I Can See Through You

In an attempt to improve their public image, the Church of Jesus Christ-Latter Day Saints (LDS) (more commonly known as the Mormon Church) has released a photo book with pictures of some historical items of significance.  One such object is the seer stone, an object reputedly provided by God to help Joseph Smith translate golden tablets inscribed with Egyptian hieroglyphics.  His translation of these tablets is now known as the Book of Mormon.

It’s an interesting photo of a rock, but it really doesn’t clarify anything at all.  The plates that Smith translated are no longer available, which means there is no real meaning to the stone itself as we’re unable to validate Smith’s translation.  Even if the plates were available, the stone would only be a curiosity.  We could evaluate (based on our current knowledge of Egyptian hieroglyphics, which is much stronger than it was 200 years ago) how well Smith translated the plates, but we couldn’t determine the significance the stone might have played in that process.

What we can do is evaluate the stone – and Smith’s – interpretative effectiveness using another translation Smith performed, this time on pieces of papyri from Egypt.  What became known as the Book of Abraham and incorporated into LDS canonical documents, Smith purportedly translated from papyri he purchased from someone touring Ohio with several Egyptian mummies.  Although few people at the time could translate Egyptian hieroglyphics, Smith claimed that he was given divine ability to do so, and that two of the papyri were written by Abraham and Joseph – key figures from the Biblical book of Genesis – respectively.  For almost a century these papyri were assumed lost – destroyed in a fire in the 19th century.  However they were re-discovered in 1966, allowing Egyptologists to validate or invalidate Smith’s translation.

This is an excellent summary of the findings.  The upshot is that Smith did not translate the papyri even remotely correctly, which ought to cast doubt on his translations of the golden plates that are no longer available.  Providing a picture of a sacred rock is nice, but given the inaccuracy of Smith’s translation of the so-called Book of Abraham, hardly reinforces trust and belief in Smith’s claim to be a prophet of God and the re-establisher of the one, true Church on earth.

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