Printer-friendly version

By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus Part 4

By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus Part 4

A New Look at the Joseph Smith Papyri —Part 4 (Chapter 11)


The Intellectual Approaches

Prior to the rediscovery of the Joseph Smith papyri in 1967, the LDS Church's official position regarding the Book of Abraham was consistent and straightforward: Abraham, the biblical patriarch, had personally written a record of his experiences in Egypt, and had even illustrated it for clarity. This same record had been hidden up, preserved through time, and eventually delivered into the hands of Joseph Smith in the year 1835. Smith then translated the papyri by the gift and power of God, producing what is now known as the Book of Abraham. Prior to 1967, it seemed unlikely there would ever be reason for any Latter-day Saint to question this position.

But the rediscovery of the papyri has changed this picture for thoughtful Mormons. As they encounter information about the Book of Abraham, it becomes apparent that the official version of its origin is hopelessly inadequate. This chapter examines a number of alternate "intellectual" explanations devised by LDS apologists to salvage some measure of credibility for the Book of Abraham and Mormonism in light of this contradictory evidence.

Efforts by Latter-day Saints to reconcile the findings of Egyptology with the claims of the Book of Abraham are nothing new. The first serious attempt of this kind was probably that of George Reynolds in about 1879. His efforts were followed in the early years of the present century by the work of John Henry Evans and B. H. Roberts, and eventually the shadowy " 'Dr.' Robert C. Webb" (see pp. 29, 30).

These early arguments, though now recognized as dated and flawed, formed the groundwork for much of the first series of responses made by present day LDS apologists attempting to answer difficulties raised by the rediscovery of the Joseph Smith Papyri. Hugh Nibley, for instance, who at one point was the chief agent designated by the LDS leadership to defend the Book of Abraham during the papyri controversy, started out by devoting a considerable amount of space in his Improvement Era articles to attacking the motives of past critics such as the Episcopal bishop, Rev. Franklin S. Spaulding. In article after article, Nibley hotly challenged the findings of Spaulding's panel of scholars, in the process making repeated favorable references to the supposed expert he referred to as "the outsider, R. C. Webb."

Though Dr. Nibley much later admitted that he had "frankly skirmished and sparred for time" during this period in order to gain further expertise,1 it is nevertheless interesting to follow the progress of his views as they develop, maneuvering back and forth from one theory to another, as quickly as they were suggested.

The "Hidden Meaning" Theory

Initially, Dr. Nibley appears to have had little difficulty accepting the idea that the papyrus Joseph Smith used to produce the text of the Book of Abraham was the "Small Sensen" fragment. This conclusion was demanded by three facts: (1) the Facsimile No. 1 fragment (Papyrus Joseph Smith I) belonged to the Book of Abraham, (2) the "Small Sensen" fragment adjoined the Facsimile No. 1 fragment, and (3) the characters from the "Small Sensen" fragment (Papyrus Joseph Smith XI) appeared, in order, on three translation transcripts of the Book of Abraham text penned by Joseph Smith's scribes. But this raised a major problem for those Latter-day Saints aware that a competent translation of the "Small Sensen'' text did not produce anything like the Book of Abraham. How was this fact to be reconciled with the Church's claims? Could it be reconciled?

The first avenue that appeared to be open was the one Reynolds had proposed 90 years earlier -- that the Egyptian text Joseph Smith had worked with had more than one meaning. There was a literal meaning which scholars could determine by direct translation, but there was also a secret meaning which perhaps could only be unlocked with something like the Urim and Thummim, or perhaps Joseph's seer stone.

Nibley reported in an article for BYU Studies (Spring 1968),

It has long been known that the characters 'interpreted' by Joseph Smith in his Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar are treated by him as super-cryptograms, and now it is apparent that the source of those characters is the unillustrated fragment on which the word Sen-Sen appears repeatedly.

Nibley elaborated on this argument in a speech at the University of Utah on May 20 of the same year, stating,

... you very often have texts of double meaning ... it's quite possible, say, that this 'Sensen' papyrus, telling a straight forward innocent little story or something like that, should contain also a totally different text concealed within it ... they (the Egyptians) know what they're doing, but we don't. We don't have the key.2

For a while Dr. Nibley made as strong a case as he could for this "hidden meaning" theory, and a number of Latter-day Saint authors were sufficiently impressed with it to lend it support in their own work. But the theory's one major weakness from the very first was simply its sheer improbability. The ''Sensen'' text did not come into use until about 400 B.C. and each copy of the text was adapted to the deceased person for whom it was prepared -- incorporating his or her name, as well as the name of a parent. This means each copy of the text was different, which would muddle any supposed ''hidden meaning.''

No reputable Egyptologist anywhere was willing to support this theory,3 and it soon fell into disuse. Still, it was felt there must be some connection that would allow, somehow, for the Book of Abraham to have come from the Sensen text.

The "Mnemonic Device" Theory

One of the most elaborate attempts to establish an indirect translation connection was proposed later in 1968 by two Mormon scholars named John Tvedtnes and Richley Crapo.4 As they saw it, the two major objections of "non-member critics" to accepting the Book of Abraham as a translation of the Joseph Smith papyri were, (1) the implausibly high ratio of English words to Egyptian symbols, and (2) the lack of any clear connection between the Book of Abraham story and the contents of the Joseph Smith papyri.

"We should therefore reply to these objections if we wish to maintain that the Book of Abraham is scripture," they wrote candidly, "the more so because some respected members of the Church are beginning to accept the rationale behind the argument presented."

