(The Meaning and Purpose of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers)
What are the Kirtland Egyptian Papers?
(The KEP consist of …)
The Kirtland Egyptian Papers consist of five different groups of documents that, for the most part, originate in Kirtland, OH in 1835, and have some association with the Book of Abraham.
There are: 4 “Alphabet” documents; 1 “Counting” document; 2 small notebooks; 7 Abraham manuscripts; and 2 documents containing copies of characters from the Joseph Smith Papyri.
(Egyptian Alphabet Documents)
The Egyptian Alphabet consist of three nearly identical documents in the handwriting of, respectively, William Phelps, Joseph Smith, and Oliver Cowdery. For convenience today, I will refer to these documents as the “Alphabet”.
It is almost certainly these documents to which the following entry in the History of the Church refers:
“The remainder of the month, I 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 is, I believe, a very deliberately worded statement that contains more import than is readily apparent. I shall yet return to it near the end of my remarks today.
Here we see all four pages of William Phelps’s Alphabet document, side by side. 136 characters were selected for treatment in the Alphabet. They are listed in the left-most column of four sheets of paper. This list of characters is divided into five unequal “parts.”
The first part contains 23 characters.
The second part 59 characters.
The third part 17 characters.
The fourth part 14 characters.
The fifth part 24 characters.
(69 characters were assigned “sounds”)
Of the 136 total characters selected for the Alphabet, 69 were assigned “sounds.”
(49 characters in the Alphabet are assigned “explanations”)
Of the 69 characters to which sounds were assigned in the Alphabet, 49 of them are also assigned “explanations.”
(67 characters were never assigned “sounds” nor “explanations”)
67 of the Egyptian Alphabet characters were never assigned “sounds” nor “explanations.”
The fourth document in the “Alphabet” group is entitled “Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language.” For convenience today, I will refer to this document as the “Grammar”.
The Grammar was created using a bound notebook of 185 blank pages. A total of 34 pages were eventually written upon, but they do not occur consecutively within the bound volume. Rather, they are interspersed throughout, in groups defined by five “parts” and five “degrees.” It is almost exclusively in the handwriting of William Phelps, with a few late additions by Warren Parrish.
(GAEL p. 4)
The Grammar is an extension of the Alphabet, and is dependent on it. It references only the 69 characters to which sounds had already been assigned in the Alphabet. The 20 characters assigned sounds but no explanations in the Alphabet are assigned explanations in the Grammar.
(Same document in two stages.)
The Alphabet and the Grammar represent the same project in two stages. The Alphabet sets the boundaries of the whole thing by defining which characters are going to get explanations, as well as the basic meaning of most of them. The Grammar then is used to add multiple levels of additional explanation for the same characters.
(Grammar in same “table” format as Alphabet.)
The Grammar attests the same “table” format established in the Alphabet documents, listing:
(Grammar in same “table” format as Alphabet-Character)
(Grammar in same “table” format as Alphabet-Sound)
(Grammar in same “table” format as Alphabet-Explanation)
and explanations. Its explanations are listed in multiple levels called “degrees.”
In the “1st degree” the explanations usually match the Alphabet word for word. As a general rule, the explanations then become more elaborate with each subsequent “degree,” or level, from the 2nd to the 5th.
(Alphabet/Grammar 1st degree transcription, character #22.)
This is a transcription of the explanation for character #22, “Zub Zool,” as given in the three Alphabet documents and the first degree of the Grammar.
As you can see, they all read the same: “from the first to any stated period after.”
(Grammar 2nd degree transcription, character #22.)
In the 2nd degree, a minor variation is introduced: “From the present time unto some stated period after.”
(GAEL 3rd degree transcription, character #22.)
In the 3rd degree, a major expansion is introduced: “Pointing to the end of a fixed period; a road which leads to some particular place; for instance: from Chaldea I travelled to dwell in the land of Canaan.”
(GAEL 4th degree transcription, character #22.)
In the 4th degree, the explanation is expanded further: “Having pointed to some place; referring to any particular subject or thing, [such] as: having come out from my fathers house.”
(GAEL 5th degree transcription, character #22.)
Finally, in the 5th degree, the largest expansion: “From the beginning of the creation until now; pointing out or designating at the present time; having foreordained, or decreed or having before seen. For instance: Abraham having been chosen before was sent by commandment into the land of Canaan; having preached the gospel unto the heathen, was forewarned of God to go down in Ahmehstrah, or Egypt, and preach the gospel unto the Ahmehstrahans.”
Note how the explanations at each subsequent level, or “degree,” become a little more elaborate; always providing additional potential meaning for the character. This is typical of the nature of the explanations given in the Alphabet and Grammar.
Since at least 1971 when Richard Howard ambiguously suggested the notion in a paper defending the then-RLDS stance on the Book of Abraham, it has been asserted that the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar was the modus operandi by which Joseph Smith purported to translate the papyri. In other words, they claim that Joseph Smith created the Alphabet and Grammar as a tool to translate the papyri.
(The “conventional wisdom” never defended nor examined)
Though Hugh Nibley and others vigorously objected to Howard’s argument, I am aware of no one having attempted to rigorously assess its viability. Nor am I aware of anyone ever having published a defense of it. It simply assumed the status of “conventional wisdom” by unremitting repetition.
