What to do with the JST…and the GNT

A lengthy volume, just published, on the Book of Moses has got me thinking about the Joseph Smith Translation again. Going on five years now, I find it difficult to avoid the conclusion that there is no place for the Inspired Version in the study of the ancient world in general, textual criticism of the Bible in particular. If the JST is
to be studied academically, it is within the context of the nineteenth century. Such have been my tortured thoughts.

Of the various types of criticism of the Bible and other ancient literature, textual criticism is the most scientific, the least interpretive, the most elitist. It is the domain of the scholar’s scholar: introductions to many critical editions are written in Latin, even today. Based on available witnesses, through reconstruction of
fragmentary passages, and perhaps with recourse to the occasional emendation, the main objective of this type of criticism is to restore the text to read as it did when it left the author’s hand. Or as close to that as possible. Right?

In English, Romans 5:1 goes something like “Then because we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Other manuscripts read “let us have,” a subjunctive instead of an indicative. The subjunctive occurs in all the major codices, etc., while the indicative was added to them by later scribes. Yet the Greek New Testament committee chose the indicative. Why?

Bruce Metzger explains is his textual commentary. Although the subjunctive “has far better external support,” the GNT committee decided to go with the indicative because “in this passage it appears that Paul is not exhorting but stating facts.” Variation between the two readings amounts orthographically to just one letter, an omega (long ‘o’) in the subjunctive and an omicron (short ‘o’) in the indicative. As he was dictating the epistle, Paul said “we have,” but his secretary, hearing an omega instead of an omicron, wrote “let us have.”

So at Romans 5:1 at least, the GNT does not represent the autograph. It goes beyond the original text to what the author ‘really’ meant/said. Is this at all similar to what Joseph Smith (thought he) was doing? How is it different? And is it a difference simply in degree or rather in kind? Of course, the GNT of Romans 5:1 is actually attested in late antique and medieval manuscripts. But even if it weren’t, I suspect that that the committee would have made the same decision.

To my knowledge, this is the only place in the GNT where the editors do such a thing expressly. Does anyone know of other places? And what of the Hebrew Bible?

23 Replies to “What to do with the JST…and the GNT”

  1. This is a very interesting question. Is JS’s effort to restore the intent of the original, even when it seems to contradict the text itself, just as the professional translators. I think that the answer is probably quite complex, but I would think that it is similar in some respect, and different in others. It is similar, for instance, in that JS I think did try to restore the “original” intentionality of the biblical text. It is different in that I am not sure that he considered it to be a departure from what the “original” text said, as the professional translators acknowledge. Further, the precise nature of the JST I think is still somewhat of a mystery, in the sense that there are many different kinds of changes that he makes, not all of which fall into the same categories.

  2. “Further, the precise nature of the JST I think is still somewhat of a mystery, in the sense that there are many different kinds of changes that he makes, not all of which fall into the same categories.”

    Well put.

    And great post, g.

  3. My first published article in Dialogue dealt with this issue: “The Joseph Smith Translation and Ancient Texts of the Bible.”


    I’ve absorbed a lot of heat for that article. There are professors in BYU Religious Education who still literally *hate* me for suggesting that not all JST revisions reflect restorations of original text. I mean hate with a capital H.

  4. Re 5:

    That sucks. To be honest finding that article was, to me, a literal godsend. Seriously, I read it at just the right time when I’d been doubting if there was any value to the JST (and seriously wondering about the validity of Joseph’s other translations in the PoGP) there was something about the article that just made it an answer to my prayers. I still have concerns about the PoGP, but for me the JST has become something of value again. So the next time anyone gives you flack for that article, just know that there are plenty of other people out there who love you for it just as strongly (sorry for the personal nature of this, but i don’t have your email).

  5. I’ve always felt that looking at the JST as an “inspired paraphrase” is the best way to look at it. I agree that Kevin’s article is excellent, I do wish he would have discussed the idea of the paraphrase a little more outside of the conclusion though. Perhaps it wouldn’t have bothered some of the BYU professors as much if that were the case, though of course that’s only conjecture. It’s too late now!

  6. TT:

    I agree that the nature of the JST is mysterious.

    I would actually reverse the question: Is the GNT committee’s effort to restore the intent of the original, even when it seems to contradict the text itself, just as JS’s?

    I guess what I was trying to say in the post without necessarily saying it is that the biblical scholar, even at his/her most ’scientific,’ can be difficult to distinguish from the p/Prophet.

