“The Joseph Smith Translation: ‘Plain and Precious Things’ Restored,” Ensign, Aug. 1997, 9
The Prophet Joseph Smith loved the Bible. He regularly read it, revered its teachings, and found divine truths in its writings. His preaching and writings are full of biblical allusions and interpretations. He relied upon the Bible for comfort. In a period of trial and persecution in 1831, he wrote of the Lord’s “watchful care and loving kindness … day by day” and of making it a rule “wherever there was an opportunity, to read a chapter in the Bible, and pray; and these seasons of worship gave … great consolation.”1
Yet the Prophet’s reverence for the Bible was accompanied by his awareness of its incompleteness and of problems with the transmission of its texts. On one occasion 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.”2
As early as June 1830, the Prophet responded to divine direction by beginning an inspired revision of the book of Genesis. The section of the Pearl of Great Price known as the book of Moses began to come forth through revelation at this time. Work on the book of Genesis proceeded until 7 March 1831, when the Prophet was instructed by the Lord to pursue a rigorous study and inspired revision of the New Testament (see D&C 45:60–61). The Lord later called the Prophet’s efforts a “new translation” (D&C 124:89). The Prophet took this task very seriously, referring to it as a “branch” of his prophetic calling.3 The result of his inspired efforts, known today as the Joseph Smith Translation (JST), is a most remarkable body of work.
Let us review the significance of the Bible for the Prophet and for the Restoration. Early in his life, Joseph recognized the uncertainty of reading the biblical text with limited, mortal understanding; he saw that “the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question [of which church was right] by an appeal to the Bible” (JS—H 1:12). He recalled: “While I was laboring under the extreme difficulties caused by the contests of these parties of religionists, 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” (JS—H 1:11). Thus Joseph Smith went to the Sacred Grove to pray for further light and knowledge and received the First Vision in response. From this experience he learned that revelation was needed to understand the doctrines taught in the Bible and that mortals could turn directly to God for enlightenment.
Moroni, in his visits to Joseph Smith in 1823, offered instruction and quoted long passages of scripture from the Bible, including a section of Malachi “with a little variation from the way it reads in our Bibles” (JS—H 1:36). As a result of these visits and through prayerful study and pondering, the Prophet learned that there was much prophecy in the Bible telling of events in our day, that the rendition of the scriptures in the King James Version was not the only correct one, and that inspired explanations of biblical passages were often necessary to understand fully the prophecies in them.
During the translation of the Book of Mormon, the Prophet learned even more clearly that the Bible was not complete and that the Restoration of the gospel would include the restoration of many “plain and precious things which had been taken away” (1 Ne. 13:40) from the biblical record.
On 15 May 1829, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery received the Aaronic Priesthood under the hands of John the Baptist. The Prophet wrote of this occasion: “Our minds being now enlightened, we began to have the scriptures laid open to our understandings, and the true meaning and intention of their more mysterious passages revealed unto us in a manner which we never could attain to previously, nor ever before had thought of” (JS—H 1:74). From this experience they learned the importance of reading the word of the Lord with the help of the Holy Ghost.
In June 1830 the Prophet received by revelation the first part of the book of Moses. By February 1831 he had received the rest of the book. It appears in the JST manuscripts as chapters 1 through 6 of Genesis.
The Prophet did not “translate” the Bible in the traditional sense of the word—that is, go back to the earliest Hebrew and Greek manuscripts to make a new rendering into English. Rather, he went through the biblical text of the King James Version and made inspired corrections, revisions, and additions to the biblical text. Both the Lord and Joseph Smith consistently refer to the process of these inspired revisions and additions as “translation” (D&C 76:15; D&C 124:89). The Prophet acknowledged the revelatory nature of this translation work. He introduced the first chapter of the book of Moses in his journal as an example of the Lord granting “‘line upon line of knowledge—here a little and there a little’ [see Isa. 28:13], of which the following was a precious morsel.”4
But the Prophet never recorded exactly how he did this work called translation. One clue is the 1828 copy of the King James Bible that the Prophet and Oliver Cowdery purchased from E. B. Grandin in Palmyra on 8 October 1829. It was marked by Joseph Smith in ink and pencil; words were crossed out and verses marked with various symbols. In addition, there are five handwritten manuscripts containing long Joseph Smith Translation passages of the Bible. These are in the handwriting of various scribes, including Oliver Cowdery, John Whitmer, Sidney Rigdon, and others. Some of the manuscripts have entire biblical passages written out and others have only the specific verses or passages that were changed in some way by the Prophet.
