A Q&A with the editors of Producing Ancient Scripture

Two of the editors of the recently published Producing Ancient Scripture: Joseph Smith’s Translation Projects in the Development of Mormon Christianity fielded some questions about the project. I was a participant in the original seminar from which this project grew. My work ended out going a different direction, but I have been anxiously waiting for this volume ever since. Giddy even, you might say. If you use the coupon “MHA2020” at the linked site, it will save you $10 off the paperback.

Q: Joseph Smith’s various translation products—such as the Book of Mormon, the “New Translation” of the Bible, and the Book of Abraham—seem mechanistically disparate. Do any of the authors speak to the continuity of “translation” in the mind and world of Joseph Smith?

Mike and Mark: Several of the contributors in the later chapters of the book—about Smith’s later translation projects—draw on his precedent projects to understand aspects of their own chapter’s subject of focus. However, the most sustained reflection on continuity across the projects is perhaps found in the book’s introduction. There, we point out that most of these translations were produced within a half-dozen years of each other and within a limited geographical region of the American northeast. Speaking broadly, they have the same spatio-temporal context. There are other commonalities as well.

Smith’s spiritual gift of translation was used only to transmit the teachings of ancient prophets. Moreover, the translations were not only presented as ancient texts, but usually associated with some kind of ancient artifact—whether real or imagined—such as plates or parchment or papyri. Most of the revelations, in contrast, were direct transmissions given through no other medium than Smith’s mind and his inherited vocabulary.

The narrative dimension of Smith’s translations further differentiate them from his revelations. The revelations gave commandments and taught principles in a didactic manner, whereas the translations are often autobiographical or even historical—frequently reading much like the biblical books of Kings and Chronicles. These and other continuities are explored in greater depth in the introduction to Producing Ancient Scripture.

In the chapters that follow the introduction, the most wide-ranging analysis may be that offered by Christopher Blythe and Jared Hickman. Blythe’s formidable chapter shoots like a laser through three millennia of Judeo-Christian history and does a terrific job in showing how Smith’s gift of translation fits within the context of the other Pauline gifts of the spirit (especially the interpretation of tongues). Hickman’s brilliant chapter explores at a profoundly deep level the broad meaning of “translation” as understood by Joseph Smith—even arguing that Smith’s use of this term for both inter-language communication and bodily transfiguration was not accidental but part of his expansive and audacious theology. You’ll just have to read this one for yourself to see what we mean. If you’re up to the challenge, then buckle up!

Q: In the last 15 years, Bushman’s narration of Book of Mormon translation seems to have gone from surprising to many church members to the standard story, with seer stone photographs published in the church’s magazine and the Gospel Topics essay on Book of Mormon translation being used in the church’s seminary curriculum. Does your book add to or challenge the new orthodoxy in any way?

Mark: Like many, I am most interested in what was going on inside of that old hat. But the circumstances of translation have a wider scope than just that. There is an interesting point found in the chapter contributed by Amy Easton-Flake and Rachel Cope, “Reconfiguring the Archive: Women and the Social Production of the Book of Mormon.” This eye-opening chapter changed my perspective on the coming forth of the Book of Mormon (and on a personal note, I would add that reading their chapter was a spiritual experience for me). The chapter includes a section on Emma Hale Smith and her involvement in the Book of Mormon translation that relates how she and the other scribes took down dictation as they heard Joseph Smith speaking the words of the text and then read their written text back to Joseph Smith. According to some accounts, Smith could not see more text in the stone until the previous vision of text had been adequately recorded by the scribes and confirmed by Smith (as he heard them read it back to him). All of this is well known. But this chapter points out that in this sense Smith’s visions were dependent upon the work of the scribes in a dynamic two-way interaction of speaking and hearing. This pattern of interaction was presumably developed and settled upon in the earliest phases of translation, during the scribal work performed by Martin Harris and/or Emma Hale Smith. It is therefore possible that Joseph and Emma worked out this pattern together and that they may have worked it out based not only on the ordinary patterns of human speech, dialogue, and turn-taking, but through their interpersonal relationship as husband and wife. I’ll bet you’ve never thought of it that way before. The chapter is full of new insights and perspectives based on their attention to the women in the story.

