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Book of Abraham/Kirtland Egyptian Papers/Background
Background and provenance of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers
Summary: The Kirtland Egyptian Papers (KEP) are a collection of documents written by various individuals, mostly dating to the Kirtland period of Church history (early- to mid-1830s), constituting some sort of study documents relating to the Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri.
Jump to Subtopic:
- Question: What criticisms are associated with the Kirtland Egyptian Papers?
- Gospel Topics on LDS.org: "Some evidence suggests that Joseph studied the characters on the Egyptian papyri and attempted to learn the Egyptian language"
- Question: What are the Kirtland Egyptian Papers?
- Question: What is the provenance of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers?
- Question: What is the publication history of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers?
- Question: What are the historical approaches that have been take in an attempt to understand the Kirtland Egyptian Papers?
Question: What criticisms are associated with the Kirtland Egyptian Papers?
The following critical claims relate to the Kirtland Egyptian Papers (KEP)
- It is asserted that the KEP were produced prior to the Book of Abraham, and that they therefore represent the "translation working papers" for Abraham 1:1-3. A chronology of events related to the production of the Book of Abraham produced by Edward Ashment is used by critics to support this claim;
- It is asserted that the KEP are intended to deal with the Egyptian language, and that they demonstrate that Joseph did not understand Egyptian;
- It is asserted that the KEP demonstrate that the Sensen Papyrus was believed to be the source for the Book of Abraham, and that since the Sensen Papyrus is in fact not the Book of Abraham but an Egyptian Book of Breathings, whatever else the Book of Abraham may be, it is not an accurate translation of an ancient Egyptian text.
- It is asserted that the purpose of the KEP was to provide a visible prop in order to convince people that Joseph could indeed translate Egyptian.
The KEP likely represents an attempt to "reverse engineer" the translation by matching Egyptian characters from the papyri to the revealed text
All of the critical claims rely on the assertion that the KEP were created before the Book of Abraham text was produced. Critics wish to portray the KEP as a set of "working papers" used in the production of the Book of Abraham. However, the evidence indicates that the KEP was produced after the Book of Abraham text was written, and that they represent a likely attempt to "reverse engineer" the translation by matching Egyptian characters from the papyri to the revealed text in an attempt to create a dictionary of the Egyptian language. This is also the position taken by the Church: "Some evidence suggests that Joseph studied the characters on the Egyptian papyri and attempted to learn the Egyptian language. His history reports that, in July 1835, he was “continually engaged in translating an alphabet to the Book of Abraham, and arranging a grammar of the Egyptian language as practiced by the ancients.” This “grammar,” as it was called, consisted of columns of hieroglyphic characters followed by English translations recorded in a large notebook by Joseph’s scribe, William W. Phelps. Another manuscript, written by Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, has Egyptian characters followed by explanations." 
Gospel Topics on LDS.org: "Some evidence suggests that Joseph studied the characters on the Egyptian papyri and attempted to learn the Egyptian language"
"Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham," Gospel Topics on LDS.org
Some evidence suggests that Joseph studied the characters on the Egyptian papyri and attempted to learn the Egyptian language. His history reports that, in July 1835, he was “continually engaged in translating an alphabet to the Book of Abraham, and arranging a grammar of the Egyptian language as practiced by the ancients.” This “grammar,” as it was called, consisted of columns of hieroglyphic characters followed by English translations recorded in a large notebook by Joseph’s scribe, William W. Phelps. Another manuscript, written by Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, has Egyptian characters followed by explanations.  —(Click here to continue)
Question: What are the Kirtland Egyptian Papers?
The Kirtland Egyptian Papers (KEP) are a collection of documents written by various individuals constituting some sort of study documents relating to the Joseph Smith Papyri
The Kirtland Egyptian Papers (KEP) are a collection of documents written by various individuals, mostly dating to the Kirtland period of Church history (early- to mid-1830s), constituting some sort of study documents relating to the Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri.
