First Nephi 1 and the Language of the Egyptians

The Book of Mormon, according to some critics, is little more than a dull regurgitation of Bible verses. Plagiarism from the Bible and other sources in Joseph’s environment is offered as the source for the text. It’s interesting though, how little of the text can be “explained” from such a process, and how many of the attacks against the Book of Mormon are based on claiming that the Book of Mormon departs from Bible facts and theology. The opening verses of the Book of Mormon provide an example of this. Nephi’s reference to having been schooled in the “language of the Egyptians” shocks some of our critics, who claim that no self-respecting Jew would have anything to do with Egyptian language. The argument continues when we read the Book of Mormon plates were actually written in “reformed Egyptian” (Mormon 9:32-34), which again violates the deep-seated antipathy for all things Egyptian that the ancient Jews are alleged to have had, and also violates common sense and scholarship since there is not and never was any such thing as “reformed Egyptian.”

These arguments are typified in the anti-Mormon book, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Mormonism by “Dr.” John Ankerberg and “Dr. Dr.” John Weldon (neither one of which appears to have a legitimate Ph.D.):

“Mormonism has never explained how godly Jews [sic] of A.D. 400 allegedly knew Egyptian, nor why they would have written their sacred records entirely in the language of their pagan, idolatrous enemies” (p. 284). “How likely is it that the allegedly Jewish [sic] Nephites would have used the Egyptian language to write their sacred scriptures? Their strong antipathy to the Egyptians and their culture makes this difficult to accept. When modern Jews copy their scripture, they use Hebrew. They do not use Egyptian or Arabic, the language of their historic enemies” (pp. 294-95). “[N]o such language [as reformed Egyptian] exists and Egyptologists declare this unequivocally” (p. 294).

Today we know that there was a lot of healthy exchange between ancient Jews and Egypt. Jewish communities existed in Egypt, even a Jewish temple was built, and Jewish people in Egypt in Thebes about 2000 years ago may have even been part of the unfolding Book of Abraham story.

As for the common charges against “reformed Egyptian” in the passage cited above, Ankerberg and Weldon are wrong on several counts–grossly wrong, as shown by Daniel C. Peterson in a noteworthy book review in Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 5, 1993, pp. 43-45 (available online). Several modified or “reformed” Egyptian scripts are well known, including forms called Demotic and Hieratic. “Reformed Egyptian” is clearly an appropriate generic term for those writing systems. However, the “Reformed Egyptian” used by the Nephites is described as a language system unique to them (Mormon 9:32-34), having evolved with their culture over a 1,000-year period. It was apparently used for sacred writings, and should have been almost wholly lost with the destruction of Nephite civilization. How can we expect Egyptologists, with typically no training in Central American matters, to know whether such a language ever existed there? Daniel Paterson gives further analysis (Peterson, pp. 44-45):

[W]ho says that the Nephites wrote in Egyptian? That is certainly one possibility, but several scholars (e.g., Sidney Sperry, John Sorenson, and John Tvedtnes) suggest, rather, that the language of the Nephites was Hebrew, written in Egyptian characters. The practice of representing one language in a script commonly associated with another language is very common. Yiddish, for instance, which is basically a form of German, is routinely written in Hebrew characters. Swahili can be written in either Roman or Arabic scripts. Judeo-Arabic, as written for instance by Moses Maimonides, was medieval Hebrew written with Arabic letters. In fact, almost any textbook of colloquial Arabic or Chinese or Japanese aimed at Western learners will use the Latin alphabet to represent those languages. Language and script are essentially independent. Turkish, which used to be written in a modified Arabic script, has been written in Latin letters in the Republic of Turkey since the 1920s. However, in the areas of the old Soviet Union, it is now usually written in Cyrillic (Russian) characters. Likewise, perhaps the major difference between Hindi and Urdu may be the mere fact that the former uses a Devanagari writing system, while the latter uses a modified Arabo-Persian script. So this phenomenon of changing the script with which one writes a language is by no means unusual.

