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The Book of Mormon, a work of scripture of the Latter Day Saint movement, describes itself as having a portion originally written in reformed Egyptian characters on plates of metal or "ore" by prophets living in the Western Hemisphere from perhaps as early as the 6th century BC until as late as the 5th century AD. Joseph Smith, the movement's founder, published the Book of Mormon in 1830 as a translation of these golden plates. Scholarly reference works on languages do not, however, acknowledge the existence of either a "reformed Egyptian" language or "reformed Egyptian" script as it has been described in Mormon belief. No archaeological, linguistic, or other evidence of the use of Egyptian writing in ancient America has been discovered.
Reformed Egyptian and the Book of Mormon
The Book of Mormon uses the term "reformed Egyptian" in only one verse, Mormon 9:32, which says that "the characters which are called among us the reformed Egyptian, [were] handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech" and that "none other people knoweth our language." The book also says that its first author, Nephi, used the "learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians" (1 Nephi 1:2) to write his record which constitutes the first two books of the Book of Mormon. The abridgment that the Book of Mormon says was prepared by Mormon and Moroni nearly a thousand years later in approximately 380 AD, containing most of the balance of the book, was written in "reformed Egyptian" because it took less space than Hebrew, which Hebrew had also been altered after the people left Jerusalem.
Mormon scholars note that other scripts were developed to write Egyptian through the centuries and have hypothesized that the term "reformed Egyptian" refers to a form of Egyptian writing similar to other modified Egyptian scripts such as hieratic, a handwritten form of hieroglyphics thousands of years old by the first millennium BC, or early Demotic, a simplified derivative of hieratic, which was used in northern Egypt fifty years before the time that the Book of Mormon states that prophet-patriarch Lehi left Jerusalem for the Americas. A form of Egyptian hieratic, called Palestinian hieratic, was used in Palestine during the time frame of the Lehi departure.
Although accounts of the process differ, Smith is said to have translated the reformed Egyptian characters engraved on gold plates into English through various means, including the use of a seer stone or the Urim and Thummim, or both. Smith said when he had finished the translation, he returned the plates to the angel Moroni, and therefore they are unavailable for study.
The "Anthon Transcript"
The "Anthon Transcript" is a piece of paper on which Joseph Smith is said to have transcribed reformed Egyptian characters from the golden plates—the ancient record from which Smith claimed to have translated the Book of Mormon. A manuscript known as the "Caractors" document was previously thought to be this transcript. However, handwriting analysis has suggested that this document was written by John Whitmer, one of the Eight Witnesses. Since the actual Anthon Transcript was taken to New York in the winter of 1828, and John Whitmer was not affiliated with the Church until June 1829, the "Caractors" document cannot be the Anthon Transcript.
Smith said that when this sample was presented by Smith's colleague Martin Harris to Columbia College professor Charles Anthon, a noted classical scholar, that Anthon had attested to the characters' authenticity in writing but had then ripped up his certification after hearing that the plates had been revealed by an angel. Anthon wrote, to the contrary, that he had believed from the first that Harris was the victim of fraud.
In 1844, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints published a broadside about the Book of Mormon called "The Stick of Joseph", which reprinted some "reformed Egyptian" characters that resemble those on the "Caractors" document.
Mainstream scholarly view of reformed Egyptian
Standard language reference works contain no reference to "reformed Egyptian". No non-Mormon scholars acknowledge the existence of either a "reformed Egyptian" language or a "reformed Egyptian" script as it has been described in Mormon belief. For instance, in 1966, John A. Wilson, professor of Egyptology at the University of Chicago, wrote, "From time to time there are allegations that picture writing has been found in America . ... In no case has a professional Egyptologist been able to recognize these characters as Egyptian hieroglyphs. From our standpoint there is no such language as 'reformed Egyptian'." Anthropologist Michael D. Coe of Yale University, an expert in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican studies, has written, "Of all the peoples of the pre-Columbian New World, only the ancient Maya had a complete script." Fifteen examples of distinct writing systems have been identified in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, many from a single inscription.
