There are 17 thoughts on “The Joseph Smith Papers Project Stumbles”.

  1. As per these comments, Dan Vogel gives his point-of-view with rebuttals against John Gee’s assessments as found within the article. What I find most disturbing, including the comments by those who stand by Vogel, is that Gee’s documentation as shown to explicitly list “documented” history is nearly unassailable.

    Certainly I can see where Hauglid/Jensen/Vogel’s theories come from. Anyone with half a mind can come up with theories. But for Gee’s theories, which follow factual documented evidence, they leave the other theories in the dust.

    Making up theories is easy. Defending those theories should be as easy as pointing to the direct factual evidence which John Gee shows that Hauglid/Jensen just did not accomplish. Not stopping there, Gee lists the applicable statements and dates and corresponds them. This seems fairly unassailable when viewed in the clear world of black-and-white scholarship.

    If, (and this is a big IF…) if Hauglid/Jensen and Vogel have the capability of putting together a timeline as cohesive and explanatory as Gee’s, then we should consider it, but the discrepancies and inconsistencies that Gee points out are very, very serious.

  2. Thank goodness the church didn’t let someone with such theologically motivated biases direct this volume of the JSPP. I agree strongly with the editors of the volume and with Vogel’s assessment of Gee’s complaints.

    If they had attempted to conclude that Abr 2:19ff was composed in the Ohio period, or that Phelps was behind the KEP, it would have been a black mark upon the integrity of the entire JSPP, as an unbiased reading of all the relevant sources just doesn’t give such conclusions any valid footing.

  3. I was glad to see that dialogue with the JSP Project team occurred and resulted in a modest clarification of a statement or two. But nothing substantial has changed. It is very troubling to see that Egypotological expertise was left out of the operation from the beginning (apart from a superficial effort at the end) that could have helped prevent some significant mistakes. I am not sure of the reasons for this gap, but I hope there can be some remedy to address the significant gaps.

  4. I have to say that I find it somewhat ironic how John Gee was willing to address and recompile this review after “… a substantive conversation between the author and principal figures in the Joseph Smith Papers Project.” Wouldn’t it have been equally appropriate if the editors of the Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations, Volume 4: or JSPRT4 would have been likewise as willing to include his, (John Gee’s) and other church-member Egyptologists to review and perhaps change much of their erroneous conclusions in said project PRIOR to publication. Irony knows no bounds.

  5. Continuing with Gee’s historical theories:

    Gee complains, “Others have put forth historical arguments that W. W. Phelps, not Joseph Smith, authored many of the documents published in the volume. These arguments are ignored” (Gee, 183). The only evidence Gee has given is his own misreading of a passage in Joseph Smith’s journal under 13 November 1843, which Gee thinks describes Joseph Smith going to Phelps’ house for the GAEL. His reading is incorrect, because it describes either Smith going to his own office where Phelps worked or Phelps going to the Mansion House where Smith lived. Besides, Phelps probably helped Richards compose the entry in Smith’s history that assigned authorship to Joseph Smith.

    Gee objects to Jensen and Hauglid’s assumption that the translation in Kirtland in 1835 ended with Abraham 2:18, and complains that they “are ignoring a great deal of evidence that others have adduced for precisely the idea that Joseph Smith had translated more of the Book of Abraham than that at that time” (Gee, 184). Both Gee and Kerry Muhlestein have argued that the entire Book of Abraham was dictated in 1835, even the last three chapters that show signs of Joseph Smith’s Hebrew lessons in early 1836. Gee cites Muhlestein and Megan Hansen’s theory that the Hebrew words and other Hebrew influenced translations were added in Nauvoo before publication in 1842. There is no credible evidence that Joseph Smith inserted the Hebrew-inspired material in Nauvoo or that he translated beyond Abraham 2:18 in Kirtland, which he published in the first installment in the Times and Seasons (1 March 1842). His journal records that he and Richards were working on the next installment on 8-9 March, which appeared in the 15 March 1842 issue.

    Gee attempts to provide evidence that the translation in Kirtland extended beyond Abraham 2:18 by pointing out the disparity between what Jensen and Hauglid believe was translated in Kirtland and what they think was produced in Nauvoo. “Joseph Smith’s Kirtland period journals record him translating on 7 October 1835, 19 November 1835, 20 November 1835, 24 November 1835, and 25 November 1835. This is a minimum of five sessions. In Nauvoo, there is only a day and a half of translation” (Gee, 184-85). Gee assumes that the Alphabets and Grammar were not translations by Smith, but derive from Phelps’ reverse engineering of the Book of Abraham. However, the entry in Smith’s history states that he was “engaged in translating an alphabet to the Book of Abraham.”

