Tuesday, June 20, 2017

2 Nephi 33:1, the Egyptian Tale of Petese, and the Corpus Hermeticum

"When a man speaketh by the power of the Holy Ghost," says Nephi, "the power of the Holy Ghost carrieth it unto the hearts of the children of men:"

And now I, Nephi, cannot write all the things which were taught among my people; neither am I mighty in writing, like unto speaking; for when a man speaketh by the power of the Holy Ghost the power of the Holy Ghost carrieth it unto the hearts of the children of men (2 Nephi 33:1).

We can start thinking plainly about this scripture by noticing how Nephi favors speaking because of a perceived weakness inherent in writing, in his writing anyway. "I cannot write" is a theme that Moroni, the last living man trained in the scribal tradition of Lehi and Nephi, takes up again, and poignantly, at the end of the Book of Mormon. For Nephi, the immediacy of the spoken word is both personal gift and cultural value, but, here, rhetoric finds enhancement "by the power of the Holy Ghost" and thus becomes the "divine word" as well. 

To speak by the power of the Holy Ghost, is to speak "in a new tongue, yea, even with the tongue of angels" (2 Nephi 31). And might not writing also be done by the same power? Moroni, the final scribe, later explains that gift of writing with power as a higher gift, one possessed alone by the ancient Brother of Jared after the Flood and after the confounding Tower.

And who may qualify to speak by the power of the Holy Ghost, or the tongue of angels? Lehi, we are instructed, "received" this "power" "by faith in the Son of God" (1 Nephi 10:17).

As every reader knows, Nephi says he "makes my record in the language of the Egyptians," though his father had also taught him "in the learning of the Jews." "I cannot write," Nephi says, because writing and speech, for him, already stand far apart, writing in Egyptian is a far different matter than writing in Hebrew letters (as Moroni, at the end, also painfully observes.) Nephi, whose very name looks Egyptian (Nepri?), speaks a dialect of Hebrew (as evidenced throughout his record), reads the Hebrew of the courts (the Hebrew of Isaiah), yet also knows how to read and write in Egyptian language and script. We note that the Egyptian of Nephi's day includes much Hebrew or other West Semitic vocabulary. In other words, when Nephi speaks to his errant brethren, he catches the spirit of a Hebrew prophet at court, yet phrases all in what he calls the "plainness of my speech." When he records the same words, that is, when he translates the same words into Egyptian, his plain preaching now appears to him markedly simple and bland. 

We may ask why it is that Nephi, a Hebrew, should give us a record "in the language of the Egyptians," especially when the record, for us, appears only in English? Moroni explains it as a way to save space on precious plates. I see another reason for all that linguistic transfer and that is so the record might stand above human language and thus be carried by the Holy Ghost to our hearts, even expansively "unto [the hearts of] every nation, kindred, tongue, and people." Nephi's language, the language he speaks of in 2 Nephi 33:2, is a universal language. The Bible, too, stands above human language, while also being wrestled and wrested to the last syllable of recorded Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. That is why we write Exhaustive commentaries and the like, and have endless translations.

All this recalls, in both parallel and in a nice reversal, the Egyptian expression for the written word: the mdw-nTr or "Words of God," "divine words"; it also recalls what the Late Antique Hermetic books claimed about the nature of the Egyptian language, a claim reflecting "the Greek perception of Egyptian anxiety about the translation of Egyptian texts into Greek." In his Perfect Discourse to King Ammon, Asclepius says: "The very character of the sound. . . of Egyptian words has in itself the power meaning (energeia) of what is said" (Orly Goldwasser, From Icon to Metaphor, 27).

"Leave this text untranslated, so that these secrets remain hidden from the Greeks [cf. from the Gentiles] and their irreverent, feeble, and orotund speech does not undermine the dignity and vigor of our language and the energy of the names. For the discourse of the Greeks, though outwardly impressive, is empty, and their philosophy is nothing but verbose noise. We by contrast, we employ not words but sounds full of energy" (quoted in Jan Assmann, The Mind of Egypt, 396). 

This boast about "efficacious (energetikos) speech" (Goldwasser, 27), recalls how Nephi spoke to his brethren "in the energy of my soul" (1 Nephi 16:24).   

The notion of an effective spiritual energy (3x, 3xw) inherent in Egyptian ceremonial speech may everywhere be found in the Ancient Egyptian texts themselves, and elsewhere I note how the Greek phrase describing Egyptian speech can in fact be matched by a well-known Egyptian idiom for such speech: "Akhu-power upon the mouth": "According to the Corpus Hermeticum spells do not consist of mere words, they must be repeated 'in mighty speech of 3x.w' (= 3x.w m tpj-r3, phonais mestais ton ergon)."
(See Val H. Sederholm, Papyrus British Museum 10808, 105, Festugiere and Nock, CH XVI: II 230).

Such "mighty speech" may also be called the speech of a Pharaoh: "Be an artist in speech, then you will be victorious. for behond: the sword-arm of a king is his tongue," which recalls Alma's statement about "the preaching of the word" having "had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them" (Wisdom of Merikare, see Jan Assmann, The Mind of Egypt; Alma 31:5).

Nephi says of his own preaching:1 Nephi 15:25: "I did exhort them with all the energies of my soul" and 16:24: "they had humbled themselves because of my words; for I did say many things unto them in the energy of my soul." Again, both energy and soul invoke the Egyptian word akhu, a word signifying (in the plural!) an efficacious power and also a spiritual being, an akh (or ghost). Nephi, in the Hebrew sense, is speaking in the energy of "my nephesh," quite a powerful phrase, in the energy of my life-force, bekoakh naphshi or bekoakhei naphshi, in or through the power of my life's soul. Koakh and Akhu (k-w-x and '-x) sound a bit alike--these are strong-sounding words bespeaking a powerful drain on the life force. Here is something beyond how we look at speech in present times.

So much for the spoken word.

I also note the immediate power on my heart of Nephi's written word--well, we're also told that the Book of Mormon comes to us as if a spoken word: "a voice out of the dust."

We next move toward the heart. What is the distance between speech and heart? Is it forever? or can the gap be bridged? 

In riddling out what Nephi is saying, we must also look at the prepositions. The unto in "unto the hearts" must be the equivalent of the Afroasiatic preposition l, or le (the Egyptians write r), but as we shall see, perhaps also the equivalent of the Egyptian preposition n. Given that we only have Nephi's written words in English, so what does unto mean? Gothic-Low Germanic un-to or Gothic-North Germanic un-til are variants of the same thing: "even to" or "all the way to." So how does speech, human speech, ever go "all the way to" the human heart? From mouth to heart--the Holy Ghost carrieth the word. Does "all the way to" signify "into" as well? (See Mason's English Grammar.) Again: Mason tells us that und is the Gothic equivalent of German bis; when the two Germanic prepositions, und and to, of like meaning, combine, the first takes on an emphatic, adverbial quality: bis-to, un-to, un-til, and seems to convey the idea: "really, all the way to--lest there be any doubt."

Elder David A. Bednar makes a fine distinction in explaining how the Holy Ghost carries the divine word unto the heart, the into depends on each hearer, as in the distinction between hearing and obeying, though intended for synonyms, an idea also expressed in Scripture as not "being hearers only." That attentiveness to the prepositional difference is therefore consistent with the doctrine of a learner's agency, as also found in the Parable of the Sower and in the many Scriptural statements about "hardening the heart." When you see the words "hardening the heart," the distinction between unto and into doesn't seem all that fine, after all. The words are carried until, all the way up to the heart, or unto the heart, but not all the way into the heart. And notice how Nephi reminds us in the following verse that some do reject the word, lodge-the word where it may.  It's a matter of "until the heart accepts the word"--a temporality which may never find fruition.

In such a reading, unto is not quite into, West Semitic l not quite b, Egyptian r not quite m (though the Egyptian preposition n slips through the barrier), though well on the way; for already there's a spiritual impact, a clear invitation, the transfer, in plain terms, of a idea (or is it a feeling) upon which one may lay hold, in faith. The Book of Mormon does make much of distinguishing prepositions: Amulek discourses on the salvific necessity of realizing that Christ saves us from not in our sins, a clear-cut distinction, though unto and into becomes a more delicate matter, a matter of the heart. 

