A Highlight from Dan Vogel’s Book: A Clever Explanation for the Most Obvious Evidence of Scribes Using an Existing Translation in Making the Book of Abraham Manuscripts

In my previous posts reviewing Dan Vogel’s recent Book of Abraham Apologetics (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 2021), including Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, I’ve noted that Dan has compiled a comprehensive, comprehensible compendium of seemingly compelling arguments against the Book of Abraham. While I strongly disagree with many of his arguments and much of his methodology, he deserves credit for what he has accomplished.  Perhaps the highlight for me in reading his book involved the very creative and almost elegant model he offers to overturn what may be viewed as the most clear-cut evidence that the “smoking gun” Book of Abraham manuscripts (the ones with Egyptian characters in the margins next to part of the Book of Abraham English text) were made by scribes using an already existing manuscript with the English text, contrary to the model of critics in which those documents represent a “window” to the method Joseph used to create the translation.

This evidence of copying from an existing manuscript–one of many such evidences, but probably the most dramatic and difficult to overlook–is the large copying error known as a dittography in Book of Abraham Manuscript A by Frederick G. Williams. A dittography is an error where a scribe accidentally copies text that was already copied, perhaps by mistakenly looking back to an earlier part of the original manuscript. This occurs on the last surviving page of Williams’s manuscript

The Joseph Smith Papers website allows you to examine the details of the page with the dittography, Williams’ Book of Abraham Manuscript A at page 4, where you can examine both the transcript and a high resolution photo of the document with a zoom function to expand the image. A screenshot of the lower portion of page 4 is below. Next to the characters in the margin, you can see “Now the Lord had said unto me Abraham….” You see the same text begin about two-thirds the way down on the screen shot, shortly before the left margin of the text shifts to the side of the page, creating a strange duplicate section (a dittography) wherein a lengthy section, corresponding to Abraham 2:3 to 2:5, is repeated. It would be highly unlikely, even virtually impossible, for Joseph Smith to accidentally redictate this much text word for word in a purely oral process, especially if he were composing it on the fly. But this kind of error could  occur if Williams were copying an existing document. Theoretically, it could 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. In the latter case, there would be two minds working that could detect the repeat and catch the error in progress. So I think the only plausible way to view this is that Williams was looking at an existing manuscript as he was copying here. John Gee and others see this as clear evidence that Joseph Smith was not dictating and that the scribes were working with existing translation, totally undermining the proposal that live dictation and translation by Joseph is occurring here. To his credit, Vogel does not ignore this evidence and actually provides what I consider to be a very clever, if not brilliant, explanation that fits with his overall paradigm.

Vogel suggests that when Williams and Warren Parrish allegedly took simultaneous dictation from Joseph to create the similar “twin manuscripts” (Book of Abraham Manuscript A and Manuscript B, respectively), Williams for an unknown reason wrote an extra paragraph of dictation that Parrish did not write (our current Abraham 2:3-5). Parrish later copied that extra text from Manuscript A into Manuscript C, along with the text Parrish had from his own Manuscript B. Manuscript C had been started by W.W. Phelps and originally just had Abraham 1:1-3. It would become what Vogel sees as the “translation book” creating the key record for the early Book of Abraham translation. Then maybe a week later in late November 1835, Parrish took more dictation of new translated text from Joseph Smith for Abraham 2:6-18. For some reason, Williams later wanted to add some of the new material to his own manuscript. Since his manuscript originally ended with the word “Haran” in “Therefore he continued in Haran,” he searched for “Haran” in Parrish’s document (a word that occurs multiple times) and found the wrong place, Abraham 2:2, which ends with “Who was the daughter of Haran.” Thinking he had found his target, he began copying from the following sentence, copying for a second time our current Abraham 2:3 and continued copying a full paragraph of material he had already written, not noticing the duplication. This is really a clever explanation. Kudos!

It’s important enough that I will quote directly from Vogel to ensure that his nuanced argument is fully presented. This quotation comes from pages 43 to 46 of my Kindle edition (probably about 21 pages earlier in the printed book since the Kindle version has chapter 1 starting on p. 21):

There is a reconstruction of the events that best explains how the dittograph occurred, and once understood, it becomes clear that this repetition in no way threatens the oral dictation theory. 