Mike: This “new orthodoxy” of which you speak has probably been developed as much by Royal Skousen as by Richard Bushman. Two of the chapters in the book do challenge this model of a tightly controlled translation in which Joseph Smith saw the words of the text in his seerstone and merely read them out loud to the scribes. Ann Taves, in her chapter, points out parallels between Joseph Smith’s experience in “translating” The Book of Mormon and Helen Schucman’s experience in “scribing” A Course in Miracles. Taves draws upon her background in the psychology of religious experience to analyze these comparisons and comes up with a less rigid model of translation. It’s a masterpiece of comparative religious studies. Sam Brown, in his chapter, examines accounts of translation within the Book of Mormon, as well as the exercise of related spiritual gifts in the generation of scripture. His readings demonstrate various new possibilities and suggest the outlines of a new and more visionary model. BtW, Brown’s chapter is slightly integrated into his new book on Joseph Smith and translation, but most of the chapter goes beyond what is covered in his book.

Q: Thomas Wayment has previously published a chapter and an essay on the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible that both point to his chapter in this volume. So, what does the chapter in your book add to the discussion?

Mark: The previously published chapter, found in Foundational Texts of Mormonism (OUP, 2018), is about Joseph Smith’s motivations for beginning the JST and the broader contours of the goal to harmonize the scriptures—not only harmonizing the synoptic gospels (as often noted) but also harmonizing the old and new testaments with each other and with Smith’s other revelations. Wayment’s previously published article, found in the recent issue of the Journal of Mormon History, came out a few days before his chapter in Producing Ancient Scripture, but the article is actually a follow-up piece built on the findings presented in the chapter (as explained in the article’s introduction). The chapter in Producing Ancient Scripture shows that Joseph Smith, in some of his work on the Bible revision, apparently drew upon the Bible commentary of Methodist theologian Adam Clarke. This chapter also spends some time investigating the selective manner in which Smith utilized Clarke. The article in the Journal of Mormon History has three sections, the first of which briefly recapitulates the findings in the book chapter. The second and third parts attempt to make sense of these findings by investigating the labor-intensive process of the Bible revision and reconstructing a model of revision that includes both Smith’s inspiration and his study of Clarke’s annotated Bible. So, the chapter in Producing Ancient Scripture actually does not add to the discussion, it is the basis of the discussion (and all Smith-reliance-upon-Clarke discussion to follow). For any scholar needing to note Smith’s use of Clarke, the chapter in Producing Ancient Scripture is the source to cite.

Mike: I would add that the chapters on the new account of John (in the envisioned parchment), the record of John (as excerpted in D&C 93), and the revelation on the Apocrypha (dictated at the end of the JST) complement each other and Wayment’s chapter magnificently in terms placing the JST within a broader context of Bible revision projects and possibilities.

Q: The Book of Abraham feels completely stuck within a quagmire of personalities, devotions, and antagonisms. What are your authors doing to transcend that?

Mark: Your word “quagmire” is indeed a good one to use here. The Book of Abraham (hereafter BoA) is like the Vietnam War of Mormon history. Brian M. Hauglid’s chapter on the Book of Abraham and Smith’s Egyptian study papers argues that at least some of the content in the BoA was derived from some of the content in the study papers. Although Hauglid thus argues against the position taken by most BoA apologists, he is mostly interested in the extant documents, their most likely dates of creation, and issues of textual dependency (as he sees them). Moreover, his conclusions are measured and tentative and he does not politicize them. To be more specific, the chapter does not attempt to exclude the possibility that the translation of the BoA involved any divine revelation.

Mike: Matthew J. Grey’s article on Smith’s use of Hebrew in the BoA establishes something that has been asserted with some evidence for a few decades now. But finally someone has done it right! 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. Grey enters the “quagmire” of BoA scholarship with no prior entanglements and no antagonism, and he explicitly leaves the door open for Smith to have drawn on revelation in his use of Hebrew terminology and in the BoA translation more generally.

Mark and Mike: Hauglid’s and Grey’s findings will certainly be used (and abused) on the BoA battleground, but the chapters themselves stand above the fray and can (and should) be appreciated by anyone on either side (or no side) based on their scholarly use of evidence, cogent argumentation, and measured judgment.


  1. A very helpful introduction to the book. Thanks.

  2. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks Gary. I started this Q&A before I had a copy of the volume. It arrived and I began reading through this weekend, and every essay that I’ve read is excellent. John Turner blurbed the book concluding that “I cannot imagine writing or teaching about the Joseph Smith period of Mormonism without having this book nearby as a source to consult.” I think that is a fair statement.

