Joseph Smith’s Studies and Translations

It has been a big year for volumes that discuss Joseph Smith’s translation projects, with contributions ranging from Terryl Givens and Brian Hauglid’s The Pearl of Great Price: Mormonism’s Most Controversial Scripture last October, to William L. Davis’s Visions in a Seer Stone: Joseph Smith and the Making of the Book of Mormon this April, to Samuel Brown’s Joseph Smith’s Translation: The Words and Worlds of Early Mormonism in May, and a few other notable works.  One book in particular, however, has recently been billed as groundbreaking and potentially one of the most foundational contributions to the subject:  Producing Ancient Scripture: Joseph Smith’s Translation Projects in the Development of Mormon Christianity, ed. Michael Hubbard MacKay, Mark Ashurst-McGee and Brian M. Hauglid.  The volume is a collection of chapters written by many notable scholars of Mormonism, discussing a variety of topics related to Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon, the Bible, and the Book of Abraham.  Recently, Kurt Manwaring sat down to interview Michael Hubbard MacKay and Mark Ashurst-McGee (two of the general editors of the book).  What follows here is a co-post to that interview, a summary with quotes and commentary on the interview, but to get the full treatment, I recommend going to read the interview here.

It is relatively common to describe Joseph Smith’s translations as being revelations.  For example, at the most recent general conference, Elder Ulisses Soares stated that the Book of Mormon “was not ‘translated’ in the traditional way that scholars would translate ancient texts by learning an ancient language. We ought to look at the process more like a ‘revelation’ with the aid of physical instruments provided by the Lord, as opposed to a ‘translation’ by one with knowledge of languages.”[1]  In the interview, Michael Hubbard MacKay pointed out, however, the ways in which the translations differed from Joseph Smith’s other revelations:

It’s not just that Smith called some revelations “translations” and called others “commandments” or “revelations.” A comparison of the revelations deemed “translations” and the other revelations does show qualitative differences (as well as similarities).

The translations were presented as ancient texts. Moreover, they were usually associated with some kind of artifact—such as plates or parchment or papyri. Most of the other revelations, in contrast, were direct transmissions given through no other medium than Smith’s mind and his inherited vocabulary.

Because of this, the revelations differ in narrative voice. They were delivered in the voice of the living God—often directed to specific individuals in the immediacy of present circumstances and employing familiar address.

In contrast, the translations were narrated in the voice of ancient prophets and generally addressed an unknown audience of scripture readers somewhere far off in the distant future.

These are some significant differences that underscore why the translations are still considered a category unto themselves within Joseph Smith’s revelatory output.

It is also important to note that the translations required a lot of work from many different people to bring them to fruition.  One chapter in Producing Ancient Scriptures in particular has been noted for its contributions in this regard.  In that chapter, Amy Easton-Flake and Rachel Cope “apply theoretical work from an intersection between gender studies and archival studies to highlight a substantial body of often overlooked documentation regarding the production of Mormonism’s founding text. Also, they provide balanced readings of these sources—thereby revealing just how much the production of the Book of Mormon was a group effort involving both men and women.”  Mark Ashurst-McGee noted that while he “was familiar with most of the sources used in this chapter,” he still felt that “the authors pointed out so many things I had never before noticed” and that “reading this chapter, for me, was also a spiritual experience.”

The biggest discussion in the interview, however, focused on the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible.  In one of the more controversial Mormon Studies discoveries of recent years, Thomas A. Wayment and Hayley Wilson-Lemmón found that there were significant parallels between some of the edits Joseph Smith made to the Bible and a nineteenth-century Bible commentary by Methodist theologian Adam Clarke.  The chapter in Producing Ancient Scripture on their findings has been highly anticipated because, as the editors noted in a recent question and answer session with J. Stapley on By Common Consent, while a preliminary discussion of their research had been previously published and a follow-up article has been published in the Journal of Mormon History, the chapter “is the basis of the discussion (and all Smith-reliance-upon-Clarke discussion to follow)” with far more evidence than the 2017 preliminary discussion.[2]  Now, their findings have proven controversial because of accusations of Joseph Smith committing plagiarism from Clarke’s commentary, with Wilson-Lemmón leading the way in making that accusation after leaving the Church.  As such, the editors took some time to unpack those accusations and other concerns about Joseph Smith’s reliance upon the Clarke commentary in their interview.

The first concern they address is whether the use of Adam Clarke’s commentary undermines the importance of the Joseph Smith Translation.  Mark Ashurst-McGee explained that:

Church historians have recognized for decades that there is a broad qualitative spectrum of content in the Joseph Smith Translation. At one end of the spectrum, there are the substantial expansions regarding Moses and Enoch. It’s quite clear that these are meant to be understood as the result of revelation (or revelatory translation). At the other end of the spectrum there are mundane word changes that update the language of the seventeenth-century King James translation for a nineteenth-century audience.

Church historians have long been open to the idea that revelation was not required for these mundane changes. There is a wide range of changes in between these two extremes, with a large gray area in the middle—where it is unclear whether changes are meant to be understood as the result of revelation or reason.

He went on to discuss the idea that while we view Joseph Smith’s efforts were inspired, there is room to believe that the more mundane changes, many of which simply modernized the archaic language of the Bible, were the result of Joseph Smith’s reasoning rather than revelation.  That being the case, “the scenario of Smith drawing upon his own thoughts, conversations with others, and available Bible commentaries for some of his revisions makes perfect sense.”  It is in these more mundane changes that we see the influence of the Clarke commentary rather than the substantial, revelatory additions regarding Moses, Enoch, etc.

As for the accusations of plagiarism, Ashurst-McGee responded by pointing out that the translation was never published during Joseph Smith’s lifetime.  Because of that, we don’t have any introduction to the work written, so we don’t know whether Joseph Smith would have acknowledged Clarke’s influence or not.  Since plagiarism “means borrowing without attribution,” it would only have been plagiarism if “Smith’s introduction to the Joseph Smith Translation had said that all the changes were a result of direct revelation, or that all of them were his own ideas —or even some combination of the two” with “no kind of nod toward Clarke or toward the use of any outside sources generally.”  If that were the case, then “this could fairly be raised as an ethical issue,” but there is insufficient evidence to know whether that would have been the case.  We can look at how Joseph Smith introduced other standard works published by church to get an idea of how he might have written the introduction to his Inspired Version of the Bible (and they do some of that in the interview), but ultimately, we just don’t know.  So, with that being the case, it is likely that people will assume and say what best fits their own narrative about Joseph Smith when discussing potential plagiarism in the unfinished project of his translation of the Bible.

The other main discussion in the interview was about the impact that studying Hebrew had on Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Abraham (BoA).  Matthew J. Grey’s chapter in the book argues that Joseph Smith studied Hebrew “because he felt that doing so would help him to better understand the Book of Abraham.”  The chapter is significant because, as Michael Hubbard MacKay has noted elsewhere: “In a systematic and comprehensive fashion, Grey shows just how the text of the BoA draws upon Hebrew and he documents this using Joseph Smith’s Hebrew textbooks. If it ever needs to be established that Hebrew is used in the BoA, Grey’s chapter is the source to cite.”[3]  The idea makes sense to me—if you compare how Joseph Smith incorporated his understanding of Hebrew into some of the theology he discussed in the King Follett Discourse with the creation narrative presented in the Book of Abraham, chapters 4 and 5, there seem to be some common ideas rooted in Joseph Smith’s understanding of Hebrew being presented.   Mark Ashurst-McGee put it this way: “Smith’s broadened linguistic capacity—after having studied Hebrew—may have allowed God to reveal the Book of Abraham to him within a larger linguistic scope.”

Based on this discussion, Kurt Manwaring asked the fascinating question: “Do you think the Book of Mormon might read differently if Joseph Smith started studying Hebrew prior to translating it?”  Mark Ashurst-McGee responded that it was possible, since the Lord stated that, “his revelations are ‘given unto [his] servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding’ (D&C 1:24 [with emphasis added]),” but it’s hard to tell, since it’s a “counterfactual scenario.”  Michael Hubbard MacKay added more detail by stating that:

Even conservative scholars of the translation accept that Joseph Smith had some control over the text.