When Parrish and Williams recorded from Smith’s dictation, probably on 19 and 20 November 1835, Williams wrote one more paragraph than Parrish. Parrish drew the last hieratic character, but left the remainder of the page blank. 

Next, Parrish copied the English text onto seven pages of the translation book following the half page Phelps had previously scribed, making some slight changes. After skipping a line, Parrish then copied the paragraph that had been dictated in his absence from the Williams document. At this point, Parrish again began writing from Smith’s dictation directly into the book, which, as previously discussed, is evident from the in-line corrections made in his new English text. This possibly occurred on 24 and/or 25 November 1835, which are the last two entries in Smith’s Kirtland journal in which translation is mentioned.

Later, Williams wanted to copy the new text from the translation book into his manuscript to make it complete. The paragraph that Williams last wrote ended with the word “Haran” on a line by itself. As he turned the pages of the translation book looking for a paragraph that ended with that word, Williams would first have come to the top of page 7 and would have accidentally began copying the paragraph that he had already recorded from Smith’s dictation. He was apparently unaware that the next paragraph also ended on the following page with “Haran”. 

What may have added to Williams’s confusion was the blank line before the paragraph and the possibility that either Parrish’s or Williams’s document or both did not have the characters in the margin next to the paragraph. As previously mentioned, Parrish had evidently copied the characters into the margin before copying the English text but, having miscalculated the number of lines, found it necessary to scrape off two groups of characters on page 7, precisely where the dittograph occurs. 

Because he was no longer a scribe recording from oral dictation and was merely recording a second copy of a text that had already been entered into the translation book, Williams saw no need to copy the characters or to maintain the margins and paragraphing. 

We may not know exactly how Williams introduced a paragraph-long dittograph into his document, but the scenario I have proposed explains more of the evidence and facts than Gee’s assertion that the entire document is a copy based on a repeated paragraph at the end. Gee’s explanation cannot explain the presence of clear evidence of simultaneous recording from dictation that appears in the document prior to the dittograph. Nor can it explain the change in Williams’s method of recording that occurs at the point of the dittograph.

The resolution is brilliant. Yes, of course there is a dittography, and of course it was created by copying from the wrong place in an existing manuscript. But the existing manuscript was one based on his own that was copied by Parrish into another document that had added translation from Joseph, so Williams wanted a copy of the new material, but instead started copying a long chunk of what he had just copied a few days earlier. 

This explanation looks good and has convinced a few people, but I’m afraid that those who were convinced didn’t ask some of the basic questions or do some basic homework to explore whether Vogel’s scenario, clever as it is, really explains the documents we have. 

Pause and reflect: if Williams’s dittography were actually a made a week later and was a copy of Parrish’s copy of what he had already written, what might we expect to find in terms of the appearance and content of the duplicated section? 

For example, if you keep a journal or a notebook in your own handwriting, do you ever see changes in the appearance? Based on my own journals and my experience in reading letters and documents from others, it’s common to see the appearance of handwriting to change between writing sessions. The writer may be relaxed one day, rushed the next, or may be using a different pen, etc., all of which can make two entries from the same person look different. In 1835, scribes without the benefit of mass-produced consistent ball point pens used ink that could vary from one session to the next. Looking at the writing of various individuals in the photographs of the Joseph Smith Papers helps us see just how much the appearance of a scribe’s writing can vary. 

Further, if the first time Williams wrote Abraham 2:3-5 was based on oral dictation, while the second time it was a copy of Parrish’s copy of his own earlier version of that passage, what differences might we expect to see? 

I suggest there are three tests we can consider for Vogel’s proposal, apart from any problems in the chronology that I may address later:

  1. Does the duplicate text, perhaps written several days later, show use of a different ink, different pen, different ink flow, different spacing or slant of the text, or does it look as if it were written in the same session  as the immediately prior text?
  2. Does the 1st occurrence of Abraham 2:3-5 show clear signs of oral dictation and essentially no signs of visual copying?
  3. Does the 2nd occurrence of Abraham 2:3-5 show signs of copying from Parrish’s document rather than copying from what may have been (in the model of some LDS apologists) the document that was the source of the first occurrence (and the entire manuscript)?