Tvedtnes and Crapo then pointed out that if the Book of Abraham was to be presented as "authentic," there were two possible approaches for the Church's scholars to take. They could either simply discount the implausibly high ratio of English to Egyptian symbols, and try to find a means of explaining how the Book of Abraham could have been derived from the Sensen text, or, they could try to demonstrate that there was some reason other than "translation" value for the Egyptian symbols to appear next to the Book of Abraham text on the translation manuscripts. If the first could be done successfully, Joseph Smith would be more or less vindicated as a true translator of the ancient document; if the second option was used, the troublesome Sensen text could be overlooked and a case could be made for a completely different papyrus -- one still missing -- as the true source of the Book of Abraham.

The first option offered perhaps the strongest support for the Church's traditional position in support of the authenticity of the Book of Abraham, and this was the one Tvedtnes and Crapo determined would be the most desirable to use.

Having decided on this approach, Tvedtnes and Crapo proposed that the hieratic Egyptian words appearing on the Sensen papyrus stood for "core concepts" that could be found within the English text next to which they appeared. For instance, on pages 97-99 of this book there are charts similar to the ones from which they worked. The first Egyptian symbol shown represents the word "the," or "this." Verse 11 Abraham I, shown next to it begins, "Now this priest had offered ... " The two Mormon scholars felt that they had shown a parallel between the two works because the definite article "this" appeared in both.

The same procedure was used to construct parallels between as many words or portions of words as Tvedtnes and Crapo could find, all with equally unconvincing results. Probably their best connection was the hieratic symbol for a determinative indicating a woman's name (see p. 99) and the corresponding phrase from Abraham 2:2, "who were the daughters of Haran." Tvedtnes and Crapo went on to speculate that, according to their model, the Sensen text was actually a "memory device" that could have been developed by either Abraham or his descendants. It was utilized to bring to mind "a set number of memorized phrases relating to Abraham's account of his life." Joseph Smith, reading these "core concept" words correctly by the gift and power of God, would then have received these phrases by revelation.5

This "mnemonic device" theory received favorable coverage in such papers as Brigham Young University's Newsletter and Proceedings of the Society for Early Historic Archaeology, and the LDSSA Commentary. In the February 24, 1969 edition the Newsletter reported that Tvedtnes and Crapo's approach was "quickly gaining support from LDS scholars." Even Dr. Nibley gave his tacit endorsement, explaining,

... it seems that the idea is that if one takes the actual meaning of the hieratic signs in the order in which they occur, they can be roughly matched up with certain general themes of the Book of Abraham which occur in the same order ... This would make the Sensen papyrus a sort of prompter's sheet ... Far fetched as it may seem, there are many ancient examples of this sort of thing ... 6

Unfortunately, several serious flaws in the "mnemonic device" theory soon became evident. When Jay Todd, another popular Mormon writer, asked Klaus Baer his opinion of the theory, Dr. Baer replied that the English-to-Egyptian comparisons listed in the study were "related by no visible principle."7 There was really no consistent procedure employed at all, no governing rules of application that would make the proposed method useful as a genuine memory device by anyone; rather, all associations were haphazard, random, and chaotic, showing evidence of a strictly forced association. Furthermore, some of the "core concepts" were tied to the specific names of the deceased (Hor) and one of his parents (Tikhebyt), meaning that only this particular "breathing permit" -- and no other -- was capable of carrying any intended code. Each time a Book of Breathings text was prepared over the centuries, different names would have been written in, making any transmission of "code" based on names impossible. Finally, the Book of Breathings had not even been composed (as a condensation of the earlier Book of the Dead) until sometime around 400 B.C., a dozen or more centuries after the time of Abraham.

Just the same, these objections were soon rationalized away, and although its impact had been blunted, the "mnemonic device" theory continued to be popular in some LDS circles for a number of years.

However, this was the final serious attempt to link the Sensen text with the text of the Book of Abraham.

The "Any Egyptian Connection" Theory

An Egyptian connection to the Book of Abraham was still desired and actively sought, however. Quite early in the game Dr. Nibley had given the impression that he felt the Mormon people ought to be willing to accept any association that could be found -- even to pagan Egyptian mythology if need be -- so long as it left open possibilities.

However, Nibley's approach in this regard is certainly in sharp conflict with the Bible, one of the four LDS standard works. Throughout the Old Testament it is abundantly clear that God took great pains to dissuade the children of Israel from any contact with the false gods and idolatrous practices of their pagan neighbors. He ordered the Israelites to destroy the inhabitants of Canaan when they conquered the land, lest they should mingle His holy name with pagan deities, and so pollute the truth of divine revelation (Deuteronomy 6:14; 7:2-4, 16, 25,26; 12:2-4). God specifically admonished His people to repudiate and completely forsake the gods of Egypt, to whom they had been exposed during their years of captivity there (Joshua 24:14). The Old Testament records that every time the children of Israel fell into pagan idolatry, they experienced God's chastening (Judges 2:2,3, 11-15). Later in Israel's history, the prophet Ezekiel traced Israel's fall into idolatry all the way back to her failure to completely forsake the pagan religion of Egypt (Ezekiel 20:7-9).

The New Testament likewise teaches the same principle that God does not use pagan or ungodly vessels to bear His truth. Acts 16:16-18 records the incident of a demon possessed girl who followed the Apostle Paul and Silas, crying out that they were ''servants of the most high God, which show unto us the way of salvation." Although this testimony was true, Paul completely repudiated any such association between the Gospel and pagan occultism. He rebuked the evil spirit and cast it out of the girl.

Since the Joseph Smith Papyri have been identified with absolute certainty as prayers to pagan Egyptian gods that, by biblical definition are ripe with occultism, it is inconceivable, given the holy character of God, that He would associate Himself or His revelation in any way with these pagan religious documents. This fact alone is ample grounds for totally rejecting the Book of Abraham as a revelation from the one True and Living God.