From this evidence it appears “that the Prophet and a scribe would sit at a table, with the Prophet having the King James Version of the Bible open before him. Probably he would read from the King James Version and dictate the revisions, while the scribe recorded what he said.”5 Some of the corrections and revisions were small, including sometimes only vital punctuation changes. Other revisions were much more lengthy, restoring large passages of text.
LDS scholar Robert J. Matthews from Brigham Young University concluded that there appear to be at least four different kinds of changes the Prophet Joseph Smith made to the Bible:
“(1) Portions may amount to restorations of content material once written by the biblical authors but since deleted from the Bible.
“(2) Portions may consist of a record of actual historical events that were not recorded, or were recorded but never included in the biblical collection.
“(3) Portions may consist of inspired commentary by the Prophet Joseph Smith, enlarged, elaborated, and even adapted to a latter-day situation. …
“(4) Some items may be a harmonization of doctrinal concepts that were revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith independently of his translation of the Bible, but by means of which he was able to discover that a biblical passage was inaccurate.”6
While it is not always possible to determine the exact nature of each of the Prophet’s revisions, we accept them as being inspired. From his studies Brother Matthews concludes: “The translation was not a simple, mechanical recording of divine dictum, but rather a study-and-thought process accompanied and prompted by revelation from the Lord. That it was a revelatory process is evident from statements by the Prophet and others who were personally acquainted with the work.”7 In fact, many sections of the Doctrine and Covenants were revealed during the period in which Joseph worked on his inspired translation; in several instances, the revelation of important doctrines was directly connected with the translation process. For example, at one point the Prophet wrote: “From sundry revelations which had been received, it was apparent that many important points touching the salvation of man, had been taken from the Bible, or lost before it was compiled. It appeared self-evident from what truths were left, that if God rewarded every one according to the deeds done in the body the term ‘Heaven,’ as intended for the Saints’ eternal home must include more kingdoms than one.”8 He then recorded that while translating the gospel of John, he and Sidney Rigdon had seen in vision what is now section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants, the revelation on the three degrees of glory. The vision was given after they had read John 5:29.
Other examples include section 77, received in connection with the translation of the book of Revelation, and section 91, received when Joseph Smith came to the books of the Apocrypha that were part of the Bible he was using.
During the years 1830 to 1833, the Prophet, assisted by scribes, worked his way completely through the Bible. On 2 July 1833, Sidney Rigdon, corresponding with “the Brethren in Zion” whose letters to the Prophet had just arrived, reported, “We this day finished the translating of the Scriptures, for which we returned gratitude to our Heavenly Father,” and, two paragraphs later, refers to “having finished the translation of the Bible, a few hours since.”9 But throughout his life the Prophet continued to work on the manuscripts, editing and making further changes, preparing them for publication virtually until the time of his death. Small portions of the translation were published during his lifetime in these Church publications: The Evening and the Morning Star, Times and Seasons, and the Millennial Star. On many occasions the Prophet expressed his desire and hope that the new translation would eventually be made available to the Church in its entirety. The martyrdom of the Prophet prevented this in his lifetime.
The manuscripts of the Joseph Smith Translation were preserved by Emma Smith, the Prophet’s wife, and eventually became property of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which published various editions of the translation. The first edition appeared in 1867; in 1944 a corrected edition was published, containing at least 352 verses amended to correct copyist proofreading and typographical errors in the earlier edition. In 1970 a parallel-column edition was published, with the King James Version in one column and the Joseph Smith Translation in the other.
Many Latter-day Saints were cautious about those publications because of the different versions that had been printed and because the manuscript evidence showing what textual changes the Prophet had made was not available for study. In 1968 Robert J. Matthews was given permission by the Reorganized Church to examine the original manuscripts. His book examining the significance of the Joseph Smith Translation was published in 1975.10
Many doctrinally significant Joseph Smith Translation changes were incorporated in the 1979 Latter-day Saint edition of the King James Version of the Bible. In all there were more than 600 of the Prophet’s revisions noted. Short changes and additions are incorporated in the footnotes at the bottom of each page; for the more complicated and lengthy additions, references to the appendix are cited. The appendix, entitled “Joseph Smith Translation Excerpts Too Lengthy for Inclusion in Footnotes,” is found between the Bible Dictionary and the gazetteer.
The changes in the footnotes are of considerable importance, most with doctrinal implications. For example, Exodus 3:2 [Ex. 3:2], which says in the King James Version that “the angel of the Lord appeared unto [Moses],” is changed in the Joseph Smith Translation to read “the presence of the Lord appeared unto him.” The Sermon on the Mount has many significant changes. The charge “And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee” (Matt. 5:30) is stated in the Joseph Smith Translation: “And now this I speak, a parable concerning your sins; wherefore, cast them from you, that ye may not be hewn down and cast into the fire” (JST, Matt. 5:34). “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matt. 7:1) is changed to “Judge not unrighteously, that ye be not judged: but judge righteous judgment” (JST, Matt. 7:2).