Leaving prepositions aside, What of the heart? What does "unto or until the hearts of the children of men" signify? Speech is carried by the Holy Ghost all the way to the heart--but What is the heart? Does heart speak primarily in English to feelings? to intellection? or both? (Answer: Primarily it is feelings. For as Frost says "never with the heart") And how about heart in other languages? lev, jb, h3ty, kokoro. . .Well, the heart escapes us.

In English, or in any language you may please, the phrase "unto the hearts" can be unpacked variously: "touching upon the feelings" or "entering into our feelings;" or, on the other hand: "beginning to enlighten our understandings," entering into our understandings. In English, when something is carried unto our heart, that's where we begin to love it, to feel it, but in Hebrew and Egyptian the heart first references what we call the mind, with the heart being the seat of intelligence, though English also knows the thoughtful heart (thoughtful in what sense? in mind or heart?). So is Nephi speaking to us, here, more in English or in Hebrew or in Egyptian? Does his heart signify feeling or thought? Or does heart capture both ideas? 

Nephi does have much to say about the heart. His poetic personification of his heart, found in 2 Nephi 5, shows an active, speaking, even exclaiming heart. This Prayer of the (Personified) Heart and Soul, while slipping away, here and there, beyond the culturally comprehensible, still speaks directly to each of us. The Ancient Egyptian reader would pick up the cultural references more precisely than we can, but we understand Nephi's heart, do we not? Somehow Joseph Smith's translation gives us our heart, and Nephi's, while also holding fast to the cultural truth of the original language. (See Jan Assmann, "The Theory of the Heart," in The Mind of Egypt, 135ff.)

While avoiding any attempt at definition, I also like the way Nephi's words resonate with an Egyptian phrase ph n h3t, a phrase which students of Egyptian and Demotic (the late form of the language) are also trying to grasp, but which seems to mean "reach the heart" as "reach till understanding." Words that "reach the heart" or are carried unto or into the heart, are words plain to the understanding, and thus words understood. Yet there are always those who do not or will not understand the words, the seed fallen on hard ground, the obdurate heart, the blind mind, those who will not understand my words, the tongue of angels. 

But now to a story.

Nephi's words about speaking by the power of the Holy Ghost resonate with a story from Ancient Egypt in which Re speaks to a woman in the voice of her deceased husband--and his words reach her heart. Is there not a parallel here, with God speaking to us through the power of the Holy Ghost, in some ineffable way that yet reaches the heart? 

So let's see how Professor Kim Ryholt understands this moment from the Ancient Egyptian storybook: The Story of Petese, Son of Petetum: and Seventy Other Good and Bad Stories. 

It's a strange story anyhow, with seventy other stories packed into the principle story of Petese. The priest Petese learns from the god Osiris, through a spirit messenger, that he has but 40 days left to live. His name is already inscribed on Osiris' netherworldly register.

After confronting the pain and shock, Petese plans three vehicles for achieving immortality--a bit of crafty overkill typical of the Egyptians. First, he arranges for a lavish, even sumptuous, burial--an immortal tomb--which is what one may expect of a wealthy Egyptian priest. In Ancient Egypt, mummification and burial makes up not only the eternal monument of the worthy dead, it is the ceremonial gateway to eternal life. Second, Petese, through the agency of magical creatures he himself fashions, gathers 70 tales, 35 good, 35 bad. As Kim Ryholt observes, the collection, or composition, of these spellbinding tales of the good and bad deeds of women will win Petese deathless acclaim. The Egyptian word for such a magical creature is Hk.t, a hikat--and note how story and magic flow together in a single stream. Third, Petese also sets to work preparing a magic potion (pHr.t) which, when prepared by his widow--for he will enter his coffin and "die"--will assure his escape from death altogether, even his resurrection. 

Petese thus covers all bases--indeed achieves all three forays into immortality. For me, these three finally combine into one--his efforts comprehend the entire Egyptian encyclopedia of glorious immortality, even as the offerings of frankincense, myrrh, and kuphi evoke the three offerings to Re at morning, noon, and dusk, and thus also comprehend the immortal solar cycle to which Petese now, too, belongs (see Ryholt, here). Note that 70 is for the Egyptians a solar number, a number of completeness.

So on to the moment in which his wife, The Beautiful One of Sakhmet, like Isis or Helen, administers the pharmakon, burning three measures of incense to the sun god.

Column 5, lines 24-30 (page 57)
After this, Sakhminofret [went] to his store-rooms on the morning of the following day. On this day, her heart was exceedingly sad because of Petese, her husband, who she did not see, and [she] truly [hoped (?) in (?)] her heart that Petese [had (?)] made the remedy for the illness. . . She acted according to everything which he had commanded [to her]. She put myrrh, frankincense, and kyphi, [on the brazier], and she said: My brother, Petese. Do you watch for yourself. O, son of Petetum. [I pray that] Re will rescue you in the remedies which you are making. Re spoke [with] her. He answered [her with the] voice of Petese. It reached her heart. Petese said [. . .

What a surprising outcome, the voice of Re:

Re spoke [with] her. He answered [her with the] voice of Petese. It reached her heart (pH [=s] Xn H3t[=s]. hieroglyphs pg. 19

It reached her heart, or it reached to within her heart (ph khn h3t). ph what it signifies how it is written

Re responds to the plea for deliverance from death and his voice descends: an act of nHm--of rescue

Professor Ryholt comments on the story (p. 42):

"If it is correctly understood in lines 29-30 that Re answers Sakhminofret with the voice (3spy) of Petese, then the phrase 'it reached her heart (ph=s Xn H3t=s) must mean that she understood it. Erichsen, DG, 137, lists di pH=s n H3t in the meaning 'sich etwas ueberlegen, o.a.? consider something."  

In other words, the idiom it (the voice) reached her heart means she understood it: she understood the voice of her husband speaking to her through the medium of the divine voice, that is, "the tongue of angels." The voice "speaketh unto their understanding," that is, "unto the heart."

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Eyewitness: Joseph Smith "Interpreted Hieroglyphics for Us"

Oft repeated, and much repeated of late, is the assertion that no contemporaneous eyewitness accounts exist of Joseph Smith translating from the Egyptian papyri. The lack of such an account has seemed to leave an unbridgeable gap in understanding: How did the Prophet translate the Book of Abraham! What of the papyri! Owing to the supposed absence of an eyewitness account showing how the "work of translation" unfolded, an account that brings both papyri and the act of translation to one table, it's as commonly believed as not that the Prophet did not translate from the papyri he owned at all; instead, he "translated" by receiving a revelation about a lost record. As for the Egyptian artifacts, though so very physically present, these played the role of "catalyst" or "springboard" to the revealed "translation."

Joseph Smith was indeed given the translation of the Book of Abraham by revelation, but the words of Abraham were also inkbrushed onto a specific papyrus in his keeping, according to a clear statement in his last sermon, given on June 16, 1844: "I learned it by translating the papyrus now in my house."

From that date, Sunday, June 16, 1844, we move forward a mere eleven days to Thursday, June 27 and Martyrdom; and we move back exactly one month to Wednesday, May 15. These are days of witness, days consisting of the final explanations to his hearers and of the final demonstrations of his purported prophetic power to teach new Christian doctrines, prophesy of future events, and, uniquely, to translate "by the gift and power of God." And so, the ministry of a Prophet closed as it began.

The assertion about there being no contemporaneous eyewitnesses linking papyri to spiritual interpretation is untrue. On Thursday, May 16, 1844, young Josiah Quincy, later mayor of Boston, wrote his "very darling wife" about what it was like for him and Charles Francis Adams to spend an entire day with the Mormon Prophet.

So what was it like?

Thursday, May 16, 1844 (describing the events of the previous day, the 15th).

