In the opening sentence of the Book of Mormon, Nephi states,
"therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my
father." He expands this statement slightly in the next verse:
"Yea, I make a record in the language of my father, which
consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians."
Much later, we learn that the brass plates, which Nephi took
from Laban's treasury, were written in Egyptian characters. We
are told that Lehi was "taught in the language of the Egyptians
therefore he could read these engravings" (Mosiah 1:4).
It is not until nearly the end of the Book of Mormon that we
learn that the plates which compose the Book of Mormon were themselves
written in Egyptian:
"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).
Nowhere in the Book of Mormon is any explanation offered as
to how Lehi became skilled in reading and writing Egyptian characters.
Interest in Egyptian antiquities had been reawakened at the
end of the eighteenth century by the military expedition of Napoleon,
who entered Cairo on 25 July 1798. Napoleon brought with him 175
civilians, including scientists, Orientalists, artists, and poets,
who came to study the pyramids and other ancient artifacts. They
did not know the meaning of the curious hieroglyphs which were
found on statues and temple walls, but one of Napoleon's soldiers
did discover by chance the key to their decipherment, a basalt
stele which became known as the Rosetta Stone. Solving the mystery
of the hieroglyphs had to await the work of Champollion, whose
Egyptian Grammar was not published until 1836. In the meantime,
there were many attempts, both educated and uneducated, to decipher
the Egyptian characters.
The Book of Mormon seems to reflect this renewed interest in
Egyptian artifacts. Ancient writers who referred to the hieroglyphs
were not very informative, but one passage in Herodotus may have
suggested the "reformed Egyptian" of the Book of Mormon:
"In writing or calculating, instead of going, like the
Greeks, from left to right, the Egyptians go from right to left
. ... They have two sorts of writing, the sacred and the common"
(Herodotus 1972, 143).
According to Tacitus, the Egyptians discovered the alphabet
and introduced it to the Phoenicians, who taught the Greeks how
to write. Herodotus adds, speaking of the Greeks,
"At first they used the same characters as all the other
Phoenicians, but as time went on, and they changed their language,
they also changed the shape of their letters" (Herodotus
In his 1832 history, Joseph Smith related that he made a copy
of the characters which were on the plates that he had discovered
and sent Martin Harris with a copy to eastern cities to see if
the "learned" could read the characters. In New York
City, Harris showed the characters to Charles Anthon, professor
of Greek and Latin at Columbia College. Harris claimed that Anthon
verified the characters as true and a translation of some of them
as correct, although Anthon denied this. This trip to New York
was a fulfillment of Isaiah 29:11-12, which refers to a sealed
book being delivered to "one that is learned."
The Book of Mormon greatly alters these few words by adding
nineteen verses. However, the Anthon affair leaves some questions
unanswered. Joseph and Martin could have made up a story to fulfill
the prophecy without making an actual trip to New York. And if
Joseph had invented the characters himself and knew that they
were indecipherable, why would he ask Anthon to examine them?
If, on the other hand, the characters were not Joseph's invention,
Joseph may not have known whether they were genuine or not, and
he certainly would not want to put forth a translation of the
characters, if it was possible for someone to read them and prove
him wrong. He may, therefore, have sent Martin with a copy of
the characters to the learned to discover whether or not they
were authentic. However, Joseph never included a copy of the characters
with his publication of the Book of Mormon.
In July 1835 Joseph Smith acquired some Egyptian scrolls, which
he immediately started to translate, claiming that the rolls contained
the writings of Abraham and Joseph of Egypt. He also began work
on an Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar and discovered that the hieroglyphs
on the papyri were similar to both Hebrew and to the characters
on the plates which contained the Book of Mormon.
After Joseph's death in 1844, the papyri remained in the custody
of Emma Smith. In 1856 she sold them to a man named A. Combs.
For many years, it was thought that they had been given to a museum
in Chicago and that they had been destroyed in the Great Fire
of 1871. However, they were discovered in 1966 at the New York
Metropolitan Museum of Art and were acquired by the Mormon church
the following year.
Since their discovery, the papyri have been examined by Egyptologists.
