Joseph Smith: Ancient Scripture and Revealed Texts


In chapter 1 we discussed the larger framework, origin, and canonization of the Pearl of Great Price. Chapters 3 and 4 will consider Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible, the ancient nature of the gospel, and how those topics factor into the reception and revelation of the Book of Moses text. But to set up those discussions and highlight the antiquity of the gospel itself, this chapter will address the Prophet Joseph Smith’s translation of ancient scriptural records along with the revelations he received and transcribed into revealed texts.[1] Our focus on revelation throughout these processes will prove crucial to understanding the prophetic ministry of Joseph Smith as a prophet, seer, and revelator.[2] A purpose of this chapter is to highlight that Joseph Smith translated actual ancient texts from the past. He did not merely create and write scripture purporting to be from the past, nor was he reconstituting the past as the present in order to adapt it to a modern audience as he fabricated and finessed a historical context on which to base his new religion.[3] As Samuel M. Brown has observed, “a modern flattening of time and an associated indifference to deep or sacred history was already being cultivated when [Joseph] Smith began dictating his translations and revelations. Early Latter-day Saint views of time reflected and disputed prevalent ideas about the nature of time and history.”[4] For Joseph, the ancient past and the present combined to form a congruent reality, one that bridged generations and acknowledged the historicity of ancient scripture. Richard Bushman explains:

The greatest error would be to mistake these narratives from ancient times as mere objects of curiosity, revealing a Mormon taste with the mysteries of antiquity. . . . Joseph Smith’s revelations . . . made new sacred narratives that were themselves the foundation for belief. . . . The Book of Mormon throughout is composed of happenings wherein God directed, reproved, punished, and redeemed his people. What distinguished Mormonism was not so much the gospel Mormons taught . . . but what they believed had happened—to Joseph Smith, to Book of Mormon characters, and to Moses and Enoch. . . . The core of Mormon belief was a conviction about actual events. . . . Mormonism was history, not philosophy. . . . The strength of the church, the vigor of the Mormon missionary movement, and the staying power of the Latter-day Saints from 1830 to the present rest on the belief in the reality of these events.[5]

Through Joseph Smith, the Lord was restoring the past for the benefit of those in the present, just as Ammon, a figure in the Book of Mormon, taught that a seer could do (see Mosiah 8:17–18).

Viewing how Joseph engaged with ancient scripture is essential for understanding the nature of the Book of Moses. This includes understanding the role it plays in scriptural cannon in its portrayal of the ancient and eternal nature of the gospel.[6] A second point of emphasis in this chapter is that revelation governed Joseph Smith’s translation endeavors and aided the transcribing of revelations into their final form as canonized scripture. So, for example, Joseph describes his translation of the Book of Abraham from an ancient source:

I, with W[illiam] W. Phelps and O[liver] Cowdery, as scribes, commenced <Translation of some of the Characters.> the translation of some of the characters or hieroglyphics, and much to our joy found that one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham; another the writings of Joseph of Egypt, &c, a more full account <of which> will appear in their place, as I proceed to examine or unfold them. Truly can we say the Lord is beginning to reveal the abundance of peace and truth.[7]

As will be seen, editing became an important part of the process of publishing revelation texts to ensure that the revelations expressed, as nearly as possible, what the Lord wanted them to convey and that modern audiences could comprehend them.[8]

A third item we will address in this chapter is Joseph’s translation of ancient scripture as viewed through the lens of nineteenth-century America. If scripture like the Book of Mormon was ancient, then it should exhibit ancient characteristics and reflect the concerns of ancient people, rather than exhibiting and revolving around a nineteenth-century American worldview and cultural conceptions.[9] In revealing lost scriptural texts and revelations, the Lord was restoring through the Prophet Joseph Smith the everlasting gospel, the timeless importance of which is accentuated by the antiquity and content of the texts he translated. When we view these texts and revelations through the lens of nineteenth-century America, we witness antiquity. Conversely, most of the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants, received by the Prophet Joseph Smith as modern scripture, exhibit markedly modern concerns pertaining to modern individuals and issues (albeit often linking modern and ancient conceptions, themes, and events). This modern scripture stands in contrast to the ancient nuances and contexts of texts translated and transcribed through the instrumentality of the Prophet Joseph Smith. From the translation of the Book of Mormon to Joseph’s “New Translation”[10] of the Bible (including the Book of Moses) and the Book of Abraham, we see clear evidence of prophetic access to texts originating in antiquity.

Visionaries in Nineteenth-Century America

Within the tumultuous religious environment in which Joseph Smith found himself, the mindsets and approaches his contemporaries took toward interpreting the Bible would, at times, contrast with the revelations he would receive from God.[11] This variance extended to the concept of biblical “translation” and the implications of biblical translation for Christianity and religion as a whole.[12] Indeed, there were many other nineteenth-century visionaries who proclaimed prophetic messages, shared their experiences with those around them, and actively published tracts about their ministries.[13] In contrast to these various visionaries, Joseph would focus his efforts on establishing and building up the Lord’s church and kingdom across the earth. Consequently, people embraced the church that they saw the Lord setting up through him. Joseph’s efforts would be guided and dictated by ancient scripture and revelations specifically geared toward those purposes. Despite rudimentary similarities between Joseph Smith and other visionaries of the time, the differences were far greater. Richard Bushman notes that

the stylistic similarities only highlight, however, the differences between Joseph and the host of now forgotten visionaries. . . . The narratives of dreams and miraculous appearances did not imply the construction of any institutional forms; they did not propose doctrine; they did not proclaim commandments. . . . Joseph Smith immediately organized a church. Rather than dissipating his religious energies in messages published to the world at large, he focused on the formation of an institution. . . . In Joseph’s teachings, another narrative stood out above either of these—the building of Zion in the last days. Unlike the pamphlet visionaries, Joseph harnessed the energy of his visions to the cause of the Church. . . . Having put Zion first, Joseph’s visions inspired his followers to preach the gospel in all the world, to gather from the four quarters of the earth, and to build cities and temples. Going beyond the simple warnings of the visionary pamphlets, Joseph’s revelations became the founding stories of a new religious movement.[14]

As will be illustrated in this volume, the revelations and teachings found in the Book of Moses were foundational to the process of building the Lord’s church. In particular, the Book of Moses provided the early Saints a vision of—and roadmap for building—Zion.

Language of the Revelations and Ancient Roots

David F. Holland observes that in contrast to the founders of many other movements of Joseph Smith’s day, Joseph’s mission began in antiquity:

Joseph’s Smith’s mission began with an ancient history, a fact that further distinguishes his career from those of his prophetic cohort. . . . In his forays into the ancient world—whether the Book of Mormon, or the Book of Abraham, or his inspired translation of the Bible—he was ever the vehicle for other men’s histories, always the receiver, the transcriber, the transmitter of knowledge about the ancient world, not the producer. He simply gave his modern readers the records as he encountered them, translated but otherwise unaffected.[15]

As the human vehicle through whom the Lord brought forth these revelations, Joseph Smith was at times criticized, even by Church members, for the language of the recorded revelations penned at his dictation.[16] At times Joseph lamented his inabilities to express what he felt in writing, much as prophets of the Book of Mormon had done (see 1 Nephi 19:6; 2 Nephi 33:4; Mormon 8:17; 9:31; Ether 12:23–27). The Lord recognized Joseph’s weaknesses but chastised the critics of his servant who was doing the best he could with his human limitations.[17]

What quickly helps us see beyond Joseph the man to Joseph the seer, translator, and revelator are the complexities of the revelations and revealed texts. They are often astounding, deliberately and densely combining scriptural citations and references from multiple books and collections of scripture in just a few verses. They constitute pieces “of writing not easily tossed off even by an experienced hand,” let alone by an inexperienced and relatively young and uneducated frontiersman such as Joseph Smith.[18] Joseph’s translation of ancient scripture constituted the “carrying over”[19] of ancient texts from the lost epochs, languages, and writings of antiquity. For Joseph, who thought he had been deceived when encountering Nephi’s ancient account of walls around Jerusalem,[20] these translations did not represent his own modern creations out of his own psyche, but the translation of ancient texts.[21] The revelations associated with those ancient texts, and pertaining to his day as well, derived directly from God.

