A Look at Joseph Smith's Translations (July 26, 2020)

We've written a lot about the different areas of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints whether it's the Book of Mormon translation, Book of Abraham, Kinderhook Plates, or other areas where Joseph Smith was translating as a prophet.

 

For this post I wanted to give a super quick summary of some areas where Joseph Smith translated during his time of prophet that we either have the source material for or have the original account that we can assess to its accuracy. I thought this might be a worthwhile post because it gives a more detailed picture of Joseph Smith's ability as a prophet.

 

I will include links where appropriate if you would like to dig further into any specific topic, because this is meant just to give an overview that, in my opinion, shows some consistency in how Joseph Smith produced materials and translated records.

The Book of Mormon "Caractors"

Since we don't have the Book of Mormon plates to look at nor do we have any facsimiles of their contents, the only examples of both Book of Mormon text and 'Reformed Egyptian' is from the group of "caractors" that Joseph Smith claimed to copy from the gold plates.

When Joseph Smith was recruiting Martin Harris to help fund the publishing of the Book of Mormon, Harris wanted to have the language verified by scholars before he would mortgage his property to give money to Joseph. This led Joseph Smith to copy a group of characters from what he claimed were the gold plates, which Martin Harris famously took to Charles Anthon to examine.

The problem here is that no one at the time could read Egyptian as the Rosetta Stone was only being discovered, and 'Reformed Egyptian' was not considered a language then nor is it considered one now. Compounding the problem is that when you take a closer look at the characters that Joseph Smith copied for Martin Harris, it becomes clear that they are strikingly similar to the English (Latin) alphabet. Take a look below:

While apologists look for similarities between the characters and Egyptian characters, as you can see above they are unmistakable for crudely modified English characters. So much so, in fact, that Sandra and Jerald Tanner released this image years ago using Joseph Smith's copied characters that summarizes the issue as clearly as you can:

And to make one final point on these characters, while the apologists continue to search for parallels between Joseph Smith's copied characters and various forms of Egyptian, the church has continued to go out of its way to distance themselves from them.

After releasing an edition of the Book of Mormon in 1980 with the characters off the gold plate printed on a golden cover, the church has recently avoided using them. In their recent "Now You Know" videos posted on YouTube in 2019 and 2020, the church has actually created an entirely different set of characters to show what Reformed Egyptian would look like, even though they already have what Joseph Smith copied and could have used them in the video. The church did this in both the video on the gold plates as well as the video on seer stones. If you look at the image below, you can see the church created a set of fake characters to look more authentic instead of using the characters Joseph Smith claimed to copy directly from the plates:

If you really want to dig into the Book of Mormon "caractors" in more detail, I highly recommend Dan Vogel's YouTube video series. Over three videos Vogel examines the creation of the "caractors" document and where Joseph Smith came up with the letters, numbers, and symbols on the document.

Furthermore our annotated Gospel Topics essay on Book of Mormon translation gives more depth to the idea of 'Reformed Egyptian' as well as how Joseph Smith produced the Book of Mormon. If that's not enough, we have more recent posts looking at the church's new "Now You Know" videos on seer stones and the gold plates, both of which reference the idea of "Reformed Egyptian" characters.
 

Pure Adamic Language


On March 20, 1832 Joseph Smith produced a sample of the 'pure, Adamic language' spoken by Adam. This was after the church was established and Joseph Smith was a great believer in being able to translate ancient languages as well as the gift of speaking in tongues.

For super quick background, in November 1830 Joseph Smith had already produced the verse in the Book of Moses that refers to a book created by Adam “in the language of Adam" along with further clarification that Adam's children “were taught to read and write, having a language which was pure and undefiled.” (Moses 6:5-6)

Below is the text of this discussion from the Joseph Smith Papers - it is exactly as was dictated from the words of Joseph Smith:

A Sample of pure Language given by Joseph the Seer as copied by Br Johnson.