Because Joseph copied characters from the papyri and wrote out
his translation next to them, it has been possible to determine
exactly which one of the papyri supposedly contained the writings
of Abraham. This is often referred to as the small Sensen fragment.
This papyrus has been translated and is nothing more than a
very common funerary text, dating between 100 B.C. and A.D. 100,
taken from the Book of Breathings, which is itself a shorter version
of the Egyptian Book of the Dead. These texts were placed in coffins
or burial chambers to assist the soul of the deceased in the afterlife.
In the first part of the Egyptian Grammar, Joseph Smith listed
a number of characters and gave each of them a name and definition.
Joseph's scheme included a series of five degrees, in which the
meaning of the characters varies.
For example, Joseph gave the name Iota to a character
which looks like a dot (Iota is of course the name for the Greek
letter "i"). The meaning of Iota in the five degrees
is as follows:
||see, saw, seeing, or having seen or having been seen
||sight; I shall or will see that which is to come; to see
||seen or sight
||the eye, or I see
Joseph gave the name Zip Zi to another symbol, which is
simply a short, horizontal line. Zip Zi has the following meanings:
||the same of the fourth only increases or lessens five degrees
||all women; it took its origin from the earth yielding its
fruit. And from the first woman who bore children; and men
were multiplied upon the earth, and is used in this degree
as a numeral, by being inserted above or below another character
it increases by being drawn above. And signifies above, more,
greater, more glorious. And when inserted under signifies
beneath less, smaller, least
||under or beneath, second in right or in authority or government,
a fruitful place or fruitful vine
||a woman married or unmarried or a daughter, or mother, or
mothers, and some times the first woman, who was Eve
||a woman married or unmarried or daughter, signifies all,
or any woman
Joseph called a compound symbol "Iota toues Zip Zi."
According to his definition, this is the name of Egypt and means
"a land discovered under water by a woman." In Joseph's
system, drawing lines above or below a symbol either increased
or decreased its signification, and in some way the lines were
also associated with parts of speech.
Joseph Smith's translation of the Sensen papyrus produced a
manuscript which fills eleven printed pages and consists of five
chapters with a total of 136 verses. The handwritten copies of
the Book of Abraham demonstrate the manner in which Joseph and
his scribes worked.
There are four existing manuscripts. The first two, designated
as 1a and 1b, are contained in the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar.
1a is in the handwriting of W. W. Phelps and runs from Abraham
1:4 to 2:6; 1b was copied by Warren Parrish and runs from Abraham
1:4 to 2:2. A longer manuscript was obtained in 1937 by Wilford
Wood from Charles E. Bidamon, the son of Emma Smith's second husband.
This document is in the handwriting of both Phelps and Parrish;
Phelps added Abraham 1:1 to 1:3, while Parrish continued the text
from Abraham 1:4 to 2:18. A later manuscript copied by Willard
Richards includes Abraham 1:1 to 2:18 and 3:18-26.
The Sensen papyrus is damaged and portions of the right-hand
side of the first three lines of hieratic script are missing.
In manuscripts 1a and 1b the scribes copied three characters,
which correspond to the missing portion of line one, and wrote
out next to them the text of Abraham 1:4-7. They then copied the
remaining six characters on line one, with the corresponding text
of Abraham 1:7-19.
Four more characters were inserted in place of the missing portion
of line two, and were translated as Abraham 1:20-28. The remaining
five characters on line two furnished the text of Abraham 1:29
In the longer Phelps-Parrish manuscript, Phelps copied three
groups of new characters with the text of Abraham 1:1-3; the manuscript
then continues with the same characters and translation as are
found in 1a and 1b.
Abraham 2:6 begins with the first character on line three of
the papyrus. A new character was inserted to fill the missing
portion of line three and was translated as Abraham 2:7-9. The
remaining three characters on line three correspond to the text
of Abraham 2:9-16.
Finally, the translation ended with the first character on line
four and the text of Abraham 2:17-18.
There is evidence that the Sensen papyrus was damaged when Joseph
Smith possessed it and that the portions which are missing now
were missing when it was translated.
