Despite mountains of evidence, critics of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have for years claimed that Joseph Smith wrote a piece of fiction known as the Book of Mormon. For this blog entry I want to examine one of those critiques: the ever popular reformed Egyptian debate.
In the book of Mormon sometime between the years of A.D. 401-421 Moroni, the son of Mormon (for whom the entire volume of sacred writ was named), wrote:
And now, behold, we have written this record according to our knowledge, in the characters which are called among us the reformed Egyptian, being handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech. Mormon 9:32
One of the extremely popular criticisms relating to this verse is that “there is no evidence in Egyptology of something called ‘Reformed Egyptian,’ and that the Book of Mormon’s claim to have been written in this language is therefore suspect.”
When I was a freshman in college I took a linguistics class and got interested in dead languages, an interest that has always culminated around Egyptology. Though I have not ever given serious focus on this fascination of mine, I do enjoy nuggets of historical information relating to Egyptian script and how it relates to the Book of Mormon. I will discuss just one of the many examples of “reformed Egyptian” that scholars may not refer to as being “reformed,” yet it is as reformed as reformed gets.
WHAT IS REFORMED EGYPTIAN?
In the preceding verse Moroni is clear as day when he says “the characters which are called among us the reformed Egyptian”. Of course, Moroni did not write or speak in English so the actual term that was translated by Joseph Smith into the English phrase ‘reformed Egyptian,’ whatever it was called, was only known to the Nephites. I don’t understand this argument because obviously the Egyptians never called some version of their writing ‘reformed Egyptian.” (In fact, the Egyptians called it sš n š?.t).
Side note: I presume the Lamanites didn’t use the term as it was most likely a priestly (religious) script and not used in every day writings. Verse 33 actually eludes to the idea that every day writing among the people was done in a form of, shall I be bold as to call it, “reformed Hebrew:”
And if our plates had been sufficiently large we should have written in Hebrew; but the Hebrew hath been altered by us also… Mormon 9:33
Over the years secular egyptologists and linguists have discovered that Egyptian hieroglyphic writing underwent three different changes since its creation somewhere near 3000-4000 BC. The word hieroglyphic is a Greek word (hieroglyphikos) meaning ‘sacred writing or carving.’ The first of these transformations among the Egyptian priests occurred during the Protodynastic Period of Egypt (ca. 3200 BC to 3000 BC). Hieratic derives from the Greek phrase grammata hieratika, which literally means “priestly writing.” This first example of reformed Egyptian was developed so the scribes were able to take notes or write laws, decrees, or religious texts with a reed brush on papyrus, and allowed them to write quicker than the time it took them to engrave glyphs.
After centuries of using hieratic to write their religious texts, the Egyptians developed the demotic script, which was coined by the Greek historian Herodutus demotikós, a Greek word meaning popular. This popular script was called by the Egyptians sš n š?.t (“document writing”) and was a highly cursive script, used for everyday writing, not strictly for religious practices or just by the priests or the ruling class. It is presumed that eventually many of the common Egyptians used this form of writing. This is the script that is found in the middle section of the famous Rosetta Stone (pictured at right), which resides in the British Museum. Demotic emerged on the scene roughly around the later part of the 25th Dynasty (760 BC to 656 BC). This is extremely important because, according to the Book of Mormon, Nephi begins his summary on the plates with “I make a record in the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians.” Further on he states that his father, Lehi, began prophesying “in the commencement of the first year of the reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah” (ca. 597 BC), meanwhile demotic was already in use by the Egyptians 60 years prior to Lehi’s prophetic call.
With the arrival of the Greeks in the 1st century, Egyptian writing underwent it’s final “reformation,” into what scholars call Coptic. However, for our time frame with the Book of Mormon I’m going to focus on demotic.
It’s been shown the demotic, a cursive and highly popular form of “reformed Egyptian” was in use by as early as the 8th century BC, and Nephi tells us himself in the very first chapter of the Book of Mormon that he was writing in the language of the Egyptians. So then, if demotic existed circa 600 BC, and if Moroni claimed that the Book of Mormon was written in (what the Nephites termed ‘reformed Egyptian’ – using a Nephite word for it, of course), there must be some evidence of correlation between the characters that were engraved onto the gold plates (from which the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God through Joseph Smith) and published demotic script in the secular world, right?
Wouldn’t you know it, there are!
THE ANTHON TRANSCRIPT CHARACTERS
The Anthon Transcript was a sheet of paper upon which Joseph Smith copied a few of the “reformed Egyptian” characters from the plates of the Book of Mormon. In the winter of 1828, Martin Harris showed these characters to Dr. Charles Anthon of Columbia College (now Columbia University), and hence the name (Encyclopedia of Mormonism).
Fast forward to the 20th century…
Between 1897 and 1970 the official magazine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was entitled “The Improvement Era.” In 1942 Ariel L. Crowley (1905-2005) was a contributor to The Era and wrote an excellent three-piece series comparing characters from the Anthon transcript to well-documented Egyptian demotic characters in other publications. I have listed direct links to the PDFs below. Part II is where the fun stuff is!
- Part I: Introduction
- Part II: The Identification of the Characters as Egyptian
- Part III: The Corroborative Evidences of the Serabit Inscriptions, the Plates of Darius, and the Inscriptions of Byblos
Beginning on page 4 of Part II Crowley lists characters from the Anthon transcript in the left column and an extremely similar, if not identical, Egyptian demotic character in the right column, complete with source. The two main sources that Crowley cites and wherein he located demotic characters that matched up with characters found on the gold plates are:
I listed the printing of both books for those critics who love to claim that somehow an uneducated farm boy with no more than a third grade education must have done a ton of research to come up with the story of the Book of Mormon. Notice that both of these German (Joseph didn’t speak or read German) titles were printed after Joseph Smith died in 1844.
Update (1/6/2011): I have actually been to the Library of Congress and searched through the book by Spiegelberg and have seen with my own eyes the demotic characters in that book that correlate to the characters on the Anthon Transcript.
I don’t know how much more similar the proof of the evidence of “reformed Egyptian” characters individuals need, but I do know that if it was part of the LDS gospel that 2+2=4, there would always be those who tried to say that is a lie and any who believed that, despite evidence to the contrary, were doomed to hell.
For centuries critics have come up with all kinds of calumny and aspersion against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Book of Mormon, and the prophet Joseph Smith. All kinds of falsehoods, lies, and deceptions have been perpetrated with regards to the truthfulness of the Restored Gospel, but if one will sincerely show an interest in learning more and do so with an open heart, without preconceived notions, sincerely desiring to know if it is true or not, as Moroni says in his epilogue, God “will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things. (Moroni 10:4-5)”
I know that the Book of Mormon is sacred writ, painstakingly engraved upon gold plates by ancient prophets on the American continent for us in these the latter-days, and that is was translated by a poor, uneducated New York farm boy only by the gift and power of God. I have discovered far too many evidences of its truthfulness to discount (and all but ignored by LDS critics), but none greater than the personal revelation I have received from the Holy Ghost that it is a second testament of our Savior Jesus Christ.
The Standard of Truth has been erected. No unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing. Persecutions may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, and calamy may defame. But the Truth of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and independent till it has penetrated every continent, visited every climb, swept every country and sounded in every ear. Till the purposes of God shall be accomplished, and the Great Jehovah shall say, “The work is done.”
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