Nevertheless, regarding the actual subject matter of the Sensen papyrus, shortly after it was translated Nibley wrote,

Even the casual reader can see that there is cosmological matter here, with the owner of the papyrus longing to shine in the heavens as some sort of physical entity along with the sun, moon, and Orion; also he places great importance on his patriarchal lineage and wants to be pure, nay baptized, so as to enter a higher kingdom, to achieve, in fact, resurrection and eternal life. And these teachings and expressions are secret, to be kept out of the hands of the uninitiated. And all these things have nothing to do with the subject matter of the Pearl of Great Price? . . . let's not get ahead of the game, or overlook any possibility that there might be something there after all -- 'If it looks like an elephant,' Professor Popper used to say, 'call it an elephant!' (from Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Summer 1968, pp. 103-104)

Of course, the above was written while Dr. Nibley was still proposing his "super-cryptogram" hypothesis, and considering the "mnemonic device" theory (and while also "skirmishing and sparring for time") before he and most others were finally forced to recognize that the Book of Abraham was simply too far off base to be considered a translation of the ''Sensen'' text.

But the idea of looking for Egyptian practices or beliefs that could be even loosely thought of as resembling those of Abraham was an intriguing subject to Dr. Nibley. Indeed, he has continued along this line, producing hundreds of printed pages of such speculations in the process. Then too, this approach became especially necessary in dealing with the facsimiles in the Book of Abraham. LDS Scholars discovered that the indisputable Egyptian identification of the facsimiles could not be so easily ignored or obscured as had the text of the Sensen papyrus.

Still, in giving up on the Sensen text, about the only viable alternative left to LDS scholars was the second approach Tvedtnes and Crapo had foreseen, that of trying to find an explanation other than "translation" for the appearance of the Sensen characters in Joseph Smith's manuscripts alongside the Book of Abraham text. If this could be done, the whole bothersome matter of the Sensen text could finally be disposed of, and the business of developing a new explanation for the origin of the Book of Abraham could move ahead.

The first obstacle to overcome was Joseph Smith's Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar material. Up to this time, it had been regarded by some as a kind of key to the Book of Abraham. As early as 1938, Dr. Sidney B. Sperry had written (without revealing that he had seen the Grammar in the Historian's Office) that he had for "many years" been "intrigued by the statement of the Prophet that he was 'translating an alphabet to the Book of Abraham.'"8 He proposed that the Grammar had been a translating aid of sorts for Joseph, in which he had listed each Egyptian symbol with its meaning in English. Smith would have employed this procedure, speculated Sperry, because the meaning of the symbols, having been revealed once by divine aid, would perhaps not be revealed in the future.9 Other scholars, (such as Dr. James R. Clark and Hyrum L. Andrus) even went so far as to suggest that the document had originally been formulated by an ancient writer -- "probably Abraham" -- to assist the eventual translator in deciphering the language.10 However, such notions only strengthened the ties between the Sensen symbols and the Book of Abraham text, which in turn brought Joseph's abilities as a translator into question. This result was not faith promoting, and therefore, not even a viable option to LDS authorities. No, the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar had to be discounted, and somehow separated from Joseph Smith.

The "Scribes Did It" Theory

Ultimately, it was Dr. Nibley who was more influential than anyone else in his attempts to break the link between the Prophet and his Alphabet and Grammar. Challenging the traditional attitude of respect for the Grammar material and Joseph Smith's involvement in producing it, he argued that the "Kirtland Egyptian Papers" (a term coined by Nibley to use in place of the awkward "Alphabet" and/or "Grammar") had been a "purely speculative and exploratory" effort initiated by Joseph's scribes during the time of the translation of the Book of Abraham, and quickly abandoned when they saw it was getting them nowhere.11

These "men of Kirtland," Dr. Nibley proposed, were simply trying to see if they could learn Egyptian on their own through "studying it out in their own minds," by matching up symbols and words, formulating grammatical rules through trial and error, and making guesses, as it were. Nibley saw such trial and error practice by Smith's scribes as "not [any] more fantastic than the speculations of some eminent scholars of the world in their early efforts to decipher Egyptian."12 It was Smith's scribes, he stressed, who placed the characters from the "Small Sensen" text next to the Book of Abraham text on the three manuscripts. Nibley insisted they did not do this as an exercise in "translation," and he pointed out that the "absurd disproportion" between one simple symbol and "a whole paragraph of English text including parenthetical remarks and at least a dozen proper names" would tend to "[w]ipe out even the remotest possibility of such a thing."13 Rather, he claimed that this was merely evidence of an "exploratory exercise"14 undertaken "in the process of trying out possible clues to help in the composing of an Egyptian Grammar."15

Dr. Nibley admitted that in their attempt to prepare this grammar, Smith's scribes were often encouraged and at times even assisted in their efforts by the Prophet (four pages of the Egyptian Alphabet material is in Joseph Smith's own handwriting). But Nibley felt that this ought not to reflect unfavorably on the seership of the Prophet Joseph Smith, since "his translation of the Book of Abraham was one thing; while his discussions and speculations and intellectual flights with the brethren in Kirtland were again something else."16 He explained that Smith "would very much have liked to [write an Egyptian Grammar], as the subject intrigued him to the end of his life when he suggested the possibility of such an undertaking in the future."17 But the Kirtland Egyptian Papers ... ? Obviously they couldn't be taken seriously, since "nothing is more impressive than the promptness and finality with which the Alphabet, Grammar, and 'translation' projects were dropped the moment it became apparent they were leading up a blind alley."18

"Equally significant," Nibley continued, ''was the care that was taken to avoid misleading anyone, raising false hopes, or giving false impressions. The whole business was strictly confidential in nature; these speculations and probings never got out of a closed academic circle.'' 19

