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IX. Joseph the Seer

How did Joseph Smith and his associates create a translation that shows knowledge of a grammar that presumes the existence of the translation? Given what we know of the documents and the timeline for the translation of the Book of Abraham, the only way to solve the chicken-and-egg problem is this:

Joseph Smith did not need the GAEL to translate Abraham. We know this because he translated Abraham 1:1-3 first, before work on the alphabets or the GAEL had started.

Prior posts in this series:

Joseph Smith was able to translate these verses because he had recourse to the same revelatory method that he had previously used. Continuities between the translation of the Book of Mormon and his work with the papyri include an initial phase of transcribing characters; the translation of a single character by multiple lines of text (as described in a late reminiscence of David Whitmer); the graphical similarity of certain characters between the “Caractors” document, the “Specimen of Pure Language,” and the GAEL; and, as I have argued, the five-degree system of expansion, at least with regard to the latter two.[1] I don’t expect that Joseph Smith’s revelatory method remained static during this time, and it likely developed further between his initial work with the papyri, his resumption of translation in fall 1835, and his completion of the Book of Abraham translation in 1842. The 1835 “Specimen of Pure Language” associates changes in degree to graphical changes in each sign, for example, but the GAEL does not.

Comparison of the GAEL and “Specimen of Pure Language” (May 1835), showing the five-degree expansion (from “ainges” to “ah”)

An implication of this is that the GAEL was not created as a translation aid. It is instead something far more extraordinary: an explanation of Joseph Smith’s revelatory method for approaching ancient texts informed or authored by Joseph Smith himself.

As we have seen, the GAEL presents – partially and not entirely consistently – its own approach to the visual perception of characters; the association of visual symbols with sound and meaning; the variation and ordering of linguistic elements; and the interpretation of meaning at the level of words, sentences, and more complicated utterances. That is to say: The GAEL repurposes the entire neurological basis of language and reading, from the lowest-level processes to those of the highest order, as a method for receiving revelation. (This is not a theological claim, but a matter of historical description.) The GAEL offers a limited window into how Joseph Smith was able to look at characters and perceive sounds and words and sentences that no one else could. Opinions differ on whether the source of those sentences was divine revelation, the channeling of cultural archetypes, or creative invention, but even a flint-hearted atheist has to acknowledge that Joseph Smith truly deserved the title of seer.

The consternation about the amount of English text corresponding to one character is understandable and needs some comment, because it has some bearing on how we understand the GAEL as a description of a revelatory method. Think of the visually similar letters of our alphabet <b>, <p>, and <d>. The slight differences between them are enough to encode slight differences in sound: <b> is a voiced bilabial stop, while <p> is an unvoiced bilabial stop, and <d> is a voiced alveolar stop. The minute or even non-existent visual differences between GAEL characters such as Beth, Bethka and Zubzooloan, however, would seem to encode not just minor phonetic differences, but expansive semantic definitions. (I’ve noted similar issues with the “Caractors” document.)

Comparison of 3 GAEL characters

In the history of prophecy, there is some precedent for expansive interpretation of simple linguistic units: A disciple of Martin Stainbach, a mid-sixteenth century prophet in Strasbourg, reported that Stainbach had taught that the Father, Son and Holy Ghost resided in the word da, which was also the location of the eternal light.[2] But what the GAEL suggests is something far more detailed and multifaceted. How could such an approach be possible?

I think it worked like this. As Joseph Smith perceived a complex character or character sequence, his eye dissected it into a series of simpler characters; he connected each character to sounds and words or phrases, some of which are recorded in the GAEL; and the words or phrases were combined and expanded into sentences or longer units according to principles like those noted in the GAEL. In other words, he went through all the mental processes of reading. But there were important differences: the processes were not those of English, but those outlined in the GAEL (and likely other processes not explicitly noted there); and much of the informational content was not encoded in the character itself. At each step, Joseph Smith had to consciously or unconsciously decide how to perceive a character, choose one of multiple possible sounds to associate with it, select one or more of the multiple potential meanings to connect its elements with, and choose which of the GAEL’s rules would apply. It’s unlikely that anyone else would or could interpret a character as Joseph Smith did, and it seems likely that an episode of translation was not a repeatable process.

Much of the content had to come from some other source. It’s as if the hieratic characters provided Joseph Smith with something like a set of musical staves, a time and key signature, a note here or there and some dynamics markings. The only way a performance can succeed is if the characters are used as a mnemonic, if the performer is improvising, or if the missing information is supplied from elsewhere. In the case of Joseph Smith, there are ardent supporters of all three possibilities. For now, I will only note that the neurological mechanisms of reading, as our eyes scan lines of text forward and back for meaning and relationship while our minds reconstruct the voices of speakers far removed in space and time, extrapolating sentence structure and semantic possibilities as we go, would be an excellent approach to all three options. Joseph Smith took ancient characters and ran them through his linguistic revelatory process, read them – from the most basic level of visual perception and phonetic rendering on up – and recorded the text thus revealed as he did so. At least in the case of the Book of Abraham, Joseph Smith did not seek revelation in order to translate, but translated in order to receive revelation.