While the language in the recorded revelations and translated ancient texts reflects some nineteenth-century influence, as well as that of the King James Version of the Bible, this is to be expected and in fact constitutes an artifact of Joseph’s engagement with the translation process and the cultural environment in which he was raised:[22]

The problem of language becomes more complex when we keep in mind that to some extent the revelatory language was confined to the vocabulary of Joseph Smith. Joseph’s comments in the history speak of the “language of Jesus Christ,” and writing “in the name of the Lord,” as if the revelations were transcripts from heaven. Yet at the same time, the preface to the Book of Commandments says that the commandments were given to the Lord’s servants “in their weakness, after the manner of their language” (D&C 1:24). The revelations were given in English, not Hebrew or reformed Egyptian. The vocabulary shows few signs of going beyond the diction of a nineteenth-century American common man. The revelations from heaven apparently shone through the mind of Joseph Smith and employed his language to express the messages. . . . The plain language available for Joseph’s revelatory rhetoric would necessarily ascend to its greatest heights in the words of the English Bible.[23]

Joseph the translator and revelator, whether of translations of ancient texts, restorations of ancient doctrine, or modern revelations, cannot be fully extricated from Joseph the man.[24] The fact that Joseph did not leave many specific details about the translation process of the Book of Mormon or the Book of Abraham has led to several theories about how these translations were produced.[25] Regarding the Book of Mormon, the first- and secondhand accounts of its coming forth attest to anything from Joseph witnessing in the seer stones what looked like pieces of parchment with English words written thereon—with specifics being given in language, diction, and vocabulary that constituted tight or specific translations—to general ideas that needed to be articulated. Competing theories based on those same accounts posit that Joseph exercised little to almost total control over the wording of the revealed texts.[26] The revelations and translations in several instances appeared to require the articulation of ideas and concepts in a language that Joseph and his contemporaries could understand.[27] The nature of the translation process has given rise to the critiques of thinkers from Joseph’s day to our own. In other words, much of the scholarly pushback has centered on the divine means by which Joseph translated.[28] In Joseph’s time “a Protestant theological consensus favored cessationism, the belief that miracles had only happened during the time of the Bible and no longer occurred in the modern world. This cessationism was an intentional abruption from the past—in Tocqueville’s elitist and hyperbolic terms, learned Americans had ‘an almost insurmountable distaste for whatever is supernatural.’ Cessationism meant that the wild times of antiquity were safely remote, even from people of faith.”[29] For Joseph, divinity, divine beings, and divine manifestations always went hand in hand with the work of translating ancient scripture and receiving revelation.

In view of the Lord’s need to speak to humankind in language that would resonate with and be comprehensible to contemporary religious audiences, critiques of the inclusion of KJV Bible language in the translations and revelatory texts revealed to Joseph Smith seem to miss the mark.[30] The nineteenth-century witnessed the formation of numerous Bible societies, the production of new translations of the Bible, and the emergence of groundbreaking scholarly treatments of the Bible. Philip Barlow notes that “cadences from the Authorized Version [KJV] by this time informed the speech of the common folk and educated alike,” and Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language “reflected and reinforced the Bible’s influence on the nation’s speech.”[31] Ultimately, the language of the Bible affected politics, religion, and virtually every form of discourse, and themes “from the Bible suffused the minds of U.S. citizens, whatever their faith.”[32] Additionally, as the angel Moroni began in 1823 to deliver to Joseph Smith revelations about prophecies to be fulfilled from the Bible, he did so, as Barlow notes, in “the sacred idiom familiar to him, though alterations in their renditions implied the imperfection of the King James text. Furthermore, the heavenly personages offered literal and specific application of biblical prophecy to Smith and his times.”[33] This pattern of revelation expressed in contemporary vernacular continued throughout Joseph Smith’s prophetic career, and the language of the King James Version was consistent with the language and speech that permeated American society at the time. Barlow further notes that “Smith’s speech and thought, like those of his neighbors, were profoundly influenced by the patterns of the King James Bible. His everyday metaphors and images were almost as laced with language of the Authorized Version as the terms in which he couched his revelations.”[34] Given the foregoing realities, it would be highly unusual for KJV language not to be so prominent in the translations and revealed texts.

It should also be recognized that it is not the persona and voice of the translator speaking in ancient scripture and in the modern revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants, but rather the voice of the Lord speaking with divine authority. His voice speaks in the first person in an overwhelming number of cases. Consequently, as Richard Bushman has observed,

Joseph Smith’s authorship, his role as revelator, is obliterated entirely from this rhetoric, even though the recipient of the revelation may have actually heard the words come from Joseph’s mouth. Though Joseph was the author in the naturalistic sense of the word, the voice in the revelation is entirely separated from the Prophet. In fact, when Joseph figures in the revelation’s rhetorical space, he is placed among the listeners. When rebukes are handed out, he is as likely as anyone to be the target.[35]

Although the Protestant Reformation had trumpeted the call “ad fontes!” (“to the sources!”)—that is, to the scriptures—Christianity in large measure remained removed from the ultimate source of its original authority. The Restoration has made clear, however, that the Lord saw the need to help seekers of truth recognize that source of authority behind scripture (himself), rather than have the issue confused more.[36] The true source of authority behind the Bible constituted the only “rock” upon which the Church could be “built” and from which the “waters” of all scripture sprang—the “rock” of revelation and doctrine from the Lord himself:

All these visionaries, and Joseph most of all, discerned what orthodox Christianity had forgotten, that biblical authority still rests, as it always has, on revelation. The Bible’s cultural influence was based on the belief that God revealed himself to prophets. The reason for embracing the Bible was that its words had come from heaven. Christianity had smothered this self-evident fact by relegating revelation to a bygone age, making the Bible an archive rather than a living reality. The significance of Joseph Smith—and other prophets of his time—was their introduction of revelation into the present, renewing contact with the Bible’s God.[37]

While the Protestant Reformers and humanists from Erasmus onward deemed biblical texts in their original languages as the sources or “founts,” Joseph, through the revelations of the Lord, went to the source behind these sources to correct imperfections in the Bible and resultant doctrine. As Terryl Givens explains, “And so, the work of interpreting the revelations of God and creating a coherent system of belief proceeded apace . . . [with] the firm belief that an original church, ‘once indeed beautiful, pure, and intelligent;—clothed with the power and spirit of God,’ by their day . . . lay ‘in broken fragments scattered, rent, and disjointed; with nothing to point out its original, but the shattered remnants of its ancient glory.’”[38] Barlow surmises, “While others set out to correct these imperfections by scholarly means, Smith mended the Bible by revelation.”[39]

Nineteenth-Century America

That the language in the revealed texts reflects the cultural milieu of Joseph and his audience does not negate the ancient nature or content of those texts. Such modern parlance is expected in translation texts. However, the prevalence of biblical prophecy, themes, and passages within the revelation texts is astounding and reflects Joseph’s role as translator, not author. According to Joseph’s mother, at the time of his first vision he had never even read the Bible from cover to cover, so it is unlikely in the extreme that he could be the informed source behind all the intricate biblical citations and references theologically and deliberately interwoven throughout the Book of Mormon.[40] It is also remarkable and affirming of the Book of Mormon’s antiquity that, as is sometimes asserted, the language and style of its texts do not reflect nineteenth-century style, rhetoric, politics, or religion, as one would expect in a contemporary composition.

