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Notes on Will Schryver's KEP Presentation

David Stewart

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Will's talk does not represent the first time I have heard the cipher theory raised for the KEP, although it is certainly the most well-developed and compelling manifestation, and breaks considerable new ground in explaining details that others have not. I offer Will my congratulations and express my agreement with his central thesis.

Schryver has performed a useful service to the LDS community. Because of his work, mainstream LDS scholars - with the exception of perhaps a few fringe skeptics - will no longer puzzle over dubious attempts to derive complex meanings from cryptic scribbles now demonstrated to be ciphers assigned arbitrary meanings. Critics, at least the honest ones, can no longer claim with a straight face that the Book of Abraham is a forgery translated from mistaken linguistic ideas in the Kirtland Egyptian Papers.

The real clinchers for Schryver's thesis are (1) the use of the same ciphers by Phelps in his private writings and in the KEP utilizing different keys populated by different arbitrary meanings before and after Joseph Smith obtained the papyri, (2) the use of known Freemason ciphers and other characters demonstrated to have both non-Egyptian origins and cryptographic purposes, (3) the demonstrated dependency of the KEP on an already-completed Book of Abraham and not the other way around, (4) substantial KEP vocabulary from other revelations not contained in the Book of Abraham, and (5) expansive higher-degree meanings not plausibly consistent with any known language, but corresponding to a cipher key.

Schryver's work demonstrates that much of LDS scholarship on Egyptology to date has been based on problematic assumptions and has thus provided few convincing answers. Recognizing the strengths of his work, some assertions require additional documentation in a scholarly format. Nonetheless, the needed work consists primarily of refinements which are not likely to alter the underlying conclusions, with which I agree. Below I offer a few observations and a few minor points of refinement. These points are not comprehensive, but only reflect some issues and thoughts raised in a preliminary review.

"Egyptian numerals"

Schryver is not a linguist and candidly acknowledges as much, and some of his emphatic assertions regarding language are not totally correct. For example, his claim that Arabic and Sanskrit characters have no relationship whatever to Egyptian is untrue. In fact, the Arabic alphabet is derived from Phoenician, which in turn is derived from Egyptian. These relationships are well- known and are readily documented in both professional and lay sources regarding the origins of the respective scripts. The Arabic script thus has what linguists term a genetic relationship to Egyptian. The relationship with Sanskrit is less well established, but significant commonalities in the character sets as well as known contacts between Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Indus Valley question the emphatic assertion that the single Sanskrit numeral cited has no possible relationship to Egyptian. However, these are fairly subtle matters which he Schryver could not reasonably be expected to know.

Further interrogation and exegesis of these points is needed. It might be appropriate to point out that the Arabic and Sanskrit numerals were certainly not used in Egypt in the time of Abraham, yet such an observation does not transcend the larger picture of the Book of Abraham, which for instance in its facsimiles employs documents which appear to date from the Ptolemaic era, and has evoked considerable speculation regarding Semitic as well as Egyptian etymologies. The question regarding the origin of numerals from these scripts in the KEP table requires more rigorous answers, as the presence of Arabic numerals - in a script derived from Egyptian by way of Phoenician - in the KEP page of "Egyptian numerals" - does no more to provide evidence of an arbitrary encryption cipher than the presence of a Ptolemaic-era facsimile copy imputed to Abraham.

Some questions remain to be answered. It is certainly possible that Phelps borrowed random ciphers from different scripts for the language table, but the known genetic relationship between the Arabic and Egyptian scripts and a possible or plausible relationship for Sanskrit - especially for the single numeral cited - make this a conclusion which cannot simply be assumed, and which Schryver has not demonstrated with any rigor. Examples of other documents in which these characters can be demonstrated to have served as arbitrary encryption tools, or evidence of the use of such figures by Freemasons or other groups for these purposes, would strengthen (although not prove) Schryver's claim.

Modern Language, Ancient Language, and "Pure Language"

Another potentially problematic assumption is the idea that a single character or logogram can only represent a simple thought or set of closely-related concepts, and that expansive meanings attributed to a single character thus provide de facto evidence that the full meaning could not come from that character. Although this is certainly the case with modern languages, Sumerologists have attested to many features of the early Sumerian language which the modern layman - and even linguists in other fields - lack any context or framework for understanding (see for instance John Hayes, A Manual of Sumerian Grammar and Texts, 2nd edition). For example, a Sumerian hymn to Inanna offers an expansive English translation of the domain of the goddess of love - ancestor of the Babylonian Ishtar, Canaanite Asherah or Ashtoreth, Greek Aphrodite, and Roman Venus - from only a few cuneiform characters, as each character conveys multiple meanings in this context. This feature is absent from modern languages, and so caution is required in extrapolating modern assumptions about language to the earliest human languages. It is possible that some of the intermediate length phrases or word associations such as those found in the KEP could plausibly be derived from a single character or a small number of ancient characters in this fashion, although it must also be acknowledged that the longer expansions in the higher "degrees" of the KEP go beyond the parameters of known language.

Although early Egyptian translations are generally not as expansive as at least some Sumerian passages, the lack of obvious correlation between the facsimiles as explained by Joseph Smith and the way they are translated by Egyptologists - with a few key commonalities not readily explained by knowledge available to Joseph Smith at the time which are enough to suggest that he was onto something, but enough differences to clearly demonstrate that the explanations are not a translation of standard Egyptian - has raised questions about the way or purpose in which ostensible "ancient" characters were employed. Speculations regarding various non-Egyptian uses of Book of Abraham logograms as potential representations of Semitic, as mnemonic devices, and so forth, have been rife in the LDS scholarly literature, and Schryver's work provides convincing answers at least as relate to the Kirtland Egyptian Papers.

Notions of "Pure Language" among Early Brethren and their Origins

The textual claim that the Book of Ether does not contain a "hundredth part" (Ether 15:33) of that which was contained on the twenty four gold plates of the Book of Ether (Ether 1:2) has been a formative notion in concepts of early language which has led some to attempt to derive extensive meanings from short characters in various LDS-related manuscripts, including the Kirtland Egyptian Papers. Such statements when taken at face value would appear to imply a word economy beyond the capacity of any known language. The Book of Ether contains over 16,600 words. The literal interpretation of Ether 15:33 under traditional assumptions would require that the twenty-four Jaredite plates expand to over 1.6 million words, or some 69,000 words per page. To look at it another way, the English version of the Book of Ether occupies some 31 pages; the twenty-four gold plates - if Mormon's words are to be taken literally - could potentially be understood to expand to over 31,000 pages of English text. Whatever one believes, it is clear that no known language is capable of meeting the requirements of word efficiency demanded by the Book of Ether account, presumably written in the "language of Adam" or the "pure language" sought by Joseph Smith and William Phelps, as the Jaredite language - according to the story - was not confounded at Babel.

Several possible explanations exist for this expansiveness of "translation" which appears implausible when interpreted by traditional notions. Some have suggested that Mormon may have exaggerated the volume of remaining content in the Book of Ether, yet even suggesting that the Book of Ether narrative may have constituted only a tenth instead of one-hundredth of the writings on the twenty-four plates still produces a problem of word economy requiring the expansion of the 24 Jaredite plates to over 166,000 English words. This challenge still defies conventional notions. In his Second Witness commentary on the Book of Mormon, Brant Gardner suggests that at least some statements may represent interpolations of Mormon or Joseph Smith rather than a literal account from earlier records; thus, limited text from the manuscript may have been expanded by Mormon, reducing the amount of meaning which needed to be derived from the original text. Yet even allowing Mormon some license of commentary, we are still hard-pressed to come close to meeting the ostensible textual requirements. One may suggest that Mormon's "translation" of the Jaredite plates was not a translation at all in our modern sense, but was a revelation largely unrelated to the text at hand, as has been proposed for the Book of Abraham, yet this explanation suffers from the difficulty that Mormon claims knowledge of an additional 99% of content which he attributes to the Book of Ether but does not share for reasons of space and spiritual message. Critics, of course, claim that it the word economy doesn't work because (they allege) there was no Ether or Mormon and the work is a fiction of Joseph Smith. All of these explanations suffer some limitations, but it is clear that traditional notions of language and/or translation do not fit.

