What if the Bible was translated correctly after all?

By Eric Johnson and Bill McKeever

The eighth of Mormonism’s Thirteen Articles of Faith found at the end of the Pearl of Great Price says, “We believe the Bible to be the Word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.” In other words, Mormons are taught to accept the King James Version of the Holy Bible except in those areas where they say it is translated incorrectly. When trying to witness to a Mormon by using the Bible, you may be told that the verses you quote are flawed. The Book of Mormon, on the other hand, is given full status in the eighth Article of Faith as being the “word of God” without any qualifying statements!

Robert J. Matthews, a dean of religious education at Brigham Young University, says that many biblical errors were corrected in other LDS standard works. He wrote, “Many important concepts once in the Bible but now missing from it have been restored through the Book of Mormon and other Latter-day revelations” (A Sure Foundation, p. 165). Bear in mind, this statement is based purely on subjective reasoning and cannot be supported by either historical or textual evidence. The Mormon Church claims that many books of the Bible have been lost. It does not include any of these so-called lost books in its standard works.

Since Mormonism’s beginning, the Bible has been viewed with suspicion. Joseph Smith exclaimed, “Ignorant translators, careless transcribers, or designing and corrupt priests have committed many errors” (Joseph Fielding Smith, editor, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 327). Early Mormon Apostle Orson Pratt believed that the Bible was marred and could not be trusted when he wrote, “who, in his right mind, could, for one moment, suppose the Bible in its present form to be a perfect guide? Who knows that even one verse of the Bible has escaped pollution?” (Divine Authenticity of the Book of Mormon, p. 47). Comparing two LDS standard works, Apostle Bruce R. McConkie stated,

The Book of Mormon is translated correctly because an unlearned man did it by the gift and power of God. It took him less than sixty translating days. The Bible abounds in errors and mistranslations, in spite of the fact that the most learned scholars and translators of the ages labored years on end over the manuscripts of antiquity to bring it forth (“The Bible: A Sealed Book,” a BYU speech given to LDS Seminary and Institute teachers, August 1984).

In recent years, Apostle Neil A. Maxwell explained, “By faulty transmission, many ‘plain and precious things’ were ‘taken away’ or ‘kept back’ from reaching what later composed our precious Holy Bible” (“The Wondrous Restoration,” Ensign, April 2003, p. 35). With statements like these, no wonder the Mormon people do not have complete faith in the Bible! Contrary to the misinformation many Mormons are given concerning the Bible, there is plenty of proof to demonstrate that it is a reliable source for truth.

Evidence for the Reliability of the Bible

In Evidence That Demands a Verdict, Christian apologist Josh McDowell spends the first quarter of his book defending the reliability of the Bible. Among his many excellent points, McDowell notes the uniqueness of the Bible. The Bible is actually a compilation of many books (66 to be exact) written by more than 40 authors over a 1,500-year time span. Parts of the Bible were written on three different continents in three languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) … yet it is in complete agreement with itself. (Evidence That Demands a Verdict, p. 16).

Regarding the prophecies included within the Bible, Christian scholar Charles Ryrie noted:

Could these predictions have happened by chance? If so, then they would not validate the Bible. If, however, they could not possibly happen by chance, then we ought to take notice of what the Bible says in other matters, since it has proved itself to be reliable in the testable area of fulfilled prophecies…. There are more than 30 predictions about the life of Jesus. In addition, there are many other prophecies recorded in the Bible that have already been fulfilled. The total number is certainly more than 100. The probability of 100 prophecies being fulfilled by chance is less than one in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (Does It Really Matter What You Believe?, p. 7).

Compared to other ancient writings, the Bible is extremely reliable. Take the New Testament, for example. There are now more than 5,600 known Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. Add over 10,000 Latin Vulgate and at least 9,300 other early versions (MSS) and we have more than 24,000 manuscript copies of portions of the New Testament in existence today. No other document of antiquity even begins to approach such numbers and attestation. In comparison, the Iliad by Homer is second with only 643 manuscripts that still survive. The first complete preserved text of Homer dates from the thirteenth century (McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict, p. 39).

On the other hand, the original books found in the New Testament were written between A.D. 40-100. The earliest manuscript in existence is the John Rylands Manuscript, which has been dated A.D. 130 and contains the book of John. Other important early manuscripts include the Bodmer Papyrus II (A.D. 150-200) and the Chester Beatty Papyri (A.D. 200). Nearly complete manuscripts, which are deemed most reliable by many scholars, can be traced back to no later than A.D. 400.Christian scholar Sir Frederick Kenyon notes that the age of a manuscript really plays no part since new copies were deemed just as equal in authority as older copies:

When a manuscript had been copied with the exactitude prescribed in the Talmud, and had been duly verified, it was accepted as authentic and regarded as being of equal value with any other copy. If all were equally correct, age gave no advantage to a manuscript; on the contrary, age was a positive disadvantage, since the manuscript was liable to become defaced or damaged in the lapse of time. A damaged or imperfect copy was at once condemned as unfit for use (Sir Frederick Kenyon, Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts, p. 43)

It is true that there are textual differences between the manuscripts. However, these manuscripts have been deciphered for accuracy and carefully compared to form the most accurate Greek text. Norman Geisler and William Nix say:

Only about one-eighth of all the variants had any weight, as most of them are merely mechanical matters such as spelling or style. Of the whole, then, only about one-sixtieth rise above `trivialities,’ or can in any sense be called “substantial variations.” Mathematically this would compute to a text that is 98.33 percent pure (A General Introduction to the Bible, p. 365).

