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 GAEL and Specimen of Pure Language

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

* * *

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.

23 comments for “IX. Joseph the Seer

  1. Thanks for your thorough work and writing on this. It is very interesting. I’m sure I don’t fully understand it all, but I have two immediate questions:
    1. Can your proposal be characterized as a fleshed-out, mechanistic description of “catalyst theory?” If not, how would you see the differences?
    2. Does your proposal require that the BoM was translated by engaging with characters on plates from start to finish? What of the rock and hat business?

  2. Thanks, Your Food.

    1. Kind of, but it’s not really fleshed out, I wouldn’t call it mechanistic (maybe “methodical”), and I don’t think catalyst is a perfect metaphor. In chemistry, catalysts just sit there (note to chemists: blah blah blah I can’t hear you I can’t hear you), but I think the hieratic characters are an important constituent that gets transformed by the translation.

    2. I don’t know about from start to finish, but I do assume much more significant engagement with the characters on the plates than a lot of people do these days – I tend to think that’s how Joseph Smith first trained his mind in the habits of reading I’m suggesting here. I don’t think using a seer stone, the Urim and Thummim and/or a hat precludes looking at the plates. The evidence that Joseph Smith didn’t use the plates isn’t great. I wrote about it here: http://archive.timesandseasons.org/2020/11/use-of-the-gold-plates-in-book-of-mormon-translation-accounts/

  3. If I understand what you’re saying here, there’s an analogy to a project I completed years ago. I translated a novella from nineteenth-century German to English, and I tried to be as true to the source text as possible. But if I had been using Joseph Smith’s translation method, I would not have converted the German story into an English version that had the same plot, characters, and textual correspondence I tried to achieve. I would have instead converted the German story into a totally unrelated (but inspired) English novella of my own that I had been cooking up in my head. But this isn’t really a good analogy, because I understand German, and I still would have been converting a novella into a novella. Perhaps instead the better analogy would be for me to convert a Hungarian cookbook into my English novella. Maybe I’m way off base, but this is how I am understanding this post.

  4. Seems to me like Joseph Smith found the Pure Language. Presumably what set the Pure Language apart and gave intelligibility was its divine origin, not the specific characters, phonetics, or grammatical rules. The language of God, therefore, is the Pure Language, in whatever shape it comes.

    So Joseph Smith looks at the papyri, sees characters and shapes forming which resemble the papyri characters but certainly are not just the papyri characters, and he interprets these.

    So Joseph Smith has basically been translating Pure Language urtexts this whole time.

  5. Hoosier: “So Joseph Smith has basically been translating Pure Language urtexts this whole time.”

    So, would you say that the pure language (or tongue of angels?) can serve as a “universal translator” of sorts?

  6. @ Jack. Yeah. I’d say that’s what it is. The Pure Language is the language of the Spirit, words spoken with divine provenance and infused with the power of God. The tongue of angels, in other words, exactly as has been described in 2 Nephi 32:2-3.

    Maybe the symbols Joseph was writing on the GAEL are a lost or Edenic or angelic script, could be. I don’t see why they would need to mean anything to anybody but Joseph though. If Jonathan is right, this is the Pure Language by which God spoke to Joseph Smith.

  7. I appreciate all you’ve written here, especially the analogy about using incorrect methodology to come to an inspired result. Reminds me of that scene in the Otherside of Heaven where Elder Groberg is reviving the boy who fell out of the tree.

    I think what bothers people is we want Joseph to be correct about everything he said. So if he said he can translate Egyptian, we want that. If he’s making up sophisticated nonsense sounding rules that have nothing to do with Egyptian, then translating something completely different than the source material he has, it’s pretty weird. The wiseman analogy is pretty apt, but we don’t have a faith built around the wisemen. Indeed, they were the catalyst for thousands of deaths and Joseph and Mary having to uproot and flee for their lives. Life is interesting stuff.

  8. Hoosier,

    I’m still trying to rap my mind around all of this–but it seems to me that perhaps the symbols themselves aren’t as important as the process they were trying to map out. Of course, it’s quite possible that the pure language as its own symbols–but even so, the fact that they were working with many symbols from various languages seems to indicate (to me) that it’s really more about how meaning and understanding are augmented when the “higher math” of the pure language is applied in the translation process of mortal languages.

  9. Bert, two different issues. One question is what makes a good translation, for which there is no single answer that everyone agrees on. Schleiermacher argued for moving readers towards the foreignness of the writer. Other people argue for achieving the same effect, no matter what you have to do to the text. And there are many other definitions.

    The other question is what’s the best analogy for what Joseph Smith was doing. I’d propose a situation like if you sat in front on a Chinese text and, after long study, decided that some characters were E’s, and others were T’s, and so on. You could eventually determine rules that allowed you to come up with an English rendition of the Chinese characters, which would have little to do with the underlying Chinese text, even as the characters played a key role in your translation.

