Many have wondered how I understand the Joseph Smith Translation in light of some of what I’ve written here concerning Old Testament textual traditions and interpretation. As always, the following is my own understanding of the matter at hand, and I take complete responsibility for the contents therein.
In 1830, only a few months after the publication of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, the founder and first Prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, began work on a project which continues to be misunderstood by not only those not associated with the Church, but by many within it as well. The project is commonly known today as the “Joseph Smith Translation” (JST) of the Bible.
The JST is not a replacement Bible in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Church does, however, use excerpts from this work today as a companion to the Bible. For example, while the original King James Version is given full canonized status as the official English Language Bible , the JST of the early chapters of Genesis is presented as a separate work in the volume of scripture known as the Pearl of Great Price, under the title, “Selections from the Book of Moses”.
Some may have wondered why, in exploring Old Testament texts that have JST emendations, I, as an active and believing latter-day Saint, do not generally utilize the JST texts in my studies as presented here, and in fact at times draw historic and symbolic conclusions which are different, and sometimes contradictory, than those found (apparently) clearly stated in the JST. It is hoped that the following post will clear these questions up.
What is the Joseph Smith Translation?
The JST is different in many ways from what we are accustomed to thinking of as a translation. For one, it was not “translated from the original tongues” created from a study of the original languages, as was the King James version, “with the former translations diligently compared and revised”. It was not a scholarly work intended to replace biblical translations from the texts, or even to restore the original ur-texts. In the words of a Brigham Young University study on the topic,
“The Prophet called his Bible revision a “translation,” though it did not involve creating a new rendering from Hebrew or Greek manuscripts. So far as the translation of the Bible is concerned, he never claimed to have consulted any text other than his English Bible, but he translated it in the sense of conveying it in a new form.”1
It was, in method and in genre, a prophetic Targum for the text, with important parts falling more into the genre of Pseudepigrapha – in all, a doctrinal and linguistic ‘supplemental update’ , or companion, to the original biblical texts.
Process of Production
Joseph would study the King James Version of the Bible, and based on inspiration, previously established revelations, pondering concerning application to the current situation of the Saints, and intellectual sensibilities as a reader, marked and dictated alterations, deletions, and emendations to the text.
Although officially declared finished in 1833, Joseph continued to refine and edit the work throughout his life. Revelations were, to him, living texts. The Will of God was firm, but accurate expressions of it transmitted through his imperfect mind into an imperfect written language required continual refinement based on experience, and greater enlightenment.
“Some remarkable passages in the New Translation were revealed in doctrinal and grammatical clarity the first time and had little need for later refining. But other passages show that the Prophet struggled with the wording until he was satisfied that it was acceptable to the Lord. His careful effort was in harmony with the instruction that he had received previously that we should “study it out in [our] mind” as we listen to the Spirit and apply our best efforts, after which a confirmation will come if it is correct (D&C 9:8; and see D&C 9:7–9).”2
This process can also be seen in the textual history behind the written revelations now found in the Doctrine and Covenants.3
It appears that the key purpose of the JST was to present an updated version of the Bible that would remove cultural barriers for understanding, clean up confusing language and grammar, and interpolate clear statements of newly revealed (or restored) doctrinal principals within the context of the authoritative and familiar biblical narrative.
“there are JST changes in which Joseph Smith was inspired to alter or adapt an author’s original words, or even to remove them from their original context, to reveal teachings needed by the latter-day Church. Elder Bruce R. McConkie [ a member of the Church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles] , speaking of the differences between the early Genesis chapters in the Bible and the JST, said “both of them are true.” He stated that John 1 in the Bible “is true,” yet the JST gives it “an entirely new perspective.” “These are illustrations of the fact that there can be two translations of the same thing and both of them can be true.” There is an important JST change at Romans 13 in which Paul’s teaching regarding the Saints’ submission to secular political power is changed to submission to the authorities of the Church. Perhaps both versions are correct. If the Bible preserves accurately Paul’s original thoughts and intent, then the JST revision would be viewed as a latter-day revelation intended to instruct us on a topic not anticipated by Paul.”4
JST as Targum
In the previous post, I used the beginning of Genesis 3 to present examples between translation methods, and also to illustrate the types of changes presented in a Targum. I will do the same for the JST of Genesis 3 (also found in Moses 4, in the Pearl of Great Price). The blue parts are additions to the JST version of the text.
This is an example of expansion / recontextualization:
1 And I, the Lord God, spake unto Moses, saying: That Satan, whom thou hast commanded in the name of mine Only Begotten, is the same which was from the beginning, and he came before me, saying—Behold, here am I, send me, I will be thy son, and I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost, and surely I will do it; wherefore give me thine honor.
