Joseph Smith’s Alleged Ignorance of the Bible

Note: The following was originally printed in the November/December 2016 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription, please visit here

By Bill McKeever

On the FAIR-LDS.org website, an article responds to the question, “Did Joseph know what the italics in the Bible meant?” FAIR stands for the Foundation for Apologetics and Information Research, an organization made up of  LDS apologists who attempt to defend Mormon positions.

The article doesn’t explain why such a question is being asked, but it could be in response to the fact that, on more than one occasion, the Book of Mormon includes the italicized word when citing verses from the King James Bible. This is also true when it comes to Joseph Smith’s “Inspired Version” of the Bible, otherwise known as the Joseph Smith Translation that he claimed he finished in 1833 (History of the Church 1:368).

The LDS Bible Dictionary explains why italics are found in the King James Bible:

“In the KJV italics identify words that are necessary in English to round out and complete the sense of a phrase but were not present in the Hebrew or Greek text of the manuscript used. Such additions were necessary because in some instances the manuscript was inadequate, and the translators felt obliged to clarify it in the translation. In other instances italics were necessary in cases where the grammatical construction of English called for the use of words that were not needed to make the same thought in Hebrew or Greek. Italics thus represent the willingness of the translators to identify these areas. It appears that generally, though not always, their judgment was justified in their choice of italicized words.”

Since the italicized words were not in the original text, their presence in the Book of Mormon tend to confirm that Smith was plagiarizing the King James Bible and not really translating from an ancient document. In defense of this anomaly, the anonymous writer at FAIR argues that Smith’s use of the italicized words was based in ignorance. The article says, “Joseph didn’t even know that Jerusalem had walls around it. His basic knowledge of the Bible was limited. Just as there is no evidence that Joseph owned a Bible, there is even less that he had any knowledge of what the italicized words in the translation meant.” I’m not sure why anyone would think this was a convincing response. If Smith was really translating an ancient text, why would his lack of knowledge concerning the Bible play any role at all in bringing about the Book of Mormon?

Furthermore, I’m puzzled as to why the author brings up the idea that Smith may not have “owned a Bible.” In his 1832 diary, Smith stated that by “searching the scriptures” at the young age of twelve, he had already come to the conclusion that mankind “had apostatized from the true and living faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the new testament” (punctuation in original). Whether he personally owned a Bible seems irrelevant since he obviously had access to one to draw such a conclusion. It’s a conclusion, you would think, that could only come about from more than a cursory reading of the New Testament.

Still, the writer pursues this line of reasoning by adding:

“Emma made Joseph’s early ignorance crystal clear: When he stopped for any purpose at any time he would, when he commenced again, begin where he left off without any hesitation, and one time while he was translating he stopped suddenly, pale as a sheet, and said, ‘Emma, did Jerusalem have walls around it?’ When I answered, ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘Oh! [I didn’t know.] I was afraid I had been deceived.’ He had such a limited knowledge of history at that time that he did not even know that Jerusalem was surrounded by walls” (Joseph Smith III, “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints’ Advocate 2 (Oct. 1879), 51).

“If Joseph didn’t know this,” the writer contends, “how do the critics expect that he knew what the italics in a Bible (which he likely did not own) meant? This is something which many modern Bible readers do not know” (italics in original). After making such an unconvincing rebuttal, the writer goes on to weaken his (her?) case by adding, “However, one cannot conclude with certainty that Joseph did not understand what the italicized words meant. Some LDS scholars believe that he did.”

In light of such a self-refuting sentence, I really don’t understand what the author is trying to prove. So was Smith really ignorant as to why Bible translators utilized italics or was he not? Whether he did or did not know what the italicized words meant in the Bible, how does this really prove Smith didn’t commit plagiarism?