I just began reading the latest book on the Book of Abraham, Dan Vogel’s Book of Abraham Apologetics: A Review and Critique (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 2021). After reading his claim to just be pursuing history “based entirely in a dispassionate, balanced analysis of the relevant historical documents” (p. 13, Kindle edition), I was expecting what would at least appear to be a cautious approach, carefully weighing evidence and not overlooking sources and arguments that weigh against Vogel’s well-known critical views of Joseph Smith. Unfortunately, disappointment followed swiftly in several ways, especially when he relies on the ignorance of Joseph and his peers regarding the significance of the famed achievement of Champollion in translating the Rosetta Stone. This alleged ignorance advances Vogel’s thesis in two ways: 1) it gives Joseph the courage to do his own translation, believing that there is no risk (at least for his near future) of scholars later exposing his bogus translation, and 2) it allows him to cling to the once popular old notion that Egyptian was a mystical language where one character could require numerous words to translate.
At the core of many modern attacks on the Book of Abraham is the notion that a handful of Egyptian characters in the margins of some Book of Abraham manuscripts written by Joseph’s scribes represent the translation work of Joseph Smith. If so, then Joseph apparently thought that a single character could represent complex story details that require as many as 200+ English words to translate. This would seem to require Joseph to have been ignorant of Champollion’s famous translation of the Rosetta Stone, where Egyptian symbols (hieroglyphs and demotic script) were not mysteriously linked to large blocks of Greek text, but were found to have a much more reasonable relationship.
While Champollion’s achievement is common knowledge now, many people today fail to recognize how significant and well known his achievement was in the 1820s and 1830s. Vogel also makes this oversight early in his book:
At the time Smith worked on his “Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language,” [Vogel repeatedly asserts that the GAEL was Joseph’s work, which requires overlooking a great deal of evidence that we will discuss later] he does not appear to be aware of the significance of François Champollion’s contribution to Egyptology, as was the case for most Americans. When Champollion died in 1832, his work on the Rosetta Stone was incomplete and his “decipherment remained a speculative hypothesis to many scholars.” [Here the book is missing a footnote to Parkinson’s Cracking Codes, p. 41.] As late as 1854, orientalist Gustavus Seyffarth was still arguing in New York against Champollion’s system. Not until 1858 would a complete translation of the Rosetta Stone come off an American press. LDS scholar Samuel Brown has noted that “Champollion’s phonetic Egyptian was slow to find traction because hieroglyphs had so long been understood to function as secret pictographic codes,” and historian John Irwin has observed that “Champollion’s discoveries did not, however, topple the metaphysical school of interpretation … and the tension between these two kinds of interpretation was to have a significant influence on the literature of the American Renaissance.” After reviewing this subject, Terryl Givens, another LDS intellectual, recently suggested that “Smith or those working to assemble the grammar and alphabet appear to have been operating within the existing cultural assumptions of the time about how hieroglyphs concisely embedded substantial discursive meaning.”
This gave Smith freedom to imagine whatever he wished about Egyptian grammar. His Egyptian-language project began as a relatively simple alphabet and the five-degree amplification of Egyptian meanings came later, which helps to explain evolving definitions. It also provided more flexibility when he later dictated his translation. (pp. 25-26 in Kindle, pp. 6-7 in print)
First, I must object to Vogel’s insistence from the beginning that the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language was Joseph’s work. This popular theory is challenged by extensive data that we will discuss later, but for now please see two recent publications by John Gee that provide incisive analysis on this and related issues: “Fantasy and Reality in the Translation of the Book of Abraham,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 42 (2021): 127-170, and “Prolegomena to a Study of the Egyptian Alphabet Documents in the Joseph Smith Papers,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 42 (2021): 77-98.
Getting back to Champollion, I believe that Vogel misses the significance of Irwin’s opening chapter about how widespread knowledge of Champollion had become in the US shortly after his translation, even if those favoring metaphysics misinterpreted his work. The fact that several scholars remained fascinated with the potential metaphysical aspect of hieroglyphics after Champollion’s translation does not mean that Champollion’s achievement was not well known, nor that the frequently phonetic nature of hieroglyphs was not known in America. There are numerous sources from the United States prior to Joseph’s work with the papyri showing that Champollion was a household name and that his decipherment of the Rosetta Stone was well known. I provide some of these sources in “A Precious Resource with Some Gaps,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 33 (2019): 13-104, which Vogel cites in his book. That source also points out that Joseph’s Book of Mormon translation gives us important clues about what he thought about Egyptian or reformed Egyptian, factors that Vogel also seems to have overlooked.
Yes, mystical views of Egyptian may have lingered in the U.S. (and W.W. Phelps may have entertained related notions pertaining to the ideal “pure language”), but it is not reasonable to make the assumption that Joseph and the early Saints remained largely ignorant of Champollion’s work and its general significance. For example, consider this from The Atlantic magazine in 1825: “The learned are well acquainted with the important discoveries of Young and Champollion in decyphering the sacred writings of the Egyptians” (“Discovery of Very Ancient Egyptian Archives,” vol. 2, p. 399). The Atlantic in 1825 tells us that the learned are well acquainted with Champollion, whose name was so well known that it needed no title, no initials or hint of a given name. In the 1820s in the US he was already simply Champollion.
I suspect that the notion of some critics of the Book of Abraham that Champollion’s work was not common knowledge in the U.S. by 1835 may derive from a blunder of Dr. Robert K. Ritner, a critic of Joseph Smith and the Book of Abraham who is widely relied on by Book of Abraham critics. I discuss Ritner’s error in my post, “The Making of a Myth: A Possible Explanation for the Mysterious Ignorance of Champollion (Among Scholars).” Ritner is not only heavily cited by critics of the Book of Abraham, but also by the editors of the Joseph Smith Papers’ volume on the Book of Abraham, Brian Hauglid and Robin Jensen, who cite him more than any other scholar (while never citing Hugh Nibley). They appear to follow Ritner when they claim that “in America in the 1830s and 1840s, Champollion’s findings were available to only a small group of scholars who either read them in French or gleaned them from a limited number of English translations or summaries” (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], p. xvii). While the academic details of Champollion’s academic publications were not common knowledge in the U.S., of course, downplaying the widespread awareness of Champollion’s achievement and its significance is simply unjustified.
