For purposes of this post, I'm focusing on Oliver Cowdery's statements.
According to Vogel, "Cowdery gave a detailed description of the record of Joseph that leaves no doubt that he was referring to Ta Sherit Min's Book of the Dead ... Joseph Smith therefore identified Ta Sherit Min's scroll with the record of ancient Joseph, just as he had identified Hor's scroll with the Book of Abraham."
Oliver Cowdery's letter, printed in the Messenger and Advocate (December 31, 1835), was actually two letters to a man named William Frye, which an editor took excerpts from and pieced together to publish as one letter.
These letters are not actually in the handwriting of Oliver Cowdery. They were copied by other people (James M. Carrel and possibly an additional person) and stored in at least one letterbook. One page that I know of from one of the letters is currently available. I suspect the Joseph Smith Papers Project will acquire and publish the other parts of the letters.
The two most important words, "Joseph's Record," appear in parentheses in the Messenger and Advocate article. As a simple matter of fact, we might never be able to track down who wrote this. I'm not basing my argument on that, but it is a matter of fact. The words may have been in the original letter, which we no longer have. Or, they may have been added by the person who copied Oliver's letter. Or, as far as I currently know, they may have been added by the editor of the Messenger and Advocate.
Let us first consider what it would mean if Cowdery himself inserted this, and then address some complexities. People have assumed Cowdery was referring to Joseph of Egypt. However, as I will argue, the context would indicate he was referring to Joseph Smith.
Being in parentheses, the words "Joseph's Record" are clearly intended to be a clarification. If we can identify a reason why Cowdery would think it necessary to add a clarification in this exact spot, it may help us paint a more accurate picture.
What, then, is the most likely explanation for why Cowdery would find it necessary to insert a clarification in this exact spot? Was there something in the text which made it necessary?
Cowdery had just told us that Enoch wrote a record. And Cowdery had been giving us details about it, saying it was a history and that Enoch placed this history into pillars, and Cowdery told us they were still around in Josephus's day.
My explanation, based on the text: when he tells us they were around in Josephus's day, Cowdery says, "his," then inserts in parentheses, "Josephus," clarifying that he was talking about Josephus as opposed to Enoch. Then he says, "the inner end of the same roll" and realizes the reader might think he is still referring to Enoch's record, because he uses the phrase "the same," which is significant because the last record he had mentioned had been Enoch's (and, presumably, Enoch had written on rolls). Cowdery, a teacher aware of proper grammar, thus sees a need to let the reader know that he is no longer talking about Enoch's record but is again talking about Joseph Smith's roll which he had been describing before he entered a tangent on Enoch's record.
In other words, within the space of ten words he felt a need to clarify not only that he was not talking about Enoch, but also a need to clarify that he was not talking about Enoch's record.
So, in both parentheses, he clarifies that he is not talking about Enoch, and in those parentheses clarifies that he is instead talking about Josephus and Joseph Smith, respectively. Specifically, in the case of Joseph Smith, that he is again talking about one of Joseph's Egyptian records, i.e. "the same" one he had been describing just prior to talking about Enoch's record, which is why he wrote, "the same," before realizing that the last record he had mentioned was Enoch's.
Since Cowdery's reader, William Frye, would have already understood that what Cowdery had been describing was one of Joseph Smith's Egyptian records, it makes sense for Cowdery to refer back to Joseph Smith. It would make much less sense for Cowdery to refer "back" to Joseph of Egypt in Cowdery's contrast with Enoch, because Cowdery had not claimed that the drawings he had been discussing were on Joseph of Egypt's record, so there is nothing to refer "back" to. Instead, Cowdery couched his descriptions in the context of characters which Michael Chandler had asked Joseph to translate. That is the roll from Joseph Smith's collection which he had been discussing.
Cowdery begins his analysis of that record, the record Chandler had asked Joseph to translate a small part of, stating: "the language in which this record is written is very comprehensive, and many of the hieroglyphics exceedingly striking..."
It is likely that Joseph's "translation" for Chandler was just his initial impressions of the vignettes, identifying a serpent and so forth, which is the only way to account for Chandler's claim, if truthful, that Joseph's interpretation matched the interpretations of other people he had talked to.
Chandler, having something to sell, and not likely believing Joseph could actually translate, may have set it up as a softball for Joseph Smith, to avoid putting him on the spot, while using it as an opportunity to generate enthusiasm. If this had been Chandler's plan, I imagine he would have followed through regardless of what Joseph said about them. The consideration here is that Oliver segues the Chandler episode into describing those vignettes.