This was one of Nibley's most insistent points, for it not only indicated to him that Joseph Smith had regarded the Kirtland Egyptian Papers as having no value, but it also addressed the critics' charge that the material had for years been deliberately suppressed by the LDS Church:

No claims were ever given for them. It was not the Prophet's habit to suppress anything he felt was true and relevant to the Gospel. On the contrary, his calling was to make everything known . . . He was not one to hold anything back.* If the Kirtland papers were thought of as inspired or even reasonably helpful they would have been expanded, used, and their worth announced to the world. The strictly confidential nature of the work tells us just what kind of an exercise it was -- never circulated, never given out to the members of the church or the general public -- no one was corrupted by it.20

Hugh Nibley's "Scribes Did It" theory immediately became a popular success. It offered LDS members a portrayal of events that distanced Joseph Smith from the embarrassing Kirtland Egyptian Papers, and evoked that confident authority and seemingly thorough appeal to evidence for which Nibley had become famous. To many it looked like a way had been found to close forever the door on the whole nest of troublesome questions brought up by the Sensen papyrus.

There were some problems with the theory though. For one thing, it was built almost entirely on speculation. To many, it seemed simplistic to blame both the creation of the Grammar material and the placement of the Sensen symbols beside the Book of Abraham text in three separate manuscripts, entirely on the well-meaning but uninspired efforts of Joseph Smith's scribes. In going over the same evidence used by Nibley -- the same notes, the same journal entries, the same references in the Church History and elsewhere -- no LDS writer had ever felt compelled by the facts to reach such conclusions, even though the subject had been explored for years. Of course, other Mormon scholars had not been trying to discount Joseph Smith's involvement with these items. That Dr. Nibley should be able to do so, now that it had become necessary, seemed highly suspect.

In some ways the "Scribes Did It" theory was very much like the "Mnemonic Device" theory, for it bore all the marks of a totally contrived set of conditions where only very narrowly limited "evidence" was ever used. Even then, the interpretation of the evidence had to be strained to the limit in order to obtain the desired conclusion.

Actually, about the only way the theory could be developed at all was by overlooking a great deal of other evidence which linked the Prophet directly to the production of the Book of Abraham and the Grammar. Consider, for instance, Joseph Smith's own words as recorded in B. H. Roberts' History of the Church:

[July, 1835] -- The remainder of this 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. (History of the Church, Vol. 2, p. 238)

Notice that Joseph is not saying he would some day like to put together an alphabet and grammar of the Egyptian language, as Nibley's writings imply, but that he claims that he actually is, in 1835, "engaged in translating an alphabet" and "arranging a grammar." Again, from Smith's diary account:

October 1 [, 1835] -- This afternoon labored on the Egyptian alphabet, in company with Brothers O. Cowdery and W. W. Phelps, and during the research, the principles of astronomy as understood by Father Abraham and the ancients unfolded to our understanding, the particulars of which will appear hereafter. (Ibid, p. 286)

Notice also that the "astronomy" Smith describes (a significant factor within both the Grammar material and the Book of Abraham subject matter) was "unfolded ... during the research" -- not "received by inspiration" or as the result of "speculations," "probings," or "intellectual flights." Another significant entry states,

November 17, 1835 -- Exhibited the alphabet of the ancient records, to Mr. Holmes, and some others" (Ibid, p. 316).

Recall that, according to Dr. Nibley's theory, this material was "strictly confidential in nature" and "never got out of a closed academic circle" in order to "avoid misleading anyone, raising false hopes, or giving false impressions" so that no one would be "corrupted by it."

Given the early date of these citations, some argue that Joseph was still involved in the half-serious "speculations and probings" described by Nibley. This raised the question, did Smith in later years continue to exhibit and use the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar material? Or, as time went on, was it "quickly dropped" with "impressive finality" and forgotten, as Nibley contends?

Evidently Joseph Smith continued to desire that people believe in the value of his Grammar, since all the previously cited references to it were transcribed from his 1835 diary during his lifetime, and placed in the official Manuscript History of the Church which was being compiled in 1843. If Smith had abandoned those Grammar writings several years earlier as "worthless," he would not have allowed such potentially misleading references to be copied (even expanded) during his supervision of the Manuscript History.

Additional evidence shows that Joseph Smith consistently represented the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar and all the material related to it as a serious matter. A good example of this is found in a small pamphlet published in 1844 entitled The Voice of Truth.21 In it, Smith was quoted at length as he demonstrated his linguistic prowess by quoting brief phrases from seventeen different languages, in quick succession:

Were I a Chaldean I would exclaim, Keed'nauh to-me-roon lehoam elauhayauh dey - ahemayana veh aur'hau lau gnaubadoo, yabadoo ma-ar'gnau comeen tehoat sheamyauh allah (Thus shall ye say unto them: The gods that have not made the heaven and the earth, they shall perish from the earth, and from these heavens.) An Egyptian, Su-e-eh-ni (What other persons are those?) A Grecian, Diabolos basileuei (The Devil reigns.) A Frenchman, Messieurs sans Dieu (Gentlemen without God.) . . .

And on Smith goes, quoting brief clips of Turkish, German, Syrian, Spanish, Italian, Hebrew, Danish, Latin, and other languages. It is notable that the phrases Smith uses from various languages do not constitute the related thoughts of a single message, but appear to be randomly selected phrases from various dictionaries. Even the Chaldean quoted is no more than an approximate translation of the Hebrew of Jeremiah 10:11, apparently copied from Smith's Hebrew Bible. The "Egyptian" he quotes, however, comes directly from the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar, page A: Sue-e-eh-ni "What other person is that? Who?"22

Of course, a skeptic might question whether Joseph Smith actually uttered such strange words. Did he really write or talk in this manner?

