Bible Joseph Smith

Thomas Wayment and the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible

Scholar Thomas Wayment explains his groundbreaking research about the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible.

It’s difficult to separate the life of Joseph Smith from his recurring role as a “translator.” The meaning and methods of the Prophet’s translation activities sometimes meant different things, such as the different approaches and outcomes for his translation of the Book of Abraham, Book of Mormon, and the Bible. Thomas Wayment’s chapter in Producing Ancient Scripture contributes to our knowledge about Joseph Smith and his translation of the Bible.

Who is Thomas Wayment?

I am a professor of Classics at Brigham Young University in Provo. I began my career in Religious Education, and then moved to Classics in 2018. My doctoral training focused on the interplay between community formation and text trajectories, with specific emphasis on Christian communities that adopt and adapt texts for their own needs and purposes. This naturally led to an interest in early Latter-day Saint texts and how those texts shaped and were shaped by believing saints.

I began working on the text of the Joseph Smith Translation immediately after my doctoral work.

The text of the JST has always been fascinating because of the liberties Joseph Smith took with a canonical text. He willingly altered the text in ways that dramatically changed the meaning of the biblical narrative, which has in turn created opportunities and challenges for the Latter-day Saint community as it grapples with questions of historicity, canonicity (not all of the JST is canonized), and interpretation.

Two of the clearest impulses that led to this chapter were a project I completed in honor of Robert J. Matthews wherein I compared the text of the JST to textual variants of the New Testament.

I arrived at the conclusion then that the JST has strong connections to scribes who altered and corrected the text to read more fluidly. I also saw that in a very few instances the text of the JST agreed with known textual variants. I could not account for this phenomenon at the time, but this publication in Producing Ancient Scripture finally connects the dots.

The second project that helped bring me to this research was a study I carried out wherein I analyzed the pencil markings in the Bible used in the JST, and how those pencil markings represented a deliberative process in the JST revision.

Pencil markings occur frequently but randomly in the Bible that Joseph Smith used, and they typically cross out italicized words in the printed Bible. Those cross-outs often correspond to minor revisions of the biblical text, but they rarely correspond to the major additions found in the JST.

This helped me see that there were qualitative differences in the types of changes in the JST. I couldn’t account for the source of them, but these early projects had led me to believe for some time that the JST project was influenced by an awareness of some textual issues.

It was difficult to find the source, but over the course of several years I amassed a list of test passages and a list of potential sources. My student research assistant helped carry out the comparisons, and she did the monumental work of comparing each change that Joseph Smith did to the work of Adam Clarke after we identified that there was a pattern of similar changes between the two.

What is the biggest takeaway from Thomas Wayment’s chapter in Producing Ancient Scripture?

In retrospect, I believe that the most important takeaway from this chapter will be the reductive point that Joseph Smith used a source when he completed his revision of the Bible.

I hope that in the ensuing discussion there can be greater nuance in the way that his use of sources is understood.

The use of sources in completing new scriptural projects is not surprising, and biblical authors used other texts when they constructed their own texts without offering direct attribution. They quoted and adapted their sources for their own needs, and they were deeply influenced by their cultural setting and environment.

Unfortunately, when this discussion arises with respect to the text of the Book of Mormon, the JST, and the Book of Abraham, the conversation partners often draw stark boundary lines of orthodoxy and heresy, between those who seem to claim that all of Joseph Smith’s scriptural projects were completed without the influence of external sources—and those who find Joseph’s scriptural projects as simply derivative from his cultural inheritance.

This chapter will hopefully reinvigorate this conversation by offering what I feel is convincing evidence that Smith was guided in some of his changes by Adam Clarke’s Bible commentary.  

Is there evidence of prophetic inspiration when Joseph moved beyond Adam Clarke’s commentary?

There are a number of types or categories of changes, and I would suggest that those who are interested in this topic read the work of Phil Barlow and Kent Jackson, Scott Faulring, and Robert Matthews.

My own work has led me to distinguish between the different ways Joseph Smith approached the biblical text. Many verses, particularly in the New Testament, have small internal changes where the original sentence structure and order is maintained but where one or two words are changed.

Those types of changed verses are often the result of things that Joseph read in Adam Clarke’s commentary.

On the other hand, when verses are radically revised so that the original sentence structure and wording are changed, or the addition of complete sentences are offered at the beginning or ending of a verse, those changes appear to be connected directly to Joseph Smith’s own prophetic approach to the text.

 Over the past few decades there has been a growing conversation about the purpose and intent of Joseph Smith’s Bible changes, and this question asks specifically about “prophetic inspiration.”

