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

Monday, April 29, 2019

Two Important, Even Troubling, Clues About Dating from W.W. Phelps' Notebook with Egyptian "Translation"

Update, May 3, 2019, and more on May 8, 2019: In yet another frustrating turn as I explore the convoluted issues of the Book of Abraham, I need to add another big question mark over a post I wrote. In this case, I am now not so sure about a published statement from John Gee regarding the influence of Joshua Seixas on the spelling of names found in the Kirtland Egyptian Papers. I've looked over Seixas' 1830 book on Hebrew grammar at Archive.org and his later edition, available at Google Books, and just don't see a system where long vowels are followed by an "h." There still may be a connection to Seixas, but I don't see the evidence and am waiting for more insight from others whom I've queried on this matter. There may have been a widespread change at some point in time in how early LDS leaders spelled the names associated with their Egyptian studies, but I'm not sure how it connects to Seixas. On the other hand, transliterations of Hebrew do tend to have many words with "eh" and "ah," somewhat similar to the KEP, so there could be a link.

I've wondered what other resources the early saints may have used. Since Joshua Seixas was a Sephardic Jew and would have favored a Sephardic transliteration system, it may be useful to look at examples of Sephardic transliteration such as the explicitly Sephardic transliteration in My Siddur: A Chabad Hebrew School Prayerbook by Rabbi Chayim B. Alevsky at TorahTools.com. Page 8, for instance, has examples like "Meh•lech hao•lahm" and in one sentence, "mo•deh ... Meh•lech ... v'ka•yahm .. sheh•heh•che•zar•ta." We see "h" frequently following "a" and "e," and less frequently following "o" and "u," akin to my impressions of the KEP where I think "ah" and "eh" dominate with some uses of "oh" and I don't think any cases of "uh" or "ih." But that may not mean anything. Matthew Grey mentions some possibilities in his chapter, "'The Word of the Lord in the Original,'" in Approaching Antiquity (also listen to the podcast, "Sephardic Hebrew in the Book of Abraham," where Grey is interviewed by Laura Hales on Joseph's study of Hebrew). One possibility is the 1830 edition of A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (link is to the 1824 edition) of Wilhelm Gesenius and Josiah Gibbs, but it has very little transliteration if any. The 1831 Biblia Hebraica lacks transliteration. Moses Stuart's A Grammar of the Hebrew Language seems to have a lot of h's with words like bah-hel and ruhh-hhats.


Your input is welcome. My original post follows.


As with so many things in the mysteries and contentions around the Book of Abraham, key information is often found in easily overlooked details. There are two subtle clues of potentially great importance to the debate over Book of Abraham origins that I just noticed in the 1835 "translation" document from W.W. Phelps in which he presents about 50 Egyptian characters and a similar amount of English text. The clues are the two names, Katumin and Onitas. Of these, Katumin is more important.

Both of these names occur in the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, but with different spellings. The three Egyptian Alphabet manuscripts, A, B, and C, have Kah tou man, Kah-tou=mun, and Kah=tou=mun, respectively. And the Book of Abraham Manuscripts that allegedly show Joseph translating single characters in the left margin into large chunks of English all have Onitah as the spelling of the father of the three noble women of royal descent who were sacrificed for refusing to worship idols (Abraham 1:11). Why the difference in spelling?

Joseph Smith's study of Hebrew, which began when Oliver Cowdery brought some Hebrew books in November 1835 (see Joseph's Nov. 20, 1835 journal entry) and continued in early 1836 under the tutelage of Joshua Seixas, affected Joseph in many ways. Seixas' translation of some portions of the Bible appear to have influenced the final form of the Book of Abraham that Joseph published as well as the spelling of a number of words. On the influence of Seixas' excellent translation, see Michael T. Walton, "Professor Seixas, the Hebrew Bible,,and the Book of Abraham" published by Sunstone. John Gee has also pointed out that Seixas' system of transliteration influenced spelling of many names. When I first read his argument, I was not aware of the evidence he referred to and have been waiting for more detailed analysis to be published, which I understand may happen soon. Here's what he said in 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:
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]
Vowels followed by "h" appear to be part of Seixas' transliteration method, which would suggest that it was after Seixas and his family came to Kirtland to teach Hebrew to eager Latte-day Saints (he was impressed by the zeal of Joseph and others in their study of Hebrew) that words like Katumin would be spelled as Kah-tou-mun, or Onita(s), if the final s were dropped, would be spelled as Onitah. Since the change from Onitas to Onitah requires dropping or changing the final s, it's unclear why Onitas was changed.