  3. David G. says:

    Thanks, Jonathan, Mark, and Mike. This is great. For those interested in more information, Mark recently did a guestpost on the book at the Juvenile Instructor: https://juvenileinstructor.org/guestpost-producing-ancient-scripture-joseph-smiths-translation-projects/

  4. Remember the old phrase “it depends on what the definition of “is” is”? How did all these translations (BOM, JST, BO A) take place? It depends on how you translate the word “translate”. The only way any of this makes sense is if we define “translate” much differently than most people define it…a.k.a. mental gymnastics.

    And to be honest, I’m open to the idea that JS’s translation efforts were much different than traditional translation (read from language 1 and put into language 2). The problem is, what I was taught growing up about all of these works was that they were brought about via traditional translation aided by the gift and power of God. And LDS art reinforced that idea. So when we discover that the BOM contains errors found in the KJV of the Bible, that the JST contains dozens and dozens of changes similar to Adam Clarke’s Bible Commentary, and the Book of Abraham does not match in any way the papyri, it starts to feel like maybe nothing was translated and everything was produced.

  5. J. Stapley says:

    Josh, I can appreciate that your experiences have lead you to a position of frustration. But honestly, I don’t have much patience for the narrative you describe in your comment. Sure, there has been systematic naivete, there was a time when critical sources were not readily available, and there was a time when we didn’t actively teach complicated narratives. I imagine that there are some people who are still taught that way. I find the assertions of “mental gymnastics” and evaluations of production over translation to be the inversion of those facile narratives. Digging into the sources, contexts, and worlds of the early saints doesn’t guarantee faith, but it generally does guarantee some measure of empathy and responsibility when discussing these things. If it is a topic that has been important to you, take the time to read the book.

  6. J. Stapely: I intend to read the book. I hope you can have as much patience with me as I’ve had trying to understand the truth narratives surrounding these “translations”.

  7. J.Stapley, A little understanding on your part would be useful.

    I was a mission in the mid-1960’s. Much of what we taught back then was not “accurate” by today’s standards. The First Vision was foundational: anti-trinitarian, no true church, fresh and bones, etc. Now there are discussions about that. BYU Studies (or someone similar) has just printed a publication to try and cleanup this issue.

    We taught that the BoM was a history of the American Indians (thx apparently to BRM). Now it is just a history of a small number of New World settlers. And many scholars are starting to suggest it might be inspired fiction.

    RMN, in a recent press release, called the temple endowment an ancient ceremony. The book is still out on that one. It may depend on definition of ancient.

    And of course, we have the translation process. The subject of the book you reviewed. In the 1960’s we used flip books that showed an illustration of JS translating plates, no hat or seer stones.

    And the list of issues goes on and on. Back in the day, history was supposed to be inspirational, not necessarily “accurate.” Wasn’t Arrington fired for searching too hard for the truth. And who was responsible for the inaccuracies in our history and doctrine? In large part, LDS Church leaders for locking the vaults. So if there are problems with what I taught in the 1960’s, much of the responsibility (if not all) rests with the LDS leadership.

    So you need to back off your criticism of josh h.

    I suppose I should try and resolve all these issues (and more) to my person satisfaction, but I would rather get behind TM’s 4th mission of Church

  8. Mark Ashurst-McGee says:

    Roger, I hope that your concerns can be resolved, but the book is not really aimed at that. It’s intended as a work of neutral scholarship. If you are deeply interested in Joseph Smith’s translation projects, I think you will enjoy it. I wish you the best in your studies (and in your spiritual journey).

  9. Interested observer says:

    J. Stapeley’s response to Josh is why the church is losing so many people. Sincere question met with condescension and a scolding. The ex-Mormons are much more sympathetic and welcoming but no less disingenuous. Lose-lose.

  10. Mark Ashurst-McGee says:

    I’m sorry, Interested Observer, but Josh did not really pose a “sincere question.” There’s not really a question in there at all. It’s actually much more of a criticism against the Church.

    I think J. Stapley was attempting to steer the Comments into a scholarly discussion of the content of the post, which I appreciate. That’s what we are trying to do here. Please don’t take this as a “scolding.” I would love to respond to a historical question or comment relating to the post’s content.

  11. J. Stapley says:

    Roger (and Interested), look, I get that changing ones perspective is challenging. As noted in the Q&A, scholars have been digging through this material for decades now, and the church has been updating its pedagogy at a fairly rapid clip. A lot of this is on the radar of many kids going to college now. It is true that I don’t have much patience for fundamentalism within the church–from people trying to defend the church or question it. Now, I think folks that care about this stuff should do the work of grappling with the scholarship. Chapters in the book discussed in the post were written by believers, former-believers, and non-believers. But I doubt you’ll see any evidence of the pejoratively labeled mental gymnastics. I get that you are frustrated, I really do. I am too.

