Hint: A "totally irrelevant" and inefficacious question whose expression goes beyond "normal human curiosity" and which may even impede "spiritual progress." Ammon, in the Book of Mormon, sums up the human understanding of spiritual translation:
"Blind and impenetrable are the understandings of the children of men."
Let's start with some "blind and impenetrable" takes on method--then go from there. . .
"A precisely determined text"?
Argument: By means of the Urim and Thummim, "Joseph Smith was literally reading off an already composed English-language text" (Interview, Royal Skousen, "Times and Seasons" Web page, with reader comments, 13 October 2004).
Counter-argument: Doctrine and Covenants Section 9 best describes how the Prophet Joseph translated the Book of Mormon. The first place to look is Stephen D. Ricks, "Notes and Communications: Translation of the Book of Mormon: Interpreting the Evidence," Journal of the Book of Mormon (1993), 201-06. According to Professor Ricks, Joseph Smith was not simply given the translation but gradually saw the English words in the Interpreters (or Urim and Thummim) as he struggled to put Nephite words or ideas into English. Doctrine and Covenants Section 9 shows us this. Accounts by associates are incomplete, contradictory, or even hearsay.
Facing such contrary arguments about an undisclosed prophetic protocol, I appreciate the counsel of Elder Quentin L. Cook: "Obsessive focus on things not yet fully revealed [such as] exactly how Joseph Smith translated our scriptures, will not be efficacious or yield spiritual progress. These are matters of faith" (General Conference, April 2012).
Elder Cook's inspired counsel accords with the wisdom of Hugh Nibley:
"The coming forth of some of the Joseph Smith Papyri in our time is a reminder that many channels of light and truth are open to us and that the Spirit chooses its own methods. Latter-day Saints are constantly asking, How did Joseph Smith translate this or that? Do we still have a seer-stone? Will we ever get the Urim and Thummim back? What about the sealed parts of the plates? Do we have the original text of the Book of Abraham? Where is the Book of Joseph?--etc., etc."
"This writer views all such questions as totally irrelevant to establishing the bona fides of the Prophet. They do not even make sense as expressions of normal human curiosity, since Joseph Smith made it perfectly clear that the vital ingredient in every transmission of ancient or heavenly knowledge is always the Spirit, which places his experiences beyond the comprehension and analysis of ordinary mortals" (Hugh Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment, 2nd ed., 65).
I certainly do not intend to sum up, or even to read, all the secondary "literature" on the subject of Book of Mormon translation. To the making of much bibliography there cannot even be a beginning. Bibliography works the Hellenistic slumber, grounds the living fire of the mind. The quintessence of studies in Mormonism is: Everybody do their own thinking and pen their own conclusions. In other words: Keep a saving distance.
The two takes on Book of Mormon translation contradict each other. Who can resolve the matter? Resolution is possible, but only by a prophet, for only a prophet could explain a prophet's method--and only to an audience of prophets at that. Joseph worked by the gift of God--and yet Joseph worked. The words were given to Joseph by special gift--yet grammatical and spelling errors dot the pages. Joseph lacked all education, beyond Bible and Bunyan--yet the translation shows a cultural depth. The book addresses a cultivated readership with hints of, well, just about everything. The prophet was prepared for translation by visionary insights into the ways of Nephite culture (so Lucy Mack Smith) and also by a series of visitations by the various Nephite prophets (so John Taylor)--yet we do not know how or whether that readying played a part in his translations.
What we do find here is an enhanced mind at work, a spiritual mind. Joseph of Palmyra did not--could not--translate. The Prophet translated, and Joseph and his fellows alike received. Joseph received, Joseph was given, Joseph became, as well, a reader.
I learned it by translating, he says: "I learned it by translating the papyrus now in my house." "I learned a test[imony] about Abraham and he reasoned concern[in]g the God of Heaven." "Abraham reasoned thus": "suppose we have two facts that supposes that anot[he]r fact may exist" (see Abraham 3: 17-19: "Now, if there be two things..."). Here, in his last public sermon, Joseph unequivocally testifies that he learned the specific contents of Book of Abraham Chapter 3 directly from writing found on an Egyptian papyrus in his keeping. The hieratic writing on that papyrus is the source of what we now find in Abraham 3--that's what Joseph Smith is saying. He does not say he "learned it by translating" the Book of Abraham, but "by translating the papyrus." But how Joseph read, how Joseph learned and reasoned, and, then, how Joseph translated cannot be grasped by the mind. Such mysteries of God, as Nephi learned, can only be revealed by the power of the Holy Ghost (16 June 1844, Thomas Bullock reporting, The Words of Joseph Smith, ed. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, 380).