2 But, behold, my Beloved Son, which was my Beloved and Chosen from the beginning, said unto me—Father, thy will be done, and the glory be thine forever.
3 Wherefore, because that Satan rebelled against me, and sought to destroy the agency of man, which I, the Lord God, had given him, and also, that I should give unto him mine own power; by the power of mine Only Begotten, I caused that he should be cast down;
4 And he became Satan, yea, even the devil, the father of all lies, to deceive and to blind men, and to lead them captive at his will, even as many as would not hearken unto my voice.
5 And now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which I, the Lord God, had made.
6 And Satan put it into the heart of the serpent, (for he had drawn away many after him,) and he sought also to beguile Eve, for he knew not the mind of God, wherefore he sought to destroy the world.
7 And he said unto the woman: Yea, hath God said—Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? (And he spake by the mouth of the serpent.)
8 And the woman said unto the serpent: We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden;
9 But of the fruit of the tree which thou beholdest in the midst of the garden, God hath said—Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.
10 And the serpent said unto the woman: Ye shall not surely die;
11 For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.
12 And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it became pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make her wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and also gave unto her husband with her, and he did eat.
13 And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they had been naked. And they sewed fig-leaves together and made themselves aprons.
14 And they heard the voice of the Lord God, as they were walking in the garden, in the cool of the day; and Adam and his wife went to hide themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden.
There are a few important things that are done to this text, which stands towards the very beginning of the Revised Bible:
- It is reframed as a first-person narrative from the Lord to Moses.
- The doctrine of the modern understanding of the role, character, and purpose of Satan, as well as the Central Role of Jesus Christ as Savior in the eternal plan of God is expounded as a new and explicit context for the story to come.
- Grammar is updated for understandability, and to adapt for the reframed context.
Example of a Cultural Update
Another type of change, as discussed above, was when a cultural matter that would be incomprehensible (or confusing) to a 19th Century Latter-day Saint was presented, the symbols were altered to present the same meaning behind the text. Two examples are Genesis 24:1–3, and Exodus 4:21. First, Genesis 24:1–3, as presented in the KJV:
1 And Abraham was old, and well stricken in age: and the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things.
2 And Abraham said unto his eldest servant of his house, that ruled over all that he had, Put, I pray thee, thy hand under my thigh:
3 And I will make thee swear by the Lord, the God of heaven, and the God of the earth, that thou shalt not take a wife unto my son of the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell:
And now, verse 2 as in the JST:
2 And Abraham said unto his eldest servant of his house, that ruled over all that he had, Put, I pray thee, thy hand under my hand:
The Common 19th Century American would not be familiar with the ancient cultural connection between a covenant concerning lineage, and placing the hand near the genitals. It was – as it is in our culture still today – something that appears quaint, and contains a negative and uncomfortable connotation which was not present in the original context.
The clasping of a hand in agreement or covenant, however, was – and is – instantly recognizable.
Another example of this type of change is Exodus 4:21
21 And the Lord said unto Moses, When thou goest to return into Egypt, see that thou do all those wonders before Pharaoh, which I have put in thine hand: but I will harden his heart, that he shall not let the people go.
In ancient narratives, deity were often given credit for all actions and decisions of men, as a way of presenting that the gods maintained a control, and that nothing was done against the will of the gods.
In Homer’s Illiad, for example, there is a scene where Achilles, in a rage, considers striking down Agamemnon. He considers in his mind the ramifications, and decides not to. But then he still sets his hand to his blade. At that moment, the text presents Athena (seen by Achilles and none others) dashing down from Olympus to grab Achilles by the hair to halt the action that he, in his mind, had already pondered not committing. Pope’s translation presents the scene:
Achilles heard, with grief and rage oppress’d,
His heart swell’d high, and labour’d in his breast;
Distracting thoughts by turns his bosom ruled;
Now fired by wrath, and now by reason cool’d:
That prompts his hand to draw the deadly sword,
Force through the Greeks, and pierce their haughty lord;
This whispers soft his vengeance to control,
And calm the rising tempest of his soul.
Just as in anguish of suspense he stay’d,
While half unsheathed appear’d the glittering blade,
Minerva [Athena] swift descended from above,
Sent by the sister and the wife of Jove
(For both the princes claim’d her equal care);
Behind she stood, and by the golden hair
Achilles seized; to him alone confess’d;
A sable cloud conceal’d her from the rest. ((Pope’s translation of Homer’s The Illiad, as cited from http://publicliterature.org/books/iliad/xaw.php ))
The thoughts and actions were personified by the acts of deity.
With contemporaries using their misunderstanding of the historical context of such a verse in support of a doctrine of predestination, Joseph clarified the context to the following:
And the Lord said unto Moses, When thou goest to return into Egypt, see that thou do all those wonders before Pharaoh, which I have put in thine hand: and I will prosper thee; but Pharaoh will harden his heart, and he will not let the people go.
