Discussions of Book of Mormon issues and evidences, plus other topics related to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Did Joseph's Scribes Think He Translated Paragraphs of Text from a Single Egyptian Character? A View from W.W. Phelps

In using the Kirtland Egyptian Papers (KEP) to discredit Joseph's "translation" of the Book of Abraham, it is assumed that these papers show that Joseph and his scribes thought that single Egyptian character could magically represent vast chunks of English text. In addition to the evidence that the Book of Abraham translation appears to predate whatever was being done with the Book of Abraham text in the KEP, one important question is whether these men really thought such a thing was possible. Rather than relying on circular arguments to show us what they might have thought, let's take a look at an important example where W.W. Phelps explicitly equates some  Egyptian text to an alleged translation. This comes from a document, "Notebook of Copied Characters, circa Early July 1835" by W.W. Phelps. Take look at the English "translation" and guess how many Egyptian characters were needed to produce it. 

Here's the text:
A Translation of the next page
Katumin, Princess, daughter of On-i-tas King​ of Egypt, who began to reign in the year of the world, 2962. Katumin was born in the 30th year of the reign of her father, and died when he was 28 years old, which was the year​ 3020.
Looks like 45 words from Katumin to 3020, counting each number like 3020 as a single word. If each digit requires a word, then we might say there are 53 words. So many how many characters of Egyptian would this require? Go ahead and guess before reading.

This is a fairly brief English text, so, if the other "smoking gun" manuscripts show 1 character can represent as many as 160 words in the Book of Abraham, then maybe around 0.3 or so Egyptian characters, would be needed here, right? Rounding, we might say approximately 0 characters, or 1 if we insist on rounding up for "practical" reasons.

So was your guess around 1 character? Not bad. But what did Phelps think? You can see the correct answer for yourself on the Joseph Smith Paper's website showing the Egyptian page of this brief document. Here's the image of the Egyptian Phelps mentioned:

Though it's unclear to me how to break up some of these, I conservatively estimate over 40 characters are present, probably about 47. So Phelps seems to have had the impression that 47 characters of Egyptian could represent around 53 English words. Not several thousand. Not an entire book. 

One can argue that there's an emendation to the English, with "in part" inserted to the right of "next page," but with much lighter ink (or pencil?), clearly at a different time. Did Phelps later think that maybe there was more yet English that could be derived from the Egyptian? Perhaps. But when he wrote this, not long after the translation of the Book of Abraham had begun, the idea that three lines of Egyptian could give about four lines of English did not seem implausible. There's no hint that he really meant that a single one of those characters was all that was needed to give that text.

Whatever was going on with the juxtaposition of some already translated text with a few lone characters of Egyptian on the side of some pages from a fraction of the Book of Abraham, Phelps' statement about translated Egyptian here suggests that they didn't really think Joseph was creating many lines of text from a single character or fraction of a character. This is another important piece of evidence that needs to be considered before letting one's assumptions become imagined bedrock in the case against the Book of Abraham. Many questions and puzzles remain, this documents can clarify some issues. 

One should also note that another scribe, Warren Parrish, would later turn against Joseph Smith. If he thought Joseph was making up large passages from a mere character or part of a character, such a ridiculous notion might well have been one of the arguments he could raise against the impostor. But such an argument was never raised. Witnesses, rather, spoke of Joseph translating a long scroll, not a tiny line of Egyptian text. The characters on the left of some Book of Abraham text simply can't represent Joseph's translation in action. 

Granted, what Phelps gives us as the translation is wrong. If he got that from Joseph, he was wrong about that. I don't know how it was translated and by whom. It would probably be part of the attempt to figure out Egyptian, apparently relying on the miracle of the translation to give them tools for learning on their own. But though that human effort was misguided, it doesn't tell us about the "translation"/revelation process (whatever it was, from whatever source was used) that created the revealed text in the first place. 

This post is part of a recent series on the Book of Abraham, inspired by a frustrating presentation from the Maxwell Institute. Here are the related posts:

Thursday, April 18, 2019

The Pure Language Project

To understand the strange Kirtland Egyptian Papers, we may need to understand the fascination with "pure language" that was found among some early Latter-day Saints. Brian Hauglid wrote this in 2015:
Curiously, prior to purchasing the Egyptian papyri in 1835 Kirtland, Joseph Smith and others already seemed quite interested in ancient languages, particularly the pure language of Adam. From a document titled, “A Sample of pure Language given by Joseph the Seer as copied by Br Johnson,” which was probably drafted in Hiram, Ohio, in March 1832, we find a series of questions and answers concerning how the names of God, Christ, angels, the earth, and man would be pronounced in the pure Adamic language.[24]

It seems that interest in a pure language was still present in the first half of 1835 as well. On the back of a letter, which W. W. Phelps wrote to his wife, Sally, dated May 26, 1835, Phelps added what he termed, “A Specimen of some of the ‘pure language.’” Beneath this title Phelps drew several columns placing characters in one column, terms in another, and explanations in a third.[25] Interestingly, as we shall see, this same lexicographical scheme continues into the more intense Egyptian program that emerges after the reception of the Egyptian papyri.

Two other considerations of Phelps’s May 1835 letter may evidence some kind of an ongoing Egyptian language project occurring before the arrival of the mummies and papyri in Kirtland. First, the three Egyptian alphabet documents (EA) employ the same characters as those found in the “Specimen” letter (albeit with different explanations) and, second, the first page and a half of the EA documents contain characters not associated with the papyri.[26] In fact, it is quite apparent where the unrelated characters end and the papyri characters begin. This suggests that the production of at least the first part of the Egyptian alphabet documents predates the July 1835 arrival of the papyri.

Here is an important detail: the Kirtland Egyptian Papers don't just have Egyptian characters. One of them, the Egyptian Counting paper, has a mix of multiple scripts but not a single Egyptian character. It's clear this page at least could not possibly be of any use in even pretending to "translate" Egyptian. So what was going on?

As I previously discussed, William Schryver's hypothesis is that "Egyptian" was synonymous (for W.W. Phelps and possibly others) with "pure language," a reasonable point, and more controversially, that the Kirtland Egyptian Papers project was a short-lived attempt to equate chunks of English with brief characters not for the purpose of translating the characters, but for encrypting the English. But we don't have evidence showing that such encryption was used, apart perhaps from whatever was being done with the Egyptian characters and concocted composites of Egyptian characters that were placed in the margins of 3 manuscripts that had a fraction of the Book of Abraham copied onto them. Maybe Phelps wanted to encrypt, but maybe he was seeking to understand how "pure language" might allow various characters, especially but not exclusively those from the Egyptian scrolls, to convey complex, detailed ideas. Joseph may have been interested in the work as well from an intellectual standpoint, but whatever the goal was of the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar and related documents, they seem to be dependent on an existing translation, not the other way around.