In a couple of instances, the characters which were inserted
appear to have been copied from another line of the papyrus, but
in most cases they seem to be Joseph's own inventions.
In addition, Egyptologists have been able to reconstruct the
missing portions by comparing the Sensen fragment with other similar
papyri, and the characters which Joseph supplied do not match
the reconstructed text. We have seen that there are serious problems
with the first three verses of the Book of Abraham.
In manuscripts 1a and 1b, the translation began with verse four,
and this was only after the scribes had added three characters
to fill in the missing portion of line one. In the longer manuscript,
W. W. Phelps wrote the text of Abraham 1:1-3 next to three new
characters, which were inserted before the other three characters,
which had already been added to the beginning of line one. Thus
it does not appear that the first three verses of Abraham could
have been on the papyrus.
The Book of Abraham and the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar appear
to be related to another document called the Book of Enoch. When
Joseph Smith made his revision of the Bible, he added visions
of Enoch to chapter 7 of his Book of Moses. Joseph claimed that
these visions were from the lost Book of Enoch.
The next clue that Joseph had other material in his possession
comes in a revelation dated March 1832:
"the Lord God, the Holy One of Zion, who hath established
the foundations of Adam-ondi-Ahman; who hath appointed Michael
your prince ... ." (D&C 78:15-16).
Next we have a patriarchal blessing which was given on 18 December
1833. Joseph Smith's father, who had already been made a high
priest, was ordained as the first patriarch of the church during
this meeting. Oliver Cowdery recorded the blessing and added these
"we diligently sought for the right of the fathers, and
the authority of the holy priesthood, and the power to administer
in the same; for we desired to be followers of righteousness
and the possessors of greater knowledge" (Tanner 1982,
This is very similar to the wording of Abraham 1:2:
"I sought for the blessings of the fathers and the right
whereunto I should be ordained to administer the same; having
been myself a follower of righteousness, desiring also to be
one who possessed great knowledge ... ."
Both the wording and content of Oliver's remarks seem to depend
on the Book of Abraham. If Oliver was using material from the
Book of Abraham in 1833, it would prove that Joseph Smith had
the material even before he acquired the papyri. However, there
are some who claim that although the blessing was given in 1833,
Oliver's comments were not recorded before 1835. Nonetheless, when Joseph Smith's father was ordained as patriarch,
Joseph's blessing contained these words:
"Three years previous to the death of Adam, he called
Seth, Enos, Cainan, Mahalaleel, Jared, Enoch and Methuselah,
who were High Priests, with the residue of his posterity, who
were righteous, into the valley of Adam-ondi-Ahman, and there
bestowed upon them his last blessing. And the Lord appeared
unto them, and they rose up and blessed Adam, and called him
Michael, the Prince, the Archangel" (Joseph Smith 1976a,
These same words were included in Section 107 of the Doctrine
and Covenants, in a revelation dated 28 March 1835. And Section
"These things were all written in the book of Enoch, and
are to be testified of in due time" (D&C 107:57).
In June 1835 the Messenger and Advocate published the words
of a hymn written by W. W. Phelps, entitled "Adam-ondi-Ahman."
The first stanza reads:
"This world was once a garden place,/With all her glories
common;/And men did live a holy race,/And worship Jesus face
to face,/In Adam-ondi-Ahman."
Joseph also included the name in his Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar,
when he defined the character "Beth":
"The place appointed of God for the residence of Adam;
Adam ondi-Ahman, a garden made to be fruitful, by blessing or
promise; great valley or plain given by promise; filled with
fruit trees and precious flowers, made for the healing of man.
. . . place of happiness -- purity, holiness, and rest; even
Zomar _____ Zion."
On 19 May 1838 Joseph claimed that he had found the site of
Adam-ondi-Ahman in Missouri near the Grand River. It was a place
"which the brethren called 'Spring Hill,' but by the mouth
of the Lord it was named Adam-ondi-Ahman, because, said He,
it is the place where Adam shall come to visit his people, or
the Ancient of Days shall sit, as spoken of by Daniel the Prophet"
(Joseph Smith 1976b, 3:35; D&C 116).
