III. What Joseph Smith Knew About Champollion

With the preliminary deliberations out of the way, it’s time for a close look at the GAEL.

Prior installments (read these, or what follows isn’t going to make much sense at all):

The GAEL is divided into two parts, and both parts are organized by “degrees” in descending order from fifth to first. We’ll be looking principally at the first part. Each of its five degrees treats the same 30-odd characters in the same, non-alphabetical order, from Beth to Zaol. The characters, their transliterations and definitions are arranged in columns. As the characters increase in degree, their definitions (with a few exceptions) tend to become more precise, extensive or expansive. Longer grammatical explanations stand at the head of the sequence of characters of degree 1, 2 and 5, and shorter ones are scattered throughout.

The GAEL begins with a grammatical lecture preceding the fifth degree. It opens with the following line (I’m normalizing the text throughout).

Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language, page 1

This is a proper name. In manuscript C of the Book of Abraham, this character is keyed to the first line of Abraham 1:1, “In the land of the Chaldeans.” It is defined in Egyptian Alphabet manuscripts B and C as “land of the Chaldeans” and “land of the Chaldees,” respectively.

If we jump to page 2 of the GAEL, we get an explanation of how this character has been graphically composed of the following jots and lines.

Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language, page 2

Each of these jots and lines is in fact a character in its own right, and the following lines explain each of them in turn.

Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language, page 2

Each of these characters has been intentionally removed from its former position compared to the Egyptian Alphabet manuscripts and placed in this new sequence. Using the JSPP’s numbering of characters, these are characters 2.15 (Beth), 1.14 (Iota), 1.18 (Zubzooloan), and 2.16 (Bethka). We can recognize a few elements, but “Beth-Iota-(*Bethka)-Zub-zool-oan-Ki-Hi-Ash” still doesn’t look much like “Za ki-oan-hi-ash.” What’s going on?

If we look farther into the GAEL, we get more clues about the internal logic of this sequence of characters. On page 20, the grammatical lecture at the start of the first degree explains that the first character “has an arbitrary sound or signification which is Beth; and also a compound sound which is Za.” Unlike when a character stands alone, the sound used in compounds is unambiguous: “In its arbitrary sound it may have more sounds than one, but cannot have more than five sounds. When it is compounded with others, it can only have one sound.”

In other words, Za is the sound of Beth when it appears as part of a compound character, like we have here. This is also how to understand Ki: It’s the sound of Iota in compound. A note on page 16 of the GAEL explains that Ash is the “compound of Zub Zool-oan,” but “Zub Zool oan when connected with Beth” – as it is here – “is called oan for the sake of brevity.”

And there we have it. We can now read all the constituent elements of character number 1 as Za (compound form of Beth) – Ki (compound form of Iota) – Oan (compound form of Zub-zool-oan when connected with Beth) – Hi (an alternate form of Beth) – Ash (compound form of Zub-zool-oan). The GAEL begins with these characters in this order because they are the ones needed to spell out zakioan-hiash, the first character used in the translation of the Book of Abraham.

What all this shows is that character 1 is not a pictogram. It’s not even an ideogram. It is a word, “zakioan-hiash,” meaning “Chaldea/land of the Chaldees,” that we have just spelled out, sound by sound, phonetically. The GAEL carefully explains where each sound comes from: The various parts of the written character have dual potential significance; they can represent words or concepts, and they can represent specific sounds as they appear in compound form within a character, but with a different phonetic realization. Chris Smith and Brian Hauglid have both noted this phonetic component of the GAEL, but didn’t recognize its implications.[1] This is what Joseph Smith and his associates accurately understood about Egyptian hieroglyphics: Much as Champollion had recently discovered about hieroglyphics, the GAEL describes a system in which characters have both a meaning and a separate phonetic realization that could be used to spell out words, with multiple characters available to draw from. The GAEL doesn’t use the same rebus principle and the duplicate characters play a somewhat different role, but the influence of Champollion’s discoveries is clearly discernible. If the phonetic component of the GAEL differs from the rebus principle of Egyptian hieroglyphics, then perhaps intentionally: the Egyptian Alphabet manuscript in Joseph Smith’s hand (C) had included a column for a letter to match each character, with the letter “a” initially drawn next to the character Ah (“The first Being, who exercises supreme power”), but the letter was later struck out.[2]

