Kent P. Jackson on the Joseph Smith Translation

Joseph Smith’s translation projects have been a hot topic this year.  Among many others, earlier this fall we did two posts that discussed the possibility that Joseph Smith relied on the Adam Clarke commentaries for some of the changes he made in the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible.  Recently, Kent P. Jackson (a retired professor of religion at Brigham Young University) published a response to the articles that we were discussing, which share evidence of Joseph Smith using the Adam Clarke commentary.  In his article, published in Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship, Jackson expressed his conclusion that “none of the examples they provide can be traced to Clarke’s commentary, and almost all of them can be explained easily by other means. … The few overlaps that do exist are vague, superficial, and coincidental.”[1]  Kurt Manwaring sat down with Kent Jackson for an interview to discuss his viewpoint, and what follows here is a co-post—a summary with some quotes and commentary on the interview.  To read the full interview, click here.

As is often the case when we discuss the issue of Joseph Smith’s translations, the issue of whether or not they can actually be called translations came up in the interview.  Called the “New Translation” by Joseph Smith and his contemporaries (Jackson explains that the term “Joseph Smith Translation” was devised for the Latter-day Saint edition of the Bible in the 1970s because they needed something that didn’t result in using the abbreviation of “NT” to refer to it), the work that Joseph Smith did was more a revision to the text of the King James Version than a linguistic translation from Greek and Hebrew texts into English.  Jackson explained, however, that in addition to this sense of linguistic translation, Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary of American English does include “other definitions, including ‘to bear, carry or remove from one place to another,’ ‘to transfer; to convey from one to another,’ and ‘to change.’ These definitions are closer to the word’s etymological meaning—’to carry across.’” Hence, Jackson states that “the JST is a translation in the sense that it is a re-creation of the Bible, a new incarnation of it. It creates something new out of something old.”

As for his reasons for not jumping on the Thomas Wayment bandwagon about the Adam Clarke commentary, Kent Jackson had a fair amount to say.

Clarke’s commentary is massive, consisting of six volumes and about 5,200 pages. … His was the most philological of the commentaries, meaning that it had a greater emphasis on the text, its words, and word meanings. …

… As a result, his commentary is full of paraphrases, restatements, and wordy discussions, some of which include words that bear resemblances to revisions Joseph Smith made to the biblical text.

Wayment has interpreted those as examples of Joseph Smith borrowing ideas or words from Clarke, but that’s not what they are, in my opinion. They’re random and coincidental resemblances, mostly of unimportant words.

While Jackson claims that he doesn’t “find anything wrong with the idea that Joseph Smith may have learned something from a non-revelatory source and then used what he learned in making JST revisions,” he also feels that “all of the convergences Wayment suggested could be explained better in other ways.”

In his lengthy Interpreter article, Jackson worked to show how the convergences can generally be explain in other ways, examining many of the examples given by Thomas Wayment and Haley Wilson-Lemmón to support their belief that Joseph Smith was influenced by Clarke’s commentary.  In many instances, Jackson indicates that the changes were common sense modernizations or theologically-based revisions that Joseph Smith had made elsewhere before reaching the passage where Clarke might have influenced him, represent harmonization of texts across the different Gospels and the Book of Mormon, or occurred in places where the KJV italicized words (which were regarded as suspect by Joseph Smith and thus invited changes).  He also expresses his belief that the changes made were often more tenuous in their connection to Clarke’s commentary than Wayment and Wilson-Lemmón state and that Joseph Smith seems to have overlooked some good suggestions made by Clarke that likely would have been incorporated if he had been familiar with the commentary.  The general point that is made is that if Joseph Smith did rely on Clarke’s commentary, he seems to have done so in minor and haphazard ways at best.

