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The Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible

The Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible

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“We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God” (Articles of Faith 8). 

"When Joseph Smith produced his revisions to the Bible in the 1830s, it seemed quite plausible that scribes had either accidentally or deliberately omitted words, phrases, and even lengthy paragraphs from all of the surviving manuscripts. We now know this simply did not happen."

The LDS Church recognizes the Bible—both the Old and New Testaments—as scripture. Mormons also believe a great deal of what the Bible teaches. In general, they accept the historical accounts of the Bible (for example, the events of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, or the miracles of Jesus) as reliable, factual accounts. They agree that “many prophecies in the Old Testament foretell the coming of a Savior and Redeemer” (Gospel Principles, 46). Mormons also affirm some basic truths about Jesus that the New Testament reveals, such as that he lived a sinless life, suffered and died on the cross, rose bodily from the grave, and ascended into heaven. LDS ethical values also agree with the Bible on a number of watershed cultural issues in contemporary society. For example, Mormons are pro-life. They view homosexual activity as sinful and oppose same-sex marriage. For taking these ethical stands, the LDS Church has sometimes come under vicious attack. Thus, in both their teachings and their practical values, Mormons demonstrate their agreement with much of what the Bible says.

On the other hand, the LDS Church qualifies its acceptance of the Bible. The eighth Article of Faith of the LDS Church states that the Bible is “the word of God as far as it is translated correctly.” Most Mormons understand this qualification to mean that a significant problem with the Bible’s “translation” make it less reliable than their other scriptures. Thus, for example, the eighth Article affirms that the Book of Mormon is the word of God without this qualification, and Joseph Smith claimed in its introduction that the Book of Mormon is ‘the most correct of any book on earth” (quoted in Gospel Principles, 46). Obviously, that means that the Book of Mormon is more correct than the Bible—indeed, that was Joseph’s whole point. The LDS Church teaches that much of what the Bible originally said was lost or altered in the process of copying and re-copying biblical manuscripts down through the centuries. In particular, Mormons believe that “many plain and precious things” were “taken away from the book” of the Bible, as the Book of Mormon itself states (1 Nephi 13:28-29).

Joseph Smith addressed these alleged defects in the Bible as it has come down to us by producing his own revision to the Bible known as the Joseph Smith Translation (JST). Gospel Principles describes Joseph’s changes to the Bible as “inspired corrections” and explains, “The Lord inspired the Prophet Joseph to restore truths to the Bible that had been lost or changed since the original words were written” (46). This explanation agrees with the traditional Mormon understanding of the JST, which is that Joseph’s changes brought the Bible into agreement with the wording of the original manuscripts, at least in those places where he made such changes. Some Mormon apologists today suggest that the JST was not a restoration of the original text but instead a kind of inspired “commentary” on the Bible. However, this is not what Gospel Principles says, and it is not what Joseph claimed.

A simple example, one that Joseph Smith himself explained in some detail, will make the point clear. Hebrews 6:1 in the King James Version (KJV) reads, “Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection.” Joseph thought this was one of those places in the Bible where copyists had made a mistake, and he claimed that God had inspired him as a prophet to correct such mistakes. Here is his explanation:

I believe the Bible as it read when it came from the pen of the original writers. Ignorant translators, careless transcribers, or designing and corrupt priests have committed many errors…. Look at Heb. vi.1 for contradictions—“Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on to perfection.” If a man leaves the principles of the doctrine of Christ, how can he be saved in the principles? This is a contradiction. I don’t believe it. I will render it as it should be—“Therefore not leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on to perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works” (History of the Church [1950], 6:57, 58).

Joseph’s explanation confirms the traditional understanding of what the JST was supposed to do (make corrections to the text where words had been lost or changed). It also gives us an opportunity to test his claim that God had inspired him to detect omissions or changes to the text and correct them. In the case of Hebrews 6:1, there is no contradiction in the KJV translation or in the Greek text on which it was based. “Leaving the principles” does not mean no longer believing them, but “leaving” the discussion of them to move on to more advanced subject matter, as when a teacher tells a class, “Today we’re going to leave addition and move on to subtraction.” The fact that Joseph did not understand this but thought the Bible was missing a word in Hebrews 1:6 shows that he was not divinely inspired in his “corrections” of the Bible.

When Joseph Smith produced his revisions to the Bible in the 1830s, it seemed quite plausible that scribes had either accidentally or deliberately omitted words, phrases, and even lengthy paragraphs from all of the surviving manuscripts. We now know this simply did not happen.

Consider first the Old Testament. In Joseph’s day, the earliest known manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible dated from about AD 900, roughly 1300 years after the close of the Old Testament era. The Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in the late 1940s, included copies of almost all of the Old Testament books dating to the first century BC and first century AD—about a thousand years earlier than the medieval manuscripts on which scholars had been dependent. These Dead Sea Scroll biblical manuscripts show that only minute changes in the Old Testament had occurred in that thousand-year period. What minor differences the newly discovered scrolls reveal do not support Joseph Smith’s revisions to the Old Testament.

 

TABLE 1:

Some Significant Additions in the Joseph Smith Translation

(see also Book of Moses and Joseph Smith—Matthew in Pearl of Great Price)

Reference (JST)

Summary/Quotation

Comment

Genesis 14:25-40

Melchizedek was ordained a high priest under the covenant God made with Enoch, “after the order of the Son of God”; those holding this priesthood had miraculous powers and were translated into heaven.