Joseph Smith’s awareness of Champollion would make it more difficult for apologists to argue that the knowledge he had of the Egyptian language must have come through revelation, if any apologist actually argued for that view (to my knowledge, none have). It represents a more significant problem for Dan Vogel, who has argued that ignorance of Champollion gave Joseph Smith free reign to invent fictive translations without fear of falsification and “freedom to imagine whatever he wished about Egyptian grammar.”[3] Again we have to ask: If Joseph Smith was aware of progress toward deciphering Egyptian (and it seems impossible that he was not), what was he doing in creating the GAEL?

The explanation of zakioan-hiash also shows that the characters in the GAEL are in general not pictograms. They are not visual depictions of natural objects whose meaning is free of the mediation of language. When Joseph Smith and his associates incorporated characters from the Egyptian papyri into the Egyptian documents, they did not treat them as pictograms whose sense was obvious to the eye. Compared to the papyri, the GAEL characters become more like conventional signs and less, not more, picture-like. The characters are not a “combinative pictography,” as Sam Brown puts it, but complex assemblages of simpler, largely arbitrary signs that are subject to various rules. They do not establish any kind of “strict correspondence of primal languages and objects in Nature, mediated through their conception of ancient pictography.”[4] The GAEL does not see the characters in terms of “one-to-one correspondence between a physical object and its representation,” but as part of a complex system in which the meaning of a sign depends on its relationships to other visual signs and where one sign can have many meanings.[5] The GAEL does not treat the characters as “mystical correspondences—abundant linguistic objects of real divine presence,” but as symbols that can be analyzed and utilized within a rational system of grammar. Other parts of Sam Brown’s research program will find considerable support here, but the pictographic aspect of his program is irreparable, at least as it relates to the Egyptian documents. “So where do the Saints belong within these modern Egyptian currents? Theirs is a complex collage of old and new,” as he states elsewhere, is a much more defensible formulation.[6]

Above all, what we see in the GAEL is clearly not the approach to hieroglyphics suggested by Athanasius Kircher in the seventeenth century. The second of Kircher’s six keys to interpreting hieroglyphs had stated, “Hieroglyphic symbols, founded on the pattern of nature, form sense not according to letters, syllables, voices, or sentences, but according to the ideal concepts of hidden mysteries.”[7] As Jeff Lindsay has asked: “Isn’t the very idea of an Egyptian alphabet contrary to the notions of Kircher?”[8] The same is even more true of a writing system that includes grammar rules, punctuation characters (“to designate one sentence from another,” page 5) and interrogative pronouns (“who, whence, etc., an interrogative pronoun through its degrees,” page 22). Once we determine that the hieroglyphic system of the GAEL has a phonetic and grammatical component, we’re within shouting distance of where Egyptology was in 1835.

* * *

One wrinkle: What about Bethka? It doesn’t seem like Bethka was necessary for spelling out zakioan-hiash, and maybe it wasn’t initially necessary for the GAEL authors, either, who had to add it in later. But it does seem to play a role in the translation (which I’ll discuss in the next post), and the GAEL authors are emphatic about adding it to the sequence; the instruction to add Bethka before Zubzooloan is made five times in the GAEL, once in each degree of the first part. Moreover, Bethka seems necessary for the grammatical completeness of zakioan-hiash. The dissected character consists of six individual marks (each one a character unto itself), and Bethka would seem necessary to reach that figure. The GAEL further states on page 1 that zakioan-hiash consists of “five connections or connecting parts.” In the grammar lecture on the first degree (page 20), we learn that Beth

is only increased or lessened in its signification by its connection with other characters. One connection with another character, gives it a compound signification, or enlarges the sentence. Two connections increases its signification still. Three increases it still. Four increases still. And five still. This is as far as a sentence can be carried in the first degree.

