One of the vital issues in Book of Abraham debates is the role of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, including the large and mysterious work, the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language (GAEL). It is in the handwriting of W.W. Phelps (and a touch of Warren Parrish in some later entries). Some claim it was used to create at least part of the Book of Abraham. Others (myself included) view it as a derivative from an existing text — not just the Book of Abraham, for the overlap in content is not extensive, but also possibly from some from other sources such as the Doctrine and Covenants. Some of the characters also come from sources other than the papyri, including some strange characters Phelps discussed in a letter written before Joseph ever saw the papyri that came to Kirtland.
For the related content in both the GAEL and the Book of Abraham translation, which came first? Some critics and some LDS professors suggest that the GAEL was used to create at least part of the Book of Abraham, such as Abraham 1:1-3. Those claims, as explored in my recent post on a problem in recent book by Terryl Givens and Brian Hauglid, The Pearl of Greatest Price, tend to be based on the assumption that similar content means derivation from the GAEL. But closer examination of multiple clues suggests it is just the opposite: it is more plausible that the related passages were based on derivation from the existing Book of Abraham translation.
Recognizing possible source material for the GAEL may help us better understand its purpose, its meaning, and its origins, which in turn may help us better understand what the Book of Abraham is or is not. So let’s look at some of its content and see what we can learn.
I’ll refer to the GAEL page numbers that follow those of the GAEL on the Joseph Smith Papers website and their printed volume, The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations, Volume 4: Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts, eds. Robin Scott Jensen and Brian M. Hauglid (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2018), hereafter JSPRT4. That means blank pages (and there are many since it was highly incomplete) aren’t counted.
I’ll look at the pages in the first section of the GAEL (“5th degree,” first part) and make comments. Other entries will be considered in a second post later on.
Page 1, like page 15, discusses some strange ideas about the grammar of Egyptian. Phelps discusses multiple degrees, perhaps drawn from his knowledge of Masonry (he was previously editor of an anti-Masonic newspaper) and the possible connection one might see on Facs, 2 with its sign of the compass and square in the lower right. Page 1 also introduces us to Phelps’ column format, similar to the format he had in a May 1835 letter discussing the “pure language” and six strange characters, some of which are Masonic ciphers. These characters, strangely, show up in the Egyptian Alphabets and in his GAEL, though they, like many of the “Egyptian” characters in the KEP, are not Egyptian, or at least not from the papyri Joseph had as far as I know.
On page 1, as on page 15 and elsewhere, Phelps uses the terms “signification” (an unusual word in his day) and the phrase “parts of speech” (also not common in his day), which may indicate some reliance on a Hebrew book that Oliver Cowdery may have brought back to Kirtland in late November 1835, as discussed in my article at the Interpreter on the gaps in JSPRT4 (search for “parts of speech”). The book is Hyman Hurwitz, The Etymology and Syntax, in Continuation of, The Elements of the Hebrew Language, (London: John Taylor, 1831), available at Google Books. See also the 1835 2nd edition at Archive.org. Phelps describes 5 elements among the “parts of speech,” but verbs are strangely omitted, perhaps reflecting Hurwitz’ teaching that Hebrew verbs derive from nouns and that nouns should take precedence among the parts of speech. This, we might look to Hurwitz and Hebrew study as a potential influence on the GAEL.
Page 1 and page 2 also introduce us to the notion lines added above or below characters, a concept perhaps inspired by Phelps’ familiarity with Hebrew and its points, including the uncommon rafe, a line above some letters.
Peripheral observation: The first character discusses, character 5.27 in the JSP volume, is said to be “in the fifth degree” and, interestingly, includes the simple structure of the “sign” of the fifth degree, second part, that the twin Book of Abraham manuscripts provide at the top of the first page as if it were a header or note. That sign, a vertical line with a short dash extending from the midpoint to the right, does not occur by itself in the GAEL, nor do the other characters on the twin manuscripts. But a related structure in this first character said to be in the fifth degree strengthens the case that the sign is related to the GAEL, and that the header of those twin manuscripts are telling us that their purpose was to continue what Phelps had begun with Abraham 1:1-3 in his Book of Abraham manuscript, namely, to associate key words or concepts from an existing Book of Abraham translation with some Egyptian characters (or concocted Egyptian in some cases, with the concocted characters tending to incorporate that sign in some way), as I have previously discussed. See “More on the Meaning of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers: Recent Explorations Based on Comments at Interpreter.”