Yes, the evidence shows that he definitely did. On November 13, 1843, Smith wrote a letter that appeared in the newspaper Times and Seasons (of which he had served as editor) which stated in part:

Were I an Egyptian, I would exclaim Jah-oh-eh, Enish-go-on-dosh, Flo-ees-Flos-is-is; [O the earth! the power of attraction, and the moon passing between her and the sun.]

These words were taken directly from pages 29 and 30 of the Grammar material:

Jah-oh-eh: The earth under the government of another or the second of the fixed stars, which is called Enish-go-on-dosh or in other words the power of attra[c]tion it has with the earth. Flo-ees: The moon -- signifying its revolutions, also going between, thereby forming an eclipse. Flos-is-is: The sun in its affinity with Earth and moon -- signifying their revolutions showing the power the one has with the other.23

It is also interesting that the words Jah-oh-eh, Enish-go-on-dosh, Floeese, and Kli-flos-is-is occur in the "Explanation" of Facsimile No. 2 in the Book of Abraham (see p. 103 of this book). And what of the appearance of the Sensen symbols in the three translation manuscripts next to the English Book of Abraham text?

Dr. Nibley saw this as the product of an "exploratory exercise" in which Joseph's scribes were simply "placing two completed texts [the Sensen and the Book of Abraham] side by side for comparison."24 He defended this viewpoint by explaining,

You cannot make a grammar or alphabet of any language if you don't have at least one example of a translation -- without a Rosetta Stone you will get nowhere. And the Book of Abraham offered the brethren the only exemplar of a sure translation from the Egyptian. They compared it with various texts, trying it on for size.25

Taken at face value, Nibley's argument could perhaps be considered barely plausible, though it must be noted that there are no known examples of Egyptian characters from "various texts" appearing alongside Book of Abraham passages. Still, the random placing of two texts alongside each other without even the slightest idea of what the symbols from one of the languages means is hardly a rational way to begin to "make a grammar or alphabet." Smith's followers would, at the very least, have needed some reason to believe that the English text had somehow been derived from the particular papyrus at hand in order for their "exercise" to have had meaning. Only Joseph Smith could have provided them with such a belief.

But there is still more evidence against Nibley's theory here, for a number of figures on the three Book of Abraham translation manuscripts do not even come from the Sensen (or any other) papyrus! These characters occur in the places where there are missing sections in the Sensen papyrus, and do not resemble any form of Egyptian at all. Instead, these figures, which appear to be simply contrived, are based on (though with slight variations) similar non-Egyptian figures found in the Grammar material. They are placed next to portions of the English Book of Abraham text that closely match the subject matter of the "definitions" given for them in the Grammar.

An example of this can be seen on pages 92, 93 of this book. Iota toues Zip zi is an imaginary, non-Egyptian character; its counterpart is found at the top of page 5 of Manuscript No. 1, next to what would be Abraham 1:22,23 (the passage that the Mormon Church used, until 1978, as the sole scriptural basis for the exclusion of blacks from the priesthood). A hole occurs in the Sensen papyrus at the place where this character would have appeared (see photos on pp. 130,131). So consider: if the "brethren at Kirtland" were merely placing two completed texts side by side for comparison, as Nibley proposes, why would they also have invented nonsense symbols to fill in the holes? This would have compounded error with chaos!

Furthermore, it goes against the claim made during and since Joseph Smith's lifetime that it was he, the Prophet, who filled in by divine inspiration the missing portions:

These records were torn by being taken from the roll of embalming salve which contained them, and some parts entirely lost, but Smith is to translate the whole by divine inspiration and that which is lost, like Nebuchadnezzar's dream, can be interpreted as well as that which is preserved. (From A Few Interesting Facts Respecting the Rise, Progress, and Pretensions of the Mormons, a pamphlet published in 1837 by William S. West)

While many LDS writers in the past have confidently referenced this quotation, Dr. Nibley has chosen to ignore it. A number of the more serious LDS scholars have found it difficult to endorse Dr. Nibley's "Scribes Did It" theory, primarily for the reasons discussed above. Their position has been tactfully spelled out by Edward H. Ashment, a respected LDS Egyptologist, who wrote that the available evidence all points to the fact that "the Prophet has some positive connection with the production of the Joseph Smith Egyptian Papers [that is, Kirtland Egyptian Papers -- author]. Therefore, even though involvement with them on his part has been disputed, thoughtful reexamination of the evidence leads us to the conclusion that the Prophet was connected with the entire project" (Sunstone, December 1979, p. 42).

But despite its serious weaknesses, many Latter-day Saints continue to rely on the "Scribes Did It" theory as means of defending the integrity of Joseph Smith.26 However, even with the frustrating Sensen papyrus finally out of the way, LDS scholars were still faced with the daunting task of looking for another explanation for how the Book of Abraham could have been legitimately produced.

The "Missing Black and Red Scroll" Theory

It is not surprising that the idea of a "missing scroll" -- one that had not yet been recovered by the Church -- would eventually be proposed as the true source of the Book of Abraham. For, if the goal was to rule out the Sensen papyrus, there would have to be an alternative Egyptian scroll from which the Book of Abraham was produced. However, making a case for a missing scroll would require reasons solid enough to counteract the convincing evidence that the ''Sensen'' papyrus was once attached to the Facsimile No. 1 fragment. It was clear that some sort of documentation to support the claim of a different scroll would be very helpful.

The documentation for this theory of a different source scroll appeared to exist in the History of the Church, Vol. 2, p. 348:

The record of Abraham and Joseph, found with the mummies, is beautifully written upon papyrus, with black, and a small part red, ink or paint, in perfect preservation.

This statement appears to be in the words of the Prophet Joseph Smith himself, and therefore it was considered conclusive. The poor Sensen papyrus was surely not "beautifully written," was not in "perfect preservation," and showed no traces of "red ink or paint." So, it was quickly pointed out, this must mean that the original scroll for the Book of Abraham was still missing.

In his article, "Judging and Prejudging the Book of Abraham," written at the time his book The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment was in preparation, Nibley had this to say:

... The fact is that the manuscripts at present in the possession of the church represent only a fraction of the Joseph Smith papyri. As President Joseph F. Smith stood in the front doorway of the Nauvoo House with some of the brethren in 1906, the tears streamed down his face as he told how he remembered 'as if it were yesterday,' his 'Uncle Joseph,' down on his knees on the floor with Egyptian Manuscripts spread out all around him, peering at the strange writings and jotting things down in a little green notebook with the stub of a pencil. When one considers that the eleven fragments now in our possession can easily be spread out on the top of a small desk, without the straining of the knees, back, and dignity, it would seem that what is missing is much more than what we have.

Thus, the "Missing Black and Red Scroll" theory was born, its announcement being made in Hugh Nibley's 1975 book, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment. 27 Unfortunately, this new theory was a bit premature. Two pages later, in the History of the Church, at the end of the same entry in which "Joseph Smith's" description was given, a footnote by B. H. Roberts points out that the wording for the entire entry was not actually Joseph Smith's, it had only been written to appear so. Instead, the article had been adapted from a letter written by Oliver Cowdery published in the Messenger and Advocate. Cowdery, in turn, had developed his wording from a published placard provided by Michael Chandler. The placard quoted remarks made by persons in Philadelphia who were describing the appearance of the papyrus collection as a whole, and not any specific scroll that Joseph Smith would later identify as the Book of Abraham. (For more on this point, refer back to chapter 8, The Book of Joseph?, pp. 81-85.)

Moreover, through contemporary accounts it is very clear that the only papyri the LDS Church has ever possessed are the "two rolls of papyrus" (i.e. "the writings of Abraham and Joseph"), and "two or three other small pieces of papyrus, with astronomical calculations, epitaphs, &c."

Hugh Nibley's ideas have been examined; now consider the statements of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery concerning the papyri:

On the 3d of July, Michael H. Chandler came to Kirtland to exhibit some Egyptian mummies. There were four human figures, together with some two or more rolls of papyrus covered with hieroglyphic figures and devices. (History of the Church, Vol. 2, p. 235, emphasis added.)


Soon after this, some of the Saints at Kirtland purchased the mummies and papyrus ... and with W. W. Phelps and Oliver Cowdery as scribes, I commenced the translation ... and much to our joy found that one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham, another, the writings of Joseph of Egypt . . . (Ibid., p. 236, emphasis added.)

Before inferring that by the use of the words "two or more rolls of papyrus" Smith meant there were other rolls, we should carefully examine Oliver Cowdery's statements as they appeared (with Joseph Smith's direction and approval) in the Messenger and Advocate:

Upon the subject of the Egyptian records, or rather the writings of Abraham and Joseph, I may say a few words. This record is beautifully written on papyrus with black, and a small part red, ink or paint, in perfect preservation. (Cowdery, op. cit., emphasis added.)

Cowdery, thus, understands that all -- not just a portion -- of "the Egyptian records" are "the writings of Abraham and Joseph," which he then refers to as "this record."

But there is more. When giving an account of Chandler's receiving the mummies in New York (evidently supplied by Chandler) Cowdery goes on to say,

On opening the coffins he discovered that in connection with two of the bodies, were something rolled up with the same kind of linen, saturated with the same bitumen, which, when examined proved to be two rolls of papyrus, previously mentioned. I may add that two or three other small pieces of papyrus, with astronomical calculations, epitaphs, &c. were found with others of the mummies. (Ibid, emphasis added)

Then in a postscript to the letter, he adds,

You will understand from the foregoing, that eleven mummies were taken from the catacomb, at the time of which I have been speaking, and nothing definite having been said as to their disposal, I may, with propriety add a few words. Seven of the said eleven were purchased by gentlemen for private museums, previous to Mr. Chandler's visit to this place, with a small quantity of papyrus, similar, (as he says) to the astronomical representation contained with the present two rolls, of which I previously spoke, and the remaining four by gentlemen resident here [in Kirtland] (Ibid, emphasis added).

Cowdery proves that there were two, and only two, "rolls of papyrus," which he believed, because of Joseph Smith's identification of them, were "the writings of Abraham and Joseph," though there were also a few fragments "similar to the astronomical representation" [i.e. Facsimile No. 2] with the papyri. Together these make up what are referred to as "two or more rolls of papyrus." Portions of the only two reasonably complete rolls they had have been recovered: Hor's Book of Breathings and the Book of the Dead for Ta-shert-Min.

Despite the evidence that contradicts it, the "missing black and red scroll" theory has been widely popularized and heavily circulated by well-meaning Latter-day Saints. As recently as the July 1988 issue of the Ensign (p. 51), Michael D. Rhodes was still suggesting it, and the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, published in 1992, similarly implies that the papyri recovered in 1967 did not include the Egyptian source document from which Joseph Smith produced the Book of Abraham. However, a growing number of scholars, unable to accept the questionable advantage of such unreliable documentation as Nibley presents, have reluctantly felt compelled to abandon this theory.

The "Mistaken Identity" Theory

Meanwhile, some scholars and researchers within the Church were working on a completely different approach to the problem. They were seeking to show that -- despite the many explicit remarks by Smith and his contemporaries to the contrary -- a papyrus text in the hands of the Prophet would not have been essential for the production of any "translation.'' In other words, the Book of Abraham came to Joseph Smith through revelation alone.

As early as 1969, a Brigham Young University professor named James R. Harris felt he had uncovered, purely by accident, evidence to support such a view while reading the Improvement Era. In the second article in a series on the Three Witnesses, a chance quotation was given from a blessing believed to have been recorded by Oliver Cowdery on December 18, 1833. It read:

... we sought for the right of the fathers, and the authority of the holy priesthood, and the power to administer in the same; for we desired to be followers of righteousness and the possessors of greater knowledge ...

This was remarkably similar to the second verse found in the Book of Abraham:

... I sought for the blessings of the fathers, and the right whereunto I should be ordained to administer the same; having been myself a follower of righteousness, desiring also to be one who possessed great knowledge...

That these remarkable parallel phrases from the Book of Abraham occurred in such brief passages in Cowdery's blessing was enough to convince Harris that one had most certainly been the basis for the other. Since Cowdery's comments were supposedly recorded at least a year and a half before the papyri collection came into Joseph Smith's hands28 (and before any translation could be made from them), and since Prof. Harris apparently did not wish to consider the possibility that the Book of Abraham text was derived from a contemporary source, he believed this could only suggest that,

The near identical wording of these passages would indicate that some of the text of the Book of Abraham was revealed and recorded before the Abraham papyri came into the possession of Joseph Smith. (BYU Studies, Autumn 1969, p. 127)

According to Harris, then, Oliver Cowdery had borrowed his phrases from the Book of Abraham -- which must have been available to him well before the papyri were available to Joseph! (The blessing was not actually recorded by Oliver Cowdery with the similar wording until the fall of 1835, after the purchase of the papyri.)

At any rate, the point had been made that if part of the Book of Abraham had been written before the papyri appeared, then that portion did not need the papyri. It would have been received through revelation instead of "translation." And if one portion of the text was not dependent upon papyrus, perhaps the rest of it was not either.

This is how a young LDS writer named Kirk Holand Vestal saw it. Following Harris' lead, he wrote a paper (Approaching the Book of Abraham, unpublished) in 1980 in which he proposed the idea that Joseph Smith had first seen the original scroll containing the record of Abraham in a vision. This was theorized to have occurred as much as two years prior to receiving the papyri from Chandler. Later, when the pagan Book of Breathings was unrolled, it bore such a striking resemblance to what the Prophet had seen in his vision, that, as Vestal put it:

It comes as little surprise that Joseph Smith may have indeed thought that what the papyri contained were the original Egyptian texts of the Book of Abraham ... The striking similarity of the scenes in both documents would have led Joseph Smith to naturally assume that what he had in his hands in July 1835 was in fact the very original manuscript of the Book of Abraham.

The next logical step in this "mistaken identity" theory, of course is to conclude that Joseph Smith continued to receive the text for the Book of Abraham through revelation, even though he may have actually believed (mistakenly) he was "translating from the papyrus."

Few Latter-day Saints seem willing to allow that Joseph Smith could have made such a silly mistake (or that God would have allowed his error to remain uncorrected). However, if one accepts the "mistaken identity" theory it does provide a solution to the major problem of relating the papyri to the text and facsimiles of the Book of Abraham. The solution is simply the assertion that the two are totally unrelated. This probably proved reassuring to some people.

Understandably, few people can accept the idea that the Book of Abraham text was written down prior to 1835. For one thing, there is a conspicuous lack of reference to Joseph Smith receiving the "writings of Abraham" by vision, revelation or any other means, prior to his obtaining the papyri. Another is Joseph Smith's own references to sitting down with the papyri and laboring at the translation.

Nevertheless, the idea of Joseph Smith having received his text by revelation alone was too appealing and practical a suggestion to ignore. The July 1988 Ensign article mentioned above provides this as an alternate theory.

The "Catalyst" Theory

By appealing to revelation, then, most of the papyrus fragments could be set aside. But if any of the Egyptian material simply had to be linked to the Book of Abraham, it would have to be those bearing the drawings associated with the facsimiles. Someone still needed to explain why Joseph Smith would have claimed that Egyptian burial scenes were in some way associated with the patriarch Abraham.

In a little booklet titled, What Mormonism Isn't -- A Response to the Research of Jerald and Sandra Tanner, LDS writer Ian Barber made an interesting suggestion regarding the Book of the Dead and Book of Breathings illustrations used by Smith. He held that these scenes were correctly identified by modern Egyptologists in the context in which they appeared (that is, they were funerary documents), but went on to say, "there is absolutely no reason to preclude their existence in different contexts and at different times, certainly extending back to 2000 B. C."29

Barber strongly endorsed Hugh Nibley's long-standing comparisons between the Book of Abraham material and Egyptian mythology, apocryphal writings, and the like (see the "Any Egyptian Connection" theory), and he offered as his opinion that,

Joseph Smith did not believe that he possessed Abraham's original writings, but rather reproductions that had been altered and perhaps placed in an entirely new context. The story that the Egyptologists ... have given us describes this new context and not necessarily Abraham's world view some 4000 years ago ...

While sounding much like the reasoning used in the "Hidden Meaning" theory, it is also the prelude to something new. The earlier "Hidden Meaning" theory was used primarily to support the concept of a translation; while this new approach, which can be termed the "Catalyst" theory, supports the revelation concept. As Barber explains,

In my opinion the facsimiles and Egyptian material served as revelatory aids for the Prophet to prepare him intellectually and spiritually for the direct revelation of the Book of Abraham text.

