Sometimes I struggle to understand exactly what the Joseph Smith Translation (JST) really is. What if I disagree with the changes? Am I unfaithful? What if I absolutely fall in love with the long passages in Genesis, but don’t care to read the little changes here and there throughout the New Testament?
I struggle with some things, like changing all the God “repents” to someone else repenting, or God hardened so-in-so’s heart to that person hardened their own hearts. I don’t mind it, but I do find it annoying in Sunday School when people say “Ha ha, it was just silly that other way, good thing WE all know better.” I don’t like the attitude that people take on. “We have the truth, unlike all those silly other Christians who believe what the Bible itself says.” Come on, is it really such a big deal to make a few changes like this? I also notice that the same people who talk like this also never notice the big long passages in Genesis! If it’s not already in the footnotes, they don’t go reading it. I find that ironic and sad!
To flesh out what I mean by little changes, let’s take up the ones about “repenting.” Whenever the Bible says that God repented of this or that idea or plan to destroy, etc., we read about the change in the footnote and act as if we are very relieved, “Whoa, that was a close one, I almost had to think God repented, which would destroy my whole understanding of the gospel.” Why is this such a close call? For one, if we had read this without the JST, we’d probably just assume it was some 1600’s phrase or a 1600’s mistake. Would any of these same people have really been thrown for a loop and lost their testimony??? I would doubt that it was even close to a concern. But second, why don’t we ask why they chose this word? I think that the 1600’s translators were even MORE concerned about making sure a certain theology fit than we are, so they obviously would have been careful about saying that God repented. Aren’t they more concerned about God being absolute and omniscient than we are?
Why don’t we start by asking what the word “repent” means. In other Sunday School lessons, we might be ready to talk about repenting as a change or as a “return.” The dictionary mostly borrows the theological answer. But, let’s look at all the definitions. To feel sorrow. To regret. To feel sorrow enough to change. To change from sin to God. Biological definition is to creep along the ground! 🙂
My personal reading of the word is to return or reject the current course of action for something else.
Personally, it doesn’t bother me to say that God repented of his decision to destroy someone or something. In His wrath he called out a punishment on a city, for example. Then the people change, and God repents of that decision. There doesn’t have to be some sort of theological, sin-related message here. God changed His mind. He was planning to do one thing, and when the people changed then He decided to change too. The word “repent” just means He had a change of heart, doesn’t it? That concept doesn’t bother me.
So when the JST changes it and people get high-and-mighty, it bothers me that it was ever changed. Is this really a big deal?
So how do I think of the JST? Am I overly critical and not faithful on these points? Shouldn’t I trust Joseph that this needed to be changed?
As I have pondered this question, I have been struck by the meaning of the word “translation.” A translation from one language to another always involves adapting the words for a current audience. Whether a person intends to or not, they will put the text into words that will make sense currently, which may be different than a translation 100 years ago. Words written then will mean something different now. A translation is never literal, word-for-word, and static through time. That is impossible. So, when we think of Joseph translating the Bible, can we think of things this way? In 1600s, using the word “repent” meant something to readers that it doesn’t mean to people in the mid 1800s. And that’s okay. Joseph saw that it meant something different, and rather than explain all the possible meanings, he changed a few words here and there so people would not get confused. Rather than it being a revelation of lost meaning, it is a way to stop confusion. It means much the same thing as it did already, if no one was getting uptight about it, but this way there is no concern or confusion. Is this a justified and faithful understanding of the JST?
Though our Articles of Faith talk of the Bible being true when it is “Translated Correctly,” often Joseph does not follow the Greek or Hebrew when he edits a verse. I remember this especially in the New Testament, where a few words added here or there make the verse sound easier to read, but completely take it out of the chapter’s larger context. There wasn’t a problem with the verse when it was read with all the other ones, but there was a confusion when quoted separately and the JST changes fix those particular concerns. It makes it easy to pick up the scriptures and read a verse here or there and learn about general Mormon Theology.
Think for example of the addition of three degrees of glory in 1 Cor 15:40. Joseph adds in “telestial” bodies as well, so that all three degrees of glory, as laid out in the D&C, now appear in Paul. The questions are raised: “Were all three originally mentioned, but then at some point left out?” (I plan get to omissions like that later). Or, “Did Paul not know about all three, but Joseph did?”
