Question: Could Joseph Smith translate Egyptian?

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Question: Could Joseph Smith translate Egyptian?

At that time, nobody could translate Egyptian . The only way Joseph could translate would be through revelation.

Many students of the Book of Abraham have asked if Joseph Smith could have had access to means that he might learn Egyptian and translate the Book of Abraham and/or if he ever claimed to be able to translate Egyptian mechanically. Joseph couldn't translate Egyptian. At that time, hardly anyone in the United States could translate Egyptian. Jean-Francois Champollion would only recently (relatively speaking) be completing his transliteration of the Rosetta Stone. Joseph was able to receive the text of the Book of Abraham in the same manner that he did for the Book of Mormon, by revelation.

Some critics believe that Joseph claimed he knew Egyptian.

Some critics believe that Joseph claimed to know Egyptian for a couple of reasons.

One of these is an 1844 publication entitled Appeal to the Freemen of the State of Vermont, the "Brave Green Mountain Boys," and Honest Men that was purportedly written by Joseph Smith and in which an appeal to the GAEL is made to provide a translation for an Egyptian-sounding phrase.[1] However, this publication has been demonstrated to have been ghostwritten by W.W. Phelps acting as Joseph Smith.[2] Additionally, it would have been written after all the translation of the Book of Abraham was complete thus making it so that, prior to and during the translation, Joseph would not have claimed to know Egyptian.

A second reason is the GAEL itself and Joseph's use of it when doing his one-character "translation" of the Kinderhook Plates. As Latter-day Saint historians Don Bradley and Mark Ashurst McGee have observed in their definitive treatment of the Kinderhook plates, "[Joseph] Smith’s autonomous use of the Egyptian Alphabet book...in the translation of the Kinderhook plates shows that he considered it a legitimate translation tool."[3] However, as the Gospel Topics Essay on the Book of Abraham has stated, the relationship of the GAEL to the Book of Abraham is not certain. Some have argued that the GAEL represents an attempt by Joseph Smith's scribes to reverse engineer the translation of the Book of Abraham to the papyri without the aid of revelation. If that is true, then Joseph Smith is not necessarily claiming by revelation to know how to translate Egyptian mechanically as academic translators do today with grammar books, dictionaries, etc. It simply means that Joseph received a translation of the papyri by revelation and then without the aid of revelation tried to discern the meaning of the characters on the papyri to try and learn Egyptian.

The final reason comes from the Gospel Topics Essay on the Book of Abraham on churchofjesuschrist.org which states the following:

Phelps apparently viewed Joseph Smith as uniquely capable of understanding the Egyptian characters: “As no one could translate these writings,” he told his wife, “they were presented to President Smith. He soon knew what they were.”[4]

This quotation from Phelps has been interpreted by critics to mean that Joseph Smith was claiming to know the Egyptian language.[5] However, it is clear from context that this did not mean that Joseph was claiming to have a working knowledge of Egyptian that he could use to translate documents mechanically, but that he was capable of discerning the meaning of the writings by revelation given to him because of his role and stewardship as prophet of God and President of the Church.

Notes

  1. Robert K. Ritner, "'Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham'— A Response," <http://www.mormonthink.com/essays-book-of-abraham.htm> (21 May 2020).
  2. Samuel M. Brown, "The Translator and the Ghost Writer: Joseph Smith and W.W. Phelps," Journal of Mormon History Vol. 34, No. 1 (Winter 2008): 26–62; Bruce A.Van Orden, "William W. Phelps's Service in Nauvoo as Joseph Smith's Political Clerk," BYU Studies 32, nos. 1, 2: 81–94; Bruce A. Van Orden, We'll Sing and We'll Shout: The Life and Times of W. W. Phelps (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company; Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 2018), 356–60.
  3. Don Bradley and Mark Ashurst-McGee, "'President Joseph Has Translated a Portion' Joseph Smith and the Mistranslation of the Kinderhook Plates," in Producing Ancient Scripture: Joseph Smith's Translation Projects in the Development of Mormon Christianity, eds. Michael Hubbard MacKay, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Brian M. Hauglid (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2020), 517.
  4. W. W. Phelps to Sally Phelps, July 19–20, 1835, in Bruce A. Van Orden, “Writing to Zion: The William W. Phelps Kirtland Letters (1835–1836),” BYU Studies 33, no. 3 (1993): 555. Cited in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham," <https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics-essays/translation-and-historicity-of-the-book-of-abraham?lang=eng> (21 May 2020).
  5. Robert K. Ritner, "A Response," (21 May 2020).