The next document in the Kirtland Egyptian Papers is entitled “Egyptian Counting.” It is contemporary to the Alphabet and Grammar. It is also in the handwriting of William Phelps. I am aware of no explanation having been proposed for it.
(Numbers 1 – 79)
It is similar in format to the others, with some variations. In it, a character is assigned to the English text of the numbers from 1 to 79.
(Egyptian Counting detail – characters)
There are three columns headed “Characters,”
(Egyptian Counting detail – names)
(Egyptian Counting detail – explanation)
and “English Explanation.”
The KEP also contain two small notebooks …
… and two sheets of characters copied from the papyri. We will not discuss them today.
Also included in the Kirtland Egyptian Papers are several manuscripts containing text from the Book of Abraham. They are authored by, in chronological order, William Phelps, Frederick G. Williams, Warren Parrish, and Willard Richards.
Since shortly after the rediscovery of the Joseph Smith Papyri in 1967, critics have asserted that two of these documents, the ones authored by Williams and Parrish, represent the simultaneously produced transcripts of Joseph Smith’s original dictated translation of the Book of Abraham.
Though no substantial analysis has ever been produced to support this claim, it is understood to rest on the fact that most of the characters in the left-hand column (as John Gee has just shown us) correspond to bona fide Egyptian characters that can be found on the portion of the Joseph Smith Papyri known as the Book of Breathings.
(Ab2; Ab3, detail)
It has also been asserted that the textual evidence conclusively demonstrates that Joseph Smith directed both Williams and Parrish to list these characters, in the order they did, as the Prophet, one by one, interpreted them from the papyri. They assert that the only plausible explanation for the juxtaposition of these characters with text from the Book of Abraham is that Joseph Smith was directing a translation session of this part of the scrolls. And since Egyptologists inform us that these characters have no relationship to the Book of Abraham, then it must follow, we are told, that Joseph Smith was mistakenly or deceptively purporting to translate them into the Book of Abraham.
Suffice it to say, at present, that the evidence I am about to present will effectively render moot all of these arguments.
“Essential Elements of Understanding”
(The “key” to understanding the meaning and purpose of the KEP.)
Indeed, the key to understanding the meaning and purpose of the disparate set of documents known collectively as the Kirtland Egyptian Papers is to be found within the manuscripts entitled Egyptian Alphabet, Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language, and Egyptian Counting.
I shall attempt today to establish the following thesis, expressed in two parts:
(Alphabet is dependent on a pre-existing text of the first three chapters of the BoA.)
The explanations contained in the Alphabet documents are dependent on a pre-existing text of the first three chapters of the Book of Abraham. This dates the reception of the translation of these chapters to the period between July 4 and July 17, 1835, which is when the Alphabet project was commenced.
(Combined Alphabet and Grammar is dependent on a pre-existing text of the entire BoA, as it was published in 1842.)
The greatly expanded character explanations contained in the Grammar documents are manifestly dependent not only on the first three chapters of the Book of Abraham, but also on the remainder of the revealed Book of Abraham, as well as the explanations to Facsimile #2. This roughly dates the reception of the translation of these things to a period between late 1835 and early 1836.
This thesis expresses what I would like to term the “essential elements of understanding” in respect to the Kirtland Egyptian Papers.
So, what is the evidence of the dependency of the Alphabet and Grammar on a pre-existing text of the Book of Abraham?
Being a computer programmer by trade—and, in the interest of full disclosure, I should emphasize the fact that I am a mere tradesman and not a scholar, neither by training, disposition, nor inclination—I approached the problem as would a database analyst.
(Basic Character Data Table)
I began by creating a data table with the basic information of the Alphabet documents.
(Basic Character Data Table-Seq#)
I assigned a sequential index number to each of the 69 characters to which sounds had been assigned, in the order in which they appeared.
(Basic Character Data Table-Doc)
I then created individual data elements for the document;
(Basic Character Data Table-Sound)
the sound as transcribed in that document;
(Basic Character Data Table-Explanation)
and the explanation provided for the character.
In the process of creating this data table, it occurred to me to analyze the data by breaking it down into even more fundamental components. Therefore, I created a new data table containing every “substantial word” used in its explanations.
(Substantial Words Study)
“Substantial words” were defined as those conveying substantial meaning. For example, articles such as “the” or “a” and conjunctions such as “and,” and “but” were excluded.
(Examples of “unique” and “substantial” words.)
I further categorized each of the substantial words as either “unique” or “generic.” Here are some examples.
I then performed a rigorous inventory of every instance of these substantial words as attested in the five chapters of the Book of Abraham as well as Genesis chapters 12 and 15, which chapters contain the Biblical text corresponding to the same periods of time in the life of Abraham. The Genesis chapters were designed to serve as “control” texts for the analysis.
I assigned an index number based on the alphabetical order of the substantial words. I then associated with each substantial word the corresponding verses in the comparison texts where the word was judged to be attested, keeping a count of the number of times, and in which verses, each word was attested.
(Substantial Word Study Detail – “king”)
Here is the detail reference from the study for the substantial word “king.” In column one are the explanations from the Alphabet in which the word is attested. In column two are the verse references and relevant extracts from the comparison texts where the word is attested. In column three is the count of how many times that word was attested.
