The Place of the JST

August 28, 2004 | 27 comments

Over at Intellectual Exhibitionist, Ryan Bell comments on a topic that I’ve wondered about on occasion:

The Joseph Smith translation is not the official bible of the church. So we still rely on the KJV as the official word. This is exceedingly odd to me– we have one take on the Bible that’s the source of direct revelation to the head of our dispensation, and one that comes from a bunch of medieval scholars, and we go with the latter. Weird, but true.

Exceedingly weird. I have over the years heard some potential rationales (many of which have come up over at Ryan’s blog): We don’t want our missionaries using “non-standard” scriptures for proselytizing; we don’t know how to deal with the incomplete nature of the JST; plus, the church doesn’t own the copyright. None of these have seemed particularly convincing to me. The church’s partial adoption of the JST (“we’ll put some passages in the footnotes, and a few at the end of the index”) seems to be a strange solution as well. After all, doesn’t the JST in theory answer the potential translation problems that are referenced in the Eighth Article of Faith?

27 Responses to The Place of the JST

  1. Derek on August 28, 2004 at 4:21 pm

    Would the act of fully integrating the JST into the Bible qualify for the punishments outlined in Rev. 22:18-19? Despite the fact that the JST merely restores that which was lost (because restoring might entail both “adding unto” and “taking away”).

    Cleaning or polishing old, valuable coins destroys much of their worth.

  2. Measure on August 28, 2004 at 5:16 pm

    My understanding is that Joseph was still working on the JST at the time of his death. If we were to publish a bible based on his existing work, it too would still contain errors.

    My question is why didn’t Brigham Young complete the work? Or any prophet since that time?

  3. Carl Youngblood on August 28, 2004 at 5:22 pm

    Derek, if that would constitute adding to or taking away, then you had better excommunicate the apostle Paul and declare him accursed, for some of his epistles were written after the Book of Revelation.

  4. Aaron Brown on August 28, 2004 at 5:40 pm

    Were we to officially incorporate the changes into our actual Biblical text (rather than just as footnotes or as larger excerpts in a separate location), we’d create one more source of consternation for the “Mormons aren’t Christian” crowd, and Joseph Smith’s “heretical” alterations of the text would be an even more prominent sticking point with our opponents than it already is. Of course, this doesn’t really answer your question, especially given the fact that the mere existence of the JST passages is controversial anyway, whether or not we incorporate it more formally into our texts.

    Given the opt-repeated claim that “Joseph never finished the JST,” I suspect there is some wisdom in not formally incorporating the new verses. Let’s say you incorporate the verses, and then Bob and Joe get into an argument in Gospel Doctrine about what Verse X means. Bob can say “maybe that’s a mistranslation,” and Joe can respond “If it were a mistranslation, Joseph probably would have told us and the Church would have changed the text accordingly!” Of course, Bob and Joe could have this kind of exchange regardless, but I think it’s more likely that Church members would view the scriptures inerrantly if they knew that the Church had gone to the trouble to officially insert Joseph’s changes into the canonical text. And who wants that, really?

    “After all, doesn’t the JST in theory answer the potential translation problems that are referenced in the Eighth Article of Faith?”

    Let’s not overlook the fact that it is all the rage these days to redefine the alleged mistranlation and mistranscription of the Bible by evil, conniving scribes as nothing more than the omission of additional works from the canon … just as it is fashionable to view the JST passages as mere inspired midrashic commentary rather than actual cut-and-paste deletions/additions (think Stephen Robinson). (I am sympathetic to these views, by the way). Given these newer understandings, it may make no sense to incorporate the JST passages into the actual text, since we would be incorporating something other than actual historical material that has been deleted.

    Aaron B

  5. john fowles on August 28, 2004 at 5:44 pm

    We might be overlooking the very pragmatic reasons for not doing so–they resemble the reasons for not re-translating the lost 116 pages. Because there are extant, yet still post-Apostasy, ancient manuscripts of the NT and even older sources for the OT, the rest of the Christian world would simply compare those texts with the JST and call foul (which of course they already do, even absent this excuse to do so).

    Very persuasive to me is the thought that the work was still incomplete and thus large portions were still wholly untranslated and the translated portions may have needed some inspired revisitation by Joseph Smith.

