Elder McConkie and Targumim, or How to Help LDS Read Non-KJV Versions

I recently discovered that Elder McConkie was aware of Targums, translations of the Hebrew Bible into Aramaic. I’ll discuss his understanding of them and a tantalizing tidbit stemming therefrom in my next post.

In the meanwhile, that discovery helped me formulate a strategy for helping certain kinds of LDS readers to understand that it’s ok to read and study non-KJV editions of the Bible. The following handout (necessarily limited due to space and audience) is what I prepared for an Institute class to make this point.

Bibles and Translations

By Jesus’ day, Hebrew was no longer the native language of the Jews, though it appears that its use was not limited to scribes and scholars. Nevertheless, in the synagogues, the traditional ancient Hebrew text would be read, followed, for purposes of understanding, by a translation into the current language of the people, i.e. an Aramaic translation or “targum.” This practice may go back to Nehemiah 8:8.

Similarly, English-speaking members of the Church should know the King James Version, but also read modern translations for understanding. The KJV is the official English Bible of the LDS Church, but not necessarily the sole Bible for individual members to read and study.

“We clearly prefer the King James Version of the New Testament, but we are not adamant about that. Any responsibly prepared version could be used and might be helpful to us.” (Elder John K. Carmack, The NT & the LDS, p. 2)

“If [the Bible] be translated incorrectly, and there is a scholar on the earth who professes to be a Christian, and he can translate it any better than King James’s translators did it, he is under obligation to do so, or the curse is upon him. If I understood Greek and Hebrew as some may profess to do, and I knew the Bible was not correctly translated, I should feel myself bound by the law of justice to the inhabitants of the earth to translate that which is incorrect and give it just as it was spoken anciently. Is that proper? Yes, I would be under obligation to do it.” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 14:226-227)

Modern apostles have used modern translations of the Bible to supplement difficult KJV passages: e.g.

Neal A. Maxwell, (Ensign, May 1991, p. 90); RSV (Revised Standard Version)

(Ensign, Dec. 1986, p. 23); NKJV (New King James Version)

Jeffrey R. Holland, (Ensign, Nov. 1994, p. 34); NEB (New English Bible)

Robert D. Hales, (Ensign, Nov. 1997, p. 26). NIV (New International Version)

Recommended Versions

New King James Version (NKJV)- For those who want a KJV with some modernized grammar and vocabulary.

New International Version (NIV) Study Bible- A very readable Bible done by conservative Evangelicals. I like it for the Old Testament notes. The NT notes may be more theologically biased.

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)- The best single translation available.

27 Replies to “Elder McConkie and Targumim, or How to Help LDS Read Non-KJV Versions”

  1. Since you put out that the NRSV is “the best”, I would ask if you are familiar with the NAB or the newer ESV? And why do you say the NRSV is best? When I took classes in college, there were all sorts of rumors swimming about regarding the political agendas of the NRSV translators…

  2. I don’t know the ESV at all, so I cannot comment on it. I don’t really like the NAB; it just nevers sounds Biblical to me. Whatever the agendas of the NRSV translators may have been, they have produced a generally theologically neutral translation (in my opinion) that tries to do due service to the text. They don’t generally emend and they don’t generally distort. It really is a good translation.

  3. I should also say that, in my experience, when a Biblical scholar uses a translation in a publication, they tend to quote the NRSV, unless they are translating themselves.

  4. I didn’t understand how entrenched the KJV is into LDS culture till I started bringing my NIV to Sunday School. People are more shocked at my choice of translation than the mohawk I wore at last year’s ward Halloween party. It is good to know that recent Conferences have alternate translations quoted. I usually justify my choice of translation by citing the 8th AoF and fact JS preferred a German translation.

  5. I like this post. I would change

    “Similarly, English-speaking members of the Church should know the King James Version, but also read modern translations for understanding.”


    “Similarly, English-speaking members of the Church should know the King James Version, but _may also want to_ read modern translations for understanding.”

    (I don’t think you should imply that non-KJV study is obligatory.)

    Two things you may want to add to your handout:

    –the netbible, which is free online with great footnotes


    –the now-regular practice of BYU Religion classes of requiring the student to read two versions: the KJV and another one (in English or another language). Nothing like the nihil obstat of BYU practice to bolster your case. 😉

  6. This is an interesting issue. From my pov, I think that the NRSV has much less at stake politically than the NIV, which I dislike. However, I think that these sorts of broad generalizations should also be backed up with specific evidence about translation problems.

    I agree with HP that the NRSV is the scholarly translation of choice, as evidenced by the Harper Collins and Oxford study bibles.

  7. Good handout, I approve of anything that helps us Mormons to learn that other translations of the Bible are not evil and neither are the translators and people who read them.

