One of the best things about finally having a reply from the Joseph Smith Papers Project on the issue of alleged flaws in scholarship in their volume on the Book of Abraham is that it has led to some interesting discussion in the comments over at Interpreter (both from the JSP Team’s response to my critique and especially from my rejoinder). Some of the most valuable comments there and here have been ones challenging my views, which have required me to reconsider and reexamine a number of things. Other helpful comments have also crystallized the reasons why some further steps may be needed to prevent serious misunderstandings regarding the Book of Abraham arising from some of the problems that John Gee and I have sought to explain concerning The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations, Volume 4: Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts, eds. Robin Scott Jensen and Brian M. Hauglid (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2018), hereafter “JSPRT4.” Here are some of these recently issues:
1. The Twin Manuscripts: Can Anything Be Said About the “Sign of the Fifth Degree of the Second Part?”
In previous work such as an article at Meridian Magazine, I pointed to what I considered to be a header for both of the twin manuscripts, the two Book of Abraham manuscripts that have characters (some Egyptian, some fabricated) in the margins. The twin manuscripts are available at the Joseph Smith Papers website as Manuscript A by Frederick G. Williams and Manuscript B by Warren Parrish, both of which likely followed the initial creation of related Manuscript C by W.W. Phelps. I suggested that the phrase “fifth degree of the Second part” at the top of both manuscripts indicates that these manuscripts were intended to be used to associate characters with words and phrases from the English text to create more entries for W.W. Phelps’ unfinished project, the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language, a document that is in his handwriting except for a few passages from Warren Parrish who appears to have tried to continue Phelps’ work for a few late entries such as the final entry in the various sections for the word Kolob.
Phelps had begun an “Egyptian Alphabet” document using Abraham 1:1-3, where he had 3 characters in the margins. The first two had footnotes linking the character to specific words of phrases, namely, “The land of the Chaldeans” and the name “Abraham.” Then later comes a third character also associated with Abraham in the GAEL but with no footnote linking it to anything specific in the long text to the right. Phelps’ writing stops there, with our current verse 3. That manuscript was later taken over by Warren Parrish, who apparently copied text and characters from the twin manuscripts onto Phelps’ Manuscript C, along with additional material that we don’t have in the twin manuscripts, which seem to stop as if some of the latter pages are missing. Here’s a view of the top part of Phelps’ Manuscript C (click to enlarge for most images here) and the top portions of the twin manuscripts:
|Top portion of W.W. Phelps’ Book of Abraham Manuscript C.|
|Top portion of Warren Parrish’s Book of Abraham Manuscript B.|
|Top portion of F.G. Williams’ Book of Abraham Manuscript A.|
In my previous discussions of the twin manuscripts, I emphasized the phrase “fifth degree of the Second part” at the top of both of the twin manuscripts, failing to also discuss the word “sign” that precedes it and the small, simple, mysterious “Egyptian” character to its left, a character that does not appear to be on the papyri. It was tempting to call this phrase a title, but I now think it may be more accurate to consider it as a header or pointer or even merely a note indicating the intended destination in the GAEL, for it is quite different in style and content than the real title that Phelps had already written above Abraham 1:1-3: “Translation of the Book of Abraham written by his own hand upon papyrus and foundin the CataCombs of Egypt.” That’s a genuine title.
The header of the twin manuscripts doesn’t even begin with a capital “s.” If Joseph Smith were dictating a new document of live scripture to new scribes, one would expect a decent title. That’s one of several clues that this is not new, live scripture being created in a new document from Joseph Smith. But the header gives us further hints to consider. The phrase “sign of the fifth degree of the Second part” is obviously not part of the translation, but it is clearly related to the headers of various sections in GAEL which are designated in terms of part (first or second) and degree (one through five). The fifth degree is the highest degree, seemingly drawing upon Phelps’ familiarity with Masonry and its multiple degrees. In the GAEL, characters in the highest (fifth) degree are generally associated with “higher” or more elaborate definitions in the GAEL. The “fifth degree, second part” can be viewed as a highly important section of the GAEL. That section, which begins on numbered page 23 of the GAEL, has only three and a third pages of entries, the last two entries being in the handwriting of Warren Parrish for “Veh Kli flos-isis “(p. 25) and “Kolob” (p. 26), followed by 12 blank pages before a section begins for the fourth degree, second part, and lower degrees thereafter. None of the characters in the margins of the twin manuscripts ever were entered in the contents of the apparently intended section or anywhere else in the GAEL, as if the project fizzled out before the scribes could get that far. But a reasonable hypothesis for the meaning of the twin manuscripts is that two scribes were seeking to help W.W. Phelps by finding new entries for his GAEL by doing what he had begun to do in Manuscript C, associating some Egyptian characters with concepts in the translated English text. But they never got that far.