(Substantial Word Study Detail – “government”)
Here we see the detail reference for the substantial word “government.”
(Substantial Word Study Detail – “water”)
Finally, the detail reference for the substantial word “water.”
(Alphabet focused on a very narrow subject matter.)
One of the first things that became apparent in the process of this particular study—before attempting to quantify anything—is that we are quite obviously dealing with a very limited set of unique words, with very specific applications. As opposed to a more non-contextual selection of wide-focus building block words that one would reasonably expect to encounter in a document intended as a tool to decipher an unknown text, instead we encounter words and phrases focused on a narrow subject matter.
(Intuitively evident that Alphabet is based on an already known text.)
As a result, what was intuitively evident to me was that this thing was being driven by an already known text, rather than being a means by which to produce an as yet unknown text. The substantial words are almost all proper nouns that form a lexicon of people, places, and things—almost all of them from the Book of Abraham, and often very uniquely so.
If, as Mormon critics have argued for the past 40 years, the Alphabet and Grammar was produced before the text of the Book of Abraham was received, and was the means by which that text was subsequently “translated” from the papyri, then how likely is it that the would-be translators would include virtually nothing but unique words and phrases from an as yet unwritten book?
You see, the thesis of the Alphabet and Grammar as a papyri deciphering tool presupposes that the authors don’t already know the text their tool is being designed to produce!
(Alphabet explanations reference a story that’s already been written.)
But that is not what we find in the substantial words of the Alphabet documents. Quite to the contrary, what we find are references to a story that’s already been written.
(Substantial Word Study Summary Observation)
The substantial words contained in the Egyptian Alphabet explanations are related to the specific language of a clearly delimited portion of the Book of Abraham …
(Substantial Word Study Summary Observation)
… while not attesting a corresponding relationship to the other portions of the Book of Abraham, nor to the chapters from Genesis.
(Graph of Unique Substantial Words by Verse)
As illustrated in the above graph, the substantial words of the Alphabet are demonstrably attested in much of chapter 1; some, but not all portions of chapter 2 (an initially puzzling fact that has a later explanation), and a substantial portion of chapter 3. There is no significant attestation of the substantial words in chapters 4 and 5, nor in the Genesis chapters.
My summary findings:
Of the “substantial words” attested in all three of the Egyptian Alphabet documents, over 90% are correspondingly attested in the first three chapters of the Book of Abraham, while being rarely attested, if at all, in Abraham 4 and 5 and Genesis 12 and 15.
(Substantial Words Study Summary Conclusion)
Summary Conclusion: Analysis by substantial words strongly suggests a dependency of the Alphabet on a pre-existing text of much of the first three chapters of the Book of Abraham.
(Substantial word study based only on “Alphabet”.)
Now, whereas the substantial word analysis was based only on the explanations found in the Alphabet documents …
(Adding in the explanations from the “Grammar”.)
… for my subsequent analyses I incorporated all of the explanations from the Grammar as well.
(The “Grammar” explanations expand significantly on those contained in the “Alphabet”.)
Remember that in the Grammar, not only do the previously unexplained characters from the Alphabet receive explanations, but the Grammar also greatly expands on the original explanations provided by the Alphabet.
These additional explanations are often very detailed, and thus provide some of the most impressive correspondences to a pre-existing text of the Book of Abraham. Also (and this explained the mystery I mentioned earlier) portions of chapter 2 not attested in the Alphabet can then be found in the expanded explanations of the Grammar.
(The “Grammar” explanations confirm the dependency of the Alphabet on a pre-existing text of the first three chapters of the BoA.)
Indeed, the expanded explanations in the Grammar serve to confirm the dependency of the earlier Alphabet documents on a pre-existing text of the first three chapters of the Book of Abraham. Parts of chapters 1-3 that were skipped or only hinted at in the Alphabet are very specifically attested in the Grammar.
(The “Grammar” also attests a dependency on chapters 4 and 5, as well as the explanations for Facsimile 2.)
In addition, the expansions contained in the Grammar attest a dependency on significant portions of both chapters four and five of the Book of Abraham, as well as the explanations to Facsimile 2.
(The Alphabet and Grammar is one document in two stages.)
Though produced during two different periods of time, the Alphabet and Grammar should be considered a single document created in two distinct stages.
(First stage – basic explanations.)
The first stage contains the basic explanations for the selected characters.
(Second stage – expanded explanations.)
The second stage contains expanded explanations for the same characters.
(Demonstrating the Dependency.)
What we are going to do now is perform a detailed comparison of extracts from the combined Alphabet and Grammar with selected passages from the Book of Abraham. By highlighting, in succession, the words and phrases from the source text upon which the explanations are dependent, it becomes intuitive to discern the dependency of which I have been speaking.
The series of slides we will now view contain in the left column characters from the Alphabet and Grammar, the transliterations given of their sounds, and relevant extracts from the larger body of explanations given for that character. In the right hand column is a passage from the Book of Abraham, with the text “grayed out.” As correspondences to parts of the passage are attested in the character explanations on the left side, I will bold and display in red text the parts of the passage to which those explanations refer.
