Translation and the Adam Clarke Commentary

Kurt Manwaring has continued his interviews focusing on Joseph Smith’s translations with a discussion with Thomas Wayment about the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible.  In the interview last week, some of the editors of recently-published volume Producing Ancient Scripture made a point of discussing the findings of Thomas Wayment and Hayley Wilson-Lemmón about the influence of Adam Clarke’s Bible commentary on the Joseph Smith Translation.  We’re excited to share a co-post of an interview with Dr. Wayment this week, where he shares more details about their research.  What follows here is a summary with some commentary on the interview, but the full interview is available for reading here.

Now, the summary of Wayment and Wilson-Lemmón’s findings are that when Joseph Smith was working on his translation of the Bible, he seems to have relied on a commentary written by Methodist theologian Adam Clarke in making decisions about some of his changes.  Thomas Wayment has spent years working with the Joseph Smith Translation (JST) and first became aware that something of the sort might have happened shortly after he finished his doctoral work.  As he noted in the interview, when analyzing the changes Joseph Smith made, he “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.”  In general, as Wayment worked with comparing the JST to “what we believe is the closest thing to the original text or meaning of the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts,” he found that “he JST has almost no affinity with the original text of the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament.”  But he noticed that the times when Joseph Smith’s work did agreed with known textual variants of the early Hebrew and Greek manuscripts, “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.”  This led him to the conclusion that “the JST project was influenced by an awareness of some textual issues.”  He compiled “a list of test passages and a list of potential sources” and had Hayley Wilson-Lemmón help carry out the comparisons to narrow it down to the Adam Clarke Commentary, then do “the monumental work of comparing each change that Joseph Smith did to the work of Adam Clarke.”

To Thomas Wayment, the big takeaway from the chapter published on this research in Producing Ancient Scriptures is that “Joseph Smith used a source when he completed his revision of the Bible.”  He expressed hope that “there can be greater nuance in the way that his use of sources is understood” moving forward from those findings.  There are some concerns about that being the case because during discussions about Joseph Smith’s translation projects, people “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.”  Yet, while he notes that “for some this could be a controversial topic,” he went on to say that “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.”

One of those preconceived ideas is the idea that Joseph Smith was working from some sort of heavenly urtext of the Bible through revelation to present us with the original text of the Bible.  Wayment was raised with this view, and so when he found that the JST didn’t have a relationship to the earliest manuscripts of the Bible available, “it was jarring” and “took [him] some time to recover from that realization.”  His research over the years has led him to the conclusion that, “as far I am able to determine, his Bible revisions are departures from the original text.”  It can be a bit shocking to come to that realization because the view that Joseph Smith was restoring the original text of the Bible is widespread in the Church, but we need to differentiate between what are traditional assumptions and the reality of the text and its history.

As a bit of my own commentary, there have been a number of Latter-day Saint scholars who have addressed this issue of the Joseph Smith Translation not being a restoration of an ancient Bible from different perspectives.  For example, Philip Barlow suggested that Joseph Smith translated the Bible “through reason, ‘common sense,’ and inspiration—thereby entwining Enlightenment and pre-Enlightenment modes of mind. … But, as a whole the emendations and additions of his biblical translation exude a targumic quality—not necessarily the Bible as it once was, but the Bible as it was supposed to be.”[1]  David Bokovoy has also discussed the issue of the way the Book of Moses (the JST of the first several chapters of Genesis) is impacted by higher criticism of the Bible and the Documentary Hypothesis.  He concluded that “while these insights suggest that some traditional assumptions regarding the nature of Joseph’s revelatory texts may be incorrect, the inspired validity of the Prophet’s scriptural work is beyond scientific analysis.”[2]  All of this is part of what Thomas Wayment referred to as “a growing conversation about the purpose and intent of Joseph Smith’s Bible changes.”

The discussion of Joseph Smith using the Adam Clarke commentary as a source will likely be an important part of the discussion about the nature and purpose of the JST moving forward.  As Thomas Wayment stated:

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.

This research could potentially have some impact on how Latter-day Saints view and engage in Biblical scholarship.

All this being said, the impact of Adam Clarke’s commentary on the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible can be overstated.  When asked how the JST might have been different if Joseph Smith hadn’t referred to the work, Dr. Wayment said that:

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.

In general, Joseph Smith “seems to have relied on Clarke more often to debate what to do with the italicized words” than other parts of the Bible.  Italicized words in the King James Version mark places where translators added words to help the translation read fluidly and grammatically in English.  While adding words rather than only presenting word-for-word translations is a normal part of the translation process, “the words that appear in italicized font were a source of concern for Joseph and his nineteenth century peers,” since they potentially indicated that translators had tampered with the text in unacceptable ways.  Even then, Wayment states that Joseph Smith sometimes chose to go against Clarke’s suggestions.  While Clarke’s commentary seems to have been a source used by Joseph Smith when he engaged with and edited the Biblical text, it was only one component in the process of translation.

For more details about what has been discussed here, possible ways that Joseph Smith came into contact with Clarke’s commentary, thoughts on Joseph Smith receiving revelation, and commentary on the accusation of plagiarism in the JST, you can read the full interview here.  Also note that we have more interviews to look forward to in the coming weeks—one with Matthew Grey about the Book of Abraham and one with Richard Bushman about the Gold Plates.



[1] Philip L. Barlow, “To Mend a Fractured Reality: Joseph Smith’s Project,” Journal of Mormon History vol. 38, no. 3 (Summer 2012), 41.

[2] David Bokovoy, Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis—Deuteronomy (Draper, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2014), 135-159.  See page 158 for the quote.

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