Sadly, One of the Most Important Documents for Understanding the Kirtland Egyptian Papers Seems to Be Missing from the Joseph Smith Papers Project

The quote from Hauglid above mentions a May 1835 letter from W.W. Phelps that shares some  characters from his own "pure language" work. Take a look at the image below of Phelps' letter, courtesy of the Religious Studies Center at BYU:

The May 1835 letter of W.W. Phelps to his wife. Click to enlarge.

This fascinating letter is a smoking gun, of sorts, for, as William Schryver pointed out long ago, it shows a variety of symbols that Phelps was working with weeks before Joseph saw and purchased mummies and scrolls from Egypt. The six strange but simple characters from Phelps surprisingly are also found in the Kirtland Egyptian Papers. Their source is not Egyptian writing. But there they are, plainly visible in the middle of page 1 of an Kirtland Egyptian Papers document listed as "Egyptian Alphabet, circa Early July–circa November 1835–B" on the Joseph Smith Papers website:

The same six characters from Phelps, written before he ever saw an Egyptian scroll, are now part of the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar that we are supposed to believe that Joseph Smith used to translate the Book of Abraham.

This letter may be one of the most important documents to consider when understanding what the Kirtland Egyptian Papers mean and what they represent. The letter uses the same format in the Egyptian papers (three columns, one for characters, one for the sound ascribed to them, and one for the English "translation" or associated text), similar to the columns used in the Book of Abraham manuscripts that are said to show how Joseph created the translation, even though they are much more likely to have been copied from an already completed document (see my posts, "The Smoking Gun for Joseph's Translation of the Book of Abraham, or Copied Manuscripts from an Existing Translation?," and "My Hypothesis Overturned: What Typos May Tell Us About the Book of Abraham"). The letter compared to the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar appears to reflect W.W. Phelps' thoughts  and creativity regarding "pure language"/"Egyptian." Since Phelps is using characters from his pet project that he had written before he saw real Egyptian, is this document really showing us how Joseph's translation was done? Or is it a window into W.W. Phelps' thinking more than Joseph's revelatory methods?

What was the purpose of this document then? Perhaps it was to encipher English, as Schryver argued, or to reverse engineer the completed translation, as Nibley argued, or to create/explore a "pure language" in some way, or to explore hidden relationships between Egyptian from near Facsimile 1 to the translated text. It's murky. But the Alphabet and Grammar was not how Joseph did the translation, and the letter from Phelps helps us understand that, or at least undermines sloppy theories about what these Kirtland Egyptian Papers tell us about Joseph Smith.

Phelps' letter is vital for more fully understanding the Kirtland Egyptian Papers.  Brian Hauglid, as noted above, mentioned it and showed it in his 2015 chapter, “The Book of Abraham and the Egyptian Project: 'A Knowledge of Hidden Languages',” in Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith and the Ancient World, edited by Lincoln H. Blumell, Matthew J. Grey, and Andrew H. Hedges (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2015), 474–511. That was before he denounced faithful LDS Egyptologists as "abhorrent" apologists and began adapting the views of some critics of the Church. Hauglid, as an editor for the Joseph Smith Papers project pertaining to the Book of Abraham, has received a great deal of well earned credit and praise for his work in bringing together and describing many early LDS documents related to the Book of Abraham, but sadly, it lacks the valuable May 1835 letter of W.W. Phelps to his wife. This important document is not found anywhere on the Joseph Smith Papers website, as far as I can tell. Why? An oversight? A legal issue that didn't prevent BYU from sharing it on their website? Or outside the scope of the project? But I hope they'll add it and link to it. Update, April 19, 2019: While I personally wish it were there, it's clearly not possible for every tangential paper to be included within the limited scope of the project in Volume 4 pertaining to the Book of Abraham, or for the website as a whole (see a helpful comment below by Dr. Robin Jensen on this issue). But I am grateful that we can at least see the key part of it on the Religious Studies Center site. [end update] It deserves to be known.

For some time Hauglid, while working on the Joseph Smith Papers and lecturing on behalf of the Maxwell Institute, has been on a "transformative journey," leading him to publicly denounce fellow BYU professors and experienced Egyptologists for their defense of the Book of Abraham, as he posted on Facebook (now widely quoted, often with glee):
For the record, I no longer hold the views that have been quoted from my 2010 book in these videos. I have moved on from my days as an "outrageous" apologist. In fact, I'm no longer interested or involved in apologetics in any way. I wholeheartedly agree with Dan's (Dan Vogel’s) excellent assessment of the Abraham/Egyptian documents in these videos. I now reject a missing Abraham manuscript. I agree that two of the Abraham manuscripts were simultaneously dictated. I agree that the Egyptian papers were used to produce the BoA. I agree that only Abr. 1:1-2:18 were produced in 1835 and that Abr. 2:19-5:21 were produced in Nauvoo. And on and on. I no longer agree with Gee or Mulhestein. I find their apologetic "scholarship" on the BoA abhorrent. One can find that I've changed my mind in my recent and forthcoming publications. The most recent JSP Revelations and Translation vol. 4, The Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts (now on the shelves) is much more open to Dan's thinking on the origin of the Book of Abraham. My friend Brent Metcalfe can attest to my transformative journey.
John Gee has used the Phelps letter in refuting the significance of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers as a window into Joseph Smith's translation. Meanwhile, Hauglid gave a faith-shaking (for some, as I learned from a shaken member) lecture to BYU students in January 2019 that neglected to mention John Gee, Kerry Muhlestein, or any shred of evidence in support of the authenticity of the Book of Abraham, and that also, of course, made no mention of Phelps' letter and his "pure language" fascination. Maybe that letter is there on the Joseph Smith Papers site and I've missed it. Let me know! But I don't see the letter in my search attempts or on the links on his biography. It's certainly not included in Volume 4. Seems like it ought to be on the site somewhere, especially given its relevance to the Book of Abraham.

Here's what John Gee had to say in 2015 about the Phelps letter. Ouch, he also criticizes the Joseph Smith Papers for giving too early a date to the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, and if correct, that's also a serious issue:
As William Schryver has pointed out, the format of many of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers follows that format established by W. W. Phelps in work he did on the pure language in May 1835 before anyone in the Church had heard of the papyri. All of them are from his collection of manuscripts. Kirtland Egyptian Papers show the influence of his thinking and were begun in his handwriting. They show what W. W. Phelps thought. They include the famous “Grammar and aphabet [sic]” book, which has been incorrectly included as the work of Joseph Smith on the Joseph Smith Papers website.