Mormon studies of reformed Egyptian
Mormon studies of reformed Egyptian are necessarily limited to whatever linguistic evidence can be obtained from the text of the Book of Mormon plus the extant seven-line "Caractors" document that may be or may not be the symbols said to have been copied from the gold plates. Although some Mormons have attempted to decipher the "Caractors" document, according to Brigham Young University Egyptologist John Gee, "the corpus is not large enough to render decipherment feasible."
Terryl Givens has suggested that the characters are early examples of Egyptian symbols being used "to transliterate Hebrew words and vice versa," that Demotic is a "reformed Egyptian," and that the mixing of a Semitic language with modified Egyptian characters is demonstrated in inscriptions of ancient Syria and Palestine. Other Mormon apologists have suggested that the characters resemble those of shorthand for various languages including Hebrew, Demotic (Egyptian), Hieratic (Egyptian), Coptic (Egyptian), Mayan/Olmec, and Irish ogham ciphers. Hugh Nibley argued that a "revealed text in English" is preferable to trying to understand the original language.
Mormon scholar David Bokovoy asserts that because the word "reformed" in the Book of Mormon text is not capitalized, it should not be seen as part of the title of the language, but an adjective describing the type of Egyptian that Nephi used. "According to this definition" Bokovoy argues, "archaeologists have uncovered important examples of reformed Egyptian, including hieratic and Demotic. In addition, he references a verse in which Moroni states that the initial writing had been changed over the years:
And now, behold, we have written this record according to our knowledge, in the characters which are called among us the reformed Egyptian, being handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech . ... But the Lord knoweth the things which we have written, and also that none other people knoweth our language; and because that none other people knoweth our language, therefore he hath prepared means for the interpretation thereof.
Notes and references
- Mormon 9:32
- 1 Nephi 19:1
- Standard language references such as Peter T. Daniels and William Bright, eds., The World's Writing Systems (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996) (990 pages); David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language (Cambridge University Press, 1997); and Roger D. Woodard, ed., The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the World's Ancient Languages (Cambridge University Press, 2004) (1162 pages) contain no reference to "reformed Egyptian." "Reformed Egyptian" is also ignored in Andrew Robinson, Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World's Undeciphered Scripts (New York: McGraw Hill, 2002), although it is mentioned in Stephen Williams, Fantastic Archaeology: The Wild Side of North American Prehistory (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991).
- The prophet-historian Moroni (Mormon 9:32-34).
- According to the Book of Mormon prophet Moroni (more than a thousand years after Nephi began the record): "And if our plates had been sufficiently large we should have written in Hebrew; but the Hebrew hath been altered by us also ..."Mormon 9:33
- Hamblin, William J. (2007). "Reformed Egyptian" (PDF). FARMS Review. 19 (1). Retrieved 17 March 2017.
- Wimmer, Stephan (2008). Palastinisches Hieratisch: Die Zahl- und Sonderzeichen in der althebraischen Schrift. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz Verlag. pp. 10–55. ISBN 978-3447058629.
- Michael Morse, Smith's brother-in-law, said that he watched Smith on several occasions and said his "mode of procedure consisted in Joseph's placing the Seer Stone in the crown of a hat, then putting his face into the hat, so as to entirely cover his face." Michael Morse interview with William W. Blair, May 8, 1879, in EMD, 4: 343. Morse was clearly awed by Smith's ability to dictate as he did and called it "a strange piece of work." David Whitmer said that at one point "the plates were not before Joseph while he translated, but seem to have been removed by the custodian angel." David Whitmer Interview with the Chicago Times, August 1875, in EMD, 5: 21. Whitmer also stated that "after affixing the magical spectacles to his eyes, Smith would take the plates and translate the characters one at a time. The graven characters would appear in succession to the seer, and directly under the character, when viewed through the glasses, would be the translation in English." Chicago Tribune, 15 December 1885 in EMD, 5: 124. Isaac Hale said that while Joseph was translating, the plates were "hid in the woods.""Mormonism, Susquehanna Register and Northern Pennsylvanian 9 (May 1, 1834): 1 in EMD 4: 286–87. "No primary witness reported that Joseph used [the plates] in any way." Grant H. Palmer, An Insider's View of Mormon Origins (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), 2–5.
