I largely wrote this post about a month ago, just after the podcast I'm going to discuss, but due to distractions, including an unexpected trip out of state, I've only just gotten around to completing and posting it. (My apologies for that, Kerry! I would have preferred to engage in this discussion with you sooner. While I'm going to disagree with you some below, I do so in the spirit of seeing you as a devoted seeker after truth and someone with whom I can fruitfully dialogue. Also, I just saw the messages about getting together with you and George to have you walk us through some of your findings: Let's! )
For those who missed it, a few weeks our very own Kerry Shirts did a podcast on the Kinderhook plates in relation to the Book of Abraham papyri and the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language (GAEL) titled "The Papyri and the Plates," meaning the Kinderhook plates.
Kerry summed up much of what he has presented in previous episodes on the Book of Abraham. He displayed and walked through a kind of diagram identifying where matching characters appear on the Book of Abraham, the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language, and other documents, to indicate how these documents relate to one another.
Kerry also added new thoughts based on his reading of the paper "'President Joseph Has Translated a Portion': Joseph Smith and the Mistranslation of the Kinderhook Plates," by Mark Ashurst-McGee and myself in the volume Producing Ancient Scripture: Joseph Smith's Translation Projects in the Development of Mormon Christianity (University of Utah Press, 2020). This paper confirms that Joseph Smith did, as reported by his private clerk William Clayton, 'translate' a character from the Kinderhook plates, and places this incident in the context of Joseph's interest in linguistic study, identifies the precise mode of 'translation'--showing how he derived the translation content, and presents eye-witness testimony verifying that this is how the content was derived. The source of that content was the GAEL, which has a matching character with the Kinderhook plates, so that all Joseph had to do to derive the content he did from the Kinderhook plates was to identify the character match and read off the definition for the character in question in the GAEL. An eye-witness to this process, the non-Mormhon Nauvoo judge Sylvester Emmons, wrote a letter to the New York Herald on the day he saw Joseph Smith comparing the GAEL and the Kinderhook plates, reporting regarding the characters on the plates:
Building on the recent Mormonism Live podcast on the Kinderhook plates by Bill Reel and Radio Free Mormon that discussed this paper, Kerry observed that Joseph Smith's use of the GAEL indicates that he took the GAEL seriously. Kerry then further observed that this runs counter to Book of Abraham apologetics introduced by Hugh Nibley some four and a half decades ago claiming that the GAEL was actually produced by Joseph's scribes, who were trying to compete with Joseph's Book of Abraham translation work, rather than by Joseph himself.Sylvester Emmons, May 7, 1843 letter published in the [i wrote:New York Herald[/i]]"He compared them, in my presence, with his Egyptian Alphabet…and they are evidently the same characters. He therefore will be able to decipher them."
Kerry is correct in these observations. While much discussion would be needed on how and how much this affects the various debates on the Book of Abraham, I certainly can't disagree that Joseph Smith's use of the GAEL to translate from the Kinderhook plates indicates that he took the GAEL seriously--as Mark and I said in our paper. I did, however, feel disappointed that Kerry presented our paper in such a way that viewers likely came away thinking Mark and I had written a work of Book of Abraham apologetics and that we had been blind to the fact that our paper was relevant to understanding the origins of the GAEL when, in actual fact, our paper presented no Book of Abraham apologetics at all. And, far from critics having been the first to see that our findings overturn Nibley's dated view that Joseph's scribes produced the GAEL to compete with him, we stated as much in the paper ourselves:
So, despite how our work was presented, lumped it in with Book of Abraham apologetics, we actually offered, not an apologia for the Book of Abraham, but a work of historical scholarship on the Kinderhook plates. This misperception is partly my fault, along with Mark. As Kerry went through and quoted all the places that Mark and I drew out implications from the historical data that Joseph Smith translated the Kinderhook plates by character matching rather than immediate revelation, this doubtless made the piece appear apologetic regarding the Kinderhook plates. But the podcast's approach to our piece as an apology for the Kinderhook plates, much less for the Book of Abraham, was nonetheless mistaken.p. 517 wrote:Whereas Joseph Smith’s open use of the Egyptian Alphabet book indicates that he saw himself acting in this case as a linguist, not a prophet, his possession and use of the book has implications for how his relationship with the book should be understood. Many, if not most, Mormon scholars have been skeptical about Smith’s involvement in the production of the curious Egyptian Alphabet documents, which do not reflect modern Egyptological understanding. Some have outright dismissed the relevance of these documents in understanding Smith’s translation of the Book of Abraham.