    Or in other words, there is a lapse in scholarship in the critical edition of the New Testament at Romans 5:1. Metzger’s commentary aside, from the GNT and Nestle-Aland, there is no indiciation that suddenly we are reading Paul’s mind rather than the text.

    That bothers me. Does it bother you? Anyone else?


    I hadn’t seen your article before. Thanks.

    Neither was I aware that the JST sides with Irenaeus, Tertullian, Epistola Apostolorum, sometimes Origen, Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine, as well as the Old Latin, in misreading John 1:13 to be refering to Jesus having been “begottten not of blood nor of carnal will nor of the will of a man but of God.”

    This is fascinating for several reasons.

    I gather from your article that you doubt JS was aware of textual scholarship circa 1830 and/or that much of it would have been accesible to him. On the whole, that may be so. But here I have to wonder. As you mention in your article, not a few modern scholars have argued for the singular reading of John 1:13, despite the fact that all the Greek manuscripts, etc., attest the plural. I wonder how far back this goes in the scholarship.

    If it is coincidental, what could we speculate JS’s motivation to have been for the change?

    As you know, anciently the singular reading looks to have been part of anti-Valentinian polemic. The Greek manuscripts refered to Jesus’ chosen disciples, to whom he gave power to become the children of God via some sort of transcendent (re)birth. Valentinians, and other Christians, like the author of 1 John, claimed to have recieved that power, be the children of God, and have experienced that higher birth. But still other Christians like Tertullian said that the passage refered to the birth of Jesus. They claimed that the manuscripts had been corrupted from singular to plural by these heretics, when in reality it was the ‘proto-orthodox’ who probably corrupted it from plural to singular.

    The KJV reflects what is almost certainly the (most) original reading. Why would JS change it to singular? Why would he not want to see the text refering to a chosen group of disciples with the power to become the children of God through a kind of higher birth?

    Not quite fifty years later, in 1877, the famous theosophist Helena Blavatsky cited the plural in her book Isis Unveiled. Here’s a block quote:

    “From the sons of EL we are descended, and sons of EL must we become again.” And the unequivocal statement of the anonymous Gnostic who wrote The Gospel according to John, that “as many as received Him,” i.e., who followed practically the esoteric doctrine of Jesus, would “become the sons of God,” points to the same belief. (i., 12.) “Know ye not, ye are gods?” exclaimed the Master. Plato describes admirably in Phædrus the state in which man once was, and what he will become again: before, and after the “loss of his wings”; when “he lived among the gods, a god himself in the airy world.” From the remotest periods religious philosophies taught that the whole universe was filled with divine and spiritual beings of divers races. From one of these evolved, in the course of time, ADAM, the primitive man.”

  7. Yeah, g., the statements in my article about Joseph not having access to any textual scholarship were simply an assumption I made at the time. I’ve since learned it’s not a safe assumption, and for a given textual issue you’ve actually got to check contemporary literature. For instance, the angry with his brother without cause one is mentioned in a popular 1830 Bible commentary that Joseph well could have had access to.

    There are some things I would approach differently were I writing it today, and this is a major example.

  8. Welcome, GW, and great post.
    There seems to be greater recognition these days that the JST is indeed more of an inspired commentary than a literal restoration. For example, in the 2004 book “Joseph Smith’s New Translation Of The Bible: Original Manuscripts,” by Faulring/Jackson/Matthews (and published by the BYU Religious Studies Center), an introductory article lists five types of changes the writers perceive in the JST:

    1. Restoration of original text.

    2. Restoration of what was once said or done but which was never in the Bible.

    3. Editing to make the Bible more understandable for modern readers.

    4. Editing to bring biblical wording into harmony with truth found in other revelations or elsewhere in the Bible.

    5. Changes to provide modern readers teachings that were not written by original authors.

    The writers then comment,

    “The changes identified in categories 2 through 5 are not restorations of original text but are wordings that likely had never been in the Bible, had never been written in Hebrew or Greek, and had never been cast in the ancient literary style of Bible writers. The original language of those changes is the English of Joseph Smith.

    “Because some JST passages were perhaps never in the Bible, we would not expect to find evidence for them in ancient manuscripts.” (p11)

    Such comments would seem to suggest a (welcome) shift from earlier interpretations of the JST.

    TT and others, I wonder if you would agree with these 5 categories, or perhaps there are others. Category 5 is pretty broad, of course, so perhaps a bit too catch-all.

