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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Secret Tongues of Angels

In heaven, we are told, hosts of angels sing the praises of the Deity in never-ending glory and affirmation. If we could transcribe their mysterious words, how might they appear? I drew these characters to suggest something of this secret tongue of the angels to incorporate into a piece of [1]art which I was then creating. It was important for me that the characters credibly looked as if they might, just might, belong to a coherent written language.

Now look at this other example of unknown script below. It is a particular treasure of mine, and was found among the effects of my late great-uncle, who (so the story in our family goes) is said to have copied it from characters inscribed upon a small metallic disk which as a young man he found while hiking in the remote Yakima Reservation in Washington State. Convincing? Not really. It’s by me again, I’m afraid. As far as I am aware, my great-uncle never set foot on the Yakima reservation. I myself wrote out the characters in pencil on a sheet of paper, aged to suggest an earlier time frame.

An alien language? Or perhaps not..
My point is that, with a little flair and imagination, it is possible to devise such scripts. On a considerably grander scale than my own modest efforts, J.R.R. Tolkien did the same in his epic works of fantasy with the scripts which he called ‘Elvish’. The example below, stylishly calligraphed by Maciej Garbowski, is in an Elvish script known as [2]Tengwar, used initially by the author to write the language of angelic supernatural immortals. Tolkien’s sophisticated approach to these fictional tongues was based upon his scholarly knowledge of Runic and other proto-European languages, and with this academic grounding to back up his fantasy, he took the development of such fictional scripts far. There is even an [3]organization that studies and perpetuates what he began.

Tengwar script: the script of Tolkien's angels and elves.
But even such an adept as Tolkien must bow to what I personally consider to be the benchmark of such scripts: the modestly-sized volume which has been called ‘the most mysterious book in the world’: the [4]Voynich manuscript. Dated to the 15th-century, this book is filled with strange and whimsical illustrations of what appear to be botanical studies, astrological diagrams of stars and cavorting damsels. But it is the astonishingly confident script which is interspersed between these that arrests the attention. Calligraphic and elegant in appearance, the script flows effortlessly on for well over a hundred pages – and yet not so much as a single word has ever been deciphered.

The elaborate script in the Voynich manuscript remains undeciphered to this day.
Not that this lack of our ability to read the book has been for want of trying. Cryptographers and linguists, experts in their field, have all attempted to wrestle its secrets free, but without success. The Voynich manuscript remains almost as much of a mystery today as it was when it came to light in our contemporary era in 1912. It is a secret code. It is an elaborate hoax. Both options are possible. But the accomplishments of Tolkien and the unknown author of the Voynich manuscript in creating these seemingly-convincing though apparently fictitious languages are self-evident.

A diagram from the Voynich manuscript which suggests either a map of a celestial city, or even a plan of Eden with its flowing four rivers - or neither of these things.
With his Tengwar script Tolkien attempted to suggest the language of angels. But he made no claim to any authenticity in this direction. Not so with my next example. The characters on the document below are claimed to be the actual authentic tongue of angels. This photograph, which came to light as recently as [5]2012, is apparently the only evidence we have for the appearance of the characters on the gold plates alleged to have been unearthed from a Native American burial mound by Joseph Smith, the self-styled prophet and founder of the [6]Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, known informally as the Mormons. No hard evidence for these plates has ever been produced, so this transcription purported to be from one of them, apparently written by Smith himself, is our only record of the appearance of the script which Smith translated as the Book of Mormon.

The only evidence for the appearance of Joseph Smith's angelic language is this photograph of a passage purportedly from one of the gold plates of the original Book of Mormon.
 Smith named the script ‘Reformed Egyptian’: a language unknown either to linguists or cryptographers. He might have been incautious in specifying the name of the purported language. To give it an Egyptian connection invites comparison with an existing script such as Coptic. But it bears no resemblance either to Coptic, Demotic, Syriac, or any other [7]regional written language. The devil is in the term 'reformed', which can mean anything and everything that one chooses it to mean.

Demotic text as a vernacular form of Egyptian hieroglyphs written beneath such hieroglyphs on the Rosetta stone. Neither Demotic (which itself could be described as 'reformed Egyptian') nor any other regional language of the time bear any more than a superficial resemblance to the Mormon characters.
And so we must judge this script on this one surviving example – a photograph of an alleged transcription whose whereabouts are unknown of an original for which we have no evidence. Why, when the copyist presumably had the original before him, and knew therefore how much space he had at his disposal to write the passage, do the characters become squeezed for space towards the paper’s fold? These scrawled characters are, remember, purported to be the actual authentic language of angels: they literally are the [8]basis upon which a new religion has been founded.