In the case of this first character juxtaposed with Abr. 1:1-3, you can see that I have bolded the words related to the explanations for character #14, Iota.
Character #39, Beth Ka, then provides more of the context. You’ll note that the text previously attested in character #14 is now displayed in bold black, while the newly attested text is in bold red.
In this character are referenced very specific portions of verses 1 and 2: “another place of residence,” and “greater happiness” and “peace and rest.”
Now, with character #66, almost all of the remaining context of this passage is attested.
Here we see the right of the priesthood coming down from the beginning; the right of the firstborn;
a follower of righteousness;
one who possesses great knowledge; a possessor of greater knowledge;
a father of many nations; a prince of peace;
one who keeps the commandments of God;
a patriarch; a rightful heir; a high priest.
Here we pull in Adam and the priesthood rights descending from him.
And with the final addition of “the land of the Chaldeans,” this passage is shown to be attested virtually in its entirety.
This next passage is one of the most impressive examples of contextual dependency, as well as interdependency. That is, strangely enough, several of the characters are given explanations that are nearly identical or else very strongly related to those given for entirely different characters as well.
Here we get the reference to Pharaoh and his kingdom.
(Abr. 1:23-26/#5 )
Here we have all the elements of the daughter of Ham discovering the land of Egypt while it was under water; her descendants, or lineage …
(Abr. 1:23-26/#5 )
… and their following the order or traditions of the fathers, through Ham.
Here for character #15 we see elements of the explanation previously given for character #5, but a significant detail is then added: “who afterward settled her sons in it.” This pulls in that entire phrase that was previously unattested.
(Abr. 1:23-26/#17 )
Here we see all the elements of the righteous Pharaoh who rules his people wisely and justly …
(Abr. 1:23-26/#17 )
… according to the order established by the fathers.
(Abr. 1:23-26/#9; #11 )
And finally all the elements of the curse of Ham being upon the lineage of Pharaoh, who is blessed with the blessings of the earth …
(Abr. 1:23-26/#9; #11 )
… but denied the right of priesthood.
(Abr. 2:11/#17; #20)
Here we see the concept of the Priesthood being “in” Abraham, having been passed down from the ancient patriarchs and thus being passed from Abraham to his seed. This is one of several passages that incorporate this concept of one thing (or “principle”) being “in” another. It’s a very impressive correspondence.
This one is another extremely impressive dependency, with very specific references to the right of priesthood passing down in the patriarchal line to Abraham, and after Abraham through his seed. Note how the equivalency between the priesthood and the “seed of the body” is again emphasized.
(Fac. 2:1 )
Finally, a passage from the explanations for Facsimile 2, which is attested virtually in its entirety, and with language that is almost identical to the published Book of Abraham. Here we have Kolob, the first creation, nearest to the celestial, or the residence of God.
(Fac. 2:1 )
“First in government, the last pertaining to the measurement of time.”
(Fac. 2:1 )
And finally the portion of the passage that informs us that one day on Kolob is a thousand years on earth.
(“All five chapters …”)
Time precludes my referencing more examples, such as these, from the text of the Book of Abraham, but I have created a cross-reference, by individual character, of every verse in the Book of Abraham that is attested in the Alphabet and Grammar documents. All five chapters are substantially attested.
(… a story already written …)
The Alphabet and Grammar is dependent on a story that has already been written. We are able to discern within the Alphabet and Grammar the complex contextual elements of the Book of Abraham only because we already know the story. And the complex, interrelated aspects of the references we find simply could not have been achieved unless the whole story had already been produced.
(The rest of the story.)
In short, there is too little of the story of the Book of Abraham in the Alphabet and Grammar for it to have been used to produce the story, yet too much of the story for it not to be dependent on the rest of the story.
(Then what was the purpose of these documents?)
But if, as has been asserted for the past forty years, these documents were not prepared as a tool to decipher the papyri, what then was their purpose?
(Was it reverse engineering?)
I confess that my original thesis was consistent with Professor Hugh Nibley’s idea that the Alphabet and Grammar represent the product of an effort on the part of its authors to “reverse engineer” the Egyptian scrolls by using the pre-existing English text of the Book of Abraham as a “primer.”
(Replicating Champollion’s approach to the Rosetta Stone?)
In other words, they had in their hands what they believed was an English translation of at least a portion of the scrolls they had purchased, and therefore they logically concluded that they could replicate Champollion’s approach to the Rosetta Stone. You’ll recall that Champollion used the Greek text on the Rosetta Stone as a primer to decipher the corresponding hieroglyphic Egyptian text. I surmised that William Phelps, Joseph Smith, and Oliver Cowdery set out to do something similar with the previously received Book of Abraham text.
(The Alphabet and Grammar not only dependent on the Book of Abraham.)
However, as my studies of the Alphabet and Grammar materials progressed, I discovered evidence that effectively disproved such a notion. I discovered that several of the explanations in the Alphabet and Grammar documents were dependent not on text from the Book of Abraham …
(The Alphabet and Grammar also dependent on other revelations.)
… but rather on very recognizable passages from others of Joseph Smith’s prior revelations, most prominently sections 76 and 88 of the Doctrine & Covenants.
