Mormonism and the Bible/Joseph Smith Translation/As a restoration of the original Bible text

Joseph Smith's corrections to the Bible do not match known Biblical manuscripts

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Question: Was the Joseph Smith Translation intended to be a restoration of original Bible text?

The JST is not intended primarily or solely as a restoration of lost Bible text

Two main points should be kept in mind with regards to the Joseph Smith "translation" of the Bible:

First, the JST is not intended primarily or solely as restoration of text. Unimpeachably orthodox LDS scholars who have focused on the JST (such as Robert J. Matthews and Kent Jackson) are unanimous in this regard. The assumption that it is intended primarily or solely as a restoration of text is what leads to expectations that the JST and Book of Mormon should match up in every case. At times the JST does not even match up with itself, such as when Joseph Smith translated the same passage multiple times in different ways. This does not undermine notions of revelation, but certainly challenges common assumptions about the nature and function of the JST and the Book of Mormon translation.

Second, one of the main tendencies of the JST is harmonization. You may be aware of differences in Jesus' sayings between different Gospels. For example, Jesus' statements about whether divorce is permitted and under what conditions differ significantly. Matthew offers an exception clause that Mark and Luke do not, and this has severely complicated the historical interpretation of Jesus' view of divorce.

The JST often makes changes that harmonize one gospel with another, which is what your example does. While one gospel says "judge not" (though this may not be as absolute as some make it out to be), John 7:24 has Jesus commanding to "judge righteous judgment." The JST change harmonizes the two gospels by making Matthew agree with John. If indeed there is a real difference between being commanded to "Judge righteously" and being commanded to "Judge not", then it is a problem inherently present in the differing accounts of the Gospels, which the JST resolves in a particular way.


Question: If the Joseph Smith Translation (JST) is Joseph Smith's 'correction' of Biblical errors, why do these corrections not match known Biblical manuscripts?

The Joseph Smith Translation (JST) is better thought of as an "inspired commentary" rather than a "translation"

The Joseph Smith Translation (JST) is not a translation in the traditional sense. Joseph did not consider himself a "translator" in the academic sense. The JST is better thought of as a kind of "inspired commentary"--Joseph was not usually restoring 'lost text' (though in some few cases he may have). The Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible is not, as some members have presumed, simply a restoration of lost Biblical text or an improvement on the translation of known text. Rather, the JST also involves harmonization of doctrinal concepts, commentary and elaboration on the Biblical text, and explanations to clarify points of importance to the modern reader.

Some aspects of the JST may reflect a restoration of lost Biblical text. But, such restoration is likely in the minority. Joseph did not claim to be mechanically preserving some hypothetically 'perfect' Biblical text. Rather, Joseph used the extant King James text as a basis for commentary, expansion, and clarification based upon revelation, with particular attention to issues of doctrinal importance for the modern reader. Reading the JST is akin to having the prophet at your elbow as one studies—it allows Joseph to clarify, elaborate, and comment on the Biblical text in the light of modern revelation.

The JST comes from a more prophetically mature and sophisticated Joseph Smith, and provides doctrinal expansion based upon additional revelation, experience, and understanding.

Joseph Smith: "I might have rendered a plainer translation to this, but it is sufficiently plain to suit my purpose as it stands"

It is important to remember that Joseph did not consider one 'translation' of anything to be perfect or 'the final word.' Joseph had indicated that Moroni quoted Malachi to him using different wording than the KJV (See Joseph Smith History 1:36–39). However, when Joseph quoted the same passage years later in a discussion about vicarious baptism for the dead, he said:

I might have rendered a plainer translation to this, but it is sufficiently plain to suit my purpose as it stands. It is sufficient to know, in this case, that the earth will be smitten with a curse unless there is a welding link of some kind or other between the fathers and the children, upon some subject or other-and behold what is that subject? It is the baptism. for the dead (DC 128:18). (emphasis added)

Thus, to Joseph, the adequacy of a translation depended upon the uses to which a given text will be employed. For one discussion, the KJV was adequate; for others, not. A key element of LDS theology is that living prophets are the primary instrument through which God continues to give knowledge and understanding to his children. Scriptures are neither inerrant, nor somehow "perfect," but are instead produced by fallible mortals. Despite this, because of current prophets and the revelation granted each individual, the writings of past prophets are sufficient to teach the principles essential for salvation. Additional revelation is sought and received as required.

Modern readers are accustomed to thinking of a 'translation' as only the conversion of text in one language to another. But, Joseph used the term in a broader and more inclusive sense, which included explanation, commentary, and harmonization. The JST is probably best understood in this light.

An Example: The Lord's Prayer

There is a great example of this kind of difference in the Lord's prayer. Compare the following:

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil (Book of Mormon).
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil (KJV Bible).
And suffer us not to be led into temptation, but deliver us from evil (JST Bible).

The JST changes the statement to passive voice whereas the KJV Bible and the Book of Mormon are in active voice. According to E. W. Bullinger, this particular scripture contains a Hebraism, namely, "active verbs were used by the Hebrews to express not the doing of the thing, but the permission of the thing which the agent is said do." Consequently, Bullinger interprets the passage this way: "Lead us not (i.e., suffer us not to be led) into temptation."[1]

Adam Clarke agrees with Bullinger. He wrote this scripture means "'Bring not in,' or 'lead us not into.' (This is a mere Hebraism. God is said to do a thing which He only permits or suffers to be done)."[2]

In Barnes' Notes on the New Testament we read the same interpretation. "This phrase then must be used in the sense of permitting. Do not suffer us or permit us, to be tempted to sin. In this it is implied that God 'has such control over us and the tempter, as to save us from it if we call on him."[3]

When properly considered, this passage is an example of where the JST reading and the KJV/Book of Mormon are both correct. The KJV and Book of Mormon are literal interpretations while the JST is an interpretive translation that is also correct. Given Joseph's relative inexperience in prophetic interpretation in 1829, he would be far more likely to render a verse literally than engage in interpretation.


Matthews: "To regard the New Translation...as a product of divine inspiration given to Joseph Smith does not necessarily assume that it be a restoration of the original Bible text"

In describing the nature of the Joseph Smith Translation (JST), the leading expert, Robert J. Matthews, said:

To regard the New Translation [i.e. JST] as a product of divine inspiration given to Joseph Smith does not necessarily assume that it be a restoration of the original Bible text. It seems probable that the New Translation could be many things. For example, the nature of the work may fall into at least four categories:

  1. Portions may amount to restorations of content material once written by the biblical authors but since deleted from the Bible.
  2. Portions may consist of a record of actual historical events that were not recorded, or were recorded but never included in the biblical collection
  3. Portions may consist of inspired commentary by the Prophet Joseph Smith, enlarged, elaborated, and even adapted to a latter-day situation. This may be similar to what Nephi meant by "Likening" the scriptures to himself and his people in their particular circumstance. (See 1 Nephi 19:23-24; 2 Nephi 11:8).
  4. Some items may be a harmonization of doctrinal concepts that were revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith independently of his translation of the Bible, but by means of which he was able to discover that a biblical passage was inaccurate.

The most fundamental question seems to be whether or not one is disposed to accept the New Translation as a divinely inspired document.[4]

The same author later observed:

It would be informative to consider various meanings of the word translate. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) gives these definitions: "To turn from one language into another retaining the sense"; also, "To express in other words, to paraphrase." It gives another meaning as, "To interpret, explain, expound the significance of." Other dictionaries give approximately the same definitions as the OED. Although we generally think of translation as having to do with changing a word text from one language to another, that is not the only usage of the word. Translate equally means to express an idea or statement in other words, even in the same language. If people are unfamiliar with certain terminology in their own tongue, they will need an explanation. The explanation may be longer than the original, yet the original had all the meaning, either stated or implied. In common everyday discourse, when we hear something stated ambiguously or in highly technical terms, we ask the speaker to translate it for us. It is not expected that the response must come in another language, but only that the first statement be made clear. The speaker's new statement is a form of translation because it follows the basic purpose and intent of the word translation, which is to render something in understandable form…Every translation is an interpretation—a version. The translation of language cannot be a mechanical operation … Translation is a cognitive and functional process because there is not one word in every language to match with exact words in every other language. Gender, case, tense, terminology, idiom, word order, obsolete and archaic words, and shades of meaning—all make translation an interpretive process.[5]


Question: How is the Joseph Smith Translation best understood?

The Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible is probably better understood as a kind of midrashic commentary on the text

Much of the JST is probably better understood as a kind of midrashic commentary on the text.