- "Joseph Smith Interview with Peter Bauder, October 1830" in EMD, 1: 17; "Joseph Smith Interview with Leman Copley, 1831" in EMD, 1: 24–25. Yet even after Smith had returned the plates to the angel, other early Latter Day Saints testified that an angel had also showed them the plates. Grant Palmer, An Insider's View of Mormon Origins (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), 201. In 1859, Brigham Young referred to one of these "post-return" testimonies: "Some of the witnesses of the Book of Mormon, who handled the plates and conversed with the angels of God, were afterwards left to doubt ... One of the Quorum of the Twelve, a young man full of faith and good works, prayed, and the vision of his mind was opened, and the angel of God came and laid the plates before him, and he saw and handled them, and saw the angel." Journal of Discourses, June 5, 1859, 7: 164.
- "The 'Caractors' Document: New Light on an Early Transcription of the Book of Mormon Characters, Mormon Historical Studies, vol. 14, No. 1". www.academia.edu. Retrieved 2015-12-09.
- Joseph Smith–History 1:63–65.
- See Early Mormon Documents 4:377–86.
- James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992), 57.
- Standard language references
- John A. Wilson, March 16, 1966, cited in Jerald and Sandra Tanner, The Changing World of Mormonism (Chicago: Moody Press, 1979), ch. 5. Richard A. Parker, department of Egyptology at Brown University, wrote, "No Egyptian writing has been found in this [Western] hemisphere to my knowledge". Parker to Marvin Cowan, March 22, 1966, in Jerald and Sandra Tanner The Changing World of Mormonism (Chicago: Moody Press, 1979), ch. 5. In the same letter Parker said, "I do not know of any language such as Reformed Egyptian". In 1959, Mormon archaeologist Ross T. Christensen said that "'reformed' Egyptian" is a "form of writing which we have not yet identified in the archaeological material available to us". Book of Mormon Institute, December 5, 1959, BYU, 1964 ed., p. 10, cited in Jerald and Sandra Tanner The Changing World of Mormonism (Chicago: Moody Press, 1979), ch. 5. In 1956 a request for review of the Caractors Document was made to three recognized Egyptologists, Sir Alan Gardiner, William C.. Hayes, and John A. Wilson. Gardiner replied that he saw no resemblance with "any form of Egyptian writing." Hayes stated that it might be an inaccurate copy of something in hieratic script and that "some groups look like hieratic numerals," adding that "I imagine, however, that the inscription bears a superficial resemblance to other scripts, both ancient and modern, of which I have no knowledge." Wilson gave the most detailed reply, saying that "This is not Egyptian writing, as known to the Egyptologist. It obviously is not hieroglyphic, nor the "cursive hieroglyphic" as used in the Book of the Dead. It is not Coptic, which took over Greek characters to write Egyptian. Nor does it belong to one of the cursive stages of ancient Egyptian writing: hieratic, abnormal hieratic, or demotic." https://www.academia.edu/31894670/1956_Statements_of_Egyptologists_on_the_Caractors_Document. Earlier in 1956 Hayes had provided his analysis of his assertion of hieratic numerals within the Caractors Document. https://www.academia.edu/38458222/2002_Sunstone_article_Dr._Hayes_analysis_of_Caractors_Document_characters_as_numerals;
- Michael D. Coe, Breaking the Maya Code, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1999), preface.
- Macri, Martha J. (1996). "Maya and Other Mesoamerican Scripts," in The World's Writing Systems. England: Oxford. pp. 172–182.
- Some Mormons also accept the Kirtland Egyptian papers and Frederick G. Williams note as genuine. "BYU". "100 Years". Reformed Egyptian.
