“Joseph Smith and the New Testament,” Ensign, Dec. 1986, 28
Joseph Smith and the New Testament
A look at latter-day contributions relating to the New Testament story
Joseph Smith loved the Bible. In his sermons he frequently explained biblical passages and gave deeper insights into matters treated only lightly in that sacred volume. The revelations given to the Prophet during his brief ministry opened his mind to the things of eternity and taught him doctrines and principles that transcended anything known by the religionists of either his day or ours.
In July 1830 the Lord told Joseph Smith to “continue in calling upon God in my name, and writing the things which shall be given thee by the Comforter, and expounding all scriptures unto the church.” (D&C 24:5.) Joseph Smith came to know the mind of God not only by reading of the divine encounters of earlier prophets, but also by having personal experiences with Deity. The Prophet was given access to an understanding of scriptural matters that both sanctifies and soothes the soul—an understanding that comes from the Holy Ghost. He translated through his knowledge of the language of revelation, the language of the Spirit: “I have the oldest book in my heart,” he said in 1844, “even the gift of the Holy Ghost.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1936, p. 349.)
Let’s take a brief walk through the New Testament with Joseph Smith and sample the many contributions latter-day revelations have made to our understanding of the New Testament.
The Book of Mormon and the New Testament
The Lord explained to the Saints at the time of the organization of the restored Church that the Book of Mormon had been given for the purpose of “proving to the world that the holy scriptures are true.” (D&C 20:11.) Nephi had learned in vision that the sacred record kept by the Nephites would help restore many of the plain and precious truths lost through the centuries, as well as establish the essential truthfulness of the “record of the Jews”—the Bible. (See 1 Ne. 13:20–40; Morm. 7:8–9.)
The Book of Mormon successfully fulfills these purposes. It is another testament of Jesus Christ, bearing companion witness with the Bible that our Lord has “abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” (2 Tim. 1:10.) The Nephite-Jaredite record is remarkably Christ-centered, affirming that “Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God.” (2 Ne. 26:12.)
In addition, the Book of Mormon witnesses of the truthfulness of the biblical record by establishing the historical veracity of events discussed in the New Testament. For example, both Nephi and Alma testify of the miraculous virgin birth of our Lord. (See 1 Ne. 11:13–21; Alma 7:10.) Nephi also verifies the account of the baptism of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist. (See 2 Ne. 31:4–11.) The historicity and authenticity of the Sermon on the Mount is confirmed by the Book of Mormon account of the resurrected Savior delivering essentially the same sermon to the Nephites. (See 3 Ne. 12–14.)
An angel taught King Benjamin concerning the condescension of the “Lord Omnipotent who reigneth, who was, and is from all eternity to all eternity,” and further affirmed the significance of the Savior’s experience in Gethsemane (mentioned only briefly in Luke 22:44):
“And lo, he shall suffer temptations, and pain of body, hunger, thirst, and fatigue, even more than man can suffer, except it be unto death; for behold, blood cometh from every pore, so great shall be his anguish for the wickedness and the abominations of his people.” (Mosiah 3:7.)
Book of Mormon prophets knew and prophesied that the Master would be crucified. Signs of his death such as the three days of darkness, as well as the tempests and cataclysms of the earth were known centuries before he died and rose again. (See 1 Ne. 19:10.)
Some of the other New Testament doctrines that receive a marvelously clear explanation in the Book of Mormon include the nature and definition of the Resurrection (see Alma 11:40–45; Alma 40:23), the necessity for and the nature of the new birth (see Mosiah 5:1–8; Mosiah 27:24–27; Alma 5:14), the Savior’s cryptic message concerning his “other sheep” (see 3 Ne. 15:16–16:5), worthiness to partake of the sacrament of the Lord’s supper (see 3 Ne. 18:26–34), and the ministry of John the Apostle and other translated beings (see 3 Ne. 28).
