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.

23 comments for “Translation and the Adam Clarke Commentary

  1. Exciting developments! This tastes like quality, reasonable scholarship into Joseph Smith’s psyche and revelatory methods, and I appreciate it very much!

    While I understand the “mainstream member’s” hesitancy to embrace a viewpoint that alters the paradigm many of us “raised in the Church” have about Joseph Smith’s revelatory process, much of these pains are self-imposed. We want to put Joseph Smith beyond the reach of mere mortals, but that distance betrays his comments and pleading for members of the church to step up and engage God in a more direct way.

    Some approach this level of scholarship like the early pioneers who did not want to engage with modern medicine, instead preferring to get priesthood blessings for headaches/cancer, etc. It is high-time for us to work on maturing our faith, and I think we all hope to achieve the “simplicity on the other side of complex” that Oliver Wendall Holmes, Jr. envisioned.

  2. This is great. I really love Dr. Wayment’s perspective. I’ve really gotten into Biblical scholarship the past few years, and really hope that this does lead to a more open dialogue with Christian and Jewish scholarship. There is SO much good stuff there. Thanks for the post.

  3. Ethan, on the one hand I’m thinking the etiquette surrounding attribution was not as developed as today; on the other, this discovery suggests the possibility of other borrowing. VIEW OF THE HEBREWS comes from immediately to mind.

  4. Ethan,

    It’s ridiculous to accuse someone of plagiarism for his unfinished, unpublished project.


    The View of the Hebrews issue has been addressed ad nauseum. When you zoom out enough, you can find striking parallels between any one thing and some other thing in the world. If you describe two history books, both of which describe an island nation leaving a feudal system with a long history of both legendary and real knights who honored a chivalric code, and then going on to acquire an empire through conquest only to lose most of it in the middle of the twentieth century, you might assume one plagiarized the other. But in fact, that’s just one way to describe the histories of both England and Japan.

  5. DSC – You destroyed that strawman. Now add that the history books are about the same people in the same land. Could be coincidence. Maybe.

  6. At some point LDS will disavow 19th Century nonsense and survive, not in spite of such radical honesty, but because of it.

  7. Once we gave up the image of JS sitting at a table and translating the plates and acknowledged something more mystical (seer stone in a hat), does any of this matter? The “translation” was not done by traditional methods. So instead of redefining the word “translation” (or using tertiary definitions of the word), maybe we should use a different term? The BoM was revealed? Or JS was inspired to write the BoM.

    But the real trouble with all of these discussions is that they encourage members to look at the BoM et al as inspired fiction. Which is okay with me, but not so exciting to the Church leadership.

  8. I’m not at all sure that sitting with unspecified headwear at a table and translating using two stones in a silver bow attached to a breastplate counts as more “traditional” or less “mystical” than translating with one stone, a hat, and unspecified furniture.

  9. The illustration we used in the mission field (that was a few years ago) was JS sitting at a table “translating” the golden plates. I don’t remember it having a U&T. But you’re right, there has always been mystical element to JS’s “translation” efforts; we just haven’t emphasized it. By modern sensibilities, it seems strange.

  10. The one we had in our flipcharts back in the Carter Administration showed Joseph Smith sitting at a table transcribing the characters, rather than translating. But there’s a more recent version of the same picture that shows English text (seemingly 1Nephi 1:1) on paper, rather than the transcribed characters. The revised version seems to be ubiquitous on the internet, but I would be much interested in its origin and dissemination, and if the official church had any part in it.

    The revised version actually looks like a bad Photoshop job. In the original, Joseph has his left forefinger on the open plate as if marking his spot. His right hand holds a quill pen where he transcribes the characters onto a piece of paper to the right of the plates. In the revised version, Joseph is in the exact same position, but the paper with the English text is where the open plate used to be. That leaves him pointing at the paper with his left hand and in position to write directly on the desk with his right. My impression is that someone couldn’t figure out why he was transcribing rather than translating, and wanted to “fix” the picture to show translation. Who did that and when is anyone’s guess, but it would be interesting to look into it.

    The bottom line to me is that either way, a *stone* (or two) was used for translating. I just don’t understand the preoccupation with the hat, as if translating with a stone is just normal and respectable, unless a hat is used to exclude light, and then it becomes embarrassing and weird.

  11. Actually, the most historically weird illustration in our flipchart was the one showing a 14-year-old Joseph standing in front of the Smith house that hadn’t been built yet, and including additions that were made to the building long after the Smiths left.

  12. It has always been that way — artists painting scenes from the past almost always do so imperfectly. The art is usually intended to strengthen faith using the artist’s talent, not to teach history which is not the artist’s talent.

  13. The questions, “how did Joseph translate?” and “what-is-translation?” arrive from a historical materialist approach because we are seeking a context for ideas in time and place.

    This approach contradicts revelation. By definition, revelation is, or occurs, outside time and space. The quest for a historical explanation is absurd.

    When we find outside sources (like Clarke) that match Joseph’s work, it should be irrelevant—except to those who can’t seem to accept “revelation”—for them, they need some kind of evidence for origin—from anywhere but God.

