Scholar Matthew Grey shares his latest research on Joseph Smith’s usage of Hebrew in the Book of Abraham. Grey published a chapter on the topic in Producing Ancient Scripture: Joseph Smith’s Translation Projects in the Development of Mormon Christianity (University of Utah Press, 2020).
Who is Matthew Grey?
I am an associate professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University. My academic training and most of my research focuses on archaeology, material culture, and social history in early Judaism, particularly as related to Roman Galilee and the world of the New Testament.
Since I was in graduate school, however, I have also had an interest in Joseph Smith’s study of Hebrew and the ways in which it informed his prophetic thinking, sermons, and translation activities.
At BYU’s 2013 Church History Symposium, I was able to start sharing some of my research on this topic in a paper that discusses the logistics of Joseph’s Hebrew studies in Kirtland, Ohio (from late 1835 to early 1836), including the instruction he received from his teacher (Joshua Seixas), the textbooks and lexicons he used in his studies, and the ways in which his formal coursework was structured.
Shortly after the 2013 symposium, I was invited to expand upon this research by participating in the Maxwell Institute conference on Joseph Smith’s translation projects. In that follow-up presentation—which became the basis for my chapter in Producing Ancient Scripture—I more closely examined the connections between Joseph Smith’s Hebrew studies and his process of translating the Book of Abraham.
These connections include:
- The relationship that existed between the two projects (I suggest that, in light of early nineteenth century views, Joseph and his associates believed a study of Hebrew would help facilitate their work on the Egyptian documents);
- The Hebrew elements that appear in some of the Abraham material (in particular, the transliterated Hebrew words and terminology in the facsimile explanations, in the revelation on astronomy in Abraham 3, and in the expanded creation account in Abraham 4–5);
- The implications of these elements for the textual development of the Book of Abraham (not surprisingly, they only appear in translated Abraham materials that are attested after Joseph’s Hebrew studies in 1836).
I believe that these observations provide fascinating and inspiring insights into the mechanics of Joseph Smith’s translation process, which, it seems, was a dynamic blending of his academic efforts and prophetic gifts.
Why is Joseph Smith’s knowledge of Hebrew important in studying the origins of the Book of Abraham?
I would not want to overstate the importance of this topic to our understanding of the Book of Abraham and its origins. Joseph Smith’s use of Hebrew in his work on the Book of Abraham was only one aspect of an extremely complex translation process that included his efforts to decipher the Egyptian papyri, to create along with his associates a series of Egyptian alphabet and grammar documents, to elucidate aspects of the Abraham story as found in the King James Version of the Bible, and to bring his prophetic gifts to bear on the recovering of the sacred past as it relates to the modern Restoration—each of which deserves careful consideration.
However, because Joseph’s study of Hebrew deliberately coincided with this larger Egyptian project (it was not likely a coincidence that he began his formal Hebrew studies shortly after commencing his work on the papyri) and because his eventual use of Hebrew in the Book of Abraham is one of the better documented aspects of his translation process (owing to the extant manuscript evidence, journal entries, and Hebrew resources he consulted), the Hebrew elements in the Book of Abraham provide extremely valuable—if still only partial—insights into how the translation of the text developed and how Joseph Smith integrated his academic learning into his prophetic work.
I believe that identifying and contextualizing these elements can deeply enrich our reading of the Book of Abraham and can help us better appreciate Joseph Smith’s approach to scripture.
Why does the timeline of when Joseph Smith translated the Book of Abraham and when he learned Hebrew matter?
It seems to me that the main reason why the chronology of the Book of Abraham translation process—and the location of Joseph Smith’s Hebrew studies on that timeline—has come to matter so intensely to some scholars is that is has potential implications for the relationship between the Book of Abraham and the Egyptian alphabet documents (which were produced in the summer and fall of 1835, and which appear to represent an experimental exercise in deciphering the characters on the papyri). Because some view this relationship as reflecting on the legitimacy of Joseph’s prophetic work as a translator, the matter of chronology can become a fairly contentious debate in Book of Abraham research.
For example, some scholars have argued that Joseph Smith completed translating the entire Book of Abraham in the summer of 1835 (almost immediately after acquiring the papyri), that the Egyptian alphabet and grammar documents were produced later that year and were therefore not directly connected to the Abraham translation project (or even to Joseph Smith himself), and that Joseph’s study of Hebrew in late 1835/early 1836 was an entirely unrelated initiative. For the scholars who advocate for it, this proposed chronology allows for some distance between Joseph’s inspired translation of the Book of Abraham on the one hand, and the more creative experimentation reflected in the Egyptian alphabet documents on the other.
Other scholars, however, have noted based on the surviving manuscript evidence that while the translation of Abraham 1:1–2:18 is attested by the summer of 1835, the rest of the text (Abraham 2:19–5:21 and the facsimile explanations) is not attested until the spring of 1842, suggesting that the Book of Abraham translation actually occurred over a several year period (a position supported by contemporary journal entries).
