The Joseph Smith Translation in Light of the New Testament: An Examination of Key Passages in the Gospel of John Part 1
Parts 1.A - 1.C: Introduction and Historical Background
Introduction and Purpose
As all informed persons know, the various versions of the Bible do not accurately record or perfectly preserve the words, thoughts, intents of the original inspired authors. In consequence, at the command of the Lord and while acting under the spirit of revelation, the Prophet corrected, revised, altered, added to, and deleted from the King James Version of the Bible to form what is now commonly referred to as the Inspired Version of the Bible.
... Such biblical revisions as have been made may be used with safety, and parts of these are now published by the Church in its standard works.1
Thus, the late Mormon Apostle Bruce R. McConkie, one of the foremost LDS theologians of the twentieth century, introduces us to the topic of this study. Yet, more of an introduction is needed. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also known as LDS or Mormons), mounted a multi-pronged attack on the Bible’s reliability and authority. In the process he did considerable work on what he termed a “translation” or a “correcting of the scriptures.” This is known variously as the “Inspired Version,” “Revised Version,” “Inspired Revision,” the “New Translation”, and the “Joseph Smith Translation,” and consists of extensive revisions and editions to the text of the Authorized King James Version. Latter-day Saints alive in the 1800s had been led to believe the Bible was full of inaccuracies. They anticipated having a Bible free of both textual and doctrinal errors and omissions. During the course of this paper I will refer to it primarily as the “Joseph Smith Translation” (JST) for this is the official title given it by the LDS Church.
This paper will provide a brief history of the coming forth of the JST and evaluate the changes introduced by Joseph Smith by comparing them with the wording found in the original language manuscripts. There will be three major sections:
- Historical Background And Significance Of The JST
- Grounds For Testing The JST
- Textual Comparison Of Key John Texts Changed In The JST
Any study of the JST has significance for all followers of Joseph Smith, and in particular for both the Reorganized Latter-day Saints (RLDS) and members of the LDS Church. These groups support, to varying degrees, Smith’s work as contained in the JST. Therefore, the accuracy and reliability of the revisions Joseph Smith made to the Bible directly affect matters of belief and practice for both LDS and RLDS people.
1. Historical Background and the Significance of the JST
In order to gain a clearer understanding of what Joseph Smith said and did, it is important to place his work in revising the text of Scripture in proper historical context. Therefore, this first section will examine:
A. Joseph Smith’s Reasons for Making a New Translation
B. His Views of the Significance of his Work
C. Significance of his Work to the Early Mormon People,
D. Historical Note: Differing Views of the LDS & RLDS
E. Significance of the JST to Latter-day Saints Today
1.A: Joseph Smith’s Reasons for Making a New Translation
Joseph Smith highly regarded his work producing the JST. Drawing from Joseph’s own statements, Mormon scholar Reed Connell Durham, Jr., in his Ph.D. dissertation for Brigham Young University titled “A History of Joseph Smith’s Revision of the Bible,” develops Joseph’s reasons for revising the text of Scripture. Among these he cites, (1) the corrupted state of the existing King James Bible and the need to correct the errors it contained, (2) the revelations Joseph received made it clear to him “that many important points touching the Salvation of man, had been taken from the Bible, or lost before it was compiled.”2 (3) God specifically commanded Joseph Smith to undertake the task.3
Though there was and is no reason to believe the existing King James Version of the Bible was unreliable, Joseph Smith and other early church leaders clearly stated their views concerning the inadequacy of the existing translations of the Bible. Durham remarks, “Joseph Smith repeatedly stated his personal conviction about the fallibility of the Bible,” and cites as an example the following statement made by Joseph Smith in the 1833 LDS periodical, Evening and Morning Star:
As to the errors in the bible, any man possessed of common understanding, knows, that both old and new testaments are filled with errors, obscurities, italics and contradictions, which must be the work of men.4 (emphasis added)
Joseph incorporated his views into “The Articles of Faith,” which are found at the end of the LDS scripture, Pearl of Great Price. The Eighth article reads:
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. (emphasis added)
The Book of Mormon is far less subtle in casting doubts on the Bible. For example I Nephi 13:26‑29 refers to:
... the formation of that great and abominable church, which is most abominable above all other churches; for behold, they have taken away from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and most precious; and also many covenants of the Lord have they taken away. And all this have they done that they might pervert the right ways of the Lord, that they might blind the eyes and harden the hearts of the children of men. Wherefore, thou seest that after the book hath gone forth through the hands of the great and abominable church, that there are many plain and precious things taken away from the book, which is the book of the Lamb of God. ...because of these things which are taken away out of the gospel of the Lamb, an exceedingly great many do stumble, yea, insomuch that Satan hath great power over them.