Contrary to the date provided on the Joseph Smith Papers website, the book cannot date to 1835. How do we know that? The system of transliteration that Phelps used in the book follows the transliteration system taught by Josiah Seixas beginning in January of 1836. Words with long final vowels end in an “h.” The transliteration system used before that does not have the “h” and this can be seen in the transcriptions of the same words made in October 1835. Since the book has the later system, it must date after the later system was taught and thus must date after its introduction in January 1836. Joseph Smith’s journal entries indicate that within a week of receiving Hebrew books, Joseph dropped working on Egyptian in favor of Hebrew.[77]

We have no record of Joseph Smith working on Egyptian materials from November 1835 until the beginning of 1842. Although Joseph Smith’s journals have numerous gaps starting in the spring of 1836, from October 1835 to April 1836, we have good records of what he was doing, and he was working on projects other than studying Egyptian after November 1835. This means that he was not working on the so-called Grammar and Alphabet, with its 1836 transliteration system. That work, instead, should be attributed to the man in whose handwriting it is and whose format it follows: W. W. Phelps.

--John Gee, “Joseph Smith and Ancient Egypt,” in Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith and the Ancient World, edited by Lincoln H. Blumell, Matthew J. Grey, and Andrew H. Hedges (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2015), 427–48.
Hauglid, of course, is coming out with a book on the Pearl of Great Price co-authored by one of my favorite LDS thinkers, Terryl Givens, who, I fear, may not fully appreciate the possibility of Hauglid's approach being informed by something other than an open mind on the evidence around the Book of Abraham (seriously, the denouncement of fellow scholars and his refusal to recognize their work in his BYU lecture in January just doesn't seem scholarly, so I'm worried that this attitude may influence many choices made in the book). Will their book include a helpful review of some of the positive finds from LDS scholars, similar to the excellent treatment in Givens' previous work on the Book of Mormon? I suspect not. Will there be abundant footnotes to the fascinating and faith-promoting insights from the "abhorrent" ones? I suspect not. Will we be told that the Kirtland Egyptian Papers may primarily serve to give us a window into W.W. Phelps views, and that the key documents that are said to show Joseph's translation in progress actually are copies made of an existing translation? I suspect not. But here's hoping for a fair shake.

Anyone have an advance copy of their book that I can review? Would love to see it and hope it's helpful and fair.

This post is part of a recent series on the Book of Abraham, inspired by a frustrating presentation from the Maxwell Institute. Here are the related posts:

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

My Hypothesis Overturned: What Typos May Tell Us About the Book of Abraham

In my previous post, "The Smoking Gun for Joseph's Translation of the Book of Abraham, or Copied Manuscripts from an Existing Translation?," I suggested that examination of the "smoking guns" for Joseph's alleged "translation" process in creating the Book of Abraham actually don't reflect an author creating and dictating a revealed text, but appear to reflect two scribes seeking to make a copy of an existing document. The process began orally, with somebody, possibly one of the scribes, reading an existing text out loud as both scribes then copied what was read. Then Warren Parrish quit writing at and that point, the manuscript by Frederick G. Williams shows that his copying process probably became based on looking and writing rather than listening and writing, evidence by an accidental repeat of three verses of text. If Williams were reading the text for Parrish's benefit, or if a third party were reading it for both of the scribes, when Parrish left, there would be no need to keep reading, and Williams could simply copy the text directly by hand. 

If Williams were the speaker, as I proposed, 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. I awoke with this idea and did not know what the results of the inquiry would be as I wrote the above text. So let's see how my hypothesis holds up.

Here are the proper names in each manuscript, excluding Egypt and Egyptian, Ham, Adam, and Noah. They are shown in order and grouped by name in order of occurrence and showing corrections:

The transcript of Manuscript A by Frederick G. Williams has these proper names, shown in order of occurrence but grouped by name:
  • 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]
  • Potipher<​s​> hill, Potiphers hill
  • Olishem
  • Onitus Onitah
  • Kah-lee-nos [note that the canonized text has Rahleenos]
  • Abram, Abram, Abraham <​Abram​>, Abram, Abram, Abram
  • Ur, Ur, Ur, Ur, Ur
  • Cananitess, cannites
  • Zep-tah
  • Egyptes
  • Haran, Haron, Haran, Haran, Haran, Haran, Haran
  • Terah
  • Sarai, Sarai, sarah
  • Nahor
  • Milcah
  • canaan, canaan
  • Lot 
Manuscript B by Warren Parrish has these corrections that were made to proper names, as displayed in the transcript at the Joseph Smith Papers site:
  • 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
  • Olishem 
  • Onitah
  • 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
  • Zeptah
  • Egyptes
  • Haran, Haran
  • Terah 
  • Sarai
  • Nahor
  • Milcah
Parrish is not a great speller, giving us "preist," "sacrafice," "fassion" (fashion), "patraarch," "govermnent," "pople" (people), "Idolitry," "deliniate," "runing," and "smiten," but he spells names consistently, with the exception of capitalization and one typo for Pharaoh. 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. My original hypothesis (Frederick G. Williams as a possible reader) is overturned.

Update, April 19, 2019: When Warren Parrish wrote the third Book of Abraham Manuscript, Manuscript C, the transcript at the Joseph Smith Papers says he wrote "Rahleenos." I think this is a mistake. It certainly looks like Rahleenos at first glance, but in the same verse, the way Parrish writes "K" in "King" is identical to the letter that is followed by "ahleenos." In other words, it's clear that he also wrote Kahleenos. There are no capital Rs in that document to see how he would have written Rahleenos, but you can see many capital Rs in other documents such as his "Minutes, 3 September 1837" at the Joseph Smith Papers site. His capital R is much different than his capital K. Is our current "Rahleenos" an error or does it reflect what was on or should have been on the original but missing document from Joseph's translation of the Book of Abraham? When Rahleenos appears again in an 1842 manuscript from Willard Richards, that "R" looks an awful lot like the "K" in the word "King" shortly before it, but there is an touch of extra ink in that "K" that distinguishes the two. He joined the Church too late to be involved in the early Book of Abraham work, but it shows that in handwriting of that era, it was possible for a "K" and an "R" to look quite similar. Curious to know what Joseph originally dictated.

This post is part of a recent series on the Book of Abraham, inspired by a frustrating presentation from the Maxwell Institute. Here are the related posts:

Sunday, April 14, 2019

The Smoking Gun for Joseph's Translation of the Book of Abraham, or Copied Manuscripts from an Existing Translation?