A final possibility is the apparent belief of some early brethren the Jaredites and antediluvian fathers wrote in a highly compact ancient language, now lost to us, from which multiple meanings can be extracted from a short passage. It seems most likely that it was in this interpretation of Ether and other scriptural passages that Phelps and other early brethren developed their notions of "pure language." Such an explanation suffers from the lack of evidence of any known languages which adequately satisfy these requirements, as well as the question of how one would know which meanings to assign to a character with multiple potential meanings without some kind of a key or expansive context. A "language" in this context with a script offering expansive meaning wholly dependent on an external key or interpretation tool thus does not meet our modern ideas of language as a self-contained medium for transmission of ideas, and thus more accurately fits the modern definition of a cipher when the nomenclature is bridged as Schryver suggests for the KEP. Attempts to derive meaning in the context of modern academic notions of translation without the additional tool of a decipherment key are thus futile and ultimately counterproductive. This last possibility created the potential for some to understand the KEP as a language rather than merely as a cipher, and Schryver makes a persuasive case that disguising a complex cipher as language was exactly the intent of its authors.

It appears that the notions of Phelps and other early brethren on "pure language" represented interpretations derived from such Book of Mormon passages (i.e. Ether 12:24); such passages undermine the idea that these notions originated with Phelps. Rather, it was the Book of Mormon description of ancient language and the writings of Joseph Smith himself from which Phelps and other early brethren developed their conception. Any idea that the expansive nature and power of the Jaredite language were placed in the Book of Mormon by Joseph Smith to provide cover for a later cipher, is anachronistic as the Book of Mormon text was completed long before the Kirtland Egyptian Papers were composed and before Phelps' first musings on a "pure language" are attested. A continuation of Brant Gardner's logic of the editor's influence on the text might suggest that such passages reflected preexisting ideas of Joseph Smith, although such a proposal is not well attested. Thus some questions remain regarding the origin of the scriptural passages which appear to suggest the compact nature of ancient text with expansive meaning.

Recognizing this, it is likely that that Schryver's claim is correct that Phelps expanded considerably on this concept and integrated the idea into his cipher. The demonstration of different arbitrary values being assigned to the same ciphers at different times provides compelling evidence that Phelps and his colleagues understood that their cipher was not, in fact, the actual script of the ancients, but merely a putative model of their conceptions of how such a "pure" language might work, modified and adapted to the task of enciphering revelations under the guise of language.

Relationship between "ancient" characters and modern texts

The various possibilities which have historically been proposed regarding the relationship between purported "ancient" characters and their ostensible English products (keeping in mind Will's demonstration that the KEP text depends on the completed Book of Abraham, and not the other way around) is largely moot not only for the Kirtland Egyptian Papers and the Book of Abraham, but for the Book of Ether and Book of Mormon, in view of the textual acknowledgment that both the Jaredite plates (Alma 37:24) and the Nephite record (Mormon 9:34) could be deciphered only with "interpreters." In observing this, I do not intend to extrapolate Schryver's explanations to other texts or to claim that they were ciphers, but merely to agree with what LDS scholars have long asserted: that the Book of Abraham, the Book of Mormon, and even Mormon's translation of the Book of Ether - were dependent on revelation and did not and could not reflect a translation process in the modern academic sense.

The texts themselves are clear that attempts at translation through conventional academic methods are vain, and that additional tools - revelation and the Urim and Thummim in the case of the scriptural texts, and a cipher key in the case of the KEP - are needed to understand the intended meaning. In no case are such works - neither the Anthon manuscript, if indeed such is even a copy of BoM characters (a controversial topic), nor the KEP - intended to be deciphered through what we would understand being based on self-contained meaning from known language. The extrapolation of modern assumptions about language to Book of Abraham materials and the Kirtland Egyptian papers is problematic for these reasons. Whatever meaning the KEP held to Joseph Smith, William Phelps, and others, these materials were not understood by the early brethren to be literal translations of Egyptian text as understood by the Egyptians. Critics' claims that the revelations are false because they do not fit our modern understanding of an academic translation process are thus based on demonstrably false assumptions which do not fit the evidence and have no merit.


The minor limitations of Mr. Schryver's work offer no consolation to church critics. Schryver has largely ruled out the possibility that the Kirtland Egyptian papers were viewed by Joseph Smith and his associates as an actual translation of ancient Egyptian in the modern scholarly sense, or as the source of the Book of Abraham. The limited possibilities remaining in areas where greater rigor and nuance are needed are very narrow ones which do not alter the ultimate conclusions, and are thus equally devastating to the claims of critics. Although there is room and indeed even need for continued evaluation of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers and the potential for discussion and debate over some of the finer points, Schryver's work alters the structural basis of the discussion and points future scholarship in more productive directions.

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...The minor limitations of Mr. Schryver's work offer no consolation to church critics.

....Schryver's work alters the structural basis of the discussion and points future scholarship in more productive directions.



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