The Joseph Smith Translation in Light of the New Testament: An Examination of Key Passages in the Gospel of John Part 2
The Joseph Smith Translation in Light of the New Testament: An Examination of Key Passages in the Gospel of John Part 2
Part 2: Grounds for Testing the Joseph Smith Translation
There are both historical and textual-critical grounds for examining Joseph Smith’s revision work, and each will be considered in turn. While reason does not take precedence over faith, our minds must examine what our hearts believe to be true. The person who refuses to consider doubt, who will not even admit to the slightest possibility of being wrong, functions not as a believer, but as one brainwashed. Doubt is our safeguard to being deceived by those who discourage independent thinking. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses are not allowed to even consider the thought that the Watchtower Society might be wrong. As a result, the men in Brooklyn, New York, who control all the organization's publications and policies, can tell the average Jehovah’s Witness anything, and it must be believed and obeyed without question. This is why over 4,000,000 active, baptized Jehovah’s Witnesses believe the Bible forbids blood transfusions, and are willing to die rather than accept blood from another human. The Watchtower Society has told them this is what the Bible teaches and that settles the matter.
However, one who pursues truth often turns to find doubt as his shadow, pushing him further and further into the light of the truth. Those who risk leaving the comfort of unquestioning compliance gain a peace and security only the truth can bring.
2.A. Historical Grounds for Verifying the JST
The question is: Did Joseph Smith and his contemporaries view the JST as a restoration of ancient scriptures or merely an inspired commentary on the existing translation? To answer this question, we turn to statements made by Joseph Smith, including revelations he claimed came directly from God.
A significant consideration is the use of the terms “translate” and “translation” in reference to Joseph’s work. Using “The Computerized Scriptures” of the LDS Church, I discovered these terms are used 97 times throughout the Standard Works. Three of these references occur in the Bible section and have nothing to do with “translating” in the sense of rendering words from one language into another. Instead they refer to movement from one physical location to another, a transferal, i.e. Enoch was “translated” from Earth to God’s presence. However, the usage of the words “translation” and “translate” in the Mormon Scriptures (not counting those references in question referring to the Bible revision) indicates clearly the idea of converting from one language to another. The majority of the references in the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price refer directly to Joseph’s translation of either the Book of Mormon from “Reformed Egyptian” to English, or his translation of the Book of Abraham from Egyptian to English. In either case, what is involved in translation is taking an ancient text in a different language and converting it to English. There is a divine element assumed to be operative in these cases because Joseph did not know either language while doing the translation. Obviously, from the textual usage, this did not make it any less a translation. For example, in the introduction to the Book of Mormon we read:
v4 After Mormon completed his writings, he delivered the account to his son Moroni, who added a few words of his own and hid up the plates in the hill Cumorah. On September 21, 1823, the same Moroni, then a glorified, resurrected being, appeared to the Prophet Joseph Smith and instructed him relative to the ancient record and its destined translation into the English language. (BofM: Introduction 2:4)1 (emphasis added)
Likewise, when we come to the references that use the word “translation” of the Bible revision, the usage does not appear to change. When God and Joseph Smith use the word “translate” they mean to render ancient manuscripts from one language into another, and in this case English. A statement in the Introduction to the Doctrine and Covenants supports this understanding.
Several of the earlier sections involve matters regarding the translation and publication of the Book of Mormon (see Sections 3, 5, 10, 17, 19). Some later sections reflect the work of the Prophet Joseph Smith in making an inspired translation of the Bible, during which many of the great doctrinal sections were received (see, for example, Sections 37, 45, 73, 76, 77, 86, 91, and 132, each of which were some direct relationship to the Bible translation). (D&C: Introduction Preface:8)2 (emphasis added)
Furthermore, the nineteenth century understanding of the verb “to translate” and all its cognates (apart from the idea of “conveyed from one place to another”) were limited to “to render into another language,” or “to explain by using other words.” A translation by definition retains the sense or meaning of the original. Noah Webster’s first edition of the American Dictionary of the English Language  had the following definition for “translation.”