In the context of nineteenth-century political thought, the Book of Mormon people are difficult to place. They were not benighted Spaniards or Russians, passively yielding to the oppression of a monarch out of ignorance and superstition, nor were they enlightened Americans living by the principles of republican government. The Book of Mormon was an anomaly on the political scene of 1830. . . . In view of all this, the Book of Mormon could be pictured as a bizarre creation, a book strangely distant from the time and place of its publication. But that picture would not be complete. A pattern running through the apparent anomalies provides a clue to their resolution. Book of Mormon political attitudes have Old World precedents, particularly in the history of the Israelite nation. Against that background its anomalies become regularities . . . biblical language was used to sanctify American history and American political institutions, but Hebrew precedents did not deeply inform historical writing nor shape political institutions. The innermost structure of Book of Mormon politics and history [is] biblical, while American forms are conspicuously absent.[41]

Some critics have asserted that the Book of Mormon simply reflects a story set in the past but reflective of the nineteenth-century political climate.[42] After sifting through and refuting such arguments, Bushman concludes in favor of the ancient setting of the text rather than one of Joseph Smith’s making:

The templates for Book of Mormon politics seem quite consistently to have been cut from the Bible. . . . With so many similarities before us, it is tempting to conclude that Joseph Smith contrived his narrative from the biblical elements in nineteenth-century American culture and leave it at that. But the problems of interpretation are not so easily dismissed. Biblical patterns work differently in the Book of Mormon than in the culture at large. . . . It is particularly misleading when so many of the powerful intellectual influences operating on Joseph Smith failed to touch the Book of Mormon, among them the most common American attitudes toward a revolution, monarchy, and the limitations on power. The Book of Mormon is not a conventional American book. Too much Americana is missing. Understanding the work requires a more complex and sensitive analysis than has been afforded it. Historians will take a long step forward when they free themselves from the compulsion to connect all they find with Joseph Smith’s America and try instead to understand the ancient patterns deep in the grain of the book.[43]

At this point, the reader may wonder how this all fits into a study of the Book of Moses. Our present discussion attempts to call attention to the visible pattern of Joseph Smith functioning as the translator of ancient texts, as he claimed to be. We see this pattern in his translation of the Book of Mormon and his subsequent translation of the Book of Abraham. Throughout Joseph’s translation of the Bible, including the Book of Moses, the Lord revealed not only the content of those ancient texts and revelations but also other ancient truths associated with them. Again, although Joseph Smith did not seem to directly translate from ancient manuscripts or documents in relation to what became our canonical Book of Moses, his translated text nonetheless evidences ancient sources and threads (including the content that parallels the book of Genesis). The same is true of the ancient settings and historical context found within each of these ancient works.[44]

Vis-à-vis the naturalistic suppositions of a nineteenth-century origin for the Book of Mormon, numerous studies have highlighted its ancient Semitic structure.[45] Several studies have attempted to demonstrate that the ancient scripture Joseph Smith translated and recorded reflects ancient Semitic linguistic characteristics.[46] Studies comparing the Joseph Smith Translation of the New Testament with Latin translations of the Greek New Testament textual witnesses have concluded that the types of changes that are witnessed in the Joseph Smith Translation “contain a significant number of readings that smooth out ambiguities of the primary tradition (Greek), clarify verb tenses (particularly in copular constructions), clarify the relationships between subordinate and insubordinate clauses, and insert similar phrases and terms into the Greek text in a number of instances.”[47] Importantly, insertions found in Joseph Smith’s New Testament translation “may represent the preservation of original readings. . . . That may, in fact, signal that a significant percentage of the text may preserve original readings.”[48] Thus at times the language of Joseph’s various revelations and translations of ancient texts does not appear to reflect English as the primary source.[49] Because Joseph Smith lacked a formal education, struggled to write basic English language constructions, and wondered if ancient Jerusalem had walls, attributing the composition of his revelatory texts to him seems overly dismissive of their evident antiquity.

The linguistic data in Joseph’s revelatory texts are additionally remarkable since he did not pursue an academic study of ancient languages until after his translation endeavors concluded, with the clear exception of the Book of Abraham, which he translated beginning in 1835. Although Joseph translated texts from various forms of Egyptian (the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham), it remains unclear how much he actually knew in terms of what might be termed the “philological nuances” of the language.[50] Similar to the Book of Mormon’s translation from ancient plates, the Book of Abraham would also be translated from a tangible source—ancient papyri containing scripture.[51] The papyri from which Joseph translated the book also contained other scripture, namely the ancient writings of Joseph and Enoch.[52] The manner in which the Book of Abraham was obtained was also miraculous. For one thing, the purchase of the ancient papyri came as a result of God’s preservation of the ancient writings so they could come forth in modern times for the benefit of his children. Further, through revelation Joseph was able to translate a portion these ancient writings as requested by Michael Chandler, who explained that others could not translate them and from whom Joseph received a certificate of decipherment.[53] John Whitmer’s history offers this perspective:

About the first of July 1835 there came a man having four Egyptian Mummies exhibiting them for curiosities, which was a wonder indeed! having also some r[e]cords connected with them which were found deposited with the Mummies, but there being no one skilled in the Egyptian language therefore could not translate the record, after this [e]xhibition Joseph the Seer saw these Record[s] and by the revelation of Jesus Christ could translate these records, which gavee an account of our forefathers, even Abraham Much of which was written by Joseph of Egypt who was sold by his brethren. Which when all translated will be a pleasing history and of great value to the saints.[54]

When all that has been discovered concerning the ancient origins and languages of the revealed texts is taken into consideration, it becomes much more difficult to believe that Joseph could be the author of them. And though the language of his day is present as a footprint of his involvement in the translation of those texts, the other characteristics of nineteenth-century compositions are absent or negligible. The evidence of antiquity abounds. The experiential evidence of those who witnessed the miraculous translation of these ancient writings and attested to their authenticity also makes it difficult to dismiss them as modern productions.[55]

At every stage, Joseph’s work indicates that he was the vehicle through which the Lord revealed ancient scripture. Moreover, as historian David Holland points out,

As far as Joseph Smith claimed and his followers believed, he simply conveyed what was given. This professed practice of absenting himself from the historical process is all the more striking given what we know about Joseph Smith’s personality. . . . His voice could be equivalent to the voice of God. And yet, when providing ancient documents, he typically silences himself in the process of historical recovery. . . . He provides documents, not synthesis.[56]

Yet, rather than being inoperative throughout the translation process, Joseph Smith was fully engaged in it. The Lord revealed ancient scripture to him and empowered him to translate it; nevertheless, the responsibility for helping these productions reach their final canonical form that we are familiar with today was largely left up to Joseph. He “was the medium for other men’s records.”[57] Holland further observes, “The fact that his authorial presence is ostensibly absent from these historical fragments—that he offered no concerted effort at synthesis—conveys the sense that the grandeur of God’s earthly drama would only fully be conveyed through the chorus of many historical voices, not its distillation into one. His was a prophethood of primary sources.”[58] Returning to revelation as the fundamental driving force behind Joseph’s prophethood, including his translation efforts, Bushman writes:

To me, that is Joseph Smith’s significance for our time. He stood on the contested ground where the Enlightenment and Christianity confronted one another, and his life posed the question, Do you believe God speaks? Joseph was swept aside, of course, in the rush of ensuing intellectual battles and was disregarded by the champions of both great systems, but his mission was to hold out for the reality of divine revelation and establish one small outpost where that principle survived. Joseph’s revelatory principle is not a single revelation serving for all time, as the Christians of his day believed regarding the incarnation of Christ, nor a mild sort of inspiration seeping into the minds of all good people, but specific, ongoing directions from God to his people. At a time when the origins of Christianity were under assault by the forces of Enlightenment rationality, Joseph Smith returned modern Christianity to its origins in revelation.[59]

The very concept of restoration is embodied in the gathering in one[60] of eclectic scriptural sources from past dispensations. This work is part of the “dispensation of the fulness of times”[61] in which Joseph saw himself playing an essential part.[62]

Joseph Smith’s Approach to Antiquity and Ancient Languages

The Prophet Joseph Smith was so committed to understanding the ancient scripture he had brought forth that later in his life he expended significant time and energy attempting to learn the relevant ancient and modern languages.[63] In doing so he undertook an academic approach to the scriptures.[64] A revelation from the Lord on May 6, 1833, that included a restored fragment from “the fulness of the record of John” and held forth the promise of more to come (Doctrine and Covenants 93:18) commanded Joseph to “translate my scriptures, and to obtain a knowledge of history, and of countries, and of kingdoms, of laws of God and man, and all this for the salvation of Zion” (v. 53).[65] Building on these revelations, by November 1835 Joseph had acquired Hebrew books and begun a study of the language, perhaps motivated by the recent acquisition of the mummies and papyri associated with the Book of Abraham.[66] The past thus connected to the present through the revelations and revealed texts. “Joseph Smith’s interest in ancient languages was tantamount to an interest in ancient history. He was fascinated by the deep past. He studied languages because they led him to antiquity.”[67]

In the fall of 1835, it was decided that Hebrew would become part of the curriculum in the School of the Prophets, and by the winter of 1836 local Hebrew instructors had been hired for course instruction.[68] Not only did the students commence a more academic approach to the study of the Bible, but their studies provided crucial spiritual preparation for their future service in the kingdom, as a journal entry by the Prophet Joseph Smith makes clear:

Tuesday the 19th. Spent the day at school. The Lord blessed us in our studies. This day we commenced reading in our Hebrew Bibles with much success. It seems as if the Lord opens our minds in a marvellous manner to understand his word in the original language; and my prayer is that God will speedily endue us with a knowledge of all languages and tongues, that his servants may go forth for the last time to bind up the law and seal up the testimony.[69]

Joseph’s eagerness to learn and engage with ancient texts and translations throughout his life evidences his confidence in the ancient character of the texts he translated. In other words, his behavior, in its own way, constituted evidence for the antiquity of the texts he always asserted they possessed.