The JST for the opening of the Gospel of John is as follows:

1 In the beginning was the gospel preached through the Son. And the gospel was the word, and the word was with the Son, and the Son was with God, and the Son was of God.

2 The same was in the beginning with God.

3 All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made which was made.

It seems more likely that the point of this revision is to avoid directly equating the Word (Greek: Logos) with Jesus Christ. This equation was based on Greek philosophical usage, in which the concept of a Logos as an intermediary agency between God and man was first articulated. So equating the Logos with the gospel and not Jesus directly seems to be a way of rejecting too great a reliance on Greek philosophy in articulating the premortal nature of Jesus Christ. This is likely not a return to some primitive purity of the text, but a helpful explanation or commentary provided by the Lord through Joseph Smith to prevent us from going too far down a theological "blind alley."


Question: Was Joseph Smith's translation of the Bible ever completed?

It is not known for certain whether or not Joseph Smith completed his revisions to the Bible

One critical website poses the question: "Why didn’t the next prophet, or any subsequent prophet, finish the inspired version of the Bible that the church thought was so important that they altered our version of the King James Bible to include the portions that Joseph did retranslate? Does it make any sense that the inspired version of the Bible should not be finished merely with the death of the first prophet of the restoration? If we really did have a succession of prophets since Joseph Smith, this important work would have been finished and published as God commanded Joseph to do." [6]

However, as one LDS scholar noted:

"The Bible Dictionary in the English LDS Bible states that Joseph Smith 'continued to make modifications [in the translation] until his death in 1844.' Based on information available in the past, that was a reasonable assumption, and I taught it for many years. But we now know that it is not accurate. The best evidence points to the conclusion that when the Prophet called the translation 'finished,' he really meant it, and no changes were made in it after the summer (or possibly the fall) of 1833."[7]

The fact that Joseph was collecting funds to publish what we call the JST suggests that he believed it was sufficiently advanced to be published

The JST (or "Inspired Version") is probably better seen as a type of inspired commentary on the Bible text by Joseph. Its value consists not in making it the new "official" scripture, but in the insights Joseph provides readers and what Joseph himself learned during the process. As such, it would never actually be "finished." However, the fact that Joseph was collecting funds to publish what we call the JST suggests that he believed it was sufficiently advanced to be published.

The Book of Moses, which was part of the JST, was completed and canonized

The Book of Moses was produced as a result of Joseph's efforts to clarify the Bible. This portion of the work was canonized and is part of the Pearl of Great Price. There was no attempt to canonize the rest of the JST then, or now.

Joseph felt that the JST was subject to further revision

Joseph did not view his revisions to the Bible as a "once and for all" or "finally completed translation" goal—he simply didn't see scripture that way. The translation could be acceptable for purposes, but still subject to later clarification or elaboration. George Q. Cannon reported that Brigham Young heard Joseph speak about further revisions:

We have heard President Brigham Young state that the Prophet, before his death, had spoken to him about going through the translation of the scriptures again and perfecting it upon points of doctrine which the Lord had restrained him from giving in plainness and fullness at the time of which we write.[8]

Most important to note, the JST or other scriptures are not the ultimate source of LDS doctrine—having a living prophet is what is most vital. Joseph improved his prophetic capacity through the production of the JST.


See also: Joseph Smith Translation and the Book of Mormon, JST as original Bible text restoration, and Book of Mormon and KJV "errors"?

Notes

  1. See E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech used In the Bible: Explained and Illustrated (London: Messrs. Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1898), 819-824.
  2. Adam Clark, Commentary an the Bible, abridged by Ralph Earle, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book, 1979), 778.
  3. Barnes' Notes on the New Testament, edited by Ingram Cobbin, (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1980), 30.
  4. Robert J. Matthews, "A Plainer Translation": Joseph Smith's Translation of the Bible: A History and Commentary (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1985), 253.
  5. Robert J. Matthews, "Joseph Smith as Translator," in Joseph Smith, The Prophet, The Man, edited by Susan Easton Black and Charles D. Tate, Jr. (Provo: Religious Studies Center, 1993), 80, 84.
  6. "JST Bible Translation," MormonThink.com http://mormonthink.com/jst.htm#full
  7. Kent P. Jackson, "New Discoveries in the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible," in Religious Educator 6, no. 3 (2005): 149–160 (link).
  8. George Q. Cannon, The Life of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1888), 142.