The KEP comprise 16 documents encompassing a total of about 120 pages. They are typically divided into two categories:
- so-called Egyptian alphabet and grammar documents (KEPE), and
- Book of Abraham manuscript documents (KEPA).
The following table gives a basic description of the KEP:
|Number||Date||Size||Handwriting||Title and Contents|
|KEPE 1||1836 (?)||1 volume, 31x20 cm||W.W. Phelps & Warren Parrish||"Grammar & aphabet [sic] of the Egyptian language"|
|KEPE 2||1836 (?)||2 leaves, 33x20 cm||W.W. Phelps||"Egyptian counting"|
|KEPE 3||1 October 1835 (?)||4 leaves, 32x20 cm||W.W. Phelps||"Egyptian alphabet"|
|KEPE 4||1 October 1835 (?)||9 leaves, 32x20 cm||Joseph Smith & Oliver Cowdery||"Egyptian alphabet"|
|KEPE 5||1 October 1835 (?)||4 leaves, various sizes||Oliver Cowdery||[title lost, "Egyptian alphabet" (?)]|
|KEPE 6||26 Nov. 1835 (?)||1 volume, 20x13 cm||Oliver Cowdery||"Valuable discovery of hiden [sic] records"|
|KEPE 7||1837 (?)||1 volume, 20x16 cm||Oliver Cowdery||"F.G.W." and "William"|
|KEPE 8||26 Nov. 1835 (?)||1 leaf, 32x40 cm||?||[no title]|
|KEPE 9||26 Nov. 1835 (?)||1 leaf, 39x19 cm||?||[no title]|
|KEPE 10||Mounted Feb. 1836 (?)||1 leaf, 33x20 cm||—||[no title] = Joseph Smith Papyrus (JSP) IX|
|KEPA 1||1836 (?)||10 leaves, 32x20 cm||W.W. Phelps & Warren Parrish||[no title] Abraham 1:1–2:18|
|KEPA 2||1836 (?)||4 leaves, 33x19 cm||Frederick G. Williams}||[no title] Abraham 1:4–2:6|
|KEPA 3||1836 (?)||6 leaves, 32x19 cm||Warren Parrish||[no title] Abraham 1:4–2:2|
|KEPA 4||Feb. 1842 (?)||18 leaves, 29x20 cm||Willard Richards||[no title] Abraham 1:1–3:26 (pages containing 2:19 - 3:17 missing)|
|KEPA 5||March 1842 (?)||4 leaves, various sizes||Willard Richards||[no title] Facsimile 2|
|KEPA 6||1842||Broadside 32x19 cm||—||[back has a letter to Clyde Williams & Co., signed by Joseph Smith and W.W. Phelps]|
The most extensive of these documents is KEPE 1, which is an intact bound book, containing 34 nonconsecutive pages of writing and 186 blank pages (an average of three written pages being followed by 18 to 20 blank pages).
A more extensive and more detailed summary of the KEP and their relation to the Book of Abraham was done by Pearl of Great Price Central and may be found at the link above.
Question: What is the provenance of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers?
These documents were brought west from Nauvoo and deposited in the Church Historian's office, and eventually knowledge of them was lost
An inventory of Church records to be taken west from Nauvoo, prepared by Thomas Bullock in 1846, included an entry for "Egyptian Grammar in Jennetta's Trunk." This document presumably was KEPE 1. The Jennetta spoken of was the late wife of Willard Richards, the Prophet Joseph's secretary. The Journal History of the Church under the date 17 October 1855 lists the "Egyptian Alphabet" in an inventory of items moved into a new fire proof vault. This again appears to be KEPE 1. An 1847 inventory of Church property delivered to Newel K. Whitney for transport included "A small Parchment roll of Hieroglyphics," which may have included some of the loose KEP. It is also possible that some of the other, smaller documents were brought separately to the Great Basin by W.W. Phelps.
