Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Mike Ash's Problematic Explanation for the Usage of Joseph Smith's Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar in the Kinderhook Plates Episode

For this blog post, I am referring to the article below published in Meridian Magazine by Mike Ash, a prominent Apologist for FAIRMormon, and this post is a response to Ash's article:

Here is the web archive version of Ash's article:

Here, Mike Ash refers to a presentation at the FAIRMormon Conference a few years ago which was presented by Don Bradley:

Don Bradley, “‘President Joseph Has Translated a Portion’: Solving the Mystery of the Kinderhook Plates,” at

Here is the web archive version of Bradley's talk:

There are quite a number of problems with Ash's article here.  He says that  "LDS historian Don Bradley shared some much-needed light on the issue".

And what is this light shed by Bradley on the usage of the KEP/GAEL?  That "There is little doubt that the 'translation' of this single character (“portion”) came from the GAEL which was used as an academic lexicon."  And what is Ash's description of the process?  Ash tells us, based on Bradley's theory, that "Joseph apparently turned to his copy of the GAEL (the 'Egyptian Alphabet') in order to make an academic (non-revelatory) comparison to the Kinderhook Plates . . . Trying to find a matching lexicon-type character in the GAEL would have been as easy as turning to the second page of definitions assigned to characters."

Yet, Ash says "In the papers of that volume Joseph and his associates copied many of the characters from the Joseph Smith Papyri (the impetus for the Book of Abraham translation) and then attempted to connect those characters to the translation of the Book of Abraham. These characters were dissected into individual shapes, lines, and dots—each representing different characters. We have very little information as to what Joseph was doing and why, and the KEP and GAEL are still an enigma to modern scholars."

So, removing this entirely from the issue of the Kinderhook plates for a moment, on the one hand Ash tells us that the GAEL is an enigma to modern scholars.  On the other hand, he tells us that he has evidence that Joseph Smith used it as an "academic lexicon"?  Where then is the enigma?  Critics of the church have known for a very long time that Joseph Smith set up the GAEL as a "lexicon."  But the critics have also known that it was definitely not just "academic" to Joseph Smith, but that Joseph Smith thought of it as revelatory.  While critics believe it is a false translation, they still knew from the beginning that Joseph Smith himself believed it to be revelatory.  It is only LDS apologists since the beginning of time that have insisted that the GAEL is not a lexicon, but an enigma.  And it is also LDS apologists that have maintained that the GAEL is not revelatory.  And I'm not saying that critics are right about everything, but they are right about certain things, sometimes where Mormon Apologists have it wrong, and sometimes the claims of critics ought to be taken seriously, especially when a critic is a specialist or PhD in a certain area.  It's not that we should heed or agree with their ultimate conclusions about the core truthfulness of Mormonism.  But sometimes their observations of certain facts are spot on, in cases when apologists would rather evade or deny a fundamental fact.  Both the claims of critics and the claims of apologists ought to be held up to scrutiny.  While apologists ought to be applauded for their intentions and for the good they do, they need to be held to a high standard of scrutiny.  And so, we ought to take very seriously the fact that Joseph Smith not only thought of the GAEL as a lexicon, but that he also thought it was revelatory.  And this is why work is being done by some like me to demonstrate that it was not only a lexicon, but that it was indeed revelatory.

Yet Ash insists that a translation that Joseph may have attempted to do was "academic" in nature, and not "prophetic" or "revelatory"?  This follows the LDS apologetic establishment stance or ideology that the GAEL cannot be revelatory.  And this was Bradley's reason in the first place for making the claim at the FAIR Conference that it was merely "academic," because he wanted to cater to that ideology.  It is only because he catered to that ideology that his paper was presented at FAIRMormon.

While it is true that the word "academic" is being used by Ash in the sense that an academic person would be using a regular lexicon for help in translating, it seems to me that he also is using it to implicitly say that there was nothing revelatory at work.

Why is this insistence that it was only "academic"?  Because the Kinderhook plates are obviously frauds.  Yet, Ash and Bradley are willing to bring the Kirtland Egyptian Papers into this, which many scholars insist are not translations, but Ash and Bradley are willing to say that Joseph Smith was willing to treat as a lexicon of an ancient language.  Why then, is Bradley's take on the episode not precisely evidence of what Joseph Smith thought of the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar sections of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers?

What evidence is there that Joseph Smith here was not using the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar as it was intended to be used?  And what evidence is it that it is not precisely a *revealed* lexicon of the Joseph Smith Papyri?  There isn't any, only the machinations of LDS apologists that insist it isn't revealed.

Well, interestingly, the scholars on all said have said that Joseph Smith either couldn't or didn't translate the Joseph Smith Papyri.  Egyptologists on both sides say the same type of thing.  On the LDS side, they say that he didn't, but rather there is a missing papyrus.  On the side of the critics, they say that he couldn't.  And scholars on all sides say that that the Book of Abraham translation in the Book of Abraham Manuscripts, and the translations in the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar are not correct translations.

Yet here, it is manifest by BOTH Ash and Bradley that Joseph Smith viewed the GAEL as a lexicon suited for consultation for translation.

Yes, Hugh Nibley said that the Sensen Papyrus in the Joseph Smith Papyrus is not the source of the Book of Abraham.  This is true, because it does not translate into the Book of Abraham in the conventional way.

This is because, for the GAEL, the best explanation of this is that Joseph Smith was transmitting to us a *non-conventional*, yet *ancient* usage of the Papyri that differs from the regular old "Egyptian" (i.e. regular Egyptological) usage that Hugh Nibley showed, where it translates into an Egyptian Endowment.  In other words, ancient Egyptians were doing something different with the Joseph Smith Papyri than scholars are used to, and Joseph Smith transmitted this *separate system* to us.  And the GAEL is the transmission of this *ancient system of usage* into modern day speech.

And so, Ash contradicts himself when he says that Joseph Smith was merely trying to do an academic translation, when he trusted in the GAEL as something that was suitable for consultation as a lexicon for the purposes of translation, yet it was an "enigma."  Joseph Smith held the information in the GAEL as if it was revealed information.  That is the ONLY reason he consulted it.  The implication of that is that it is indeed revealed information.  And needs to be treated as such.  If only Mormon Apologists would treat it as such, and do research toward that end.  And so, to pass this off as merely something where Joseph was attempting an academic translation is nonsense.  Rather, what is revealed in the KEP/GAEL is indeed revealed, and is indeed a separate, ancient system.  And Joseph Smith simply made a mistake when he tried to use it to help get himself started when trying to translate the Kinderhook plates.  However, Joseph Smith's mistake was not in his translation of the GAEL, which is indeed a transmission of ancient information.  His mistake was an attempt at translation of the Kinderhook plates at all, which he abandoned because indeed, it was simply a mistake.  And its best for us to simply say it was a mistake.  A bigger mistake than that made by Joseph Smith, though would be for us to continue to insist that Joseph Smith's work on the GAEL as non-revelatory.

And so, there is no mystery about what the GAEL is, if we take Joseph Smith's actions here as a guide as to what our thinking toward it ought to be, and simply let it be what it always had been to Joseph Smith and the early Mormons of his day:   a revealed lexicon, not just an academic one.