WHAT THE HELL DID JOSEPH MEAN BY TRANSLATION?

by Michael Barker

This post was provoked  by three things:

  1. The LDS Church’s recent statement on the Book of Mormon Translation (click here to read the statement).
  2. Dan Wotherspoon’s Mormon Matters episode where a panel discusses this most recent statment (click here to listen).
  3. The Engaging Gospel Doctrine podcast that looks at the Book of Abraham (click here to listen).
  4. Recently re-reading Article of Faith number eight

This essay is not an attempt to systematize the unique way in which Joseph Smith used the word translate, but more of an exploration of what he meant and hopefully a way to engage you, the reader, in your thoughts and insights.  I am interested in what you think;  really, I want to know.  This post will seem, at times, like it has very little cohesiveness.  The reason being, I am letting you into my messed up little brain and allowing you to see how disorganized things are as I try to work things out.  I am trying to form something out of chaos.  It’s my way of participating in a creation of some sort and I want you to participate with me please.

Having said that, the best hypothesis regarding the use of the word translation, will be the one that has the greatest explanatory power.  That is, the hypothesis with the most explanatory power is the hypothesis which makes the observable data more probable than it would have been otherwise. It has the power to explain the data.

A more thorough exploration of Joseph’s use of the word translate will be done in an upcoming post by guest-blogger Laura Clayton Furst;  so keep your eyes open for that.

SEER STONES

I don’t know when my father first told me that Joseph Smith had seer stones, but I don’t think he mentioned that they were used in the revealing of the Book of Mormon;  I know it was before my mission, but beyond that, I just don’t remember.  While on my mission, my parents sent me the three-volume series, Doctrines of Salvation, where Joseph Fielding Smith eronesously said:

“While the statement has been made by some writers that the Prophet Joseph Smith used a seer stone part of the time in his translating of the record, and information points to the fact that he did have in his possession such a stone, yet there is no authentic statement in the history of the Church which states that the use of such a stone was made in that translation. The information is all hearsay, and personally, I do not believe that this stone was used for this purpose. The reason I give for this conclusion is found in the statement of the Lord to the Brother of Jared as recorded in Ether3:22-24” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, Volume 3, pg. 226).

That was most likely when I first heard of any connection between Joseph’s seer stones (which he used for treasure digging) and the revelatory process through which the Book of Mormon came.  Since Joseph Fielding Smith stated that Joseph’s seer stones were not used for bringing forth the Book of Mormon, I gave it no further thought.

In 2008 I read Bushman’s, Rough Stone Rolling.  It was while reading Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith that I learned of the overwhelming evidence that Joseph did indeed use his treasure-seeking seer stones in the transmition of the Book of Mormon.  My view shifted without problem.   Michael Quinn’s, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View further solidified the bedrock of evidence that indeed the seerstone was used in God revealing the Book of Mormon to Joseph Smith.

It was somewhere around this time that I stopped using the verb translate and the noun translation when speaking about  how the Book of Mormon text was revealed.  Those words just seemed to carry too many assumptions along with them.  I just don’t know how one could call it a translation, if Joseph is not looking at a text, but instead, has his face buried in a hat looking at a seer stone. On LDS.org it states:

 “Apparently for convenience, Joseph often translated with the single seer stone rather than the two stones bound together to form the interpreters. These two instruments—the interpreters and the seer stone…According to these accounts, Joseph placed either the interpreters or the seer stone in a hat, pressed his face into the hat to block out extraneous light, and read aloud the English words that appeared on the instrument.”

This single stone eventually began to be called a “urim and thummim”, which just made a mess out of everything. For now it is hard to distinguish between the two different objects used in the revelatory process of the Book of Mormon. Here’s an interesting tid bit – although the Urim and Thummim are commonly viewed as part of the clothing that the Israelite priest would wear ( Exodus 28:30), the urim also seems to be some type of tool for receiving revelation.  1 Samuel 28:6 reads:

“And when Saul enquired of the LORD, the LORD answered him not, neither by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets.”