5. That which is produced by turning into another language; a version. We have a good translation of the Scriptures. (emphasis in original)3
The Imperial Dictionary by John Ogilvie, published in 1883, expanded the definition of translation to include “to explain by using other words; to express in other terms,” but again there is an original behind what is being “translated.”4
Joseph’s ability to translate ancient records was considered a special gift. There are several passages that detract from the possibility that Joseph was only providing a commentary on the Scriptures. These quotes, taken from the Doctrine and Covenants, differentiate between translating and explaining the significance of the actual words. Often, after Joseph had received a corrected translation of a verse or series of verses, he would receive additional revelation expounding or commenting on the meaning of the new translation. Here are some examples:
c74|v0 Revelation given to Joseph Smith the Prophet, at Hiram, Ohio, January 1832. HC 1:242. The Prophet writes, “Upon the reception of the foregoing word of the Lord [D&C 73], I recommenced the translation of the Scriptures, and labored diligently until just before the conference, which was to convene on the 25th of January. During this period I also received the following, as an explanation of 1 Corinthians 7:14.” (emphasis added) (D&C: Section 74:Heading)
c76|v0 A vision given to Joseph Smith the Prophet and Sidney Rigdon, at Hiram, Ohio, February 16, 1832. HC 1:245‑252. Prefacing his record of this vision the Prophet wrote: “Upon my return from Amherst conference, I resumed the translation of the Scriptures. From sundry revelations which had been received, it was apparent that many important points touching the salvation of man had been taken from the Bible, or lost before it was compiled. It appeared self‑evident from what truths were left, that if God rewarded every one according to the deeds done in the body, the term ‘Heaven,’ as intended for the Saints’ eternal home, must include more kingdoms than one. Accordingly, while translating St. John’s Gospel, myself and Elder Rigdon saw the following vision.” It was after the Prophet had translated John 5:29 that this vision was given. (D&C: Section 76:Heading)5 (emphasis added)
Understanding the distinction Joseph and his scribes made between God giving them a “translation” and their receiving an “explanation” of a passage, also clarifies references that refer only to the translation work. In Doctrine and Covenants 76:15-17 we have one of the few instances where Joseph recorded in his history a quote from the revision.
For while we were doing the work of translation, which the Lord had appointed unto us, we came to the twenty‑ninth verse of the fifth chapter of John, which was given unto us as follows:
Speaking of the resurrection of the dead, concerning those who shall hear the voice of the Son of Man, and shall come forth ─ They who have done good in the resurrection of the just, and they who have done evil in the resurrection of the unjust. (emphasis indicates changes from the KJV text)
What happened here is that while Joseph was working on the translation, God intervened, and gave a new translation to the text of John 5:29. In other words, they now had the reading of the original manuscript. The current text was wrong and reflected one of the many scribal errors and corruptions. Therefore, when one turns to John 5:29 in the Joseph Smith Translation, one reads the above “translation” of this verse, now restored to its original purity. A textual and doctrinal analysis of this passage is found in the final section of this paper.
What is called “translation” by Joseph Smith cannot be considered merely a divinely inspired commentary on the existing text, for the remainder of D&C Section 76 has God providing a vision to Joseph Smith and those who were with him meditating upon these things. Through this great and divine vision in D&C 76:20-119, Joseph receives the explanation and significance of the changes to the text. This is a divine commentary on the text, but none of this is part of the JST, because it is not part of the “translation.” For other passages that clearly demonstrate this distinction between “translation” and “explanation” see Doctrine and Covenants Sections 77; 86; 128:8,18; and their respective headings. All of these together demonstrate Joseph understood his work of “translation” to be a restoring of the text of ancient manuscripts.