We could spend an hour discussing nothing but the dependencies on material not found in the Book of Abraham, but we will focus on just one of the impressive examples.
(The Celestial Kingdom.)
Character #46 makes clear reference to the Celestial Kingdom, where God resides.
(The Terrestrial Kingdom.)
Character #47 merely references “another kingdom governed by different laws,” and as such constitutes nothing more than a place holder for what we shall see must be the Terrestrial Kingdom.
(The Telestial Kingdom. )
Character #48, however, was provided with expansions beyond “another kingdom governed by different laws”; explanations that clearly indicate its relationship to specific language employed in section 76 to describe the Telestial Kingdom. There are three components attested: Subjects of this kingdom suffer the wrath of God until some “future period,” or, in the words of section 76, “until the fulness of times.”
(The Telestial Kingdom. )
Next, and this is the most striking of the correspondences, we read that the inhabitants of this kingdom “differ one from another in glory,” which is precisely what we read in section 76: “as one star differs from another star in glory, even so differs one from another in glory in the telestial world.”
(The Telestial Kingdom. )
Finally, we read that, in this kingdom, the subjects “behold not the face of God,” for, “where God and Christ dwell they cannot come, worlds without end.”
(The kingdom which is not a kingdom of glory.)
Next is character #49, which very succinctly references the language from section 88 that describes “a kingdom which is not a kingdom of glory.”
(Four successive characters …)
Thus we see, in the explanations given to four successive characters from the Alphabet and Grammar, very particular references to specific passages from those two giants of Joseph Smith’s previously received revelations—sections 76 and 88. Right in order, this so-called Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language is making reference to the Celestial, Terrestrial, and Telestial kingdoms, followed immediately by the kingdom which is not a kingdom of glory!
(Many other references to passages from others of Joseph Smith’s previously received revelations.)
I went on to identify several additional references that are clearly dependent on other passages from the Doctrine and Covenants.
I confess I was rather befuddled by this finding, and it took me several days of contemplation before I began to appreciate its import and implications.
(To the extent the Alphabet and Grammar is partially dependent on texts that have no relationship to the Egyptian papyri, then it cannot have been intended as a tool to decipher those papyri.)
First of all, I came to see that my initial hypothesis could not be true. To the extent this lexicon was built partially on texts that have no relationship to the Egyptian papyri; texts that were written not in Egyptian at all, but in English, then the Alphabet and Grammar simply could not have been intended as a tool to decipher the papyri. Indeed, the more I considered the evidence in this new light, the more I came to believe that these men were not focused on translating the Egyptian papyri at all!
One of the keys to this conclusion was my discovery that, of the 69 characters to which explanations were assigned, most of them are not even Egyptian and do not appear on the papyri!
(Many, if not most of the A&G characters are not Egyptian; they do not come from the Egyptian papyri.”)
Let me repeat: Most of the characters explained in the Egyptian alphabet documents are not Egyptian, and do not appear on the Egyptian papyri in question.
(“The characters that are Egyptian and which can be found on the papyri appear to have been selected arbitrarily.”)
A few of the characters are Egyptian and can be found on the papyri, but not in any one place, and not in any order, and not with any discernible relationships. They appear to have been selected arbitrarily.
Of the 69 characters given explanations, some of them are clearly invented; some are composites—in other words they are formed by combining two or more previously used characters …
(Several of the Egyptian Alphabet characters can be traced to ciphers employed by the Knights Templar.)
… and, much to my surprise, I discovered that several of the characters can be traced to ciphers used by the Knights Templar and the Freemasons.
So, let’s pause a minute to review the important elements of evidence at this point in the investigation.
(“The Alphabet and Grammar is dependent on both the text of the Book of Abraham and others of Joseph Smith’s previously received revelations.”)
First of all, we’re dealing with a document whose text is dependent on and informed by the Book of Abraham as well as others of Joseph Smith’s previously received revelations.
(“It employs a mixture of some Egyptian characters, some apparently invented characters, and other characters selected from ciphers in use during that time period.”)
It employs a mixture of some Egyptian characters, some apparently invented characters, and other characters selected from centuries-old ciphers.
The next clue in our mystery comes in the form of what may well be the most instructive two pages of the entire collection of documents known as the Kirtland Egyptian Papers: the Egyptian Counting document.
Why is this document so instructive? Because it, more clearly than all the others, demonstrates the fundamental purpose of the project of which it is an integral part.
As I mentioned earlier, the Egyptian Counting document lists a series of characters …
… with “names” …
(EC English explanations)
… and “English explanations.”
(Egyptian Counting contains no Egyptian!)
What is most interesting, however, is that the characters in the Egyptian Counting document are very obviously not Egyptian! They have no relationship whatsoever to the papyri.
(EC detail 1)
The character representing “one” appears to be a minor variation of the standard Arabic numeral for “1”.
(EC detail 2)
“Two” is also somewhat similar to the Arabic numeral.
(EC detail 3)
“Three” is a variation of “Two”.
(EC detail 4)
“Four” is Arabic.
(EC detail 5)
“Five” is Arabic.
(EC detail 6)
Here’s where it gets really curious: “Six” is identical to the Sanskrit character for the number 6!
