Missing Some of the Most Important Questions, Documents, and Evidences: Part 3 of My Review of Dan Vogel’s Book

In Part 1 and Part 2 of my review on Dan Vogel’s newly published Book of Abraham Apologetics (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 2021), I objected to apparent neglect of several issues that are often important for his topic of LDS apologetics on the Book of Abraham. I pointed to the failure to consider information about Joseph’s views on reformed Egyptian and data from the Book of Abraham manuscripts that clash with his theories. But there’s much more that seems to be missing that really should at least be noted if dispassionate consideration of all the relevant documents is the goal, or if the book really is about responding to the defenses that believers have offered for the Book of Abraham. Some issues are minor and  may be peripheral, such as just how long some of the scrolls were, but in my view, too many issues seem to be conveniently overlooked. It’s not just the failure to treat some relevant evidences that’s the problem; there is also a basic failure to recognize the hurdles that his paradigm faces, including missing questions that need to be asked and issues that need to be addressed if the work is meant to be scholarly. 

To be clear, though, there’s much to appreciate in the work Dan has done to put this together and to present his arguments in a comprehensive form. This kind of work can be helpful for defenders of the faith who wish to dig in and understand where past work needs to be revised or fortified and where more investigation is needed. I’d like the book better, though, if he didn’t claim it as an objective, dispassionate work of historical scholarship and instead simply said that he was just presenting the best arguments he could find against the Book of Abraham.

A Missing Hurdle

One of the surprising missing issues involves Joseph Smith’s comments about some of the Egyptian characters on the right side of Facsimile 2, characters that come from the very papyrus fragment that Vogel claims has been absolutely proven to the source of the Book of Abraham “translation.” Tim Barker carefully examined this issue in an important presentation at the 2020 FAIRMormon Conference in “Translating the Book of Abraham: The Answer Under Our Heads.” (The transcript and slides are available there.) I reviewed the implications of Barker’s work in my Jan. 10, 2021 post, “A Gift From an Early “Anti-Mormon” Attack on the Book of Abraham: Clear Evidence About the Source of Joseph’s Translation.” The key point here is that a large gap on the damaged Facsimile 2 was filled in with Egyptian characters in preparation for publication, and those characters were taken from JSP XI, the papyrus fragment that was the source of most of the characters used in the margins of the three Book of Abraham manuscripts, said to be tell-tale evidence that Joseph Smith was using those characters as the source for his bogus “translation.” About half of the characters from the Book of Abraham manuscript margins were used in filling in the gaps on Facsimile 2. Reuben Hedlock did this under the guidance of Joseph Smith, as Barker shows.

The inserted  characters are in three lines on the central right panel, labeled as Figures 13, 14, and 15 in our printing of Facs. 2, and the inserted characters in the rim, labeled as Figure 18, are all treated the same in Joseph’s comments. The explanations for those characters “will be given in the own due time of the Lord.” That declaration is followed by this statement that refers to all the comments made regarding Facs. 2: “The above translation is given as far as we have any right to give at the present time.”

Whatever the scribes of those puzzling Book of Abraham manuscripts with characters in the margins thought they were doing with Egyptian characters added to portions of Joseph’s revealed text, the explanations on Facs. 2 strongly suggest that Joseph had not used characters from JSP XI as the source for the book of Abraham translation. “Joseph clearly indicates that he did not translate JSP XI,” Barker explains.

This is one of the first and most important hurdles to clear for Vogel’s thesis. Will he jump over it, knock it over, or step around it? We won’t know in this book, because he runs his race on a track where that hurdle is nowhere in sight.  

As happens in many heated debates on controversial issues, a single piece of evidence rarely creates a slam dunk argument and can often be attacked in various ways. Here one can wonder if Joseph really authorized the choice of characters (the record does indicate supervision by Joseph in this) and even if so, whether it’s possible that Joseph didn’t recognize which papyrus fragment he had translated (that seems unlikely) or didn’t recognize the characters he supposedly had scrutinized for months back in 1835 (if the characters were presented to him without telling him which papyrus Reuben Hedlock selected as a source, I suppose that could be a problem). So of course, there are arguments one can raise against this piece of evidence that seems to undermine the entire case for the Book of Abraham manuscripts being something other than the smoking gun for how and what Joseph translated. But this is still vital evidence to consider if one wishes the book to be viewed as comprehensive and dispassionate. 

In objecting to missing elements, by the way, I am not saying that Dan deliberately left them out to hoodwink his readers. I believe him to be decent and striving to be scholarly in spite of his zeal against Joseph Smith as a prophet. While surely trying to be objective, I think he is so close to his own point of view that objections to his arguments may often seem irrelevant, trivial, and unworthy of time, just as an astrophysicist discussing his model of the cosmos doesn’t need to respond to the latest data from geological surveys in Kansas offered as support for a flat earth theory. But if you are writing a book on the flaws and lunacy of flat earthers, better not ignore the buzz on the Kansas data. 

[CORRECTION, March 27, 2021: Here I originally had a second hurdle which was mistaken. I had looked at the dates scribes were writing for Joseph Smith in 1835, as listed in John Gee, “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, and concluded that Oliver Cowdery and W.W. Phelps weren’t working as scribes in July 1835 due to the absence of documents from them and the fact that Joseph was writing some things on his own in that month, but I received a note from a kind scholar who pointed out that July was a time when Joseph and both of those scribes were in town and so they could have collaborated. Gee’s article refutes some of the dates given in the JSP volume on the Book of Abraham for various documents, but does not contradict Vogel on the possibility of collaboration then. But collaboration of all three on the GAEL seems unlikely since it has nothing in Joseph’s or Oliver’s handwriting. While July could have been a time of collaboration for the three who produced the Egyptian Alphabet papers, Gee’s article argues that Oct. 1, 1835 was the likely time for that work since Joseph’s journal does recognize the presence of Oliver and W.W. Phelps. The July 17, 1835 journal entry was actually written by Willard Richards in 1843, even though he was not present. It’s been suggested that Phelps may have helped Richards with that entry, but the entry still doesn’t say that scribes were assisting Joseph with that work. It’s possible that Vogel makes too much of a potentially questionable journal entry.]