    It appears that the goal of linking Joseph’s work to Clarke’s work is to establish some broader Christian dialectic that fits Mormonism into the fold via sola scriptura. Linking the LDS institution to Prostestant institutions by scripture is Machiavellian political brilliance, but it has a cost.

    In its subtly, this type of scholarship separates parts of Joseph’s work from revelation.

  14. Travis–I get how revelations might be conceived as occuring outside of space, but how do you explain their taking place outside of time?

    For example, the revelation on the priesthood was received at some point prior to its public release in 1978 (time B). At some point prior to that, no revelation had been received (time A). After the revelation is received, it stays received until revoked (time C). A to B to C represents a normal linear temporal progression.

    Note also that Joseph himself sometimes describes his revelations as having been received in time. They almost always dated, and are often described as occuring “when” or “while” Joseph was doing something else. For example, the intro to D & C 76 states that “while” Joseph and Sidney were retranslating the Gospel of John, the heavens were opened, etc.

  15. Frederick,

    I don’t see the 1978 proclamation as revelation. I see it as policy change. This, because I am not convinced a priesthood ban was ever doctrine. I do not count “doctrine,” “policy,” and “belief” as the same thing.

    When it is written, “the heavens were opened,” this transition marks where the visionary state departs from time and place. Likewise, when the Israelite high priest enters the holy-of-holies, the veil marks the boundary of time and place: beyond the veil is a realm of symbol, archetype, hierarchy, order (altar, menorah, blood, water). And when Job is confronted by the heavenly messager, he is reminded, “where were you when I ordered the heavens?” All outside time and place.

    Many LDS scholars want to produce a chronology for Joseph’s revelations. They want to see a process of evolution and development for the new religion.

    Perhaps what they really want is a materialist chronology for Joseph’s pedagogy; they want to know how he did it. So they look to his environment in order to find out where he got his ideas. The more things we find that point to Joseph getting ideas from his locale, the less relevatory the prophet.

  16. If Joseph Revealed Math…

    What if Joseph was a brilliant mathematician who solved complex equations in his head:

    Because he takes no notes, historical materialism would have us follow him around, see who he talks to, and watch for what information he comes in contact with.

    From this, the historical materialist expects to understand how Joseph reveals math.

  17. Travis wrote: “The more things we find that point to Joseph getting ideas from his locale, the less relevatory the prophet.”

    I don’t see why you would suppose this to be the case. I am excited to learn of Joseph’s use of Adam Clarke’s commentary and see this important work as explaining the nature of his revelation(s), not as an effort to downgrade them to something ordinary or irrelevant. If Joseph’s insights were sparked, in part, by his use of scholarly works, then that suggests I, too, can receive inspiration as I read and incorporate the work of scholars into my own theology.

  18. Travis, I don’t think the problem with your argument can be solved by a restrictive definition of “revelation.” Take my point about D&C 76, to which you did not respond, and which seems clearly to be a “revelation”–i.e., revealed truth. Before Joseph’s and Sidney’s vision, no revelation of the afterlife, “then” during and after the vision, there is, obviously a revelation–an indisputable temporal progression. The revelation is dated, and occurs “while” Joseph and Sidney were doing other things. How did the revelation not occur “in time”?

    It’s possible, as you note, that the heavens opening marks a departure from historical time to sacred time–e.g., Joseph’s perception of time during the D&C 76 vision did not correspond to any historical time. This doesn’t solve the problem, either, since revelations in sacred time are bookended by the before and after of historical time.

    But in any event, you merely assert your conclusion, apparently to avoid the implication that the occurence of revelation in historical time leaves open the possiblity that Joseph was persons and events occuring contemporaneously in the same historical time. This begs the question at issue–whether Joseph’s revelations were received out of time. What’s the actual argument that they were?


  19. Travis, “What if Joseph was a brilliant mathematician who solved complex equations in his head.”

    Your example suggests how revelations might not occur in space, since it’s not clear that our thoughts exist in 3-D Cartesian space (though a Kantian might argue that our perception of space structures everything we think about).

    But they still occur in time (and most Kantians, I imagine, would agree that we cannot think outside of time).

    Finally, I must confess that, having read back through my comments, they have a medieval scholastic “angels dancing on a pinhead” quality to them, which is slightly embarrassing. It might make more sense to talk about the matter at issue directly, as Ryan does–whether and to what extent historical temporal influences were present in Joseph’s revelatory experiences.

  20. Ryan,

    I agree that inspiration comes from within an environment. I would differentiate “inspiration” from “revelation” in that revelation comes from without/outside an environment.

    I would say that Joseph’s “revelation” is closer to the Kabbalist conception of revelation than the Protestant conception of revelation. I would say that there is historical evidence that Joseph spent considerable time with Hebrew, Kabbalah, and Talmud. I would say that if LDS scholars learned about Kabbalah, they would have a different conception of revelation, and that such a conception of revelation would consequently lead scholarship away from chronology and historicism, and to a framework of archetype and hierarchy.

  21. Frederick,

    The language we need to describe revelation cannot to be found in Kant any more than Lehi’s Tree of Life can be found on a map.

    How did Nephi also receive the same tree-of-life vision of his father Lehi, if they received their respective revelations one after the other (on a timespace continuum)?

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