Inserting my personal opinion for a minute (though admittedly, I am no expert on this topic, so take what I say with a grain of salt), I feel like there are many good points made by Jackson that show how the evidence for reliance on the Clarke commentary is not as strong as indicated in Wayment’s and Wilson-Lemmón’s articles, but there are places where Jackson’s work also feels lacking or simply overeager to discredit the Clarke commentary thesis.  For example, in several cases, Jackson points out that when Clarke suggests how a passage could be understood in his commentary (but not directly stating that the wording in the Bible should be changed) and similar wording is incorporated in the JST that Wayment and Wilson-Lemmón are incorrect in stating that Joseph Smith acted on Clarke’s suggestion to make a change.  This is technically true (it was commentary in Clarke’s work, not a suggestion for change), but it doesn’t fully undermine the possibility that Joseph Smith was influenced by the commentary in making his changes.  And, as a whole, the article doesn’t directly respond to the underlying issue that led Thomas Wayment to investigate the Clarke commentary in the first place—Joseph Smith seems to have been aware of textual variants in early manuscripts of the Bible, but only those that were known by the 1830s, which indicates that he had some acquaintance with scholarship on the subject.  Still, Jackson’s work does show that further consideration and research is probably necessary on this topic.

Unfortunately, the scholarly debate over the issue has been overshadowed by a polemical debate about whether Joseph Smith plagiarized Clarke’s work.  As summarized by Jackson:

The charge of “plagiarism” comes from interviews Wilson-Lemmon has done with aggressive critics of the Church, who have used her and put words into her mouth for their own purposes. She has willingly acquiesced. She famously left the Church and has used the Adam Clarke idea as a means of advertising her disaffection. This has made her a minor celebrity among anti-Mormons, and it has brought the Adam Clarke notion into the mix as evidence that Joseph Smith was a fraud.

He’s careful to differentiate that “Wayment hasn’t made this claim, she has,” and expressed frustration about how Wilson-Lemmón’s actions are “sabotaging the narrative about his research.”

With that background, Jackson found that when Interpreter published his article, it too became wrapped up in the polemical debate about plagiarism.  He noted that: “I have had readers congratulate me on doing good apologetic work in my article,” and observed that, “I suppose … that Wilson-Lemmon’s ‘plagiarism’ claim … puts my article in the category of an apologetic response.”  Yet, he indicates that apologetics wasn’t his intent while writing: “I don’t view the Adam Clarke thesis to be necessarily an attack on the Church, I don’t view my article as apologetic. It’s simply an article that examines some ideas.”  To him, it was just a part of an academic debate with another scholar:

In researching the JST and coming to believe that it includes influences from Adam Clarke’s commentary, Professor Wayment was doing what scholars do—establishing a hypothesis, testing it, and drawing conclusions about it. It is obviously not uncommon for scholars to have different opinions, as he and I do about this matter.

While I am hopeful that the scholastic debate and research into whether scholarly sources like the Clarke commentary influenced Joseph Smith in his work can and will continue, it will likely have the issue of plagiarism looming in the background.

For more insights into the JST and its history, I recommend going and reading the full interview with Kent P. Jackson at Kurt Manwaring’s site here.  And, as always, I look forward to discussing the interview and issues raised here.  Some of the questions I’m most interested in hearing about are:  What do you think about the debate going on about Joseph Smith’s possible reliance on the Clarke commentary?  If you’ve read the articles, which side of the debate do you find more convincing?  Let’s discuss.

 

Footnote:

[1] Kent P. Jackson, “Some Notes on Joseph Smith and Adam Clarke,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 40 (2020): 15-60, https://journal.interpreterfoundation.org/some-notes-on-joseph-smith-and-adam-clarke/.

2 comments for “Kent P. Jackson on the Joseph Smith Translation

  1. The only articles I’ve read about Joseph Smith translating have been here at Times and Seasons. I don’t mind the idea of Joseph Smith using the Clarke commentary as an input into his translation process. I don’t think that I can take it so far as to call it plagiarism though. I think it’s interesting that there’s even enough source material to have such a debate.

  2. Thanks. Looking forward to any continued discussion of this and any response from Professor Wayment. When you read Kent Jackson’s original article on this, it seems like a lot of the air is taken out of the “Adam Clarke hypothesis” balloon. But perhaps not. Additional textual analysis will be helpful to understand what evidence is really there.

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