Failing to Distinguish Established Facts from Assumptions or Opinions

A primary problem is that Vogel tends to treat his opinions on hotly contested issues as established facts. Everything is clear cut, and the complexity of some issues is overlooked. Raising one problem with a pro-Book of Abraham theory is enough to dismiss it. For example, when he observes that some of the entries in the GAEL are not directly connected to the Book of Abraham, he claims victory over the “reverse translation” theory, when nobody that I know of claims that everything in the GAEL is from the Book of Abraham, only that the direction of dependency is from the translation to the GAEL, not the other way around. 

Likewise, his opinion that Joseph is responsible for virtually everything in the documents written by others related to the Book of Abraham is highly controversial, but he treats it as settled from beginning to end. When he observes that W.W. Phelps may have assisted Willard Richards in 1843 in writing a July 1835 journal entry for Joseph Smith’s journal that mentions Joseph working on an “alphabet to the Book of Abraham” and “arrangeing a grammar,” he assumes this refers to the existing Egyptian Alphabets and the bound GAEL (a highly controversial assumption based on scribal availability, as mentioned above–these documents most likely date to the Oct. 1, 1835 event mentioned by Joseph where he cites the presence of the other two scribes). He then takes this as conclusive evidence against Nibley, Gee, and others who claim that Joseph was not the driving force for the GAEL or the Egyptian Alphabet documents we have. “It also means that the Alphabets and Grammar preceded the translation of Abraham and that the reverse-translation theory must be rejected.” That’s a lot of mileage from what may have been Phelps involvement in a short statement in a journal written 8 years after the fact, mileage fueled by multiple assumptions that aren’t carefully explained or evaluated, and ultimately mileage going in the wrong direction.

Objections to the Book of Abraham that he raises are often treated as if no Latter-day Saint has ever responded to them, making it sound like the issue is fully settled and Dan’s view is the only possibility. For example, in attacking the value of recent evidence that Olishem mentioned in the Book of Abraham has been found in archaeological work in a plausible location, Vogel dismisses it by citing a negative comment from Robert Ritner’s book and a short article that Christopher Woods wrote for Ritner’s book. Vogel sees the matter settled by the objections in Ritner’s book, but should be aware of the detailed evidence that neither Ritner nor Woods address that was raised in the relevant sources introducing the possibility of Olishem as a real place and in particular of the BYU Studies article that directly addresses the dismissal of Woods and Ritner. See Stephen Smoot, “‘In the Land of the Chaldeans’: The Search for Abraham’s Homeland Revisited,” BYU Studies Quarterly 56, no. 3 (2017): 6-37 (you may prefer reading the PDF version). Stephen Smoot has written some important and scholarly pieces pertaining to the Book of Abraham and should be among the LDS writers considers in a book dealing with defenders of the Book of Abraham, but his name is entirely missing from Vogel’s book. So are relevant works from several others who have provided important scholarship relevant to the antiquity of the Book of Abraham.

Yours truly, no more than an amateur blogger,  fared a little better. My name was mentioned and my very long article,”A Precious Resource with Some Gaps” (Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 33 [2019]: 13-104) was cited, but the brief discussion focused only on what Vogel saw as incoherent, perhaps justly so, in my discussion of why the twin Book of Abraham manuscripts are likely based on an existing manuscript and not live dictation of new scripture from Joseph. Here’s what I wrote on pp. 63-64 of my article: 

A careful look at the twin texts A and B shows that what was being dictated [I should have said “dictated or copied”] was an already existing text, not one being created. Fortunately, the editors of another volume in the JSP series, Documents: Volume 5, January 1835–October 1838, recognize this: “Textual evidence suggests that these Book of Abraham texts were based on an earlier manuscript that no longer exists.” [Brent M. Rogers, et al., eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents: Volume 5, January 1835–October 1838 (Salt Lake City: The Church Historian’s Press, 2017), 74‒75.] The supporting footnote explains:

Documents dictated directly by JS typically had few paragraph breaks, punctuation marks, or contemporaneous alterations to the text. All the extant copies, including the featured text, have regular paragraphing and punctuation included at the time of transcription as well as several cancellations and insertions.

This point should have been made in JSPRT4, not out of a shameless desire to support apologetics, but to point out something distinctive and obvious about the manuscripts that, incidentally, weakens a common argument from Book of Abraham critics. The apologetic argument need not be explicitly raised, but the evidence pointing to the existence of an earlier manuscript is relevant and important and should not be brushed aside in favor of anyone’s personal theory that these documents show a “window” into the live translation process of Joseph Smith.

I then offered my perhaps questionable proposal that a dictation scenario that could explain the differences in spelling and a large dittography would be having Warren Parrish himself with the document in front of him read small portions aloud for the benefit of his fellow scribe as he also made a copy for himself. Errors in reading and corrections could then be reflected in both documents. 

In response to this point, Vogel writes:

LDS apologist Jeffrey Dean Lindsay criticizes Jensen and Hauglid because they did not mention the evidence of punctuation and paragraphing, but then asserts that it was Parrish, not Smith, who read aloud a pre-existing text as Williams and he recorded, presumably unaware of the contradiction. 