This latter chronology would indicate that the Egyptian alphabet and grammar documents were produced contemporaneously with the early stages of the Abraham translation project, implying that they at least partly reflect early efforts of Joseph Smith and his associates to work out the translation process. For some, this close relationship between the Book of Abraham and the Egyptian documents could be seen as potentially compromising the inspired nature of the Abraham text.
Joseph Smith’s Hebrew study and his use of Hebrew terminology in the translation of the Book of Abraham is relevant to this timeline because these factors allow us to refine our understanding of the book’s textual development; by identifying Hebrew elements in the text that were demonstrably influenced by Joseph’s studies with Joshua Seixas in early 1836, we can have a better understanding of when those portions of the text were translated (or at least finalized).
As it turns out, those Hebrew elements only appear in Abraham 3–5 and the facsimile explanations, which is material that is only attested in manuscript form in 1842, several years after Joseph’s Hebrew studies.
(The only portion of the text that contains no traces of Seixas-inspired Hebrew is Abraham 1:1–2:18 which, not coincidentally, is also the only portion of the text attested in the summer of 1835, a few months prior to Joseph’s Hebrew studies.)
Therefore, the Hebrew elements support the latter chronology and confirm that the Abraham translation process did indeed continue well past 1835 (into 1842), with Joseph’s experimentation with the Egyptian alphabet documents and his Hebrew study both contributing to that process at different points.
In light of this observation, however, I personally do not think that the stakes on this matter are as high as they are sometimes made out to be for the legitimacy of Joseph Smith’s work as a prophetic translator. For example, I see no compelling reason why Joseph’s Abraham translation can’t still reflect an inspired process if it spanned several years and included his best academic efforts, both in his creative attempts to make intellectual sense of the then-unknown Egyptian characters, and in his learning and incorporating Hebrew content into the final text of the Book of Abraham.
For me, these observations simply refine our understanding of the text’s development, illuminate the mechanics of Joseph’s translation process in this instance, and demonstrate that Joseph took seriously his own revelations on the need to “study things out” in his mind as part of his translation efforts (cf. D&C 9:8), however different his nineteenth century thought process might have been from our own academic approaches in the twenty-first century.
Was there a belief in Joseph Smith’s time that hieroglyphs could be translated only through divine means?
Because the modern decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs was only in its infancy during the early nineteenth century (by the 1830s the pioneering philological work of European scholars Thomas Young and Jean-François Champollion had only begun to receive limited circulation in the U.S.), there existed several popular theories among scholars and theologians on how Egyptian characters should be understood. Some thinkers—such as the Swedenborgians—believed that hieroglyphs represented mystical symbols that could only be deciphered through supernatural means.
However, many others—including prominent linguists at Harvard, Yale, and Cambridge—believed that Egyptian and Hebrew were both descended from the original language of humanity that was confounded at the Tower of Babel, and that therefore an academic knowledge of Hebrew (which had been understood by western scholars since the time of the Reformation) could provide valuable assistance in deciphering Egyptian (a process which was still largely unknown).
This latter view can be seen in several attempts by scholars during this period to find meaning in recently discovered Egyptian inscriptions, funerary art, and temple iconography through the lens of Hebrew letters, language, and scripture.
Why did Joseph Smith assume he could gain insights into the Egyptian language and Book of Abraham by studying Hebrew?
There is evidence that many early Latter-day Saints—including Joseph Smith, W. W. Phelps, and Oliver Cowdery—naturally adopted some of the assumptions circulating in their nineteenth century intellectual climate, including the common views mentioned above that supernatural means were necessary to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs and/or that Egyptian was a linguistic system related to Hebrew (both having descended from the original “pure language” of humanity) that could be illuminated through Hebraic insights.
These beliefs among Latter-day Saints were reflected in the translation of the Book of Mormon, which was originally written in a language understood to be an amalgamation of Hebrew and Egyptian (cf. 1 Nephi 1:2 and Mosiah 1:4); in their impression that the characters on the Egyptian papyri they acquired in 1835 resembled Hebrew letters; and in their efforts in mid-late 1835 to create the Egyptian alphabet documents, which contain slight traces of Hebrew letters and concepts as they understood them.
Therefore, even though scholars would approach these issues differently in the twenty-first century, it would have been natural in the early nineteenth century for Joseph Smith and his associates to view Hebrew as a valuable resource in their efforts to work with the Egyptian papyri.
Based on these observations and the extant evidence, it seems that this is why, shortly after the papyri arrived in Kirtland in the summer of 1835, Joseph started making arrangements for an academic Hebrew class to be taught in the local school later that year. (Because of difficulties finding a proper teacher, formal Hebrew coursework would not actually commence in Kirtland until January 1836.)