Thanks to the Joseph Smith Papers website and its section on the Book of Abraham, we can explore in detail the surviving manuscripts related to the Book of Abraham, including early manuscripts with portions of the Book of Abraham text and also the mysterious Kirtland Egyptian Papers, including the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar:
Book of Abraham Manuscripts
Book of Abraham Manuscript, circa July–circa November 1835–A [Abraham 1:4–2:6]

Book of Abraham Manuscript, circa July–circa November 1835–B [Abraham 1:4–2:2]
Book of Abraham Manuscript, circa July–circa November 1835–C [Abraham 1:1–2:18]
Egyptian Alphabet Documents
Egyptian Alphabet, circa Early July–circa November 1835–A
Egyptian Alphabet, circa Early July–circa November 1835–B
Egyptian Alphabet, circa Early July–circa November 1835–C
Egyptian Counting, circa Early July–circa November 1835
Scrap, circa July–circa November 1835

Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language

Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language, circa July–circa November 1835
We turn our attention today to the Book of Abraham Manuscripts. Manuscript A is in the handwriting of Frederick G. Williams, and Manuscript B in the handwriting of Warren Parrish, who was not hired as a scribe until October 1835. 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 again.

Brian Hauglid, Dan Vogel, and others have insisted that these give us a "window" into Joseph Smith's translation process. And there's certainly a compelling case to be made, for two of these documents, Book of Abraham Manuscript A and  Book of Abraham Manuscript B, appear to have been simultaneously dictated by two scribes. They both begin with the very same mistakes and corrections, as if the speaker were catching the errors and correcting them on the fly. As we look on the first page of both manuscripts, there is clearly an oral process going on, especially when we see different spellings for unusual names. So this must be the window we need into Joseph's translation, right? Joseph must have been the one dictating, and these documents show that the translation must have begun in October or November of 1835, and that it was done using characters considered in the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar, not a lost manuscript. We see the original Book of Abraham text being created on these manuscripts, nicht wahr? Perhaps nicht.

There certainly appears to be an oral process occurring and simultaneous copying, at least at the beginning of Manuscripts A and B. But was it really Joseph dictating? 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? For those who assert this represents Joseph dictating his new translation, is there any evidence that Joseph was known to dictate to two scribes at once while translating or giving revelation? My memory may be cloudy here, but I only recall Joseph using one scribe at a time, not two.

While there appears to be an oral process, at least initially initially, the manuscripts later show evidence of being visually copied from an existing manuscript, and not being created in a purely oral process. For example, Manuscript A at page 4 ends with a strange duplicate section where a lengthy section, Abraham 2:3 to 2:5, is repeated. This phenomenon, "dittography," is characteristic of copying a text and mistakenly looking back at a previously copied region as one continues. It's a common scribal error. It would be highly unlikely, even virtually impossible, to redictate this much text word for word in a purely oral process, especially if one were in the process of making it up on the fly. But this kind of error could easily occur if one were copying a document. But yes, it could also occur in an oral process -- if the one giving dictation were reading from an existing manuscript, though that seems less likely than simply copying from a text one can see.

Further, the nature of the errors and corrections at the beginning of these two manuscripts are not the kind that one would make if one had a sentence or concept in one's mind and were now dictating a "revelation." Rather, they read much more like the kind of mistakes one would make if one were reading an existing manuscript out loud, perhaps a manuscript one was not already intimately familiar with. Here is the opening text from Manuscript A with edits marked:
I sought for <​mine​> the appointment whereunto unto the priesthood according to the appointment of God unto the fathers concerning the seed...
The word "mine" is inserted above the original "the" that has been struck out, and "whereunto" is crossed out and followed by the correct "unto." Overlooking the awkward English of "mine" and speaking "the" could be a natural thing for some reading the text and seeing the upcoming word "appointment." So here's how I think it could have been dictated:
"I sought for the appointment" -- whoops, looks that actually should have been "mine appointment," sorry, I see you've already written "appointment" so please strike "the" and insert "mine" above it. OK, let's continue: "Whereunto"-- oops, strike that. Sorry. It should be "unto," so let's continue: unto the priesthood according to the appointment of God unto the fathers concerning the seed...
These mistakes and corrections are hard to justify if someone already has a sentence in their head.

For starters, 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" 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 hypthesized pre-existing, more complete manuscript. Look at the lovely "whereunto" also in the context of receiving the Priesthood in verse 2 of the text as we have it today:
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 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.

Two Scribes in a Joseph-free Scenario with Williams Parrish as Reader?

If Manuscript A and B reflect dictation and an oral process, it is natural to assume that Joseph or someone else was dictating to his scribes. Joseph did often dictate to scribes (or rather, to one scribe at a time, not two at once as far as I know) when receiving revelation and performing "translation" by whatever means. But we should also consider another possibility. It is not necessary that Joseph or anyone else was reading out loud to the two scribes. One of the two scribes could have done that.

One of the scribes with a document in front of him could have been reading aloud for the benefit of the other scribe (or theoretically even more scribes) a few words at a time, alternately reading and copying what he just spoke. Whatever was going on, it didn't last, for one scribe, William Parrish, the scribe working on Manuscript B, stopped early after writing "who was the daughter of Haran" from Abraham 2:2. However, Frederick G. Williams kept on writing on Manuscript A. It was at this point where something changed, as is visible in the image above (Manuscript A, p. 4), perhaps due to Parrish's departure and a change or interruption associated with that. Perhaps the key change was because Williams one person no longer had to read out loud and so Williams could now just copy text directly without hearing the spoken text and without thinking about what he had just heard. It was at this point where Williams writes Abraham 2:3-5, and then creates a massive dittography blunder by copying those three verses again, word for word (with a couple of minor typos and "bro son" instead of "brother's son"). The change also includes writing all the way to the left margin of the page instead of respecting the column holding occasional Egyptian.

Update, April 16, 2019: In my next post, I will examine the typographical errors in proper names that occur in both manuscripts. Based on that data, it appears much more likely that Parrish rather than Williams was the scribe who was reading from a manuscript (or at least could see the manuscript being copied), for he has very few typos in proper names but Williams abounds in them, which would be reasonable if he were hearing and trying to write unfamiliar names. 

If Manuscript A gives us a "window into Joseph's translation process" as some argue and if in these manuscripts we see Joseph dictating and making up text on the fly as scribes copy his words, how and why did Joseph perfectly repeat three long verses that he just made up earlier? If you're going to maintain that this document captures Joseph's dictation and original translation of the Book of Abraham, at least give him credit for the little miracle of a flawless repeat performance. (Maybe he should not have been so worried about re-translating the 116 lost pages!)