While there are a number of vowels followed by "h" in the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, I wasn't aware of clear pre-Seixas spellings that were changed after he came, though I need to look more carefully. But the Phelps document may be a good place to start. Perhaps it was one of the documents Gee had in mind, but I'm not sure.

But if the changes in spelling in Onitas and Katumin are due to Seixas, as I suspect they are, there are a number of implications that arise, some of which may be troubling or at least troublesome. It would suggest that Phelps was working with some early Alphabet and Grammar or perhaps something from missing translation by Joseph Smith that gave us the name Katumin (and possibly was used as one of the sources for the later Alphabet and Grammar). It would suggest that there was an early Book of Abraham translation manuscript with the name Onitas (or possibly Onita). And it would suggest that Gee is correct in his criticism of the Joseph Smith Papers Project for getting the date wrong on the very important Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar. All those 1835 dates for so many documents may have missed important clues in orthography that point to an 1836. That big of an error would be rather distressing and certainly troublesome, though dating old documents accurately when they aren't provided with dates is often quite difficult.

On the positive side, if the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar and the "1835" Book of Abraham manuscripts with "Onitah" are all from 1836, then some of the most troubling issues in the debate over the Book of Abraham become much less important. Phelps' "translation" of Egyptian does much more than just show that Joseph and his scribes were not so deluded as to think that one scrawl could convey a paragraph of English text. It also helps confirm that the Joseph Smith Papers Project made a serious error in assigning dates to many manuscripts, an error which has played into the hands of critics of the Book of Abraham.

This issue needs further research, either to overthrow yet another of my flawed hypotheses, or to overthrow a serious error from others regarding the Book of Abraham and the Kirtland Papers.

Update, May 6, 2019: One of the challenges of searching for names like Katumin/Kahtoumun in the Joseph Smith Papers website is not only the problem of variant spellings, but also the natural possibility of occasional errors in the transcriptions. For example, the lengthy document listed as "Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language, circa July–circa November 1835" in the handwriting of William W. Phelps and Warren Parrish has the name Kahtoumun or Kah tou mun, on page 4, but in my opinion the transcript mistakes "tou" for "ton" and thus has "Kah ton num." Examining other examples of "on" on the same page shows that the "n" does resemble a "u," but there is enough of a difference to tell them apart. Below is Kahtoumun/Kah tou mun followed by "son," three cases of "tradition," "transgrissions" [sic], and "upon," which lets us see "u" and "n" nearly side by side. We do have "un" together in the next views of "a young," "under," and "unmarried." In the latter, a line from below is also shown. Given the breaks that occur in words like "unmarried" and "royal," among others, I don't think we should assume that the smaller breaks in Kahtouman were intended, and perhaps it should be listed simply as Kahtouman. Just my 2 cents.












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:

Digging into the Phelps "Translation" of Egyptian: Textual Evidence That Phelps Recognized That Three Lines of Egyptian Yielded About Four Lines of English

Update, April 30, 2019: Today I noticed there is another document from Oliver Cowdery mentioning Katumin and giving the same English text that Phelps provides. The document is listed as "'Valuable Discovery,' circa Early July 1835." Interestingly, Cowdery places some of the same Egyptian characters in line with the English. His document, from a notebook signed on the cover by Joseph Smith, associates only 6 or 7 characters with the English text, which may explain what he means when speaking of the "comprehensive" nature of the Egyptian and may indicate that Phelps believed he had only provided part of the translation of the Egyptian after all. I may have been wrong in my analysis below, at least in part.