Question: What is the name of God in pure Language
Answer: Awmen.
Q: The meaning of the pure word A[w]men
A: It is the being which made all things in all its parts.
Q: What is the name of the Son of God.
A: The Son Awmen.
Q: What is the Son Awmen.
A: It is the greatest of all the parts of Awmen which is the Godhead the first born.
Q: What is is man.
A: This signifies Sons Awmen. the human family the children of men the greatest parts of Awmen Sons the Son Awmen
Q: What are Angels called in pure language.
A: Awmen Angls-men
Q: What are the meaning of these words.
A: Awmen’s Ministerring servants Sanctified who are sent forth from heaven to minister for or to Sons Awmen the greatest part of Awmen Son. Sons Awmen Son Awmen Awmen

The church teaches that Adam and Eve would have lived about 6,000 years ago and as we know is essential to Mormon doctrine due to the reliance on this story in the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and even the temple endowment ceremony. (D&C 77) The problems with a literal Adam and Eve story are important and we will cover those in a separate post, but I want to focus today on Joseph Smith's pure Adamic language. To put another way, even ignoring the massive problems with a literal Adam and Eve story, we can see the problems with Joseph Smith's translation of a pure language by his own words.

Just as with Joseph Smith's 'Reformed Egyptian' covered above, this appears to be another instance where Joseph is crudely modifying the English language he is familiar with to produce ancient language. If the Tower of Babel is a literal story and the "pure language" was lost and the inhabitants on the Earth confused, is it even possible that the language spoken in America during 1832 just happen to be almost perfectly linked to a forever lost language?

Joseph Smith says the name of God is "Awmen," which sounds like he took the concept of a "Man" who inspired "Awe" and smashed it together. Then Joseph claims that the English word "son" in pure Adamic language is... "son." And last, Joseph says that the word "angels" in pure Adamic is "Awmen Angls-men," which I think at this point speaks for itself.

So now we have two translations from Joseph Smith - the Book of Mormon characters and the pure Adamic language, that both resemble crudely modified English text and language that he was familiar with.
 

Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible


As we mentioned in the pure Adamic language, Joseph Smith translated the Bible almost immediately following the completion of the Book of Mormon. In 1984, Bruce R. McConkie stated that: "The Joseph Smith Translation, or Inspired Version, is a thousand times over the best Bible now existing on earth. It contains all that the King James Version does, plus pages of additions and corrections and an occasional deletion. It was made by the spirit of revelation, and the changes and additions are the equivalent of the revealed word in the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants... Reference to this section and to the footnotes themselves will give anyone who has spiritual insight a deep appreciation of this revelatory work of the Prophet Joseph Smith. It is one of the great evidences of his prophetic call." (The Bible, a Sealed Book)

The problem, of course, is that recent research done at BYU has shown that Joseph Smith borrowed heavily from Adam Clarke's Bible commentaries in making his changes. The BYU study "uncovered evidence that Smith and his associates used a readily available Bible commentary while compiling a new Bible translation, or more properly a revision of the King James Bible. The commentary, Adam Clarke’s famous Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments, was a mainstay for Methodist theologians and biblical scholars alike, and was one of the most widely available commentaries in the mid-1820s and 1830s in America. Direct borrowing from this source has not previously been connected to Smith’s translation efforts, and the fundamental question of what Smith meant by the term “translation” with respect to his efforts to rework the biblical text can now be reconsidered in light of this new evidence... "Our research has revealed that the number of direct parallels between Smith’s translation and Adam Clarke’s biblical commentary are simply too numerous and explicit to posit happenstance or coincidental overlap. The parallels between the two texts number into the hundreds, a number that is well beyond the limits of this paper to discuss. A few of them, however, demonstrate Smith’s open reliance upon Clarke and establish that he was inclined to lean on Clarke’s commentary for matters of history, textual questions, clarification of wording, and theological nuance.3 In presenting the evidence, we have attempted to both establish that Smith drew upon Clarke, likely at the urging of Rigdon, and we present here a broad categorization of the types of changes that Smith made when he used Clarke as a source."" (A Recently Recovered Source: Rethinking Joseph Smith’s Bible Translation, BYU)

Again, we have the source material for the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible since Joseph Smith produced it himself, and now we can compare to material in his day and show that Joseph Smith's prophetic ability here amounted to using available commentaries to make changes to the Bible itself.

Apologists will point to Joseph Smith's revelations such as D&C 88 that "And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith." (D&C 88: 118) That is a problematic argument once you look at Joseph Smith's translations as a whole along with the way he himself called them translations and revelations.

It might be splitting hairs, but D&C 88 was recorded in December 1832 and January 1833 while at that point almost all of the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible would have been completed. I would imagine the apologetic reply would be that he was aware of this commandment as he translated the Bible (such as the claim with polygamy being received in 1831 in order to explain his sexual relationship with Fanny Alger), but again Joseph Smith never made mention of using outside sources in any of these productions.

