Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Reformed Egyptian

Figure 1: A sample of the characters on the plates of the Book of Mormon. These characters were copied by Martin Harris and taken back to New York to be authenticated by scholars. One of the scholars Harris met was Charles Anton, who signed an affidavit attesting that they were authentic characters. When Anton discovered the nature of the translation, however, he destroyed the affidavit.

The Book of Mormon, according to Moroni, was written in a script called "reformed Egyptian" (Mormon 9:32). This script, accordingly, is some sort of Hebrew-Egyptian hybrid script, Moroni and other Nephite prophets indicate (1 Nephi 1:2).

Critics have often leveled the following criticisms against the usage of "reformed Egyptian" in the Book of Mormon:

1. They claim that no self respecting Jews would ever use the language of their dire enemies, the Egyptians.

2. They claim that there is no evidence for any kind of "reformed Egyptian" script in reality.

As shall be demonstrated, both of these accusations are false. Not only is there ample evidence that ancient Hebrews were utilizing, among other things, the language of the Egyptians but also that there are examples of hybrid scripts that comprise both Hebrew and Egyptian.

First, it must be noted that "reformed" is being used not as a proper noun, but as an adjective. It is describing the script. In other words, Moroni is simply indicating that the Egyptian script has been "altered", "modified" or "changed" by the Nephites. Secondly, this particular script was used only by the Nephites (Mormon 9:34). We therefore should not be surprised if we do not find an exact script similar to that of the Book of Mormon since "reformed Egyptian" was uniquely Nephite. With that in mind, let us proceed.

We shall first explore the accusation that Hebrews would never use the script of their enemies the Egyptians. M. T. Lamb, a critic of the Book of Mormon during the latter half of the 19th century, claimed that "There are a multitude of reasons that make such a statement altogether improbable. In the first place, Lehi had lived all his lifetime, ... in the city of Jerusalem, surrounded constantly by those who spoke only the Hebrew language.... In the second place, the Jews hated the Egyptians with a bitter hatred, and it is therefore inconceivable that a true-born Jew a real lover of his own people, loyal and patriotic as he professes to have been, would have been willing thus to insult his people, or that the Jews around him would have endured the insult. In the third place, the ancient Jew had an unusual veneration for his mother tongue, the sacred Hebrew.... Now that such a man with such a venerated language could have accepted instead the Egyptian tongue, which was associated only with ignominy and dishonor, [is] the height of absurdity...." (M. T. Lamb The Golden Bible pg. 89-91)

Other critics, such as Jerald and Sandra Tanner, John Ankerberg, Marvin Cowan, Grant Palmer and many more have echoed similar sentiments.

However, contrary to these anti-Mormons, there is now massive historical evidence that the ancient Jews of Lehi's day were writing in Egyptian.

Take, for example, the Amherst Papyrus. This document, written around the 4th century BC, contains Psalms 20: 2-6 written in Aramaic utilizing demotic Egyptian characters.

John Tvedtnes, a scholar in ancient Near Eastern languages and history, has this to say:

"More significant, however, was an ostracon uncovered at Arad in 1967. Dating "toward the end of the seventh century B.C.," it reflects usage from shortly before 600 B.C., the time of Lehi. The text on the ostracon is written in a combination of Egyptian hieratic and Hebrew characters, but can be read entirely as Egyptian. Of the seventeen words in the text, ten are written in [Egyptian] hieratic and seven in Hebrew. However, all the words written in Hebrew can be read as Egyptian words, while one of them, which occurs twice, has the same meaning in both Egyptian and Hebrew.19 Of the ten words written in hieratic script, four are numerals (one occurring in each line).20 One symbol, denoting a measure of capacity, occurs four times (once in each of the four lines), and the remaining Egyptian word occurs twice. Thus, while seventeen words appear on the ostracon, if one discounts the recurrence of words, only six words are written in hieratic (of which four are numerals), and six in Hebrew." ("Jewish and Other Semitic Texts Written in Egyptian Characters," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 5/2 (1996): 156–163.)

Daniel C. Peterson, in responding to John Ankerberg, has this to say about "Dr." Ankerberg's accusation:

"The statement "When modern Jews copy their scripture, they use Hebrew. They do not use Egyptian or Arabic, the language of their historic enemies" is quite an astonishing display of ignorance. Since the Egyptian language has been dead for centuries, it is hardly remarkable that modern Jews do not read the Bible in Egyptian. On the other hand, "the first and most important rendering [of the Old Testament] from Hebrew [into Arabic] was made by Sa'adya the Ga'on, a learned Jew who was head of the rabbinic school at Sura in Babylon (died 942)" (George A. Buttrick, ed., The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible [hereafter IDB], 4 vols. and supplement [Nashville: Abingdon, 1962–1976], 4:758b). Thus, Jews have indeed translated the Bible into "Arabic, the language of their historic enemies." They also have translated it into the language of their "historic enemies" the Greeks (IDB 4:750b on the Septuagint) and Aramaeans (IDB 1:185-93; 4:749-50, on the Aramaic Targums)." (Daniel C. Peterson, "Chattanooga Cheapshot, or The Gall of Bitterness (Review of Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Mormonism by John Ankerberg and John Weldon)," FARMS Review of Books 5/1 (1993): 1–86.)

As John S. Thompson has shown, "hieratic was the more commonly used Egyptian script in Israel" during Lehi's time. Thompson also goes on to elaborate on more Israelite texts that have been written in Egyptian scripts, such as some of the Lachish letters. (Glimpses of Lehi's Jerusalem pg. 267)

So, the claim that the ancient Hebrews would never use the Egyptian language or would never write their texts in Egyptian is totally false. There are numerous examples of such, only some of which have been provided herein.

Now, what about the second claim? What about the claim that there are no examples of Hebrew-Egyptian hybrid scripts? This too is false.

William Hamblin, a professor of Middle Eastern history at BYU, has shown numerous examples of texts written in scripts that utilize some form of "Semitic language with modified Egyptian hieroglyphic characters". These examples include:

1. Egyptian hieratic and demotic.
2. Byblos Syllabic texts.
3. Cretan hieroglyphics.
4. Meroitic
5. Psalm 20 in demotic Egyptian.
6. Proto-Sinaitic and the alphabet.

See here:

I have only touched on the surface of this issue. Latter-day Saint scholars have done a lot of work on this subject that the reader is encouraged to check out.

However, regardless of how brief this treatise may have been, it is clear that the ancient Hebrews not only wrote their texts in Egyptian but also utilized Hebrew-Egyptian hybrid scripts. The Book of Mormon is right on the mark in this regards. "Reformed Egyptian" is not a miss but a surprising bulls-eye for the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith.

For further reading:

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