Here we encounter the character said to be “beth,” defined as a place of happiness, etc. This is much like the Hebrew letter beth which can mean “house.”
Then comes what seems to he a Greek letter, character 1.14, “iota,” though the transcript here has “iata,” but elsewhere this is more clearly “iota.” Phelps connects its meaning to “see, saw” and elsewhere is said to mean “eye.” Is it a coincidence that the Greek letter for our “I” means “eye”? Perhaps. In my article on the gaps in JSPRT4, I also observe a possible relationship between Hebrew texts and the symbol for iota. Then we have character 1.18, “Zub zool-aan,” dealing with concepts such as the first born, or the first man, or fathers. Then comes characters related again to “iota,” “beth,” and “Zub zool-aan.”
Next up is character 2.16, “bethka,” the “greatest place of happiness,” with a note that it should have occurred between “iota” and “Zub zool-aan,” a clear indication that something other than alphabetic order is driving the structure of this text. What could that be? We’ll see in a moment, but for now, note that “bethka,” like “beth,” can relate to the concept of a better place that Abraham sought in Abr. 1:1-2, as he speaks of the need to “obtain another place of residence” (vs. 1). This is followed immediately by his statement about seeking “greater happiness” (vs. 2). This definition of “bethka” clearly relates to Abraham 1:1-2.
Finally we have character 5.28 defined as “Abraham, a father of many nations, a prince of peace,” etc., obviously related to Abraham 1:2.
It is well known that the characters shown here and on related pages are tied to Abraham 1:1-2, where Abraham speaks of his place of residence (like beth), that he “saw” a need to change, sought the blessings of the fathers, wanted to be a prince of peace, etc. So the words here on page 2 of the GAEL are clearly related to that passage of the Book of Abraham. But what’s this about the need to change the order and put “bethka” between two other specific characters in a non-alphabetic order? That seems to have been overlooked in the past. As discussed here in my post of July 18, 2019, “Kirtland’s Rosetta Stone? The Importance of Word Order in the “Egyptian” of the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language,” reader “Joe Peaceman” provides a plausible answer. He notes that in the sequence of words into which “bethka” needs to be inserted, the intended word order links them to the order of related text of Abraham 1:1-2. Below is part of Abraham 1:1-2, where we have GAEL-related phrases, in order, with their relationship to words in the GAEL in brackets:
1 … at the residence of my fathers [1. “Beth” – described as a place or residence]
I, Abraham, saw [2. “Iota” – see, saw, seeing, or having seen]
that it was needful for me to obtain another place of residence; [3. “Bethka” fits here, referring to a better place that he sought, combined with the following phrase that refers to “greater happiness”]
2 And, finding there was greater happiness and peace and rest for me, I sought for the blessings of the fathers, [4. “Zub zool— oan”— which can mean “father or fathers”]
Phelps cared about the order and felt a need to insert “bethka” throughout his document in a place that would make it line up with something. Line up with what? The existing Book of Abraham text for Abraham 1:1-2. We also know from a patriarchal blessing that Oliver gave around Sept. 1835, probably well before the GAEL was created, that Abraham 1:1-3 had already been translated and was well known to Oliver who paraphrases it in the blessing. See Oliver Cowdery, “Patriarchal Blessings,” 1:8-9, cited in “Priesthood Restoration” at the Joseph Smith Papers website.
So already on page 2 we see important evidence that Phelps felt constrained in terms of word order by an existing text, clearly the related Book of Abraham translation. This is one of several important pieces of evidence that help us solve the chicken-and-egg problem for the Book of Abraham and the GAEL. The Book of Abraham translation was most likely one of the sources for part of the GAEL rather than its fruit.