Vogel failed to ask these questions. It’s not enough to offer a clever but convoluted argument that in theory could account for some details when other important details clash with the proposal. Let’s consider the three factors. Note that I am using the transcript from the printed Joseph Smith Papers volume on the Book of Abraham, which is considered the final version with some differences relative to the preliminary transcript on the website. Both have errors, but the transcript in the book is more detailed and catches some things that weren’t noticed when the website version was done. Most of the corrections I mention for this passage are not shown on the website, only in the book.

1. Different appearance? As Williams begins the dittography, the ink flow, the appearance of the ink, the spacing and slant of his text all continue exactly as before, as far as I can see. I find it difficult to believe that this is inn a new session several days later, now in the new mode of copying from a manuscript when all was oral dictation before.  A change does crop up when Williams abandons the left margin he had been following, but that only occurs after he has copied for a few lines. Regardless of why he allows the margin to drift, his style and ink are indistinguishable from the text above. 

2. Signs of visual copying in the first occurrence? Yes, there are indications of making a visual copy in the first occurrence of the duplicated text, just as there are throughout the rest of the preceding text. For this specific passage, these apparent copying errors include (1) writing “the” instead of “thee,” an easy copying mistake to make (dropping one or more letters from a word occurs in both Williams and Parrish, with two more examples of this in the 2nd occurrence when we know that Williams is copying visually–there he drops two letters in “kindred” and more in writing “bro” for “brother’s”); (2) writing an “r” to begin the word “land” before changing it to an “l” (this is indicated in the printed book, not the website); (3) initially writing “dem” and changing it to “deno” followed by “minated” to create the word “denominated” (also not indicated on the website’s transcript); and (4) initially writing an “s” and then changing it to a “d” for the word “dwelt,” which can make sense as a copying error (cursive “s” with an elongated upper peak can look like a “d”) but not as a likely error in oral dictation (also not indicated on the website’s transcript). Further, this passage has much more punctuation than is typical of scribes, including Williams specifically, when taking dictation of revelation from Joseph Smith, as discussed in my previous post. In this short passage, we have by my count (relying on the printed transcript) 6 commas, 1 period, 2 colons, and 3 semicolons. It’s more heavily punctuated than some other parts of Williams’s manuscript. Both the errors and the punctuation mark this passage as one more typical of a visually copied text than a scribe taking oral dictation from Joseph Smith. 

3. Is the dittography copied from Parrish’s Manuscript C? I find this issue especially interesting. Parrish’s version of Abraham 2:3-5, probably copied from Williams, has some notable differences relative to the first occurrence written by Williams. For example, both instances of “therefore” in Parrish follow a comma, not the colons that Williams has, and both are in lowercase, while in Williams both are capitalized. So what happens when Williams allegedly copies the text from Parrish to unknowingly create his dittography? The result is closer to his first occurrence. Both occurrence of “therefore” are capitalized, and one follows a colon and the other a line break where a colon may have been overlooked. Williams’s initial colon after “idolitry” and before “Therefore” may have been inserted, according to the transcript in the book, and is missing in the dittography, but there is a line break there followed by the capitalized “Therefore”.  Parrish, on the other hand, has “unto his Idolitry, therefore…” which differs twice in capitalization and once in punctuation. 

If Williams were copying from Manuscript C for the dittography, why did he fail to copy the character in the margin where the dittography began? Later, why did he fail to follow Parrish’s new paragraph that begins with “But I Abram” and also fail to use the character in the margin that Parrish has there? At the place where Parrish has stopped writing is where Williams creates a dittography and stops using characters — perhaps they were working together in some way and things changed when Parrish quit and perhaps left (that was a consideration in my prior proposal that Parrish may have been reading aloud to help Williams in making his copy for a while).