According to Mormonism, these changes occurred after the time of Christ and after the formation of the Catholic Church.5
Statements by early LDS leaders encouraged Mormons to view the Bible as unreliable. Early LDS Apostle Orson Pratt fully supported Joseph in this area and encouraged the Mormon people to view the Bible as corrupted and untrustworthy. He was one of the most outspoken on this subject, and rejected as unreliable the translations of the Bible and the manuscripts from which the translations were made. In his pamphlet “Spiritual Gifts,” on pages 70‑71 he states:
God gave many revelations to Hebrew Prophets, in the Hebrew language. Some of these revelations have been translated by human wisdom into many other languages, and called the Bible. The same revelations have been translated many times by different authors: but no two translations agree. They differ not only in words and style, but also in sentiment, according to the various opinions of the translators. These clashing translations are circulated among the people, as the words of God, when, in reality they are the words of translators; and words too, selected by their own human wisdom .... Therefore, so far as the uninspired translators and the people are concerned, no part of the Bible can, with certainty, be known by them to be the word of God .... The Hebrew and Greek manuscripts of the Bible from which translations have been made, are evidently very much corrupted, as appears from the fact, that scarcely any two copies are alike in any chapter or verse .... This uncertainty, combined with the imperfections of uninspired translations, renders the Bibles of all languages, at the present day, emphatically the words of men, instead of the pure words of God. (emphasis added)
Pratt has set the stage for the grand entrance of the prophet, and continues a couple of paragraphs later, saying:
25.—To remedy all these evils, and give the nations the Old and New Testaments in purity, would require the gift of translation by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. Such a gift God gave to the great Prophet of the last days—Joseph Smith. He was inspired of God to translate the Scriptures, and reveal some of the lost books.6
Therefore, by undermining the reliability of the Bible, early LDS leaders created a need for a revised Bible.
Alongside of the emphasis placed on the corruptness of the biblical text, the third and primary reason for the JST, according to Joseph Smith and Mormon history, is God’s direct command through divine revelation to do this work. Joseph claimed he revised the Bible because he was instructed to do so by God.
1.B: Joseph Smith’s View of the Revision Work
In light of the previous statements regarding the supposed corruptness of the existing Scriptures, it is easy to see why Joseph saw his work in bringing forth a new translation as extremely significant. It is also clear from statements he made, carefully recorded in journals and diaries, that he viewed his work as nothing less than a result of God’s direct inspiration. Many of his statements bear the additional weight of canonization, and are published as Scripture for Mormons to this day.7
The supposed direct interaction of God with Joseph Smith becomes the hinge upon which this new revision swings. Mormon scholars have to acknowledge there is very little room for middle ground on the issue. Either God is the source of the changes and they are completely accurate, or Joseph made them up, and in claiming to get revelations from God, he intentionally led people astray. Joseph recorded multiple references to both the revelations he received and the time he spent working on the text of the revision. Here are some sample entries from Joseph Smith’s journals and diaries as compiled in History of the Church, Vol. I.