At the top we have a character called “Kiah brah oam” with language again closely related to Abraham 1:1-2: “Coming down from the beginning— right by birth— and also by blessing, and by promise— promises made; a father of many nations; a prince of peace; one who keeps the commandment of God; a patriarch; a rightful heir; a high priest.” Again, the Book of Abraham is a likely source.
Shortly thereafter is character 1.1, “Ah lish” said to be “The first Being— supreme intillegence; supreme power; supreme glory= supreme Justice; supreme mercy without begining of life or end of life comprehending all things, seeing all things: the invisible and eter[n]al godhead.” This language relates to Abr. 3:19, where God explains that he is eternal and the greatest intelligence of all. But this also echoes language involving “comprehend” in Doctrine & Covenants 88, such as “he comprehended all things” (v. 6). The “first Being” in this definition may also resonate with Doctrine & Covenants 88:5’s “Firstborn” to describe Christ. The five uses of “supreme” referring to God also seem to echo the only occurrence of “the Supreme Being” in the Doctrine and Covenants in Section 107:4 from April 1835 (this also occurs in the Book of Mormon in Alma 11:22).
Then several “Phah”-related names follow that may be related to the concept of Pharaoh, the first king of Egypt as described in Abraham 1:25-27. Thus “Phah eh” can mean “The first man, or Adam coming from Adam. Kigs [Kings] or right over Patriarchal right by appointment.” Abr. 1:4 speaks of “for mine appointment unto the Priesthood according to the appointment of God.” A “patriarchal” reign is described in Abr. 1: 25-26 and patriarchs are mentioned in Abr. 1:31. The language here is richly related to the words and themes of Abraham 1.
The next two entries, “Phaah” and “Phah ho e oop” relate to reigning with great “dominion,” again suggestive of Pharaoh in Abr. 1. But the “king who has universal dominion, over all the earth” for the second name may also reflect the use of “dominion” in Doctrine and Covenants 76, such as in vs. 114 and 119, referring to the endless and supreme dominion of God.
The last entry on page 3 is for “Ho oop hah” said to mean “Queen Kah tou mun, Royal female lineage or descent.” Katumin is the name of a princess given in one of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, the “Valuable Discovery” document and in a “Notebook of Copied Characters” document. In the few lines in those documents, she is said to be the daughter of Onitas, a king of Egypt. But apart from the name, this entry may also relate closely to Abraham 1:11, which tells us that an evil “priest had offered upon this altar three virgins at one time, who were the daughters of Onitah, one of the royal descent directly from the loins of Ham. These virgins were offered up because of their virtue….”
At this point, a primary source for the definition in this entry seems to be a toss up between the Book of Abraham and two other documents in the KEP, but the balance quickly shifts as we read the rest of the definition at the top of the next page.
The definition for “Ho oop hah” continues with some phrases right out of the Book of Abraham, tellig us that the royal female lineage is from “her [by] whom Egypt was discovered while it was under water, who was the daughter of Ham.— a lineage with whom a record of the fathers was intrusted by the tradition of Ham and accordding to the tradition of their elders; by whom also the tradition of the art of embalming in was kept.” I don’t know a likely source for the reference to the art of embalming, but Abraham 1:21-31 gives many other related details, speaking of the discovery of the land of Egypt by a woman, the daughter of Ham, who discovered it while it was under water (Abr. 1:23-24), and speaks of the ancient records that have come into Abraham’s hands (Abr. 1:28) and specifically of “the records of the fathers, even the patriarchs” (Abr. 1:31). Apart from the name “Queen Kah tou mun,” the definition of the word “Ho oop hah” overwhelmingly seems to derive the Abraham 1, it’s most likely source.
The next three entries continue similar themes from Abraham 1. There is “Zi,” describing someone who is virtuous and upright, like the daughters of Onitah. “Kah tou mun” follows, said to be “a lineage with whom a record of the fathers was intrusted by tradition of Ham,” clearly relevant to Abraham 1, esp. v. 31 with its “record of the fathers.” There is another mention of embalming there. Then comes “Zi oop hah,” “A young virgin unmarried woman,” like the daughters of Onitah.