If you would like to read more about the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible and the issues of lifting from the Adam Clarke Bible commentaries, please check out our page covering this topic.
 

The Book of Abraham


Of all of Joseph Smith's translations, the Book of Abraham is far and away the most problematic for the church's truth claims. With the Book of Mormon, we only have the characters he wrote down and then the text of the book itself, so we can only judge the Book of Mormon by the text itself, but with the Book of Abraham we have the source material as well.

The introduction to the Book of Abraham states that it is "A translation of some ancient Records that have fallen into our hands, from the Catacombs of Egypt, purporting to be the writings of Abraham, while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus."

The problem is that we know the papyrus dates about 2,000 years after when Abraham would have lived, they have nothing to do with Abraham, and could not possibly have been written by Abraham. But don't take my word for it - here are the quotes from the official gospel topics essay from the church itself:

"These fragments date to between the third century B.C.E. and the first century C.E., long after Abraham lived."

"None of the characters on the papyrus fragments mentioned Abraham’s name or any of the events recorded in the book of Abraham. Mormon and non-Mormon Egyptologists agree that the characters on the fragments do not match the translation given in the book of Abraham, though there is not unanimity, even among non-Mormon scholars, about the proper interpretation of the vignettes on these fragments."

We have written about the Book of Abraham on the site a lot, and if you're looking for much more detail I recommend the following two write-ups that go into the issues with the Book of Abraham:

The Book of Abraham in 1,000 Words: This is a quick blog post of just 1,000 words the explains the problems with the Book of Abraham along with the two apologetic arguments commonly used which are the idea of a lost scroll along with the catalyst theory.

Our annotated Gospel Topics essay on the Book of Abraham: This is a very in-depth look at the church's official essay on the Book of Abraham, looking at what the evidence tells us not just about the translation, but what Joseph Smith claimed he was translating, the apologetic responses to the problems, and what Egyptian scholars have to say.

I don't want to get into a ton of detail here as this is meant to serve as an overview, but Joseph Smith got it entirely wrong with his translation of the Egyptian papyrus. As we explain in the two articles linked above, we have the source material for the text of the Book of Abraham, and you can see in the manuscript scans below that Joseph Smith was translating each character from the papyrus surrounding facsimile 1 as if they contained a paragraph's worth of info.

Even if you want to contend that Joseph Smith was not "translating" the symbols that both scribes wrote in the margins, we still have facsimile 1, 2, and 3 to assess Joseph's prophetic skills by. Because they were produced contemporaneously, we know what Joseph was translating and what he claimed they say.

In my opinion, the most important is facsimile 3, because it contains Egyptian characters that Joseph Smith translated. Take a look below at facsimile 3 and the characters above the figures.

If Joseph Smith could truly translate ancient languages as he claimed, then his translation of those characters should match what every Egyptian scholar knows they say. Let's take a look at a few:

Fig. 2:
Joseph Smith: King Pharaoh, whose name is given in the characters above his head.
What it actually says: "Isis the great, the god's mother"

In other words, Joseph Smith not only got the Egyptian characters wrong, but he failed to see that this figure was a woman and not a man. Also, Pharaoh is a title and not a name, so Joseph Smith here is translating as if we would call the American president King President or, even more silly yet plausible, President President.

Fig. 4:
Joseph Smith: Prince of Pharaoh, King of Egypt, as written above the hand.
What it actually says: "Maat, mistress of the gods"

Again, this figure is female - not a man. I don't know what more to say, but it gets worse.

Fig. 6:
Joseph Smith: Olimlah, a slave belonging to the prince.
What the figure actually is: Anubis, guide of the dead, who is there to support the deceased. Writing above figure: "Recitation by Anubis, who makes protection(?), foremost of the embalming booth..."

As we've discussed recently about the curse of dark skin, Joseph Smith used the Book of Abraham to tie the curse of Ham/curse of Cain into the Book of Abraham, which was a root cause for the priesthood being denied to black members of the church.

Because of this worldview, Joseph Smith made the assumption that the one black figure in the facsimile must have been a slave when in fact this figure was an Egyptian god! And again, if Joseph Smith could truly translate ancient languages he would have known this because the writing was right above Anubis' head in Egyptian!