"We passed the whole day in his society and had one of the most extraordinary conversations I ever participated in he preached for us prophesied for us interpreted hieroglyphics for us exhibited his mummies and took us to his temple which he is now erecting on a most majestic site of hewn stone."

Jed L. Woodworth, "Josiah Quincy's 1844 Visit with Joseph Smith," BYU Studies 39/4

Joseph Smith, to honor his esteemed guests, and to satisfy their wishes, was more than willing to demonstrate for them in "an extraordinary conversation" exactly What it meant to be a Prophet, Seer, Revelator, and Translator, charged with spiritual gifts and powers. It seems most unusual--there was absolutely no reticence--but that is who and what Joseph Smith professed to be, and as he clearly intended, what they saw and heard that day left a lasting and "extraordinary" impression on both men. That is what they came to see and to hear, after all, and that is what they were given. What Brother Joseph chose to share yet reverberates, as many others who have read their various accounts of the experience have likewise sensed something of what it was like to share a whole day with a Prophet. How it impressed this reader as a child!

Josiah Quincy, in the letter, uses many active verbs to describe what an energetic Joseph Smith did and said that day, mundane and otherwise, but it is a special few that describe his renowned prophetic gifts:

On greeting them:

He "blessed us."

Then, throughout the day:

"He preached for us,

prophesied for us,

interpreted hieroglyphics for us."

Latter-day Saints will fondly note where this "extraordinary conversation" ultimately led--to the Holy Temple.

Jed Woodworth has edited the letter to a perfection and sorted out how it correlates with the other, more famous, and more whimsical, accounts of Quincy and Adams, including Adams's diary. (Quincy's ten-page journalizing has never been archived.) Yet as we take up this priceless letter, we must also momentarily set these other records aside. We must take that rare fresh look at a much repeated conversation. What this letter does better than all other accounts, in their paint and detail, is to capture, with succinctness, the interview as a manifestation of spiritual charisma, something Joseph Smith himself described as that special moment when a Prophet speaks and acts as a Prophet, something Scriptures describe as a Prophet speaking by the power of the Holy Ghost.

These two men might as well have find ourselves suddenly alongside Nephi, as journeyed in the wilderness from Jerusalem, a man who "opened his mouth and it was filled" (Doctrine and Covenants 64), or now with seeric king Mosiah, when he interpreted engravings on a large stone by the power of God, a stone others carried into his presence. And whether Mosiah interpreted the writings one or many times for the benefit of wondering court visitors, each time the mysterious
characters had to succumb once again to the seeric vision.

All this is to throw together the "extraordinary" with the diurnal. Brother Joseph's clothing and home, said Quincy, were both somewhat "dirty"; the "conversation" came pure.

And note how message takes second place to the act itself--really, a demonstration in three acts. What mattered was the sign, the expression: what we might call the prophetic "speech-act." These guests wanted to see prophecy in action, not learn doctrine. The men wondered about Joseph as Minister of the Gospel: He preached by the power of the Holy Ghost. And note that he "preached for us," not "to us." They marveled at his claims to be a Prophet: he accordingly prophesied. They had wondered at his translation and publication of New Scripture--a unique, curious, pretention--to satisfy that wonderment, he interpreted hieroglyphs from a roll of papyrus.

And note it well, the Prophet did not show them a copy of the translated Book of Abraham printed in the Times and Seasons newspaper, or anything like that: "What I translated." No. He took up the papyrus and gave them a demonstration of how a prophetic translator "interpreted hieroglyphics" by divine gift: What I translate. And it makes no difference whether he had preached to this theme or translated that particular line before--the gift, with assertion, yes, but no fanfare, was both summoned and manifested in their immediate present and profane presence.

The pair were given to understand that they were witnessing the "act" of divine translation itself, firsthand, and in expression of authoritative charisma. Adams's diary records that Joseph Smith concluded the demonstration in these words: "I say it!"

As remarkable as it all sounds, such odd conjunction of the mundane and the highly charged appears from time-to-time in accounts others left of their own encounters with Joseph Smith, when he took up, in their very presence, the prophetic role. He might preach many times from a particular text or two found in Mark or Matthew; he might repeatedly prophesy of judgments on Missouri--or the like--but for each new hearer the experience was sure to be startling and unique: their chance to meet a Prophet.

Many, it would appear, were those who passed a spell in the Book of Mormon "translation room" back in Pennsylvania, in 1829 through 1830 and, as did Adams and Quincy, witnessed an act of prophetic translation. What they reportedly observed of translation, and what the Bostonian pair observed, do not essentially differ. The action partook of no mystic element. Without ceremony, a man dictated, or claimed to dictate, in English, characters found in "records of ancient date."

"These were days never to be forgotten," writes scribe Oliver Cowdery, who, "day after day," as he puts it, witnessed pretty much the full act. These were long days of listening to an ordinary voice dictate, but along with the seemingly
mundane, he attests that the entire work unfolded "by the inspiration of heaven," a reality certainly lost on the merely curious observer.

Day after day--or just today--let us walk and talk with Joseph Smith as he took on his prophetic mantle and spoke and prophesied and translated by what he called "the unspeakable power of the Holy Ghost." And remember: What is unspeakable is not all to be understood, or even at all to be understood. Yet we can attest that we have heard, in extraordinary conversation, God's voice speaking through a living Prophet, Joseph Smith to Thomas S. Monson, in our walk today.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Seeing beyond the Terror of Our Days

This week--today--and in early Spring--and last year--and the year before last, acts of terrorism have shaken my soul, and they have shaken your soul. There are faces I cannot bear to see, and yet I must mourn them, even when I mourn on the run, in the car, while I read or buy groceries. (Then, in the long nights, we start to think and read news stories about those who might have lived, might have escaped, and did not.) They are not strangers. Coptic children are no strangers to a student of ancient Egypt who has engaged both Sahidic and Bohairic--earth's most delightful dialects--or attended Easter services in a Coptic Church. Copts are no strangers to any Christian. Of the children of Manchester, the Hebrides, I cannot even speak. I mutter in disbelief. Of the brother from Ogden killed in March near the Houses of Parliament, a member of my own Faith, I cannot even think. His wife, also seriously wounded, is interviewed. I turn instantly from the television screen, and then turn back, and tough it out with the heart. The missionaries in Belgium, somehow they were spared the worst. . . But I recall missionaries who lost their lives in Peru's crucible of terror. Now, years later, I can read about all that a little bit--if I must.

And then there is Paris. People complain, often and loudly, about the outcry over terrorist acts in France, the tricolor postings, and the relatively silence over attacks elsewhere. I would like to speak to this. I would like to explain why I almost instinctively turn to Radio France and listen to the news deep into the night. I would like to explain why I had to photograph the French flags on Temple Square or listen to the Marseillaise. I would like to explain the pain I feel for France--but there is no clean cut explanation. Paris, indeed all of France, all of Western Europe, represents that trembling flame of freedom. "I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray, you wore blue." That flame speaks very deeply to the human spirit, it's in every film about freedom and liberty I've ever seen, and I cannot help that. I bear the name of my father's older brother, who sacrificed his life for the liberation of Europe. I also shudder to remember the student from Cal State Long Beach killed in Paris--I simply couldn't bear the thought--and those killed in Riverside. I'm Californian. 

 I remember tonight the counsel my father gave family members on the very day of 9/11 and in the days that followed; I also remember the counsel of President James E. Faust about not fearing the terrorists, quoting Jesus: "And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul"; I recall how the Prophet Joseph repeated these words to his friends on the road to Carthage, as men on horseback approached the little group; I cherish the counsel on setting aside fear, lately given in Conference by President Uchtdorf; and I'll never forget the talk given by President Gordon B. Hinckley two days before 9/11--how I hung on every word he said.

