“Plain and Precious Things Restored,” Ensign, July 1982, 15
Ideas for parents and teachers: teaching from the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, standing up for truth, handling criticism and doctrinal objections, teaching by example, and making home evening a good experience.
It is a matter of record that Joseph Smith the Prophet made a “new translation” of the Bible during the years 1830–1833 and then continued to prepare the manuscript for publication until his death in 1844.
The manuscript for this translation consists of 477 pages of handwritten material (each page 8″ by 14″) plus a pulpit-sized 1828 edition of the King James Version (KJV) with various marks and indications specifying where corrections or additions to the text needed to be made.
The writing on the manuscript is primarily in the hand of Oliver Cowdery, John Whitmer, Sidney Rigdon, and Joseph Smith (in that order) with Sidney Rigdon being the principal scribe.
For convenience of identification, this work is now cited by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the JST, being an abbreviation of “Joseph Smith Translation.” The manuscript and the marked Bible are now the property of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS) and are housed in their headquarters in Independence, Missouri.
Through the courtesy of the RLDS Historical Department we have been able to examine these documents in the past fifteen years, which has made it possible to gain a historical and functional appreciation for this work of Joseph Smith that was not possible before and could not be attained without viewing the original sources.
A major point in understanding the JST is to realize that it was not done in isolation. Few if any doings of mankind stand in total isolation, and the Prophet Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible is no exception. Consequently, we shall discuss some of the translation’s historical relationships to other events in Church history and also examine some doctrinal contributions of the text itself.
Joseph Smith made his translation of the Bible as a prophet, not as a scholar; he used neither ancient manuscript nor a knowledge of biblical languages. The present-day deficiencies of the Bible are not so much the result of a failure to translate the Hebrew and Greek, as the absence of a suitable manuscript. If there were manuscripts available that contained the necessary material, there are plenty of scholars who could render it into the English language and there would not have been such a major need for Joseph Smith’s unique contribution.
The message of 1 Nephi 13:20–39 [1 Ne. 13:20–39] and Moses 1:40–41 is that vital material was taken from the Bible before the manuscripts available to us today were written. The JST was to be a divinely appointed revelatory process restoring information that had been lost from all biblical texts. As is true of other similar events, the Prophet’s translation of the Bible may be examined in two categories which are not completely independent of one another: (1) the doctrinal contribution and inferences of the text itself, and (2) the historical milieu or setting in which the work was done.
The translation was begun in June 1830 either in Harmony, Pennsylvania, or Fayette, New York. Oliver Cowdery was scribe. The manuscript shows that he continued to write for the Prophet until he left for a mission to Missouri late in October 1830. During this time he recorded an account of a revelation once given to Moses, and a correction of the text from KJV Genesis 1:1 to Genesis 4:18 (JST, Gen. 1:1–5:28). The subject matter includes the visions of Moses: the Creation, the fall of Adam, details about Adam’s family, the introduction of the gospel to Adam and his family, and the rebellion of Cain. In all of this the JST adds many clarifications and substantial concepts not found in the KJV or any other known Bible.
That Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith should engage in a translation of the Bible was foreshadowed in a revelation, given a year earlier, in which the Lord indicated that after these brethren had completed the translation of the Book of Mormon, there were other records for them to translate. (D&C 9:1–2; see especially the footnotes to verse 2 in the 1981 edition.)
The manuscript has the date of October 21, 1830, on page 10, at which point the handwriting changes to that of John Whitmer. This coincides with Brother Cowdery leaving for an assigned mission to Missouri specified a few weeks earlier in D&C 28:8 and D&C 32:2, the latter reference being recorded in October 1830. The manuscript shows that John Whitmer commenced to write where Oliver stopped and carried the translation through KJV Genesis 5:21. (JST, Gen. 6:26 is the nearest corresponding passage; see also JST, Gen. 7:82.) The portion of the manuscript written by John Whitmer has the dates of 21 October 1830; November 30, 1830; and December 1; and contains information about the preaching of the gospel by Adam and the early patriarchs, down to the beginning of the ministry of Enoch, most of which information is not found in any other known Bible today.
