One of the things I love about blogging and writing occasional articles for The Interpreter, Meridian Magazine or other places is the ability to get rapid feedback from those with different perspectives and other sources of information. The back and forth in dialog with others is so valuable to me. Sometimes it’s painful, of course, but the pain can lead to healthy correction and growth.
Speaking of pain and correction, you may know I made the painful choice to criticize some aspects of a generally fabulous production, The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations, Volume 4: Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts, eds. Robin Scott Jensen and Brian M. Hauglid (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2018), hereafter JSPRT4. Unfortunately, some apparent gaps in scholarship and bias in the commentary, footnotes, and numerous subtle editorial decisions motivated me to speak out. I’m grateful to at least have a response from the JSP Project team, written not by the volume editors but by respected leaders from the JSP Project and the Church History Department, Matthew Grow and Matthew Godfrey, who kindly assure us of the high standards and careful scholarship and review that was involved in producing this Church-funded and highly visible volume.
Since the JSP response was not prepared by the volume’s editors who are
most familiar with its intricate details, it is not reasonable to
expect Matt Grow and Matthew Godfrey to dig into my lengthy critique and give substantial
responses to the many technical issues I have raised, nor to spend time
answering new questions about their written reply (though multiple questions in the comments section at The Interpreter suggest that some of us are hoping someone from the JSP team will be able to drop by and reply). But in any case, the publication of their response and my rejoinder have led to some vigorous dialog in at comment sections of the relevant articles at The Interpreter and elsewhere, for which I am also quite grateful, even those that sharply criticize my approach. The discussion in several forums has been helpful to me and forced me to review some of my own assumptions and to reread some sources. Some of what I’ve encountered may be helpful to others interested in the origins of the Book of Abraham and its relationship to the unexplained Kirtland Egyptian Papers, and I’ll share more on this later. Unfortunately, some new considerations underscore my deepening concerns about JSPRT4.
Most of the specific problems I have raised about JSPRT4 were not addressed in the JSP team’s response, understandably so. But one important issue Grow and Godfrey addressed was my complaint about bias in the volume regarding the timing of the creation of the translation of the Book of Abraham. A number of LDS scholars and writers point to evidence that much if not nearly all of the translation was done in Kirtland, probably by the end of 1835, but JSPRT4 favors the view that most of it came from the Nauvoo era. In response to my complaint about the one-sided way this is handled in JSPRT4, Grow and Godfrey give this assuring statement:
For instance, we believe the evidence suggests that Joseph Smith
translated portions of the Book of Abraham in Kirtland and then later in
Nauvoo, while Gee asserts that all of the translation occurred in
Kirtland. However, contrary to the assertions of both Lindsay and Gee
that a particular perspective was “assumed” and those of others were
“ignored,” we carefully weighed many perspectives before making such
decisions — and we qualify our explanations in terms of their
probability. It has been a rich and rewarding process to see the
training and expertise of multiple fields come together to produce this
complex and valuable resource.
This was reassuring. There is no doubt that good scholarship characterizes much of JSPRT4, and I was glad to here that this particular issue and other controversial issues were discussed and that Grow and Godfrey feel that careful, thoughtful scholarship went into the JSP Project’s decision to favor a particular timeline and other issues that seem contrary to the position taken by some other LDS writers. With that assurance fresh in my mind, another issue raised by comments at The Interpreter drove me to look again at JSPRT4’s “Historical Introduction” to the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language (GAEL). Given Grow and Godfrey’s description of the careful scholarship that went into the position taken there, I was interested in better understanding the scholarship behind a position that previously struck me as just based on sloppy assumptions.
On the second page of the “Historical Introduction” for the GAEL, p. 113 in JSPRT4, there are a couple of lines that I had previously marked as just being “an assumption” with a big question mark next to it. Tonight I also noticed I had scrawled a note there saying “bad footnote” but didn’t recall what had bothered me about it. I didn’t dig into it for my review. That was a mistake on my part. I should have dug a little deeper to better appreciate the scholarship on a noteworthy issue.
The controversial statements on p. 113 point to the alleged importance of the GAEL to
Joseph Smith in Nauvoo and the GAEL’s use in the production of the Book of Abraham during the Nauvoo era:
JS and his associates retained the volume and later used it several times in 1842 and 1843.19
This volume was used extensively when JS and his associates published
Facsimile 2 and its accompanying explanation in March 1842.20
the GAEL project, whatever its purpose, was dropped at an early stage in Kirtland and was purely a Kirtland product, as Blake Ostler noted in an important comment here and at The Interpreter, it is
possible that it was still of value in Nauvoo, but it is a controversial
opinion and not established fact to simply state that it was “used
extensively” in the preparation of comments for Facsimile 2, which is suggested
by JSPRT4 to be a product of the Nauvoo era rather than having been
largely done in Kirtland. These controversial issues (the
use of the GAEL to produce the translation of text or comments on
Facsimiles and the dating of the bulk of the work on Facs. 2 to the Nauvoo era) are among
many issues where the editors of JSPRT4 favor a controversial position
shared by some of our critics and disputed by some leading LDS scholars
without adequately alerting the reader that a genuine controversy exists. I find that to be
sloppy scholarship, however unintended the apparent bias was
(and I believe it was unintended). But as I once again read page 113, it was obvious that I should now dig into the footnotes, given the assurance of the careful scholarship that may have gone into this decision to back a particular position contra Gee and some other LDS scholars.
Here are the footnotes in question as found on pp. 184-5:
19. One source claims
that JS misidentified a Greek psalter as a dictionary of Egyptian
hieroglyphics in 1842. In spring 1842, a minister named Henry Caswall
arrived in Nauvoo, Illinois, incognito, “in order to test the scholarship of the prophet.” Caswall, who published an account in a popular anti-Mormon pamphlet that year, wrote that he brought a Greek psalter from roughly the thirteenth century to JS and pretended ignorance of its content and age. According to Caswall, JS called it “a dictionary of the Egyptian Hieroglyphics.” The Latter-day Saints published a rebuttal to Caswall’s pamphlet, stating that JS had not examined the psalter and observing that Caswall’s words and actions did not become is position as a minister. (Caswall, City of the Mormons, 5, 35-36, italics in original; “Reward of Merit,” Times and Seasons, 15 Oct. 1843, 43:364-365.)
20. See Historical Introduction to Explanation of Facsimile 2, ca. 15 Mar. 1842, p. 276 herein.
Footnote 19, the source for the scholarly conclusion that Joseph Smith “used it [the GAEL] several times in 1842 and 1843,” was a reference to an anti-Mormon publication quoting a hostile and admittedly deceptive source that was rebutted by the Church. Wait, seriously? Now I recall what I thought when I first saw this: there must be a typesetting error because the footnote seems so non-sequitur, and I didn’t want to nitpick over a mere typographical error. But on rereading, I can see the tenuous connection, the mention of a dictionary. Still, at best, if Caswall were being completely accurate and Joseph did call some Greek psalms “a dictionary of the Egyptian Hieroglyphics,” how does that tell us anything about Joseph’s ongoing use of the GAEL in Nauvoo? “Bad footnote” indeed! (And why do hostile sources seem to be relied on for some critical issues when relevant sources from LDS scholars are so often neglected?)
If readers were to see Caswall’s actual words in context, the words criticized by the Church in 1843, his lack of reliability would have been even more clear. Those words are cited and discussed on the FAIRMormon page about this “Greek psalter” incident:
He [Joseph Smith] has a downcast look, and possesses none of that open
and straightforward expression which generally characterizes an honest
man. His language is uncouth and ungrammatical, indicating very confused
notions respecting syntactical concords. When an ancient Greek
manuscript of the Psalms was exhibited to him as a test of his
scholarship, he boldly pronounced it to be a “Dictionary of Egyptian Hieroglyphics.”
Pointing to the capital letters at the commencement of each verse, he
said, “Them figures is Egyptian hieroglyphics, and them which follows is
the interpretation of the hieroglyphics, written in the reformed
Egyptian language. Them characters is like the letters that was engraved
on the golden plates.”
Here is what we learn from FAIRMormon on this issue:
It was claimed by Henry Caswall that an ancient text of Greek psalms
(a “psalter”) was misidentified by Joseph Smith as a containing
“reformed Egyptian” hieroglyphics.
There is no other evidence of Caswall’s claim save his
anti-Mormon work. That Caswall took no steps in Nauvoo to get Joseph on
record is fatally suspicious, since this was the entire reason he
claimed to be there. He is also clearly attempting to make Joseph Smith
appear uncouth and ignorant, having him say “them plates” and “them
characters”, when this contrasts markedly with other known examples of
Joseph’s speaking and writing style at the time. 
Furthermore, Joseph was familiar enough with Greek to recognize Greek
characters, and so is unlikely to have mistaken them for an unknown
language—even if we believe Joseph was attempting to deceive Caswall, it
seems unlikely he would fail to recognize the characters of a language
he had studied.
Those who tell this story rarely provide the source details for
the tale, and do not inform their readers about John Taylor’s witness
regarding Caswall’s later dishonesty….
There is much more pointing to Caswall’s dishonesty, his hostile intent, his contradictions of aspects his story elsewhere, making his statement an utterly ridiculous and hostile source to turn to for such an important point that footnote 19 supposedly supports. But again, even if Caswall were utterly accurate and honest in his account, at best it tells us that Joseph mistook some Greek writing for an Egyptian dictionary. It tells us absolutely nothing about Joseph’s use of the GAEL. Am I missing something? There may be ways to better support their argument, but as printed, footnote 19 is a disaster that suggests at least a minor glitch in the scholarship. That happens occasionally with many good scholars and is the kind of thing that can readily be fixed with an errata page. There is an errata page for JSPRT4, but this bad footnote is not included, nor are any of the problems I have pointed out addressed there. I look forward to seeing what interesting finds were perhaps meant to be cited in footnote 19.
Footnote 19 arguably deals with a minor issue. Much more important is footnote 20, telling us that the GAEL “was used extensively when JS and his associates published
Facsimile 2 and its accompanying explanation in March 1842.” As the editors imply elsewhere in JSPRT4, they are suggesting that the GAEL served as a source for at least some content in the Book of Abraham, rather than the position of multiple LDS scholars that the GAEL is much more likely to have been derived from the existing translation. This is a crucial issue that deserves the utmost caution and careful scholarship. And if the scholarly process described by Grow and Godfrey were used for this and other controversial issues, one would expect the supporting documentation to be impressive. As noted above, the supporting scholarship cited in footnote 20 points to another section of JSPRT4 at page 276. Fair enough. So let’s dig in.
Here’s the relevant text on p. 276:
No evidence indicates that JS studied any of the hieroglyphics from the hypocephalus in his 1835 effort to understand the Egyptian language. However, the explanation of Facsimile 2 is clearly related to that effort, since some of the entries in this document borrow heavily from the Grammar and Alphabet volume.97
There it is, a footnote that should finally justify the scholarly conclusion that the GAEL is the source for some of the explanations of Facsimile 2 since Facsimile 2’s comments “borrow heavily” from the GAEL and not the other way around. At this point, I didn’t recall having paid much attention to this statement and its footnote, and in light of Grow and Godrey’s assurances, I was now keenly curious to see what new finds were hidden there to justify the controversial statements on p. 113 and 276.
Now here’s the important and instructive footnote 97 from page 292, the one that gives support to critically important statements made on p. 276, which in turn is the source for a similar critically important statement made on p. 113:
97. See Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language, ca. July–ca. Nov. 1835, p. 113 herein.
Or, if I may be so bold as to paraphrase:
97. To see the support for our controversial statement on page 276 that is cited as the support for our similar controversial statement on page 113, please read our original controversial statement on page 113 and see its footnote which will refer you to page 276 and its footnote 97 (i.e., this footnote). And so on.
Circular footnotes! Fascinating, but somehow not as convincing as I was expecting. I am sure that something more than self-referential fantasy was intended here.
In fairness, this could have just been an unfortunate mistake and the detailed scholarship behind the conclusion was accidentally left out through typographical errors or some other unintended glitch, but in any case, it points to an obvious defect in JSPRT4 that demands some kind of correction, even if the apparent bias and unfounded assumptions related to these issues have profound scholarly support with evidence that was carefully considered by many scholars. Another entry on the errata page might be in order.
Of course, given the severity of some of the problems
pervasive errors in JSPRT4 that tend to align with the views of critics but without adequate scholarship to support those views and often without a fair recognition that a controversy even exists, I recently have begun to feel that there is a much more than simply a list of revised footnotes. Now that JSPRT4 is being cited by some outside sources to create the impression that the Church has taken a stance on some controversies such as long scroll vs. short scroll (as mentioned in one of the comments at The Interpreter), there is a need for added clarity. Did the Church really decide to endorse the particular viewpoints on various controversies woven into JSPRT4, choosing to overturn the positions of Gee, Muhlenstein, Nibley, and others, or was it not even noticed that such positions were subtly being taken? I think the Church was focused on the deliverables of getting the documents and the transcriptions published, without noticing the problems woven into the many hidden assumptions in this volume. The assurances of good scholarship are welcome, but those assurances don’t seem to align with the details I see in the text when it comes to some specific of the most important and often hidden controversies. I may be wrong and wrong-headed on this, so feel free to point out what I am missing or where I am being unfair. And yes, I confess that I get all sorts of things wrong in my own publications. Sometimes my blunders are so bad that major revisions or retractions are needed. Let me know if this is another case. Meanwhile, though, I remain somewhat troubled over the Church’s JSP publication on the Book of Abraham, and hope that the more serious problems that have been pointed out in JSPRT4 can be addressed and resolved more fully in the future in some way.
I welcome your views.