Although these documents were brought west from Nauvoo and deposited in the Church Historian's office, they were unused and eventually knowledge of them was lost. The Egyptian Grammar was eventually rediscovered in that office by Sidney Sperry in 1935.
KEPA 1 has a separate provenance. This document was given by Emma Smith to her second husband, Lewis Bidamon, who gave it to his son, Charles Bidamon, from whom the great collector of Mormon artifacts, Wilford Wood, obtained it. Wood presented this document to the Church in 1937.
The various provenances of these documents raise the possibility that the collection we have today may not be complete, with some of the documents having been lost.
Question: What is the publication history of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers?
High resolution scans are available on the Joseph Smith Papers website
A critical text analysis of the KEP not yet been formally published, however, high resolution scans of the documents are now available on the Joseph Smith Papers website. (see "Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language, circa July–circa December 1835").
Jerald and Sandra Tanner obtained a microfilm copy of most of them and informally published them as Joseph Smith's Egyptian Alphabet & Grammar. An improved informal compilation was prepared by H. Michael Marquardt under the title The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papers in 1981. This informal edition is still available from Marquardt's website. Both of these editions are photocopies made from microfilm.
The late Steven F. Christensen, before he was murdered by Mark Hofmann, commissioned the photographing of the KEP at the LDS Church archives. From those negatives, at least four sets of color prints were made, including copies now in the possession of George D. Smith, Edward Ashment and Brent Metcalfe. Metcalfe has long indicated that he intends to formally publish the KEP, with high quality color photographs on the left side of the page and an improved transcription on the right side of the page—thus far, however no publication has appeared, or progress on the work announced.
It is also possible that the Maxwell Institute at BYU will eventually produce its own critical edition of the KEP as part of its Studies in the Book of Abraham series, although no formal announcement of such a publication has been made.
Question: What are the historical approaches that have been take in an attempt to understand the Kirtland Egyptian Papers?
Critical responses to this question do not even agree with one another
Neither side of this debate believes the GAEL was a “key” to translating the papyri. And you have no evidence that JS believed that either...What I meant was that nobody believes the GAEL was used as a translation key. My side of the debate doesn't believe anything was translated. And if JS intended it to be understood that such were the case, the GAEL would be tied closer to the translation.
Dan Vogel, Mormon Apologetics and Discussion Board, 13 Aug. 2010. off-site
Christopher C. Smith has argued at some length that Joseph Smith was the primary author of the Alphabet and Grammar documents, and that those documents served as the source or modus operandi for the translation of at least the first three verses of the Book of Abraham. According to Smith, "This undoubtedly accounts for the choppiness and redundancy of these three verses, which stylistically are very different from the remainder of the Book of Abraham. Verse 3, for example, reads as though it has been cobbled together from a series of dictionary entries."
Wikipedia entry for the Kirtland Egyptian Papers as of Aug. 14, 2010, referencing Christopher C. Smith, "The Dependence of Abraham 1:1-3 on the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar," John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 29 (2009): 38-54.
Critics note at least two evidences which demonstrate an obvious connection between some of the Kirtland Egyptian papers and the Book of Breathings scroll from the Joseph Smith Papyri (JSP). These two evidences are used by critics to prove that the existing fragments of the Scroll of Hor is the source of the Book of Abraham and that therefore Joseph was not a prophet.
- Like the Hebrews, the Egyptians read right to left. The "Scroll of Hor"-- which is the Book of Breathings scroll in the JSP collection-- begins (at the right end) with Facsimile 1 (as recorded in the Book of Abraham) followed by Egyptian characters. Some of the KEP are divided by a vertical line at the left side of the paper. About three fourths of the paper is to the right of each line. To the left of the line are Egyptian characters. These are the same characters that follow Facsimile 1 of the Book of Breathings(these would be to the left of the vignette). To the right of the vertical line (on the Kirtland papers) appear passages from the Book of Abraham. It is claimed that these passages represent Joseph Smith's attempt to perform "translations" of each of the characters on the left. It is claimed that Joseph took a single character in each case and expanded it to a full paragraph of text.
