“Joseph Smith’s Inspired Translation of the Bible,” Ensign, Dec. 1972, 61
It is generally known by members of the Church that the Prophet Joseph Smith made what he called a “new translation” of the Bible. What is not so generally known is why the translation was made, how it was made, and what its usefulness is and has been in the Church.
The Prophet’s main work of revising, correcting, or translating the Bible was done during the three-year period from June 1830 to July 1833. During this time he and his scribes went through the Old and New Testaments of the King James Version and produced nearly 500 pages of manuscript, containing thousands of variant readings and new passages that clarify and enhance the message of the Bible. The eighth Article of Faith declares that “we believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly. …” The translation of the Bible by Joseph Smith shows much of what is meant by that statement.
Joseph the Prophet always referred to his work with the Bible as the new translation, and by that name it was known in the early years of the Church. In its printed and published form it was called the Inspired Version, but in recent years it has become common practice to refer to it as the inspired revision, or inspired translation.
We should be appreciative of the great spiritual heritage and source of inspiration that has come to us through the Bible, yet readers the world over have recognized for many years that the Bible has not come to us in its original purity and plainness. (See 1 Ne. 13:21–28, 32; Moses 1:40–41.)
The Prophet Joseph noticed also that the angel Moroni quoted some passages that differed from those found in our present King James Version. (JS—H 1:36–40.) Later, in explaining how he felt about the Bible, the Prophet said: “From sundry revelations which had been received, it was apparent that many important points touching the salvation of man, had been taken from the Bible, or lost before it was compiled.” (Documentary History of the Church, vol. 1, p. 245.)
He also 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.” (DHC, vol. 6, p. 57.)
The thoughtful reader of the Bible soon observes that there are many passages that are vague and hard to understand and that seem to be incomplete. Some passages also appear to be contradictory. We understand that there are not so many things in the King James Version of the Bible that are incorrect, but rather, because of faulty transmission and missing parts, that which remains is often unclear and devoid of its full meaning. Joseph Smith’s work with the Bible restores some of the missing parts and causes what we have to be more meaningful.
Through Joseph Smith, the great prophet of the restoration, the Lord has restored to the earth the ancient priesthood, the ancient gospel, and the ancient church as it existed in the days of the prophets and apostles. Through him also, ancient records such as the Book of Mormon and the book of Abraham have been brought forth so that mankind may read and profit thereby. In like manner, in the new translation of the Bible, the Prophet Joseph has given us a clearer and a plainer record of the Old and the New Testaments.
Joseph Smith did not take it upon himself to revise and translate the Bible; he was commanded and appointed by the Lord to do the work. On March 7, 1831, he was instructed by revelation to begin the translation of the New Testament:
“And now, behold, I say unto you, it shall not be given Unto you to know any further concerning this chapter, until the New Testament be translated, and in it all these things shall be made known;
“Wherefore, I give unto you that ye may now translate it, that ye may be prepared for the things to come.” (D&C 45:60–61.)
And nearly a year later, on February 16, 1832, he recorded the following:
“For while we were doing the work of translation, which the Lord had appointed unto us, we came to the twenty-ninth verse of the fifth chapter of John. …” (D&C 76:15. Italics added.)
It is evident that the Prophet himself regarded his work of translating the Bible to be divinely inspired and an important part of his ministry, for on December 1, 1831, at Hiram, Ohio, he recorded this statement in his journal:
“I resumed the translation of the Scriptures, and continued to labor in this branch of my calling with Elder Sidney Rigdon as my scribe. …” (DHC, vol. 1, p. 238.)
It appears that the work was to be a revelatory experience, through which Joseph would come to an understanding of things that he had not previously known. This is also demonstrated in Doctrine and Covenants 76:15–18, which tells us that in the process of the translation of John 5:29 the great vision of the degrees of glory was received by the Prophet.
In a similar manner many of the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants were received, and these revelations came forth out of a background gained from the Prophet’s translation of the Bible; for example, Doctrine and Covenants 74, 76, 77, 86, 91, and parts of many other sections. [D&C 74; D&C 76; D&C 77; D&C 86; D&C 91]
Likewise, the book of Moses and the twenty-fourth chapter of Matthew contained in the Pearl of Great Price are excerpts from the translation of the Bible.