In fact, the argument based on punctuation and paragraphing never made good sense. When critically assessing a document, the presence or absence of punctuation is not a determinant of whether or not it was written from dictation. Instead, the determinant is whether the punctuation is inconsistent and confused, which is exactly what we find in the Williams and Parrish documents. As Edward Ashment noted years ago, “Punctuation in both [the Williams and Parrish documents] is sparse, resulting in numerous run-on sentences.” Commas also appear where there should be none. Parrish especially overused the comma, sometimes dividing the subject from its verb, which he sometimes corrected when he copied his document into the translation book. He also changed some commas into periods. Thus the sparse and inconsistent punctuation in the Williams and Parrish documents is consistent with the evidence for simultaneous dictation. We have already seen that the paragraphing was created to align the English text with the hieratic characters in the margins. There are only two paragraph breaks in the Parrish document that are not preceded by characters. The first was removed when Parrish copied the text into the translation book; and the second occurs in the middle of a sentence. Such ambiguous evidence cannot be used to support Hauglid’s earlier assertion that Parrish’s document is developed “well beyond the dictation phase,” and therefore defenders would do well to abandon this argument because it provides no evidence that the Williams and Parrish documents were copied from a pre-existing document.

So my 90-page or so article covering numerous issues is gently reduced to its essence: me being unaware of an obvious contradiction and offering an argument that “never made good sense.” I was hoping for a little more engagement, but I suppose I should be grateful to have been cited at all when many much more important defenders of the Book of Abraham have not been cited at all.

My apologies, though, for still not being aware of my contradiction. My point was that the nature of the twin Book of Abraham manuscripts reflects use of an existing manuscript. It is in misreading or miscopying from a manuscript that one can easily make a variety of visual mistakes that are not typical of how an author dictates an account. An existing text may also have punctuation (original or added) that can influence the copy, and even if not, the act of reading it or copying it can provide an opportunity to decide where new punctuation may be needed. Vogel asserts that “the presence or absence of punctuation is not a determinant of whether or not it was written from dictation,” but provides no scholarship to support that view in contradicting the assessment of Brent Rogers and the other editors of The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents: Volume 5 about Joseph Smith’s writings.

Again, those scholars noted three issues (not just two) that would be unusual for live dictation of revelation from Joseph: paragraphs, extensive punctuation, and contemporaneous alterations (which, of course, are most easily identified with inline corrections rather than above line insertions). The paragraph issue may be ambiguous, but the multiple in-line corrections (and other possibly contemporaneous corrections) and the existence of much punctuation just don’t look like Joseph’s dictation of scripture in my opinion and apparently in the view of Brent Rogers et al. The low amount of punctuation and contemporaneous corrections are not only the case for the scribes of the Book of Mormon, but we can also see it in Frederick G. Williams scribal work as Joseph dictated revelation related to the Doctrine and Covenants.  Here is a screen shot from Revelation Book 2, p. 117, in the handwriting of Frederick G. Williams, except for Oliver’s words at the top (click to enlarge):  

Some of the insertions and occasional punctuation may have been added later. When it is in a different medium that the text (e.g., a graphite pencil), it is likely added later. I believe the transcript seeks to show the text as prepared originally by the scribe, not showing clearly later additions. In the transcript, there is essentially no punctuation nor can I find any corrections that would represent Joseph changing his mind or misspeaking. There are some that look like Williams missed a word or started repeating a word he had just written, catching himself right away.  We have similar results in the transcripts for the following pages from Williams, including p. 118, p. 119, and p. 120, where those closing lines have punctuation added to prepare for publication, but apparently no punctuation written by Williams acting as scribe. So I would suggest that Vogel hasn’t done enough homework to support his contention that punctuation tells us nothing. And in any case, he’s completely overlooked what I feel is an especially telling indicator: contemporaneous correction. There’s a lot it in the twin Book of Abraham manuscripts, along with a lot of punctuation, erratic as it may be, giving these documents a different nature than the confident dictation of Joseph Smith in revelatory mode.

Unwarranted assumptions continue as Vogel assumes that Joseph is responsible for the entire set of papers related to the Book of Abraham, including the Egyptian-related material in what is often called the Kirtland Egyptian Papers. He offers several arguments, to be sure, but so much of the book has the feel of repeating assertions that are obvious to Vogel but debatable. I don’t recall encountering cautious statements like, “If Joseph actually were the author of the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language, as I propose, then….” But in spite of not having added a single word to it in his own handwriting, in spite of the many logical and logistic gaps in the way of any theory claiming Joseph used that in translating the Book of Abraham, it is repeated from beginning to end as if Vogel were simply citing an objective, established fact when it is a disputed position with contrary evidence that he fails to overcome and largely fails to even consider.

We have similar steps taken with Vogel’s chronology of events, in which he seems to be unaware or certainly leaves the reader unaware of just how many major assumptions he makes in concluding what happened when. A foundation for his thesis is Joseph’s  journal entry of July 17, 1835, shortly after Joseph acquired the scrolls and had begun at least a little of the translation:

July 1835 <​Translating the Book of Abraham &c.​> The remainder of this month, I was continually engaged in translating an alphabet to the Book of Abraham, and and arrangeing a grammar of the Egyptian language as practiced by the ancients. [emphasis added]

Vogel asserts that this passage refers to the three “Egyptian Alphabet” documents written by Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and W.W. Phelps, “as well as a bound ‘Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language” (GAEL), the greater portion of which is in the handwriting of Phelps” (52). The Egyptian Alphabet documents look like the initial, exploratory work one might expect from this entry and show Joseph’s involvement. That bound GAEL draws upon that work, but is arguably a later derivative work done almost entirely by Phelps. Joseph’s contributions to a grammar, if that were a document separate from the Alphabet, are unclear. 

