Why “Reformed Egyptian”?

If you suppose the Book of Mormon is a work of fiction, it opens a different set of questions to explore than if you suppose that it is true. For example, why did the author choose to have his characters write in “Reformed Egyptian” instead of Hebrew or something else?

The obvious (cynical) response would be that if Joseph Smith had used a known language such as Hebrew, people would have expect ed him to demonstrate his Hebrew translating abilities on other texts and/or transcribe parts of the text from the plates for others to examine. Using a non-existent language eliminates this problem. However, I think there was more to the choice of Reformed Egyptian than that.

A few years ago, I picked up a copy of The Story of Decipherment: From Egyptian Hieroglyphs to Maya Script, by Maurice Pope. I was reading along in this interesting book when a graphic on page 45 really jumped out at my (Mormon) eyes:


Why did this image jump out at me? Because it immediately reminded me of the following image:anthontranscript_sm.jpg

The above should be familiar to all of you who are old enough to remember the edition of the Book of Mormon with the golden plates cover. (That was a cool cover, by the way — it’s too bad that edition was so short-lived.) This image is (as far as I know) the only clue as to what Reformed Egyptian writing looked like, copied from the plates by Joseph Smith.

You may disagree that the two transcribed passages look similar, but they look very similar to me. Here’s the complete graphic from The Story of Decipherment for comparison (click for full size):


Another interesting point is that (to me at least), Joseph Smith’s characters look a lot more like the graphic marked (c) in the above than they look like the graphic marked (b). Graphics (b) and (c) are two different published transcriptions of the same text, placed side-by-side to illustrate how published transcriptions of Egyptian writing from the eighteenth century varied in quality. The Caylus and Barthelemy verson (marked c) is the less accurate one. Caylus and Barthelemy published in the 1750’s, and recognized that this was non-heiroglyphic Egyptian writing. (It was later found to be Coptic script.)

There are several possible interpretations for all of this: (1) The resemblance is purely my imagination, (2) Joseph Smith — who was interested in Egyptology and ancient languages — saw a copy of Caylus and Barthelemy’s book at some point and was influenced by it, (3) I’ve just proved that the Book of Mormon really was written in Reformed Egyptian.

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C. L. Hanson is the friendly American ExMormon atheist mom living in Switzerland! See "letters from a broad" and the novel ExMormon for further adventures!!

25 thoughts on “Why “Reformed Egyptian”?

  1. Are the rows of dashes in the Caylus/Barthélemy version part of the script, or are they just a placeholder for “this bit is illegible”? ‘Cause they’re obviously incorporated into Reformed Egyptian…

  2. Shishberg — That’s the funny part. If you enlarge the graphic I posted with the two transcriptions side-by-side, it looks very much like the dashes are a placeholder for places where the transcriber had difficulty reading or copying what was there. Yet Joseph Smith appears to have used them in his Reformed Egyptian script.

    What I’ve done here is just make a few remarks based on secondary sources, but I think it would be interesting for a serious historian to find copies of Caylus and Barthélemy’s books and compare them with the Reformed Egyptian characters written by Joseph Smith.

    The Story of Decipherment also gives some context that makes the story of Joseph Smith sending his transcription and translation to Professor Anthon for his opinion make a little more sense. I remember hearing that story and wondering how any scholar could give an opinion on the subject if the script was one that hadn’t been deciphered. But Egyptian writing was a hot topic at the time, and people were aware that there was more than one type of Egyptian script but weren’t sure what it meant. So people were making guesses. Of course scholars were very close to deciphering hieroglyphs for real at that point, the code was cracked in the 1830’s (though on the other side of the Atlantic, and people didn’t have quite so fast communication in those days…).

    Aerin — My mom gave away or put away our gold plates BoMs shortly after they were discontinued. I think what happened was that — while Mormon kids found them cool — new converts and prospective converts probably found them off-puttingly weird… 😉

  3. It appears to me (just me, Right) that the churche’s continuingly distancing itself from most anything specific is an effort to have plausible deniability; Look how they were hurt by Hofmann.

  4. The Church wasn’t hurt hardly at all by Hoffman. In fact, it’s response to the whole incident was rather admirable.

    Interesting take on the Reformed Egyptian.

  5. GNPE — I think it’s true that the church is less forthcoming about the specifics of things Joseph Smith and other early church leaders claimed. Logically, one would think that the Egyptian grammar Joseph Smith produced while translating the Book of Abraham would be edifying for study. I understand that it exists, but the church won’t encourage you to have a look at it. I’m not sure their change in attitude has anything to do with Hoffman, but of course the whole Hoffman thing was before my time.