Consistent with that hypothesis is the obvious textual evidence that the twin manuscripts are drawing upon an existing manuscript. That evidence includes the layout of the manuscripts (paragraph breaks, for example), its punctuation, its emendations, and the spelling, as discussed in detail in my article for Interpreter and on posts here.
Also consistent with that hypothesis is the important observation that the scribes begin their work in the twin manuscripts with Abraham 1:4, right after the very place where Phelps had quit. Beginning at this part of the text and using a header of some kind but not a proper title suggests that the twin manuscripts are intended as a continuation of what Phelps had begun, not as a separate or independent work. Parrish, after all, had been hired on Oct. 29, 1835 to help relieve Phelps now that his editorial work in other fields was making it too difficult to do much more with the Kirtland Egyptian Papers project, whatever it was that he was doing. If this work was actually part of creating the Book of Abraham translation, it would be odd for Joseph to not keep Phelps engaged and help him get past verse 3. But if much or even nearly all of the translation were already done at this time (generally said to be Nov. 1835 but it could have been later such as Dec. 1835 or early 1836) and if the intellectual work of doing something with the existing translation were viewed as a low priority by Joseph (the sudden ending of the KEP project in Kirtland suggests that this was and remained a low priority project), then it makes sense that resources would be diverted from it.
What were they trying to do in the KEP? Theories include cracking Egyptian, creating a guide to a pure language, or producing a reverse cypher of some kind for encoding English, as William Schryver suggests. But claims that the KEP materials represent a “window” into Joseph’s translation are implausible for many reasons, especially when some of those claims rely on the assumption that Joseph is dictating live scripture in the twin manuscripts.
However, the argument can be made that we don’t know what the “sign” means in that header, and without understanding the significance of the sign, we don’t really know if it is pointing to the similarly titled section of the GAEL.
First, I disagree that we need to understand the meaning of the sign in the header before we can recognize that the “fifth degree” and “second part” are directed to a specific and very important section of the GAEL that was incomplete and in need of further work. Some of the further work from Parrish is already evident there since the last two existing entries for the relevant section of GAEL, both related to and likely derived from the cosmological content of Facsimile 2 and Abraham 3, are in his handwriting. Why could he not have intended to write more?
However, we can examine the sign in question and recognize further connections to the GAEL. The sign appears to be a straight vertical (or nearly vertical) line with a short horizontal line extending to the right from the middle, much like the letter “F” minus the horizontal line at the top, or an “H” missing the vertical line on the right. This character is not listed as being on the papyri, according to JSPRT4. A close-up of Manuscript B with it’s sign at the top is shown below. (Note the next character below it has a similar structure in its center, though the same character in Manuscript A lacks the short horizontal stroke.)
|The sign in the left margin at the top of Manuscript B.|
The sign is puzzling. It is akin to the archaic Greek capital letter Heta. Like many GAEL entries, the sign may reflect someone’s (I would say Phelps’) exposure to archaic Greek alphabet letters, which are found elsewhere in Phelps’ GAEL (forms of theta, phi, lambda, etc. — cf. characters 2.17, 2.18, 2.25, 2.27, 2.35, 2.37, and 2. 38, using the character numbers in JSPRT4).
