“How could we know which—a passage in Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible or in the Book of Mormon—is correct?” Ensign, Sept. 1981, 16–17
Robert J. Matthews, chairman of the Ancient Scriptures Department, Brigham Young University, and author of A Plainer Translation: Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible (BYU Press, 1975). The answers to those questions are a bit complex. The whole question of “correctness” must be viewed in light of the fact that the Bible was not the source of the doctrines the Prophet Joseph Smith taught. Rather, the Bible, so far as it is translated correctly, is tangible evidence that the doctrines he received by revelation were the same as those the ancient prophets obtained by revelation.
Too often we make the faulty assumption that the established scriptures are the ultimate source of doctrine, rather than revelation. This was the basic argument Jesus had with the Jews in John 5:39, wherein Jesus told the Jewish rulers that they had placed their confidence in the written scriptures instead of listening to him. For both Jesus and Joseph Smith, the Bible was a teaching tool rather than the basic source of their information.
Let us examine Hebrews 11:40 first. In the King James Version it reads: “God having provided some better thing for us, that they [referring to the dead who had had faith in the Savior] without us should not be made perfect.” Members of the Church frequently cite this verse in connection with salvation for the dead. However, the Joseph Smith Translation says: “God having provided some better things for them through their sufferings, for without sufferings they could not be made perfect.” This rendition is in harmony with the overall message of the chapter, which is not talking about those who died without the gospel, but rather about those who were valiant in the gospel, even suffering and dying in defense of it. The JST rendition of verse 40 is thus consistent with the context of the chapter; the KJV rendition is not. (See also Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1958, pp. 170–71.)
However, even though the Prophet Joseph Smith knew that Hebrews 11:40 had reference to earthly suffering, he still occasionally used the KJV passage for teaching about salvation for the dead. I can only give my opinion on why he did so, but one reason may be that in either case the doctrine is true. Since the world and the Church had access to the King James Version, it may be that Joseph Smith used that familiar rendition to undergird the doctrine of salvation for the dead. Because he had obtained the doctrine of salvation for the dead by revelation and not from the printed page of the Bible, he therefore had a certain independence from the Bible and seems to have felt free to use it when it would corroborate true doctrines, even if a particular passage might have been worded differently in its original text.
A parallel example is Malachi 4:5–6, which cites the familiar prophecy concerning the coming of Elijah before the “great and dreadful day of the Lord.” The Savior quoted it to the Nephites and it stands in 3 Nephi 25:5–6 exactly as in Malachi of the King James Version, where the last verse reads: “And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.”
However, Doctrine and Covenants 2 quotes Moroni giving this verse with some substantial differences: “And he shall plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers, and the hearts of the children shall turn to their fathers. If it were not so, the whole earth would be utterly wasted at his coming.” (D&C 2:2–3.) What is the reason for the differences? I think that the answer may be found in Doctrine and Covenants 128:18 [D&C 128:18] where, after citing the verse from the Bible, the Prophet comments, “I might have rendered a plainer translation to this, but it is sufficiently plain to suit my purpose as it stands. It is sufficient to know, in this case, that. …” (Italics added.) I take this to mean that, at another time, if a clarification of a different point of doctrine were needed, the Prophet would have felt at liberty to render the verse differently. I think such flexibility is permissible because the written word was not the source of the doctrine to him, and also because the verse encompasses a larger concept of which this treatment was only a part.
A further projection of this pattern is found in the Sermon on the Mount. There are certain items in which the King James Version and the 3 Nephi sermon agree but in which the Joseph Smith Translation differs. The Joseph Smith Translation seems clearer in these instances. A significant example is Matthew 6:13, which in the King James Version reads, “Lead us not into temptation.” The 3 Nephi account is identical. The Joseph Smith Translation enlarges it to read, “Suffer us not to be led into temptation.” (Italics added.) The Joseph Smith Translation passage is not a contradiction of the other texts but rather a plainer translation, or clarification, of the concept being expressed.
One thing is certain: Joseph Smith himself was aware that he had rendered these various passages differently yet felt free to do so and apparently also felt that his rendition was necessary. Our task, therefore, is not one of trying to decide when or if the Prophet was right but rather of achieving his level of spiritual understanding so that we can appreciate the additional insight he is unfolding to us.
It isn’t a matter of “correct” or “incorrect” as much as it is a matter of purpose. The nature of human language is such that there can be no “literal” translation of any extensive or intricate document. Every translation is, in effect, an interpretation. The language is not the revelation; it is the awkward vehicle by which a revelation or a concept is expressed. Thus, texts might often be enlarged or paraphrased by a prophet in order to give a certain emphasis or perspective beneficial to his hearers.