Book of Abraham/Kirtland Egyptian Papers/Purpose

Table of Contents

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.

Jump to Subtopic:


Gospel Topics: "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 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.[1]


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]


Notes

  1. "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham," Gospel Topics (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).