One of the few things upon which believers and critics agree is that Joseph Smith could not read ancient languages -- at least in the typical sense. The Book of Mormon was not "translated" by the same method as scholars who, conversant in two different languages, translate ancient texts.
When Nephi began his record he said: "I make a record in the language of my father,
which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians" (1 Nephi 1:2). A thousand years later the prophet Moroni told us that the Nephite record was written "in the characters which are called among us the reformed Egyptian, being handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech." This script, he explained was more abbreviated than Hebrew and it was unique to the Nephites; altered according to their language and unknown to anyone else (Mormon 9:33-34).
The critics, however, assure us that 1) good Israelites would not have written in pagan Egyptian, 2) there is no such thing as "reformed Egyptian," and 3) there should be evidence of Hebrew language in the ancient New World.
First, would a devout Israelite have written in Egyptian? We now know from archaeological evidence, that some Hebrew and Aramaic texts -- languages used by the Israelites in Lehi's time -- were written in Egyptian characters; sometimes even in modified Egyptian characters. The translation of some ancient Egyptian documents such as Papyrus Amherst 63 had eluded scholars until they realized that while the characters were Egyptian, the underlying text was Aramaic.
Second, is "reformed Egyptian" a fictional script? It's important to note that "reformed" is an adjective synonymous with altered, or modified. "Reformed Egyptian" was the unique name given to the script by the Nephites. We wouldn't expect other people to use the exact same term. Likewise, the scholarly terms "cuneiform" and "hieroglyphics" are modern non-Egyptian designators for scripts from ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt.
Neither the Mesopotamians nor the Egyptians used such terms for their script, but this does not lead to conclude that these people or their writing didn't exist.
As a side note, we find an interesting detail in early Mormon W.W. Phelps' account of Martin Harris' visit to New York scholar Charles Anthon. Harris took a written sample of the Book of Mormon text to confirm that it was real before investing his funds into Joseph Smith's plan to publish the record. Harris said that Anthon thought it was real but changed his mind when Harris told him that the plates were delivered by an angel. Harris came home convinced that Joseph had a real ancient record and assisted Joseph in the translation.
According to Phelps, Anthon told Harris that the characters were an example of "shorthand Egyptian." This unique phrase wouldn't have been part of Phelps' or Harris' vernacular but was a distinct scholarly expression used by those who were acquainted with different Egyptian cursive scripts such as Hieratic. It seems likely that Anthon, as Harris claimed, recognized that these characters resembled some sort of modified Egyptian script (although he wouldn't have been able to read).
Evidence also demonstrates that other scripts in the ancient world were modified according to the material upon which they were written, and today we know of a number of "reformed," or modified, or altered Egyptian scripts. During Lehi's day, in fact, Hieratic and Demotic were examples of actual reformed cursive Egyptian scripts.
Third, why is there no evidence for the Hebrew language in Ancient America? There are two answers to this question. A) We know from Moroni that through the years their Hebrew language had undergone changes. Language typically changes over the centuries and it's likely that the Lehites, as a small incursion into an existing native American population, would have adopted the language of their hosts. Many scholars think that there is no reason we should ever expect to find Hebrew in the ancient New World.
B) Other scholars, especially professional linguist Dr. Brian Stubbs, believe that there is growing evidence for traces of Hebrew in many New World languages. As a professional, Stubbs avoids the pitfalls of amateurs who simply spot instances where two languages have similar words and similar meanings. Stubbs has been able to show the advanced parallels that linguists look for when identifying related languages. At least one non-LDS Rhodes Scholar and professional linguist has expressed a favorable opinion about Stubbs on-going research.
The Book of Mormon's "reformed Egyptian" fits neatly into what is currently known about ancient history and the modification of Egyptian texts. In the next installment we'll examine the translating aides utilized by the prophet.
Scripture of the Day: D&C 89:18-21