I think that there was a significant amount of deliberation that went into the JST—more than his previous translation project where he acted as a reader rather than a deliberative academic translator.

And therefore I assume that the translation had different goals and purposes. Joseph didn’t read the translation out to a scribe in the way he read the Book of Mormon text to a scribe.

The use of Adam Clarke, whether done in private before he began translating or simultaneous with the translation, points to a more academic approach to the Bible.

Why are your findings so anticipated—and potentially controversial?

Unfortunately, I think the conversation about the article and the subsequent article I published on the topic in the Journal of Mormon History was quickly surpassed by the online conversation about the article.

Words like “plagiarism” have been used to describe Joseph’s use of Adam Clarke, and some outlets were willing to use that term even before the article appeared in print.

I think that many people eagerly anticipated that the article would settle the issue of whether Joseph plagiarized the work of Adam Clarke.

When someone uses a term like plagiarism to describe Joseph’s use of Adam Clarke, that person should be careful to note whether the definition is based on modern concepts of plagiarism—or whether one is basing that accusation on an 1830s definition of the concept.

Joseph Smith consulted a Bible commentary by a notable Methodist theologian: I believe there is little doubt about that. His use of that source shaped the way he translated verses.

Today, a person who consults a Bible commentary and then as a result alters the translation that person is working on needs to footnote the source that was consulted. I don’t wish to obfuscate this reality, but I also want to avoid anachronistic descriptions of what happened.

Without the fanfare leading up to this publication, I think that the article would have been received by the academic community as a starting point about the use of sources by Joseph Smith when he completed his Bible translation.

For some this could be a controversial topic, but there are no direct reasons to assume that he wouldn’t have used sources. I believe our preconceived ideas about inspiration and revelation forced us to assume that Joseph wouldn’t have used sources.

Both the JST and Adam Clarke’s commentary have been around a long time. Why are we only recently learning of the connections?

It took me a long time to come see this issue. This discovery didn’t happen overnight or even over the course of several months.

Challenge #1

One of the earliest problems I began working on was the possibility that the JST contained something like the original text of the Bible. I was taught that in my home, and I’ve heard others make similar claims about the JST capturing some type of original text or original meaning.

Having the language skills allowed me to do some comparisons between the JST and what we believe is the closest thing to the original text or meaning of the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts. It was jarring to make those comparisons because the JST has almost no affinity with the original text of the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament.

It took me some time to recover from that realization.

To my knowledge, there is no textual foundation for the entire JST except for a few minor instances where Joseph used Clarke to engage specific textual issues known to scholars.

In other words, as far as I am able to determine, his Bible revisions are departures from the original text. I think some will resort to a putative original and make a case that the JST achieves something like that, but a hypothesis like that cannot be tested or confirmed.

Challenge #2

The second major turning point for me came through my research into early scribal habits and text culture.

The Bible is a highly controlled text, and while it has numerous textual variants, these variants are restricted to single words, short phrases, word order, and other fairly minor adjustments to the language and grammar of the biblical text. Scribes rarely add significant amounts of text of more than a phrase and when they do, they often make note of it.

A text that has major differences from the widely accepted text of the New Testament is considered eclectic, and scholars grapple with how the eclectic verses and readings came to be. This happens a few times in the history of the New Testament text, and these additional readings often appear in other manuscripts in different form—or they appear in the writings of patristic writers who note that these readings are peculiar.

To place the JST in this world of text and scribal habits is quite shocking for a scholar. The JST is so different from any ancient manuscript that it cannot be described as an eclectic text, but rather as something wholly different, new, and peculiar.

For an ancient manuscript tradition similar to the JST to escape the notice of scholars is highly unlikely, and this realization forced me to consider how Joseph came to engage some of the few textual variants that are already known while overlooking others.

It didn’t occur to me until quite late in the process that Joseph was only engaging textual variants that were known in the 1830s and not those that have become part of the discussion of the biblical text since that time.

What do we know about how Joseph Smith may have obtained a copy of Adam Clarke’s bible commentary?

The most direct paths of contact to Clarke’s Bible commentary would have come through Methodist sources—Clarke was a Methodist theologian—which means that Sidney Rigdon, Emma Smith, and Joseph’s own family members who had converted to the Methodist faith are all possible sources.

Given the widespread popularity of Clarke’s work, Joseph may also have come into contact with it through sermons and speeches.

The only direct contact with the commentary is found in a late reminiscence from Emma Smith’s uncle, Nathaniel Lewis, who purportedly asked Joseph to translate a passage in Clarke’s commentary that was written in a foreign language. We don’t know the passage that he was asked to read, but the story assumes that a copy of the commentary was either already in the home, or that Nathaniel brought one with him.