In fact, there is some evidence that the early Saints likely were aware of Champollion. See my recent post, “Is There Direct Evidence that the Early Saints Had Heard of Champollion?” There I point to a widely published article by journalist James Gordon Bennett claiming that when Martin Harris took a copy of some Book of Mormon characters to seek assistance from scholars, Dr. Samuel Mitchill told Martin that the characters resembled those that Champollion had found. Even if Martin had not been told anything about Champollion by Mitchill, the article would surely have stirred curiosity if the Saints were still in the dark.
Regardless of what Joseph knew of Champollion, we can infer more on Joseph’s views by assuming that what he had published in and said about the Book of Mormon regarding reformed Egyptian should not depart wildly from his personal views. For example, Mormon in Mormon 9:32 tells us that
we have written this record according to our knowledge, in the characters which are called among us the reformed Egyptian, being handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech.
The reformed Egyptian of the Book of Mormon apparently reflected speech rather than having a single character mystically conveying vast treasures of oracular thought.
Mormon’s statement is not the only vital clue on the nature of Egyptian. King Benjamin in Mosiah 1:4 explains that Lehi taught the language of the Egyptians to his children so they could read the brass plates, and so they could teach that to their children in turn. The implication, of course, is that Egyptian is a language you can teach to your children, one that does not require mystic gifts to draw out mountains of hidden text from a few strokes.
Apart from indications in the Book of Mormon about the nature of the Egyptian on the brass plates and the reformed Egyptian used by Mormon, Joseph Smith also expressed his viewpoint directly. Regarding the title page of the Book of Mormon, which came from the last plate (not the last character!) in the Nephite record, Joseph said:
I would mention here also in order to correct a misunderstanding, which has gone abroad concerning the title page of the Book of Mormon, that it is not a composition of mine or of any other man’s who has lived or does live in this generation, but that it is a literal translation taken from the last leaf of the plates, on the left hand side of the collection of plates, the language running same as all Hebrew writing in general. [Joseph Smith, “History, circa June–October 1839 (Draft 1),” p. 9, Joseph Smith Papers, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-circa-june-october-1839-draft-1/9.
It was a running language, with a chunk of language on the last plate corresponding to the chunk of English on our title page, not an utterly mystical language, one where each squiggle could be paragraphs of English. With his experience in reformed Egyptian behind him, does it stand to reason that once he saw the Egyptian scrolls in 1835, he would suddenly reverse course and see it as pure mysticism completely unlike Hebrew, no longer phonetic nor a “running language”?
Further evidence against such a view comes from Joseph’s comments on the meaning of the Facsimiles. The four hieroglyphs for the four sons of Horus in Facsimile 2 (labeled as element 6) become a remarkably concise “the four quarters of the earth,” a statement that is actually quite accurate. Other statements he makes regarding the facsimiles and the characters tend to be equally brief. No sign of magical compactness. That idea died swiftly, though not universally, as news of the translation of the Rosetta Stone spread. It was old news when Joseph saw the scrolls. While it is possible that Joseph and the people of Kirtland had remained in the dark about the Rosetta Stone and Champollion, it seems unlikely. But certainly there was still nothing practical available from Champollion’s work in that day to guide them, even if they had had access to French publications. For that, revelation would be needed, and it seems they then would do their best on their own to follow suit and create their own “Alphabet.” But the revealed translation came first. Indeed, from the very beginning we have Joseph identifying some of the records as having texts about Abraham and also Joseph. This came not by painstakingly creating an impossible “alphabet” out of nothing to identify those names, but came by revelation.
W.W. Phelps, based on his writings in the GAEL, may have continued to entertain the notion that Egyptian characters could have many levels of meaning and might convey a sentence or phrase when translated. But we have no reasonable basis to assign that belief to Joseph.
If one’s goal is to pursue history “based entirely in a dispassionate, balanced analysis of the relevant historical documents,” there are a couple more relevant documents that should be considered but apparently are not discussed (at least not yet in my reading) in Vogel’s book. There is a document from Oliver Cowdery which gives us some insight into the “comprehensive” nature of the Egyptian language that Cowdery once spoke of. The document is listed on the Joseph Smith Papers website as “Appendix 2, Document 2a. Characters Copied by Oliver Cowdery, circa 1835–1836.” The document, apparently in the handwriting of Oliver Cowdery, gives a few words of English, a transliteration of the purported Hebrew translation, and then shows two pairs of Egyptian-like characters beneath a pair of English phrases: “(The Book of Mormon)” and “(the interpreters of languages).”
|Cowdery equates a four characters of reformed Egyptian to eight words of English
(four of which are “the” and “of”)
There are two characters for “the Book of Mormon” and two for “the interpreters of languages.” Sure, it’s compact and concise — but not ridiculously and impossibly so. And frankly, in my uneducated opinion, those presumably reformed Egyptian characters could easily fit in with the Egyptian script on the Joseph Smith Papyri, another version of reformed Egyptian. “Reformed Egyptian,” of course, is not a specific name of a language — “reformed” is just an adjective describing the evolution and revision that had occurred in the Nephites’ Egyptian script for sacred records, just as real Egyptian had variants that evolved into forms of hieratic or demotic. Consider also the document from Frederick G. Williams, listed on the JSP website as “Appendix 2, Document 2b. Writings and Characters Copied by Frederick G. Williams, circa Early to Mid-1830s.” It apparently copies part of Cowdery’s document, and was written by 1837 or earlier. These men, at least for a while, had a relatively reasonable view about what language could do. Whatever Phelps, Williams, and Warren Parrish thought they were doing when the placed one character to the left of some large chunks of Book of Abraham English text that Joseph had already translated, it simply makes no sense that they and Joseph had lost all sense of proportion and had forgotten what they should have learned from the Book of Mormon and from Joseph’s statements, if not their own.