The Doctrine and Covenants and the New Testament
A surprising number of revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants, given through the Prophet Joseph Smith, add to our understanding of the New Testament account. For example, the record and testimony of John is given in extended form in section 93, along with a promise that the complete record of John will come forth in the Lord’s due time. (See D&C 93:6–18.)
The Savior’s parable of the wheat and the tares is given in more detail, and its interpretation is extended to the latter days. (See D&C 86:1–7.)
The transfiguration of Jesus on the mount is discussed in the Doctrine and Covenants, along with insight into the extensive vision Peter, James, and John received on that occasion—a vision of the earth in its future glorified state. (See D&C 63:20–21.) In addition, we can read in the Doctrine and Covenants about a modern transfiguration and conferral of keys in the Kirtland Temple (see D&C 110); this experience suggests that priesthood keys were bestowed also during the Transfiguration, which took place some six months before the Lord’s death.
The doctrine of eternal marriage as outlined in the Doctrine and Covenants sheds light on Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees concerning the final status of a woman who had been married seven times. “In the resurrection whose wife shall she be of the seven?” they had asked. The Lord’s answer, as given in Matthew, was: “Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven.” (Matt. 22:23–30.) In a revelation recorded on 12 July 1843, the Lord explained that unless a marriage is sealed by the power of the holy priesthood, the marriage ends with death. If it is sealed, however, men and women might eventually qualify for eternal lives—the everlasting continuation of the family unit. (See D&C 132:1–25.)
A description of Christ’s suffering during the hours of atonement is given in his own words—a poignant pronouncement concerning the awful agony but supreme submission of the Son of Man to the Man of Holiness. (See D&C 19:15–20.)
The ministry and destiny of John the Beloved—a matter debated for centuries in the Christian world—is contained in an unusual but fascinating revelation given to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. (See D&C 7.) In addition, invaluable aids in understanding the Book of Revelation are provided in Doctrine and Covenants 77. [D&C 77]
Section 74 of the Doctrine and Covenants [D&C 74] is an explanation of the Lord’s direction concerning circumcision, the innocence of little children through the Atonement, and Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 7:14 [1 Cor. 7:14] concerning the believing Christian and the unbelieving spouse.
Section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants [D&C 76]—the vision of the glories of heaven—came as a result of the Prophet’s inspired translation of John 5:29, a passage related to the doctrine of the Resurrection. It is a heaven-sent commentary upon this verse, upon John 14:1–2, and upon 1 Corinthians 15:40–42. [1 Cor. 15:40–42]
One of the most intellectually challenging sections in the New Testament is the epistle of Paul to the Hebrews; the language and imagery of the Old Testament utilized by Paul are particularly difficult to follow. D&C 84 is a tremendous lens through which the honest seeker after truth may come to grasp many of the profound realities regarding sacrifice, temples, and the ordinances of the priesthood.
Sections 127 and 128 of the Doctrine and Covenants [D&C 127–128] deal with salvation for the dead. In a sense, they are commentaries upon Paul’s statement regarding baptism for the dead in 1 Corinthians 15:29. [1 Cor. 15:29]
Finally, among the most frequently discussed subjects in the Doctrine and Covenants is the matter of the signs of the times—the scenes just incident to the Savior’s Second Coming—as well as the glorious events of the millennial day and the final celestialization of the earth and its inhabitants. (See D&C 29, D&C 45, D&C 88, D&C 130, D&C 133.) All these revelations help us understand better Matthew 24 [Matt. 24] and other New Testament references to the Second Coming and the destiny of the earth.
Joseph Smith’s Inspired Translation of the New Testament
Speaking of the Lord’s plans for the “doctrinal restoration,” Elder Bruce R. McConkie stated: “It was his design and purpose to bring forth the Book of Mormon as a new and added witness of the Lord Jesus Christ. Then he would endow his prophets with keys and power and give them direct revelation as to how and in what manner his earthly kingdom should be established anew among men.