Some have objected to such a tight definition by asking how Joseph could “translate” if he did not have the ancient manuscripts to work from or have knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, the languages in which the Old and New Testaments, respectively, were written. Surely he would not have pretended to perform such an incredible task. Arch S. Reynolds in his work on the JST addresses this question by appealing to Joseph’s work on the Book of Mormon. Among conservative Mormons, there is no question that the Book of Mormon is a translation of the ancient Nephite plates; and while Joseph knew nothing of the Nephite language, the translation was brought forth by the spirit and power of God, and the engravings on the gold plates were rendered accurately into the English language. Of this translation work Joseph stated:
I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.6
What makes the translation parallels between the Book of Mormon and the JST of the Bible even more striking, is that for the majority of the Book of Mormon translation Joseph did not have the gold plates in front of him; he did not need the original manuscripts. Joseph translated by putting an egg-sized seer stone (occultic device) into his hat, and then placed the hat up to his face to exclude all light. In the hat, “the original characters appeared upon parchment, and under them the translation in English, which enabled him to read it readily.”7
Mormons familiar with the coming forth of the Book of Mormon then, would not have been surprised at Joseph’s claim to be able to translate the Bible. If anything, his powers and abilities had grown stronger in their eyes for he no longer needed assistance from the stone. Yet it is because of this same understanding, that most Mormons view Joseph’s revision work to be a restored translation of ancient Greek and Hebrew manuscripts. The previously quoted statement by LDS lawyer Kevin L. Barney simply confirms this fact:
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.8
The RLDS Church in the flyleaf of the first edition of the Inspired Version wrote, “Holy Scripture translated and corrected by the spirit of revelation by Joseph Smith Junior, the seer, published in the year 1867.” Those close to Joseph Smith shared this view, as evidenced by the words of LDS Apostle Orson Pratt:
I saw his [Joseph Smith] contenance 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, and the inspired book of Abraham from Egyptian papyrus.9
Equally significant in this quote is that Pratt places Joseph’s translation of the Old and New Testaments on the same level as his translation of the book of Abraham, which was done from existing Egyptian papyri.10
From this evidence there can be little doubt that Joseph Smith’s Inspired Revision must be considered a restoration of ancient manuscripts, translated into the English language. As a result, his work can now be subjected to testing by objective standards of textual criticism.
2.B. Textual-Critical Grounds For Verifying The JST
Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary defines textual criticism as:
1: the study of a literary work that aims to establish the original text 2: a critical study of literature emphasizing a close reading and analysis of the text.
Textual criticism can be applied to any historical document and utilizes existing manuscript evidence of a document to determine what words were and were not part of the original document. The greater the manuscript evidence (usually determined by the number of copies and how close they are in date to the original), the greater the degree of certainty one has as to what the original actually said. Places where manuscripts differ in how words are rendered are called variant readings. Each variant reading is evaluated according to both external and internal evidence. External evidence includes consideration of the date of the witness, geographical distribution of witnesses supporting the variant, and genealogical relationship of the texts and witnesses. Internal evidence includes but is not limited to (a) transcriptional probabilities - which includes how we can account for scribal errors both purposeful and inadvertent; and (b) intrinsic probabilities - which take into account what the author was more likely to have written. This includes examining the style and vocabulary of the author, the immediate context of the passage, and how it harmonizes with usage by the author elsewhere.11
This next section will address two fundamental issues regarding biblical textual criticism: (1) Why biblical textual criticism is possible, and (2) Why biblical textual criticism is necessary.
2.B.i. Why Biblical Textual Criticism is Possible
Many people falsely assume there is no objective way of determining what the original manuscripts of the Bible said. They feel that both time and extensive copying has distorted the text to the point it is quite unreliable. It is often likened to the game of “Telephone” where kids sit in a circle and one whispers a message to his partner who in turn passes it on to his neighbor. By the time the message returns to the original speaker it is so distorted so as to be good for only a laugh. However, this in itself is a gross distortion. In fact, there is a mountain of evidence supporting the text of the Bible as it has been passed down through the centuries. In his book The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, NT scholar F.F. Bruce provides the following comparisons of ancient historical documents and their corresponding manuscript evidence.12
|Document Title and Date||Manuscript Support|
|Gallic War, Caesar / 58-50 BC||9 to 10 good MSS., the oldest dated 900 years after Caesar.|
|Roman History of Livy / 59 BC to AD 17. Of 142 books only 35 survive.||20 MSS of consequence, with only 1 dating to AD 300s, all the rest are much later.|
|Histories of Tacitus / AD 100. Of 14 books only 5 survive.||2 MSS; 1 from AD 800s, another from AD 1000.|
|The Bible - New Testament Books / Completed by 100 AD, most written in the 60-70s.||5000+ MSS; the best dated back to AD 350, fragments dated back to AD 130 and AD 200.|
It is interesting that historians would never dream of doubting the authenticity or reliability of early historical documents like Caesar’s Gallic War or the Histories of Tacitus, even given the relative sparseness of manuscript evidence. To an even greater degree, the quantity and quality of manuscript evidence supporting the Bible’s NT text under girds its reliability. As a result, secular and religious historians have little doubt as to the Bible’s accuracy. Bruce points out that “historians have often been much readier to trust the New Testament records than have many theologians.”13 This is largely because theologians who have pursued and promoted their own doctrinal agendas have a lot more to lose when the Bible is proven accurate and reliable. Undermining the Bible’s authority creates a need for restoring the “truth,” and if the truth cannot be firmly established by the biblical text, anyone can come along with his or her version of what the truth used to be, and use it to deceive ignorant and unsuspecting minds. On the other hand, if the Bible is reliable, any claimed restoration is unnecessary. In fact, if the “restored truth” contradicts already established teachings of the Scripture, at those points it must be considered “error” and shunned as false and misleading.
While the greater number of manuscripts introduce a greater number of variant readings within the text of Scripture, they also provide an ample base for cross-checking differences, and for weeding out errors. The article on “Text And MSS Of The NT” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia states:
...such a wealth of evidence makes it all the more certain that the original words of the NT have been preserved somewhere within the MSS. Conjectural emendation (suggesting a reading that is not found in any MS), to which editors have resorted in the restoration of other ancient writings, has almost no place in the textual criticism of the NT.
...It must not be overlooked, however, that the textual critic deals with a relatively small percentage of the text. With the NT...the wording of perhaps 85 percent of the text is unquestioned.14
Very few variant readings pose a significant problem or affect the meaning of the text of the Bible. We refer to E. Abbot’s statement, which helps put the issue into perspective:
About nineteen-twentieths of the variations have so little support that ... no one would think of them as rival readings, and nineteen-twentieths of the remainder are of so little importance that their adoption or rejection would cause no appreciable difference in the sense of the passages in which they occur.15
In other words only one quarter of one percent (.0025) of all the variants have any appreciable significance to the total biblical text.
The claim sometimes made that portions of the New Testament were removed in the early centuries of Christianity fails to bear up under scrutiny. Dr. Kurt Aland, perhaps the world’s leading authority on the ancient Greek New Testament manuscripts, points out that because the early Christians had a great fear of losing a single word of apostolic Scripture, “every reading ever occurring in the New Testament textual tradition is stubbornly preserved.”16 It has been determined that copyists of the biblical material exercised great care in transcribing manuscript texts.17 Dr. Aland adds that by careful, methodical sifting of the massive volume of textual evidence “in every instance of textual variation it is possible to determine the form of the original text.”18 Based on the combined evidence, eminent scholar, the late Sir Frederick Kenyon, could write:
The interval then between the dates of the original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.19
Significantly, Mormon scholar Richard Lloyd Anderson, Ph.D., also quotes Kenyon in a symposium paper he presented on April 13, 1963. The paper, titled “Manuscript Discoveries of the New Testament in Perspective” said the following:
… This survey disclosed the leading textual controversies, and together they would be well within one percent of the text. Stated differently, all manuscripts agree on the essential correctness of 99% of the verses in the New Testament. The events and the great truths contained there are agreed upon by all major manuscripts of the New Testament.