[The following paragraph is an update from April 3, 2021.]
On the other hand, there is a document listed on the Joseph Smith Papers site as “‘Valuable Discovery,’ circa Early July 1835,” where Cowdery places some Egyptian characters in line with an apparent English translation. It begins with several characters and a reasonable block of text, then several more and short block of text, and then follows what looks like just one character followed by 26 words of text, not unlike many of the definitions in the GAEL. So yes, as with the GAEL and most extremely with the Book of Abraham Manuscripts, there were obviously some efforts made to connect individual characters with text. Here we don’t know how the text came about–was there a translation first in search of characters to match? The English text is also given in a similar manuscript, “Notebook of Copied Characters, circa Early July 1835” by W.W. Phelps, which Phelps initially wrote was a translation of the characters on the next page. If that were all we had, we would see about 45 English words linked to 37 characters, but latter Phelps, using a graphite pencil, would add the faint phrase “in part” to the side of “translation,” suggesting that the translation was only a partial translation. That would be consistent with what we see on the “Valuable Discovery” document, and may have be written in light of what he saw there, where perhaps just 7 characters gave the 45 English words, indicating that there must be more. So do we have what initially Phelps felt was a translation of the characters, which he later felt was only a partial translation after seeing Cowdery’s document? It’s hard to say, but again, the GAEL likewise shows single characters with surprisingly long English text.
I don’t know what Phelps thought he was doing in the GAEL or what any of the Saints thought they were doing in the puzzling documents of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, but work that was done using an existing translation (and other existing sources like portions of the Doctrine and Covenants) and then quickly abandoned in a totally incomplete state simply does not reflect how Joseph translated the Book of Abraham or the Book of Mormon or any other document. Further, the strangeness of efforts to link single characters to over 200 English words (taken from existing text) in some cases in the Book of Abraham manuscripts should not readily outweigh what we learn from Joseph’s views in his work with reformed Egyptian characters in the Book of Mormon.
As Ryan Larsen once pointed out to me, Joseph did not translate the Book of Mormon, the Book of Moses, Section 7 of the Doctrine and Covenants, or any other document by writing characters in one column and text in another, after first trying to fabricate an “alphabet” out of nothing. Alphabets, of course, require some already translated text to create to help one begin to understand a language. Those who witnessed Joseph translate give zero support for the claims of critics regarding how Joseph translated the Book of Abraham. Joseph translated by revelation, not by studying characters and making countless guesses on each one’s meaning.
|Frederick G. Williams copied the characters and translation from Cowdery|
At least some of the documents I’ve discussed in related posts and articles, a few of which are mentioned here, are ones that I think Dan has at least briefly seen due to his responses to some of my posts here and articles at Interpreter, which adds to my disappointment of the neglect of the arguments and documents I’ve mentioned.
I’m only a few pages into Vogel’s book, but already I am not convinced that this work really is a dispassionate consideration of the relevant documents, unless relevant means “documents that support one’s point of view.” But of course, how can one suddenly become dispassionate about something one is already quite passionate about? That passion, of course, can sometimes lead even the best of scholars to overlook conflicting views and evidence.
- “Egyptomania and Ohio: Thoughts on a Lecture from Terryl Givens and a Questionable Statement in the Joseph Smith Papers, Vol. 4”
- “What did Joseph Smith say about the nature of Egyptian hieroglyphs?,” from the I Began to Reflect blog
- Pearl of Great Price Central (pearlofgreatpricecentral.org)
43 thoughts on “Just Started Dan Vogel’s New Book: Already Chagrined by the Treatment of Champollion”
One's assurance that he is "just following the evidence, wherever it takes him" is, in my view, almost always, a strike against, rather than in favor of, that person's character as a person of clear vision.
Good insights. And of course, there is the transcript of Tim Barker's recently published transcript of his 2019 FAIR talk, on Translating the Book of Abraham: The Answer Under Our Heads, noting that in the published Facsimile 2, Joseph publically declares that he has not translated characters which Tanner and Heward noted that had been taking from the Book of Breathings and used to fill out the damaged part of the rim, and right column of the panels. As Barker states "It just so happens that literally every Figure containing any hieratic text from JSP XI, Joseph’s response is that the explanations “will be given in the own due time of the Lord.” And he concludes by saying, “The above translation is given as far as we have any right to give at the present time.” In other words, literally all of the JSP XI hieratic characters included in Facsimile 2, Joseph Smith deliberately declined from commenting upon because he believed that the translation would at some future time be given in the own due time of the Lord. Joseph clearly indicates that he did NOT translate JSP XI."
Am I the only one who read the title of the post and thought that "Already Chagrined by the Treatment of Champollion" was a weird name for Vogel to give to his book?
An interesting paper on hypocephalus is Some Reflections on the Funerary Equipment of Paiuhor
How did the Egyptians draw hands
Time and time again we are reminded of how impossible it is for Joseph to have known all that it would have taken to produce the Book of Mormon even though local libraries held numerous books that would have contributed to that knowledge but when Vogel implies that Smith could not have know something, suddenly a single copy in an office of a East coast scholar briefly visited by a largely uneducated farmer becomes evidence.
I like how you cite Mormon talking about his language, but fail to cite the very next line wherein he addresses the language in relation to its compactness, which is precisely what you are arguing about. Could it be because it supports the idea that Joseph and others thought that Egyptian contains more meaning in its characters that phonetics would explain?
“the reformed Egyptian, being handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech.
33 And if our plates had been sufficiently large we should have written in Hebrew”
The reformed Egyptian supposedly reflected speech as you say, but it seems it also conveys meaning in less space than Hebrew would do ( which is an actual language whose writing reflects speech).
