The Egyptian Language Documents (ELD) might not have been intended to aid Joseph Smith in translating the Book of Abraham. Instead, two BYU professors argue that the Egyptian Alphabet, Grammar and Alphabet, and Book of Abraham Manuscripts are associated with a “pure language project” initiated by the Prophet in 1832. In this interview, Michael MacKay and Daniel Belnap explain more and delve into the implications of their new article in the Journal of Mormon History titled “The Pure Language Project.”
Read the article by Michael MacKay and Dan Belnap in the Journal of Mormon History.
And stay tuned for their 2024 book, Thrones, Principalities, and Powers: Joseph Smith and the Economy of God.
Mike MacKay: Dan Belnap and I are excited about our new article, partly because it is about an exciting topic that neither of us has published about before—the production of the Book of Abraham. The literature concerning this topic is rich and complicated, developed within multiple disciplines and by various scholars, like Dr. Robin Jensen (Joseph Smith Papers) and Professor Kerry Muhelstein (Egyptologist at BYU). Kerry, in fact, will be conducting this interview with us—thanks Kerry!
It all starts in the summer of 1835, when Joseph Smith participated in a project that would produce a fascinating set of texts, referred to today as the Egyptian Language Documents (ELD), used and compiled mostly in Kirtland, but also consulted and expanded in Nauvoo. (Egyptian Alphabet, Grammar and Alphabet, and The Book of Abraham Manuscripts.) The purpose of these documents has been debated for decades.
Our central claim in this article is that they were not created to help Joseph Smith produce the Book of Abraham, but instead they were part of what we call “the pure language project.” We demonstrate this by examining documents from 1832 to 1843 that constitute the pure language project.
This chart is a quick summary. Notice there are two separate projects: First, the pure language project that begins in 1832 and is still not finished until 1843, and second, the Book of Abraham project that began in 1835 and is published in 1842.
Dan Belnap: I think Mike’s summary is pretty good.
What is new about your approach to these documents?
Mike MacKay: First off, we never planned on working on the production of the Book of Abraham. We were working on a monograph that explores Joseph Smith’s cosmos and the ritualization of Latter-day Saint temple rites. It uniquely reveals the rich archival resources found in the Joseph Smith Papers through newly found scripture, letters, journals, and speeches. It offers readers a complete reassessment of Smith’s theology in cosmological terms and founded in ritual practices, like polygamy and the American born rites of the Latter-day Saint temple.
We had been coupling our talents for years before we started looking at the Egyptian Language Documents. My documentary and historical skill set as a Joseph Smith Papers historian and Dan’s unique exegetical skills and keen sense for research led us to realize that the pure language document had lasting influence. It also helped that we were not interested in the production of the Book of Abraham, so we were looking for answers outside the scope of that literature.
Dan Belnap: Mike is absolutely correct in that we did not plan on writing this paper. It arose out of our interest in Joseph Smith’s attempt to create a “pure language” following the experience of the February 1832 vision.
According to section 76, which recounts this vision, v. 114-116 describes what we call an “epistemic” problem. In verse 116 in particular, the Prophet was told that there was no way he could truly communicate what he and Sidney Rigdon had just experienced adequately and comprehensively: “neither is man capable to make them known.”
From what we can tell, this divine explanation led Joseph to attempt to codify a communication system which could respond to the epistemic problem, i.e., a “pure” language that had the ability to communicate comprehensively and accurately everything the speaker/writer was attempting to communicate. From our research into this attempt, we saw relationships between the prophet’s pure language project and the attempt to establish a “grammar” and “alphabet” from the newly-acquired Eygptian texts. More plainly, though identified as the Egyptian grammar and alphabet, we believe these documents (more commonly recognized as the ELD) expand conceptually the cosmology first identified in 1832 rather than attempting to “translate” the text which would become known as the “Book of Abraham.”
How sure are we that there is a connection between pure language and ELD?
Mike MacKay: Everyone who has done careful work on this topic knows that it is dense and complicated. Kerry knows that reality better than anyone! Our research is certainly not the final response, nor is there a historical narrative that assures us that Joseph Smith was cognizant of an intentional project, called the pure language project.
However, there are several consistent elements found in each document that make up the bulk of our argument. Starting with 1) the “Caractors” document, 2) the pure language document, 1832, 3) the Phelp’s letter, 1835, 4) the Egyptian Alphabets, 1835, 5) the Grammar and Alphabet, 1835.
The following lists the consistencies found across these documents, which we are referring to as the pure language project. The common elements (1. structure, 2. Characters, 3. Concepts, 4. Not Egyptian.) in each document is our strongest evidence.