By this time Oliver Cowdery and his companions had travelled to Ohio on their way to Missouri and had baptised Sidney Rigdon, who then sought out the Prophet in Fayette, New York, and prevailed upon him to enquire of the Lord as to his (Sidney’s) assignment in the Church. The reply came in what is now known as D&C 35, dated December 1830, verse 20 of which stipulates that Brother Rigdon is to write for the Prophet, “and the scriptures shall be given, even as they are in mine [the Lord’s] own bosom.” In view of the fact that Joseph Smith was engaged in making an inspired translation of the Bible at this time, and had been engaged in it since June of that year, this call to Sidney Rigdon as a scribe is easily recognized as a specific injunction to assist with the translation of the Bible. This is also verified by the manuscript, which at this point changes from the handwriting of Brother Whitmer to that of Sidney Rigdon.
Brother Rigdon began recording for the Prophet the great revelation on the preaching of Enoch that is now found in the JST Genesis chapter 7 (Moses 7). This chapter deals primarily with the ministry of Enoch, includes his teachings about the plan of salvation, provides more detail concerning the gospel that was presented to Adam, and discusses various items pertaining to the city of Enoch—Zion. None of this material is found in any other edition or version of the Bible.
In addition to the historical interrelationships among the material that was revealed during the translation of Genesis, there is a doctrinal relationship also. We note that those portions of the translation which were accomplished during the time we have spoken of (June 1830 through March 1831) are printed also as “Selections from the Book of Moses” in the Pearl of Great Price. Many Latter-day Saint readers who are familiar with this material through the Pearl of Great Price may not have known that it was an excerpt from the JST.
As indicated earlier, the Prophet Joseph Smith corrected many passages as they currently stand in the King James Version and other versions of the Bible; he also introduced into the biblical record many doctrinal and historical concepts that are not in any of the versions of the Bible known to mankind. Joseph Smith explained that he believed the Bible as it “came from the pen of the original writers,” but that “ignorant translators, careless transcribers, or designing and corrupt priests have committed many errors.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1938, p. 327.) He also stated that “many important points touching the salvation of men, had been taken from the Bible, or lost before it was compiled.” (Teachings of the Prophet, p. 10.) This is the same position presented in 1 Nephi 13:20–40, Moses 1:40–41, and the eighth article of faith. [1 Ne. 13:20–40; Moses 1:40–41; A of F 1:8] In view of these premises, we may view the JST as being, at least in part, a restoration of lost material—material once known to the ancient prophets but then lost, material now made known again in these last days through the Prophet Joseph Smith.
We have observed that the JST has a great amount of doctrinal material—unavailable in any other Bible—about the creation of the world, the rebellion of Lucifer, the fall of Adam, the preaching of the gospel to Adam and his family, the rebellion of Cain, and the preaching and ministry of Enoch.
From the Book of Mormon we learn of the contents of an ancient biblical record known as the Brass Plates of Laban. The record says that Lehi “Took the records which were engraven upon the plates of brass, and he did search them from the beginning.
“And he beheld that they did contain the five books of Moses, which gave an account of the creation of the world, and also of Adam and Eve, who were our first parents.” (1 Ne. 5:10–11.)
The plates of brass were very important to Lehi, who not only searched them but frequently quoted from them. For example, in 2 Nephi 2:17–18 Lehi is able to tell his son Jacob of the fall of an “angel of God” who became the devil. [2 Ne. 2:17–18] He expressly says that he gained this information “according to the things which I have read,” evidently from the plates of brass. The King James Version contains no statement in any of the writings of Moses about how the devil came to be, but JST Genesis 3:1–7 (see Moses 4:1–6) has precisely that information—not in the exact words of the Book of Mormon, but dealing with the same subject and giving the same concepts. The point is that in the JST we have access to an account of the creation of the world and the fall of Lucifer that appears to be similar to the text upon the brass plates from which Lehi was privileged to read.