“The implication, of course, is that Egyptian is a language you can teach to your children, one that does not require mystic gifts to draw out mountains of hidden text from a few strokes.”
One would assume that if the language were taught initially, which we know it was from Nephi (learning of his father), it could be passed down regardless of how much meaning is conveyed in one pictogram. This is a silly argument.
“with a chunk of language on the last plate corresponding to the chunk of English on our title page”
Where in the quote you provided is the number of characters addressed? You have no reason to assume there is a chunk of language on that last page. As a title page, one would expect it to be on its own page—this is inherent in the name. It could just as easily have been two characters. All we know is the characters were “running same as all Hebrew writing in general,” which is another way of saying it was written right to left. This quote is not evidence for the claims you are making. On a related note, there is an interesting fact about that title page. It had the form and function of a 16th-19th century publication’s title page, which seems out of character for an ancient document.
"Joseph translated by revelation, not by studying characters and making countless guesses on each one's meaning."
And yet we know from Luck Mack Smith,
"Not long after the circumstance above mentioned, Joseph began to make arrangements to accomplish the translation of the Record; The And the first step which he was instructed to take in regard to this matter, was, to take a Fac-Simile of the characters composing the alphabet: which characters were called reformed Egyptian, after which send them to some of the of the most learned men of this generation, and ask them for the translation thereof."
Lucy Mack Smith, History, 1845 pg 117
It appears that is exactly what he did first when starting his translation of the Book of Mormon.
The Book of Abraham's 19th-century composition is even more obvious than the Book of Mormon's, though at least it has the virtue of being shorter. Another virtue: it's much more entertaining than the BoM's endless and simplistic staging of conflict between godly and ungodly. Especially entertaining are the ludicrous cosmology and dubious logic of BoA Chapter 3.
Yes, Mormon's comment is obviously explaining the advantage of reformed Egyptian over Hebrew, an advantage that may be similar to the advantage Chinese has over English. But not a bizarre advantage. If one reformed Egyptian character typically equaled around 100 English words, as one might infer from the critics' arguments, it would take about 2700 characters to convey the Book of Mormon, which would require something on the order of 4 or 5 gold plates, not the sizable stack the witnesses saw.
Mormon as a scribe recognized the economy of reformed Egyptian, but it was not a mystical oracular system but a running language, akin to Hebrew in that, with grammar and sounds, a system that could be taught to one's children, without verbose outpourings of hidden wisdom coming from a single character.
Lucy Mack Smith is describing the well-known effort of Joseph Smith, still overwhelmed with the thought of translating an unknown language, to seek assistance from others. But the copy of some characters he sent to be viewed by the likes of Charles Anthron does not mean he constructed an alphabet and grammar of the reformed Egyptian language as a translation tool. It was done entirely by revelation — and without the need to look at individual characters on the source, as may well be the case for the Book of Abraham.
I wonder what Moroni would have thought, as he slaved away at all that writing and abridging and stone-box-building, if he'd known that his work's eventual translation would be "done entirely by revelation … without the need to look at individual characters on the source."
Jeff your last 2 comments are utterly ridiculous and fly right in the face of what most of us who went to BYU or were taught in LDS churches throughout the 70s through 90s. So much backpedaling and obfuscation. It's no wonder things are going so poorly for your church right now.
OK: "I wonder what Moroni would have thought, as he slaved away at all that writing and abridging and stone-box-building, if he'd known that his work's eventual translation would be 'done entirely by revelation … without the need to look at individual characters on the source.'"
I think he'd be very happy knowing that his book has been printed 150 million times and in at least 90 different languages.
Jack – Now you are getting the hang of it. That is how fan fiction starts, take imaginary characters started by someone else, add your own imagination to the emotional progression of the character, it really is not as hard as some make it out to be, no formal education required.
Thanks, Jeff, for your patience in addressing Vogel point-by-point. I'm not much worried, however, about his influence on the Saints. His writing is just so boring! I am a bit more worried, however about a few scholars in the Church who have been misled by him and have adopted his talking points.
Insignificant oversight: it was Moroni, not Mormon, who wrote Mormon 8 & 9. I do appreciate your insights into the influence of Nephite speech on their written language. I wonder if "Reformed Egyptian" was even their ordinary written language: it might just have been a sacred language learned only by prophet-scribes, useful for its continuity with their ancient sacred writings and perhaps also for its compactness. Their everyday writing might have been something entirely different.
“it would take about 2700 characters to convey the Book of Mormon, which would require something on the order of 4 or 5 gold plates, not the sizable stack the witnesses saw.”
Remember that 2/3 of the “sizable stack” was sealed and not translated. Also, we aren’t told how many sheaves were filled, nor how many characters were contained on each page. Of course this is all assuming (big assumption considering the circumstances) that there was actual reformed Egyptian written on what the witnesses saw, and not just gibberish on some confidence man’s prop.
And that ultimately is probably the best explanation for all of this. It’s hard to resolve all of these elements because the story is so unlikely that there is little chance it is true—you’re trying to make sense of something that is nonsense
Exactly, Anon 10:10 — "trying to make sense out of nonsense." It's just such an obvious fraud. Joseph Smith had a history of conning others and a head swarming with the ideas circulating in his environment about religion, Native American origins, folk magic, etc., and lo and behold many of those same ideas show up in the book he says he found. Can others see the book? Alas, says the known con man, I cannot show you the book because it is too sacred. But here's a statement signed by my friends and relations testifying to its existence, is that good enough for you? No? Ah well, too late now for an angel has fetched the original up to heaven, so you'll just have to trust me that it is genuine even though I am a known con man.
But as they say, there's a sucker born every minute. Just look at Scientology.
“Lucy Mack Smith is describing the well-known effort of Joseph Smith, still overwhelmed with the thought of translating an unknown language, to seek assistance from others. But the copy of some characters he sent to be viewed by the likes of Charles Anthron does not mean he constructed an alphabet and grammar of the reformed Egyptian language as a translation tool.”