Of course, a case of dittography this big makes no sense for a scribe copying dictated text or writing text that the scribe has read out loud to someone else. In proofreading, I have long noticed that I catch errors, especially redundancies, much more readily when I read the text out loud. Dittography is less likely to happen when we're reading and hearing what we are writing. But if Williams were doing the reading and then stopped reading out loud after Parrish left or took a break, But if Parrish were reading the manuscript and then stopped or left, Williams could have simply taken the manuscript for direct copying and could have easily fallen into the common transcription error of jumping back to something already written, giving us a significant case of dittography that would be unlikely to miss in a more oral/audible process. And that means that Williams was copying from (and Parrish  previously may have been reading aloud from) an already existing manuscript of the Book of Abraham.


Whoever was dictating to the scribes, there appears to have been an audible process with corrections ordered by the one giving dictation, at least at the beginning of Manuscripts A and B. A change occurred at or by the point where Parrish stops writing, for then Williams shows an extreme case of a classic scribal copying error as he repeats three full verses, apparently without noticing. At this point it is clear that Williams is copying from an existing text, and it is likely that the entire manuscript was based on copying from an existing text, one that was either being read to the two scribes, or one that Williams was reading and copying from with Parrish one scribe read aloud initially while both made a copy. The dittography at the end points to copying from a manuscript, while the mistake with "unto" becoming "whereunto" at the beginning also makes sense if the dictation were from an existing text that had Abraham 1:2 and its "whereunto" in a similar context. From beginning to end, these documents support the notion of dictation and/or visually copying from an existing Book of Abraham manuscript, not the creation of that book.

Rather than giving us a window into Joseph's translation process, these manuscripts may be giving us a window into someone's dictation process and a window into somebody's effort to use an existing translation to do something -- reverse cipher? decoding Egyptian? gaining insights into a mysterious "pure language"? What that something is remains unclear to me, but it does not seem to be creating the text of the Book of Abraham translation.

So not only do we have missing scrolls and missing original texts from the Book of Abraham translation, we may also have a missing speaker who apparently read out loud to the scribes, though that speaker may well have been Frederick G. Williams Warren Parrish himself. In any case, there are multiple clues pointing to an earlier existing translation being used.

This post is part of a recent series on the Book of Abraham, inspired by a frustrating presentation from the Maxwell Institute. Here are the related posts:

Puzzling Content in the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar

When I first started looking at the Kirtland Egyptian Papers in detail on the Joseph Smith Papers site, I was immediately struck by the surprisingly specific and narrowly focused content in the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar, which are often said to have been developed as the bogus tools Joseph used to produce his "translation" of a handful of symbols to create the Book of Abraham. If the Alphabet and Grammar were imagined to be tools for cracking the Egyptian language, one might expect them to provide vocabulary for a wide range of common words. Instead, we see a small number of characters considered and they are linked to very specific phrases and names that are found in the Book of Abraham. Is it more plausible that the text in the Alphabet and Grammar has been lifted from the Book of Abraham, or that the tools developed for translation happened to be the intricate puzzle pieces that fit together to well to create the coherent story of the Book of Abraham?

Yes, after noticing this, I recalled that these issues were the topic of an old FAIRMormon Conference presentation given by William Schryver (see Youtube videos of Part 1 and Part 2 of his presentation). I think his 2010 presentation made some important points. It may be that the relationship between the content of the Book of Abraham and the focused content of the Alphabet and Grammar suggests that much of the Book of Abraham translation had been completed in 1835 and was being relied on in some way when the Alphabet and Grammar were constructed. There may have been further "translation" work that Joseph mentioned in Nov. 1835 and again in 1842, but it may have involved adding Hebrew terms, editing some of the content, preparing figures, or simply preparing the whole text properly for publication, as opposed to dictating new verses. "Translation" can cover a wide range of actions.

Schryver says there is too much very specific content in the Alphabet and Grammar for it to not be derived from the Book of Abraham, and too little of the Book of Abraham in the Alphabet and Grammar for it to have been used to produce the text. It genuinely looks like a one-way dependency that requires the Book of Abraham text came first. Schryver shows that the brief Alphabet relies on part of Abraham 1, 2, and 3, while the Grammar adds dependency on Abraham 4 and 5 as well, with added dependency on Abraham 2. But oddly, the dependency goes beyond the text of the Book of Abraham alone, and also extends to some of Joseph's revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants (see the second image below, for example).

This was at a time when there were serious concerns about enemies of the Church, resulting in some details such as people's names in part of the Doctrine and Covenants being encrypted. Schryver then disagrees with Hugh Nibley, who saw the Alphabet and Grammar as an attempt to reverse engineer Joseph's translation. Schryver instead sees it as something much different, an attempt to create a "reverse cipher" not to decrypt Egyptian, but to encrypt information in English prompted perhaps by security needs. I'm not sure about this particular explanation for what was going on with the Alphabet and Grammar. Whether a "reverse cipher" was the intent or not, the critical thing from my perspective is the possibility that much of the Book of Abraham may have been in place before the Alphabet and Grammar was pursued, strengthening the case that those documents do not give us a window in Joseph Smith's translation and revelation methodology.

Here is one slide from Part 1 of Schryver, showing the intricate relationship between Joseph's comments for Facsimile 2 and the comments in the Grammar for one particular character.

Here is a slide from Part 2, highlighting the relationship between the Grammar and Doctrine & Covenants 76, a text that had already been "translated" (revealed) since 1832:

Characters 46 to 49 correspond to content in the same order and with very similar language in Section 76. Clearly, the Grammar is drawing upon existing text in this case, and it is reasonable to understand that other cases of detailed textual correspondence with the Book of Abraham text represent the same phenomenon, regardless of whatever goal was motivating the men seeking to construct the Grammar.

You can explore the issues yourself with the help of the Joseph Smith Papers website section related to the Book of Abraham, where you can see these documents and their transcripts:
Egyptian Alphabet Documents
Egyptian Alphabet, circa Early July–circa November 1835–A
Egyptian Alphabet, circa Early July–circa November 1835–B
Egyptian Alphabet, circa Early July–circa November 1835–C
Egyptian Counting, circa Early July–circa November 1835
Scrap, circa July–circa November 1835
Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language
Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language, circa July–circa November 1835

The Egyptian Alphabet, Document A (circa early July to roughly November 1835)  has this on page 4, with remarkable overlap to the opening words of Abraham 1:
Ah-broam— signifies The father of the faithful, the first right, the elders ... — A follower of rightiousness— ... One who possesses great Knowledge— ... A follower of righteousness, a possessor of greater knowledge. ... — Ah-bra-oam. The father of many nations, a prince of peace, one who keeps the commandments of God, a patriarch, a rightful heir, a high priest.
 Compare Abraham 1:1-2:
1 In the land of the Chaldeans, at the residence of my fathers, I, Abraham, saw that it was needful for me to obtain another place of residence;
2 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; having been myself a follower of righteousness, desiring also to be one who possessed great knowledge, and to be a greater follower of righteousness, and to possess a greater knowledge, and to be a father of many nations, a prince of peace, and desiring to receive instructions, and to keep the commandments of God, I became a rightful heir, a High Priest, holding the right belonging to the fathers.