“Ho-e-oop” follows, defined as “A prince of the royal blood a true desendant from Ham … inheritor of the Kingly blessings from under the hand of Noah, but not according to the priestly blessing, because of the trangrissions of Ham, which blessing fell upon Shem from under the hand of Noah.” This relates directly to the discussion in Abr. 1:26,27 of how Noah “cursed [Ham] as pertaining to the Priesthood” causing that his descendant, Pharaoh, was “of that lineage by which he could not have the right of Priesthood, notwithstanding the Pharaohs would fain claim it from Noah.”
By the way, based on Abraham 1:2-3’s discussion of the patriarchal rights that were passed down, I believe “right of Priesthood” must be understand as the right to preside over the priesthood and not whether or not one could hold it at all. Abraham 1:2-3 explains that Abraham sought
2 … the blessings of the fathers, and the right whereunto I should be ordained to administer the same; … I became a rightful heir, a High Priest, holding the right belonging to the fathers.
3 It was conferred upon me from the fathers; it came down from the fathers … even the right of the fistborn, or the first man, who is Adam, or first father, through the fathers unto me.
Ham, not being the firstborn, did not have the “right of the firstborn” or the right to administer over the priesthood and be the leader of the priesthood as a rightful heir.
Getting back to page 4, next up is a strange grammatical comment for character 1.10, “Zip Zi-is”: “the same of the fourth only increases or lessens five degrees.” This is the shortest statement for any of the 5 statements across the 5 degrees, but apparently means it’s the same as the long statement given in the 4th degree, page 10, where it is “Zip Zi” and said to mean “all women: it took its origin from the earth yielding its fruit. And from the first woman who bore children; and men were multiplied upon the earth, and is used in this degree as a numeral by being inserted above or below another character: it increases by b[e]ing drawn above, it and signifies above, more, greater, more glorious, and when inserted under signifies beneath less smaller least.” The first woman who bore children appears to be a reference to Eve in Abraham 5. The “earth yielding fruit” relates to Abr. 4:11: “Let us prepare the earth to bring forth … the fruit tree yielding fruit.”
Next we get a definition for “Ha e oop hah”:”honor by birth, kingly power by the line of Pharoah. possession by birth one who riegns upon his throne universally— possessor of heaven and earth, and [now from the top of page 5] of the blessings of the earth.” This relates well to the discussion of the rights and kingship of Pharaoh in Abraham 1. The phrase “possessor of heaven and earth,” however, comes from the story of Abraham’s encounter with Melchizedek in Genesis 14: 19, 22. That portion of the story and that phrase may have been on the missing, more extensive text from the Book of Abraham translation, but that is purely speculative at this point. Alternatively, Doctrine and Covenants 50:27 has related wording, “he is possessor of all things … both in heaven and on the earth.” The phrase “the blessings of the earth” is found in only one place in the scriptures, the end of Abraham 1:26 describing Noah’s limited blessings to Ham.
What we have covered so far shows the GAEL progressing steadily through Abraham 1, which appears to be the primary source for the concepts and phrases in the GAEL so far, and roughly proceeding in order.
There is a brief entry related to grammar and punctuation, followed by “Toan low ee tahee takee toues” which, as you probably guessed, is defined as “under the Sun: under heaven; downward; pointing downward going downward; stooping down going down into another place,= any place: going down into the grave— going down into misery= even Hell; coming down in lineage by royal descent, in a line by onitas one of the royal families of the Kings the of Egypt.” Abr. 1 has the word “down” multiple times, but most clearly relevant is Abr. 1:3, which explains that the right of the priesthood “was conferred upon me from the fathers; it came down from the fathers, from the beginning of time, yea, even from the beginning, or before the foundation of the earth, down to the present time.” But later sections of that chapter treat Onitah and the lineage of the kings of Egypt, taking us toward the end of Abraham 1. Onitas is the name of the king, Katumin’s father, in the brief Katumin-related text mentioned above in the KEP, so that name could be derived from that document, though it is also written initially as Onitah and then changed to Onitas.