Don Bradley has shown in his article on the Kinderhook plates that Joseph Smith viewed the Gael as a tool for translation. Smith also considered it worthy of publication, more evidence that he viewed it not as a failed project but somehow relevant as an Egyptian lexicon. Also the Egyptian Alphabet text Smith and his scribes created was very similar to one created by contemporary linguist such as Moses Stuart for languages like Hebrew.
Your point about how many English words were being derived from single glyph in the translation manuscript assumes some sort of consistency in Smith’s approach to the artifacts, a consistency not justified by the project itself, which is a rambling mess.
As far as the GAEL and the extant translation manuscripts being created after the entire Book of Abraham was translated, Vogel isn't the only one providing textual proof contra this theory. In addition to other BYU scholars, Matthew Grey has conclusively shown the dependency of parts of the Book of Abraham on the Seixas Hebrew lexicon, a book not available to Smith until early 1836, after the GAEL and translation manuscripts are known to have been created. As Grey states “some scholars have claimed that Smith had almost completely translated the Book of Abraham by 1835…Other scholars have argued that the translation of Abr 2:1-5:21 and the explanations of the illustrations were not produced until early 1842. The presence of discernable Hebrew elements in the Book of Abraham supports and further clarifies this later chronology.”
“While it is possible that Joseph and the people of Kirtland had remained in the dark about the Rosetta Stone and Champollion, it seems unlikely.”
It only seems that way to you. You have at least one example of someone who seemingly still “remained in the dark about the Rosetta Stone and Champollion” in W W Phelps, and no concrete examples of anyone who demonstrated he was aware of Champollion. In fact, we have a couple of documents that seem to demonstrate that the translation process was lead by more traditional beliefs about Egyptian writing.
Besides manuscripts A & B which have hieroglyphs in the margins with seemingly associated text to the right of them, we also have Oliver Cowdery’s “Valuable Discovery” notebook wherein the same format is used—character on the left and associated text on the right. This notebook appears to be the first document where any translation of the papyri was attempted, so influence from the GAEL and other posited nonsense explanations which try to disassociate the characters from the text they are obviously supposed to represent doesn’t apply.
Link to notebook page 3:
You made mention of Cowdery’s reference to the comprehensive nature of Egyptian and it reminded me of two sources I shared in previous posts about this subject. They are telling insights into how “compact” and “comprehensive” Joseph and his contemporaries believed their found texts to be:
William West, in writing about the Mormons and referring to the discovery/translation of the papyri wrote "Smith is to translate the whole [papyri] by divine inspiration, and that which is lost, Like Nebuchadnezzar's dream, can be interpreted as well as that which is preserved; and a larger volume than the Bible will be required to contain them."
Do you suppose West is making up this claim out of thin air, or reporting something he has been told?
Oliver Cowdery stated (emphasis added by me) "I might continue my communication to a great length upon the different figures and characters represented upon the two rolls, but I have no doubt my subject has already become sufficiently prolix for your patience: I will therefore soon cease for the present.—When the translation of these valuable documents will be completed, I am unable to say; neither can I give you a probable idea how large volumes they will make; but judging from their size, and the comprehensiveness of the language, one might reasonable expect to see a sufficient to develop much upon the mighty acts of the ancient men of God”
Oliver tells us that two scrolls will translate into volumes of text. It’s obvious that there was a belief that many words could be derived from one Egyptian character.
This raises the question, though, why the two characters to represent the BoM? Why does Joseph’s handwritten Egyptian Alphabet text only show short, phrase or sentence explanations for each character? Why do his “translations” of the characters on the facsimiles only contain a few words? The answer may well lie in the JSP explanation for the differing degrees found in the GAEL:
“Whereas in the Egyptian Alphabet documents, some definitions build upon others within the same part, in the Grammar and Alphabet volume, a character’s definition becomes more complex as it appears in progressively higher ‘degrees.’ The Grammar and Alphabet volume also contains composite characters similar to those in the Egyptian Alphabet documents.”
It appears the belief was that the characters could have multiple meanings—that there was a base interpretation, then a progressively more complex one. It may be related to what Champollion himself said about Egyptian:
"It is a complex system, writing figurative, symbolic, and phonetic all at once, in the same text, the same phrase, I would almost say in the same word."
“The Atlantic in 1825 tells us that the learned are well acquainted with Champollion, whose name was so well known that it needed no title, no initials or hint of a given name.”
I looked back at our many discussions on the subject of Champollion and was reminded that I provided you with quite a list of people in the article you cited in that post who were referred to by last name only. I think there were around 20 or so. If you study publications from the time period, you will find that it was common practice for writers to throw out names as if their readership should know them, whether or not they were well known publicly. It was a way for the writer to establish his bona fides and prove his worth as a writer as well as an educated individual. Think Dennis Miller. Today’s writer has been trained to treat his/her audience much differently. You’re suffering from presentism in this instance.
Also, might I remind you, the Young your source refers to had different (but wrong), and more traditional ideas about the interpretation of hieroglyphics. There was still a debate raging in Europe about who was right.
Lastly, since you found it necessary to repeat yourself, I thought I’d repost a cogent reply of mine from one of our previous discussions since I think it explains the problems you still have with this overall argument.
Jeff’s claim is that, in spite of the evidence to the contrary, Joseph and the translators clearly didn’t think that one character of Egyptian could account for multiple limes of text or complex ideas—that they “knew” Egyptian is phonetic because they knew about Champollion and his work. He has no evidence for this claim. The closest he has come is to find articles that were available around the time Joseph may have been able to consume them. The articles he has cited here make no mention of the nature of Champollion’s work (phonetic or pictographic). There also the large problem of there being no mention of him in the LDS community either specifically in regards to Egyptian translation, or in passing. To prove that information from the social milieu has influenced a work, one must demonstrate evidence of that information in the work in addition to the information being culturally present.