1. Structure, Ontology, Ministry
The ontology of God and the ministry of the servants within the ontology are organized into 5-part couplings across the documents.
Here’s another summary chart that identifies the three elements (1. ontology, 2. ministry, 2. definition format) that are consistent throughout the documents:
The pure language lists the ontology of God (Ahman, Son Ahman, Sons Ahman, Anglo men, etc.) and the associated ministry of that ontology. “Aman
s ministring servants sanctified who are sent from heaven to minester to for or to sons Aman the greatest parts of A man save sons Aman sons- Aman Aman” This is also organized in a format in which words like “ahman” are given definitions.
The Phelps letter lists the ontology of God (Ahman, Son Ahman, Sons Ahman, Angel amen, etc. The titles of the pure language document and the Phelps letter explicitly link the two documents together. It includes the same definition format.
The Egyptian Alphabet lists ministering states in a similar 5-part coupling. It includes the same definition format as the previous two documents.
The Grammar and Alphabet expanded upon the Egyptian Alphabets. It continued to expand the meaning to 5 coupled states, including Ahmeos (“God without begining or end”), Aleph (“In the begining with God, the son, or first born”), Albeth (“Angels or disembodied spirit or saints”), Alkabeth (“angels in an unalterable and immortal State; men after they are raised from the dead, and translated unalterable state”), etc. The standard ontological expansion in the pure language document was used as the structure of the entire Grammar and Alphabet. It uses a similar definition format as the previous three documents.
The characters used as part of the pure language documents link them together. These five characters appear in these documents in the exact same order.
Characters in the Book of Mormon “Caractors” document were used in the Phelps letter.
Characters from the Phelps letter are found in the Egyptian Alphabet.
Some of the characters in the Phelps letter and the Egyptian Alphabets are found in the Grammar and Alphabet.
The concepts described in Doctrine and Covenants 76 from which the pure language document was produced mark much of the conceptual content found in the Grammar and Alphabet. For example, glories and ministers to those glories are described in D&C 76, the pure language document, and the Grammar and Alphabet.
4. Not Egyptian
Outside of the structure, characters, and concepts found throughout these documents, it is also evident that the Grammar and Alphabet is not initially concerned with any of the Egyptian characters from the papyri. Starting with the Egyptian Alphabet documents, they are not using Egyptian for the characters until later in the process once they have the Egyptian papyri. Then when they expand the Egyptian Alphabet into the Grammar and Alphabet, they are almost completely working with the non-papyri characters.
Dan Belnap: As Mike said, we want to stress that we don’t believe that this study is necessarily the end of the discussion nor that we have definitively proven that the ELD is solely from the pure language project. But as charts above show, we have noted intriguing elements that suggest that the ELD borrowed heavily from earlier pure language work.
Two elements in particular we found intriguing.
The first was the overlapping, conceptual framework. While I think many have noted the cosmology described in the ELD, emphasis has been placed on the cosmological structure described within those texts and the cosmology depicted in the Abrahamic texts.
There is no question a relationship exists between these two items, but the Egyptian texts were not the introduction to the general cosmology.
Specifically, the ontological categories established in the alphabet(s) and grammar had been introduced as early as March 1832. Those categories were expanded in Phelp’s 1835 letter written before the Egyptian papyri were purchased. Significantly, his letter included the category of space or location, an element which was not a part of the 1832 pure language text, but was an element in the vision itself and expanded upon in the December 1832 “olive leaf” revelation.
A close read of first the Egyptian alphabet(s) and then the grammar revealed that these same aspects were included and expanded on (see the charts above).
Symbolic writing system
Second, though no characters were associated with the concepts in the 1832 pure language document, by the time Phelps wrote his letter, an actual symbolic writing system was emerging with characters associated with the concepts.
These characters show some relationship to the characters provided in 1829 and presumably from the gold plates. These characters were reincorporated into the ELD. In fact, we show that these are the figures given explanations in the alphabet(s) and grammar. The copied Egyptian characters are, for the most part, never defined.
What does that imply?
Mike MacKay: The most evident apologetic implication for this is that the ELD are not evidence that Joseph Smith creatively wrote the Book of Abraham. The most important implication for our book project is that the pure language project is evidence for a continued interest in the Vision, Joseph’s ontology of God, and the continued interest in the “economy of God” from 1832 to 1843.
This is also an association with Joseph’s cosmos and the ritualization of the economy of God in the Later-day Saint temple rites.
Dan Belnap: As Mike explained, there are two primary implications. The first is that the text of the Book of Abraham does not appear to have emerged from the Egyptian Alphabet(s) and Egyptian Grammar. Instead, the evidence seems to suggest that the translation was already provided and that it was used as part of the construction of the pure language.