Joseph received, Joseph learned. Yet God required Act. He required Mind. The mind dictated by the Spirit of God never ceases to be mind. The translation was effected by, mediated by the mind--even reflected between two minds, that is, the mind of the ancient prophet and that of the modern. Here is what Paul calls "the mind of Christ." And Paul says "we have" it--and all the prophets had it--though others do not (I Corinthians 2).
Yet not every prophet has what Mosiah calls the "high gift" of translation. Poets are few. Prophetic translation, or any remarkable literary translation, recalls the elusive, even divine gift of poetry. Here is something which we might pretend to glimpse, but prophetic gifts are also a reality.
And before we grapple with the prophetic mind, its deep, labored contemplations, its visionary rush, let's have someone please clear up the simple matter of the poet's mind. Keats! How do you do it? Shakespeare! Describe your method! No wonder Hugh Nibley sees the idle questions about the "high gift" of prophetic translation as lying outside "normal human curiosity."
For Professor Royal Skousen, the translation of the Book of Mormon came simple gifts, as if dictation, errors and all. (What a gift!) But an automatically given translation--one that perforce reflects even original scribal error--does not fit the Prophet's own record. Doctrine and Covenants Section 9 shows how the Lord wished Oliver Cowdery to attempt translation from the gold plates. He wished Oliver (at least occasionally) to take thought--get his bearings--then to study whether the reading "be right." The many errors in the Prophet's English, as found in the manuscripts and printed editions, should make it clear that inspired translation never comes automatically nor does it ever come perfectly. What revelation does? Even Nephi had to choose whether to look, and how intently, says Elder David A. Bednar, when the angel said "Look!" The Book of Mormon translation evinces many a Jacob's wrestle.
Hugh Nibley, in the classic essay, "Translated Correctly?" speaks of Joseph's translations as being both given and yet, at once, also requiring an intensity of concentration that reflects not so much intellectual effort or method as it is a matter of "getting in the spirit" (51). Oliver needed to take thought; Joseph translated with celerity (see Elder Henry B. Eyring, "Waiting upon the Lord," BYU Speeches, 30 September 1990). But perhaps being "in the spirit" changes the sense or nature of time: the act of translation outside of time; the dictation within time. We encounter, in the spiritual sphere, a quickened time: "no delays," "no difficulties over the choice of words, no stoppages from the ignorance of the translator; no time was wasted," etc. (The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment, Chapter III, "Translated Correctly?"; "no delays": Nibley, 50-1, citing George Reynolds, Myth of the Manuscript Found, 71). Nibley posits "far more intense concentration and cerebration to use a seer-stone" than a dictionary requires, and yet the translation appears, to borrow a biblical expression, "in an instant, suddenly," as gift (51). The words may have been given to Joseph, yet here is a demanding givenness.
Alma said "Time only is measured unto men" (40:8). That said, What is time? Students of religion often speak of symbolic time, they consider ritual time, even the eternal return to the source of time. Prophets can access the times and minds of angels; they can know eternity's season.
Professor Skousen's "transcription theory" does not come from the records left by Joseph Smith himself, but from the all-too-clear accounts of eager friends: Joseph Knight, Harris, Cowdery, Whitmer. Of these, only Cowdery attempted translation, and failed to bitterness (Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith, 71-3). The accounts border on hearsay (cf. S. Ricks, "Translation," Journal of the Book of Mormon). Contemporary accounts of the Prophet dictating revelations or seeing visions somehow also miss the inner quickenings of the spirit, that is, of the mind.
Even so, the Prophet does say of some of his revelations that they were dictated word-for-word by the Lord Jesus Christ. He calls the record of the Vision a "transcript from the eternal worlds." The same may hold true for some or much of the Book of Mormon--yet the Prophet did not hesitate to edit the book in 1837 and, again, in 1840, The painstaking edits show him changing and, in 1840, even sometimes restoring both words and phrases (Royal Skousen, Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon, I:15). While Royal Skousen does not grant such later changes the authority of the "original text," Brother Joseph alone had the prerogative to make and approve such as the Lord's word to the world. He continued to see and to reveal--thus to clarify. And mistakes or none, there it stands.