 I think we will soon see the day—and we are here already—when the attacks by terrorists will be like the popping of popcorn, continuous, startling, explosive. We’ll call it World War III, talk of the end of the world, wonder how we can go on. And yet, it will be as Elder Neal A. Maxwell said, “cloud cover,” and not yet “general darkness.” This beloved apostle urged us to see our future thus. Without such counsel, I wouldn't know how to discern the signs of the times, of today's moments. I recall prayer after prayer for Elder Maxwell, for the hope to hear just one or two more encouraging, or even chastening, sermons. We needed his voice then, and we need it now.

It’s now a War, and even though it has been a War for some time, and wars within wars, it's all really War now, and there will be times of battle, as in all wars—and occasional pauses—and it may last some years. More civilians than soldiers will die--and children. It's sobering to look over the list of cities hit; I stopped listening to Radio France. 

The wise will hold on their way, not fear. Such signs are of those of the fig tree, "a desolating sickness"--I can't read news stories about superbugs or killer strains without inner panic--"earthquakes," and of the time when men "will take up the sword, one against another, and they will kill one another." Jesus tells us in the 45th Section of the Doctrine and Covenants of how His disciples in Jerusalem "were troubled" when He said those very last words to them. 

"And now, when I the Lord had spoken these words unto my disciples, they were troubled. And I said unto them: Be not troubled, for, when all these things shall come to pass, ye may know that the promises which have been made unto you shall be fulfilled. " Jesus then said that "the light shall begin to break forth"; He confirmed them in hope. 

It seems passing strange that disciples of so long ago would be so very troubled about things so commonplace in this world of sorrows, men killing men with swords, especially things of prophecy, things yet to be. We cannot know what they were asked to know and to feel--and yet Jesus is sharing all this with Joseph Smith, and with all of us. They got the word anyhow--and it hit them to the core. The weight of every news report in the world somehow bore on their collective shoulders. They sensed something of being orphaned. It must have been a long moment, a moment when they looked at Jesus, turned pale, looked down.Then Jesus promptly responded Be not troubled and spoke of promises, of dawn.

I do not wish to say that we mustn’t mourn. Many of these events hit me right to the core. Some come as a glancing blow. All stop me in my tracks. I sorrowed over the events of the last week. And I plan to mourn again--and again after that, if need be. We refuse to become jaded. But we may also toughen heart and soul in such a way that our joys remain--and remain undisturbed at core, and their expression likewise undisturbed, and even buoyant and cheerful. We are invited to take on the toughness of a time of war, but this can nevertheless be a toughness that yet radiates hope and gospel joy, even a gospel joy that translates to the smiles and gracious ways of everyday life. We remember recent teachings of Russell M. Nelson, President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, about our needing that kind of joy to see us through our lives more than we need anything else ("Joy and Spiritual Survival," Conference Report, October 2016). 

We can laugh too, and celebrate music and nature and novels, and pursue adventure—though we will do well to put aside lightmindedness and idle practices. Those are things mature men and women should cut out of their lives anyhow. Instead, in our own circles, we can all be builders. Today I read the words of President Thomas S. Monson in the June 2017 First Presidency Message. In a "word" he shares with us right now, he reassures us that we may still lay hold of the promise he gave us in his first year of prophetic leadership: "The future will be as bright as your faith."

These are my thoughts, and it would seem that despite the heroic, even amazing, efforts of governments to see us all through, that startling terrorist attacks will still continue, like the popping of popcorn, everywhere. It will strike places hitherto seen as safe, secure. It is now—and it will yet be--with occasional seasons of intensity. And then, on top of everything, like cloud cumulus, or cloud worse, there's North Korea. For me, that spells "general darkness," but I will hold fast to the counsel of Elder Maxwell and not mistake "local cloud cover" for the end of the world. For these times we were born, though it seems as though the whole earth, all nations, will be shaken by the actions of a relatively small group of angry men and women. 

Many members of the Church teased--and yet tease--President Ezra Taft Benson about being overly concerned about Communism in the late 20th century; the teasing, though, becomes surprising when one reads that during the last century, and according to a study made by European socialists, Communist governments were responsible for the deaths of at least 103 million of their own citizens (see David Hackett Fischer, Liberty and Freedom). But I recall what was perhaps the last talk this modern Prophet gave in General Conference: He spoke of a group, as prophesied in the Book of Mormon, that would seek to overthrow the freedom of every land and people. I don't recall him naming names. No matter: We are living in the middle of what he was speaking of. Those 103 million are now dead. Communism came, killed, and went. Two World Wars came and went. Vietnam. Korea--well, it came to stay. So we start again, and President Benson left future generations with a new, as yet unnamed, unarmed foe. And we always start again because every time the terrorists attack (which network this time?) it feels like the beginning all over again. It feels like 9/11 or 77, but it is the middle. Yes, Manchester seemed like the beginning of it all again. I didn't sense that I was any tougher in heart or soul anyway.

One would think I was used to it all. Even before, and long before, 9/11 terror filled our television screens with regular visits. As a missionary in Peru, I lived in the middle of a war on terror, often a war of both-sides-enemy, though far from the epicenter. Terrorists struck, and down went electric lines along hundreds of miles of coast. We stumbled along in the night, a very dark Christmas Eve, I think it was, rumors everywhere. Once, a young friend said she slept through her English class, only to hear that a bomb had struck the school. You walked along, glanced at a random building, and just another day of automatic weapons leveled either at or just beyond you==you could never be quite sure how it was because there were moments. . . And, then, there was unthinkable poverty on all sides. Americans don't know.

I think often of late of the decades of terror in Peru. I've been reading. The books sicken me; they stun me. They hit somewhere between memory and unbelief. It just couldn't have been that way--just a year or two ago--and yet it was.

The cloud cover has now dispersed. Where there was a continuous rain of death and destruction throughout the mountains and valleys of Peru's interior regions, I now note hope and luxuriant growth, despite the unrelenting poverty. Those killed by terrorists are now honored by municipalities once cowed by terror. A few weeks ago photographs of such a memorial was placed in my hands: a nun who refused to stop giving to the poor, and therefore martyred by the Shining Path, was honored with a marker and with a school bearing her name. Books and memories mirror the whole for me in ways I cannot explain. There is an intensely gripping new world of music and dance, in both Quechua and Aymara, that Peru has never seen before. A whole nation appears to rise from the ashes of conquest. The same thing now unfolds in Guatemala. Never has the dawn shined brighter in the Americas. And, as the Book of Mormon prophesies, the light of day will shine brighter and brighter far.

And what of the Middle East? Though I know little, I teach classes about her history and culture. Books about deserts, oil, Islam, and the medieval palaces of Baghdad, surround me; languages intrigue me. Arabs and Persians walk and talk with a grace and a goodness that I've never seen in any other people. So, too, I today know very personally many dozens of young people who hail from Africa, refugees from war, genocide, camps. Even as we brace for the news about the most devastating famines ever to hit the world in modern times, there is one word to embrace all these dozens today: Hope. I always remember what Moroni taught: "Man must hope." We must hope, but how? Impossible! I will refuse to be comforted. Then Jesus quickly responded Be not troubled. They raised their eyes from the ground and met His gaze. He then spoke of promises and of a new and clearer dawn.

Then we may say, in the words of a modern disciple, prophet, seer, and apostle:  

"Even when the armaments of war ring out in deathly serenade and darkness and hatred reign in the hearts of some, there stands immovable, reassuring, comforting, and with great outreaching love the quiet figure of the Son of God, the Redeemer of the world"
(President Gordon B. Hinckley, Conference Report, April 2003).

Our future is as bright as our faith.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

What did Joseph Smith say about the nature of Egyptian hieroglyphs?

I  What did Ohioans in Joseph Smith's day think about the nature of Egyptian hieroglyphs?

The Maumee Express, dated 18 November 1837 (page 2), gives us the answer.

In a notice entitled "Antique," we read that "The Currators [sic] of the Albany Institute [Albany, New York] acknowledge the donation of a copy in plaster of the Rosetta Stone, now in the British Museum, from Henry James Esq."

The notice, doubtless published in various states, goes on to say: "The interest of this piece of antiquity is increased by the fact that all the discoveries of Dr. Young and Champollion concerning the hieroglyphic language of Egypt, originated in a study of the inscription on it."