December 30, 1830 - It may be well to observe here, that the Lord greatly encouraged and strengthened the faith of His little flock...by giving some more extended information upon the Scriptures, a translation of which had already commenced. (I:131)
April, 1831; Kirtland, Ohio - During the month of April, I continued to translate the Scriptures as time would allow. (I:170)
October, 1831; Hiram, Ohio - Soon after the above revelation was received [D&C 65], I renewed my work on the translation of the Scriptures ... (I:219)
Even more significant are the canonized revelations recorded in Doctrine & Covenants where Joseph Smith records the very words of the Lord. These passages receive extensive treatment in Robert J. Matthews' doctoral dissertation. His work, entitled “A Study of the Text of the JST of the Bible,” (Brigham Young University, May 1968), traces the historical background of the JST, and leaves no doubt that the only options open to LDS and RLDS people are that either the JST is the result of direct revelation from God, or that Joseph Smith is a false prophet with incredible audacity to make the claims he did. At the beginning of his dissertation he takes great care to define key terminology. Under the heading “Revelation” he states the following:
The Prophet Joseph Smith claimed to be inspired and to receive divine aid and direction in many of his spoken and written pronouncements. Some of these documents have been printed in the Doctrine and Covenants and have thereby been assigned numbers. These communications are commonly referred to as “revelations” in the writings of the Prophet and in the terminology of the Church.8
Arch S. Reynolds, another Mormon who has done extensive work on the subject of the JST, realizes that if Joseph’s claims are true (and Reynolds does not doubt them for a minute), then the only conclusion one can come to is:
How did Joseph at the age of twenty-five years without any learning do many wonderful things in translating and selecting foreign words to restore the true sense of the meaning? It is preposterous to even think he did it other than by the gift and power of God.9
An example of many of the revelations now part of Mormon Scripture relating to the JST is found in Doctrine & Covenants 35:20. This revelation was given to Joseph Smith for Sidney Rigdon (one of Joseph’s scribes), during the revision process, and has the Lord declaring:
And a commandment I give unto thee—that thou shall write for him; and the scriptures shall be given, even as they are in mine own bosom, to the salvation of mine own elect.
Reed C. Durham in his dissertation found and documented eighteen sections in the Doctrine & Covenants where the Lord gave specific instructions concerning the revision. In the majority of these, it is generally referred to as a “translation,” in spite of the fact that Joseph never used any manuscripts in making the emendations.10
It is clear Joseph Smith never pretended his work to be anything other than the result of direct communication with God. His pronouncements to his followers, some of which are now Scripture, left them with little alternative but to eagerly look to the JST as the Word of God, divinely corrected.
1.C: Significance Of The JST To Early Latter-day Saints
Early Latter-day Saint publications and other recorded sources reveal that people knew of and were enthusiastic about the JST. An LDS Church publication, Times and Seasons, dated July, 1840, ran an editorial on the need for having more books, including the Revision, available for church members:
The authorities of the church here, having taken this subject into consideration, and viewing the importance of Publishing a Hymn Book, and a more extensive quantity of the Books of Mormon, and also the necessity of Publishing the new translation of the scriptures, which has so long been desired by the Saints; have appointed and authorized Samuel Bent and Geo. W. Harris, as traveling agents, to make contracts and receive monies etc., for the accomplishment of this glorious work.11
The people would have also been familiar with many of the previously mentioned statements of Joseph Smith, and his attitudes toward the work, reflected in this unpublished letter to the Times and Seasons in which he stated that the JST:
will be found of inestimable advantage to the Saints, & all who desire a knowledge of the Kingdom of God, — and of great worth to this generation.12
Though the entire Revision was never published during Joseph Smith’s day, and many early Latter-day Saints were denied use of the new translation, it was still considered a significant work. R. C. Durham explains:
Even before the Revision had been completed, the Church was anticipating its publication, and after its completion in July, 1833, the anticipation grew even stronger. This is seen by six of the leading brethren of the Church uniting in prayer in 1834 and formally petitioning the Lord that protection would be given over the printing press in Kirtland, Ohio, so that, along with other publications, the Revision could be printed.13
LDS scholars like Durham and Matthews have documented that persons closely involved with Joseph Smith and the early LDS Church had a personal knowledge of the Revision work. Orson Pratt was one such person who actually witnessed Joseph Smith at work:
I saw his [Joseph Smith] contenance [sic] lighted up as the inspiration of the Holy Ghost rested upon him, dictating the great and most precious revelations now printed for our guide. I saw him translating, by inspiration, the Old and New Testaments ... 14
Early LDS leaders like Apostle Orson Pratt and President John Taylor made extensive use of the JST, often quoting from it to clarify passages they felt were ambiguous in the King James Version. Wilford Woodruff, fourth president of the LDS Church, taking over after Taylor’s death, wrote, “We may rest assured that the changes that Joseph Smith made are correct.” Only two years younger than Joseph Smith, Woodruff was considered a “true friend of the Prophet and knew the conditions better than most of the leaders about the question.”15
This tradition of quoting from the JST continued following Joseph’s death, as sixth president, Joseph Fielding Smith cited Amos 3:7 in his Essentials of Church History, p. 22, “to show how much better it is than the King James Version.”16
The non-Mormon community of Joseph’s day also demonstrated some degree of acquaintance with the progress of the JST. R.C. Durham cites an early newspaper article that states, “Their Prophet Smith is now busy in restoring the present Bible to its primitive purity, and in adding some lost books of great importance,” as well as a letter from Ezra Booth, one who joined the LDS Church briefly, but then left. Booth’s letter is very insightful as to the important role the new translation was to play in the life of the LDS community.