As for the reliability of the Old Testament, Gleason Archer writes:

A careful study of the variants (different readings) of the various earliest manuscripts reveals that none of them affects a single doctrine of Scripture. The system of spiritual truth contained in the standard Hebrew text of the Old Testament is not in the slightest altered or compromised by any of the variant readings found in the Hebrew manuscripts…. It is very evident that the vast majority of them are so inconsequential as to leave the meaning of each clause doctrinally unaffected (A Survey of the Old Testament, p. 25).

Kenyon concurred when he wrote that none of the so-called disputed readings affect in any way the tenets of the Christian faith. In fact, no fundamental doctrine of the Christian faith rests on a disputed reading (Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts, p. 23). The 1947 discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a group of manuscripts discovered in Qumran, Israel, which included most Old Testament writings and a number of commentaries produced between 200 B.C and 100 A.D., proves the accuracy of the Old Testament. (To watch a YouTube of archaeologist Joel Kramer speaking about the scrolls standing at the entrance to Cave 1, click here.) Many zealous Latter-day Saints expected the scrolls to restore the lost truths expunged by “unscrupulous Bible translators” and, in turn, vindicate the Book of Mormon as a truly ancient document. This has not been the case. In fact, BYU professor Stephen E. Robinson said, “So far, the plain and precious things have not been restored to us in the Dead Sea Scrolls. If Latter-day Saints would just get a good English translation of all the published scrolls, they would discover that the people of Qumran are not [Latter-day] Saints of former days (The Salt Lake Tribune, “LDS Scholars Renew Interest in Mysterious Dead Sea Scrolls,” December 7, 1991, A-5).

Instead, the scrolls found in Qumran have further corroborated the Bible. One example of the importance of this discovery is a scroll that contained Isaiah 53. The earliest copy of Isaiah before the Dead Sea Scrolls was from the tenth century, bridging the gap by a millennium. Write Geisler and Nix:

Of the 166 words in Isaiah 53, there are only seventeen letters in question. Ten of these letters are simply a matter of spelling, which does not affect the sense. Four more letters are minor stylistic changes, such as conjunctions. The remaining three letters comprise the word `light,’ which is added in verse 11, and does not affect the meaning greatly. Furthermore, this word is supported by the LXX and IQ Is. Thus, in one chapter of 166 words, there is only one word (three letters) in question after a thousand years of transmission–and this does not significantly change the meaning of the passage. (A General Introduction to the Bible, p. 263).

When a Mormon does seriously examine the reliability of the ancient manuscripts, a different conclusion is drawn. For instance, BYU professor Richard L. Anderson’s study of textual criticism has yielded just the opposite result. Speaking of the New Testament, Anderson remarked:

For a book to undergo progressive uncovering of its manuscript history and come out with so little debatable in its text is a great tribute to its essential authenticity. First, no new manuscript discovery has produced serious differences in the essential story. This survey has disclosed the leading textual controversies, and together they would be well within one percent of the text. Stated differently, all manuscripts agree on the essential correctness of 99 percent of all the verses in the New Testament (Fourteenth Annual Symposium of the Archaeology of the Scriptures, Brigham Young University, 1963).

Many Mormons are confused about the number of English Bible translations. It is true that there are dozens of Bible versions. Mormon writer James A. Carver concluded:

Both Latter-day Saints and other Christians accept the Bible as God’s word but the LDS are often criticized for adding the phrase, “as far as it is translated correctly.” That shouldn’t bother Christians too much since much of their time is spent in producing new translations. I have one Bible with eight translations and another one with twenty-six, which indicates that Christians, as well as Latter-day Saints have some concerns about translation (Answering an Ex-Mormon Critic, p. 7).

While Carver’s statement tries to question the accuracy of the Bible, he inadvertently raises the question regarding the accuracy regarding various translations of the Book of Mormon. Yet there have been many versions of the Book of Mormon over the years that have differences from one version to the next: 1830, 1837, 1840, 1841, 1879, 1920, and 1981. Not all of the splinter groups of Latter-day Saints would agree as to which Book of Mormon is the most correct; for instance, the Book of Mormon produced by the Community of Christ church based in Independence, MO does not read exactly the same as the LDS edition. Which edition, this or the LDS translation, was translated by the gift and power of God?

It is also important to realize that the Bible was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Therefore, there can be no “exact” translation to English just as there cannot be an “exact” translation between French and German or Spanish and Russian. Because each dialect is unique, there are many words and phrases within each language that cannot be adequately translated into other languages.

It is also a fact that the English language changes. Thus, while many Christians still use the King James Version published in the seventeenth century, its terminology and grammatical usage is much different from the twentieth century. Since many Christians (especially the younger believers) may have difficulty understanding older translations, godly men have produced a number of these contemporary English versions. Some are good and some are not so good. A good translation will remain as close as possible to the original languages while utilizing a contemporary, easy-to-understand vernacular. For those passages that remain confusing, a return to the original languages will usually clear up the matter. Many of the so-called “contradictions” can be clarified this way.

Unless a Mormon understands that the Bible alone is the Word of God, confusion on important matters of doctrine will continue to reign. As Timothy was told by Paul in 2 Timothy 2:15 to “study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth,” so should we discern truth via the Word of God, the Bible.

Finally, we would have to say we completely agree with sixth President Joseph F. Smith who explained,

All members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should be as familiar as possible with the words that are recorded in the New Testament, especially with reference to those things spoken as recorded by the apostles, and the Savior Himself (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith, p. 45).

Regardless of the doubt shed on the Bible’s transmission quality, we encourage Latter-day Saints to follow this advice and read the Bible as a little child. If you’d like a place to start, we recommend taking the “Romans Challenge” and discovering if Mormonism is in line with this important book of the New Testament. If this interests you, click here.

For more information, check out a number of articles, podcasts, and YouTubes by clicking here.