The book of Moses, one of the earliest revealed portions of the Joseph Smith Translation, clarifies many doctrines that may be vague or missing altogether in biblical text—the premortal existence, the Creation, the Fall, the Atonement, and the nature of the adversary, Satan, for instance. It becomes clear through the book of Moses that the first principles and ordinances of the gospel—faith, repentance, baptism, and the receiving of the gift of the Holy Ghost—were taught in their fulness to Adam and Eve and their descendants. The law of sacrifice is clearly taught as a similitude of the sacrifice of the Lamb of God.
Several of the JST passages in the appendix shed additional light on the prophets and the events of the Old Testament. For example, Genesis 14:18–20 [Gen. 14:18–20] briefly mentions Abraham’s meeting with a man by the name of Melchizedek. It is clear that Melchizedek was an important man—the king of Salem, a priest of the Most High God. He shared bread and wine with Abraham, he blessed Abraham, and Abraham paid his tithing to him, but the Bible tells little more about him.
What kind of a man was this Melchizedek? What was his relationship to Enoch? What happened to him and his people? The Joseph Smith Translation provides an additional 16 verses in Genesis 14 (JST, Gen. 14:25–40) that preserve these details. As a child Melchizedek had such faith as to stop the mouths of lions and quench the violence of fire (see also JST, Heb. 5:7). He was ordained a high priest after the order of the Son of God. He was a prophet like unto Enoch who had power through his faith over the elements, over the nations of the earth, and the power to stand in the presence of God “by the will of the Son of God which was from before the foundation of the world” (JST, Gen. 14:31). In addition to his biblical title “King of peace” (Heb. 7:2), in the Joseph Smith Translation of Genesis 14:33 we learn Melchizedek was called by his people “the Prince of peace,” another title identifying him as a type foreshadowing the ministry of Jesus Christ.
This title gives us a clue as to the relationship between Abraham and Melchizedek. Abraham tells us he “sought for the blessings of the fathers, and the right whereunto I should be ordained to administer the same, … and to be a father of many nations, a prince of peace” (Abr. 1:2). In seeking to be more like the Savior, “the Prince of Peace,” Abraham had sought out Melchizedek, “a prince of peace,” and was ordained a high priest after the order of the Son of God. The Joseph Smith Translation further records: “His [Melchizedek’s] people wrought righteousness, and obtained heaven, and sought for the city of Enoch which God had before taken, separating it from the earth, having reserved it unto the latter days, or the end of the world” (JST, Gen. 14:34).
These verses teach us much. They give us, from the time of Melchizedek, instructions on the power of the priesthood; teach us that other righteous people were translated even after the Flood; and remind us of the power of a priesthood hierarchy—that Abraham received the priesthood from an authorized servant of the Lord, that he paid his tithing to him, and that Melchizedek had the power to bless Abraham in accordance with the covenant the Lord had made with Abraham. Most important, these verses help restore Jesus Christ, the Son of God, to his proper role in the Old Testament as the premortal source of priesthood power and authority for Enoch, Melchizedek, and all who would follow them.
Additional scriptures tell us details about Melchizedek. Alma 13:14–19 affirms that Melchizedek was a type, or symbolic figure, of Jesus Christ. Doctrine and Covenants 84:14 [D&C 84:14] teaches us that Melchizedek ordained Abraham to the higher priesthood, and Doctrine and Covenants 107:1–4 [D&C 107:1–4] teaches us why the higher priesthood, properly “the Holy Priesthood, after the Order of the Son of God” (D&C 107:3), has been called from ancient times after Melchizedek.
The Joseph Smith Translation similarly provides missing details to the story of Joseph, who was a prophet like his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather before him. The Bible makes the point in the cases of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that the Lord appeared to each of these great men to reestablish the Abrahamic covenant individually. They each were shown a vision of the future of their posterity, whom they blessed and counseled accordingly (see, for example, Jacob’s prophetic patriarchal blessings to his 12 sons in Genesis 49). These patriarchal witnesses and blessings are known among biblical scholars as “testaments.”