This addition reflects Joseph’s belief that God’s people throughout history need “priesthood” as a source of spiritual power. See Hebrews 7:3 (below).

Genesis 50:24-38

The patriarch Joseph prophesies of the coming of Moses to deliver Israel from Egypt, as well as a future prophet called Joseph, named after his father.

Here Joseph writes into the Bible a “prophecy” predicting that he, Joseph Smith Jr., will be a prophet of God.

John 1:1

“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 Word Son was of God.”

Here Joseph Smith changes John 1:1 so that it no longer says that “the Word was God.”

John 4:24

“For God is a spirit” changed to say “For unto such hath God promised his Spirit.”

Here Joseph’s change reflects his developing belief that God was a corporeal being.

Romans 4:4-5

“Now to him that worketh who is justified by the law of works, is the reward reckoned, not of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not seeketh not to be justified by the law of works, but believeth on him that justifieth not the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.”

Here Joseph adds the word “not” as part of a revision to avoid Romans saying that God justifies the ungodly—even though that is exactly what Paul was saying: God justifies those whose works are ungodly by his grace through their faith in Christ.

Romans 7:5-27

When he was living under the law, Paul was carnal and disobeyed God, but now he is spiritual and does what God commands him, with “the assistance of Christ.”

Here Joseph rewrites Romans 7 to eliminate the idea that a Christian could continue to experience struggle and failure in overcoming sin.

Hebrews 7:3

“For this Melchizedek was ordained a priest after the order of the Son of God, which order was without father, without mother…. And all those who are ordained unto this priesthood are made like unto the Son of God….”

Here Joseph rewrites Hebrews 7:3 to say that Melchizedek was a priest in a priestly order that went back to the Son of God at the beginning of history. What Hebrews actually says is that Melchizedek’s priesthood was a biblical type that prefigured the heavenly priesthood of Jesus, the Son of God.

 

As for the New Testament, in Joseph’s day scholars had enough Greek manuscripts to know that they all differed from one another in various ways but not enough to know with certainty how well or poorly the original wording of the New Testament books had survived. For example, during Joseph’s lifetime scholars had access to less than 24 codices (ancient books) from the first millennium AD that contained part or all of the Greek New Testament; we now have roughly 300 such codices. Constantin von Tischendorf’s Greek New Testament, published in 1849 (five years after Joseph Smith’s death), was the first scholarly work to establish the principles of textual criticism that New Testament scholars follow to this day. Tischendorf could cite only one New Testament papyrus (an older sheet of paper, often in a roll), a seventh-century papyrus that contained less than half of 1 Corinthians; scholars now have access to nearly 130 New Testament papyri, several dating from the second century. The Oxyrhynchus papyri (found in the 1890s), the Chester Beatty papyri (1930s), and the Bodmer papyri (1952) are just some of the treasure troves of papyri discovered since the time of Joseph Smith. The manuscripts on which the KJV was based were almost exclusively minuscules, manuscripts on parchment or paper produced between the tenth and fifteenth centuries. During the years that Joseph Smith was working on his revisions to the KJV, the number of catalogued minuscule codices roughly doubled from over 200 to almost 400; today there are almost 3,000 catalogued.

These manuscript discoveries and more than 150 years of scholarly textual criticism together demonstrate that the New Testament of Joseph Smith’s day suffered from no omissions at all. We now have so many New Testament manuscripts, and so many dating from the centuries immediately after the books were originally written, that we can now say definitively that there is no realistic possibility that whole sentences or passages—or even individual words like “not” in Hebrews 6:1—were lost from the text.

If there was a “problem” with the New Testament of Joseph’s day it was that it had just a bit more material than was original to those New Testament books. (Scribes almost never deleted anything from the manuscripts they copied, but they sometimes added words or phrases, often in the margins as explanations that later scribes copied as if they were part of the book.) The additional material is insignificant except in two places: the ending of Mark (16:9-20) and the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11). The consensus of New Testament scholars is that these two passages of a dozen verses each were later additions to the Gospels. And here is something worth noting: in his revisions to the Bible, Joseph did not indicate that either of these two passages should be omitted. In fact, Joseph added some words to the passage about the adulterous woman (in John 8:6).

The LDS view of the “corruption” of the text of the Bible, then, has things exactly backwards. The original text of the books of the Bible has survived with no significant omissions. “Many plain and precious things” were not lost. Instead, scribes added words here or there, and in a couple of places short passages, that were not part of the original text. Joseph Smith’s revision to the Bible consists almost entirely of additions, several of them lengthy, that we can say with reasonable certainty were not part of the original books of the Bible. Furthermore, Joseph failed to identify those two major additions to the New Testament that did not belong. 

For Further Reflection

  • What is the LDS Church’s teaching as to the reason for the revisions to the Bible in the “Joseph Smith Translation”?
  • Does the manuscript evidence show that material was lost from the books of the Bible, or added to those books?
For Further Study
 
Mormonism and the Bible. A collection of articles on the Joseph Smith Translation, the Mormon view of the canon of Scripture, and more.