  9. For what it’s worth, i’ve long thought the Community of Christ got it right. Instead of referring to the “Joseph Smith Translation”, it’s called the “Inspired Version”—reflecting the idea that it’s not a translation in the usual sense, or even a restoration of the original texts, but rather the result of prophetic insight.

  10. Thanks Secco.

    The Faulring/Jackson/Matthews volume would come in handy right now. Unfortunately, I don’t have access to a copy here among the nations.

    Could you be imposed upon to tell us whether the editors list any passages under these five types of changes, especially types 1 and 2?

  11. GW-15, sorry to hear you can’t find a local copy. I like the one I borrowed from the library enough that I’m considering asking for a copy for Christmas (although I have these vague worries that it will be superseded by a new Joseph Smith Papers project).

    Anyway, the essays up front are quite interesting, not only for the explicit recognition of the categories, but for many other things; to this audience, one of note is the in-print Hostility that Kevin Barney mentioned earlier. For example, p 10 has the comment, “Some have dismissed the JST because its changes are not verified in ancient manuscripts” and references Kevin B’s 1986 Dialogue article as well as Ashment’s chapter in “The Word of God”. That seems like a harsh reading of the Dialogue article given that the opening paragraph says “I think the JST has considerable worth,” and doesn’t seem dismissive to me at all.

    As for explicit examples of each, the essay spends three pages describing the types of changes, but doesn’t provide examples of the first two types. For the third, changes from “wot” to “know” etc., are listed, as well as the change from “a holy kiss” to “a holy salutation.” For the 4th, three examples are given: modifying “No man hath seen God at any time” (John 1:18); revising the donkey misunderstanding in Matthew 21:2-3,7; and the harmonization of accounts of Judas’ death in Matt 27:3-5 & Acts 1:16-19.

    Discussion of type 5 is perhaps the most interesting; they cite Elder McConkie: “speaking of the differences between the early Genesis chapters in the Bible and the JST, [he] said ‘both of them are true.’ He stated that John 1 in the Bible ‘is true’ yet the JST gives it ‘an entirely new perspective.’ ‘These are illustrations of the fact that there can be two translations of the same thing and both of them can be true.'”

    This fits with the way I see the JST: extremely valuable, a treasure, that, as Kevin Barney’s 1986 article puts it, “has considerable worth and merits careful study from the perspectives of both faith and scholarship,” and yet it does not exclude continuing to value and utilize the standard Bible text. Specifically, Joseph Smith seemed to continue to quote from and build doctrine upon the standard KJV text even though the JST had modified it heavily — two examples that come to mind include “wise as serpents” being used in D&C 111 even though the JST Matt 10 got rid of the phrase some five years earlier (“wise Servents” [sic]), and the last verse of Heb 11 being the foundation for vicarious ordinances even though JST Heb 11:40 removes the basis for this. It seems fair to conclude that the JST was not a replacement for the KJV in many situations for Joseph Smith, but added light and knowledge.

  12. Fun to revisit this perennial question and important to remember Kevin’s crucial place in the history of this conversation.
    Kathleen Flake has a great article on JST, as does Phil Barlow.
    I treat the topic in the Church History article on pure language, and Jared Hickman and I have just started a paper treating translation in Joseph Smith’s oeuvre. I personally think that being locked in a RelEd view of JST is dangerous and uninformative.
    and Kevin is absolutely right that we’ve had a silly view of JSJ and his inner circle for years. They were reasonably high IQs, were creative thinkers, and read widely. They had access to a wide variety of textual aids, commentaries, and learned expositions.

  13. as a christian, i prefer the codex to the (sc)roll. still, this is great. thanks, ben s. now if you could locate another methodological slip-up in the gnt, you’d make my day.

  14. Ben @19, it looks like just the introductory chapters, not the actual full texts are online — am I missing the link somehow? The chapters are useful, but the text itself is of course very valuable and isn’t yet online, it appears.

  15. it looks like ‘translations’ are there, in some form. better than nothing but still not like the real thing. also a pastiche of quotes in “joseph smith’s commentary on the bible.”

    i have never noticed this byu site before. does anyone have any info on when and by whom it was put together?

    pretty awesome to see the following on the home page, taken directly from the book:

    “The problem [with the bible] today lies not in our inability to translate ancient languages but in the absences of original or other adequate manuscripts.”

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