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The surprising connection between Napoleon Bonaparte, Egypt and the newest Joseph Smith Papers volume

SALT LAKE CITY — If you ask Robin Jensen, there's one major thing that sets the Prophet Joseph Smith apart from other 19th century historical figures.

Jensen, an associate managing historian and volume editor with the Joseph Smith Papers project, said Joseph Smith may have founded a city, had peculiar marital practices and was killed by a mob, but so did other figures during that time.

So what's the big difference?

"The thing that makes Joseph Smith so unique and so interesting to scholars, particularly scholars of religion, were the scriptures that he produced," Jensen said. "Without those, obviously the Church wouldn't be here, the Joseph Smith Papers wouldn't be here."

Since it was launched in 2008, the Joseph Smith Papers project has published 18 volumes. The Joseph Smith Papers' newest addition, "Revelations and Translations, Volume 4: Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts," gives unprecedented insight into how Joseph approached the translation process, Jensen said.

"This series in particular, the 'Revelations and Translations' series, are not just the crown jewel of the project and the papers that members and scholars are most interested in, but they represent who Joseph Smith was and why he was important," Jensen said. "I think of all the volumes we’ve published in the 'Revelations and Translations' series, this volume shows us how he was a translator."

The newest addition to the Joseph Smith Papers series is "Revelations and Translations: Vol. 4."
The newest addition to the Joseph Smith Papers series is "Revelations and Translations: Vol. 4." Photo: Provided by Joseph Smith Papers

Using full-color, high-resolution images and transcripts, "Revelations and Translations, Vol. 4" gives readers a closer look at fragments of Egyptian papyri purchased by Joseph Smith and associates in 1835, documents used by Joseph and others to decipher Egyptian characters, and the manuscripts and first publication of the Book of Abraham, which is found today in The Pearl of Great Price.

Brian M. Hauglid, an associate professor at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University, worked with Jensen as a volume co-editor on Vol. 4.

"While some of the earlier Joseph Smith Papers volumes may contain one or two select documents from this collection, 'Revelations and Translations Vol. 4' brings together all the Egyptian papyri and the Abraham/Egyptian manuscripts for the first time in a scholarly edition," Hauglid wrote in an email."Anyone interested in studying these materials will now have all of these primary sources at their fingertips in both photographic and typescript formats."

Jensen and Hauglid discussed five interesting aspects of "Revelations and Translations, Vol. 4" for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and others who want to know more about this part of Joseph Smith's work.

"This volume gives unprecedented access to these documents," Jensen said. "We have scrutinized the typescript and looked carefully at the characters. This really does bring this archive of material to the individuals who are wanting to study it."

Egypt, Napoleon and ... Ohio?

Sparked by a fascination with ancient Egypt, Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in the late 18th century. He brought along dozens of scholars and essentially ransacked every tomb they could find. They found mummies, papyri and other artifacts.

They realized there was a market for these items, Jensen said, and began selling the Egyptian loot to museums in Europe. When the market became saturated, they looked to America.

In 1828, a traveling exhibit came within miles of Joseph Smith in Palmyra, New York, Jensen said.

"Joseph Smith would have been aware of this fascination with ancient Egypt," Jensen said. "He had his own interest in and precedence of revealing heavenly, divine truth through ancient civilizations. The Book of Mormon is of course an ancient record. ... So when mummies and papyri were carted into Kirtland, Ohio, you can bet Joseph Smith jumped at this chance to not only see them from an intellectual interest, but he must have wondered what truths could these have contained."

A man named Michael Chandler, who had toured and charged people to see the mummies and papyri, sold the last of his collection to Joseph Smith and others. The 2,000-year-old manuscripts were falling apart, so they made efforts to preserve them by placing them between panes of glass.

Methods of translation

When Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon, he used a variety of methods. He had interpreters that came with the golden plates, the seer stone and direct revelation. Sometimes he translated with the plates and at other times he didn't. He copied some of the characters and had Martin Harris show them to a scholar in New York, Jensen said.

When working on the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, Joseph often referred to another Bible. He corrected grammar, make minor tweaks to verses and revealed whole passages.

So when translating the Egyptian papyri, the Prophet has a spectrum of precedence he could draw upon. He had also learned from Oliver Cowdery's experience to "study it out," (see Doctrine and Covenants 9:8) and made an effort to learn the Egyptian characters, Jensen said.

