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Charles Anthon and the Rosetta Stone



Illustration of Charles Anthon in the book, The late Charles Anthon, LL.D., of Columbia College, 1880, Illustrated by Thomas Addis Emmet; The Rosetta Stone in the British Museum

 

Where Science Meets the Book of Mormon: Come Follow Me Lesson: March 11-17; 2 Nephi 26-30


We read in 2 Nephi 27:15-18, “But behold, it shall come to pass that the Lord God shall say unto him to whom he shall deliver the book: Take these words which are not sealed and deliver them to another, that he may show them unto the learned, saying: Read this, I pray thee. And the learned shall say: Bring hither the book, and I will read them. And now, because of the glory of the world and to get gain will they say this, and not for the glory of God. And the man shall say: I cannot bring the book, for it is sealed. Then shall the learned say: I cannot read it.”

 

These verses in the Book of Mormon are an obvious expansion on a prophecy in Isaiah 29:11, “And the vision of all is become unto you as the words of a book that is sealed, which men deliver to one that is learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I cannot; for it is sealed:…”

 

We are told the familiar story at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints website, “In February 1828, Martin Harris traveled to New York City with a transcription of some of the characters from the Book of Mormon plates, intending to show them to scholars at some of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in the United States.” However, much of the background story behind and surrounding this trip has been left untold.

 

Joseph Smith stated in the History of the Church vol 1 p. 19, “…immediately after my arrival there [Pennsylvania] I commenced copying the characters off the plates. I copied a considerable number of them, and by means of the Urim and Thummim I translated some of them, which I did between the time I arrived at the house of my wife’s father, in the month of December, and the February following.”1 

 

“Some time in this month of February, the aforementioned Mr. Martin Harris came to our place, got the characters which I had drawn off the plates, and started with them to the city of New York. For what took place relative to him and the characters, I refer to his own account of the circumstances, as he related them to me after his return, which was as follows:”2


“I went to the city of New York, and presented the characters which had been translated, with the translation thereof, to Professor Charles Anthon, a gentleman celebrated for his literary attainments. Professor Anthon stated that the translation was correct, more so than any he had before seen translated from the Egyptian. I then showed him those which were not yet translated, and he said that they were Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyric, and Arabic; and he said they were true characters. He gave me a certificate, certifying to the people of Palmyra that they were true characters, and that the translation of such of them as had been translated was also correct. I took the certificate and put it into my pocket, and was just leaving the house, when Mr. Anthon called me back, and asked me how the young man found out that there were gold plates in the place where he found them. I answered that an angel of God had revealed it unto him.”3


“He then said to me, ‘Let me see that certificate.’ I accordingly took it out of my pocket and gave it to him, when he took it and tore it to pieces, saying, that there was no such thing now as ministering of angels, and that if I would bring the plates to him, he would translate them. I informed him that part of the plates were sealed, and that I was forbidden to bring them. He replied, ‘I cannot read a sealed book.’ I left him and went to Dr. Mitchell, who sanctioned what Professor Anthon had said respecting both the characters and the translation.”4


In a talk given 24 October 2015 at the Sperry Symposium, Richard E. Bennett, chairman of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University, as reported by R. Scott Lloyd for the Church News, said that there was much more to the story than what we have been told. Apparently, “The Prophet recorded that because of Martin’s faith and righteous deed [of giving Joseph $50 to support his move to Pennsylvania], the Lord appeared to him [Martin] in a vision and showed him a marvelous work he was about to do. Thereafter, he came to Harmony and said the Lord had shown him he must go to New York City with some of the characters.”5

 