Second, the pure language project was an important part of Joseph Smith’s ministry from 1832-1835 and we have not given it it’s due in church history, or, indeed, in its place in our own current worship.
Why do you say the Book of Abraham documents are not translations of the papyri?
Below is manuscript A and Document Ten.
The Book of Abraham documents borrow from the first four lines of Document Ten, starting from the right-hand side, from right to left. However, there is a missing piece from the right-hand corner.
When the early Book of Abraham manuscripts were created that piece was missing then too, but instead of skipping those characters they created amalgamation characters from the Grammar and Alphabet to fill in for the missing characters.
Below, this chart lines up the characters, in order, from the Book of Abraham documents, in comparison with Document Ten.
This demonstrates that the Book of Abraham manuscripts are not translation documents, or documents demonstrating Egyptian characters being translated into the text of the Book of Abraham.
Here are a few reasons why:
- No Explanation: The Book of Abraham manuscripts do not claim to be translations of Egyptian to English.
- Not a Translation: The text that is lined up with the Egyptian characters is not the translation of the characters. Michael Rhodes has demonstrated this point.
- Two Languages? If the documents were supposed to demonstrate translation from Egyptian, then why would they use non-Egyptian characters too? The Egyptian characters clearly come from Document Ten, and the additional characters are amalgamations of non-Egyptian characters found in the Grammar and Alphabet. This might be like having a torn English manuscript that is filled in with an intentionally made-up language, then translating it into German.
- Facsimile 1, too? In addition, an Egyptian character from Facsimile 1, was also added. This means that the Book of Abraham manuscripts used characters from three different places.
- Comparison, Also Not Translation: The Egyptian Alphabet documents also eventually copy Egyptian characters from the papyri, but they never translate them or give them definitions. The format is also non-sensical. The Egyptian they used from the papyri had a syntax, in which the order of the characters mattered for the message. They copied the Egyptian in the same order with no regard for syntax, as if that order of characters could be transferred to an alphabet. This suggests that they were playing with Egyptian, not translating it. Imagine taking my prose here and creating an English alphabet, as if each word that I wrote was added to represent a letter in an alphabet.
This is confusing to say the least, but resembles comparison over translation. This looks more like comparative play, not like an explanation or a one-to-one translation.
What was going on is probably impossible to tell, but it was not translation, nor were the Book of Abraham manuscripts evidence that they were trying to translate Document Ten. In fact, using three different source materials demonstrates that they were not even comparing one source to another source. This might even suggest that the Book of Abraham manuscripts were copies of originals used for further exploration of the pure language.
Dan Belnap: Maybe a little more background information will be helpful to the reader. The ELD includes not only the three alphabets and the grammar, but also three manuscripts of the Book of Abraham text comprising chapter 1 and part of chapter 2.
These manuscripts have been thought of to be the original “translation” of the Book of Abraham. For some critics, they are seen as proof that the claim the Book of Abraham text came from the papyri was false because the manuscripts included the Egyptian characters from a portion of the papyri that we can translate and which does not have the text of Abraham 1 or 2.
Yet a closer look at the manuscripts reveals something important.
The papyri to which they were presumably “translating” contains a lacuna, which is a gap or missing part to a text. In the above photo, you can see the lacuna as a missing or torn part of the papyrus. All three manuscripts filled in that lacuna in their “translations.” Significantly, they weren’t filled in with Egyptian characters but with non-Egyptian characters, some of which were introduced in the alphabet(s) and grammar and pure language documents.
Moreover, their composite natures (meaning that some of them show connected combinations between individual units) is described in the grammatical portions of the grammar.
Finally, the manuscripts do not show uniformity in terms of character or association with the Abrahamic text, suggesting that the characters and their meaning were firmly established in the minds of the writers.
All of this is to say, at least as it appears, that one of, if not the primary, purpose of the manuscripts was to fill in the lacuna with the “pure language,” or in other words, to see if the pure language could be used as a viable means to communicate.
What have you learned about the ontology of the economy of God from this work?
Mike MacKay: I won’t say too much because the pure language project is a significant piece of evidence for the thesis of our book manuscript. The economy of God in Christian theology represents God’s creations, in which God is a completely different being altogether, as the creator.
The pure language project is an expression of Joseph Smith’s cosmology, in which God is part of the economy, instead of separate from it. This is a central concept in Joseph’s theology and is a primary idea in the ritualization of Joseph’s cosmos found in Latter-day Saint temple worship.
