Excerpts from Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible (JST) have been included as footnotes in the Latter-day Saint standard works since 1978. The translation process used by the Prophet remains a source of mystery today. Some scholars feel that Joseph Smith consulted and borrowed from Adam Clark’s commentary of the Bible. Others, like Kent P Jackson, believe there are flaws in the hypothesis.
Learn more about Joseph Smith and the New Testament in our Come Follow Me 2023 resources.
What is the Joseph Smith Translation?
The Joseph Smith Translation is a revision of the Bible made by the Prophet Joseph Smith.
What do we call the Joseph Smith Translation?
Joseph Smith and his contemporaries called it the New Translation. That is also the term used for it in a revelation in the Doctrine and Covenants (124:89). It’s still a good title for it, but since the late 1970s it has most commonly been called the Joseph Smith Translation.
The origin of that title is interesting.
When the Church was preparing a Latter-day Saint edition of the Bible in the 1970s, Church leaders decided to include excerpts from the Prophet’s Bible revision in footnotes and in an appendix in the back of the Bible. To do so, they needed an acronym for it. The most obvious choice was “NT,” for New Translation. But because “NT” already means New Testament, it couldn’t be used.
Thus, for the sake of an acronym to be printed in the Latter-day Saint Bible, the title Joseph Smith Translation was invented, providing the useful acronym “JST.”
Is the JST really a translation?
The Prophet and his associates called it a “translation,” so we shouldn’t be shy about using that term. It’s in English and not in the original languages—Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek—so it clearly is a translation.
But because the changes Joseph Smith made to the existing King James Bible weren’t linguistic renderings from one language to another, and because he did not begin with an existing non-English text, we are justified in asking what the word translation means in the JST’s context.
If you look up translate in Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary of American English, you find “to render into another language” as one of its meanings. This is almost exclusively how we use the word today. But Webster includes other definitions, including “to bear, carry or remove from one place to another,” “to transfer; to convey from one to another,” and “to change.” These definitions are closer to the word’s etymological meaning—“to carry across.”
So the JST is a translation in the sense that it is a re-creation of the Bible, a new incarnation of it. It creates something new out of something old.
Another perfectly good word for it is revision. That word suggests that the original is still largely intact but that changes have been made to it.
That’s precisely what we see in the JST. Joseph Smith also used the verb correct to describe what he was doing with the Bible. He was correcting it.
Recently it was suggested that Joseph Smith, in making his Bible revision, drew ideas from a commentary written by British scholar Adam Clarke. You disagree. Why?
This suggestion was made by BYU Professor Thomas Wayment in an effort to explain some of the changes Joseph Smith made. I have examined the same material, and I don’t believe that there is any evidence at all that Joseph Smith drew ideas from Clarke’s Bible commentary.
Wayment and his student research assistant, Haley Wilson-Lemmon, compared the revisions Joseph Smith made with various commentaries that were current in his day. They found what they believed were convergences between the JST and words in Clarke’s commentary.
Clarke’s commentary is massive, consisting of six volumes and about 5,200 pages. I haven’t counted pages in the other contemporary commentaries, but I doubt that there were any as big as Clarke’s. His was the most philological of the commentaries, meaning that it had a greater emphasis on the text, its words, and word meanings.
Clarke included some sermonizing, but most of what he wrote had to do with the meaning of the words in the text. As a result, his commentary is full of paraphrases, restatements, and wordy discussions, some of which include words that bear resemblances to revisions Joseph Smith made to the biblical text.
Wayment has interpreted those as examples of Joseph Smith borrowing ideas or words from Clarke, but that’s not what they are, in my opinion. They’re random and coincidental resemblances, mostly of unimportant words.
How did you first react to Wayment’s research, and how did you come to conclude that there is no JST-Adam Clarke connection?
Thomas Wayment first told me about his conclusions in 2016. I was excited about the matter.
I don’t find anything wrong with the idea that Joseph Smith may have learned something from a non-revelatory source and then used what he learned in making JST revisions. If, for example, he learned from some book or sermon that the KJV word conversation means “conduct,” it makes sense that he would want to replace the archaic word with the modern one, as he did a few times in the JST.
Doing that would take nothing away from his prophetic gifts, and it would be a wise thing to do.
Thomas Wayment’s theory goes beyond that. He believes that Joseph Smith systematically consulted Clarke along the way. I wouldn’t have a problem with that either, if that had happened. But I don’t believe that happened.
Early in 2019 I was doing some JST research and wanted to look at the Adam Clarke theory myself, still having no reason to doubt it. I looked at some examples that Wayment had provided and checked them carefully against Clarke’s commentary. I slowly came to the conclusion that all of the convergences Wayment suggested could be explained better in other ways.
When Wayment’s two articles came out in the summer of 2020, he proposed about 30 passages that he believed were influenced by Clarke’s writing. I looked at each individual case carefully and concluded that none of them came from Clarke. Many of the revisions he and his coauthor proposed were changes the Prophet had already made prior to arriving at the passages in Clarke that they believe influenced the change. Most of the passages they believe were influenced by Clarke reflect instead the Prophet’s demonstrable translation patterns that are seen in many of his revisions. These include his aversion to the italics in the King James translation and his sensitivity toward passages that appear to be doctrinally or historically incorrect.
