“The Bible and Its Role in the Restoration,” Ensign, July 1979, 41
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has always been a Bible-believing church, holding that the Bible contains the word of God as delivered to ancient prophets. The Prophet Joseph Smith stated that one can “see God’s own handwriting in the sacred volume: and he who reads it oftenest will like it best, and he who is acquainted with it, will know the hand [of God] wherever he can see it” (Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1977, p. 56).
Of course, Joseph Smith also stated that the Bible had not been preserved in its original purity: “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly” (A of F 1:8). The word translated as it is used here must be understood to include the idea of transmission. That is, error has occurred not only in the translation from one language to another, but also in the transcription of the text from manuscript to manuscript, even in the same language. The Bible has apparently suffered mostly from omissions—it is not particularly erroneous, but many important items are missing, and this in turn leaves some parts unclear.
Joseph Smith explained this further when he said, “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.” (Teachings, p. 327.)
The Book of Mormon identifies the Bible as the record of the Jews and makes several assertions concerning the Bible: prophets wrote it through inspiration; originally, it was easily understood; through the centuries many plain and precious things have been lost from it. The Book of Mormon also records prophecy that the lost parts of the Bible would be restored. Indeed, many of the “plain and precious things” have again been made known through heavenly manifestations to Joseph Smith; through the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price; and through Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible.
Clearly, the Restoration did much to make the Bible understandable and complete, but the converse is also true. The Bible played a unique and indispensable role in the Restoration. This is particularly evident in the restoration of many fundamental doctrines of the gospel.
The story of the Restoration itself begins with an important reference to the Bible:
“I was one day reading the Epistle of James, first chapter and fifth verse, which reads: If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.
“Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again … and at length came to the determination to ‘ask of God.’” (JS—H 1:11–13.)
In response to his prayer, Joseph experienced one of the greatest spiritual manifestations of all time, in which he saw and talked with both the Father and the Son. Among other things, the First Vision taught Joseph that there is a God who hears and answers prayers, that the Father and the Son are separate beings, and that they are in the form of a man. He also learned that the true Church of Jesus Christ was not at the time upon the earth. All of these fundamental principles of the restored gospel are linked historically and theologically with the Bible through James 1:5 and the First Vision.
About three years after the First Vision, the Prophet received several visits from the angel Moroni. Although the central theme of Moroni’s message to Joseph Smith appears to be the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, Moroni also quoted and explained numerous passages from the Bible. This appears to have been primarily for the purpose of orienting the young Prophet in the Lord’s plan for the last days.
Some of the passages Moroni quoted were identified by the Prophet from the third and fourth chapters of Malachi, the eleventh chapter of Isaiah, the third chapter of Acts, and the second chapter of Joel. [Mal. 3–4; Isa. 11; Acts 3; Joel 2] However, Joseph Smith also said that Moroni quoted and explained many other passages. (See JS—H 1:36–41.) Although these “other passages” are not identified in the Prophet’s account, they are the subject of a series of letters written by Oliver Cowdery and published in the Latter-day Saints Messenger and Advocate during the months of February and April 1835. In these letters Brother Cowdery stated that a major purpose of the angel Moroni’s instruction was to inform the young Prophet of the work of God on the earth in the last days and to give him a perspective of the magnitude of his calling so as to prepare him for the work. Old Testament scriptures played an important part in Moroni’s instruction. Oliver Cowdery cited Psalms 100, 107, and 144, Isaiah 1 and 2, and Jeremiah 31 as being among the passages that were quoted and explained by Moroni to Joseph Smith. [Ps. 100; Ps. 107; Ps. 144; Isa. 1–2; Jer. 31] (see Latter-day Saints Messenger and Advocate, vol. 1, no. 7, Apr. 1835, pp. 109–12). In his own account, Joseph Smith stated that Moroni quoted some passages differently than they exist in the King James Version. (See JS—H 1:36–39.)
The First Vision and the instruction of Moroni thus greatly enlarged Joseph Smith’s understanding of the Bible—he knew it was divinely inspired, but he also knew that certain passages should be rendered differently in order to convey the original meaning.
In the task of translating the Book of Mormon, the Prophet had first-hand experience with the difficulty of accurately rendering a passage from one language into another. It was only by the influence of the Spirit and through the “gift and power of God” that a correct translation could be made—and considerable effort and thought was still required from the translator.
This difficulty in conveying the true intent of scripture may account, in part at least, for the frequent use of King James Version language in the Book of Mormon translation.
The Bible was not the source of the information in the Book of Mormon, but the literary style of the Bible was apparently used as a vehicle to convey many of the concepts in the Book of Mormon. The hundreds of verses in the Book of Mormon that are similar in language and style to the King James Version illustrate the Bible’s influence in this phase of the Restoration.
The word Bible appears only once in the Doctrine and Covenants (D&C 42:12); however, there are many allusions and references to the Bible and much that is in the Doctrine and Covenants is closely allied to the Bible.
