Sponsored by BYU Studies—Thomas Wayment is a professor of Classics at BYU and the author of “The New Testament: A Translation for Latter-day Saints.” He will be publishing research on the Joseph Smith Translation in a 2019 book edited by Mark Ashurst-McGee, Michael MacKay, and Brian Hauglid via University of Utah Press.
Welcome! Before we begin, would you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you first became interested in the bible and ancient languages?
I don’t think there has ever been a time in my life when I haven’t felt drawn towards the ancient world. Early in my career I thought that I wanted to be an archaeologist, but I quickly realized that I was more interested in making sense of the artifacts that come out of the ground than I was in actually digging them up.
I have to admit that I didn’t set out to study the bible. My early focus was the study of Greece and Rome, and particularly the literature of the period, but I was inspired by one of my Greek teachers to consider looking at Christianity within the cultural context of the Roman Empire.
That encouragement eventually led me to pursue a Ph.D. in New Testament Studies, where I found a new passion in the formation of the Christian community in the first two hundred years of its existence. To study that time period, a scholar has to draw upon a variety of primary languages such as Greek, Latin, and Hebrew.
Tell us about your new translation of the New Testament and your forthcoming book about the Joseph Smith Translation.
I’ve been an instructor at BYU for the past 19 years, and in that time I’ve taught mostly New Testament courses, although most recently I’ve moved to the department of Comparative Arts and Letters where I teach courses in Classics.
About a decade ago I decided to translate the majority of the scriptural quotations that I used in class to help students make sense of the text. They would have the King James translation in front of them, and I would provide them with a modern translation. It helped immensely, and students would often open up about their use of modern translations, often including the use of a modern translation in their missionary work.
Although many were unaware of this, missionaries who use the scriptures in translation on their mission are using a relatively modern translation, and many of those same missionaries feel that they understand the Bible better in their mission language. When they were able to have the same experience in English they would often express gratitude for having come to the realization that reading the Bible did not have to be such a difficult task.
My original plan was to translate the New Testament for my students, but I had no intention of publishing it. About five years ago, my interests changed as I began working on the footnotes to my new translation. I realized what a great opportunity the notes provided for making sense of the text and for helping readers engage the Bible more deeply.
It was at that moment that I began to work on the project in earnest and to hope that it might be possible to publish a new translation of the New Testament that targeted the Latter-day Saint audience.
When I came to BYU nearly 20 years ago I had this fascination with Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible because it appeared to me that the study of the text was only in its infancy.
There had been some excellent work done on the subject, but there was still a great deal of obscurity regarding what it was exactly. Many people I knew thought that it was a restoration of the original text of the Bible, while others dismissed it entirely as a modern commentary.
That disparity in opinion led me to believe that more work needed to be done, and so after nearly 20 years of studying that text, I think I’m ready to place the Joseph Smith Translation in a more prominent position in the story of the growth of the early church.
Joseph Smith spent three years on his retranslation of the Bible while he spent only a fraction of that time on the Book of Mormon, and yet the Book of Mormon figures more prominently in the development of the early church in every study that I’ve read.
I’m confident that the Joseph Smith Translation was far more influential on the development of the church than has been previously noted, but it has taken me a significant amount of time to fully come to terms with its production, dissemination, and role in the early church.
How do academic advances make today a golden age for bible translations?
Today, scholars have access to an incredible amount of research on the text of the Bible that has the potential to create a new renaissance of biblical studies. For the text of the Bible alone, scholars have access to a wealth of manuscript discoveries that provide us with early copies of the text of the New Testament as well as much older copies of the books of the Old Testament.
The Dead Sea scrolls have enabled scholars of the Old Testament to draw upon older copies of the text than had been available, and the discovery of papyri from Egypt has given New Testament scholars a glimpse into the text of the New Testament in the first two hundred years after it was written.
These discoveries, when combined with computer aided research, lexicographical resources, and massive textual databases have allowed scholars of the Bible to improve our translations of the Bible immensely. With the discoveries that have been made in the past two hundred years, there really is no excuse to not at least use a modern translation of the Bible.
Some older translations have remained part of our cultural fabric because of their claim to literary elegance, and while there will always be some truth to that statement, the Greek texts written by the New Testament authors themselves are not particularly elegant. They’re much more functional and ordinary, and by transforming them into high literature we have placed them in a part of our collective identity that they did not occupy at the time of their composition.
According to the gospel authors, Jesus spoke in very ordinary language, the common language of his day, and while he said and did profound and wonderful things, he spoke like other people of his day.
We’re quickly losing that part of him, namely that he spoke like other people of his day and not in elegant speech of a bygone era.
Why did you read the text out loud as part of your translation process?
When I completed the entire translation, I asked a student assistant of mine to read the entire text out loud and to make note of places where the translation wasn’t smooth. I did the same, and my primary purpose was to recover the way the New Testament was used by early Christians.
The practice of sitting down and studying the text of the Bible privately is an entirely modern practice. Early Christians looked upon people who read the Bible alone and quietly with suspicion. Instead, they felt that the text should be read out loud, and in some cases performed. It was a living text, and there was power in hearing it read out loud. They didn’t have chapters and verses, but instead they had weekly reading blocks that were read out loud to them in worship services.
I wanted to make sure that my translation was readable in that same way, and to help the modern reader rediscover that there was power in the word when it was read out loud.
Would you share one or two examples from your translation in which you felt a remarkable confluence of your academic expertise and the Spirit (e.g., study and faith)?
First of all, I want to say that I don’t want to assert any claim that this translation is Spirit endorsed beyond my own stewardship and experience. It arose from my own interests, and I pursued it because it appears to be making a difference in people’s lives.
To translate the entire New Testament and then write notes that are nearly half as long as the translation itself is a monumental, if not, overwhelming project. In pursuit of this project, I have felt almost pushed by the Spirit to keep going, and I found an energy beyond my own physical abilities to keep going when the project overwhelmed me. I also felt inspired to be transparent and honest about the text and the notes, and to allow the voices of the New Testament authors to speak for themselves.
As a Bible scholar, I often wanted to explain things. I felt throughout the project that there was a need for a New Translation that could be used by Latter-day Saints, and that sense of need and urgency never left me throughout the process.
What tips do you have for Latter-day Saints seeking to increase their bible literacy by reading books not written by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
First of all, I would encourage everyone who studies the Bible and who wishes to increase their biblical literacy to make the Bible the focus of that study. I would encourage everyone to find a good study Bible, one printed by a major and reputable publisher, and draw upon the wealth of resources found in the notes, introductions, and other materials.
There used to be a strong sense that other translations of the Bible were corrupt, not as good as the King James Version, or even misleading. But the truth of the matter is that a worldwide believing community of Christians has put forward an exerted effort to achieve the best translations of the Bible and to provide resources for those who wish to use them.
Second, I think all Latter-day Saints should make an exerted effort to read the excellent work on Latter-day Saint scripture that has been produced over the past 50 years. So much good work is available, and while it takes time to consider all that is out there, it is a rewarding experience to engage this growing and increasingly more articulate body of scholarship.
What is the Joseph Smith Translation — and what is it not? How does this compare with how most Latter-day Saints understand the JST?
This Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible is not simply one thing but several.
It is a revelation, it is commentary and correction, it is exploration, and it is preliminary.
I want to save the big surprises for the book I’m working on, but at this point I’m comfortable saying that Joseph Smith invested more energy and time to his translation of the Bible than he did for any of his other translation projects.
It was his most ambitious project. A slight majority of revelations found in the Doctrine and Covenants can be connected to the Bible translation project, and it represented a certain amount of hostility towards the canon of Christianity that we are only beginning to appreciate.
Because of the major revisions and additions to the text, we need to move beyond the simple category of translation. Joseph did not translate the Bible through its languages. He did so through other means, and by recovering those other means we can begin to describe the project in greater detail.
Although I base my statements on anecdotal experiences, my sense is that many Latter-day Saints consider the Joseph Smith Translation to be inspired commentary. It exists at the bottom of some pages of our printed Bibles, and longer excerpts are contained at the back of our scriptures.
We’re also aware that many passages have been left out, all of which combines to create a rather mixed message about the text. Because of the way that it is presented to us in print, it is something that can be used selectively, disregarded in some cases, and highlighted in others. It is also a lot like a footnote, which includes references to maps, Topical Guide entries, and language study helps. I think it would be difficult for the Latter-day Saint reader to avoid making the conclusion that the Joseph Smith Translation was similar in most ways to the other footnotes.
What do we know about the actual copy of Adam Clarke’s bible commentary used by Joseph Smith (e.g. how did he get a copy, are there any records of him using it, do we know where it is now, etc.)?
In a forthcoming study, a friend and former student and I will present evidence that Joseph Smith used a common and popular Methodist Bible commentary while completing the translation of the Bible. That commentary was written by Adam Clarke, and it was immensely popular in 19th century America.