Jeff is fighting an uphill battle because he hasn’t shown evidence of Champollion’s influence, and the translation documents appear to support the long standing theory that hieroglyphics are pictographic. There is also the commonly held belief that Egyptian hieroglyphics were close to the Adamic language because they are so ancient (closer to the tower of Babel) and it was thought that a pure language should be able to convey complex ideas through simple means—the pure language is unsullied and the speaker and hearer will have perfect understanding of one another. These themes are present the LDS community documentation See discussion of this at the JSP website:
Regarding William S. West's claim that the scrolls could yield a text larger than the Bible, please remember that he was a hostile source mocking Joseph's effort, not an insider making a dispassionate estimate of the potential length of the translation from the scrolls Joseph had.
Oliver's exultations on the thrilling Book of Abraham project may be a tad hyperbolic, but may still reasonably reflect the diversity of content before within the scrolls (most of which were lost in the Chicago Fire, far beyond the fragments that survived) and the fact that the language struck him as "comprehensive." That word still applies today when students learn how a few strokes can convey significant (but not magical) meaning in Egyptian or Chinese, and even in the alphabetic language Hebrew, where, for example, a few strokes can represent "and it came to pass."
OK, you seem to see the Book of Abraham project as a repeat in many ways of the Book of Mormon project. That's reasonable to a degree from my point of view as well. In both cases, Joseph saw the reformed Egyptian or true Egyptian as running language going from right to left. In both cases the translation was done by revelation. In both cases witnesses were allowed to see the original source, etc. But in the case of the Book of Abraham, there was no requirement to protect them from access to the general public or deliver them back to an angel when done. Joseph, instead of hiding the original and taking pains to prevent future scholars from examining his work, but them on display and allowed many people to view them. We would have the much more extensive documents that he had if only they had not been sent by his widow years later to a museum in St. Louis that would then send them to a museum in Chicago that burned in the Great Chicago Fire. Joseph was not afraid of future scholarly review. Unfortunately, we don't know what characters made up the Book of Abraham, and it's possible that he didn't know either if the translation were given in the same way that he received the translation for the Book of Mormon, a process that involved looking into the Urim and Thummim or seer stone rather than puzzling over the original text itself.
Anon @ 6:59 writes, "Jeff your last 2 comments are utterly ridiculous and fly right in the face of what most of us who went to BYU or were taught in LDS churches throughout the 70s through 90s. So much backpedaling and obfuscation. It's no wonder things are going so poorly for your church right now."
My last two comments at the time were 1) mentioning that "Mormon as a scribe recognized the economy of reformed Egyptian, but it was not a mystical oracular system but a running language, akin to Hebrew in that, with grammar and sounds, a system that could be taught to one's children, without verbose outpourings of hidden wisdom coming from a single character" and 2) Lucy Mack Smith is describing the well-known effort of Joseph Smith, still overwhelmed with the thought of translating an unknown language, to seek assistance from others. But the copy of some characters he sent to be viewed by the likes of Charles Anthon does not mean he constructed an alphabet and grammar of the reformed Egyptian language as a translation tool. It was done entirely by revelation — and without the need to look at individual characters on the source, as may well be the case for the Book of Abraham."
I suppose you are maintaining that your knowledge of the Book of Mormon translation process came from the old painting of Joseph Smith staring at the gold plates as he translated. Yes, it was influential, and many people just assumed that Joseph stared at the plates and dictated a translation, overlooking what the witnesses observed. Correcting that old errant notion took some time as scholars began poring over the statements of witnesses and realized that looking into the seer stone or initially the Urimm and Thummim was the consistent method of his translation, not the methods we normally think of for translating texts today.
The work of scholars in clarifying how the work was done strikes me as a significant advance, even if it makes some people uncomfortable. The truth of the translation may seem "weird," but if you think about it, it's much a much more logical way to guide someone with no knowledge of ancient language or translation of any kind. Show them the translation somehow. Also if you think about it, it adds to the miracle of the translation process, because Joseph was dictating for hours on end without notes or manuscripts before him, picking up where he left off and moving on. Even when he came to long passages from Isaiah, he continued dictating in this way without opening a Bible to quote from. It's an astounding miracle before our eyes, or the eyes of many witnesses. Not something utterly ridiculous as you assert.
Anon @ 1:15AM (doesn't anybody around here dare to have identities?) wrote:
Jeff’s claim is that, in spite of the evidence to the contrary, Joseph and the translators clearly didn’t think that one character of Egyptian could account for multiple limes of text … The articles he has cited here make no mention of the nature of Champollion’s work (phonetic or pictographic). There also the large problem of there being no mention of him in the LDS community either specifically in regards to Egyptian translation, or in passing. To prove that information from the social milieu has influenced a work, one must demonstrate evidence of that information in the work in addition to the information being culturally present.
Jeff is fighting an uphill battle because he hasn’t shown evidence of Champollion’s influence….
I'm sorry you didn't have time to read my response or related articles. Maybe next time.
The article cited in my paper "A Precious Resource with Some Gaps" as well as various posts here show influential North American publications hammering away at the old mystic notions and pointing out that Egyptian is frequently phonetic. Even before Champollion's success, the Rosetta Stone was leading people to see Egyptian in a different light. As for impact on the LDS community, I have mentioned the reference to Champollion allegedly made by Samuel Mitchill to Martin Harris, mentioned in a widely reproduced letter about the Saints. The Egyptomania of Kirtland or anywhere else in the US makes no sense without awareness of Champollion. Champollion and the Rosetta stone are what fueled that interest, and were household terms. It's hard to find an example among the numerous references to Champollion in the US prior to 1835 that bother to give the man's first name, just as today we don't need to add "Albert" before Einstein or add "Presley" after Elvis.
But even if the Saints had lived in a vacuum and didn't read newspapers, the flood of visitors coming to Kirtland due to the mummies and the scrolls would surely have clued them in to Champollion.
Even the very concept of Joseph Smith making an "alphabet to the Book of Abraham" (i,e., using the translation of the Book of Abraham to possibly learn something about the Egyptian language, as I read that statement) involves the use of a term that may reflect awareness of Champollion's approach and awareness that Egyptian could be understood or investigated via an "alphabet," consistent with Book of Mormon statements about the Nephite's writing system for scripture. An "alphabet" suggests a language that could be compared to Hebrew — exactly as Joseph Smith compared reformed Egyptian to Hebrew as a "running language," not a mystic one with endless possibilities for a single character.
Reformed Egyptian and the Egyptian script on the scrolls may have been more compact that Hebrew, but we see limits on the "comprehensivenes" of the language when a manuscript from Oliver associates two reformed Egyptian characters with "the Book of Mormon" and another two with "interpreter of languages." We see similar constraints when Joseph assigned meaning to some Egyptian symbols or characters on the Facsimiles using just a few words, not 100 or 200 or more per mark. That's prima facie evidence that he did not think that one character could do what Vogel claims it did.
The uphill battle is Vogel's. Repeating the same old assertions dozens of times as some kind of mantra is not lowering the mountain before him by even one inch, as far as I can tell.
David Whitmer said of the Book of Mormon translation that "frequently one character would make two lines of manuscript, while others made a word or two words".
Jeff said "Even the very concept of Joseph Smith making an "alphabet to the Book of Abraham" (i,e., using the translation of the Book of Abraham to possibly learn something about the Egyptian language, as I read that statement) involves the use of a term that may reflect awareness of Champollion's approach and awareness that Egyptian could be understood or investigated via an "alphabet," consistent with Book of Mormon statements about the Nephite's writing system for scripture. An "alphabet" suggests a language that could be compared to Hebrew — exactly as Joseph Smith compared reformed Egyptian to Hebrew as a "running language," not a mystic one with endless possibilities for a single character."
No it does not, it just means that Smith and scribes were familiar with formating of the lexicons of the day by people like Moses Stuart or Josiah Gibbs. Smith Grammar looks very much like he was trying to create his own Egyptian crestomathy.
“when a manuscript from Oliver associates two reformed Egyptian characters with ‘the Book of Mormon’ and another two with ‘interpreter of languages.’”
What about when we have multiple manuscripts, from Oliver and others, which associate characters with paragraphs of script?
“I'm sorry you didn't have time to read my response or related articles. Maybe next time.”
The sad thing is I have read your writing here and elsewhere about this subject and you’re still lacking any concrete connection between Joseph and Champollion. It seems you’re playing apologetics and not academics. The statement “they must have known” doesn’t pass muster. Wishes aren’t acceptable proof. In order to establish a link, you must show how the information is available (which you have done, though somewhat weakly), and also show how it affected the subjects. This may include, but is not limited to, mentions of Champollion, references by Joseph or others to his thoughts on Egyptian, or how the translation process possibly changed or proceeded as a result of the knowledge. It seems the best you have done is a third hand account of a possible mention to an ancillary subject like Harris. This is very far from proof as it still doesn’t show that any information about Champollion got back to Joseph or others (if indeed this mention actually occurred) and does nothing to demonstrate how that knowledge may have affected the work or Joseph’s thinking on the matter.
“he was a hostile source mocking Joseph's effort, not an insider making a dispassionate estimate of the potential length of the translation from the scrolls Joseph had”
West may have had an ulterior motive in mind, but his lack of incendiary language in the account, and the fact that it echoes Oliver Cowdery’s thoughts doesn’t lead me to discount its claims. It would be similar to someone saying “Stupid Evel Knievel says he can jump Snake River Canyon.” The speaker’s derision has no bearing on whether or not Evel Knievel claimed he could do it.
“pointing out that Egyptian is frequently phonetic.”
But none of Joseph’s translations are phonetic, they are all symbolic. His translations of the facsimiles, which you are touting, do not associate sounds, they represent ideas. Even the Cowdery example you provide associates characters to entire words or concepts, not to sounds.
Jeff, I'm sure you won't be surprised when I say I am chagrined at your chagrin at the Vogel's treatment of Champollion.
Did Joseph Smith have an understanding of Champollion's work sufficient to scare him off any bogus claim of translating the papyri? I'd say that the mere possibility of Smith having heard of that work (which is all you really offer us here) doesn't help us answer the question.
Vogel says that Joseph "does not appear to be aware of the significance of François Champollion’s contribution to Egyptology" (my emphasis). This of course is not the same as saying Joseph had never heard of Champollion at all. In terms of your criticism of Vogel, it thus doesn't matter whether Champollion was, as you put it, a "household name" and his work "common knowledge" in the U.S. What matters is Joseph's understanding of the significance of that work. You're subtly misconstruing Vogel's words and creating a straw man to argue against.
To see the importance of the distinction I'm asking you to recognize here, consider a couple of contemporary examples, Albert Einstein and Erwin Schroedinger.
Einstein is of course a household name, so widely recognized that, as you say, his last name alone suffices as a reference. But, while most Americans are familiar with the name, how many understand its significance? For most it probably means little more than "really really smart." Pressed on the matter, many would probably recall "E=mc squared," but of those I doubt very many could explain that this formula revealed the tremendous amount of energy locked up in the atom and thus pointed the way to the development of the atomic bomb. Even fewer would have any meaningful understanding of relativity theory. Some seem to think it just proves that "Everything is relative, man."
Another, perhaps better, contemporary example might be Erwin Schroedinger. His name is not quite as widely known as Einstein's, and most who do know it probably know it only in reference to his famous thought experiment, but I bring it up here because a superficial awareness of quantum physics has not prevented New Age "thinkers" like Deepak Chopra from citing it in support of their nonsense. L. Ron Hubbard knew quite a bit about science, but that didn't stop him from making incredibly unscientific claims. If anything that knowledge inspired creativity and imagination rather than caution. I see no reason whatsoever to think that a superficial knowledge of Champollion would have hindered Joseph's own speculations. If anything, that knowledge might have goaded him on.