Therefore, Cowdery's letters are, by definition, out of context.
The Messenger and Advocate printed Oliver's letters but Oliver did not write them as letters to the newspaper. Since Oliver's statements in those letters were answers to questions on content raised in Frye's letter, and since the editor would not have been aware of that content, this could lead to misunderstanding. For instance, Frye may have asked about the contents of Joseph Smith's record which he translated for Chandler, which would explain why Oliver in response may have mentioned Joseph by his first name only, which Frye would understand in the context of his question, but which may cause someone else, looking at only one side, to misunderstand the reference. Another observation worth noting is that the words "Joseph's" and "Josephus'" sound and look almost identical, and here we have both words appearing in parentheses in a short sequence of words. The presence of "Josephus" without a last name may have made the word "Joseph's" flow naturally without a last name as well, in addition to the aforementioned fact that Cowdery was likely replying in a context Frye had already established regarding Joseph Smith, and thus no need for a last name.
Also, Joseph of Egypt can be expected to be referred to with qualifying language such as "Joseph of Egypt," "the Patriarch Joseph," etc. unless it is already firmly established. And in this case, it was not established at all, let alone firmly established. While, in contrast, Joseph Smith was often referred to simply as "Joseph" by early Saints.
Now, regarding the copy of Cowdery's letter. First we should point out that some types of alterations were considered acceptable.
Consider the copy, in that letter, of Michael Chandler's certificate. Following convention, the word "signed" is placed in parentheses. There is nothing dishonest about this, however the word "signed" almost certainly did not appear in Chandler's actual certificate. It is added in an attempt to clarify for the reader, following accepted conventions.
However, editors and copyists do not always understand intent so clearly, and liberties they take can misrepresent source material.
If one wants to say that Cowdery's use (or possibly the copyists's use) of the words "Joseph's record" is unrelated to the description of Enoch's record, one would need to provide a better explanation for why Cowdery would feel a need to interrupt the flow of his letter to insert those words.
If Oliver supposedly thought the Ta-sherit-Min roll was written by Joseph of Egypt, that doesn't comport with him indicating that it is obvious from the illustrations that the people who drew them had an understanding of the gospel - because, of course, Joseph of Egypt had an understanding of the gospel. That should go without saying, hardly a new revelation worth reporting on. And, Cowdery speaks of it being written by "persons," plural, which contradicts the notion that Joseph of Egypt personally wrote it.
Contra these problems, Oliver's only clear, explicit mention of Abraham and Joseph describes "the writings of Abraham and Joseph" as "this record," implying the text was on a single roll. Moreover, he started with a plural reference when referring to "the Egyptian records," but changed to referring to "this record," singular, right after he referenced "the writings of Abraham and Joseph." This indicates he understood there were multiple Egyptian records in the papyri, but one record containing "the writings of Abraham and Joseph":
Upon the subject of the Egyptian records, or rather the writings of Abraham and Joseph, I may say a few words. This record is beautifully written [Not "both writings are beautifully written"] on papyrus [Not "both on papyrus"] with black, and a small part, red ink or paint, [Not "both with black, and a small part, red ink] in perfect preservation. [Not "both in perfect preservation"] [Emphasis added]
It might seem strange for him to describe the writing as being in "perfect preservation," but this of course is relative to the various torn fragments Chandler provided, and may simply mean that the text inside the roll was still intact. This is similar to how the words "long roll" in Charlotte Haven's account are relative.
Very significantly, as shown above, Oliver then enforces the idea of the writings of Abraham and Joseph being on a single roll, by describing the writing of both patriarchs at the same time as beautifully written, with black and red ink, in perfect preservation. If he were indeed referring to two separate records, we would expect him to say "both are beautifully written," "both are written with black and red ink," "both are in perfect preservation," etc. So, he not only refers to them explicitly as a single record, but continues describing them as though they are a single record. It's true the Ta-sherit-Min roll is also written with red and black ink, but that was extremely common, and the point here is how Cowdery referenced the writings of Abraham and Joseph of Egypt as a single record and continued doing so.
I believe Joseph's investigation into Egyptian mythology, as evinced in his Egyptian Alphabet, was, in part, an attempt to explore the true gospel roots of Egyptian theology, going back to Ham. It is in this context that I understand Oliver feeling at liberty to also speculate into Egyptian theology regarding Eve, Enoch, etc. Oliver made no attempt to attribute his speculations to Joseph Smith.
For all we know, Frye may have even asked in what ways the papyri demonstrated an Egyptian understanding of the gospel.