    Seth — I’m not sure I even heard of Hoffman until after I’d left the church, so maybe I have a skewed picture of that whole incident. The way it was told to me (by the exmos 😉 ) was the following:

    Hoffman produced a number of fake documents from early church history; the quorum of the twelve and the first presidency bought them thinking they were real; when some of the fake documents started talking about really weird stuff (eg. worse than salamanders), the church started putting the documents straight into the vault without publicizing the contents even though they thought the contents were real; Hoffman accidentally blew himself up, and examination of his possessions showed he was a forger; the church was very, very embarrassed by the whole thing.

    Is that not what happened? If that is accurate, which part is admirable?

  6. Chanson — you should remember that the Caractors and the Anthon incident (Feb. 1828) pre-date the invention of the term “reformed Egyptian” (c. May 1829). The most likely explanation for your correspondence is that Anthon had the Caylus and Barthelemy edition and noticed the superficial similarities you’ve pointed out. He then suggested to Harris that it might be Egyptian, and that suggestion made it back to Smith, who introduced it into the text.

    As for the actual source of the Caractors, they also correspond to shorthand: http://olivercowdery.com/smithhome/2000s/charatr1.gif In this graphic the figures on the left are Caractors and on the right are shorthand.

  7. John — That’s interesting, I didn’t know the details of the Anthon incident. Like I said, I just happened to notice this similarity in passing, and I’d be curious to see analysis and opinions on it from people who know more history than I do.

  8. The details have to be parsed from he-said/he-said between Anthon and Harris, since they contradict each other.

    However, the best explanation is that Harris had the Caractors transcript and asked Anthon if he could translate them. Anthon identified them as Egyptian using books like your text, but said Egyptian could not be decyphered by scholars. Harris asked for a certificate to that effect, which Anthon provided. Then Harris told the rest of the story about Joseph, the angel and the plates. Anthon realized that Harris was likely being defrauded out of money and tore up the certificate.

    Harris then told the story to Joseph. Joseph indicated that this fulfilled an Old Testament prophecy that the learned could not read a sealed book, and later came up with the explanation of why the Caractors appeared to be “Egyptian” instead of Hebrew.

  9. With Hoffman, he presented documents to the LDS Church claiming to be from Joseph Smith. The Church was interested and bought them. Pres. Hinckley sent one of the letters that held content unfavorable to the LDS Church and bolstered the claims of the RLDS Church to the RLDS leadership with his compliments (a rather magnanimous gesture). Some of the letters were published in the Ensign, but I haven’t really heard much evidence that the LDS Church ever officially endorsed them or treated them as more than an object of mild interest.

    Then the Church had the documents tested, they turned out to be fake, Hoffman ended up in jail for planting bombs in mailboxes, end of story.

    Now, could anyone enlighten me? What exactly is the Church supposed to be embarrassed about in this incident? Anyone?

  10. What exactly is the Church supposed to be embarrassed about in this incident?

    Because if the first presidency and the quorum of the twelve have some special insight or discernment — particularly on doctrinal matters — then it seems they should have figured out the documents were fake before the police did.

  11. Seth — Hinckley traded the forged Joseph Smith III blessing to the RLDS church for an original document they owned that had similar value, one of the rare copies of the Book of Commandments. It was still a nice gesture, but it wasn’t a gift. At the end of the day, the LDS church is 1 legitimate rare book richer and the RLDS church has a Hoffman forgery.

  12. “Because if the first presidency and the quorum of the twelve have some special insight or discernment — particularly on doctrinal matters — then it seems they should have figured out the documents were fake before the police did.”

    Why should that be the case?

    And doesn’t the claim that they got more cautious about the documents as things progressed indicate exactly that?

    There are some valid reasons out there to bag on the Church, but this really doesn’t seem to be one of them.

  13. Seth — I’m not trying to bash the church with this. As I said, I hadn’t even heard this story when I concluded that the church’s claims are false, so obviously it didn’t influence me in that direction. I was just curious as to your take on the whole thing.

    Still, with the strong emphasis on “follow the prophet, he won’t lead you astray,” I can understand some people would be upset to see the church publishing forged documents in the Ensign as though they were real.

    As far as any documents the church allegedly purchased and didn’t allow access to, the bretheren’s actual motivation can’t be determined precisely; it is a matter of speculation only.

  14. Rest assured Chanson, I didn’t think you were trying to “bash” or anything. In my experience, you do very little of that sort of thing. My response was to more people than just you.

    I ought to read the Ensign article. It would be interesting to see if the Church really was proclaiming these documents as genuine finds, or if it was just publishing them as something of interest to the readers in a noncommittal sort of way.

  15. shishberg said:

    “or are they just a placeholder for “this bit is illegible”? ‘Cause they’re obviously incorporated into Reformed Egyptian…”

    I disagree. In the ‘Caracters’, there are two identical characters composed of of nine dashes with a line underneath. I submit that it is meant to be one character and not a placeholder. (Kind of like the ‘football with candles’ character which appears several times).