That Joseph Smith’s personal absence in the production of ancient history ran counter to his own personal inclinations is suggested in his recurring effort to educate himself in the skills—particularly the philological faculties—necessary to pursue more-traditional forms of scholarly inquiry into ancient sources, the sorts of inquiry in which his role as scholarly historian would necessarily have been more present and influential in the actual words on the page.[70]

Joseph, ever the translator, was not producing purported ancient texts; he was translating them. He spent his life trying to better understand from an academic perspective what had already been revealed to him by divine means.

Later throughout the Nauvoo period, Joseph would often employ in his sermons insights gained in his study of Hebrew.[71] The overall engagement with ancient scripture, texts, and antiquity would eventuate in spiritual experiences preparatory to receiving temple ritual. Matthew Grey describes the overall influence of that process:

In Nauvoo, Joseph used Hebrew as a way to bind his community in fellowship with the ancient Saints. This effort had already begun in Kirtland, as the Mormons’ Hebrew studies in the spring of 1836 helped facilitate their visionary experiences, accompanied their performance of biblical anointing rituals, and prepared them for the Kirtland Temple dedication. In Nauvoo—a city named with the Hebrew word for “beautiful place”—Joseph assigned Hebrew code names to individuals in letters of recommendation, newspaper editorials, and printed revelations. By naming Church headquarters and leaders with Hebrew terms, Joseph showed his ongoing desire to affiliate his community with the sacred past. Furthermore, in 1842 Joseph incorporated Hebrew into the rituals of his “Quorum of the Anointed,” a select group of associates Joseph initiated into ceremonies that were the precursor to the Nauvoo temple endowment. By using Hebrew names (such as Joseph’s own, Baurak Ale) for members of the quorum, Hebrew concepts (such as the plurality of gods) for the quorum’s ritual drama, and transliterated Hebrew for the quorum’s prayer liturgies, Joseph sought to revive the “Ancient order of things for the first time in these last days.”[72]

Joseph’s use of Hebrew highlighted his desires to understand—and help others understand—the revelations the Lord had given him, revelations that had more than once resulted in the reception and translation of ancient sacred texts. When we consider all that the Prophet Joseph Smith attempted to learn through his academic pursuits in his later years, it is clear that he felt the study of ancient languages was important. Yet he never lost sight of the priority of the revelations he received. Concerning the linguistic evidence Joseph gained in his studies, John Welch noted that

[Joseph] saw this sort of evidence as “circumstantial evidence,” which can combine with faith, because both are products of collecting experiential data attractive to the mind through choices arising from values and beliefs. Joseph did not so much think that ancient languages could reveal important secrets; rather, he thought that ancient languages could confirm his previous revelations of true doctrines. . . . Throughout Joseph’s life, revelation came first. For him, all else, including insights from the Greek, Hebrew, or Latin, were merely enlightening appendages or footnotes.[73]

The Prophesied Prophet

In addition to the foregoing discussion of how Joseph Smith differed from other visionaries of the day, especially in his prodigious output of revealed texts that aided in restoring the Lord’s church, there remains another crucial item that sets him apart from his contemporaries: he was the prophesied prophet. Revealed texts, the voices of ancient and modern prophets, the voice of the Lord himself—all witness to Joseph Smith’s foreseen role in bringing forth the Restoration under the hand of God, including ancient scripture.[74]

Joseph Smith the seer ushered in the dispensation of the fullness of times. His role was known and prophesied of anciently. The Lord promised Joseph of Egypt that in the last days a “choice seer” would come through his lineage and would bring his seed to a knowledge of the covenants made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (2 Nephi 3:7; JST Gen. 50:27–28). “That seer will the Lord bless,” Joseph prophesied, specifically indicating that “his name shall be called after me” (2 Nephi 3:14–15; see also JST Gen. 50:33). Significantly, in the revelation received during the organizational meeting of the Church on April 6, 1830, the first title given to the first elder was that of seer: “Behold, there shall be a record kept . . . and in it thou [Joseph Smith] shalt be called a seer, a translator, a prophet, an apostle of Jesus Christ” (D&C 21:1).[75]

With its voice from antiquity, Mormon 8:16 adds: “And blessed be he that shall bring [these records] to light; for it shall be brought out of darkness unto light, according to the word of God; yea, it shall be brought out of the earth, and it shall shine forth out of darkness, and come unto the knowledge of the people; and it shall be done by the power of God.” Brigham Young explained the depth of this concept:

It was decreed in the counsels of eternity, long before the foundations of the earth were laid, that he, Joseph Smith, should be the man, in the last dispensation of this world, to bring forth the word of God to the people, and receive the fulness of the keys and power of the Priesthood of the Son of God. The Lord had his eyes upon him, and upon his father, and upon his father’s father, and upon their progenitors clear back to Abraham, and from Abraham to the flood, from the flood to Enoch, and from Enoch to Adam. He has watched that family . . . from its foundation to the birth of that man. He was foreordained in eternity to preside over this last dispensation.[76]

When we consider all that Joseph claimed regarding the ancient texts he translated, and all the Lord’s revelations that affirmed their truth, we are left to conclude that either these texts are ancient and these prophecies happened anciently or they are not and did not. No matter how hard one might try to explain away the texts as reflecting modern composition, when all is said and done, there is no in-between. The authoritative revelations and revealed texts that attest to the prophetic mission of Joseph Smith make him a prophet unmatched—a peerless seer. The revealed texts may show signs of Joseph’s hand, but they are not his. Joseph was the foretold prophet of the Restoration, a role that drew him into the realm of translating ancient scripture. Thankfully, we now have these records from the Lord himself, who watched over the work of translation until it was complete. The clarity resulting from the extensive translation processes that engaged Joseph and so many scribes is fittingly summarized by Brigham Young:

[Joseph Smith] took heaven, figuratively speaking, and brought it down to earth; and he took the earth, brought it up, and opened up, in plainness and simplicity, the things of God; and that is the beauty of his mission. I had a testimony, long before that, that he was a Prophet of the Lord, and that was consoling. Did not Joseph do the same to your understandings? Would he not take the Scriptures and make them so plain and simple that everybody could understand? Every person says, “Yes, it is admirable; it unites the heavens and the earth together,” and as for time, it is nothing, only to teach us how to live in eternity.[77]

Revelation empowered Joseph Smith’s translation of ancient texts and revelations. The accompanying restoration of the gospel and organization of the Lord’s church were not (and are not) modern contrivances. Rather, they represent the work of God dating back to the beginning of recorded time. Today we can witness the restored gospel and Church of Jesus Christ as the fruition and realization of what had been prophesied from the time of Adam, the Ancient of Days (see Moses 5:57–59; 6:5–8; Doctrine and Covenants 138:38). The following chapters highlight how the revealed texts and revelations, along with the experiences of ancient prophets contained in ancient scripture such as the Book of Moses, affected the development of Lord’s restored church in this dispensation.[78]


[1] Distinctions have been made between the receipt of divine revelation and the revelation texts resulting from it. See Underwood, “Revelation, Text, and Revision,” 67. The voice of the revelator inevitably surfaces within the revealed text. The revelation must be articulated into the language of the revelator when specifics are not given within the revelation according to exact language. See Millet, “Book of Mormon, Historicity, and Faith,” 5; Bradshaw, “Sorting Out the Sources in Scripture,” 215–72; and Barlow, Mormons and the Bible, 23. For the translation process of the Book of Mormon, see MacKay and Dirkmaat, Darkness unto Light, 61–140; and Mackay and Dirkmaat, “Firsthand Witness Accounts,” 61–79. For the process of transcribing modern revelation in the Book of Commandments and Revelations, as well as in the Doctrine and Covenants, see Underwood, “Revelation, Text, and Revision”; Matthews, “A Plainer Translation,” 215; Dirkmaat, “Great and Marvelous,” 56–57; and Barlow, Mormons and the Bible, 21–26. For translation of the Book of Abraham, see Gee, Introduction to the Book of Abraham; Gee, Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri; and Muhlestein and Hansen, “Book of Abraham’s Translation Chronology,” 139–62.

