Five things to know about MacKay and Belnap’s “Pure Language Project”

First and foremost: “The Pure Language Project” in the current volume of the Journal of Mormon History is the best explanation to date of the significance of the documents relating to the Egyptian papyri (referred to collectively as the “Egyptian Language Documents,” or ELD for short) for the development of Church doctrine and Joseph Smith’s understanding of the cosmos. Michael MacKay and Daniel Belnap show that these documents were deeply connected to an effort to develop a language capable of expressing the “cosmic scope of the newly restored gospel” (2) as it related to “ontology, priesthood, cosmic spatiality, and the economy of God” (24). The authors argue that the “pure language project” was specifically an attempt to escape from the dilemma, stated at the end of Doctrine and Covenants Section 76, that it was impossible for mortals to speak, write or convey the “mysteries of God,” with additional connections to the doctrinally momentous Section 88.

The ELD bear on core doctrine, not trivia, and are an essential part of what makes us distinct as Christians. It is neither desirable nor possible to brush them away as ‘Mormonism’s Voynich manuscript.’

Second: MacKay and Belnap’s article builds on and then extends beyond a strong body of recent research on Joseph Smith’s encounter with the Egyptian papyri and his search for a “pure language.” They make a number of important observations. Critically, for Joseph Smith, finding the “pure language” was not an attempt to recover the lost language of Eden, but to create in the present an “entirely new system of communication, one that was to be used to explain the economy of God” (13), and which could include words from English or other languages. This undertaking preceded the encounter with the papyri by several years, and MacKay and Belnap identify continuities reaching as far back as 1827 and the “Caractors” document preserving engravings from the gold plates.

The continuity between the “Caractors” document, the “pure language” fragments and the ELD is one of several places where MacKay and Belnap’s article agrees with observations I’ve made in prior posts. Their insights are entirely independent, of course – it’s clear that this article has been in the works for some time. Looking at previous and recent publications, it’s clear that this body of research has been leading up to something big, and I’m excited to learn that it can be expected in print next year.

Third: The authors make a compelling argument that the Egyptian alphabets, the Grammar and Alphabet, and the 1835 Book of Abraham manuscripts were not translation documents. They reject the common interpretation that the ELD reflect an attempt to provide character-by-character renderings of an Egyptian hieratic text into English. The authors state: “When it comes to translation as an academic practice of finding equivalencies between languages, there is no translation in the Abrahamic manuscripts” (41-42). The marginal characters keyed to English text in the Abraham manuscripts include characters taken both from the papyri and from prior documented specimens of “pure language,” while the Egyptian alphabets primarily gloss non-Egyptian characters. They make a strong case that the ELD instead incorporated Egyptian characters into an already existing “pure language project” (22, 43).

Fourth: The translation of the Book of Abraham is turning into a conundrum, including for MacKay and Belnap. If the ELD are not translation documents, that leaves the translation of Abraham without any documentary basis, although there are numerous journal entries and other historical records of translation work taking place in 1835 and later. That’s not to say that there’s no textual relationship between the ELD and the English text of Abraham – on this point, MacKay and Belnap’s article adds a couple more important pieces to the puzzle. But the ELD don’t look like working papers produced while creating the English equivalent of Egyptian characters from the papyri. MacKay and Belnap advance the possibility of a non-extant Book of Abraham text that preceded acquisition of the papyri (17, 34). But combined with the prevailing view that Joseph Smith didn’t use the characters on the gold plates in his translation, the elimination of the ELD as translation documents leaves us in the awkward situation of seeing Joseph Smith and his associates as intensely focused on ancient characters on one hand, and not using them in translation on the other. (My suggestion is that the characters were in fact used in translating both the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham.)

Fifth: I don’t know what the answer to the problem of scholarly publishing is, but we’ve got to find something better than walling off the products of research from public view. I trumpeted the idea that the Grammar and Alphabet reflects a post-Champollion understanding of Egyptian earlier this year, and only now see that MacKay anticipated that in an article published in Dialogue in 2021. Part of the answer is for scholars to meet the public where they are, as MacKay and Belnap have done over at From the Desk. It’s important to read the article, too – but even with access to JSTOR at a state flagship university, I don’t have access to the most recent three years of the Journal of Mormon History.

4 comments for “Five things to know about MacKay and Belnap’s “Pure Language Project”

  1. I left this comment at the “From the Desk” site:

    Perhaps they’ll answer this question in their forthcoming book–but I’m wondering if there was a charismatic element to the project. That is, did those working on the project believe that one had to acquire an interpretive power of sorts–from the spirit–in order to comprehend the language in its various degrees of expression?

    If so, it seems to me–as it relates to latter-day saint temple theology–that among the many wondrous things we receive in holy places is a ritual manifestation of the powers that we may obtain (by degrees) in order to comprehend the pure language – the tongue of angels, if you will – by which all things pertaining to the Lord’s Kingdom may be comprehended and expressed.

  2. Science researchers are starting to publish more and more preprint versions of their articles at bio archive and other sites that are free to access. Publishing fees are getting crazy high. I am sure there is a similar way to publish and access this kind of work as well.

    Regarding the “pure language” they were attempting to recreate. I kind of get it from a theological point of view, but the actual field of linguistics has a much more interesting and fascinating approach to understanding the evolution and origins of language that is supported by analysis of current and ancient language families. Their translation of Egyptian was just bad and their theories about Adamic are even worse. Not evidence that they had really any inspiration around the actual languages or their translation.

  3. I do think there’s a fun “Voynich manuscript” comparison to the KEP in that both seem to provide an inexhaustible and amusing puzzle for the historian/codebreaking/linguistic types. For both it’s not a simply a matter of breaking a code but of trying to suss out intentions behind the code.

  4. Brian: You’ve to to read the post, the interview, or the article – MacKay and Belnap argue that Joseph Smith wasn’t attempting to recreate an Adamic language, or to translate Egyptian. (And nearly all historical linguistic theories that try to push past a time depth of ~15000 years are nearly entirely speculative in any case. The signal gets lost in the static.) I do agree that a preprint system would solve a lot of problems.

    Stephen: I think the comparison with the Voynich manuscript is pretty apt in a lot of ways (which is why I stole the phrase from you), especially looking at some previous work on these documents. I just think we’re now actually making some progress beyond that stage.

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