  10. Hoosier: Others have also connected the GAEL to a search for the pure or original language. See David Golding, “‘Eternal Wisdom Engraven upon the Heavens’: Joseph Smith’s Pure Language Project,” 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), 331–62.

    I’m not certain find the “pure language” was Joseph Smith’s goal, and I doubt he thought he had found it – I think he continued to develop his revelatory method over time, and his work on the Egyptian alphabet documents suggests to me that he was working to expand the system to incorporate Egyptian, rather than simply applying a complete method to new records.

  11. Sute: I wouldn’t say Joseph Smith’s method was incorrect. It is rather unfalsifiable. His claim is that the Book of Abraham is the equivalent of a revelation that was linguistically mediated by the papyri and a system of rules described in the GAEL. But his source text wasn’t identical to the visible characters on the papyri, the rules of the GAEL are incomplete and still obscure, and we have no access at all to his experience of inspiration. So who are we to say his method was incorrect? It doesn’t tell us what the Egyptian text says, but I don’t think that information is particularly relevant. And if the mundane, non-revelatory textual equivalent of the hieratic characters was what Joseph Smith was after, there were several things he could have done even in 1835 to get closer to it than he did.

    It’s true, as you say, that this can seem weird. I think we have to be prepared for both history and revelation to be weird sometimes.

  12. Jonathan: “I’d propose a situation like if you sat in front on a Chinese text and, after long study, decided that some characters were E’s, and others were T’s, and so on. You could eventually determine rules that allowed you to come up with an English rendition of the Chinese characters, which would have little to do with the underlying Chinese text, even as the characters played a key role in your translation.”

    Even so, it seems like there’d have to be a huge amount of creative interpolation so that you don’t end up with gibberish. I guess this is the part that my small mind is not understanding very well. Where does that “creative” element come in during the process?

  13. Jack, yes, I think a huge amount of creative interpolation is required, and that’s a useful feature, as it creates lots of space for revelation. If we’re trying to describe it in purely academic terms we talk about “creativity,” but at this point we’ve moved on to talking about divinely inspired revelation.

  14. @Jonathan Green

    Fair enough. I would love to see a conversation between you and Sam Brown on this.

    I was spitballing more along the lines that the Pure Language is this sort of mentalese, a sort of symbolic language which existed more or less between Joseph and God, which Joseph at times tried to figure out grammatically and which was the medium of a lot of his revelation.

  15. Hoosier, now that you put it like that, that makes a lot of sense.

    And this is a conversation between Sam Brown and me, only I’m 2-15 years late in responding. I like Sam’s work, agreeing with some parts and disagreeing with other parts.

  16. @Jonathan Green.

    I just went back and reviewed Tim Barker’s 2020 “Translating The Book of Abraham: the Answer Under Our Heads” and I noticed something interesting. As you know, most of the characters that show up in the margins of the triple manuscripts also show up in the published version of Facsimile 2 as lacuna-filler, with annotations indicating that they had not been translated.

    The characters identified with Abraham 1:1-3 are not among them.

    So this puts me in something of a conundrum. It seems like Joseph Smith didn’t care very much about the characters in the margins of the triple manuscripts, but he did care about the GAEL (since he used it with the Kinderhook plates). So the case of the Egyptian translation grows more complicated (as if it needed to.)

  17. Part of me wonders if the theory about W.W. Phelps being the driving force behind the KEP has some merit to it. I keep coming back to the fact that Phelps offered his own idiosyncratic translations of things later in life. He had to get that confidence from some place. And Joseph Smith was open to allowing his proteges to translate (Oliver Cowdery.) What’s more likely, that Phelps decided he could just start doing it on his own, or that he got started under Joseph’s wing?

    For some reason I still think Joseph would take the GAEL seriously even if he wasn’t personally the driving force. If his friends did it, I think he would take it seriously. And it would explain why he didn’t recognize or care about the other characters from the triple manuscripts; he wasn’t involved with them.

  18. Hoosier, the seeming influence of contemporary philology does seem to suggest influence from Phelps (as the more likely consumer of that literature). What do you have in mind by Phelps’ later idiosyncratic translations?

    That being said, Joseph Smith does seem to have approved of the GAEL, as you note, and there’s also an Egyptian Alphabet manuscript in his hand. I’m not going to wade into the morass of which manuscript is authoritative, and ultimately I don’t think it matters. Joseph Smith was involved, and I don’t see how to get phonetic or semantic equivalents of Egyptian characters except with his input.

    But I think that’s okay, too. We often assume that revelation means gazing into the heavens while pure knowledge streams into one’s mind – and it certainly can happen that way! – but it’s also revelation when the prophet reasons with his friends and struggles with characters and grammar over the space of months or years.