The Egyptian Alphabet, Document B (circa early July to roughly November 1835) which contains phrases like, "The land of Egypt first discovered under water by a woman," "virgin princess," and on a scrap at the end, "Kolob," all important concepts in the Book of Abraham. These terms also occur several times in the the Grammar and in the Egyptian Alphabet, Document B.

Examples of content from the Grammar include:
  • "The land of Egypt which was first discovered by a woman <​wh[i]le underwater​>, and afterwards settled by her Sons she being a daughter of Ham"
  • "Kolob. signifies the first creation nearer to the celestial, or the residence of Lord, first in government, the last pertaining to the measurement of time, the measurement according  to celestial time which signifies, one day to a cubit which day is equal to a thousand years according to the measurement of this Eearth or Jah=oh=eh" [cf. commentary for Facs. 2, fig. 1]
  • Many other astronomical references related to Facs. 2
Schryver emphasizes the strange Egyptian Counting document, which uses characters from a variety of scripts other than Egyptian (Arabic, Sanskrit, etc.) to depict supposed Egyptian names for numbers. Schryver seems justified in claiming that something other than "translating" Egyptian is going on here, and there may be merit in his hypothesis that a cipher was being contemplated to encode meaning rather than to decode Egyptian, at least for this document.

[The following 3 paragraphs are an update from April 15, 2019.]
The following slide from about 17 minutes into Part 2 of Schryver's presentation makes a fascinating point: not only are the characters in the Egyptian Counting document not Egyptian at all (like some of the other characters in the Alphabet and Grammar), but six of them come from W.W. Phelp's earlier work in trying to create a way to write in "the pure language." This early "pure language" work occurred well before Joseph saw an Egyptian mummy or scroll. So here are six characters from Phelps early work that show up in the "Egyptian" Counting document. What do they mean?

Schryver argues persuasively that this rules out the idea that his document was intended to turn Egyptian into English, but was part of a cipher key for turning English into code, or even into "pure language" which Phelps and others may have believed was what ancient Egyptian sort of was. Thus, work on this cipher key, for turning English into code, could well have been viewed as "translating" and as work aiming at developing a "pure language" or, in a sense, "Egyptian," but without the need for actual Egyptian characters from any scroll. Indeed, some of the characters in the Kirtland Egyptian Paper are Sanskrit, Masonic ciphers, variations of Arabic numbers, composite characters, etc., along with many Egyptian characters.

As Nibley has long pointed out, this project, whatever it was, soon ran out of steam and didn't really go anywhere, though the documents continue to confound and puzzle us. I think at least some of Schryver's points merit careful consideration, even though the relationship between the characters in the Book of Abraham manuscripts and the Joseph Smith Papyri could still suggest that someone (W.W. Phelps, for example?) thought there was a close relationship between those characters and the translated text. But if the translated text came first, then again what we are seeing is not a window into how Joseph did his translation in the first place. Maybe he was interested in Phelps' project intellectually, just as he sought to learn Hebrew after doing the translation of the Book of Mormon, but using an Alphabet and Grammar is not how he did any revealed translation, as far as we know.

Certainly there are weaknesses in the cipher theory, and critics were declaring they had thrashed Schryver shortly after his presentation. But have they really undermined the case for one-way dependence of the Alphabet and Grammar drawing upon an existing Book of Abraham translation rather than the Book of Abraham being created from the Alphabet and Grammar? Has anyone refuted the claim that the characters in the Egyptian Counting document and related papers are not all Egyptian?

But wait, isn't it clear that Documents A and B of the Egyptian Alphabet show that they were simultaneously dictated manuscripts, created as Joseph Smith no doubt was pretending to receive revelation for the meaning of the a few symbols? Aren't these smoking guns that PROVE that Joseph was translating from the Joseph Smith papyri, not a lost manuscript, and that these are the originals of the Book of Abraham, not a copied text from a lost manuscript? That's the topic of my next post.

This post is part of a recent series on the Book of Abraham, inspired by a frustrating presentation from the Maxwell Institute. Here are the related posts:

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Tender Mercies: How the BYU Management Society and a China Moment Turned Gloom into Contentment

Monday morning was gloomy. Perhaps my most depressing day over my 8 wonderful years of ups and downs in China. This was a day of confronting some painful suspected realities. I can't share details, but I was struggling with an unusually aggravating situation and a sense of injustice in a scenario that makes even seasoned, cynical experts on life and work in China say "wow." I struggled though the morning trying to get a few things done. But there was a new distraction.

That morning I received a call from the Chinese President of the Shanghai Chapter of the BYU Management Society. This is a wonderful non-religious group dedicated to promoting moral and ethical leadership in the world, and I've been selecting speakers and organizing sporadic events over my years here in China. But for the event I had planned for Wednesday night, April 10, well, as of Monday morning we had a grand total of 1 RSVP. Ouch. I had already spent my morning time before work started making last minute invites. Maybe I needed to do a couple more. So right before my lunch hour, I remembered an old friend, Mr. Liu, who had left our company in 2017 but was still living somewhere in Shanghai. Did I have his email? I looked it up and was about to send him our flyer when I realized I was starving and needed to get some lunch.

With my friend on my mind, I went downstairs and noticed how beautiful the weather was. Instead of eating at one of the roughly 100 places all around and beneath our offices at the amazing Shanghai Arch and adjoining Archwalk Mall, I went on a walk and really felt I should head south to Xianxia Road. I recalled a building there with several Japanese restaurants. Surely there would be something really delicious to cheer me up. Food matters here in China, and it matters to me. So with high hopes, I walked into that building and immediately noticed a beautiful advertisement for what looked like a perfect meal for me, with veggies, my favorite fruit (red velvet dragonfruit) and some healthy salmon. Great!

The large placard touting the
nonexistent meal I sought.
I went downstairs and spent too much time scouring the menus of three restaurants in search of that meal. I asked and tried to recall the full name of the dish, but got a strange look. So I went back upstairs to photograph the ad (shown at the right), came back down, and finally found the restaurant that offered the beautiful dish in question -- or used to offer it, back before they discontinued it long ago, without bothering to take down their ridiculous ad that didn't even say which restaurant supposedly had  that dish.  No problem -- for all I know, the photo was probably heavily Photoshopped anyway and the actual food may have looked more like chicken nuggets with a piece of wilted lettuce.

But there was a problem. I had already wasted 30 minutes of my lunch hour in moving from my office to that building and puzzling over multiple menus in my quest for something that didn't exist. Should I even bother eating now? I could just go back to my office and sulk productively.