But where is the testament of Joseph, the birthright son of Jacob and spiritual head of the family after his father’s death? It is in the Joseph Smith Translation of Genesis 50, which adds 15 verses to the story of Joseph, containing his witness of the power of the covenant to his brothers and to his descendants, along with an important prophetic look into the future. Joseph prophesied of the bondage in Egypt, the deliverance under Moses, the coming of the Messiah, the scattering of Israel, and the coming forth of a great prophet from his own lineage, for the Lord had promised: “And his name shall be called Joseph, and it shall be after the name of his father; and he shall be like unto you; for the thing which the Lord shall bring forth by his hand shall bring my people unto salvation” (JST, Gen. 50:33). While Joseph of Egypt, in the deliverance of his brethren from captivity, was a type of Jesus Christ, he is also a type of Joseph Smith, his descendant, who would open the work of salvation for the remnant of Israel.
In some instances, brief changes in the biblical verses have far-reaching doctrinal implications. For example, the JST revisions of Exodus 34:1–2 and Deuteronomy 10:1–2 are essential for proper understanding of the law of Moses. In his anger at the Israelites’ idolatry, Moses smashed the tablets containing the covenant written by the finger of the Lord. In his mercy, the Lord gave them his commandments on another set of tablets. The King James Version tells us he said, “And I will write upon these tables the words that were in the first tables” (Ex. 34:1), suggesting perhaps that the Lord offered the same covenant and law both times. But the Joseph Smith Translation teaches us that the second set of tablets had two important differences: the covenant of the Melchizedek Priesthood was missing, and the carnal commandments had been added. The first set of tablets given on Sinai offered the higher law with the Melchizedek Priesthood, inviting the children of Israel to enter into a covenant with the Lord as did the people of Enoch and Melchizedek, to build Zion, and to come into his presence. The second set of tablets contained a lower law. The Melchizedek Priesthood was not offered to the community as a whole; the Levites, holding the Aaronic Priesthood, represented others before the Lord; and a series of tedious carnal commandments was given to a hardhearted people to teach them in basic terms of the Atonement of Christ.
Many other JST passages in the Old Testament restore the centrality of the mission of the Messiah and remind us that the ancient prophets and righteous Saints had a knowledge of the eternal gospel in its fulness.
One of the significant revisions in the Joseph Smith Translation is Matthew 24, found in the Pearl of Great Price as Joseph Smith—Matthew.
On 7 March 1831, when the Saints were facing many trials and much persecution, the Lord gave to Joseph Smith the revelation that is now section 45 in the Doctrine and Covenants. In this section, he said to the Prophet that he would “speak unto you and prophesy” as he had to his disciples in days of old when they “asked of me concerning the signs of my coming, in the day when I shall come in my glory in the clouds of heaven, to fulfill the promises that I have made unto your fathers” (D&C 45:15, 16). In verses 16 to 59, the Lord cites and elaborates on many passages from Matthew 24. Then toward the end of the revelation, he says, “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” (D&C 45:60–61).
At the time, the Prophet was working on the inspired revisions of the Old Testament, but the manuscripts of the Joseph Smith Translation show that on the very next day, 8 March 1831, he began his work on the New Testament, starting with the first chapter of Matthew. He completed the inspired translation of Matthew 24 by September of 1831, and it was included in the early editions of the Pearl of Great Price. To the biblical text of Matthew 24, the Prophet added 450 new words. Significantly, he also changed the order of many of the verses and repeated elements of three verses (JST, Matt. 24:10, 30; Matt. 24:12, 32; Matt. 24:23, 28).
It is a most remarkable chapter, an account of the Savior’s final recorded discourse, given to his disciples as they sat on the Mount of Olives looking over the magnificent city of Jerusalem with its splendid temple complex. Jesus Christ prophesied of his return and of the destruction of the temple. The disciples then posed two questions (the underlined words show how the Joseph Smith Translation further clarifies the biblical text): “Tell us when shall these things be which thou hast said concerning the destruction of the temple, and the Jews; and what is the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world, or the destruction of the wicked, which is the end of the world?” (JS—M 1:4).
Matthew 24 as it stands in the Bible poses great problems for many readers in that the events of the destruction of the temple are intertwined with those preceding the Second Coming. The Prophet’s revisions altered the order of several of the verses, thus making it plain that the Savior clearly answered both of the questions posed by his disciples. Verses 5 through 20 of Joseph Smith—Matthew answer the question of when the temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed and what would happen to the Jews, while verses 21 through 55 answer the question as to what shall be the signs of his Second Coming and the end of the world. For Latter-day Saints, the events leading up to the Second Coming are of primary interest. The emphasis of this chapter, read together with section 45 of the Doctrine and Covenants, is on our need to be prepared. In giving his Saints knowledge of the coming events, the Lord offers comfort, assuring us that despite fearsome trials and tribulations we may face, he is in charge.