In the annotated essay above we look at sources that Joseph Smith likely pulled from when producing the Book of Abraham, but again this is a translation where we have the source material to compare to and Joseph Smith got it absolutely, undeniably wrong. The church itself admits that the papyrus fragments have nothing to do with Abraham and were dated 2,000 years after Abraham would have even lived, and that's not even getting into the problems with the translation itself.

Please read our annotated Gospel Topics essay on the Book of Abraham if you're interested in more detail, but I believe for an overview this sums up Joseph Smith's ability to translate ancient Egyptian.
 

The Kinderhook Plates


We cover the Kinderhook Plates in more detail in a previous post, but this is another area where Joseph Smith produced a translation even if a partial one. I would recommend that anyone unfamiliar with the Kinderhook Plates read that post because it will give many more details than this overview, but just to quickly cover Joseph Smith's translation:

On April 16, 1843, Robert Wiley began his "dig" in Kinderhook, IL which uncovered the plates. A member of the church was there and "leaped for joy at the discovery" and the Times and Seasons noted that the Kinderhook Plates would "undoubtedly" prove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.

Two weeks later on May 1, William Clayton made a journal entry about the Kinderhook Pates: "I have seen 6 brass plates which were found in Adams [Pike] County by some persons who were digging in a mound. They found a skeleton about 6 feet from the surface of the earth which was 9 foot high. [At this point there is a tracing of a plate in the journal.] The plates were on the breast of the skeleton. This diagram shows the size of the plates being drawn on the edge of one of them. They are covered with ancient characters of language containing from 30 to 40 on each side of the plates. Pres[iden]t J[oseph]. has translated a portion and says they contain the history of the person with whom they were found and he was a descendant of Ham through the loins of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and that he received his kingdom from the ruler of heaven and earth." (William Clayton Journal, entry of 1 May 1843, as cited in James B. Allen, Trials of Discipleship: The Story of William Clayton, a Mormon (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 117)

This is, unfortunately, all we have from Joseph Smith's translation of the Kinderhook Plates. However we have an account from Apostle Parley Pratt, who said on May 7th that "Six plates having the appearance of Brass have lately been dug out of a mound by a gentleman in Pike Co. Illinois. They are small and filled with engravings in Egyptian language and contain the genealogy of one of the ancient Jaredites back to Ham the son of Noah. His bones were found in the same vase (made of Cement). Part of the bones were 15 ft. underground.…A large number of Citizens have seen them and compared the characters with those on the Egyptian papyrus which is now in this city." (Reprinted in Ensign, August 1981, page 73)

Furthermore, The Nauvoo Neighbor republished the Times and Seasons letter on May 10th along with facsimiles of all 12 sides of the Kinderhook plates. They also include the note at the end that states “the contents of the plates... will be published in the ‘Times and Seasons,’ as soon as the translation is completed,”implying that members were given the impression that a full translation was forthcoming.

In 1879, Wilbur Fugate writes a letter to James Cobb in Salt Lake City to tell him the plates were a hoax and the church would spend the next one hundred years claiming that they were real, ancient plates because they knew Joseph Smith translated a portion of them.

It was not until 1980 when science proved without a doubt that the plates were a hoax that the church finally reversed course with an August 1981 article in Ensign conceding that the plates were a hoax.

The bottom line is that these plates were a hoax and the symbols were completely made up, and yet Joseph Smith claimed "they contain the history of the person with whom they were found and he was a descendant of Ham through the loins of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and that he received his kingdom from the ruler of heaven and earth."

Apologists argue that Joseph Smith was merely approaching this from a scholarly viewpoint, and thus saw a similar symbol from the Book of Abraham symbols to compare to. The problem is that the Book of Abraham symbols were all incorrectly translated, so even if you accept this apologetic argument, it still shows that Joseph Smith had zero prophetic ability to translate ancient languages as he claimed.

Again, we cover both the history of the Kinderhook Plates and the apologetic arguments supporting Joseph Smith on our Kinderhook Plates page, but it is yet another instance where we can assess Joseph Smith's translation and it again is completely wrong. Obviously the Kinderhook Plates are not nearly as damning to Joseph Smith's prophetic abilities as the Book of Abraham, but it also adds not just to Joseph Smith's incorrect translations, but to church leaders defending their truthfulness until science forced them to reverse their positions.
 