A [9]detail of the transcript alleged by Joseph Smith to be the language of angels.
The alleged transcript seems intriguing, but when compared with the sophisticated mystery of the text in the undeciphered Voynich manuscript, or Tolkien’s elegant Tengwar, it appears clumsy and amateurish – bearing in mind that, if the script is genuine, the writer did not have to invent, but merely copy. Certainly when viewed alongside the superior accomplishments of Tolkien and the unknown author of the Voynich manuscript, and when considered objectively, outside of any context of religious belief, the characters in the transcript would appear to be a fabrication, and a mediocre one at that.

Perhaps it is to regret that our faith apparently needs foundations of some material evidence on which it can be built. For if that claimed material evidence cannot be produced, or seems for one reason or another not to hold up to scrutiny, where does that leave us? What we might consider to be the truth of faith is something which is experienced in our hearts, in our innermost being, and that is where the voices of angels are most clearly heard.


[2] Tengwar is the name of the script itself. The language is called Valarin, after the Valar immortals: Tolkien’s angels. 

[3] The Elvish Linguistic Fellowship, with the appropriate acronym of E.L.F.

[4] Catalogued as MS 408 in the Yale University Library.

[5] The top half of this image – the half which includes the transcript – was known earlier, but the whole uncropped photographic plate was discovered among the effects of the Hicks photographic collection in December, 2012. The title The Book of the Generations of Adam can just be read on the lower fold.

[6] Please see my previous post A Harvesting of Souls about the Church of Mormon archives.

[7] According to paragraph 64 of chapter 1 of Joseph Smith's 1838 History, the characters were identified as "Egyptian, Chaldaic (sic), Assyriac (sic), and Arabic" by a Professor Charles Anthon in New York. Two of these four terms - Chaldean and Syriac (or Assyrian?) - are incorrect, and Anthon later distanced himself from any involvement, denying that he had validated the script. In any event, the characters are unrelated to these four bona fide languages of the Levant recognized by scholars. The four specified languages all stem from Aramaic, which would fit Smith's time frame, and which therefore would be the most appropriate language for the script, but which strangely is the one language which Smith (or Anthon) did not name.

The right-to-left reading Aramaic-derived Syriac (left) bears no resemblance to Smith's script. One is left to wonder why Smith took the risk of specifying the four languages which he claimed comprised his characters. Perhaps he considered that such names might lend his document an aura of authenticity - but did he seriously imagine that no one would actually check what he claimed for his mysterious script? In this linguistic sense, the claimed authenticity of Smith's document is comparatively easy to disprove.

[8] This post focuses on the purported characters of the Mormon angel script. The textual content and linguistic style of the Book of Mormon I regard as a separate issue, but clearly if the characters themselves are open to doubt, then the entire book and the story of its alleged coming to light must also be reasonably called into question, as in turn must the whole foundation of Mormon belief.

[9] From my own experience of devising such imaginary scripts I know that one has to consciously resist lapsing into forms which are already familiar from one's own language. The letter forms of H,L,M,D,V,T and Z can all be seen in this detail, as can various numerals: 4,6,2,3, and even ½. Were these characters copied from a totally unknown language (that is: one that was unknown at the time to Smith), the chances of this happening would be reduced to a negligible coincidence.

The 'H' in particular (above), which is repeated no less than five times in just this detail, typically follows the form of the capital 'H' in 19th-century penmanship. Curiously, another character, seen at 9 o'clock in the detail, is identical to the astrological sign for the planet Saturn (right). Clearly this could be coincidental - but it is not the sort of coincidence that copying the characters of an unknown language should produce. 

Note added 9 January 2015: I have only recently discovered the remarkable work of Ian James, who has created, not just one or two, but many different language scripts, all with authentic historical and ethnic origins, and all of which can be written coherently. These scripts are of such a creative order that (it has to be said) their level of sophistication, and the fact that they actually can be written with a lingual coherence, surely leaves the example of Joseph Smith floundering in the world of crude fabrication.