The events that will precede the coming of the Lord are outlined in Joseph Smith—Matthew: false Christs and false prophets will show great signs and wonders (JS—M 1:22); there will be wars and rumors of wars (JS—M 1:23); there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes (JS—M 1:29); iniquity will abound and the love of men will wax cold (JS—M 1:30); the gospel will be preached to all nations (JS—M 1:31); the abomination of desolation will be fulfilled (JS—M 1:32); there will be signs in the heavens (JS—M 1:33); and the “sign of the Son of Man” will appear, which is “the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory” (JS—M 1:36). Some of these events are the same as those that preceded the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in A.D. 70.
Joseph Smith—Matthew contains many specific instructions to those who wish to be prepared for the return of the Lord Jesus Christ. For example, with regard to those who say the Lord has returned secretly, he cautions, “Believe it not” (JS—M 1:25); in the face of iniquity and the love of men waxing cold, the Lord says, “He that shall not be overcome, the same shall be saved” (JS—M 1:30). Joseph Smith—Matthew adds another injunction not found in the King James Version of the Bible: “Whoso treasureth up my word, shall not be deceived” (JS—M 1:37). “Therefore be ye also ready, for in such an hour as ye think not, the Son of Man cometh” (JS—M 1:48), we are taught. Additionally, in Doctrine and Covenants 45 the Lord admonishes, “But my disciples shall stand in holy places, and shall not be moved” (D&C 45:32).
Verses 1 to 20 in Joseph Smith—Matthew talk in some detail about the events leading up to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70: the coming of false prophets and Messiahs, iniquity among the Saints, and persecution and tribulation. In many ways what happened was a type of the Second Coming, and the graphic fulfillment of those prophesied events serves as a solemn reminder to us that we can expect fulfillment of the passages related to our dispensation. And Latter-day Saints need to know that many of those in A.D. 70 who were righteous were delivered from disaster. Jesus Christ admonished his followers in that day: “Stand in the holy place; whoso readeth let him understand. Then let them who are in Judea flee into the mountains” (JS—M 1:12–13). Eusebius, an early Christian historian, writes of the Christians living in Jerusalem before the destruction: “The people of the church in Jerusalem were commanded by an oracle given by revelation before the war to those in the city who were worthy of it to depart and dwell in one of the cities of Perea which they called Pella. To it those who believed on Christ migrated from Jerusalem.”11
The Prophet Joseph Smith’s study and inspired work on the Bible served as a catalyst through which the Lord revealed to him many important doctrines of the Restoration. The Joseph Smith Translation underscores of the centrality of Christ and his Atonement in the gospel. Through it we learn that this eternal gospel was known by Adam, Enoch, Noah, Melchizedek, and Abraham and that all things in the law of Moses pointed toward Jesus Christ.
Moreover, the Prophet’s diligent study of the Bible provides us with an important model for scriptural discovery. The Prophet prepared his mind and heart for revelation by studying the word of the Lord. In connection with translating the Book of Mormon, he and Oliver Cowdery were taught that receiving revelation requires individual effort: “Behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind” (D&C 9:8). Likewise, we too can turn to the scriptures and through study, meditation, and prayer have our eyes opened to divine truths taught therein; the scriptures can be catalysts for revelation and inspiration needed in our own lives and our own situations.
In his short lifetime, the Prophet restored a wealth of divine records from the past. The Pearl of Great Price, in part a product of the Joseph Smith Translation, contains records and testimonies of Adam and Eve, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus Christ, and Joseph Smith. In addition, the Joseph Smith Translation contains important texts from the time of Melchizedek, Joseph of Egypt, Moses, Jesus Christ, and the ancient Apostles. The Book of Mormon brings to light the record of the Jaredites and the records of Lehi and his descendants. Added to these is a unique volume of revelations given for specific instruction and direction in our day—the Doctrine and Covenants. In all of these, we see the fulfillment of the prophecy given by the Lord through Nephi: “I will be merciful unto the Gentiles in that day, insomuch that I will bring forth unto them, in mine own power, much of my gospel, which shall be plain and precious, saith the Lamb” (1 Ne. 13:34).
Nephi saw the coming forth of the Bible, “the book of the Lamb of God, which had proceeded forth from the mouth of the Jew,” and “other books, which came forth by the power of the Lamb, … unto the convincing of the Gentiles and the remnant of the seed of my brethren, and also the Jews who were scattered upon all the face of the earth, that the records of the prophets and of the twelve apostles of the Lamb are true” (1 Ne. 13:38–39). Surely among these works are the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price, and the Joseph Smith Translation—a most remarkable work.