Further Thoughts on John Gee’s Article at The Interpreter

John Gee’s recent article at The Interpreter on the Joseph Smith Papers volume on the Book of Abraham points to some genuine problems that merit attention. On the other hand, portions of that review strike me as perhaps too harsh, though others could say the same thing of my critical article on the same volume, 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.

It’s difficult criticizing a work one feels is seriously flawed without sounding harsh. But let me remind you of the remarkable positives in that work and throughout the Joseph Smith Papers (JSP) series. The fact that I was able to use the book and the JSP Project website to dig into the details regarding the documents related to the Book of Abraham confirms that the JSP Project has clearly delivered on one of their key objectives: making historical documents relevant to Joseph Smith and his work available for others to study in detail. So while I disagree with some of the editorial decisions including explicit statements, implicit suggestions and omissions, the work still stands as a precious resource for which many of us can be grateful. Pointing to the possible errors, as I have done, may be all that is needed or all that can be reasonably hoped for to provide balance for those interested in finding it.

Apart from possible defects in the volume on the Book of Abraham, Dr. Gee makes an important observation about the Kirtland Egyptian Papers that might merit further attention:

The characters in the margins of the Book of Abraham manuscripts come
from Papyrus Joseph Smith XI. The characters in the Egyptian Alphabet
documents and the Alphabet and Grammar come from Papyrus Joseph Smith I.
Because to the editors the characters are meaningless marks on the
page, they pay no attention to their origin or the implications of their
origins, which explains why they lump different characters from
different sources indiscriminately together in their appendix and
misplace some of the photographs. If the Egyptian Alphabet documents
were the direct source of the Book of Abraham, we would expect that the
characters would coincide and have the same source, but they do not.
Because the characters do not match, the efforts to match up characters
in the Egyptian Alphabet documents and the Book of Abraham manuscripts
have to be seen as independent efforts. It also suggests that both
efforts are attempts to match a previously existent Book of Abraham with
different papyri rather than stumbling attempts to decipher
a particular Egyptian text.

As I understand, Papyrus Joseph Smith XI and I, both shown on page 9 of JSPRT4, were originally part of the same scroll that were separated and separately mounted. But whether the two projects Gee refers to (work with Book of Abraham manuscripts with some characters in the margins and work with the Grammar and Alphabet document and the related Egyptian Alphabet documents) involved work with already separated fragments (as I believe could be the case) or with just different portions of the original unseparated papyrus, I think Gee’s point merits attention: these two projects don’t have the close relationship one would expect if the Kirtland Egyptian Papers are a window into Joseph’s translation to product the Book of Abraham. Rather, it looks like two different efforts, with only minor overlap, and in both cases, there is abundant evidence that the Book of Abraham translation came first, as discussed in my article for the Interpreter, with further evidence in my discussion of the twin manuscripts for Meridian Magazine.

Gee’s observation is important. Different characters are (generally) used in the Book of Abraham manuscripts and the Grammar and Alphabet plus Egyptian Alphabet documents. I believe that there is a touch of overlap in that 2 characters from Joseph Smith Papyrus XI (the characters are labeled as 5.27 and 5.28 in JSPRT4) were used by Phelps in Book of Abraham Manuscript C and also occur in the GAEL and the Egyptian Alphabet documents, though these characters have fallen off the mounted papyri fragments as shown in the recent photographs for the JSP Project. It does seem plausible that we are seeing not a window into how Joseph created live translation of a particular Egyptian text, but a window into how the scribes worked with bits and pieces of existing revelatory text (surprisingly, including some portions of the Doctrine and Covenants in addition to portions of the Book of Abraham text and perhaps commentary on Facsimile 1 and 2) in attempts to match up various concepts with Egyptian characters from Papyrus Joseph Smith XI and I, as well with non-Egyptian “Egyptian” characters from a variety of sources, apparently including some archaic Greek, a few Masonic ciphers, etc. It’s all thoroughly puzzling and certainly doesn’t fit the narratives that critics like to offer about how we are seeing Joseph’s translation taking place.