A quatrain from Omar Khayyâm, written in Ian James' Bostani script which is derived from Ancient Persian and Arabic sources.
 Ian James' website: Sky Knowledge.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

A Harvesting of Souls

If you who are reading this are Catholic, or Baptist, or Jewish, or Muslim, or Neo-pagan, or agnostic or atheist, whatever your belief or non-belief, the chances that one of your deceased relatives has recently converted to the Church of Mormon are actually quite high. Deep in the impregnable heart of Granite Mountain in Utah are the high-security archives of the [1]Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, informally known as the [2]Mormons. These ever-growing archives so far list the names of some ten billion individuals garnered from all histories, cultures and geographies, and are recorded with a conscientious attention to detail that could reasonably be described as obsessive. But what end does this gargantuan exercise in religious bureaucracy serve?

A corridor in the Granite Mountain vaults.
It’s to do with converts. In religion, it usually is. Joseph Smith, the self-styled prophet and founding father of the Mormon Church, realized that if the living could offer potential fertile ground for swelling the numbers of his new religious movement, what possibilities for doing this must exist among the legions of the departed? The dead were, after all, [3]compliantly unresisting to new persuasions. All that would be needed would be to know the specific name of the deceased, then use a living member of his movement to act as a temporary host to the name – and a new [4]convert to the faith was created.

And so this practice of the harvesting of souls has continued, and continues to this day. The moral question of actually asking the permission of that person’s surviving kin does not apparently figure in the Mormon scheme of things. What counts is eventually bringing the whole of the human race who have ever been a part of recorded history into the Church of Mormon. So far, the Church of Mormon is about a sixth of the way there. But before you object to this dubious practice (which, if you care about the moral rights and beliefs of your ancestors, you rightfully should), it might be worth looking at the viability of what is happening with all those billions of names in Granite Mountain, Utah.

The entrance to the Granite Mountain vaults, bored into the mountain itself.
The whole point of conversion, surely, is that the soul in question, whether living or dead, has undergone some sort of an epiphany which prompts the conversion. If such an experience has not taken place, then what does a conversion count for? A forced or unsolicited conversion is a mere hollow thing, a sham made under coercion. The current tragic and shameful plight of the abducted Nigerian schoolgirls is a case in point. Their captors claimed that the girls had converted to Islam – a claim which can only be treated with the scorn that it deserves, and yet another example of Islamists shooting themselves in the foot. In this sense, which is the only morally valid sense, the near-century-long Mormon practice of converting the dead by proxy has so far produced exactly zero new members to their faith.

The Family History Library in Salt Lake City.
On the plain below Granite Mountain in the Mormon-founded Salt Lake City is the more accessible Family History Library. Here members of the public can seek out their own ancestral lines, and perhaps discover (which seems to provide a strong motivation) that they might have a family connection with the aristocracy, or even with royalty. But is such a discovered blue blood connection really so remarkable? Not really, as it turns out. Because of the exponential growth of human populations, as long as you go back far enough in time, you almost certainly can turn up some famous name in your lineage. A considerable proportion of the western world apparently can genetically claim the Emperor Nero as an ancestor. Ah, but who would want to? But even this claiming of ancestors is not quite as cut-and-dried as it seems.

We predominantly inherit our DNA through the mitochondrial DNA of our mothers. It makes considerably more sense to trace our lineages through our maternal side than, as is the common practice at least in Western society, through our paternal parentage. A paternal family tree is a thing on paper, a mere compiling of male heirs. When it comes to inherited information, however, it makes little sense to science. But even this is not quite the end of the story.

The towering genius of William Shakespeare or the dark ruthlessness of Cesare Borgia: fragments of both might be contained in who you are.
Although they might not be inherited in a genetic sense, because matter in nature is not destroyed but transformed and recycled, we all have atoms in our bodies that once were a part of Shakespeare or Darwin or Emily Dickenson – or on the downside, one or other of the Borgias. It is a part of our human heritage, and it falls to us to balance these forces within us that make us what we are. And what we truly are cannot be determined by the religious beliefs of someone if those beliefs are not our own, however fervently they might imagine it to be so.

[1] Joseph Smith, the Church’s founder (the anonymous portrait, left), claims to have discovered the Book of Mormon in 1823 in the form of a series of bound gold plates which he alleged that he unearthed from a Native American burial mound. The plates apparently were inscribed with characters in an unknown language, but having been given a device in the form of a special stone by an angel called Moroni, Smith found that he could read the text, which he then dictated as the Book of Mormon. Smith alleged that the angel then claimed the plates back, and no hard evidence for their existence has ever been produced. Having ordered a printing press establishment destroyed that was critical of both his beliefs and his polygamy, Smith, then in jail over the incident, was shot and killed when an angry mob stormed his place of incarceration. He was 38.

