Kerry Muhlestein, professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, PhD in Egyptology at UCLA in 2003.
I’ve heard that Joseph Smith created a supposed Egyptian alphabet and grammar that shows a complete lack of understanding of how to decipher hieroglyphics.
Oh how I wish we more fully understood what the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar represents! I do not approach these things with a need to prove them right, but with a desire to better understand what is happening. It is a spin-off of trying to understand them better that allows me to help those with honest questions to find answers. Seeking for more knowledge and understanding always leads to answers to questions, and also always leads to more questions. In the case of the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar, there is so little that we understand and so many questions.i
While I am not sure, it seems to me that Joseph Smith and his colleagues were trying to understand Egyptian.ii They likely did not know of the developments in Europe regarding the cracking of hieroglyphs. Even there the ability to translate had not truly been developed; it was and continues to be a work in progress. The work being done on Egyptian in Kirtland seemed to be largely the work of W. W. Phelps, with some involvement of Joseph Smith (on the work on the KEP, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XVAEC1wJFqY&list=PLc5yYrpPFm2sT29LjdbicouCVVWdaA0BW). Both Joseph Smith and W.W. Phelps seem to be products of their times, meaning, that like most others of their day, they thought that Egyptian symbols conveyed layers of meaning. Joseph Smith seemed to be trying to decipher the layers of meaning behind various characters.iii
We can better understand what he was probably trying to do (I cannot stress enough that we do not have enough evidence to draw any firm conclusions) by looking at how it fits into a timeline of Joseph Smith’s efforts to understand ancient languages. We know that for some time Joseph Smith had been interested in learning Hebrew, and that he and Oliver Cowdery had even tried to piece together Hebrew by looking at characters from the Golden Plates and comparing it with the translation of the Book of Mormon. (For more on Joseph Smith’s study of Hebrew see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3KZO80EYcmQ&list=PLc5yYrpPFm2sT29LjdbicouCVVWdaA0BW). In July of 1835 the Prophet engaged in sporadic attempts to translate the Egyptian papyri and create an alphabet and grammar.
The latter part of November 1835 became the most intensive period the Prophet would ever spend in translating the papyri. On November 19th he spent the day translating. The next day he also spent translating and said he made rapid progress. He showed many brethren the records on the 23rd and spent the afternoon of the 24th translating. The next day he spent the whole day translating, and the next was occupied with transcribing Egyptian characters from the papyri.iv This was apparently part of a short-lived attempt to continue to figure out the grammar of Egyptian because the very next day instead of working on the Egyptian language they begin studying Hebrew, a grammar and lexicon for which Joseph Smith had received from Oliver Cowdery a week earlier. The study of Hebrew eclipses the translation of the papyri, and never again will they receive as much translation attention as they had during the middle of November.
It seems that they gave up both their attempts to piece together Hebrew and Egyptian and opted for using published grammars and then a teacher to learn Hebrew. They did not have this option for Egyptian. The Prophet did not seem to engage in working on a translation of the Papyri again until he published portions of them in 1842. To our knowledge, he never worked on the alphabet and grammar again, abandoning that attempt in light of the possibility of learning Hebrew in a more conventional fashion. He did speak of it once more to W. W. Phelps when he was publishing the Book of Abraham in 1842, but it appears to only have been a passing conversation from which nothing came.
To summarize, the theory that the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar represent an attempt, led by W.W. Phelps but aided by Joseph Smith, to figure out an Egyptian grammar using at least something of Joseph Smith’s translation, is supported by the fact that it fits in well with what we know of Joseph Smith’s other activities. He had been engaged in trying to figure out how to translate Hebrew in a conventional manner by using his own translation work. He gave this up. He then tried to figure out how to translate Egyptian using his own translation work. He gave this up. He finally attempted to learn to translate Hebrew using a very difficult grammar, and gave this up in favor of hiring a Hebrew teacher. At this point Smith excelled in learning Hebrew and never seems to have returned to the idea of trying to pick up a language using less conventional means.
While there are some difficulties with this theory, it is, so far, the theory that best accounts for all of the evidence. There is a great deal of work to be done here, and hopefully other scholars will devote their time and training to helping us understand this less-than-crucial, though very interesting, issue.
i On the Kirtland Egyptian Papers see Brian M. Hauglid, A Textual History of the Book of Abraham: Manuscripts and Editions (Provo: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2010); also Brian M. Hauglid, “Thoughts on the Book of Abraham,” in No Weapon Shall Prosper, Robert L. Millett, ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2011), 242-253.
ii See John Gee, “Eyewitness, Hearsay, and Physical Evidence of the Joseph Smith Papyri”, Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute.
iii For more on this background, see John Gee. “Historical Overview.” A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri. Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute.
iv The Joseph Smith Papers, Journals vol. 1: 1832—1839, Dean C. Jessee, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Richard L. Jensen, eds. (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2008), 67, 73-76, 105. These can also be found at http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/journal-1835-1836.