The Doctrine and Covenants contains instructions about Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible—for example, when to begin, when to stop, who is to be scribe, how to print. It also contains revelations which were not intended as part of the Bible text but grew out of the translation experience, such as sections 76, 77, 86, 91, and probably 132. [D&C 76, D&C 77, D&C 86, D&C 91, D&C 132]
Many verses in the Doctrine and Covenants are unintelligible to a reader unless he knows that the subject is the translation of the Bible. Just as some early sections of the Doctrine and Covenants revolve around the translation of the Book of Mormon (D&C 3, D&C 5, D&C 8, D&C 9, D&C 10, D&C 17), some later sections revolve around the translation and intended printing of the Bible—parts of 35, 37, 41, 42, 45, 47, 73, 74, 93, 94, 104, 124, and all of sections 76, 77, 86, 91. [D&C 35, D&C 37, D&C 41, D&C 42, D&C 45, D&C 47, D&C 73, D&C 74, D&C 93, D&C 94, D&C 104, D&C 124, D&C 76, D&C 77, D&C 86, D&C 91]
There is also much biblical phraseology in the Doctrine and Covenants; for example, section 133 [D&C 133] is similar in content and language to Isaiah 63 and 64 [Isa. 63–64]. One cannot be familiar with the Doctrine and Covenants and the Bible without being aware that both books support each other, and are tied together at key points by subject matter and phraseology. Indeed, the revelations contained in the Doctrine and Covenants are a strong witness for the truth and worth of the Bible.
Two major portions of the Pearl of Great Price—the book of Moses and the twenty-fourth chapter of Matthew [JS—M 1]—are actually extracts from Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible (discussed below). Thus, sizable portions of this standard work are also closely related to the Bible.
Early in the Prophet’s ministry the Lord instructed him to make a revision, or as he termed it, a “translation” of the Bible. This was not to be a translation in the usual sense, employing a knowledge of biblical languages, use of ancient manuscripts and the usual procedure and paraphernalia of the scholar, but rather a translation in which Joseph Smith would discern the true intent of the Bible through revelation. It is now known as the Joseph Smith Translation—or JST.
A major purpose of a new translation seems to have been the spiritual understanding that came to the Prophet as a result of his effort. The process brought him to a new knowledge of doctrine and principle. This is possibly one of the most important aspects of the Prophet’s work with the Bible, and seems to be consistent with the purpose for the translation given by the Lord in Doctrine and Covenants 45:60–62:
“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.
“For verily I say unto you, that great things await you.” (Italics added.) [D&C 45:60–62]
It is evident from the foregoing passage that the Prophet’s translation of the Bible was not to be limited to a correction of passages based on revelation and knowledge he had already received, but was to be the means by which he would receive new revelation on matters that had not yet been made known to him. Plain and precious things were to be restored. This concept gives an importance and a dignity to the Prophet’s work with the Bible that is frequently overlooked, and it forms an inseparable link between the translation of the Bible and the restoration of gospel doctrine in this dispensation.
The following topics are fundamental elements of the restored gospel that were revealed to the Prophet as he translated the Bible.
The visions of Moses: The exact date the Prophet began his translation of the Bible is not known, but it is clearly associated with the revelation received in June 1830 concerning the “Visions of Moses,” now printed as Moses 1 in the Pearl of Great Price. The importance of the doctrinal, philosophical, and historical content of this chapter is well known to students of the gospel since it gives considerable information about Moses, Satan, Deity, and the purpose of God’s creations. This revelation reaches a sublime philosophical note when Moses, overwhelmed by the creations of the Lord, asked: “Tell me, I pray thee, why these things are so, and by what thou madest them.” The Lord then explains the mission of the Only Begotten and of the first man, Adam, and points out that the Lord’s work and glory “is to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1:30–39.)
This answers the why. The early chapters of Genesis tell how. This revelation is an introduction to Genesis, and without it Genesis loses some of its perspective.
Adam: Adam holds a special place in the theology of the Latter-day Saints, and much of the particular information about Adam, his immediate family, and his introduction to the gospel is found in the Prophet’s translation of Genesis. This is now published as Moses 3–7 in the Pearl of Great Price and Genesis 2–7 in the JST [JST, Gen. 2–7]. Adam’s faithfulness in offering sacrifice, his diligence in teaching his children, his pure language, his baptism, and other important doctrinal and historical points are made known in the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible.
Cain and Satan: Not only were great things revealed to the Prophet about God and about the righteous patriarchs of the early ages, but the translation of the Bible also gives much about Cain’s rebellion and his secret oaths with Satan and many of the children of Adam. Much of our present knowledge of Cain came to us through the Prophet’s translation of the early chapters of Genesis as published in Moses 5 and JST Genesis 4 [JST, Gen. 4].
Zion and Enoch: The concept of Zion, both as an ancient city built by the patriarch Enoch and also as a prominent part of the work of the Lord yet to be accomplished in this dispensation, is paramount in the theology of the Church. Much of what we know concerning Enoch and his city comes to us through the revelations given to Joseph Smith while he was translating the early chapters of Genesis in November and December 1830. These currently appear as Moses 6 and Moses 7 and JST Genesis 6 and 7 [JST, Gen. 6–7].1 This information about Enoch and his city, received in November and December 1830, forms a general background for the more detailed instruction about Zion that follows in the Doctrine and Covenants in February through August 1831. (See D&C 42–59.)