Dan Belnap: Mike’s answer is a bit coy to be sure, but it does point out that Joseph Smith’s divine economy does appear to have a scope not found in more traditional Christian understanding.
The vision that Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon had in February 1832 revealed an inhabited cosmos with priesthood, states of being, and one’s physical location within that cosmos all interacting and necessary components to salvation.
With the epistemic problem of trying to explain all of this to the saints, Joseph began what appears to be an attempt to create a language that could communicate the depth and supernal nature of that cosmos.
It is this cosmological understanding that led to the endowment that we have today and the promise of an experience for all saints.
How do you see the Egyptian Alphabet documents and Grammar and Alphabet as a furthering of Section 76?
Dan Belnap: At this point, it is worth noting that we do not claim that the ELD has nothing to do with the Abrahamic papyri—just that we don’t believe the ELD is the mechanism by which the translation of the Book of Abraham came about.
It seems that what interested the creators of the pure language was the intersection of the Abrahamic cosmology, depicted primarily in chapter 3 and the hypocephalus, and the cosmology presented within the February 1832 vision and in subsequent revelations, 88 and 93 specifically.
While we understand that many believe the hypocephalus—and especially Abraham 3—were translated much later in the Nauvoo period, even a quick perusal of the names and explanations to characters within the alphabets and grammar will show that they were at least aware of explanations and translations to them.
The term “kolob” for instance is used throughout the alphabet(s) and grammar. Similarly, “oliblish,” “jah-oh-eh,” “enish-go-on-dosh,” “kae-e-vanrash,” floeese,” and “kli-flos-is-es,” are found in the alphabets and grammar. Yet these do not appear in the manuscripts, nor does the cosmological system alluded to in Explanation 5 of the hypocephalus and the relationship of time between them described in Abraham 3.
All of this suggests that a translation of the Abrahamic text had already been provided before work on the alphabet(s), grammar, and manuscripts began.
As to their relationship with section 76, what it revealed to the Prophet was, as noted in the last answer, a cosmos filled with beings in different states all interacting with one another, having responsibility for the welfare of one another, and being in different places, or kingdoms, that coincided with the ontological state of the individuals (i.e, celestial places with celestial beings).
Later revelation, such as the December 1832 “olive leaf” revelation, developed this cosmos further, establishing the role of a cosmological light that filled and governed all things, as well as establishing location as a necessary component of the cosmos, noting that all space was divided into kingdoms.
Section 88 even presented a 12-kingdom system, all separate, but interacting with one another.
It is these elements that were developed further in the alphabet(s) and grammar, with an astronomical system described within the grammar and an explanation of the light that governs all things. These are not found in the Abrahamic material, but are continuations of the revelations Joseph had received years earlier and had begun to explain using his nascent pure language.
It is not surprising to find that they were given characters not found in the Egyptian papyri. They were not translations of the Egyptian papyri. Instead, it appears that the Egyptian characters were hoping to be used to flesh out a pure language by which the cosmos already experienced could be passed on to the saints fully, completely and accurately.
Can this theory be proved or disproved given the current amount of evidence?
Mike MacKay: Sure. There is still a lot to discover, and we hope to participate in other exciting research that might develop.
Dan Belnap: Mike and I are not new to how new ideas are debated and discussed. We fully expect individuals who take seriously the evidence and interpretations to the evidence we have provided in this study to give critical, and perhaps dissenting feedback. We’d expect nothing less.
Can it be proven? We don’t know. We tried our best. We believe it answers a number of questions more completely than some theories that have proceeded it, but we are certainly cognizant of the fact that a new document somewhere can completely upend our theory as it stands now.
So, where do we go from here?
Mike MacKay: Our forthcoming book and beyond.
Dan Belnap: Ah yes, our book. Let’s just say this. If you, dear reader, think this theory is wild, wait until you read our book! That’s where Mike and I really took our foot off the pedal.
Editorial Note: The new book will be available in 2024 and is tentatively titled, “Thrones, Principalities, and Powers: Joseph Smith and the Economy of God.”
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- Book of Abraham: Examining the Latest Research
- Let’s Talk About the Book of Abraham
- The Words and Worlds of Early Mormonism
- Joseph Smith’s Use of Hebrew in the Book of Abraham
- Joseph Smith’s Translation Projects in the Development of Mormon Christianity
Pure Language Project resources
- The Pure Language Project (Journal of Mormon History)
- The Book of Abraham and the Egyptian Project: “A Knowledge of Hidden Languages” (BYU RSC)
- Egyptian Alphabet (Joseph Smith Papers)
- Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts (Joseph Smith Papers)
- Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language (Joseph Smith Papers)