[2] Two Angels: Mormon and Moroni were the names of two father-son angels/ancient prophets alleged by Joseph Smith to have been involved in the production of the gold plates that were the original Book of Mormon. In an apparent attempt to imbue the New World with some Old World respectability, Smith claimed a New World scenario for the ancient events related in the Book of Mormon, which claims are unsupported either by the archaeological record or by contemporary DNA mapping.

[3] Baptizing the Dead: This practice of baptizing the dead, known as ‘baptism by proxy’ or ‘vicarious baptism’ has been performed by the Church of Mormon since 1840. The Church claims that the departed are given an option to decline the ceremony, but in all honesty, how can those performing the ceremony possibly know this? Are they communing with the dead to determine this? Such practices are forbidden under Biblical Mosaic law, so an inherent Christian doctrinal contradiction would seem to be present in the ceremony. The entire basis for the practice probably stems from a mistranslation from the Greek of the Old Testament Septuagint, where the term does not actually mean 'baptism' as such, but 'ritual washing', which would be entirely appropriate for the recently deceased. So it seems that the tradition is another example of a religious practice which has been founded upon a misunderstanding.  

[4] A Puzzle for Islamic Law: If your forebear happened to be an adherent of Islam, the curious situation now exists in which, although in Islamic law the prescribed penalty for apostasy is death, your forebear, being already dead, is beyond sentence. What are you going to do? 

Steve Jones: In the Blood: God, Genes and Destiny. Harper Collins, 1996. The substance of this post is drawn from the first chapter of Professor Jones’ book, in which the geneticist relates his own experience of his visit to the Family History Library.

Bill Bryson: A Short History of Nearly Everything. Doubleday, 2003. At over 600 pages, this particular history is not as short as its whimsically ironic title suggests, but it is a generous gold mine of information, discussing each discipline of science with an entertaining accessibility of language which makes its hefty length flash by. It is the source of the statements in my post’s last paragraph.

The top three photographs are from official Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints websites. The Voynich Manuscript is catalogued as MS 408 in the Yale University Library.

Monday, May 12, 2014

It's Real! It's Fake!

It's real! It's fake! No, it's... etc. The heated academic discussion grinds on about whether the papyrus fragment which makes mention of Jesus' wife is a forgery or not. The fragment (below) has Jesus referring to his wife who also is his disciple, mentioning a ‘Mary’ who presumably is Mary Magdalene, and is written in [1]Coptic on Papyrus which has been dated to the 7th-8th-centuries.

Validation of the source of the fragment, and the dating of the text itself, has been contentious since the fragment surfaced two years ago, and the debate about its authenticity rumbles on. I think I’ll let it. For me, the issue is not so much whether or not this particular fragment is authentic, but about what actually constitutes 'real' or 'fake' in the first place.

Paul as portrayed by Rembrandt. But which 'Paul' is the real one? Seven of the thirteen letters which carry his name in scripture are now known to be later forgeries.
Is a text 'real' because it is canonical, because it contains orthodox-approved ideas? Hardly. The seven 'pastoral' letters of Paul which appear in his name in the New Testament are now known to have been written decades later by an unknown hand with the intent to put an anti-Gnostic, pro-orthodox spin on a man who, as we now know, actually held Gnostic views, and might well have been Gnostic himself. In its rise to power, the orthodox Church sought to re-create Paul in its own [2]image, as a model of all the religious values which the historical Paul in his life abjured. And so, several decades after his death, these seven letters, which contain anti-female, anti-Gnostic statements, were written and signed in his name. These letters are as fake as the papyrus fragment might yet turn out to be - but I don't see anyone rushing to drop them from the canon.

A fragment from the Gospel of Judas. Considered heretical by the orthodox Church, it was excluded from the canon. From an orthodox point of view it turns the story of Jesus' betrayal on its head, making it clear that Jesus considered Judas to be the most selfless and courageous of his disciples for ensuring that his destiny would be fulfilled, knowing that this act would damn Judas' reputation forever. 
Are the Gospels of Thomas, or Judas, or Mary 'fake' because they appear nowhere in scripture? Of course they are not. The actual texts have been authenticated, as have many such ex-scriptural texts. Whether a text makes it into scripture or not has not depended upon whether it is ‘real' or ‘fake’, but often-enough upon the capricious personal opinion of a single individual. I can only conclude that those who consider scriptural texts to be the revealed word of God simply have not investigated the history of how those texts ended up between the covers of the Bible, and just how alarmingly arbitrary such keep-it-in, leave-it-out choices have at times been. But even all these fake-or-real criteria fade into moderate insignificance beside one sobering fact.

