VIII. Catalyst theories of revelation

The previous posts have put us in the vicinity of catalyst theories of revelation, but none of the formulations that I’ve seen are adequate for describing the Book of Abraham translation, and I think “catalyst” is the wrong chemical metaphor.

If you’re wondering how we got here, here are the prior posts in this series.

In the essay “Book of Abraham Translation” under Church History Topics, the “catalyst” approach is formulated as follows:

Joseph’s study of the papyri may have led to a revelation about key events and teachings in the life of Abraham, much as he had earlier received a revelation about the life of Moses while studying the Bible. This view assumes a broader definition of the words translator and translation. According to this view, Joseph’s translation was not a literal rendering of the papyri, as a conventional translation would be. Rather, the physical artifacts provided an occasion for meditation, reflection, and revelation. They catalyzed a process whereby God gave to Joseph Smith a revelation about the life of Abraham, even if that revelation did not directly correlate to the characters on the papyri.[1]

But the revelation does directly correlate to characters on the papyri, just not to the Egyptian text. And the process does not seem to have involved meditation and reflection followed by a vision concerning Abraham, but rather grammatical and linguistic work that yielded a text. The papyri were not a catalyst enabling revelation by their mere presence, but a constituent of the reaction, like rocket fuel awaiting an oxidizer.

Terryl Givens and Brian Hauglid’s 2019 Pearl of Greatest Price offers perhaps the most sustained effort to examine what a broader definition of translation might look like as it relates to the Book of Abraham. They describe four approaches, including the “cultural valence associated with the notion of the hieroglyph”; “the practice of bricolage (in Lévi-Strauss’s sense)”; the “specific claim about translation championed in Friedrich Schleiermacher’s work”; and the “destabilizations and reconfigurations of narrative authority that emerged in the early nineteenth century.”[2] We’ll look at each of these in turn. This is going to involve a long slog through some theoretical texts and not a lot will come of it, so if you want to skip to the end, that’s okay (this one time).



As previously noted, Givens and Hauglid place Joseph Smith in the tradition of hieroglyphic interpretation prior to Champollion: “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.”[3] But if one thing is clear from the preceding posts, it is that the GAEL is not in the tradition of Athanasius Kircher. It is not a product of the early modern era of visual emblems, but of the age of linguistic signs.



Givens and Hauglid next refer to Lévi-Strauss’s concept of bricolage, a metaphor based on how a tinkerer makes use of various odds and ends. Bricolage describes the habits of “mythical thought,” which is prior to but as valid as modern scientific thinking. Lévi-Strauss contrasts the modern engineer, who subordinates each diverse task “to the availability of raw materials and tools conceived and procured for the purpose of the project” to the tinkering bricoleur:

His universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his game are always to make do with ‘whatever is at hand’, that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogeneous because what it contains bears no relation to the current project, or indeed to any particular project, but is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or to maintain it with the remains of previous constructions or destructions.[4]

And so it is also with mythical thought: “The characteristic feature of mythical thought is that it expresses itself by means of a heterogeneous repertoire which, even if extensive, is nevertheless limited. It has to use this repertoire, however, whatever the task in hand because it has nothing else at its disposal.”[5]

Hauglid and Givens see bricolage as an apt description for Joseph Smith’s repurposing illustrations in Egyptian funerary texts as an encapsulation of temple theology.[6] It likewise seems plausible at first glance to see the GAEL’s repurposing of linguistic material from multiple sources as an example of bricolage. And yet the term is in other ways a poor fit for the translation of the Book of Abraham. In Lévi-Strauss’s usage, each object the bricoleur makes use of always remains what it is:

But the possibilities always remain limited by the particular history of each piece and by those of its features which are already determined by the use for which it was originally intended or the modifications it has undergone for other purposes… The elements which the ‘bricoleur’ collects and uses are ‘pre-constrained’ like the constitutive units of myth, the possible combinations of which are restricted by the fact that they are drawn from the language where they already possess a sense which sets a limit on their freedom of manoeuvre.[7]

Givens and Hauglid see bricolage as a key to understanding Joseph Smith’s expansive creative genius: “‘Bricolage’ may be taken to describe an entire habit of mind, by which Smith conceived vast recreations of ancient worlds and cosmic structures alike.”[8] But Lévi-Strauss saw the potential of bricolage as much more constricted: “The engineer is always trying to make his way out of and go beyond the constraints imposed by a particular state of civilization while the ‘bricoleur’ by inclination or necessity always remains within them.”[9] Like many of the grand theories of the mid-twentieth century, bricolage is a concept that imperfectly fits the specific case it is being asked to describe.