The manuscript fragments of the English Book of Mormon (or even the book's first edition), though a helpful aid or a rare corrective, can never be the same thing as the little book we press close to our own hearts: The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ. (The notion of an Urtext for any scripture, after all, can never hold--the law of the variant reading runs coeval with any supposed Urtext.) Thank the Lord we are not to be hampered by the survival of the Original Manuscript in full! Nothing could impede today's reader more nor stand so resolutely in the way of spiritual progress and revelation. The Latter-day Saints must continue to "grow in grace and in the knowledge of the truth." Besides, the inspired reader receives insights and witness far beyond the basic helps of either inspired editing or translation. The Prophet himself deposited the manuscript in a fast cornerstone. Training wheels may be left behind.
Joseph did write in 1832: "The Lord had prepared spectacles for to read the book" (Bushman, 72). The verb gives it away--to read is an action of the mind, not the eyes. The spectacles serve for light or eyes, the mind does the work. It's a real work-out: Joseph's gift is that of "sufficient strength" just to keep up. "Sight and power to translate" like Urim and Thummim, faith and works, or baptism by water and by fire always go together (Doctrine and Covenants 3:12; 9:2, 12; Elder David A. Bednar, "Clean Hands and a Pure Heart," October 2007 General Conference).
And plates there were and there was papyrus--the book--but engraved or penned words, mere "hints of things" in the prophetic mind, says Joseph, can never quite answer to the "high gift" of "sight and power to translate." Here's another essential pairing: the papyri and the plates and the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham.
Brother Cowdery remembered: "These were days never to be forgotten. To sit under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven, awakened the utmost gratitude of this bosom!" (Bushman, 73). Dictated? No. "Dictated by the inspiration of heaven"--the workings of the mind in touch with heaven. Oliver had some theories of his own. "Had Oliver presumed an effortless, automatic translation?" asks Professor Ricks (Ricks, 204). The would-be translator faces divine rebuke: "You have not understood"; "You have supposed"; "You must study it out in your mind"; "If you had known this you could have translated"--and the telling, "You feared" (Doctrine and Covenants 9:5, 8, 10, 11). If not even Oliver had understood, what then shall we say of Martin or of David?
Or of any of us?
If the Lord wished Oliver to use both mind and heart, as well as Urim and Thummim, in reading the hieroglyphs found on the plates, He only intended to transform that mind and heart itself into a living Urim and Thummim (compare Elder John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations, 90). After all: "Aaron was instructed to wear the Urim and Thummim 'upon his heart' " (ibid., 89). Exodus 28:30 also suggests such a gradual transformation of the heart and its judgments (or its "study"): "And thou shalt put in [or upon] the breastplate of judgment the Urim and Thummim; and they shall be upon Aaron's heart, when he goeth in before the Lord: and Aaron shall bear the judgment of the children of Israel upon his heart before the Lord continually." Oliver wished to translate; the Lord wanted his heart (Doctrine and Covenants 64:34). The heart once overlain with the stones of fire, "your bosom shall burn within you" (Doctrine and Covenants 9:8).
Royal Skousen also sees the Book of Mormon's presumed Early Modern English, an idiom not necessarily King James's, as evidence for a dictated gifts translation. That is to say, Joseph Smith received the translation word-for-word in an idiom centuries removed from his own New England dialect. The Prophet could not have learned archaic English in 19th century New England--not even from the Bible--Skousen says. But Puritan speech-ways certainly made use of an odd, old word or phrase or two of which we cannot possibly be aware. And, as Professor Skousen himself notes, some of his examples of archaic English in the Book of Mormon do show up somewhere in either the King James Version or the Puritans' own Geneva Bible.
Early Modern English in the Book of Mormon is well-spotted--all words merit study. Yet a sprinkling of archaisms contests but beggarly for a supplied translation--in pre-packaged 16th century English no less! The Prophet, as readers both see and appreciate, translated into both his own native idiom and also into the language of the Bible, sometimes close to being the same idiom--but the Urim and Thummim also charged his mind with hidden knowledge and its articulation. Whole Bibles were at the disposal of the Prophet's mind, not to mention the intellectual treasury of Nephite language and culture. Nothing could be hid (see Mosiah 8:17). And again, by "the Prophet's mind" we mean not Joseph's mind, nor Paul's, nor even that of Apollos, but the Pauline "mind of Christ."