    I agree that the real question is why BY or subsequent prophets didn’t pick up the work. If you are RLDS the answer would be easy, but since I believe that BY was a true prophet of God, that can’t be the reason. Perhaps we need to take the pragmatic route again: the need isn’t really there for it since we have the BoM, which contains the precepts of the Gospel, and the D&C, which restores the more opaque aspects that are hinted at in the NT and not mentioned in the BoM. So having the finished portions of the JST is nice for us but we can still rely on the KJV (or whatever version we wish) together with the BoM.

    Perhaps the JST was more of a personal project of Joseph Smith–something he wanted to apply his spiritual gift to in the interest of enlightening the body of the Church, and as such, when he died, the need wasn’t really there to continue his personal project.

    Was JS using the Urim and Thummim to do the translation? If so, where are they now? If they have been taken back like the plates and the Sword of Laban, then that might be another reason that no subsequent prophet took up the task. When the Lord feels the time is right to complete the project, he will again provide the means to do so.

  6. jpatch on August 28, 2004 at 7:00 pm

    When discussing this topic, it is easy to forget that parts of the JST are canonized–they are in the Pearl of Great Price.

    All the other JST bits and pieces put together do not compare in significance with what is in the Pearl of Great Price, IMO. Many of the JST changes are somewhat common sense anyway (eg. God repenting in the OT.)

  7. Jonathan Green on August 28, 2004 at 7:05 pm

    Another question to consider is: Which translation did Joseph Smith use to teach from? A friend who was a participant in a BYU seminar on the JST a year ago says: the KJV, even after the bulk of the work on the JST was completed. John Fowles wonders, “Perhaps the JST was more of a personal project of Joseph Smith,” which is a very good question. Also worth pondering: is the JST right, and the KJV wrong, where their readings disagree? Or are they two different accounts of revealed truth?

  8. Ethesis (Stephen M) on August 28, 2004 at 9:31 pm

    Well, Joseph Smith specifically said that the revisions he was working on were not to be released until finished and they weren’t.

    Seems like he might have know what he was talking about ;)

  9. Clark Goble on August 28, 2004 at 11:23 pm

    I think that one ought to consider the JST as an inspired midrash rather than a translation as such. (In the normal sense of the word – Joseph had a more expansive set which while technically within the definition can be confusing) In this sense what Joseph did when he read through the Bible was akin to what Nephi did with Isaiah in many places in 1 Nephi and 2 Nephi.

    As for whether it was done. He actually was complete but then after this first completion he kept going back through the text. To me this indicates that through revelation the scriptures can be endlessly interrogated to learn new truths.

  10. Kevin Barney on August 29, 2004 at 12:43 am

    I agree with others that the JST is largely midrashic in nature. (I even published an article in Dialogue many years ago, called “The Joseph Smith Translation and Ancient Texts of the Bible,” that makes this argument)

    The incredible array of modern translations that exists today did not exist in Joseph’s day. I think that in at least some respects the need for the JST as a project has been mooted by modern scholarship.

    As for why BY didn’t finish it, Brigham basically came out and said that, while he appreciated the JST (although it wasn’t called that back then), he preferred the KJV.

    I personally think it is dangerous to continue to give the vast majority of our people the false impression that the JST is entirely a textual restoration.

  11. Susan on August 29, 2004 at 1:19 am

    Curious about the source of the idea that Joseph didn’t finish. He did go through the entire Bible, a good deal of it twice.

  12. Jan on August 29, 2004 at 1:49 am

    Coming onstage just to say that the BYU Religious Studies Center will be publishing a volume called “Joseph Smith’s New Translation of the Bible: Original Manuscripts” sometime later this year. “The Religious Educator” Vol 5/No 2 2004 contains four articles that answer some of the questions I’ve read here.

  13. Mark Simmons on August 29, 2004 at 9:14 am

    John Fowles,

    The “JST” was not a “personal project”. Cf. D&C 45:60-61.

  14. Philocrites on August 29, 2004 at 11:21 am

    Just yesterday at a party, a candidate for the Episcopal priesthood asked me something I hadn’t thought about before, but it relates to this conversation: How would the Mormon church go about selecting or creating a more authoritative translation of the Bible today? Or at least a modern-language English Bible? (Assuming, of course, that there are compelling reasons to go beyond King James’s 17th-century scholars or even beyond Joseph Smith’s version.) Would a panel of BYU scholars start from the Greek and Hebrew texts? Would a panel just select the best of the modern translations? Would the Quorum of the Twelve offer its own prophetic translation? I couldn’t come up with a satisfying hypothetical scenario. How would you have answered my friend’s question?

