What are the Basics of this Theory about the Book of Abraham?

(1) Abraham wrote a book thousands of years ago.  Its contents were revealed to Joseph Smith in English.  The papyrus that the Church has is not the one Abraham wrote.  It doesn't contain this text.

(2) What is on the papyrus that the Church has?  A whole bunch of pictures that go along with the Book of Abraham.  This is called the papyrus of Hor, because the guy that owned this was named Hor (Horus).  The type of papyrus it is is called a Sensen papyrus, or "Book of Breathings."



Look at the big picture on there.  It is the original picture for Facsimile #1 from the Book of Abraham.  Look at all the writing to the left of it, and all the writing to the right of it.  This writing is not the text of the Book of Abraham.  When these Egyptian letters in this text were used to go along with the Book of Abraham, they were all meant to be thought of as pictures.  This is how Joseph Smith used them.

At their core, even the things that appear to be text are just pictures in the Egyptian language.  Let's separate out and isolate this following "letter" from the text above.


It is just a picture of a human foot, and when isolated from this text and put by itself in some other document, it can be used also as a small picture of a foot.  Here is its location on the papyrus circled in red:


When separated out and isolated from the rest of the contents and put in another document, these little Egyptian pictures become nice illustrations, decorations and section markers for the Book of Abraham.

A document like that, where you separate out these symbols and use them in a different way than how they were used originally, is called a derivative composition.  Using a symbol in a different way than it was used originally is called adaptation or iconotropy.

Do you see how on the left side, we have an Egyptian character, and how on the right, we have English text placed next to it?  This document is a derivative, because the character was taken from the other document above, and placed in this one, and used in a different way than it was being used before.

So Joseph Smith's Papers themselves are derivative compositions using these Egyptian characters separated out and isolated from the way they were originally used.  Egyptians were inventive and imaginative in this way.  Joseph Smith merely reproduced contents of an ancient document here that we don't have.

One function for them used like this is to give structure and artistic beauty to another document.


This is from one of the original translation manuscripts for the Book of Abraham.  Do you see how these section markers were placed next to the text?  Its similar to how in our English scriptures we use numbers for chapter and verse markers (enumerators).  Those things give structure to our scriptures.  Or it is similar to how you could use Roman numerals, regular numbers and letters in an outline for structure.  Or, think of an enumeration in a list, where you have item 1, item 2, and so forth, and the numbers are used to denote each item.  Or, think of a bullet list where bullets mark each item in a list.  The bullets are things that decorate the content.  They are not content themselves.  Other people have come close to noticing that these were markers of some sort before.  For example Brother Kerry Muhlestein came close when he stated that "the Egyptian figures could merely serve as fanciful and archaic bullet points." ("Thoughts on the Book of Abraham," No Weapon Shall Prosper: New Light on Sensitive Issues, p. 229).  But it is only in this current study that we elucidate how this is actually so.

And in the case of our little Egyptian pictures, the decoration placed next to the English text always has some clever literary game going on between the text and the picture, like a pun.  The Egyptian language itself is full of puns, and puns are at the root of how Egyptian text works anyway.  For example, as the scholar Georges Ifrah pointed out, if English were written as Egyptian, to spell the word "carpet," you would use the symbol of a car, and the symbol of your dog to spell its syllables out: "CAR" and "PET."  That type of literary game is at the root of the relationship for why each Egyptian picture from the Sensen papyrus was chosen to accompany a section of Egyptian text in the Book of Abraham.  It doesn't mean that the picture somehow contains the text, or that the text was somehow derived from the symbol.

For example, in the example above from the Book of Abraham Translation Manuscript, the theme is Land of the Chaldees (the ancient "land of reeds"), and the symbol chosen to accompany it is the Egyptian reed symbol.  The reed itself is not the content.  It is just a decoration/marker.  Since the Book of Abraham Translation Manuscripts are a reproduction in English of an Egyptian original (or an original in some other language), the Egyptian original would have also used this reed symbol from the Sensen papyrus used for the first section marker, like a verse number, and then the actual text in the Egyptian language would have followed it.  Therefore the original Egyptian manuscript for the Book of Abraham that we do not have employed Sensen symbols as decorators for each section of text.  Therefore the Egyptian scribe of the Book of Abraham had access to the papyrus of Hor to use its symbols as decorators.  So if you can imagine the original Book of Abraham Egyptian Papyrus that some scribe had created (that Joseph Smith perhaps saw in vision), it would have looked like this in structure:

Abraham himself didn't add these decorations.  It would have been someone in the era of Hor that created this recension of the Book of Abraham using text-section decorators from the Hor Papyrus.  This is an acrostic-like usage of the symbols in the Hor papyrus.