But we need not speak only in theoretical terms. We have, in fact, an ancient illustration that comes remarkably close to the Book of Mormon itself. Papyrus Amherst 63, a text from the second century B.C., seems to offer something very much like “reformed Egyptian.” It is a papyrus scroll that contains Aramaic texts written in a demotic Egyptian script. (Aramaic is a language closely related to Hebrew. of the Old Testament book of Daniel is written in Aramaic, and it was the spoken language of Jesus and his apostles. Incidentally, however, a Christian form of the language, Syriac, came to use an alphabet related to Arabic–again illustrating the independence of script and tongue.) Interestingly, one of the items found on Papyrus Amherst 63 is a version of Psalm 20:2-6. Ankerberg and Weldon wonder why “godly Jews [sic] . . . would have written their sacred records entirely in the language of their pagan, idolatrous enemies.” Perhaps they should ask them some day, for godly Jews most certainly did (see “Language and Script in the Book of Mormon,” Insights: An Ancient Window, March 1992, p. 2).

By the way, Peterson gives a footnote on Ankerberg’s claim about Jews exclusively using Hebrew:

The statement “When modern Jews copy their scripture, they use Hebrew. They do not use Egyptian or Arabic, the language of their historic enemies” is quite an astonishing display of ignorance. Since the Egyptian language has been dead for centuries, it is hardly remarkable that modern Jews do not read the Bible in Egyptian. On the other hand, “the first and most important rendering [of the Old Testament] from Hebrew [into Arabic] was made by Sa’adya the Ga’on, a learned Jew who was head of the rabbinic school at Sura in Babylon (died 942)” (George A. Buttrick, ed., The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible [hereafter IDB], 4 vols. and supplement [Nashville: Abingdon, 1962-1976], 4:758b). Thus, Jews have indeed translated the Bible into “Arabic, the language of their historic enemies.” They also have translated it into the language of their “historic enemies” the Greeks (IDB 4:750b on the Septuagint) and Aramaeans (IDB 1:185-93; 4:749-50, on the Aramaic Targums).

More information and relevant examples are given in the article, “Jewish and Other Semitic Texts Written in Egyptian Characters” by John A. Tvedtnes and Stephen D. Ricks, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 5, No. 2, 1996, and also the excellent FARMS article “Reformed Egyptian” by William Hamblin. And for fun, be sure to see the site, Ancient Scripts–a marvelous collection of information on scripts of the ancient world.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

15 thoughts on “First Nephi 1 and the Language of the Egyptians

  1. In practical terms, written Japanese is "reformed Chinese" – literally.

    All other issues aside, I've never understood how people now can hold unto the criticism of the concept of reformed Egyptian. It's an absolute non-starter – and it shouldn't have been an issue even back in the times of Joseph for actual scholars.

  2. That's all very well and good, but it doesn't constitute evidence. Explaining that something COULD have happened is not the same as showing that it actually DID. In fact, most historians would likely insist upon the latter.

  3. Hi Aaron,

    I am pretty sure this post isn't about proving the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. This post is about calling out the critics' claim on how the Jews could not have possibly used a foreign writing system.


  4. I'm with Steve. Jeff is not trying to prove the Book of Mormon's authenticity; he's just showing the lameness of one particular argument against its authenticity. And Jeff is right: the argument he critiques IS pretty lame.

    Since Jeff's post concerned the Book of Mormon's language, allow me to offer an argument about the literary quality of that language.

    Consider first the opening passages of the Book of Isaiah:

    Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth: for the Lord hath spoken, I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me. The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider.

    Ah sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evildoers, children that are corrupters: they have forsaken the Lord, they have provoked the Holy One of Israel unto anger, they are gone away backward. Why should ye be stricken any more? ye will revolt more and more: the whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises, and putrifying sores: they have not been closed, neither bound up, neither mollified with ointment.

    Your country is desolate, your cities are burned with fire: your land, strangers devour it in your presence, and it is desolate, as overthrown by strangers. And the daughter of Zion is left as a cottage in a vineyard, as a lodge in a garden of cucumbers, as a besieged city.