The English Book of Mormon is a compound of Joseph Smith's Puritan speech-ways, including the language of scripture (both Geneva Bible and KJV) and, inevitably, of Bunyan, as also the idiom of the Nephites, and things unguessed at. But let us be clear: the Book of Mormon does not come to us in a purely 16th century English, nor does its reformed Egyptian reflect a mere Biblical Hebrew, whatever that fragment of ancient Hebrew we call Biblical might be anyhow. (The book to read is Angel Saenz-Badillos, A History of the Hebrew Language). And must we resort to the game of emendation to fill up the lists of archaisms? or for any other reason? Better to take a second look at words as they stand. As any child raised in a country where English prevails can attest, the English of the Book of Mormon, despite its Biblical flavor, remains the language of the heart, plain and accessible. Children and preteens devour the book.
Whole dictionaries have been compiled showing oddities of vocabulary in Bible translation; so it should not surprise us to find the odd word, here and there, in the Book of Mormon. Stanford Carmack, writing for the Interpreter, has recently brought several such to our attention. The English of the Book of Mormon, while similar to that of the Authorized Version, remains peculiarly its own--and Brother Carmack duly finds Early Modern seasoning in the mix. He notes such a phrase in the title page: "By the way of Gentile." "By the way of Gentile" (by the way of + agent), if we hold to the Oxford English Dictionary, does reflect Early Modern English a bit more than it does that of the KJV. One the other hand, "by the way of" answers literally to the Semitic idiom, baderekh, "by the way of"; (later Hebrew) "by means of," "through." Early Modern English aside, how else would one translate the phrase similar to baderekh or derekh goyim, while also retaining the famously Hebraic, or "literal" feel and rhetorical force of the KJV?
It is a far different matter to evoke an Early Modern English "voice" that dictates, word-for-word, the Book of Mormon to the sight of a passive translator. There was no such voice, that is, there was no such voice fully independent of the Prophet Joseph's mind or his tongue. If the prophetic mind can reach into eternity, it can grapple with piebald English, it can wrestle with Nephite. More likely, there were "voices," each of the various Book of Mormon prophets bearing responsibility for the plain transmission of his own message. Here is the language of the Spirit. Did the mind of Joseph connect, beyond language, with the minds of Nephi, of Jacob, of Helaman?
Professor Ricks wonders whether the divine instrument "may have allowed him to think, as it were, in that language," that is, "to understand" "the ideas of the language" (205). One thing stands clear: Joseph, endowed with a divine gift, could perceive the ideas conveyed in that language or in any other. And he, at once, also perceived how to voice the ideas in a scriptural English idiom. A scriptural English idiom requires both plainness and rhetorical sweep--and an archaic distancing.
"I can see anything," says Joseph of the Urim and Thummim (so Joseph Knight reports, Bushman, Joseph Smith, 60). And, when working with the Interpreters, the prophetic mind--whether it's Joseph we speak of now, or Alma, or Moroni--grasped something of Calvin, something of Bunyan, something of Jewish commentary, something of idiom and difficulties and questionings of centuries. The Book of Mormon something shows that trace of struggle and grasp and understanding. The ancient American prophets, who saw our day, knew what to add and what to leave out; they knew the questions of Christendom, they knew the "travails" of the House of Israel. And both author and translator very much wish to address all Christendom, all Jewry, even all the world. The purpose of both author and translator, attacking questions and working with evidence of every kind, is "to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that JESUS is the CHRIST, the ETERNAL GOD, manifesting himself unto all nations" (Title Page of the Book of Mormon).
By the way, where the title page of the Book of Mormon is concerned, Joseph goes to great pains to describe it as "a literal translation," and even "a genuine and literal translation," of the final plate in the bound collection (italic added). In only one other instance does the Prophet speak with such specificity, and, again, that is in his description of translating Abraham Chapter 3 directly "from the papyrus now in my house." And note how Joseph, more or less, correlates one plate to one page: here is no mystical "reading" of symbolic hieroglyphs. Instead, Joseph, comparing it to "all Hebrew writing in general," sees all Egyptian hieroglyphs, formed, reformed, or whatever, as a "running" script (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, 60-61).
Moroni's first visit in 1823 marked only the beginning of Joseph's exhaustive learning about the peoples of the Book of Mormon. We know this because his mother tells us how Joseph, on special occasions, would talk for hours about the dress, travel, animal husbandry, cities, buildings, arts of war, and religious observances of these peoples "in every particular" and "as though he had spent his life with them" (Lucy's Book, chapter 3, ed., Lavina F. Andersen). (We glimpse the returned missionary tumbling off "An easy morning's ride" and regaling the rapt family with "the mail from Tunis, probably.") And what possible reason could there be to learn so much about Nephite or Jaredite folkways, if not as a help in translation? The Prophet himself never spoke of these things, or of how he came to know them, on record. Neither did he attempt to number and list his visions. He deemed the Book of Mormon sufficient to speak for him. (Do you see how Oliver Cowdery, by contrast--no matter his yearnings to translate--would have labored at a disadvantage?)