The letters in our own alphabet are derived from pictures.  We don't think of them this way much anymore, but the letter A is actually derived from an Egyptian picture of the head of an ox.

As one Egyptologist writes:
The hieroglyphic signs essentially carried information of two types--sounds which could be used to write words phonetically, and visual images which could be used to portray objects and ideas pictorially.  The hieroglyph which depicted a reed leaf, for example, could signify the sound of the Egyptian word for reed . . . or it could be used pictorially to signify the reed itself  . . . But the phonetic and pictographic values of the signs could be utilized in different ways, both in writing words and in creation of two- and three- dimensional works of art . . . (Richard H. Wilkinson, PhD, Symbol and Magic in Egyptian Art, p. 154-155)
While Egyptian writing made use of all these different forms of expression in text and inscriptions, exactly the same communication principles were chosen when hieroglyphic forms were used in the construction of large-scale representations. (ibid., p. 157)  
As you can see, there are actual Egyptian Language principles that link these big and small pictures to concepts and themes in the Book of Abraham when they are used separately, isolated from others, just like with the big picture of Abraham laying on the couch.  It doesn't mean that they contain the text of the Book of Abraham.  So, even things typically thought of as "text" on there are just small illustrations, and can be used that way, because all Egyptian hieroglyphics are just pictures.

Other Examples of Alphabetical Item-Pairings and the use of Letters as Section dividers/markers in Egyptian Documents

John Tvedtnes and Richley Crapo, two LDS scholars wrote:
The scribes of ancient Egypt were quite fond of word-games; this was a natural development for the land which Jean Capart chose to dub the “pays du symbolisme.”7 J. J. Clère has shown that the Egyptians composed not only crosswords, but acrostics as well.(http://ancientamerica.org/library/media/HTML/hay1gflq/THE%20USE%20OF%20MNEMONIC%20DEVICES%20IN%20ORAL%20TRADITIONS.htm?n=0)
Of course, some of the best-known examples of Acrostics in the ancient world are the use of Hebrew letters as decorators or section markers in the Old Testament in the Psalms for sections of text.

François Gaudard is an Egyptologist and research associate at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.  He wrote that, in one late system in the Greco-Roman era,  the Egyptians for the Egyptian alphabet (i.e. the uniliterals or single-consonantals) “designated each letter of the alphabet by a bird name . . .”  Interestingly, this list followed the South Semitic Order for the Proto-Sinaitic-derived Semitic alphabets.  In other words, one of the Semitic orderings seem to have been applied back to the Egyptian System (i.e. the Semitic system is a descendant of the Egyptian system, but at this point in history an aspect of the Semitic system was applied to the Egyptian), perhaps to make its single-consonantal system truly "alphabetical."  This also may show that at this point in history, the Egyptians were really starting to think of their writing system in terms of an actual alphabet like other alphabets.  Of the practice of designation by bird names, he says, "This practice dates back as early as the fourth century BC . . ."  Then, the article goes on to say:
A number of studies have been devoted to the problem of the order in which the letters appear in the Egyptian alphabet. Smith and Tait, followed by Buchberger, first suggested the existence of “a tradition that identified the consonants of the Egyptian language by the names of birds,” and thought that “it may give some indication of the regular order in which the Egyptians remembered their consonants.” (Birds in the Ancient Egyptian and Coptic Alphabets, Oriental Institute Museum Publications 35, The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago)
In one of the papyrus manuscripts from the fourth or third century BC, Gaudard describes that it contains alphabetical lists:
In the first list (lines 2–7), “various birds are said to be ‘upon’ various trees or plants” with which they are paired. In each pair, the bird and plant names always begin with the same letter.  For example, in line 2, the first phrase of the list reads . . . “the ibis (was) upon the ebony-tree,” in which the word hb “ibis” is paired with hbyn “ebony-tree,” both beginning with the letter h. In the second list (lines 9–14), “various birds are said to ‘go away’ to various places.” In line 10, for instance, one finds the sentence . . . “the Benu-bird went off to Baby[lon]” in which, according to the same pattern, the word bnw “heron” is paired with Bb[l] “Baby[lon],” both names beginning with the letter b. (ibid.)
This is acrostic-like, where one item of a pair starts with the same letter as the other item in the pair.  He also makes the extremely important observation that:
In some of these papyri, such as P. Berlin 8278 and its fragments, letter names could also be placed at the beginning of a line as a way of classifying different sections of the text by using letters instead of numbers. (ibid.)
The Egyptians used these types of punnish/metaphorical constructs in order to pair items together.  And this word game provided the linkage between the two items.  Because of these pairings, Gaudard shows that the Egyptian letters had the names of birds applied to them.  In this way, the names in this way were assigned to them through these types of linkages between the pairs.
(3) As we see, Joseph Smith, following the practice of the ancients, gave interpretations to these pictures (both the big ones on the Facsimiles), and the small ones (the ones thought of usually to represent text), which was different from their original intent of these symbols.  The principle providing the linkage of the interpretation to the picture is the Egyptian literary game between the two.  And again, the usage of pictures that are symbols outside of their original intent, in a new way, is called Iconotropy, or Adaptation.  And so, the point of the papyrus was not to be of use to translate the text of the Book of Abraham, nor was there an expectation that the papyrus would contain the text itself.  But the point is that one must understand that these symbols were re-used by ancient Egyptians for the story in the Book of Abraham in ancient times to accompany it.  The text of the Book of Abraham, or any papyrus that may have contained it is different from this papyrus.  This papyrus contains symbols/pictures that were used with the book of Abraham, to illustrate it and subdivide it, from the large symbols to the small ones.  Therefore, what we are trying to discover is how these symbols were used in this manner.  There is no expectation on any level that this papyrus contains the text of the Book of Abraham.