Later, in 2 Nephi 2:22–23 [2 Ne. 2:22–23], Lehi discussed the fall of Adam and affirms that Adam and Eve “would have had no children” if they had not fallen. From this position he puts forth the corollary that “Adam fell that men might be; and men are that they might have joy.” (2 Ne. 2:25.) This concept of the Fall has often been regarded as unique to the Book of Mormon, for there is nothing in the King James Version (or any other Bible version) that gives such insight into the benefits of the fall. However, the JST contains the necessary information. In JST Genesis 4:9–11 (Moses 5:9–11) there is an account of Adam, after his fall, being filled with the Holy Ghost and saying, “Blessed be the name of God, for, because of my transgression my eyes are opened, and in this life I shall have joy.” And Eve, his wife, “heard all these things and was glad, saying, ‘Were it not for our transgression, we never should have had seed.’” Later, Enoch declares, “Because that Adam fell, we are.” (JST, Gen. 6:49; Moses 6:48), attesting to the fact that it was the fall of Adam that made the human family possible.
It thus appears that we have in the JST a text very similar to that which Lehi read upon the plates of brass. And why not? We read in Moses 1:40–41 that Moses would write about this earth, but subsequently “the children of man” would take many things from the record he would write. However, the Lord would raise up “another like unto” Moses, and those missing parts would be “had again among the children of men.” It should not be any more difficult for the Lord to reveal these very things to Joseph Smith than it was to reveal them to Moses in the first place.
Another instance in which the JST apparently reads much the same as the plates of brass from which Lehi read is found in JST Genesis 50:24–36 and 2 Nephi 3:7–22. These contain the prophecies of Joseph in Egypt relative to Moses and Aaron, the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, and of a choice seer in the last days named Joseph. There is nothing in the King James or any other version to even approximate this extended prophecy found in JST Genesis 50:24–36. We do not mean to imply that the JST is like the brass plates in all respects, but it appears that there are some similarities, much more so than with the KJV.
The Prophet Joseph Smith began work on the Bible in June 1830 in the vicinity of Harmony, Pennsylvania, and Fayette, New York. In December 1830 he was living near Fayette, and the translation had reached KJV Genesis 5:22, only a few verses after Enoch is first mentioned. [Gen. 5:22] The KJV has very little to say about Enoch, but near the middle of December, with the appointment of Sidney Rigdon as scribe for the translation (D&C 35:20), an extensive revelation was received restoring a vast amount of information relative to Enoch. If placed chronologically, the portion of the JST that deals with Enoch would occur just after Doctrine and Covenants section 35 was received and before section 37.
This revelation speaks of a city called Zion in which the inhabitants were “of one heart and of one mind, and dwelt in righteousnes[s]; and there were no poor among them.” (JST, Gen. 7:23; Moses 7:18.) Subsequently, this city was taken from the earth. Later, the same chapter declares that in the last days Enoch’s Zion will come back to earth and be joined with a new Zion, the New Jerusalem, which the people of God will have built upon the earth. (JST, Gen. 7:70–72; Moses 7:62–64.) None of this is in any other known Bible.
Shortly after giving this information about Enoch’s Zion, the Lord instructed the brethren to cease translating the Bible for a time and to move the Church from New York into Ohio, where they would receive the law of the Lord and a special blessing. (See D&C 37:1–3; D&C 38:32; D&C 39:15.) It is most interesting that most of the next twenty or so sections in the Doctrine and Covenants discuss many aspects of the “law” that would establish Zion, such as consecration of property, the establishment of the economic order for the Church, the Sabbath, and the building of a temple. It appears that one of the objects that the Lord may have had in mind in having Joseph Smith translate this part of the Bible was to provide the Saints with a record of Enoch’s Zion as a pattern for the building of the latter-day Zion. Since it was missing from the Bible it had to be restored.
Obedient to the instruction, the brethren discontinued translating in December 1830, moved the Church to Ohio, and resumed the translation in February or early March 1831. In Ohio the economic order began to be implemented and a temple began to be constructed. Again we see that the translation of the Bible was not done in isolation. It was affected by surrounding events, and it affected major future events in the Church.
Neither the KJV Bible nor the Book of Mormon states the age when children begin to become accountable to the Lord and eligible for baptism. The Book of Mormon strongly affirms that little children do not need baptism (Moro. 8), but does not give the age when it should be administered. Generally, we turn to Doctrine and Covenants 68:25–27 [D&C 68:25–27] for the scriptural backing that eight years of age is the proper time.
