Mormons and the Bible: Part 2 (of 3)

Part II

The King James Bible

and the Joseph Smith Translation

See also, "Joseph Smith Translation"; "Bible: King James Version" in Encyclopedia of Mormonism; David Rolph Seely, “The Joseph Smith Translation: ‘Plain and Precious Things’ Restored,” Ensign, Aug 1997.

Related Posts: Mormons and the Bible Part I ; Mormons and the Bible Part III

The King James Version
The King James Version of the Bible is likely the most honored English Bible ever published. It is also official Bible for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. When the church was organized in 1830 the KJV was the de facto Bible for the English speaking world, and continued to be so until the 20th century. During the twentieth century many new English Bibles were published, several of which became popular: such as the New American Standard Bible (NASB), the New International Version (NIV), and the New King James Version (NKJV). By the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century a number of other notable versions were published: the English Standard Version (ESV), Today’s New International Version (TNIV), the Net Bible (NET), the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB), and the New Living Translation (NLT). After 1948 the rate at which English Bible translations were being published increased dramatically. From 1800 to 1900 the number of English Bibles increased at a rate of 0.31 per year. From 1900 to 1945 they increased at a rate of 0.54 per year. From 1946 to 2005 they increased at a rate of 1.21 per year.[1] This increase in the rate of Bible publication is probably due to two reasons. First, the number and quality of Greek manuscripts dramatically increased after 1900. Second, there was a strong reaction against the RSV, seen by many conservatives as incompatible with traditional Christian thinking. Indeed, Merril F. Unger (of Unger’s Bible Dictionary) said the RSV is “unacceptable to evangelical Christians.” There was also a strong reaction to it within the LDS community. Apostle J. Reuben Clark spoke out strongly against the RSV: writing a book titled Why the King James Version (1956), and speaking out against the RSV and in favor of the KJV in General Conference in 1954.[2]

The KJV is firmly established among Latter-day Saints and within in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This entrenchment is due to several reasons. (1) Many phrases and expressions in the KJV are so memorable and beautiful that it definitely has the minds and hearts of Latter-day Saints. (2) OT and NT passages quoted in the Book of Mormon are nearly exactly as they appear in the KJV. (3) Some of the language found in the KJV has taken on special theological meaning within Mormonism.[3] Also, the KJV Old Testament was translated from a Christian perspective. (4) Joseph Smith’s inspired “translation” is based on the KJV. (5) Bible quotations in the Doctrine and Covenants are from the KJV. (6) In the past the KJV was common ground with Protestants,[4] though this is no longer the case.[5] (7) In 1979 a uniquely LDS edition of the KJV was published. It was specifically designed to assist Latter-day Saints in learning doctrine. It contains a large topical guide/concordance, an LDS oriented Bible dictionary, as well as footnotes containing selections from the JST and alternate readings from the Hebrew and Greek. The chapter headings also reflect LDS doctrine. The verses are cross-referenced to other LDS scriptures, the topical guide, and the Bible dictionary. (The LDS edition of the Bible was soon followed by a new edition of the Book of Mormon which corrects errors that propagated in previous texts due to copyist or typesetting errors.[6]) The LDS edition of the King James Version incorporated LDS teachings to an extent that never before had been approached. After it was completed several articles were published about it in the Ensign--one was titled “The Coming Forth of the LDS Editions of Scripture. (See also "LDS Publication of the Bible," Encyclopedia of Mormonism).

The current attachment to the KJV is strong. But this was not always the case. Brigham Young expressed openness to better translations:

…take the Bible just as it reads; and if it be translated incorrectly, and there is a scholar on the earth who professes to be a Christian, and he can translate it any better than King James's translators did it, he is under obligation to do so, or the curse is upon him. If I understood Greek and Hebrew as some may profess to do, and I knew the Bible was not correctly translated, I should feel myself bound by the law of justice to the inhabitants of the earth to translate that which is incorrect and give it just as it was spoken anciently. Is that proper? Yes, I would be under obligation to do it. But I think it is translated just as correctly as the scholars could get it, although it is not correct in a great many instances. (JD 14:226-227)

Also, the Apostle James E. Talmage (d. 1933) didn’t express any especial attachment to the KJV:

[the KJV] has superseded all earlier versions, and is the form now in current use among Protestants. But even this [version] was found to contain many and serious blemishes; and in 1885 a Revised Version was issued, which, however, has not yet been accorded general acceptance. (Articles of Faith, p. 254)[7]

More recently the KJV is was reaffirmed as the Bible of choice in a letter signed by the First Presidency:

While other Bible versions may be easier to read than the King James Version, in doctrinal matters latter-day revelation supports the King James Version in preference to other English translations. All of the Presidents of the Church, beginning with the Prophet Joseph Smith, have supported the King James Version by encouraging its continued use in the Church. In light of all the above, it is the English language Bible used by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (Deseret News, 06/20/92)

Currently there is suspicion toward other editions/translations of the Bible. It is unthinkable that a Latter-day Saint would use anything in church other than the KJV. Though I have several different English editions of the Bible (many of which I love: NIV, NASB, ESV), and even though I quote from them in my blog, I wouldn’t dream of bringing anything but the KJV to church. I would never use anything but the KJV in a talk--that would be out of the question. True, my love of other Bibles makes me unusual and makes some Mormons a little suspicious of me. Few Mormons own a non-KJV Bible and fewer have ever made a serious attempt to study from one--such a thing would be seen as non-LDS. This attachment to the KJV does not, however, extend to scholarly writings--Victor L. Ludlow’s very popular commentary on Isaiah (used in BYU institute classes) quotes freely from the NIV, MLB, NASB, and others,[8] and papers published in BYU Studies often quote other versions.[9] I suppose that some of this suspicion is due to unfamiliarity with other versions. Also, LDS missionaries who attempt to “prove” LDS teachings from the Bible are occasionally frustrated with “other” Bibles because they do not harmonize with LDS beliefs as well as the KJV does. All of this feeds back into the LDS mindset of favoring the KJV and cultivating suspicion towards other translations.

The Joseph Smith Translation
Though the Bible used by Christendom is missing a number of books, there is some debate among LDS scholars about how much the text itself was corrupted: are there large and important omissions from the extant manuscripts? The Joseph Smith Translation (JST), sometimes called the Inspired Version, is seen by many to be a “restoration” of the biblical text to its original uncorrupted form--albeit, in English. Several selections from the JST are included in our LDS edition of the KJV. The introduction to this section reads,

The Lord inspired the Prophet Joseph Smith to restore truths to the Bible text that had become lost or changed since the original words were written.[…] Because the Lord revealed to Joseph certain truths that the original authors had once recorded, the Joseph Smith Translation is unlike any other Bible translation in the world. In this sense, the word translation is used in a broader and different way than usual, for Joseph’s translation was more revelation than literal translation from one language into another. (here)

Here are two examples from the KJV and the JST (with italics emphasizing changes).

Heb. 7:3 ~ [The] King of Salem, which is, King of peace; Without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God; abideth a priest

JST Heb. 7:3 ~ For this Melchizedek was ordained a priest after the order of the Son of God, which order was without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life. And all those who are ordained unto this priesthood are made like unto the Son of God, abiding a priest continually.
Gal. 3:19-20 ~ Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator. Now a mediator is not a mediator of one, but God is one.

JST Gal. 3:19-20 ~ Wherefore then, the law was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made in the law given to Moses, who was ordained by the hand of angels to be a mediator of this first covenant, (the law.) Now this mediator was not a mediator of the new covenant; but there is one mediator of the new covenant, who is Christ, as it is written in the law concerning the promises made to Abraham and his seed. Now Christ is the mediator of life; for this is the promise which God made unto Abraham.

There is some debate among LDS scholars as to the nature of the JST. Was it a restoration of the original Bible text? Or was it simply an inspired explanation of its deeper meaning? The first possibility is difficult to justify since major alterations to the NT would have been made before the middle of the second century--earlier texts tend to be more correct than latter ones. Though the earlier-is-better rule is not absolute, a number of NT fragments do exist from the second and third century which tend to back up latter copies, meaning that transmission errors were minor. And from this, one may extrapolate back and assume that earlier transmission errors were also minor. The discovery of the complete book of Isaiah in Qumran shows that this book has remained essentially unchanged for two thousand years. It can be argued, however, that the book of Isaiah was well established among Jewish synagogues, therefore any error would be easily detected[10]; but for NT writings during the first and early second century this kind of protection could not as easily apply.

There are some strong arguments that favor the inspired-explanation view over the restoration-to-the-original-text view. If the first is correct then the JST is easily seen as an exegesis on the deeper meaning of the Bible. Some of these reasons are as follows. In the Book of Mormon Nephi and his brothers are required to get the “brass plates”, a record of Israelite scripture, basically the OT. According to the Book of Mormon, the OT that we have “is a record like unto the engravings which are upon the plates of brass, save there are not so many” (1 Nephi 13:23, emphasis added; compare Moses 1:40-41; I have listed a number of missing OT books in part 1 of this series.) It goes on to say that many things were “taken away from the gospel of the Lamb…which are plain and most precious; and also many covenants of the Lord have they taken away” (1 Nephi 13:26). Anthony A. Hutchinson points out in “LDS Approaches to the Holy Bible”[11] that this passage says “taken from the gospel” and not “taken from the book”. Only afterwards does it say “there are many plain and precious things taken away from the book” (1 Nephi 13:28). “Taken away from the book” could mean withheld from the book, not necessarily taken from the compiled book. Also, in 1 Nephi 13:32 many things of the gospel have been “kept back”, suggesting that they never made it into the NT. Thus, the loss of early Christian documents occurred before the gospels, epistles, and personal letters had been gathered into a collection of writings. He also points out that the Book of Mormon says the OT “go[es] forth from the Jews in purity unto the Gentiles” (1 Nephi 13:25), suggesting the OT books are probably correct, though many are missing. With this in mind, the Book of Mormon says little about corruption in the OT and NT texts. If errors are in the form of missing books then the JST changes are more comparable to Midrashic commentary.[12], [13] The JST adds much to the Bible text, but subtracts very little from it.

The JST can create complications to scriptural exegesis: one may appeal to the JST, KJV, or other translations, and one may judiciously reject entire passages to support an argument. It is also argued that in textual criticism there are never absolutes, something LDS scholar Hugh Nibley points out.

It should never be forgotten, however, that the interpretation of an ancient text never rises above the level of a high plausibility--there is no final certainty. The history of scholarship is the story of one man who dares to rebuke and correct all the other scholars in the world on a point in which they have been in perfect agreement for hundreds of years--and proves them wrong! (An Approach to the Book of Mormon, part 6, ch. 14)

Though this argument is true, it does, however, make it easy to maneuver around any theological difficulties that might arise. Some LDS writers apply this “out” more liberally than others.[14] Though I don’t think it is possible or desirable for any thoughtful Mormon to completely break from it, this approach does allow one to freely select passages according to his personal inclinations.

The JST is very important to Mormon doctrine. The JST book of Genesis contains lengthy additions to chapters nine, fourteen, and fifty, which contain information about Enoch and Melchizedek, and about the importance of the tribe of Ephraim in the last days.[15] Also, Joseph received many revelations while he was working on the JST (D&C 71, 73, 76, 86 are a few). Many of these were responses to doctrinal questions or were explanations of passages from the Bible (such as D&C 74, 76, 77, 91). Two books of LDS scripture are large excerpts from the JST: the book of Moses (here) and JST Matthew (here).

Not surprisingly non-Mormon scholars don't take the JST seriously. It has been called “exceedingly peculiar” as well as “absurd and impossible” (here).

The JST is currently published by the Community of Christ (a branch of the Latter-Day Saint movement formerly called the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints). The entire JST can be found at this location.

End Notes-----------------------------------------------------------------------------
[1] This is based on a list of English Bible translations from (here, here, and here).

[2] In a 1954 conference address he says of the RSV (and similar revisions), “With our belief in Jesus as the Son of God, the Only Begotten, this Church cannot accept any version that takes from Jesus the Christ any attribute of Godhood,[…]…the final verdict must be that no text that minimizes or denies the Godhood of Jesus, can be regarded as the word of God, no matter how old and respected the manuscript may be which sets out such views” (italics original).

[3] For example the word “estate” found in Jude 1:6: “And the angels which kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation”. In LDS teachings the first estate refers to a pre-existent state of humanity (see also Abr. 3:26, 28). Also, the words “celestial” and “terrestrial” found in 1 Corinthians 15:40 refer to the celestial and terrestrial kingdoms of God. (Essentially that “heaven”--using the word in a very loose sense--is divided into three kingdoms: the celestial, the terrestrial, and the telestial; See D&C 88:22-24; D&C 76:71-98.) The “spirits in prison” in 1 Peter 3:19 refers to the LDS doctrine of a spirit world: that is, a place (“space” in the Book of Mormon) between death and the resurrection, where the spirits of men await the resurrection and final judgment of God (Alma 40:6-21). The “dispensation of the fulness of times” (Eph. 1:10) refers to the LDS doctrine that there have been dispensations of history, and that in the last days the restoration would mark the dispensation of the fullness of times (D&C 27:13; 112:30; 128:18; see also “Dispensations”, LDS Bible dictionary here). “A more sure word of prophecy” (2 Peter 1:19) means “a man’s knowing that he is sealed up unto eternal life, by revelation and the spirit of prophecy, through the power of the Holy Priesthood” (D&C 131:5). These theological words are different in most modern English translations of the Bible.

[4] “For all practical purposes the missionaries of the Church have found it advantageous to use the King James translation, which is accepted by most Protestants” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, Vol. 2, p. 207).

[5] Even though the KJV is rapidly being replaced by other versions, the Church adopting another version would be problematic for two reasons: (1) If we did our own translation it would be seen by others as the “Mormon” translation of the Bible, which would complicate missionary work; (2) other translations do not harmonize as well with LDS beliefs (see footnote 3).

[6] These changes were not based on doctrinal considerations: large portions of the original Book of Mormon manuscript exist, as well as the handwritten “printers copy” from which the first typesetting was made, and printed editions from 1830, 1837, and 1840 (during Joseph Smith’s lifetime) are available for comparison. Apparently Joseph Smith carefully reviewed the 1840 edition (see below).

For example “white and delightsome” (2 Ne. 30:6) becomes “pure and delightsome”. According to Robert J. Matthew, “The 1830 and 1837 editions of the Book of Mormon, based on the printer’s copy, also say ‘white.’ However, the 1840 editions, which was ‘carefully’ revised by the Prophet Joseph Smith, uses ‘pure’ in place of ‘white.’ All subsequent edition have reverted to ‘white,’ probably because the 1852 edition (the next after the 1840) was based on the 1837 edition rather than on the 1840” (The New Publications of the Standard Works, BYU Studies, Fall 1982, vol. 22, no. 4).

Another example is from Alma 32:30: “Alma 32:30. Chapter 32 contains Alma’s discourse comparing faith in God to the sprouting of a seed and growth of a plant. Both the original manuscript and the printer’s copy show that the printed editions have omitted thirty-five words from the latter part of verse 30. In the original, the phrase ‘sprouteth and beginneth to grow’ occurs three times in close proximity. However, the first printed edition (1830) retained only two of these phrases, thus losing the rest of the material. All subsequent of the Book of Mormon have reflected the 1830 loss, which is clearly the result of the typesetter’s mistaking the last phrase of the copy as the one he had just set” (Ibid.).

See also George Horton (Dec. 1983), Understanding Textual Changes in the Book of Mormon, Ensign).

[7] The Articles of Faith is suggested reading for all missionaries.

[8] Victor L Ludlow (1982), Isaiah: Prophet, Seer and Poet, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book.

[9] Though I use other versions of the Bible in my religious writings--mainly my blog. I deliberately refrain from consistently quoting from any single version that is not KJV. I do this to avoid creating the impression that there is a second best to the KJV.

[10] Every synagogue had a complete copy of the Torah as well as copies of other OT books. (See Luke 4:16-21; Acts 13:13-15; 15:21; 17:1-2.)

[11] Anthony A. Hutchinson (Spring 1982), LDS Approaches to the Holy Bible, Dialogue, Vol. 15, No. 1, pp. 99-124.

[12] Anthony A. Hutchinson (Winter 1988), A Mormon Midrash? LDS Creation Narratives Reconsidered, Dialogue, Vol. 21, No. 4.

[13] Also, the Book of Mormon quotes lengthy sermons given by Jesus to the Nephites and Lamanites. These sermons are also found in the NT, and are given nearly exactly as found in the NT. However, the JST departs from both the NT and the Book of Mormon version. For example JST Matt. 7:10- reads, “And the mysteries of the kingdom ye shall keep within yourselves; for it is not meet to give that which is holy unto the dogs; neither cast ye your pearls unto swine, lest they trample them under their feet. For the world cannot receive that which ye yourselves, are not able to bear; wherefore ye shall not give your pearls unto them, lest they turn again and rend you.” However, 3 Nephi 14:3 reads, “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you” (3 Nephi 14:6; reads exactly the same as KJV Matt. 7:6).

[14] For a table of comparisons between different LDS scholars see Hutchinson, 1982.

[15] It is believed that the city of Enoch will return at the beginning of the millennium, and most Mormons believe they are descended from the tribe of Ephraim. (See Moses 7:69, 62-64 and JST Gen. 9:23 for Enoch; and JST Gen. 48:5–11, 50:24-38).

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