So for zakioan-hiash to develop its full significance, it would seem to require Beth plus five additional connections, for which Bethka would be required.

There are two basic, not mutually incompatible ways to approach Bethka’s apparent non-impact on the sound of zakioan-hiash. The first is to see Oan as some kind of a contraction – not just the compound form of Zubzooloan when connected to Beth, but a contraction of both, with Bethka presumably also qualifying for this rule. The second option is to see the grammar as an incomplete system for which not all rules are stated or fully formulated. The GAEL is a grammar that explains some important principles of the system without explaining all of them, enough to understand some important features without being able to reproduce them in all respects. It explains how a musical scale is constructed, so to speak, and the relationship of half, whole, and quarter notes, but doesn’t give us the score to the Moonlight Sonata.

* * *

Next time, we’re going to use the GAEL to understand the structure of Abraham 1:1-2a.


[1] Hauglid, “Translating an Alphabet to the Book of Abraham,” 368; Christopher C. Smith, “The Dependence of Abraham 1:1–3 on the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar,” The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 29 (2009): 49–50.

[2] Hauglid, “Translating an Alphabet to the Book of Abraham,” 368.

[3] Vogel, Book of Abraham Apologetics, ix–x, 7.

[4] Brown, “Joseph (Smith) in Egypt,” 46, 48.

[5] Brown, Joseph Smith’s Translation, 29.

[6] Brown, 230.

[7] Athanasius Kircher, Oedipus Aegyptiacus, vol. 3 (Rome: Ex Typographia Vitalis Mascardi, 1654), 4: “Hieroglyphica symbola ad exemplar naturae instituta, non literis, syllabis, vocibus, periodis, sed conceptibus Idealibus latentium mysteriorum sensus efformant.”

[8] Lindsay, “A Precious Resource with Some Gaps,” 86.

25 comments for “III. What Joseph Smith Knew About Champollion

  1. “This is as far as a sentence can be carried in the first degree.”

    This makes no sense at all to me.

    Can you help me understand just what in the world was supposed to mean by compound, significance, enlarging and degrees as used by JS?

    Just a comparison? Big, bigger, biggest, biggery, and biggeriest? That’s the 5 degrees of big, by analogy, according to this statement?

    You can’t help but feel that the paragraph I quoted that sentence from just sounds like someone totally ignorant trying to sound smart.

    Either that or its so advanced, to my dumb ears it sounds like gibberish.

  2. Sute, you have to resist the urge to think that something that doesn’t make obvious sense to you must not make any sense at all. That’s the attitude most have taken to the GAEL’s grammar explanations and it’s been a real obstacle to understanding what its creators had in mind. The GAEL presents a system of rules that is internally consistent at least in many ways, and we can see those rules operating as designed in the translation process (as we’ll see in a few upcoming posts). It takes some work to recognize what’s going on, but it’s not random words to fool the masses. The GAEL was never published, but we know that Joseph Smith consulted it at least once, so it was clearly meaningful to him.

    “Degree” is a difficult term that can refer to comparison of adjectives (as you suggest) but also to sentence complexity and other things as well. One of the best ways to get a feel for it is to compare definitions in the JSPP’s comparison of characters (https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/back/comparison-of-characters).

    “This is as far as a sentence can be carried in the first degree” means, roughly, “We can take a simple sentence and add up to five additional elements to it.” Why “in the first degree”? Does that change in other degrees? I don’t know if we have enough information to answer that.

    The terminology of the GAEL is pretty much just 19th century grammar terms. Compound = “two or more things added together.” Significance = “meaning.” Enlarging = “increasing.”

  3. I think a big question that a lot of folks will be asking vis-a-vis this approach is–was it engineered before or after the translation of the Book of Abraham? I understand that that question has been around since–forever. Even so, when I consider your “musical scale” metaphor it seems (to me) that it would be a lot easier to deconstruct a Bach Invention than to create one (of similar quality) based on the knowledge provided in the “musical” GAEL.

    Thanks for this fascinating series. You should think about getting published in another venue. Have you thought about sending it to the Interpreter Foundation or perhaps the Maxwell Institute?