    Because of identical or nearly identical corrections in the Book of Abraham manuscripts scribed by Frederick G. Williams and Warren Parrish, it is clear that they wrote simultaneously from Joseph Smith’s dictation. The probable date for that to have occurred was 19-20 November 1835, when Joseph Smith’s journal mentions all three were together and toured the temple, after which “I returned home and spent the day in translating the Egyptian records” and on the next day “spent the day in translating, and made rapid progress.”

  6. Gee complains that equal time was not given to apologetic scholarship dealing with the reverse-translation, long-scroll, and disputed-authorship theories as if it were only a matter of interpreting the historical sources differently. It’s not. The scholarship Gee and others have produced on what is known as the Kirtland Egyptian Papers is unsound and cannot be recommended.

    For example, Gee criticizes the date Jensen and Hauglid give for the Egyptian Alphabets—“circa Early July-circa November 1835”—which is as vague as you could get. Yet, Gee states, “This date provided for the Egyptian Alphabet documents by the editors does not match that provided by Joseph Smith’s journals, which indicate a specific date for these documents (1 October 1835)” (Gee, 179).

    Joseph Smith’s journal states no such thing. On 1 October 1835, Oliver Cowdery wrote in Joseph Smith’s journal: “This after noon labored on the Egyptian alphabet, in company with brsr. O. Cowdery and W. W. Phelps: The system of astronomy was unfolded.” Because the astronomy appears in the bound Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language (GAEL), not the Alphabets, Gee has attempted to argue that working on the “Egyptian alphabet” and the unfolding of astronomy were separate activities. However, aside from a few brief discussions of grammar, the GAEL is mostly an expansion of the Alphabets into five degrees of meaning. There is no reason Cowdery could not have referred to the Grammar and Alphabet as simply the “Egyptian alphabet.” In fact, some of the pages of the Grammar have the heading “Egyptian Alphabet.” Gee’s contorted reading of the passage is unnecessary. Besides, the journal entry says nothing about when the document was begun, only that they were working on it.

    Joseph Smith’s history states, “The remainder of this month [July 1835], I was continually engaged in translating an alphabet to the Book of Abraham, and arrangeing a grammar of the Egyptian language as practiced by the ancients” (HC, 1:238). This tells us when the Alphabets were begun—in July, not October. It also tells us by whom—Joseph Smith, not Phelps. The passage is important because it was composed by Willard Richards on 16 September 1843, no doubt with the help of Joseph Smith and/or W. W. Phelps, two of the participants. In his recent book, Gee neglects to quote this passage as well as the previous statement that in July 1835 Joseph Smith, with scribes Cowdery and Phelps, “commenced the translation of some of the characters or hieroglyphics, and much to our joy found that one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham; another the writings of Joseph of Egypt, &c.” Yet, Gee asserts that all the Book of Abraham that we have and possibly more was translated in July 1835 without ever documenting that claim.

    The only reason Gee wants the entire Book of Abraham translated in early July 1835 is so he can argue the old Nibley apologetic that the Alphabets and GAEL are attempts by Phelps to reverse engineer Joseph Smith’s translation. The problem with that theory is that the Alphabets and GAEL only relate to the Book of Abraham indirectly. In fact, they are translations of characters from Amerhotep and Ta-sherit-Min papyri as well as the columns from Joseph Smith Papyrus I that flank Fac. 1, whereas the characters in the margins of the Book of Abraham manuscripts come from Joseph Smith Papyrus XI. Since the reverse translation theory cannot be maintained, there is no need to insist that the entire Book of Abraham was translated in July 1835.

  7. Gee’s discussion of the different practices of ancient and American historians is not relevant since most of his examples do not deal with visual versus authorial intent. I find the attempt to avoid the problem of authorial intent to be an illusion that produces some very unreadable texts. It is one of the things about Royal Skousen’s transcriptions of the Book of Mormon manuscripts that I find unnecessarily annoying.

    As someone who has transcribed thousands of pages of documents, let me tell you that it is not a science. The Joseph Smith Papers editors have clearly stated this: “Text transcription and verification is therefore an imperfect art than a science” (e.g., Vol. 1, p. lix of the Journals series). Most of the transcription errors Gee has listed are not due to a difference in methodology but are merely judgment calls. When I looked at Gee’s 23 examples, I found that only 7 were probably right, 9 were probably wrong, 5 were only possibly right, and 2 were undetermined.