It was an initiative that Joseph believed would both benefit the ministry of Latter-day Saint leaders and help facilitate his own ongoing work with the Book of Abraham.
In what ways does Joseph Smith’s understanding of Hebrew show up in the Book of Abraham?
Although Joseph Smith had begun translating the Book of Abraham (Abraham 1:1–2:18) in the summer of 1835 before he started studying Hebrew, in the material that he produced—or at least finalized—after his Hebrew studies in early 1836 (Abraham 2:19–5:21 and the facsimile explanations) he was able to incorporate some of the insights he had gained from his Hebrew coursework. These insights can be seen in three aspects of the Abraham translation.
First, Joseph incorporated several Hebrew terms—all distinctly spelled and defined as taught to him by his teacher, Joshua Seixas—as part of his editorial explanations of images contained in Facsimile 1 and Facsimile 2.
In particular, he occasionally used transliterated Hebrew words such as raukeeyang (“firmament” or “expanse”), shaumahyeem (“heavens”), and ha-ko-kau-beam (“the stars”) to elucidate certain figures and astronomical concepts as he understood them to be represented in the Egyptian vignettes that accompanied the papyri (see, for example, Fac. 1: Fig. 12 and Fac. 2: Fig. 4 and 5).
Using the phrase, “answers to the Hebrew…” to highlight correspondence between these Hebrew terms and the Egyptian images he was describing, Joseph clearly felt comfortable as an editor drawing upon his academic insights to help explain this new and complex material.
Second, in addition to using Hebrew in his editorial commentary on the facsimile images, Joseph incorporated similar transliterated Hebrew vocabulary—such as kokob (“star”), kokaubeam (”stars”), and gnolaum (“eternity” or “eternal”)—into his translation of Abraham’s astronomical revelation (see Abraham 3:1–28; esp. verses 13, 16, and 18). This translated portion of the text inserts Hebrew glosses into the dialogue between God and Abraham on the nature of the cosmos, showing that Joseph also felt comfortable as a translator enhancing the text with verbiage he had acquired in his academic pursuits.
Finally, the most subtle—but also perhaps the most profound—use of Hebrew in the Book of Abraham can be found in Joseph Smith’s translation of the Abrahamic creation account (Abraham 4:1–5:21).
Apparently believing that the Book of Abraham contained original source material for the biblical book of Genesis, Joseph drew upon the structural framework of the creation accounts in the King James Version (KJV) of Genesis 1–2 and made key adjustments to the language of those accounts based on insights he acquired in his Hebrew studies in early 1836.
For example, having learned in class that technically the Hebrew word for “God” (elohim) is plural in form, throughout Abraham 4–5 Joseph changed every instance of the singular “God…” in KJV Genesis 1–2 to the plural, “they, the Gods…” (e.g., Abraham 4:1–7). Similarly, having learned from his lexicons that the Hebrew verb traditionally translated as “to create” could also mean “to organize” or “to form,” Joseph changed all creative language in KJV Genesis 1–2 to reflect an organization of pre-existing materials (e.g., Abraham 4:1–2).
Other examples of Hebrew influences in the Abraham creation account include Joseph’s changes from the KJV of “firmament” to “expanse” (Abraham 4:6–7), “heaven” to “heavens” (passim), the spirit of God “moving on the face of the water” to “brooding on the faces of the water” (Abraham 4:2), and several minor grammatical adjustments, all of which demonstrably can be traced to things he learned in his coursework with Joshua Seixas or the Hebrew resources he consulted in his studies.
These Hebrew-inspired enhancements to the creation account not only profoundly shaped the final publication of the Book of Abraham text, but would also deeply inform Joseph Smith’s subsequent doctrinal teachings and temple instruction.
Do you think the Book of Mormon would read differently if Joseph Smith started studying Hebrew prior to translating it?
That is a fascinating question that is difficult to answer since we can only speculate. Based on research published in the last 10 years by the Joseph Smith Papers project, BYU’s Religious Studies Center, and the chapters of Producing Ancient Scripture, there does seem to be a recurring pattern in Joseph Smith’s translation projects, in which he was inspired by ancient objects (including gold plates, the King James Version of the Bible, and Egyptian papyri) and proceeded in his translations by blending his revelatory gifts with his best academic efforts (such as reaching out to local scholars for insights, consulting contemporary biblical commentaries, and learning Hebrew from a Jewish instructor).
In this way, Joseph’s prophetic translation work seems to have consistently integrated his spiritual and intellectual activities, giving him an important voice in articulating his revelatory translations.
