Robin Jensen is a co-editor for the latest volume of the Joseph Smith Papers, “Revelations and Translations, Vol. 4: Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts.” In this interview, he answers questions about the new publication and explains why it is a landmark volume.
What were your responsibilities in association with this volume?
Brian M. Hauglid and I both served as co-volume editors of this volume. Brian is at BYU, and I work at the Joseph Smith Papers (JSP). But like all the volumes published by the JSP, there’s a whole team of scholars and professionals involved in producing these volumes. My own history of working on the volume goes back to when I assisted Brian slightly with his own publication (A Textual History of the Book of Abraham, 2010). I’ve been interested, generally, in the Book of Abraham and the 1835 Egyptian language project for some time.
In what ways is this a landmark volume for those studying the Book of Abraham?
For the first time, scholars and researchers will have, between two covers, access to high-resolution, color images of all the Book of Abraham text produced during Joseph Smith’s lifetime as well as the papyri and documents relating to Smith’s and his clerks’ studying of the papyri. In addition to the images, the volume offers detailed transcriptions of the English text. Finally, the appendix to this volume tracks Egyptian and other characters as they appear throughout the various documents, which helps illuminate the connections among those documents. The Joseph Smith Papers continues its efforts to get primary sources into the hands of those writing history of nineteenth-century religious, American, or Latter-day Saint history.
What was Joseph Smith’s role in the translation of the Book of Abraham? Who assisted in the translation and what were their primary roles?
Joseph Smith dictated the text of the Book of Abraham to a number of clerks. Three manuscript versions of the Book of Abraham from the Kirtland period (1835) are in the handwriting of Frederick G. Williams, Warren Parrish, and William W. Phelps. These early manuscripts only cover what is now Abraham 1:1 through 2:18. Willard Richards, Joseph Smith’s personal clerk in Nauvoo, copied the Kirtland-era manuscripts and then took dictation for the remainder of the Book of Abraham (through the end of what is now chapter 5). These Nauvoo-era manuscripts of the Book of Abraham, however, are incomplete, with several pages missing.
Why was there an “explosion of interest” in Joseph Smith’s time about ancient Egypt?
Western culture has long been fascinated by ancient Egyptian culture (going back as far as the ancient Greek writer Herodotus). This constant interest reignited periodically throughout the centuries as new discoveries were uncovered or new scholars tackled the mysteries of the ancient writing. In the late eighteenth century, Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt and took with him a group of scholars who carefully tracked the campaign, recording their observations as they went. As word spread of the historical riches of Egypt, demand grew to own pieces of this ancient civilization. Throughout the nineteenth century archaeologists of the day essentially pillaged the ruins of Egypt, shipping mummies, artifacts, and papyri scrolls to Europe and America. A growing market largely kept up with this demand as museums, collectors, and universities sought to build their growing Egyptological collections.
What do we know about why Joseph Smith was so fascinated with ancient cultures?
Joseph Smith revealed truth from historical accounts of ancient cultures. Before the church was organized, the publication of the Book of Mormon preceded the church’s official organization. That volume trained Joseph in his prophetic career and introduced his followers to the types of records Smith would produce. There are several stories of his interest in artifacts or evidence of ancient civilizations, including him “reading” the environment of native mounds on the Camp of Israel March in the mid 1830s. Sections 6 and 8 of the Doctrine and Covenants promises Oliver Cowdery that he was to reveal additional records. Thus not only Joseph, but his contemporary church members awaited additional truth and insight from ancient records.
How did Joseph Smith use the word “translate” in reference to his work on the Book of Abraham?
There are several references in Joseph Smith’s journal stating that he “spent the day in translating the Egyptian records” (19 November 1835) or a group of individuals “translated some of the Eygptian, records” (24 November 1835). Unfortunately, there are very few sources from Joseph Smith himself to help us exactly understand the mechanics of his translation effort.
Only one clerk left any record of the process of the translation process. Warren Parrish, who had served as Smith’s scribe but who left the church in 1837, stated in a letter to a local newspaper the grievances he had with the church. In that bitter letter, he mentioned that he sat “by his [Joseph Smith’s] side and penned down the translation of the Egyptian Hieroglyphicks as he claimed to receive it by direct inspiration from Heaven.” (R4:24) With every reason to state otherwise, Parrish reported what he observed or believed at the time of the translation process. Smith himself, it appears, claimed that “translation” was a divine process.
