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The Book of Mormon, a work of scripture of the Latter Day Saint movement, describes itself as having originally been written in reformed Egyptian characters on plates of metal or "ore" by prophets living in the Western Hemisphere from perhaps as early as 2600 BC until as late as AD 421. 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, was taught both the "learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians." (1 Nephi 1:2), that the book was written in "reformed Egyptian" because that language took less space and was easier to engrave on gold plates than Hebrew, and that there was also an evolution of the Hebrew after the people left Jerusalem.
LDS scholars note that other languages evolved from 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 priestly shorthand for hieroglyphics thousands of years old by the first millennium B.C., or early Demotic, a derivative of hieratic, perhaps used in northern Egypt fifty years before the time that the Book of Mormon prophet-patriarch Lehi is said to have left Jerusalem for the Americas.
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 that, 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" (also known as the "Caractors" document) is a small 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). 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 then wrote, to the contrary, that he had believed from the first that Harris was the victim of fraud.
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'." Klaus Baer, another Egyptologist at the University of Chicago, called the characters of the "Caractors" document nothing but "doodlings". An early-twentieth-century scholar said that the "Caractors" document looked more like "deformed English." 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."
During the early 1980s, forger Mark Hofmann sold alleged Mormon materials to Mormon investors and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), including a sample of reformed Egyptian characters probably copied from the Caractors Transcript in a manner intended to make them more closely agree with the description given by Anthon.
"Stick of Joseph"
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 Anthon transcript.
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, Hieratic, Coptic, Mayan/Olmec, and Irish ogham ciphers. Hugh Nibley argued that a "revealed text in English" is preferable to trying to understand the original language.
LDS 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 Mormon 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). On their website, Bad Archaeology, two British archaeologists, Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews and Dames Doeser, say "The only writing systems to have been recognized in the Americas are those used by the Maya and the Aztecs, neither of which resembles Egyptian hieroglyphs, although Joseph Smith produced a scrap of papyrus containing hieroglyphs he claimed to be a Reformed Egyptian text written by the Patriarch Abraham." Bad Archaeology Cite error: Invalid
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- 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
- See William J. Hamblin, Reformed Egyptian. Critic Richard Packham argues that Hebrew is more compact than hieratic Egyptian.Packham website Other critics argue that Smith chose "reformed Egyptian" because it would be a safer creation than "Egyptian," and that claiming New World Hebrew had also been modified over time would further ensure the creation against linguistic challenge. In "Three Strikes, You're Out! The Quick and Dirty Case Against Mormonism," Kyle J. Gerkin argues that Smith identified "reformed Egyptian" as the source language because many early-nineteenth-century scholars knew Hebrew and no one in 1830 could read Egyptian hieroglyphics: "Joseph's choice of 'reformed Egyptian' was a calculated move. At the time, Egyptian was generally believed to be indecipherable, as the grammar worked out from the Rosetta Stone would not be published until 1837." The Secular Web Even so, as understanding of the Egyptian language grew and new texts came to light, the hieratic and its derivative, the demotic, proved there was a short-hand for hieroglyphics that might be easier to engrave than Hebrew, lending credence to the Book of Mormon's explanation for the use of "reformed Egyptian."
- 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." Hale said that Martin Harris demanded that Smith give him a "greater witness," and Smith told Harris to "go into the woods where the Book of Plates was, and that after he came back, Harris should follow his track in the snow, and find the Book, and examine it for himself. Harris informed me afterwards, that he followed Smith's direction, and could not find the Plates, and was still dissatisfied." "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 LDS Church members 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.
- See Early Mormon Documents 4:377–86.
- 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.
- Jerald & Sandra Tanner, Changing World of Mormonism, Moody Press, 1980, p. 143.
- Charles A. Shook, Cumorah Revisited or, "The Book of Mormon" and the Claims of the Mormons Reexamined from the Viewpoint of American Archaeology and Ethnology (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing Company, 1910), 538.
- Michael D. Coe, Breaking the Maya Code, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1999, preface.
- Blair Bryant explains:"Find a copy of that forgery and you can easily compare and see how Hofmann did it. Just turn a copy of the Caractors Transcript 90 degrees clockwise. Now compare the right-hand most column (line A) with Hofmann's left-hand most column. Reorient the individual characters as in the original (rotate each individual character 90 degrees counterclockwise) and you can identify every character… Then Hofmann added a couple of additional squiggles to the bottom. Then, go to the line B and compare it from top to bottom with Hofmann's second column and so on. He copied it character-by-character with a few changes in flourishes or combinations of elements. He did that for the first four lines. In his fifth column he took elements in sequence from line E at the top and segments of other lines for the circular figure at the bottom. In a letter written several years after the Martin Harris meeting (1834, if memory serves), Professor Anthon described the document characters as being like mixtures of ancient alphabets jumbled and that there was a circular figure similar to an Aztec calendar at the bottom. It seems apparent that Hofmann rearranged the pattern to agree with Professor Anthon's description."
- James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992), 57.
- Some LDS members 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 scholars and one RLDS scholar, have made the attempt. In the February 1942 issue of the Improvement Era magazine, Ariel L. Crowley, an LDS 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. Blair Bryant, Community of Christ adherent, claims to have found correlation between the Caractors (Anthon) document and the Book of Mormon title page. See Blair Bryant's Caractors Translation. 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.
- Book of Mormon Language. Lightplanet.com. Retrieved on 2010-12-12.
-  Archived February 6, 2012 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
- 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
- A number of researchers, including Anthon himself 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., David H. Kelley, "Cylinder Seal from Tlatilco," American Antiquity 31 (July 1966): 744–46, and this image.
- 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)
- 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.