Note that my disagreement on this point is not only with you but also with Vogel. Both you and Vogel seem to think that it was only in ignorance of the science that Smith would indulge in the "freedom to imagine whatever he wished." I think the examples of religionists like Chopra and L. Ron Hubbard suggest otherwise.
OK's back at it again slinging common sense in the face of Jeff's wall of words.
And Jeff, you know full well why some of us choose to remain anonymous: several of us are in the laborious and painful process of extricating ourselves from the church you espouse. It's not easy, and the social and familiar ramifications are often awkward. So I'd rather not see my name on your blog. Add to the fact that you have a habit of directly emailing people to confront them in private about comments here (which I myself experienced from you a few years back) and the cloak of anonymity is fine and dandy. If you don't like it, why not change the settings on your blog? You run the place, after all.
Both you and Vogel seem to think that it was only in ignorance of the science that Smith would indulge in the "freedom to imagine whatever he wished." I think the examples of religionists like Chopra and L. Ron Hubbard suggest otherwise.”
I’m wondering what the psychology of the situation was. Joseph basically takes off seven years between the time the papyri are purchased and the time when the first publication of the translations appears in Times and Seasons. He was obviously busy with the building and finishing of the Kirtland temple, but that didn’t keep him so busy that he put aside his study of Hebrew. He also had the terrible bank disaster around this time which led him to eventually flee Kirtland in the dark of night for fear of his life.
I still don’t have a definitive answer as to whether it was his idea to purchase the mummies and papyri in the first place, or if a few community members came together to finance the purchase, then presented Joseph with the documents to be translated. I know that it was neither he nor the church that fronted the money, though I think the community members who made the purchase were later reimbursed.
So seven years later, the translation is completed and presented. I think, to your point OK, Joseph was much more confident in his leadership role in Nauvoo, and as a result, was less afraid of possibly being exposed as a fraud. He’s founded a new city, he’s mayor, leader of the Nauvoo legion, editor of the town newspaper—his standing and power among his people is probably at its peak. He’s so emboldened at this point that he’s taking other men’s wives as his own. He may have heard or been made aware of the advancements in Egyptology, but decided to lean into the situation judging that his people were going to believe him over any available science (he was right about this even generations later—we’re still having this discussion). Though there is no indication that the early saints had knowledge of Champollion, it could be easily argued that such knowledge wouldn’t make one whit of difference to the translation and eventual publication of the papyri.
Excellent points, Anon 1:10.
@ Anon 1:10
"I still don’t have a definitive answer as to whether it was his idea to purchase the mummies and papyri in the first place, or if a few community members came together to finance the purchase, then presented Joseph with the documents to be translated. I know that it was neither he nor the church that fronted the money, though I think the community members who made the purchase were later reimbursed."
According to the recent JSPP volume on the Book of Abraham, the $2400.00 purchase of the artifacts was divided three ways. $800.00 each was paid by Joseph Coe, a "S. Andrews" and "Joseph Smith & Co." Evidently Smith had to collect money from others to get his $800.00. According to Coe "The financial settlement was not resolved by the time Smith left Kirtland in early 1838". Coe was still trying to collect on his contribution in 1844". I do not believe Smith reimbursed anyone for the collection though he and his family retained control over it until Emma sold it to Combs immediately after Lucy Mack's death in 1856. See JSPP Revelations and Translations Vol 4 pg xx.
Thanks for the background info, Unknown 9:31.
In 1835, $800 was the equivalent of something like $25,000 today. I'm not sure, but presumably S. Andrews and Joseph Coe were willing to chip in such large sums because Smith said the papyri contained the words of Abraham "written by his own hand upon papyrus."
I wonder if these two men would have offered up that cash if they'd been told instead what the Egyptologists and the Church alike are telling us today — that the papyri are just ordinary Egyptian funerary documents with no relationship to Abraham at all.
Thanks for the info Unknown.
You provide a lengthy quote from Vogel's book at the beginning of this post and then provide a reference to it of pages (25-26). In my copy of Vogel's book that reference is on pages 6-7.
Thanks for the page number info. In the Kindle edition, chapter 1 begins at p. 21 — I guess the Kindle edition was not prepped to match the printed pages. Maybe I should use the print version for pagination? What do you think most readers will be using?
Jeff, I usually give the page numbers for the print edition, and leave those with Kindle or other electronic version to the mercy of their reader's search function. Not so easy if one doesn't have the print version handy, I know.
I really don't know which format is more popular but I suggest, given your format here, just noting both, or at least listing Kindle with the reference so a reader will know.
Great series of articles, Jeff! You can tell that it really bugs the anti's when their newest lead-in sophistry takes a direct blow. You've done well.
On a follow-up note regarding some of the comments. I've read a lot of Joseph Smith's words and I never, ever get the feeling that he's ever, –no not ever worried about being exposed as a fraud. It just doesn't happen. Whatever the faults of the man, he never, ever worried about that type of embarrassment. In a fascinating manner, the man wasn't short on describing his own faults and this version of events was never one of them. There are only two realistic possibilities why he never worried about "exposure." Whether this self-assurance was because he had a very large ego or whether it was because he knew he hadn't lied are the only two realistic possibilities. Detractors decide he lied. Believers believe that he actually saw a vision, actually communed with God, actually held the gold plates, actually translated them, actually did all of the other things he said he did.
What I find absolutely fascinating, though, is the absolute readiness of biographers (detractors) to unequivocally "state" exactly what was in Joseph Smith's mind. It's uncanny that they can mind-read, but typically, these are statements made by negative biographers which delve so heavily into Joseph's thought processes that their statements border in the realm of prescient forecasting. These detractors typically utilize this uncanny prescient ability in bolstering their arguments and theses regarding what they absolutely "know" had to have been in Joseph Smith's mind during any of the occurrences they wish to bash.
Not surprisingly, Dan Vogel appears to be a master at this, contriving out of thin air his version of what Joseph knew, when he knew it and thereafter what he did with it. His arrogance at doing this borders on megalomania.