Only Joseph could have done the work, only he could "take the voltage," and so summon up the "sufficient strength" of which the Lord speaks, that is, both the sufficient intellectual and the sufficient spiritual strength (see Hugh Nibley, "Exemplary Manhood"). Even Oliver Cowdery, after that first try, was only promised by God a power to "assist" in translating "other records" (9:2). Observers speak of the light and power that filled the translating room and which also emanated from the countenances of the brethren. They also note the translator's weariness--long breaks were taken.
The Prophet did not necessarily study either the language(s) or the reformed Egyptian script of the Book of Mormon, nor did he need to render its Isaian passages or the Savior's Sermon to the Nephites with the help of a Bible opened on the table. (He did later study Hebrew, German, Greek--and even something of the hieroglyphs.) When working as a Seer, an encyclopaedic understanding might flow into him; it then remained to him how he might marshal his thoughts and frame conclusions--his translations.
If that's how things worked, how can it be explained? How might one translate so as to retain both ancient Afroasiatic idiom as also each prophet's individual style, or voice--and, at once, express a sacred message in simple scriptural language? And how could all happen with such speed--a world of message poured into a sliver of moment? It is a miracle. (Forget theory.) The seeric translator somehow works outside of time, or "without the passage of time"--for "this is revelation," as President Boyd K. Packer teaches. No wonder Hugh Nibley claimed the Prophet's use of Urim and Thummim--and we can have no idea how such an instrument works in tandem with the mind--called for far more intellectual horsepower than the use of dictionary and grammar (see Hugh Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment).
Joseph Smith himself, by way of translation--and thus in stunning second-hand humility--leaves us with a few kingly sayings to ponder in our hearts. King Mosiah, with sacred interpreters, translated the twenty-four pure gold plates left by an archaic people. How did he do it? "One Ammon," though not a seer, yet spoke with insight: "Blind and impenetrable are the understandings of the children of men," but Mosiah as seer could "know of things which are past"; for thus "shall secret things be made manifest, and hidden things shall come to light." And shall we suppose that such an one having "this high gift" would have received the Jaredite record simple gifts? or as also dictated in a fixed archaic Nephite idiom? Remember, said Ammon, "a gift which is greater can no man have, except he should possess the power of God" (Mosiah 8; also Mosiah 7:3).
"I can see anything!" The mind shrinks before the sun of that statement.
Yet the statement something recalls the old Jewish idea about the vessel of Urim and Thummim enclosing light from the first moment of creation, a transcendent kind of light that makes anything visible and which also fires the mind (see Moshe Idel, The Mystical Experience of Abraham Abulafia; see also Doctrine and Covenants Section 88). Joseph, in a sort of reversal of the same idea, says, in his translation of Abraham Chapter 3, that Abraham saw "the first creation" by means of the Urim and Thummim. "Light cleaveth unto light" (Doctrine and Covenants 88).
The understanding of the Seer is not a blind but a seeing understanding. It is not impenetrable: a fullness of light shines through it until, with quickened mind, the spiritual mind, he can comprehend all truth necessary for prophecy or translation. Working by the Urim and Thummim qualifies the Seer, for the set purposes at hand, to be "glorified in truth and [know] all things" (see Doctrine and Covenants 93).
Latter-day Saints, though blessed with many scriptures, are far from knowing all things, including the methods by which the scriptures themselves were translated. I use the plural form methods deliberately. The Lord often gives impressions, even words to the attuned mind; at other times, the mind and heart struggle to capture the word and will of the Lord. Were things given, free gifts, to the Brother of Jared, or did he have to struggle for answers? Both! And in the very same chapter. What does Hugh Nibley say? "The coming forth of some of the Joseph Smith Papyri [and of some of the Original Book of Mormon Manuscripts] in our time is a reminder that many channels of light and truth are open to us and that the Spirit chooses its own methods."
