Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Surprising New Twist on the Book of Abraham: The Kirtland Egyptian Papers as a Cipher for English Text

One of the most interesting puzzles in the story of the Book of Abraham is the role of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, also called the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar. These appear to be working papers used by Joseph's scribes and some say that they show Joseph's translation process. In these papers, Egyptian characters (and others) are on the left and text from the Book of Abraham is to the right. Yes, one might guess that the text is supposed to be a translation of the characters. But the crazy thing is that sometimes an entire paragraph is next to a single little character. The critics say that this shows just how ludicrous Joseph's translation was, using the assumption that the characters on the left are what Joseph was translating. There are problems with this, for careful examination of the papers shows that the English text was put down on the paper first and the characters were added after. A plausible explanation is that the documents were created after Joseph had completed his translation by others seeking to understand a relationship between his translation and the characters. But that still leaves plenty of questions.

Now, according to an important presentation by William Schryver at the recent FAIR Conference in Salt Lake City, careful examination of the documents and some surprising discoveries point to a new explanation for what the scribes were doing with the English text and the Egyptian characters. Rather than trying to translate Egyptian into English, they may have been doing just the opposite--creating a code or cipher from Egyptian and other random characters to represent English text. It was a strange experiment but one that fit in with some theories of the day.

This helps explain not only why English text was put down on paper first, but also why many of the once-presumably "translated" characters weren't even Egyptian at all.

Fascinating study. I look forward to further insight into this theory. Your thoughts? Any of you hear the actual presentation?

Instead of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers proving that Joseph was hopelessly inept at translating, they may actually just show that his scribes were hopelessly inept at secret codes.

Update, Aug. 15: Below are videos from William Schryver giving a version of his presentation. Fascinating content! However, Chris Smith has made some important points in his informal remarks to Kerry Shirts after the presentation. He notes the later chapters of the Book of Abraham had not been published and presumably were not yet translated when they were supposedly being used in 1835, according to Schryver's theory. If the translation of Facs. #2 and the later portions of the Book of Abraham did not take place until long after the Kirtland Egyptian Papers (KEP) were produced, then the textual links between the Book of Abraham and parts of the KEP might plausibly be explained with the pre-Schryver hypothesis of the KEP as a translation tool for production of the Book of Abraham rather than as a post-translation cipher for English text. It's fair to ask if Schryver's intriguing theory moves us closer to the truth or is most valuable in stirring up healthy debate and fostering further discovery. I'm not sure at this time. There still remains John Gee's point that careful examination of key parts of the KEP appears to show that the English text was written first, with the characters being added to the margins later, as if an effort were being made by scribes to understand the translation or find relationships between characters and existing text. I look forward to further understanding from the scholars in this area.


The Meaning and Purpose of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers - Part 1 from William Schryver on Vimeo.



The Meaning and Purpose of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers - Part 2 (HD) from William Schryver on Vimeo.



P.S. I should note that it will be hard for me NOT to be biased in looking at Schryver's work. After all, the guy is a software engineer, plays the organ, speaks Italian, and lives in Cedar City--none of which I do, but all of which impress me. And he's done a lot of homework with some truly original thinking. Even if he ends up being wrong on some key points, he will certainly have done us all a great service and advanced understanding of the KEP and the Book of Abraham.

14 comments:

symphonyofdissent said...

I listened to the complete talk which is now online ( You should place a link in the post) and I found it quite fascinating. It fits the experimentation of Phelps in particular in his search for a 'pure language.' The leaders seemed to enjoy playing around with language in surprising ways. It is obvious that there is more vitality and originality in the restoration as propounded by Joseph than our critics or most members give credence.

openminded said...

I heard about it on Chris' blog. He's a historian that works closely with the BoA, and has actually released some publications concerning the KEP.

He's very educated on the matter, and you can visit this link for his views on the presentation (unless you'd like me to parrot them): http://chriscarrollsmith.blogspot.com/2010/08/after-conference-discussion-of-william.html

And Jeff, I'm still hoping you can respond some time to my post from the last time we discussed the BoA.

Stephen said...

Thanks, that was interesting.

Anonymous said...

Where have you been? A little late to the game, aren't ya? A lot has already been said in response to William's presentation by Chris Smith, Brent Metcalfe, Dan Vogel, et al. Surely you aren't ignorant of their rebuttals--are you? Within a mere few days they laid waste William's apologetic. Didn't you get the news?

openminded said...

Anon,
can you provide some links please? I'd like to read up on the issue

Jeff Lindsay said...

Anonymous, I've been in Wisconsin. 24 hours ago I had never heard of William Schryver. I just saw Kerry Shirt's video talking with Chris Smith, and have updated my post to reflect what seems to be an excellent point that Chris made. But his blog does not yet show any rebuttal, so I'm not sure what rebuttal you're talking about unless it's his informal remarks to Kerry. Haven't seen any other rebuttals yet--this is still all breaking news to me. Glad information travels more quickly in your circles.

Stan said...

It seems that if they were playing around with a cypher, there would be an example of the cypher in use. Some reference to it at least. Without this kind of support it's just another interesting idea.

Jeff Lindsay said...

Or maybe they just gave up because it was unworkable.

Anonymous said...

Wisconsin! Well that explians it. ;) You can read much of the debate against Schriver's theory by surfing recent threads on the "Mormon Apologetics Discussion Board" (MADb), and the "Mormon Discussions Board" (MDb).

openminded said...

Didn't the KEP scribes eventually disaffect from the church? I think I read on Wikipedia that either Gee or Nibley used that fact to discredit the KEP (although the time it happened doesn't allow for it). Correct me if I'm wrong, but if that's true, then the only people who were involved in it probably left before they were finished.

Of course, Lord knows what's stashed away in the church's historical vault (and what I'd give for a WikiLeaks on that place)

Anonymous said...

I still buy into the idea that the KEP is simply a byproduct of the revelation of the BoA. I think Joseph Smith and his scribes were trying to reverse engineer what they got from the BoA.... I also think the Facsimiles are likely not the originals, and were similar to the real ones, but were used in place to help tell the story. Just my opinion. :)

Chris said...

Thanks, Jeff, for highlighting this interesting issue. Will's argument for the priority of the translated text wasn't really persuasive, and I don't expect that his view will ultimately prevail. I have come across quite a bit of evidence that seems to support the opposite view. But at the very least, Will's presentation has gotten a lot of people excited about the KEP. It was just in time, too, since Brian Hauglid's book-- slated to be published in December or January-- will make the Abraham manuscripts available in full-color for the first time. (We'll have to wait a little longer for the Alphabet and Grammar, unfortunately... that's planned for volume 2.) I expect that we'll soon see a bit of a KEP renaissance in the historical literature, and I'm very much looking forward to it!

lilith said...

Having gone to Egypt and seen the original hieroglyphs in the tombs and seen the same type of papyri in the Cairo Museum and read the Book of Abraham with Illustrations I can tell you that what Joseph Smith or his scribes wrote is completely wrong. Nothing he wrote matches what the papyri actually indicates. What he wrote about has nothing to do with what is actually written.

Your lack of scholarly knowledge continues to undermine your cause, perhaps you should keep quiet or it reveals more of the fallacy of what was written by Joseph Smith.

Scorch and Soda said...

I've been to a museum, too. Guess I'm a scholar ready to pass judgment on Lilith's analysis. Or whatever she was trying to say.