THE MORMONS AND EGYPTOLOGY
by JUAN JOSÉ CASTILLOS
The Mormon Church, officially known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is a relatively new religion. It was created as an offspring of the great variety of Christian sects that flourished in the United States of America in the first half of the XIX century. Due to its missionary zeal, it has expanded all over the world and nowadays it counts its followers by the millions.
This religion was created mainly based on the writings of its Prophet, Joseph Smith, a humble country boy who declared he had been visited by an angel who had given him some tablets written in ancient Egyptian characters, which he translated as what would later become The Book of Mormon, the most sacred writings of this religion and which basically describes the events surrounding the arrival of an ancient Hebrew tribe in America, their life and conflicts with native Americans and the coming of Jesus to America.
Among Joseph Smith's writings there is also a book, "The Pearl of Great Price" which contains two other books, The Book of Moses and The Book of Abraham, together with other essays by the Prophet on related matters.
Mormons have been thus always fascinated by ancient Egypt because somehow, this civilization and its writing system was at the very origin of their religion. As a religion, it does not concern Egyptology to pass judgement on the claims of its Prophet and its followers in matters of doctrine, but in what has to do with translations and interpretations of ancient Egyptian documents made by Joseph Smith, I believe that in order to provide interested laymen an unbiased and accurate impression of such renderings, I must give my opinion on this subject.
The claim by Joseph Smith that the Book of Mormon, which he translated with the aid of some devices called the Urim and Thummim, was written in Egyptian language characters or "reformed Egyptian" cannot be substantiated because the original inscribed plates were taken away from him and there is no actual proof of their very existence beyond the Prophet's word and the statements of some other witnesses that now can´t be proved or disproved.
Joseph Smith wrote that his notes were taken to an American scholar, Prof. Charles Anthon of New York, who according to him agreed that "the translation was correct, more so than any he had before seen translated from the Egyptian". Then Joseph Smith tells us that other tablets not yet translated were shown to this scholar and he declared they were written in Egyptian, Chaldean, Assyrian and Arabic and that they were genuine characters. After a rather curious incident in which Prof. Anthon retracted these statements, the material was taken to a Dr. Mitchell who confirmed all that Prof. Anthon had said.
As an egyptologist (and it goes without saying that I do not invoke any group representation but simply give my personal professional opinion), it seems very strange to me indeed that any American scholar of the first half of the XIX century could give an informed opinion on these matters even remotely knowing what he was talking about. Champollion had produced his brilliant decipherment of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing only a few years earlier and it was not at all possible that a non-specialized scholar in the United States at that time could have known anything about it, besides, Champollion's system was resisted even in his own country, France, for some time, until several decades later, with the new material provided by Lepsius and the translations by Chabas and others, it was finally confirmed, what makes Joseph Smith's claims the more surprising and unlikely, although if they reflect the truth of what happened, then the comments by his advisors were completely unreliable and unworthy of credit.
The other item I would like to discuss here is the book, "The Pearl of Great Price" in what concerns egyptology, that is, the three figures that accompany the Book of Abraham and are called "Facsimiles" of such a book.
Number 1 consists of the very common scene of Anubis (which here appears with a human head) embalming the deceased, under the bed there are the four canopic jars containing the organs extracted from the mummy and there is also a bird, which in the normal Egyptian vignettes has a human head and represents the soul (ba) of the dead person.
Number 2 is a version of a hypocephalus, a circular inscribed papyrus stiffened with plastered linen, containing inscriptions and figures of gods, put under the mummy's head for protection or vital warmth, closely resembling object No. 8445 at the British Museum, and filled with images of gods and funerary texts.
Number 3 is an example of the quite common scene of the deceased appearing before the god of the dead, Osiris, who is wearing his typical crown and is sitting on his throne, accompanied by other goddesses.