    I also approve that you recognize that when members are introduced to reading other translations that they are given a crash course in being smart readers so they can watch out for biases. A smart reader of any translation of the Bible is a very good thing. (just in case that wasn’t totally obvious)

  8. Like most of you, I guess, I’ve been interested in the whole question of “best translation” for as long as I’ve been interested in biblical studies. I like the NRSV for a number of reasons, but mostly because, even though it is squarely in the dynamic equivalence camp, it at least quit playing dyn. equiv. oneupmanship in the way most versions had in the 70s and 80s. But reading Leland Ryken’s The Word of God in English a few years ago has recast my sensibilities. I think the values of “post-Nida” translators have been off-base. Anyway, like many scholars, apparently, as I’ve found to my surprise, I’m a closet RSV’er personally even if use the NRSV publicly. The NRSV is translated to a seventh-grade reading level and aims to avoid any literary, theological, political, etc., coloring. It’s the ultimate Sensible Committee Product, and achieved its goals well, but as literature is leaves me a bit cold.

  9. I am definitely an NRSV fan. Their Psalms clinched it for me. No other translation of Psalm 56 is as poignant and clear.

  10. I’ve never studied another version besides the KJV, except the João Ferreira de Almeida (Portuguese) and a German translation I have somewhere. I’ll have to check out the NRSV.

    Today my wife returned from a trip to Utah. While there, she went to the home of her great-grandma, who died last spring in her 90’s. My wife brought back a beautiful old bible with some pages missing, including the title page. Our first hint of its age was among a few pages of Family Records between the testaments. There someone listed the births of the two oldest children of my wife’s great-great-grandparents in 1887 and 1888! (She’s descended from the 8th and last child)

    Later I realized that a title page preceding Matthew noted the bible was published by the American Bible Society in New York in 1880. What a find!

  11. A plug in case you haven’t seen the Barney et al NT footnotes—a great resource, though not an alternate translation. The print-on-demand option is handy for bringing to Sunday school, though it’s free electronically online. Also, I think authorship issues are addressed in gentle and sensible way for newbies (for example, the introduction to Hebrews cites General Authorities, incl. Pres. Monson, who say that the author is not necessarily Paul; and for, say 2 Corinthians, it is ackknowledged that scholars doubt that Paul is the author, though it doesn’t go into any depth). Also, I think there are two online references I would recommend above all others for getting underneath the KJV text: the NeXt Learning Environment because it gives many translations of the best translations—incl. the NRSV, which is very hard to find online—along with the NET footnotes, and the Blue Letter Bible site which is the handiest interlinear Bible I’ve found online and includes a convenient link to all usages of a particular Strong’s entry.

  12. Robert C.,

    You were, in fact, in the spam filter. My first “catch” on this new site. Sigh.

    And one minor point: 2 Cor is pretty universally thought to be an authentic letter. What you might be getting at is that in its canonical form it’s often thought to contain pieces of several authentic letters.

  13. I would have added more versions and comments to the handout, but I ran out of room. I quite like the NET Bible’s notes as well. I’m familiar with just about every version out there, including the new Holman Christian Standard Bible which is gaining popularity in several circles.

    My personal recent favorite is Etz Hayim, a Hebrew/JPS Torah+Haftarot with three tiers of commentary. Tier one is historical/critical/academic, summarized from the JPS Torah commentary series. Tier two is drawn from traditional Rabbinic commentary. Tier three, and there is much less of this, is Halakhic commentary. I’ve been taking it to the Torah study group at the local synagogue 🙂

    I haven’t delved deeply into the translational debates, but acclaim for the NRSV is pretty universal, particularly among academics.

    Julie: I do think that all English-speaking LDS *should* have access to and consult other translations. It’s not a moral imperative, but I believe that understanding the scriptures, something we have Institute courses on, requires either consulting another translation or learning original languages. Which is more reasonable for the average LDS? For those who really don’t want to get away from the KJV, the NKJV is still a marked improvement.

  14. Nitsav: I too love the JPS Tanakh trans and find it the most literary English trans of the Hebrew Bible, as well as very faithful and transparent.

    I thought I might just post a First Pres letter from 1992 that reaffirms the use of the KJV. I understand that it was specifically meant as a rebuke of some church teachers who were assigning or encouraging the use of other English versions as the primary texts for LDS Bible study. (Bodhi ducks and runs for cover . . .)


    Date: 06/20/92

    Since the days of the Prophet, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has used the King James Version of the Bible for English-speaking members.

    The Bible, as it has been transmitted over the centuries, has suffered the loss of many plain and precious parts. “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.” (The A of F 1:8.)

    Many versions of the Bible are available today. Unfortunately, no original manuscripts of any portion of the Bible are available for comparison to determine the most accurate version. However, the Lord has revealed clearly the doctrines of the gospel in these latter days. The most reliable way to measure the accuracy of any biblical passage is not by comparing different texts, but by comparison with the Book of Mormon and modern-day revelations.

    While other Bible versions may be easier to read than the King James Version, in doctrinal matters latter-day revelation supports the King James Version in preference to other English translations. All of the Presidents of the Church, beginning with the Prophet, have supported the King James Version by encouraging its continued use in the Church. In light of all the above, it is the English language Bible used by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

    The LDS edition of the Bible (1979) contains the King James Version supplemented and clarified by footnotes, study aids, and cross-references to the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. These four books are the standard works of the Church. We encourage all members to have their own copies of the complete standard works and to use them prayerfully in regular personal and family study, and in Church meetings and assignments.