It simply doesn’t look like Williams has been copying from Parrish, but appears to be using the same source (a source that may have lacked characters), though his punctuation is inconsistent.  For example, a colon in his initial “many flocks in Haran:” becomes a comma in the dittography, with “many flock in Haran,” and “many” being inserted above the line. Williams may be getting tired at this point as he is making a large number of errors such as dropping the word “after,” writing “bro” for “brothers,” writing “sarah” instead of “Sarai,” skipping “many” and having to insert it, dropping the “s” on “flocks,” and, when he gets to some of the allegedly new material on Parrish’s document with a very clear “but I Abram and Lot,” dropping the very visible “I” to render “but Abram and Lot.” Fatigue and growing errors makes sense if this were all a continuation of a serious session, reaching the end of page 4, versus starting fresh to write down a short passage of new material. Page 4, though, is probably not the end of that session since it ends in the middle of a sentence. Surely there was a page 5 and perhaps more, but no more has survived. Many relevant documents in the translation may have been lost or destroyed, not just a significant portion of the original scrolls but also the text that Williams and Parrish were using to make their copies and perhaps continue helping Phelps by adding new speculative materials to his Grammar and Alphabet, the apparent purpose indicated by the headers on both of the twin documents that refer to the “sign of the fifth degree of the second part,” not the kind of header we would expect from Joseph creating a revealed text.

Vogel’s hypothetical scenario is interesting but seems to fail basic criteria that we might expect if it were true. Persistent evidence points to the use of an original manuscript during the creation of Book of Abraham Manuscript A prior to the obvious copying that occurred in the dittography. The source for Williams’s scribal work doesn’t appear to have changed when the dittography occurs. The details of the dittography do not point to Parrish’s work in Manuscript C as the source used by Williams. And the appearance of page 4 of Williams’s manuscript suggest a continuous session, perhaps with an increasingly weary Williams, rather than a fresh session several days later. 

The dittography and the rest of the twin Book of Abraham manuscripts actually do not fit with Vogel’s complex model, offering too much evidence for use of an existing manuscript and a dittography that was a continuation of the same session as the original occurrence of Abraham 2:3-5. Vogel’s clever theory does not withstand scrutiny. The dittography still stands as compelling evidence against Vogel’s paradigm. Like Ptolemy’s concentric spheres in his geocentric model of the cosmos (the topic of my next post in this series), sometimes elegant models that nicely fit some of the facts must be discarded in the end, though we can still admire the cleverness of the outdated model.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

1 thought on “A Highlight from Dan Vogel’s Book: A Clever Explanation for the Most Obvious Evidence of Scribes Using an Existing Translation in Making the Book of Abraham Manuscripts

  1. As is the case with so many of the convoluted hypotheses which Jensen, Hauglid & Vogel come up with for the Book of Abraham translation project, –just as with the translation of the Book of Mormon or the Book of Moses– the opportunity to utilize Occam's razor keeps coming around. If in the absence of direct evidence indicating exactly how the translations occurred, the simplest explanation is probably the correct one. In this case the simplest explanation is still the same as the old one: the translation was done by the gift and power of God.

    Because Vogel and others refuse to allow that Joseph might have had divine help, they are forced to continually come up with convoluted and hypothetical scenarios which are anything but simple. It truly seems to me that regardless of Occam's razor, the more convoluted the explanation, the less likely it is to be the course which Joseph and his associates followed. Human nature tends to seek the easiest and simplest method for accomplishing tasks. The following are but some of the examples which seem far more complex than should be necessary if the Prophet's explanations do not suffice: making a dictionary prior to translating (who ever heard of that?), forcing translation efforts to fit their hypothesized schedule rather than what is attributable to historical diaries and accounts, and finally a dittography that is explained with so much convolution that it seems far from tenable, and these are just a few of the problems which Jensen/Hauglid/Vogel keep bumping against.

    Now I'm sorry that I lump these three men into the same category, but from my viewpoint each of them are supporting their strawmen without being willing to reconsider even when the facts appear to contradict their pet theories. This is where pride and personalities get in the way of a willingness to retract untenable positions.

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