The most conservative only allow for punctuation, chapter and paragraphing choices, and slight edits and corrections. So, even within their perspective, Hebrew could have found its way into the text within the scenario you’ve suggested.

Also, those who accept that it’s an actual translation of an ancient record could accept a translation model that embraces a translation into Smith’s vernacular, which might also allow for Hebrew to find its way into the text.

Note also that neither of these scenarios necessarily challenges the divine origin of the text.

So, some interesting thoughts about how Joseph Smith’s interest in studying languages may have impacted the Book of Mormon if he had studied Hebrew before translating it.

For more details on the topics discussed above, some thoughts on how Joseph Smith’s pursuit of academic learning and his process of receiving revelation, and how Smith’s methods differed between his different translation projects, you can go read the full interview with Kurt Manwaring here.  Note that this is the second part of a series of interviews Kurt Manwaring is doing about Joseph Smith’s translations, so more discussions are coming in the next few weeks.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Ulisses Soares, “The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon,” CR April 2020, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2020/04/23soares?lang=eng.

[2] J. Stapley, “A Q&A with the editors of Producing Ancient Scripture,” By Common Consent, 20 July 2020, https://bycommonconsent.com/2020/07/20/a-qa-with-the-editors-of-producing-ancient-scripture/.

[3] J. Stapley, “A Q&A with the editors of Producing Ancient Scripture,” By Common Consent, 20 July 2020, https://bycommonconsent.com/2020/07/20/a-qa-with-the-editors-of-producing-ancient-scripture/.

8 comments for “Joseph Smith’s Studies and Translations

  1. Ben
    August 8, 2020 at 7:32 pm

    “It has become common to describe Joseph Smith’s translations as being more revelation than a linguistic, Google Translate-style, approach to translating. ” Perhaps, except no one has ever claimed it was a “linguistic, google translate-style” translation. To call it a revelatory is not to discount it as a translation.

  2. Chad Nielsen
    August 8, 2020 at 10:23 pm

    Fair point, Ben. I didn’t put that very well. For what it’s worth, though, I personally was raised in the Church being taught that the translation process was something akin to him hovering the set stone over the plates and the English equivalent to the characters appearing in it. Not the most educated view of it in retrospect as an adult, but I understood it at the time to be more like he was using technology to convert reformed Egyptian to English than how I usually thought of revelations. So, that’s what was in the back of my mind while writing the opening to that paragraph.

  3. Chad Nielsen
    August 8, 2020 at 10:33 pm

    I’ve edited the post in that particular section. Hopefully it does what it’s supposed to while not setting up an inacurate binary comparison now.

  4. p
    August 9, 2020 at 10:38 am

    If we simply assert that Jos. was “inspired” to make things up we’re still in exactly the same spot, aren’t we? He didn’t actually utilize the golden plates, urim & thrummin, Egyptian papyri, nor, apparently, from this reading, even the rock in the hat, except, perhaps, as catalysts for a revelatory trance state – which seems a very circuitous route, especially re: the plates and the tremendous trouble he endured to obtain & secure these. Nothing makes sense.

  5. Ben
    August 9, 2020 at 11:08 am

    There’s nothing in reading English off the seer stone that invalidates Joseph doing the mental work of translation, per a number of proposals.

  6. Hoosier
    August 9, 2020 at 11:56 am

    Per Don Bradley in “The Lost 116 Pages,” the extant statements regarding the translation process during Martin Harris’s tenure as scribe indicate that Joseph did use the plates in the traditional sense of Joseph reading the plates character to character with the interpreters held up to his eyes, etc. However, that took a great deal of setting up (the room had to be configured in a way reminiscent of an Israelite temple) and was inconvenient and difficult for Joseph, so they switched to the stone-in-the-hat model when Cowdery got started.

    All that goes to say that Joseph did use the plates at the outset. He stopped directly reading from the plates later on, but that doesn’t mean that they were completely unnecessary or never part of the process.

  7. p
    August 9, 2020 at 3:47 pm

    “the room had to be configured in a way reminiscent of an Israelite temple”

    Positively Spielbergian

  8. Hoosier
    August 9, 2020 at 6:07 pm

    Spielbergian or not, it speaks to the point that the plates were not casually cast aside but did have a part to play.

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