… There is more reason today, then, to agree with him [Kenyon] that we possess the New Testament “in substantial integrity” and to underline that “the variations of text are so entirely questions of detail, not of essential substance.”
It is true that the Latter-day Saints have taken the position that the present Bible is much changed from its original form. However, greatest changes would logically have occurred in writings more remote than the New Testament. The textual history of the New Testament gives every reason to assume a fairly stable transmission of the documents we possess.”20
More specifically, the hundreds of manuscripts containing the whole or parts of the text of the Gospel of John have only served to reinforce the accuracy of transmission through the years. Kurt Aland, co-editor and editor since 1940 of the Nestle-Aland text, and his wife Barbara, Director of the Institute for New Testament Textual Research, Münster/Westphalia, in their definitive book The Text Of The New Testament explain the implications of Papyrus Bodmer XIV / XV. These contain the great majority of the texts of Luke and John preserved in book form, with some of the binding still attached. They are dated in the early 200s A.D., within 150 years of the originals. The Aland’s write:
This papyrus marked another revolution in our understanding of how the New Testament text developed: its text proved to be so close to that of Codex Vaticanus (B) that the theory of recensions, i.e., of thoroughgoing revisions of the New Testament text made in the fourth century, was no longer defensible. One of the main pillars supporting the dominant theory of New Testament textual history was now demolished.21
This vast amount of textual evidence, attested to by LDS and non-LDS scholars shows that the common Mormon perception of large numbers of changes purposefully introduced into the Bible in the period of the 300s A.D. is completely erroneous.
The Gospel of John is also noteworthy, for the earliest known papyrus fragment, designated p52, contains several verses from this book. Noted Greek scholar Bruce M. Metzger cites several eminent paleographers such as Sir Frederic G. Kenyon, W. Schubart, Sir Harold I. Bell, Adolf Deissmann, Ulrich Wilcken, and W.H.P. Hatch who agree to dating this fragment somewhere between 98 A.D. - 138 A.D., placing it in circulation within 30-50 years after the original manuscript was composed.22
Therefore, with the Gospel of John, as with the entire New Testament, we can establish both the accuracy and the reliability of the Greek texts. The Greek text as we have it today with its critical apparatus, is for all practical purposes identical with the apostolic originals. This is what makes biblical textual criticism both possible and reliable. Now that this is done, we can examine briefly why it is necessary.
2.B.ii. Why Biblical Textual Criticism Is Necessary
In some religious circles there is a tendency to shy away from the scientific, rational and objective. Truth is better determined, they say, by a subjective witness, a gut-level feeling. The heart and not the head should guide the spiritually minded. However, is this not a false dichotomy? Must we be faced with an “either/or,” or is there room for “both/and?” Both faith and reason; both spiritual and intellectual; both subjective and objective; both heart and head; are not all these valid considerations? Yes, our Creator has designed us as an integral unit. So while some of us may trust our instinctive sense of direction to choose the correct fork in a road or street that suddenly divides, saying “this feels right,” most of us are much more likely to reach for the objective direction provided by the nearest road map. There is nothing wrong with appealing to an objective standard.
This is exactly why biblical textual criticism is necessary. It provides us with an objective standard for determining precisely what the Bible says. If we take away this objective standard, and no longer know with certainty that John 1:1 is made up of Greek words that translate “In beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God,” anyone predisposed to say Jesus is not God, simply emends the English text to say whatever they want. A prime example is the New World Translation published by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that Jesus is Michael the archangel and not God, a belief contradicted by the Bible in John 1:1. To hide this contradiction the WT Society published their own Bible, which renders the final phrase “and the Word was a god.”23 Interestingly, the flyleaf of the New World Translation carries the statement “Rendered from the Original Languages by the New World Translation Committee.” So, if there was no Greek text with which to verify their translation, we would have to admit their rendering of John 1:1 to be as valid as any other.24
The lack of an objective standard for truth renders the search for truth a fool’s quest. Every point of view, every interpolation and interpretation weighs equally in the balance, and the issue ceases to be “what is the truth,” and becomes “what is my truth.” When this is the case every claim to divine revelation now stands on equal footing. A Course in Miracles, The Urantia Book, the Book of Mormon, the Quran, and all other works that claim to be the result of divine inspiration are all on the same par and have equal validity, for there is nothing by which to judge their authenticity except by how it makes one feel. When this happens, all authority, including that of the Bible, disappears. This leaves, as in the days of the judges, “everyone doing what was right in his own eyes.”
However, this need not be the case. Biblical textual criticism has established a reliable text of Scripture, which gives us an objective standard of truth by which to evaluate other writings that claim to be valid translations of the Bible.
This brings us now to the final section ─ applying this textual standard to the Joseph Smith Translation.
1 The Computerized Scriptures of the Church Of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Rel. 1.2, (USA: Copyright 1987, 1988 by Corporation of the President of the Church Of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), BofM: Introduction 2:4. For ease in verifying computer generated references I have left codes that appear with the text in the actual quotations.
The Prophet translated the King James Bible by the same means he translated the Book of Mormon--through revelation. His knowledge of Hebrew or Greek or his acquaintance with ancient documents was not more essential in making the JST than a previous knowledge of Reformed Egyptian or an access to more primitive Nephite records was essential to the translation of the Book of Mormon.
Monte S. Nyman & Robert L. Millet, ed., The Joseph Smith Translation: The Restoration of Plain and Precious Things, (Provo: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1985), 26-27.
7 Zenas H. Gurley, Jr., Interview with David Whitmer on 14 January 1885, [typed transcript], LDS archives, Salt Lake City, Utah, Ms d 4681. This is only one of several accounts given by David Whitmer, one of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon, all of which agree. Many others close to the Joseph Smith verified this in their own accounts. These people include Emma Hale Smith (his wife) in the Saints Herald 1888, 310; Isaac Hale (Joseph’s father-in-law) in Mormonism Unvailed, by E.D. Howe 1834, 264-265; and Joseph Knight, Sr., a close friend of the Smith family in a letter now part of The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, by Dean C. Jessee 1976, 35. The Knight account reads:
Now the way he translated was he put the urim and thummim [used interchangeably with seer stone] into his hat and Darkned his Eyes then he would take a sentance and it would apper in Brite Roman Letters. Then he would tell the writer and he would write it. Then that would go away the next sentance would Come and so on. But if it was not Spelt rite it would not go away till it was rite, so we see it was marvelous. Thus was the hol [whole] translated.
9 Orson Pratt, “Personal Reminiscences And Testimony Concerning The Prophet Joseph And The Church, Etc.,” JD. Journal of Discourses, 7:176, (London: Latter-day Saints Book Depot, 26 Vols., 1853-1886) [Exact photo reprint of original edition]. Hereafter referred to as JD.
10 The original papyri from which Joseph Smith translated the Book of Abraham has been recovered. Upon translation by certified Egyptologists, these papyri were found to be nothing more than common, ancient Egyptian funeral texts, having nothing to do with the patriarch Abraham. For a detailed treatment of this subject, the reader is referred to The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papers, compiled by H. Michael Marquardt, 1981, 191 pages.
11 Bruce Manning Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, second edition, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), 207-211. This is an attempt at a simplified summary of an extremely complex issue.
12 F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, 5th revised edition, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1975), 16-18. The chart is my own design based on facts provided by Bruce.
14 14 C.F. Sitterly and J. H. Greenlee, “Text and MSS of the NT,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, revised ed., Vol. 4, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), 818.