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IV. The GAEL and the structure of Abraham 1:1-2a

In his 2009 article, Chris Smith argued for the textual dependence of the Book of Abraham on the GAEL. While Dan Vogel’s recent book about the Book of Abraham and related apologetics strenuously objects to any suggestion that the GAEL was reverse engineered from the translation of Abraham, Vogel nevertheless entirely rejects the basis of Chris Smith’s argument.

Prior installments (read these first, or what follows isn’t going to make much sense at all):

In Chris Smith’s view, “The best evidence for considering the GAEL a modus operandi for translation of part of the Book of Abraham is that this method of composition left its mark on the text itself. In Abraham 1:1-3 we find the prophet’s most explicit and thoroughgoing attempt to derive the Book of Abraham translation from the GAEL.”[1] But Vogel reverses that order: “After dictating three verses of the Book of Abraham to Phelps, probably in early July 1835, Smith began immediately to work on his Alphabets and bound Grammar of the Egyptian language.”[2] So Vogel’s timeline requires a nuanced treatment of timeline and direction of influence (a nuance not readily found in the rest of Vogel’s book, however.) In these posts, I’m not arguing that the GAEL depends on a preceding translation of Abraham, contra Vogel or Smith’s claim – the very question of dependence in either direction is fundamentally misguided.

In addition, Chris Smith maintained that the definitions of the dissected character Zakioan-hiash that we looked at in the previous post “accounts for most” of the scriptural text of Abraham 1:1-2a “and that the various elements appear in the Book of Abraham in almost exactly the same order.”[3] But Smith didn’t understand the grammar of the GAEL, instead treating it like a list from which definitions were selected at will. He consequently misunderstands the relationship between the dissected character and the sound of zakioan-hiash (not to mention the implications this has for what Joseph Smith and his associates understood about Egyptian). As we’ve seen, the name zakioan-hiash is not a haphazard assemblage of arbitrarily selected syllables, but the result of a rule-based relationship. Smith also exaggerates how much of the scriptural text matches the GAEL definitions and fails to understand how the structure of Abraham 1:1-2a is related to the GAEL. We will therefore take a look at that question here.

In Abraham manuscript C (the only one of the three 1835 Abraham manuscripts that preserves these verses), the opening text is keyed to two characters in the left margin, Zakioan-hiash and Ahbrahoam, as shown here.

Book of Abraham manuscript C, page 1

The table below compares the manuscript text of the translation with the definitions offered by the GAEL. I have numbered the characters in square brackets so that the order in which the elements appear in the translation will be clear. The superscript numbers are as found in the manuscript. Other analyses of the correspondence between text and characters are certainly possible, but all analyses will require some re-ordering of the definitions from the GAEL to match the text of Abraham. Even allowing for reasonable use of synonyms, only the bolded words match between the two texts. That the GAEL and the translation are related is clear, however.

Given the insertion of Bethka before Zubzooloan, it seems prudent to keep that pair together, so I read the order as 1.3/4 – 1.1/2 – 1.5/6, although 1.5/6 – 1.1/2 – 1.3/4 would also be possible. No matter how they’re analyzed, the components of Zakioan-hiash do not follow the same order in the scriptural text as they appear in the GAEL. (That may itself reflect other grammar rules; the grammar lecture on page 15 of the GAEL explains how permutations of various elements, such as Kah-Jugos vs. Ka-os-Ju could be used “to vary the verbs, prepositions, participles, conjunctions, and adverbs,” but I don’t fully understand those rules.)

If we treat the GAEL as a grammar rather than as just a list of definitions, we can see how the structure of Abraham 1:1-2a emerges from the first two characters, Zakioan-hiash and Ahbrahoam, that appear in the left margin of the manuscript of the translation. What we see first is the proper name zakioan-hiash followed by the beginning of an explication of its constituent parts. This is interrupted by the second name, ahbrahoam, after which the explication of the first name’s constituents resumes. The text concludes with an explication of the second name, resulting in an interweaving of two proper names and their explications. Whether there are Hebraisms or Egyptianisms in the text is someone else’s brief, but there are certainly GAELisms. The characters in the margin of the Abraham manuscript tell us what is being translated, the GAEL tells us how they are being translated, and the text of Abraham 1:1-2a is the resulting translation.

At least in its first part, the GAEL is less a translation aid than it is a teaching document that provides the characters associated with Abraham 1:1-3 and the grammar rules that explain several aspects of how the characters are related to the English text, from the level of basic visual interpretation and phonetics up to the sentence level and beyond. By using Abraham 1:1-3 to exemplify its rules, the GAEL presumes the previous existence of the translation, while the translated scriptural text presumes familiarity with the GAEL and its rules. Both require the existence of the other, but neither one can be used to mechanically generate the other. For the moment, we’ll leave the chicken and egg problem unresolved.

* * *

Next time: Non-Egyptian linguistic influences on the GAEL. Actually, that will be in the post after the next one.


[1] Smith, “Dependence of Abraham,” 47.

[2] Vogel, Book of Abraham Apologetics, 31.

[3] Smith, “Dependence of Abraham,” 49–50.

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