It is significant that most of the doctrinal revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants were received during the three years the Prophet was working with the Bible. It is possible that the greatest value of the new translation has come in this manner rather than from the corrections within the pages of the Bible.
What clarification and new light does the new translation offer? I have observed 3,400 verses in which it differs from the King James Version, many of which throw greater light upon the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. For example:
King James Version, Mark 9:43–44: “And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched:
“Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.”
New translation, Mark 9:40–41: “Therefore, if thy hand offend thee, cut it off; or if thy brother offend thee and confess not and forsake not, he shall be cut off. It is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands, to go into hell.
“For it is better for thee to enter into life without thy brother, than for thee and thy brother to be cast into hell; into the fire that never shall be quenched, where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.”
The instruction to “take up his cross, and follow me” is a familiar phrase to Bible readers, but how does one “take up” his cross?
King James Version, Matthew 16:24–25: “Then said Jesus unto his disciples, if any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.
“For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.”
New translation, Matthew 16:25–28: “Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me.
“And now for a man to take up his cross, is to deny himself all ungodliness, and every worldly lust, and keep my commandments.
“Break not my commandments for to save your lives; for whosoever will save his life in this world, shall lose it in the world to come.
“And whosoever will lose his life in this world, for my sake, shall find it in the world to come.” The New Testament contains several accounts of Paul’s vision while on the road to Damascus. Acts 9:7 says that Paul’s companions at the time also heard a voice, while Acts 22:9 states that they saw a light but heard not the voice. The new translation corrects the account in Acts 9:7 and gives us the understanding that Paul heard the voice of the Lord but that his companions did not. They did, however, see the light.
Students interested in Paul’s life and teachings will be intrigued with the changes made in the new translation about his instructions on marriage. He has often been quoted, and even misrepresented, concerning his supposedly negative attitude about marriage. (See 1 Cor. 7.) In the new translation these utterances are placed in a context of missionary work so that restrictions of marriage are temporary, and his instructions sound much the same as those of a Latter-day Saint mission president today.
Chapter 14 of Genesis, in the King James Version [Gen. 14], contains a brief account of Abraham and Melchizedek; but the new translation of this chapter adds 400 words about the greatness of Melchizedek, giving events of his life and ministry.
In the King James Version, Hebrews 7:1–3 strangely suggests that Melchizedek was a man without father or mother or lineage. This was corrected by the Prophet to say that it was the priesthood of Melchizedek, not the man, that was without lineage. This is certainly an improvement and draws the distinction between the Aaronic Priesthood, which in Old Testament times came down only through the lineage of Aaron, and the Melchizedek Priesthood, which is not confined to a precise lineage.
The Prophet also censored the Song of Solomon by declaring that it was not inspired scripture.1
It is evident from the manuscripts prepared by the Prophet and his scribes, and also from the statements by the Prophet himself, that he did not correct all of the passages that could be corrected in the Bible. Hence, the new translation is not finished. It is not a perfect Bible.
When the Prophet was killed in 1844, his widow, Emma, retained the manuscripts of the translation and subsequently passed them on to the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in 1866.2 The Reorganized Church published the corrections in 1867 under the title Holy Scriptures—Inspired Version. It has since been published by them in several editions and many printings.
Through the courtesy of the Reorganized Church I have closely examined the original manuscripts and compared them with the printed editions of the Inspired Version and have concluded that the printed work accurately represents the information on the manuscripts.
There are a few passages in which the printed Inspired Version fails to present the corrections found in the Prophet’s manuscripts, but these are passages of minor importance and are relatively insignificant. This is not to imply that the Reorganized Church has substituted its own revisions in place of the Prophet’s, but rather, in these instances, the wording of the King James Version has been retained.
In view of the fact that the Prophet did not complete the work, and because the new translation is published and copyrighted by the Reorganized Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not accept it as authoritative, although it is read by many Latter-day Saints. While it is true that the Prophet intended to make additional changes in the new translation, we also recognize that one can benefit from the many improvements that he did make.