    Note the richness of vocabulary, the striking metaphors and similes, and the confidence and power of the writer's voice. (And this isn't even Isaiah's best stuff.) It's no wonder that even atheists like me consider the Book of Isaiah to be among the world's great masterpieces.

    Now consider this from 1 Nephi:

    And it came to pass that when my father had read and seen many great and marvelous things, he did exclaim many things unto the Lord; such as: Great and marvelous are thy works, O Lord God Almighty! Thy throne is high in the heavens, and thy power, and goodness, and mercy are over all the inhabitants of the earth; and, because thou art merciful, thou wilt not suffer those who come unto thee that they shall perish!

    And after this manner was the language of my father in the praising of his God; for his soul did rejoice, and his whole heart was filled, because of the things which he had seen, yea, which the Lord had shown unto him.

    And now I, Nephi, do not make a full account of the things which my father hath written, for he hath written many things which he saw in visions and in dreams; and he also hath written many things which he prophesied and spake unto his children, of which I shall not make a full account.

    Note the comparative paucity of vocabulary (underscored by the frequent use of that vaguest of words, "things"), the lack of figurative language, and the prosaic, "just the facts" quality of the voice. Whether it's the work of Nephi or Joseph Smith, it's manifestly inferior writing.

    Of course, my argument here cannot (nor does it try to) disprove the Book of Mormon's authenticity. Presumably the ancient world produced its share of dull writing.

    — Eveningsun

  5. Aaron, the only "evidence" we have for much of the Bible is that it could have happened, especially with regard to the Old Testamnet – and there are LOTS of things in the OT that "objective scholars" assume could not have happened. That's why much of it is considered "religious history" by even many Christians, "myth" by many Christians and non-Christians alike and "made up crap" by lots of others.

    It's also interesting to note that Mormon says very clearly that they were much better speakers than writers – and he blamed it primarily on the limitations of the language they had to use for their written record.

    I'm no linguist, but I have studied enough, in general, and Japanese, in particular, to know that it is really hard to express everything you say in your native spoken language when you have to translate it into a different language – especially when you are limited in the space you can use to do so. Japanese is a good example, since there are many words that simply don't exist in native Japanese that are translated into a separate alphabet that is used exlcusively for foreign words and do nothing more than approximate the spoken pronunciation of those foreign words. Without that different alphabet, many words would be impossible, literally impossible, to translate properly.

    The most humorous experience of my mission in Japan was when I understood every single word someone said except one – and when I asked what it meant, I was met with stunned disbelief. You see, the word I didn't understand was English. It was "television" – but Japanses has no "l" or "v" sound, and it had been shortened to "terebi". Likewise, "connections" (as in "political connections") was shortened to "con-ne".

    Again, this is an absolute non-starter as a legitimate criticism of the Book of Mormon.

  6. Explaining that something COULD have happened is not the same as showing that it actually DID.

    I suspect Jeff's intent was to do exactly what you say he did, to show that something could have happened. That is what apologists do.

  7. I concede the argument is lame. I assumed Mr. Lindsay was taking the counter-argument further than he was.

  8. The simplicity of the language in the English Book of Mormon makes it more easily and accurately translated into many modern languages, about 111 so far.

    Since that was one of the stated goals of the Book of Mormon (to go to all "nations, kindreds, tongues and people" in these latter-days) one can see the wisdom of the Lord in having those ancient prophets keep it simple.

    So what may have been seen as a handicap to them, being required of the Lord to translate it into a simpler written language (as they wrote it), turned out to be a benefit to the people of the world in these days.

  9. Amen to what Bookslinger wrote. In addition, it is useful to have a clear, direct, and simple explanation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. After all, the Jews failed to see the prophecies of Christ in the writings of Isaiah in spite of (because of?) their literary superiority.

  10. The Jews failed to see the prophecies of Christ in the writings of Isaiah in spite of (because of?*) their literary superiority.

    Just for the record, and speaking as a Jew, let me suggest that "the Jews failed to see the prophecies of Christ in the writings of Isaiah" for the simple reason that those particular prophecies aren't there.

