Mormonism and the Bible/Joseph Smith Translation/Relationship to the Book of Mormon

Relationship of the Joseph Smith Translation to the Book of Mormon

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

—Joseph Smith, referring his translation of Malachi (Doctrine and Covenants 128:18)
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See also: Joseph Smith Translation and the Book of Mormon, JST as original Bible text restoration, and Book of Mormon and KJV "errors"?

Question: Why does the Book of Mormon match the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible so closely?

Some have presumed that Joseph simply opened a Bible and copied those chapters when he came to material on the gold plates that he recognized as being from the Bible

Some passages from the Bible (parts of Isaiah, for example) were included in the Book of Mormon text. Some people have long adopted the position that Joseph Smith simply copied the King James Version (KJV) Bible text for the relevant portions of, for example, Isaiah. Even some Church members have presumed that the close match between the texts indicates that Joseph simply opened a Bible and copied those chapters when he came to material on the gold plates that he recognized as being from the Bible.

The purposes of the Book of Mormon and JST translations were not identical. The LDS do not believe in one fixed, inviolate, "perfect" rendering of a scripture or doctrinal concept. The Book of Mormon likely reflects differences between the Nephite textual tradition and the commonly known Biblical manuscripts. The JST is a harmonization, expansion, commentary, and clarification of doctrinally important points. Neither is intended as "the final word" on a given concept or passage—continuing revelation, adapted to the circumstances in which members of the Church find themselves, precludes such an intent.

Joseph did not believe that there was "one and only one" true translation of a given passage or text. The Book of Mormon is "the most correct book" in the sense that it those who read and obey its precepts will draw nearer to God than in reading any other book. This is not a claim about textual perfection or inerrancy (which the book itself insists will still be present--title page, Mormon 9:31). In fact, Brigham Young taught that the Book of Mormon text would have been different if it were redone later:

Should the Lord Almighty send an angel to re-write the Bible, it would in many places be very different from what it now is. And I will even venture to say that if the Book of Mormon were now to be re-written, in many instances it would materially differ from the present translation. According as people are willing to receive the things of God, so the heavens send forth their blessings. [1]


Question: Why are many of the quotes from Isaiah in the Book of Mormon identical to those in the King James Bible?

Witnesses to the translation process are unanimous that Joseph did not have any books, manuscripts, or notes to which he referred while translating

There are several problems with the idea that Joseph simply copied passages from the Holy Bible.

1) Witnesses to the translation process are unanimous that Joseph did not have any books, manuscripts, or notes to which he referred while translating. Recalled Emma, in a later interview:

I know Mormonism to be the truth; and believe the church to have been established by divine direction. I have complete faith in it. In writing for [Joseph] I frequently wrote day after day, often sitting at the table close by him, he sitting with his face buried in his hat , with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us.
Q. Had he not a book or manuscript from which he read, or dictated to you?
A. He had neither manuscript or book to read from.
Q. Could he not have had, and you not know it?
A. If he had anything of the kind he could not have concealed it from me.[2]

Martin Harris also noted that Joseph would translate with his face buried in his hat in order to use the seer stone/urim and thummim. This would make referring to a Bible or notes virtually impossible:

Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine...[3]

2) It is not clear that Joseph even owned a Bible during the Book of Mormon translation. He and Oliver Cowdery later purchased a Bible, which suggests (given Joseph's straitened financial situation) that he did not already own one.[4]

3) It is not clear that Joseph's Biblical knowledge was at all broad during the Book of Mormon translation. It seems unlikely that he would have recognized, say, Isaiah, had he encountered it on the plates. Recalled Emma Smith:

When my husband was translating the Book of Mormon, I wrote a part of it, as he dictated each sentence, word for word, and when he came to proper names he could not pronounce, or long words, he spelled them out, and while I was writing them, if I made a mistake in spelling, he would stop me and correct my spelling, although it was impossible for him to see how I was writing them down at the time. .?. . When he stopped for any purpose at any time he would, when he commenced again, begin where he left off without any hesitation, and one time while he was translating he stopped suddenly, pale as a sheet, and said, "Emma, did Jerusalem have walls around it?" When I answered, "Yes," he replied, "Oh! I was afraid I had been deceived." He had such a limited knowledge of history at the time that he did not even know that Jerusalem was surrounded by walls.[5]

Emma also noted that

Joseph Smith could neither write nor dictate a coherent and wellworded letter; let alone dictating a book like the Book of Mormon. And, though I was an active participant in the scenes that transpired, . . . it is marvelous to me, “a marvel and a wonder,” as much so as to any one else.[6]

And, if Joseph was merely inventing the Book of Mormon story, he picked some of the more obscure and difficult Bible passages to include.