Givens and Hauglid next refer to “On the Different Methods of Translation,” an 1813 lecture by the German theologian and philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), which has had a lasting impact on the field of translation studies. In their summary,

The task that challenges the translator is more than linguistic; words are but the medium for the replication of particular effects: cognitive, affective, and experiential. Efficacy of translation cannot be achieved by the simple substitution of one vocabulary for its equivalent across language. As a result of these insights, Schleiermacher concluded that the translator must choose either of two options, both of which remove any possibility of transparent mediumship in the act of translation: “either the translator leaves the writer in peace as much as possible and moves the reader toward him; or he leaves the reader in peace as much as possible and moves the writer toward him.” In other words, the translation wrenches the audience from their world to transport them into another, or the translator reformulates the author’s world in terms relevant to the audience. […]

The point of translation then is not to make God relevant but to reorient the reader in a direction to which she is unaccustomed, to coerce an uncomfortable engagement with an alien universe. […] And for Smith, that meant not defamiliarizing the wonderful or domesticating the sacred but leading the reader into new modes of perception and comprehension that would enable an initiation into eternal realms and perspectives. In practice, this could entail something as simple as the implementation of a diction borrowed from sacred discourse (the King James Version) or as complicated as reconstituting a source document into an inspired and inspiring temple text, of which the original would then appear as a pale reflection.[10]

Givens and Hauglid don’t argue that Schleiermacher’s theory of translation influenced Joseph Smith. They present Schleiermacher instead as the source of still-valid categories of analysis. While there are more recent authorities in translation studies, Schleiermacher remains part of the field’s canon, and the discipline continues to be skeptical of conventional notions of transparent translation and invisible translators.

It’s not correct that Schleiermacher saw only two options, however; he sees only two options for the true translator (and goes on to dismiss the second of them, leaving only the first). But other options that don’t rise to the demands of “true translation” are available and have their uses and might be a better fit for the Book of Abraham, such as paraphrase and imitation. About the latter, Schleiermacher writes:

Imitation, however, submits to the irrationality of languages. It concedes that producing a copy of a verbal artwork in another language that exactly corresponds in its individual parts to the individual parts of the original is impossible. Instead, in the face of the difference of languages, with which so many other differences are essentially linked, there remains no alternative but to prepare a replica, a single entity constructed from parts that notably differ from the parts of the original, which nevertheless approaches that singular entity in its effect as closely as the difference of material allows. Now such a replica is no longer the work itself. The spirit of the original language is by no means meant to be effectual and represented in it. On the contrary, much else is used to support the foreignness that the spirit of the original produced. Instead, taking into account the difference of language, of morals, of education, a work of this kind should only be the same thing as far as possible for its readers that the original accomplished for its original readers. By salvaging the sameness of effect, one surrenders the identity of the work.[11]

It’s difficult to see how rendering lines of an Egyptian funerary text into an “inspired and inspiring temple text” can be construed as leaving the “writer in peace as much as possible.” (The document that comes closest to “leading the reader toward new modes of perception” is arguably not the Book of Abraham, but the GAEL.) A stronger argument could be made that Joseph Smith’s rendering of a funerary text into a temple text created an imitation that salvaged the “sameness of effect” while surrendering the “identity of the work.” And, as the translation theorist André Lefevre noted, “Ironically, what Schleiermacher calls ‘imitation’ would correspond most closely to the ideal of literary translation accepted by the consensus of theorists nowadays.”[12]

In his 2021 Book of Abraham Apologetics, Dan Vogel consistently rejects all attempts to broaden the definition of translation, just as he rejects catalyst theories of translation.[13] To his credit, Vogel refers to the work of Lawrence Venuti, one of the most influential scholars of translation studies in recent decades; work in Mormon Studies on questions of translation has often acted as if the field of translation studies does not exist. But Vogel’s handling of Venuti is clumsy, and his choice of experts is surprising, as Venuti (like many others in translation studies) has consistently argued against the invisibility of the translator and the conventional notion of translation that Vogel demands. Vogel is very good at situating and contextualizing documents in Latter-day Saint history, but he is ill equipped to argue critical theory with Terryl Givens, and Vogel’s treatment of catalyst theories of translation remains highly superficial. Vogel’s point that Joseph Smith thought of his work with the papyri as a translation in the literal sense, as a rendition into English of Egyptian characters, is well taken, but Vogel drives the point into absurdity in his insistence that Joseph Smith understood his translation in only the “conventional and straightforward” sense and not as revelation.[14]


Narrative authority

Givens and Hauglid’s fourth suggestion is that the “rapid rise of literacy and the growth of a reading public, the plummeting costs of paper and book publishing, the proliferation of experimental and confessional literary forms, the powerful cultural work literature was suddenly called on to perform, the novelty of writing as a lucrative career, and of course the lack of robust copyright law” destabilized traditional narrative authority in the early nineteenth century so that “authentic sentiment and moral fervor, not credentials or documentary evidence, became the supreme ground of moral authority.”[15] In this intellectual context, translation could be legitimately redefined to apply to “recuperating a temple theology from the fragmentary remains of a vanished civilization,” because in so doing, “one is giving new life to that which was on the cusp of oblivion.”[16]

This variant of the catalyst theory that grounds the authority of translation in “moral fervor” seems less like a catalyst theory than a concession that Joseph Smith simply invented the Book of Abraham, and I find its theoretical basis unconvincing. In Joseph Smith’s time, print was approaching its 400th anniversary, paper had been in widespread use in Europe for even longer, and book prices had been falling and literacy rates rising for centuries. Compared to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, which saw the rise of print, the Protestant Reformation and attendant religious wars, Islamic invasion and new access to Greek science, I don’t find Givens and Hauglid’s list of intellectual upheavals highly compelling. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, just as in the nineteenth century, people debunked religious frauds and, just like today, could also be remarkably susceptible to deception. Literary examples and individual legal cases aren’t enough evidence to show that the mid-nineteenth century had given up on documentary evidence.