    In several of Gee’s examples, he wants to show overwrites of the same letters, whereas Jensen and Hauglid chose not to indicate them. This seems to be the reason for other transcribing differences such as where Gee reads “possession<s>” instead of “possessions.” Jensen and Hauglid evidently read the terminal “s” as an overwrite, whereas Gee sees it as an insertion. However, it might be a strikeout. Note also that Gee does not use the long-s in the two “ss” as one might expect of a transcription that “prioritizes what the scribe actually wrote.” In Willard Richards’ 1842 transcription, Gee wants to change “canaanites” to “canaanite<s>”. However, a close examination shows that the terminal “s” is touched-up as is also the first “a”.

    There are several instances where Gee is less conservative than Jensen and Hauglid, when Gee deciphers characters that Jensen and Hauglid use diamonds. For example, Gee changes “I{◊◊\at}a” to read “I{to\at}a”—which I found was possible, although I remained uncertain and wondered how Gee could be so sure as to criticize Jensen and Hauglid. In his first example, Gee tells us to replace “{◊\B}ethcho” with “Bethcho” and criticizes Jensen and Hauglid because “there is no overwriting on the character although there is some touch-up.” In my judgment, Gee is overly confident that it is a touch-up instead of an overwrite. It doesn’t look like a normal touch-up and the result is an anomalous-shaped “B.”

    Gee writes as if the issue of scribal intent can be avoided, but it can’t. Going by appearance only, Gee transcribes “desendemt fron” instead of “desendent from.” Trying to transcribe Willard Richards’ treacherous handwriting without considering authorial intent would be impossible, especially since he had a habit of amalgamating characters into something that was idiosyncratic and impossible to represent in type. In my view, for example, Jensen and Hauglid correctly transcribed “Behold Potiphars,” I suspect because they know Richards’ handwriting well, whereas Gee transcribes it “Behod Potiphas.” Those familiar with Richards’ habits know that his terminal “d” is often just the riser without first part so that “ed” can appear to be “d,” which in this instance is “ld” to the trained eye. Similarly, the terminal “rs” can appear to be just a large “s,” when in fact it is a standing “r” followed by a downward stroke.

    All transcriptions have problems, even Gee’s.

    • Skousen’s transcriptions aren’t “unnecessarily annoying”. They are transcriptions with full scribal information meant to stand on their own in the absence of page images.

      • I’m referring to Skousen’s handling of malformed letters that number into the hundreds if not thousands, which he treats as an actual letter, rather than a touch-up (e.g., r=n, n=r, r=v, v=r, r=s, s=r, p=f, f=p, o=a, a=o, e=o, o=e, m=n, n=m, b=l, l=b, j=g, j=y, y=j, b=h, h=b, k=h, h=k). For example,


        These are not actual letters or misspelled words, they are merely malformed letters due to the rush in writing, which means that the first reading Skousen gives was not intended by the scribe. To me, it makes no sense to transcribe in this manner.

  8. Gee argues, “In the documents in this volume of the Joseph Smith Papers the scribes’ intent and the authors’ intent are hotly debated. Transcribing according to the scribes’ intent is begging the question and subtly predetermining the outcome of the debate.” There are two instances in the Jensen/Hauglid transcription that fit Gee’s worry expressed here, only they actually follow what Gee has previously transcribed himself. In transcribing Frederic G. Williams’ Book of Abraham manuscript, Jensen and Hauglid have placed Abraham 1:12 and 14, which refer to the gods and altar in Facsimile 1, within angled brackets, indicating that they are later insertions. Gee and other apologists have suggested this because they know that the vignettes do not date to Abraham’s time and it is difficult to argue that Abraham’s record was appended to the Book of Breathings when it refers to “the representation that is at the commencement of this record.” Gee, Jensen, and Hauglid give as a pretext for this reading that the writing looks cramped. The first instance appears at the end of a paragraph and slants upward, which also happens at the end of the previous paragraph due to the page being unlined. These writers place the beginning of the insertion where the line begins to slant upwards, which makes the sentence incoherent. The second proposed insertion appears at the top of the next page, which these authors argue was inserted into the blank top margin in cramped writing. However, Williams had a habit of not maintaining a top margin and the writing is not cramped. All transcriptions have problems, even Gee’s, but readers and researchers should beware of this bias more than any of the others Gee has pointed out.

