The Joseph Smith Translation in Light of the New Testament: An Examination of Key Passages in the Gospel of John Part 1D
Parts 1.D - 1.E: Differing Views [RLDS-LDS] Significance to Contemporary Mormons
1.D. Historical Note: Differing Views of LDS and RLDS Churches
Both RLDS and LDS church members would generally agree on the historical information presented to this point. However, following Joseph’s death, his translation manuscripts, and the Bible in which he made marginal and textual notations, stayed with his wife Emma Hale Smith. Latter-day Saints under the leadership of Brigham Young (who later led the largest portion of Latter-day Saints to Utah) attempted to beg, purchase, or otherwise obtain the original manuscripts of the revision from Emma, but she staunchly refused to give them up. When the Saints departed for Utah, she and her son joined what became known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (RLDS — but since April 6, 2001, has adopted the name Community of Christ) headquartered in Independence, Missouri. The RLDS Church, possessing the original manuscripts and marked Bible, and convinced that Joseph completed the work of revision, published it under the title “The Inspired Version” of the Holy Scriptures, and considered it authoritative. I have included as Appendix A, copies of the original manuscript pages of the “Inspired Version” for all verses analyzed in the final section of this paper.1
The LDS church has in its possession a partial copy of the translation manuscripts copied prior to Joseph’s death by John Milton Bernhisel. The incompleteness of the “Bernhisel Manuscript” and evidence indicating Joseph was continuing to make changes up till the time of his death, are the grounds upon which the LDS Church had traditionally rejected the RLDS publication of the Inspired Revision as a separate work of sacred Scripture. Due in large degree to Robert J. Matthews’ work comparing the reliability of the various JST manuscripts, the Mormon Church has softened its position. Thus, while it has yet to publish its own edition of the new translation under a separate cover, much of the content is included in the LDS edition of the King James Bible.
The issues of whether Joseph completed his revision work, and the accuracy of the various RLDS versions of the Inspired Revision have been discussed at great length by other authors, and therefore readers are referred to the bibliography of this paper (particularly the works of Matthews) should they wish to pursue these areas.
An excellent historical summary of RLDS and LDS attitudes toward the JST is found in Thomas L. Sherry’s 1988 BYU dissertation entitled Attitudes, Practices, and Positions Toward Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible: A Historical Analysis of Publications, 1847-1987. Sherry documents the differing positions and summarizes his findings with the following comparisons. His parallel column arrangement (found on page 10) provides both a summary and overview of the shift in attitudes found within the RLDS and LDS Churches regarding the Joseph Smith Translation. (Sherry 1988, 165-167)
|RLDS POSITION TO 1900||RLDS POSITION, 1987|
|a. The work of revision was divinely commanded, guided, and completed.||a. Joseph Smith perceived his work of Bible revision as being divinely commanded, guided, and sufficiently complete to warrant publication plans.|
|b. The revision clarified and corrected many difficult and erroneous aspects present in other versions, and “restored many plain and precious” lost parts.||b. Changes made in the revision represent what Joseph Smith believed to be inspired commentary, and grew out of his effort to clarify and correct the Bible text according to his 19th century understanding and resources. Such changes probably do not represent actual restorations of ancient texts.|
|c. Having been divinely instigated, guided, and approved, the revision was a better product than those Bible versions limited to human scholarship.||c. The Inspired Version should not be considered categorically better than other Bible versions, particularly those produced by modern Bible scholars.|
|d. Divine commands to preserve, publish, and give to the world Joseph Smith’s revision were accomplished by the RLDS Church and hence mark it as the true Church of the Restoration.||d. (modification of elements 1-3 have resulted in no comparable position being taken in the last decade of publications)|
|e. Members should not disparage the King James, or other versions, but should use the Inspired Version in preference to them particularly where differences occur.||e. Members are encouraged to use the version of the Bible which best meets their particular need.|
|LDS POSITION TO 1900||LDS POSITION, 1987|
|a. The work of revision was divinely commanded and guided, but not completed.||a. The work of revision was divinely commanded, guided, and completed sufficiently to be used.|
|b. The revision clarified and corrected many difficult or erroneous aspects present in other versions, and “restored many plain and precious” lost parts of the Bible record.||b. (same)|
|c. Since Joseph Smith did not complete his revision, the RLDS Inspired Version is an unauthorized publication.||c. Having verified the accuracy of the RLDS Inspired Version (by comparison with the manuscripts), changes found therein may authoritatively be used.|
|d. The King James Version is the standard Bible of the Church until such time the Lord otherwise directs. Presumably, this would be the preparation of Joseph Smith’s revision for an officially authorized publication.||d. The LDS edition of the Bible, containing King James Version text and employing numerous references from the JST, is the standard Bible of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints until the Lord directs otherwise.|
Sherry’s extensive survey, which covers all the known literature for the years 1847-1987, does much to establish an official LDS (Utah Mormons) position, regarding Joseph’s translation work, and shows that the changes made are currently considered acceptable and authoritative by the LDS Church.
