Joseph Smith as a Student of Hebrew

The gift store at Joseph Smith’s Kirtland, Ohio temple sells reproduced copies of a small guide to the Hebrew language produced just for Joseph’s class of leaders at Kirtland who signed up to learn Hebrew. The instructor was Joshua Seixas, a Portuguese Jew who may have secretly converted to Christianity. Seixas taught Joseph’s class for several months, and Joseph claims that Seixas bragged on them as being an exceptionally capable class. But then Seixas went away on a vacation break and never returned, leaving his class unable to explain his abrupt departure.

The guide was produced because copies of Seixas’ full-length Hebrew grammar were in short supply. It is 22 pages of text, plus the entirety of Genesis 1 reprinted for the class to practice on. Pronunciation is different from the modern Ashkenazi method chiefly in the fact that Seixas pronounces the letter ‘ayin, which is silent in modern Hebrew. Seixas pronounces it “gn,” which helps explain Joseph’s use of two puzzling terms in his scripture Pearl of Great Price. One is gnolam, which turns out to be simply the word ‘olam or “eternal.” The other is Joseph’s raukeeyang, which is the way he was taught to pronounce raqi‘a or “firmament.”

(I happen to agree with Seixas that ‘ayin should be pronounced as a g-like guttural, as it is in Arabic. The Greek New Testament is proof; it often uses a g to spell names that have an ‘ayin in them. Otherwise, we would be calling Sodom’s twin city “Omorrah.”)

Seixas’ guide for Joseph’s Hebrew class quickly jumps from a few basics into complicated stuff. Unless we take the term “Supplement” in the title to mean that most of what Seixas is teaching is in the book and not in this brief guide, or that most of what he taught is not in either text, it is difficult to see how Joseph or his classmates were able to get past the first five pages of lesson material.

Joseph made some progress in simple Hebrew, which enables him to use false but plausible linguistic arguments in his re-translation of Genesis 1. When he plays deceptively with the text, at least he knows how to do so. When he attempts to translate Egyptian, as he does in the Book of Abraham and his Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar (see, it is clear that he doesn’t have the foggiest idea what he is doing.

Although he possessed a Greek New Testament, Joseph never seems to have attempted to learn Greek. However, in his diary from the Nauvoo period, he mentions spending quite a bit of time learning German, which he would employ along with Hebrew in his Nauvoo-era sermons. He seems to have believed that the German Bible could correct the English version.

Why would Joseph bother to try learning Hebrew, when he could just claim divine revelation, as he does to produce his Inspired Version of the Bible? In his Inspired Version, Joseph was able to make claims, not so much about faulty translation as about faulty manuscripts that left out “plain and precious” material that God revealed to him to be present in the original manuscripts, even though he had no hard evidence to which he could point to support his claims.

Joseph was not content, however, to rest entirely on divine revelation. He wanted to prove that he could translate. But his desire to prove that he could translate ended up backfiring on him in the case of the Book of Abraham. That mummy he purchased that he was so proud to exhibit to every visitor proved to be his undoing. He should have stuck to Hebrew, where he could at least plausibly argue that the words meant what he said they meant.