4) If Joseph was forging the Book of Mormon, why include Biblical passages at all? Clearly, Joseph was able to rapidly produce a vast and complex text that made no reference to Biblical citations at all. If Joseph was trying to perpetrate a fraud, why did he include near-verbatim quotations from the one book (the Holy Bible KJV) with which his target audience was sure to be familiar?

The differences in wording between the KJV and the Book of Mormon highlight the areas in which there were theologically significant differences between the Nephite versions and the Masoretic text

Even academic translators sometimes copy a previous translation if it serves the purpose of their translation. For example, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) provided previously unknown texts for many Biblical writings. However, in some translations of the DSS, approximately 90% is simply copied from the KJV.

Surely we are not expected to believe that the DSS translators dropped back into King James idiom and just happened to come up with a nearly identical text! They, in fact, unabashedly copied the KJV, except where the DSS texts were substantially different from already known Hebrew manuscripts.[7]

Why was this done? Because, the purpose of the DSS translation is to highlight the differences between the newly discovered manuscripts and those to which scholars already had access. Thus, in areas where the DSS manuscripts agree with the Biblical texts that were already known, the KJV translation is used to indicate this.

This is not to argue that there may not be a better way to render the text than the KJV—but, it would be counterproductive for the DSS committee spent a lot of time improving on the KJV translation. A reader without access to the original manuscripts could then never be sure if a difference between the DSS translation and the King James (or any other) translation represented a true difference in the DSS text, or simply the choice of the DSS translators to improve existing translations.

The situation with the Book of Mormon is likely analogous. For example, it is possible that most of the text to which the Nephites had access would not have differed significantly from the Hebrew texts used in later Bible translations. The differences in wording between the KJV and the Book of Mormon highlight the areas in which there were theologically significant differences between the Nephite versions and the Masoretic text, from which the Bible was translated. Other areas can be assumed to be essentially the same. If one wants an improved or clearer translation of a passage that is identical in the Book of Mormon and the KJV, one has only to go to the original manuscripts available to all scholars. Basing the text on the KJV focuses the reader on the important clarifications, as opposed to doing a new translation from scratch, and distracting the reader with many differences that might be due simply to translator preference.

Since there is no such thing as a "perfect" translation, this allows the reader to easily identify genuine differences between the Isaiah texts of the Old World and the Nephites.

Bible text itself quotes extensively from past scripture

When considering the presence of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, it is also interesting to note that one Bible scholar has found that the four gospels attest to the fact that Jesus Christ and the apostles consistently quoted scripture. He calculated that over "ten percent of the daily conversation of Jesus consisted of Old Testament words quoted literally" and nearly 50% of the Lord's words as quoted by John were quotations from the Old Testament.[8]

When we consider the fact that Isaiah is the most quoted of all prophets, being more frequently quoted by Jesus, Paul, Peter, and John (in his Revelation) than any other Old Testament prophet, it should not surprise us that both the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants also quote Isaiah more than any other prophet.[9] The Lord told the Nephites that "great are the words of Isaiah," and the prophet Nephi confessed, "my soul delighteth in his words... for he verily saw my Redeemer, even as I have seen him" (2 Nephi 11:2).

New Testament writers literally quoted hundreds of Old Testament scriptures including 76 verses from Isaiah

It is clear that the writings of Isaiah held special significance for Jesus Christ and Nephi (see 2 Nephi 11:8, 2 Nephi 25:5; 3 Nephi 20:11; 3 Nephi 23:1-3). Isaiah's prophecies might also have been quoted frequently because they were largely concerned with latter-day events. The Saints understand Isaiah to have foretold the restoration of the gospel through Joseph Smith (see Isaiah 49:), the gathering of Israel in the last days (Isaiah 18:), the coming forth of the Book of Mormon (Isaiah 29:), wickedness in the last days (Isa. 33), and the Savior's second coming, and the millennium (Isaiah 13:, Isaiah 26:, Isaiah 27:). While he also wrote about the Savior's first coming (Isaiah 32:1-4) and events in his own time (Isaiah 20,23:), most of what he wrote about is yet to be fulfilled.[10]

When one considers that New Testament writers literally quoted hundreds of Old Testament scriptures including 76 verses from Isaiah[11] it should not surprise us that Book of Mormon writers did likewise. After all, these writings were part of the old world scriptures brought with them to the new world 1 Nephi 19:22-23). If the prophets of the Book of Mormon had not quoted Isaiah we might have questioned the authenticity of their words. That they did quote him extensively shows that they understood his writings as did Jesus and other apostles and prophets.

