Did Professor Anthon and Doctor Mitchell Actually Read Some Book of Mormon Characters?

 

A translation accompanied some Book of Mormon characters that the Prophet Joseph Smith had "drawn off the plates". According to Joseph Smith's associate Martin Harris, these characters, "with the translation thereof" were shown to Professor Charles Anthon, and to Dr. Samuel L. Mitchell of NY. Dr. Mitchell sanctioned what Professor Anthon had allegedly said about the translation of the characters, "that the translation was correct, more so than any he had before seen translated from the Egyptian." (Joseph Smith - History 1:62-65)

Yes, it's possible that Professor Anthon and Dr. Mitchell were familiar with some ancient Egyptian symbols. But even if they could read some Egyptian (in all likelihood they could not) it is doubtful that they would have been able to read the highly compressed "reformed Egyptian" writing (more compressed than Hebrew, Mormon 9:32-33) found on the Book of Mormon plates.

The Book of Mormon prophet Moroni explains, "… the Lord knoweth the things which we have written, and also that none other people knoweth our language [writing]; and because that none other people knoweth our language [writing], therefore he hath prepared means for the interpretation thereof." (Mormon 9:34)

Jewish scripture distinguishes between "language" or "tongue" which is spoken, and "writing" or "script" which is written. (Esther 8:8-9)

When Jewish scripture is translated into English, however, the terms "language" or "tongue" are sometimes inserted in the translation for the sake of explanation, even though the Hebraic terms for "language" or "tongue" may not actually be present in the ancient text.

For example, compare Isaiah 36:11 (KJV) with Hebrew Yesha'Yahu 36:11. Also compare Ezra 4:7 (KJV) with Hebrew/Aramaic Ezra 4:7. In Ezra 4:7 (KJV) the word "tongue" (i.e. language) is used in describing a written language, or script. The word "tongue" or "language" isn't actually present in the ancient text. What is translated "Syrian language", or "Syrian tongue" is literally "Aramit" (ארמית), or Aramaic. What is translated "Jews' language", is really "Yehudit" (יהודית), Judean, Jewish, or Hebrew.

Similarly, the appearance of the word "language", in 1 Nephi 1:2-3, Mosiah 1:4; 24:4-6 and Mormon 9:34, where writing is being discussed, may not have explicitly appeared on the Book of Mormon plates.

Neither Professor Anthon, nor Dr. Mitchell had the divine means (mentioned in Mormon 9:34 above) for translating Nephite writing. So, how could these learned gentlemen have confirmed, or sanctioned a translation of Book of Mormon characters?

Perhaps the "reformed Egyptian" characters copied from the Book of Mormon plates were of two types:

(1) A set of characters for communicating the narrative logogrammatically (symbols representing entire words or ideas), and

(2) another set of Egyptian like symbols for phonetically communicating certain portions, e.g. names and quotes from Jewish Scripture. These reformed, phonetic "Egyptian" characters would be equivalent to letters spelling out words in ancient Hebrew (e.g. Yehudit, Isaiah 36:13).

Consider the introductory statement of Nephi son of Lehi:

"…I make a record in the language [writing, words] of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews [Yehudit] and the language of the Egyptians [Mitsrit]." (1 Nephi 1:2)

Times & Seasons is an example of phonetically spelling out words using letters, and including a logogrammatic symbol (&) to represent an entire word - and.

An example of a logogrammatic writing system which has been compared to Egyptian, is Native North American Mi'kmaq (Micmac).

"Reformed Egyptian" characters copied from the Book of Mormon plates resemble Mi'kmaw logogrammatic writing:

Nephite Mi'kmaq Comparison

A Reliable Nephite, Mi'kmaq Comparison (Above) resources an early Mormon document featuring characters said to have been copied from the Book of Mormon plates. These are compared to characters from MI'KMAQ HIEROGLYPHIC PRAYERS – READINGS IN NORTH AMERICA'S FIRST INDIGENOUS SCRIPT, edited and translated by David L. Schmidt and Murdena Marshall (1995, 2006). Beware Mark Hofmann's Anthon Transcript Forgery!

Egyptian - Mi'kmaq Comparison, following the work of Barry Fell

An example of a phonetic alphabet (really aleph-bet) featuring Egyptian like symbols, is seen in ancient Proto-Sinaitic script. These "reformed Egyptian" characters were used to write ancient Hebrew.

The Nephite plates of nehoshet (copper alloy like bronze, translated "brass", KJV), which contained the Hebrew Torah, and prophetic writings, were likely written, at least in part, in a form of phonetic "Egyptian", perhaps like Proto-Sinaitic script. (Mosiah 1:3-4) According to the Book of Mormon, these plates were kept by descendents of Yoseph (Joseph of Egypt) who chose to live at Jerusalem, and mingle with the descendents of Yehudah (Judah, 1 Chronicles 9:3, 2 Chronicles 30:1, 10-12).