The "Catalyst" theory also seems to have the blessing of Hugh Nibley and the 1992Encyclopedia of Mormonism. Nibley comments in his book, Abraham in Egypt (1981), that Smith, "had already demonstrated at great length his power to translate ancient records with or without possession of the original text."30 And the Encyclopedia of Mormonism offers the vague hypothesis that in studying his papyri, Joseph Smith, "sought revelation from the Lord concerning them and received in the process the book of Abraham."31 The papyri illustrations, in particular, it suggests, are somehow supposed to have served as a connecting link between the prophet's postulated Book of Abraham revelations and the Egyptian papyri. This disingenuous theory allows the Encyclopedia of Mormonism to conclude that,

it was principally divine revelation rather than his [Joseph Smith's] knowledge of languages that produced the English text of the book of Abraham. His precise methodology remains unknown.32

However, the"Catalyst" theory is fatally flawed in requiring us to believe that God would associate His sacred truth with a document consisting of prayers to pagan Egyptian gods, and ripe with occultism. As was noted earlier in connection with the "Any Egyptian Connection" theory (pp. 119,120), it is inconceivable, given God's holy character as revealed throughout the Bible, that He would associate Himself or His truth in any way with such pagan occultic documents.

Since the articles in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism were written by a committee of Brigham Young University professors working under the supervision of the University's broad of trustees and Elders Neal A. Maxwell and Dalin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (The Ensign, March 1992, p. 79), its articles on the Book of Abraham are probably as close as one can get to an official LDS Church view of the Book of Abraham.

Of course, all of this is about as far as one can get from Joseph Smith's own words as he described his experience in July 1835:

... with W. W. Phelps and Oliver Cowdery as scribes, I commenced the translation of some of the characters or hieroglyphics, and much to our joy found that one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham, another the writings of Joseph of Egypt, etc. -- a more full account of which will appear in its place as I proceed to examine or unfold them (History of the Church, Vol. 2, p. 236).

The "Nobody Really Understands Egyptian Anyway" Theory

If the first five approaches mentioned in this chapter can be referred to as "translation" theories, and the last two as "revelation" theories, then perhaps this last approach should be called a "desperation" theory. Far-fetched as it seems, this final theory has been proposed by Dr. Hugh Nibley, who apparently is its only serious proponent.

Put simply, this theory tries to portray the entire scholarly field of Egyptology as being in such a constant state of flux and reappraisal that there is no reliable standard for interpreting ancient Egyptian. It holds that practically none of the established rules of Egyptology are valid, and that no interpretation can be trusted with any degree of certainty. This assumption also lies behind the "Any Egyptian Connection" theory, is the inspiration for the "Hidden Meaning" theory, and provides the reasoning for the "Mnemonic Device" theory. It implies that since nothing can be fully understood, nothing -- especially the work done by Joseph Smith -- can justifiably be challenged. Nibley demonstrates this attitude in his 1975 book, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment, where, after providing his own translation of the large and small Sensen fragments that essentially agrees with those that have been prepared by other scholars, he declares:

To the often-asked question, 'Have the Joseph Smith Papyri been translated?' The answer is an emphatic no! What, then, is the foregoing? A mechanical transcription, no more ... What we have is a transmission rather than a translation of the text ... Though as correct and literal as we can make it, the translation in the preceding chapter is not a translation. It is nonsense (op.cit., p. 47).

Nibley proceeds to give several examples in which noted Egyptologists have, over the years, expressed legitimate professional caution about basing any interpretations upon literal translations without an understanding of the context. And yet, it is exactly this context which Nibley evidently wants to disregard. In fact, his position becomes one of insisting that no context can be correctly determined despite careful scholarship:

... translations into English are properly meant for English readers who know no other language -- the Egyptologist may be expected to read the original; what the average reader has a right to is a flawless translation here and now, and through the years various Egyptologists, by pretending that they could supply such, have beguiled the public and exploited its restless impatience with devastating effect against Joseph Smith.

The trouble is, in short, that the Egyptians just don't speak our language; every sentence of theirs from our point of view is a technical jargon, 'which,' as Santillana observes, 'can hardly be understood if it is not recognized. Nobody can interpret farther than he understands ... The most refined philological method in the hands of expert philologists will yield only childish stuff out of them, if childish stuff is expected. Technical indications which would make clear sense to a scientist [or to a Latter-day Saint! -- Nibley] go unnoticed or mistranslated ... It should be kept in mind that every translation is a mere function of the translator's expectations.' From which it would seem that no matter how well one knows one's Gardiner, or how many years one has spent in Egypt, one may still be totally excluded from the real meaning of any Egyptian text. Many scholars have known Greek better than any man alive knows Egyptian, yet to this day Greek Literature is full of texts that no scholar even pretends to understand; is Egyptian so much more obliging? (ibid., p. 48)

But, if not by scholarship, then by what means can a proper interpretation of an ancient text be determined? Only by inspiration, Dr. Nibley goes on to explain. Thus, he finishes building his case for trusting Joseph Smith, no matter how compelling the evidence is against him.

Though Dr. Nibley frequently quotes from recognized authorities in order to give the appearance that his conclusions regarding the Book of Abraham are supportable, he actually stands virtually alone in his position. Even Professor Richard A. Parker of Brown University, who had provided Nibley with one of the first translations of the Sensen text and whom Nibley once described as "the best man in America for this particular period and style of writing,"33 stated emphatically:

The ancient Egyptian language can be called completely decipherable. There are some words in the vocabulary whose specific meaning is still undetermined, but there are very few whose general meaning remains uncertain. We can read almost any text with a high degree of confidence.34

In spite of his professional isolation, Dr. Nibley has continued to develop and maintain his "Nobody Really Understands Egyptian Anyway" theory. Useful at first for obscuring the meaning of the Sensen text, and later helpful in attempting to reconstruct Egyptian mythology so that it resembled (as much as possible) Mormon doctrine, it has since become almost indispensable in rationalizing Joseph Smith's association of standard Egyptian funerary drawings with the history and religion of Abraham.

Part 1   Part 2    Part 3    Part 4    Part 5    Part 6    Part 7    Part 8