When the verse is read in context, “celestial” and “terrestrial” are not used as points on a spectrum of righteousness. Adding “telestial” to the list does make it a sort of spectrum with degrees and levels. But Paul is doing something else, I believe: “celestial” simply means “heavenly,” and “terrestrial” simply means “earthly.” Paul wants there to only be two options. He is developing a doctrine of the resurrection – meaning, that we have earthly bodies now, and will have heavenly bodies then. To add in a third level would actually confuse someone who was following Paul’s argument closely. “Three levels? Is there something in between our bodies and a resurrected body? Or is there a way to have a less than human body?” Adding three levels makes sense to us, when we skim the chapter – it’s talking about resurrection, we know there are three possible states to be resurrected to, so we’re glad Joseph fixed it. And then we feel superior that we know this, and never really study the chapter, and call that a good scripture discussion for the week! Yikes! (As you can tell, it’s the attitude that really bothers me.)
So, if I’m right and Paul really wasn’t in the wrong, how do I think about Joseph’s change to the text?
I think it goes back to this reading of the word “translation.” I don’t think that Joseph is restoring some original text, except where he explicitly says so, or where it is so long it implies a restoration. In the Book of Moses, for example, the chapters are presented as revelations, and we even learn that these things were actually what the Lord taught to Moses but are not had in the Bible because of wickedness. So that is very explicitly a revelation of lost material. The lengthy passages in the JST also seem to be revelations and not “quick-fixes.”
But when there is simply one word changed here and there, I can’t get away from the feeling that it was changed mostly to adapt it to a modern audience and to avoid confusion.
This way of seeing Joseph’s work was suggested to me also by how the D&C was put together. At the recent Embracing the Law conference at SVU, Joseph Spencer related the ways in which the revelations had been put together in different ways over the years. At times, they were organized as a handbook of sorts. When that was the case, it was necessary to update some of the revelations. For example, D&C 42 was changed to reflect further developments in how the Lord wanted the people to live the Law of Consecration. D&C 20 was edited to add information on priesthood that was actually not revealed until after D&C 20 was received. But, if we consider Joseph a prophet, then we understand that he could receive continuing revelations. Since his understanding would change, it makes sense that he (or his associates) edited the earlier revelations to fit with the later ones. In this way, the Saints could begin to form a coherent picture of the doctrines.
I’m fine with that, and it makes a great deal of sense to me. I am also glad to know where I can get the original readings, so that I can make sense of other aspects of the Doctrine and Covenants. But when the revelations were collected as a whole, I can see why they were edited here and there so they formed a unit of scripture. There is something satisfying and creative in that and it turns the book from separate historical moments to something more like a book of scripture as we are used to reading scripture.
So when I see these little changes that seem to alter the original meaning of a verse, I think I can see what Joseph may have been doing. He wasn’t editing 1 Corinthians 15 so that it fit with what Paul originally meant, or to fit it into the Bible in a better way, he isn’t primarily concerned with the larger Bible picture at all. He is concerned with the larger Bible-BookofMormon-D&C-PearlofGreatPrice picture. How can does this verse fit in with this larger body of scripture we now have? If 1 Cor 15 doesn’t match D&C 76, are people going to get confused? Is it better to make sure this doctrine is taught than to restore original meanings?
Can we also play around with the idea that Joseph liked more literal-original meanings on some days and more doctrinally-consistent readings on other days? Sometimes his sermons, if I’m remembering correctly (sorry I’m not doing more work here) will take up on reading but the JST has another! Maybe he’s okay with playing around with both translations. I do remember one example of this way of playing with translations. Joseph Smith didn’t retranslate the first sentence of the Bible in the JST, but he will base part of a sermon on other ways to translate this verse based on the Hebrew! Joseph can use both ways of reading verses in the Bible based on what is needed in the given moment. And maybe we can play around with that too – in some contexts, it would be better to teach Paul without the JST change in 1 Cor 15:40, but in other situations, it is better to add in the third term.
Perhaps we ought to follow this idea ourselves, and be very familiar with lots of possibilities and also full of charity. Then we would be more concerned with the person we are teaching and less concerned with being “right.”