Now we encounter some concepts we’ve already seen. “Iota” for “See, saw, seeing,” wtc. Then “Iota toues Zip Zis” dealing once again with the discovery of Egypt while underwater by a daughter who settled it with her sons, per Abr. 1:24. We then have an odd entry that is hard to place: “Su-e-eh-ni” meaning “The same as the first.” The Book of Abraham has abundant discussion of things that are first, but exactly what Phelps meant is unclear.
The last entry on page 5 is “Hoeoophahphaheh,” which continues some solid Book of Abraham 1 themes involving patriarchs, government, authority, etc.: “Patriarchal government; or authority; a land governed according to the pattern or order given to the patriarchs or fathers; rules and laws of a goverment administered by the direction of Heaven or God. a people living under the laws of the gospel: or that law by which they may be sanctified and see the face of God.” Several of these concepts in Abr. 1 have already been discussed above. The mention of the attempt to imitate the “order” of government of the patriarchs looks like a reference to Abr. 1:26, which states that Pharaoh sought “earnestly to imitate that order established by the fathers in the first generations.” But what is the source for the final phrase, “that law by which they may be sanctified and see the face of God”? This appears to come from Doctrine and Covenants 84:23, in the context of discussing the priesthood, its transmission from patriarch to patriarch anciently, and the Gospel: “Moses … sought diligently to sanctify his people that they might behold the face of God.” So this passage in the GAEL, like several others, appears to draw upon the Book of Abraham but also some of the Doctrine and Covenants.
Doctrine and Covenants 84 also speaks of the Gospel and administration: “teaching that the this greater priesthood administereth the gospel” (v. 19), and Moses’ goal of having a people under the laws of the Gospel is implicit in this section. Further, in the scripture, the closest wording to the GAEL’s “the laws of the Gospel” is “the law of the Gospel” in that occurs several times in the pre-Nov. 1835 portions of the Doctrine and Covenants, including 84:78, 88:78, and 104:18.
We continue with more of the definition of “Hoeoophahphaheh” (eerily similar to “phooey”): “A priestly government; a government administered by the authority of the priesthood up or under the patriarchal: it some times means any priestly governments whether by the dierection of heaven or by the tradition of the heaven.” Government and authority of the priesthood have already been noted as themes in Abraham 1. The “direction of heaven” both here and at the end of page 5 may echo Doctrine and Covenants 78:16, “given unto him the keys of salvation under the counsel and direction of the Holy One, who is without beginning of days or end of life.” “Direction” is used to describe priesthood administration also in Doctrine and Covenants 78:16 and elsewhere in that volume.
“Zub Zoal eh” follows with a definition again involving the ancient patriarchs discussed in Abraham 1 and the blessings they gave, concepts all previously discussed above: “In the days of the first patrarch of patriarchs In the reign of Adam; in the days of the first patriarchs; in the days of Nooh; in the blessings of Noah; in the blessings of the children of Noah; in the first blessings of men; in the first blessings of the church.” This passage, of course, is strongly related to Abraham 1.
Next is “Zab eh” which is defined as “Having been within= in the earth= in the sea; in any thing; b[e]ing applied to any condition or situation, to express one thing or principle or being in another. Zub a road or a highway; leading up or to: the time for going up to the altar to worship: going up before the Lord. bing caught up, going to be caught up, having been caught up.” The issue of travel combined with an altar to worship God is a theme in Abraham 2:
16 Therefore, eternity was our covering and our rock and our salvation, as we journeyed from Haran by the way of Jershon, to come to the land of Canaan.
17 Now I, Abraham, built an altar in the land of Jershon, and made an offering unto the Lord, and prayed that the famine might be turned away from my father’s house, that they might not perish.
18 And then we passed from Jershon through the land unto the place of Sechem; it was situated in the plains of Moreh, and we had already come into the borders of the land of the Canaanites, and I offered sacrifice there in the plains of Moreh, and called on the Lord devoutly, because we had already come into the land of this idolatrous nation.
19 And the Lord appeared unto me in answer to my prayers, and said unto me: Unto thy seed will I give this bland.
20 And I, Abraham, arose from the place of the altar which I had built unto the Lord, and removed from thence unto a mountain on the east of Bethel, and pitched my tent there, Bethel on the west, and Hai on the east; and there I built another altar unto the Lord, and called again upon the name of the Lord.
21 And I, Abraham, journeyed….
Earlier in the definition, that which is “within the earth” may point to Doctrine and Covenants 88:77,78, a passage that is related to the last word on page 5 that we just discussed above (based on use of “law of the Gospel”):
78 Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand;
79 Of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass….”
Last on this page is “Zab zoal”: “From the beinng [beginning] of the creation until now; pointing out or designating at the present time; having foreordained, or decreed or having before seen; For instance: Abraham haveing been chosen before was sent by commandment into the Land of Canaan: Having preached the gospel unto the heathen, was fore warned of God to go down into Ah=meh= strah, or Egypt, and preach the gospel unto the Ah meh strah ans.” This also ties to the account iin Abraham 2, where we learn that Abraham had been preaching the Gospel while in Haran because fon his journey to Canaan, he brought along with him “the souls that we had won in Haran” (Abr. 2:15), a beautiful touch not found in the Genesis account. The name “Ah meh strah ans” may be derived from a similar term in Josephus.
This section of the GAEL, the “5th degree” (first part), closes with the word “Zool,” said to mean “from any or some fixed period of time back to the beginning of creation showing the chronology of the patriarchs the right of the priesthood, and the lneage through whom it shall be continu[e]d by promise, begining at Abraham signifying the promises made to Abraham saying through thy fruits, or the seed of thy loins, shall the gospel shall be preached, unto all the seed meaning from Noah, and unto all the kindreds of the earth.” This is strongly related to the Book of Abraham. In Abr. 1:28, Abraham states that he will “delineate the chronology running back from myself to the beginning of the creation.” An extremely close relationship to this GAEL definition. Other elements also tie to the Book of Abraham, such as the promises to Abraham’s posterity and the “right of priesthood.”
Thus ends the first section of the GAEL for the 5th degree, first part. Similar words and definitions are in the other degrees of the first part. Later we will look at the 5th degree, second part, and some other issues not already covered here.
The claim has been repeatedly made that the GAEL is largely based on translation of the Katumin-related documents, but apart from the name Katumin (spelled differently), the definitions here overwhelmingly connect to existing, published revelation that Joseph gave, primarily from the Book of Abraham and then from the Doctrine and Covenants. The related Doctrine and Covenants material clearly existed before the GAEL was created, and the Book of Abraham translation most likely existed also.
The GAEL is far too incomplete to have been of any use in creating the Book of Abraham. Rather, there is evidence that it was largely derived from bits and pieces of the existing translation of the Book of Abraham, and also from a few existing revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants. A touch of the Bible, a bit of Hebrew knowledge (e.g., the name “beth” and its meaning of “house”), and perhaps Josephus for the name “Ah meh strah ans” and a few other sources may have influenced W.W. Phelps in this work, and there is a minor connection to a couple of brief passages about Katumin elsewhere in the KEP (primarily for the names of Katumin and her father, Onitas).
The characters Phelps is using have been discussed here before and show influences from several sources other than Egyptian papyri, such as Masonic ciphers, ancient Greek alphabets, etc.
A few conclusions so far: Whatever the purpose of the GAEL is, its failure to exclusively use Egyptian characters from the papyri tells us that it was for something other than translating the papyri (perhaps creating a guide to a hypothetical “pure language”?). It appears to have drawn heavily from existing revelation in the Book of Abraham but also from the Doctrine and Covenants, a point that will become more clear in the next installment, again suggesting that its purpose or scope was not solely tied to the Book of Abraham.