This variant of catalyst theory is one that Dan Vogel should nod in agreement with, but his work is tied to a rigid framework that pits undifferentiated “defenders of the Book of Abraham” and “apologists” against skeptics. In Givens and Hauglid’s final variant, Vogel sees only an attempt to evade a conventional sense of translation and fails to recognize something much like his own theory: that the Book of Abraham was Joseph Smith’s attempt to deceive his closest supporters and “promote faith in his ‘inspired pseudepigrapha.’”[17] The argument that Vogel treats most superficially of all is his own; he alludes to it in several places but never explains how Joseph Smith translating hieratic characters by referring to a grammar Smith had himself constructed with the aid of W. W. Phelps would have been at all convincing to Phelps, or why Joseph Smith would have needed to deceive Phelps in the first place.

* * *

Well, that was long and not really rewarding. If you skipped to the end, I won’t object this time.

Just as a simple matter of description, we’re still going to need something like a catalyst theory of translation, but we also need to do justice to the GAEL’s linguistic focus and to the continuity of characters from the papyri to the Egyptian alphabet manuscripts to the GAEL to the 1835 manuscripts of the Book of Abraham. None of the theories I’ve looked at here seem satisfactory, although perhaps some combination of their elements might be. Next time, I’ll try to finish off this series by explaining what I think Joseph Smith and his associates were up to and what the GAEL tells us about revelation.


[1] “Book of Abraham Translation,” n.d.,

[2] Terryl Givens and Brian Hauglid, The Pearl of Greatest Price: Mormonism’s Most Controversial Scripture (Oxford University Press, 2019), 184.

[3] Givens and Hauglid, 188.

[4] Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (University of Chicago Press, 1966), 17.

[5] Lévi-Strauss, 16–17.

[6] Givens and Hauglid, The Pearl of Greatest Price, 189.

[7] Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind, 19.

[8] Givens and Hauglid, The Pearl of Greatest Price, 193.

[9] Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind, 19–20.

[10] Givens and Hauglid, The Pearl of Greatest Price, 195–96.

[11] Friedrich Schleiermacher, “Über die verschiedenen Methoden des Übersetzens,” in Abhandlungen der philosophischen Klasse der Königlich-Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften aus den Jahren 1812?1813 (Berlin: Realschul-Buchhandlung, 1816), 151. The translation is my own.

[12] André Lefevere, Translating Literature: The German Tradition from Luther to Rosenzweig (Rodopi, 1977), 67.

[13] Dan Vogel, Book of Abraham Apologetics: A Review and Critique (Signature Books, 2021), 204–13.

[14] Vogel, 211.

[15] Givens and Hauglid, The Pearl of Greatest Price, 196–97.

[16] Givens and Hauglid, 199.

[17] Vogel, Book of Abraham Apologetics, 249.

2 comments for “VIII. Catalyst theories of revelation

  1. As I was reading this, a thought occurred to me that we have not found another copy of the Book of Abraham and just this week we found another entire “Book of the Dead” scroll. The chance of there being only one copy of Abraham, or at least finding a fragment of Abraham, would seem odd to me. I am not a fan of the catalyst theory either. What is left? To me the provenance has to be part of the equation or at least look at the difference as to how this came about vs BoM and D&C. When I contemplate the influence that Masonic beliefs had in the development of the Endowment, I personally think JS was just doing his best and what he felt was right, but over time, our church culture called it holy, revelation, etc. I dont think our view of these items, and lots of other things we “worship” were ever intended to be worshipped. Polygamy for example, those who read church history know that there is no doubt that this was believed to be the way to our greatest levels of salvation in the next life. The church doesn’t teach that at all now. Using the name Mormon was fine with the first 16 “prophets” and now the current one has an issue with it and we “worship” that as correct. Can the BoA have come about in the same way? Are we worshiping something JS never expected us to?
    Looking forward to reading what you think Johnathan.

  2. REC911, it turns out that there’s a pretty compelling argument that the median number of witnesses of any particular ancient text is 0. That is, for the couple of textual areas I’m competent in and have looked at closely (which are admittedly much more recent than anything Egyptian, but where I did have the assistance of a highly competent econometrician), there are far more texts known from 1 copy than from 2, and more from 2 than from 3, and so on. The implication that most everything is missing seems pretty plausible. So finding another copy of a very common text and having 0 copies of an otherwise unknown text is not surprising.

    I’m not really swayed by arguments that we’re doing something other than Joseph Smith did or intended, as I think the point was to be led by prophets through continuing revelation.

    As I’ll mention in the next post, I think we can identify quite a few similarities in translation method between the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham. That might not prove by itself that Joseph Smith intended the Book of Abraham as scripture, but it does significantly raise the stakes on what we do with Abraham.

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