  4. Jack, I’ll have more to say about the before/after question in the next post. I think most of the discussion of that question has really missed the point. As we’ll see, the GAEL is woven into the structure of Abraham, while the GAEL depends on an existing translation of Abraham for its examples.

    I don’t think my approach is a great fit for the Interpreter – they have commitments to the Book of Abraham as an ancient document, which I respect, but I’m kind of agnostic on that point. I can’t pin down where the Maxwell Institute is these days.

  5. Thanks. I’m definitely open to it being over my head. I’m terrible at grammar rules, and even worse at 200 year old rules being taught by an “uneducated ” farm boy trying to explain his idea of Egyptian grammar to the world.

    Maybe in the near future someone can feed the GAEL and BoA to an AI and ask it to make some extra sense of it.

    I am following your series with interest though as it does make some things more comprehensible.

  6. For what it’s worth the chatai couldn’t figure the GAEL out either, but that seems to be because it probably can’t figure anything out.

    “I’m sorry, but there is not enough information available about the specific rules and methodologies used by Joseph Smith in his “Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language” (GAEL). The GAEL was a creation of Joseph Smith and wasn’t widely used or accepted by scholars of Egyptology, so it is not considered a valid method for translating ancient Egyptian texts. From what is known, the GAEL was not based on the grammar or structure of the Egyptian language, but rather was an attempt to create a system that could be used to translate ancient Egyptian texts into English. It is not clear how the GAEL was supposed to work, and there are no surviving records of the system’s rules or methodology”

  7. Sute, keep in mind that none of the AIs know anything. They have no capacity to synthesize knowledge. All they’re doing is assembling words that frequently go together when people discuss particular topics in various ways. For a topic like the GAEL, the best-case scenario is a regurgitation of one part of a highly contentious and mostly wrong consensus. What’s just as likely to get spit out is something like the last sentence, which is 100% false.

  8. There is a key moment in Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen” where the main character uses all the commentaries to explain a complicated and enigmatic section of Talmud. After lengthy and complex analysis his conclusion was that the fundamentalist and kind of apologetic explanations are “pilpul” – extreme hairsplitting and that a better explanation is that the text is wrong.

    I struggled to reconcile The Book of Abraham – the text, the illustrations, the grammar with what we now know to be translations from funerary papyrus with sections of the book of the Dead that Joseph actually had.

    Your arguments are interesting and stretch far to reconcile with what we now know and what Joseph may have known about Egyptology. But in the end the simplest and best explanation is still that the translations in the text we have in both from the grammar and from the PoGP are just wrong. Joseph did not translate them correctly.

  9. @Brian: I think you’re misreading what’s being attempted here. Jonathan isn’t trying to prove the GAEL’s particular interpretations, through some fancy dancy, strained reasoning, to be correct, but rather he’s trying to uncover the methodology that was used using linguistic methods, with the point being that the GAEL isn’t just some random allotment of characters, but has some underlying structure to it. (Jonathan, hope I’m not putting words into your mouth).

  10. Pretty much, Stephen. Eventually we’ll have to address the issue Brian raises – those religious implications are still waiting out there, and they matter – but for now, we’re just trying to understand the GAEL in its own terms. It seems like we should understand it before we pass judgment on it.

  11. Brian G,

    I think the concerns you raise, while they may be legitimate, have mostly to do with the provenance of the text. Even so, whatever those arguments may be–the text itself (irrespective of its provenance) holds its own water, so to speak.

    Truth be told–I believe the Book of Abraham is absolutely wondrous. And if there’s anything truly substantial in my positive take on the book then we’re left wonder how in the world we got it–even if we can’t get all of the pieces to fit together with respect to its provenance.

  12. Let’s say that the Grammar and the Book of Abraham was written by a professor at a university instead of a founder of a religion and declared prophet. If the grammar that this person created for Egyptian symbols and text was internally somewhat logical and intricate and really cool, but wrong. Would we be analyzing it in such detail to understand the ways that the complex grammar and incomplete notes we have on it exist – knowing that it produced bad translations of Egyptian hieroglyphs?