No, I had felt that I really should come this way, down to Xianxia Road. So now what? I stepped outside and looked down the road and remembered there was another group of restaurants on Xianxia Road about 200 meters to the west (about 200 yards for those of you still not using the metric system). I walked over there and went in, thinking I would try a busy noodle shop I had seen there. Alas, it was closed! As was another Japanese place I had tried once before. And the Tibetan place upstairs. Sigh. I looked down a long hallway and saw some lights that might be for a restaurant. I started walking there and realized it was just a drink shop or something small, so I turned around and started walking back to my office, giving up on a decent meal today. That's when I heard a voice calling my name.

"Jeff! Jeff!" I was surprised for I didn't expect any colleagues from work to be over here. I turned around and saw an old friend, Mr. Liu, the very person whose name and email address were pulled up on my computer waiting for me to send him a flyer. The very person I had been thinking about as I began my walk. What was he doing here? There are several million people living between where I work and where he now works. I was really dumbfounded.

He and two other colleagues from work had decided to get together at lunch for a reunion, and somehow ended up at a tiny drink shop with one table and three chairs. They were sitting around the table, chatting, when Mr. Liu spotted me. I told them my story, and we all agree that this was a classic case of China's beautiful and mysterious concept of yuanfen (缘分), often translated as destiny or fate, often conveying the notion of the touch of heaven's hand in bringing people together. It was a classic China moment and we all realized that. China is a land of miracles and deep spirituality for all its overt atheism, which often is just a lack of organized religion in the lives of people who may still be keenly interested in the spiritual and aware of heavenly forces in their lives.

Adding to the mystery of this experience is the drink Mr. Liu bought for me. I was simply stunned that this little shop could offer such a heavenly beverage, a perfect mix of real mango and a coconut cream sorbet of some kind that was not too sweet and rich in real fruit and coconut, perhaps the best beverage/dessert I have had in China. And then, since there were four of us but only three seats in the drink shop, we moved next door to an ancient Chinese coffee shop called "Starbucks." Sensing trouble unless we bought something, I rushed over to the counter and quickly picked a little sandwich with some roasted veggies between a couple layers of seed-studded croissant triangles. They warmed it up, and moments later I was in heaven again because it was surely the best tasting sandwich I can recall eating in China. Perfect for my tastes. Good friends, good food, a tiny miracle and tender mercy -- what was I whining about? Who cares about my little grievances? Oh, right, the Lord cares, and while He does not seem interested in fixing those minor problems, He did kindly reach down today and show me something wonderful: that He is there, that good friends are there, that miracles and blessings abound in spite of problems I can't solve, and that I should rejoice and be cheerful.

I went into that building with closed doors and shut-down restaurants feeling gloomy, depressed, and hungry. In an instant, everything changed, and moments later I left feeling uplifted and satisfied both physically and spiritually.  I was content and at peace.

My problems didn't change, but I did. I would not take the confrontational approach I had contemplated. I had fasted the day before and the impression I got was in the scriptures: "If someone asks for your cloak, give them two. If someone smites you, turn the other cheek." I understood that mentally, but it wasn't in my heart. I needed something more to help me change, and that magical moment did it: "Jeff, Jeff!"

Mr. Liu and one of his two friends there would both come to the BYU Management Society event last night. We had 23 people there and it was tremendous. A fabulous lecture from an expert on senior care and lots of networking and more obvious yuanfen magic happening. I left that event truly grateful and joyous.

Monday afternoon, when I met with some significant people, I completely abandoned the tough, aggressive questions I had planned. I brought along a couple of cloaks and gave generously. Turned my cheeks all sorts of directions. I was content, peaceful, a team player, and what might have been rifts became bonding with people I discovered were actually really decent people I liked. Friendships were formed. It was an awesome day, one of my best. Wish I could share some of the exotic details, but I have been deeply blessed. From belligerence to peacefulness, from anger to contentment, from depression to joy, from hunger to marvelous satisfaction, all with one little touch of the Master's hand and a sweet, utterly improbable encounter in a classic China moment.

How I love this land and how I love the blessings of the Gospel in my life.

Sunday, April 07, 2019

Do the Kirtland Egyptian Papers Prove the Book of Abraham Was Translated from a Handful of Characters? See for Yourself!

In a small but highly valuable and colorful book on the Book of Abraham, John Gee's A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2000), Gee argues that the Kirtland Egyptian Papers (KEP), whatever they were, cannot be viewed as a window into Joseph Smith's production of his translation of the Book of Abraham. With the publication of the KEP as part of volume 4 of the Joseph Smith Papers, we now have a better chance to examine the documents and evaluate Gee's arguments.

There are three documents from the Kirtland Egyptian Papers that have a portion of the English translation (ranging from Abraham 1:4 to 2:18), each with a few Egyptian symbols or portions of symbols to the left. Some have argued that this shows Joseph's translation process at work, revealing his foolish belief that mystic Egyptian writing contained intricate details magically condensed into a few strokes. First, it's hard for me to believe that Joseph could have believed such a thing were possible, especially when the "Reformed Egyptian" script on at least much of the gold plates gave no hint of such miraculously compact text. Had it been that way, a single gold leaf might have held the entire Book of Mormon or more, but it was a fairly thick book based on witness accounts, and while 2/3 of it was sealed, that still gives a plausible amount of surface area for engraving the text of the Book of Mormon in small Hebrew characters, and certainly enough for a slightly more compact script. See my LDSFAQ answer to the question, "How could the whole Book of Mormon fit on the small number of unsealed gold plates?" But ignoring for now the clear disconnect between Joseph's prior translation work with Reformed Egyptian and the KEP translation theory, let's consider Gee's arguments and the KEP manuscripts. In Chapter 3 of his book, pages 21-23, he writes:
According to this theory, the text to the right is the translation of the Egyptian characters to the left. Unfortunately for this theory, the Egyptian characters were added after the entire English text was written (as evidenced by the use of different inks, Egyptian characters that do not always line up with the English text, and Egyptian characters that sometimes overrun the English text). Thus it was not a matter of writing the character and then writing the translation but of someone later adding the characters in the margin at the beginning of paragraphs of text without explicitly stating the reason for doing so.

Advocates of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers theory also assume that Joseph Smith first compiled a grammar from which he then produced the translation. But when a text in an unknown language is initially translated, a decipherer usually cracks the language without the use of grammars. Grammarians then go through the translation, establish the grammatical usage, and compile a grammar. Later, individuals learn the grammar and then produce translations. As a decipherer and one who had never formally studied any grammar at the time he produced the translation, Joseph Smith would have done the translation first.