What was the purpose of the Egyptian and non-Egyptian characters being matched up to English text in the Book of Abraham manuscripts? As previously pointed out (see “The Twin BOA Manuscripts: A Window into Creation of the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language?“), the header of the twin documents gives us a loud declaration that the critics continue to ignore: “Sign of the fifth degree of the Second part” clearly refers to an unfinished section of the largely unfinished  Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language, a bound book with far more blank pages than written pages in its sparse text. The two scribes preparing Book of Abraham Manuscripts A and B were apparently continuing the work of W.W. Phelps, who already covered Abraham 1:1-3 in Book of Abraham Manuscript C, apparently drawing upon an existing text of the translation, as the other scribes continued to do for Manuscripts A and B. Phelps had become unavailable for the Book of Abraham project due to other demands, necessitating the hiring of a new scribe, Warren Parrish, on October 29, 1835 (this raises serious questions about JSPRT4’s dating of manuscripts written by Parrish as a scribe for the Book of Abraham effort — the editors of JSPTR4 claims that these documents may have been written as early as July 1835, which I feel is unreasonable). Joseph hired Parrish and was clearly interested in this work, but we should know that he did not need and Alphabet and Grammar to receive revelation, but was certainly interested in understanding ancient language, however futile that intellectual that quest was for him and his team as far as Egyptian was concerned.


Parrish and Frederick G. Williams continued where Phelps had left off. Their title of “Sign of the fifth degree of the Second part” means not that they are writing down fresh scripture dictated from Joseph’s lips, but were preparing further entries for the section of Phelps’ GAEL with that same title, but which was never completed and which never received the additional entries that could have been worked out from the recent attempt at linking characters to the text. We don’t know the purpose of the GAEL — to me there are too many puzzles to fit any one theory comfortably, whether it’s reverse engineering the decipherment of Egyptian, creating a reverse cipher to encode English, or compiling the “pure language” of the ancients. Whatever it was, the project behind the Kirtland Egyptian Papers was quickly abandoned and left incomplete. I would say the KEP’s purpose certainly wasn’t creating the translation of the Book of Abraham from Egyptian characters. That assumption requires ignoring far too much data.

So when Gee writes, “Because the characters do not match, the efforts to match up characters
in the Egyptian Alphabet documents and the Book of Abraham manuscripts
have to be seen as independent efforts,” I think I largely agree. Not completely independent, but perhaps two different aspects of an ongoing and futile project. And I also generally agree with the next sentence:  “It also suggests that both
efforts are attempts to match a previously existent Book of Abraham with
different papyri [or possibly different sections of a single original papyrus fragment] rather than stumbling attempts to decipher
a particular Egyptian text.” Overall, his perspective on the relationship between these documents is a valuable one, with the kind of insight that I wish had been provided from time to time in JSPRT4.

To be fair to JSPRT4, I should note that there is some language in there (as quoted in my articles) recognizing that the twin manuscripts might have been created using an existing text, but the additional possibility that is recognized, that they may represent live dictation by Joseph Smith, faces massive problems in light of the textual data and other data and these problems should have been noticed and noted. The failure to consider the implications of the textual evidence is one of many unfortunate omissions and missed opportunities for more accurate understanding of these manuscripts in JSPRT4. But in spite of such flaws, it’s still a remarkable book that can help students of the Book of Abraham dig in and learn more about a mysterious adventure in the history of the Church, the story of the Book of Abraham and its related documents.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

3 thoughts on “Further Thoughts on John Gee’s Article at The Interpreter

  1. Thanks, Jeff. I've seen some criticism of John's comments in other places but I think he, and yourself, have gotten a bad rap. This is a legitimate criticism. Thank you.

  2. I've supported Jeff's conclusions in other forums, and I must once again agree that when an official church publication is unbalanced to either side then issues arise. In this case, the tilt towards those who view Joseph as uninspired or somehow "inventive" of the Book of Abraham without regards to the work of LDS apologists leaves one scratching his head. The anti-Mormons are more than eager to strike at faithful members while attempting to use the supposed failings of the Book of Abraham already, without us giving them "official" church publications in order to do so.

    The concern which I have for a wolf entering amid the flock in order to decimate knows no bounds, for therein lies one of the greatest dangers to the flock. To continue to embrace one of these or their opinions because such person once held a position of trust does not make much reasonable sense from my perspective.

  3. Many wolves are in the flock….from the First Presidency to the average member, including "apologists" and BYU professors.

    These "wolves" are pushing many narratives. And those that raise concerns are attacked with vile names and false accusations.

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.