One thing to admire about this little notice is how it tosses off "all the discoveries of Dr. Young and Champollion" without elaboration. Ohioans, and other Americans, back in 1837 knew more about "all the discoveries of Dr. Young and Champollion" than do Ohioans today. Professor John T. Irwin has written about how these sensational discoveries awoke American intellectual--and, yes, imaginative--curiosity, among academics and the populace at large. "In 1829 Henry Wheaton, the noted legal historian and diplomat, published in the North American a twenty-five-page review of one of Champollion's works." By 1831 Edward Everett was already publishing lengthy, widely-distributed, articles on the question of Champollion's priority over Thomas Young, while at once dismissing Athanasius Kircher's older views about hieroglyphs as metaphysical emblem with snorts of disdain: "utterly baseless;" "laboriously absurd" (John T. Irwin, American Hieroglyphics, 4-5). Yet "laboriously absurd" also perfectly describes the symbolic priestly writing at Dendara, ironically the object of Everett's attention. 
I'm just looking over the shoulder of a typical Ohio farmer in 1837, as he opens his newspaper and nods knowingly.

Egyptology was born with the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799. Because the stone bore a text in hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek, the world thereafter knew that "the hieroglyphic language of Egypt" was a running script as Greek was a running script, or perhaps as Chinese was a running ideographic script. 1799 thus marks a clean break between timeless speculations about the metaphysical nature of the script and what scholars now plainly saw on the Stone. The news went everywhere--even to the American frontier.

And to the South--and on to Hawaii, where the work of Young, Champollion, and Rosselini was pondered beneath the palms of Kona and Waikiki (The Polynesian). 
The Edgefield Advertiser (South Carolina), dated 12 April 1838 (pg. 1), has much to say about the work of Champollion:

"The genealogical and chronological table of Abydos, discovered in 1818, by Mr. Bankes, so well studied, explained, and commented upon by Champollion [see, they knew a lot about all this], and which is universally regarded as the most interesting and precious monument which has been drawn from the ruins of ancient Egypt since the celebrated stone of Rosetta. . ." (the italic added).

Library of Congress, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/

The above sampling, easily multiplied, shows both keen interest and an easy familiarity--not to know about these breakthroughs in 1837 would be like not knowing about the railroad or the steam engine.

One thing is for sure: the documentary evidence contradicts the conclusions of the editors of the latest volume of the Joseph Smith Papers (Documents 5): "Though French scholar Jean-Francois Champollion came to recognize the phonetic nature of Egyptian hieroglyphs during the 1820s and early 1830s, his ideas were not fully embraced or widely published until decades after his death in 1832" (p. 81, italic added). "Though news of Champollion's work had reached the United States by the 1830s, few Americans has access to it or understood the significance of his work on Egyptian hieroglyphs" (83 n. 354; Isaac Stuart's translation of Greppo's essay on Champollion, Boston, 1830, is mentioned). There is a need to sort out the basic difference between Champollions's written work and his winged ideas.

Professor Irwin hits the nail on the head: "The name Champollion appears in some of the most important literary works of the American Renaissance". . . "Yet for most modern readers, it is a name that requires an identifying footnote" (Irwin, ibid., 3). Ohioans in 1837 didn't need a Jean-Francois attached to their Champollion, and Dr. Young sufficed for Thomas Young. As for Rossellini, Who was he again? 

II   What did Joseph Smith say about the nature of the hieroglyphs?

And what of the Yankee Prophet Joseph Smith, a man familiar with Everett's Boston and still living in Ohio in 1837? Egyptology was born several years before he was; "Dr. Young and Champollion" were household names before he reached his twenties, before he begin to speak of translating Egyptian texts. Can anyone suppose that Joseph Smith could have made claims about translating Egyptian hieroglyphs over a sixteen year period, without hearing many things about one of the most stunning discoveries of the age? This is a man who--like everyone else, I suppose--chatted of Napoleon and Swedenborg with friends, a preacher who lifted his voice not only in the log cabins and clearings of America and Canada but in the cities of Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Salem, Springfield, and Washington (often). When he spoke of translating Egyptian, would not Young, Champollion, and "the celebrated stone of Rosetta," come forcibly to every mind?

If there was any temporal institution Joseph Smith kept his eye on that was the press. "By the power of God," writes Joseph Smith in 1843 to James Arlington Bennet, formerly publisher of the Brooklyn Advocate and Nassau Gazette, "I translated the Book of Mormon from hieroglyphics" (History of the Church 6:74; http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/person/james-arlington-bennet).

Of what nature were these hieroglyphics? 

"I, through the grace of God, translated the Book of Mormon. Let the language of that book speak for itself."

(Joseph Smith, 1843--yet another letter to the press)

In Mormon 9:32, Moroni tells us:

"And now, behold, we have written this record according to our knowledge, in the characters which are called among us the reformed Egyptian, being handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech."

What a clear statement to the world, in March 1830, that Egyptian hieroglyphs reflect the "manner of speech." They are a) phonetic in make-up and thus b) can be altered to reflect phonological change. Indeed, given the unceasing changes in the Egyptian language, the hieroglyphs, a mixed system of logograms, syllabograms, and alphabet, were often reformed, reworked, retweaked, resignified, and revalued. We don't have a purely ideographic system on the gold plates, like Chinese, and certainly not some indefinable symbolic system of mysterious import. In fact there's no mystery: Moroni says that the Egyptian characters write words, and they can write them just as the words are meant to be pronounced (Again, see Irwin, American Hieroglyphics, on what was available to contemporaneous Americans on the phonetic nature of Egyptian hieroglyphs.)

As we go on to consider how the Prophet Joseph Smith, in 1838, 
describes the hieroglyphic writing on the title page of the Book of Mormon, we must first come to grips with how the timeline of breakthroughs correlates with his own work as Translator. 1799 marks the discovery of the Rosetta Stone; 1802, its date of acquisition by the British Museum; 1805 is Joseph Smith's year of birth; 1819 sees Thomas Young's decipherment of two royal names; 1822 marks Champollion's breakthrough announcement on the nature of the script and alphabetic values; 1823, Young publishes his Egyptian alphabet, "as extended by M. Champollion"; 1828 sees Joseph Smith's first translations from the Book of Mormon; 1830, the publication of that volume (with its explanations of the nature of the hieroglyphic system); 1835, his purchase of the mummies and papyri and first translations of the Book of Abraham; 1838, his further explanations about the hieroglyphic system and the title page of the Book of Mormon; 1842-3, his publication in an Illinois newspaper of the Book of Abraham, including explanations of the hieroglyphic words and representations found in three Egyptian vignettes, a publication promptly reproduced in the New York Herald (See Thomas Young: Natural Philosopher, by Alexander Wood, 237.) The end was not yet: a coherent description of the hieroglyphic system, the final breakthrough for translation, came only with Richard Lepsius, already named in The Polynesian on 7 September 1844, as among "the most celebrated of hierologists."

When he addresses, then, in 1838, the particular gold plate that makes up the ancient title page, the Prophet correlates one plate to one page. And bear in mind that each plate was 6" in width, 8" in length, and that the translation of the title page comprises a heading and two paragraphs. Again, here is no mystical reading of hieroglyphs as Emblem in which each sign contains of itself sufficient capacity to supply many sentences of either esoterica or Scripture. 

Here, too, Joseph Smith speaks of these same phonetically based Egyptian hieroglyphs as a "running" script, even as Hebrew was a running script. And note how Brother Joseph not only studied such varied scripts as Hebrew and Greek, he found himself, on plate and papyri, face-to-face with hieroglyphic, hieratic, and the diachronic manifestations of "reformed Egyptian." Champollion was so surrounded. Consider next what of the hieroglyphs Brother Joseph once shared--what he significantly chose to share--with Oliver Cowdery and Frederick G. Williams. As Oliver jotted down in a private notebook, two signs write out Book Mormon (the expected construct form) for The Book of Mormon; two additional signs write the Interpreters of Languages. (The Prophet notes that the hieroglyphs on the plates ran from right to left, so that may well be how we are also to read the signs in Oliver's memorandum book; see Joseph Smith Papers Project Web page for Cowdery's notebook: http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/appendix-2-document-2-characters-copied-by-oliver-cowdery-circa-1835-1836/1).