In a table of Knights Templar ciphers I discovered, one cipher was based on Sanskrit characters.
(EC detail 7)
“Seven” is Arabic.
(EC detail 8)
“Eight” is Arabic.
(EC detail 9)
“Nine” is identical to the Sanskrit character for 9.
(EC detail 10)
And, finally, “Ten” appears to be a minor variation of the Arabic.
(Encipher, not decipher.)
As I pondered the ramifications of these facts, the conclusion became obvious to me: what we have here is a tool not intended to decipher Egyptian, but rather one intended to encipher the descriptive English text of the cardinal numbers!
It constitutes a specimen of what is known in cryptography as a “cipher key.” The characters, which are not Egyptian and which do not come from the papyri, are intended to be a cipher representing the English words in the “explanations” column.
Thus, this character means “Six.”
(EC “10 & 1 are Eleven”)
Similarly, this pair of characters means “10 & 1 are Eleven.”
(EC “Twice ten and one are 21”)
And these three characters mean “Twice ten and one are 21.”
(Why is this document entitled “Egyptian Counting”?)
So why is this document entitled “Egyptian Counting”? There is absolutely nothing “Egyptian” about it. Nothing at all. Why then did they call it “Egyptian”?
Well, the answer to that question is, in my judgment, the key to understanding the underlying motivations and design of both the Egyptian Counting document AND the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar.
Simply put, the evidence strongly suggests that these documents were never designed as a tool to translate the Book of Abraham. Joseph Smith did that by revelation. Rather, the Alphabet, Grammar, and Counting documents appear to have been intended to render the English text of the Prophet’s revelations into some kind of cipher that these men apparently believed to be typical of language as practiced by “the ancients.”
Not that they would have called it a cipher.
(“Translating” English revelations.)
No, I believe the term they would have used to describe what they were doing is “translation”—not of Egyptian papyri, mind you, but of already written English texts—into a set of characters of their own selection and invention. Nevertheless, these tables they produced in the process of their translation project have the effective function of a “cipher key.”
(Masonic cipher grids-numbered.)
What is a “cipher key”? The simplest answer to that question can be provided by briefly examining the function of the Masonic cipher. Also called the “Rosicrucian cipher,” this cipher dates back to the late 17th century and is a simple “substitution cipher” which exchanges letters for symbols. In cryptography, a substitution cipher is a method of encryption by which units of plaintext are replaced with ciphertext according to a regular system. The receiver deciphers the text by performing an inverse substitution by aid of a “cipher key.”
The Masonic cipher is based on fragments of four separate geometric grids, which form 26 individual spaces in which the letters of the English alphabet are placed.
(Masonic cipher grids-alphabet.)
Here I have randomly placed the twenty-six letters of the alphabet in the 26 “compartments” of the grid.
(Masonic cipher grid fragments – A.)
Here we see how the individual grid fragments form distinct symbols, juxtaposed with the “substitution character” from the key. The first grid of the key comprises 9 cipher characters and 9 substitution characters; in our presently defined key, we see the cipher characters and the letter of the alphabet they represent. First, the letter “A”.
(Masonic cipher grid fragments – C.)
The letter “C”.
(Masonic cipher grid fragments – E.)
(Masonic cipher grid fragments – G.)
(Masonic cipher grid fragments – I.)
(Masonic cipher grid fragments – B to R.)
The second grid of the key also comprises 9 cipher characters and 9 substitution characters; here we see the cipher characters and the letter they represent.
(Masonic cipher grid fragments – S to Z.)
Finally, the last two grids comprise a total of 8 cipher characters and 8 substitution characters for a total of 26 individual “grid fragments.”
You see, the meaning of the cipher characters is arbitrary, depending on the placement of the substitution values. The grids constitute a generic template. The cipher characters themselves are generic symbols; their meaning is assigned at the time the template is populated.
(Masonic cipher example – “Masonic Cipher”)
Using this cipher key definition, the words “Masonic Cipher” would be rendered as such in cipher characters.
This then is how a basic cipher key functions.
(Egyptian Counting Cipher Key)
In the Egyptian Counting document, the various elements of a cipher key are clearly attested. The character column contains the cipher value; the “English explanation” column contains the substitution value for the cipher character.
(Why a cipher? For what purpose?)
But what was the underlying motivation of these men? What is the purpose of this cipher?
(Sensitive revelations were being encrypted in various ways at this point in time.)
Remember that all of this was going on at the same time the Doctrine & Covenants was being prepared for publication. Several of these revelations were considered so sensitive in nature that they had begun to employ coded names to hide the identities of people and places. There is a substantial body of historical evidence demonstrating this desire to encipher information such that it was only understandable to those who possessed the key to the encrypted data.
In addition to encryption, there were other motivations driving this Egyptian Alphabet project—specifically an interest that precedes by many years their encounter with Egyptian papyri in July of 1835.
(The pursuit of the “pure language.”)
This interest was undoubtedly influenced by a larger body of European philosophical thought dating back to at least the 17th century—literature that speculated concerning the nature of the language of the ancients.
William Phelps was extremely interested in the notion of something he termed “pure language.” His interest was contagious, and both Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery manifest a similar longing for what they imagined was the purity of language as delivered by God to Adam in the Garden of Eden.