- The Book of Abraham states:
...that you may have a knowledge of this altar, I will refer you to the representation [Facsimile 1] at the commencement of this record." (Abraham 1:12-- keeping in mind that the scroll would have been read from right to left to and Facsimile 1 is virtually the first item at the right end of the scroll.)
Historical Latter-day Saint Responses
Latter-day Saint approaches to the KEP have been more varied. The first significant scholarly study of the matter, by John A. Tvedtnes and Richley Crapo, appeared in a series of articles under the auspices of the Society for Early Historic Archaeology from 1968 to 1970. Their theory was that the Sensen Papyrus may have represented a mnemonic device to bring to mind a longer oral tradition — a tradition that corresponded to the narrative of the Book of Abraham as we know it. This theory was grounded in two observations. First, the hieratic symbols copied into the left margin of the KEPA documents were complete morphemes, as opposed to the inappropriate breaks one would expect of someone who could not read Egyptian. Second, in every case the meaning of the hieratic word in the margin shows up in some relevant way in the much longer English text corresponding to the hieratic word. Of course, lots of other words and concepts are present as well, but the meaning of the hieratic word in each case is present in the English text.
While a fascinating study, the Tvedtnes and Crapo mnemonic device theory never really caught on. Hugh Nibley was intrigued by this possibility at first, but then decided to go in a different direction. Nibley authored a seminal, lengthy study of the KEP in BYU Studies entitled "The Meaning of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers." He did not attempt to defend the KEP as revelatory documents (other than the English portions of the KEPA). Rather, he took the view that the KEP represent either a preliminary "studying it out" stage in the process, or a (failed) attempt to reverse engineer the English translation so as to decipher the Egyptian language. In other words, the English text of the Book of Abraham was received by revelation as opposed to a purely mechanical process. While Joseph was involved in the KEP project, a theme of Nibley's piece is to portray the efforts of Phelps, Cowdery, and Parrish as largely independent of Joseph. Nibley's take has become the dominant LDS view, and has been echoed more recently in several publications by John Gee.
The KEP as an "Interpretive Key" for a "Super-Cryptogram"
A small minority of LDS commenters on the KEP seeks to defend the supposed revelatory character of these documents, viewing them through the lenses of kabbalism or extreme symbolism. It has few adherents.
The KEP as an "Ancient Cipher" manifesting non-standard meanings assigned to characters anciently
Others have interpreted them similar to William Schryver's interpretations of a modern-day cipher. But rather than being a modern-day cipher, it is proposed that the KEP represent a system of interpretation imposed on the Sensen papyrus by ancient Jewish Egyptians that differs from the standard Egyptian meaning of the characters. But this theory proposes that there is still some affinity to either the core or root meanings of the characters, or they have some visual connection to the meaning of other characters that relate. ().
The KEP as an attempt at "backwards translation"
Some LDS scholars have proposed that the Kirtland Egyptian Papers are an example of a backwards translation. In other words, Joseph translated the Book of Abraham prior to the creation of the KEP and then he, and other early LDS brethren, tried to match the translated text to what they believed were the characters that were used to elicit the translation. In this scenario the KEP was not the product of revelation, but was rather an attempt to "study out" the translation, after-the-fact, in what might have been an experiment to create an Egyptian alphabet. In essence, Joseph and his friends were trying to "reverse engineer" the translation of Egyptian script using the inspired translation he had already produced. The men at Kirtland were treating the Book of Abraham as a sort of Rosetta Stone from which they hoped to crack the code for Egyptian (which was largely untranslatable by scholars of the time.)
Directions for further research
The KEP have been understudied to date. Although preliminary studies have appeared from various perspectives, much more work needs to be done. In many ways, apologetic or polemical approaches to these documents are premature. Rather, they first must be studied rigorously from a scholarly perspective.