In Mosiah 1 we learn that Lehi, "having been taught in the language of the Egyptians, therefore he could read these engravings," then afterwards taught the same "to his children, that thereby they could teach them to their children" (Mosiah 1:4). We even read of Benjamin's palace school. All this shows a system of writing (however difficult) susceptible to mastery by all comers--and the coming generations.

How about the papyri Joseph Smith purchased in 1835, three years before his description of the underlying principles of the Egyptian writing system? Would Joseph Smith's ideas about the nature of the writing on papyri vary much from what he already knew about the writing on the plates? How about the Book of Abraham, then? "Let the language of that book speak for itself." In the Prophet's Explanation of Facsimile 3, he tells us that the name of a Pharaoh can be "given in the characters above his head," by which we are to understand that a royal name consists of more than one hieroglyphic sign. That's how "Dr. Young and Champollion" got their start, is it not?

Recall further the idea expressed in the Book of Abraham that the ancients considered both iconography so well as the writing to be "hieroglyphics," something every reader of Richard H. Wilkinson's popular Reading Egyptian Art knows today (Abraham 1:14). The careful reader of the Prophet's explanations of the Abraham facsimiles will further note the succinct "translation" (that is, interpretation) given for each several representation, or hieroglyph. Each icon has one principal significance, though Brother Joseph also observes how "in this case" a particular representation may signify such-and-such, which establishes that in yet another case it may signify yet something else, an observation, notes Hugh Nibley, that would ring true for any ancient Egyptian scribe.

Speaking of Hugh Nibley, we recall what he says about Joseph Smith and the Egyptian understanding of the Wadjet Eye: in explaining the hypocephalus, Brother Joseph zeros in on a pair of Wadjet Eyes, as also a single Wadjet Eye, in yet another case, as expressing "key words" for the Egyptian "Priesthood," as they certainly do. In this case, the Prophet clearly recognizes (again) that the iconic and the hieroglyphic often coincide or overlap. And should one also refer to the round hypocephalus as itself a Hieroglyph, even a metaphysical emblem, Egyptologists could make no objection--while also noting how that sphere is writ large with actual text, writings from which it can never be meaningfully disassociated.

And there are times in which the astute modern interpreter may take paragraphs, or even pages, to unpack the various connotations of even a single hieroglyph qua icon. Forget Athanasius Kircher and consider dusting off your copy of Reading Egyptian Art or taking a peek at the encyclopedic Woerterbuch. Then read again what Professor Erik Hornung has written about the nature of Egyptian logic, that is, how the Egyptians themselves viewed their own world (hint: not as we view the world). After all, without some understanding of how a particular system of writing, or a peculiar system of logic, works, how could anyone even begin to weigh in on the matter of Joseph as Translator?

III  A continual need for reinterpretation?

We might, accordingly, probe what appears in the latest BYU Religious Education Review (Winter 2017), widely distributed throughout the Church Education System (CES), including hints, forever swirling, about Joseph Smith never having intended to canonize the Book of Abraham, or whether he, though indeed revealing Abraham's record under inspiration, only thought he was translating from the papyri. 


"While it does not appear that Joseph Smith or his associates drew directly upon earlier scholarship regarding ancient Egypt, they shared with such scholars assumptions about the Egyptian language. For instance, they believed the language was mysterious, symbolic, and closely linked to Hebrew and other languages that reflected a more refined and 'pure' language" (Robin Scott Jensen, "The Joseph Smith Papers and the Book of Abraham," 10).

A new volume in the Joseph Smith Papers will therefore show "a thorough introduction and contextualization" of any writing associated with the Prophet and Egypt (p.11). Well and good, though I hope "contextualization" is not just a code word for another kind of canonization. "Every wind" may "minister questions"; settling accounts is a different matter. While anyone gifted with knowledge and wisdom certainly must join in the conversation, "that all may be profited thereby," there are two things nobody has the charge to do: 1) focus so much on reconstructing the nature of prophetic translation, that we forget to treasure the translated; 2) go far beyond what the Gospel Topics essays judiciously say of translation. Both ideas are captured in the words of Elder Bruce R. McConkie, who once said of Abraham's records: "Would that the Prophet had gone on in his translation or revelation, as the case may be" (See Doctrine and Covenants 46:12;  Elder Quentin L. Cook, Conference Report, April 2012; Bruce R. McConkie, "The Doctrinal Restoration," in Joseph Smith Translation: the Restoration of Plain and Precious Things, 21). 

In the same vein, Hugh Nibley wrote an entire volume about the Joseph Smith Book of Breathings, "because such a great fuss was being made by everyone over a scrap of papyrus," yet never pondering what was on that papyrus. Nibley went on in his translation--and the results provide us with anything but a run-of-the-mill funerary text; instead they afford the best commentary on "the dispensation of the gospel of Abraham" to date, a dispensation much concerned with eternal ordinances, covenants, and promises--the ancient order of things (see Doctrine and Covenants 110; 1 Timothy). That Joseph Smith in 1835 Ohio should possess not only a Book of Breathings but also a hypocephalus is itself a marvelous work and a wonder.

IV  W.W. Phelps, "Canst thou translate?" (Mosiah 8:11)

The BYU Religious Education Review goes on to speak of "documents that were produced as part of Joseph Smith's attempt to understand Egyptian--including those termed the Alphabet documents and the Grammar and Alphabet volume." "Documents that were produced" cleverly by-passes the need to assign an agent, a principal actor: to speak of "Joseph Smith's attempt" is to sidestep. That sentence becomes the principal argument for including all of these documents among the Joseph Smith Papers, which may be but the argument doesn't add up since the few pages that make up "the Grammar and Alphabet volume" all appear in the handwriting of W.W. Phelps and Warren Parrish. And while the few, short Alphabet documents do show a page in the Prophet's handwriting, his sparse notes about angelic and patriarchal orders hardly match the fervid scribblings of Phelps.

Some introductory words will always be in order about W.W. Phelps, a newspaper editor from New York, who held wild notions about language, but remember, the very fact of the Rosetta Stone, a trilingual, overturned, in a trice, any "earlier scholarship" and corresponding "assumptions." That understanding, among both academics and--as we have seen--journalists, was bruited about in both England and the United States long before the Book of Mormon came on the scene. 

No wonder, then, that Phelps the editor held to a stereoscopic view of the hieroglyphs anyway, a view commingling what Irwin calls "metaphysical emblem" with running script, ideographic or otherwise. Although Phelps did tell his readers in 1834 how "the Egyptians could astonish the universe . . . concealing their arts in mystical characters or hieroglyphics," his later attempt to translate a few lines from hieratic was matched by corresponding lines in English. And note: his attempt at translation made no use whatsoever of his own Alphabet documents. (For the quotation, Samuel Brown, "The Prophet and the Ghostwriter.")

Phelps opens his Grammar and Alphabet by unpacking the meaning of several "mystical characters" that are anything but Egyptian "hieroglyphics." Then, to our astonishment, he veers from the mystic into scientism as he weds a cool mathematical reading of these characters to a bizarre list of the "parts of speech": "These five connecting parts of speech, for verbs, participles--prepositions, conjuntions [sic], and adverbs"; "[This] character alone has 5 parts of speech: increase by one straight line [over the character] thus 5x5 is 25 by 2 horizontal lines thus 25x5=125; and by 3 horizontal lines thus: --125x5 = 625." To arrive at Phelps's "Yankee practical" method for code-cracking (or, as one student argues, "code-making") is thus the easiest thing in the world: combine equal amounts of primer arithmetic and grammar and--presto! And note how for Phelps, the Anti-Masonic editor, all characters must be read according to "five degrees" of explanation: Masons were initiated into a mere three; Phelps raises the cognoscenti another two. Hugh Nibley wonders aloud "what game" Phelps was "playing"--the explanation lies in simple psychology: beat the secret enemy at his own Cipher ("The Meaning of the Kirtland Egypian Papers," BYU Studies, 1971).