  12. Interested observer says:

    Thanks for the response, Mark. Do you (or anyone else reading) generally agree with the conclusion that Joseph Smith plagiarized from the Clarke commentary for the JST? By plagiarized, I mean using Clarke’s work without attribution. If it wasn’t plagiarized, how do you explain the similarities between the Clarke commentary and the JST?

  13. Mark Ashurst-McGee says:

    Interested Observer, this is a great question, and one that I really don’t mean to dodge. Well, I do want to dodge it just right now. I have an article on that very issue that I have been working on for over a year. It’s almost ready to roll. I’m hoping to preview it somewhere here in the bloggernacle sometime in the next month or so. Therefore, I’ll ask for your patience on this one. Thank you for your question.

  14. Intellectual analysis like “Producing Ancient Scripture” is interesting and maybe even essential but woefully insufficient when it comes to helping with the things of the Spirit. The teachings of Joseph Smith (in the scriptures he produced) clearing lays out how things should be done if we’re interested in Spiritual growth. Here are couple of examples.

    18 Behold, verily, verily, I say unto you, ye must watch and pray always lest ye enter into temptation; for Satan desireth to have you, that he may sift you as wheat.
    19 Therefore ye must always pray unto the Father in my name;
    20 And whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, which is right, believing that ye shall receive, behold it shall be given unto you. 3 Nephi 18:18 – 20

    5 And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.
    6 And whatsoever thing is good is just and true; wherefore, nothing that is good denieth the Christ, but acknowledgeth that he is.
    7 And ye may know that he is, by the power of the Holy Ghost; wherefore I would exhort you that ye deny not the power of God; FOR HE WORKETH BY POWER, ACCORDING TO THE FAITH OF THE CHILDREN OF MEN, the same today and tomorrow, and forever.
    8 And again, I exhort you, my brethren, that ye deny not the gifts of God, for they are many; and they come from the same God. And there are different ways that these gifts are administered; but it is the same God who worketh all in all; and they are given by the manifestations of the Spirit of God unto men, to profit them. Moroni 10:5 – 8

    FAITH is not obtained in any substantial way by a steady diet of intellectual study and analysis. FAITH is obtained by doing what Enos and the sons of Mosiah did (Alma 17:2-3).

  15. Mark Ashurst-McGee says:

    Now we’ve been hit from both sides. This is good. If you are getting hit from only one side then that tells you something about where you sit (all the way out at one pole or the other).

  16. I argued at a BYU conference in 2015 that Joseph relied on Clarke for the JST in the one particular instance I was investigating. Alas, the cameraman was new, and screwed up, so it’s not preserved.
    That argument wasn’t a big deal, because “reliance” (particularly in as few cases as demonstrated) is not equivalent to “plagiarism.” The latter framing is certainly not required, is equivalent to “when did you stop beating your wife,” and also assumes that revelation must be sui generis and unique in its environment.

  17. Thanks for this, J. Another book I’m going to have to put on my buy-it-and-hopefully-read-it-in-the-near-future list.

  18. Maybe it’s a coincidence or maybe it’s meant to be…but just today Mormon Stories dealt with the very subject of the JST and the Clarke commentary. The subject of the interview is the former BYU student-author of the write-up that admits (with BYU’s logo on the top) that there are multiple duplications of Clarke’s work in the JST. Don’t take my word for it.

  19. J. Stapley says:

    Josh, I’ve read the not only the chapter in Producing Ancient Scripture, but also the article in JMH, and the chapter in Foundational Texts. I’d suggest that you do the same.

  20. Kristine says:

    B, you’re right, and also “plagiarism” just kind of isn’t a thing in the 19th century. No one would have thought such borrowing unusual.

  21. Kristine,

    Not only that, but Joseph Smith never published the entire JST. Accusing Joseph Smith of “plagiarizing” Clarke would be like finding someone’s not-yet-final draft of a thesis and criticizing the incomplete citations and notes.

  22. It’s probably a good idea to encourage people to read _Producing Ancient Scripture_ and _Foundational Texts_. It’s fair to leave some charity for a less-rigorous history formed outside a culture of critical examination, and acknowledge that it takes time for refinements to cascade out. And it is true that the events involved in the founding and course of the church include interesting artifacts and phenomenon that deserve a more careful treatment than drive-by aspersions of plagiarism and fraud.

