BYU conference explores Joseph Smith and the ancient world

Published: Saturday, March 9 2013 11:44 p.m. MST

Hundreds of students of all ages gathered Thursday and Friday to listen and take notes as 26 scholars examined the extent to which LDS Church founder Joseph Smith was familiar with ancient writings, scriptural or otherwise.

Keith Johnson, Deseret News archives

Hundreds of students of all ages — including at least one LDS apostle — gathered at locations in Provo and Salt Lake City Thursday and Friday to listen and take notes as 26 scholars examined the extent to which LDS Church founder Joseph Smith was familiar with ancient writings, scriptural or otherwise.

“Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith’s Study of the Ancient World,” a two-day BYU Church History Symposium, drew capacity audiences to the BYU campus and the LDS Church Conference Center Little Theater. Dr. Lincoln H. Blumell of the BYU Department of Ancient Scripture and one of the symposium’s organizers said the idea for the event came to him while visiting LDS Church historical sites in upstate New York.

“At one location," he said, "it was suggested that Joseph Smith was familiar with the writings of Titus Flavius Josephus.

“I started wondering about the ancient writings that might have been available to Joseph Smith during his lifetime,” Blumell continued, adding that his research has led him “to the conclusion that some of (Joseph Smith’s) statements and teachings were informed by resources that were available in his day.”

It occurred to Blumell that this would be an interesting subject for study and analysis, and that “it ought to be addressed and studied within the household of faith.”

Speaking within that household was noted scholar, historian and author Dr. Richard L. Bushman. Referred to in the introduction to his keynote address as “the patriarch of Mormon scholarship and father figure to a generation of Mormon scholars,” Bushman said that “the path to antiquity in Joseph Smith’s time lay through language.”

Although he referred to his presentation as more of a report than a paper based on original research, Bushman provided illuminating information on four languages through which 19th century scholars explored the ancient world: Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Egyptian. Latin and Greek, he said, would have been the most logical languages for Joseph Smith to study, since they were the languages most often studied by scholars of the day.

“Nearly all colleges required proficiency in the classical languages before you could go to college,” Bushman noted. “Grammar schools were to teach Latin grammar. Classics dominated the curriculum.”

But “Joseph seems to have done little to promote classical language study among his followers,” Bushman said. Instead, Joseph stressed Hebrew, which was the language of the Old Testament prophets rather than Latin or Greek, which was the language of the New Testament prophets.

“Joseph Smith ignored Hellenism and embraced Hebraism more than any religious thinker of his generation,” Bushman observed.

Joseph Smith also studied Egyptian, which at the time was seen as a language of mystery. “It was the home of the esoteric,” Bushman said.

“It has been speculated that Joseph was seeking the pure language of Adam,” Bushman said. “Hebrew was considered the ‘prima lingua’ — if not the pure language, then the closest to it. And the Egyptian language was also close.”

Bushman concluded by offering his opinion that if Joseph Smith were primarily interested in education and literacy he would have focused his language study on Latin and Greek.

“Instead,” he said, “he seems to have been driven by a quest for spiritual knowledge, and Hebrew and Egyptian offered the spiritual wisdom for which he hungered. Whereas Latin and Greek would have opened him to a world of beauty and intellect, the languages he chose to study reveals the higher tendency of his mind and spirit.”

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