“After this—as a crowning achievement—he would begin the perfection of the Bible, a work destined to be greater and have more significance than any of us have yet realized.”
Continuing, Elder McConkie observed: “Thus, the doctrinal restoration is destined to come to pass, first, through the Book of Mormon, second, by direct revelation—a re-revelation—of the doctrines known anciently, and third, by the restoration, by revelation, of [parts of] the Bible, which in spite of its faults has been the most stabilizing force on earth since the day it came into being.” (As quoted in The Joseph Smith Translation: The Restoration of Plain and Precious Things, ed. Monte S. Nyman and Robert L. Millet, Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, 1985, pp. 10, 12.)
The work of biblical revision was a mission appointed to the Prophet Joseph Smith (see D&C 76:15); it was an integral “branch of [his] calling.” (History of the Church, 1:238.) The Latter-day Saints came to rejoice in the fact that the Bible was “undergoing the purifying touch by a revelation of Jesus Christ.” (The Latter-day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, Dec. 1835, p. 229.)
On page one of New Testament Manuscript #1 is the following inscription: “A Translation of the New Testament translated by the power of God.” (See Robert J. Matthews, “A Plainer Translation”: Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible, A History and Commentary, Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1975, p. 267.) Working under the influence of the spirit of revelation, the Prophet altered some 2,096 verses in the King James text of the New Testament—in addition to his work on the Old Testament. It isn’t possible to discuss here all of the changes. But let’s look at some important doctrinal contributions from the JST of the New Testament.
The early years of Christ. In the infancy narrative, we note a reference in the JST which refers to Jesus as the Messiah, as well as the king. The wise men from the east, seeking to behold and participate in the marvelous event at hand, asked, “Where is the child that is born, the Messiah of the Jews?” (JST, Matt. 2:2; italics added.)
In a passage that does not occur in the King James Version, the JST gives us a remarkable insight into the childhood and early preparation of Christ:
“And it came to pass that Jesus grew up with his brethren, and waxed strong, and waited upon the Lord for the time of his ministry to come.
“And he served under his father, and he spake not as other men, neither could he be taught; for he needed not that any man should teach him.
“And after many years, the hour of his ministry drew nigh.
“And in those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea.” (JST, Matt. 3:24–26; Matt. 3:1.)
These verses supply an excellent transition between Christ’s infancy and the beginning of John’s ministry.(Note the lack of transition in the KJV from Matt. 2:23 to Matt. 3:1.) They also explain that the Lord received instructions from the heavens. This suggests one of the reasons Jesus, at age twelve, was spiritually adept and insightful enough to be found in the temple teaching the doctors of the law.(See JST, Luke 2:46–47.)
The ministry of John the Baptist. Jesus taught that “among those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist.” (Luke 7:28.) Joseph Smith explained that John’s greatness consisted largely of his critically important mission to prepare the way for the Son of Man and then baptize the Lord by proper authority. (See Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 275–76.) John “came into the world for a witness, to bear witness of the light, to bear record of the gospel through the Son, unto all, that through him men might believe.” (JST, John 1:7; italics added.)
The JST provides a clearer rendition of John’s preaching and baptism than that contained in other translations. Note the following:
KJV, Matt. 3:11–12
“I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire: “Whose fan is in his hand.”
“I indeed baptize you with water, upon your repentance; and when he of whom I bear record cometh, who is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear, (or whose place I am not able to fill,) as I said, I indeed baptize you before he cometh, that when he cometh he may baptize you with the Holy Ghost and fire.
“And it is he of whom I shall bear record, whose fan shall be in his hand.” (Italics added.)
John was a prophet who spoke with power. His message not only touched the hearts of the common people, but also stirred both fear and respect in some of the leaders of the Jews. For example, “Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just man, and a holy man, and one who feared God and observed to worship him; and when he heard him he did many things for him, and heard him gladly.” (JST, Mark 6:21; italics added.)