The usual disconnect here in people's minds against the idea that these little pictures in text could be re-used in a different way, as pictures instead of text, is the following.  First of all, most people's minds are not wired to think of them this way.  It must be recognized that it is a bias that prevents people from rightly considering what is going on in the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, and causes them to dismiss out of hand the way the symbols are used in it.  This bias is rooted in the way our brains are trained to interpret these symbols.  As Professor Orly Goldwasser of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem describes it:
During the Middle Bronze Age to the Late Bronze Age the Proto-Sinaitic and Proto-Canaanite alphabet [i.e. the earliest versions of the alphabet] show two main phases—iconic and linear . . . 
These oldest alphabets are relatively small lists of symbols that were selected from among the hundreds of Egyptian heiroglyphic symbols used in the Egyptian system of writing.
And she describes the Egyptian writing as "little images that make up the hieroglyphic script system . . ."  However, she says that:
The icons that are used as tokens of the Egyptian script system differ clearly from pictorial images, even if at first glance they look like mere repetitive miniatures of the same kind of [larger] pictorial images.
And this is because the images "would have been processed, i.e., 'read,' mainly in the 'letter box' and not in other areas of the brain that are consecrated to picture processing. These results strongly
suggest a separate discussion of iconicity in script and in picture."
(From the Iconic to the Linear- The Egyptian Scribes of Lachish and the Modification of the EArly Alphabet in the Bronze Age, https://www.academia.edu/30713970/_From_Iconic_to_Linear_The_Egyptian_Scribes_of_Lachish_and_the_Modification_of_the_Early_Alphabet_in_the_Late_Bronze_Age._In_Alphabets_Texts_and_Artefacts_in_the_Ancient_Near_East_Studies_presented_to_Benjamin_Sass_eds._I._Finkelstein_C._Robin_and_T._Römer._Paris_Van_Dieren_2016)

The so-called "letter box" described by Goldwasser is a special area of the brain that processes messages represented either by regular script or by picture-writing, which is a different area of the brain that processes pictures.

And so, because of the tendency to recognize these symbols only as script, in this part of the brain, there exists this bias which causes a a blockage in people's minds for seeing the system in the Kirtland Egyptian Papers for what it is.  However, in the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, the Egyptian symbols are being used not as script like usual, but once again as pictures.  And so, for individuals to properly judge the system presented in the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, they need to do so on its own terms, rather than imposing their own bias on it.  And this means that it must be studied in such a way that we must let its own internal evidences provide the definitions of the rules for the system that it uses for its own symbology, rather than letting our own preconceived biases impose things on it that are alien to it.  This is only fair that it ought to be judged on its own terms, and not by outside expectations on how the symbols in it ought to be used.  Because, if the system in it is unique, but still ancient, then it ought to be allowed to tell its own story.