The plates of nehoshet may have also included examples of Jewish writings, written with an iron pen (Jeremiah 17:1) in Phoenician like letters. This pre-exilic Hebrew writing was common in the day of YirmeYahu (Jeremiah) and Lehi (Lehi, a Hebrew word and name). (1 Nephi 5:10-13) An example of this type of writing appears on the Tennessee Mound Tablet.

Evolution of the alphabet

Spoken Nephite was likely a form of Yehudit, "the learning of the Jews". The Josephite Nephites considered themselves "Jews" even before they intermingled with the Jewish Mulekites. (2 Nephi 30:4; 33:8-9)

The Nephites, according to scripture, had one evolving, assimilating spoken language (like Hebrew, which by the way contains Egyptian loanwords), and more than one writing system. (Mormon 9:32-34, Omni 1:17-18; Mulekite and Jaredite names were assimilated into Nephite).

Nephite writing consisted of

(1) a unique system of writing using a highly compressed form of reformed Mitsrit, called "reformed Egyptian", adapted to their singular Semitic language.

(2) Various alphabetical symbols, affording the Nephites more than one way of phonetically spelling out Yehudit (Judean Hebrew).

Logogrammatic symbols allowed a great deal of narrative to be recorded using less space on metal plates. (Mormon 9:33)

So, why not write everything on the plates using logogrammatic "reformed Egyptian" characters? The answer is, that nuances of sacred, prophetic, even poetic meaning could be lost when transcribing Yehudit into terse, highly compressed, logogrammatic symbols. (3 Nephi 5:18, Ether 12:23-25, 40, Jacob 4:1, Jarom 1:14)

Thus we see that a phonetic system of writing was also needed. But why have more than one way of phonetically writing Yehudit (Hebrew) on the plates? That is, why use Egyptian like symbols as letters, or alternately, pre-exilic Phoenician letters common in Lehi's day? The answer may be that the Egyptian like pictorial hieroglyphs were not only useful in spelling out words, they also graphically suggested additional meanings, that were obscured when Hebrew was written Phoenician like. The Phoenician like letters, on the other hand, were easier to inscribe. But these characters, as also the phonetic Egyptian like characters, took up more space than the logogrammatic "reformed Egyptian" writing.

To see additional meanings in picture characters, consider the sacred Tetragrammaton displayed in the symbols of the Sinai alphabet. Or consider a word as simple as the first person personal pronoun "anokhi" (אנכי). Each Hebrew letter has hieroglyphic significance. To better see this, click on each of the following letters, read right to left: א נ כ י. In the Hebrew letter nun (נ), for instance, one may see either a symbol for a sprouting seed, or a serpent.

But how could the learned Professor Anthon and Dr. Mitchell have seen enough in a sample of "Egyptian" characters to validate its translation in English? The answer may be hinted at in the Hebrew expression translated "learned" in Yesha'Yahu (Isaiah) 29:11. In this verse, "learned" literally means "knowing a book" or "skilled in the book". See also Yesha'Yahu (Isaiah) 29:12.

Which book did Professor Anthon and Dr. Mitchell both have some skill in? The Bible of course, at the very least! The honorable professor and doctor did not possess divine "Lights and Perfections" (Urim v'Tummim) with which to read the "Egyptian" characters. But being men of letters, interested in ancient languages, they both had access to the Hebrew Bible.

It's possible that the translation handed to these learned men by Martin Harris, was familiar to them! It may have been recognized as a quote from Isaiah. For all we know, the 116 lost pages of Book of Mormon manuscript included some quotes from Isaiah, characteristic of other books in the Book of Mormon. In fact, some quotes, or expressions found in Isaiah are repeated in the Book of Mormon. 1 Nephi 14:7, 21:22; 22:8, 2 Nephi 6:5-6; 27:26 to cite a few.

Though not immediately readable, the symbols that went along with the English translation may have clearly resembled Egyptian. All that was left to do was to look up the text in the Hebrew Bible, and to compare the Hebrew words and letters to the "Egyptian" characters. The learned also could have compared the English translation to the KJV.

Seeing such strong, consistent correspondence between the placement of the "Egyptian" characters and the Hebrew letters, a learned person like Dr. Mitchell could have justifiably pronounced the translation in English "correct, more so than any … before seen …"; this in light of the fact that the provided English translation omitted the italicized filler words present in the King James translation.

