Part 11: CES Letter Book of Abraham Questions [Section B]

By Sarah Allen


Before I get started, I just wanted to reiterate that these are all answers that work for me personally. They may not work for you, and that’s fine. My point in all of this was not to say that this is the only way to view something, but to show that there are answers out there if you go looking for them. If someone who is not a scholar or a professional apologist or researcher can find the stuff I’m posting with a little digging, imagine what else you could find out there if you tried, you know? And some evidences that are convincing to me won’t be convincing to you, and vice versa. That’s okay. Find what is convincing to you. Investigate the stuff you have questions about. Don’t just take my word for it, or the words of critics. Dive in yourself and do the research and see what you can find. Don’t just take one source at its word. Evaluate the different sources, as Reddit user lord_wilmore recently advised. You’ve all seen just how many different sources I’m drawing from to write these posts. There’s never just one. Even when I find a response from someone whose opinion I trust, I still often look for additional sources. I read the footnotes, and I read the sources my sources draw their opinions from. My hope is that these posts will encourage all of you to do the same when you come across a question you can’t immediately answer.

So, that said, let’s dive into some controversy, shall we?

We know this is the papyrus that Joseph used for translation because the hieroglyphics match in chronological order to the hieroglyphics in Joseph’s Kirtland Egyptian Papers, which contains his Grammar & Alphabet of the Egyptian Language (GAEL). Additionally, the papyrus were pasted onto paper which have drawings of a temple and maps of the Kirtland, Ohio area on the back and they were companied by an affidavit by Emma Smith verifying they had been in the possession of Joseph Smith.

First of all, that second sentence is completely out of place. No one from the Church that I’m aware of with any degree of authority has never denied that the papyrus fragments the Church has in its possession are some of the papyri that Joseph had. If someone out there did ever make that claim, it certainly was not in an official capacity while speaking for the Church. As I stated last week, the Church announced the fragments were in fact Joseph’s and that they were funeral documents a month after receiving them. This has never been in dispute, and tacking on the sentence to imply that it was in dispute is sketchy.

As for the first sentence…that’s complicated, but also not very accurate. There are at least five theories out there for the origin of the Book of Abraham. I’m listing these in order from what I consider to be least likely to the most likely, though many of you may put them in a different order. Again, that’s okay.

  • The Book of Abraham is fake and Joseph made the entire thing up out of his own imagination. This is, of course, the favored explanation by many critics of the Church and critics of Joseph himself.
  • The Book of Abraham exists on the papyri fragments the Church has today, and Joseph translated them accurately. Almost no one actually believes this unless they are largely uninformed on the Book of Abraham, though you occasionally see critics acting like it’s a common belief.
  • The Book of Abraham translation was inspired by/made up during/kicked off by the Kirtland Egyptian Papers (KEP) and the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language (GAEL) document in particular. This is the favorite theory of those on the Mormon subreddit, and their preferred Book of Abraham scholars Robert Ritner and Brian Hauglid.
  • The Book of Abraham was a catalytic revelation spurred by looking at the papyri and it wasn’t actually contained on any of the papyrus Joseph had. This is certainly possible, as we know Joseph had other catalytic revelations in the past, such as D&C 7 or the Book of Moses. He did not have the original source material for either of those books, but he received the revelation containing them nonetheless. The JST Matthew translation would also probably fit into this category, even though Joseph obviously had the Bible as a source.
  • The Book of Abraham was contained on the longer rolls of parchment that we know existed in 1835-1842, but that we do not have today, and Joseph translated the text from that long roll. This theory and the catalyst theory described in #4 are the favored theories from most of the LDS Egyptologists, apologists, and faithful Book of Abraham scholars, and this one is what Joseph himself and multiple eyewitnesses claimed he was doing.

Most commonly, members of the Church simply do not have an opinion on where the Book of Abraham came from. They just believe that it was divinely revealed and is scripture, without having a concrete idea of how that happened. If that’s where you land, great. You certainly don’t need a theory of where it came from, nor do you need to agree with any of the theories listed above.

