When people engage the scriptures from a scholarly approach, many lose faith in the scriptures. We’ll first talk about how to reconcile Nephi’s story of obtaining the Brass Plates with the idea that the Torah didn’t exist in 600 BC. Is there a way to reconcile biblical scholarship? I asked that question to Colby Townsend and was a bit surprised by his answer.
GT: So, do we try to reconcile that? Do we say, oh, maybe Lehi left later? I don’t know.
Colby: I don’t know. That’s one of those things where I alluded to earlier where a lot of times people will [say,] “Okay, you’ve just come in and smashed up this this wall. Now you need to put it back up together for me.” Yeah.
GT: How do we pick up our pieces of faith knowing all this stuff?
Colby: Right, so that’s where I say that coming as a historian into this study, I can’t really do that for you. That’s really up to individuals. There are a handful of other scholars. Joe Spencer is a good friend of mine. And I’ve always suggested, go to him. He’s a good theologian, and he’ll help you go through and figure some of that out. But you know, coming from the outside, really as a historian and trying to study and understand the history of the texts that you have, that’s just not something that I really do.
GT: So you can’t help us out?
Colby: Yeah, sorry. Yeah, for me, I think that Bill Davis has really done a good service recently in his book.
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In a previous interview with Dr. Thomas Wayment, Thom showed how Joseph Smith used Adam Clarke’s Commentary to correct various passages in the New Testament. Biblical scholar Colby Townsend says it isn’t just the New Testament, and we talk about how Adam Clarke affected Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon.
GT: Hmm. Well, and I know you spend some time talking about Adam Clarke’s Commentary, and I know Dr. Thomas Wayment has done that, which was really fantastic. Yeah. Because it seems like Joseph used a lot of Adam Clarke’s Commentary.
GT: And it was interesting to me as I read your paper to see how Adam Clarke was reacting to this documentary hypothesis.
Colby: So in Thom and Haley’s paper, they discuss some of the possible ways that Joseph Smith could have gotten Adam Clarke’s Commentary for the New Testament revision, because they show about 300 or so different revisions that Smith made to the New Testament that come directly from Clarke. When you have that preponderance of evidence, there’s no denying that. So what I’m doing in my chapter is essentially just showing that Adam Clarke was really important and really significant. But showing also that the scholarship from Britain that was really directly affecting the Americas was shielding the Americas from some of the more specific points. So Adam Clarke didn’t name any of the scholars. He didn’t engage directly with any of their theories. He didn’t say who was arguing that Moses didn’t write it. And it really wasn’t until about 1805-1810 that a lot of scholars started saying, yeah, “Moses didn’t write this. Deuteronomy had to be written far later.”
So, in my thesis, at least, that’s what the only time that I really touch on Clarke’s Commentary just to show that. Clarke was really just not specifically saying why any of those scholars thought that way. He wasn’t rebutting any of their specific arguments. He basically just used the timeworn argument, that they don’t really accept revelation and so therefore, forget them.
GT: And so is that basically the argument that Joseph Smith adopted was Adam Clarke’s argument? Forget them. Moses really did write this. Is that right?
Colby: Pretty much. I mean, we can’t know, because he never really specifically said but if you look at Moses 1, I have a paper coming out this coming fall. That one will be in the Journal of Mormon History. [It will be] on the composition of Moses 1:7 and the idea of translation as a modern expansion on ancient sources. I argue that Blake Ostler’s theory doesn’t really work for the Book of Mormon. I don’t really show why. I just say that it doesn’t really work there necessarily, but it does work for the Bible revision. The text of the Bible is the ancient source. And then there are modern expansions, [such as] Moses 1 for example. Moses 1 is fascinating because it’s a totally new addition to the text of Genesis. And in a sense, it reframes and recontextualizes the text of the Torah. It portrays the beginning of Genesis as if it’s a revelation directly from God, to Moses, and Moses commanded to write it down. In my paper, I show that the first half of Moses 1 is dependent on the language and structure of Matthew 4, and a handful of other very specific arguments. I show that both Moses 1 and Moses 7 were composed in the 19th century.
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Don’t miss our previous conversation with Dr. Thomas Wayment where he discusses his paper on Adam Clarke’s role in the Joseph Smith Translation.
Was Joseph Smith aware of the Documentary Hypothesis? It appears he was aware! How did that affect his translation of the Book of Mormon and revision of the Bible? Biblical scholar Colby Townsend will fill us in.
Colby: [Joseph’s] grandfather Asael Smith came over to the house one evening and was angry that Joseph Smith Sr. had been going to the Presbyterian Church with Lucy. And so, he came over to almost literally knock some sense into his son. And by almost literally I mean that he got into a very heated argument. Asael wasn’t really into established institutional religion and thought it was all priest craft and that “they’re trying to use you,” basically and “dupe you out of your money” and everything else. And so, as Asael was leaving, he turned. The door must have been open, because he turned and he hurled Tom Paine’s “Age of Reason” into the house and screamed to Joseph Smith Sr., essentially saying, “Read that until you get some sense into you.” Yeah. [It was] like “Stop going to the Presbyterian Church.” It is interesting because he was actually successful. Lucy wrote later that Joseph Smith Sr. said, “We should probably stop. I don’t want this kind of stuff to come up.” So it worked. Asael was able to get it.
But for Lucy, at least in her retelling of that story a couple of decades later, in her biography of her son, Joseph Smith, Jr., that was a key part. It wasn’t just he turned and threw some book or some anti-Bible book or something because it really wasn’t anti-Bible. But he specifically threw Paine’s “Age of Reason.” That was a symbol of the problems of organized institutional religion, but also the problems with the Bible and religion that their society, they believed, hadn’t really fully grappled with yet.
Colby also discusses secret combinations.
Colby: So one of those is that after the French Revolution, in America and in Britain, there was a very large push against a Jacobin party of the French Revolution. [Maximilien] Robespierre was seen as the personification of all things horrible about the Jacobins. And so, there were in the 1790s, anti-Jacobin societies that popped up all over the states.
GT: They were all a bunch of noisy atheists, it sounds like.
Colby: Pretty much yeah. Noisy in the dark. Because it really became one and the same with like the Illuminati, and all of these other dark secret organizations and when you look at newspapers of that period, in the late 18th century, the phrase secret combination starts to pop up a lot, and in particular, against Jacobins. So, one of the documents that I looked at, in that chapter was a review of a recent history. This is in the late 1790s. There was an American review of a French history of the Jacobins. And this anonymous author said, “This is a really great history. You guys should read it.” It was I think it was like three or four volumes in length. But the author of that history doesn’t go back far enough. The real origins of the Jacobin party go much further, so not only to the Garden of Eden with Satan convincing Adam and Eve both to eat the fruit, but also in the council in heaven, where Lucifer was able to convince one third of the host of heaven, that they should democratize and that they could throw off the system of government in heaven.
And then all throughout the Book of Mormon, you have these little nods toward the secret combinations and the oath that Satan had made with Cain. So in my thesis, I essentially look at that and say, as far as anti-Jacobinism is concerned that anti-masonry is extremely important for understanding the development of the Book of Mormon. But anti-masonry didn’t just pop up. There was a much broader context, and that there was a much broader literature as well. Thirty years before the Book of Mormon was being dictated by Joseph Smith, so in the late 1790s, you already had a lot of this literature that has a lot of these similar ideas, and similar themes, similar language that you would you would find in the Book of Mormon only a couple of decades later. So that’s key. I think that’s really important that as scholars continue to go forward, and as I continue to do research, I’ll keep looking at that and looking for other really interesting connections. But even more importantly, the main argument that I make in my thesis is that The Book of Mormon, sort of just alludes to the story. It’s an extra biblical account of Cain.