This was near a spot which Joseph had named Tower Hill, because
of the remains of a Nephite altar and tower that stood there. The references to Zomar and Zion in the definition of "Beth"
are also of interest. Joseph Smith had attempted to establish
Zion near Independence, Missouri, and planned to build a temple
there. In August 1831, Ezra Booth wrote that on the site of the
temple, there was a sapling:
"On the south side of the sapling will be found the letter
T, which stands for Temple; and on the east side Zom! for Zomas;
which Smith says is the original word for Zion" (Howe 1834,
Thus Joseph knew both the account of Adam-ondi-Ahman and the
name Zomar or Zomas long before he prepared his Egyptian Grammar.
Section 78 of the Doctrine and Covenants, which contains the
first mention of Adam-ondi-Ahman, also refers to Christ as "the
Son Ahman" (D&C 78:20). According to Orson Pratt, this
is the name of Christ in the pure language spoken by Adam:
"There is one revelation that this people are not generally
acquainted with. I think it has never been published, but probably
will be in the Church History. It is given in questions and
answers. The first question is, 'What is the name of God in
the pure language?' The answer says, 'Ahman.' 'What is the name
of the son of God?' Answer, 'Son Ahman -- the greatest of all
the parts of God excepting Ahman.' 'What is the name of men?'
'Sons Ahman,' is the answer. 'What is the name of angels in
the pure language?' 'Angloman'" (McConkie 1966, 29).
Section 78 has some other peculiarities. As originally published
in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants, the revelation read:
"The Lord spake unto Enoch, saying, hearken unto me saith
the Lord your God, who are ordained unto the high priesthood
of my church .... it must needs be that there be an organization
of my people, in regulating and establishing the affairs of
the storehouse for the poor of my people, both in this place
and in the land of Zion, or in other words, the city of Enoch"
(Cf. D&C 78:1-3).
The revelation said further:
"let my servant Ahashdah, and my servant Gazelam, or
Enoch, and my servant Pelagoram, sit in council with the saints
which are in Zion" (Cf. D&C 78:9).
Subsequent editions inserted names of individuals in brackets
after the names in the revelation. Enoch and also Gazelam were
identified as Joseph Smith, Ahashdah was Newel K. Whitney, and
Pelagoram was Sidney Rigdon. However, the current edition of the
Doctrine and Covenants has dropped the names Enoch, Gazelam, Ahashdah,
and Pelagoram, substituting the names of individuals, and has
completely eliminated reference to the city of Enoch. Other revelations also included unusual names, including the
|Enoch, Ahashdah, Gazelam, Adam-ondi-Ahman, Son
26 April 1832
|Alam, Ahashdah, Mahalaleel, Pelagoram, Gazelam,
Horah, Olihah, Shalemanasseh, Mahemson, Shinehah
15 March 1833
1 June 1833
|Son Ahman, Alphus, Omegus
4 June 1833
|Ahashdah, Zombre, Seth
24 Feb. 1834
|Baurak Ale [Joseph Smith]
23 April 1834
|Pelagoram, Shinehah, Mahemson, Zombre, Gazelam,
Shederlaomach, Olihah, Ahashdah; in addition, Tahhanes was
used to refer to a tannery, Ozondah meant a mercantile store,
Shule an ashery, Cainhannoch was New York, and Laneshine was
a print shop, while Shinelah meant "to print" and
shinelane was "printing"
22 June 1834
|Baurak Ale, Baneemy
28 March 1835
19 May 1838
8 July 1838
|Adam-ondi-Ahman, Olaha Shinehah
Fawn Brodie stated, concerning Section 104: "the Mormons
believed these to be the names of people living in the days of
Enoch" (Brodie 1971, 141).
It is significant that five of the revelations listed above
deal with the "united order": Sections 78, 82, 92, 96,
and 104. The order was first outlined in Section 42, received
on 9 February 1931, and it was intended that the surplus from
the consecration of property would be administered to the poor.
The Book of Moses had already been given to Joseph as a revelation
in December 1830, and it describes the people in the time of Enoch:
"And the Lord called his people ZION, because they were
of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there
was no poor among them" (Moses 7:18).