- See Some Notes on the Anthon Transcript by John Gee. Various LDS Church authors have made the attempt. In the February 1942 issue of Improvement Era, Ariel L. Crowley, a Mormon attorney from Boise, Idaho, presented evidence that the "Caractors" document characters could be of Egyptian origin. See The Anthon Transcript. He discussed Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic in relation to hieratic and demotic Egyptian, the "Caractors" document characters, and Martin Harris's report that Anthon mentioned those languages when he reviewed the transcript. He also presented 194 pairs of photographs comparing characters from the Anthon Transcript with similar or identical characters in recognized Egyptian works such as the Book of the Dead and the Rosetta Stone. Stan and Polly Johnson, in the book Translating the Anthon Transcript (Parowan, Utah: Ivory Books, 1999) argue that the Anthon transcript corresponds to Ether 6:3–13 in the present Book of Mormon. However, John Gee notes that if the so-called Anthon transcript is the actual piece of paper that Martin Harris took to Charles Anthon, it is safe to assume that the characters came from the text they were then translating (the 116 missing manuscript pages, which contained a record from the time of Lehi to the time of King Benjamin). Thus, Ether should not be a logical source for the transcript's contents. See Some Notes on the Anthon Transcript by John Gee.
- Terryl L. Givens, By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002) 132–33.
- Tracking the White Salamander - Chapter 6 Part A. Utlm.org. Retrieved on 2010-12-12.
- The Anthon Affair by Jerome J. Knuijet. Thedigitalvoice.com (2000-04-15). Retrieved on 2010-12-12.
- The Anthon Transcript - SHIELDS. Shields-research.org (1969-11-13). Retrieved on 2010-12-12.
- Stubbs, Brian Darrel (1992), "Book of Mormon Language", in Ludlow, Daniel H (ed.), Encyclopedia of Mormonism, New York: Macmillan Publishing, pp. 179–181, ISBN 0-02-879602-0, OCLC 24502140
-  Archived September 27, 2010, at the Wayback Machine
- David E. Sloan (1996). "The Anthon Transcripts and the Translation of the Book of Mormon: Studying It Out in the Mind of Joseph Smith". Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. 5 (2): 57–81.
- "Some Problems Arising from Martin Harris' Visit to Professor Charles Anthon" (PDF).
- See Hugh Nibley, Since Cumorah, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1988), 149–150, and archive
- Later in E.B. Howe's Mormonism Unveiled, Anthon recalled that the characters were not hieroglyphics. See Anthon Transcript and David E. Sloan (1996). "The Anthon Transcripts and the Translation of the Book of Mormon: Studying It Out in the Mind of Joseph Smith". Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. 5 (2): 57–81.
- "Jewish and Other Semitic Texts Written in Egyptian Characters – Maxwell Institute JBMS".
- Anthon in Mormonism Unveiled, compared the characters to Mexican calendars. See "New Light: "Anthon Transcript" Writing Found?". Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. 8 (1): 68–70.
- Review of William L. Moore "Mitchill Affair" Article. Solomonspalding.com. Retrieved on 2010-12-12.
- "A revealed text in English is infinitely to be preferred to an original in a language that no one on earth could claim as his own. It frees the members and leaders of the Church as it frees the investigating world from the necessity of becoming philologists or, worse still, of having to rely on the judgment of philologists, as a prerequisite to understanding this great book. At the same time, it puts upon the modern world an obligation to study and learn, from which that world could easily plead immunity were the book in an ancient language or couched in the labored and pretentious idiom that learned men adopt when they try to decipher ancient texts." Hugh Nibley, "New Approaches to Book of Mormon Study," The Prophetic Book of Mormon (1989), 97 (link here for the specific excerpt from the book)
- "The FARMS Review 18/1 (2006)".
- Mormon 9:32, 34.
- John Gee, Some Notes on the Anthon Transcript, Mormon apologetics.
- William J. Hamblin, Reformed Egyptian, Mormon apologetics.
- Brant Gardner, Searching for Reformed Egyptian, Mormon apologetics.
- Richard G. Grant, Reformed Egyptian: 'In the Language of My Fathers', Mormon apologetics.
- Jerald and Sandra Tanner, A book excerpt critical of Book of Mormon archeology
- Martin Harris testimony in "Times and Seasons".
- Summary of skeptical material about the Anthon Transcript from Utah Lighthouse Ministries.