Personally, I believe it was sort of a combination of the last two theories, as we know for a fact that the missing scrolls that everyone at the time said was the source of the Book of Abraham ended up burning in the Chicago fire (the intake papers at the museum confirm the scrolls, one of which had a second text on it after Facsimile 3 which easily could have been the source of the Book of Abraham), and because there are accounts from Lucy Mack Smith that Joseph could translate the text from the missing portions where there were holes in the papyri. Obviously, any time Joseph is translating ancient documents it’s done by direct revelation, but when the source material is missing, that’s when we get the catalytic revelations mentioned above. But again, your mileage may vary and you may reach a different conclusion.

Today, I’m going to talk a little about what we know of the translation methodology, and then I’ll spend the bulk of the time talking about theory 3, because that’s what Jeremy Runnells is claiming. It’s necessary to understand the crux of the argument he’s making here and why it’s important. However, due to space limitations, this is going to be a briefer treatment than you can find elsewhere. There are numerous books and articles written on these things, and I’m trying to boil it all down into one post. Things are going to get skipped, it’s just a fact, so I highly recommend researching it on your own if the subject interests you.

As far as the translation itself goes, the reason this is so widely debated is because there really aren’t any firsthand accounts of it. There are a few vague mentions of it, but no details at all. Joseph never said much more than that he was engaged in translation work. The closest thing we have is Warren Parrish stating, “I have set down by his side and penned down the translation of the Egyptian Hieroglyphicks [sic] as he claimed to receive it by direct inspiration from Heaven.” John Whitmer also said, “Joseph the Seer saw these Record[s] and by the revelation of Jesus Christ could translate these records … which when all translated will be a pleasing history and of great value to the saints.” And Orson Pratt said this, albeit two decades later, “I saw him translating, by inspiration, the Old and New Testaments, and the inspired Book of Abraham from Egyptian papers.” None of them go into detail or explain how that inspiration was channeled.

However, others such as Parley Pratt and Wilford Woodruff claimed he used the Urim and Thummim (which, in this case, would almost certainly be one of Joseph’s own seer stones). No one directly involved with the translation ever mentioned a seer stone, and at least one of those accounts, purported to be by Lucy Mack Smith, may have been confused with the Book of Mormon translation either by her or by the anonymous person reporting her statement:

She said, that when Joseph was reading the papyrus, he closed his eyes, and held a hat over his face, and that the revelation came to him; and that where the papyrus was torn, he could read the parts that were destroyed equally as well as those that were there; and that scribes sat by him writing, as he expounded.

So, it’s very hard to tell. Joseph made comments in the past about not needing his seer stones anymore, and nobody directly involved with the Book of Abraham translation ever mentioned him using one. It seems like a lot of assumptions on the parts of outsiders, but those “outsiders” were some of Joseph’s close friends and family members, so that just muddies the water even further. Especially when Joseph apparently translated several pages overnight the first night he had possession of the papyri, which I’ll get to later, that kind of rapid translation would almost require a seer stone or an easy familiarity with translating without one. But again, there’s no firsthand description of it, so we can’t know for sure either way. It’s all uncertain, which is why there are so many different theories about it out there.

The one thing we do know, as Jeff Lindsay has pointed out, is that, “Those who witnessed Joseph translate give zero support for the claims of critics regarding how Joseph translated the Book of Abraham. Joseph translated by revelation, not by studying characters and making countless guesses on each one’s meaning.”

Anyway, on to the theory itself. The first thing to be aware of is that, in addition to the papyri fragments, the Church also has some papers relating to the Book of Abraham that were made during the translation process. There’s a lot we don’t have, however. We don’t have all of the original manuscript for the bits that ended up in the Times and Seasons and later became the Book of Abraham in our scriptures today. We also don’t have the original translation manuscript itself, the way we do for the Book of Mormon.

What we do have are five partial manuscripts that don’t match exactly with the published text and some other documents like a grammar and alphabets, a document titled Egyptian Counting that oddly doesn’t have any Egyptian on it, and various other papers. This collection was named the Kirtland Egyptian Papers (or KEP) by Hugh Nibley. As I understand it, scholars prefer different names for them now, but when most people talk about them, that’s the common title used. These are further separated by some people into the manuscripts (KEP-Abraham or KEPA) and the other documents (KEP-Egyptian or KEPE). The ones we’re going to focus on today are the first three manuscripts which were written in 1835 (the other two date to several years later), the Egyptian Alphabet documents (or EA), which are three documents in the handwriting of W.W. Phelps, Oliver Cowdery, and Joseph Smith (one of the only two places Joseph’s handwriting is found in the entire KEP), and the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language (GAEL), a bound notebook in the handwriting of W.W. Phelps and William Parrish. The EA are divided into columns and have Egyptian characters down one side, and then some names, sounds, and definitions alongside. The GAEL has Egyptian characters followed by definitions/layers of text from the Book of Abraham. The three KEPA manuscripts all have Egyptian characters jotted into the margins, and they’re similar to the characters on the EA and GAEL.

No one knows for sure what these documents are. There is a lot of speculation, which we’ll get into later, but Jeremy is declaring as fact that they are the source material for the Book of Abraham. This is not the case, as I hope will be clear by the end of this.

There are a few sub-theories surrounding these documents, but the most common position is that the GAEL and EA were created first by copying the Egyptian characters from the fragment with the first facsimile, and the characters on those documents were then studied and used to translate the characters on the manuscripts, which resulted in the Book of Abraham. Essentially, Joseph copied down some characters from the fragments, constructed an alphabet based on the characters, constructed a grammar based on the alphabet, and then constructed the Book of Abraham utilizing that grammar and alphabet.

Some of the certainty proponents of this theory have for the idea that the GAEL/EA came first centers on the journal entry dated July, 1835:

<Translating the Book of Abraham &c.> The remainder of this month, I was continually engaged in translating an alphabet to the Book of Abraham, and arrangeing a grammar of the Egyptian language as practiced by the ancients.

However, as Mark Johnson points out:

… [I]t needs to be remembered that many of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s journal entries were added after the fact by his scribes. Indeed, many of these journal entries were included years after they actually happened. Before relying too heavily on these accounts, these ought to be checked against the Prophet’s original papers to verify that they actually say what they report to say.

In fact, that journal entry was recorded by Willard Richards in 1843. So, while it can generally be assumed that the entries are correct, we can’t treat that with absolute certainty. We don’t know where the information in that journal entry originated, or what, exactly, it was talking about. We don’t know what Joseph was doing, or who else may have been there, or how seriously he was engaged in the work, or who even who originally wrote it. It may be referring to the GAEL or the EA, or it may not be. It doesn’t say. That’s the entire text of the entry.

It also does not mention anyone but Joseph working on this alphabet, which again, is a bit problematic because we know that W.W. Phelps and Oliver Cowdery were present for those EA documents, as there are copies in all three of their hands, and Joseph’s handwriting is nowhere inside the GAEL. The journal entry dated October 1, 1835, seems more likely for the EA creation, as all three of the principle players are mentioned as being there. As Jeff Lindsay points out, “It’s not until October 1, 1835 that we see the likely date of the creation of the Alphabets when Joseph mentioned that he, Oliver, and W.W. Phelps were working together on the Egyptian Alphabet. That’s the obvious date to consider for the creation of the three surviving Egyptian Alphabets. The Grammar and Alphabet, a more formal bound document that draws upon it, would surely come later still. … [Dan] Vogel has it the other way around: contrary to every other translation and revelation experience Joseph had had, for the Book of Abraham he now decided he would need to first create an impossibly illogical alphabet and grammar out of thin air in order to pursue the translation of the Book of Abraham.”

It may seem nit-picky that I’m talking about a few months’ difference, but it’s not. Joseph started translation work in mid-July, took a break for a few months while his scribes were out of town, and then picked it back up in October and November, and then put it aside for several years, until 1841-42. This theory suggests that Joseph did the bulk of the translating in Nauvoo in 1842, and the bulk of creating the GAEL and EA in 1835. This is what the entire theory hinges on. If the EA didn’t come until October 1835, and the GAEL came after that, then they simply could not be the source material for the Book of Abraham. We know this, because that October 1, 1835 journal entry mentions astronomy:

<​October, 1.​> October 1st 1835 This afternoon I labored on the Egyptian alphabet, in company with brethren brothers O[liver] Cowdery and W[illiam] W. Phelps, and during the research the principles of Astronomy as understood by Father Abraham and the ancients, opened unfolded to our understanding; the particulars of which will appear hereafter.

 This journal entry went through some revision. Its original text simply read, “October 1, 1835. This after noon labored on the Egyptian alphabet, in company with brsr. O. Cowdery and W. W. Phelps: The system of astronomy was unfolded.” Regardless of the actual wording, though, the content is important, as John Gee explains in the linked document:

… The Book of Abraham also gives an outline of its prospective contents:

A knowledge of the beginning of the creation, and also of the planets, of the stars, as they were made known unto the fathers, have I kept even unto this day, and I shall endeavor to write some of these things upon this record, for the benefit of my posterity that shall come after me. (Abraham 1:31)

In its currently published form, the Book of Abraham stops in the middle of a revelation on the creation, given to Abraham preparatory to his entry into Egypt.

A word on the “explanations” of the facsimiles of the Book of Abraham is in order here. Though each facsimile has what is termed an “explanation,” it does not explain much of what is going on in the facsimiles; rather, the “explanation” identifies various elements, which are then explained in the text of the Book of Abraham. As presently constituted, the text of the Book of Abraham stops before the explanation of Facsimile 2 occurs. When Joseph Smith writes on 1 October 1835 that “the system of astronomy was unfolded,” he provides a date for the progress achieved to that point in the translation of the Book of Abraham, a point further along in the Book of Abraham than was ever published. Furthermore, the first hint of astronomical things occurs in Abraham 3:2, which is further along in the translation than any manuscript of the Book of Abraham dating from the Kirtland period (KEPA 1–3). No Kirtland period manuscript discusses the hypocephalus. Nor does any passage in the Book of Abraham really discuss “the formation of the planetary System.” That the translation had progressed further than the present Book of Abraham is corroborated by the firsthand report of Anson Call that, in 1838, it took “altogether about two hours” to read the Book of Abraham aloud; it takes about half an hour now. This indicates that by 1838, Joseph Smith had translated approximately four times as much as we currently have in the Book of Abraham, and, as we have no record of translation after 25 November 1835, it would seem that most if not all of it had been translated in 1835.

A quick aside: there is other evidence that there was potentially more of the Book of Abraham at one time than there is now. Mark Johnson wrote an article for the Interpreter that I would highly recommend, as he goes into detail of things that supposedly were taken from the Book of Abraham in Joseph’s lectures, but that we do not have today. Remember, the last Times and Seasons article featuring papyri translations left off by saying that more installments would be coming in the future, and none did. There is a very, very good chance that it once existed and was lost. There was another fire according to Johnson, this one hitting the historian’s office at the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints/Community of Christ in the late 1800s, which destroyed their entire trove of documents and books. It may have once included the original manuscript of the Book of Abraham. It’s mostly speculation, but there are strong hints that there was more of it in Joseph’s day than we have today.

Going back to the timing of it all, if the GAEL and EA didn’t appear until October of 1835 at the earliest, then they simply could not be the source material for the Book of Abraham. However, even if the July entry is referring to those documents, the translation still would have begun first. Joseph did translate in July, and he did so before any mention of working on an alphabet or grammar. In fact, he started translating before he even purchased the papyri.

Let me back up a bit. In an awesome presentation at last year’s FAIR conference, Kerry Muhlestein shredded this particular argument. (There were actually four very strong rebuttals against the GAEL/EA theory within the past year that I’ll be referring to, and together, the combination of evidences they give basically kills this entire theory.) This presentation is a bit long, about 40 minutes or so, but it’s very well worth the time if you have a while to spend on it.

First of all, we can show conclusively that the translation was at least mostly finished by the end of 1835 (these are all taken from the presentation except the one with the link embedded):

  • The word “Shinehah” was used as a code word for Kirtland in the 1835 copy of the Doctrine and Covenants
  • Oliver Cowdery gave a patriarchal blessing in the summer or fall of 1835 quoting phrases from Abraham 1
  • Wilford Woodruff mentioned Kolob in 1837 and 1838
  • Joseph spoke about Abraham’s astronomical writings in 1838
  • Joseph taught about the premortal council and organization of man in 1839
  • Joseph wrote about the plurality of gods and the revolutions of the planets and a council of the gods in 1839
  • Joseph spoke about Adam’s death taking place in a 1000-year day in 1841

Additionally, we know for a fact there was some translation done in July, before the GAEL/EA were created. You see, when Michael Chandler came to town with the mummies and papyri, a relative of a member of the Church arranged to have Joseph come see them. He met with Chandler and, after getting some people to vouch for him, Chandler agreed to let Joseph take the papyri home overnight to study them. When Joseph came back the next morning, he had several pages of translation with him that he’d done that very night. Oliver Cowdery read them to the people in the room. They were not pages of a grammar and alphabet, they were pages of translated text.

We don’t know which portion he translated, but Joseph was so excited by what he’d found, he wanted to buy the papyri. However, Chandler wouldn’t sell them without including the mummies, so Joseph and some financial backers pulled together some money and bought the entire collection. Then, immediately after purchasing them, the Manuscript History of the Church (probably written by Phelps in Joseph’s voice, which was the common autobiographical practice back then), said, “…and I, with W.W. Phelps and O. Cowdery, as scribes, commenced the translation of some of the characters or hieroglyphics, and much to our joy found that one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham.” It seems that Joseph was already aware of that, given the translation work already started and his excitement over it, but Phelps was probably just trying to briefly summarize the situation for the readers.

Anyway, he began translating the characters, again with no mention of a grammar or alphabet. He had at least two pages of translation done the very first night he saw them. The translation had to have begun first.

The presentation went even further, showing that every time the phrases on the manuscript matched the phrases on the GAEL or EA, the Egyptian characters did not. He calculated that 96% of the manuscript Egyptian characters had no match at all to the Egyptian characters in the GAEL, and that 98% of the GAEL/EA Egyptian characters had no match at all to the Egyptian characters in the manuscripts. One was not derived from the other. They’re completely different.

John Gee published two articles in the Interpreter in January of this year that are also relevant, “Fantasy and Reality in the Translation of the Book of Abraham” and “Prolegomena to a Study of the Egyptian Alphabet Documents in the Joseph Smith Papers,” which are the next two rebuttals well worth discussing. I don’t have the space to dive deeply into either of them, but I will summarize the two.

In “Fantasy and Reality,” Gee tackles the GAEL and also the idea of simultaneous dictation of the three manuscripts, which is a part of the KEP theory I haven’t touched on in an effort to keep things simplified. Basically, the theory is that two of the three initial manuscript copies from Kirtland were recorded simultaneously by Warren Parrish and Frederick G. Williams as Joseph translated. Gee begins by pointing out that the manuscripts have paragraphs and punctuation, as well as contemporaneous editing marks, while every other dictated manuscript by Joseph’s scribes that we have access to do not. Those are all hallmarks of scribes copying a previously dictated manuscript. Additionally, many of the spelling errors appear to be copying rather than dictation mistakes, and there’s a place where Williams had to cram something into a top margin because he left it out, while Parrish wrote it in its proper place. This supports the idea that Parrish copied Williams’s manuscript and corrected the errors as he went along. Gee also demonstrates that on the only day between July and December of 1835 in which both Parrish and Williams definitively served as scribes on the same day was November 16th, and that it was crammed full with no room for working on a dictated manuscript. There is one other day, November 19th, that is a possible match because the records are ambiguous as to whether or not Williams was with Smith and Parrish all day or only during one event.

Regarding the GAEL, Gee spends some time showing that the project was the work of Phelps, and that there’s no evidence at all that Joseph was involved in it. He also demonstrates how the stated order of most KEP theorists (the EA led to the GAEL, which led to the manuscripts) is wrong. Particularly noteworthy is the point that the Egyptian characters in the margins of the EA were taken from the fragment now titled Joseph Smith Papyrus I. The Egyptian characters in the margins of the manuscripts, however, were taken from the fragment now titled Joseph Smith Papyrus XI. The characters in the GAEL are from several sources (some of them aren’t even Egyptian), but most notably they also come from Joseph Smith Papyrus I. Suggesting the manuscript came from studying the characters on the EA and the GAEL is impossible when the characters on the manuscript came from a completely different fragment. Even if the characters on the manuscripts were the basis for the Book of Abraham, they could not have come from the EA or GAEL.

 Gee also explains that one of the manuscripts was written in Phelps’s handwriting, and there was only one day on which that could have happened, so he could not have been engaged in working on the GAEL at that time. There was no other point that entire year in which Phelps could have taken down dictation that led to the GAEL. And yet, the GAEL is almost entirely in Phelps’s handwriting, with a little from Williams included. So, either Joseph was not involved at all in the GAEL, or it had to have come much later than the EA or the manuscripts, or both. It simply could not be the basis of the Book of Abraham. He then breaks down the theory and the evidence against it even further in a section I highly recommend reading.

In “Prolegomena,” Gee demonstrates that the EA were likely the output of a single day’s work, and that Phelps was almost certainly the mastermind of the project. Both Joseph and Oliver seem to have petered out well before Phelps did, paying little attention to the formatting of the documents. Joseph in particular does not appear to have been heavily invested in the project and gave up first. He kept forgetting the format and there is evidence on the document that he then had to go in later and add it into the margins because he ignored entire columns.

Gee debunks the idea that Oliver and Phelps were simply expounding on Joseph’s earlier work by showing that Joseph’s scribes were eight times more likely to remove things from Joseph’s originals than add to them. He also showed that in the EA vs the GAEL, the same terminology was used for different concepts, showing that different people instigated them, and that, while the EA was dependent on the Book of Abraham text, the Book of Abraham text was not derived from the EA. He points out the word usage, that Joseph was laboring on an alphabet and grammar, not translating or unfolding. Joseph nearly always used the word “labor” for physical or mental work, while he used “translate,” “reveal,” “unfold,” etc., for more spiritual endeavors. Gee also states, “The editors [of the Joseph Smith Papers Revelations & Translations volume 4] present the whole project as Joseph Smith’s, but the manuscript evidence indicates that the conception of the project belonged to Phelps, while the fullest definitions are generally those of Cowdery.”

He then discusses some of the common theories of translation, pointing out that if it was a catalytic revelation spurred by the KEP, Joseph would not then have needed to continue working on the KEP after the revelation began. Yet, there are further documents showing that work on the papers continued after October 1, 1835. If the source of the Book of Abraham was a portion of papyri that we no longer have, then the GAEL becomes one of Phelps’s pet projects he worked on while not acting as Joseph’s scribe, while the EA become an effort to match the characters to concepts and phrases from the manuscript they already have.

The last rebuttal is fantastic, because Tim Barker basically dropped a bomb on the idea that the Book of Abraham was translated from the figures on the papyri fragment (now known as JSP XI) adjacent to Facsimile 1. That fragment is where the characters on the GAEL/EA came from that were supposedly translated into the manuscripts. I’d recommend having this presentation open while going through this, because he has lots of pictures that are helpful in explaining what he’s talking about.

When Facsimile 2 was damaged, the missing portions were filled in by Reuben Hedlock, the engraver of the facsimiles, pretty certainly under Joseph’s direction. Why they did that, we don’t know, except for maybe aesthetic reasons so it would be a complete drawing. What they filled those gaps in with was figures from JSP XI.

Barker explains:

Interestingly, looking at the undamaged portions of the hypocephalus and the damaged portions (but filled in with various Egyptian hieroglyphic and hieratic characters), Joseph chose to comment on some “Figures” and refrain from commenting on others. Sometimes he provided explanations for undamaged figures, and sometimes he refrained from explaining undamaged figures. Sometimes he provided explanations for damaged figures, and other times he refrained from explaining damaged figures.

It just so happens that literally every figure containing any hieratic text from JSP XI, Joseph’s response is that the explanations “will be given in the own due time of the Lord.” And he concludes by saying, “The above translation is given as far as we have any right to give at the present time.” In other words, literally all of the JSP XI hieratic characters included in Facsimile 2, Joseph Smith deliberately declined from commenting upon because he believed that the translation would at some future time be given in the own due time of the Lord. Joseph clearly indicates that he did not translate JSP XI.

He goes on to say that in the first issue of the Times and Seasons with Book of Abraham content, they published the first facsimile and Abraham 1:12:18. This was on March 1, 1842. A few days later, his journal said, “Exhibeting the Book of Abraham. In the original. To Bro Reuben Hadlock. So that he might take the size of the several plates or cuts. & prepare the blocks for the Times & Seasons. & also gave instruction concerning the arrangement of the writing on the Large cut. Illustrating the principles of Astronomy.” (The “large cut” is Facsimile 2, which is a great deal bigger than the other two.)

Two weeks later, the rest of the Book of Abraham and Facsimile 2 are published. So, in order for that translation to have been taken from the text of JSP XI, Joseph would have had to translate Abraham 1:12:18, add half of those exact same characters to Facsimile 2, then declare that he was not allowed to translate them at that time.

Joseph said, flat out, that he was not allowed to translate the figures on JSP XI, so they could not possibly have been the source material for the Book of Abraham, a document he did translate.

This means that the GAEL/EA, which were using characters taken from JSP XI, can’t be the source of the Book of Abraham, either. There’s just no getting around all of this evidence. When you combine all four rebuttals, that theory is impossible.

So, if the KEP weren’t the source material for the Book of Abraham, what were they? Well, no one really knows, though there are a variety of theories. In a 2010 FAIR presentation, William Schryver gave an interesting analysis of some of the KEP documents, as well as offering up the suggestion that the GAEL and Egyptian Counting documents were a substitution cipher and its key. W.W. Phelps was intrigued by masonic ciphers, and we know that Joseph and his inner circle did in fact use ciphers to attempt to protect some of the early revelations that eventually became the Doctrine and Covenants, so it’s definitely a possibility.

Jeff Lindsay suggests an alternate theory:

It would seem that Joseph was intellectually toying with the fruits of revelation, working with some already translated material to see if it were possible to gain insight into Egyptian or perhaps something else. Both he and W.W. Phelps had an interest in the concept the ancient “pure language” that Adam spoke, and since we see some non-Egyptian characters that Phelps had written in a May 1835 letter to his wife, before the scrolls ever came to Kirtland, in the GAEL and the Egyptian Alphabets, perhaps an intellectual investigation into ancient language was inspired by the ancient scrolls that Joseph now had access to.

As Jeff Lindsay said, W.W. Phelps was also very taken with his “pure language project,” trying to work out the Adamic language of God. He included some of the very non-Egyptian characters from the KEP in letters to her with similar organization to the EA and GAEL. It seems pretty clear that he was the driving force behind those documents, at least to me.

Kerry Muhlestein suggested something similar:

Joseph Smith recorded a number of times his desire to learn to read ancient languages. One almost gets a sense that he was grateful for the opportunity to translate when God blessed him with that gift, but that his experiences with ancient languages had instilled in him a desire to know those languages for himself and to acquire the ability to translate them whenever he wanted to. His friends, Oliver Cowdery and W.W. Phelps in particular, shared this desire with him. … The theory that the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar represent an attempt, led by W.W. Phelps but aided by Joseph Smith, to create an Egyptian grammar using at least something of Joseph Smith’s translation is supported by the fact that it fits in well with what we know of Smith’s other activities. He had been engaged in trying to figure out how to translate Hebrew in a conventional manner by using his own translation work. He gave this up. He then tried to figure out how to translate Egyptian using his own translation work. He gave this up. He finally attempted to learn to translate Hebrew using a very difficult grammar, and gave his up in favor of hiring a Hebrew teacher. At this point Smith excelled in learning Hebrew and never seems to have returned to the idea of trying to pick up a language using less conventional means.

Whatever they were creating, the only thing we can really be sure of is that it was not the source material for the Book of Abraham.


Sources in this entry:


Sarah Allen is brand new in her affiliation with FAIR. By profession, she works in mortgage compliance and is a freelance copyeditor. A voracious reader, she loves studying the Gospel and the history of the restored Church. After watching some of her lose their testimonies, she became interested in helping others through their faith crises and began sharing what she learned through her studies. She’s grateful to those at FAIR who have given her the opportunity to share her testimony with a wider audience.

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