scribal duties on Feb. 8, 1836. The reason for leaving early is only of secondary interest, however. More important is what we learn from the manuscripts.
Parrish, working on Manuscript B, stopped early after writing “who was the daughter of Haran” from Abraham 2:2.
However, Williams kept on writing in Manuscript A. It was at this point where something changed, as is visible in the image and transcription in JSPRT4 (pp. 200-201) and on the Joseph Smith Papers website. Initially I thought it was Williams who may have been reading, but examination of the spelling of names shows that Parrish was probably looking at the manuscript and able to spell unusual names consistently, while Williams shows great variability, making the kind of mistakes that are natural in taking dictation. Thus, it seems that dictation was necessary and continued as long as both scribes were writing, but when Parrish stopped after Abraham 2:2, it seems that he left or otherwise ceased dictating, because after this change, Williams’ manuscript shows a classic copying blunder that does not fit a scenario of taking dictation from Joseph Smith: he accidentally jumped back in the text he was looking at and began copying a large block of text a second time, repeating the three verses of Abraham 2:3–5 essentially word for word (an error known as “dittography”). The change also includes writing all the way to the left margin of the page instead of respecting the column holding occasional Egyptian characters.
The common mistakes and corrections in the beginning of the documents are hard to explain if Joseph were dictating and already had a sentence in his head, but make sense if a scribe is reading aloud from an existing manuscript a few words at a time as both scribes then write what has been spoken. Consider the opening lines, here taken from the transcript of Manuscript A:
I sought for <mine>
theappointment whereuntounto the priesthood according to the appointment of God unto the fathers concerning the seed…
How does “mine appointment” get turned into “the appointment”? Note that the final sentence in question has both “mine appointment” and “the appointment” right after it. When copying by hand from an existing text or reading aloud from an existing text, skipping ahead (or looking back) to a similar phrase and momentarily confusing the two is an easy and common mistake to make. Switching a nearby “the appointment” for the immediate “mine appointment” would be completely understandable, if one were working from an existing text. It’s also possible that if the reader were not used to putting “mine” in front of a noun, one could also subconsciously make it more natural by reading “the” for “mine.” The fact that “mine” ends with “ne” which can look like “he” in “the” might have contributed to the error. But in any case, looking at an existing text and copying or reading could readily result in this error, whereas if one had decided to speak of “my appointment” (if Joseph were making up scripture on the fly) but in old fashioned language, it’s unlikely that one would slip and just say “the” instead, when the context of the sentence demands a possessive. This is an error most likely due to working with an existing text.
Next, how could “appointment unto” become “appointment whereunto” if one is dictating one’s own words and ideas? This mistake, however, could again be very natural if someone were reading out loud from an existing text in hand. The conversion of “unto” into “whereunto” makes sense as a scribal or reading error given that “whereunto” was just used in a similar context earlier in Abraham 1:2, assuming that was present on the hypothesized pre-existing, more complete manuscript (perhaps the same one that W.W. Phelps began copying in his Manuscript C when he copied verses . In that verse, “whereunto” is also in the context of receiving the Priesthood:
And, finding there was greater happiness and peace and rest for me, I sought for the blessings of the fathers, and the right whereunto I should be ordained to administer the same;…
If the person reading the text to our two scribes had the complete text of Abraham 1 in hand, helping them to make copies for their own use or study, perhaps, then if that person had previously read verse 2 or were familiar with it, then memory (or visual memory) of that previous “whereunto” regarding Priesthood rights could easily cause one to stumble and say “whereunto” instead of “unto.” The same could happen for someone making a copy by hand, but since two manuscripts from two scribes have the same error, it would seem that they are either taking notes from dictation or deliberately preserving scribal errors from a previous text, which would seem unlikely.
Consideration of other scribal errors in these manuscripts creates a strong case that the person giving dictation, whoever it was, was reading from an existing manuscript and making common mistakes such as momentarily looking at the wrong place or misreading a word (additional analysis on the twin manuscripts has been published recently at the Mormanity blog at Mormanity.blogspot.com).