  15. Ethesis (Stephen M) on August 29, 2004 at 11:24 am

    Coming onstage just to say that the BYU Religious Studies Center will be publishing a volume called “Joseph Smith’s New Translation of the Bible: Original Manuscripts” sometime later this year. “The Religious Educator” Vol 5/No 2 2004 contains four articles that answer some of the questions I’ve read here.

    Nicely said, I admit I was terribly terse.

    Of the Joseph Smith translation items (e.g. his Book of Enoch which we have as the Book of Moses, etc.) the Book of Abraham is one of the most impressive.

    Just had a friend return from seeing a traveling exhibit. The gods with the grips by which they welcome the initiates. The stations of the Egyptian endowment painted on the walls of the tomb and the way the soul is expected to cross back and forth, as if traveling between rooms. A subset of the Book of Breathings as an endowment text (much like some of the Masonic “cheet sheet” books you can find) and then taking the Book of Abraham in that context.

    He was really impressed.

  16. Kevin Barney on August 29, 2004 at 11:51 am

    Philocrites, that is indeed a hypothetical situation, because I don’t see us moving from the KJV for a long time yet, probably not during my lifetime. But it may happen someday.

    I very much doubt that the GAs would attempt to do a prophetic translation in the mold of the JST.

    I could imagine that a committee of BYU scholars would do a new translation working from the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts. But this would not be the Church’s official version. I seriously doubt that the Church wants to be ghettoized with its own NWT (New World Translation, the JW Bible). People would be suspicious of the doctrinal slant given to such a translation.

    Given that we are a missionary oriented Church, I suspect that we would go with an established translation created by others. And, given our substantial connection with the KJV, I suspect that we would want to remain within the Authorized Version tradition. Therefore, I suspect that we would go with something like the New Revised Standard Version. (Assuming that most living GAs have not actually read J. Reuben Clark’s Why the KJV? )

    But again, to be clear, I don’t see this happening for a long, long time, if at all.

  17. Bob Caswell on August 29, 2004 at 4:07 pm

    In all my conversing with Ryan Bell, this is one of my favorite quotes of his. I’m always glad to see an example of something weird but true rather than the traditional something-true-so-it-must-not-be-weird.

  18. Grasshopper on August 29, 2004 at 4:21 pm

    It seems to me that, given the prevalence of KJV language in the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine & Covenants, we would lose too many linguistic connections if the Church were to officially adopt a different translation of the Bible.

    On the other hand, as the Church expands further into the non-English-speaking world, this connection is lost anyway, since we have no official non-English Bible translation.

  19. john fowles on August 29, 2004 at 4:25 pm

    Philocrites, the outside world might not want to readily admit this (or they might have no problem doing so, I just don’t know), but the Church is very well equipped now with scholars that could indeed create a new translation from the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. That would surely be an interesting and fulfilling exercise, but it would not address what the JST was trying to do. That is, the extant Greek and Aramaic manuscripts may in themselves contain the types of scribal errors that wrested the pure principles in the first place. Even the earliest of NT manuscript fragments date to the post-Apostacy period, according to LDS reckoning.

    So, although it might be a helpful project for our own highly qualified cadre of LDS scholars to do the translation because of the desirability of moving away from the Elizabethan English, it would only amount to such a purpose and, in my opinion, wouldn’t claim to be a project along the same lines as the JST. I still hold to my earlier position that when the time comes where it is necessary for the JST to become a reality, the Lord will call the shots, and the prophet will perform magnificently (notice that in that case the BYU scholars who are well versed in the ancient languages, theology, and scholarship of the Bible will, in my opinion, not be participating in that inspired version).

  20. David King Landrith on August 29, 2004 at 7:36 pm

    The JST is incomplete in the sense that Joseph was still revising it for doctrinal content. We can understand what “revising” means by looking at the revision process.

    Joseph’s translational revisions followed the evolution of his theological principals. For example, before adopting the “plurality of Gods” doctrine, Joseph’s translation project involved revising passages that weren’t theistically singular. Once he did adopt the “plurality of Gods” doctrine, he reversed this process and began changing the passages that were theistically singular. Who knows how many other such revisions he may have begun or reversed had his work not been interrupted by martyrdom.