The Hale family were Methodists, and Joseph himself indicated that he was partial to the Methodist faith prior to the First Vision. From a later account by Nathan Hale, we know that there was a copy of the commentary in Joseph’s reach, although we don’t know precisely who owned it.
Nathan reported that he confronted Joseph with one of the volumes of Clarke’s commentary and asked if he could use the spectacles to translate some of the strange looking characters in the commentary. Most likely he was referring to the notes in the commentary where Clarke would include ancient languages such as Hebrew, Greek, Syriac, etc. Joseph rejected the offer, but it does at least put him in contact with a copy, if Nathan is to be believed, during the time he was translating.
How has the perception of the JST by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints changed over time?
Speaking on an official level, this would be a difficult claim to make because there hasn’t been an official policy that has continued on from Brigham Young until today. Rather, there have been attitudes, opinions, and expressions of faith given.
But perhaps one of the most interesting moments in the history of the Joseph Smith Translation came when it was first published by the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in 1867. When some early leaders quoted from the 1867 edition in conference, Brigham responded by calling that edition into question and suggesting that the Prophet had not yet completed it and that it would not be used as the Bible of the Church.
In fact, it was in those ensuing discussions that the King James Bible became the official English Bible of the church. Brigham’s response to the Joseph Smith Translation continued to define the way the Church membership looked at the text, as an unfinished project, for many years.
In the mid-20th century, new research was done on the translation and attitudes began to soften towards the JST. The pinnacle moment came when the 1979-81 scriptures printed passages from the JST in the footnotes, but little has changed from that day until ours.
How has your study of the New Testament increased your faith in Christ and your study of the JST increased your appreciation for Joseph Smith?
I think more than anything, the study of early Christianity has forced me to explore the differences between Jesus of Nazareth and the resurrected Lord. It has been trying at times because so much of what I had come to believe about Jesus was presented to me as though the historical person and the resurrected Lord were one and the same.
But study of the New Testament has a way of pointing out that Jesus of Nazareth was very much a real person who lived in a specific cultural context that influenced him and shaped what he said.
In seeing the differences between the Lord of faith and the mortal man, it is tempting to pit the two against one another as though one is the real Jesus while the other is somehow not real or historical. I’ve had to learn how to engage both parts of his life and to allow myself to be inspired by both and not just one.
I’ve read a tremendous amount of material about Joseph Smith and his production of the JST, and some of it is quite interesting.
When news inadvertently broke that a source had been uncovered that was used in the process of creating the JST, some were quick to use that information as a point of criticism against Joseph or against the JST. Words like “plagiarism” were quickly brought forward as a reasonable explanation of what was going on. To be clear, plagiarism is a word that to me implies an overt attempt to copy the work of another person directly and intentionally without attributing any recognition to the source from which the information was taken.
To the best of my understanding, Joseph Smith used Adam Clarke as a Bible commentary to guide his mind and thought process to consider the Bible in ways that he wouldn’t have been able to do so otherwise. It may be strong to say, but Joseph didn’t have training in ancient languages or the history of the Bible, but Adam Clarke did. And Joseph appears to have appreciated Clarke’s expertise and in using Clarke as a source, Joseph at times adopted the language of that source as he revised the Bible.
I think that those who are troubled by this process are largely troubled because it contradicts a certain constructed narrative about the history of the JST and about how revelation works.
The reality of what happened is inspiring.
Joseph, who applied his own prophetic authority to the Bible in the revision process, drew upon the best available scholarship to guide his prophetic instincts. Inspiration following careful study and consideration is a prophetic model that can include many members of the church.
I hope people who read the study when it comes out will pause long enough to consider the benefit of expanding the definition of the prophetic gift to include academic study as a key component before rejecting the evidence outright.
If you could go back in time to answer any outstanding question about the New Testament or the Joseph Smith Translation, what would you most want to see and why?
I’ve always found this type of question nearly impossible to answer because my own bookish culture is so different than the culture of the period I study.
I don’t think that people in Jesus’s day would have looked fondly upon people who spend their lives enamored with studying the past. They certainly didn’t do that, and they didn’t study the languages of the past to write history.
But if I could look upon one event or moment in time to help in my own study of religion, I think that being present for the interaction that took place between Peter, Paul, James, and John as described in Galatians 2 would clarify a number of lingering questions I’ve had.
This interview is made possible thanks to the generous sponsorship of BYU Studies.