Though Joseph Smith never discloses how the "high gift" of "sight and power" effected the translation of either the Book of Mormon or the Book of Abraham, the two translations share something in common. Different, at first blush anyhow, are the translations of the Bible (including the Book of Moses), the Parchment of John (Doctrine and Covenants, Section 7), Sections 45 and 93 of the Doctrine and Covenants, and so on. Latter-day Saints often deem these to be revelatory transmissions of lost records, lost scripture, not in the keeping of the Prophet Joseph, rather than translations proper (see Hugh Nibley, "Translated Correctly?"). In the case of both the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham, Joseph had in his keeping at least a portion of the pertinent ancient records, written in various types of Egyptian script, and open to his view. Whether they were complete or fragmentary or lacunose (that is, in the case of the papyri), we are not given to know (see Michael D. Rhodes, "I have a question," Ensign, July 1988, 51-53). We do know one thing: He had plates and he had papyri.
Yet Joseph also had the King James Bible--and, for a fleeting, visionary moment, the Parchment of John (or at least the idea of the textual reality of such a parchment). His translations ever anchored in direct contemplation, or at least an idea, of text. There always had to be text, the touch or trace of the human mind--however fragmentary, lacunose, recopied, reworked, redacted, translated to death, corrupt, lost, or otherwise humanly imperfect that text might have been. Text and Sight--and Power. Human Text and the Divine Word. Prophet reaching to Prophet across the distance of both man's time and the reckoning of seers.
Joseph translated by, in, and through "the Mind of Christ." Understanding that, glibly pouring on adjectives about "conventional" or "literal" or "word-for-word" or "scholarly" translation, which do not shed light on any kind of translation whatsoever, amounts to little. The adjective supplied by Joseph Smith himself, in a prepared statement about the papyri, was correct: "a correct translation" of what he insists are the "preserved" "writings of the fathers" of which he was "in possession" (History of the Church 2:348ff.) "For the records have come into my hands"--here's a concrete statement; though, in this case, the words are Abraham's, not those of his latter-day double. "The records of the fathers, even the patriarchs. . . the Lord my God preserved in mine own hands" (1:28, 31). Accident or miracle, the Lord can do such things. As He told aged Abraham, He delights in the impossible, which is why we call him "a God of miracles."
"Is any thing too hard for the Lord?" (Genesis 18:14)
So we do see Joseph Smith taking pains to supply the right adjectives. "The English version" "of the very last leaf" of "the original Book of Mormon" is a "genuine and literal translation." The Book of Abraham aims to be "a correct translation." And note how the Prophet insists the English version of the Book of Mormon title-page "is not by any means a modern composition, either of mine or of any other man." A few wonder whether Joseph Smith himself composed the Book of Abraham as a means of teaching doctrine. It doesn't take much imagination to hear the Prophet's frank response: Neither is the Book of Abraham "a modern composition, either of mine or of any other man who has lived or does live in this generation."
What we are talking about, in the case of Joseph Smith's scriptures, is not the translation of correspondence or of state documents from Italian into Spanish, a labor which may seem to be conventional, or, at times, even, perhaps, literal, but translation from ancient and classical languages, what we term dead languages. For the remainder of the children of men, those whom angels, says Moroni, do not visit, translation, or "translation," from dead languages requires careful training in the use of dictionary and grammar (both fragmentary and often misleading), and ever involves the student in leaps of imagination.
Scholarly translation, where dead languages are at hand, thus often amounts to spectacular guesswork. The hundreds of Bible "translations" from the Hebrew and Aramaic so attest. As for Ancient Egyptian and its scholarly translation into modern languages, well. . . Yet other ancient scripts defy even decipherment. (Scholarly translation also connotes the dryasdust.)
Where the salvation of the human race is at stake, neither scholarly "translation" nor scholarly bafflement will do (and it can damn). The difference between all translators of dead languages else and the Prophet Joseph is that living touch with idea, with gospel truth, which requires neither dictionary nor grammar. The God of Abraham is not the God of the dead but of the living. Joseph translated living languages, and with living tongues of fire.
Not that the merely human endeavor merits despite. Joseph Smith happily hired tutors in both ancient and classical languages. He also tried his hand as student translator. But even while doing so, he sought for the further inspiration of God. His Nauvoo discourses show several such translations of Greek and Hebrew words and phrases. The Prophet simply could not rest with the fragmentary knowledge and imaginary flights of scholarship; he always sought greater light and knowledge, and shared such freely with a spiritually thirsting world (see Neal A. Maxwell, "How Choice a Seer," October Conference 2003).