There is little reason to doubt the validity of the story, but it was told approximately 15 years after the event took place. To my knowledge, the various inventories of books from the Nauvoo period do not include Adam Clarke’s commentary.

Are there instances in which Joseph Smith seemed more inclined to follow Adam Clarke’s commentary?

I think the most direct route to connecting Joseph’s work to Adam Clarke’s work is through the italicized words of the King James Version.

The words that appear in italicized font were a source of concern for Joseph and his nineteenth century peers, and Joseph changed many of them in his revision of the Bible. He seems to have relied on Clarke more often to debate what to do with the italicized words.

The challenge is that he didn’t always simply copy what Clarke wrote, but at times he made changes that were similar.

The article documents some of the cases where there is direct borrowing from Clarke, but having worked through this material for several years, I think there are instance where Joseph rejected Clarke’s suggestion for change. In those cases, Joseph made quite different changes than what Clarke was recommending, possibly even doing the exact opposite of what Clarke suggested.

One of the perplexing textual issues in the New Testament, the so-called Johannine comma (1 John 5:7–8), is not touched upon by Joseph in his revision. Clarke, however, spent a significant amount of time discussing the problem and offering a very capable response.

For a scholar like myself, it would be much easier to understand if Joseph had followed Clarke’s suggestion for those verses rather than rejecting it.

Does Joseph Smith’s use of Adam Clarke’s commentary lessen the importance of the JST?

This question is perhaps the most interesting to me as a scholar because it implies that if Joseph Smith used a nineteenth century academic source in the completion of his Bible revision that it would somehow lessen the importance or bring into question the overall project.

I personally think that his use of an academic source is a remarkable discovery and one that could open up new roads for Latter-day Saints to engage scholarship on the Bible.

For much of our history we have been softly antagonistic towards traditional scholarship on the Bible. We share some of the same distrust that other Christians do of liberal scholarship, but Latter-day Saints often draw strong boundaries between prophetic speech and published scholarship.

If I am correct and Joseph used an academic source, even if it amounted to only a few hundred changes out of nearly 1,200, then we can begin to think of a new paradigm for how prophetic speech—or prophetic translation—is done.

This is a potentially exciting moment for Bible scholars in the church.

What have you learned about the way Joseph Smith sought and received revelation?

I’m interested in the question of Joseph seeking revelation and having his life interrupted by revelation. Today, we so often frame questions like this as one of seeking. But to see all of Joseph’s revelations as the result of pre-seeking is to overemphasize a single approach.

The Bible revision project was the result of seeking, but whether that is the primary method of inquiry remains to be discovered.

During the time that Joseph was completing the revision, he also recorded revelations about book culture, particularly religious book culture. These revelations provide us with a revelatory view of books.

  • In 1831, Joseph mentioned books in a revelation, “And again, you shall be ordained to assist my servant Oliver Cowdery to do the work of printing, and of selecting and writing books for schools in this church” (D&C 55:4).
  • Toward the end of the translation process, Joseph recorded a revelation about studying and learning from good books, “And set in order the churches, and study and learn, and become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues, and people.” (D&C 90:15).
  • A later statement made in 1836 may characterize the JST revision process, “And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom, seek learning even by study and also by faith” (D&C 109:7).

More work remains to be done on how Joseph received the text of the JST, particularly its longer revelatory passages.

They may have been the result of seeking, but it may also be that the seeking is to be found in the many small revisions to the text that anticipate the longer revelatory passages.

How might the JST have been different if Joseph Smith never had access to Adam Clarke’s bible commentary?

I think that the overall meaning and intent of the Joseph’s Bible revision are still characterized by the Book of Moses more than any other section of the project.

The Book of Moses contains no direct or discernable references to Clarke, so for many there won’t be any major changes in the way we understand the legacy of the project.

However, I think that the Bible revision project is where Joseph learned to see ancient languages as an academic would see them. By using Clarke or reading his commentary, Joseph came into direct contact with a scholar who had excellent language training and who commanded the languages of the Bible. The Book of Mormon language is described as being written in a dense, character-like language, that is very different from ancient languages like Hebrew and Greek where a word has a fairly static meaning with specific grammatical conjugations and terminations.

When Joseph finished the Bible revision project, he pursued the professional study of Hebrew, and he worked on the translation of the papyri. The Kirtland Egyptians materials, the grammar and other documents, look more like traditional language tools than anything associated with the translation of the Book of Mormon.

Adam Clarke may be part of Joseph’s heritage of coming to understand how ancient languages work.

Recommended resources

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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