The JST of the Bible and Early Christianity

jmb275christianity, church, LDS, Mormon, mormon, theology 25 Comments

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?

Comments 25

  1. Gospel Principles give the impression of restoring original meaning:

    “The Lord inspired the Prophet Joseph to restore truths to the Bible text that had been lost or changed since the original words were written. These inspired corrections are called the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible. In the Latter-day Saint edition of the King James Version of the Bible, selected passages from the Joseph Smith Translation are found on pages 797–813 and in many footnotes.” (chapter 10)

  2. I think you’ve missed an obvious reason for using the KJV — the constant effort throughout the years to defend our “Christianity” from other Christian churches.

    Using a ‘different’ bible than everyone else (at the time) would just have given ammunition to the “Mormons != Christian” crowd, while saying we use the exact same Bible (warts and all) as everyone else provided a certain credibility as to our Christian foundation. Sharing scriptures that supported our doctrine using “their” Bible rather than “our” Bible has an edge in convincing power for many.

    Of course, it seems most modern Christian churches use a modern translation of the Bible anyway nowadays rather than KJV so maybe this would be less of an issue today.

  3. jmb275: I read Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus about a year ago, and I came away with an overwhelming sense of the historian and literary scholar’s utter inability to reliably reconstruct Jesus’ teachings or the tenets of the early Christian church that emerged shortly after his resurrection. Ehrman demonstrates that there were probably a multitude of perspectives about the nature of Jesus’ life, teachings, and theological significance, only one of which is championed by the works that make up the NT canon. Given its obvious bias, it is really difficult to try to uncover what Jesus may have really taught. Still, scholars have proposed some rather rigorous methodologies for piecing together likely teachings and historical events from the documents that make up our NT, as well as other contemporary writings. I’m currently reading Ehrman’s college textbook The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings; the book is fabulous. I secretly fantasize about teaching a 2-semester course on the New Testament at BYU using this book (it’ll never happen, trust me).

    As for Joseph Smith’s “translation” of the Bible: the more I read JS’s annotations, the more I see evidence of his 19th-century protestant perspective shining through. His revelations confirm cultural theological assumptions about Adam, Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Jesus, Paul, etc. that have been disproven/discredited by scholars over the past 200 years (and even further back before JS’s time, but whose scholarship JS was almost certainly ignorant, given his rural, unschooled upbringing and lack of religious training). When I’m in a more cynical mood, I see JS altering the Bible to conform with principles delineated in his own books of scripture: the Book of Mormon and revelations in the D&C.

    Some of this, I think isn’t JS’s fault. Although he was quick to criticize the texts of the Bible as having been altered over the course of history either by mistake or malicious intent, I get the sense that he, like his contemporaries, largely read the Bible from a position of trust. That is, they trusted that characters portrayed in the Bible actually lived in history, and literally had the experiences they did, as they are recorded in the Bible. They trusted that the lengthy discourses by Moses in Deuteronomy, or the missionary speeches of Paul as recorded by the author of Acts were the actual words spoken by these individuals, faithfully recorded and passed down from generation to generation. Sadly, almost none of this is likely true in the literal, historical sense.

    I feel that Joseph, in the end, was doing what every other editor of biblical stories did over the centuries: he edited them to elucidate doctrinal principles that fit his own worldview and purposes. Whether it was the priests in Josiah’s reign “discovering” a lost book of the Law (Deuteronomy), which was consequently used to institute widespread religious reform, or early Christians hungry for stories about Jesus and the heroes of the new Christian movement, or Catholic priests in in the 4th century Councils of Carthage and Rome deciding which books made it into the the official canon of the church: each group edited extant texts and/or created new texts, all for the sake of promoting and transmitting their own interpretation of theology to the world.

    Now about the squirrely issue of authenticity in regard to the “truth” of the claims made by the texts or their additions, the thing that sits uneasy with me in regard to Joseph Smith is that he posited that he was restoring lost truths to the Bible. Sadly, when these lost truths are found to be historically inaccurate, it casts doubt upon the editorial activities of JS as a whole, and by extension his calling as a prophet (a true interpreter of God’s word and will).