Section 68 was received in November 1831 and is the earliest mention in the Doctrine and Covenants of the age of accountability. However, with the help of the dates which occasionally appear in the manuscript of the JST, we are able to determine that the age of accountability was discussed in the JST several months before it appeared in the Doctrine and Covenants. We do not know the precise time when the Prophet learned that the proper age for baptism was at age eight, but we find it in JST Genesis 17:11 in connection with the covenant to Abraham. Since Joseph Smith was translating that chapter of Genesis in February or early March 1831, the conclusion is that the Prophet knew of the doctrine several months before it occurs in D&C 68 (November 1831), and it may be that he learned the concept while translating the seventeenth chapter of Genesis.
The KJV contains very little about the ancient great high priest Melchizedek. He is briefly mentioned in Genesis 14, and again in Hebrews 7. [Gen. 14; Heb. 7] The Psalms speak of the Messiah as a priest after the order of Melchizedek (Ps. 110:4), but few details about Melchizedek and his ministry are available today from the Bible. The Book of Mormon in Alma 13:14–20 gives a brief survey of Melchizedek’s success as a teacher of righteousness, which information presumably was recorded on the plates of brass. By way of contrast, JST Genesis 14:17–40 gives an extensive account of the ministry of Melchizedek, more so than in any other available source, and presents an unparalleled description of the powers of the Melchizedek Priesthood.
It is interesting that in the common Bibles available today, very little is said of either Enoch or Melchizedek; but in Jewish folklore and tradition, both are very prominent. Apocryphal sources also are heavy with stories of these two patriarchs, indicating that at some ancient time stories of Enoch and Melchizedek were very much a part of the sacred records.
It should not be surprising, therefore, that the JST restores extensive information about these two brethren and places them again in positions of prominence in the holy writ. It is significant, indeed, with the beginning of the dispensation of the fulness of times and the restoration of all things, that the much needed lost material about Enoch and Melchizedek should be made available—the one identified with Zion; the other, with the powers of the higher priesthood. This knowledge which the ancient Saints had but which has not been preserved in the KJV has now been provided for us in the JST.
One of the truly significant contributions of the JST is revelation known as the “Visions of Moses,” constituting Moses 1 in the Pearl of Great Price. This same material is located in the introductory pages of the Joseph Smith Translation published by the RLDS Church. People familiar with the scriptures recognize that the book of Genesis is an introduction to the remainder of the Bible. In like manner, the revelation identified as the “Visions of Moses” is an introduction, or a type of preface, to the book of Genesis. The events recorded in this document occurred at about the eightieth year of Moses’ life, after his experience at the burning bush (Ex. 3:1–6; Moses 1:17) and before he parted the waters of the Red Sea in leading Israel out of Egyptian bondage (Moses 1:25–26). According to the document itself, this record of Moses’ visionary experience was once contained in the scriptures, but “because of wickedness” it was lost. (Moses 1:23, 40–41.)
After several visionary experiences in which Moses saw and conversed with God (and Satan) and saw something of the vast creation of worlds throughout space and the innumerable beings living thereon, Moses asked two basic questions about the universe. Seeing many worlds and peoples, “Moses called upon God, Saying: Tell me … why these things are so, and by what thou madest them.” (Moses 1:30.) In other words, he wanted to know the why and how of existence.
The answer the Lord gave to Moses contains some familiar phrases, including “This is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1:39.) This well-known statement is most meaningful when understood in its context; it is, in effect, the answer to Moses’ question as to why there are worlds and people. The divine reply was that building worlds, populating them, and redeeming them is the work of God.
In answer to Moses’ second question about how the worlds were created and populated, the Lord revealed the account of the creation of the earth, of man, and of animals as contained in the book of Genesis. The early chapters of Genesis take on new meaning when we view them in this context.
In this and other features, the “Visions of Moses” are of incalculable doctrinal value. They also attest to the truth that the way to gain divine knowledge is to seek, ask, and knock. Moses did it, and he received the information he sought.
In like manner, as the “Visions of Moses” were given to prepare Moses for his ministry and the writing of Genesis, so the same material was revealed to Joseph Smith in the beginning of his translation of the Bible. As a result of this translation, we have today a text of Genesis that exceeds in content anything that is available from any other source.
