We’re continuing our discussion of Joseph Smith’s translations and the recently-released volume Producing Ancient Scripture today, turning to the Book of Abraham in an interview with Matthew Grey. This is a co-post to Kurt Manwaring’s interview with Matthew Grey, where he discusses his research about the ways in which Joseph Smith’s study of Hebrew affected the translation of the Book of Abraham. To read the full interview, which I highly recommend, follow the link here.
Last week, we discussed how Joseph Smith seems to have drawn upon contemporary scholarship (the Adam Clarke commentary) as part of his translation of the King James Version of the Bible. In that interview, Thomas Wayment made the interesting remark that: “Clarke may be part of Joseph’s heritage of coming to understand how ancient languages work,” since the study of both Hebrew and the Kirtland Egyptians materials followed his main work on the Bible revision project. Matthew Grey adds his insight in this week’s interview that the major catalyst for both the Egyptian materials and Joseph Smith’s study of Hebrew seems to have been the translation of the Book of Abraham. This seems to show, in the words of Grey, “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).”
Now, the chronology of the Book of Abraham translation project is important to understanding why scholars like Grey feel that the study of Hebrew and the Kirtland Egyptian materials are tied into the project. Matthew Grey notes that: “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.” The alternative point of view is, “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).”
In addition to journal entries, Grey observed that:
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.
The reason this is controversial is that “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.” Yet, as Grey states in response to these concerns, “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.”
In connection with these observations, Matthew Grey offered some explanations about why Joseph Smith may have been interested in studying Hebrew and why he engaged in some created efforts to understand Egyptian hieroglyphics when he was working with Egyptian papyri. As a bit of context, the 1830s, study of Egyptian was still in its infancy. It was really at the turn of the nineteenth century that interest in ancient Egyptian had blossomed, largely beginning with Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 and the accompanying scientific investigations. Work with the Rosetta Stone, which allowed scholars to gain an understanding of how hieroglyphics worked, was still ongoing and unpublished (at least in English) during the 1830s. Hence, at the time, not much was known about Egyptian hieroglyphics, and many scholars in the United States “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.” There were also some common beliefs in the culture that “hieroglyphs represented mystical symbols that could only be deciphered through supernatural means.” Many early Latter-day Saints “adopted some of the assumptions circulating in their nineteenth century intellectual climate, including the common views mentioned above.” Hence, it was not long after Joseph Smith obtained the papyri and began working on translating it that he looked to hired a Hebrew instructor.
As mentioned earlier, there are some clear impacts that studying Hebrew had on Book of Abraham. Matthew Grey summarized these as follows:
These insights [from studying Hebrew] 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.
Grey was able to make the comparisons with Joseph Smith’s coursework in studying Hebrew by examining “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.”
What this seems to indicate is that Joseph Smith’s translations were not created without involvement on his part. Matthew Grey discussed this when elaborating on what he has learned about Joseph Smith’s revelatory processes from his studies.
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.
This research into the Book of Abraham is yet another interesting example of how we are learning more about Joseph Smith’s revelations and translations through examining the materials he left behind.
For more details about what has been discussed above, interesting speculation about how Joseph Smith’s later language studies might have impacted the Book of Mormon if he had translated it afterwards instead of before, etc., follow the link here to Kurt Manwaring’s interview with Matthew Grey. And, for more interesting information about Joseph Smith’s translations, we have an interview with Richard Bushman about the gold plates coming next week to which we can look forward.
Lead image: Hebrew School Textbook. Joshua Seixas, A Manual Hebrew Grammar for the Use of Beginners, second edition, 1834. Photograph by Welden C. Andersen. (Church History Library, Salt Lake City.)