Honorable Mention: The Writings/Record of John


In D&C 93, Joseph Smith reveals writings/records of the author of the Gospel of John. In this revelation, Joseph Smith refers to the writer as John even though biblical scholarship has since shown the authors of the gospels to be anonymous. Regardless, what is interesting here is that as Joseph Smith produces this writing/revelation, he is using language that the author of John would never have used.

This is a small problem compared to the others (hence a bonus translation), but it's explained really well by former CES instructor and biblical scholar David Bokovoy. From his episodes going through biblical scholarship on Mormon Stories (Episode 1022):

"Notice, for example, verse eight... "Therefore, in the beginning, the word was and he was the word, even the messenger of salvation, the light and the redeemer of the world. The spirit of truth." You think you were reading from the Gospel of John there. It's all Johannine language: 'who came into the world because the world was made by him and in him was the life of men and the light of men. Worlds were made by him.' This is all Johannine. John's literature really wants to emphasize this idea of contrast between light and dark. And then we read first person:

Verse 11: I John bear record that I beheld his gl2ory is the glory of the only begotten of the father.

And then move down to versus 12 and 13. In Joseph Smith's revelation:

Verses 12-13: I John saw that he (Jesus) received not of the fullness at the first, but received grace for grace; And he received not of the fullness at first, but continued from grace to grace until he received a fullness.

Therefore meaning because he did not receive the fullness of first, but he received it a little bit by little bit and grew and grew, he was called the Son of God... because he received not of the fullness of first... The Fact of Matter is, the author of The Gospel of John would have been so offended by this language because that's the Gospel where Jesus wasn't called the son of God. Jesus was the son of God from the beginning. He didn't receive grace for grace - it was all from the beginning... That's (the revelation) presented as if it's John's language. But John would never have said that. Mark could have said something like that, (Jesus) was called the Son of God at his baptism. But even Luke and Matthew would have struggled a little bit with that because he's born as the son of God. This idea here reflects a theology, a Christology that is completely antithetical to the to what the author of The Gospel of John would have written. There's no way he could have been responsible for any of this material. Yet it's presented that way in Joseph Smith's revelation that presents a significant challenge for traditional believers once they're exposed to higher criticism in the New Testament and to see how that effects Mormon scripture."

Again, this is not nearly as important as Joseph Smith's other translations, but it again shows how Joseph Smith created material with the sources that he was surrounded by. In this case, it shows that Joseph Smith often created revelation in the voice of God that doesn't work when looked at through the critical eye of biblical scholarship. This is very apparent in how Joseph Smith incorrectly claims that Abraham was commanded to implement polygamy by God in D&C 132.

Conclusion

The idea of this post was not to be a comprehensive list of everything that Joseph Smith claimed to restore or reveal, but to look at the items that Joseph Smith claimed to translate with his prophetic abilities from God that we have the original material for. With the Book of Mormon we focused only on the characters that Joseph Smith claimed were from the gold plates, but obviously the ideas that Joseph Smith brought to the Book of Mormon are important to look at such as the idea that Native Americans are the descendants of Lamanites, the Deutero-Isaiah verses that were not written before Lehi left, and his inability to re-translate the "Lost 116 pages."

We can only measure Joseph Smith's prophetic abilities by what he produced, and thankfully we still have the source material for a few key areas of Joseph Smith's works such as the Book of Mormon characters, the Book of Abraham papyri, the Joseph Smith translation of the Bible, and his partial translation of the Kinderhook Plates.

I hope that as you read this article, you look for the patterns in Joseph Smith's works. One area that apologists are very skilled at is taking one problem at a time and ignoring the new problems that are created with apologetics. We see this not just with websites like FAIR Mormon, but also with the Gospel Topics essays on the church website. When you look at all of these together, I believe that it paints a pretty good picture of not just of Joseph Smith's inability to translate ancient records, but how much of his productions rely entirely on the material that was available to him when he produced it.

We've linked to a lot of our pages in this post, but please check them out if you have questions about the church. I hope it helps, and you can email us anytime at ldsdiscussion@gmail.com and we can point you in the direction of more resources, podcasts, support groups, or anything else we can do to help.

I know how uncomfortable these topics are when you're still in the church, but all I can say is that it gets better. Please read our other posts and compare them to the church's official essays - we believe that our research will stand up to apologetic works which is why we often start with their conclusions. If the church is true, you have nothing to fear in studying these topics from non-correlated sources, and if the church's truth claims cant stand up to scrutiny using historical documents, church materials, and scholarly works, you deserve to know the truth.

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