Presenting the idea that it was Pharoah himself who chose the action, and was not forced into it by the will of God. In this case, the original idea remained, however now without an ancient cultural background being necessary to properly interpret it.
JST as Inspired Pseudepigrapha
Basic Introduction to Genre , Types, and Examples
Pseudepigrapha (literally ‘false writing’) is a term used generally to designate a collection of writings that purport to be from a biblical author, but were in actually written by a later author writing in the name and persona of the ancient. One of the most popular and well known is the book of 1 Enoch.5.
Pseudepigrapha generally had one of two purposes:
- As a forgery, intended to fool others into believing a text was an original by the purported author
- As a literary device to ‘cloak’ the present author, and to present modern events and teachings in an ancient familiar context.
Evidence seems to show that the work known as 1 Enoch fits into the latter. It is understood to be a polemic written in the post-exilic era by a persecuted religious community against the wicked and apostate priesthood, using the symbols of fallen angels to represent the wicked priesthood. The writer places himself in the persona of Enoch, and not only warns, but also prophesies, and promises great blessings to the Righteous, who are believed to be the members of his own community, which may be related to the Qumranic communities.
Another work, known as 2 Esdras, while set during the time of the destruction of the First Temple, is, in its current form, a thinly veiled Christian work exploring the events of the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, and the persecution of the Christian community there. (The Ascension of Isaiah is a similar text, and it has been suggested that it may be using the character of Isaiah to stand in for James the brother of Jesus).
Enoch elements of the JST as Pseudepigrapha
Certain elements in the JST, particularly the Enoch passages (see Moses 6 -7 in the Pearl of Great Price), appear to follow in the footsteps of these texts in the second category. The text presents a large expansion independent of the Genesis narrative featuring Enoch as receiving a revelation and vision from the Lord, and then receiving a commandment to preach to the wicked. He does so, and builds a Christian community known as Zion, which is so righteous it is eventually taken up to be one with the Lord.
This is directly analogous to the modern revelations and commandments Joseph was receiving at that time to build and establish a consecrated community known as Zion, to prepare for the coming of the Lord. The Enoch chapters of the JST establish a parallel example in a scriptural context.
The connection between the Enoch chapters and contemporary events was not lost on Joseph. In fact, he knowingly continued the parallelism.
In March 1832, Joseph Smith presented a revelation6 to the people of the Church that would establish a mercantile institution for the welfare of those living the United Order (the consecrated-communal way of living) in the land of Zion (Independence), Missouri. Names of those responsible are given, and promises of blessings are given to the faithful, and warnings are given to those who will break such covenants.
This revelation was first published in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants, and when it was, there were several changes from how it appears in the original manuscript Book of Commandments and Revelations.
First, it was re-framed as a Revelation to Enoch. Names were changed to ancient sounding names (Newel Whitney became Ahashdah, Sidney Rigdon became Pelegoram, and Joseph was ‘Enoch, or Gazelem’) – Israel was changed to Zion, etc. The reference to Christ’s second coming becomes a reference to the taking up of the City of Enoch. Where the saints are originally told they will join with the Church of the Firstborn, the new versions declares the recipients to be the Church or the Firstborn (IE, the People of Enoch), that will soon be taken up.7.
While I do consider the Joseph Smith Translation an inspired work, and an important contribution to modern revelation and a profound presentation of restored doctrine, I believe it is best understood in terms of its genre, and do not believe its intended purpose, for the most part, is to present a restoration of original ancient texts, even though the ideas themselves may be from an ancient date.
Thus, while when discussing the original ancient context of Old Testament narratives, I will not be taking the JST renderings into consideration. I have, however, greatly benefited from a study and application of the JST, and invite all to do so as they ponder modern application of the flexible structure of prophetic biblical narratives.
- Joseph Smith’s New Translation of the Bible, http://www.historiasud.com/scriptures/jst/new-translation.php [↩]
- ibid. [↩]
- see The Joseph Smith Papers: Revelations and Translations – Manuscript Revelation Books [Facsimile Edition] also online at Joseph Smith Papers [↩]
- BYU, Joseph Smith’s New Translation. [↩]
- see this post for a more detailed introduction to 1 Enoch [↩]
- Doctrine & Covenants 78 – see historic versions of the text here [↩]
- It’s interesting while that in the latest edition of the D&C the ‘code names’ for Joseph, Sidney, and Whitney have been changed back to their originals (and this is even noted in the current header), the other changes making this an Enochian revelation were retained. The same process was used in what is now known as Doctrine and Covenants 82 -see here at the JSP [↩]