Cowdery, like Phelps in his notebook, spells the names without the added "h" after some vowels that would become more common after Joseph and his brethren began study Hebrew at the end of 1835 and especially in 1836 when Joshua Seixas came to Kirtland at Joseph's request. These spelling clues may be one of the most important things about these documents, showing how spelling changes after Joseph and his brethren began zealously learning Hebrew from Joshua Seixas in early 1836, which has the surprising implication that the dates many people have assumed for the Kirtland Egyptian Papers are simply too early, and may need to be reclassified as 1836 works, thus coming after the translation of at least much of the Book of Abraham had been completed. Further research is needed on this issue. See the discussion on my following post from April 30, 2019, "Two Important, Even Troubling, Clues About Dating from W.W. Phelps' Notebook with Egyptian 'Translation'."

My original post here follows. Take it with a grain of salt, though it may still apply to what Phelps initially thought. 


It is possible that Cowdery's document influenced Phelps and made him realize that the translation he provided may only be a partial translation, leading to the later use of pencil to add "in part" in a note on his document. Or Phelps may have understood that same association of characters. Cowdery's final character is backwards compared to Phelps, showing how poor the quality was for the copying of Egyptian characters. Phelps' view of the relationship between the Egyptian and the English may have changed, leading him to later pencil in "in part," or it may have been the same as Cowdery's all along. In any case, this important data does show that at least one scribe may have attributed a large number of words to a few Egyptian characters, with 7 or 8 characters representing about 50 words of English -- still not one character for hundreds of words, though Cowdery's second sentence has just one character, making it relatively expansive. This certainly weakens the argument that there was a much less compact relationship. However, with Katumin occurring at the beginning and again in the middle of Phelps' English and in the Egyptian characters associated with it. it may be that when he penned his statement, he thought the ratio of Egyptian to English was not much smaller than 1, but later changed his mind based on input from Cowdery. Still unclear.

These issues are secondary compared to the more important issue coming from this document: the pre-Seixas spelling of Onita and Katumin in Phelps' document, with the same spelling of Katumin in Cowdery's, while he has "Onitas" instead of Onitah

The manuscript from W.W. Phelps that presents three lines of Egyptian and four lines of English as a translation deserves more attention, in my opinion (see the document and discussion in my recent post, "Did Joseph's Scribes Think He Translated Paragraphs of Text from a Single Egyptian Character? A View from W.W. Phelps"). Some have argued here that the later addition of a faint "in part" on the page is consistent with the idea that Phelps thought Joseph was translating large chunks of text from single characters, but there's no hint of such a view in Phelps' letter. But let's take a closer look.

Note that the first English word, Katumin, happens to be a name that is found in the Kirtland Egyptian Papers. Let's see what we can learn about Katumin from that source. In occurs in all three of the Egyptian Alphabets (Egyptian Alphabet A by Oliver Cowdery and Warren Parrish, Egyptian Alphabet B by Oliver Cowdery and Egyptian Alphabet C by W.W. Phelps). Here are the relevant portions of A, B, and C in order, followed by the transcriptions:





Alphabet A: "Kah tou man   /  the name of a royal family in female line"
Alphabet B: "Kah-tou=mun / The name of the a royal famil[y]— The female line"
Alphabet C: "Kah=tou=mun / The name of the <​a​> royal family, in the female line"

The symbol for this female name is something like an "0" or a pair of adjacent parentheses.

Interestingly, Phelps' English translation begins with a variation of this name:
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 <​s​>he was 28 years old, which was <​the year​> 3020
Katumin occurs twice, once at the beginning (reading right to left) and again midway. Now look at the Egyptian. Notice any "O"-like symbols? There is a double O at the beginning and then another almost exactly in the middle of the text: 




If Phelps understood that Egyptian characters roughly correspond to individual English words, it would make sense that he'd have Katumin at the beginning and in the middle. Having a character associated with Katumin/Kahtouman at the beginning and the middle of the Egyptian, and having Katumin at the beginning and middle of the English, ought to rule out the notion that Phelps was just translating one character rather than seeing a general correspondence between a word or two of Egyptian and a word or two of English.