This seems to have been the ideal which the united order was
intended to realize in the new Zion. Thus the names in the above
list do seem to be associated with Enoch. The facts suggest that
the Book of Enoch contained the following information: an account
of the gathering at Adam-ondi-Ahman where the Lord blessed Adam,
an explanation of the meanings of terms in the pure Adamic language,
visions of Enoch, an exposition of the order of Enoch or the united
order, and a history of the people living in the time of Enoch.
Joseph had already used a considerable amount of material from
the Book of Enoch by 1835. In July 1835 the Egyptian papyri fell
into Joseph's hands, and he probably realized that he could link
the writings of Abraham and Joseph to the scrolls.
The Enochian names almost completely disappear from the revelations
in the Doctrine and Covenants after 1835. However, one of these
names occurs in the Book of Abraham, when the Lord shows Abraham
the planets and stars:
"And he said unto me: This is Shinehah, which is the
sun. And he said unto me: Kokob, which is star. And he said
unto me: Olea, which is the moon. And he said unto me: Kokaubeam,
which signifies stars" (Abraham 3:13).
Shinehah had been used in Sections 82 and 104 as a term designating
Kirtland, Ohio, and Section 117 states:
"Is there not room enough on the mountains of Adam-ondi-Ahman,
and on the plains of Olaha Shinehah, or the land where Adam
dwelt ... . Therefore, come up hither unto the land of my people,
even Zion" (D&C 117:8-9).
This was written in Far West, Missouri, and Joseph had already
identified a site in Missouri as Adam-ondi-Ahman. The name Shinehah
does not appear in the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar, but one
of the fixed stars is called Shineflis.
However, in Section 104, Joseph seems to have been doing something
very similar to what he would later do in the Grammar. The word
Laneshine was used to mean a print shop, shinelah meant "to
print," and shinelane meant "printing." We have
seen that in the Grammar Joseph gave the names and definitions
of Egyptian characters.
We should also recall that when Joseph began work on the Book
of Mormon, his first act was to copy down characters from the
plates and give a translation of them. David Whitmer stated,
"Frequently one character would make two lines of manuscript,
while others made but a word or two words" (Lamb 1887,
Whitmer could not have known this unless at one time Joseph
was using a system similar to that which appears in the Egyptian
Alphabet and Grammar, in which characters and the interpretation
were placed side by side. Joseph Smith also derived many lines
of manuscript from just one Egyptian character. According to Richard
Bushman, Lucy Smith said in the Preliminary Manuscript for her
Biographical Sketches that
"Joseph was instructed 'to take off a facsimile of the
characters composing the alphabet which were called reformed
egyptian Alphabetically and send them to all the learned men
that he could find and ask them for the translation of the same.'
Lucy implied that once Joseph had a translation of all the basic
characters, he could carry on by himself -- thus the need to
copy a great number of characters" (Bushman 1984, 86).
This seems to be proof that Joseph had not merely the text of
the Book of Mormon, but also the basic characters of the Egyptian
alphabet. This suggests that the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar
really belonged to the Book of Mormon and that Joseph deleted
it and then later adapted it to the Egyptian papyri.
We should take note of another indication that Joseph had unpublished
material at hand, which he was waiting for an opportunity to use.
In 1843 some men from Kinderhook, Illinois, claimed that they
had discovered some plates covered with hieroglyphs, and the plates
were taken to Joseph to translate. Joseph wrote in his history:
I insert fac-similes of the six brass plates found near Kinderhook,
in Pike county, Illinois, on April 23, by Mr. Robert Wiley and
others, while excavating a large mound. They found a skeleton
about six feet from the surface of the earth, which must have
stood nine feet high. The plates were found on the breast of
the skeleton and were covered on both sides with ancient characters.
I have translated a portion of them, and find they contain the
history of the person with whom they were found. He was a descendant
of Ham, through the loins of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and that
he received his kingdom from the Ruler of heaven and earth.
(Joseph Smith 1976b 5:372)
Joseph's interpretation of the characters on the plates sounds
like a sequel to the Book of Abraham. Abraham 1 gives a brief
account of the founding of Egypt by a daughter of Ham and states
concerning the Pharaoh who lived in the time of Abraham:
"Now this king of Egypt was a descendant from the loins
of Ham, and was a partaker of the blood of the Canaanites by
birth" (Abraham 1:21).