    No, we wouldn’t.

    I am interested in the OP’s analysis because I spent 45 years as a believing member of the church. I would love to understand the grammar and logic behind it because when I read it in the Joseph smith papers it was a part of my faith crisis.

    But I think it is still hard to reconcile the text and the modern understanding of Egyptian. It is unavoidable that we have to address in the end what it means about the book of Abraham translation and religious conclusions.

    Mine are that Joseph and his compatriots in this project misunderstood what text they had and how to translate it.

  13. But maybe this series will change my mind. That is why I am here. But you can’t divorce the motivation for the exercise from the analysis of the text.

  14. I dont spend too much time wondering about the “how” it was translated or how accurate the translation is or isn’t. My focus is on;
    How we got the scrolls – from someone who wanted to sell them. Nothing miraculous or God directed.
    Why we got the scrolls – originally was for money making like the guy Chandler was doing who sold them. (museum/sell translation)
    Why we dont have divine direction asking JS to actually translate them like his other translation/revelations.
    Why it took 7 years to translate compared to the BoM. (something was different)
    Why didn’t JS canonize the translation. (maybe he died to soon?)
    Why didn’t BY canonize the translation. (he had 30 years+ to do so)
    Why didn’t JS own family use the BofA as scripture. (The group that started the RLDS. I believe they still don’t)
    Why did John Taylor canonize the PoGP the day he was made President.
    Everything is just a bit “different” on how this book came to be, and this fascinates me more than how JS translated it or if it was actual writings of Abraham.
    I personally think God let him be on this project and JS thinks he translated it. Does not make it accurate and does not affect my belief in the restored church. Maybe a lesson for JS to learn? Obviously just my opinion.

  15. Brian, if we changed the professor in your example to a poet, the answer would clearly be “Yes, we would” – John Irwin’s book “American Hieroglyphics” looks at a range of American literary figures whose ideas about hieroglyphics were all wrong. It’s still interesting to see how that encounter with Egyptian stuff influenced their writing and ideas.

    That’s not where I’m going with this, though, as interesting as that kind of a project might be. I mean, if someone is determined to look at the Book of Abraham as a mistranslation of an Egyptian text, I probably can’t convince them not to, but I think there’s pretty good evidence that Joseph Smith was up to something else and that there are better ways to understand the text. As far apart as, say, Dan Vogel and John Gee and Terryl Givens seem to be in their approaches, I think the evidence actually pushes us toward a compromise solution where everyone wins some things and loses other things.

  16. I can’t agree with any of that, REC911. Joseph Smith oversaw publication of the Book of Abraham translation in installments in Times and Seasons in 1842. It was a project he kept trying to get back to despite the many demands on his time. I don’t see any way to maintain that it wasn’t meant to be understood as the revealed writings of an ancient prophet on par with his other revelations.

    I’m suspicious of efforts to de-canonize Abraham – Givens and Hauglid’s book veers in that direction a few times. I don’t think it’s at all warranted and it’s certainly not a viable solution. Among other things, Abraham is a critical scriptural text for several important doctrines, both in terms of historical development and current teachings.

  17. Johnathan – I dont think JS overseeing the writings for the Times and Seasons publication should warrant a leap to canonized scripture and be treated as such. Some other member, cant recall his name, created a pamphlet from the Times printed overseas called the Pearl of Great Price and was selling it to members. This was printed in Utah eventually. It is as if the members treated it as scripture so John Taylor just made it happen. Does not make it scripture. Of course it could be too. Just fascinates me how the history of the doc is seldom discussed. So I guess we all should be honoring/reverencing Michael Chandler for being inspired to seek out JS. If he didn’t, we would not be having these discussions. Has anyone in mormon scholar land looked into that angle? Why are we not if we are not? If it contains important true doctrines that God wanted us to have, Chandler should have a statue somewhere in a church building!