There's more in the same vein. Phelps explains a non-hieroglyphic, umbrella-like semicircle as follows: "To point out subject--that is, it signifies a continuation of the subject; also to designate one sentence from another, according to the different marks of punctuation signifying the whole of any thing or the whole earth." "The whole earth" juts a bridge too far for a pronominal or agentive morpheme marking "a continuation of subject." (For Phelps use of Masonic ciphers and "Ogham-like letters," so well as hieroglyphs, for "concealing" his "arts" [even before the mummies arrived in Kirtland], again see Hugh Nibley, "Kirtland Egyptian Papers," and William Schryver, Presentation on the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, Fair Conference 2009; on the Joseph Smith Papers Web site note "continuation" not "combinnation"; "priests" not "fruits" of Abraham's seed, etc.)

V   "And I say unto thee again: Knowest thou of any one that can translate?" (Mosiah 8:12)

How should we assess such odd things? With discomfort? embarrassment? Shall we shake our head at Brother Joseph's foolishness or lack of mental horsepower? Let's begin to detect with the typical plot of the detective story in mind.

An early biographer of Joseph Smith found confirmation of his greatness in the quality of the leaders drawn into his inner circle. Let's look a bit deeper. Seeric minds attract the rest of us as well--don't they?--including the journalist, lawyer, scholar, and many a pretender. So it's ironic, is it not, when Phelps writes his wife about the visit of Matthias, the phony prophet, to Kirtland? Chandler, Matthias, Phelps, mummies--one figure beckons them all. 

As in the case of Lincoln and Herndon, nothing reveals greatness more than the foil, and that especially proves true when the foil, so Herndon, so Phelps, attains to great learning. Yet who solves the case? Who gives the Gettysburg Address? Or who wrote the first Lincoln biography? And who gave the funeral address after the Martyrdom? Only with the loss of the hero, can a man such as Phelps finally admit and fully proclaim: "Praise to the Man who communed with Jehovah! Jesus anointed that Prophet and Seer!" Nothing in the Book of Mormon, the Vision of Moses, the Joseph Smith Translation of the Holy Bible, the Book of Abraham, the Record of John the Baptist, the Parchment of John the Beloved, the Book of Enoch (the last three quoted in the Doctrine and Covenants), nothing in any of the Prophet's revelations, epistles, or sermons, resembles to the least degree the method or the language of W.W. Phelps. And what of the Joseph Smith holograph in the Alphabet documents? The page addresses the descending orders of God, angels, patriarchs, and princes, along with a few words apparently intended to be either a) Adamic; b) the Chaldean language; or c) Egyptian, with the first choice being the most likely. As for the Prophet's correspondence, we do find a couple of letters drafted by Phelps, which, again, show his delight in solving "mathematical problems" (http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/grammar-and-alphabet-of-the-egyptian-language-circa-july-circa-november-1835/1).

What a mistake it would be to draw conclusions about Joseph Smith or the Book of Abraham on the basis of Brother William's abacus or his jealousy of the Masons. Phelps, a drifting satellite, could be tethered to a footnote. Otherwise, we end up with claims short on nuance and long on suggestion such as the following:

"In this respect, he and his prophet joined a chorus of other voices concerned with the deep meaning of hieroglyphs and primal language" (Samuel M. Brown, "The Translator and the Ghostwriter," 35; Irwin, ibid., 6); 

a discontinuous 5 page Alphabet document, a little of which appears in the Prophet's own hand, may have been "part of a comprehensive project [5 pages?] that synthesized characters from various source texts [such as? how synthesized?], indeed "may have been an effort by JS and his associates to decode characters that they assumed stood for larger concepts" (Joseph Smith Papers: Documents, Vol. 5, 2017, pages 82-83). Note that the Prophet considers but a few unknown characters; comments on the hieratic are in two other hands: Cowdery and Parrish.

Here the present editors of the wee document assume that others, the loose "they", "may have," or may not have, "assumed" that dissimilar and eclectic graphemes, now "synthesized" in "a comprehensive project," "stood for larger concepts." Consider Chinese characters. Moving beyond the built-in phonetic complements, are they not in large part ideographic? That is, do they not often stand for "larger concepts"? although we must also ask Larger than what? And what of hieroglyphs, cuneiform, or the Mayan glyphs, large, complex, playful systems that thoroughly mix logographic, syllabic, alphabetic, iconic, and cryptographic elements? Do not these convey conceptions so well as sounds and words? Or how about the highly encoded hieroglyphs carved over centuries on Ptolemaic and Roman Temples, whose symbolic capaciousness bespeaks "a radical change in the laws regulating the use of hieroglyphs"? (See Antonio Loprieno, Ancient Egyptian: A Linguistic Introduction, 19.) And Why not? for "the connotative potential" inherent in the "figurative immediacy" of Egyptian hieroglyphs, as opposed to all "other graphic systems which made use of ideographic principles," remained (Loprieno, 18). Remember that semiotically rich composite hieroglyphs by the dozen appear side-by-side with alphabetic and biconsonantal signs from the Old Kingdom on (Dimitri Meeks).

What, then, to make of the following? "Though Egyptologists today understand hieroglyphs as essentially phonetic in nature, most scholars in the early nineteenth century believed that hieroglyphic characters were ideograms, which symbolized whole ideas or concepts rather than distinct sounds" (Joseph Smith Papers: Documents 5, 83). Putting aside the fact that Phelps prepared columns reading character, sound, etc, if the sentence had been punctuated to read: "that hieroglyphic characters were ideograms that symbolized whole ideas or concepts" [for these early students], i.e., as opposed to, say, Chinese ideograms, it would have held some truth. Yet what are "whole ideas" and how do they differ from "concepts?"

As a corrective to vague thinking, we need to study not only the various systems of writing found throughout history but also the Prophet's own detailed words on the subject, plain words Phelps somehow failed to read. Again, we must "Let the language of that book speak for itself." (For another recent review, Kerry Muhlestein, "Assessing the Joseph Smith Papyri," Interpreter 22, 2016).

VI   "I can assuredly tell thee. . . of a man that can translate" (Mosiah 8:13)

Yet even as we let the book speak for itself, we must never lose sight of Joseph the Translator being "Author and Proprietor"--as he put it--of what he translated. What he translated, he taught and he yet teaches. Should we talk about his blending in with "a chorus of other voices," we must first grapple with what this religious dissenter boldly and widely disseminated about the language, scripts, culture, and religion of ancient Egypt, and in his own voluminous words. After all our learned posturings, shall we finally let Joseph Smith speak for himself?

As for Hebrew or Egyptian reflecting "a more refined and 'pure' language," recall not only Joseph's insights about both Hebrew and Egyptian scripts almost casually "altered" and "reformed," following the normal flow of linguistic change, but also how the Lord tells the Brother of Jared that the powerful language in which he will record his visions, "even to the overwhelming of men to read them"--so Moroni--will yet be a "confounded," mixed or mixed-up, unintelligible language--in a word, "nonsense" (see Mormon 9; Ether 3 and 4 and 12). Without the aid of the divine Interpreters, "the vision of all" would become "as the words of a book that is sealed" (Isaiah 29:11). Thus it is that even the greatest Book of all, the revelation of the Brother of Jared, the Sealed Portion of the Golden Plates, features, says Brother Joseph, no metaphysical hieroglyphic emblems at all, even though it contains a revelation of "all things from the foundation of the world unto the end thereof." One day, "by the power of Christ," "the words of the book which were sealed shall be read upon the house tops," not laboriously worked out in the obscurity of a mystic's cave (2 Nephi 27:10-11).

