While I believe there is significant evidence showing that the twin manuscripts (Manuscript A and Manuscript B) of the Book of Abraham do not represent live dictation from Joseph Smith as he created new translated material (see my Interpreter article just published Friday and my "Twin Manuscripts" post),  there is still a good question that critics can ask: "If this is not a window into live dictation of a newly created 'translation,' then why would the scribes start their manuscripts at Abraham 1:4, exactly after the place where W.W. Phelps stopped in his Manuscript C?"

The argument is that the two scribes were continuing the live translation work that W.W. Phelps had already helped with. It would be strange, though, if Joseph had only been able to translate 3 verses during the months he had the papyri before the twin manuscripts are started sometime after Warren Parrish was hired on Oct. 29, 1835, probably in early November 1835. For a man who could dictate many hundreds of words per day when doing the Book of Mormon translation of reformed Egyptian, why would he slow to a frozen snail's pace for the Book of Abraham? The issue of translation pace is an important consideration we have discussed previously, but that doesn't deal with the question about why the twin manuscripts would start with verse 4 rather than verse 1.

I think it's fair to assume there's a connection between the twin manuscripts and the work that Phelps had done with Abraham 1:1-3 in Manuscript C. But what kind of connection?

If the twin manuscripts are simply copies for personal use, one would think the scribes would want to start at the beginning. But there's an important clue or two suggesting that the purpose of these documents was something much different than just making copies to read for their own benefit.

The twin manuscripts begin with a puzzling statement at the top that has no analog in Manuscript C: "sign of the fifth degree of the Second​  part." That label makes a clear reference to the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language (the GAEL), W.W. Phelps' incomplete work, abounding in empty pages in a bound volume, that is split up into sections with titles based upon "degrees" and "parts"like "2nd part of the 3d degree." So the twin documents are explicitly linked somehow to the GAEL. Even more puzzling, when you go to the pages labeled with "Second part 5th Degree" (link is to the first of several pages in that section), you won't find the Egyptian (and non-Egyptian) characters there that are found in the margins of the twin manuscripts, and when you look at the "explanations" of the characters in that section, you won't find concepts that seem related to the translated text. There are some concepts that fit Abraham 1:1-3, and some of the cosmological material about planets and starts perhaps derived from Facsimile 2, but precious little related to Abraham 1:4 to 2:6. What's going on?

In fact, the characters in the margins of the twin manuscripts do not appear in the GAEL and certainly aren't defined there. Not a single one of the 19 Egyptian characters, character clusters, or contrived characters in the twin manuscripts appear in the GAEL. What's going on?

On the other hand, the characters and concepts in Phelps' writing of Abraham 1:1-3 in Manuscript C are present in the GAEL, with many variations and lots of variant meanings in the different "degrees."

Here's a hypothesis to consider (may be wrong, but I wish to consider it for now): The purpose of these three manuscripts, A, B, and C, was not creation of the Book of Abraham translation, but creation (or more specifically, further fleshing out) of the GAEL, whatever its purpose was. It may be that Phelps already had a good start in making the GAEL after working with Abraham 1:1-3 and assigning various characters to portions of the text, but more work was needed to take additional translated text from Joseph's prior translation work, and link it with additional characters that could be added with explanations and variants into his still highly incomplete effort. Phelps was now too busy to keep working on the intellectual pursuits related to the Book of Abraham/Egyptian (or "pure language"?) project, which is why Parrish was hired according to Bruce Van Orden in his outstanding book, We'll Sing and We'll Shout (the definitive biography of W.W. Phelps), so I propose that the two scribes teamed up to continue the work Phelps had begun, perhaps at his suggestion and/or under Joseph's direction, who shared an intellectual interest in Egyptian as well as Hebrew. Their first step may have been to explore possible relationships between characters (largely taken from Joseph Smith Papyrus XI) and the translation, so they copied more characters and the next portion of the translation intending to support the insertion of further explanations and speculations in the GAEL, but the project fizzled out before those additional steps occurred.

The copies and the treatment of characters would be a first step to help the team select concepts to fill in some of the many blank pages left in the GAEL. There was no need to copy Abraham 1:1-3 because Phelps had already explored that thoroughly. But the new characters (some concocted) never made it into the GAEL.

This may help answer the question about why these manuscripts began at verse 4. It is consistent with the abundant evidence that the translation already existed and was being copied. If so, the twin manuscripts are not so much a "window into the translation of the Book of Abraham" as they are a "window into the creation of the Grammar and Alphabet" -- from an already existing translation.

There is still the excellent question about the choice of Joseph Smith Papyrus XI for this GAEL-creation work. Doesn't that mean that this is the scroll Joseph translated and that the text is his translation of each of the handful of characters? Not necessarily. The whole concept of translating hundreds of words from a single character doesn't fit Joseph's statements and actions, as we've previously discussed and as I discuss in my recent publication at The Interpreter.

There are several possibilities on the source and nature of the translation that others have raised. For example, the translation may have been given by revelation as it was with the Book of Mormon and other scriptures, meaning that it wasn't based upon staring at a particular scroll or plate and translating in a conventional manner, but simply dictating translation through revelation. If so, Joseph and the scribes might not have known which characters from which scrolls (if any) had been the source of the revealed text. The papyri may even have been a catalyst rather than a source for the translation. Possible, I suppose. Alternatively, there may have been reasons to suspect a relationship between characters on the selected papyrus fragment and the Book of Abraham even if the Book of Abraham came from another source. Ed Goble, for example, proposes that the characters were used somehow as wordplays to key words or concepts in the text of another scroll and may have adorned the margins of the original BOA scroll as they do the three BOA manuscripts in question (see one of his articles here and a blog here). (While Ed has some very interesting points, I'm not convinced based on what I've been able to digest so far, and fear the relationships may be too convoluted to be practical.) Others have spoken about possible mnemonic relationships, etc., and then we have William Schryver's interesting theory about a reverse cipher being at play, though there are still many questions about that, in spite of the fascinating and valid points he has made.

We clearly need more information to understand what the early Saints were doing with the GAEL and how it was supposed to be used. But it's important to understand it was not the source for the Book of Abraham translation and in many ways appears to be a derivative of the translation, not a precursor. If the Book of Abraham Manuscripts A, B, and C were initially intended as tools to support creation of further entries in the GAEL, they would likewise be derivatives of the existing translation and would not necessarily give us any kind of window into Joseph's live translation work.

We don't know exactly how Joseph translated or even what he translated from, but many of us believe that the translation was through the power of God, a revelatory process, not an intellectual and relatively "conventional" translation effort based on a concocted alphabet applied one character at time to a text. We can also believe, with many reasons to support that belief, that the resulting text reflects ancient origins, complex as they may be, rather than merely a fanciful nineteenth-century perspective about mysterious papyri where a single character could be unraveled to give worlds of meaning. Understanding that the translation was the source of much of the strange work in the Kirtland Egyptian Papers rather than the fruit thereof is an important step in understanding these documents, and one of the reasons why I am frustrated with the editorial choices and biases reflected in related publication of The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations, Volume 4: Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts, edited by Robin Scott Jensen and Brian M. Hauglid (Salt Lake City, UT: Church Historian’s Press, 2018), the topic of my newly published review at The Interpreter.

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:

Continue reading at the original source →