  18. I don’t think treating canonized scripture as canonized scripture is much of a leap, actually. Nor do I think it’s much of a leap to canonize something that Joseph Smith published as his inspired translation of the writings of an ancient prophet. John Taylor was the prophet and president of the church in 1880 and in a position to receive revelation for the church, but he didn’t just make it happen – it was presented and approved at a general conference in 1880. Which does, in fact, make it scripture.

    Beyond that, there’s pretty good evidence for continuity of revelatory method from the Book of Mormon up through the work with the papyri, which is going to make it very difficult to simply brush off the Book of Abraham. It’s ours now, so we’d better figure out what to do with it.

  19. So if God wanted it canonized he forgot to tell JS and BY is your belief? No other possible explanation than revelation only comes when a president is changed….like finally we have one that is listening….I dont get that culture/belief that some members have about prophets are only doing prophet things when stuff changes. They never just do president things. Now, I get it, calling something as scripture that was not by the two prophets before you is a really big deal. It is not suspicious to you at all that JT did that on the 1st day in office?? What if the members didn’t approve it? Stays not scripture? Or does it change to scripture once the members approve it? Why does the members approval even matter if JT is a prophet? So I guess you are not buying the churches “catalyst theory” with the BoA?

    But hey, if this papyri proof discussion works for you then who am I to tell you different.

    Can the church still be true to you if the BoA is not scripture? We have de-canonized stuff before so not a stretch to do it again.

    Although I find the BoA and its origins fascinating, my testimony of the restored Gospel and JS are not tied to it. Fun to talk about it tho. Thanks for sharing your ideas and taking the time to write these articles!

  20. Come on, man, you’ve got to figure out better ways to react to disagreement than telling me I must also believe X, Y, and Z as well. Disagreement is fine. One of the important parts of this exercise is to figure out what the real points of disagreement are.

    I don’t think calling something scripture that wasn’t scripture before, or altering scripture as we go along, is a problem. An open canon is good! If Russell M. Nelson decided that we needed to canonize the Proclamation on the Family by making it an Official Declaration, lots of interesting things would happen, but there wouldn’t be anything suspicious about it and it wouldn’t mean that Presidents Hinckley and Monson didn’t think the Proclamation was important or authoritative.

    As for catalyst theories of revelation, there are some positives and some issues with current formulations. We’ll get there eventually.

  21. I appreciate your views which is why I ask you these questions. I am not trying to be right, I am trying to be educated by a different point of view than I have.

    We are in a church culture that every time our presidents lips move, it must be God. Not healthy or right IMO. I dont know what you believe. I am asking questions to see where you are coming from. I think different points of view are healthy as well. Unfortunately we dont get this opportunity to have these chats in church. Gone are the days when the majority of members believe the same way.

    Maybe its time to not worry about if the BoA is scripture or not but to figure out how members can feel welcome in church no matter what camp they are in. We have to make room for both.

    Declarations and canonizations are a BIG difference in our church. It is how we know they are speaking as men or God is speaking. That was the pattern JS used. I would personally have a hard time accepting the proclamation as “scripture” if it were canonized today. Hence my issue with the BoA canonization. :)

    I think the path of the how it came to be and then accepted as scripture is as important to the story as the GAEL/catalyst/? theory. I look forward to any other insights you may be sharing on this subject.

  22. Jonathan – I spoke with someone that has your views to help me understand your views better. I was hung up on thinking/believing that canonization means “thus sayeth the Lord to his Prophet to his people” much like JS did in the D&C. Obviously there are many things we deem “canon” that are stories and not revelations. JS story comes to mind. JFS dream comes to mind. Bible comes to mind…Not every story in the Bible is probably true, but not the point. Even tho this had nothing to do with your GAEL info, thanks for helping me see things better. Sorry for going off on a tangent but I am glad I did.

  23. In case you are not going to cover it, I would love your opinion on the catalyst theory. To me it feels like God kind of tricked JS into something, if you go with this theory. I think God has a sense of humor but this is a huge stretch for my crazy mind! If you dont want to share, no problem too!

  24. It’s coming up soon, REC911. I think the facts of the case force us in that direction, although I’m not satisfied with any of the ways that I’ve seen catalyst theories formulated.

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