The word “translate” does not mean Smith and his associates were doing translation as most readers would understand that term. Rather than relying on dual-language dictionaries or specialized training in language, Smith approached this translation as a revelatory process. But just as Oliver Cowdery was told he should have “stud[ied] it out in [his] mind” (D&C 9:8), Smith and his associates appear to have made some attempt to make sense of the hieroglyphs on their own. This resulted in text that would not be recognized by modern-day Egyptologists as actual Egyptian translation.
Were seer stones used in the translation of the Book of Abraham?
Wilford Woodruff, who assisted in the printing office in Nauvoo where the Book of Abraham was first published, mentioned in his journal that “the Lord is Blessing Joseph with Power to reveal the mysteries of the kingdom of God; to translate through the Urim & Thummim Ancient records & Hyeroglyphics as old as Abraham or Adam, which causes our hearts to burn within us while we behold their glorious truths opened unto us.” (R4:13) It should be remembered that the term “Urim and Thummim” was another term for seer stone. There are some late sources that mention that the Kirtland-era translation were done with a seer stone, but the evidence is not clear, and, in fact, there are sources stating that Joseph Smith specifically did not use a seer stone for parts of his Bible revision project in the early 1830s, so it’s possible he felt little need to use instruments for some or all of the work in Kirtland or Nauvoo.
What do we know—and not know—about how Joseph translated the Book of Abraham?
What we do not know is much more than what we know. There are basic questions about the translation process, the clerks’ involvement, or their understanding of what they were actually doing that I still cannot answer. For instance, I have yet to see convincing evidence to definitively prove the chronological order of the creation of the Book of Abraham text and the alphabet documents produced in the summer and fall of 1835. So it’s easy to then fall into the trap of thinking that we don’t know very much, which is also not true.
There are many facts that we do, in fact, know. The attempt to understand the Egyptian language and the manuscripts derived from that effort are linked to the Book of Abraham text. Joseph Smith was involved in the Egyptian-language project—his handwriting is on one of the “Egyptian Alphabet” documents (a document that attempted to make sense of various characters from the papyri and other unknown sources). Joseph Smith dictated the text of the Book of Abraham to two different scribes at the same time, thereby producing the earliest versions of the text. This earliest text is associated with known hieroglyphs from the papyri as well as characters from the Egyptian language project manuscripts.
What challenges were associated with photographing the extant papyri fragments?
Though they are fragments and look as if they are falling apart, the papyri, as they are currently housed and stored, are in relatively stable condition. They are each contained within protective archival plastic (Mylar). Photographing this under light offers significant glare, so our photographer (Welden Anderson) took that into consideration and blocked out that glare. We did not remove the papyri from the Mylar so that we did not further damage the papyri. We hope, in the future, to take advantage of increased technology and present digital images of the papyri in UV light or other light waves on the spectrum.
When and where did most of the translation efforts take place?
If we’re just looking at the text and images (facsimiles) of the Book of Abraham itself, then most of the translation took place in Nauvoo in 1842. Joseph Smith produced what is now Abraham 1 through 2:18 in Kirtland. Once finished with that, other tasks and events in church history prevented him from getting back to it quickly.
Once living in Nauvoo, Smith “commenced” translating the remainder of the text in addition to adding the explanations of the facsimiles in March of 1842. He translated from what is now Abraham 2:19 through the end of chapter 5 at this time.
All of the extant manuscripts that were created in an effort to understand the Egyptian language (the Egyptian Alphabet documents and the Grammar and Alphabet volume, in addition to other copies of characters) were created in Kirtland in the summer and fall of 1835.
Was any portion of the Book of Abraham translated but never published?
There are no extant manuscripts containing Book of Abraham material that isn’t already published. Given that Joseph Smith produced the Book of Abraham material just before it was published in the Times and Seasons, it seems unlikely that he would have produced material that wasn’t then published for church members’ edification.
What do we know about what happened to the missing papyri?
Following the death of Joseph Smith, his mother Lucy Mack Smith was custodian of the mummies and papyri. Following her death, Emma Smith sold them to a man named Abel Combs. A portion of the sold collection ended up in a museum in Chicago, where it presumably was destroyed in a fire that destroyed a portion of the city in 1871.