Instead (as you may have noticed from above) of using the words translate or translating,  I will say, “The revelation which we call the Book of Mormon,” or, “God revelealed the Book of Mormon,” etc.   It makes the sentence structure much more complicated and less clean for sure, but it doesn’t carry with it the assumptions that the word translate does.  The assumption of course being that there is a text that one is looking at and from which one is translating.  It usually assumes that the translator knows two languages.  Regarding the last assumption, I feel safe to say, that most Mormons reject it, as it pertains to Joseph Smith. For the active Mormon, one of the miracles of the Book of Mormon is the fact that Joseph Smith knew no ancient laguage.

This view of how the Book of Mormon came to be also allows for the anachronisms that occur in the Book of Mormon. I won’t go into what those are as it is not the point of this essay.

Now, when Joseph Smith used the word translate as it pertained to the Book of Mormon, I don’t get the sense that he meant it in any non-traditional sense of the word. Because of how I see the data, I came up with a word just the other day to explain how I see what Joseph was doing – revelatory-translation.

THE JOSEPH SMITH TRANSLATION OF THE BIBLE (JST)

Shortly after the Church was organized, Joseph began translating the text of the King Jame Bible (KJV).  It seems to be that he actually thought that he could get back to the original text and that he was getting back to the original form in which the Bible was first penned:

 “I believe the Bible as it read when it came from the pen of the original writers” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith [1976], 327).

 The other advantage of my “revelatory-translation”   is that it accommodates  what Joseph Smith did with his Bible redactions.

It  seems to me that Joseph indeed thought that he was getting close to the original text as he was editing the KJV, but bible scholarship doesn’t seem to support this view.  I’m not saying that in some cases, Joseph might not have gotten closer to what the intent of the original authors of the Bible were trying to get at, but there are problems (which I am not going to get into here) with the view that he was translating and that his translation was how the Bible originally came.  As you may have noticed, I used the word redacted when talking about Joseph Smith’s Translation.  Redacted is just a fancy word that means to edit.  I see Joseph acting as redactor.  He actually seems to be acting in much the same ways as the authors of Luke and Matthew did. Let me explain.

Most Bible scholars hold to the idea of  what is called Markean Priority.  That is, that Mark was the first gospel written of the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke).  What the authors of Luke and Matthew did was take what Mark had written, some of their own oral traditions, perhaps other manuscripts (such as the Q document), and did redactions. Both Luke and Matthew share much of the same material as Mark, but there are differnces and a Markean priority explains many of those differences.  I see Joseph working much the same way.  He is taking the KJV and through the lens of a 19th century prophet, he is re-working the Bible.   I personally like how the Community of Christ calls the JST The Inspired Version of the Bible. It seems to better explain what Joseph was doing and my view of revelatory-translation allows for this view.

THE BOOK OF ABRAHAM

Plenty of ink has been spilt over what the Book of Abraham is and isn’t.  I will leave it at this – the extant papyri we have from the Kirtland mummies do not correlate with what Joseph produced. His revelation, interesting enough, came as he was studying Hebrew under the Hebraist, Joshua Seixas.  Seixas’ Hebrew Grammar for the Ue of Beginners was published at Andover, Essex Co. It was Seixas who taught a course  in Hebrew at Kirtland, Ohio from January 26 to March 29, 1936.

There are plenty of plausible reasons for what was going on with Joseph’s production of the Book of Abraham, but once again, my simple revelatry-translation allows me to see the Book of Abraham as sripture.  The newest edition of our scriptures seem to acknowledge the problems with calling the Book of Abraham a translation from the Kirtland Papyri.  In the introduction to the Pearl of Great Price it states:

“The Book of Abraham – An inspired translation of the writings of Abraham.”

But once again, I believe Joseph believed he was actually translating something in the very traditional sense of the word.   I think the way my friend Jared Andrson explains the Book of Abraham is very helpful:

“The book of Abraham is inspired revision of the creation narrative, catalyzed by the papyri, informed by Joseph’s study of Hebrew..Adjust your understanding of scripture and revelation accordingly.”

DOCTRINE AND COVENANTS SECTION 7

My revelatory-translation hypothesis also explains what is going on with the “translated version of the record made on parchment by John and hidden up by himself” (introduction to Doctrine and Covenants 7).   Why do I say this? Because there was no frickin’ tangible parchment from which Joseph translated Doctrine and Covenants 7.  He saw something in a vision.  Now, come on, how can you call that a translation, in the traditional sense of the word?  You can’t.