This facsimile from the Book of Abraham is among the images found in "Revelations and Translations: Vol. 4" of the Joseph Smith Papers.
This facsimile from the Book of Abraham is among the images found in "Revelations and Translations: Vol. 4" of the Joseph Smith Papers. Photo: Provided by Joseph Smith Papers

"I think one of the things we forget, both as scholars and members of the church, is that Joseph Smith followed his own practice set," Jensen said. "What we have is Joseph Smith and his contemporaries, his scribes, friends and associates, studying it out in his mind, studying out the characters ... trying to make sense or understand the characters. ... Members of the Church, when counseled to seek personal revelation, are told the same thing."

Joseph Smith understood that revelation is not a passive experience, Hauglid said.

"I think this volume shows that Joseph Smith had a burning desire to learn ancient Egyptian through rigorous study. He may even have seen Egyptian and Hebrew as the gateway to deciphering the Adamic language through his own efforts accompanied with divine confirmation," Hauglid said. "However, the Egyptian papers in this volume bear no resemblance to the actual Egyptian language as understood by today’s Egyptologists. It is also interesting that Joseph Smith's work on the Egyptian papers took place at the same time he was translating the Book of Abraham."

A miraculous history

Joseph Smith worked on the translation in 1835 before setting it aside for a several years. Following moves from Missouri to Illinois, he became the editor of the Church's newspaper in Nauvoo and published the Book of Abraham, including three facsimiles, in the Times and Seasons in 1842.

"The Book of Abraham we have is what was published in the Times and Seasons, but it's not complete. It's essentially an excerpt or portion of the Book of Abraham," Jensen said.

After Joseph Smith died, his mother, Lucy Mack Smith, assumed ownership of the mummies and papyri. After she died, Emma Smith sold these items in a matter of weeks. The collection traveled to St. Louis and then to Chicago, where it was thought to be destroyed in a fire. But some of the items had been donated, given away or sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. In the 1960s, they were donated to the Church, Jensen said.

Questions? Here's what to do about them

It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that some scholars and others have questioned the 19th century origins of the Book of Abraham, Jensen said.

"That's a truth claim. It's for Church members to pray about, study, ponder and receive their own witness," Jensen said. "But I think we should grapple with this. I think we need to understand as best we can what Joseph Smith is doing and how he's doing it. I think as part of that we will come to know him better. But we should not go into this with a false assumption that we can somehow determine truth claims, divine origins or fraudulent activities."

This printing plate was used for publishing a facsimile from the Book of Abraham in the Times and Seasons in 1842. The image is among many found in "Revelations and Translations: Vol. 4" of the Joseph Smith Papers.
This printing plate was used for publishing a facsimile from the Book of Abraham in the Times and Seasons in 1842. The image is among many found in "Revelations and Translations: Vol. 4" of the Joseph Smith Papers. Photo: Provided by Joseph Smith Papers

For those with questions about the Book of Abraham, Hauglid offered four general thoughts:

  1. If you have questions, recognize they are legitimate and you shouldn't feel "alone, out of step or even crazy."
  2. Everyone has questions. These questions can be "an important (growing) part of a faith experience."
  3. While definitive answers aren't always forthcoming, there are various ways to look at questions so a person can discover their own understanding.
  4. Keep an open mind and allow for human error when thinking about how best to deal with questions.

"I try to help those with questions see that the origin story of the Book of Abraham should help us to understand and appreciate Joseph Smith's curiosity and seriousness about working hard to find out what the Lord would have him do," Hauglid said. "Most of the revelations Joseph Smith received were triggered by his asking questions, so I try to help members see that asking questions doesn’t have to be a negative experience.

"Learning new things about Joseph Smith and the Book of Abraham can help to dispel our own false views and assumptions about Joseph Smith's role as a translator. ... The Book of Abraham came about through the process of human effort and divine sanction. If there be any mistakes, as the title page of the Book of Mormon says, 'they are the mistakes of men.'"

For more about "Revelations and Translations, Vol. 4," visit JosephSmithPapers.org.

Note: For Salt Lake City residents, Robin Jensen and Brian Hauglid, co-editors of "The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations, Vol. 4: The Book of Abraham and Other Related Manuscripts" will be holding a lecture and question and answer session at 6 p.m. on Nov. 14. They will also sign books at Benchmark Books, 3269 S. Main Street, Suite 250, Salt Lake City, from 5:30-7:30 p.m.

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