The age of accountability of children: One of the fundamental and best-known doctrines in the Church today is that little children do not begin to be accountable before God until they reach the age of eight. The Book of Mormon is very clear in specifying that little children are innocent before the Lord, but it does not specify at what age they begin to become accountable. The age of eight years for the beginning of accountability is mentioned in Doctrine and Covenants 68:25, 27 [D&C 68:25, 27] (dated November 1831) and is the reference usually referred to for information on the subject.
However, the Prophet’s translation of the Bible in Genesis 17:11 [Gen. 17:11] (dated between February 1831 and 5 April 1831) also gives the time of accountability as eight years of age.2 The circumstance is the Lord instructing Abraham, and the passage is as follows:
King James Version
Joseph Smith’s Translation
Gen. 17:7: And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.
Gen. 17:11: And I will establish a covenant of circumcision with thee, and it shall be my covenant between me and thee, and thy seed after thee, in their generations; that thou mayest know for ever that children are not accountable before me until they are eight years old. (Italics added.)
The relationship between circumcision and baptism is not explained, but the Prophet’s translation definitely states what the age of accountability is.
Of special importance is that the date upon the Prophet’s manuscripts for this particular passage in the Bible shows that the concept of an eight-year-old accountability was known to the Prophet at least as early as 5 April 1831, or at least five months before it is mentioned in the revelation now identified as Doctrine and Covenants 68 [D&C 68]. This very significant doctrine of the gospel, then, was apparently first made known to the Prophet while he was translating the seventeenth chapter of Genesis and is another example of the Bible’s significant role in the restoration of the gospel in this dispensation.
The three degrees of glory: Another well-known revelation given to the Prophet Joseph Smith describes the conditions of mankind after the bodily resurrection from the dead, and is frequently spoken of as the vision of the three degrees of glory, although it also includes a condition without glory. The written account of this vision is identified today as Doctrine and Covenants 76 [D&C 76] and records a great spiritual manifestation given to Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon on 16 February 1832, while they were engaged in the translation of the Bible. The brethren had progressed in the work to the fifth chapter of John, at which point the heavenly vision was given to them. Their report of the event as given in Doctrine and Covenants 76:15–19 is as follows:
“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, which was given unto us as follows:
“Speaking of the resurrection of the dead, concerning those who shall hear the voice of the Son of Man, and shall come forth—
“They who have done good in the resurrection of the just, and they who have done evil in the resurrection of the unjust—
“Now this caused us to marvel, for it was given unto us of the Spirit.
“And while we meditated upon these things, the Lord touched the eyes of our understandings and they were opened, and the glory of the Lord shone round about.” [D&C 76:15–19]
The revelation that followed is one of the most frequently discussed subjects by members of the Church and constitutes one of the great visions of this dispensation. In fact, it is frequently designated as “The Vision” in Church literature. The Prophet called it “a transcript from the records of the eternal world” (Teachings, p. 11). It is noteworthy that the setting for this revelation was the Prophet’s translation of the Bible.
The celestial order of marriage: Another significant feature of the restored gospel that appears to be directly associated with the Bible is the doctrine of celestial marriage. It is a well-attested fact that this subject was known to the Prophet Joseph several years before it was committed to the written document now identified as Doctrine and Covenants 132 [D&C 132]. Several of the early brethren testified that they heard the Prophet speak of this subject as early as 1831 or 1832. Since this is the same period that the Prophet was translating Genesis, and since the beginning verses of the revelation on marriage speak of the Prophet’s inquiry of the Lord about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, it seems likely that the revelation on celestial marriage was associated with Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible.
Thus we see that several significant doctrines revealed in this dispensation are inseparably connected with Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible. Few subjects are more prominent in the gospel than the age of accountability, the building of Zion, Adam’s role in the gospel plan, the degrees of glory, and the doctrine of celestial marriage.
It is likely that other important items also were revealed to the Prophet in connection with his work of translating the Bible. There is some evidence that much of what the Prophet knew about the ancient patriarchs, ancient councils and Church organizations, and other topics were revealed to him in the context of this work.
The real product of the Prophet’s work with the Bible, then, is not simply the manuscript that constitutes the JST, but also the many revelations and spiritual experiences that came to the Prophet (and from him to the Church) as a result of his work with the Bible. Both the manuscript of the JST and the additional revelations are important, but of these it would seem that the multitude of the specific revelations on doctrine are of the greatest significance. These give increased knowledge and clarity to items on priesthood, resurrection, pre-mortal existence and such things, and also enrich our understanding of the ministries of Jesus, Adam, Enoch, Melchizedek, Abraham, Paul, Peter, and John the Baptist. One can hardly have a clear perspective of the biblical record without these revelations.
Without doubt, the Bible played an essential role in the restoration of the gospel.