ARTICLE OF FAITH NUMBER 8

Article of Faith number 8 reads:

“We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly….”

This seems to be a bit narrow.  That is, the “errors” in the Bible aren’t due to just translation problems, but are also do to how the material was transmitted.  Due to my studies of how the Bible came to be, I’ve been stating it this way:

“We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is transmitted/transferred correctly….”

When I re-read this Article of Faith last week, it kind of threw my whole revelatory-translation hypothesis for a loop. For, it seems here that Joseph means an academic-translation, not a revelatory-translation.

Yet, this Article of Faith states something explicitly that is worth thinking about:

“We believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.”

In a face book discussion, Jared Anderson asked the question, “What does “word of God” mean? Depends on how you understand the revelatory process.” 

It does seem that “translated correctly” can’t really mean anything other than “transmitted” based on an earlier quote I gave:

“I believe the Bible as it read when it came from the pen of the original writers” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith [1976], 327).


But, as was pointed out to me by Jared Anderson, “The ‘word of God’ line, once again (pertaining to the Bible), is where assumptions and conclusions about the revelatory process come in.”

So, do I need to toss my hypothesis out the window?

OTHER PROBLEMS WITH MY VIEW

The biggest problem with my revelatory-translation hypothesis is that I (or Joseph Smith) am/are equivocating with the word translation. That is, I am saying that it has a different meaning than what it traditionally does.  This is a big complaint that many have with the apologetic community.  Some apologists will take a word and say, “Well, that word doesn’t actually mean what it means,” in order to allow for a degree of wiggle-room as they try to defend some tenant of the Church.  The best example is the appearance of the word “horse” in the Book of Mormon.   It has been argued that the word “horse” might have referred to a tapir.

Another problem that you might have noticed is in my repeatedly saying in this post, “I believe Joseph believed he was actually translating something in the very traditional sense of the word.”  I’m not sure if that is completely correct, for it seems that Joseph gives us a definition of what he meant by the word translate.  In the title page of the Book of Mormon, the first paragraph ends with:

“Sealed by the hand of Moroni, and hid up unto the Lord, to come forth in due time by way of the Gentile – The interpretation thereof by the Gift of God.

This statement can be interpreted two ways:

  1. God gave Joseph Smith a gift to translate, in a traditional academic way, ancient texts.  Of course we must acknowledge that Joseph Smith did not know any ancient languages; so this traditional view is still non-traditional in a sense.
  2. Some type of revelatory process occurred that would be better viewed as an interpretation of an ancient text.  This view allows for what some have called a “loose translation” vs. a “tight translation” of the Book of Mormon.

Regarding the title page Joseph purportedly stated the following:

“I wish to mention here that the title-page of the Book of Mormon is a literal translation, taken from the very last leaf, on the left hand side of the collection or book of plates, which contained the record which has been translated, the language of the whole running the same as all Hebrew writing in general [that is, from right to left]; and that said title page is not by any means a modern composition, either of mine or of any other man who has lived or does live in this generation. … I give below that part of the title-page of the English version of the Book of Mormon, which is a genuine and literal translation of the title-page of the original Book of Mormon as recorded on the plates…” (History of the Church, 1:71–72; bracketed words in original; from “History of the Church” (manuscript), book A-1, pp. 34–35, Church Archives)

If Joseph did see his translation work as more of a revelatory-translation, then why the heck did he give some of the Book of Mormon characters to Martin Harris for Professor Anthon to examine?  It seems that Joseph Smith was leaning toward a more academic view of translation (Joseph Smith History 1:63-64).  And to further complicate matters, the bottom of the Book of Mormon title page states, “TRANSLATED BY JOSEPH SMITH, Jun.”

 

CONCLUSION

In summary, what are we left with?

Joseph Smith’s view of revelatory-translation seemed to contain or accommodate an academic/traditional  view of the word translate.  Is that a fair statement?  Yet there seems to be tension with how we view scripture as a privileged text and wanting Joseph to bring forth scripture in a very ordinary and logical way.

I wonder how much of our view of Joseph “translating” is from us reading into Joseph’s statements something he did not mean.

Please share with me your thoughts.

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Miguel is a Guatemalan-American Mormon living in the Northwest with his family. He is one of the proprietors of the Rational Faiths blog.

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