[2] When the Church was organized on April 6, 1830, the Lord used these titles as descriptive terms of Joseph Smith’s ministry and mantle: “thou shalt be called a seer & Translator & Prop[h]et an Apostle of Jesus Christ an Elder of the Church through the will of God the Father & the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ being inspired of the Holy Ghost to lay the foundation thereof & to build it up unto the most holy faith.” Revelation, 6 April 1830 [D&C 21], p. 28, The Joseph Smith Papers. “Two revelations within the Church’s first year clarified that beside Joseph Smith ‘there is none other appointed unto [the church] to receive commandments and revelations’ (D&C 43:3).” Underwood, “‘Same’ Organization,” 167–86. See “Joseph Smith as Revelator and Translator,”

[3] For the implications and inferences that Joseph engaged in such compositional endeavors in some measure, see Wayment, “Intertextuality,” 74–100; and Frederick, Rhetoric of Allusivity. See also Tucker, “Review of Rhetoric of Allusivity,” 198–201. The discussion that follows in this chapter reflects our disagreement with the conclusions reached by these authors and argues in favor of the historicity of the ancient scripture under discussion.

[4] Brown, Joseph Smith’s Translation, 18.

[5] Bushman, Beginnings of Mormonism, 187–88. When speaking of accepting the historicity of the ancient texts received and translated within the Restoration, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland declared: “One has to take a do-or-die stand regarding the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the divine origins of the Book of Mormon. Reason and righteousness require it. Joseph Smith must be accepted either as a prophet of God or else as a charlatan of the first order, but no one should tolerate any ludicrous, even laughable middle ground about the wonderful contours of a young boy’s imagination or his remarkable facility for turning a literary phrase. That is an unacceptable position to take––morally, literarily, historically, or theologically.” Holland, Christ and the New Covenant, 345–46. See discussion in Smoot, “Imperative for a Historical Book of Mormon.”

[6] It should be recognized that although not all the revelations Joseph recorded were from ancient texts (see Matthews, “Plainer Translation,” 255–56), in many instances he stated they were (e.g., the Book of Mormon). Some questions remain as to whether all the revelations recorded in the Book of Moses or the Book of Abraham were translated from ancient texts. Indeed, some of that material seems to constitute a restoration of ancient concepts, teachings, ideas, and historical events received by means of revelation rather than through an ancient textual source. See, for example, Bradshaw, “Sorting Out the Sources in Scripture,” 264–68; Matthews, “Plainer Translation,” 246–47; and Welch and Abhau, “Priestly Interests of Moses the Levite.” “Etymologically, oral scripture is an oxymoron and written scripture a redundancy. The intended meaning of scripture here is its broader sense of inspired, authoritative ‘word(s) of God.’ Noting the separate, oral dimension is important in this context because it further demonstrates the primacy, for Joseph Smith, not of the Bible in particular, but revelation in general.” Barlow, Mormons and the Bible, 69.

[7] History, 1838–1856, volume B-1 [1 September 1834–2 November 1838], p. 596, The Joseph Smith Papers. The same can be said of the Book of Mormon, of which Joseph (and the Lord) repeatedly stated it was a translation from anciently inscribed plates and records. In fact, at times Joseph would explicitly state this in specific portions of the text, where there may have been some question (see, e.g., preface to 1 Nephi 1).

[8] See Barlow, Mormons and the Bible, 23–26. Ancient scripture in general shows signs of internal editing (meaning the work of subsequent prophets, scribes, or redactors in their compiling of the texts), be it the Old and New Testaments or the Book of Mormon. See Seely, “Latter-day Saints and Historical Biblical Criticism,” 79. Phrases in the Book of Mormon suggest that Mormon and Moroni also conducted editorial work throughout. Even editor’s notes can be found across the stories. See, e,g., MacKay, “Mormon as Editor,” 90–109. McKay observes that “in the Book of Mormon, we have a range of introductory and inserted notations: names of authors for records, speeches, and epistles that are quoted or abridged—imbedded source indicators; genealogical or other authenticating information about the authors; and brief or extended summaries of contents, including subheaders for complex inserts or documents. Nephi himself is in this tradition, a tradition that seems to be evident in what we have from Lehi, too, for he cites prophets from the brass plates. Heir to this literary tradition, Mormon develops it, and he assiduously presents to his readers source documents and texts while retaining a unity of narrative flow by his historical account. Thus, even while transcribing a record, Mormon may paraphrase or summarize and then return to a first-person quotation. The resultant text is clearly the product of a superb ancient historian concerned about naming and adhering to his sources while presenting an edited account that exhibits his own philosophy and purpose” (108).

[9] See Gardner, “Ancient Making of a Modern Scripture,” 1–46. Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 35 (2020) is devoted to the subject. Despite modern language or that of the King James Version that may show up in the revelations and translations, “Joseph’s prophetic writings [are] grounded in artifactual reality, not the world of psychic meanderings. It is hard to allegorize—and profoundly presumptuous to edit down—a sacred record that purports to be a transcription of tangible records hand-delivered by an angel.” Givens, By the Hand of Mormon, 80. “In a particularly pronounced way, the meaning and value of the Book of Mormon as a religious text are tied to a specific set of historical claims.” Givens, “Foreword,” xiv. See Jensen, “Manuscript Revelation Book,” 7–11.

[10] For discussion of this term, see note 1 in chapter 3 herein.

[11] For Joseph Smith’s grappling with and attempts to sort through the religious and doctrinal disunity of his day, see Joseph Smith—History 1:5–13. The various primary accounts of these events display nuanced details adapted to the different audiences being addressed. See the numerous resources provided at See also Harper, Joseph Smith’s First Vision.

[12] See Barlow, Mormons and the Bible, 1–10. For more information regarding the religious conceptions of Joseph’s day, see “Christian Churches in Joseph Smith’s Day,” Church History Topics; and “Religious Beliefs in Joseph Smith’s Day,” Church History Topics. Many Protestants viewed the Bible as the sole authority on doctrine and as infallible. Although interpretations of biblical passages diverged greatly, few questioned the Bible’s authority. See “Religious Beliefs in Joseph Smith’s Day,” Church History Topics. Doctrinal and interpretative debates “spurred Joseph Smith toward many of his most glorious revelations. Latter-day Saint scripture abounds in revealed answers to questions regarding the authority of the Bible, the nature of the Godhead, the fate of the human soul, the necessity and form of baptism, the authority of the priesthood, and the workings of the Holy Spirit. These modern revelations outline a system of doctrines and sacred ordinances distinct from those found in the culture surrounding the first Latter-day Saints.” “Religious Beliefs in Joseph Smith’s Day.” For Joseph Smith, revelation from the Lord was the authority. “What most separated Church members’ understanding and interpretation of the Bible from their Protestant contemporaries was [the former’s] emphasis on acquiring knowledge through revelation in addition to scripture (the Bible was not seen as the final authority but as a springboard to revelations from God.” Easton-Flake, “Biblical Use and Interpretation,” 9.

[13] See, e.g., Holland, “American Visionaries,” 23–60. Bushman, in “Visionary World of Joseph Smith,” 183–204, cites dozens of tracts about personal vision experiences circulating between 1783 and1815. On a more global scale, “recent scholarship has documented an astonishingly rich presence of prophets and prophetic religion along the periphery of Anglo-American Christianity in the century before Smith. Historian Susan Juster has identified more than three hundred ‘prophets’ who raised their voices and recorded their visions during this period . . . of religious “restoration,” which . . . places him [Joseph Smith] in a long line of biblical primitivists in many countries committed to reclaiming the ancient faith and reforming their churches to match the scriptural pattern.” Underwood, “Attempting to Situate Joseph Smith,” 42–43. It is clear that this period was one seeking biblical restoration.