The production of the Book of Abraham was linguistic, because it was tied to the interpretation of particular characters from the papyri, rather than pictographic speculation or visionary observation; it was a translation, because it rendered the hieratic characters into English, although not through the route of ancient Egyptian grammar; and it was revelatory, because at every level, from the visual interpretation of characters to the expansion of words into narrative, more information had to be supplied than was available in the characters alone.

That is why, as Sam Brown has said, “That these documents are not Egyptian according to any standard linguistic metric is beside the point.”[3] The GAEL was a multilingual undertaking, as we have seen, drawing on Greek and Hebrew and seemingly influenced by contemporary discussions of Native American languages and perhaps Chinese, and in some ways incorporating and in other ways consciously distancing itself from what was known about Egyptian at the time. The intent was not to uncover the mysterious wisdom of Egypt or even to recover the lost Adamic language, but to bring the Egyptian records within the scope of an already existing program of revelatory interpretation.

That the Book of Abraham doesn’t correspond linguistically to the Book of Breathings is also beside the point because the papyrus was not the immediate source text of the translation. The first step in Joseph Smith’s work with the papyrus was to transform it into something else, something other than the hieratic text of the Book of Breathings. The characters located in the left margin of the 1835 Abraham manuscripts correspond to four lines of hieratic characters on the papyri, but are not identical to them. Where the papyrus had been damaged, new characters and characters from elsewhere on the papyrus were called on to fill in the gaps. Such is the case with Zakioan-hiash, Ahbrahoam and Kiahbrahoam-Kiahbrahoam-Zubzooloan. That is to say: The three characters on which Abraham 1:1-3 and the bulk of the GAEL’s grammatical lectures were based do not appear in sequence on the papyri. Even at the basic physical level, the source text of Abraham 1:1-3 was something that only Joseph Smith could see.

Location on papyrus fragment corresponding to Abr. 1:1-3

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What I think this means is that the Egyptian text represented by the hieratic characters is not directly relevant to the Book of Abraham. The characters were translated according to different rules as part of a revelatory process. Objecting to the Book of Abraham because the hieratic characters it was based on mean something else in Egyptian is like complaining that Babylonian astrology was based on a false understanding of planetary movements and so the wise men were led to the wrong infant in Bethlehem, or that Joseph’s interpretations of Pharaoh’s dreams were wrong because they have been superseded by Freudian analysis, or that Peter’s wrist technique was faulty when the apostles cast for lots to select a replacement for Judas Iscariot. God – and by mentioning him, we’ve now reached the point where we have to talk about the religious implications of all this – certainly seems to be willing to make his will known by means of all kinds of revelatory methods (and I would argue that Joseph Smith’s method was much superior to casting lots, interpreting dreams or following stars). The revelation is not in the material source – in the lots or the dreams or the stars, or even in the hieratic characters – or in the interpretive method, but in the interpreter’s susceptibility to inspiration. If you believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet, there’s no need for the Book of Abraham to cause you to doubt; if you already have your doubts, there’s no need for the Book of Abraham to increase them. Each of us also has our own choices to make in how we interpret the meaning of these hieratic characters.

It would be fair to say that putting grammar back in the GAEL means taking much of the Egyptian out. A better name for the GAEL might be the “Bound Grammar,” the term used by Vogel. Without an Egyptian source text to work with, there isn’t much for the discipline of Egyptology to say about the Book of Abraham. And yet I think there’s still value in ancient studies and the apologetic work done by John Gee and others associated with the Interpreter Foundation. The numerous eerie parallels between the Book of Abraham and various traditions about Abraham attested in Antiquity and the Middle Ages but published only since the nineteenth century may not prove that the Book of Abraham is a word-for-word translation of an ancient text, but they show that the Book of Abraham resonates with other ideas and documents down through history, and they invite us to approach the scriptural text as something more than a mere product of the nineteenth century.



[1] Christopher C. Smith, “The Dependence of Abraham 1:1–3 on the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar,” The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 29 (2009): 44–45, also recognizes a number of continuities. Givens and Hauglid, The Pearl of Greatest Price, 200–201, find numerous differences between the translation process used for the Book of Mormon and that of the Book of Abraham and question whether Abraham was intended for canonization. John S. Thompson, “‘We May Not Understand Our Words’: The Book of Abraham and the Concept of Translation in The Pearl of Greatest Price,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-Day Saint Faith and Scholarship 41 (2020): 41–42 effectively refutes their claim.

[2] Reinhard Lutz, Verzaichnus und kurtzer begriff der Kätzerischen und verdampten Leer Martin Steinbachs des verfl?chten Gotslesterers und was seine z?hörer und Jünger die sich nennen Liechtseher unnd Erleuchte glauben und halten (Strasbourg: Müller, Christian d. Ä., 1566), 8. On Steinbach and his Lichtseher movement, see John D. Derksen, From Radicals to Survivors: Strasbourg’s Religious Nonconformists Over Two Generations, 1525-1570 (’T Goy-Houten: Hes and de Graaf, 2002), 144–50.

[3] Samuel Brown, “Joseph (Smith) in Egypt: Babel, Hieroglyphs, and the Pure Language of Eden,” Church History 78, no. 1 (March 2009): 30.

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