The claim persists: the Prophet Joseph Smith believed that he was translating the Book of Abraham from the fragments of a Book of Breathings, as evidenced by particular, single, hieratic signs taken from a fragmentary sheet of papyrus and placed alongside paragraphs of copies of the first chapter or so of the Abraham translation. In light of this perceived correspondence between the signs and the translation, many leapt to the conclusion that for the Prophet one hieratic sign mysteriously produced one paragraph yield of text.
And, without further ado, that spells fraud!
Writing some 46 years ago in an article so flawed that critics insist we must never refer to it, Hugh Nibley noted how "the disproportion between the length of Egyptian signs and English sentences is labored as the principal argument against the Book of Abraham."
"One needs no knowledge of Egyptian to point out that a dot and two strokes can hardly contain the full message of an English paragraph of a hundred words or more. In 1967 a Mr. Heward passed around handbills at a General Conference pathetically asking, 'Why should anyone want to fight the truth?'--the 'truth' being his own great discovery that if somebody translated a single dot as the story of Little Red Riding Hood something must be out of joint: 'Could a single dot carry that much meaning?' Mr. Heward asked with eminent logic."
"In 1970 Messrs. Howard and Turner bring forth as the crowning evidence against Joseph Smith Mr. Dee J. Nelson's sensational find that the hieratic word ms.t is translated by Joseph Smith with a paragraph of 132 words. It never occurred to anyone to ask, in the glad excitement, whether this was really Joseph Smith's work, and whether ms.t was ever believed by anyone to contain a story of 132 words" (Hugh Nibley, "The Meaning of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers").
"It never occurred to anyone to ask!" That was then--full half-a-century ago. Today we mustn't look askance at science, consensus, academics, newsreaders, singers, historians, grad students, weather reports. We dare not question authority.
And we mustn't touch Nibley's biased work today; still, for decades one thing has remained quite clear to me: "a single dot" cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, carry over "as the story of Little Red Riding Hood." And yet the critics insist to this day that Joseph Smith, blindly following the prevailing notions of his times about hieroglyphic writing, unpacks single, stand-alone, ideograms into lengthy and detailed narrative, narrative which includes explanations of nouns like Rahleenos and Mahmackrah (which can take more than one spelling), discussions of priestly offices in both Canaan and Egypt, and the dramatic rescue of Abraham by an angel as well as the poetic words of revelation spoken by that same heavenly messenger. These are squiggles that scan.
Because such claims are put forward in the matter-of-fact, no-nonsense tone that all readers associate with adulthood, scientific law, and talk shows, the reader is inexorably chilled into submission. We can't downplay that effect, that chilling; for from the moment we first tune in, society tells us both what to think and how to think it. The rhetorical secret to argument in our day is tone, that tone which scolds: "You're not going to be told twice!"
No wonder so many wind up thinking that the Book of Abraham has been proved wrong--dead and definitively wrong. To think otherwise invites the scold, the grin, the double-quick double-click, a simple chart or two. And no wonder many fail to see that the critics' principal argument rests upon the basis of "a dot and two strokes" or an owl sign. An argument made--in print!--by an Egyptologist!--and everyone throws up their hands in happy defeat. Yet it's ironic how the one class of people who never care about what any one Egyptologist, or even any particular group of Egyptologists, might say about anything, are the Egyptologists themselves. But isn't that the case with all scientists, academics, literary critics, freshmen, and the like?
And now, we turn to the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears: %!
What we know about the Book of Mormon, or should have known, also explodes the persistent claim of the critics about how Joseph Smith went about translating the Book of Abraham.
"By the power of God," writes Joseph Smith to James Arlington Bennet in 1843, "I translated the Book of Mormon from hieroglyphics," History of the Church 6:74.)
What were these hieroglyphics?
What a clear statement to the world, a statement first published in March 1830, that Egyptian characters, or hieroglyphs, reflect the "manner of speech," that is to say, are phonetic in make-up, and can even be altered to reflect phonological change. Indeed, given the unceasing changes in the Egyptian language, the hieroglyphs were often reformed, reworked, re-tweaked, resignified, and revalued by the scribes themselves. We don't have a purely ideographic system here, or some undefinable symbolic system of mysterious import. In fact there's no mystery: the Egyptian characters write words, and they write them just as the words are meant to be pronounced.
Now note how the Prophet Joseph Smith describes the title page of the Book of Mormon. When speaking of the particular gold plate that made up Moroni's 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 English translation of the title page comprises a heading and two paragraphs. Again, here is no mystical, pre-decipherment "reading" of hieroglyphs as Symbol in which each sign contains of itself sufficient capacity to supply many sentences of esoterica or of Scripture.
But the drumbeat continues: Joseph Smith held that a single Egyptian sign packs in a verbal outpour. That's what everyone believed back then, we are told. He accordingly wrestles with each little character, for each unfolds vistas of narrative, vision, and doctrine.
That may describe Athanasius Kircher (it doesn't); Joseph Smith can speak for himself. And his comments on the Book of Mormon title page date from 1838/1839, three to four years after he translated the first chapter of the Book of Abraham, and three years before he translated the rest! Brother 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; History of the Church 1:71-72 = "History of the Church," Book A-1, 34-35.).
For Joseph Smith, then, should we follow his own crystalline descriptions of the nature of Egyptian writing, the 11 pages of unbroken narrative that make up the content of the published Book of Abraham would have been translated from several continuous, and presumably intact, sheets of papyrus (the translations tellingly show no gaps). Now, that's not theory ("the missing roll theory"), that's how Joseph Smith himself describes the nature of hieroglyphic text.
The fragmentary Book of Breathings thus has nothing to do with the making of the Abraham narrative.
Someone recently posted: Joseph Smith failed to translate the Book of Abraham!
That's become a meme, and like most memes cannot stand up to a moment of investigation. Memes make up the quintessence of the ephemeral.
Think it through: Joseph Smith failed to translate the Book of Abraham!
Then what is this book I see before me?
My answer: Joseph Smith did indeed translate the Book of Abraham. How do I know? I have a copy of the translation--and so do millions upon millions of others. And there are many, many translations made from that first translation.
While it's clear that the Prophet Joseph did not derive the book from the Breathings document, I don't profess to understand how the Prophet Joseph translated; neither do I know how anyone translates his translation from English to, say, Quechua. But I know that what got translated, and that what still gets translated, is the word of God and contains the testimony of the Lord Jesus Christ to this generation, even to Abraham's limitless seed.