“Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible,” Church History Topics
“Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible”
While translating the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery found they held different views on the meaning of a passage in the Bible. They “mutually agreed to settle” the question “by the Urim and [Thummim].” As a result, Joseph received a revelation giving the translation of an account by the ancient disciple John, written on parchment but lost to history. This early experience seeking revelation that illuminated the text of a Bible passage was an important precedent. About a year later, during the summer of 1830, Joseph and Oliver received by revelation an account of visions experienced by Moses but not found in the Bible. This revelation marked the beginning of Joseph Smith’s efforts to prepare an inspired revision or translation of the Bible. For the next three years, Joseph worked on his “new translation of the Bible” with Oliver Cowdery, Sidney Rigdon, and other scribes, considering the project a “branch of [his] calling” as a prophet of God.1
While working on his revision of the Bible, Joseph Smith did not employ Hebrew and Greek sources, lexicons, or a knowledge of biblical languages to render a new English text. Rather, he used a copy of the King James Bible as the starting point for his translation, dictating inspired changes and additions to scribes. At first, the scribes rewrote the entire text including the changes. Later, Joseph marked his Bible showing where changes should be inserted, and the scribes wrote only the changed text.
Joseph’s revisions fall into several categories. His early work on the translation resulted in long revealed passages that Joseph dictated to his scribes, much as he did when receiving the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants.2 These passages sometimes dramatically expanded the biblical text. The best-known example of this type of revision is found today in the book of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price. Joseph heavily revised some passages, such as Matthew 24, adding phrases, rearranging verses, and making other significant changes. He also made many smaller changes that improved grammar, clarified meaning, modernized language, corrected points of doctrine, or alleviated inconsistencies.
Joseph proceeded from Genesis 1 through the Old Testament until a revelation in 1831 directed him to advance to the New Testament. Once finished with the New Testament, Joseph picked up where he left off in Genesis and completed his work on the entire project by July 1833. Joseph briefly considered translating the Apocrypha, a selection of books accepted as scripture by Catholic and Orthodox Christians but rejected by many Protestants. A revelation directed Joseph not to translate apocryphal writings.3
Joseph Smith’s work on the Bible revision led to several revelations now contained in the Doctrine and Covenants. Perhaps the most dramatic of these occurred when Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon wondered how to interpret John 5:29, a passage mentioning the resurrection of the dead, and were blessed with a revelatory vision of the degrees of glory in the afterlife (D&C 76).4 Several similar episodes occurred during the process of revising the Bible, prompting revelations regarding Matthew 13; 1 Corinthians 7; and the Book of Revelation.5
After Joseph Smith’s death, the Bible translation manuscripts remained with his wife Emma until she gave them to her son Joseph Smith III, who led the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The Reorganized Church (now Community of Christ) published Joseph’s revisions in 1867 under the title The Holy Scriptures, Translated and Corrected by the Spirit of Revelation, but the volume quickly became known as the “Inspired Version of the Bible.”6 Brigham Young, then President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Utah, expressed skepticism of the accuracy of the publication, having not had the chance to review the manuscript sources himself. Despite possessing a handwritten copy of some revision manuscripts, the Church under President Young’s direction, and for a century thereafter, did not publish an edition.7
During the 1960s, RLDS scholar Richard P. Howard and LDS scholar Robert J. Matthews each studied the manuscripts to verify the accuracy of the published editions. The Reorganized Church granted The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints permission to publish excerpts as footnotes and endnotes in the 1979 LDS edition of the Bible. Continued research from this collaboration led to the publication of the complete Bible revision manuscripts in 2004 and again on the Joseph Smith Papers website.8