Further, John the Baptist’s message included more than announcing the coming Messiah. In the JST, specific doctrines preached by John are given—doctrines that are absent from the King James Bible and that provide a crucial bridge between the events of the Savior’s first and second comings.
“And he [John] came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.
“As it is written in the book of the prophet Esaias; and these are the words, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, and make his paths straight.
“For behold, and lo, he shall come, as it is written in the book of the prophets, to take away the sins of the world, and to bring salvation unto the heathen nations, to gather together those who are lost, who are of the sheepfold of Israel;
“Yea, even the dispersed and afflicted; and also to prepare the way, and make possible the preaching of the gospel unto the Gentiles;
“And to be a light unto all who sit in darkness, unto the uttermost parts of the earth; to bring to pass the resurrection from the dead, and to ascend up on high, to dwell on the right hand of the Father,
“Until the fulness of time, and the law and the testimony shall be sealed, and the keys of the kingdom shall be delivered up again unto the Father;
“To administer justice unto all; to come down in judgment upon all, and to convince all the ungodly of their ungodly deeds, which they have committed; and all this in the day that he shall come;
“For it is a day of power; yea, every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;
“And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” (JST, Luke 3:3–11.)
Jesus and the Jews. The leaders of the Jews in the first century had perverted the law of Moses through confusing tokens with covenants, ritual with religion, means with ends. Jesus came as the pure fulfillment of the Law and sought to heal the spiritual blindness that had come from “looking beyond the mark.” (Jacob 4:14.) The JST is even more clear than the KJV, revealing Jesus’ challenge to the Jewish intellectuals of his day in the form of a call to a higher righteousness. He questioned their authority, their right to teach and guide the masses in accordance with their narrow interpretation of the Law. The Jewish leaders were deeply schooled in commentary upon the Torah, but lacked the animation that comes with the Spirit of God. Jesus was different; he “taught them as one having authority from God, and not as having authority from the Scribes.” (JST, Matt. 7:37; italics added.)
Some of the most important alterations made by the Prophet Joseph Smith are in the Sermon on the Mount. For one thing, the JST witnesses that this sermon was predominantly for the purpose of apostlic preparation. Note that the following section on judging righteously (chapter seven) is followed in the JST by a scathing denunciation: “And Jesus said unto his disciples, Beholdest thou the Scribes, and the Pharisees, and the Priests, and the Levites? They teach in their synagogues, but do not observe the law, nor the commandments; and all have gone out of the way, and are under sin.
“Go thou and say unto them, Why teach ye men the law and the commandments, when ye yourselves are the children of corruption?
“Say unto them, Ye hypocrites, [note here who it is that the Lord calls a hypocrite], first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.” (JST, Matt. 7:6–8.)
Many of the Jews of Christ’s day had reached a state of sterile self-sufficiency wherein they trusted alone in the Law. “We ourselves are righteous,” they were prone to say, “and need not that any man should teach us.” (JST, Matt. 7:14.) Because some had “taken away the key of knowledge, the fulness of the scriptures” (JST, Luke 11:53), people stumbled in spiritual matters. Many of the leaders of the Jews no longer trusted in the efficacy of personal prayer and the spirit of revelation; others had come to doubt the very existence of God. (See JST, Luke 16:19–21.) Those in the meridian of time who were earnest in their hearts partook of the living fruit from the living tree of life offered by Christ and his appointed servants; those who rejected the fruit denied themselves access to God’s new covenant with Israel and spurned fellowship with the Mediator of that covenant.
Doctrinal teachings of Paul. We will here consider segments of two of the Apostle Paul’s epistles—doctrinal areas which have been misunderstood for centuries. Again, through the clarifying lenses provided by the JST, matters which seemed obscure or foreign are made plain and inspiring.