    But at the same time, this blog post is the venue for the Q/A and there are passages above from it that sure look like they’re worded in a way as that they *can* serve as part of an apologetic effort to redefine translation in order to backfill an eroding understanding.

    Maybe that’s not where you, Mike, and Mark are at all. Or maybe it is. Or maybe these topics have to be presented this way in order to be met with anything other than opposition.

    But I think there’s a question a lot of us have: are we just going to put new wine in old bottles — and with the same label no less? Are we really going to proceed with a narrative that *doesn’t* require us to change our perspective on the nature and limits of what the church has called translation and revelation?

    Perhaps you hope that the scholarship here speak for itself, carefully and diplomatically. There’s probably some prudence in that. But it’s probably not a path to a less fundamentalist mainstream narrative.

  23. Mark Ashurst-McGee says:

    Above, DSC writes: “Joseph Smith never published the entire JST. Accusing Joseph Smith of ‘plagiarizing’ Clarke would be like finding someone’s not-yet-final draft of a thesis and criticizing the incomplete citations and notes.”

    This is the main point of the article that I have almost finished. Because the JST was never prepared for publication, we do not know how it would have been introduced. All of the Joseph Smith-era books published by the church (the Book of Mormon, the Book of Commandments, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the hymnal) included introductory content. If the JST had been published, it would have almost certainly included similar introductory content. Moreover, a version of the Bible that differed from the culturally sacrosanct text of the King James version would have had at least some explaining to do. This may well have included a blanket attribution to Clarke’s commentary. We just don’t know. Jumping to the conclusion that Smith would have presented everything as his own or as pure revelation is . . . well . . . jumping to conclusions.

  24. Mark Ashurst-McGee says:

    . . . . and the charge of plagiarism rests upon this assumption.

  25. Mark Ashurst-McGee says:

    W, some of the findings presented in the book could indeed be pressed into service, as you say, “as part of an apologetic effort.” Other findings in the book will be put to service by anti-Mormons and others who wish to reject Joseph Smith’s translations as genuine. Still other findings in the book don’t really cut one way or the other. Perhaps we could lay aside the faith issues in the rest of this Comments section and focus on the history. That would be great.

  26. Mark, this is a post in which the the topics treated include the assertion of “Smith’s spiritual gift of translation.” I don’t know if those are your words or Mike’s but I do see that they’re notably not attributed to anyone else or otherwise qualified as if there’s an anthropological or documentary approach at work here. Once that’s entered into discussion I don’t see how we’re not on the field of faith issues.

    But if you want to take the contents of my above comment into a more scholarly frame, there’s plenty of room to run with that. It’s not controversial to state that there is within LDS movements a tradition of constructing church authority on a narrative of translation in the colloquial sense, or to attempt to be painstakingly precise, referring to the production of a new but interlanguage-isomorphic text from a source text. I am *more* than game for broad-ranging speculation of the question “what does ‘translation’ mean, anyway?” and recent developments aren’t my first prompt for or practice with engaging that question. But given the history of how construction of authority and the understanding of movement texts are supposed to be intertwined, it would be a pretty noteworthy omission if none of the discussion took on the question of what implications a shifting understanding of translation might have.

    If that’s addressed somewhere within _Producing_ you’d specifically recommend for those who have a personal or academic curiosity about, that’d be welcome to hear. If not, it isn’t clear to me why that question shouldn’t be welcome here.

  27. Mark Ashurst-McGee says:

    W, the part about “Smith’s spiritual gift of translation” is from this sentence:

    “Smith’s spiritual gift of translation was used only to transmit the teachings of ancient prophets.”

    In contrast, Smith did not use this “gift” to translate the words of foreign-language contemporaries.

    To clarify, the point is about what Smith used the “gift” for. It is not an assertion, not even implicitly, of Smith’s claim to this gift anymore than it is an assertion that Smith transmitted “the teachings of ancient prophets.” Here I’m just following the conventional practice in Mormon studies of not using qualifiers EVERY.SINGLE.TIME. For the most part, I would say that the book does a very good job of neither asserting that Smith did his translating by divine revelation nor excluding that possibility. The book is focused on historical information and intended for scholars of any faith (or no faith).

