SANDY, Utah — The applause was loud and sustained when William Schryver finished his presentation at the FAIR conference on Friday. "I guess some people really liked that," one man said after the clapping. "I couldn't understand what he was talking about."
What Schryver was talking about was how he solved part of a mystery that involved ancient Egyptian papyri, secret codes and the Knights Templar. It was nothing less than a paradigm shift in how scholars could approach the 1835 Kirtland Egyptian Papers.
The papers are a puzzling hodgepodge of hieroglyphics, speculative definitions, tables, charts, notebooks and documents that apparently deal with the Book of Abraham, part of the canon of scriptures of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The Kirtland Egyptian Papers date from the same time in Kirtland, Ohio, when LDS Church members purchased a collection of Egyptian papyri from a traveling exhibition. Joseph Smith then claimed to have translated by revelation the ancient record of Abraham.
For the past 40 years, the portion of the papers that garnered the most interest were a set of documents that had Egyptian characters in the left column and the words of the Book of Abraham on the right. The characters were copied off a particular piece of papyrus.
Critics said the Abraham text documents were a record of church founder Joseph Smith attempting a pseudo-academic method of translating the Book of Abraham: He would write down a character from the papyrus and then give the translation.
Some Mormon scholars, on the other hand, said the documents were probably a failed attempt by Smith's associates to use the already revealed text like a Rosetta Stone to decipher the Egyptian language.
At first glance, the characters appeared to be copied in the same order they were on the papyrus. This is exactly what one would expect to find if someone was attempting to translate the papyrus.
But Egyptologist John Gee, senior research fellow at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at BYU, examined the claim closely. Schryver read Gee's findings at the conference.
The first line of characters on the papyrus was indeed copied in the exact same order on the documents. But then the order is gone. After the first line, the characters were taken willy-nilly from all over the papyrus.
"If the characters in the left hand margin were thought to be translated by the words on the right, they should have been taken in order," Gee wrote, "but they were not. The theory as propounded does not pass the sobriety test: It cannot follow a straight line."
If the Kirtland Egyptian Papers were not an attempt to translate the Egyptian, what were they?
Schryver, a software engineer, expanded his examination of the papers to two other sets of Kirtland Egyptian Papers documents he referred to as the alphabet and the grammar. Like the Abraham text documents, the alphabet and grammar had characters in columns with definitions. Some characters had multiple definitions ranging from basic dictionary-like descriptions to extensive paragraphs.
By breaking the information down in databases, Schryver began to see a connection between the alphabet and grammar and the text of the Book of Abraham. It was like someone took the Book of Abraham text, cut it into pieces and used some of the pieces as definitions in the alphabet and grammar.
Schryver realized this process could only work one way. The alphabet and grammar relied upon a pre-existing text of the Book of Abraham.
He was also surprised to learn that the alphabet and grammar had pieces and allusions to other scriptures like Doctrine and Covenants 76 and 88 among its definitions.
But still the purpose of the whole Kirtland Egyptian Papers project wasn't clear. "If … these documents were not prepared as a tool to decipher the papyri, what then was their purpose?" he said.
He looked closely at the characters in the alphabet and the grammar. "Most of the characters explained in the Egyptian alphabet documents are not Egyptian and do not appear on the Egyptian papyri in question," Schryver said. "Much to my surprise, I discovered that several of the characters can be traced to ciphers used by the Knights Templar and ultimately the Freemasons."
The key to figuring out the purpose of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers for Schryver was a two-page document in the papers: The Egyptian Counting document. Like the other documents in the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, the counting document had characters in a column with definitions. In this case the characters were defined as numbers. The characters, however, were not Egyptian. This is what gave Schryver an "aha!" moment.
"What we have here is not a tool to decipher Egyptian, but one intended to encipher the descriptive English text," Schryver said. Joseph Smith and his associates were attempting to create a secret code or cipher key. For example, in the counting document one character meant "six," another "seven" and so on.
The other documents in the Kirtland Egyptian Papers also appeared to be elaborate cipher keys. In a cipher key, it didn't matter what characters were used, so it didn't matter what order they were borrowed from the Egyptian papyrus. It didn't matter if they made up characters. It didn't matter if they used characters from the Knights Templar.
But what about those long paragraph definitions?
The cipher they were creating, Schryver said, was related to 19th Century theories of the pure language of the ancients. Egyptian was thought to be more ancient, and thus less corrupted. The theory also held that the written language was more efficient and characters could stand for longer and more complex ideas — even paragraphs.
The idea of a secret cipher also fits historically into the 1835 Kirtland time period when code-names were used in the printed revelations.Comment on this story
Schryver said that William Phelps, one of the people who worked on the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, had worked on a similar substitution cipher before the Egyptian papyrus even came to Kirtland. Some of the characters Phelps used in his cipher ended up in the papers with different definitions.
The Kirtland Egyptian Papers project only lasted a few months before it was abandoned. The fascination with pure language and the desire to encipher text in what they theorized was the pattern of the ancients failed. In a way, the attempts to create a pure language cipher key were like the 40 years of theories about the papers. "It just didn't work," Schryver said.
To view an online version of Schryver's presentation, go to www.fairlds.org/fair_conferences.