Chapter seven of Romans might well be labeled “Paul: Before and After.” It might also be classified as an explanation of how the power of Christ can change men’s lives. In the King James Version, Paul sounds very much like a helpless and largely depraved individual who has little power to choose good and live according to the things of God. Paul is “carnal, sold under sin.” (Rom. 7:14.) Further, those things which he knows he should do, he does not do; that which he should not do, he does. “Now then it is no more I that do it,” he adds, “but sin that dwelleth in me.” (Rom. 7:17.) It is not difficult to understand how many, from Augustine to Luther to Bible students in our own day, could conclude from Romans 7 that man is basically a depraved creature, incapable of moving in wisdom’s paths.
Through the Prophet’s inspired translation, we come to discern more clearly the character of Paul the Apostle. The JST stresses man’s inabilities to effect righteousness without Christ:
“For we know that the commandment is spiritual; but when I was under the law, I was yet carnal, sold under sin.
“But now I am spiritual; for that which I am commanded to do, I do; and that which I am commanded not to allow, I allow not.
“For what I know is not right I would not do; for that which is sin, I hate.”
Continuing, Paul stated: “Now then, it is no more I that do sin; but I seek to subdue that sin which dwelleth in me.
“For I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing; for to will is present with me, but to perform that which is good I find not, only in Christ.” (JST, Rom. 7:14–16, 18–19; italics added.)
Secondly, some Latter-day Saints have concluded that Paul’s discussion of marriage in 1 Corinthians 7 is inconsistent with the other teachings of the restored gospel. In the King James Version of this chapter, we find the following: “Now concerning virgins. … I suppose therefore that this [the unmarried state] is good for the present distress, I say, that it is good for a man so to be. …
“But this I say, brethren, the time is short: it remaineth, that both they that have wives be as though they had none.” (1 Cor. 7:25–26, 29.) Now note the same verses from the JST: “Now concerning virgins. … I suppose therefore that this is good for the present distress, for a man so to remain that he may do greater good. …
“But I speak unto you who are called unto the ministry. For this I say, brethren, the time that remaineth is but short, that ye shall be sent forth unto the ministry. Even they who have wives, shall be as though they had none; for ye are called and chosen to do the Lord’s work.” (JST, 1 Cor. 7:25–26, 29; italics added.)
The JST restores the needful insight that Paul was addressing himself to members of the Church who had been called as missionaries, those for whom the postponement of marriage would be most appropriate. Of this contribution from the JST, Robert J. Matthews has written: “Paul’s counsel is similar to that given in the Church today, as established in the mission field and as obeyed by the young elders and sisters. Many have had the experience of listening to a mission president counsel the elders and sisters to remain at arm’s length while on the mission assignment and then preach marriage to the people of the mission. (As Paul does in 1 Cor. 11:11; Heb. 13:4.) If all we knew was the instruction given to the missionaries, we would have an incomplete sampling of the teachings of the Church, and consequently an incorrect notion. In like manner, 1 Corinthians 7 is not a true picture of Paul’s whole concept of marriage, but is directed to a temporary situation in the lives of those called into the ministry. There is no contradiction, simply a change in situation.” (“A Plainer Translation,” p. 358.)
Latter-day revelation sheds a brilliant light upon the Bible and allows those who seek to read by that light to become more acquainted with the doings and doctrines of prophets and seers who preceded us by many centuries. In particular, the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Joseph Smith Translation of the scriptures provide a treasure-house of knowledge concerning the Lord Jesus Christ and the former-day Saints. Another entire area of study (beyond the scope of this article) is the Prophet Joseph Smith’s sermons and addresses, many of which contain the Prophet’s explanation and discussion of biblical passages. (See Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. See also The Words of Joseph Smith, ed. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1980.)
Latter-day revelation both confirms and clarifies many of the vital verities contained in the biblical record. We are deeply indebted to the Prophet Joseph Smith and other living oracles of this dispensation for receiving the revelations, collecting the revelations, printing and publishing the revelations, and thus making available to the Saints plain and precious principles once had by earlier peoples. May the Lord grant us the wisdom to walk in the light of those great beacons of understanding which he has revealed in our day.