  4. Very good article. I can’t think of one thing that I disagree with, contrary to a lot of stuff that pops up on this blog, with one exception. I disagree with the one comment that some things in the JST might go against current LDS policy. I don’t believe that.

  5. I love how my D&C professor at BYU worded his statement in regards to why the church doesn’t yet have a Study Guide to the Scriptures in English: “Once a few more of the old, stubborn general authorities die off then things can begin to change.”

  6. Here’s my take on your first question (adapting Matthews):

    The types of changes we find in the JST may include the following: (1) restorations of original text, (2) text paralleling nonoriginal ancient textual variants, (3) alternate translations without positing any change in underlying text, (4) historical corrections of incorrect text, (5) harmonizations of biblical text with other biblical text or with revealed doctrine, and (6) midrashic commentary (much like the targumin and the genres of “rewritten Bible” and pesharim attested among the Dead Sea Scrolls).

    In other words, the JST isn’t any one thing; there were a lot of different things going on in the text. I personally lean heavily to category 6.

    As for it not being canonized, I personally am glad for that. I think the main reason is that the Salt Lake church didn’t control the manuscripts, and there was long distrust between the LDS and RLDS. Now that that distrust has melted away, there really isn’t a motivation to canonize the whole thing (of course, Moses and JS-M are canonized as part of the PoGP). People already tend to want to see it as a pure restoration of original texts, and if it were canonized it would just accelerate that point of view.

  7. As for why the LDS church has failed to canonize the JST, I think there are the official reasons like “JS never completed the project”, implying that some of his annotations, excisions, etc. may have not made it into the final, approved, canonized version. I think there are the practical reasons, like the convenience of the KJV as a lingua franca version familiar to the vast majority of English-speaking Christians, lending legitimacy to Mormon theology by association. But I speculate that there is an unspoken understanding that to adopt a different version of the Bible that matches no extant ancient manuscript, and adding it to a canon of scripture produced largely by the work of one individual, would only hurt the Church’s credibility as a Christian sect. It is convenient for the Church to put select JST “translations” in the footnotes or endnotes of its KJV Bible because 1) the Church can pick and choose its favorite morsels, i.e. the ones that most closely harmonize with the rest of scripture, and 2) the members who care about the JST will trust their authority regardless of where they are found, either in the text block or in the footnotes, thereby negating the necessity of officially canonizing them. The Church likely will never act, because it isn’t necessary for it to do so. My two cents.

  8. You really should toss in some of the things that Joseph Smith said about translation, since they agree with you about his application of a secondary meaning of the word to the process. It also helps that Joseph Smith wrote that God had told him not to release his retransmission of the gospel as contained in the Bible until it was finished and he did not finish it. That provides a doctrinal basis for not canonizing an unfinished work in progress.

    But he did not feel he was reconstructing an historical, exact ur-text to some sort of inerrant primal original. Which makes for a number of thoughts. More when I have time. You picked a great approach on an important topic.

  9. jmb275,

    1. Yes the Bible was like a seer stone in Joseph’s hand for getting inspiration. It was his urim and thummim for the JST.

    2. I think the LDS church does not embrace the JST as the “official” version so to speak since we already are confused with not being real Christians as it is. One more thing our enemies can use against use saying we aren’t Christian.

    3. Great post!

  10. Great comments everyone. I wanna address a few of them.
    Re #2 Aaron
    Yes, this is a mistake I believe. This quote from Gospel Principles casts Joseph in the same role as a textual critic. As Steve S said, I think the JST fails in this light.

    Re #3 BiV

    Re #4 KMB

    I think you’ve missed an obvious reason for using the KJV — the constant effort throughout the years to defend our “Christianity” from other Christian churches.

    Great point, my brain must have turned off to miss something so obvious. I think you’re right.

    Re #5 Steve S
    Yeah your first paragraph is exactly the point I hope I was making in my first paragraph. This is exactly why I think it is most erroneous for us to believe that Joseph was merely trying to restore the original – since the original may not even be what we want! Perhaps Joseph did believe he was simply correcting the Bible. But as #11 (Joseph Smidt) said, I think the Bible was also a urim and thummim for Joseph. I agree that, as a translation, meaning restoring the text to the original, it likely fails. I think the only way to really accept it is as another piece of the Gospel Joseph felt he was restoring.