Paul has been cited as the most original of all New Testament writers but investigations of his epistles show that Paul often quoted from classical writers, orators, dramas, law courts, sports commentaries, and ancient religious rites. Even the well-known Pauline formula of "faith, hope, and charity," which appears also in the Book of Mormon, has been traced to Babylonian writings.[12]

Analysis of Specific Passages

2 Nephi 14:5

Walter Martin claims that Isaiah 4:5 is followed (mistakenly) by (2 Nephi 14:5). The phrase "For upon all the glory shall be a defense" should actually be "For over all the glory there will be a canopy."

Martin ignores that as translation literature, the Book of Mormon may well follow the KJV when the documents upon which the KJV is based match those of the Nephite text. Book of Mormon variants likely reflect only theologically significant changes not available in the Old World textual tradition.


2 Nephi 22:2

Some have questioned the use of the name JEHOVAH in 2 Nephi 22:2 and the use of some italicized King James Version words in the Book of Mormon. It seems clear that Joseph Smith was led to translate many passages as they appear in the King James Bible and made changes specifically by exception. Use of the proper name "Jehovah" which is an anglicized form of the Hebrew Yahweh, was common in the Bible[13] and was also in common use in Joseph Smith's day.[14] Although the name Jehovah is of more recent origin than the original Book of Mormon plates, it does not mean this name could not properly be used in translating a more ancient Hebrew title denoting the eternal I AM. Why should Joseph Smith be criticized for using the same name that King James scholars used?


Question: Do academic translators copy translations of other documents to use as a "base text"?

In some translations of the Dead Sea Scrolls, approximately 90% is simply copied from the King James Bible

Even academic translators sometimes copy a previous translation if it serves the purpose of their translation. For example, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) provided previously unknown texts for many Biblical writings. However, in some translations of the DSS, approximately 90% is simply copied from the KJV.

Surely we are not expected to believe that the DSS translators dropped back into King James idiom and just happened to come up with a nearly identical text! They, in fact, unabashedly copied the KJV, except where the DSS texts were substantially different from already known Hebrew manuscripts.[15]

The purpose of the DSS translation is to highlight the differences between the newly discovered manuscripts and those to which scholars already had access

Why was this done? Because, the purpose of the DSS translation is to highlight the differences between the newly discovered manuscripts and those to which scholars already had access. Thus, in areas where the DSS manuscripts agree with the Biblical texts that were already known, the KJV translation is used to indicate this. Here, for example, is how the first verses of Genesis are treated:

Dead Sea Scrolls Translation: 1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. [2 And] the earth [was] formless and void; and darkness was upon the fac[e of the dee]p: and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. 3 And God said, "Let there be light," [and there was light. 4 And] God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light [from the darkness.] 5 And God called the light daytime, and the darkness he cal[led ni]ght. And there was evening [and there was morning,] one day.

KJV: 1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. 2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. 3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. 4 And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. 5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

We can see that it generally follows that same King James language. In places, it has variant readings, and it footnotes what ancient texts caused these different readings. You can also see from the various punctuation marks that there is a system in place to help us understand what part of the text comes from which source. Why would a translation made in 1999 (170 years after the Book of Mormon gets published) generally follow the King James Version? It isn't because the King James Version is the best, or the easiest to understand. In 1830, it was the only mass produced translation (the next major translation wouldn't be published for another half century). And it remains today one of the most common translations of the Bible. You don't have to be a specialist to compare the two texts and see what the differences are. In this way, we can (as non-specialists) get a better feel for the various ancient versions of the biblical texts. The same is true for the Book of Mormon except perhaps in reverse. By using the KJV language, we are probably being clued in to the fact that the potential differences aren't the important parts of the Book of Mormon. Rather than focusing on how this or that word was changed, we can focus on what the passages are trying to teach us.

This is not to argue that there may not be a better way to render the text than the KJV—but, it would be counterproductive for the DSS committee spent a lot of time improving on the KJV translation. A reader without access to the original manuscripts could then never be sure if a difference between the DSS translation and the KJV translation represented a true difference in the DSS, or simply the choice of the DSS translators to improve the KJV.

