Joseph Smith Translation (JST)

In 1830, shortly after the Book of Mormon was printed, Joseph Smith embarked on what would later be called the Joseph Smith Translation (JST) of the Bible. In short, it was an attempt to retranslate and correct the sacred text. The original manuscript belongs to the RLDS Church.

The LDS Church has not canonized the work and includes only brief footnote citations in its standard works. A recent BYU study has uncovered striking parallels between Smith’s work and Adam Clarke’s popular Bible commentaries of the same period. While it seems unnecessary to argue that Smith plagiarized Clarke’s work, his reliance on it was so pervasive that it must be acknowledged as a primary source.

IMPORTANCE OF THE WORK


The LDS Church refers to the work as an “inspired translation.” Joseph himself regularly referred to the work as a translation, such as when he recorded: “I completed the translation and review of the New Testament on the 2nd of February, 1833, and sealed it up, no more to be opened till it arrived in Zion.” [1] When the Church updated its version of the King James Bible in 1979, it said the translation “…forms an important part of new LDS editions of the scriptures.”

Various Church authorities have reaffirmed the significance of the JST. Bruce McConkie instructed: “The Joseph Smith Translation, or Inspired Version, is a thousand times over the best Bible now existing on earth. It contains all that the King James Version does, plus pages of additions and corrections and an occasional deletion. It was made by the spirit of revelation, and the changes and additions are the equivalent of the revealed word in the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants. For historical and other reasons there have been, among some members of the Church in times past, some prejudice and misunderstanding of the place of the Joseph Smith Translation. I hope this has now all vanished away.” [2]

An article in the Church’s LDS Ensign magazine asserted “…the work was to be a revelatory experience, through which Joseph would come to an understanding of things that he had not previously known.” [3] Which specific aspects were previously unknown remains ambiguous. 

Robert J. Matthews, former dean of Religious Instruction at BYU, suggested in an Ensign article “…failure to publish the new translation was not due to any negligence or lack of interest on Joseph Smith’s part, but rather to a neglect on the part of the Saints to provide the temporal necessities by which the Prophet could attend to the work. The story is fascinating and meaningful, with important lessons to be learned, not the least of which is that when an opportunity presents itself to render service to a prophet doing the Lord’s work, we should act without delay or the opportunity may pass unfulfilled.” [4] 

As is often the case, LDS authorities ever since Joseph Smith himself exhibit a habit of pinning shortcomings or failed prophecy on the faith, or lack thereof, of its members. Regardless, given its importance, we are left to wonder why the Church still hasn’t taken the opportunity to publish its own complete version of the Joseph Smith translation of the Bible. 

TRANSLATION REDEFINED


As the meaning of the word “translate” has come under increased scrutiny among members of the LDS Church, particularly those who have learned about problems with the translation of the Book of Abraham. The Church today emphasizes that “Joseph’s translation was not carried out in the traditional sense…he used the King James Version of the Bible as his starting point and made additions and changes as he was directed by the Holy Ghost.” [5] 

The introduction to the JST suggests that “Because the Lord revealed to Joseph certain truths that the original authors had once recorded, the Joseph Smith Translation is unlike any other Bible translation in the world. In this sense, the word translation is used in a broader and different way than usual, for Joseph’s translation was more revelation than literal translation from one language into another.”

In suggesting that Smith’s edits reflect what God intended, the LDS Church presents a claim that is certainly difficult to verify. Perhaps the compelling reason why the Church reiterates the “inspired” nature of Joseph Smith’s work, while regularly distancing itself from any traditional notion of translation concerning any of the works he brought forth, is because abundant contemporary sources of inspiration and 1800s cultural context are increasingly being identified. 

BYU PROVIDES NEW INSIGHTS


Recently, Dr. Thomas Wayment, a professor of ancient scripture at BYU, and Haley Wilson Lemmon, “…uncovered evidence that Smith and his associates used a readily available Bible commentary…” They point out that “Adam Clarke’s famous Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments, was a mainstay for Methodist theologians and biblical scholars alike, and was one of the most widely available commentaries in the mid-1820s and 1830s in America,” and demonstrate “that Clarke is the primary source Smith used.”

A quick summary of the historical timeline reveals that Clarke published his summaries in series between 1808 – 1826, before passing away in 1832. Clarke’s well-known work coincides well with Joseph Smith’s letter to W. W. Phelps in July 1832, when he stated “we have finished the translation of the New Testament.”

Wayment and Lemmon continue, “Our research has revealed that the number of direct parallels between Smith’s translation and Adam Clarke’s biblical commentary are simply too numerous and explicit to posit happenstance or coincidental overlap. The parallels between the two texts number into the hundreds, a number that is well beyond the limits of this paper to discuss. A few of them, however, demonstrate Smith’s open reliance upon Clarke and establish that he was inclined to lean on Clarke’s commentary for matters of history, textual questions, clarification of wording, and theological nuance. In presenting the evidence, we have attempted to both establish that Smith drew upon Clarke, likely at the urging of Rigdon, and we present here a broad categorization of the types of changes that Smith made when he used Clarke as a source.” [6] 

Smith’s reliance upon Clarke’s work seems unavoidable and reignites questions surrounding his use of contemporary source materials to craft his narratives, as well as the way that the modern LDS Church describes this influence as inspired. Wayment and Lemmon stop short of calling Smith’s reliance upon Clarke plagiarization. Instead they introduce terms such as “direct borrowing” while conceding that Smith may have added his own inspired thoughts to Clarke’s – an understandable compromise as their positions at a church-sponsored university encourage delicate word selection. 

The mounting evidence places the LDS Church in a difficult position. If it acknowledges that Smith relied heavily upon readily available works and ideas of his day, the concession will no doubt be immediately overlaid onto the Book of Abraham and Book of Mormon, with an arguably negative impact on the faithful narrative most members continue to embrace today.

SOURCE OF JAREDITE ROCKS


The recently discovered connections between Adam Clarke’s Bible summaries and Joseph Smith’s work has prompted increased scrutiny and comparisons of the two author’s works. It is fascinating to discover the following in Clarke’s summary of Genesis 6:16, dealing with the construction of Noah’s ark.  Could Clarke’s words be the catalyst for windows and glowing rocks in Jaredite barges? Recall that the notion of transparent windows would have been unknown to ancient Hebrews.

“A window shalt thou make… The original word צהרtsohar signifies clear or bright…which plainly shows they did not understand the word as signifying any kind of window or light…a transparency…supposes that it was a precious luminous stone which Noah, by Divine command, brought from the river Pison. It is probably a word which should be taken in a collective sense, signifying apertures for air and light.” Clarke’s narrative about illuminated rocks in lieu of windows bears striking resemblance to Smith’s, and predates it by only a few years.

LEARN MORE


[1] History of the Church, 1:324. archive.org.
[2] The Bible, a Sealed Book, Bruce R. McConkie, LDS.org.
[3] Joseph Smith’s Inspired Translation of the Bible, Ensign 1972.
[4] Joseph Smith’s Efforts to Publish HIs Bible Translation, Ensign, Jan 1983.
[5] JST Bible Translation, lds.org
[6] A Recently Recovered Source: Rethinking Joseph Smith’s Bible Translation, BYU.edu