A section of the Dead Sea scroll which describes the building of the temple in Jerusalem. These ancient texts, whether they are canonical or whether they are excluded from scripture, come to us as fragments rescued from obscurity. It is only after-the-fact decisions which have determined that one text should be approved for inclusion in scripture and another rejected. But all such texts were once considered as sacred by one belief or another. 
Not a single scriptural text is known to be original. Instead what we have either are copies of copies, or translations from one language into another, with all the built-in hazards which such translating involves - as anyone who has [3]tried their hand at this will know. But even this is not just what is at issue. In almost all cases, we simply do not know who wrote these texts. A name is tagged onto a text, or a compilation of texts, at times long after the text was written, and we become familiar with such a text as [4]'The Gospel According to St. Mark', or 'The Book of the Prophet Jeremiah’.

But the reality on the ground is that we simply do not know, and have no way of conclusively confirming, who actually wrote these and other texts, or even the circumstances under which they were written. The term used for such texts is [5]pseudepigrapha – the assigning of authorship to a text when the true author is unknown or cannot be confirmed. In this sense, the whole of scripture (with the exception of the six authenticated letters of Paul) consists solely of pseudepigraphic writings.

The above text describes the building of the Jerusalem temple, and here Rembrandt depicts the prophet Jeremiah lamenting its later destruction. 
This is not to say that ascribing such authorship would necessarily have been a deliberate subterfuge. It is more that the mindset of those distant times, and the literary forms which that mindset produced, would not have thought it untoward to attach the name of some big-gun prophet or apostle to a text which one might have written oneself, perhaps with the intention of granting such a text an aura of authority or even of authenticity. Copyright laws, plagiarism and spurious authorship claims were still notions of the distant future, and the line between what we might consider to be real or fake had yet to be drawn.

[1] The Coptic text is itself probably a translation from Greek, which carries the implication (which holds true for many texts) that even if this particular fragment is a falsification in the sense that its dating does not conform to the historical context, it might well be a copy of an earlier authentic original. So proving this fragment to be falsified would not in itself prove that the text which it carries, and what that text says, is also false. That the text of the fragment could have been copied and translated from a now-lost Greek original is therefore entirely plausible.

[2] The same process of posthumously turning someone who held Gnostic values into a champion of orthodoxy was also exercised by Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria. This time it was Anthony whose life and values became rewritten in a fictitious biography penned by Athanasius that for centuries was regarded as fact. Please see my post Anthony of the Desert: Life as Fiction for more about this curious episode.  

[3] Please see my post A Simple Misunderstanding for some of the results of these hazards of translation and mistranslation in scripture.

[4] Please see my post The Gospel According to Somebody for a further investigation of Gospel authorship.

[5] For more about such pseudepigraphic writings - and a questionable contemporary Christian view of Gnosticism - please see my post Leaving the Cult.

Hans-Josef Klauck: Ancient Letters and the New Testament: A Guide to Context and Exegesis. Baylor University Press, 2006. This study contains a complete chapter on all the letters attributed to Paul, also mentioning those not included in the New Testament. It places the letters in the historical and social context in which they were written, and examines both their writing style and their possible authorship in a rigorous depth of detail which my post here only outlines. The author points out that even in the letters which we reasonably can attribute to Paul himself, various additions and amendments to his text by later unknown others have been made which change the original context. The 'pastoral' letters appearing in the New Testament as 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus not only are conclusively not by Paul, they apparently are not to Timothy or Titus either, making them what Dr. Klauck describes as 'doubly pseudonomous'. Message, apparently, is a more important criterion than authenticity for a text's inclusion in scripture.

Elaine Pagels: The Gnostic Paul: Gnostic Exegesis of the Pauline Letters. Trinity Press International.

An academic review of the fragment can be read at: The Gospel of Jesus's Wife
Updated conclusions can be read at: The Gospel of Jesus's Wife: Introduction 
Further Q&A detailed discussion regarding current results of and conclusions about the fragment can be read via the task bar menu of this website (Harvard Divinity School). The conclusions at the time of the writing of this post are that the fragment is authentic to its time, and its text reflects genuine issues of doctrine being discussed at that time. These issues were concerned with whether or not wives could also become disciples, which Jesus appears to confirm.