Remember, Joseph translated a portion of the Egyptian funerary papyri. So, the reality is probably more complex than the black-and-white thinking that "Oliver said something, so Joseph must have thought exactly the same thing," In reality, during the tumultuous Kirtland era, Joseph apparently didn't even have a chance to finish translating the Book of Abraham. He had to set it aside and return to it years later. I think his limited time for interaction with the material, let alone educating others on the finer points, would have left plenty of room for people to speculate.
Things which on paper may seem to be obviously true do not always play out in real life. To make this relatable, I would like to use Dan's videos as an example.
Why We Can't Assume Joseph's Scribes Represent His Thinking
Throughout most of the series, Dan refers to and portrays Brian Hauglid as an apologist. But before Dan even produced his videos, Hauglid had in fact undergone a transformation and no longer held to the views he had held as an apologist.
Of course, we would not, even on paper, expect Dan to automatically know this. The problem is that one of Dan's best friends, who Dan specifically acknowledges as one of two people who provided critique for his videos, was, in turn, specifically singled out by Hauglid as someone who could attest to his transformation.
Moreover, we could assume, on paper, that this friend of both men was watching the videos as they came out, in addition to providing critique beforehand.
Yet new videos kept coming out, repeatedly portraying Hauglid as an apologist.
Today, Dan has a note in the videos he posted up to that point, which reads:
"In a recent Facebook response, Brian Hauglid, one of the BYU 'apologists' featured in my Book of Abraham videos, clarified his current position and now wishes to disassociate himself from the views of John Gee and Kerry Muhlestein. As an endorsement of these videos and a service to Hauglid, I post a portion of his statement here:
“'For the record, I no longer hold the views that have been quoted from my 2010 book in these videos. ... In fact, I'm no longer interested or involved in apologetics in any way. I wholeheartedly agree with Dan’s excellent assessment of the Abraham/Egyptian documents in these videos. ... One can find that I've changed my mind in my recent and forthcoming publications. The most recent JSP Revelations and Translation vol. 4, The Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts (now on the shelves) is much more open to Dan’s thinking on the origin of the Book of Abraham.'” (Brian Hauglid, Facebook, 8 Nov. 2018)"
I can understand why Dan would publicize the change. In fact, when Hauglid made Dan aware on the public facebook comment, Dan responded by saying, "While I appreciate and empathize and welcome your clarification, I sincerely hope it doesn't cause you too much personal grief. I have taken the liberty to post a portion of your statement in the written description of each video. Best wishes." To which Hauglid responded, "Many thanks Dan." The mutual friend commented, saying in part, "I do regret that those viewing my friend Dan's videos may assume that you maintain the same intellectual posture as in a few of your previous publications. I can affirm that you don't." This mutual friend, who had been singled out by both of them, also posted a comment linking to a podcast in which Hauglid had discussed his transformation several years earlier.
The point is that, on paper, a person who is singled out as uniquely able to attest to something may be expected to set others straight on it, especially if they are also singled out as having critiqued the very thing which stands in need of the exact correction they are uniquely able to offer.
But in real life, things don't always go as we would expect on paper.
I'm comparing Brent Metcalfe to Joseph Smith, so please do not get the impression that I am in any way putting Metcalfe down. In fact, the point I'm making relies on the reality that Metcalfe is highly intelligent and detail-oriented. If he were supposed to be someone who was fumbling around, my point wouldn't stand.
If something like that can happen to Metcalfe, then what about a farmer-turned-Prophet on the American frontier who had ancient papyri thrown into his lap at a time when persecutions were raging, major projects were underway, and everyone he knew had questions and wanted answers about everything in life?
Even in Nauvoo, when those working on his history were reading it to him for approval, we can't assume he was hovering over every detail and ensuring every nuance of phraseology could not be misconstrued a century later. Instead, he was probably distracted by a dozen other thoughts, having sections summarized for him instead of read verbatim, requesting that the writers add color and simplify language for readability, etc.
We can't say, "Joseph would have corrected that."
And when it comes to the papyri, if Joseph had special understanding of the Egyptian theology, how was he supposed to convey that to others in a way they would understand? If his own understanding was line upon line, then all the more so for his fellow frontiersmen.
If, for instance, Joseph mentioned the Garden of Eden story contained on the Abraham roll, and Oliver asked about the snake on the Ta-sherit-Min roll, Joseph may have very well just told him he is free to interpret it how he'd like, rather than getting into details on Egyptian theology that he himself was in the process of discovering.