A few years ago, I talked with some Mormon missionaries who were working our neighborhood. Most people prefer to avoid proselytizers of any sort, but I find conversations with them to be interesting. It must have been an odd experience for the two missionaries, as I must have been one of the few non-Mormons they encountered who had actually read the Book of Mormon and knew something of Mormon theology. I had an interesting talk with these two young men.
If you talk with Mormon missionaries for any length of time, they will give you a copy of the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon is supposed to be a history of some Jewish emigrants to America led by a man named Lehi. This expedition began just before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians around 587 BC. Various historians made records of their experiences and the last of these, one Moroni, collected these accounts that had been engraved on golden tablets and buried them around AD 421. In 1823, Moroni, now an angel, showed Joseph Smith these tablets and had him translate them using the “urim and thummim” or seer stone. After this task was done, Moroni took them back to Heaven.
The language that was engraved on these golden plates is supposed to have been “Reformed Egyptian“. The story of the golden plates written in reformed Egyptian makes the Book of Mormon unique among the sacred texts of the various religions. If I want to read the Bible in its original languages, I have only to study Koine Greek and Hebrew. These exist many old manuscripts of both the Old and New Testaments, as well as many writings and inscriptions in both languages. If I want to read the Koran in its original language, I can study Arabic. It is true that the Arabic of the Koran is not the Arabic spoken in Cairo or Baghdad, and the language is difficult for even native speakers. It is also true that there are few inscriptions and writings from the first century of the Islamic Era, making the ancient Arabic more obscure. I could study it though. The same thing could be said of the Sanskrit of the Vedas, the ancient Chinese of Confucius and Lao Tse and many others. I cannot say the same of the Book of Mormon. There is not a single scrap of Reformed Egyptian to be found anywhere. There are no inscriptions, no fragments of parchment or papyrus, nothing. The golden tablets are gone. For this reason, most non-Mormons consider Reformed Egyptian to be a product of Joseph Smith’s fertile imagination.
It might be worth considering the matter, though. The hieroglyphics of Ancient Egypt were a complicated system of symbols. These symbols included ideographs and phonetic symbols representing syllables or consonants. There were also symbols at the end of words which were mute but indicated grammar. The phonetic symbols worked a little like a rebus, a picture of an object was used to indicate the sound associated with that object. For instance, to indicate the word belief, I could draw a picture of a bee and a leaf. An eye could mean the pronoun I. This is, in fact, where the letters of our alphabet originated. The earliest versions of ABC were diagrams of objects that started with those sounds in the Phoenician language. The Egyptians never managed to take the step of creating a full syllabary or true alphabet.
Hieroglyphics were sacred writing, used mostly for inscriptions on stone. The Egyptians used two other systems, based on Hieroglyphics. Hieratic was a somewhat simplified version of Hieroglyphics used for writing on sheets of papyrus. It was invented about the same time as Hieroglyphics. It was used for many purposes, but gradually became associated with religious uses. Demotic was a variation of Hieratic invented around 660 BC. It was widely used for everyday purposes and became the script most familiar to Egyptians and foreigners.
Hebrew is, of course, written with a true alphabet (or abjad if we want to be pedantic). It worked fairly well for representing Hebrew I am not sure why any speaker of Hebrew would use another system. The Book of Mormon explains it;
32 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.
33 And if our plates had been sufficiently large we should have written in Hebrew; but the Hebrew hath been altered by us also; and if we could have written in Hebrew, behold, ye would have had no imperfection in our record. (Mormon 9:32-33)
That really doesn’t work. I cannot imagine that any Egyptian script would be more concise than Hebrew. The Hebrew letters work just as well for modern Hebrew as for Biblical Hebrew and the Jews also used them to write in Yiddish, a dialect of German. Aramaic uses similar letters, as does Samaritan. For that matter, our own Latin alphabet, as well as the Greek alphabet derive from the same source. Since the various alphabets derived from the ancient Phoenicians can be used to represent many different languages, there is no reason why some modified form of the Hebrew alphabet couldn’t be used to represent the language of these American Jews, no matter how much their language evolved.
So, why Reformed Egyptian? Well, Joseph Smith could hardly claim to have translated Hebrew. Any skeptic could have simply produced a
paper written in Hebrew and demand he translate it. It was safer to translate from a language no one could read. Knowledge of how to read the writing of Ancient Egypt had been lost many centuries ago. The Rosetta Stone had only been found in 1799 and Jean-François Champollion had just finished translating it in 1822. Even if anyone in the United States knew about his work, it was not likely they would possess a copy of his translation. Besides, being one of the oldest civilizations in history, Egypt was mysterious and exotic. Even the Greeks and Romans felt this attraction. Whatever his faults might have been, Joseph Smith was a good showman. Proposing that the Native Americans were descended from a lost tribe of Jews was exciting enough for potential converts. Adding in the splendor of Ancient Egypt was too much for him to resist.
Of course, Joseph Smith’s career lasted until his death in 1844 and sooner or later the knowledge of how to read Hieroglyphics was going to cross the ocean. There was always the danger that someone might ask Joseph Smith to translate a scroll or a wrapping off a mummy. In fact, someone did make such a request of Joseph Smith, providing him an opportunity to use his imagination once again. The results turned out to be very embarrassing for the Church of Latter Day Saints, thought the truth wasn’t known for over a century. That is a story for another time.