Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Title Page of the Book of Mormon and the Translation of the Book of Abraham

Joseph Smith describes the title page of the Book of Mormon as "a literal translation," even "a genuine and literal translation," of the last unsealed gold plate. In only one other instance does the Prophet specify the original locus of a particular place in scripture: Abraham Chapter 3 derives "from the papyrus now in my house." In other words, Visit my house, and I'll be glad to show you the very hieroglyphs I translated. And note how Joseph, when speaking of the particular gold plate that serves as title page, correlates one plate to one page. Other plates may translate into three or four pages of English, but the point remains: Here is no mystical, pre-decipherment "reading" of hieroglyphs as Symbol, wherein each sign contains of itself sufficient capacity to supply many sentences of esoterica. No. Joseph Smith has been lambasted for, supposedly, believing a single hieroglyph in Egyptian could stand for many words, even paragraphs, in English. That may describe Athanasius Kircher; Joseph Smith can speak for himself. Joseph, who compares the Egyptian writing on the last plate to "all Hebrew writing in general," sees all hieroglyphs, formed or reformed or whatever, as a "running" script. That's his word. "Running": nothing could be more clear (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, 60-61).

We accordingly see Joseph Smith at 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" from the Egyptian hieroglyphs. The Book of Abraham aims to be "a correct translation." Further, 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." Some wonder whether Joseph Smith himself composed the Book of Abraham solely as an inspired vehicle for introducing a transcendent doctrine--a symbolic link to a symbolic rather than an historical past. Those few so supposing would describe prophetic "trans-lation" as an ingenious re-imaging or re-imagining of the ancient scriptural heritage--a justifiable theological enterprise--and, by so describing, think to detach and thus save inspired comment and composition from the imperatives of scholarship. It doesn't take much imagination, though, 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."

As for the revealed explanations of the three Book of Abraham facsimiles, these, too, are not a composition "of any other man who has lived or does live in this generation"--the imprimatur of Joseph the Seer lies powerfully upon them.

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