    Re #6 SkepticTheist

    I disagree with the one comment that some things in the JST might go against current LDS policy.

    Yeah, I actually don’t think this is the reason either, I was just listing possible reasons.

    Re #8 Kevin Barney

    In other words, the JST isn’t any one thing; there were a lot of different things going on in the text. I personally lean heavily to category 6.

    Yeah, this is exactly why I can’t fully buy into the idea that Joseph was merely attempting to restore the original meanings. There is too much of Joseph’s own personal Gospel beliefs (which Steve S points out) to accept it as merely an attempt at retranslation. And in any case, my real belief is that Joseph did in fact believe he was restoring a true Biblical Christian Gospel.

    Re #10 SM

    It also helps that Joseph Smith wrote that God had told him not to release his retransmission of the gospel as contained in the Bible until it was finished and he did not finish it.

    I guess I haven’t seen such quotes, or at least I don’t remember them right off. Do you know where you read this? I’d be interested in what Joseph himself said about his translation of the Bible.

  11. The RLDS/CofChrist tradition used the term “inspired version” in common language, but what you would find on the cover was simply the term “Holy Scriptures.” I never heard the name JST come from anyone in the RLDS/CofChrist except an historian.

    The doctrinal issues that occur in large chunks (like the Book of Moses) are in our D&C and canonized that way, and most of the “cosmological issues” aren’t dwelt on in our thinking today anyways. In practice, we use modern Bible translations most of the time rather than either the KJV or JST, so small differences between those two versions tend to be lost in comparison to differences between either of the two versions and the modern renderings.

  12. Re #13 FireTag

    In practice, we use modern Bible translations most of the time rather than either the KJV or JST, so small differences between those two versions tend to be lost in comparison to differences between either of the two versions and the modern renderings.

    Thanks for sharing, I did not know this.

  13. Ok, found something similar 😉

    Joseph Smith often used the words “translated” and “translation,” not in the narrow sense alone of rendering a text from one language into another, but in the wider senses of “transmission,” having reference to copying, editing, adding to, taking from, rephrasing, and interpreting. This is substantially beyond the usual meaning of “translation.” — has a number of details and a long essay, but it is a copy of The Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 2, Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible article.

  14. I have a comment…and a few questions for you Firetag.

    Wikipedia’s article on JST states:

    “Smith’s translation was a work in progress throughout his ministry.”


    “Skeptics view this non-linearity as evidence that Smith’s translation was not inspired; however, Latter Day Saints see Smith’s translation as representing a gradual, developing inspiration.”

    I’ve always been taught that the JST was unfinished at the time of the martyrdom. I also share the wikipedia view of seeing the translation as a gradual, developing inspiration. Are these LDS-centric views different from the CoC views?

    One passage which I’ve found interesting and supportive of the “gradual, developing inspiration” view is Hebrews 11: 40, which refers to a connection with those living to those who died before, having persevered trials in order to advance the cause of Christ.

    KJV: “God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect. ”

    JST: “God having provided some better things for them through their sufferings, for without sufferings they could not be made perfect.

    This revision seems to make sense. It would be interesting to know precisely what year this revision was made. The revelation in D&C 128 received September 6, 1842 discusses this scripture in a context different from the JST revision. In discussing baptism for the dead, it says in verse 15:

    “And now, my dearly beloved brethren and sisters, let me assure you that these are principles in relation to the dead and the living that cannot be lightly passed over, as pertaining to our salvation. For their salvation is necessary and essential to our salvation, as Paul says concerning the fathers—that they without us cannot be made perfect—neither can we without our dead be made perfect. ”

    So if the Hebrews verse was a cryptic reference to salvation for the dead, as suggested in D&C 128:15, then one might say that the JST revision of Hebrews 11:40 was way off. Or, with the view that the JST was a “gradual, developing inspiration” then you can see that the prophet had not yet received the light that he would eventually receive on the subject.