    By “triple manuscripts,” I’m assuming you mean the 1835 Abraham manuscripts? I tend to suspect that Joseph Smith did make use of those characters (or at least some characters) in his further translations from the papyri after Abr. 1:1-3, given his prior use of the papyri and the continuities with the Book of Mormon translation. But it’s true that the argument gets harder to make – instead of one character at a time, the other characters in the margin are more complex character groups, and they’re not explicitly described in the GAEL, and I’m doubtful that we can look at them today and be confident of analyzing them as Joseph Smith would have. Interestingly, the one place where the scriptural text again seems to closely follow the GAEL, the statement that Egypt was discovered while under water, is again from a gap in the papyrus. What to do with Abr. 1:4 onward is one of those questions I set aside for the moment. I haven’t taken a close look at the verses after v. 3 yet, but it might be an insoluble problem.

  19. @Jonathan Green

    Sam Brown notes (I think in “The Translator and the Ghostwriter”) that later in life Phelps would offer his own non-academic translations of things. Reportedly a coin was brought to him in Utah and he offered a translation of it, for example. Trusting in his intuition or inspiration I suppose. Anyways, claiming the gift of translation doesn’t seem like something early Latter-day Saints (at least in the Utah church) casually did. It makes me think that Phelps started doing translations when he was with Joseph. Joseph was certainly a participant in the Egyptian Papers creation, but I’m not sure he was the driving force, especially behind the triple manuscripts.

    I am honestly pretty unconvinced that Joseph had anything to do with the triple manuscripts at this point. Joseph cared about the documentation of his revelations, as we see from his care for the Book of Mormon manuscript. And yet, in Facsimile 2 we can clearly see that Joseph Smith, at the very least, either did not recognize the characters that he supposedly translated, or didn’t care enough about them to choose…literally any other set of characters from his papyri collection. Which means either he forgot about his translation manuscripts, or he knew about them and didn’t care…which I would argue are uncharacteristic of him.

    And, given his continuing promise to allow Oliver Cowdery to translate, I think we can reasonably say that Joseph is not the only translator candidate in Kirtland and Nauvoo.

  20. That’s really interesting, Hoosier. So do you believe that it was Phelps who came up with the five degrees of translation? Or was it Joseph? And if it was the latter–I kinda wonder if it might have been for the purpose of tutoring Phelps (and other interested parties) in how to get inspired translations.

  21. @Jack

    I don’t know. Not enough evidence, in my opinion, to conclude one way or another. I think it’s premature to default to Joseph as the translator on the KEP, and I’m fairly confident that he wasn’t aware of the existence of the triple manuscripts while Facsimile 2 was being prepared for publication. This would indicate that somebody else was involved with a degree of independence. Since Phelps would later translate on his own, and Joseph Smith was at least in principle open to others translating, I think Phelps might be the origin of some of the stuff in the KEP. I couldn’t say more at this point.

  22. Hoosier, thanks for providing the reference.

    I don’t think removing Joseph Smith from involvement with Abraham, the KEP, or the 1835 Abraham manuscripts will work out as a viable theory. We have an Egyptian Alphabet manuscript in his hand, and the involvement of several of his scribes, and journal and history entries documenting his translation work with the papyri. Plus we can trace at least one still visible character from the papyri to the Egyptian Alphabets to the GAEL to the translated text, with the GAEL explaining how the process worked, so it seems hard to dismiss all that (documented) investment of time and resources as an (undocumented) experiment by Phelps.

    But I’m not entirely sure what end point you’re aiming for. Are you thinking there was one or more lost 1835 Abraham manuscripts, while the ones we have came about without Joseph Smith’s involvement in some way? Or are you thinking that the whole papyri project was Phelps’ work with Joseph Smith only tangentially involved?

    Regarding the hieratic characters that show up in the 1835 Abraham manuscripts and Facsimile 2, which are drawn from the upper 4 lines of the Book of Breathing fragment, it seems like there’s at least one more plausible explanation that doesn’t require Joseph Smith’s ignorance or negligence. It could well be that in both cases, those 4 lines of characters are being used more or less as decorative filler in place of unseen characters. For Abr. 1:1-3, the translation seems to be based on characters drawn from elsewhere on the papyri, and not in sequence; what if the translation continued like that or in a similar manner, while the characters from the 4 lines get pulled in to stand in their place in the manuscript, and then again in Facsimile 2? So their role in Facsimile 2 isn’t to be the actual characters whose meaning is unknowable, but just a graphical representation of characters.

    This is just off the top of my head and there are undoubtedly problems with it, but it seems like there are good reasons to assume that Joseph Smith was the inspired translator of ancient texts barring good evidence otherwise, and it seems like we should be looking for an explanation that causes the least amount of upheaval to what else we know about the project.`

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