[14] Bushman, “Visionary World of Joseph Smith,” 193, 196–97. Many studies focus on the similarities of Joseph with other religious reforms and reformers and conclude that he is one of many such people, but “sometimes similarities can be so imaginative, they are imaginary.” Underwood, “Attempting to Situate Joseph Smith,” 48. “For a movement that purportedly incorporated so many elements from the surrounding culture, Mormonism found itself at odds with that culture over and over again.” Bushman, “Joseph Smith for the Twenty-First Century,” 164. Despite any modern interference or similarities extant in Joseph Smith’s revelatory and contemporary experiences, the differences highlight the story of the Restoration.

[15] Holland, “American Visionaries,” 46–47. See Flake, “Translating Time,” 507–8; and Underwood, “Revelation, Text, and Revision,” 76–81, 83–84.

[16] “Joseph noted in his history that at the November 1831 conference in Kirtland where publication was approved ‘some conversation was had concerning revelations and language.’ This was the occasion when William E. McLellin, apparently the leading critic of the language, was challenged to make a revelation himself, and failed. Joseph said the Elders at the conference all watched while McLellin made ‘this vain attempt of a man to imitate the language of Jesus Christ,’ noting that ‘it was an awful responsibility to write in the name of the Lord.’” Bushman, “Narrow Prison of Language,” 90.

[17] See Doctrine and Covenants 67 and discussion in Bushman, “Narrow Prison of Language,” 92–93. “In 1832 Smith wrote to Phelps, ‘Oh Lord God deliver us in thy due time from the little narrow prison almost as it were totel darkness of paper pen and ink and a crooked broken scattered and imperfect language.’ . . . He (Joseph) often complained of feeling self-conscious about how poorly his writing measured up to the educated elite of his age.” Brown, Joseph Smith’s Translation, 34–35. For a discussion of some who, at a November 1831 conference, questioned the “imperfections” in some of Joseph Smith’s revelations and the Lord’s response that he reveals to his “Servents in their weakness after the manner of their Language,” see Revelation, 1 November 1831 [D&C 1], p. 126; also Revelation, circa 2 November 1831 [D&C 67], p. 115, The Joseph Smith Papers.

[18] Bushman, “Narrow Prison of Language,” 91. Regarding the normal sequence of experiential writings of the great literary works produced by authors of the day, many possessed earlier experience with their craft: “We find none of that runup to Joseph Smith’s literary productions. At most we have Lucy Smith’s report on a few weeks of storytelling in the fall of 1823 when Joseph amused the family with tales about ancient America. None of the neighbors who later reported on the Smith family character mentioned Joseph’s writing or religious speech. In fact, they gave no explanation for the Book of Mormon and the early revelations at all. Like the Book of Mormon, the revelations came out of the blue.” Bushman, “Narrow Prison of Language,” 103. “With regard to the Book of Mormon, Bushman points out that there was no precedent for Joseph’s role as unlearned translator of an ancient record other than the account provided in the book itself of the translator-seer King Mosiah. This is certainly true for the world Smith knew.” Underwood, “Attempting to Situate Joseph Smith,” 45–46. Joseph Smith’s wife, Emma, was astounded at the texts coming forth through her husband, as (in her words) Joseph “could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter, let alone dictat[e] a book like the Book of Mormon.” “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” 290.

[19] Translation ultimately derives from the supine stem of the Latin verb transferō (“transport/convey/transfer/shift; transpose; carry/bring across/over” Whitaker, Dictionary of Latin Forms, s.v. “transferō.”

[20] For Emma Smith’s account of this incident, see Briggs, “Visit to Nauvoo in 1856,” transcribed in Welch and Carlson, Opening the Heavens, 129.

[21] Attributing the ancient translation of the Book of Mormon to inspired fiction or to a modern composition rooted in inspiration and authored by Joseph Smith is problematic. Some commentators prefer not to deal with the issue and desire, as Jeffrey Tucker puts it, to “‘get past the questions of translation’ and simply focus on the text itself. Yet, given the claimed supernatural origin of LDS scripture, some may find that separating the text from Joseph Smith’s translation process is, at best, impossible, and, at worst, deleterious to the exegetical process.” Tucker, “Review of Rhetoric of Allusivity,” 200. If the texts Joseph Smith recovered are not accepted as ancient, when the revelations and descriptions by God and the prophets attest that they are, then any modern composition, even if guided by inspiration, cannot accomplish all that these texts claim to be. “Relegating the Book of Mormon to inspired parable or morally uplifting allegory presents serious problems of logic. The book itself announces its historicity repeatedly. Can it really be true in any sense if it consistently misrepresents its origin? Joseph Smith also was consistent in maintaining that the book describes real events and real people. . . . Can these sources be relied on for anything if they unfailingly misrepresent the nature of the ‘keystone’ of the Latter-day Saint faith?” Jackson, “Historicity of the Book of Mormon,” 123. Further, “The book’s unambiguous account of its own construction, as well as the historically defined reciprocity between Joseph Smith’s own moral authority as a religious leader and the sacred status of the book inseparably wedded to his claims and career, admits of no simple divorce [between the Book of Mormon’s authenticity and its historicity].” Givens, “Foreword,” xiv. Moreover, some commentators note instances of patently modern language in Joseph Smith’s revelatory texts or, say, mentions of Christ before the New Testament era that seem to indicate Joseph Smith’s attempt to Christianize the texts. Such supposed anachronisms, they assume, are modern inventions by Joseph Smith. This stance misses the point by wresting the texts from their original contexts and overlooking the claim that the Lord himself, not Joseph Smith, was restoring lost truth in this revelatory work.

[22] See Ostler, “Modern Expansion of an Ancient Source,” 66–123. “Although Joseph made many minor grammatical corrections and modernized some language, he was less concerned with these technical improvements than he was with restoring, through revelation, important truths not included in the contemporary Bible. Historian Mark Lyman Staker characterized the translation as one of ‘ideas rather than language.’” Staker, Historical Setting of Joseph Smith’s Ohio Revelations, 313. “We must remember that Latter-day Saints actively use five books of scripture—the Old and New Testaments, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price—based on the KJV and Jacobean English, and thus the use of the King James Version can be an aid in recognizing the intertextuality of the various texts. If Latter-day Saints were to move to a more modern translation of the Bible, some of the linguistic connections between these five books would be lost.” Seely, “Latter-day Saints and Historical Biblical Criticism,” 73. For more on the nature of the changes Joseph Smith made in his translation of the Bible, see Faulring, Jackson, and Matthews, Joseph Smith’s New Translation of the Bible.

[23] Bushman, “Narrow Prison of Language,” 91–92. “We need not jump to interpretive extremes because the language found in the Book of Mormon (including that from the Isaiah sections or the Savior’s sermon in 3 Nephi) reflects Joseph Smith’s language. Well, of course it does! The Book of Mormon is translation literature: practically every word in the book is from the English language. For Joseph Smith to use the English language with which he and the people of his day were familiar in recording the translation is historically consistent. On the other hand, to create the doctrine (or to place it in the mouths of Lehi or Benjamin or Abinadi) is unacceptable. The latter is tantamount to deceit and misrepresentation; it is, as we have said, to claim that the doctrines and principles are of ancient date (which the record itself declares) when, in fact, they are a fabrication (albeit an ‘inspired’ fabrication) of a nineteenth-century man. I feel we have every reason to believe that the Book of Mormon came through Joseph Smith, not from him. Because certain theological matters were discussed in the nineteenth century does not preclude their revelation or discussion in antiquity.” Millet, “Book of Mormon, Historicity, and Faith,” 5. “Smith repeatedly rendered ancient texts—known and previously unknown, material and visionary—into American English, a process by which he overcame the constraints of language and time that otherwise separated ancient people from their modern heirs.” Brown, Joseph Smith’s Translation, 8–9.

[24] When speaking of the process of revelation to revealed texts in the Book of Commandments and Revelations, it has been described that Joseph is, “more than a mere human fax machine through whom God communicated revelation texts composed in heaven. Joseph had a role to play in the revelatory process. His associate Oliver Cowdery, after all, had earlier been corrected for assuming the revelatory process required no effort, for supposing that God would simply ‘give’ him the words without any thought on his part (LDS D&C 9:7–8/CoC D&C 9:3a–c). It seems more suitable to see the Prophet Joseph Smith as the extraordinarily gifted servant of the Lord that he was, who, in the words of contemporary Orson Pratt, received messages from God and then had to ‘clothe those ideas with such words as came to his mind.’ Elder John A. Widtsoe of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles wrote: ‘Seldom are divine revelations dictated to man. . . . Instead, ideas are impressed upon the mind of the recipient, who then delivers the ideas in his own language.’” Underwood, “Revelation, Text, and Revision,” 78. Similarly, Joseph was not “God’s stenographer. Rather, he was an interpreting reader, and God the confirming authority.” Flake, “Translating Time,” 507–8. This idea may seem to contradict modern concepts of translation and revelation, yet it highlights how Joseph was truly engaged in translating from one language (or at times in translating revelatory concepts) into English and that he had to articulate content and ideas from ancient texts he was translating during his inspired revision of the Bible. Some of that material was absent from existing editions of the Bible. The job of any translator is, like that of the Prophet Joseph Smith, to convey meaning outside the primary source in a way that accentuates and draws out the meaning of the text.

[25] See, e.g., Gardner, Gift and Power; Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon; and Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “Book of Mormon Translation.” See also Matthews, “Plainer Translation,” 39–40; and Grey, “Approaching Egyptian Papyri,” 390–451. The theories adduced in the last source do not always accord well with the ancient origins of the text and suggest a more modern origin in contrast to its ancient historicity.

[26] See, e.g., MacKay and Dirkmaat, Darkness unto Light, 126. On the evidence for the “tight control” model of Book of Mormon translation, see Skousen, “Evidence for Tight Control of the Text,” 22–31; and Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon,” 61–93. On the evidence for a “loose control” model of translation, see especially Gardner, Gift and Power. On the case for a “complex” translation process that is both “tight” and “loose” like a targum, see Barney, “More Responsible Critique,” 97–146.

[27] Jackson and Jasinski, in “Process of Inspired Translation,” 23, explain that in Joseph’s Bible translation he “does not generally seem to have conceived of his revelations as verbally exact dictations from God that he then recorded in secretarial fashion. More often, the language used is apparently his own attempt to convey the ideas of the revelations he experienced” (23). Flake, in “Translating Time,” 506, discusses the revelatory process of seeing visions of scriptural events and Joseph’s having to put those into words and written translations. Grey, in “Approaching Egyptian Papyri,” 390–451, highlights the arduous process of translation but tends to overemphasize and inflate academic contributions in lieu of crediting the revelatory process. His methodological approach additionally tends to undermine the historicity of the Book of Abraham as ancient scripture, offering a more modern association and attribution of the composition of the text.

[28] “The more probable barrier to academic interest in Smith’s writings is the purported otherworldliness of

their production. Golden plates, seer stones, Egyptian mummies, and a who’s who of biblical and nonbiblical angelic messengers have a decidedly chilling effect on scholars of American religion, except as a lens for psychological analysis. The manner in which confessional function and mystical production merge in LDS canon is a further deterrent. The question of Smith’s veracity as a prophet was, from the beginning, inseparable from his production of text.” Flake, “Translating Time,” 498. See Givens, By the Hand of Mormon, 84, 86–87. For an overview of Martin Harris’s interactions with Charles Anthon over the transcriptions and readings of the Egyptian characters, and the rejection thereof based on revelatory means, see MacKay and Dirkmaat, Darkness unto Light, 61–140; and MacKay, “Translating the Characters on the Gold Plates,” 83–116.

[29] Brown, Joseph Smith’s Translation, 5.

[30] For antebellum America’s permeation with biblicism, see Underwood, “Old Testament in the New Dispensation,” 169–72. A study of Church periodicals between 1832 and 1846 concludes that the Bible was cited almost twenty times more often than the Book of Mormon, highlighting early Church members’ engagement with KJV language and teachings. See Underwood, “Book of Mormon Usage,” 53.

[31] Barlow, Mormons and the Bible, 3.

[32] Barlow, Mormons and the Bible, 4.

[33] Barlow, Mormons and the Bible, 19.

[34] Barlow, Mormons and the Bible, 77.

[35] Bushman, “Narrow Prison of Language,” 96. Prophets speaking in the first person in the name of the Lord is common in Old Testament prophecy.

[36] Truth being restored by a God who continued to speak was a theme that “resonated strongly among the first generation of converts.” Dursteler, “Great Apostasy Narrative,” 24.

[37] Bushman, “Joseph Smith for the Twenty-First Century,” 166.

[38] Givens, “Rethinking Mormon Restoration,” 340. See discussion in Frederick and Spencer, “Remnant or Replacement?,” 105–27.

[39] Barlow, Mormons and the Bible, 51. As early Church members began grappling with the rise of higher criticism in scripture interpretation, including its discounting of the role of revelation and the continuation of God’s voice in modern times, their own tradition afforded a refreshing corrective. The restored Church’s emphasis on revelation and scripture, as well as its openness to the Bible’s “mistakes of translation and transmission” and to confirmatory insights from science and history, “appealed to both revelatory and empirical longings,” answering questions arising in higher criticism and bridging the gap it had created between traditional and modern views of the authority and meaning of scripture. Easton-Flake, “Biblical Use and Interpretation,” 9. Compare Harper, “Infallible Proofs,” 104–6, 110–12; and Barlow, Mormons and the Bible, 46–47.

[40] See Bushman, “Narrow Prison of Language,” 92. Orson Pratt also described Joseph’s limited exposure to the Bible as a youth; see Journal of Discourses 21:169–70. Joseph’s limited exposure to the Bible does not mean he was ignorant of it, nor that he did not read or study it; see Barlow, Mormons and the Bible, 12–13. However, the credit sometimes attributed to Joseph as the youthful but creative author of the revealed texts seems to far exceed his reality and experience with the Bible, especially given the timing of the publication of the Book of Mormon, along with any KJV language found therein. Although Joseph was familiar with the Bible, he does not seem to have been familiar enough with it to produce such translations and revelations on his own wherein they feature KJV usage so prominently. Skousen, in “Textual Variants in the Isaiah Quotations,” 369–71, lists ninety-six references to Isaiah in the Book of Mormon and some fifty Old Testament references in 3 Nephi alone.

[41] Bushman, “Book of Mormon and the American Revolution,” 18, 20.

[42] Prominent examples are Brodie, No Man Knows My History, and Campbell, Delusions, 13.

[43] Bushman, “Book of Mormon and the American Revolution,” 189–212. “Joseph Smith’s work clearly illustrates this elementary point in the extent to which he claims to translate from documentary sources, and his followers rely on these claims for their sense of the historicity of his work.” Flake, “Translating Time,” 501.

[44] See Jackson, Restored Gospel and the Book of Genesis, 63–64; Matthews, “Plainer Translation,” 252.

[45] See most recently Parry, Preserved in Translation; and Reynolds, “Chiastic Structuring,” 177–192. See also Tvedtnes, “Hebraisms”; Bushman, “Book of Mormon and the American Revolution,” 189–212 (esp. n. 28); Welch, “Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon”; Nibley, Approach to the Book of Mormon; Nibley, Since Cumorah; Nibley, Lehi in the Desert; and Welch, “Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon” (New Era).

[46] See, e.g., Tvedtnes, “Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon,” 50–60; Tvedtnes, “Is the Writing Characteristic of the Hebrew Language?,” 64–66; Tvedtnes, “Hebrew Background of the Book of Mormon,” 77–91; Parry, “Hebraisms,” 155–89; Bowen, Name as Key-Word; and Stubbs, “Book of Mormon Language.”

[47] Wayment, “Quest for Origins,” 84.

[48] Wayment, “Quest for Origins,” 85.

[49] See Barlow, Mormons and the Bible, 31.

