The Joseph Smith Translation: Inspired by Whom?

By Bill McKeever

The following was originally printed in the July/August 2011 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription, please visit here

A commendable student of the Bible tries hard to understand a text in the way the author meant his words to be understood. His desire is to comprehend with as much precision as possible, the intent of the author. False teachers have no such intentions. Instead, they want to read into a passage ideas they feel already support their currently held positions. However, only the worst of false teachers would dare to be so bold as to actually change the verse or verses in order to promote their heretical viewpoints.  Joseph Smith certainly falls into the latter category.

Joseph Smith’s 1833 version of the Bible has also been called the “Inspired Version.” Mormon apologists don’t even try to hide the fact that Smith needed neither manuscripts to be translated from, nor knowledge of the languages spoken by the ancient writers themselves. For many proponents of Smith, it is enough that he was inspired of God and was enabled with modern revelation to make the necessary “corrections” to the Bible. BYU Professor Robert L. Millet stated,

“The Prophet translated the King James Bible by the same means he translated the Book of Mormon—through revelation. His knowledge of Hebrew or Greek or his acquaintance with ancient documents was no more essential in making the JST than a previous knowledge of Reformed Egyptian or an access to more primitive Nephite records was essential to the translation of the Book of Mormon” (The Joseph Smith Translation: The Restoration of Plain and Precious Things, pp.26–27).

On October 15, 1843, Joseph Smith delivered a sermon in which he declared, “I believe the Bible as it read when it came from the pen of the original writers. Ignorant translators, careless transcribers, or designing and corrupt priests have committed many errors” (History of the Church 6:57). As we can see, he breaks down his complaint into three categories, 1) ignorant translators, 2) careless transcribers, and 3) corrupt priests. Let us briefly examine this claim.

Ignorant translators – Christians will readily agree that translators are fallible humans and prone to make mistakes, but to assume that the people behind every Bible translation available during Smith’s day were ignorant or even unqualified overall, is quite a stretch. Though there are exceptions, in many cases our English Bibles were translated by way of committees. In other words, several scholars worked together to translate and critique each other’s work in an effort to produce a translation that most accurately reflects the meaning behind the words used by the original writers.

This is certainly true of the King James Version, considered to be the official version of the LDS Church.  In his book, The Men Behind the King James Version, author Gutavus S. Paine examines the education and Christian devotion of the men who “by his majesty’s special command,” produced a translation “out of the original tongues with the former translations diligently compared and revised” (Title page). They were hardly ignorant, nor do we find evidence to suggest that they were motivated by anything other than a desire to produce a precise translation. In fact, 400 years after it was first introduced, the Kings James Version is still considered a masterpiece, and is rightfully credited as the source used by God to bring countless millions unto Himself.

Careless transcribers – Prior to the printing press, manuscripts had to be painstakingly copied by hand. Dr. Neil R. Lightfoot, in his book How We Got the Bible, readily acknowledges that “mistakes of the hand, eyes, and ear are of frequent occurrence in manuscripts,” but he goes on to state that they “usually pose no problem because they are so easy to pick out” (p.88). Lightfoot explains:

“Errors of omission and addition are common in all the manuscripts. Words sometimes are omitted by a copyist for no apparent reason, simply an unintentional omission. More often, however, omissions are due to the  similar appearance of words at a corresponding point several lines above or below in the manuscript. The scribe’s eye might skip, for example, from the end of line 6 to a similar word at the end of line 10. A scribe might add to his copy in the same way. He may inadvertently transcribe a word twice in succession, or repeat a letter twice, or write a letter once when it should have been written twice. Not a few times the scribe may misunderstand the passage due to improper division of the words, especially if the scribe is unskilled in the language… But in all matters of this kind, the textual critic, by comparison of the many manuscripts, can detect and explain these errors without hesitation” (p.89.).

Lightfoot admits that manuscripts do include what appear to be intentional alterations, but he states,

“we ought not think these insertions were made by dishonest scribes who simply wanted to tamper with the text. Almost always the intention of the scribe is good and he wants only to ‘correct’ what appears to be an error in the text. So if a word seems improperly spelled, or a Greek verb does not have the proper ending, or a form does not correspond with the classical idiom, then the scribe feels it is his duty to improve the text he is copying” (p.90).

Designing or corrupt priests – A designing person is one who crafts a plan whether for good or ill. Since Smith also used the word corrupt, it seems intentional that this label is to be understood in a negative and sinister way. If Smith’s claim had any validity it would be a conspiracy of monumental proportions. For this conspiracy to be successful, the powers behind these “corrupt priests” would have to collect and destroy any and all handwritten manuscripts that did not contain the same alterations (or at least a great majority of them).  Since the New Testament was being hand-copied in areas all over the known world where Christianity was having an influence, getting rid of the extant documents that did not conform to current alterations would be impossible.

Though it is true that variants (or differences) can be found among the over 5,000 New Testament manuscripts available today, we don’t see a pattern of unique Mormon doctrines being left out. In other words, you won’t find ancient Old or New Testament documents discussing things like a heavenly mother, or eight-year-old deacons, or the necessity of marriage in order to receive the Mormon version of exaltation. To insist as the LDS Church does that these or any other such “precious truth” was purposely removed from the text is of course, an argument from silence based on no proof whatsoever.

Conclusion

The irony in Smith’s accusation is that he seems to be describing himself! When he took it upon himself to revise the Bible in 1830 he had no expertise in ancient languages. Would this not make him an “ignorant translator?” And if we find a pattern of Smith making alterations that conflicted with ancient texts, while at the same time supporting his presently held views, would that not also make him both designing and corrupt?

Unfortunately, most Mormons will never consider the obvious truth that it was their founding prophet who was guilty of tampering with God’s Word. If the Joseph Smith “translation” was indeed an “Inspired Version,” it seems apparent that this inspiration did not begin with God, but was rather an attempt by Smith to deceive those whose admiration for him far exceeded their ability to discern.

For more articles on the topic of the Bible, go here.