  28. Interested observer says:

    Whether you call it borrowing or plagiarism, the JST is presented by the church as a translation or a divine revelation given to Joseph Smith. I think the average member would be surprised to find out that Joseph Smith borrowed/copied the work of contemporary non-Mormon scholars into the JST. I guess the answer given here to these members is to buy a $70 book to find out the true story instead of relying on our prophets?

  29. J. Stapley says:

    For over one hundred years church leaders viewed the JST with skepticism and as unreliable. This was largely because it was in possession of the RLDS church. It wasn’t until scholars spent years with the document and writing the things that they do that it became an acceptable source. There are very few people that have read that scholarship, but the impact was huge. Now, in the last forty years there have been many assumptions made about the JST, though careful scholars have pointed out many important issues that should be considered (like our very own Kevin). This is all despite the fact that the JST is not canonized, and its use is qualified in the footnotes of the LDS edition of the Bible. Now we have additional scholarship to consider, only one piece of which is in this book (only $35 for the paperback).

    Most people never read the scholarship. The acceptability of new ideas is often related to how they are framed. Simplistic ideas are generally always going to be complicated. And if you are commenting here (in a conversation with, you know, scholars), you should make the effort to not fall back on simple narratives.

  30. I don’t think it’s accurate to say that the church presents the JST as a translation or divine revelation given to Joseph Smith, given that the church has declined to canonize it (other than the Moses and Enoch revelations), and presents it in the LDS edition of the scriptures as a study aid or commentary.

    It is true that many members of the church assume that it is revelation, but that’s not the same thing as the church presenting it as though it is.

  31. J. Stapely: you were very dismissive of me and my initial comments and I see you’ve returned to the same attitude with your last post above. I get the impression that soon you’ll be asking for our academic credentials before we comment any further.

    I don’t “fall back on simple narratives.” I just go where the evidence takes me. And I consider the subject book, which I just found out about this week, another piece of evidence that I look forward to reading. I hope it adds to my understanding.

    It was never my intention to hijack your Q&A write-up above. And I try not to take cheap shots on these forums. But I hope I don’t have to be a scholar with certain credentials to add to the conversation here. Most of what I say is a reflection of the conflict between the “simple narratives” I was taught growing up in the Church and the evidence I’m discovering that are in conflict with these narratives. Don’t blame people like me for discovering the discrepancy and for wanting to talk about it.

  32. Jared Cook.
    “I don’t think it’s accurate to say that the church presents the JST as a translation or divine revelation given to Joseph Smith…”

    Please reference the Bible Dictionary on church website for this information.

    Joseph Smith Translation (JST)
    A revision or translation of the King James Version of the Bible begun by the Prophet Joseph Smith in June 1830. He was divinely commissioned to make the translation and regarded it as “a branch of his calling” as a prophet.

    They continually refer to it as a translation. Go back and look at past Ensign articles and Sunday School/Primary lessons.

    Church published curriculum has not kept up with scholars redefinition/expansion of the word and concept of translation.

  33. Wondering says:

    Jared, Although I grew up (50s-60s) with the JST being referred to as the “Inspired Version” and not taken particularly seriously, at least as early as 1972 the Church presented it as a translation:

    “Joseph the Prophet always referred to his work with the Bible as the new translation, and by that name it was known in the early years of the Church. In its printed and published form it was called the Inspired Version…” Robert Matthews, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/1972/12/joseph-smiths-inspired-translation-of-the-bible?lang=eng

    and referred to as translation in D&C 45:60-62, 76:15, 90:13, 91:1-6, and DHC, vol. 1, p.238,

    and, perhaps, as revelatory:

    “It appears that the work was to be a revelatory experience, through which Joseph would come to an understanding of things that he had not previously known.” Robert Matthews, same Ensign publication noted above.

    I believe there has always been a great deal of latitude in publishing opinions in Church publications. But printing them in the Ensign, including the D&C references to Joseph’s JST work, should be expected to lead many to conclude that the Church has presented the JST as both a translation and revelatory.

    Of course, in 1974 a Church News editorial noted in Br. Matthews April 1977 Ensign publication seems to have backed of that presentation somewhat. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/new-era/1977/04/q-and-a-questions-and-answers/why-dont-we-use-the-inspired-version-of-the-bible-in-the-church?lang=eng

    I struggle to have patience with the general membership’s apparently very simplistic understanding of translation and revelation (assuming, e.g., God dictated the precise words now found in the D&C). But in the absence of repeated, official corrections of such simplistic views, perhaps patience is in order, no matter how bad I am at it.

