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THE TEACHINGS OF
EXAMINED IN THE LIGHT OF
THE BIBLE AND HISTORY
A BIBLICAL AND HISTORICAL
APPROACH - "Reformed Egyptian"?
As Martin Harris wanted proof that the angel's story and the gold plates were a matter that came from God, Joseph Smith understood that something needed to be done. For otherwise he would not have the necessary funds to print his manuscript. Therefore, between December of 1827 and February of 1828, he prepared a sheet with characters that resembled an ancient writing, which he called 'Reformed Egyptian', and added his 'translation' of these characters into the English language. So when Harris went to visit him in February 1828, he was ready to start his plan. And when Harris saw the sheet with the 'old' writing, he asked Smith to authorize him to take it to Columbia University, in New York City, to have it examined by people learned in ancient languages. Obviously he was so authorized, for Harris traveled to New York City and presented the characters to two professors of ancient languages. Upon his return, he told Smith about the outcome of his trip:
"I went to New York City and presented the characters that had been translated, as well as their translation, to Professor Charles Anthon, a gentleman famous for his literary knowledge. Professor Anthon said the translation was correct and more accurate than any other. Then I showed him the ones that were not yet translated, and he told me that they were Egyptian, Chaldean, Assyrian and Arab, and that they were genuine characters. He gave me a certificate in which he stated to the citizens of Palmyra that they were authentic, and that the translation of those that had been translated was accurate, I took the certificate, put it in my pocket, and was about to leave the house when Mr. Anthon called me. He asked how the young man came to know that there were plates of gold in the place where he found them, and I replied that an angel of God had revealed it to him.
He then said: 'Let me see the certificate'. According to his request, I took it out of my pocket and handed it to him. He took it and tore it in pieces, saying that there were no such things as the ministering of angels, and that if I brought the plates to him, he would translate them. I informed him that part of the plates were sealed, and that I was forbidden to carry them. Then he replied: 'I cannot read a sealed book'. I left there, and went to see Dr. Mitchell, who confirmed everything Professor Anthon had said, regarding the characters as well as the translation" ("The Pearl of Great Price", Joseph Smith - History, vs. 64-65).
When Professor Anthon was informed of Harris' version of that interview, and of the use that Smith and his colleagues were making of it, he said:
"All that history of which I affirmed that the Mormon inscription was hieroglyphic in Reformed Egyptian, is absolutely false [...] The paper contained everything but Egyptian hieroglyphics". (Letter of Charles Anthon, dated February 17, 1834, cited by Mormon historian B. H. Roberts in his Comprehensive History of the Church, vol.1, p.103, 1930).
In addition to the irrefutable fact that Professor Anthon denied Harris and Smith's version, it is impossible for him to have said what is attributed to him because:
In the Book of Mormon it is stated that the Nephite annals were written in "Reformed Egyptian," and that "no other people" knew their language. For this reason, the Lord "has prepared the means for its interpretation" (Mormon 9: 32-34), that is, the Urim and Thummim (Joseph Smith - History 1:35).
Well, if only Joseph Smith - with the help of the Urim and Thummim - could read and translate the plates into English, how could Professors Anthon and Mitchell, without pretending divine inspiration, and without Urim and Thummim, claim that "the translation was correct", and that the characters "were genuine"?
And if the plates were written in "Reformed Egyptian", how is it possible that Professor Anthon has claimed that the paper that was shown contained "Egyptian, Chaldean, Assyrian, and Arab" characters?
All this indicates that the version of Harris, supported by Smith, and included in a canonical book of the Mormons, is false. Even some prominent Mormon leaders have questioned the Harris / Smith version. For example:
"Neither Professor Anthon nor any other man could read the characters. Even to this day, the language of the plates remains a mystery [...] Even though they would have been very similar to the ordinary Egyptian hieroglyphics, it is very unlikely that Professor Anthon could have read them, since that written language was very little known and no American was yet learned in reading it" (William E. Berrett, "The Restored Church" ).
Milton R. Hunter and Thomas Stuart Ferguson also do not seem to have believed in the Harris / Smith version of the interview with Professor Anthon, because they wrote: "Anthon did not know the Egyptian language, much less the modified syllabic Egyptian in which the Book of Mormon was written, therefore he was not competent to identify the transcript" ("Ancient America and the Book of Mormon", p.10, 1950).
Mormon Apostle Orson Pratt declared that the transcription of characters by Joseph Smith, which Harris showed Professor Anthon, "was a sealed script for the learned professor, he could not decipher the aboriginal language of ancient America" ("Divine Authenticity of the Book of Mormon", page 295).
His brother Parley P. Pratt was of the same opinion:
"Mr. Smith transcribed and faithfully translated some of the original characters, which, with his translation, brought a gentleman named Martin Harris to New York City. He introduced them to a learned gentleman named Anthon, who professed to be very versed in many languages, both ancient and modern, and he examined them, but he could not decipher them correctly."
Mormon scholar Sidney B. Sperry acknowledged that "nobody, except the Prophet Joseph Smith, has been able to translate the Anthon transcript, and if modern Egyptian students can not do it - at least they have not been able to - it is too much to believe that Professor Anthon could" ("The Problems of the Book of Mormon", p.60, 1964).
After his interview with Professor Anthon, Harris returned worried and somewhat skeptical, and doubting that the gold plates even existed. It is true that he had weighed a box that supposedly contained the plates, but he was not allowed to open the box to see them. He had to assume that it was really about the gold plates.
Smith tried to reassure him, promising that if he was humble enough, he would be allowed to "look at the things he wants to see" (D & C 5:24). What Harris wanted to see were the plates. So Smith managed to present Harris with a set of plates, which probably someone made according to his specifications.
And in order to reinforce Martin Harris' faltering confidence in the story of the angel and the plates, he allowed him to help him in the task of "translating" them, acting as his amanuensis.
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