Just so nonsensical as the revolving door of adjectival qualification appears the oft-celebrated but never elucidated idea of an object, say, some old mummy or random papyrus roll, serving as a "catalyst" to revelation or translation. Such things can lead to contemplation, and contemplation invites revelation--but Abraham came along as a complete surprise! The records "have fallen into our hands"--accident or miracle--and, astonishingly and without prior reflection on his part, "purport to be the writings of Abraham, while in Egypt." The word purport clarifies the relation of papyrus to Abraham: something actually recorded on the papyri, and understood by Joseph Smith, is making a direct claim. Claim and papyrus and translation are one in Joseph's hands.
The Prophet does give us, already in 1831, a Book of Abraham, complete with textual expansions and corrections, as part of his Joseph Smith Translation of the King James Bible. But neither do such additions to the narrative of Abraham prove the Bible to have served as some sort of objective "catalyst." Joseph read or translated with a clear idea in mind: the text of the Bible does not contemplate all the writings of the prophets necessary for human salvation. There were precious writings lost. Nephi lays out the matter in great plainness. And, though Joseph in Egypt prophesied the restoration of much of God's word, he never said to expect plate-bearing angels at every turn.
The Bible, itself a physical object--its own plates, so to speak--can hardly be called a "catalyst" anyhow. A catalyst produces a chain-effect without itself undergoing change. Joseph changed the Bible.
As for the second Book of Abraham, we must ask why Joseph, most inefficiently, resorted to borrowing money to acquire the costly rolls? Couldn't an angel have brought the rolls to Kirtland, perhaps Abraham himself, rather than the shadowy showman, Chandler? (A righteous man from Abraham's day visited the Kirtland Temple just months later. He could have brought Abraham's record, when he restored Abraham's priesthood keys.) Or, couldn't the idea, or a visionary glimpse, of a concrete but lost autobiography of Abraham serve the prophetic sight so well as purchased papyri?Yes, and yes--but no. We mustn't miss the point. The papyri signified: like the plates, they came as sign. Joseph borrowed the money solely because some specific writing on the rolls, again, a specific title which he claimed to understand, purported to contain the writings of Abraham while in Egypt: The Book of Abraham Written by His Own Hand upon Papyrus. That's the ancient title, says Hugh Nibley. And he with the "high gift" read that title. There are two books of Abraham and, seemingly, two kinds or methods of translation, yes; but where and how exactly does the catalyst come into play in either case?
Even in the Bible translations, the Prophet worked from text seen and from (the idea of) text unseen. Had he then known Hebrew or had anything like an Urtext of the Hebrew Bible been available to him, he certainly would have worked with that. In the case of Abraham's writings, some of these, copied onto papyri, happened to be extant, then available, sold, bought, and read--even "by revelation or translation, as the case may be," as Elder Bruce R. McConkie puts the matter. And there we can let it rest.
Why was an ancient, surviving physical manifestation of the word, in plates or papyri, requisite for some of our scriptures and not for others? Gold plates, beyond scriptural exhortation, also attested to the reality of a lost and fallen people. In like manner, Mosiah translates the 24 plates left in plain sight by Ether, last of the prophets, as a witness of the Jaredite fall. The records vividly link us to wipe outs, past dispensations, and to the prophets of Christ. And, vitally for the affirming of a new dispensation, the plates also served as the objective evidence to the 11 men who stand as Book of Mormon witnesses.
As for the papyri, Joseph Smith, in good faith, put them on public display in both Kirtland and Nauvoo. All were invited to examine the papyri and to "find out" for themselves what the hieroglyphs and figures conveyed. Hugh Nibley makes much of the matter of the open display and forthright invitation. If the Prophet had lived to see the closing decades of the 19th Century, many of the learned men of the times would surely have had the opportunity to see the rolls and fragments, discuss them with the Prophet, and chime in on their significance.
The papyri became a proclamation to the world that Joseph Smith had 1) nothing to hide, 2) was willing to have his ideas and translations be weighed in the balance of the learned, and 3) that he invited the participation of the learned in his own open-ended quest for further light. Though never describing or disclosing his method, Joseph Smith also never hesitated to publish the resultant readings to a world agape. He never feared the test. Nothing about the Prophet's publication of the Book of Abraham shows contempt for scholarly method or for the 19th Century discovery of Ancient Egypt. He played fair--and the papyri, as tangible element, so attest.
No matter how it was read, and no matter just how much of Abraham's or of Joseph's writings Joseph Smith had, Abraham did deposit a record in Egypt, a layered record which also includes some of the records of his own fathers, and that's what the fragmentary Book of Abraham represents. Abraham stands in the middle, linking the generations. Abraham speaks of the records of the fathers; then, we also glimpse a trace of descendant, Joseph. What we have is the fragment of a record claiming to have been built up around yet older records--a trace of library, as Borges would have it. And that is why the papyri, drawn inexorably to the Latter-day Joseph and held in his possession--as tangible sign of Restoration--,had to contain a portion of the words of the fathers.