They spoke and wrote frequently concerning their belief that human language had been corrupted through the years, the confounding of the languages at the Tower of Babel being merely the beginning of the deviation from the original purity of the primordial Adamic tongue.
(“Egyptian” = “Pure Language”)
In the mind of Phelps and the others, Egyptian was apparently believed to have somehow avoided the confounding of the languages at the Tower of Babel. “Egyptian” therefore became a term that, for them, was synonymous with “pure language.”
Thus, they see no contradiction entitling as “Egyptian Counting” a document that contains not a single element that is Egyptian; nor do they perceive any contradiction entitling the other documents “Egyptian Alphabet” and “Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language,” notwithstanding the fact that most of the characters they “translate” are not Egyptian, nor are the source texts.
(Ideographic Cipher and Lexicon)
Again, the evidence strongly suggests that the Alphabet and Grammar was never intended nor designed to “decipher” anything! Quite to the contrary, it was a short-lived attempt to construct an ideographic cipher and lexicon whereby those who produced it took selections of Joseph Smith’s body of revelatory texts, written in English, and assigned to them simple character values. In their minds, the capacity of a single character to represent a word, or a sentence, or even an entire paragraph of over a hundred words, was typical of what they believed to have been the “pure language” of the ancients.
Don’t misunderstand, I have encountered no evidence to date that they believed they were actually restoring the language of Adam, although it is possible they believed that some of the characters they produced had come to them through inspiration. No, it appears they were merely producing their own rendition of what they believed “pure language” would be like.
(Deciphering Egyptian scrolls was never their intended purpose.)
The point is that deciphering Egyptian scrolls was not their purpose. The kind of translation they were attempting ran in the other direction.
Indeed, William Phelps had already executed the first example of a practical attempt to do just that several weeks before Michael Chandler and his Egyptian papyri ever rolled into Kirtland, Ohio!
(A Specimen of the Pure Language)
In this letter to his wife Sally, written more than a month before Chandler and his mummies turned up in Kirtland, Phelps includes an extract from the earliest known example of his encryption template; his “cipher key.” He entitled it, appropriately, A specimen of some of the “pure language”.
(A Specimen of the Pure Language – Transcription)
Here we see a table almost identical in format to those used in the Alphabet and Grammar. In the left hand column are written 6 characters, followed by a column of “sounds” and English explanations that derive from elements of Joseph Smith’s previously received revelations.
(Pure language characters from the Masonic Cipher.)
Another intriguing aspect of this table is that three of the characters are identical to characters used in the Masonic cipher.
(Pure Language compared with Egyptian Alphabet)
But here’s where it gets really interesting, because a little less than two months later, Phelps reuses these same six characters in the Egyptian Alphabet documents!
Not only that, but he assigns to these six previously used cipher characters six new “sounds” and six completely new “explanations.”
In this new cipher key—this new “specimen of some of the pure language”—the explanations assigned to these manifestly generic characters are related to different previously received revelations, primarily the recently revealed Book of Abraham.
(P A U S E … as it all sinks in …)
The evidence is abundant and compelling: these “pure language” tables appear to be designed to function as a kind of ideographic cipher and lexicon.
(Pure Language Cipher)
Obviously Phelps introduced dozens more characters when he built the “pure language cipher” table for the Egyptian Alphabet, but the presence of these six characters from his earlier specimen confirms the evidence already adduced that a cipher key is precisely what these documents are designed to be. They would no doubt have called it a “translation key,” or something like that. In any case, its function is identical to a typical substitution cipher key. We see the exact same characters, in exactly the same order, yet with different sounds, and different explanations. But the underlying purpose is the same: to serve as a type of “pure language cipher.”
(Additional Masonic Cipher characters in the Egyptian Alphabet.)
A close examination of the characters employed in the Egyptian Alphabet reveals that no fewer than seven of the characters are derived straight from the Masonic Cipher, underscoring the common functions of the two things.
(Pure Language Ciphers – Example #1)
I have now identified no fewer than four separate “pure language” cipher keys, as well as another one that is referenced, but now lost.
The earliest example is found in the letter from Phelps to his wife in May 1835.
(Pure Language Ciphers – Example #2 – Egyptian Counting.)
The next example of a “pure language” cipher key is the Egyptian Counting document, where a new set of invented characters are the cipher, and English words that spell out the corresponding number are the substitution value.
(Pure Language Ciphers – Example #3)
The third example is the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar: some of the same characters from the Phelps letter are employed as ciphers in the key, but with different sounds and explanations.
(Pure Language Ciphers – Example #3 – Letter substitution column provided, but not used.)
In fact, if we examine closely the way Phelps laid out his Egyptian Alphabet document, we can see that he actually provided a column for a single letter substitution value. The Phelps Egyptian Alphabet document is the only one that has such a column headed “letter,” and it only contains such a column on the first page, after which Phelps dispensed with it altogether.
(Pure Language Ciphers – Example #3 – “a” erased.)
However, we can see what he initially set out to do. He wrote a letter “a” in the first line of the column, only to partially erase it, and then overwrite an “x” in its place.
(Pure Language Ciphers – Example #3 – “a” highlighted red.)