Evidence that it is Parrish who is reading and not Joseph Smith comes from analysis of the spelling errors made. If one of the scribes were the speaker and had the text before him, he would have had the benefit of seeing how unusual names were spelled, and thus would be less likely to introduce misspellings that needed correction when it came to proper names. So let’s look at the typos in proper names in these two manuscripts and see how they compare. Here are the proper names in each manuscript, excluding the common or relatively easy names Egypt and Egyptian, Ham, Adam, and Noah. They are shown in order and grouped by name in order of occurrence and showing corrections:
- Elk=Kener, Elk=Kener, Elk=Keenah, Elk-keenah, Elk Kee-nah, Elk-Keenah, Elkkeenah
- Zibnah, Zibnah, Zibnah
- Mah-mackrah, Mah-Mach-rah, Mah-Mach-rah
- Pharoah, Pharaoh, Pharaoh, pharaoh, Pharaoh, Pharaoh, Pharaoh, Pharaoh, Pharaohs
- Chaldea, Chaldea, Chaldeea, Chaldea, Chaldea, chaldees, chaldees, chaldees
- Chaldeans, Chaldians, Chaldea [“in the Chaldea signifies Egypt” – Chaldean is meant]
- Shag=reel, Shag-reel
- Potipher<s> hill, Potiphers hill
- Kah-lee-nos [note that the canonized text has Rahleenos]
- Abram, Abram,
Abraham<Abram>, Abram, Abram, Abram
- Ur, Ur, Ur, Ur, Ur
- Cananitess, cannites
- Haran, Haron, Haran, Haran, Haran, Haran, Haran
- Sarai, Sarai, sarah
- canaan, canaan
Manuscript B by Warren Parrish has these proper names with corrections shown:
- Elkkener, Elkken[er][here the edge of the paper is damaged obscuring the final r, but it appears that he wrote the full word, Elkkener], Elkkener, Elkkener, Elkkener, Elkkener
- Zibnah, Zibnah, Zibnah
- mahmachrah, Mahmachrah, Mahmachrah
- Pharoah, Pharao[h], Pharaoh, Pharaoh, Pharoaoh, Pharaoh, Pharaoh, Pharaoh, Pharaoh, Pharaoh, Pharaoh
- Chaldea, Chaldea, Chaldea, Chaldea, Chaldea, Chaldeas
- Chaldeans, Chaldeans, Chaldea [“in the Chaldea signifies Egypt” – Chaldean is meant, same error here as in Manuscript A],
- Shagreel, Shagreel
- Potiphers hill, Potiphers hill
- Kahleenos [The canonized text has “Rahleenos.” Since a cursive capital R often looks much like a K, it would be easy to read “Rahleenos” on an existing text as “Kahleenos.” Williams also wrote “Kahleenos.” Perhaps the original text had Kahleenos, or it may have had “Rahleenos” which Parrish or someone else misread.]
- Abram, Abram, Abram
- ur, Ur, Ur
- canaanites, Canaanites
- Haran, Haran
Parrish is not a great speller, giving us “preist,” “sacrafice,” “fassion” (fashion), “patraarch,” “govermnent,” “pople” (people), “Idolitry,” “deliniate,” “runing,” and “smiten” in Manuscript B, but he spells names consistently, with the exception of capitalization and some typos for Pharaoh (the kind also easily made by someone copying a text who recognized the word and didn’t sense a need to carefully reproduce the spelling on an existing document). Williams, on the other hand, has significant variation in his spelling of unusual words, suggesting that he was writing down what he heard for the most part, while Parrish might have been looking at what he was writing or was able to see it when needed if someone else were dictating, so his unusual words are spelled accurately and consistently.
Based on the data, it seems unlikely that Williams was reading the text, but much more likely that Parrish was, or that he could at least see the text when needed to see how unusual names were spelled. And it seems unlikely that a third party was reading to both Parrish and Williams.
In sum, textual analysis reveals that it is very unlikely that this text represents Joseph dictating text to his scribes, but much more likely represents Parrish dictating to Williams as both made copies, until Parrish stopped and Williams then began visually copying the pre-existing manuscript (no longer extant) and created a huge dittography at that very point. Much points to the existence of a prior manuscript, initially read aloud by Parrish, then visually copied by Williams. Other errors in these documents are also consistent with this scenario.
Rather than leaving readers with the impression that these two documents may have been the original source of Book of Abraham material, it is important to explain why they reflect copying from an existing manuscript, both during the dictated portion and the final visually copied portion. At a minimum JSPRT4 should have noted the implications about the format and punctuation of the documents that was properly observed in another volume of the Joseph Smith Papers. It is important to recognize that Joseph was not creating or revising his translation on the fly here, that these manuscripts cannot represent the earliest texts created by Joseph Smith for the Book of Abraham, and that they do not give us a window into how Joseph created and dictated his translated text. That gap is part of a prevalent pattern of overlooking perspectives and references to other scholarship that could lessen the impact of arguments against the authenticity of the Book of Abraham.
Unfortunately, editor Brian Hauglid in a public lecture at BYU recently argued that these manuscripts give us a “window” into Joseph’s translation process, and this viewpoint might have influenced the commentary if not the choice of what to exclude from the commentary (as in a complete neglect of Nibley).
Note also the closing sentence in the excerpt above of editorial comments on the documents in question here: “JS dictated later portions of the Book of Abraham in Nauvoo in 1842” (JSPRT4, p. 192). The footnote for that statement directs readers to p. 245, where we learn that editors believe dictation from Joseph Smith was at play in the 1842 Book of Abraham manuscript from Willard Richards because “significant misspellings and rushed letter formation in the entire manuscript suggest that someone – presumably JS – read from the Kirtland-era manuscripts, making occasional changes, while Richards inscribed the text” (p. 245). Many difficult names are actually spelled correctly without revision, and the impression of “rushed” letter formation may be a weak tool for discriminating dictation from visual copying, though I think dictation is plausible in this case. Whether the handwriting and spelling necessitates dictation may be debatable, but there is no evidence that any dictation related to that 1842 document was from Joseph Smith. It’s an assumption. Further, the nature of the errors and corrections in that document also generally point to use of an existing manuscript rather than taking original dictation.
It is possible that most of the Book of Abraham that we now have was already completed in 1835, and some LDS scholars argue for that position. One clue to consider comes from George W. Robinson’s record of a discourse by Joseph Smith on May 6, 1838, in which Joseph “instructed the Church, in the mistories [mysteries] of the Kingdom of God; giving them a history of the Plannets &c. and of Abrahams writings upon the Plannettary System &c.” If Joseph were teaching others about Abraham’s cosmological writings, it would seem likely that he had already translated Abraham 3 and provided comments related to Facsimile 2. That would be consistent with the Oct. 1, 1835 journal entry for Joseph Smith:
This afternoon I labored on the Egyptian alphabet, in company with brothers O[liver] Cowdery and W[illiam] W. Phelps, and during the research the principles of Astronomy as understood by Father Abraham and the ancients, unfolded to our understanding; the particulars of which will appear hereafter. (“Discourse, 6 May 1838,” Joseph Smith Papers, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/discourse-6-may-1838/1#source-note.)
Statements in JSPRT4 like “JS dictated later portions of the Book of Abraham in Nauvoo in 1842” may create the impression that dictation means creation of the new text, when the possible dictation of that document may have been, as it was in the case of Manuscripts A and B discussed above, dictation of an existing text in order to make a copy rather than create new material, although it may have involved revisions of the existing text as well. “Translation” may include refining and editing in its broad usage among the early Saints, so caution is needed in interpreted occasional references to translation in journals or other sources.
The Mystery of the Twin Manuscripts: Why Start at Abraham 1:4?
In response to the above proposal that the two scribes of the twin manuscript were making a copy from an existing manuscript, critics have argued that if this were so, they would have started at the beginning of the book of Abraham, not with Abraham 1:4. The argument is made that since W.W. Phelps wrote Abraham 1:1-3 in Manuscript C, that represents Joseph’s translation of those verses, and then Joseph created the next portion beginning at Abraham 1:4 with the two scribes.
If the purpose of the twin manuscripts was for personal scripture study for the two scribes, then sure, it would be logical to start at the very beginning. So what was the purpose of these manuscripts? On this point, the critics seem to have missed a vital clue staring us in the face at the beginning of both documents. It is the enigmatic opening phrase, or title of the documents: “sign of the fifth degree of the Second part.”
That label makes a clear reference to the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language (the GAEL), W.W. Phelps’ incomplete work, abounding in empty pages in a bound volume, that is split up into sections with titles based upon “degrees” and “parts” like “2nd part of the 3d degree.” So the twin documents are explicitly linked somehow to the GAEL. Even more puzzling, when you go to the pages labeled with “Second part 5th Degree” (link is to the first of several pages in that section), you won’t find the Egyptian (and non-Egyptian) characters there that are found in the margins of the twin manuscripts, and when you look at the “explanations” of the characters in that section, you won’t find concepts that seem related to the translated text. There are some concepts that fit Abraham 1:1-3, and some of the cosmological material about planets and starts perhaps derived from Facsimile 2, but precious little related to Abraham 1:4 to 2:6, the text covered by the twin manuscripts. What’s going on?
In fact, the characters in the margins of the twin manuscripts do not appear in the GAEL and certainly aren’t defined there. Not a single one of the 19 Egyptian characters, character clusters, or contrived characters in the twin manuscripts appear in the GAEL. Again, what’s going on?
On the other hand, the characters and concepts in Phelps’ writing of Abraham 1:1-3 in Manuscript C are present in the GAEL, with many variations and lots of variant meanings in the different “degrees.”
Here’s a hypothesis to consider: The purpose of these three manuscripts, A, B, and C, was not creation of the Book of Abraham translation, but creation of additional entries in the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language, whatever its purpose was. It may be that W.W. Phelps already had a good start in making the GAEL after working with Abraham 1:1-3 and assigning various characters to portions of the text in the his portion of Manuscript C, but more work was needed to take additional translated text from Joseph’s prior translation work, and link it with additional characters that could be added with explanations and variants into his still highly incomplete effort.
At the time Parrish was hired and began work with the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, Phelps was too busy to keep working on the intellectual pursuits related to the Book of Abraham/Egyptian (or “pure language”?) project, which is why Parrish was hired according to Bruce Van Orden in his outstanding book, We’ll Sing and We’ll Shout (the definitive biography of W.W. Phelps), so I propose that the two scribes teamed up to continue the work Phelps had begun, perhaps at his suggestion and/or under Joseph’s direction, who shared an intellectual interest in Egyptian as well as Hebrew. Their first step may have been to explore possible relationships between characters (largely taken from Joseph Smith Papyrus XI) and the translation, so they copied more characters and the next portion of the translation intending to support the insertion of further explanations and speculations in the GAEL, but the project fizzled out before those additional steps occurred.
The copies and the treatment of characters would be a first step to help the team select concepts to fill in some of the many blank pages left in the GAEL. There was no need to copy Abraham 1:1-3 because Phelps had already explored that thoroughly. But the new characters (some concocted) never made it into the GAEL.
This may help answer the question about why these manuscripts began at verse 4. It is consistent with the abundant evidence that the translation already existed and was being copied. If so, the twin manuscripts are not so much a “window into the translation of the Book of Abraham” as they are a “window into the creation of the Grammar and Alphabet” — from an already existing translation.
There is still the excellent question about the choice of Joseph Smith Papyrus XI for this GAEL-creation work. Doesn’t that mean that this is the scroll Joseph translated and that the text is his translation of each of the handful of characters? Not necessarily. The whole concept of translating hundreds of words from a single character doesn’t fit Joseph’s statements and actions, as we’ve previously discussed and as I discuss in my recent publication at The Interpreter.
There are several possibilities on the source and nature of the translation that others have raised. For example, the translation may have been given by revelation as it was with the Book of Mormon and other scriptures, meaning that it wasn’t based upon staring at a particular scroll or plate and translating in a conventional manner, but simply dictating translation through revelation. If so, Joseph and the scribes might not have known which characters from which scrolls (if any) had been the source of, or were related to the revealed text.
The papyri may even have been a catalyst rather than a source for the translation. Alternatively, there may have been reasons to suspect a relationship between characters on the selected papyrus fragment and the Book of Abraham even if the Book of Abraham came from another source. Ed Goble, for example, proposes that the characters were used somehow as wordplays to key words or concepts in the text of another scroll and may have adorned the margins of the original BOA scroll as they do the three BOA manuscripts in question (see one of his articles here and a blog here). (While Ed has some very interesting points, some of the relationships he proposes may be too convoluted to be practical in my opinion.) Others have spoken about possible mnemonic relationships, etc., and then we have William Schryver’s interesting theory about a reverse cipher being at play, though there are still many questions about that, in spite of the fascinating and valid points he has made.
We clearly need more information to understand what the early Saints were doing with the GAEL and how it was supposed to be used. But it’s important to understand it was not the source for the Book of Abraham translation and in many ways appears to be a derivative of the translation, not a precursor. If the Book of Abraham Manuscripts A, B, and C were initially intended as tools to support creation of further entries in the GAEL, they would likewise be derivatives of the existing translation and would not necessarily give us any kind of window into Joseph’s live translation work.
We don’t know exactly how Joseph translated or even what he translated from, but many of us believe that the translation was through the power of God, a revelatory process, not an intellectual and relatively “conventional” translation effort based on a concocted alphabet applied one character at time to a text. We can also believe, with many reasons to support that belief, that the resulting text reflects ancient origins, complex as they may be, rather than merely a fanciful nineteenth-century perspective about mysterious papyri where a single character could be unraveled to give worlds of meaning. Understanding that the translation was the source of much of the strange work in the Kirtland Egyptian Papers rather than the fruit thereof is an important step in understanding these documents, and one of the reasons why I am frustrated with the editorial choices and biases reflected in related publication of The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations.
There are many different perspectives that students of the Book of Abraham may hold regarding the origins of the text, and the valuable documents provided in JSPRT4 provide valuable tools for exploring much of the relevant available data. However, readers should understand that even talented scholars can bring strong biases to their work that may not be supported by the data. The views of scholars, no matter how acclaimed their past work, need not be held as sacrosanct. In this case, readers would do well to exercise caution. The personal views of some scholars may not adequately convey the strength of the case for the Book of Abraham as ancient scripture translated by a prophet of God.