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How Joseph Smith learned Biblical Hebrew

Joseph Smith learned Biblical Hebrew along with other church leaders. Here’s how it happened

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Katherine Nelson Thompson playing Emma Smith and Nathan Mitchell as Joseph Smith Jr. during the filming of a new movie based on the life of Emma Smith titled “Emma Smith: My Story,” in 2007.

Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

Joseph Smith, the first president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, studied ancient languages. According to Stephen O. Smoot and Stephen Ricks, “Historical evidence indicates that Joseph studied, or at least expressed interest in studying, Hebrew, Greek, Egyptian, Latin and German.” Even though the Prophet Joseph didn’t study Hebrew for that long, it influenced him.

Between fall 1835 and spring 1836, Smith undertook studying Hebrew in Kirtland. Matthew Grey explained that Smith’s reasons for studying Hebrew were similar to what Protestants said at that time. Protestants would study Hebrew and Greek to read the Bible in its original languages.

By 1835, Smith and others decided that they would learn Hebrew together in the school of the prophets. Oliver Cowdery wrote, “We have those who could teach us the rudiments of the Hebrew, but we wished an accomplished scholar.” According to Grey, Smith petitioned Dr. Peixotto to teach him and others Hebrew. After acquiring Hebrew textbooks, the arrangement with Dr. Peixotto fell through and they needed to search for another teacher.

According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Joshua Seixas, a Jewish man, began teaching Smith and others at the School of the Prophets. Sexias was only slated to teach for about six months.

Even following these lessons, Smith would continuously show a love for and interest in Hebrew. Smoot and Ricks noted, “For example, Joseph’s study of the Hebrew of Genesis 1:1, which uses the masculine plural noun ʾělōhîm for the subject ‘God,’ led him to reveal and formulate his teaching that the premortal council was comprised of an assembly of deities presided over by God the Father (cf. Abraham 3–4).”

Smith even named a city after a Hebrew word. According to Book of Mormon Central, Smith renamed Commerce, Illinois, “Nauvoo.” Book of Mormon Central stated, “However, it is a fairly rare word: one of the only places the complete Hebrew word nauvoo appears in the entire Old Testament is Isaiah 52:7.”

They explain how the passage that contains this word is one of the most quoted passages in the Book of Mormon and further elaborate on how this gives a deeper meaning to Smith’s decision to rename the city Nauvoo.

Smith’s relatively short stint where he learned Hebrew had ramifications for the duration of his time as prophet.