Here I have highlighted in red the partially erased and then overwritten letter “a”.
(Pure Language Ciphers – Example #3 – “a” erased and overwritten.)
Again, without the red highlighting.
(Pure Language Ciphers – Example #3 – Letter column detail.)
After erasing the “a” and placing an “x” in its place, Phelps then makes an “x” on the next two lines, seemingly to emphasize the fact that a single letter substitution was not to be a part of this particular cipher key. Even so, the presence of this letter substitution column confirms the function of this document as a cipher key. He’s using what amounts to a generic template.
(Pure Language Ciphers – Example #3 – Letter substitution column detail.)
But, you see, the substitution values for this cipher key are not going to be single letters, but rather entire words or even sentences and paragraphs.
(Pure Language Ciphers – Example #4 – Abraham Manuscripts.)
The fourth example of a “pure language” cipher key is the Abraham manuscripts authored by Frederick G. Williams and Warren Parrish. Just as the Egyptian Alphabet cipher key divided the characters into “parts” and the explanations into “degrees,” so also the first line of these two manuscripts tells us that these characters are from the “second part” and their accompanying explanations are in the “fifth degree.”
The characters that follow are designated as being from the “second part” of this particular cipher key, and their accompanying explanations are designated as being in the “fifth degree.”
(Pure Language Ciphers – Example #5 – Abraham Manuscript Ab3, Character #1.)
Thus, the first cipher character has a substitution value of: “I sought for mine appointment unto the priesthood according to the appointment of God unto the fathers concerning the seed.”
(Pure Language Ciphers – Example #5 – Abraham Manuscript Ab3, Character #2.)
And the second cipher character has a substitution value of: “my fathers having turned from their righteousness and from the holy commandments which the Lord their God had given unto them unto the worshiping of the gods of the heathens.”
And it goes on, with individual characters, drawn from the papyri in the fashion John Gee has described, representing entire paragraphs from the text of the Book of Abraham.
Well, there is so much more, but the time is exhausted. I have had to leave so much out that I would have preferred to include. I would have liked, for example, to spend at least half an hour detailing the evidence supporting the conclusion that it was William Phelps who was the dominant and driving force behind this entire project … but that will have to await another day.
(DHC entry, July 17, 1835)
At the start of my presentation today, I cited this entry in the History of the Church. In light of the evidence and arguments I have just presented, I want to revisit this sentence and see if perhaps we can now view it a bit differently. We’ll divide it into two parts.
(DHC entry – Part 1)
The first part reads: “The remainder of the month, I was continually engaged in translating an alphabet to the Book of Abraham …”
Note well the phrasing: “ … engaged in translating an alphabet to the Book of Abraham.” It refers to the Book of Abraham as a fait accompli! And so it was, as the textual evidence persuasively demonstrates. They began the so-called Egyptian Alphabet project focused on the previously received text of the first three chapters of the Book of Abraham, then later expanded their focus to others of Joseph Smith’s revelations.
They were at least partially motivated by the prevailing atmosphere in Kirtland, circa 1835, when the need was felt to encrypt sensitive information from Joseph Smith’s revelations.
In addition, there is a considerable body of historical evidence suggesting their fascination with the notion of a “pure language” of the ancients.
To be sure, in the course of their cipher project, they employ the term “Egyptian,” but the text critical evidence is conclusive on this point: “Egyptian” simply cannot mean for them, in the context of this project, what we have always believed it to mean.
Only when we come to see that, in their minds, “Egyptian” was synonymous with “pure language” can we begin to understand how they could entitle as “Egyptian Counting” a document that contains not a single Egyptian element whatsoever.
(DHC entry – Part 2)
Returning to the journal entry, we read that they were also engaged in “arranging a grammar of the Egyptian language as practiced by the ancients.” The textual evidence strongly affirms that this cannot mean “the Egyptian language” as practiced by the Egyptians. No, their focus is much wider than that and goes back before Babel, driven by their notions of what constituted the “pure language” of the ante-deluvian fathers. I believe these are “the ancients” to whom reference is made in this brief description of their activities in the summer of 1835.
(KEP not used to translate the BoA.)
Even so, regardless of what their underlying purpose was in producing these materials, the “essential element of understanding” concerning the Kirtland Egyptian Papers is that they are dependent on the Book of Abraham—and not the other way around.
Contrary to what has been commonly believed for the past forty years, the evidence strongly suggests that nothing in the collection of documents known as the Kirtland Egyptian Papers was used in the translation of the Book of Abraham. All of these materials come afterwards and are substantially dependent on a pre-existing text of the book.
(Joseph Smith translated the Book of Abraham by revelation.)
The evidence also strongly suggests that the text of the Book of Abraham must have been translated by Joseph Smith in the same way he had produced the text of the Book of Mormon, the Book of Moses, and the translated parchment of John known as D&C 7: by revelation.
There is no evidence that he attempted any sort of what we would term an “academic translation” of Egyptian papyri. The textual evidence simply will not support such a thesis. The purpose of the Alphabet and Grammar materials was extraneous to the papyri.
The essential element of understanding is that recognizing the dependent relationship of the Alphabet and Grammar materials to the previously received text of the Book of Abraham is the primary key to understanding the meaning and purpose of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers.