I Cannot Read a Sealed Book (November 18, 2018)

One of the most well known stories regarding the Book of Mormon translation is Martin Harris visiting scholar Charles Anthon to get confirmation that the "Caractors" that Joseph Smith had transcribed for him were of an Egyptian origin.

As the story goes, Martin Harris meets Charles Anthon in order to receive some proof that Joseph Smith is translating a true ancient record. The reason that Harris wants this proof is because Joseph Smith wants Harris to help fund the Book of Mormon's printing, so Harris wanted to make sure that he was not being duped.

From the official church history: "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, Assyriac, 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. 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." (Joseph Smith History 1:64–65)

This story is highly regarded because the belief is that the line "I cannot read a sealed book" is a fulfillment of prophecy in Isaiah. Not only does this story lend credibility that the Book of Mormon characters were Egyptian, but that the visit by Martin Harris actually fulfilled a prophecy in the Bible as well.

Here are a few problems we need to outline right away:

1. This is not the first account of this story written in church history

2. It was written in 1838, after Martin Harris has already been excommuniated

3. While it is written as if Martin Harris dictated the story, the history was actually written by others in Martin's voice

4. Most important, the line about not being able to read a sealed book was added to the history at a later time

5. Scholars believe that Joseph Smith's interpretation of Isaiah was wrong as to what "sealed book" mean

This is the 1832 account of the story as written by Joseph Smith:

"Because of his faith, the Lord appeared unto (Martin Harris) in a vision and showed unto him his marvelous work which he was about to do. He immediately came to Susquehanna and said the Lord had shown him that he must go to New York City with some of the characters, so we proceeded to copy some of them.

And he took his journey to the Eastern Cities and to the learned, saying, “Read this, I pray thee.” And the learned said, “I cannot, but if he would bring the plates they would read it.” But the Lord had forbid it, and he returned to me and gave them to me to translate.

And I said “I cannot, for I am not learned.” But the Lord had prepared spectacles for to read the Book; therefore I commenced translating the characters, and thus the prophecy of Isaiah was fulfilled which is written in the 29 chapter concerning the book." (Joseph Smith 1832 Account)

 

As you'll notice, Joseph Smith does refer to the Isaiah prophecy in this chapter, but nowhere does he note the line about a sealed book or even the very detailed story about Anthon giving a certificate confirming the translation only to rip it up. In fact, in this first account Joseph Smith doesn't give any indication of a disagreement between Harris and the scholars. Considering the importance of the event, it is very surprising that no mention was made here if it indeed happened.

As we mentioned above, Martin Harris was excommunicated from the church in 1837. Although Joseph Smith had begun writing down some church history in 1832, he restarted the documentation in 1838 with the help of scribes. This is actually the same time frame where we see differences in Joseph Smith's First Vision accounts as well, because the details change in some significant ways between the 1832 and 1838 versions of the story.

What this means is that Martin Harris was not there to dictate the story even though it is written as if it came out of Martin Harris' own memories. This alone carries significant issues, since the event is now over a decade later and being told by someone who was not there. Furthermore, as you can see below, the text "I cannot read a sealed book" was added into the manuscript at a later time with a different pen as you can see from the change in ink.

The addition of this line is problematic considering the implications regarding a fulfillment of prophecy. You can actually see this page for yourself in the Joseph Smith papers online. We have no way to know how long after this was added, but when you compare this story to the 1832 account and then consider this change here, it is easy to understand why critics feel a lot of important church historical details were retrofitted after the fact to seem more important, spiritual, and miraculous.

We see these same kinds of changes in many faith promoting stories including the Transfiguration of Brigham Young, the First Vision, and the Priesthood Restoration.

We will not go over Charles Anthon's denials because we all know that he was not a believer in Joseph Smith and denied ever believing the characters were legitimate, and we will discuss the problems with Anthon's accounts below as well. You can see below what is believed to have been the "Caractors" that Joseph Smith wrote down for Martin Harris to have verified. Below that, you can see an infographic that takes these characters and rotates them to show that many of the characters are very similar to our language just rotated, flipped, or slightly altered.

As you can see above, the similarities are pretty striking to basic English letters and numbers. It also needs to be noted that Charles Anthon was not an Egyptian scholar, which has led some to wonder why Anthon would have ever considered these to be authentic in the first place.