The Kirtland Egyptian Papers that have been connected with the papyri appear to be a later attempt to match up the translation of the Book of Abraham with some of the Egyptian characters (see examples on opposite page). If one assumes that the Book of Abraham was the second text on the papyrus of Hor, a possible scenario is that having the translation of the Book of Abraham, the brethren at Kirtland tried to match the Egyptian characters with the translation but chose the characters from the first text. Yet it is not certain that this is what they thought they were doing.

He shows six examples of color images from the KEP that are said to demonstrate the use of different inks, characters that don't line up with the text they are supposedly generating, and characters that overrun the vertical line separating the characters from the English text. The images unfortunately are somewhat small and not in high resolution, and the online version of the book only has the text, not images.

I should also note that Gee and others elsewhere have also observed that other clues such as scribal errors in the English translation further suggest that in these manuscripts, an already existing English translation was copied down, not generated. Thanks to the Joseph Smith Papers, we can now look at the KEP documents up close and better evaluate such arguments ourselves. Below are some of the features that I suggest should be considered.

Turning to the Table of Contents for Volume 4 of the Joseph Smith Papers, we can see that there are links to the three key documents in question. These are:
The links will take you to the online, high-resolution images.

One more clue to consider up front is that these documents clearly cover only a small portion of the Book of Abraham, not the entire text. The most coverage is found in Document C which has English text from Abraham 1:1 to 2:18, representing less than 2 of the 5 chapters of the text. But let's now look at the images.

Here is Sample 1 from Gee, taken from the top of page 8 of Document C. Here the Egyptian characters overrun the vertical dividing line. Some have assumed that the English is indented to avoid the Egyptian character, but indentation is common throughout for new verses or other purposes, and when Egyptian characters are placed on the text, that are often near or aligned with these natural breaks. In the caption to his photos on page 22, Gee cites this as an example where not only does the Egyptian text run over the margins, but also runs over the English text. I assume he means that the Egyptian text here extends well past the leftmost margin of the English text, rather than meaning that it overwrites any English text.

An example not mentioned by Gee is readily noted on page 1 of Document A, where Egyptian again overruns the vertical dividing line, as if a dividing line were drawn for the English text on the page first, and then Egyptian was filled in, not always with enough space. Here the word "utterly" to the right appears slightly indented, but no more than the text two lines later. Indeed, most of the lines on that sheet are indented about the same amount as "utterly."

The top of this sheet, shown below, shows some of the corrections made in copying this text. Interestingly, both Documents A and B have a correction made in Abraham 1:4, with "I sought for the appointment whereunto the priesthood" changed to "I sought for mine appointment unto the priesthood," the wording used in Document C. Document C has the broadest expanse of text and thus if one of these were the original source for the Book of Abraham, Document C might be the most logical candidate.

Another example from Gee comes from page 2 of Document A, which is Sample 4 in Gee.  This is cited as an example of different ink being used in the Egyptian than in the English, of text that runs over the margin line, and of text that does not line up with the English. Here I cannot be sure that the ink is different, for it may simply be that it has been more heavily applied in the heavy drawing on the left. Anyone up for some non-destructive chemical analysis? I'd love to have something more specific on the inks used.  As for going over the margin, the degree of overrun is minor. On this page, though, two of the three Egyptian characters slightly overrun the margin line. If the margin line were drawn after the first couple of characters had been put down, one might expect it to be drawn to the right of the characters (ditto for page 1, discussed above). In general, though, it does seem reasonable that the margin line was drawn following the addition of the English text, and then came the Egyptian. There is misalignment with the beginning of Abraham 1:20 ("Behold, Potiphar's Hill was in ..."), but the Egyptian is only slightly elevated, so it's not serious misalignment.

The next example from page 3 of Document A shows slight overlap of Egyptian with the margin. But it also shows that a single ink (so I presume) used for the Egyptian can create the appearance of darker ink by applying the ink more heavily, as I believe has happened here. This is not one of the examples shown by Gee, though.

The image below is taken from page 5 of Document B, corresponding to Sample 2 of Gee, which is said to show different ink and margin overrun in the Egyptian. The overrun is clear, but I'm not sure about the ink.

Next is an image from page 3 of Document C, corresponding to Sample 3 of Gee, said to show the use of different ink and also said to demonstrate Egyptian that does not line up with the English text. Again, I'm not sure on the ink, though it may be different. As for the alignment, I tend to agree. If the Egyptian had been written first followed by the production of an English translation, the indented beginning of a verse would presumably be directly to the right of the Egyptian. It makes sense that the Egyptian was added later in Document C, which is clearly the best candidate (however inadequate) of the three documents for the source of the Book of Abraham for those advocating the KEP theory for how the translation might have been done.

The following image is from page 4 of Document C, corresponding to Sample 6 of Gee, said to show different ink and misalignment of Egyptian with the English. The ink does appear different but I'm not sure The alignment is much worse than the same text from page 2 of Document A discussed above, making this a clear example of the misalignment problem mentioned by Gee. 

Here is an example of a possible change in ink or at least a change in scribe during the copying of text, from page 8 of Document C.

Here is an example of the scribal errors made and corrected in the copying process from page 10 of Document C.  

Scribal errors are also visible on page 9 of Document C


Here is another example of poorly aligned text from page one of Document A

Document A at page 4 ends with a strange duplicate section where Abraham 2:3 to 2:5 is repeated, and the text begins going all the way to the left side of the page.

 Document B at page 6 suddenly ends with an "untranslated" character. 

In general, I find Gee's arguments are plausible, though it's possible the same ink was used throughout with different pens or scribes and/or with different techniques such that the Egyptian had higher ink density rather than different compositions. I would love to see some physical or chemical testing done -- there are nondestructive texts that can help identify things like the atomic species present. But considering the physical details of these documents, their incompleteness, and their lack of relationship to anything that even an unschooled farm boy could mistake as a translation (in light of his work, whether real or fictitious, with translation from a large set of plates with "reformed Egyptian" text), it seems implausible that these are giving us a window into the actual work of translation of the Book of Abraham. Yes, the characters could have been catalysts to produce the text, but we are not looking at a work in progress here, but more likely the copying of perhaps just a part of an already completed text.

So why the Egyptian characters on these documents at all? Were they there for decoration? Was someone trying to find some mystic relationship between the Sensen text and the Book of Abraham text that came from a missing part of the same scroll? Was W.W. Phelps looking for clues to the pure Adamic language? Much to speculate on, but I don't think it's fair to describe these documents as some kind of window into how Joseph Smith created the English text of the Book of Abraham. 

Note: Also see my later post of April 15, "The Smoking Gun for Joseph's Translation of the Book of Abraham, or Copied Manuscripts from an Existing Translation?"

This post is part of a recent series on the Book of Abraham, inspired by a frustrating presentation from the Maxwell Institute. Here are the related posts: