The New Translation, Footnotes, and Joseph Smith’s Religious Thought
Many works have examined the role of the Joseph Smith translation, or what was originally called the New Translation.1 A recent Church documentary on the production of the LDS Edition of the King James Version of the Bible highlights the fact that experts on the Joseph Smith Translation were assigned to include JST footnotes into the LDS Edition.
Joseph Smith worked on the New Translation early in his prophetic career, immediately following the publication of the Book of Mormon. However, Joseph continued to develop his ideas and continued to receive revelations. In some cases, the JST emendations represent Joseph’s early religious thinking, and yet, branding his emendations into the LDS Edition of the Bible has had the effect of crystallizing such thought or establishing it as the ultimate view or interpretation held by Joseph Smith. I’ll attempt to offer a couple of examples where the JST does not represent Joseph’s final thoughts on the passage in question.
Example 1: Children of God, or Sons of God?
The KJV of the Book of Job reads that “the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord.” (Job 1:6). Sometime during the latter half of July 1832, Joseph Smith rendered this verse to read: “the children of God came to present themselves before the Lord.”2 Joseph makes an identical change in Job 2:1. Joseph made no other emendations to the Book of Job, and this JST reading was incorporated into the LDS Edition of the Scriptures, published in August 1979. Joseph never provided a reason for this change and the reader is left to speculate.
However, the reader should note that Joseph never seemed to advance his 1832 modification from sons to children. In April 1842, Joseph recounted the account in Job “when Satan presented himself before the Lord among the sons of God, he said that he came ‘from going to and fro in the earth, and from wandering up and down in it.’”3 In January 1843, Joseph again referred to same passage in Job: “we read that when the sons of God presented themselves before God, satan also presented himself and the Lord asked, ‘from whence comest thou! &c.; evidently showing that the sons of God, in those days, came into the presence of God and had communion with and revelation from him.”4
Thus, the significance of this change in the mind of Joseph Smith is somewhat uncertain. Joseph makes a change but isn’t dogmatic about it and feels perfectly fine to return to the original language. Query whether its inclusion in the footnotes, in this case, enhances readability of the text or narrative.
Example 2: Perfection by Suffering and Baptism for the Dead
On September 6, 1842 Joseph wrote an epistle concerning baptism for the dead:
And now, my dearly beloved brethren and sisters, let me assure you that these are principles in relation to the dead and the living that cannot be lightly passed over, as pertaining to our salvation. For their salvation is necessary and essential to our salvation, as Paul says concerning the fathers—that they without us cannot be made perfect—neither can we without our dead be made perfect.
the earth will be smitten with a curse unless there is a welding link of some kind or other between the fathers and the children, upon some subject or other—and behold what is that subject? It is the baptism for the dead. For we without them cannot be made perfect; neither can they without us be made perfect. Neither can they nor we be made perfect without those who have died in the gospel also. (D&C 128:15, 18)
In this passage, Joseph is clearly adopting the language of Paul’s epistle to the Hebrews: “God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.” (Hebrews 11:40). Joseph again repeats this usage in his April 7, 1844 King Follett Discourse:
the greatest responsibility that God has laid upon us to seek after our dead–the apostle says they without us cant be Perfect–now I am speaking of them I say to you Paul, you can’t be perfect witht. us.–those that are gone before & those who come after must be made perfect ~ Bullock Report, King Follet Discourse.
How did Joseph modify Hebrews 11:40 in his New Translation?
God having provided some better things for them through their sufferings, for without sufferings they could not be made perfect.5
Scholars have dated his passage to about the latter half of February 1832.6 This early reading displays no evidence of baptism for the dead. Rather, Joseph understands Paul as teaching that perfection comes through suffering, connecting the passage to Paul’s earlier statement in Hebrews 2:10 (“perfect through suffering”). This scripture would take on special significance for the Latter-day Saints, especially after the death of the prophet. Yet notice how baptism for the dead cannot be built on the JST version of Hebrews 11:40, with its insistence on perfection by suffering.
Historical evidence suggests that Joseph first publicly taught baptism for the dead in a sermon given on August 15, 1840.7 Before this time it isn’t certain how early Joseph understood this teaching, however, it is clear that Joseph rethought his understanding of Hebrews 11:40 as the revelations increased. Joseph was flexible enough to return back to the original wording of the KJV that “that they without us should not be made perfect” in order to establish the connection between they (the fathers) and us (the children).
These are only two examples where the JST, while representing Joseph’s early thought, was superseded by later developments and revelation. Unfortunately, JST footnotes provide the reader no historical information as to whether Joseph later expanded upon his initial thought. Therefore, in certain instances, the JST represents a kind of snapshot of Joseph’s earlier thinking that shouldn’t be taken as the capstone or culmination of his thought, but rather as the understandings of the prophet as he is schooled by experience and as he obtained further light and knowledge.
1. For an important work on the topic see Scott H. Faulring, Kent P. Jackson, and Robert J. Matthews, eds. Joseph Smith’s New Translation of the Bible: Original Manuscripts. Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2004.
The editors write: “We could gain a clearer, richer, and more comprehensive understanding of the way our doctrine unfolded if we were to take the revealed passages of the New Translation and place them in their proper chronological order between the sections of the Doctrine and Covenants… Before we had access to the original JST manuscripts, this arrangement was impossible, because we did not know the dates that are written on the documents. Seeing the originals changes our perspective.” p. 19. Together with the Joseph Smith Papers volumes, a more accurate revelatory chronology is possible, albeit not without effort.
2. Original Manuscripts, 738-739.
3. “Try the Spirits.” Times and Seasons, vol 3. No 11. April 1, 1842, p. 745. Attributed to Joseph Smith.
4. “Sons of God.” Times and Seasons, vol 4. No 5. January 16, 1843, p. 75. Attributed to Joseph Smith.
5. Original Manuscripts, 544-545.
6. Original Manuscripts, 69.
7. Report by Simon Baker on sermon given by Joseph Smith on Aug. 15, 1840, in Nauvoo, Illinois. See also Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, (2007), p. 410, fn 4. PDF.