Source:Echoes:Ch8:2:Semitic texts in Egyptian script

Semitic Texts Written in Egyptian Script

Semitic Texts Written in Egyptian Script

Moroni noted that, while his people still used the Hebrew language, Mormon's abridgment of their records had been written in "reformed Egyptian" (see Mormon 9:32–33). Nephi, whose writings became the pattern for the records constituting the Book of Mormon, wrote: "Yea, I make a record in the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians. And I know that the record which I make is true; and I make it with mine own hand; and I make it according to my knowledge" (1 Nephi 1:2–3).

It was not until the twentieth century that ancient Hebrew texts written in Egyptian script became known to scholars. We now have a number of Northwest Semitic texts (Hebrew or related to Hebrew) in Egyptian magical papyri. These are mostly incantations that, instead of being translated, were merely transcribed in hieratic, a cursive or reformed version of the hieroglyphic characters most people think of as Egyptian writing. The underlying language, however, is an early form of Hebrew/Canaanite.8 The texts are found on the London Magical Papyrus (fourteenth century BC),9 the Harris Magical Papyrus (thirteenth century BC),10 Papyrus Anastasi I (thirteenth century BC),11 and Ostracon 25759 recto (eleventh century BC).12 The latter is interesting because the text on one side is purely Egyptian hieratic, while the text on the other is an early form of Hebrew written in hieratic characters. All of these documents were discovered and translated long after the Book of Mormon was published.

Of particular interest is Amherst Papyrus 63, a document of the fourth century BC written in a cursive (reformed) Egyptian script called demotic but whose underlying language is Aramaic, a sister language to Hebrew.13 Among the writings included in the religious text is a version of Psalm 20:2–6.14

An ostracon uncovered at the ancient Judean site of Arad in 1967 and dating to the time of Lehi has a text that, although written in a combination of ten Egyptian hieratic and seven Hebrew characters, can be read entirely as Egyptian.15 Other texts of the same time period that commingle Hebrew and Egyptian scripts were discovered during archaeological excavations at Tel Ein-Qudeirah (biblical Kadesh-Barnea), in the Sinai Peninsula near the border of ancient Judah, during the latter half of the 1970s.16

To most of Joseph Smith's contemporaries, the term reformed Egyptian seemed to be so much nonsense. Alexander Campbell, who wrote the first book critical of the Book of Mormon, scoffed at the fact that it had been translated "from the reformed Egyptian!!!"17 Many critics still suggest, despite long-standing evidence to the contrary, that there is no such thing as "reformed Egyptian" and insist that no ancient Israelite would have written sacred scripture using Egyptian. We now know the opposite to be true.[1]


  1. John A. Tvedtnes, "Ancient Texts in Support of the Book of Mormon," in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, edited by Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2002), Chapter 8, references silently removed—consult original for citations.