“What is Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible?” Ensign, Sept. 1980, 63–64
What is Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible, and how can it help me to understand the Old Testament?
Robert J. Matthews, chairman, Department of Ancient Scripture, Brigham Young University Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible (identified in our Church literature as JST) can help us to better understand not only the Old Testament but also the New Testament. We learn from the Book of Mormon that many plain and precious things were taken from the Bible before it was distributed throughout the nations of the earth (see 1 Ne. 13). However, 1 Nephi 13:39 [1 Ne. 13:39] says that “other books” would make known again many of the plain and precious things that had been removed (see also Moses 1:40–41). The JST would be one of these other books.
There are many passages in the JST that clarify the Old Testament, such as those dealing with the nature of God, the creation of the earth, the antiquity of the gospel, the fall of Satan, events in the lives of Cain and Abel, the origin of the law of Moses, and the ministries of Adam, Enoch, Noah, Melchizedek, and Abraham. Because the JST gives us additional historical and doctrinal information, we are also able to more fully appreciate what is meant by such terms as “the restoration of all things” and “the dispensation of the fulness of times.”
The book of Moses, currently published as a part of the Pearl of Great Price, is a small excerpt from the JST. When we consider the great benefit that we receive from the book of Moses alone, we can appreciate better the tremendous benefit the entire JST has been and will be to the Church.
Joseph Smith began the translation in June 1830 and by July 1833 had gone through the Old and New Testaments. Although we have no detailed record of the Prophet’s translating procedure, the manuscripts themselves indicate that as the Prophet read from the King James text, he dictated corrections, revisions, and additions to a scribe. After the initial “completion” in 1833, the Prophet and his scribes continued to make additional revisions and prepare a manuscript for the press until his death in June 1844. Excerpts of the JST were used in the Lectures on Faith and also were frequently printed in the early Church periodicals.
The Prophet intended to publish the entire JST but was prevented from doing so by a lack of money and time and by frequent persecution. Even so, he obtained spiritual benefit from the translation experience, and much of the knowledge that was revealed to him while translating is included in his public teachings. Also, many parts of the Doctrine and Covenants contain information that came to Joseph Smith as a result of the translation (for example, D&C 76,D&C 77, D&C 86, and D&C 91). Furthermore, the Pearl of Great Price contains two excerpts from the JST. These are published as the book of Moses and the Writings of Joseph Smith (Matthew 24) [JS—M 1]. The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints now has the JST manuscript; they obtained a copyright, and they published the entire translation in 1867.
In order to fully appreciate Joseph Smith’s work in translating the Bible, we have to look at its historical setting. The Church was small in June 1830, when the translation was begun, and the number of doctrinal revelations was relatively few. It was during his careful translation of the Old and New Testaments that many great revelations and spiritual experiences were given to the Prophet that unfolded the gospel plan in this dispensation. Consequently, most of the doctrinal revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants were received between June 1830 and July 1833, while Joseph Smith was translating the Bible. The fact that there is a new translation of the Bible says much about the need for revelation and how revelation comes to a prophet. It also reveals plainly that the canon of scripture is not full.
Likewise, the procedure speaks eloquently for the personal value of studying the scriptures. The Prophet turned to the scriptures and to the Lord for inspiration and testified that he received it. It was a growing spiritual experience for him (see D&C 45:60–61). Is that not an example of great worth to us all and a pattern for study and prayer?
There is yet another dimension. The initial need in 1830–33 was for new revelation and instruction to Joseph Smith in introducing this dispensation and building up the Church. The JST played a marvelous role in this. From Joseph Smith’s day until the present, it has been giving thousands of readers understanding, insight, and comprehension concerning the gospel and its history upon the earth.
But what of the future? This is a day of great discovery and expansion of knowledge of ancient things. The JST makes some very specific statements about Enoch, Noah, Melchizedek, John the Baptist, and Jesus that are not known to be written in any other document. It may well be that these things in the future will testify in a different way to the divine calling of Joseph Smith. Archaeological discoveries that confirm some of the unique historical aspects of the JST could introduce a new role for the book. It may be that apocryphal and archaeological sources will yet corroborate the details of the JST and therefore help testify of the Restoration to an unbelieving world.