One of the most important facets of Mormonism that sets us apart from other faiths is that we don’t believe the Bible to be inerrant. We believe that it contains errors. This belief alone causes us to be viewed as unChristian by many evangelicals and other sola scriptura believers who consider any alteration of the Bible to be heretical. Reformists, in breaking with the Roman Catholic church’s authority, placed greater weight on scripture as the sole voice of God (not through the filter of papal authority, but accessible to all believers directly through reading the Bible). For some, if the Bible is fallible, then Christianity has no leg to stand on in proclaiming it has access to God’s truth.

When I was young, I remember thinking of the Joseph Smith Translation as an actual translation, only done through direct revelation rather than research and linguistic analysis the way other Bible scholars try to improve the translation of the bible that we have. Now I’m not so sure that’s what it is. There’s reason to ask what Joseph thought he was doing, what he was actually doing, and how he arrived at his conclusions in making corrections to the text. Since the JST was not finished, we essentially use it as Biblical commentary (although it is seen as authoritative on par with greek translations defined in the commentary); the JST appears alongside other translations, cross-indexing, and topic guide links, to enhance our reading of a passage. It is not a complete re-translation of the Bible, and it uses the flawed King James Version [1] as its starting point.

I’ve recently finished re-reading Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman. He talks a lot about the evolution of Biblical scholarship and his own epiphanies as a former evangelical Christian learning that his views of Biblical inerrancy were uninformed and naive. He describes the struggles among translators throughout the ages to find the best, most “original” sources of the Bible given the process by which books were written, copied, modified, and stored. His book is a great resource for those of us raised on the foundational idea that because the Bible contains errors, we have to rely on more direct sources of revelation.

According to our 8th Article of Faith:

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.

Joseph Smith did not believe the Bible was inerrant. In his words:

“I believe the Bible as it read when it came from the pen of the original writers. Ignorant translators, careless transcribers, or designing and corrupt priests have committed many errors”

Why did he believe it contained errors? Because his own revelations contradicted it at times.

“From sundry revelations which had been received, it was apparent that many points touching the salvation of men, had been taken from the Bible, or lost before it was compiled”

Joseph worked on the JST throughout his lifetime, although the majority of it was done by 1833. He never considered it to be complete, and even worked on it as late as 1844. Had he lived longer, it is likely he would have made more efforts on this work. Philip Barlow in Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-day Saints in American Religion lists the types of changes Joseph Smith made to the text:

  • Long additions that have little or no biblical parallel, such as the visions of Moses & Enoch and the passage on Melchizedek
  • “Common-sense” changes (e.g., Genesis 6:6 “And it repented the Lord that he had made man” is revised in Moses 8:25 to read: “And it repented Noah, and his heart was pained that the Lord had made man”. God, being perfect, needs no repentance.)
  • “Interpretive additions,” often signaled by the phrase “or in other words,” appending to a passage to clarify
  • “Harmonization,” reconciled passages that seemed to conflict with other passages
  • “Not easily classifiable,” frequently the meaning is changed, often idiosyncratically
  • Grammatical improvements, technical clarifications, and modernization of terms (by far the most common within the JST)

 

Image result for misquoting jesusFrom Ehrman’s comprehensive overview, differences and errors in the Biblical texts were a feature of the transmission process, the complex history of the texts themselves:

  • Copies available to later “translators” may not have been the most original or best translations–just what was conveniently available at the time. Better or earlier copies may have become available later through discoveries. Some copies were made from verbal dictation; some by visually looking at a copy and handwriting a new one.
  • Professional scribes were used to transmit texts using a copy. These professionals were educated, but might modify texts to clarify meaning or to contradict emerging heresies. They also made some errors that were simple mistakes: missing a line of text, misreading something in copying it, or mistaking a similar word for what was written. These errors were then copied by later scribes. Scribes also sometimes added marginal notes that were later adopted into the text.
  • The earliest Christian scribes were members of congregations, not professional scribes, who simply knew how to write. In some cases, their “writing” skills meant they could copy the words but not actually understand them.
  • Oral traditions that pre-dated any of the four written gospels. Since the earliest documented gospel was many decades after the death of Christ, that means that these stories were likely passed down through stories shared among believers. Different congregations may have shared the same stories differently or used them for different purposes. Details may have been added or omitted to make a point.

He also characterized many types of changes that were made to the texts that introduced human error by taking the texts further away from their original meaning. Just to list a few:

  • Harmonization. When scribes encountered passages that had conflicting accounts, they tried to minimize differences by removing problematic details. Some attempted to fully merge all 4 gospels into one super-gospel which was not possible since details conflict. However, scholars agree that the more problematic text is likely the more accurate because it’s more likely that a scribe would create an “easier” reading than a “harder” one. Scribes tried to smooth over difficult passages. In fact, the more amateurish the copy, the more likely it is older and closer to the original since scribes add polish to a rough text.
  • Pseudonymous letters. Early Christians would sometimes write letters and attribute them to authority figures (such as the apostle Paul) in order to add weight to their views. Similarly, contemporary Mormons might quote general authorities, even if this means taking something said out of context, in order to make a point; however, pseudonymous writing goes further by attributing a document to someone who didn’t write it. This wasn’t done to deceive intentionally so much as to correct perceived doctrinal errors in specific congregations. It was a standard practice during a time when very few people were literate and authenticating documents was mostly impossible anyway.
  • Apologetics. The letters of Paul are apologetic in that they were written to defend doctrine against heresies that were beginning to occur in some of the branches of the early Christian church. As such, they applied to a very specific context and time.
  • Interpretation of scripture. Some of the New Testament is an interpretation of the Old Testament. Christ’s words are often talking about a scripture known to the Jews and then giving his spin on it; this was a unique feature of Christianity, that Jesus’ interpretations superseded the Jewish texts themselves. Paul continued this tradition of creating scripture by interpreting prior scripture in his letters.

Ultimately, as Ehrman points out, we don’t have any originals. They don’t exist. Even if they did exist, they were still written decades after the events took place or using flawed methods such as Paul giving a ghost writer a rough outline and telling him to fill in the gaps.

Ehrman summarizes how the Bible changed for him as he examined these flaws:

The Bible began to appear to me as a very human book. Just as human scribes had copied, and changed, the texts of scripture, so too had human authors originally written the texts of scripture. This was a human book from beginning to end. It was written by different human authors at different times and in different places to address different needs. Many of these authors no doubt felt they were inspired by God to say what they did, but they had their own perspectives, their own beliefs, their own views, their own needs, their own desires, their own understandings, their own theologies; and these perspectives, beliefs, views, needs, desires, understandings, and theologies informed everything they said.

This takes us back to square one. What is the role of scripture and how does human authority (prophetic, papal or the textual authority) interact with the divine? If any attempt to understand God’s will is always going to be viewed through a flawed human filter, how can we have any confidence in scripture or in doctrine? Joseph Smith’s endeavor doesn’t point to the text as the source of God’s will so much as it points to him as the interpreter of God’s will. And yet, the JST is incomplete and does not point out some of the errors that all Bible scholars agree exist in the Bible–in fact, it doubles down on some errors in attempting to harmonize away troubling passages. It’s ironic that an attempt to eliminate the scribal errors falls prey to the same scribal errors. But maybe that’s the real lesson of the JST, not that he could get to the original, pure meaning, but that he could point to the flaws in the transmission process and create a church of scriptural skeptics who would be more reliant on seeking and less on knowing. [2]

I’ll end with another great quote by Ehrman from the foreword of his book. He talks about his professor of Greek at Wheaton, a Dr. Gerald Hawthorne, who was a committed Evangelical Christian but one with views that initially shocked Ehrman as a student.

He was not afraid of asking questions of his faith. At the time, I took this as a sign of weakness (in fact, I thought I had nearly all the answers to the questions he asked); eventually I saw it as a real commitment to truth and as being willing to open oneself up to the possibility that one’s views need to be revised in light of further knowledge and life experience.

For all his flaws, Joseph was a seeker. But most people struggle to be seekers, to try to determine for themselves the meaning of life or their own purpose or God’s will or what is right and wrong, even in gray situations. Most people prefer to outsource authority to a book like the Bible or an authority figure like a prophet or Pope rather than wrestle with meaning themselves. It’s easy enough to see our own limitations and sometimes easier to defend someone else’s authority (or the authority of the Bible itself) as not possessing the flaws we know our own understanding contains. On the flip side, for some it’s easy to pick apart the flaws of others when they are apparent without trying to do the heavy lifting ourselves; it can be overwhelming to try to sort through the errors of a two-thousand year old book. Joseph could have simply noted the errors and not attempted his own translation. Instead, he picked up a quill and went to work.

Maybe that’s the best any of us can do.

Discuss.

[1] Flawed because it was based on hastily done faulty translations done in the 11th C. Superior copies of the gospels that have subsequently become available illustrate many errors in the KJV.

[2] If he could only see how that turned out.