[50] At that time, Egyptology was a nascent discipline and no one on the planet understood the language well or beyond a rudimentary level. Joseph translated Egyptian by “the gift and power of God” (Book of Mormon title page); however, there is some indication that he eventually came to possess “some effective knowledge of ancient Egyptian.” Gee, “Joseph Smith and Ancient Egypt,” 443. In any event, Joseph’s ability to translate from ancient Egyptian is even more remarkable given what was known of the language in the 1820s and 1830s. See Gee, “Joseph Smith and Ancient Egypt,” 434–37. For the complex story of deciphering the language of the Book of Mormon plates, see MacKay, “Translating the Characters on the Gold Plates,” 83–116.

[51] See Gee, “Book of Abraham, I Presume,” Introduction to the Book of Abraham, and Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri. Whether or not the Book of Abraham was translated from ancient papyri has been debated. However, several historical accounts suggest that the translations hailed from ancient texts. In July 1835, just a few days after Joseph acquired the papyri, he stated that “one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham; another the writings of Joseph of Egypt.” See Smith, History, 1838–1856, volume B-1 [1 September 1834–2 November 1838], p. 596, The Joseph Smith Papers). In the fall of 1835, Joseph prophesied that his new scribe Warren Parrish would “<see> great things shew forth themselves unto my people, he shall see much of my ancient records, and shall know of hid[0]en things, and shall be endowed with a knowledge of hid[0]en languages, and if he desires and shall seek it at my hand, he shall be privileged with writing much of my word, as a scribe unto me for the benefit of my people.” Smith, Journal, 1835–1836, p. 36, The Joseph Smith Papers. Warren Parish, who would assist Joseph in recording the translation of the Book of Abraham, stated on February 5, 1838, “I have set by his side and penned down the translation of the Egyptian Hieroglyphicks as he claimed to receive it by direct inspiration of Heaven.” Warren Parrish, Letter to the editor, Painesville Republican, 15 February 1838, [3], cited in “Introduction to Book of Abraham Manuscripts, circa July–circa November 1835,” The Joseph Smith Papers. During a sermon, Joseph Smith reported the content of Abraham 3 as deriving from the papyrus still in his house. See Discourse, 16 June 1844–A, as Reported by Thomas Bullock, p. 3, The Joseph Smith Papers. Wilford Woodruff, in Kenney, Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, February 19, 1842, and Parley P. Pratt, in “Editorial Remarks,” The Latter Day Saints’ Millennial Star 3 (July 3, 1842): 46, seem to affirm that the Book of Abraham derived from ancient papyri, and there was even talk of displaying the Book of Abraham papyri and their translations in a type of museum designed to display “ancient records” within the Nauvoo Temple. See McBride, House for the Most High, 2–3; and Doctrine and Covenants 124:26, which reports a January 1841 revelation urging the Saints to build the temple and to “come ye . . . with all your antiquities.”

[52] See Gee, “Joseph Smith and Ancient Egypt,” 427–48.

[53] See Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate 2, no. 3 (December 1835): 234–36. Of course, Chandler could not authenticate or verify the content of Joseph’s translation, but only provide a certificate confirming that Joseph had provided a translation. Joseph would explain the specifics of the papyri’s content once he immersed himself in the work of translation.

[54] John Whitmer, History, 1831–circa 1847, p. 76, The Joseph Smith Papers.

[55] For the exchanges with scholars of the day such as Samuel Mitchill and Charles Anthon, see Bennett, “Martin Harris’s 1828 Visit,” 103–15; MacKay, “Translating the Characters on Gold Plates,” 83–116; and MacKay and Dirkmaat, Darkness unto Light, 1–24.

[56] Holland, “American Visionaries,” 48.

[57] Holland, “American Visionaries,” 49. See Flake, “Translating Time,” 501–3.

[58] Holland, “American Visionaries,” 50.

[59] Bushman, “Joseph Smith for the Twenty-First Century,” 168.

[60] Compare 2 Nephi 29:10–14.

[61] Ephesians 1:10.

[62] The Prophet Joseph Smith stated, “The dispensation of the fulness of times will bring to light the things that have been revealed in all former dispensations, also other things that have not been before revealed.” History, 1838–1856, volume C-1 [2 November 1838–31 July 1842], p. 1230, The Joseph Smith Papers. For the Restoration as a larger process versus being event based, see MacKay, “Event or Process?,” 73.

[63] For Joseph Smith’s knowledge of Greek and Latin, see Welch, “Joseph Smith’s Awareness of Greek and Latin,” 303–28. For Joseph Smith’s knowledge and study of Hebrew, see Grey, “Joseph Smith’s Study of Hebrew in Kirtland,” 249–302. Joseph also learned German and stated, “I have an old edition of the New Testament in the Latin, Hebrew, German and Greek languages. I have been reading the German, and find it to be the most correct translation, and to correspond nearest to the revelations which God has given to me for the last fourteen years.” History, 1838–1856, volume E-1 [1 July 1843–30 April 1844], p. 1972, The Joseph Smith Papers.

[64] See overview in Grey, “Approaching Egyptian Papyri,” 390–451, although we disagree with his late dating of the translation of portions of the Book of Abraham, which causes problems with several of his conclusions.

[65] When Doctrine and Covenants 90 was received in March 1833, it gave instruction on setting up a “school of the prophets” wherein participants would be taught both secular and religious topics. An earlier revelation in December 1832 had given instructions for the school’s course of study, which included “theory, principle, doctrine, and the law of the gospel,” “that all may be edified of all.” Revelation, 27–28 December 1832 [D&C 88], p. 41, The Joseph Smith Papers. See Doctrine and Covenants 88:1–126 and Waite, “School and an Endowment.”

[66] See Pike, “Recovering the World of the Bible,” 159–84. “While he dabbled in many languages, Joseph devoted himself most ardently to Hebrew and Egyptian, the two ancient languages most closely linked to his work.” Bushman, “Study of Antiquity,” 10.

[67] Bushman, “Study of Antiquity,” 3.

[68] See Grey, “Study of Hebrew in Kirtland,” 262–72.

[69] History, 1838–1856, volume B-1 [1 September 1834–2 November 1838], p. 693, The Joseph Smith Papers.

[70] Holland, “American Visionaries,” 49.

[71] Pupils from the Hebrew school such as Joseph Smith, Orson Hyde, Orson Pratt, and W. W. Phelps would eventually use their understanding of Hebrew to elucidate their teachings in sermons, and Joseph considered his use of Hebrew in his sermons as a source of inspiration in expounding the scriptures. Grey, “Joseph Smith’s Study of Hebrew in Kirtland,” 272–73. In the Nauvoo period Joseph used dozens upon dozens of Old Testament passages in his sermons and, when occasion permitted, would incorporate Hebrew terms and concepts in these discourses to clarify and solidify his doctrinal understanding of the passages. These sermons included teachings from Old Testament books such as Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Joshua, 1 Samuel, 1–2 Kings, 1 Chronicles, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Habakkuk, Zechariah, and Malachi. For an overview of the numerous Old Testament passages used in Joseph’s sermons during the Nauvoo period, see Ehat and Cook, Words of Joseph Smith, 421–22. Earlier in 1834, Oliver Cowdery’s interest in the Old Testament was manifested in a biblical commentary on the book of Zephaniah. See Cowdery, “Prophecy of Zephaniah,” 132–133 (February 1834), 140–42 (March 1834), 148–49 (April 1834).

[72] Grey, “Study of Hebrew in Kirtland,” 274–75.

[73] Welch, “Greek and Latin,” 322–23.

[74] Interestingly, Joseph’s grandfather Asael Smith had spiritual experiences indicating that his posterity would be instrumental in important religious reforms. See Smith, History, 1838–1856, volume B-1 [1 September 1834–2 November 1838] p. 5 [Addenda, Note R, 16 May 1836], The Joseph Smith Papers; and Discourses of Brigham Young, 166.

[75] Baugh, “Visions of Joseph Smith,” 23.

[76] Discourses of Brigham Young, 108.

[77] Discourses of Brigham Young, 458–59.

[78] Flake, in “Translating Time,” 500–1, explains, “These comments on Mormonism’s sense of time—or, more specifically, its sense of a history oriented to a future aeon—illustrate the way in which Smith’s narratives contribute to the capacity of the Latter-day Saints to constitute and reconstitute themselves and their church in the face of changing circumstances, including the recent international composition of its membership. . . . Smith’s narratives provide a world of meaning by which his believing readers understood and continue to understand themselves existentially in terms of a global future and not merely their American past.”