    • At the end of the article is this comment from Dr. Gee:
      “This review was edited by the author, after initial publication, to address multiple requests for clarification. In part, these clarifications came after a substantive conversation between the author and principal figures in the Joseph Smith Papers Project.”

      The previous comments may no longer be relevant.

      • I’m not sure that is the case, Brant. Dr. Gee only removed one sentence, slightly revised another, and all other changes were simply additions to the review that indicate Dr. Gee is further responding to the ongoing conversations he has had requesting him to stop. He’s still trying to redefine the Joseph Smith Papers project into something it is not. This version, especially, if taken seriously, would mean that Dr. Gee and Dr. Muhlestein should have been the editors of the volume (which comes across as a desire of Dr. Gee’s in the review), even though the entire purpose of the series is to focus on the production of handwritten or printed material under the direct supervision of Joseph Smith, Jr. It is unfortunate that Interpreter has decided to delete previous comments when some of them have been important to ongoing conversations. I sincerely hope that this one makes it through the vetting process.

  9. Professor Gee,

    Thank you for this review. If you are agreeable, I hope that you will follow up on your blog as further events occur and/or details emerge with respect to this volume and Book of Abraham research. I would like to know more about the input of LDS Egyptologists, the conclusions or theories about when translation occurred, the size of the scrolls and if any are indeed missing and how JSPP deals with that.

    Also, when you say, “Others have put forth historical arguments that W. W. Phelps, not Joseph Smith, authored many of the documents published in the volume,” I wonder if you’d be willing to provide some sources. Thank you.

  10. It seems to me that given the stated discrepancies, disregard for a balanced and nuanced inclusion of Church Egyptology experts and the apparent disaffection of one of the Chief editors, it becomes obvious that this volume has been compromised and is therefore incredibly suspect.
    Reviewing the obvious glee and satisfaction which detractors of the church have jumped upon this publication and with which they now so rigorously support (even to the point of denying the actual experts opinions regarding it) it becomes clear that this volume has many difficult problems inherent in it.
    If the work of John Gee, Hugh Nibley and other church Egyptologists had been more inclusive and if there had been the opportunity for their balanced opinions regarding some of the included observations, then this volume might have been more favorably acceptable. Without that due balance, then the whole work becomes of limited value and may in fact represent a negative outcome.
    I’m a strong believer in examining all evidence, historical artifacts and accounts, but when balance is lost, then history becomes cloudy rather than clearer as has been demonstrated time-after-time from other historical narratives bent on political correctness or other hidden agenda. We have all witnessed the problems introduced when historical evidence is narrated to the belief of the composer rather than as what actually happened.
    (One slight example to illustrate this historical “bending” (which so easily occurs when the author has a bias or agenda,) would be the brand-new “1619 project” with its inherent revisionism and factual contradictions and ignoring of actual historical events.) History belongs (apparently) to whomever the author (or editor) is, and in this case the historical narrative is owned by Jensen and Hauglid.

    • The problem with virtually the entirety (virtually, not all) of the modern academic humanities is the creation of a presentist narrative that often approaches historical subject matter with an already well settled, situated and “dug in” theoretical template, a template that is strongly resistant to sundry actual evidence that may be uncovered in the process.

      Some of the major researchers in the BofA field are notable for a 19th century production view, and do not hold the BofM to be an authentic ancient document written, as to its original autograph, by an ancient prophet, or who, in some way or another, perhaps take a “bracketed” approach to such scholarship (I won’t term this “apologetic”).

      This is similar, of course, to a view of the ahistoricity of the BofM (once termed by one of the original September Six, “inspired fiction”). This kind of approach, among LDS scholars to sacred scripture, and the taking of positions wholly inconsistent with the stated core truth claims of the Church – and the original witnesses to the events attendant to the production of the church’s fundamental standard works – is one of those signs of the times that one must lament, but not regard as a reason for despair.

      The sifting and filtering continues, as hard or galling to endure as it may be. Perhaps a second edition, with the clear formatting errors fixed and with the inclusion of salient material from other important LDS scholars left out in the first edition will correct the stated problems.

      I noticed that Mr. Vogel leaped into this fray here, swords flashing, and spilled quite a quantity of cyber ink in this thread. Clearly, this is a subject that exercises him substantially.

      • Although I don’t agree with Dan Vogel’s broader interpretation of the origin of latter-day scripture, I very much appreciate his comments. They provide another side of the story, which is always important to consider. Their main focus is on data. This is what makes the ability to comment on papers at Interpreter so valuable.

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