Restoration and Church History
Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible

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“Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible,” Church History Topics

“Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible”

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 expanded 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 a vision of Moses not found in the Old Testament. 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 continued work on his “new translation of the Bible,” considering the project a “branch of [his] calling” as a prophet of God.1

Joseph and Sidney

Artist’s depiction of Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon working on the Bible translation.

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 who recorded them first on paper and later as notes in the margins of the Bible itself. His 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 Smith also made many smaller changes that improved grammar, modernized language, corrected points of doctrine, or alleviated inconsistencies. As he worked on these changes, he appears in many instances to have consulted respected commentaries by biblical scholars, studying them out in his mind as a part of the revelatory process.3

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 Old Testament 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 even though such writings contained “many things … that are true.”4

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).5 Several similar episodes occurred during the process of revising the Bible, prompting revelations regarding Matthew 13; 1 Corinthians 7; and the Book of Revelation.6

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.”7 Brigham Young, then President of the Church, expressed skepticism of the accuracy of the Inspired Version, 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 thereafter did not publish an edition.8

During the 1960s, RLDS scholar Richard P. Howard and LDS scholar Robert J. Matthews each studied the manuscripts to authenticate the published editions using the original texts. The Reorganized Church made manuscripts available and granted the LDS Church 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 as part of the Joseph Smith Papers.9

Related Topics: The Vision (D&C 76), Book of Mormon Translation, Book of Abraham Translation