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The Mormon View of the Biblical Text

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The Mormon View of the Biblical Text

The Bottom-Line Guide to Mormonism, Part 7
Robert M. Bowman Jr.

The eighth Article of Faith of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints states, “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly….” Evangelical Christians can agree with this statement, at least the way it is worded. However, Mormons mean something by these words very different from what evangelicals would mean. In the previous installment of this series we examined the Mormon view of the canon of Scripture. Here we consider the LDS view of the text of the Bible—the words and sentences that make up the books in the Bible.

To understand the problem, we first need to draw a distinction between translation and transmission. Translation of a text refers to the work of rewriting that text in another language; for example, producing an English version of the Greek text of the Gospel of John. Transmission of a text refers to the work of copying that text in the same language; for example, producing a Greek manuscript copy of the Greek text of John. 

Historic Christian View of the Biblical Text

LDS View of the Biblical Text

The biblical text in its original wording is inerrant

The biblical text is not and has never been inerrant

The original words of the biblical text have survived (with variations in individual copies)

Much of the original words of the biblical text have not survived in any of the copies

The biblical text can function as a reliable doctrinal authority

The biblical text cannot function as a reliable doctrinal authority

What church leaders say should be tested by comparing it to what the Bible says

What the Bible says should be tested by comparing it to what LDS Church leaders say

Of course, when a text is translated into a different language, some fine points, nuances, or stylistic flavor can be “lost in translation.” That’s why, when there is some dispute as to the meaning of a particular word or sentence in the Bible, scholars refer to the original-language texts (nearly all of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, while the New Testament was written in Greek). If this were all that Mormons meant by saying “as far as it is translated correctly,” we would be in agreement. 

Confusing the issue is the fact that Mormons typically understand “translation” to include transmission. To most Mormons, “as far as it is translated correctly” means “as far as it is copied and translated correctly.” Here again, in so many words, evangelicals can agree. For example, Article X of the evangelical Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978) states, “We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original.” 

The trouble is that most Mormons claim that scribes copied the Bible so badly that the manuscript copies available to us today do not adequately represent the original. As a result, Mormons not only reject biblical inerrancy, they generally claim that the text of the Bible is so corrupt as to obscure essential elements of the Christian faith. Evangelicals disagree; they affirm that all of the essential doctrines of the Bible survive intact in the existing manuscripts. 

We recognize, of course, that there are variations in the manuscript copies of the Bible, where some manuscripts will say one thing and other manuscripts will say something a little different. In every such instance, it is a matter of deciding which reading of those that we have in the existing manuscripts is correct. For example, in some manuscripts, Romans 5:1 says, “we have [Greek, echomen] peace with God,” while other manuscripts say “let us have [Greek, echōmen] peace with God.” The Greek words here differed only in one letter and would have sounded almost identical, which explains the variation. Biblical scholars don’t all agree as to which of these wordings is correct, but one thing they all agree on is that one of those readings must be correct! There is no possibility that Paul wrote something completely different, such as “we hope one day to have peace with God,” for which we have no manuscript evidence at all. 

Mormonism, on the other hand, claims that all of the manuscripts are so corrupt that the original wording of a great deal of the Bible is lost to us. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, said, “From sundry revelations which had been received, it was apparent that many important points touching the salvation of men, had been taken from the Bible, or lost before it was compiled” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 9-10). Smith later commented, “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” (Teachings, 327). In the context of both of these statements, Joseph Smith was explaining why he was producing his own “translation” of the Bible—to fix these “errors” and to restore some of those “important points” that had gone missing from the text of the Bible. 

When we look at the “Joseph Smith Translation” (jst) of the Bible we can see clearly what sorts of problems he had in mind. Let’s look at just one example:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1 kjv).

“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 Son was of God” (John 1:1 jst).

Joseph Smith added 19 words to John 1:1 not found in the King James Version (kjv) or in any other version of the Bible. Nothing corresponding to any of these words appears in any Greek manuscript of John 1:1. This example illustrates the difference between the evangelical and LDS views of the reliability of the text. Evangelicals think that no one manuscript is perfect but that through the many copies that survived we have a reasonably accurate and complete text of the Bible. Mormons think that much of the wording and content of the original biblical writings has been lost and cannot be found in any of the manuscripts, or even all of them combined. 

The consequences of the LDS view of the biblical text are radical. Since Mormons think that the text has not survived intact, what the text says is not truly authoritative for them. Wherever a verse of the Bible contradicts LDS doctrine, Mormons can and often do say that the Bible may have been corrupted in that verse. Mormons do not have confidence in what the Bible says (although they quote it where it seems to agree with their views), but instead trust what their leaders say the Bible originally said. What seems like a minor technical qualification—the Bible is God’s word “as far as it is translated correctly”—turns out to be a loophole the LDS Church uses to keep their unbiblical doctrines from being challenged and corrected by the Bible.