The men who brought the Kinderhook plates to Joseph were probably
waiting for him to publish his translation, but this never happened.
Thirty-six years later, one of the men, Wilbur Fugate, admitted
that the whole thing was a hoax and that they had made the plates
themselves. However, some Mormons still claim that the plates
were genuine and that Joseph did translate a portion of them.
Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery stated that the Egyptian papyri
also contained the writings of Joseph, the son of Jacob, and it
seems that the Book of Mormon provides us with a portion of this
record. When Lehi blessed his son Joseph, he quoted from the prophecies
of the biblical Joseph (2 Nephi 3).
Joseph Smith included these prophecies in his translation of
chapter 50 of the Book of Genesis, but with variations. Moroni
also quoted a prophecy of the biblical Jacob concerning the seed
of Joseph (Alma 46:24-25), which is not included in the JST.
The concept of a record containing ancient prophecies is found
not only in the Book of Mormon, but in the Book of Moses as well.
The Book of Moses states that in the days of Enos
"a book of remembrance was kept, in the which was recorded,
in the language of Adam, for it was given unto as many as called
upon God to write by the spirit of inspiration; and by them
their children were taught to read and write, having a language
which was pure and undefiled" (Moses 6:5-6).
Enoch says further:
"For a book of remembrance we have written among us,
according to the pattern given by the finger of God; and it
is given in our own language" (Moses 6:46).
The Book of Abraham seems to indicate that Abraham came into
possession of the book of remembrance, for it says:
"But the records of the fathers, even the patriarchs,
concerning the right of Priesthood, the Lord my God preserved
in mine own hands; therefore a knowledge of the beginning of
the creation, and also of the planets, and of the stars, as
they were made known unto the fathers, have I kept even unto
this day" (Abraham 1:31).
The Book of Mormon also states that king Benjamin taught his
"the language of his fathers ... . And he also taught
them concerning the records which were engraven on the plates
of brass" (Mosiah 1:2-3).
Benjamin says further that the brass plates were engraved in
the language of the Egyptians. These brass plates had been in
the possession of Laban and his ancestors, until they were taken
from Laban's treasury by Nephi. Thus the concept of an ancient
record, passed on from one generation to another, runs through
and binds together the Book of Mormon, the Book of Moses, and
the Book of Abraham.
Furthermore, we are led to speculate that the Egyptian language
was either the same as the language of Adam or was a modified
version of it. And it seems very probable that the Book of Mormon,
the Book of Moses, the Book of Abraham, and the Egyptian Alphabet
and Grammar all came from the same source.
Brodie, Fawn M. 1971. No Man Knows My History: The Life of
Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet. 2d ed., rev. and enl. New
York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Bushman, Richard L. 1984. Joseph Smith and the Beginnings
of Mormonism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Herodotus. 1972. Herodotus: The Histories. Translated
by Aubrey de Sélincourt. Revised by A. R. Burn. Harmondsworth,
Middlesex, England: Penguin Books.
Howe, E. D. 1834. Mormonism Unvailed. Reprint. Salt Lake
City: Utah Lighthouse Ministry, n.d.
Lamb, M. T. 1887. The Golden Bible, or, The Book of Mormon;
Is it from God? New York: Ward & Drummond.
McConkie, Bruce R. 1966. Mormon Doctrine. 2d ed. Salt
Lake City: Bookcraft.
Smith, Joseph. 1976a. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith.
Compiled by Joseph Fielding Smith. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book
Smith, Joseph. 1976b History of the Church of Jesus Christ
of Latter-Day Saints. 6 vols. 2d ed. rev. Edited by B. H.
Roberts. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company.
Sperry, Sidney B. 1968. Book of Mormon Compendium. Salt
Lake City: Bookcraft.
Tanner, Jerald and Sandra Tanner. 1982. Mormonism -- Shadow
or Reality? 4th ed. Salt Lake City: Utah Lighthouse Ministry.