    Sincerely your brethren,

    The First Presidency

    “Letter Reaffirms Use of King James Version of Bible,” LDS Church News, 1992, 06/20/92.

  15. Mogget #14, woops, I meant 2 Thessalonians, not 2 Corinthians—thanks for correcting me.

    Mitsav #15, thank you very much for this recommendation, I was thinking of getting a New JPS transtlation anyway, this looks like a much more interesting edition than what I was looking at.

    Bodhi #16, thanks for copying this letter, it’s very interesting for me to see how they worded this. I think the KJV will always be at least of historical interest, esp. in light of the JST and the references to the KJV in the BOM, D&C and PoGP—and I think this historical context will create a natural resistance to any move to a more contemporary translation.

  16. Robert: If you can afford it, I recommend the larger hard-cover version of Etz Hayim. The print is easier to read. It happens to be bound in expensive leather, though, so it’s usually about $70.

    Bodhi: I don’t see that FP message as absolutely forbidding other versions, as evidenced by the non-KJV usage by other GA’s, above. Note also that it is largely concerning “doctrinal” accuracy, not general understanding. (Whether the KJV is more “doctrinally” correct is another issue entirely.)

  17. I don’t actually see how the First Presidency letter is relevant to the discussion. Was anyone here saying that the church shouldn’t use the KJV?

  18. It should also be noted that this letter was basically written as a direct response to Phillip Barlow’s Mormons and the Bible published the year earlier.
    I agree with HP, the letter doesn’t preclude the reading of other translations (and even admits that they are easier to read), but explains why the church continues to use the KJV.

  19. [In the comments below I refer only to the trans. of the Hebrew Bible, about which I know much more than I do about the translation of the NT.]

    I’m most familiar with the NRSV, as are many of us here, but I’m finding myself more and more dissatisfied with it, mostly over emendations or subtle interpretation. An example of this is Gen 15:6: And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness. (NRSV) The second LORD is a stance the NRSV translators have taken, but it didn’t have to be so: English can handle this perfectly: “and he reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Leave the ambiguity, I say, and let the reader decide.

    I think, further, when teaching about this we help people understand that all translation involves interpretation, and therefore to be suspicious of translation. At least suspicious enough to look at a couple of different takes on a given passage.

    I’m becoming more and more a fan of the JPS. The translation is certainly a little more “literary” as Bodhi, I think, mentioned. Also, of the “academic” study Bibles, the Jewish Study Bible is the best for annotations, IMHO. Jewish interpretation in general is less inclined to deal with interpretation external to the text. This is not to say that there’s not an agenda in this very stance, but it’s one more friendly to the text (again, of the Hebrew Bible) as it stands.

    I’d love to see a JPS annotated NT!

  20. Mogs sez: Fit the translation to the “audience.”

    In a liturgical setting, you don’t want people puzzling over words, you want them paying attention to the homiletic message. This invariably involves grasping the larger point from a single aural experience. Hence, liturgical translations have certain vocabularly constraints and disambiguation strategies.

    In an NT intro course, use either the HarperCollins Study Bible NRSV or the St. Joseph Study Edition of the NAB. It’s actually fun to have both because then students “discover” translation and annotation differences all on their own when they do their first group activity. (OT, use the JPS and the NRSV! The OT NAB has some real challenges.)

    When teaching an NT intro course, never fail to demonstrate the need to consult multiple translations by doing so yourself. Explain why you’ve selected a certain translation for a certain passage so that students can follow the logic and begin to emulate it.

    In a second round of scripture classwork, students must select and defend their translation choice in their exegetical papers. This usually requires (surprise!) consultation with the teacher, which gives the opportunity to further a student’s socialization into the scholarly world. And I just hate doing that…

    When I teach GD and the situation requires use of an alternative translation, I usually pull up Bibleworks and provide a two-column printout of the AV and the NAB or NRSV. FP letter not withstanding, it takes about ten seconds for folks to figure out that they really, really, want an NAB or an NRSV in their Christmas stocking.

    I also encourage my GD students to read and bring in their modern language versions. Last week we had Russian, German, Dutch, French, and Spanish going. Folks can get very interested in finding the differences and considering the possibilities so raised.

    I provide the link to the NET bible on a regular basis, as well.

    For meditational purposes, you should read whatever gives you that meditational experience. For me, that’s often the AV. What can I say? I grew up with it!

  21. Moggett,

    Good point about foreign languages–it strikes me that there will always be room for non-KJVersions in the English-speaking church as long as there are English-speaking missionaries who go to foreign countries, where they have to confront some of these issues head-on.


    What about the fact that Targums aren’t simply translations, but are overt interpretations? Does this affect the analogy you’re making at all?

  22. “What about the fact that Targums aren’t simply translations, but are overt interpretations? Does this affect the analogy you’re making at all?”

    That plays, somewhat, into part II 😉

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