Why the double "O" at the start? Not sure. But notice the horizontal line over that lead O, connecting it to the next. Could this be related to the character for "princess" in the Egyptian Alphabet? It's a horizontal line with a little blob on the upper part of the left end. From Alphabet C:


Without the blob, it can mean daughter:

Maybe Phelps thought a Katumin "O" with the horizontal line added for "Princess" could have the blob blow up to another Katumin marker. Or maybe he thought the line mean Katumin was a daughter of a king, equivalent to "princess." Sure, he didn't know what he was doing, but there's a possibility that using the Egyptian Alphabet, he saw "Katumin, Princess" or "Katumin, daughter" (of a king) at the beginning, and again a Katumin in the middle. Note that both instances are followed by what may be the same character, a pair of circles connected by a vertical line. Perhaps Phelps thought this described a parent-child relationship, so the first occurrence is "translated" to express that she was a daughter (of a king), and the second to express that she was born (during the reign of her father).

Some characters occur in his Egyptian that also show in the Alphabet, including several related characters that can mean king, Pharaoh, or first being:

Also consider this right angle character, related to government:

The name "Onitah" also occurs here, as it does in the Book of Abraham manuscripts with occasional Egyptian characters in the left margin. Here is the one that is associated with the paragraph speaking of Onitah, followed by the English text it is next to, both taken from Book of Abraham Manuscript C, page 2:



Here is the text:
now this priest had offered upon this altar three Virgins at one time who were the daughters of Onitah, one of the royal descent directly fro[m] the loins of Ham; these Virgins were offered up because of their virtue, they would not bow down to worship gods of wood and <​or of​> stone
One speculative theory might be that Phelps saw this character as somehow related to the name Onitah, and saw it as characterized by having three vertical lines rising from a baseline. If so, he may have seen a relationship to one of his Egyptian characters that would be in roughly the "right place" (my opinion) for the occurrence of the name Onitah in his translation. Yes, speculative.

The table below shows the Egyptian characters, as I guess Phelps may have broken them up. I number them and also list a column for "echoes" where I group together some characters that may look related, and assign the letter A through H for the groupings.  Possible meanings in Phelps' mind are listed in the fourth column, all speculative. If the meaning comes from a similar character in the Egyptian Alphabet, I give the word without parentheses around it. If it's just my guess without support from the Egyptian Alphabet (which is hopelessly incomplete if it were supposed to be a tool for translating Egyptian), then I put the word in parentheses.

# Echoes Char. Possible meaning
1 A Katumin + Princess?
2 H (daughter?)
3 E King/Pharaoh?
4 (Egypt?)
5 (Onitah?)
6 F
7 (reign? king?)
8 B
9 F
10 B
11
12 Who (+ began?)
13 (reign?)
14
15
16 E? reign/kingdom?
17

18
19 B (year?)
20
21
22
23
24
25
26 E (king?)
27 D
28 F
29 (2962? number?)
30 A Katumin
31 H (she/daughter?)
32
33 D
34
35
36
37
38 Princess? (+ something?)
39
40
41
42 C, G (year?)
43
44
45
46
47
48 (year?)
49
50 C
51 (30?)
52
53 C, G (year? Or 3020)
54 (3020?)


The groupings I see are:
  • A, circle or paired arcs, characters 1, 29 
  • B, 3 or 4 horizontal lines, characters 8, 10, 28, 41, 47, 50, 52, 53 
  • C, 2 vertical lines rise from horizontal base, characters 41, 49, 52 
  • D, right angle pointing to the right, characters 26, 32 
  • E, king, characters 3, 26
  • F, curvy T with a lobe?, characters 6, 9, 28
  • G, 3 lines + 2 vertical risers at bottom, characters 42, 53
  • H, (daughter?), characters 2, 31 
In any case, the existence of duplicate Egyptian characters such as 2 and 31, and the apparent appearance of Katumin at the beginning and middle in both English and Egyptian (using what Phelps would have understood from the Alphabet, that is), suggests that Phelps' English text is not his "translation" from a single character, but from many characters of Egyptian.



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: