Question: What are the historical approaches that have been take in an attempt to understand the Kirtland Egyptian Papers?

Table of Contents

Question: What are the historical approaches that have been take in an attempt to understand the Kirtland Egyptian Papers?

Critical responses to this question do not even agree with one another

Neither side of this debate believes the GAEL was a “key” to translating the papyri. And you have no evidence that JS believed that either...What I meant was that nobody believes the GAEL was used as a translation key. My side of the debate doesn't believe anything was translated. And if JS intended it to be understood that such were the case, the GAEL would be tied closer to the translation.
Dan Vogel, Mormon Apologetics and Discussion Board, 13 Aug. 2010. off-site
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Christopher C. Smith has argued at some length that Joseph Smith was the primary author of the Alphabet and Grammar documents, and that those documents served as the source or modus operandi for the translation of at least the first three verses of the Book of Abraham. According to Smith, "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."
Wikipedia entry for the Kirtland Egyptian Papers as of Aug. 14, 2010, referencing Christopher C. Smith, "The Dependence of Abraham 1:1-3 on the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar," John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 29 (2009): 38-54.
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Critics note at least two evidences which demonstrate an obvious connection between some of the Kirtland Egyptian papers and the Book of Breathings scroll from the Joseph Smith Papyri (JSP). These two evidences are used by critics to prove that the existing fragments of the Scroll of Hor is the source of the Book of Abraham and that therefore Joseph was not a prophet.

  1. Like the Hebrews, the Egyptians read right to left. The "Scroll of Hor"-- which is the Book of Breathings scroll in the JSP collection-- begins (at the right end) with Facsimile 1 (as recorded in the Book of Abraham) followed by Egyptian characters. Some of the KEP are divided by a vertical line at the left side of the paper. About three fourths of the paper is to the right of each line. To the left of the line are Egyptian characters. These are the same characters that follow Facsimile 1 of the Book of Breathings(these would be to the left of the vignette). To the right of the vertical line (on the Kirtland papers) appear passages from the Book of Abraham. It is claimed that these passages represent Joseph Smith's attempt to perform "translations" of each of the characters on the left. It is claimed that Joseph took a single character in each case and expanded it to a full paragraph of text.
  2. The Book of Abraham states:

...that you may have a knowledge of this altar, I will refer you to the representation [Facsimile 1] at the commencement of this record." (Abraham 1:12-- keeping in mind that the scroll would have been read from right to left to and Facsimile 1 is virtually the first item at the right end of the scroll.)

Historical LDS responses

LDS approaches to the KEP have been more varied. The first significant scholarly study of the matter, by John A. Tvedtnes and Richley Crapo, appeared in a series of articles under the auspices of the Society for Early Historic Archaeology from 1968 to 1970. Their theory was that the Sensen Papyrus may have represented a mnemonic device to bring to mind a longer oral tradition — a tradition that corresponded to the narrative of the Book of Abraham as we know it. This theory was grounded in two observations. First, the hieratic symbols copied into the left margin of the KEPA documents were complete morphemes, as opposed to the inappropriate breaks one would expect of someone who could not read Egyptian. Second, in every case the meaning of the hieratic word in the margin shows up in some relevant way in the much longer English text corresponding to the hieratic word. Of course, lots of other words and concepts are present as well, but the meaning of the hieratic word in each case is present in the English text.

While a fascinating study, the Tvedtnes and Crapo mnemonic device theory never really caught on. Hugh Nibley was intrigued by this possibility at first, but then decided to go in a different direction. Nibley authored a seminal, lengthy study of the KEP in BYU Studies entitled "The Meaning of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers." He did not attempt to defend the KEP as revelatory documents (other than the English portions of the KEPA). Rather, he took the view that the KEP represent either a preliminary "studying it out" stage in the process, or a (failed) attempt to reverse engineer the English translation so as to decipher the Egyptian language. In other words, the English text of the Book of Abraham was received by revelation as opposed to a purely mechanical process. While Joseph was involved in the KEP project, a theme of Nibley's piece is to portray the efforts of Phelps, Cowdery, and Parrish as largely independent of Joseph. Nibley's take has become the dominant LDS view, and has been echoed more recently in several publications by John Gee.

The KEP as an "Interpretive Key" for a "Super-Cryptogram"

A small minority of LDS commenters on the KEP seeks to defend the supposed revelatory character of these documents, viewing them through the lenses of kabbalism or extreme symbolism. It has few adherents.

The KEP as an "Ancient Cipher" manifesting non-standard meanings assigned to characters anciently

Others have interpreted them similar to William Schryver's interpretations of a modern-day cipher. But rather than being a modern-day cipher, it is proposed that the KEP represent a system of interpretation imposed on the Sensen papyrus by ancient Jewish Egyptians that differs from the standard Egyptian meaning of the characters. But this theory proposes that there is still some affinity to either the core or root meanings of the characters, or they have some visual connection to the meaning of other characters that relate. ([1]).

The KEP as an attempt at "backwards translation"

Some LDS scholars have proposed that the Kirtland Egyptian Papers are an example of a backwards translation. In other words, Joseph translated the Book of Abraham prior to the creation of the KEP and then he, and other early LDS brethren, tried to match the translated text to what they believed were the characters that were used to elicit the translation. In this scenario the KEP was not the product of revelation, but was rather an attempt to "study out" the translation, after-the-fact, in what might have been an experiment to create an Egyptian alphabet.[1] In essence, Joseph and his friends were trying to "reverse engineer" the translation of Egyptian script using the inspired translation he had already produced. The men at Kirtland were treating the Book of Abraham as a sort of Rosetta Stone from which they hoped to crack the code for Egyptian (which was largely untranslatable by scholars of the time.)

Directions for further research

The KEP have been understudied to date. Although preliminary studies have appeared from various perspectives, much more work needs to be done. In many ways, apologetic or polemical approaches to these documents are premature. Rather, they first must be studied rigorously from a scholarly perspective.

An essential tool that is a prerequisite to further progress is a critical edition of the texts. While the microfilm photocopy editions are sufficient for limited purposes and to get a feel for the documents, they are totally inadequate for serious scholarly study. Ideally such scholarship should be grounded in a study of the original documents. To the extent that they are not available for such study, the color photographs that are in existence would be the next best basis for such an edition.

In addition to a careful and clear presentation of the texts, such a study needs to focus on understanding the documents. Too much energy has been devoted to attack and defense, and not enough to basic comprehension of what those involved in the project thought they were doing and how they went about their work. Such a study needs to bring the same standards and attention to detail to these texts as Royal Skousen has brought to his study of the original text of the Book of Mormon.


Some of the contested issues for which further study could bring enlightenment include the following:

Involvement of Joseph Smith

That Joseph was involved to some degree in the project is clear. His handwriting appears on two of the documents, and there are references to the project in his journals. The extent of his involvement is a hotly contested issue and needs to be clarified. Nibley tried hard to distance Joseph from the work of the scribes. Edward Ashment has questioned Nibley's position. The extent to which Joseph dominated the process, or the scribes acted independently, or they all acted in a collaborative manner, needs to be clarified.

Meaning of technical terminology like "degree" and "part"

The terms "degree" and "part" seem to be used in the KEPE as some sort of grammatical terms of art. If so, their meaning needs to be divined. Conversely, John Tvedtnes has argued that they are not grammatical terms at all, but refer to locations on the papyri where particular symbols were located; a sort of latitude and longitude system. According to this view, for example, the "first part" is what we call Facsimile 1, and the "first degree" of that part is the first column of the facsimile, while the second degree is the second column. The second part is what Nibley called the Small Sensen Papyrus (JSP XI), and the first degree of the second part is the first of its columns, counting from the right (away from Facsimile 1). Tvedtnes' explanation of the usage of these terms needs to be evaluated; in particular, as to whether his proposed system in fact holds for all uses of the terms.

Sequencing issues

Although the handwriting of the various scribes on the various texts has been identified, there are numerous sequencing issues that need to be explored. Is there a way to determine in what sequence the documents were created? Were the KEPA documents created at the same time from dictation, or were they visually copied from a single source, and if so, which is the source document? Which was written first on the page, the hieratic symbols in the left margin of the KEPA documents or the English text to the right? Were the hieratic symbols visually copied from the Sensen Papyrus, and if so, can we determine who copied them?

Why does the scope of the English text not match the scope of the hieratic symbols in the margins of the KEPA?

There is a substantial and obvious disproportion between the hieratic symbols in the left margins of the KEPA and the accompanying English text to the right. Critics often trot this fact out as an obvious artifact of Joseph's ignorance. But this begs the question why such a disproportion exists. The disproportion is so marked that surely even Joseph must have been aware of it, and even if he were not, the scribes involved in the project had training in other languages, such that they would have noted and objected to the disproportion. It is not enough merely to observe the disproportion, it must be explained. What did these men think they were doing? Does the juxtaposition of a hieratic symbol and an entire paragraph of English text intend to reflect a translation process, or is some other process at work, and if so, what?


  1. Hugh W. Nibley, "The Meaning of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers," Brigham Young University Studies 11 no. 1 (Summer 1971), 350–399. off-site