One thing exceeds all else in importance. Both plates and papyri, reflections the one of the other, came to light as modern testators of the physical resurrection of the dead. God is the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob: And "He is not the God of the dead, but of the living" (Mark 12:32, and see esp. JST Mark 12:32). No matter how the Prophet translated plates, parchment, papyri, no matter the instruments he used--or whether he used none at all--no matter the lacunae, the very survival and attestation of at least some of the writings of Nephi and Moroni and of Abraham and Joseph, though mere abridgments, copies, or even traces, stand as a material witness of a new dispensation and earnest of the resurrection. The recovered original of Facsimile 1 so depicts Abraham's deliverance from death on the altar. And, as cloud cumulus, all the Joseph Smith papyri, which came to light after being hid up for millennia in a Theban tomb, also serve as witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Other like scriptural witnesses will yet make their like appearances.
1. For more thoughts on inspired translation, please see an earlier post (9-24-2011), "'One in Mine Hand': The Constellative Purpose of the Book of Mormon, the Books of Abraham, Joseph, and Others Yet To Come." Update 2014: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints publishes an online study help for families under title of Gospel Topics. A recent offering, "Book of Mormon Translation," includes headings such as "Translation Instruments" and "The Mechanics of Translation." The paper treats Joseph Smith's reticence to disclose the how of translation and discusses the accounts of various scribes who speak both of direct translation from characters on the plates and also (mostly) of the rapid appearance of successive translated English sentences on the Urim and Thummim and Seer Stone.
2. President Henry B. Eyring observes: "Now, in fairness to Oliver Cowdery, he had some reason to be confused. The Prophet Joseph seemed to have the windows of heaven opened to him. The words of revelation came to him, both to translate the Book of Mormon and to give us the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants, at a speed that could easily have misled Oliver" ("Waiting upon the Lord," BYU Speeches, 30 September 1990).
3. Latter-day Saints might well wish to have joined Lucy Mack Smith at the family hearth as young Joseph related his view of Ancient American civilizations. Yet we do have the Book of Mormon itself, where Joseph Smith "blocks out his geography, builds his cities, names and clothes his strange people, arranges his battles and elaborate campaigns, follows his migrations and explorations, evolves his social unrest, his dynastic intrigues, invents ingenious weights and measures, describes plagues and the upheavals of nature," etc. (Hugh Nibley, cited in Boyd J. Petersen, Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life, 257 n 51).
4. For the history of both the purchase of the Joseph Smith papyri and also the earliest comments on record, written, prepared, or dictated by Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, etc.,, I recommend to all the Book of Abraham Project, Joseph Smith Commentary by W.V. Smith, Brigham Young University.
5. Every Latter-day Saint benefits from the detective work done by students of the Book of Mormon manuscripts. We all owe much to Royal Skousen and his team; we also owe a debt to Brother Richard Bushman for his thoughtfully sourced biography of Joseph Smith. Although we cannot all accept every thesis these students lay down, may we ever "prove contraries," i.e., weigh arguments, with the kindly prudence of Benjamin Franklin. Truth can be manifest through the testing, assessing, weighing, or "proving" of contrary or opposing arguments or systems of belief. Such "proving contraries," that is, "proving contrarities," need have nothing to do with paradox or the irresolvable, as some have it--truth can be made manifest (see 5 June 1844 letter of Joseph Smith to I. Daniel Rupp, in which the Prophet cites a proverb about finding Truth--absolute Truth--by assessing contrary propositions, History of the Church V:428).
And with Franklin well in mind comes a word to the wise: We are all students, from Kindergarten up. It therefore startles the honest reader to meet a new dichotomy, now much drummed as if law, separating Latter-day Saint students, or "scholars" from lay members, lay readers, and the like. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does have a lay ministry. And, following the logic of such an organization, members of the Church who do not hold high offices may, perchance, boast themselves rank-and-file or ordinary members.
But every candid soul must object to a dichotomy separating lay members from scholars. What, if anything, have graduate degrees or expectations of graduate degrees in 2016 or 2018 to do with scholarship anyhow? There has to be some limit to boundless arrogance! It's enough to make one seasick--scholars soaring on one ship, everybody else at the oars!