Vogel asserts that this journal entry “is the best source for both the time and authorship of the Alphabets and bound Grammar” (53) and chastises Gee for not accepting that as the initial date of creation for those documents. The problem, though, is that the July 1835 journal entry only suggests that Joseph was working on that task. There is no hint that he was aided by his scribes. In fact, analysis of the historical data about when the scribes were present and assisting Joseph in taking dictation or writing documents shows that neither W.W. Phelps nor Oliver were acting as scribes for Joseph in July 1835, as John Gee shows in “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), though I wish he had more directly dealt with that journal entry more frequently in his works. It’s not until October 1, 1835 that we see the likely date of the creation of the Alphabets when Joseph mentioned that he, Oliver, and W.W. Phelps were working together on the Egyptian Alphabet. That’s the obvious date to consider for the creation of the three surviving Egyptian Alphabets. The Grammar and Alphabet, a more formal bound document that draws upon it, would surely come later still. 

So what did Joseph mean in his July 1835 journal entry? Note that he did not say he was working on an alphabet “for” translating the Book of Abraham, but one that was “TO” the Book of Abraham, as if it would be a companion, index, or guide based on already existing text. Of course, that’s the only plausible way to understand the role of an “alphabet” or “grammar”: they are tools developed once a language has at least begun to be deciphered or translated. Translation, whether from a Rosetta Stone or divine inspiration, needs to be available before one can then attempt to figure out how the language works and create an “alphabet” or dictionary. (See my Nov. 3, 2019 post, “An Alphabet TO the Book of Abraham: What Did Joseph Mean?.”) Vogel has it the other way around: contrary to every other translation and revelation experience Joseph had had, for the Book of Abraham he now decided he would need to first create an impossibly illogical alphabet and grammar out of thin air in order to pursue the translation of the Book of Abraham. 

Strangely, under Vogel’s theory, Joseph would focus on characters from one papyrus fragment (JSP I) and add a lot of characters that aren’t even Egyptian to create the Alphabets and then the GAEL, only to turn to a different papyrus fragment (JSP XI) with different characters to create the Book of Abraham, for which only 3 characters are treated in the GAEL. If those documents really were about preparing to translate the Book of Abraham, switching to a different set of characters at the last minute seems simply inexplicable, and Vogel does not attempt to explain it. A sound theory, though, should have more explanatory power than that. It’s a theory based on the preconceived notion that the Book of Abraham manuscripts represent a window into live translation of the Book of Abraham, but the theory fails in many ways.

It would seem that Joseph was intellectually toying with the fruits of revelation, working with some already translated material to see if it were possible to gain insight into Egyptian or perhaps something else. Both he and W.W. Phelps had an interest in the concept the ancient “pure language” that Adam spoke, and since we see some non-Egyptian characters that Phelps had written in a May 1835 letter to his wife, before the scrolls ever came to Kirtland, in the GAEL and the Egyptian Alphabets, perhaps an intellectual investigation into ancient language was inspired by the ancient scrolls that Joseph now had access to. Phelps may have played a very significant role in the development of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, but this is downplayed by Vogel. 

Did the Scribes Play Any Significant Role At All?

The idea that scribes such as W.W. Phelps may have been pursuing their own pet projects or doing work on their own is dismissed. Vogel sees Joseph Smith as the architect of virtually everything in the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, served by a group of scribes who were merely meek, lowly, humble servants without ambition or pride. He chastises Nibley for thinking that the scribes were behind the GAEL or other key documents. Nibley’s assertion is utterly without evidence, we are told. Vogel would apparently scoff at more detailed formulations of Nibley’s assertion, such as the idea that scribes would want to translated or attempt translation on their own, or that they would want to produce scripture themselves or even use a seer stone themselves to receive revelation. In Vogel’s world, these would seem to be ridiculous notions. Shame on Nibley for his desperate apologetic invention of fiction to save Joseph!

The historical record may present several relevant documents that those embracing Vogel’s paradigms might be tempted to ignore, as he seems to have done (undoubtedly out of unawareness or viewing the contrary arguments to be unworthy of his time–I believe he is seeking to be responsible and fair in his work). These documents include:

Record #1: Sections 9 of the Doctrine and Covenants, where we learn of Oliver Cowdery’s desire to translate from the gold plates like Joseph.

Record #2: Section 28 of the Doctrine and Covenants, where we learn of Hiram Page’s sinful efforts to receive revelation from a seer stone. Oliver Cowdery is reminded here to to be influenced by such temptations but to recognize that only one is authorized to receive revelation for the Church. He is also told to talk to Hiram privately and let him know that his pretended revelations received through a stone were not of God. 

Record #3: Section 67 of the Doctrine Covenants, vv. 5-8, in which the Lord notes that some of Joseph’s peers have been critical of the language Joseph has used in his revelations, and apparently feel they can do better. They are thus challenged to pick someone to go ahead and try their hand at writing a divine revelation and see if they can outdo the Prophet. William McClellin takes up the challenge, and fails. This revelation from the Kirtland era in 1831 shows that human nature with all its pride and jealousy was at play, as is often the case, even among people trying to do good. To have peers and associates critical of Joseph or thinking they could do better is nothing new and certainly fits the scenario Nibley sees in the Kirtland Egyptian Papers. 

Vogel simply says that Nibley concocted the whole idea of scribes trying to show off or outdo Joseph and claims there is no evidence, overlooking these arguably relevant documents showing that possibility. The fact that Oliver Cowdery and Warren Parrish would both reject Joseph later in Kirtland is also relevant. They were able to challenge Joseph later. There’s no reason to dismiss human pride and assume they would not wish to try their own hand at translation or revelation. Nibley’s scenario is quite plausible.