  34. Mark Ashurst-McGee says:

    Well, the book doesn’t really get into the cultural politics of all this, and I recognize that there needs to be a place to discuss that. If you are interested in the *history* of the Joseph Smith translation projects, I think you will really like the book.

  35. “both a translation and revelatory.” Of course, neither of these terms require a divine download with no human intermediary or adaption. And having done a crap ton of translation (including Bible translation) it’s entirely allowed to use… books, particularly to look for arguments and insights into the meaning of particular passages. Although deeply traditional, Robert Matthews stated multiple times (including in the Ensign) that the JST was not merely a divine download, but a “study and thought” process.
    If that’s troubling, well, the Bible draws heavily on ancient Near Eastern literature both in allusion, borrowing, and rewriting. This is something LDS are generally uninformed about, and need to wrestle with.

    McConkie (like his FIL) was a fundamentalist, and as such, wrongly drew binary and bright-line distinctions between human and divine sources; he was interested in popularizing the JST, and thus gave it heavy rhetoric emphasizing its divine aspects, and downplaying any potential human ones. Of course, not every General Authority has been McConkie, but he played an outsize role in characterizing the JST in the popular mind. He was responsible for large chunks of the Bible Dictionary (and wanted more JST included) but even so, it comes with a header that says it “is not intended as an official statement of Church doctrine.”

    McConkie also said in several places that “None of these [including the JST and Bible dictionary] are perfect; they do not of themselves determine doctrine; there have been and undoubtedly now are mistakes in them. Cross-references, for instance, do not establish and never were intended to prove that parallel passages so much as pertain to the same subject. They are aids and helps only.”- Sermons and Writings of Bruce R. McConkie, 289-290.

  36. Interested observer says:

    How did we get to a place where a document called the Joseph Smith Translation is not to be taken at face value to be a translation? There’s no nuance in the title, and the church states on its website today that it is a translation and part of Joseph’s divine mission without qualifying the term “translation”.

    Even though there’s no ambiguity in its title, Mr. Stapley asserts that serious members of the church would take it upon themselves to question that the JSTranslation is a, well, -translation- and then after hours of study and research, including lots of reading material not readily accessible to the average member, such serious members would be rewarded with the real story. The rest of us trusting the church to provide us with a meaningful religious education are dilettantes, I guess.

    This book is well written and researched. Are the authors working with the church to update its curriculum to include this information?

  37. Interested observer – great comments – Elder Soares took a stab at all this in his April conference address but there is so much more work to do, to wit, Lesson 1 from Preach My Gospel says “Joseph Smith translated the contents of these plates by the power of God.”

  38. Kristine says:

    “without qualifying the term “translation”. ”

    It’s literally called a “revision or translation” in the Bible Dictionary, as quoted above–an alternate definition is a pretty large qualifier.

  39. Kevin Barney says:

    I’m on my third chapter (but I confess I’m not going in order but by my interests). Thoroughly enjoying it.

  40. Kristine says:

    Below are multiple articles, spanning multiple decades, in official church publications made available to at least all English-speaking members of the Church, in which there is nuance aplenty. It’s called “an inspired revision,” “work of revising, correcting, or translating,” “inspired refinements.”

    An official lesson manual says “Joseph’s translation was not carried out in the traditional sense. He didn’t consult Greek and Hebrew texts or use lexicons to create a new English version. Rather, he used the King James Version of the Bible as his starting point and made additions and changes as he was directed by the Holy Ghost.”

    The manual for *five-year-old Primary children* says “In preparing this translation of the Bible, Joseph was not translating from an ancient language, as he did with the Book of Mormon, but was restoring the Bible to its original meaning. As Joseph studied and pondered the Bible, he was inspired through the power of the Holy Ghost to correct errors in it.”

    If they’re trying to trick people into believing that Joseph was translating Hebrew and Greek, they are doing a terrible job.






  41. Interested observer says:

    Kristine – each of those articles convey that the work Joseph was doing with the JST was his own work as inspired by God, however, the research shows that Joseph relied heavily on a third party source – Clarke- for large portions of the JST.

    Divine inspiration or translation would not seem to include Joseph incorporating the work of Clarke without attribution into the JST, but surprisingly that seems to be the argument here.

  42. Mark Ashurst-McGee says:

    Interested Observer, the scenario of “Joseph incorporating the work of Clarke without attribution into the JST” is an assumption. We don’t know that JS would have presented the JST in this way.

