We’re happy to share Kurt Manwaring’s interview with Thomas Wayment. He’s the author of the just released The New Testament: A New Translation for Latter-day Saints. Kevin Barney recently reviewed that work. He’s also responsible for quite a few interesting papers, particularly on the New Testament from a Mormon perspective. Last year he shook things up by noting the large influence, particularly in the New Testament, of Clarke’s Bible Commentary on Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible. (JST) LDS Perspectives did a great interview with him on that topic. We quite excited to be able to share part of this interview with 10 Questions.
Regarding his New Testament translation and work on the JST:
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.
I tend to agree that the command to “translate” the Bible was hugely significant. It not only got Joseph more familiar with the Bible but led to many direct and indirect revelations. Arguably it shaped the development of the Church in the 1830’s more than anything else including the Book of Mormon. (I’d argue the Book of Abraham functioned in a similar way in the 1840’s even though work started in the 1830’s)
Wayment made some interesting points both about the cultural relevance of classic translations as well as the original language of the New Testament.
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.
I really wish we would as a Church engage with this better. I think that given most people now read their scriptures on phones and tablets that there’s a lot the Church could do. I’d love to see at a minimum a way to flip between the KJV and NKJV translations. That’s a translation that updates all the archaic words but stays reasonably close to the KJV text. Most versions also break out poetry and don’t use a verse structure making it much more readable. We could then follow some of the word changes, where appropriate to “modernize” the language of the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants. It’s a way to make it more approachable without breaking too far from the textual history.
Regarding using alternative translations:
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.
On 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.
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’m definitely looking forward to his book. His chapter in Foundational Texts of Mormonism on the JST was fantastic but didn’t include his work on Clarke’s Bible Commentary. (See our review here) I suspect his book will fast become a must read.
Read the full interview over at 10 Questions.