I. Putting the grammar back in GAEL

Scholars from seemingly every corner of Mormon Studies agree: While working on the Egyptian papyri, Joseph Smith and his associates were either unaware of Champollion’s recent work to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics, ­or simply unaffected by the recent advances in Egyptology. Not only is this position untenable, it’s demonstrably incorrect. The influence of Champollion’s discoveries are directly observable in the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language (GAEL), one of the most important documents to come out of Joseph Smith’s work with the papyri (sometimes referred to collectively as the KEP, the Kirtland Egyptian Papers), second only to the Book of Abraham itself. And Champollion’s influence isn’t the only thing that’s been overlooked, with important implications for how we understand the translation of the papyri.

(If you’re not familiar with the GAEL, please take a moment to catch up, or the rest of this isn’t going to make much sense. The best overview of the documents, the issues and the stakes that’s easily accessible is Brian Hauglid’s 2015 chapter. You should also take a look at the GAEL online at the Joseph Smith Papers.)

That Joseph Smith and his associates weren’t influenced by Champollion is perhaps the one thing that both John Gee and Dan Vogel agree on. Gee: “Joseph Smith was not in the tradition of Champollion to which Egyptology today belongs. Any knowledge he may have had did not come from that source, and indeed, everyone is in agreement about that.”[1] And Vogel: “At the time Smith worked on his ‘Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language,’ he does not appear to be aware of the significance of François Champollion’s contribution to Egyptology, as was the case for most Americans.”[2]

Or as Brian Hauglid has recently noted: “From the perspective of modern Egyptology, the Egyptian alphabet and grammar documents produced by Smith and his assistants in 1835 bear no evidence of an accurate understanding of the Egyptian language.”[3]

Another way this is frequently expressed is to place Joseph Smith in the pre-Champollion tradition, or in the tradition of Athanasius Kircher’s 1652–54 Oedipus Aegyptiacus. Sam Brown’s work has been broadly influential in this regard.

Though Jean-Francois Champollion (1790–1832) had deciphered the Rosetta stone by 1822, culture changed slowly, and the mystique of those inscrutable pictograms persisted—if increasingly metaphorically—inspiring the literati of the American Renaissance, Emerson and his Transcendentalist peers, and a host of other observers. Champollion’s phonetic Egyptian was slow to find traction because hieroglyphs had so long been understood to function as secret pictographic codes rather than an alphabetic system. Though often attributed to the German Jesuit Johannes Kircher (1602-1680), by the nineteenth century this belief had moved well beyond the esoteric literature from which it sprang. […]

Central to the mystique of hieroglyphs was their pictographic nature. As no phonetic language could, these signs represented actual objects in Nature. Understanding hieroglyphs as pictographic ciphers for the mysteries of human origin and religion provides the most immediate context for understanding Phelps’s and Smith’s Egyptian grammar project. The [Kirtland Egyptian Papers] nearly overflow with creative pictographic interpretations of Egyptian characters. […]

The hieroglyphic hermeneutic is critical to comprehending what Phelps and Smith understood of their Egyptian project and points to the mystical correspondence that supported the harmonies Smith sought.[4]

Or as Richard Bushman summarized: “If we follow Samuel Brown’s analysis, Joseph Smith and William W. Phelps stood with Emerson and Reed in the symbolic school of Egyptian interpretation.”[5] Terryl Givens’ and Brian Hauglid’s chapter on Abraham in their recent book takes the same approach: “We cannot begin to comprehend the motive and mechanics behind Smith’s production of the Book of Abraham if we do not see his work in the context of a linguistic mystery that was in his day still more enshrouded in the high romance of ancient religion and priestly powers than in the scholarly efforts of academicians and royal institutes.” In the section “The Hieroglyph before Champollion,” they state: “Smith or those working to assemble the grammar and alphabet appear to have been operating within the existing cultural assumptions of the time about how hieroglyphs concisely embedded substantial discursive meaning.”[6]

In the introduction to the GAEL for the Joseph Smith Papers, Robin Jensen and Brian Hauglid also note the lack of influence from Champollion in these terms: “Indeed, in America in the 1830s and 1840s, Champollion’s findings were available only to a small group of scholars who either read them in French or gleaned them from a limited number of English translations or summaries. There is no evidence that Joseph Smith or his associates had read contemporary works of French or English Egyptological scholarship, but they nevertheless seemed to approach the papyri with many assumptions that were espoused by scholars who wrote before Champollion.”[7]

Only Jeff Lindsay has seriously questioned this idea, pointing out that Champollion and his work on deciphering hieroglyphics were too well known in the United States for Joseph Smith and his associates to have been entirely unaware of them, conceding only that “Of course, the technical details of Champollion’s work were not widely known.”[8]

To add another source documenting widespread awareness of Champollion’s accomplishment to the ones provided by Lindsay, here’s an excerpt of anonymous verse that appeared on the first page of The Friend, a Quaker devotional and literary magazine published in Philadelphia in 1830:

