In using the Kirtland Egyptian Papers (KEP) to discredit Joseph's "translation" of the Book of Abraham, it is assumed that these papers show that Joseph and his scribes thought that single Egyptian character could magically represent vast chunks of English text. In addition to the evidence that the Book of Abraham translation appears to predate whatever was being done with the Book of Abraham text in the KEP, one important question is whether these men really thought such a thing was possible. Rather than relying on circular arguments to show us what they might have thought, let's take a look at an important example where W.W. Phelps explicitly equates some  Egyptian text to an alleged translation. This comes from a document, "Notebook of Copied Characters, circa Early July 1835" by W.W. Phelps. Take look at the English "translation" and guess how many Egyptian characters were needed to produce it. 

Here's the text [update: the later addition of "in part" in much lighter ink was originally and still is discussed below, but I'll mention it here as suggested in the comments]:
A Translation of the next page [this is where "in part" was later added]
Katumin, Princess, daughter of On-i-tas King​ of Egypt, who began to reign in the year of the world, 2962. Katumin was born in the 30th year of the reign of her father, and died when he was 28 years old, which was the year​ 3020.
Looks like 45 words from "Katumin" to "3020," counting each number like 3020 as a single word. If each digit requires a word, then we might say there are 53 words. So many how many characters of Egyptian would this require? Go ahead and guess before reading.

This is a fairly brief English text, so, if the other "smoking gun" manuscripts show 1 character can represent as many as 160 words in the Book of Abraham, then maybe around 0.3 or so Egyptian characters, would be needed here, right? Rounding, we might say approximately 0 characters, or 1 if we insist on rounding up for "practical" reasons.

So was your guess around 1 character? Not bad. But what did Phelps think? You can see the correct answer for yourself on the Joseph Smith Paper's website showing the Egyptian page of this brief document. Here's the image of the Egyptian Phelps mentioned:

Though it's unclear to me how to break up some of these, I conservatively estimate over 40 characters are present, probably about 47. So Phelps seems to have had the impression that 47 characters of Egyptian could represent around 53 English words. Not several thousand. Not an entire book. 

One can argue point out that there's an emendation to the English, with "in part" inserted to the right of "next page," but with much lighter ink (or pencil?), clearly at a different time. Did Phelps later think that maybe there was more yet English that could be derived from the Egyptian? Perhaps. But when he wrote this, not long after the translation of the Book of Abraham had begun, the idea that three lines of Egyptian could give about four lines of English did not seem implausible. There's no hint that he really meant that a single one of those characters was all that was needed to give that text.

Whatever was going on with the juxtaposition of some already translated text with a few lone characters of Egyptian on the side of some pages from a fraction of the Book of Abraham, Phelps' statement about translated Egyptian here suggests that they didn't really think Joseph was creating many lines of text from a single character or fraction of a character. This is another important piece of evidence that needs to be considered before letting one's assumptions become imagined bedrock in the case against the Book of Abraham. Many questions and puzzles remain, but this document can clarify some issues. 

One should also note that another scribe, Warren Parrish, would later turn against Joseph Smith. If he thought Joseph was making up large passages from a mere character or part of a character, such a ridiculous notion might well have been one of the arguments he could raise against the impostor. But such an argument was never raised. Witnesses, rather, spoke of Joseph translating a long scroll, not a tiny line of Egyptian text. The characters on the left of some Book of Abraham text simply can't represent Joseph's translation in action. 

Granted, what Phelps gives us as the translation is wrong. If he got that from Joseph, he was wrong about that. I don't know how it was translated and by whom. It would probably be part of the attempt to figure out Egyptian, apparently relying on the miracle of the translation to give them tools for learning on their own. But though that human effort was misguided, it doesn't tell us about the "translation"/revelation process (whatever it was, from whatever source was used) that created the revealed text in the first place. 

Update, April 22, 2019: Ouch, I think I was wrong in my interpretation of "in part" as coming well after Phelps wrote his statement on the translation. Upon closer inspection of the high-resolution documents, along with other portions of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers where Phelps or Parrish apparently scraped off ink, I think I need to face the fact that Phelps may have actually written "in part" with the same bold ink and likely in the same sitting as he wrote the rest of the document, though it may have been an emendation originally before he changed his mind and attempted to scrape it off, just as I think he scraped the "th" of "28th" in this document, though probably immediately with the ink still wet, while the ink of "in part" may have at least partially dried before he changed his mind. If "in part" was there initially and then he changed his mind shortly thereafter, that changes things dramatically. I'll discuss this theory in my next post. So yes, I think I was wrong in part about what happened with the "in part" part. I may be wrong about being wrong (either way I lose and owe apologies!), but there's some possible evidence I want to share. More on this after I get some sleep. If there's any merit to my theory, it may require some microscopic examination to confirm.

This post is part of a recent series on the Book of Abraham, inspired by a frustrating presentation from the Maxwell Institute. Here are the related posts:

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