An Impressive Book, But Is It Scholarship?

Dan assures us that he is dispassionately examining all relevant documents and approaching them with scholarly objectivity. Such a scholarly approach should be welcome, even if we disagree with the conclusions an author makes regarding the arguments raised in past scholarship. A characteristic of scholarship, of course, is that opposing views and conflicting evidence are recognized and considered, though we may disagree with the analysis. So how does Dan Vogel do in this regard? Evaluating how he deals with key arguments from opponents and key evidence used by Book of Abraham defenders is the first thing to check in evaluating the quality of the scholarship. I recognize he’s not going to agree with what LDS defenders have been saying, but how he interacts with those arguments and the associated evidence and documents is the first test for this work. Are our arguments treated superficially or with awareness, fairness, and insight? Actually, the first question is this: Are they considered at all?

Strangely, Vogel seems to simply ignore much of what LDS apologists have identified as among the most relevant documents and most important arguments for understanding the meaning of the papers related to the Book of Abraham. (Again, I suggest these gaps are unintentional and probably driven by limitations in time and space but more importantly, limitations in perspective due to being too close to his own paradigm, making counter-evidence seem irrelevant.) These omissions include:

  • The added text on Facsimile 2 in which characters from JSP XI were used to fill in missing text from the original, as mentioned above, which shows us that Joseph said he had not translated these characters. Tim Barker’s 2020 presentation on this issue  presentation was noteworthy and surely noticed by the critics but has been ignored in Vogel’s book.
  • The Egyptian Counting Document, one of the earliest documents in the KEP that were relied on in the GAEL. This document gives us important clues about what was and was not being “translated” and clues related to the purpose of the project. Although the importance of this document was raised in at least one of the sources Vogel cites, he’s silent on this issue.
  • The two manuscripts in which reformed Egyptian characters apparently from the Book of Mormon are translated, showing a very logical relationship in which two characters represent very short phrases. 
  • The abundant use of “translated” material in the GAEL that is taken from documents not closely related to the Book of Abraham, including many already existing revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants that are obviously alluded to or cited in portions of the GAEL. While several LDS writers have mentioned this, the greatest buzz came about 10 years ago in a presentation by William Schryver, in the course of arguing that the GAEL may have been intended to be a reverse cipher for encoding revelations to hide information from enemies of the Church. The theory has some gaps, as do all theories trying to explain what the GAEL was intended to do, but Schryver’s theory should also have been cited as one of the several possibilities Latter-day Saints have raised regarding the strange GAEL. But whether Schryver’s theory is mentioned or not, Vogel should at a minimum have engaged with the data Schryver and others (myself included) have presented about the influence of material from unexpected sources on the GAEL.
  • The use of non-Egyptian materials in the Alphabets and the GAEL, including characters from other languages in the Egyptian Counting Document.
  • The evidence from several documents that Joseph had provided at least some of the astronomical material related to the Book of Abraham during 1835
  • The abundant use of non-Egyptian materials in the Alphabets and the GAEL, including characters from other languages in the Egyptian Counting Document. 
  • Relationships between Hebrew study materials and the GAEL, such as the use of a Hebrew coin letter and its associated meaning that are both found in the KEP, along with some other indications of at least basic awareness of some Hebrew letters and words. This includes possible influence of statements on Hebrew grammar from one of the books that the Saints had for their Hebrew study.

I must give Vogel credit for occasionally tackling important arguments and evidences. One of these is the evidence from the Egyptian Alphabets, where Joseph’s manuscript shows signs that he’s not the ring leader behind the basic approach of having columns for characters, sounds, and translations. Joseph simply ignored the columns  for sounds and wrote over them. Further, the insertions at the beginning show us right away that he was not leading the effort, but probably copying or drawing upon another document. The documentary evidence points to Phelps as the mastermind behind the projects. Vogel mentions part of this evidence but dismisses it too hastily.

Vogel does have a chapter that explores some of the evidences Book of Abraham defenders have used to suggest the book has ancient origins. Here he shows relatively more engagement with LDS apologists, though almost exclusively John Gee and Kerry Muhlestein. For example, he argues that some of the evidences for antiquity in the Book of Abraham could have been known to Joseph Smith since they could be found in various books in Joseph’s day. It’s a fair argument. He also delves into the proposal that Abraham was using an ancient geocentric astronomical model, not one from Joseph’s environment, to explain some spiritual principles to the Pharaoh in a way that he could understand. Here Vogel makes a valuable observation that a detailed geocentric model may not have been developed in the Old World in Abraham’s day (though it would certainly have been available for redactors, Jewish or otherwise, in the era when the papyri were drafted), thus raising a fair question about whether such content would have been written by Abraham himself. He also argues that some aspects of Abraham 3 actually reflect knowledge from Joseph’s day. I would simply say that the physical model in the Book of Abraham is not completely clear and the use of “revolutions” and “set times” and higher or lower orders in the Book of Abraham need not be assumed to describe a full-fledged classical geocentric model, but could also relate to other primitive models as well that at least recognized the motion of many heavenly bodies.  