The situation with the Book of Mormon is likely analogous

The situation with the Book of Mormon is likely analogous. For example, most of the text to which the Nephites had access would not have differed significantly from the Hebrew texts used in Bible translations. The differences in wording between the KJV and the Book of Mormon highlight the areas in which there were theologically significant differences between the Nephite versions and the Masoretic text, from which the Bible was translated. Other areas can be assumed to be essentially the same. If one wants an improved or clearer translation of a passage that is identical in the Book of Mormon and the KJV, one has only to go to the original manuscripts available to all scholars. Basing the text on the KJV focuses the reader on the important clarifications, as opposed to doing a new translation from scratch, and distracting the reader with many differences that might be due simply to translator preference.

Furthermore, using a KJV "base text" also helps us to identify the source of some scriptural citations that might be otherwise unclear. Consider this bit from Jacob 1:7:

Wherefore we labored diligently among our people, that we might persuade them to come unto Christ, and partake of the goodness of God, that they might enter into his rest, lest by any means he should swear in his wrath they should not enter in, as in the provocation in the days of temptation while the children of Israel were in the wilderness.

This sounds nice, but its real impact on our reading Jacob occurs when we recognize that Jacob is alluding to Psalm 95:8-11:

8 Harden not your heart, as in the provocation, and as in the day of temptation in the wilderness: 9 When your fathers tempted me, proved me, and saw my work. 10 Forty years long was I grieved with this generation, and said, It is a people that do err in their heart, and they have not known my ways: 11 Unto whom I sware in my wrath that they should not enter into my rest.

Jacob wants us to understand what follows in the context of Israel being led in the wilderness by Moses. Drawing that connection is hard enough for people who don't have a lot of familiarity with the Old Testament. But had it followed language not found in the Bible they had (the KJV)—even if conceptually it was the same—it would have been far more difficult for readers to connect the two to understand the point Jacob was trying to make.

In this way, it makes a lot of sense for a translation—even a divinely inspired translation which is being read through revelation (from a seer stone) - to follow a conventional text where it duplicates the same original source material. It isn't just about trying to duplicate the source material, it is also about getting the reader who then reads the text to understand it.


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."[16]

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)."[17]

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."[18]

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.


To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here

Notes

  1. Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 9:311.
  2. Joseph Smith III, “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints’ Advocate 2 (Oct. 1879): 51
  3. David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ (Richmond, Mo.: n.p., 1887), 12; cited frequently, including by Neal A. Maxwell, "By the Gift and Power of God," Ensign (January 1997), 34–41. off-site
  4. John A. Tvedtnes and Matthew Roper, "Joseph Smith's Use of the Apocrypha: Shadow or Reality? (Review of Joseph Smith's Use of the Apocrypha by Jerald and Sandra Tanner)," FARMS Review of Books 8/2 (1996): 326–372. off-site
  5. Emma Smith to Edmund C. Briggs, "A Visit to Nauvoo in 1856," Journal of History 9 (January 1916): 454.
  6. Joseph Smith III, “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints’ Advocate 2 (Oct. 1879): 51
  7. “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints’ Herald, (1 Oct. 1879): 290.
  8. Jay P. Green Sr., The Interlinear Bible, Hebrew-Greek-English (Sovereign Grace Publishers, 1995), 975. ISBN 1878442821. ISBN 1565639774.
  9. See LDS KJV, Bible Dictionary, "{{{article}}},", 707. off-site
  10. Bruce R. McConkie, "Ten Keys to Understanding Isaiah," Ensign (October 1973), 78–83. off-site.
  11. LDS KJV, Bible Dictionary, "{{{article}}},",756–759. off-site
  12. Hugh W. Nibley, Since Cumorah, 2nd edition, (Vol. 7 of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Company ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1988), 128. ISBN 0875791395.
  13. See Exodus 6:3; Psalms 83:18; Isaiah 12:2; Isaiah 26:4.
  14. See such scriptural examples as DC 109:34,42,56,68; DC 110:1-3; DC 128:9. See also Joseph Smith, Jr., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, selected by Joseph Fielding Smith, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1976), 220, 221, 250–251. off-site
  15. See, for example, Martin G. Abegg, Jr., Peter Flint, Eugene Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible (HarperCollins, 2012). Other examples of similar choices in translation include: Robert H. Charles, The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1913), Theodor H. Gaster, The Dead Sea Scriptures, 3rd ed. (Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1976), and Robert Lisle Lindsey, A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark (Jerusalem: Baptist House, n.d.).
  16. See E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech used In the Bible: Explained and Illustrated (London: Messrs. Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1898), 819-824.
  17. Adam Clark, Commentary an the Bible, abridged by Ralph Earle, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book, 1979), 778.
  18. Barnes' Notes on the New Testament, edited by Ingram Cobbin, (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1980), 30.


Further reading and additional sources responding to these claims