Apparently as Martin Harris began his journey, he “…first stopped off at Albany, New York, where he met with Luther Bradish…Bradish and Martin Harris knew each other in Palmyra. Bradish had become a successful Wall Street lawyer and New York assemblyman…Bradish likely recommended, since he knew the city so well, that once in New York City, Harris visit with the leading naturalist in the country, Professor Samuel L. Mitchell…A brilliant scholar, Mitchell was also a linguist. ‘Before offering his learned opinion on the written characters which Harris brought with him, Mitchell kindly referred him to his colleague, the young and up-and-coming scholar of linguistics’ Charles Anthon, Brother Bennett said.”6


“Anthon, however, though he was accomplished in the classic languages of Greek and Latin, likely knew little about Egyptian, Hebrew, or any other Middle Eastern language, Brother Bennett said, ‘By force of his own brusque personality, he claimed to know more in this area than he really did.’”7


“He [Bennett] said, ‘After Anthon showed Harris the door, Mitchell welcomed him back and sanctioned what Harris showed him for at least two reasons.’ Mitchell was the country’s leading student of the Rosetta Stone [but probably not by 1828, see below], an ancient stele with writing in three languages that had earlier been discovered and decoded. Thus Mitchell had an intense interest in hieroglyphic writing. And Mitchell had been studying the origins of the American Indians for several years and ‘had painstakingly developed his own two-races theory of ancient America,’ Brother Bennett said. ‘His interest in the history of the ancient American Indian was therefore at a peak when Harris showed him this transcript.’”8


I agree with Bennett’s assessment of Anthon, although not of Mitchell, as discussed below. I have always been skeptical of Charles Anthon’s “linguistic ability.” To me, Anthon saying that the copied text had been written in “Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyric, and Arabic,” if Martin Harris’ recounting of the story is correct, has always been a red flag to me suggesting that Anthon didn’t know that much about ancient languages.


Charles Anthon (1797-1867) graduated with honors from Columbia College in 1815 and passed the legal bar in 1819, but never practiced law. Instead, in 1820, he was appointed assistant professor of Greek and Latin at Columbia, and in 1830 was made full professor and became headmaster of its grammar and preparatory school.9 



A. Section from the Ebers Papyrus;1550 BC; Egyptian; B. Section from the Kandahar Rock Inscription; 3rd Century BC; Aramaic (Chaldaic); C. Section from the Manishtusu obelisk; c. 2255 BC; Akkadian (Assyric); D. Section from a funerary inscription in Nabataeo-Arabic; 280 BC; E. Photograph of the “Caractors” document, previously purported to be the Anthon Transcript, but is now considered a different transcript from the plates; F. Cuneiform


The “Caractors” transcript, previously purported to be the one shown to Charles Anthon, but now considered a different transcript from the plates, seems to exhibit characters similar to some Egyptian, some Aramaic (Chaldaic), some Akkadian (Assyric), and some Arabic. However, the sets of vertical lines don’t seem to match any of those four languages. Perhaps they were an attempt on Joseph’s part to copy Cuneiform — or they may represent something else entirely. Therefore, Reformed Egyptian may have contained elements similar to more than one ancient language.


In further reporting on Bennet’s talk, Scott stated, “Until recently, the prevailing notion was that a document now housed in the archives of the Community of Christ in Independence, Missouri, is the actual piece of paper shown by Harris to Anthon and others in New York [apparently the “Caractors” transcript shown above]. Letters recently found from Anthon indicate ‘it is virtually impossible to argue with certainty’ that the transcript in Independence is the only one Anthon saw, Brother Bennett said. Moreover, recent research stemming from the Joseph Smith Papers project and based on handwriting analysis shows that the extant manuscript was likely not written by Joseph in 1828 but by John Whitmer in 1829 ‘and therefore could not have been the one displayed in New York City,’ he added.”10 

 

The Rosetta Stone; measuring 3 ft 8 in tall, 2 ft 5.8 in wide, and 11 in thick; is a substantial fragment of a proposed somewhat larger stele. The surface contains three sets of inscriptions: Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs on top, Egyptian Demotic script in the middle, and Ancient Greek on the bottom. The inscriptions are of a decree issued in 196 BC, during the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt, under the direction of Ptolemy V Epiphanes. There are only minor differences between the three versions of the decree, making the Rosetta Stone the first key to deciphering ancient Egyptian scripts.11 