2 Nephi 27:26 (similar to Isaiah 29:14) is given below as a plausible example of a translated text like the one Joseph Smith may have given to Martin Harris to show to the learned. The prophet's text accompanied the sample of characters from which it was translated. Along with these translated "Egyptian" characters, Martin Harris could have presented a sample of logogrammatic characters, similar to the above, which were not accompanied with a translation.

Here is the sample of phonetic "Egyptian" characters (possibly similar to those on the plates) accompanying Joseph Smith's translation:

2 Nephi 27:26

The words in bold do not appear in the Masoretic Hebrew Text version of this verse. (Isaiah 29:14) The King James Old Testament was translated from the Masoretic Text.

For comparison, see the sister verse as it appears in the King James Bible below, followed by the Hebrew text from which it was translated:

"Therefore, behold, I will proceed to do a marvelous work among this people, even a marvellous work and a wonder: for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid." (Isaiah 29:14, KJV)

לכן הנני יוסף להפליא את העם הזה הפלא ופלא ואבדה חכמת חכמיו ובינת נבניו תסתתר

Here is the same verse written in Phoenician like letters similar to those used in Lehi's day:

Isaiah 29:14 in Paleo-Hebrew

Next, in columns, is a side by side comparison between the "Egyptian" looking characters (middle) and the biblical Hebrew (right) that corresponds to the English translation of the Book of Mormon verse (repeated in 2 Nephi 27:26). This table facilitates the kind of comparison and correlation that could have been performed by a learned gentleman familiar with the Bible in Joseph Smith's day:

In English and Yehudit, 2 Nephi 27:26

You don't have to know right away what the Egyptian symbols mean! You just have to compare them to the words from the biblical text (noting their correlation with the Hebrew letters). You may notice, for instance, that there is a single hieroglyph like the Egyptian water ripple (N35) water - N, Y'or that corresponds to two forms of the modern Hebrew letter mem (מ,ם).

It becomes apparent that the English translation is not only good, it's arguably better than the KJV, because it leaves out italicized filler words that are not really in the Hebrew text.

Also, in the text above, is an example of a possibly prophetic reference to "Joseph" (יוסף), as God's instrument in bringing forth his "marvelous work and a wonder". This is the kind of Hebraic double meaning that might be lost had this verse been reduced to logogrammatic symbols.

Martin Harris simply presumed that when the learned mentioned that the characters were "Egyptian" that the translation was from the Egyptian tongue. He was not correct in this presumption. But how was Martin to know that it was possible to write a verse in Hebrew using Egyptian like symbols?

As for the sample of characters (probably logogrammatic) copied from the plates, that were presented to the learned without an accompanying translation, neither Professor Anthon, nor Dr. Mitchell could read them. (Mormon 9:34)

Martin Harris visited with Dr. Mitchell before, as well as after Martin's prophetic visit with the learned Charles Anthon. In fact, it could have been Dr. Mitchell who first suggested that the set of "hieroglyphics" accompanying the translation resembled Egyptian. א

In 1831, James Gordon Bennett reported that "… Harris says that the Doctor received him very “purlitely,” looked at his engravings--made a learned dissertation on them--compared them with the hieroglyphics discovered by Champollion in Egypt--and set them down as the language of a people formerly in existence in the East, but now no more." ב

According to Anthon, Martin Harris presented him with a note from Dr. Samuel L. Mitchell, of New York, requesting him (Anthon) to decipher, if possible, a paper which the "farmer" would hand to him.

Anthon described the scroll of characters presented to him by the "farmer" as "disposed in columns, and had evidently been prepared by some person who had before him at the time a book containing various alphabets, Greek and Hebrew letters, crosses and flourishes; Roman letters inverted and placed sideways were arranged and placed in perpendicular columns, ... I have frequently conversed with friends on the subject since the Mormon excitement began, and well remember that the paper contained anything else but Egyptian hieroglyphics."

Anthon's denial of seeing any Egyptian hieroglyphics on the scroll is eyebrow arching, since some Egyptian hieroglyphs in fact look like "crosses". See Gardiner Z9, Z10, Z11.

Professor Anthon's accounts of his encounter with the "simple-hearted farmer", are, to put it kindly, contradictory. We can accept the farmer's account as accurate as far as he correctly understood what the learned men said regarding the characters and their translation. (Joseph Smith - History 1:63-65)

 

Footnotes:

א. Richard E. Bennett, "Martin Harris and Three Wise Men", BYU Speeches

ב.  Leonard J. Arrington, "James Gordon Bennett's 1831 Report on “The Mormonites”", BYU Studies Quarterly

 

Acknowledgements:

Special thanks to Romolo Simonetti for finding Bennett's 1831 report on line, and for starting a discussion which led to this article.

Special thanks to author Phyllis Carol Olive for her encouragement and support.

 

Vincent Coon  כּוּן וִינְסֶנט Copyright 2021

 

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