1.E. Significance of the JST to Contemporary Latter-day Saints
While today’s Mormon does not have the Joseph Smith Translation as a separate scripture, there is ample evidence indicating the changes are viewed as inspired, and therefore significant to contemporary Latter-day Saints. LDS leaders have created a need for the JST for they continue to teach Mormon people the false notion that the biblical text is essentially corrupted and unreliable due to what has been lost from it.
Mormon missionaries today continue to advocate this low view of the Bible’s reliability, though in a much more subtle way. They are encouraged to place the greatest emphasis on the Book of Mormon, which, as previously shown, undermines the Bible’s authority. A booklet written to help Mormon missionaries in their proselytizing efforts entitled Converting With The Book Of Mormon quotes Mormon Apostle Bruce R. McConkie:
But let me tell you, it is not the Bible that brings people into the [LDS] Church; it is the Book of Mormon and latter-day revelation. We can use the Bible to lay a foundation, but until we get involved with latter-day revelation, the processes of conversion do not begin to operate in any substantial degree in the heart of an investigator [potential convert to Mormonism].2
Following this quote the author comments:
Conversion occurs only when people receive a testimony that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. Unless people come to appreciate Joseph Smith’s role in translating the Book of Mormon and sense keenly the value of the contents of the Book of Mormon, they will not be convinced that Joseph Smith was a prophet.3
Under the heading of “Precious Truths Restored” on page nineteen of this same book we read the following:
Some of the men involved in preserving and translating these records over the years have not been inspired, and it is common knowledge that they have allowed errors and omissions in the Bible in its present form. One purpose of the Book of Mormon is to restore many of the precious truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ lost from the Bible.
Thus we see that Mormons missionaries, in their proselytizing, create a need for additional revelation, a need met, not only in the Book of Mormon, Doctrine & Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price, but also in the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible.
The LDS Church publishes its own edition of the King James Version Bible, containing footnotes and marginal references. In the section explaining abbreviations is the following entry:
JST: Joseph Smith Translation. Excerpts from the Prophet Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible. Short excerpts are provided in the footnotes; longer excerpts are provided in the Appendix. Italic type in these JST excerpts is used for words not found in the King James Version.4
This Bible has been published since 1979, and is copyrighted by the Corporation of the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, making it official Scripture and doctrine.
Placing Joseph’s revisions alongside the biblical text with no attempt at disclaimer or explanation has sent a clear message to members of the LDS Church. Kevin L. Barney’s article on the Joseph Smith Translation in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought states:
It is often assumed in Church classrooms, periodicals, and manuals that the JST does in fact represent the original or ancient state of a biblical passage. Many a Sunday School discussion over a problematical biblical passage ends with reference to the JST version and the assertion that it represents the original wording. Of course, a perfect restoration would be in the language of the original, but the idea is that the JST gives the English sense of the original Greek or Hebrew texts of the Bible.5
The late LDS Apostle Bruce R. McConkie who wrote concerning the JST in Mormon Doctrine furthers this assumption:
In all cases where major changes were made, the student with spiritual insight can see the hand of the Lord manifest; the marvelous flood of light and knowledge revealed through the Inspired Version of the Bible is one of the great evidences of the divine mission of Joseph Smith.6 (emphasis in original)
Mormon scholars and historians have further underlined the significance of the JST for today’s Mormon. Robert J. Matthews, considered the Church’s foremost authority on the JST, cited as part of his list of reasons why a study of the JST was significant: (a) its close association with “the doctrinal and scriptural development with the Church,” and (b) its direct connection with the “three of the standard works of the Church (the Bible, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price).”7 His book on the JST published in 1985 has further reinforced this view. He writes:
It is not so much what is in the Bible but rather the omissions and the missing parts that constitute the problem. The major deficiency is that “many plain and precious things have been taken away,” with the two fold consequence that (1) the reader is deprived of the benefit of the missing material and (2) what remains is often not as meaningful as it would be if the record were complete, because of the relationship between events and background information is sometimes lost.8
Arch S. Reynolds states, under the heading, “Importance of the Bible to the Saints,”
“The L.D.S. believe the Bible as it originally was written by its authors but believe it was not given in its original purity in any of the existing versions before the time of the Inspired Version given by Joseph Smith.”9
This, he explains, has now resulted in a new advantage for Mormons today who should not “let skeptics and scoffers of the Scriptures upset us in our religion,” but rather find that in going to the truth in the JST they can be free from “their snares and temptations.” He encourages Latter-day Saints to “ponder over God’s word in its pristine purity, for in it we have joy, comfort, and a better hope of the greater life.”10
Literature of the last 10 years shows that the LDS position regarding the JST has shifted toward officially embracing as doctrinally correct those changes made by Joseph Smith. Members are encouraged to make use of it both in personal study and teaching. Robert J. Matthews has been at the forefront of the movement to re-emphasize the JST with statements like the following:
The Joseph Smith Translation provides many items of clarification as well as additional information, and its contributions are usually doctrinal in nature.
... Other passages remove contradictions, clarify obscure or vague statements, correct erroneous conclusions, and offer much information not available from any other source. The Joseph Smith Translation is one of the major contributions of the Prophet Joseph Smith towards understanding the Bible, and it is an excellent study guide to help readers obtain the true meaning and intention of many passages.11
The JST is one of the great “undiscovered” and unappreciated works of Joseph Smith, which will yet see its fulfillment and enjoy its full measure of contribution. I am confident that when the dust of argument, scholarship, and research has cleared away, the evidence will show that Joseph Smith the Prophet was as inspired in his translation of the Bible as he was in any other category of his life, both in clarifying the text and in restoring lost material.12
It would appear safe to conclude that the Mormon Church views the JST as doctrinally correct, an improvement on the text of the King James Version (or any other version produced by non-Mormon scholarship), and a translation that restores lost and corrupted biblical text. Sherry found at the conclusion of his study that, “There are no instances in LDS publications of objection to a restorationist view of Joseph’s revision.”13
Do we have the means for testing the accuracy of Joseph Smith’s revisions? Is there a way to prove or disprove his claims to have provided the world with an inspired restoration of the Scriptures to their pristine purity? Yes, Joseph Smith’s work can be tested, and the next section establishes grounds for conducting such an evaluation.
2 Grant Von Harrison, Converting With The Book Of Mormon, (Provo, Utah: Aaron Publishing and Indexing, 1981), 3. It should be noted that the late Bruce R. McConkie continues to be viewed as one of the chief authorities on Mormon doctrine. His key work, Mormon Doctrine, is the primary systematization of LDS theology, and holds a high position of authority after the LDS scriptures.
4 The Holy Bible, Authorized King James Version With Explanatory Notes And Cross References To The Standard Works Of The Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter-day Saints, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Church Of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1989), Explanation Concerning Abbreviations, np.
Note that this is a departure from what Joseph Smith taught. The early LDS position was that the Bible was corrupted and unreliable in its existent state. Since this is not a defensible position due to the vast amount of manuscript evidence, LDS scholars, like Matthews, have shifted to say the only problem with the Bible is that parts are missing, but that what is there is accurate.
12 Robert J. Matthews in, “The Joseph Smith translation: A Panel. Scriptures for the Modern World, Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, pp. 75-98. Cited by Thomas Edward Sherry, Attitudes, Practices, And Positions Toward Joseph Smith’s Translation Of The Bible: A Historical Analysis Of Publications, 1847-1987, [UMI Dissertation Services reprint, from microfilm], (Ph.D. diss., Brigham Young University, August 1988), 100.
13 Thomas L. Sherry, Attitudes, Practices, and Positions Toward Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible: A Historical Analysis of Publications, 1847-1987, [authorized facsimile], (Ph.D. diss., Brigham Young University, August 1988), 146.
The significance of this dissertation is heightened by the fact that Robert J. Matthews and Robert L. Millet, LDS scholars who have done extensive research and writing on the JST, were both on the committee that reviewed and approved Sherry’s work.