 

The stone originally may have been displayed in a temple, possibly at Sais, in the Western Nile Delta. Around 1470, the Mamluk Sultan Qait Bey — a non-Arab, enslaved mercenary serving the Ottoman Empire — built Fort Rashid, also known as Fort Julien, about three miles north-west of the town of Rosetta. Then in 1516, Sultan Qansuh al-Ghuri reinforced the fort with an outer defensive wall. Apparently, both mercenary leaders used stone looted from nearby ancient Egyptian sites in the construction of the fort — many still covered in hieroglyphic and other writing. The fort was later abandoned and fell into disrepair. The dilapidated fort was then occupied by the French during Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt between 1798 and 1801.12

 

The Rosetta Stone was discovered in the wall of the fort in July 1799 by a French officer, Pierre-François Bouchard, and was turned over to the French diplomat, artist, author, and archaeologist, Vivant Denon, who was part of Napoleon’s arts and literature arm of the French Egyptian Campaign. Following the campaign, Denon was appointed as the first director of the Louvre Museum.13 

 

However, the Rosetta Stone did not make it to the Louvre. British forces defeated the French at Canopus, a coastal town in the Nile Delta, on 21 March 1801. The French withdrew to Alexandria, which was besieged by the British on 17 August. Alexandria fell on 2 September 1801, and under the terms of the Capitulation of Alexandria, the British seized the stone and took it to London, where it has been on display at the British Museum since 1802.14   

 

The first complete translation of the Greek text was published by Hubert-Pascal Ameilhon in 1803. Thomas Young, secretary of the Royal Society of London, published some preliminary work on the Egyptian text in 1819. Young’s rival, Jean-François Champollion, had been professor of Ancient History at Grenoble University, but was exiled because he supported Napoleon's failed attempt to regain his former glory in 1815. In 1821, Champollion, who was in failing health, was in hiding, awaiting trial on charges of treason by the French Royalists. He used his time to break the Rosetta code by first discovering the Egyptian words for Ptolemy and Cleopatra. His break-through work was published 27 September 1822 in a letter to Bon-Joseph Dacier, secretary of the Paris Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, which Champollion read before the assembled Académie. In 1824, Champollion published his Précis du système hiéroglyphique des anciens Égyptiens, in which he presented the first correct translation of the hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone and the key to the Egyptian grammatical system.15 

 

However, John Gee, the William “Bill” Gay Research Professor of Egyptology at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at BYU, has stated, “While it is true that Jean François Champollion did use the Rosetta Stone to decipher hieroglyphs…he could never read it. He used it but did not read it.” Gee also stated, concerning the 1822 letter, “This was an important first step, but only a first step.” Gee also said that in Champollion’s 1824 Précis, “…he extended his alphabet to recover Greek and Roman names…he [also] matched the hieroglyphs with parallel signs in hieratic. Using expressions of filiation, grammatical particles, and personal pronouns, Champollion first proved the long suspected but never demonstrated relationship of hieroglyphs with Coptic…By applying his alphabet to earlier native Egyptian pharaohs, Champollion was able to show how many of these corresponded to the names of pharaohs given in Manetho…Champollion’s 1824 Précis was the true decipherment.”16 

 

Gee also stated, “Most of the events pertaining to the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs took place in Europe and are not reflected in America. The barrier of the Atlantic insulated America somewhat from the progress in the decipherment…News of Champollion’s discovery was published in Boston in 1830, by Moses Stuart and his son Isaac [two years after Harris’ visits to the eastern scholars]…The first popularization of Champollion’s discovery to reach America was George Gliddon’s Ancient Egypt, which was published in 1843… James H. Breasted, the father of American Egyptology…wrote in 1912 that in Joseph Smith’s day ‘it would have been impossible for any American scholar to know enough about Egyptian inscriptions to read them.’”17 

