Review: Producing Ancient Scripture

I’ve been intrigued with what seem to be esoteric[1] influences flowing into Joseph Smith, and esoteric elements flowing out of him — into Mormonism.  And as I consider how he fits into the larger scheme of esoteric-Christianity, I see the concepts of an original, powerful language, and the ability to “see” and “translate” ancient scriptural texts — as major manifestations of his esoteric production.  What can we know about the beginnings and subsequent development of a “Pure” language in his revelations and translations, his use of a folk-magic seerstone to see and translate buried texts, his work to develop an “alphabet and grammar” for the yet uncracked[2] Egyptian language, and the general sense of the esoteric as both an influence on Smith, as well what flowed out of him. 

With this in mind, I was happy to see the new book Producing Ancient Scripture: Joseph Smith’s Translation Projects in the Development of Mormon Christianity [3] – which takes a scholarly look at the topics related to Joseph’s use of language and translation.

The authors explore questions like:

  • What was the relationship between revelation and translation?
  • How does traditional translation differ from Joseph Smith’s translation?
  • What were the roles of women in the translation process?
  • How does his translations compare to Helen Schuman’s translation: A Course in Miracles?
  • What contemporary sources influenced his translations, and how?
  • How do seerstones, forgeries, magic, and Freemasonry tie into his translations?

Because of my interests, I jumped first to David Golding’s thought-provoking chapter: ‘“Eternal Wisdom Engraven upon the Heavens”: Joseph Smith’s Pure Language Project’. Golding overviews European/American esotericism, focusing on earlier speculations of an original language of God and the idea that the mysterious, untranslated Egyptian language held hidden truths.  Joseph Smith fits nicely within this context with his flirtations with a Pure/Adamic language, his Egyptian translations (Book of Mormon, Book of Abraham), and his Egyptian language project (“Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language”).

Secondly, I pursued David Grua and William Smith’s solid treatment of the translation of the buried parchment of John as laid out in D&C 7. However, part way through the chapter, one realizes it may not have been a translation, there may not have been a parchment, and that it is unclear if it had to do with John. Their research incorporates a variety of disciplines including contextualization, textual history, Biblical criticism, Christian history, theological implications, theological influences, publication history, and more.

These are two of seventeen chapters from Producing Ancient Scripture. Nineteen authors address four main areas: the context and beginnings of Smith’s translations; translation of the Book of Mormon; translation of the Bible; and projects that began later (“Pure Language,” the Book of Abraham, and the Kinderhook Plates).

The editors are to be congratulated on pulling together an excellent collection of articles by seasoned historians, laying a new, higher foundation for a thorough understanding of Joseph Smith’s translations. This book is essential reading for those interested in an in-depth exploration of Joseph Smiths language and translation projects.


[1] Esoteric: obscure, private, secret, hidden, inner, mysterious, mystical, mystic, occult, arcane, cryptic, inscrutable, abstruse, recondite, cabbalistic. esoteric. (n.d.) Collins Thesaurus of the English Language – Complete and Unabridged 2nd Edition. (1995, 2002). Retrieved September 14 2020 from https://www.thefreedictionary.com/esoteric

[2] Initial success in understanding Egyptian characters occurred in the 1820s but a full understanding would not develop until the 1850s.

[3] Producing Ancient Scripture: Joseph Smith’s Translation Projects in the Development of Mormon Christianity, Michael Hubbard MacKay (Editor), Mark Ashurst-McGee (Editor), Brian M. Hauglid (Editor), University of Utah Press, 2020.


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