The Prophet revealed in 1830 that the early Patriarchs wrote "in the language of Adam" and "by the spirit of inspiration": "And [that] by them their children were taught to read and write, having a language which was pure and undefiled" (Moses 6:5-6). Yet nowhere does he associate the same with either the eminently alterable Egyptian or Hebrew, for which, he repeatedly gives us to understand, the scripts (so well as the languages themselves) were mere vehicles, and the more unwieldy and difficult the better, for "sealing up" a sacred message from profane view.
In fact, the Prophet's view clearly is one of all languages, ancient and modern, being subject to continuous "corruption" (see Omni), "alteration," and "confounding." And scripts are for "stumbling" and "misplacing" words, a matter of complaint and keen embarrassment (so Ether 13). "If we could have written in Hebrew," Moroni does lament, there would have been "no imperfection in our record," "but [since] the Hebrew hath been altered by us also," don't look for perfection here (Mormon 9:33). "While our latitude and longitude can be determined in the Hebrew with far greater accuracy than in the English version" (Edwin Parry, ed., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 159), "far greater accuracy" refers to the question of reading from the original rather than the target language; it also notably falls short of "a perfect accuracy." In a similar vein, he praised Luther's Bible for its far greater accuracy. 

And remember, too, that what remarkably few words Joseph Smith shared with others of "the language of Adam," he claimed to obtain by direct revelation (in March 1832)--not by seeing it on a written text. Brigham Young, the very day he first met the Prophet (September 1832) and according to his own Manuscript History, prayed in that "pure Adamic language." Joseph Smith immediately identified it as such by the scriptural gift of interpretation. It all came to both brethren as a gift--and apparently so remained. Years later both Joseph and Brigham labored at Hebrew Bible lessons, lexicon and all, but no one ever claimed a Hebraic connection to the patriarchal tongue. And after 1832 or thereabouts, we hear next to nothing from Brother Joseph about a "pure Adamic language." 

VII  Babes in Christ

One exception is a short list of words and signs from the "pure language" found in a May 1835 letter Phelps sent to his wife, Sally. Both Samuel Brown and William Schryver see the letter as a forerunner to the Alphabet documents. Certain mysterious characters and names in the Joseph Smith holograph, so well as in the Alphabet documents, therefore have much to do with a project started before the papyrus rolls arrived in Kirtland. Yet once hieroglyphs, hieratic, and Hebrew took hold in Kirtland, the Prophet says little of Adam. Then comes Missouri: the place of Eden and of the Zion to be. "The mountains of Adam-Ondi-Ahman" and "the plains of Olaha Shinehah," "the land where Adam dwelt," yield a final glimpse at a pure land and a pure tongue--and, then, driving and imprisonment (Doctrine and Covenants 117:8). Freed, and in Nauvoo, the Prophet again has much to say about Adam and the Order of the Priesthood, but he fixes his attention on the languages of Scripture and translation: Hebrew, Greek, German (even Latin)--and on Egyptian. In his writings and speeches the angelic order now yields nothing like Albeth or Alcabeth; the archangels descend in plain Hebrew: Michael, Gabriel, Raphael. Yes, the Prophet is undoubtedly the principal teacher of the "system of astronomy" found in the Alphabet documents and the Grammar volume, the source of all the various and startling Egyptian names for "fixed stars" and "moving planets." Nevertheless, in 1842, after seven years to ponder the matter, note his deft paucity in selecting names to explain the hypocephalus and the "system of astronomy;" note the concise assignment of definitions for these names--all of which limits forever the usefulness of the earlier documents, which now necessarily fall into oblivion. 

"Pure language" was a prophetic priority for the Missouri episode--and thus at origin had nothing to do with W.W. Phelps--Egyptian and Hebrew for the Kirtland period. Brother Joseph invited associates to get into the game. Their zeal become remarkable, fervent. Once all these associates abandoned the cause of Zion, some to return, others not, the Prophet, in prison, complained of the "flowery imagination," of "zeal without knowledge," and spoke of the "deep import" of the "things of God" and of the need for the expanded "mind." 

Notably, it was the Prophet himself who coined the name Nauvoo, from a Hebrew word for a "place of rest"--which for him clearly also signified a place to ponder. Nauvoo thus connotes: I waited everyone out and calmly solved the case through study and by faith, by intellect, prophetic prayer, and seeric gift. Samuel Brown notes another mysterious name for a setting of grace that the Prophet occasionally used in the early periodZomar; it even appears in the Alphabet documents. What of Zomar? It's a productive and well-attested Afroasiatic root and name (Egyptian, Ugaritic, Akkadian, Arabic), though not apparently biblical, for fruitfulness, or a fruitful place (ts-m-r). Now that's something beyond the ken of W.W. Phelps. (For the Prophet's revelations on "the language of Adam," see http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/sample-of-pure-language-between-circa-4-and-circa-20-march-1832/1.)

Many of our best minds grapple with Joseph Smith, his journals, letters, and the Scriptures of the Restoration, and they do so to an admiration. These are minds trained in history, manuscripts, rhetoric, logic, and in the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug. Yet even Aristotle, especially Aristotle, il Maestro di color che sanno, the master of those who know, would have to unlearn all his logic, toss in his PhD, before hoping to grasp something of that Egyptian mind. 

Abraham, we are told, had "the records of the patriarchs," written in who-knows-what-language-and script--and the Urim and Thummim.

As for the mind and soul of Joseph Smith the Revelator and Translator, this is what he himself had to say:

"Had I inspiration, revelations, and lungs to communicate [in English] what my soul has contemplated in times past, there is not a soul in this congregation but would go to their homes and shut their mouths in everlasting silence on religion till they had learned something" (Teachings: Joseph Smith, Chapter 45).

The rebuke aside, we also have Brother Joseph's "everlasting silence."

So what of inspired translation: our talk or our silence? Oliver, Peter-like, dared to try--and sank. Even so, a verse or two in the Book of Mormon likely attest his bold steps. The Lord promised Oliver another go at it (Doctrine and Covenants 8-9). The record of Abraham, and other papyri, appeared. Oliver, ecstatic over the discovery, hastily went to work again--and gave it over. As for W.W. Phelps, he jotted down a few lines of hieratic; then, underneath, produced a few corresponding lines of English. The translation, although "preserving a very nice balance between the number of words in each" language, three lines to four, did not match the hieratic (Hugh Nibley, "The Meaning of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers"). Even so, this particular, and rather wild, attempt at translation shows a Phelps more attuned to Champollion than to Horapollo. Still, Joseph Smith, despite the divine promise of a "gift of translation," never entrusted "the work of translation" to Oliver again, nor did he entrust it to W.W. Phelps, Warren Parrish, and so on. After publishing a portion of the Book of Abraham in 1842, further progress on the papyri was held back until the 1970's, when Hugh Nibley unveiled the pearl of great price that was the Book of Breathings to a startled world.

Other associates, notably Hyrum Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor, and Wilford Woodruff, though expressing deep interest in the papyri, were too wise to take such things on. To translate was Joseph's calling. Brigham Young, however, later gave a copy of The Pearl of Great Price to Harvard College. John Taylor brought the same volume before the Church for its vote. The Church voted to consider it a Standard Work, thus fulfilling both Joseph's statement about the Book of Abraham as "the sacred record" and the revelation that promises "other records have I" (Doctrine and Covenants (9:2).

Where Prophets know, we don't know much--neither are we able to learn, it would seem. Line-upon-line applies "to the residue of men" (see Moroni 7). For now, we remain what Paul calls "babes in Christ" (1 Corinthians 3:1). (But see Ether Chapter 4.)

One panel on the hypocephalus (8) also "Contains writings that cannot be revealed unto the world [that is, babes]," which concisely states a typical Egyptian reticence about texts, such as this one, that activate the moment of Resurrection for the United Ba of Re-Osiris. Panel 8 is the culminating statement on the hypocephalus panels, a blessing correctly identified by the Prophet as pertaining to "the Holy Temple of God" and which, accordingly, "Cannot be revealed to the world"--a statement with which any ancient priest of the House of Life would concur.

How many readers in Ohio or Illinois knew such a thing in, say, 1837?