Anthon, of course, denies that he ever gave any approval of these characters. There are, however, some discrepancies between his two accounts of the event as well. For example, Anthon in the first account does not claim to have given Harris a written account of the meeting, but in his second account he does admit to giving an account even though he claims it was to warn him not to fund the Book of Mormon. Because Anthon was not an expert on Egyptian, it would make sense that he would neither confirm or deny their authenticity, and it makes sense he would refer Harris to someone else who might be of more help. Furthermore, it also stands to reason that Anthon's feelings might have turned more negative as Harris told him the background of the document, because to an impartial observer their suspicious might get raised when being told that the plates were received and partially translated in the manner that they were.

The truth is that we will never know what happened between Martin Harris and Charles Anthon, but from these accounts we can make a few conclusions:

1. The story from Martin Harris changed greatly from Joseph's description in 1832 to 1838, with details that do not make a lot of sense in context. For example, why would Anthon discuss a sealed book when he knows that Joseph Smith is translating at least a portion of it that is obviously unsealed? The logical response would be to bring the part that is unsealed so he could review it -- it would not make sense to focus on the part that was sealed even if Martin Harris discussed that there was claimed to be a sealed portion.

2. We know that the original document was changed at a later time to add the "sealed book" line which was proclaimed by Joseph to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah. Furthermore, as this story has been used often as a faith promoting story to prove the Book of Mormon's Egyptian language, so the changes in the account and then to the original document itself is noteworthy.

3. The story evolved over the years to fit what Joseph Smith believed the prophecy in Isaiah 29 to be while Biblical scholars do not believe the "sealed book" part of Isaiah to mean future scripture such as the Book of Mormon, but a figure of speech to emphasize the "spiritual blindness" already set forth in verses 9-10. You can read a great discussion of this prophecy in a Dialogue article by David Wright (Dialogue, pages 17-18)

To give some more sources that explain how Joseph Smith misunderstood Isaiah 29 with regards to its connection to the Book of Mormon, here are a few other opinions about the interpretation:

BYU professor Charles R. Harrell: "Isaiah isn’t talking about a literal book, much less one that would come forth in the future." (This is My Doctrine, 92)

Harrell continues: "Non-LDS Bible commentators make two observations that preclude the “one that hath a familiar spirit” from having direct reference to Joseph Smith. First, they point out that Isaiah 29 is specifically addressing the current situation of wickedness in Jerusalem or “the city where David dwelt” (Isa. 29:1). There is no mention of any other people or place. Second, it doesn’t say that this nation will speak through some actual person, such as Joseph Smith. Rather, the voice of the nation would be “as” (v. 4) a person who has a familiar spirit. This is, the voice of Jerusalem’s inhabitants will be no more than a peep and mutter

The other verse in Isaiah 29 presumed to be a reference to Joseph Smith speaks of a “book [that] is delivered to him that is not learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee and he saith, I am not learned” (v. 12). Latter-day Saints tend to interpret the “book” as the gold plates and the one “not learned” as Joseph Smith. This interpretation derives from a rewording of this passage in the Book of Mormon which speaks of the gold plates coming forth in the latter days as a sealed book that “shall be delivered unto a man [i.e. , Joseph Smith]” (2 Ne. 27:9; JS-H 1:63-65). The problem with this interpretation is that Isaiah is not prophesying of an actual book delivered to a real person. Rather he is reprimanding the Jews for their spiritual blindness–“For the Lord hath poured out upon you the spirit of deep sleep” (Isa. 29:10–and likens the nations to an unlearned person trying to read a sealed book. . . . When read at face value, Isaiah seems to be merely comparing Israel’s inability to discern the word of God to an unlearned person’s inability to read a book." (This is My Doctrine, 51-52)

To give a fuller picture, here are a few quotes from non-LDS sources as to their interpretation of Isaiah 29:

"The security of sinners in sinful ways, is cause for lamentation and wonder. The learned men, through prejudice, said that the Divine prophecies were obscure; and the poor urged their want of learning. The Bible is a sealed book to every man, learned or unlearned, till he begins to study it with a simple heart and a teachable spirit, that he may thence learn the truth and the will of God. To worship God, is to approach him." (Matthew Henry's Concise Commentary)

"11. of all—rather, "the whole vision." "Vision" is the same here as "revelation," or "law"; in Isa 28:15, the same Hebrew word is translated, "covenant" [Maurer]. sealed—(Isa 8:16), God seals up the truth so that even the learned, because they lack believing docility, cannot discern it (Mt 13:10-17; 11:25). Prophecy remained comparatively a sealed volume (Da 12:4, 9), until Jesus, who "alone is worthy," "opened the seals" (Re 5:1-5, 9; 6:1)." (Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary)

