Book of Abraham/Kirtland Egyptian Papers/Purpose

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Purpose of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers

Summary: For many years, the KEP were not well studied. A variety of possible explanations have been offered by LDS researchers over the years. One of the more recent approaches postulates that the KEP represent an attempt by Joseph and his associates to create a way to encode revelations and other sensitive data in a form approximating "pure language." Research into this theory is ongoing.

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Gospel Topics on LDS.org: "Some evidence suggests that Joseph studied the characters on the Egyptian papyri and attempted to learn the Egyptian language"

"Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham," Gospel Topics on LDS.org

Some evidence suggests that Joseph studied the characters on the Egyptian papyri and attempted to learn the Egyptian language. His history reports that, in July 1835, he was “continually engaged in translating an alphabet to the Book of Abraham, and arranging a grammar of the Egyptian language as practiced by the ancients.” This “grammar,” as it was called, consisted of columns of hieroglyphic characters followed by English translations recorded in a large notebook by Joseph’s scribe, William W. Phelps. Another manuscript, written by Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, has Egyptian characters followed by explanations. [1] —(Click here to continue)


Question: What are the Kirtland Egyptian Papers and Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language?

The Kirtland Egyptian Papers associate characters with passages of text

Among the early Book-of-Abraham-related-manuscripts that have survived from the days of Joseph Smith are a number of papers collectively referred to as the "Kirtland Egyptian Papers" (KEP). These pages were written while the Saints lived in Kirtland, Ohio, and were recorded in the general time frame that Joseph was translating the Book of Abraham. They are in the same handwriting of several of Joseph's scribes. Critics charge that the KEP represent Joseph's attempt to translate the hieroglyphics from those portions that are still extant, noting that Egyptologists tell us that the alleged "translations" do not accurately reflect the meanings of the hieroglyphics.

In some cases, several paragraphs of the English translation of the Book of Abraham are associated with Egyptian characters from the Joseph Smith papyri

In some instances, one Egyptian character seems to yield several sentences of English text. From what may be surmised from the "Kirtland Egyptian Papers" the surviving Egyptian papyri are claimed by critics to be the source for the Book of Abraham. Critics point out that Egyptologists agree that these papyri are part of a collection of Egyptian funerary documents known as the Book of Breathings and do not deal with Abraham.

For many years, the KEP were not well studied

A variety of possible explanations have been offered by LDS researchers over the years. The most recent approach postulates that the KEP represent an attempt by Joseph and his associates to create a way to encode revelations and other sensitive data in a form approximating "pure language." Research into this theory is ongoing. A number of the following paragraphs make use of conclusions made in a presentation by William Schryver.[2] Also presented here is another approach to the issue.

One conclusion made by some theorists is that the KEP do not lend support to the critical theory that the coherent words of the Book of Abraham were produced from a non-inspired analysis of the Egyptian materials before Joseph or his scribes. The text of the Book of Abraham was uttered by the Prophet and recorded by his scribes in much the same way that all of his revelatory translation projects were done. To the critic, this simply means that Joseph made up the coherent text and dictated it; to the believer, it means that Joseph received the text by revelation and dictated it, whether the actual text of the Book of Abraham existed on the papyri or not.

Other theorists take the position that the KEP do represent an inspired translation of the ideograms, but not of their Egyptological meanings. Rather, the non-standard meanings were assigned to them anciently by Jewish Egyptians in a non-standard system of Egyptian exegesis.


Question: Were the Kirtland Egyptian Papers and Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar produced prior to the Book of Abraham?

The Kirtland Egyptian Papers were produced after the Book of Abraham was dictated

A key assertion claimed by critics of the Church is that these documents were produced prior to the Book of Abraham manuscript, and that they therefore constitute a "smoking gun" that proves that Joseph was making up translations for Egyptian characters taken from the existing fragments of the Joseph Smith Papyri. Critics often refer to these papers as the "translation documents" for the Book of Abraham, and believe that they were used specifically to produce the first three verses in Abraham, Chapter 1.

However, the earliest document in the KEP (pre-dating the recovery of the Joseph Smith Papryi from which the Book of Abraham was produced) assigns meanings to non-Egyptian characters, and a later document assigns new meanings to these same characters.

The earliest datable document in the collection is a letter from W. W. Phelps to his wife describing a selection of the "pure language". It is dated to May of 1835. The document contains a sequence of six characters, three of which may belong to a Masonic cipher. Each character is also given a name, a pronunciation and an explanation. However, what is significant is that all six of these characters appear in an identical order in other KEP documents, except they are given different names, sounds and explanations. None of these six characters come from the Papyri.

Some source material used in the KEP is taken from sections of the D&C

In the KEP, when a character in the Grammar is given multiple degrees, it does so usually by taking the source text and break it up into consecutive pieces. So, the first line might be the first degree, the second line the second degree, and so on. There is evidence that some of the source material in these explanations comes from sections of the D&C rather than the Book of Abraham.

Some of the Kirtland "Egyptian" Papers do not contain Egyptian at all

The "Egyptian Counting" document which is part of the KEP, like the grammar documents, has a character, a sound, and an explanation for each, yet none of the characters are Egyptian. Nor do they contain a single character from the Joseph Smith papyri.

The placement of a translation of the Book of Abraham prior to the production of the KEP renders the entire discussion regarding which document came before which other documents irrelevant

The production of the KEP after the Book of Abraham indicates that the KEP does not represent "translation documents" documenting a physical process by which translation was attempted.

It should be noted that this does not change the relationship of the Book of Abraham to the Joseph Smith Papyri. It does not address the issue of whether or not the text of the Book of Abraham was actually present on the Scroll of Hor (the "long scroll" theory), or whether the scroll was simply a catalyst for revelation (the "short scroll" theory).


Question: In the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, why is each Egyptian character matched to an entire paragraph of English text?

The KEP may have been an attempt to "reverse engineer" the Book of Abraham translation against the Egyptian papyri

Once the Book of Abraham translation was complete, a unique opportunity existed to use the completed translation in an attempt to match it against the Egyptian characters on the papyri and produce a correlation between English and Egyptian. The Church addresses this possibility on LDS.org:

Some evidence suggests that Joseph studied the characters on the Egyptian papyri and attempted to learn the Egyptian language. His history reports that, in July 1835, he 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.” This “grammar,” as it was called, consisted of columns of hieroglyphic characters followed by English translations recorded in a large notebook by Joseph’s scribe, William W. Phelps. Another manuscript, written by Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, has Egyptian characters followed by explanations.[3]

The reverse engineering hypothesis gains traction once we see that the translation of the Book of Abraham (as some have supposed are demonstrated by the characters in the margins of the translation manuscripts) and the characters in the GAEL:

Yet some have supposed that the Egyptian Alphabet was the tool used to create the translation. In order to assess whether this could be the case or not, I conducted research to test the assumption. First, I located all of the phrases in the Egyptian Alphabet that also appear in the Book of Abraham. I then compared the Egyptian characters next to those phrases to the Egyptian characters adjacent to the matching lines in the early Book of Abraham manuscripts. Of the twenty-one times I found text in the Egyptian Alphabet that matched text in the Book of Abraham, I found only one time that the corresponding Egyptian characters matched, four times when part of the characters matched, and sixteen times in which there was no match whatsoever. Clearly the Egyptian alphabet was not used to translate the papyri, nor is there any demonstrable relationship between the characters on the papyri and the text of the Book of Abraham. This is not surprising since the characters come from fragments of papyri that eyewitnesses noted were not the source of the Book of Abraham.[4]

Even further evidence of this is the presence of Hebrew in the GAEL. This is further explicated by Jeff Lindsay[5]


Question: Do the earliest manuscripts of the Book of Abraham demonstrate that Joseph was translation from the extant Grammaer and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language?

The claim is contradicted by manifold data

A common claim of critics who wish to support the Extant Papyri Theory (The theory that the Book of Abraham was translated from the papyri that we have today. Often it is further claimed that the translation came from the GAEL. There are problems with that approach not mentioned in this article.) is to show that the earliest manuscripts of the Book of Abraham have characters from the papyri in their margins, suggesting to some that Joseph and co. used the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language to render the text of the Book of Abraham. Since the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language is considered by both non-Latter-day Saint and Latter-day Saint scholars to not provide any authentic knowledge to the Egyptian Language, this, they claim, supports the notion that Joseph Smith was a conscious fraud and that the now-demonstrated fraudulent Book of Abraham supports this notion. Jeff Lindsay has responded to this claim aptly and his response is reproduced below.

Jeff Lindsay on the Simultaneous Dictation Theory of the earliest manuscripts of the Book of Abraham

A popular and seemingly potent claim of some critics is that we can see evidence of Joseph “translating” on the fly from the characters in the margins of the Book of Abraham Manuscript A and Manuscript B, which show evidence of two scribes simultaneously copying down text that someone was reading. (Manuscript C is in the handwriting of W. W. Phelps for the first 20 lines giving Abraham 1:1‒3, and then it switches to that of Warren Parrish again, and shows signs of coming after the first two documents, A and B.)

Manuscript A and Manuscript B both begin with the very same mistakes and corrections, as if the speaker were catching the errors and correcting them on the fly. As we look on the first page of both manuscripts, there is clearly an oral process going on, especially when we see different spellings for unusual names. So this is said to give us a window into Joseph’s translation showing what is happening as he dictates, showing us how he used a few characters to create large blocks of text. We see the original Book of Abraham text being created from mystic Egyptian — and it’s just embarrassing.

These documents are then used in making some of the most widely disseminated arguments against the Book of Abraham, and it is crucial that the editorial comments be made with caution and care, and with an awareness of the potential impact these documents can have when used to undermine testimonies of the Restoration.

Yes, there certainly appears to be an oral process occurring with simultaneous copying, at least at the beginning of Manuscripts A and B. But was it really Joseph dictating? How do we know? This is simply an assumption made by our critics. And was this dictation of text being revealed/fabricated on the fly, or was it dictation from an existing manuscript to help two scribes make a copy? The editors of JSPRT4 express their interpretations of these documents as follows (part of which was mentioned in Issue #2, above):

Discrepancies in the spelling of several words in the two manuscripts suggest that the manuscripts were not visually compared against one another or against a single, earlier version. Given the similarities between the texts of the two manuscripts and the revision process for both, JS may have dictated some or most of the text to both scribes at the same time. In that case, these two manuscripts would likely be the earliest dictated copies of the Book of Abraham. Some scribal errors in the later portion of the manuscript made by Williams, however, indicate that he copied some of his text from another manuscript. JS may have read aloud to Williams and Parrish from an earlier, nonextant text, making corrections as he went; he followed a similar process in his work in the Bible revision project.


The third version, inscribed by Phelps and Parrish, silently incorporates most of the changes made in the earlier Williams and Parrish versions. The most complete of any of the extant versions created in Kirtland, the manuscript inscribed by Phelps and Parrish was originally copied into a bound volume, which suggests that it was viewed as a more permanent text, rather than a work in progress. This manuscript also contains prefatory material that does not appear in the other two Kirtland-era manuscripts. This prefatory material contains the most similarities to the definitions in the Grammar and Alphabet volume and was therefore also likely connected to JS’s study of the Egyptian language. Many themes appear both in the Book of Abraham manuscript inscribed by Phelps and Parrish in the Grammar and Alphabet volume, and three characters that are analyzed in the fifth degree of the first part of the Grammar and Alphabet volume are found in the margin of this manuscript.

JS may have planned to translate more of the Book of Abraham when he moved to Missouri, but the conflict that ensued there, as well as JS’s arrest and incarceration in 1838–39, prevented additional work. JS dictated later portions of the Book of Abraham in Nauvoo in 1842. (JSPRT4, p. 192)

Do these manuscripts represent translation work in progress and give us a window into how Joseph created the Book of Abraham? Could these really be the earliest dictated manuscripts of the Book of Abraham? Do they derive from definitions in the GAEL and reflect Joseph’s misguided personal study of Egyptian? Those are all key talking points for critics of the Book of Abraham, part of the basic fabric for the case against Joseph as a prophet. But a more careful examination of these documents reveals the questionable scholarship behind such arguments.

A careful look at the twin texts A and B shows that what was being dictated was an already existing text, not one being created. Fortunately, the editors of another volume in the JSP series, Documents: Volume 5, January 1835–October 1838, recognize this: “Textual evidence suggests that these Book of Abraham texts were based on an earlier manuscript that no longer exists.”[6] The supporting footnote explains:

Documents dictated directly by JS typically had few paragraph breaks, punctuation marks, or contemporaneous alterations to the text. All the extant copies, including the featured text, have regular paragraphing and punctuation included at the time of transcription as well as several cancellations and insertions.[7]

This point should have been made in JSPRT4, not out of a shameless desire to support apologetics, but to point out something distinctive and obvious about the manuscripts that, incidentally, weakens a common argument from Book of Abraham critics. The apologetic argument need not be explicitly raised, but the evidence pointing to the existence of an earlier manuscript is relevant and important and should not be brushed aside in favor of anyone’s personal theory that these documents show a “window” into the live translation process of Joseph Smith.

Further, the evidence suggests the most likely source of dictation was not Joseph Smith but one of the two scribes who was initially reading aloud for the benefit of the other. The most plausible scenario to account for these documents is that Warren Parrish was dictating for the benefit of his fellow scribe Frederick Williams as they both made copies of an existing text, but when Parrish left at one point, Williams began copying visually from the existing manuscript and then made a classic blunder typical of visual copying, not taking oral dictation.

Why would Parrish stop writing while Williams continued? If these manuscripts were being prepared after self-directed or tutored Hebrew study had commenced in December of 1835 or January of 1836, then one possibility for Parrish running out of breath in the scribal work for Book of Abraham Manuscript B could be his respiratory illness, which began in December 1835 and continued to afflict him in January 1836, so much so that he wrote the following to Joseph as he temporarily backed down from his writing work: “I have a violent cough and writing has a particular tendency to injure my lungs. I therefore with reluctance send your journal to you until my health improves.”[8] Parrish would return to his scribal duties on February 8, 1836.[9]. The reason for leaving early is only of secondary interest, however. More important is what we learn from the manuscripts.

Parrish, working on Manuscript B, stopped early after writing “who was the daughter of Haran” from Abraham 2:2. However, Williams kept on writing in Manuscript A. It was at this point where something changed, as is visible in the image and transcription in JSPRT4 (pp. 200– 01) and on the website.[10] Initially I thought it was Williams who may have been reading, but examination of the spelling of names shows that Parrish was probably looking at the manuscript and was able to spell unusual names consistently, while Williams shows great variability, making the kind of mistakes natural in taking dictation. Thus it seems that dictation was occurring and continued as long as both scribes were writing, but when Parrish stopped after Abraham 2:2, it seems he left or otherwise ceased dictating because after this change, Williams’s manuscript shows a classic copying blunder that does not fit a scenario of taking dictation from Joseph Smith: he accidentally jumped back in the text he was looking at and began copying a large block of text a second time, repeating the three verses of Abraham 2:3–5 essentially word for word (an error known as dittography).[11] The change also includes writing all the way to the left margin of the page instead of respecting the column that held occasional Egyptian characters.

The common mistakes and corrections in the beginning of the documents are hard to explain if Joseph were dictating and already had a sentence in his head, but make sense if a scribe is reading aloud from an existing manuscript a few words at a time as both scribes then write what has been spoken. Consider the opening lines, here taken from the transcript of Manuscript A on the JSPP website:

I sought for <mine> the appointment whereunto unto the priesthood according to the appointment of God unto the fathers concerning the seed…[12]

How does “mine appointment” get turned into “the appointment”? Note that the final sentence in question has both “mine appointment” and “the appointment” right after it. When copying by hand from an existing text or reading aloud from an existing text, skipping ahead (or looking back) to a similar phrase and momentarily confusing the two is an easy and common mistake to make. Switching a nearby “the appointment” for the immediate “mine appointment” would be completely understandable if one were working from an existing text. It’s also possible that if the reader were not used to putting mine in front of a noun, one could also subconsciously make it more natural by reading the for mine. The fact that mine ends with ne, which can look like he in the might have contributed to the error. But in any case, looking at an existing text and copying or reading could readily result in this error, whereas if one had decided to speak of “my appointment” (if Joseph were making up scripture on the fly) but in old fashioned language, it’s unlikely that one would slip and just say the instead, when the context of the sentence demands a possessive. This is an error that most likely is due to working with an existing text.

Next, how could “appointment unto” become “appointment whereunto” if one is dictating one’s own words and ideas? This mistake, however, could again be very natural if someone were reading out loud from an existing text in hand. The conversion of unto into whereunto makes sense as a scribal or reading error given that whereunto was just used in a similar context earlier in Abraham 1:2, assuming that it was present on the hypothesized preexisting, more complete manuscript. In that verse, whereunto is also in the context of receiving the Priesthood:

And, finding there was greater happiness and peace and rest for me, I sought for the blessings of the fathers, and the right whereunto I should be ordained to administer the same.

If the person reading the text to our two scribes had the complete text of Abraham 1 in hand, helping them to make copies for their own use or study, perhaps, then if that person had previously read verse 2 or were familiar with it, then memory (or visual memory) of that previous whereunto regarding Priesthood rights could easily cause one to stumble and say whereunto instead of unto. The same could happen for someone making a copy by hand, but since two manuscripts from two scribes have the same error, it would seem they are either taking notes from dictation or deliberately preserving scribal errors from a previous text, which would seem unlikely.

Evidence that it is Parrish who is reading and not Joseph Smith comes from analysis of the spelling errors made. If one of the scribes were the speaker and had the text before him, he would have had the benefit of seeing how unusual names were spelled, and thus would be less likely to introduce misspellings that needed correction when it came to proper names. So let’s look at the typos in proper names in these two manuscripts and see how they compare. Below are the proper names in each manuscript, excluding the common or relatively easy names Egypt and Egyptian, Ham, Adam, and Noah. They are shown in order and grouped by name in order of occurrence and showing corrections. First we consider the transcript of Manuscript A by Frederick G. Williams:

  • Elk=Kener, Elk=Kener, Elk=Keenah, Elk-keenah, Elk Kee-nah, Elk-Keenah, Elkkeenah
  • Zibnah, Zibnah, Zibnah
  • Mah-mackrah, Mah-Mach-rah, Mah-Mach-rah
  • Pharoah, Pharaoh, Pharaoh, pharaoh, Pharaoh, Pharaoh, Pharaoh, Pharaoh, Pharaohs
  • Chaldea, Chaldea, Chaldeea, Chaldea, Chaldea, chaldees, chaldees, chaldees
  • Chaldeans, Chaldians, Chaldea [“in the Chaldea signifies Egypt” – Chaldean is meant]
  • Shag=reel, Shag-reel
  • Potipher[s] hill, Potiphers hill
  • Olishem
  • Onitus Onitah
  • Kah-lee-nos [note that the canonized text has Rahleenos]
  • Abram, Abram, Abraham <Abram>, Abram, Abram, Abram
  • Ur, Ur, Ur, Ur, Ur
  • Cananitess, cannites
  • Zep-tah
  • Egyptes
  • Haran, Haron, Haran, Haran, Haran, Haran, Haran
  • Terah
  • Sarai, Sarai, sarah
  • Nahor
  • Milcah
  • canaan, canaan
  • Lot

Manuscript B by Warren Parrish has these proper names with corrections shown:

  • Elkkener, Elkken[er] [here the edge of the paper is damaged obscuring the final r, but it appears he wrote the full word, Elkkener], Elkkener, Elkkener, Elkkener, Elkkener
  • Zibnah, Zibnah, Zibnah

mahmachrah, Mahmachrah, Mahmachrah

  • Pharoah, Pharao[h], Pharaoh, Pharaoh, Pharoaoh, Pharaoh, Pharaoh, Pharaoh, Pharaoh, Pharaoh, Pharaoh
  • Chaldea, Chaldea, Chaldea, Chaldea, Chaldea, Chaldeas
  • Chaldeans, Chaldeans, Chaldea [“in the Chaldea signifies Egypt” — Chaldean is meant, same error here as in Manuscript A],
  • Shagreel, Shagreel
  • Potiphers hill, Potiphers hill
  • Olishem
  • Onitah
  • Kahleenos [The canonized text has Rahleenos. Since a cursive capital R often looks much like a K, it would be easy to read Rahleenos on an existing text as Kahleenos. Williams also wrote Kahleenos. Perhaps the original text had Kahleenos, or it may have had Rahleenos, which Parrish or someone else misread.]
  • Abram, Abram, Abram
  • ur, Ur, Ur
  • canaanites, Canaanites
  • Zeptah
  • Egyptes
  • Haran, Haran
  • Terah
  • Sarai
  • Nahor
  • Milcah

Parrish is not a great speller, giving us preist, sacrafice, fassion (fashion), patraarch, govermnent, pople (people), Idolitry, deliniate, runing, and smiten in Manuscript B, but he spells names consistently, with the exception of capitalization and typos for Pharaoh. Williams, on the other hand, has significant variation in his spelling of unusual words, suggesting that for the most part, he was writing down what he heard, while Parrish might have been looking at what he was writing or was able to see it when needed if someone else were dictating, so his unusual words are spelled accurately and consistently.

Based on the data, it seems unlikely that Williams was reading the text, but much more likely that Parrish was, or that he could at least see the text when needed to see how unusual names were spelled. And it seems highly unlikely that a third party was reading to both Parrish and Williams.

In sum, textual analysis reveals that it is very unlikely that this text represents Joseph dictating text to his scribes but much more likely that it represents Parrish dictating to Williams as both made copies, until Parrish stopped and Williams then began visually copying the preexisting manuscript (no longer extant) and created a huge dittography at that very point. Much points to the existence of a prior manuscript, initially read aloud by Parrish, then visually copied by Williams. Other errors in these documents are also consistent with this scenario.

Rather than leaving readers with the impression that these two documents may have been the original source of Book of Abraham material, it is important to explain why they reflect copying from an existing manuscript, both during the dictated portion and the final visually copied portion. At a minimum, JSPRT4 should have noted the implications about the format and punctuation of the documents that were properly observed in another volume of the Joseph Smith Papers. It is important to recognize that Joseph was not creating or revising his translation on the fly here, that these manuscripts cannot represent the earliest texts created by Joseph Smith for the Book of Abraham, and that they do not give us a window into how Joseph created and dictated his translated text. That gap is part of a prevalent pattern of overlooking perspectives and references to other scholarship that could lessen the impact of arguments against the authenticity of the Book of Abraham.

[. . .]

Note also the closing sentence in the excerpt above of editorial comments on the documents in question here: “JS dictated later portions of the Book of Abraham in Nauvoo in 1842” (JSPRT4, p. 192). The footnote for that statement directs readers to p. 245, where we learn that the ]editors believe that dictation from Joseph Smith was at play in the 1842 Book of Abraham manuscript from Willard Richards because “significant misspellings and rushed letter formation in the entire manuscript suggest that someone — presumably JS — read from the Kirtland-era manuscripts, making occasional changes, while Richards inscribed the text” (p. 245). Many difficult names are actually spelled correctly without revision, and the impression of rushed letter formation may be a weak tool for discriminating dictation from visual copying, though I think dictation is plausible in this case. Whether the handwriting and spelling necessitates dictation may be debatable, but there is no evidence that any dictation related to that 1842 document was from Joseph Smith. It’s an assumption.

It is possible that most of the Book of Abraham we now have was already completed in 1835, and some scholars argue for that position.[13] One clue to consider comes from George W. Robinson’s record of a discourse by Joseph Smith on May 6, 1838, in which Joseph “instructed the Church, in the mistories [mysteries] of the Kingdom of God; giving them a history of the Plannets &c. and of Abrahams writings upon the Plannettary System &c.”[14] If Joseph were teaching others about Abraham’s cosmological writings, it would seem likely that he had already translated Abraham 3 and provided comments related to Facsimile 2. That would be consistent with the October 1, 1835, journal entry for Joseph Smith:

This afternoon I labored on the Egyptian alphabet, in company with 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, unfolded to our understanding; the particulars of which will appear hereafter.[15]

Statements in JSPRT4 like “JS dictated later portions of the Book of Abraham in Nauvoo in 1842” may create the impression that dictation means creation of the new text, when the possible dictation of that document may have been, as it was in the case of Manuscripts A and B discussed above, dictation of an existing text in order to make a copy rather than create new material, although it may have involved revisions of the existing text as well. Translation may include refining and editing in its broad usage among the early Saints, so caution is needed in interpreting occasional references to translation in journals or other sources. Commentary that overlooks the possibility of a preexisting document also occurs with the later Manuscript C. In the introduction to Manuscript C, we read:

It is unclear if Phelps copied from an earlier version of the Book of Abraham or if the portion of this manuscript that is in Phelps’ handwriting is the first iteration of that text. The prefatory material inscribed by Phelps is closely related to the English explanations of characters found in the Grammar and Alphabet volume. (JSPRT4, p. 217)

Here the editors suggest that Abraham 1:1‒3, in the handwriting of Phelps, may be the “first iteration of the text.” They imply it was freshly translated by using bits and pieces pulled from the GAEL. In fact, the corrections in Abraham 1:1‒3 are consistent with visual copying of a manuscript and do not fit a scenario of live translation being dictated by Joseph Smith. Here is the transcript of Abraham 1:1–3 in W. W. Phelps’s handwriting from Manuscript C:

Translation of the Book of Abraham written by his own hand upon papyrus and found in the CataCombs of Egypts In the land of the Chaldeans, at the residince of my fathers, I, Abraham, saw, that it was needful for me to obtain another place of residence, and seeing there was greater happiness and peace and rest, for me, I sought for the blessings of the fathers, and the right whereunto I should be ordained to administer the same: Having been a follower of righteousness; desiring one <to be> one who possessed great Knowledge; a greater follower of righteousness; <a possessor of greater Knowledge;> a father of many nations; a prince of peace; one who keeps the commandments of God; a righful heir; a high priest, holding the right belonging to the fathers, from the begining of time; even from the begining, or before the foundation of the earth, down to the present time; even the right of the first born, or the first man, who is Adam, or first father, through <the> fathers, unto me.[16]

The first error occurs when “desiring to be one” was written as “desiring one.” This is not likely to reflect an error in dictation but is more readily understood as a scribal error caused by skipping a couple of words. The correction was made by scraping off the ink of “one” and writing “to be” over that spot, a process that strikes me as more leisurely than simply striking out the error and continuing to better keep up with dictation.

The next correction is the insertion between existing lines of the phrase “a possessor of greater Knowledge.” Since a related phrase had just been written, “one who possessed great Knowledge,” it would be easy for a scribe making a visual copy to assume that the overlooked phrase was one that had just been written, and to look to the following new phrase to continue copying, only later noticing that a common scribal error (skipping text) had been made. This could also occur during dictation if the speaker changed his mind and decided to add one more phrase, but a scribal copying error is the more natural possibility here. Both of the corrections made in this portion of the manuscript point to a scribe copying visually from an existing text. There is absolutely no basis for inferring that this might be “the first iteration” of the text.

The editors here also infer that this text may have been derived from the GAEL. The possibility that the phrases in the GAEL have been influenced by an existing translation does not receive attention in JSPRT4, as far as I can tell. But they are right that there are connections to the GAEL. For example, we find the following definitions of some characters in the GAEL:

Ah-broam. one who possesses great knowledge (p. 13 of the GAEL) Ahbroam: a follower of righteousness a possesser of greater knowledge (p. 9 of the GAEL)

Since both possession of “great knowledge” and possession of “greater knowledge” exist in the GAEL, it would seem that the concept of both great and greater knowledge was already established (either on an original Book of Abraham document that the GAEL borrows or in the GAEL, if one believes that the GAEL was crafted first), making it less likely that the insertion of “a possessor of greater Knowledge” in Manuscript C was due to a new idea occurring to Joseph Smith during dictation and more likely to be momentary confusion by a scribe copying from an existing manuscript. The “first iteration” suggestion is irresponsible. The inference in the Introduction to Manuscript C that it may be derived from the GAEL is made more explicit in the Introduction to the volume, where we read that “some evidence” exists for the derivation of the Book of Abraham from the GAEL, rather than the other way around:

Some evidence indicates that material from the Grammar and Alphabet volume was incorporated into at least one portion of the Book of Abraham text in Kirtland. (JSPRT4, xxv)

A footnote for this statement references an article by Chris Smith[17] which argues that Abraham 1:1–3 seems too choppy and looks like it has been crudely assembled from various phrases in the GAEL, which he assumes must pre-date the translation:

The best evidence for considering the GAEL a modus operandi for translation of part of the Book of Abraham is that this method of composition left its mark on the text itself. In Abraham 1:1–3 we find the prophet’s most explicit and thoroughgoing attempt to derive the Book of Abraham translation from the GAEL. Very few connecting parts of speech are supplied between the lexemes (units of vocabulary) here; almost every phrase has a correspondent in the Grammar. Material is drawn from all five degrees. This undoubtedly accounts for the choppiness and redundancy of these three verses, which stylistically are very different from the remainder of the Book of Abraham. Verse 3, for example, reads as though it has been cobbled together from a series of dictionary entries. Note the abundance of appositives introduced by the words even and or:
It was conferred upon me from the fathers; it came down from the fathers, from the beginning of time, yea, even from the beginning, or before the foundation of the earth, down to the present time, even the right of the firstborn, or the first man, who is Adam, or first father, through the fathers unto me. (Abraham 1:3)
The stylistic difference from the rest of the book is a sure sign that these three verses are dependent on the GAEL, rather than the other way around.[18]

Seeing a decisive difference in style in 3 verses that discriminate them from the rest of the text seems like a highly subjective way to evaluate the origins of a text. Introducing phrases with even and or in seemingly choppy passages is actually not unique to Abraham 1:3. After five more uses of even just in Abraham 1, we soon encounter Abraham 2:11 and then Abraham 3:5, both of which employ even and or.

And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse them that curse thee; and in thee (that is, in thy Priesthood) and in thy seed (that is, thy Priesthood), for I give unto thee a promise that this right shall continue in thee, and in thy seed after thee (that is to say, the literal seed, or the seed of the body) shall all the families of the earth be blessed, even with the blessings of the Gospel, which are the blessings of salvation, even of life eternal. (Abraham 2:11) And the Lord said unto me: The planet which is the lesser light, lesser than that which is to rule the day, even the night, is above or greater than that upon which thou standest in point of reckoning, for it moveth in order more slow; this is in order because it standeth above the earth upon which thou standest, therefore the reckoning of its time is not so many as to its number of days, and of months, and of years. (Abraham 3:5)

Taking context and style into account, note that Abraham 1:3’s allegedly unique stylistic problems involve discussion of origins and beginnings: “the beginning of time, yea, even from the beginning, or before the foundation of the earth, … even the right of the firstborn, or the first man.” In context, the style of that language seems akin to what we find much later in Abraham 4:4–5, where or is again used:

4 And they (the Gods) comprehended the light, for it was bright; and they divided the light, or caused it to be divided, from the darkness. 5 And the Gods called the light Day, and the darkness they called Night. And it came to pass that from the evening until morning they called night; and from the morning until the evening they called day; and this was the first, or the beginning, of that which they called day and night.

Here we have references to beginning and first combined with or, just as in Abraham 1:3. Is there any substance to Chris Smith’s subjective impressions? His claim, cited with approval in JSPRT4, that his perceived difference in style “is a sure sign that these three verses are dependent on the GAEL, rather than the other way around” simply reflects the opinion of an author who has overlooked the possibility that the GAEL was derived from an already existing translation. It is surprising that the article would be cited as if it were legitimate evidence for derivation of the Book of Abraham from the GAEL.

An interesting pattern in Abraham 1:1‒2 suggests more than copying and pasting random phrases from the GAEL. Verse 1 begins with Abraham “at the residence of my fathers” but then seeks something more: “another place of residence.” This theme of “seeking more” is developed in verse 2 as Abraham seeks “greater happiness and peace and rest,” seeks “the blessings of the fathers,” and though already a follower of righteousness, desires “to be a greater follower of righteousness, and to possess a greater knowledge.” And then he comes back to the concept that begins his text, the fathers, as he seeks to be “even a father of many nations, a prince of peace,” and thus he “became a rightful heir, a High Priest, holding the right belonging to the fathers.” Verse 3 then develops that theme more fully, and may have some structure to it:

A. from the fathers / from the fathers, [fathers] B. from the beginning of time / from the beginning [beginnings] C. before the foundation of the earth / to the present time [earth & time] B. right of the firstborn / first man, who is Adam [firsts] A. first father / through the fathers [fathers]

Chiasmus may not have been intended (Robert F. Smith proposes larger chiastic structures for portions of the Book of Abraham, one of numerous evidences of antiquity he discusses for the Book of Abraham[19]), but the “redundancy” that Chris Smith sees as a telltale sign of fabrication from clumsy cobbling of phrases from the GAEL may reflect more purposeful authorship in the original text, even if the translation could be reworked to better meet the stylistic expectations of modern readers and critics.

Chris Smith makes a valuable point, however, in observing a connection between Abraham 1 and a blessing Oliver gave in the summer or fall of 1835, apparently penned in September 1835.[20] A more complete excerpt from the JSPP website follows:

But before baptism, our souls were drawn out in mighty prayer to know how we might obtain the blessings of baptism and of the Holy Spirit, according to the order of God, and we diligently saught for the right of the fathers, and the authority of the holy priesthood, and the power to admin[ister] in the same: for we desired to be followers of righteousness and the possessors of greater knowledge, even the knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of God. Therefore, we repaired to the woods, even as our father Joseph said we should, that is to the bush, and called upon the name of the Lord, and he answered us out of the heavens, and while we were in the heavenly vision the angel came down and bestowed upon us this priesthood; and then, as I have said, we repaired to the water and were baptized. After this we received the high and holy priesthood,[21]

Oliver is using language from Abraham 1:2, where Abraham “sought for the blessings of the fathers, and the right whereunto I should be ordained to administer the same, … desiring also to be … a greater follower of righteousness, and to possess a greater knowledge, and … I became a rightful heir, a High Priest, holding the right belonging to the fathers.” Christopher Smith recognizes that Cowdery is drawing upon the Book of Abraham, not scattered phrases from the GAEL, and thus properly concludes that Abraham 1:1–3 must have been completed before September 1835. However, he improperly concludes that the GAEL therefore must have been completed before September 1835, maintaining the assumption that the GAEL must have come first.[22] It’s much more reasonable to recognize that it came later and was drawing upon the translation for whatever its purpose was. Since JSPRT4 cites Christopher Smith’s paper, it would have been helpful to recognize that its value is not in providing evidence of derivation from the GAEL, but in raising the bar for theories of the Book of Abraham’s being derived from the GAEL, since such theories no longer have the luxury of allowing the GAEL to be completed in late November or early 1836. The concepts from Abraham 1:1–3 are at the core of what is in the GAEL, not just a tiny portion that could have been added as an addendum[23].


Notes

  1. "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham," Gospel Topics on LDS.org (8 July 2014)
  2. For the initial presentation of this theory, see William Schryver, The Meaning and Purpose of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, August 2010 FAIR Conference.
  3. "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham," Gospel Topics (8 July 2014).
  4. Kerry Muhelstein, '"The Explanation Defying Book of Abraham" in A Reason For Faith: Navigating LDS Doctrine and Church History (ed.) Laura Harris Hales (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2016) 85.
  5. Jeff Lindsay, “A Precious Resource With Some Gaps” Interpreter: a Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 33-2 (2019) pp. 35-58 off-site
  6. Brent M. Rogers, et al., eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents: Volume 5, January 1835–October 1838 (Salt Lake City: The Church Historian’s Press, 2017), 74‒75.
  7. Rogers et al., The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents: Volume 5, 74-75n323.
  8. Warren Parrish letter to Joseph Smith, as cited in Dean C. Jessee, “The Writing of Joseph Smith’s History,” BYU Studies Quarterly 11, no. 4 (1971): 448, https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/byusq/vol11/iss4/8.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Book of Abraham Manuscript A, p. 4, Joseph Smith Papers, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/book-of-abraham-manuscript-circa-july-circa-november-1835-a-abraham-14-26/4.
  11. Lindsay, “The Twin Book of Abraham Manuscripts,” Mormanity (blog), July 4, 2019.
  12. “Book of Abraham Manuscript A,” Joseph Smith Papers, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/book-of-abraham-manuscript-circa-july-circa-november-1835-a-abraham-14-26/1.
  13. Muhlestein and Hansen, “‘The Work of Translating.'”
  14. “Discourse, 6 May 1838,” Joseph Smith Papers, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/discourse-6-may-1838/1#source-note.
  15. Joseph Smith History, Oct. 1, 1835, in “History, 1838-1856, volume B-1 [1 September 1834-2 November 1838],” Joseph Smith Papers,https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-1838-1856-volume-b-1-1-september-1834-2-november-1838/76.
  16. “Book of Abraham Manuscript C,” Joseph Smith Papers, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/book-of-abraham-manuscript-circa-july-circa-november-1835-c-abraham-11-218/1.
  17. Christopher C. Smith, “The Dependence of Abraham 1:1‒3 on the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar,” The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 29 (2009): 38-54, https://www.academia.edu/2357346/The_Dependence_of_Abraham_1_1-3_on_the_Egyptian_Alphabet_and_Grammar.
  18. Ibid., 47.
  19. Robert F. Smith, “A Brief Assessment of the Book of Abraham,” Version 10, March 21, 2019, https://www.scribd.com/document/118810727/A-Brief-Assessment-of-the-LDS-Book-of-Abraham.
  20. Smith, “The Dependence of Abraham 1:1‒3 on the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar,” 52. Smith cites Patriarchal Blessing book, 1:8-9, Early Mormon Documents, ed. Dan Vogel (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1998), 451-54.
  21. Oliver Cowdery, “Patriarchal Blessings,” 1:8-9, cited in “Priesthood Restoration,” Joseph Smith Papers, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/site/priesthood-restoration. The JSPP site states that this was “probably recorded summer/fall 1835,” while Christopher Smith states it was Sept. 1835.
  22. Smith, “The Dependence of Abraham 1:1-3 on the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar,” 53.
  23. Jeff Lindsay, “A Precious Resource With Some Gaps” Interpreter: a Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 33-2 (2019) pp. 62-76 off-site Internal citations retained for easy reference.