Samuel Brown, in an article on the relationship between Joseph Smith and William Phelps, argues that while Smith had been interested and involved in the production of the Egyptian Alphabet documents in 1835, he had then laid them aside, only to have Phelps revive them when Smith assigned Phelps to write a letter for him in November 1843. Brown writes: “Phelps appears to have made use of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers fairly autonomously in 1843, bringing the documents back to Smith’s attention after a long hiatus. . . . Smith does not seem to have been concerned with the Egyptian Grammar documents until Phelps came calling with his letter to James Arlington Bennet in hand.”
However, Smith’s autonomous use of the Egyptian Alphabet book six months earlier in the translation of the Kinderhook plates shows that he considered it a legitimate translation tool. Perhaps it was Smith who brought the document back to Phelps’s attention. Smith’s reliance on the book to translate a portion of the Kinderhook plates thus calls for a reconsideration of Smith’s relationship with this and the other Egyptian study documents.
To clarify this, I think it may be helpful for me to lay out what my viewpoints were when I made my main discoveries on the relationship of the GAEL to Joseph Smith's translation of a character from the Kinderhook plates. At no point in my discoveries on the Kinderhook plates was I motivated by apologetics. Prior to making my first discoveries about Joseph Smith's use of the GAEL to translate from the Kinderhook plates, I had already concluded that he had translated from them--and I assumed he had done so by revelation. I then chanced to be studying the GAEL, noticed how what Smith translated from the Kinderhook plates could derive from the GAEL's definition for the character it calls "ho-e-oop-hah," and compared that character with those on the Kinderhook plates, almost immediately finding a match--so I realized that Smith himself had made this same comparison as he translated from those plates. Then, by the time I found the New York Herald article with the eye-witness account that Joseph Smith compared the Kinderhook plates with the GAEL--which verified that he derived his Kinderhook plates translation from a character match between the KPs and the GAEL--I was an ex-Mormon atheist. As a complete non-believer, I of course had no apologetic motive either in making the find or in how I interpreted the sources. My desire then, as now, was to know what had actually happened in the Kinderhook plates episode. I recognized at the time, as did Mark, that the discovery meant Joseph Smith had derived his translation from the Kinderhook plates not by direct revelation but by identifying a matching character on the Kinderhook plates and a character on the GAEL.
That the identification of matching characters is not a revelatory process should be uncontroversial. Identifying matching characters between the various Book of Abraham-related sources is what you--Kerry--have done to show how the GAEL relates to the papyrus: to demonstrate that relationship, you've found the matching characters. This is also what I did in order to uncover how Joseph Smith derived the material he did from the Kinderhook plates: I compared the Kinderhook plates characters with those in the GAEL. If that is what is meant by translating by revelation, then you and I, in our respective projects comparing the GAEL characters to other documents, have translated these documents by revelation. But this is simply not what the term revelation means. Whether one is comparing characters on the GAEL with characters on the papyrus or comparing them with characters on the Kinderhook plates or with any other text, the process of identifying visually matching characters is not revelatory but simply perceptual.
This is a fact that Mark and I were able to easily agree on across ideological lines while I was ex-Mormon and he a believing Latter-day Saint. It is also a fact that has remained clear to me throughout my own ideological evolution across time and is one that should be similarly clear to anyone who considers the question of whether identifying two matching characters is in itself a revelatory process. (Indeed, this fact seems to have been quite clear to Bill and RFM, as when Bill acknowledged that the new discoveries had resolved the Kinderhook plates as a faith issue.)
So, this is a point you presented in a way that was simply mistaken. That the matching of characters like mine between the GAEL and the KPs and yours between the GAEL and the papyrus, is not a method of revelation is a fact self-evident under any intelligible definition of the term revelation. And my having held that view while just as much an ex-Mormon as you are now yourself demonstrates my lack of apologetic motive in perceiving that fact. The conclusions I've drawn on this have been consistent across ideological worldviews, and those conclusions, like the discoveries from which they emerge, have been driven simply by my desire to know what happened in the Mormon past. That's it.
I hope you'll correctly convey this to your viewers in future episodes.