    If anything, the text appears to bear a passing resemblance to ‘Demotic’, which was a form of Egyptian writing popular (in use in lower Egypt?) around the same time that Lehi and Nephi were in Jerusalem and which later fell out of favor after the Greeks invaded in the 4th century BC. Does anybody know if there are any examples of Demotic in use in Judah prior to the Babylonian conquest?

    Hoffman letters — If GBH lost at three card monte, you can rest assured that rabid, bitter ex-Mormons would read it as further proof that he isn’t a prophet.

    John: Your theory as to what transpired is a good account of what we know, but it seems to somewhat contradict what Professor Anton would go on to say later in Mormonism Unvailed. One question that stands out in my mind with regard to your account, is why Professor Anthon would say that the idea that the characters were Egyptian was perfectly false? Perhaps he was just trying to disassociate himself from anything that would give credence to the truth claims of Mormonism. Perhaps Demotic script was rare enough, that its apparent appearance in rural upstate New York would prove problematic to summarily dismiss.

  16. dpc — Since this segment of the book was talking about the fact that the scholars didn’t know what this script was at the time, the author doesn’t state clearly what this excerpt actually was. In particular he was talking about the confusion between the Coptic language and the Coptic script, so I supposed he meant that this was Coptic script. However, now that you mention it, it was probably demotic, which is descended from hieroglyphic writing, hence “Reformed Egyptian” (and not Coptic script, which is based on Greek). That was my intended point even if I’ve garbled the terminology. I should have double-checked against Wikipedia before posting: Demotic, Coptic Alphabet.

    Either way, though, the character composed of a long row of vertical lines doesn’t exist in the real script. Looking at this, one might speculate that Joseph Smith saw this book and it gave him the idea to create a more elaborate variant of the rows of vertical lines. This is merely a hypothesis or guess based on what the pictures seem like they might suggest. Unfortunately, it is a hypothesis that can probably never be tested since there is no way of being certain Joseph Smith did not have the opportunity to see this book at some time before he wrote his “Caractors.”

  17. One thing bothers me about the idea that the Golden Plates might have been written in a variant of Demotic. Mormon 9:32-33 implies that Mormon used Reformed Egyptian to save space over Hebrew script. Demotic doesn’t seem to be especially space efficient relative to Hebrew. Hieroglyphics maybe, but not Demotic.

  18. Jonathan — That’s a good point. I think one would need to do a little more investigation to see which system takes less space. Keep in mind, though, that systems with more characters (instead of being purely alphabetic) are often more space-efficient.

  19. To Seth R. (#5):

    The actions of LDS church leaders were anything but honorable, as John Hamer has already shown concerning your reference to the Joseph Smith blessing. The honorable thing to do, of course, would be to give back the book the LDS church received in exchange for the forgery it pawned on the RLDS church. To faithful members, the fact that a forger/apostate/murderer could hobnob with the Who’s Who of the Big 15 and escape detection causes a supernova-sized burst of cognitive dissonance. But even giving them a pass on the whole “spirit of discernment” score, President Hinckley, Elder Oaks, and other high LDS church officials may have obstructed justice by withholding important information from police investigators–information that would have proved very damaging to the church from a PR perspective. You see, President Hinckley had authorized the purchase of the McLellin Collection from Hofmann–a collection that Hofmann did not have and was unable to forge on the promised schedule. His failure to produce it led to his whole bombing scheme. During the ensuing ivestigation, church leaders discovered that the church ALREADY OWNED the McLellin papers–they were tucked away in the black hole of the church’s vault. Rather than go to the authorities with this vital piece of information that would have shed light on Hofmann’s motive for the bombings, they sat on it. See http://www.utlm.org/newsletters/no83.htm for more information. Or read Salamander or the Mormon Forgery Murders for more. It’s all well documented, and not even denied in Richard Turley’s biased account called Victims. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think the Hofmann case is a “smoking gun” against the church’s truth claims, nor do I think members of the church ought to lose their testimonies over this incident alone. But to say that church leaders acted honorably in that sordid episode is, I think, grossly inaccurate.

  20. I know this discussion was a long time ago, but I subsequently talked to the Community of Christ Archivist who told me that the LDS Church did give back the RLDS Book of Commandments that was traded for the Hoffman forgery. So, that was actually quite a nice thing to do.

  21. @23 Looks like a very interesting project!

    Just skimming your site, it looks to me that you’re taking a faithful approach, i.e. starting from the assumptions that the golden plates really existed and that this image represents our best information about what was written on them. Is that right?

    It’s probably too small a sample to confidently come up with a translation, but why not try applying standard techniques for deciphering ancient languages and see what you can come up with? Very fun.

  22. Actually, because there is quite a bit of dates/chronology and it covers much of the period that we already have in the Book of Mormon, the small sample is not as much of a problem as one can use the bulk of the Book of Mormon as a comparative template, much as one would do if one had a large sample of texts.

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