Furthermore, Joseph never seemed satisfied with one set translation of scriptural texts, whether it be the Sermon on the Mount (different versions of which are found in the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible) or the creation account (different versions of which are found in the Book of Moses, Book of Abraham, and in his Nauvoo discourses). Instead, he often updated these texts based on new light and knowledge he received in his revelations or in his studies.
So rather than trying to produce one single version of a scriptural text, Joseph seemed more interested in continually unpacking those texts to find new theological possibilities and fresh insights that could contribute to the Restoration.
As this pertains to the Book of Mormon, again, we can only speculate on whether or not he would have integrated his academic Hebrew studies into his translation if he had already studied the language.
On the one hand, it is certainly possible that he would have done so, given the pattern of his other translation projects. Brigham Young is even reported to have said in 1862 that if Joseph would have translated the Book of Mormon at that time, “in many instances it would materially differ from the present translation” (see Journal of Discourses 9:311). We can only wonder if those differences might have included insights from his Hebrew studies.
On the other hand, in 1837 Joseph did provide some revisions to the Book of Mormon text and, as far as I can tell, those revisions did not include any Hebrew verbiage or concepts that he would have learned the year before.
So this seems to remain a fascinating but ultimately unanswerable question.
What does Joseph Smith’s simultaneous pursuit of academic learning and prophetic inspiration teach us about him?
I believe that Joseph Smith’s efforts to blend his prophetic and academic efforts show that he meaningfully adhered to his own revelations to serve God with all of “your heart, might, mind, and strength” (D&C 4:2, italics added); to “seek out of the best books…seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118); to “study and learn, and become acquainted with all good books, and with languages…[to] set in order all the affairs of this church” (D&C 90:13–16); and to “translate scripture…[and] obtain a knowledge of history…all for the salvation of Zion” (D&C 93:53).
Although we sometimes tend to artificially separate our academic learning from our spiritual experience, for Joseph Smith these were mutually reinforcing—not mutually exclusive—endeavors that often served as a catalyst for his prophetic revelations (including his translation of the Book of Abraham), that are both required for humans to achieve their divine potential (cf D&C 93:36 and 130:18-19), and that are necessary for the establishment of a Zion community (especially one that requires an informed and inspiring lay ministry).
Because of these convictions, Joseph Smith seems to have had a boundless enthusiasm for academic learning, whether it be in the form of trying to decipher ancient languages, reading through contemporary biblical commentaries and theological dictionaries, memorizing Hebrew verb paradigms, consulting Greek and Latin dictionaries, reading through apocryphal writings, or reading books on recent archaeological discoveries (all of which is attested in his personal histories).
Although he may never have had the time to master any of these things, be believed that his efforts to acquire such knowledge would significantly enhance his prophetic gifts and his ability to unfold the word of God to the Church.
For me personally, this is an extremely inspiring example in the pursuit of becoming a “disciple-scholar” (as Elder Neal A. Maxwell put it).
What have you learned about the way Joseph Smith sought and received revelation?
This example of Joseph Smith—who saw academic learning as necessary to the revelation process—is an important reminder that, in Latter-day Saint theology, humans are not just blank slates waiting to be passively filled with knowledge from heaven.
Instead, for Joseph, the process of becoming like God is designed to be an active and collaborative effort between humans and deity, in which both need to work together to allow the human mind, heart, and spirit to achieve its divine potential.
President Dallin H. Oaks recently reflected on this ongoing Latter-day Saint perspective when he taught that, in his experience, revelation most often comes when we are “on the move”, suggesting in this case that mental exertion often serves as a catalyst for revelatory inspiration.
I believe that Joseph Smith’s ability to do that through his blending of spiritual gifts and academic effort is partially what enabled him to be the founding prophet of the Restoration. It is also a pattern that, as modern Latter-day Saints, we can try to emulate in our own lives, and learning more about the mechanics of Joseph’s process in this regard can be very inspiring as we continue to work toward that ideal.
If you could go back in time and observe any of Joseph Smith’s efforts to translate the Book of Abraham, what would you most want to see?
There are so many aspects of the translation process that would be fascinating to see, but I would probably most enjoy just watching his natural enthusiasm for recovering the sacred past as reflected in his surviving journal accounts.
I would love to see the moment he first acquired the Egyptian papyri; his immediate excitement for trying to uncover their significance; his enthusiastic collaboration with his associates to decipher unknown ancient characters during the subsequent months; and his tireless efforts in his Hebrew class to learn vocabulary and grammar, translate biblical passages for deeper meaning, and exhaust his teacher with questions, debates, and requests for personal tutorials (all of which is attested in first-hand accounts of this period).
Even if he did not come to a modern understanding of the Egyptian materials in the translation process or ever became the Hebrew scholar he once hoped he would be, this contagious enthusiasm for sacred antiquity played an enormous part in his unfolding of the Restoration.
It is also an aspect of Joseph’s personality that continues to resonate with and inspire me in my own life and professional career.