Mormon 9:32. Reformed Egyptian

Mormon 9:32. Reformed Egyptian

The Book of Mormon was supposedly written in a “reformed Egyptian” script, but no such language is known to scholars of the ancient Near East. Moreover, no such script has been found in the New World.

Mormon Gold PlatesMoroni actually wrote, “we have written this record according to our knowledge, in the characters which are called among us the reformed Egyptian, being handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech” (Mormon 9:32). Since it was the Nephite scribes who employed the term “reformed Egyptian,” there is no reason to look for it in the ancient Near East or among modern scholars.

Nevertheless, there were reformed scripts used in ancient Egypt. The earliest Egyptian writings use the system known to the Greeks as hieroglyphs (“sacred signs”). By the time of Lehi (ca. 600 B.C.), two cursive forms had developed, each of which took less time to write. The form known as hieratic (“priestly, sacred”) is close to the hieroglyphic but more cursive. The form known as demotic (“common, of the people,” as in “democratic”), first attested from ca. 800 B.C., was much more cursive and included ligatures and abbreviations.[i]The Rosetta stone (inscribed in 196 BC, discovered in 1799), which was the key to deciphering the Egyptian language in modern times, was written in three different scripts. The top portion of the stone has the text in Egyptian hieroglyphs, while the text in the middle is in Demotic and a Greek translation is at the bottom.

Another type of reformed Egyptian is what Egyptologists have come to term “abnormal hieratic.” It was the final stage in the development of cursive writing in the New Kingdom period and was particularly used in legal and administrative documents of the Egyptian Twenty-fifth and Twenty-sixth Dynasties (727-548 BC), meaning it was in use in Lehi’s day.[ii]

The Nephites modification of Egyptian is paralleled by similar developments in the ancient Near East, where several writing systems were borrowed from Egyptian. Perhaps the most notable is the adoption, by the second century BC, of some Egyptian hieroglyphs to form the alphabetic system used for the Meroitic language spoken anciently in Nubia (now in Sudan). Meroitic also developed a “cursive” writing system that resembles Egyptian demotic.[iii]Modified Egyptian hieroglyphic characters comprised the syllabic system used in writings (some of them on bronze plates) found during archaeological excavations of the ancient Phoenician city of Byblos.[iv]

The earliest alphabetic system, employed in Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions, derives from some of the Egyptian hieroglyphic symbols. It ultimately morphed into what we call the “Phoenician” alphabet, used in various ancient Semitic languages, notably the Northwest Semitic branches of Hebrew/Canaanite and Aramaic. From Canaanite (called “Phoenician” by the Greeks), it was imported into Greece and became the Greek alphabet, later changing even more to become the Latin alphabet used in most modern European languages. From this point-of-view, even English is written in a “reformed Egyptian” script.

As for the New World, reformed Egyptian was used only for the sacred records kept on plates, which passed through a series of scribes to Mormon, who hid all of the records he had received except the abridgment plates that he passed on to his son Moroni. All other records would have been kept on perishable materials, few if any of which would have survived in the climate of Mesoamerica.

[i] For a discussion of the development of Egyptian cursive scripts, see I. J. Gelb, A Study of Writing, 3rd ed. (University of Chicago, 1969), 72-81.

[ii] John Gee “Two Notes on Egyptian Script,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 5/1 (1996): 162-65. See also Gee, John Gee, “La Trahison des Clercs: On the Language and Translation of the Book of Mormon,” Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 6/1 (1994): 96-99.

[iii] A. H. Sayce, “The Decipherment of Meroitic Hieroglyphs,” in John Garstang, Meroë, The City of the Ethiopians (Oxford: Clarendon, 1911); Francis Llewellyn Griffith, “The Inscriptions from Meroë,” in ibid.;  Francis Llewellyn Griffith, The Meroitic Inscriptions of Shablul and Karanog (Philadelphia, 1911); Francis Llewellyn Griffith, Meroitic Inscriptions I (London, 1911); Francis Llewellyn Griffith, Meroitic Inscriptions II (London, 1912); H. Sottas and Étienne Drioton, Introduction à l’étude des hiéroglyphes, 51-53; David Deringer, The Alphabet: A Key to the History of Mankind, 2nd ed. (New York: Philosophical Library, 1948), 189-191; P. L. Shinnie, Meroe: A Civilization of the Sudan (London: Thames and Hudson, 1967), 132-140; Jean Leclant, “The Present Position in the Deciphering of Meroitic Script,” in The Peopling of Ancient Egypt and the Deciphering of Meroitic Script (Ghent: UNESCO, 1978), 112; W. V. Davies, Egyptian Hieroglyphics (London: British Museum, 1987), 61.

[iv] Maurice Dunand, Byblia Grammata: Documents et recherches sur le développement de l’écriture en Phénicie (Beirut: Direction des Antiquités, 1945), 71-88; Édouard Dhorme in Comptes Rendus de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres (1946), 360-65, 472-79; Edouard Dhorme, “Déchiffrement des inscriptions pseudo-hiéroglyphiques de Byblos,” Syria (1946-48), 1-35; David Deringer, The Alphabet: A Key to the History of Mankind, 2nd ed., 158-165; David Diringer, Writing (New York: Praeger, 1962), 105-108; I. J. Gelb, A Study of Writing, 3rd ed., 128-9, 157-9; David Noel Freedman, ed., The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 4:178-80.