    Looking at this, again, from the CoC perspective, I assume that D&C 128 is not canonized in the CoC edition of the D&C, so there is no conflict in reconciling the JST of Hebrews 11:40 with anything in D&C 128.

  15. Rigel:

    Your last paragraph is correct We tend to see nothing in the theology of the EARLY restoration or in the NT that requires baptism of the dead as a saving ordinance. So, we would have tended in RLDS times to cite the JST as evidence that LDS interpretations had gone off-course, regardless of the evidence of what Joseph had publically said later. Our D&C stops the JS contributions to the D&C in 1835 with the Book of Commandments and then picks up after the Reorganization. (The break was not originally that clean; some few sections post-1835 were pulled by action of later prophets based on judgements that they did conflict with early Restoration theology — prophetic correlation the hard way. :D)

    Our whole orientation toward ordinances and sacraments is toward how they influence our relationship with Christ and other people and other things on this earth. How it works on the other side is left up to individual speculation because our view of the “physicality” of God is completely different than in the Nauvoo developments.

  16. Is there a descriptive term that is used for the post-1835 sections that were pulled? How are they referred to by CoC historians?

  17. I love this post! (I also enjoyed Ehrman’s book). I agree that the word “translation” is problematic and inaccurate. There’s more going on there, to your point. Great post!

  18. They were briefly referred to as the “historical appendices” because they were moved to the end of the book for a few years, then dropped entirely. Wikipedia’s article on the Doctrine and Covenabts contains a paragraph that’s pretty much how I remember it:

    “The 1970 World Conference concluded that several sections that had been added between the 1835 and 1844 editions—mainly dealing with the subjects of temple worship and baptism for the dead—had been published without proper approval of a church conference. The World Conference removed Sections 107, 109, 110, 113 and 123 to a historical appendix (which also included documents that were never published as sections). Of these, only Section 107 was a revelation. The World Conference of 1990 subsequently removed the entire appendix from the Doctrine and Covenants. Section 108A contained the minutes of a business meeting, which, because of its historical nature, was moved to the Introduction in the 1970s. After 1990, the Introduction was updated, and what was section 108A was removed entirely.”

    The only point I would clarify from that paragraph is that this was an action that the Prophet initiated and the World Conference SUSTAINED. This became an important precedent that the conference cannot initiate deletion of sections, but only the Prophet can. That became the basis in the 1980’s for rejecting movements by the conservatives in the World Conference to rescend the D&C Section authorizing ordination of women to the priesthood.

  19. Back to the 3 questions posed:
    – 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? I stated above that I think it wasn’t an actual translation, but I do believe it was a mix of an attempt at clarification, restoration, and reinterpretation. And I think it is useful and frankly VERY Mormon. It’s what we do all the time, and why we believe in ongoing revelation. Revelation of this sort is really more inspired reinterpretation.
    – Or was Joseph really more interested in getting to what he believed Jesus actually taught? Well, I don’t doubt that he felt Jesus’ teachings were altered throughout time, which of course they were. And I believe he sincerely intended to restore.
    – Why do you think the LDS church has not adopted the JST? I think it’s entirely because it wasn’t ours; if it had been, it certainly would have been canonized along with the POGP. But it is commonly referenced in our seminary classes and it’s the main reason (along with Ludlow & McConkie’s footnotes & BD as well as the BOM references) that the KJV is our Bible of choice.

  20. Hawk:

    I suspect he was trying to “correlate” the text to the understandings of his own spiritual experiences as he interpreted them at any point of time. There’s an important distinction between the “truth” and one’s “testimony of the truth” that applies here. If Joseph is seeing in vision a resurrected ancient prophet, does that free him from his own limited human understanding of what he’s seeing? For that matter, Moroni doesn’t bother to provide a lot of helpful hints about just WHERE on those plates the “mistakes of men” persisted. The process of writer, “modern trasnslater”, and the divine are all entangled in unexpected ways.

    It’s helpful to remember this in connection with the Bible as well. Our Bible study does not converge, with infinite study, on Jesus. Instead, it converges with infinite study on the mindset of those in whatever era who handled the Scriptures.

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