Much more interesting than the details of any physical model Abraham or a redactor had in mind is the purpose of treating astronomy in the first place, and here we come to what I consider to be the most important evidentiary finding in Gee’s analysis of the issue. By noting the Egyptian word play inherent in Abraham’s discussion in Abraham 3, where the word for “stars” can also mean “spirits,” Abraham’s teaching that the planetary bodies have an order with a grand body, Kolob, being above them all, Abraham is paving the way to teach Pharaoh from the principles of astronomy that the same order applies to spirits, and the Lord is above them all — meaning that Pharaoh is not the grandest, but God is. It’s a teaching that Abraham could not blurt out directly without inviting capital punishment, but indirectly, in describing astronomy and then making the connection to the nature of souls as well, Pharaoh could be taught an important truth about God somewhat obliquely. What once seemed like a disjointed, illogical development in Abraham 3, suddenly jumping from astronomy to the nature of premortal souls, in light of a linguistic insight that could only come from an Egyptologist, we can now see that Abraham 3 is surprisingly reasonable in a way that Joseph could not have knowingly fabricated. On this issue, however, Vogel is silent. There’s no awareness of this important aspect of Gee’s argument on astronomy in the Book of Abraham.

While Vogel takes on some of the evidence used to support the Book of Abraham, his scope is surprisingly narrow and far too much is overlooked. The Pearl of Great Price Central has been offering a series of posts and videos on evidence pertaining to the Book of Abraham and the Book of Moses. These don’t seem to have come into Vogel’s cross-hairs. And while Vogel seems to be focused on what Gee and Muhlenstein have to say, that focus is quite selective. One can get a feel for how little of the work of LDS apologists has been considered by comparing Vogel’s book to an August 2020 review of recent developments related to the Book of Abraham in “Scholarly Support for the Book of Abraham” published by the Interpreter Foundation, which summarizes some of the works that provide support for historicity of the text as well information on how to approach the facsimiles and the translation process:

John Gee and Stephen D. Ricks have outlined what is, to date, the most comprehensive methodological approach to evaluating the historicity of the Book of Abraham:

Their methodology has proven especially fruitful and has led to the publication of numerous pieces of scholarship touching on the historicity of the text. Some of these more noteworthy pieces include:

This body of scholarship has, in turn, been summarized and distilled in Insights #1–26 of Pearl of Great Price Central’s Book of Abraham series:

A few of the references are treated by Vogel. Gee’s article on Olishem is treated and dismissed (prematurely, in my opinion, completely overlooking Stephen Smoot’s detailed treatment of the critique that Vogel cites from Ritner’s book), Gee’s paper on geocentric astronomy is also critiqued, and Muhlestein’s work on human sacrifice in Egypt is mentioned and attacked near the end of the book (not when the idea of human sacrifice is disparaged much earlier). But the highly relevant and salient works of Kevin Barney, Quinten Barney, and Stephen Smoot are never mentioned. Gee’s articles on Idrimi and the “four idolatrous gods” are also not treated. Granted, not every publication can be considered, but some of the most prominent evidences for Book of Abraham authenticity include its treatment of the crocodile god, Soebek, the names and comments on the four sons of Horus (and the bulls-eye of associating them with “the four quarters of the earth” in Facs. 2, among others).

On the facsimiles, the post recommends these useful resources:

He also discussed the controversies around the explanations given for the facsimiles with this statement and further recommended resources: 

As explained in a Pearl of Great Price Central Insight (“Approaching the Facsimiles,” Insight #27), these different theories are “each compelling to varying degrees since they can account for the instances where Joseph Smith’s interpretations of the facsimiles align with other Egyptologists, but no single one of them can account for his interpretations in their entirety from an Egyptological perspective.” Still, this has not stopped Latter-day Saint scholars from insisting that there are demonstrable instances where Joseph’s interpretations of the facsimiles find plausible confirmation from attested ancient Egyptian and Semitic concepts. These instances have been discussed in Insights #27–36 on Pearl of Great Price Central:

Another test for scholarship is the ability to learn from other fields and recognize that some relevant disciplines might be outside one’s expertise. Vogel, to my surprise, simply declares that a knowledge of Egyptian is irrelevant, dismissing the primary qualifications of his major opponents, John Gee and Kerry Muhlestein. We don’t need any Egyptology, just his dispassionate review of the relevant documents. Through his refusal to recognize that a knowledge of Egyptian might somehow be helpful in dealing with Egyptian documents, he is unable to even recognize the importance of some other “relevant documents” and relevant arguments from LDS defenders, such as the Egyptological meaning of Shinehah — meaning the sun, as indicated in the Book of Abraham, and in ancient Egypt, but essentially only during a period of time that just happens to overlap with the era of Abraham. A coincidence, perhaps, but to ignore this lucky coincidence rather than at least recognize it as a potential argument in favor of the opposing side, helps us more clearly determine if Vogel’s goal is dispassionate scholarship or polemics.

Too many of the most important arguments and documents are simply ignored by Vogel. What he chooses to deal with is often done thoroughly, giving the appearance of detailed scholarship, as in taking pages to review the activities of Anson Call in a puzzling effort to suggest that his memory regarding the 2+ hours it took to read aloud the Book of Abraham translation in 1838 may not be reliable (he at least was wrong about Oliver Cowdery being the one who had read it). While he scores a variety of interesting points and has some good arguments on some issues, it is simply not scholarship when important evidence and arguments against your preconceived viewpoint are not addressed, especially when your stated purpose is to review and address the arguments of apologists. To not even mention some of the most important issues is really surprising. This is cherry-picked polemics, perhaps pedantic polemics, but it’s not adequate scholarship and certainly not the dispassionate scholarship that Vogel claims for himself.