    Quite apart from the question of whether the JST is commentary or restoration, we just don’t know how much of it represents attempts by Joseph to work things out in his mind before making them final. It seems, therefore, that we have a draft with at least some material that represents something like brainstorming or personal notes.

    This is certainly valuable as study material, but not what one should want to consider the final word.

  21. David King Landrith on August 29, 2004 at 9:18 pm

    Also, the Authorized Version is not written in Elizabethan English. As one might expect from the fact that we refer to it as the “King James Bible,” it is written in Jacobean English.

  22. Ethesis (Stephen M) on August 30, 2004 at 12:03 am

    I could imagine that a committee of BYU scholars would do a new translation working from the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts. But this would not be the Church’s official version. I seriously doubt that the Church wants to be ghettoized with its own NWT (New World Translation, the JW Bible). People would be suspicious of the doctrinal slant given to such a translation.

    Indeed, though they cut 2/3rds of the suggested footnotes from the final printing.

    The best version I saw was the one printed on the large pages (the size up from standard) with standard plates — to give one lots of room for margin notes.

    I still have hope for an expanded footnote version, as one could use the same printing technique of oversized pages to keep the same form factor while putting the rest of the footnotes back in.

  23. Jim F. on August 30, 2004 at 12:48 am

    David King Landrith, given that a huge percentage of the wording of the KJV comes from much earlier Bibles, such as the Tyndale, “Elizabethan” is as accurate as “Jacobean.” :)

    My experience with the JST is fairly limited, but may be relevant. When I wrote my book on Romans 1, I spent quite a bit of time looking carefully at the JST revisions. The more I looked at them, the more two things seemed clear: (1) they usually solve difficulties in the English text in a way that is faithful to the Greek text; (2) few of them could be construed as insertions of missing text rather than interpretive clarifications.

    Of course, there are large chunks, as in Genesis, that don’t fit my description. But apart from those, most of which are presently canonized in the Pearl of Great Price, I suspect that most of the rest of the changes are similar to those I studied.

  24. Jim F. on August 30, 2004 at 12:54 am

    I forgot to make a further remark: As many who have looked carefully at the JST have already noted, quite a number of Joseph Smith’s changes involve prefering the alternate translation given in the margins of most non-LDS KJV Bibles: the KJV has a particular word in the text, with a note refering to a possible alternate translation in the margin; Joseph Smith opts for the marginal translation rather than the standard one.

  25. David King Landrith on August 30, 2004 at 7:43 pm

    Jim F., I apologize that this sounds so pedantic, but as long as we’re using smileys and it’s all in good fun… ;)

    The Tyndale Bibles were published during the reign of Henry VIII, as were the Mathew and the Coverdale Bibles. The Old Testament of the Geneva Bible was published 2 years into Elizabeth’s reign (the Geneva New Testament having been published when Mary I was still on the throne) and cannot fairly be considered Elizabethan.

    Aside from the Geneva Old Testament which was wrapped up just as Elizabeth’s reign was getting under way, no major English Bible translations were made during Elizabeth’s reign. Whatever else it may be, the King James Bible is not Elizabethan.

    Moreover, though much of the underlying structure was lifted from pre-Jacobean sources, the King James Bible defines Jacobean English as much as it is defined by it.

  26. Mark on August 31, 2004 at 5:02 am

    My favorite JST scripture is Joseph’s “translation” of Romans 13, wherein Paul seemingly makes the case that good Christians may potentially be required to support bad government, due to the “fact” that all “powers that be are ordained of God”. Fortunately, according to Brother Joseph, the “higher powers” referred to in verse 1 have nothing to do with Earthly governments, and everything to do with Church and/or Priesthood authority.

    If Joseph was right, the phrase “higher powers” refers only to those who hold authority over us in the Church, and not those elected or even self-selected in positions of governmental power. This, in my opinion, is much closer to Christ’s seeming indifferent attitude towards those who would have made him a king to suit their own views on good government (see John 18:36).

    I say: thank heavens for Joseph’s take on Romans 13.

  27. Jeff Thomas on September 9, 2004 at 12:38 pm

    I also want to comment regarding the subject. If Joseph Smith was commanded by the Lord to translate and correct the Bible and it was left “incomplete”, my question is, when has a prophet ever been killed before he has completed his work? Historically, this has never happened.