  43. Kristine says:

    There’s also no reason God couldn’t inspire someone to look at the work of an expert. How else would Joseph study textual questions, when he didn’t read Hebrew or Greek?

  44. Left Field says:

    Dictionaries give a considerably broader definition of “translate” than some of us seem to assume.

  45. Interested observer says:

    Yep, no reason at all. Best of luck to all of you working on this project. Hope to see this research trickle down into the official curriculum soon.

  46. “ the research shows that Joseph relied heavily on a third party source.”
    It does NOT show that he relied upon Clarke “heavily” nor slavishly. Have you read the research?

  47. Geoff-Aus says:

    As a person with no scolarly aspiration or background, (retired builder of things)I am confused, and with Josh h. So simple question, is the BOM historical? Is the book of Abraham historical, or otherwise true?

  48. your food allergy is real says:

    I like the use of “Mormon Christianity” in the title here. Any particular reason this phrase was chosen, as opposed to “Mormon theology” or “Mormonism” or other?

  49. Mark Ashurst-McGee says:

    Geoff-Aus: To your “simple question,” the simple answer is yes, and so is the Bible. Also, there is much to be learned from a deep study of these scriptural works and the scholarly literature surrounding them.

    AllergyIsReal: It is well-known that Catholicism, Protestantism, and Pentecostalism are forms of Christianity. It is less well-known that Mormonism is a form of Christianity.

  50. I haven’t yet gotten beyond the table of contents, and am awed by the historical questions your contributors have asked. Thanks for this Q&A, even when I have nothing to add but my thanks.

  51. Owen Witesman says:

    Professional literary translator here. Joseph’s use of the word “translation” lines up just fine with my work. Now I need to turn my screen to cut the glare…

  52. I haven’t written specifically on the JST and Clarke (yet, anyway), but it certainly falls under the theological heading of “adaptation,” a well-established aspect of revelation LDS generally ignore. See my post here, primarily about the temple, but also with a lot of other examples from scripture and history.

  53. Mark Ashurst-McGee says:

    Cool post, Ben, and thanks to J. Stapley and everyone who participated.

  54. Mark Ashurst-McGee says:

    P.S. For some further questions (with further answers), you might want to check out the just-now posted Q&A at the FairMormon blog:


  55. On the use of Clarke commentary material, it is not surprising to me. If I recall correctly, the Campbellite church had made efforts at bible revisions, so it would not surprise me that Sidney Rigdon and Joseph Smith would see a translation/revision for the new church to incorporate various clean-up that thought appropriate based on available scholarship from Clarke. Some of the JST changes are clearly new material and we would consider revelatory. Some are from Clarke and they agreed with them (call that revelatory approval or not), and they included those changes in their work. We would consider some of that work to be more academic in nature, but I suspect that they thought they were “doing God’s work” to ultimately provide a cleaned-up text for the church.

    It’s an interesting thought, whether this process somehow taints the work. I guess by the same line of thinking, Joseph should never have studied Hebrew. We perhaps require him to be a fundamentalist. If that is not our requirement of him, then in any event there is still the issue of what we see as “over-claiming”—we may see it as all claimed to be a “translation” as we now use that term, or all a “revelation” as we use that term. And we have that concern not just in the original sources, but how it has been described to us since then. That’s all fair to think about, and the discussion and references above are helpful context.

    Another side point: does anyone else feel like it has been collective malpractice for the Clarke use to only have been identified now? I appreciate the comment above that someone identified one use in 2015. In my own study it has seemed clear that something was going on because some modern English translations of the Bible agreed with the JST is some places. It didn’t seem like it could be accidental. Forty years go by with these notes in the LDS scriptures, and there are three or four major Bible commentaries in Joseph’s day. I assume others also came across this stuff and didn’t focus on it. Kind of surprising. Kudos to Professor Wayment to send his assistant looking at the commentaries and kudos to Haley Wilson-Lemmon for digging through it and doing the work.

    I look forward to reading the book.

  56. Josh h

    The likes of J. Stapley and Johnathan Greene over at Times and Seasons are arrogant, condescending jerks with an overblown perception of their own intellect. Unless you want to be ridiculed by them, I suggest steering clear of commenting on their posts.

    PS I think your observations are completely valid.

  57. Mark Ashurst-McGee says:

    Dub: Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

    Sean: At the very least, let’s not descend to name-calling. This isn’t that kind of weblog.

%d bloggers like this: