Early Christian Theological Differences
I recently read Misquoting Jesus by Bart D. Ehrman. One of the interesting realities on which Ehrman elaborates is that early Christianity was anything but homogeneous. More specifically, there were many factions, some heterodox, some orthodox, some in the middle. Some of the books of the apocrypha, gnostic texts, and other early Christian writings seemed to support various theological ideas not represented, and in fact, even repressed in what became the canonized New Testament.
A few of particular interest are adoptionist (Christians that thought Jesus was fully mortal), docetic (Christians who thought Jesus was only divine and merely “appeared” to be human), and separationist (Christians who thought Jesus was two separate beings, one Jesus (human) and one Christ (divine)). There were many other heretical ideas that various Christian groups espoused. Some parts of our canonized New Testament were intentionally modified to suppress these views.
Translations in Mormonism
In Mormonism we have a very strange use of the word “translation.” Joseph “translated” the golden plates to produce The Book of Mormon. He “translated” some egyptian scrolls to produce the book of Abraham. In each of these instances I think that “translation” is probably a bit misleading. “Divined,” or “revealed,” perhaps, but “translated” in our modern colloquial usage is quite a stretch in my opinion!
To me, “translation” as it relates to Joseph’s work with the Bible, seems to imply that Joseph was a textual critic, much like Ehrman. That is to say, his goal, like a textual critic, would have been to correct the errors in translation and copying to return the scriptures to their original form. The 8th Article of Faith further gives weight to the idea that Joseph would have been interested correcting the translation, as it was the thing that had errors (as opposed to the original manuscripts themselves).
Yet, it is reasonable to me to question whether or not the original manuscripts of the canonized New Testament actually contained accurate teachings of Jesus. Surely if there were many different theologies, all of which claimed to be Christian, differing radically in their implications for modern Christian understanding, is it safe to assume that the books that “made it” into the canon even represent Jesus’ teachings? What of the process that came to finally accept a “canon” of scriptures? It was a process of gradual (read: hundreds of years) consensus among orthodox Christians (read: the Roman Catholic church), culminating finally in the Council of Trent in the 1500’s! Is this really what we now authoritatively accept as Jesus’ teachings and doctrines? And if Joseph’s goal, as translator, was to revert the text to the original, have we really made much progress in understanding the true Gospel as Christ taught?
Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible
Fortunately, as I’m sure many of you are silently screaming about, I think the Joseph Smith “Translation” is, again, a misnomer. It seems to me that Joseph had no business being a textual critic (despite being rather schooled in the Bible), and in fact, I don’t think this was Joseph’s goal at all. A casual glance at the Wikipedia article on the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible indicates that Joseph seemed to be using the Bible as an impetus for revelation. From that article, Philip Barlow thinks there are six different types of changes in the JST:
- Long revealed additions having no Biblical parallel (including visions of Moses, Enoch, and passages on Melchizedek).
- “Common Sense” changes.
- “Interpretive additions” often signaled by the phrase “or in other words.”
- “Harmonization” in which Joseph reconciled seemingly conflicting passages.
- Grammatical improvements.
- Unclassifiable changes.
I think this is a fair list, but I would add to it. I think the Doctrine and Covenants is a form of the JST. That is to say, Joseph was not a textual critic, and the JST is not a translation at all. It is a series of revelations that hoped to obtain what should have been in the Bible. I think Joseph was interested in discovering, through revelation, the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ, not in a restoration of the words of the original manuscript of the books that make up our canon.
In this vein, I am completely baffled as to why the LDS church does not adopt the JST and why we don’t rely more on Joseph’s revelations, and less on the Bible. I would even go so far as to argue that Mormonism shouldn’t even really care about the translational accuracy of the Bible. Between The Book of Mormon, D&C, and modern revelation, it seems we have a rich, full theology, that are Christian in their own right!
JST in the LDS Church
The JST manuscripts were preserved by Emma Smith after Joseph’s death. As a result, the then Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (RLDS, now Community of Christ church) published and copyrighted the JST in 1867. The LDS church had only a partial collection of the JST manuscripts. Ostensibly the LDS church was unable to verify, independently, whether or not the compilation of the JST by the RLDS church was indeed accurate and, possibly, to avoid simply accepting the JST as espoused by the RLDS church (relations have not always been good), perhaps the LDS church just used what it had. That copyright has long since expired, and as recently as 2004 the LDS church, with full support from the Community of Christ church, produced a full facsimile of all the original manuscripts. So why not adopt it now? Here are some possible reasons why we have not adopted the JST:
- Tradishuuuuuun, tradishun! Yep, the LDS church is very slow to part with tradition. As we have officially used the KJV (with a few additions) for many years, and have gone to great lengths to print it and bind it, and have incorporated it into many lesson manuals, perhaps we are just sluggish to change.
- Perhaps we are afraid of the label “Joseph Smith Translation.” We already know that “translation” as used in other contexts is a stretch, so maybe we’re nervous about adopting another, possibly erroneous “translation.”
- Maybe there is some interest in differentiating ourselves from the CoC church. After all, from an LDS perspective, it would be easy to view the CoC church as having gone astray. If we adopt their book, who knows what will happen.
- There may be changes in the full JST that cast doubt on LDS church policies, procedures, rules, revelations, culture, etc. (I have not read the full JST so this may be a stretch).
- Doctrinal salmagundi was the modus operandi in Joseph’s day, but today’s church is quite sensitive to new, unprecendented doctrine and/or changes. We seem to be moving toward mainstream Christianity, and adopting the JST might send us in the other direction.
So what do you think? Was the JST really a “translation” in the sense that Joseph was trying to restore the text to the original, and is this even a useful thing to do for Mormonism? Or was Joseph really more interested in getting to what he believed Jesus actually taught? Why do you think the LDS church has not adopted the JST?