Joseph Smith didn’t need Adam Clarke to influence him in passages like those. In addition, a lot of the revisions the Prophet made in the Bible are common-sense rewordings that anyone may have wanted to make. He could see as well as anyone else where the KJV’s wording was awkward or unhelpful, and it was in many such places that he made changes.
That Clarke suggested some of the same revisions is coincidental.
The coauthor of one of Wayment’s articles has accused Joseph Smith of “plagiarism.” What are the grounds of this charge, and what is your reaction to it?
In researching the JST and coming to believe that it includes influences from Adam Clarke’s commentary, Professor Wayment was doing what scholars do—establishing a hypothesis, testing it, and drawing conclusions about it. It is obviously not uncommon for scholars to have different opinions, as he and I do about this matter.
But his views on this topic have been have been overshadowed by the fact that his coauthor, Haley Wilson-Lemmon, has been claiming that the research shows that Joseph Smith “plagiarized” from Clarke.
Wayment hasn’t made this claim, she has.
Even if their theory were true, this wouldn’t be “plagiarism,” because the convergences they propose amount mostly to isolated words and vague resemblances. At best they could say that Joseph Smith was occasionally influenced by things Clarke wrote, though I don’t believe it.
The charge of “plagiarism” comes from interviews Wilson-Lemmon has done with aggressive critics of the Church, who have used her and put words into her mouth for their own purposes. She has willingly acquiesced. She famously left the Church and has used the Adam Clarke idea as a means of advertising her disaffection. This has made her a minor celebrity among anti-Mormons, and it has brought the Adam Clarke notion into the mix as evidence that Joseph Smith was a fraud.
I find all of this to be intellectually dishonest, but this is the kind of thing that many critics of the Church do.
But I also find Wilson-Lemmon’s actions to be profoundly unfair and disloyal to Wayment.
He invited her to work on his project, he gave her the opportunity to coauthor an academic article with him, and I suspect he wrote good recommendations for her to help her get into graduate school. Wayment didn’t need to let her coauthor the article. She was his student assistant, he paid her for her research, and he could have written and published the article himself. She repaid his kindness by sabotaging the narrative about his research.
Was your recent article in Interpreter an effort to counter the plagiarism claim?
Not at all. When I started examining the Adam Clarke theory, I had no idea about the backstory regarding Wayment’s coauthor. I found out about her departure from the Church after I had begun examining some of the passages in which she and Wayment attributed influence to Clarke.
My article doesn’t mention the “plagiarism” claim at all, nor Wilson-Lemmon’s situation. In the article I discuss each of the JST revisions that they attribute to Clarke. Discussing each one separately makes the article unfortunately longer than I had wanted. Interpreter is a responsible journal that publishes excellent articles. Their editors and reviewers were terrific to work with, and they did an excellent job.
Interpreter often publishes apologetic material, that is, material that has its intent to defend the faith against criticisms. I have had readers congratulate me on doing good apologetic work in my article, but because I don’t view the Adam Clarke thesis to be necessarily an attack on the Church, I don’t view my article as apologetic. It’s simply an article that examines some ideas.
I suppose, though, that Wilson-Lemmon’s “plagiarism” claim changes all that and puts my article in the category of an apologetic response.
Did Joseph Smith finish the JST?
Yes, he finished it. On July 2, 1833, he announced that his Bible translation was finished. The idea that he didn’t finish it seems to have been invented decades after his death, and the idea that he continued to work on it for the rest of his life was invented a century later.
I will be discussing the evidence elsewhere in the future, but it is important to be reminded that after the Prophet said that the JST was finished, he no longer spoke of translating but of finding the means to publish it, which he definitely hoped to do.
We have many of the JST’s revisions in the Church’s editions of the Bible. Do we have the best material there?
Indeed we do, but in most languages JST excerpts are published not in the Bible but in a collection in the back of the triple combination. The Prophet made thousands of revisions in the Bible. Outside of the large additions of new text in Genesis, most of the changes he made are much smaller revisions, many of which modernize or clarify the language.
When the Church prepared the English Latter-day Saint edition of the Bible that was published in 1979, Church leaders knew it would be impossible to include all the JST’s revisions, so they decided to select passages on a priority basis focusing on those that provided special doctrinal or historical content.
Thus most of the modernizations and small clarifications were not included.
Are there JST revisions that aren’t in the footnotes or appendix that should be?
I had two favorite JST passages that didn’t make the cut in 1979 (insertions at Mark 14:10 and John 8:11), but I was gratified to see that they were included in the 2013 edition.
In the years after 1979, other important passages that didn’t make the first cut were added to the collection. So far, the Church has its own editions of the Bible only in English, Spanish, and Portuguese, and in those there are JST footnotes throughout and a collection of longer selections in the back.
In addition, in dozens of languages around the world we now have the same selections that are in the back of the English, Spanish, and Portuguese Bibles, but they are published in the triple combination. They are also available online.
When you add the material in the Book of Moses and Joseph Smith—Matthew, both of which are excerpts from the JST, yes, we do have the best JST material available to Latter-day Saints everywhere.