The origin of the Alphabet itself is an instance in history where a different and unfamiliar system of using symbols and rules for their usage emerged as a new invention by ancient people.  This is a model for how the system originated that exists in the Kirtland Egyptian Papers.  The oldest alphabets were mentioned in the above quotations from Professor Goldwasser.  Our Alphabet is the Latin.  The original Semitic alphabet from whence the Hebrew, Greek and Latin Alphabets originate is called Proto-Sinaitic or the Proto-Alphabet by scholars.  This is a short list of Egyptian hieroglyphics that was selected to represent single-consonant sounds, used in a new way that they were never used before.  There is evidence that this list was originally selected because they constituted a list of symbols used for constellations in the Lunar Zodiac.  This was a new invention, a new way to use this set of symbols.  Yet the symbols were still little pictures and entirely new rules were applied to their usage.  It was later that they became "linear," where they became more abstract, and were no longer so iconic.  Or in other words, as they became more abstract, the pictures that they represented became less obvious.

What was Joseph Smith doing with the Egyptian symbols from the Sensen Papyrus as they appear in the Kirtland Egyptian Papers?  His own words describe it.  The claim was made by Joseph Smith  that he was "continually engaged in translating an alphabet to the Book of Abraham, and arranging a grammar of the Egyptian language as practiced by the ancients." (Joseph Smith History, 1838–1856, vol. B-1, 597.  See josephsmithpapers.org.)  He didn't make the claim that this was the "text" of the Book of Abraham.  He made the claim that each symbol he was reproducing was an "alphabet."  Since he claimed that he was doing it "as practiced by the ancients," he was making the claim that it was an ancient system that he was reproducing.  Since the system has rules different from what we are used to, then we need to test them for ancient precedents and find their ancient context instead of judging them and dismissing them solely on the basis that the rules for them do not match the regular Egyptian system that Egyptology has rediscovered.  It is no more fair to dismiss the system in the Kirtland Egyptian Papers on this basis than it would be to dismiss the Proto-Sinaitic alphabet and its rules, which are a different, yet ancient, way of using Egyptian symbols than the regular way we are used to.

Since the Kirtland Egyptian Papers claim that the symbols in the Sensen Papyrus were being used as an "Alphabet" instead of their regular Egyptian usage, it stands to reason that a new alphabet was invented by the ancient Egyptians in the Greco-Roman period from the list of symbols in the Sensen Papyrus, yet part of the rules for this "alphabet" were that the symbols could be used pictographically, independently from the Sensen Papyrus in derivative compositions (i.e. other documents where they would use the same symbols from this list, after the same manner that Joseph Smith used them in the Kirtland Egyptian Papers).  It can be expected that since they called it an Alphabet, that some things in it or about it were pattered after other alphabets.  Just like the original Proto-Sinaitic alphabet (the original Semitic alphabet), it re-used already-existing Egyptian symbols, but in a new way, with new rules.  If so, it can be expected that this particular "alphabet" could be used in the creative ways other alphabets are (i.e. in letter and word puzzles).  And that is precisely what we find in the Kirtland Egyptian Papers.  They are used as little pictures, but also, letter and word puzzles exist there.  Just because it is different doesn't mean that it isn't ancient.  This is just like how the Proto-Sinaitic alphabet is a different way to use little Egyptian pictures, but it is still very ancient.  Word and letter puzzles were very common among the ancient Egyptians.  Just like the South Semitic Ordering was later applied to the Egyptian uniliteral alphabet, the order of symbols in the Sensen Papyrus provided yet another ordering to Egyptian letters as an "alphabet."  And this "Sensen ordering" provided a certain order in which the characters could be applied in acrostic-like usages.  Why was this ordering chosen from this particular papyrus?  Because Hor, the owner of this papyrus that was buried with him, being a high society person, probably commissioned a scribe to decorate his own copy of the Book of Abraham this way with symbols from his own personal copy of the Sensen Papyrus.  So we have the Sensen Papyrus extant.  But the one containing the text from the Book of Abraham is not.  We only have Joseph Smith's English reconstruction of it in the Book of Abraham translation manuscripts containing a structure what the missing Book of Abraham Papyrus would have had in it, an acrostic-like construction.