... the Bible is declared too defective to be trusted in its present form; and it is designed that it shall undergo a thorough alteration, or as they say, translation. This work is now in operation. The Gospel of Matthew has already received the purifying touch, and is prepared for the use of the church. It was intended to have kept this work a profound secret, and strict commandments were given for that purpose; and even the salvation of the church was said to depend upon it.17
Durham points out several items of significance in this letter. First of all, Booth knew the Revision existed and that early church members referred to it as a “translation.” Second, his reference to it being “secret” is correct if it is understood to reflect the lack of widespread use within the church. Finally, Booth touches on the importance the JST held in the church, for “even the salvation of the church was said to depend upon it.” Durham comments:
Booth here revealed one of the strongest points ofttimes overlooked by Latter-day Saint writers about the Revision. To early Church members this work was considered to be an important and essential part of the restoration work, whereas, in the present day, the Revision work is often thought to be a lesser work not essential to the work of the Lord. Booth, however, revealed the thought of the early Church, which was consistent with the early revelations upon this subject.18
Hence, it is clear, the JST was of great significance to the early LDS Church, and not a subject to be treated lightly, and, if Joseph Smith’s revelations are to be believed, “the scriptures shall be given, even as they are in mine own bosom, to the salvation of mine own elect...and he that doeth them not shall be damned if he so continue.”19
We now go on to examine where contemporary Mormonism stands regarding Joseph’s translation work. Following Joseph’s death, the Saints splintered into different groups, each claiming to be “the one true church.” The next section provides a brief historical overview of the differing views of the JST held by the LDS (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) and RLDS (now Community of Christ) Churches.
2 Joseph Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, (Salt Lake: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Deseret News Press, 1902-12), I, 245. Hereafter cited as History of the Church.
5 In Vol. 1, No. 1 of the early Mormon periodical The Evening and Morning Star, p. 3, we read that the changes in the Bible were made by “the Mother of Harlots while it was confined in that Church,—say, from the year A.D. 460-1400.” This is significant to this study, for manuscripts dated earlier than 460 should be largely uncorrupted and reflect the original text.
7 The LDS Church has four literary works they consider Scripture. They are, the King James Version of the Bible, the Book of Mormon (a record of the ancient inhabitants of the Americas, and more recently publicized as “Another Testament of Jesus Christ”), the Doctrine and Covenants (a numbered listing of prophecies and revelations received by Joseph Smith and subsequent Prophets of the LDS Church), and the Pearl of Great Price (a work containing heretofore lost scriptures like the Book of Moses and Book of Abraham, as well as segments from Joseph Smith’s history now canonized). These are referred to collectively as “The Standard Works.”
8 See pages 55-61 for an excellent summary listing of dates and references that, in his words, “are useful in ascertaining the precise time that portions of the Bible were being revised. This information likewise makes it possible to arrive at a reasonably accurate statement of the procedure of the Prophet in the work of revision.” Robert J. Matthews, “A Study Of The Text Of The Inspired Revision Of The Bible,” [Photostat], (Ph.D. diss., Brigham Young University, May 1968), 8, 55-61.
12 Unpublished letter to Times and Seasons, February 1842, Utah Church SLC Archives, cited by Stephen Roger Knecht, Joseph Smith - The Word and The Bible, [photostat], unpublished manuscript, copyright 1986, p. 94.