The sign is also much like the ninth and last occurrence of beth (char. 2.15) in the GAEL, which, after generally being a straight vertical line many times before, suddenly appears as vertical line with a short dash in the middle on the right-hand side, rather like the form of the sign in the twin manuscripts A and B. In fact, it’s the only character in the GAEL that seems to be a plausible match for the mysterious “sign” without rotating a character 90 degrees or stripping away a line or two. It’s roughly drawn, though, and it is possible that the stroke to the right is just an unusual error or ink blot and not intended, so this may be a coincidence. But can you guess where this unique form of beth occurs in the GAEL? Yes, near the top of the first page of the section entitled “Second part, 5th Degree” (p. 160 in JSPRT4). That may be a hint of a connection using the sign as well as the words of the title there, or just a weird coincidence.
|GAEL, p. 23, beginning of the section, “Second Part, 5th Degree.” Note the 3rd character, beth.
What is also interesting is the simple shape of the “sign” seems to be part of a many of the “Egyptian” characters in the margins of the twin manuscripts. See BOA characters (as numbered in the Concordance of JSPRT4, pp. 378ff) 2, 3, 4, and then note how the twin manuscripts for Character 5 have it even though the hieratic character being copied doesn’t. Then Characters 6 and 7, though Egyptian, can be viewed as containing the sign, an observation that may also apply to 10 and 11. Concocted characters 12, 13, and 14 definitely have it on the right side. There may be a hint of it in 15. We don’t know what the scribes were thinking, but there’s something about that symbol that the scribes might have seen as pervading the characters in their Book of Abraham manuscripts, adding meaning or mystique to the characters, perhaps making them especially suitable for whatever the purpose of the GAEL was. Or those relationships might just be coincidental. Some of these characters are shown here:
|Some characters from the margins of
Book of Abraham manuscript B by Warren Parrish.
There is much unexplained, of course, and some of what I said here is certainly speculative, but regardless of what the sign means, the heading that mentions the arguably most important section and clearly incomplete section of the GAEL suggests that these documents were meant to continue whatever Phelps was doing in his work with Abraham 1:1-3, and that appears to be linking keywords or concepts in the existing translation of the Book of Abraham with various characters to continue creating entries in the GAEL. But the project fizzled out before those newly used Egyptian characters (and some concocted “sign”-containing characters) ever could be processed for its still unclear purpose, though I think it was at least partially intended to study, create, or re-create a “pure language” given that the format of this document and the Egyptian Alphabet documents follow Phelps’ May 1835 “pure language” letter giving six non-Egyptian characters (this was before the scrolls ever came to Kirtland) with sounds and meanings in a lined column format, and given that all six of those characters are found in the Egyptian Alphabet documents and the GAEL. They have nothing to do with translating Egyptian papyri, but were already on record as part of some kind of investigation in the “pure language” before the Saints ever saw Egyptian papyri.
The theory that there is a relationship between the twin manuscripts and the GAEL does not require fully understanding what the obscure sign at the top of the manuscripts means. Even without the sign and even without the leading words “fifth degree of the Second part,” the fact that Phelps had been creating the GAEL using Abraham 1:1-3 and some characters, and then two new scribes took up the project continuing where he left off, one of whom did add a few final entries to the GAEL after Phelps ceased writing in it, suggests continuity in purpose, whatever that purpose was.
2. Joseph’s Track Record of Dictating to Two Scribes at Once? Another Look at the Katumin Documents
Another comment dismisses my analysis of emendations in the twin manuscripts as cringe-worthy (that analysis adds further evidence for the observation from other scholars, including some of the JSP Team, that the twin manuscripts were not likely to have been created by Joseph dictating new scripture to his scribes, but by working from an existing translation). My analysis not only recognized the evidence of working from an existing manuscript, but also raised the possibility that the person reading from the existing translation at least for much of the initial process was one of the scribes, Warren Parrish, reading for the benefit of Frederick G. Williams so both men could make copies at the same time. Who was reading is a minor issue, though, compared to the issue of working with an existing manuscript versus creating new translation on the fly with Joseph dictating. There’s simply no evidence that Joseph was dictating, though this is assumed in JSPRT4, which, unfortunately, makes numerous controversial decisions without considering alternatives or letting the reader know that a controversy exists and that previous scholarship is being overturned and neglected at the same time.
One of the problems that has been noted with the assumed scenario of some Book of Abraham critics and the editors of JSPRT4, wherein Joseph is supposedly dictating to two scribes at once to create the twin manuscripts, is the unusual scenario of dual scribes when Joseph wasn’t known to work that way. The commenter, continuing to help me be less cringe-worthy, pointed out that the Kirtland Egyptian Papers provide clear evidence that Joseph had a track record of using two scribes at once, citing two documents in the KEP related to an Egyptian princess supposedly named Katumin. These documents, including the “Valuable Discovery” document from Oliver Cowdery, and the “Notebook of Copied Characters” document from W.W. Phelps, present an alleged translation of some Egyptian characters mentioning Katumin. Two similar in-line corrections are said to show that Joseph was dictating to two scribes simultaneously. In one case, Oliver Cowdery writes “who reigned” and then crosses out the “ed” of “reigned” and above the line inserts “began to” with a caret before “reigned” in order to give us the final “who began to reign…” or, showing the emendations, “who <began to> reigned….” Meanwhile, W.W Phelps makes a similar mistake, but he writes “who reigned” and the strikes out the entire word “reigned” and continues in the same line with the intended phrase, giving us “who reigned began to reign….” Since similar mistakes are made at the same place, it can certainly be argued that simultaneous dictation is occurring as Joseph changes his mind in midstream — something he rarely did in cases where we know he was actually dictating revelation. Specifying dictation or even paragraph breaks is also not characteristic of his live dictation of revelation. But let’s look at bigger issues.
The first major question, of course, is if simultaneous dictation really were required to give us these related documents, how do we know it was Joseph dictating? I know, they’ll say this was all about Joseph being the one getting inspiration, but that’s not actually how he worked. The whole “study it out in your mind” episode deals with him allowing Oliver to try translation, and he likewise occasionally encouraged others to partake of the spiritual gifts and revelatory experiences that he had, not just inviting witnesses to see angels, but even to share grand visions, as occurred with Section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants. Allowing scribes to seek spiritual gifts to translate and assist his study of the papyri is far from impossible. Assuming that he was driving the whole show is a common unjustified assumption.
Further, if the two Katumin-related documents represent dictation by Joseph (or anyone else) to two scribes to create two copies of some possibly “revealed” document, can you explain how this fits the details? First, the two bound notebooks are quite different. There is common material for the Katumin-related passage, but the rest shows significant differences. Phelps, for example, draws figures and add captions. Those elements aren’t in Oliver’s. Phelps’ translation comes on page 2, before the related characters. For Oliver, it comes at the end of the notebook, and lacks the Egyptian passage he is translating, which is in Phelps’ notebook. Oliver has some characters with the English, while Phelps does not. And none of the emendations are actually identical. The closest is the one cited, but let’s look at the whole text to see how oral dictation would work.
Looking at Oliver’s document, here’s a hypothetical dictation scenario. I will spell out punctuation and verbally indicate striking out, etc. I won’t cover clues for upper vs. lower case.
Joseph: “Brethren, copy these 3 characters [he could show them, write them, or state which characters of a manuscript to copy]. Now here’s the translation: ‘Katumin [the JSP website has “Katamin” in the transcript, but I agree with the final evaluation in JSPRT4 of “Katumin” — the upper portion of the first stroke of the first “a” has enough of inward curl to hint at the closing of the loop, distinguishing it from the open “u”, so “Katumin” is favored] comma Princess comma daughter of On hyphen i hyphen tas left bracket Pharaoh — no, strike out Pharaoh and write King right bracket of Egypt’ comma.
“Oh, strike the brackets. Good. Now after the comma, write the next 3 characters [shows them]. OK, here’s the translation: ‘who reigned’ –oops, change ‘reigned’ to ‘reign’ and before that word, please use a caret to insert ‘began to’ above the line.” [On the other hand, Joseph could have said: “Write ‘who reigned in the year of the….’, oops, make that ‘who began to reign in the year of the….'” If Oliver were faster in writing than Phelps, he could have gotten past “reigned” before Joseph caught the error and thus made the choice to insert “who began” above the line instead of striking “reigned” plus other words, while a slow Phelps might have only been writing “reigned” when Joseph announced the correction, making it easier to just strike the word and continue.] “Let’s continue: ‘in the year of the world 2962.’
“Now start a paragraph and write the next character [shown]. Oliver, you’ve got it backwards [he really did]. Oh, never mind. Now here’s the translation: ‘Katumin was born in the 30th year of the reign of her father comma and died when she was 28 years old comma which was the year 3020.’”
If these same instructions were to be followed by W.W. Phelps, we would expect a very similar document. But note the differences:
- Phelps has a title specifying that this is a translation and denotes where the original Egyptian is (the next page). Cowdery lacks those elements.
- Cowdery’s document lacks the Egyptian related to the translation. Why? For the characters he used, was he copying characters from a papyrus fragment or from Phelps’ notebook?
- Phelps has no Egyptian inline with his text, unlike Cowdery. If Joseph were dictating and using a process like he is alleged to have used with the twin manuscripts, we would expect Egyptian to be present in both cases.
- Instead of hyphens in the name Onitas, Phelps has “=” marks. (Probably just his style — a trivial issue.)
- Phelps has a tiny “King” inserted above the line with a caret indicating where to insert it. He completely lacks the brackets, the word “Pharaoh,” and the inline “King” of Cowdery, a cluster of significant differences.
- Phelps lacks the above-line insertion of “began to”, though he does have “reigned” changed to “reign” by striking out the last two letters. As noted above, this could be accounted for if Phelps were slower in writing than Cowdery.
- In the last sentence Phelps writes “28th” and then scratches out the “th” immediately while the ink is still wet, resulting in some streaking of ink. Cowdery lacks this mistake and correction. If Phelps were taking diction, hearing “28 years” and writing “28th years” seems odd. But immediately above his 28th in the previous line is “30th”. If Phelps were making a visual copy rather than taking dictation, seeing and having written “30th” shortly before could lead to the copying error of writing “28th.” That may be more likely than hearing “28 years” and writing “28th”.
- At the very end, Phelps writes “which was 3020” and then uses a caret to insert “the year” before 3020. Cowdery lacks this.
It’s hard to see how these many differences align with the theory that Joseph is doing the same thing here as some allege he was doing with the twin manuscripts. Yes, there seems to be some connection to give that one repeated error involve “began to reign”, but this could come by copying. For example, if Phelps were copying what Oliver had or something similar, it’s possible to write “who reigned” (especially if the line through “ed” was initially faint) before noticing the insertion. If simultaneous, they shouldn’t be so different, thought it could happen this way if Phelps were slower in writing and Joseph changed his mind at the right time to motivate the writers to use different correction methods.
These documents differ in content. Their purposes are unknown but may be different. They have different Egyptian. We don’t know if the English was added initially or much later. We don’t really know who was doing the translation — Joseph was not the only daring to try his hand at revelation and translation. Is it possible that Phelps was copying from Cowdery or from another source document? Given the many differences in these documents, it’s far from a slam-dunk case that Joseph was dictating simultaneously, and this hardly establishes a clear modus operandi of using two scribes at a time for Book of Abraham work. What motivation would he have for doing that that could lead to these very different documents? One related correction in the midst of other differences does not make these twin documents with twin scribes taking live dictation from Joseph Smith in a revelatory moment, and does not establish a precedent for interpreting other related corrections in the Book of Abraham manuscripts as if they are necessarily evidence of Joseph doing the same thing again.
3. Elkkenah vs. Elkkener in Parrish’s Manuscript B: Evidence of Joseph Dictating?
Another argument made at Interpreter to support the theory that Joseph was dictating live to his scribes is the fact that near the end of his writing episode, Warren Parrish has a slip when writing the mane “Elkkener,” and for once, misspells it momentarily, writing “Elkkenah” before he wipes away the wet ink and changes the “ah” back to the intended “er.” This is said to be evidence that Joseph is dictating with a Yankee accent that pronounces many words ending in “r” as if they ended in “h,” causing Parrish to slip even though he has spelled it correctly five times before that moment.
Does that mean Joseph was dictating? Does it mean anyone was dictating? For Yankees, a trailing “er” and “ah” can sound the same and it’s a possible source of confusion, especially if Parrish were reading aloud to Williams before writing himself and then recalling the audible memory. (Of course, it’s also possible that Williams, born in Connecticut, or someone else from New England took a turn reading aloud if Parrish was having a coughing fit or something — he had to stop scribal work at the end of January for a while due to his respiratory illness, and that may be why Parrish stopped early relative to Williams in Manuscript B.) But note that in the few lines before Parrish made the -ah/er slip, he had just written and seen a host of names ending in “ah” or “a”: Zibnah. Mahmackrah, Noah, Chaldea (Pharaoh with its final “h” was also there). Now comes a name whose sound can register in the Yankee brain as ending in “r” or “ah”. It’s possible to have a slip at that point and favor a terminal “ah” for just a moment. There’s no need to require someone besides him reading, but even if there were someone else reading, there’s no reason it has to be Joseph Smith (could have been Williams or any 3rd party), and even if Joseph were reading, there’s no reason to deny the evidence for an existing manuscript being used and the evidence that this was not a document of newly translated scripture. That’s a key point here: an existing manuscript is obviously present for multiple reasons, even more than those noted by the editors of JSP Vol. 5 (an important point neglected in JSPRT4).
4. Joseph Driving the Show? What Format Might Tell Us
It’s often assumed that Joseph was the architect driving the work in the KEP, but Nibley has explained that scribes were often showing a lot of independence and frequently did challenge and even rebel against Joseph. Hiram Page’s effort to obtain revelation with his answer to a seer stone is part of this environment, as is Joseph’s encouraging of Oliver to take a stab at translating the Book of Mormon.
One issue that I think has been overlooked is the importance of the very format that guides the work in the Egyptian Alphabet documents and the GAEL, if not also the Book of Abraham manuscripts with Egyptian characters. We first see that being used before the scrolls ever came to town in the May 1835 letter of W.W. Phelps about the “pure language” the introduces us to the above-mentioned six characters that strangely are found through the KEP. (BTW, the abundance of such non-Egyptian characters in the KEP needs to be confronted head on. Why are they there if the KEP, especially the GAEL, is intended to translated Egyptian?) In that letter, there’s a nice format of neatly ruled columns holding characters, sounds, and meanings. That format persists in several parts of the KEP and in the GAEL. Was this Joseph’s format that he was urging his scribes to use? Or was it W.W. Phelps format? If Joseph were the master of the format that governs so much of the KEP, then how is it that in the Egyptian Alphabet A document partly in Joseph Smith’s handwriting, Joseph ignores key features from the format? He writes definitions wherever they fit after writing sounds, regardless of where the ruled column lines for definitions are. Phelps’ Egyptian Alphabet C document, on the other hand, shows much greater respect for the format rules and even initially has an added column that ends up not being used much but not ignored.
It’s also clear that Joseph is copying his document from someone else, making emendations typical of copying errors, in some cases trying to squeeze in missed phrases into small spaces. He’s copying from someone or something else, not running the show. He’s using Phelps’ formatting system but is not showing much respect for it. This document shows us that Joseph was interested in this work, to a point, and then after a couple of pages he pretty much disappears from the world of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers. Are we sure that all the rest of those documents reflect Joseph’s dictation and guidance? Dictating the Katumin manuscripts, dictating the twin Book of Abraham manuscripts, even dictating the details of the GAEL, as some critics claim? All driven by him? Or was this an intellectual project he supported and hoped to learn from, but one based on extracting added value from the already existing translation of the Book of Abraham? An intellectual project that went nowhere fast, but that’s OK. There wasn’t anywhere for it to go. But the failure of the KEP, regardless of who was driving it and specifying the format, the sounds, and so forth, is not a failure in the revelation that gave us the text of the Book of Abraham. It was a secondary product drawing upon bits and pieces from a revealed work, not the tool for the revelation, not a window into how Joseph translated at all.
There are more explorations to discuss later (sorry for such a long post!), but for now I’d welcome your input on any of these. Wait, wait, I know! “This will make any intelligent person cringe.” Check. Got it! But what else? I love specifics.