Wednesday, May 17, 2017

What Did Ohioans in Joseph Smith's Day Think about Egyptian Hieroglyphs? What was in the Air?

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 the relevant names and information 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 notes how these sensational discoveries impacted Americans. For instance, by 1831 Edward Everett was already writing lengthy, and widely-distributed, articles on the question of Champollion's priority over Thomas Young, while at once dismissing the old ideas of Athanasius Kircher with snorts of disdain: "utterly baseless," "laboriously absurd" (John T. Irwin, American Hieroglyphics, 4-5). 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. Why? The stone bore a text in hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek. Thereafter the world knew that "the hieroglyphic language of Egypt" was a running script as Greek was a running script. 1799 thus marks a clean break between timeless speculations about the nature of the script and what scholars and savants now plainly saw on the Stone. The news went everywhere--even to the American frontier.

And to the South--and even to Hawaii, where the work of Young, Champollion, and Rosselini was pondered beneath the palms of Kona and Waikiki. 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

The above newspaper articles, a mere sampling of the conversation, manifest both keen interest and an easy familiarity--not to know about these matters in 1837 would be like not knowing about the railroad or the steam engine.

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. Does anyone honestly think that Joseph Smith could have made claims about translating Egyptian hieroglyphs (in fact, two differing though related systems of hieroglyphs) over a sixteen year period, without hearing many things about one of the most stunning discoveries of the modern world? This is a man who--like everyone else, I suppose--chatted of Napoleon and Swedenborg with friends. When he spoke of translating Egyptian, would not Young, Champollion, and "the celebrated stone of Rosetta," come forcibly to every mind?

"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.)

And of what nature were these hieroglyphics?

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, a statement first published in March 1830, that Egyptian characters, or hieroglyphs, reflect the (changeable) "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, re-tweaked, resignified, and revalued by the scribes themselves. We don't have a purely ideographic system on the gold plates, or some undefinable 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.)

Further consider how the Prophet Joseph Smith, in 1838, 
describes the title page of the Book of Mormon. Note the dates: 1799 marks the discovery of the Rosetta Stone; 1802, its date of acquisition by the British Museum; 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; 1835, his purchase of the mummies and papyri and first translations of the Book of Abraham; 1838, his statement about the hieroglyphic system and translation of the title page of the Book of Mormon; 1842, his publication in an American newspaper of the Book of Abraham, including explanations of the hieroglyphic words and representations found in three Egyptian vignettes. (See Thomas Young: Natural Philosopher, by Alexander Wood, 237.) The end was not yet: a coherent description of the hieroglyphic system came only with Richard Lepsius.

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 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 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. His scribe, Oliver Cowdery, later jotted down a few of these hieroglyphs in a private manuscript: 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 manuscript.)

In Mosiah 1 we learn that Lehi, "he 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 a palace school. All this shows a system of writing (however difficult) susceptible to mastery by all comers--and the coming generations. It has nothing of the atmosphere of the recondite symbolic system which pre-decipherment scholarship attached to the hieroglyphs.

Should Joseph Smith's understanding of the hieroglyphic and hieratic writing on certain Egyptian papyri he owned be any different? No. Consider the Prophet's Explanation of Facsimile 3 of the Book of Abraham. 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 how he says that the ancients considered both iconography so well as the writing to be "hieroglyphics," something every reader of Wilkinson's popular Reading Egyptian Art knows today (Abraham 1:14). The astute reader of the explanations of the Book of 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 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 the one or two Wadjet Eyes, 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 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 like we do). 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?

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, long 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 an Egyptian papyrus. 


"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 accordingly 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 (see Doctrine and Covanants 110; 1 Timothy). That Joseph Smith, Ohio, 1835, should possess not only a Book of Breathings but also a hypocephalus is itself a marvelous work and a wonder.

Some introductory words will always be in order about the ideas of Brother W.W. Phelps, the Prophet's friend. Phelps held odd, even 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 academics at least, was bruited about in both England and the United States long before the Book of Mormon came on the scene. And, as we shall see, Phelps held to a sort of stereoscopic view of the hieroglyphs anyway, as being both symbolic and also a running script.

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).

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 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). "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. 

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 own PhD, before hoping to grasp something of that Egyptian mind.

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

"Had I inspiration, revelations, and lungs to communicate 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).

And 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, and in his unpublished notes, announced a translation. 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"). At once, the 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 Library. 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," which concisely states a typical Egyptian decorum about texts, such as this one, that activate the moment of Resurrection of 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." We progress in knowledge: these "writings" about the resurrection are for the Egyptian priesthood conceptually linked to the Wadjet Eye--something every student knows today. 

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

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