Vogel thus leaves unanswered important questions that have long been raised by defenders of Joseph Smith, such as why we should think the GAEL was used by Joseph to any degree to produce the Book of Abraham or to translate Egyptian:

(1) when so much of it is not Egyptian,

(2) when the Egyptian characters allegedly translated from JSP XI are generally not even considered therein, 

(3) when the English “translations” in the GAEL show a slight relationship with (arguably a dependency from) a few verses in the Book of Abraham but come nowhere close to being useful for translating the text, 

(4) when the characters allegedly used to create the translation are explicitly said by Joseph on Facsimile 2 to not have been translated, 

(5) when the GAEL shows no involvement of Joseph Smith, being entirely in the handwriting of W.W. Phelps apart from a few lines from Warren Parrish, 

(6) when Joseph’s other efforts at translation show no relationship at all with the model Vogel thinks Joseph used,

(7) when Joseph showed that he could translate some of the papyrus by revelation essentially as soon as he received the scrolls and could see that there was information related to Abraham (so why would painstaking efforts to create an alphabet first and then a grammar be needed to continue with a revealed translation?), and

8) when significant material in the GAEL is drawn from other existing materials such as the Doctrine and Covenants? Vogel uses this to dismiss the reverse translation theory, but the complex nature of the GAEL may defy any simple theory for whatever Phelps was doing, whether it was reverse translation, coming up with clues to the ‘pure language,” or something related to Schryver’s reverse cipher theory (not mentioned at all by Vogel). But the important issue is that drawing upon material from the Doctrine and Covenants raises valid questions about translation of Egyptian being the goal, especially in light of the non-Egyptian material in the characters. 

Many questions also remain on other basic topics that should also be raised in such a book:

1) Does the historical record about where Joseph and the scribes were on various dates fit the paradigms offered?

2) In any of the revelatory/translation scenarios Joseph had, did he do anything that corresponds with Vogel’s model, i.e., first creating an alphabet with a small group of characters, then developing a grammar, and then working out the translation of characters that generally were not in the alphabet or the grammar?

3) Is there any reason anybody would pursue a translation the way Joseph did? Isn’t the idea of creating an alphabet before anything is known of a language and then using that to create a grammar and then a translation simply insane and uncharacteristic of how Joseph worked? (It’s especially bizarre when you realize that the characters allegedly used for the translation are almost entirely absent in the GAEL.) Can this really be explained as just trying to impress his peers and brainstorm to come up with a story line?

4) Does Vogel’s model comport with the most basic statement Joseph made about his work with the alphabet, namely, that it was an alphabet “TO” the Book of Abraham, as if it were a guide or index related to existing translated material from the Book of Abraham, not an impossible translation key “FOR” translating the Book of Abraham? This quote is virtually a foundation for Vogel’s approach, yet he fails to consider published arguments about why Joseph said “TO” rather than “FOR.”

5) Given that there actually was a sizeable collection of materials that were sold after Joseph’s death and apparently were destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire, how can we be sure that nothing related to the Book of Abraham could have been in that collection? Can we really be confident that materials we don’t have could have only been ordinary funerary materials? 

6) If JSP XI was selected as the source of the Book of Abraham because it was close to Facsimile 1, why was there no interest in the columns of characters that actually are directly adjacent to that figure? If one character can equal a hundred or more words, there could be another short book between that figure and JSP XI.

Issues on the size of the Book of Abraham also are related. Vogel considers and quickly dismisses a commonly cited evidence for a larger translated text of the Book of Abraham than we currently have, the account from Anson Call of an evening in July 1838 in which it took over 2 hours to read aloud the translated manuscript (Anson Call, Manuscript, entitled “Copied from the Journal of Anson Call,” February 1879, MS 4783, Church History Library). Since our published Book of Abraham can be read in about half an hour, it would seem that much more had been translated by 1838 but not published. This is an important point that would be consistent with pro-Joseph views on the method of translation, the existence of Abraham 3 and more before the Nauvoo era, the relationship of the translation to the GAEL, etc. But the argument has a flaw that Vogel focuses on: Anson mentions that Oliver Cowdery was present at the gathering in July 1838, but he was excommunicated in April 1838 and thus would not have been present. 

Vogel uses that problem to dispose of the 2-hour reading session altogether. But in analyzing evidence, an error in a detail does not usually require dismissing the substance of a recollection. In Appendix 1 of Brian M. Hauglid, A Textual History of the Book of Abraham: Manuscripts and Editions (Provo, UT: Maxwell Institute Publications, 2010), p. 218, Hauglid observes that “Call may be mistaken in remembering Cowdery’s name since he arrived in Missouri after Cowdery’s excommunication. The point here is the length of time it took to read through the Book of Abraham.” That seems reasonable.

Many fair points are made in this journey, but the omission of so many aspects of the defense of the Book of Abraham overcomes too many hurdles for Vogel’s hypothesis by only running on the hurdle-free parts of the track. This work does provide a valuable service by pointing to genuine gaps in some of the responses of defenders and by highlighting areas for more scholarship, but it would be unfair to believe that Vogel’s polemical objective has been achieved and the irrationality of the Book of Abraham exposed. Maybe that will be done in the sequel, but for now, I believe that Joseph’s abilities to reveal ancient text by the power of God did not evaporate when the scrolls were put before him. 

However the revelation was done, I think the most reasonable approach is to see the GAEL and related documents to be the intellectual derivatives of some early Saints seeking to understand more on their own based on clues from a revealed text. Whatever project was underway, it was aborted quickly, leaving us virtually no explanation about what the Kirtland Egyptian Papers were all about. The confusion of mortals puzzling things out on their own should not trump the power of revelation and the ancient text we have been given.


Author: Jeff Lindsay

13 thoughts on “Missing Some of the Most Important Questions, Documents, and Evidences: Part 3 of My Review of Dan Vogel’s Book

  1. Boy, that was a tough one to weed through.

    Let me see, so there are some manuscripts where single characters from the BoA papyri are assigned to the English translation. It sounds like ALL agree that IF the manuscripts represents a translation, then Joseph Smith mistranslated.