Ill-fated clime! as turns the mournful eye
O’er the sad wrecks of glory long gone by,
How oft will memory former days recall,
When science flourish’d in the lordly hall,
When learning and the arts in union bland,
Shed their full lustre o’er thy happy land.
Their proud memorials still in strength sublime
Glow in bright contrast with thy darker time:—
Still tell of former greatness—yet in vain!
On ears unheeding swells the solemn strain;
Dim o’er their treasures hangs the veil of night.
Till, lo! Champollion comes, and all is light.
The tombs their mystic secrets see revealed,
Their sacred records the papyri yield;
Temple and palace, obelisk and fane,
Proclaim the wonders of their ancient reign.
Tell they not now of Egypt’s early time?
Speak they not loud Jehovah’s power sublime?
How, loved of Heaven, the patriarch Abraham came?[9]

My brothers and sisters in Mormon Studies, if American devotional verse published in 1830 treats Champollion as a household name and his decipherment of hieroglyphics as a well-known event, it’s untenable to think that Joseph Smith didn’t know about it in 1835. Which forces us to ask the question: What were Joseph Smith and his associates thinking by creating a grammar and alphabet for what would seem to be a language already well on its way to decipherment? We’ll eventually come back to that question.

* * *

I’ll need to break this up into several parts, but I can sketch out where we’re going. Without making any supernatural assumptions, we can determine what Joseph Smith knew about Champollion and see its influence in the GAEL. There are a few things that have been overlooked about the GAEL, including by the JSPP editors. And Champollion isn’t the only influence on the GAEL that’s been overlooked. To understand the GAEL, though, we have to take its grammatical explanations seriously rather than treat them as nonsensical verbiage.

Of course, there are also religious implications that will eventually come up for discussion, and I can summarize them as well. I’m convinced that the Book of Abraham is revealed scripture containing vital and essential truth. There are real limits on what Egyptology can tell us about the Book of Abraham, although there are still reasons to pursue various lines of research on the ancient world. I continue to think the Book of Abraham can fairly be described as a translation, and with a somewhat narrower definition of the term than I’ve previously argued for.

If you’re looking for an opportunity to make rude comments about Joseph Smith, the Book of Abraham, John Gee or Dan Vogel, or the church, this is not the place for you.

[1] John Gee, “Joseph Smith and Ancient Egypt,” in Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith and the Ancient World, ed. Lincoln H. Blumell, Matthew J. Grey, and Andrew H. Hedges (Provo: Religious Studies Center, 2015), 443.

[2] Dan Vogel, Book of Abraham Apologetics: A Review and Critique (Signature Books, 2021), 6.

[3] Brian M. Hauglid, “‘Translating an Alphabet to the Book of Abraham’: Joseph Smith’s Study of the Egyptian Language and His Translation of the Book of Abraham,” in Producing Ancient Scripture: Joseph Smith’s Translation Projects in the Development of Mormon Christianity, ed. Brian M. Hauglid, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Michael Hubbard MacKay (University of Utah Press, 2020), 364 n. 3.

[4] Samuel Brown, “Joseph (Smith) in Egypt: Babel, Hieroglyphs, and the Pure Language of Eden,” Church History 78, no. 1 (March 2009): 44, 45, 50.

[5] Richard L. Bushman, “Joseph Smith’s Place in the Study of Antiquity in Antebellum America,” in Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith and the Ancient World, ed. Lincoln H. Blumell, Matthew J. Grey, and Andrew H. Hedges (Provo: Religious Studies Center, 2015), 18.

[6] Terryl Givens and Brian Hauglid, The Pearl of Greatest Price: Mormonism’s Most Controversial Scripture (Oxford University Press, 2019), 181, 188.

[7] Robin Scott Jensen and Brian M. Hauglid, eds., Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts, The Joseph Smith Papers. Revelations and Translations 4 (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2018), xvii.

[8] Jeff Lindsay, “A Precious Resource with Some Gaps,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-Day Saint Faith and Scholarship 33 (July 19, 2019): 76–86.

[9] “Land of the Nile! How Sad Thy Slow Decay—,” The Friend: A Religious and Literary Journal, December 11, 1830, 1.

5 comments for “I. Putting the grammar back in GAEL

  1. As someone who has long been disinclined to take the Book of Abraham seriously for a variety of theological and historical reasons, but who takes your work and intelligence quite seriously indeed, I am looking forward to yet another fine series here, Jonathan. Bring it on!

  2. “To understand the GAEL, though, we have to take its grammatical explanations seriously rather than treat them as nonsensical verbiage.”

    You’ve got my attention. I’m looking forward to your next installment.

  3. Russell, sorry, your comment got trapped in the spam filter. Theology and history may be someone else’s department, but linguistically, Abraham is as good as it gets.

  4. “Russell, sorry, your comment got trapped in the spam filter. Theology and history may be someone else’s department, but linguistically, Abraham is as good as it gets.”


    This is the kind of content I read Times and Seasons for.

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