    Pops's comment illustrates one of the things that bugs me the most about the simplistic LDS conception of prophecy. To me, the true value of prophecy is its radical critique of the corruption of the powers-that-be. Think of the story of Nathan and David. What's more important? Nathan's declaration that "Thou art the man!" or the prediction that, because of David's abuse of his power, his child would soon die? The fact that Nathan's prediction "came true" (the child did indeed die) is far less important than the example set by Nathan of boldly calling power to account.

    To the orthodox Mormon, however, prophecy is first and foremost a kind of fortune-telling, a way of predicting the future that, if the foretold future can be shown to have "come true," can then be used to establish the authority of the religious text more generally. This "proof" of the text's authenticity is then used by the Church to justify its own claims to spiritual (and political!) authority.

    In this view, the important thing about Nathan is not his function as a social critic. It's that his prediction of the future came true, therefore he is inspired of God, an example not of a social critic but of someone who speaks with God's authority. The focus is on the prediction rather than the far more important critique, which is to say, this way of reading scripture focuses on the petty rather than the profound. It's a way of misreading scripture. It makes Nathan into a type, not of a Martin Luther King, but of an Ezra Taft Benson.

    Pops's understanding of prophecy is just a specific manifestation of his church's more general obsession with its own authority (not surprising given the Church's emphasis on obedience).

    To see Isaiah primarily as predicting future events, rather than speaking truth to power, is not only to misapprehend prophecy as a radical cultural form but to invert prophecy into a prop for the very conservative power structures it sets out to critique.

    This is not just a question of brazenly misappropriating the prophetic text. It's also an aspect of the political conservatism of the LDS Church that I strive (in these comments and elsewhere) to undermine. The falsity of LDS Doctrine, and the spuriousness of its self-arrogated spiritual authority, are revealed not just by the weird history of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, and not just by the patent nonsense of its texts, but also by the way it "dumbs down" the Bible and turns it into a self-justifying political prop.

    In fairness, I will add one more thing, namely, that the exact same thing is true of the obnoxious interpretive strategies of other conservative Christian denominations.

    — Eveningsun

    * Two points: First, Jews are pretty darned good readers of literature, and not just of their own. Second, Bookslinger and Pops, do you really want to pursue a line of apologetics that basically posits the LDS scri[ptures as a sort of E-Z reading, Reader's Digest version of theology for people incapable of understanding the complicated stuff? My own experience is that Mormons are plenty smart and do not need to be (and do not deserve to be) condescended to in that way.

  11. While I don't agree with some of the conclusions in EveningSun's last comment about the LDS Church and its leaders, I actually do agree with his criticism of the proof-texting tendencies of modern Christians – including many modern Mormons. So much of the OT "can" be read as prophetic of Jesus of Nazareth – but it's not as cut-and-dried or obvious as we tend to paint it. It's much more a difference of interpretation and orientation than of objective meaning, as it too-often is presented within Christianity.

    Iow, in this type of discussion, "we" (Jews, Mormons and others) tend to see what we believe, as opposed to believing what we see. I think it's important to understand that, especially if we are trying to understand better and be more charitable. After all, we really do see through a glass, darkly.

    Finally, I agree 100% with his last paragraph. Jew and Mormons are plenty smart enough to contemplate and understand the complex. I will add only that I see the simplicity of the language in the Book of Mormon as a result of two things: 1) the limitations of the written language used by the authors; 2) the limitations of the spoken language of the translator at the time of the translation.

  12. Just for the record, and speaking as a Jew, let me suggest that "the Jews failed to see the prophecies of Christ in the writings of Isaiah" for the simple reason that those particular prophecies aren't there.

    Thanks for demonstrating my point.

  13. I believe God loves humble ordinary average people as much as (and sometimes maybe more than) the smarty-pants.

  14. Pops,
    even back when I was a Christian, it became pretty apparent that the OT scriptures were taken outside of their original meaning when applied in the NT to Jesus.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.