    Pretty strong stuff for a conviction of Smith. It does not look good for the opposing counsel on defence. Their answer: Yes, it looks bad, but it is not what it looks like.

    Whatever ….

  2. That was a tough read. Will have to break it up in sections and read it again, and get up to speed on some of the subject matter.

    Meanwhile, Russell Nelson has desecrated the Salt Lake City temple by having murals removed for good. Nelson is doing the same to the Manti temple. What a travesty!

    Nelson does things as a personal agenda, and to please the world. For decades the church president has never done anything true prophets are to do.

    For too long and up to this day the SLC leaders cater to the world, hob nob with celebrities, politicians and the wealthy. What Pharisees!

    Spiritual thoughts and spiritual feelings pass for prophecy these days along with caving to political mobs…..what a sad joke and state of affairs the church is in.

  3. If the murals were actually the sacred part of the temple, then perhaps you might be onto something. They are not. The murals are being removed in order to facilitate better performance of the actual purpose of the temples, the ordinances. It's fine to mourn the loss of the murals, but those who accuse the Church of prophetic miscarriage in removing them are demonstrating that they worship the form of the Church rather than the God who animates it. If it were me I'd just be a Catholic by now, their church aesthetics are much better than ours.

    I'm fine with losing the murals if that's what it takes. Hezekiah destroyed the sacred brass serpent in order to reorient his people towards Jehovah. Perhaps similar action is required now. What was that about the prophets not doing what prophets do?

    Besides, one might argue that the artistic heritage of our tradition is the only thing about it that might recommend it to the secular elites of this world whom the leadership supposedly hobnobs with. Please get real.

  4. "Let me see, so there are some manuscripts where single characters from the BoA papyri are assigned to the English translation. It sounds like ALL agree that IF the manuscripts represents a translation, then Joseph Smith mistranslated.

    Pretty strong stuff for a conviction of Smith. It does not look good for the opposing counsel on defence. Their answer: Yes, it looks bad, but it is not what it looks like.

    Whatever …."

    This form of argument is an example of a logical fallacy called "affirming the consequent". In basic form affirming the consequent goes "If A then B. B. Therefore, A." However, it ignores the fact that B could come about by other means, which makes the argument invalid.

    A: Joseph Smith mistranslated.
    B: There would be/are characters which appear to be mistranslated.

    Fill in the blanks.

    With the failure of the deductive argument, Vogel and company must demonstrate that there are not reasonable alternative narratives. The whole point of Lindsay's post is that there are a) reasons to doubt that the manuscripts even depict a direct process of translation, and b) additional data which undermine Vogel's narrative. Vogel's narrative (which you appear to endorse) make sense on a superficial level but run into difficulties when you get into the weeds. That, I believe, is the essence of what Lindsay is trying to say.

  5. "It sounds like ALL agree that IF the manuscripts represents a translation, then Joseph Smith mistranslated." Yes, most people on both sides would agree. Both sides generally agree that the Book of Abraham is not contained on the papyrus fragment JSP XI. One side wants to say that Joseph mistakenly thought the characters on JSP XI did contain the Book of Abraham and used those to dictate his translation, but there are significant problems with that theory, including the fact that characters from JSP XI were added onto Facs. 2 with comments indicating that they had not yet been translated. That's an important issue which actually makes the whole premise of the attack on the Book of Abraham look misguided. Now there may be good arguments to rebut that like, "Yes it looks bad, but it may not mean what you think…." But the whole issue was not addressed in this book. Maybe just a slip, maybe lack of time, maybe it seemed to silly to even consider, but failure to treat this issue and clear that hurdle also makes the attack look bad, IMHO.

  6. Sorry, dear readers, this was a tough one to slog through. Definitely needs rewriting. Probably more mistakes on my part I need to correct as well — appreciate your input, one way or the other.

  7. Funny Hoosier, you completely confused your As and Bs. Jeff's 5:39 demonstrates he correctly understood the what was being stated, interestingly that you could not.

  8. @Anonymous @ 8:34

    Sorry, when one is dividing an argument into atomic sentences then it doesn't matter which one is stated first, it only matters how they are connected and the direction of dependence.

  9. Funny Hoosier, you completely confused your As and Bs. Jeff's 5:39 demonstrates he correctly understood the what was being stated, interesting that you could not. Then you invent things that were never stated to make your self feel better about it. Why do you think Jeff understood and did not play dumb the way you are?

  10. "Vogel and company must demonstrate that there are not reasonable alternative narratives. "

    Wrong. Reasonable people say those claiming there are reasonable narratives are the ones who need to demonstrate such, not Vogel. So far no reasonable narratives have been presented, so there is nothing for Vogel address. The hope of the unreasonable is that if they make enough noise, Vogel will have to address them, and by addressing them the can then falsely claim their narratives are reasonable because he addressed them, when in reality they are just making noise. It is pure rhetorical sleight of hand.

  11. Great work Jeff. Busy, so trying to catch up by binge reading…but much wonderful information to enjoy, and links to look forward to.

    It's quite clear that JSPP 1-3 do not represent original translation. I believe Dan is aware that you and others have supplied the more reasonable evidences and theories.

    Look forward to more. : )

  12. The list of "unanswered important questions" at the conclusion of this article leaves a concise and timely categorization of issues which Vogel has either purposely or carelessly failed to address.

    Jeff has done a really nice job in lining up and explaining all the necessary details, and then this final list really nicely sets everything in place. It's awful hard to ignore his concerns when they're so succinctly proffered as a list such as what he presents.

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