"And the vision of all is become to 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 {i} cannot; for it is sealed: (i) Meaning, that it is all alike, either to read, or not to read, unless God open the heart to understand." (Geneva Study Bible)

"A distinction is drawn between the ignorance of the educated and that of the uneducated classes. The man of culture is like one who will not break the seal of a sealed book that he may read it; the man in the street cannot read it even if unsealed. The passage is interesting as illustrating the diffusion of literary education in Isaiah’s time (cf. Jeremiah 5:4-5)." (Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges)

This is a recurring theme to the interpretation of Isaiah 29 that is seen with non-LDS scholars as well, which leads critics to conclude that Joseph misunderstood the text here. We also see this issue crop up in other areas as well (seeing Elias and Elijah in the Kirtland temple even though they are the same person, Deutero-Isaiah verses in the Book of Mormon, or even Joseph's contention that God commanded Abraham to take a second wife when it was in fact Sarah that did so).

Furthermore, critics have long claimed that Joseph Smith tends to "write himself" into the scriptures and doctrines, such as this event here. In the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, Joseph appears to prophecy of himself in Genesis 50:33: ""And that seer will I bless, and they that seek to destroy him shall be confounded; for this promise I give unto you; for I will remember you from generation to generation; and his name shall be called Joseph, and it shall be after the name of his father; and he shall be like unto you; for the thing which the Lord shall bring forth by his hand shall bring my people unto salvation."

This prophecy of Joseph being a future prophet is also mirrored in 2 Nephi 3:6-21 as well. In addition, the Book of Mormon includes references to using Mosiah II and the brother of Jared using seer stones just as the book was being written through the use of seer stones. There are also references to treasure digging in the Book of Mormon in Mormon 1:18-19 and Helaman 13:31-16, which match how Joseph Smith believed treasure digging to exist with the treasure 'slipping away' when the spirits would bring the treasure deeper into the Earth to avoid being uncovered.

I don't want to get too far away from the main subject here, but it is important to note the pattern of these problems with Joseph Smith and early doctrine/scriptures. It is very easy to ignore or even excuse singular problems with church history, doctrines, or scriptures, but once they are put together it paints a picture that is very hard to ignore if studied with an open mind to the possibility that the church might not be true.

Apologists would argue that the changes to the story and the 1838 entry were due to Joseph Smith remembering the event later and wanting to add it for a fuller understanding. But just like the First Vision (where Joseph changes the accounts from one personage to both Jesus and God), the sealed book line is such a integral part of the story that it is hard to imagine forgetting it.

In addition, in the one other account of the event that we can find (it is a second hand as it was told to a newspaper reporter by Charles Butler who heard it from Harris), there are no mentions of a confrontation such as this with Anthon. From the account: "Harris with several manuscripts in his pocket, went to the city of New York, and called upon one of the Professors of Columbia College (This would, we assume, include Anthon) for the purpose of showing them to him. Harris says that the Professor thought them very curious, but admitted that he could not decypher them. Said he to Harris, “Mr. Harris you had better go to the celebrated Dr. Mitchell and show them to him. He is very learned in these ancient languages, and I have no doubt will be able to give you some satisfaction.” “Where does he live,” asked Harris. He was told, and off he posted with the engravings from the Golden Plates to submit to Dr. Mitchell. Harris says that the Doctor received him very “purlitely,” looked at his engravings, made a learned dissertation on them, compared them with the hieroglyphics discovered (by) Champollion in Egypt, and set them down as the language of a people formerly in existence in the East, but now no more." (Morning Courier & New-York Enquirer, 31 Aug., 1 Sept. 1831)

It is fair to say that Charles Anthon was likely not as dismissive of Martin Harris due to the fact that he was not an Egyptian scholar, but it also makes no sense for the story to have happened as Joseph Smith dictated in his history under Martin Harris' voice. Either way, the issues laid out here are not about Charles Anthon, but about the changes made by Joseph Smith to make the story fit his interpretation of Isaiah 29, and thus give the Book of Mormon a more divine origin.

We leave it up to the readers to draw their own conclusions and do their own research, but to us this feels like another faith promoting story in church history that simply can not hold up to close examination.

Thanks for reading and please reach out to us if you have any comments or questions. You can email us at ldsdiscussion@gmail.com or follow us on Twitter or Facebook.

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