The detailed interpretation and translation that Joseph Smith made of these common ancient Egyptian funerary scenes is quite absurd, to put it mildly, for instance, in Number 1, the figure is seen as a pagan priest about to sacrifice Abraham and the canopic jars are described as "idols", the ba or soul of the deceased is described as "the Angel of the Lord"; in Number 2 the version is even more creative and the "translation" completely divorced from reality, in spite of the Prophet's vivid imagination, he was baffled by a series of characters which he described as certain "numbers", which certainly was not anything of the sort but a simple line of writing; in Number 3, things really seem to get out of hand, the scene according to Joseph Smith was Abraham discussing astronomy with the Pharaoh. What in fact is a goddess standing behind the seated god Osiris was seen by the Prophet as the Pharaoh himself, the god Osiris wearing his characteristic crown was not the god as we know now, but was really Abraham, whom the king out of the kindness of his heart had allowed to sit on his throne (!!)... The explanation that has been given by some that it is scenes resembling the ancient Egyptian ones but different, mentioning the variations to be found in the ancient scenes according to the chosen source, is not satisfactory at all, since in spite of the subtle differences, the nature of the characters that take part is always the same and nowhere else in ancient Egypt Abraham is likewise shown or the characters are described as Joseph Smith would have them.
I think anybody today can go to Egypt, see any of the monumental inscriptions and invent any explanation they want, different from what scholars have read based on their knowledge of the ancient Egyptian language, so painstakingly acquired, but although such a person has a right to say whatever he wants, I think it is the duty of the egyptologist to explain that such a "translation" is linguistically and stylistically wrong, otherwise all kinds of deceptions would be silently encouraged.
We all probably remember the fate of "translations" by renowned scholars before Champollion using imagination instead of thorough scholarship, like for instance, A. Kircher's interpretations of ancient Egyptian texts and that should be a healthy warning against that kind of approach to our subject.
If anybody reproduces today an ancient text or relief or painting and invents an interpretation that radically differs from all we know of that civilization, not out of any thorough study backed up by the necessary evidence, but just out of a flight of sudden inspiration, it goes without saying that nobody will take it seriously. Are we going to say then that because it isn't just anybody but the founder of a modern religion, we should modify our attitude? I couldn't possibly agree to that.
It is not a matter here as I see it, of missing documents or texts with missing parts that might have contained what the "translator" claimed, but of actual pictures of very common Egyptian scenes that have been included in a book and are explained in a completely wrong manner, nothing dubious but rather quite clear in any sense and in black and white for all to see.
However, the above remarks refer to the plain meaning of these figures considered as examples of ancient Egyptian funerary images and texts, I think that if one day a statement is made that what Joseph Smith translated were concepts transmitted to him by God, not necessarily the ordinary understanding of such ancient documents, since anybody who believes in God will accept that He can use any medium he chooses to transmit knowledge, then there could be no further opposition between the readings made by scholars of these objects and that made by the Prophet, since it would become strictly a matter of faith which would be outside our field of study.
Some people have expressed an opinion that the Kirtland Papers seem to show that the Prophet was engaged in a conventional translation of the hieroglyphic texts and thus there was no divine inspiration using them as a mere medium as I suggested above, but in fact, nothing prevented the Prophet, if he had at first indeed attempted such conventional rendering, himself or through others, to have received at a later time a direct revelation that it was not the right way to go about it and then God inspired him with the correct version.
I think that the essential point in all this is if the books revealed to Joseph Smith are, with the limitations of the human mind to understand transcendental matters, solid, coherent, sensible scripture as other religious books such as the Hebrew Old Testament, the Christian New Testament or the Muslim Quran are. If so, the way in which this revelation was transmitted to a Prophet is not so important or relevant as the validity, the basic goodness and the internal consistence of such writings and their agreement with the contemporary events as known from other sources, all which would be clearly beyond the capability of a man without divine inspiration.
But if traditional notions are upheld, Mormon egyptologists are on this subject, so to speak, between a rock and a hard place, because if they admit that Joseph Smith's interpretations have little to do with current egyptological knowledge, they will be in trouble with their church leaders and if they proclaim their agreement with current church beliefs on this subject, they will most likely be in trouble with their other colleagues, a difficult position hardly anybody would envy.
I am perfectly aware that we are dealing here with a delicate subject that has to do with the beliefs of many people, so I have tried to conduct myself with the utmost respect for such beliefs, but without falling into what many people call today "political correctness".
It is my opinion that when political correctness is taken beyond the natural limits of civilized restraint and respect for the truth, it merely becomes hypocrisy and does nobody any good. I am not passing judgement here on the validity of a religion but on certain specific statements that have been made concerning ancient Egyptian scenes and texts and that without clarification, might confuse the non-specialized reader. That is all I have intended here. The reader who wishes to go beyond my comments, can consult several of the available books on ancient Egyptian religion where the scenes mentioned here are discussed in more detail.
Some books on ancient Egyptian religion
Some of the Mormons' views on the subject
Some comments on the above views
Some other critical opinions
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