 

During the 19th century, Aramaic studies became a modern scientific field of research. In the process, mainly after 1859, several traditional misconceptions were abandoned, most notably, the long-standing “Chaldean misnomer” for Biblical Aramaic.18 

 

Therefore, in 1828, Charles Anthon would have known nothing about translating Egyptian; would not have known Aramaic, which he referred to as “Chaldaic”; and he would not have known Arabic. Concerning Bennet’s talk on the Anthon visit, Scott stated, “Brother Bennett spoke on Martin’s visit not just to Professor Anthon during that journey, but also to Luther Bradish and Samuel Mitchell. ‘It was likely Professor Samuel Latham Mitchell, thanks to the recommendation of both Luther Bradish and Charles Anthon himself, who gave the most scholarly corroboration Harris was looking for that winter of 1828,’ he said. ‘Returning home to Palmyra with a story of prophecy fulfilled on the one hand and on the other, the sanctioning of all that Anthon may have said by America’s foremost naturalist [Mitchell], Harris was ready to provide the financial means to publish the Book of Mormon.’”19

 

Martin Harris indeed had an experience that fulfilled prophecy and convinced him to financially support the printing of the Book of Mormon, both very important results of his visit, but it would not have mattered to whom he took the characters copied from the Gold Plates, including Samuel Mitchell, because no one in America at the time could have had sufficient knowledge to make an authoritative statement about the characters. 

 

Trent Dee Stephens, PhD

 

 

References

 

1.     Smith, Joseph, History of the Church, vol 1 p. 19

2.     Ibid

3.     Ibid

4.     Ibid

5.     Lloyd, R. Scott, Scholar Gives New Insights on Martin Harris’s 1828 Visit to Charles Anthon, 10 November 2015, churchofjesuschrist.org/church/news/speaker-gives-new-insights-on-martin-harris-1828-visit-to-charles-anthon?lang=eng; retrieved 2 March 2024; retrieved 5 March 2024

6.     Ibid

7.     Ibid

8.     Ibid

9.     Wikipedia, references are to Encyclopedia Britanica entries of 1878 and 1911; retrieved 5 March 2024

10.  Scott, 2015

11.  The British Museum: Explore the Rosetta Stone; britishmuseum.org/collection/egypt/explore-rosetta-stone; retrieved 5 March 2024; see also Ray, J. D., The Rosetta Stone and the Rebirth of Ancient Egypt, Harvard University Press, 2007

12.  Ibid

13.  Downs, Jonathan, Discovery at Rosetta, Skyhorse Publishing, NY, 2008

14.  Barthorp, Michael, Napoleon's Egyptian Campaigns 1798-1801, Osprey Publishing, London, 1992

15.  Adkins, Lesley; Adkins, Roy, The Keys of Egypt: The Obsession to Decipher Egyptian Hieroglyphs, Harper Collins, New York, 2000

16.  Gee, John, Joseph Smith and Ancient Egypt, In, Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith and The Ancient World, edited by Lincoln H. Blumell, Matthew J. Grey, and Andrew H. Hedges, Religious Studies Center, Provo, UT, Deseret Book, Salt Lake City, UT, p. 427-448; rsc.byu.edu/approaching-antiquity-joseph-smith-ancient-world/joseph-smith-ancient-egypt; retrieved 5 March 2024

17.  Ibid

18.  Gallagher, Edmon L.Hebrew Scripture in Patristic Biblical Theory: Canon, Language, Text. Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2012) In addition, the first Arabic-Hieroglyph dictionary was written in the early 1900s by Ahmed Kamal. (britishmuseum.org/exhibitions/hieroglyphs-unlocking-ancient-egypt/egyptian-hieroglyphs-decipherment-timeline; retrieved 5 March 2024

19.  Scott, 2015

 

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