An essential tool that is a prerequisite to further progress is a critical edition of the texts. While the microfilm photocopy editions are sufficient for limited purposes and to get a feel for the documents, they are totally inadequate for serious scholarly study. Ideally such scholarship should be grounded in a study of the original documents. To the extent that they are not available for such study, the color photographs that are in existence would be the next best basis for such an edition.
In addition to a careful and clear presentation of the texts, such a study needs to focus on understanding the documents. Too much energy has been devoted to attack and defense, and not enough to basic comprehension of what those involved in the project thought they were doing and how they went about their work. Such a study needs to bring the same standards and attention to detail to these texts as Royal Skousen has brought to his study of the original text of the Book of Mormon.
Some of the contested issues for which further study could bring enlightenment include the following:
Involvement of Joseph Smith
That Joseph was involved to some degree in the project is clear. His handwriting appears on two of the documents, and there are references to the project in his journals. The extent of his involvement is a hotly contested issue and needs to be clarified. Nibley tried hard to distance Joseph from the work of the scribes. Edward Ashment has questioned Nibley's position. The extent to which Joseph dominated the process, or the scribes acted independently, or they all acted in a collaborative manner, needs to be clarified.
Meaning of technical terminology like "degree" and "part"
The terms "degree" and "part" seem to be used in the KEPE as some sort of grammatical terms of art. If so, their meaning needs to be divined. Conversely, John Tvedtnes has argued that they are not grammatical terms at all, but refer to locations on the papyri where particular symbols were located; a sort of latitude and longitude system. According to this view, for example, the "first part" is what we call Facsimile 1, and the "first degree" of that part is the first column of the facsimile, while the second degree is the second column. The second part is what Nibley called the Small Sensen Papyrus (JSP XI), and the first degree of the second part is the first of its columns, counting from the right (away from Facsimile 1). Tvedtnes' explanation of the usage of these terms needs to be evaluated; in particular, as to whether his proposed system in fact holds for all uses of the terms.
Although the handwriting of the various scribes on the various texts has been identified, there are numerous sequencing issues that need to be explored. Is there a way to determine in what sequence the documents were created? Were the KEPA documents created at the same time from dictation, or were they visually copied from a single source, and if so, which is the source document? Which was written first on the page, the hieratic symbols in the left margin of the KEPA documents or the English text to the right? Were the hieratic symbols visually copied from the Sensen Papyrus, and if so, can we determine who copied them?
Why does the scope of the English text not match the scope of the hieratic symbols in the margins of the KEPA?
There is a substantial and obvious disproportion between the hieratic symbols in the left margins of the KEPA and the accompanying English text to the right. Critics often trot this fact out as an obvious artifact of Joseph's ignorance. But this begs the question why such a disproportion exists. The disproportion is so marked that surely even Joseph must have been aware of it, and even if he were not, the scribes involved in the project had training in other languages, such that they would have noted and objected to the disproportion. It is not enough merely to observe the disproportion, it must be explained. What did these men think they were doing? Does the juxtaposition of a hieratic symbol and an entire paragraph of English text intend to reflect a translation process, or is some other process at work, and if so, what?
To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here
- "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham," Gospel Topics on LDS.org (8 July 2014)
- "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham," Gospel Topics on LDS.org (8 July 2014)
- John Gee, "Eyewitness, Hearsay, and Physical Evidence of the Joseph Smith Papyri," The Disciple As Witness: Essays on Latter-day Saint History and Doctrine in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson, eds., Stephen D. Ricks, Donald W. Parry, and Andrew H. Hedges (Provo: FARMS, 2000), 196.
- Until recently this was believed to be W.W. Phelps' handwriting.
- Joseph Smith's Egyptian Alphabet & Grammar (Salt Lake City: Modern Microfilm Company, 1966).
- Hugh W. Nibley, "The Meaning of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers," Brigham Young University Studies 11 no. 1 (Summer 1971), 350–399. off-site