“As far as we have any right to give.” A Note about Abraham Facsimile 2

The re-use of characters from JSP IX on Facsimile 2 doesn’t mean that the marginal characters in Abraham manuscripts A-C weren’t used in the translation. I think it actually makes it more likely that they were.

Before I unpack what this means, you might want to read the published version of Tim Barker’s 2020 FAIR presentation or Jeff Lindsay’s summary.

To briefly recap: There are four lines of characters from an extant papyrus fragment (known as JSP XI)…

…that are aligned with the scriptural text of Abraham 1-2 in the margin of the three Book of Abraham manuscripts.

As Barker points out, and as noted in passing in 1968 by Grant Heward and Jerald Tanner, character sequences from these same four lines were used to supplement damaged areas of the papyrus that appears in the Book of Abraham as Facsimile 2.

Barker points out that Joseph Smith identified all the places on Facsimile 2 that make use of these characters as passages that he was not authorized to translate at the present time. From this, Barker draws the conclusion that Joseph Smith “never translated JSP XI”; he sees the “Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language” and marginal characters in the Abraham manuscripts as part of a secular and experimental linguistic project primarily driven primarily by William W. Phelps. Jeff Lindsay agrees: “Here we have the words of Joseph Smith (or at least words prepared with his authorization and approval) telling us that the characters that are on this Facsimile and on book of Abraham Manuscripts A, B, and C have not yet been translated, and that Joseph had no right at that time to translate them.” That’s a legitimate reading of the documents, and it has the additional advantage of undermining a half-century (or more) of linguistic objections to the Book of Abraham. If  the source of the Book of Abraham isn’t papyrus fragment IX but some other, presumably lost papyrus, then it’s easier to maintain what we might call an “Egyptological” view of the translation process, with Joseph Smith rendering Egyptian words and sentences into English by divine aid.

Another consequence is that the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language would necessarily become nearly irrelevant to the Book of Abraham and Joseph Smith’s role as a translator. Some would welcome this, but I think what we know of the GAEL makes this all but impossible. Joseph Smith regarded the GAEL too highly, and it explains the relationship between the papyri and the scriptural text too clearly, and it fits into the rest of his translation efforts too well, for it to be neatly excluded from his prophetic work.

So I don’t find Barker’s interpretation the most likely reading. Instead, I would say that drawing characters to repair the damaged papyrus source of Facsimile 2 from the same four lines of characters that appear on in the margins of the Book of Abraham manuscripts shows quite clearly that Joseph Smith and his associates were highly interested in those four lines in particular. If the supplemented characters were meant to be merely decorative, why not pull in characters from any other lines on any other papyri? It seems to me that the most likely explanation for Joseph Smith’s particular interest in those four lines is that they were also the lines he had worked with most intensely in his translation.

I hasten to point out that I see myself as in agreement with Tim Barker and Jeff Lindsay about everything that matters. I consider the Book of Abraham to be revealed scripture given to Joseph Smith through a process that was both linguistic and prophetic, and a key scriptural foundation for important doctrines of the restored gospel.

Of course it’s reasonable to ask: Why then did Joseph Smith translate the characters from the papyrus in one instance, but declare that he had no authority to do so in another?

My answer is that the source text of Joseph Smith’s translation is not identical with its physical form. The four lines of characters from JSP XI are themselves damaged on the papyrus, and the marginal characters they correspond to in the Book of Abraham manuscripts have been supplemented with new characters. As I have previously argued, Joseph Smith began transforming the characters into something else, something not-Egyptian, from the first moment he saw them, and that was the base text he translated from. In the case of Facsimile 2, what are the characters that “ought not to be revealed at the present time”? Are they characters drawn from papyrus fragment XI? (Barker thinks so, although I disagree.) Or are they the original characters present before fragment XI was damaged? (Possibly.) Or are they something whose form and meaning were perceived by Joseph Smith acting as a seer, connected to the papyrus but not identical to it? That, I think, is most consistent with Joseph Smith’s approach to the papyri as an inspired translator.