Wednesday, May 17, 2017

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

I  What did Ohioans in Joseph Smith's day know about Champollion's cracking of the Egyptian hieroglyphic script?

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). On the other hand, "laboriously absurd" also perfectly describes the symbolic priestly writing at Dendara, a system of hieroglyphic writing students struggle to grasp even today. And at Dendara we find the great astronomical ceiling, the mapped Egyptian heaven, 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 sprang from 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

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 upsets conclusions put forward by 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 had 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.

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 made claims about translating Egyptian hieroglyphs over a sixteen year period, without hearing much about one of the most stunning discoveries of the age? According to Brother Joseph's associates, 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. 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, and many were his letters to the editor. "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;

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 speaks for himself:

"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. Given the unceasing changes in the Egyptian language, the hieroglyphs, a mixed system of logograms, syllabograms, and alphabet, indeed were often reformed, reworked, retweaked, resignified, and revalued. We find no purely ideographic system on the gold plates; nor does Moroni describe a system having even the ideographic measure of the Chinese characters (ideograms themselves balanced with a multiplicity of phonetic complements or elements), much less some indefinable symbolic system of mysterious import. In fact there's no mystery: Moroni says that the Egyptian characters write words and that they can write them just as the words are meant to be pronounced (Again, see Irwin, American Hieroglyphics, on what was available to 19th Century 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 to his own work as Translator. 1799 brings the discovery of the Rosetta Stone; 1802, its date of acquisition by the British Museum; 1805 marks Joseph Smith's 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); 4 March 1832, death of Champollion; 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."

It may indeed have taken time for the learned to "fully embrace" Champollion's work, to use the wording of the Joseph Smith Papers editors, but an eager worldwide audience followed every move.

When Joseph Smith addresses in 1838--smack in the middle of his work with the papyri--the particular gold plate that makes up the ancient title page, he 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. 

In addressing both the title page and, indeed, the entire Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith further describes the Egyptian hieroglyphs as a "running" script, even as Hebrew was a running script. A "running" script--what could be more clear than that? 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." All this recalls descriptions of Champollion's own cluttered office. Consider next what of the hieroglyphs Brother Joseph once shared--what he significantly chose to share--with Oliver Cowdery and Frederick G. Williams. Two signs in Oliver's private notebook write out Book Mormon (the expected construct form) for The Book of Mormon; two additional signs, 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:

In Mosiah 1, which speaks to King Benjamin's palace school, we learn that Lehi, "having been taught in the language of the Egyptians, therefore he could read these engravings," then afterwards teach the same "to his children, that thereby they could teach them to their children" (Mosiah 1:4). Mosiah is describing a system of writing, however difficult, which is yet susceptible of mastery to all comers--and to the coming generations. In other words, the difficulties inherent in the script were not those of the mystic Hieroglyph as Emblem.

How about the papyri Joseph Smith purchased in 1835, three years before his 1838 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 and 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 still something else, an observation, notes Hugh Nibley, that would ring true to 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 on 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 vice-versa.

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 a 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, about how the Egyptians themselves viewed and classed and ordered their own 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 of hieroglyphs?

In lieu of such wrestling with the mind of the ancients, why not just say "Well, Brother Joseph thought he was translating hieroglyphs, when he was really receiving the words through revelation, as if the papyrus roll hadn't been there at all." 

Repeat the claim about What the Prophet Was Thinking, When. . . often enough, as if a mantra, and presto! Who needs to delve into anything about Egyptian or any other system of writing to "explain" what Joseph Smith was up to? Nothing new here: In fact that's the very method--mind-reading--Fawn Brodie employed in her No Man Knows My History.

III  A continual need for reinterpretation? (No, then yes.)

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 whether Joseph Smith even ever 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. 

The Review, which introduces a forthcoming Joseph Smith Papers volume on documents related to the book of Abraham, cranks out one current claim after another, each of which we must put to the tests of logic and of historical and linguistic evidence:

"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).

The anticipated volume 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 merely a code word for another kind of canonization. "Every wind" may "minister questions"; settling accounts is a different matter. When the Joseph Smith Papers were first announced, Ronald K. Esplin expressed the goal of placing primary historical sources into the hands of all interested parties so that much good work might bear fruit in seasons yet to come. To so entrust the sources also meant not tying those hands with an infinite interweave of notation and commentary. Has the goal been met? It may still be met, provided the spirit of exactness and plenitude neither damps nor cloys the eager mind as it revisits both the familiar and the newly available sources.

Every reader retains the right to weigh evidence, though I sense how quickly that right might dissipate in a rhetorical fanfare, however well-intended the triumphant tone emanating from columns, reviews, blurbs, and symposia. Because a blaring of institutional and media trumpets may blur further insights, the future contributor, in quiet study, must insulate himself against conforming to any scholarship, or scholarly theory or method, or even consensus, on face value alone. We do well to read what's written by a disciplined student, yet the greatest obstacle to new ideas comes in the form of appreciative labels: professional, expert, foremost, experienced, renowned, leading, scholar. Why an obstacle? Because none of these styles and honoraria, nor any experience, expertise, or resume of the kind requiring several dromedaries to bring before us, frees a single student from liability to error.

While it's difficult to imagine any volumes more carefully transcribed, by fixed method and by teams, than the Joseph Smith Papers, errors yet appear (especially in the online examples). Invited, I once pointed out the abundant errors made by an editorial team in transcribing the book of Abraham manuscripts, working according to the set rule and from the finest possible photographs. These transcriptions were later published, with a little brushing up, it's true, as A Textual History of the Book of Abraham: Manuscripts and Editions. The spotty reading continues with the other Kirtland Egyptian Papers in the online collection of the Joseph Smith Papers, but I rejoice in all this because I resist the definitive--darling of journalists--and a pedantic perfectionism, bane of scholars. All nature resists: "Oversharpen the blade, and the edge will soon blunt" (Dao de jing, tr. Gia-fu Feng and Jane English). 

Let's make mistakes and not try to pin down everything in one fell blow. Let's also be humble about our ability to read 19th century American handwriting, as we prepare to contextualize how a Seer like Mosiah or Joseph Smith worked with scripts inked 19 centuries--and more--before his time. That puts us back into the heyday of Zarahemla, so we ask: Shall we contextualize how King Mosiah I translated the large stone or how Mosiah II translated the 24 gold plates? Did they only think they were translating from the various glyphs laid before them? Would it be helpful to discern their working assumptions? ideas about eventual canonization? or whether they might have been influenced by ideas already in the air about Jaredite script? It would be impossible to know about any of these things. 

Again, the Book of Mormon, by providing apt instances of the work of translation, opens a door to understanding. Further: what the Book of Mormon says about seeric translation demonstrably is what Joseph Smith, translator, author, proprietor, himself thought and said.

While anyone gifted with knowledge and wisdom certainly must join in the conversation "that all may be profited thereby," there are two things nobody, however philosophical, 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 seeric translation. Elder Bruce R. McConkie, speaking of Abraham, sums things up: "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," while not fussing at all over what was on that papyrus. And Nibley's work on the scrap reveals anything but a run-of-the-mill funerary text; instead the Book of Breathings affords 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; to speak of "attempt to understand" is to be condescending. That sentence about documents "produced" becomes, nonetheless, the principal argument for including all of these documents among the Joseph Smith Papers. 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 trilingual Rosetta Stone 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, a New York journalist, 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, wonderful" 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 Egyptian 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 that the words should be transcribed "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 to him. 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 and papyri--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" (

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, deep in purple, 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). Again, from the editors of the last Joseph Smith Papers volume: A discontinuous five 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 here considers but a few unknown characters, nothing remotely resembling Egyptian; comments on the hieratic are in the hands of Oliver Cowdery and Warren Parrish.

Here the present editors of the wee document assume that others--the unanchored "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). "A single hieroglyph" thus subtly, and amazingly, writes: s3b-shwt-pr-m-3xt, the Multicolored-of-plumage-comes forth-from-the-Horizon (Dagmar Budde, "Epithets, Divine," UEE, 6). 

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: "[most incorrectly] believed that hieroglyphic characters were ideograms that symbolized whole ideas or concepts," i.e., as opposed to, say, the very much phonetic Chinese ideograms, it would have held some truth. Yet what are "whole ideas or concepts?" Would the hieroglyph for s3b-shw.t-prj-m-3x.t fit the bill? Cracking the phonetic elements was but prelude for decoding the iconic system.

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 words. We must take the emic, rather than the etic approach: After all our learned modelings, theorizings, and 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, or become, 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 laments, 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 an accuracy far beyond that of the Authorized Version.

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 comparative conservatism in selecting names to explain the hypocephalus and its "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 episodes, and thus at origin had nothing to do with W.W. Phelps. Egyptian and Hebrew became priorities for the Kirtland period and thereafter. 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 inexplicable 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

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 and toss in the 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; and see also Doctrine and Covenants 8: engravings yet to be revealed "contain" "parts" of "my scripture").

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?

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.