There are several statements in the KJV in which there are direct statements and inferences that mortal man cannot see God and live. The most prominent of these are in KJV Exodus 33:20 [Ex. 33:20], John 1:18, 1 John 4:12, and 1 Timothy 6:15–16. These passages stand in contradiction to other KJV passages wherein it is declared that Moses and seventy elders saw God (Ex. 24:9–10) or that Moses saw God “face to face” (Ex. 33:11) or that God was seen by Isaiah (Isa. 6:1) or Abraham (Gen. 18:1) or Jacob (Gen. 32:30) and a host of others. The JST brings order out of these contradictions by inserting certain concepts that are missing in the KJV.
For example, in KJV Exodus 33:20 the declaration is made to Moses that he cannot see the face of God, “for there shall no man see me, and live.” The JST explains it more fully: “Thou canst not see my face at this time … And no sinful man hath at any time, neither shall there be any sinful man at any time, that shall see my face and live. (JST, Ex. 33:20.) The clarification is that it is sinful men who cannot see God, but this does not preclude righteous men from such an experience, when the time is right.
To John 1:18, which says, “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him,” the JST adds the clarifying information that “No man hath seen God at any time, except he hath borne record of the Son; for except it is through him no man can be saved” (JST, John 1:19). This means that whenever anyone has had contact with the Father, the Father has borne record to him of the Son. This is consistent with the experiences recorded in Matthew 3:17 after the baptism of Jesus; in Matthew 17:5 on the Mount of Transfiguration; in 3 Nephi 11:7 at the appearance of the resurrected Lord to the Nephites; and in Joseph Smith’s first vision. In each instance, the Father testified of the Son.
To 1 John 4:12, which reads, “No man hath seen God at any time,” the JST adds “except them who believe.”
To 1 Timothy 6:15–16, which asserts that God is “dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen, nor can see,” the JST explains: “Whom no man hath seen, nor can see, unto whom no man can approach, only he who hath the light and the hope of immortality dwelling in him.”
In each of these scriptures there is a clarification which removes the contradiction that exists in all other Bibles. To these clarifications we can also add Moses’ explanation as to why he was able to survive the presence of God:
“But now mine own eyes have beheld God; but not my natural, but my spiritual eyes, for my natural eyes could not have beheld; for I should have withered and died in his presence; but his glory was upon me; and I beheld his face, for I was transfigured before him.” (Moses 1:11.)
Without these explanations and restorations to the text that are available only from the JST, biblical statements about whether or not man has ever seen God would remain hopelessly in contradiction.
We learn in JST Genesis 17:4–7 about an unusual regard for Abel held by some in Abraham’s day:
“And God talked with him [Abraham], saying, My people have gone astray from my precepts, and have not kept mine ordinances, which I gave unto their fathers;
“And they have not observed mine anointing, and the burial, or baptism wherewith I commanded them;
“But have turned from the commandment, and taken unto themselves the washing of children, and the blood of sprinkling;
“And have said that the blood of the righteous Abel was shed for sins; and have not known wherein they are accountable before me.”
There is no equivalent to this in any other known source. Our knowledge of this particular practice is limited, but there is enough information in this scripture to help us see that people who had earlier been taught the ordinance of baptism by immersion had somehow confused the atonement of the Savior with the death and blood of righteous Abel and had neglected true baptism for an unauthorized ritual.
There may be a remote allusion to this confused belief in Hebrews 12:24, which reads that Jesus is “the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel.” [Heb. 12:24] There are enough common points of doctrine and phraseology in these passages to suggest a relationship. If so, then this extensive passage in the JST may restore a knowledge of an ancient unauthorized practice which was known to earlier ages but is lost in our present Bibles.
These and many other passages in the JST clarify fundamental doctrines that are designed to give mankind a knowledge of God, of man, of the devil, and of the building of Zion in the last days. Just the fact that there is a JST bears a sober witness that the canon of scripture is not full, that revelation is available on important matters pertaining to man’s salvation, and that the word of God is not limited to an ancient time.
When viewed in the context in which it was produced in the infancy of this dispensation, and considering the needs of that time, the JST looms as one of the greatest contributions of the Prophet Joseph Smith. When viewed in the context of the twentieth century, with the spiritual needs that exist today, the JST provides a correct knowledge of the basic promises of life and salvation. It is manna from heaven. We can be grateful that the Church in producing a new edition of the Bible strengthened it with hundreds of excerpts from the JST. It is a clear signal in a world of contradiction and uncertainty.