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:
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.