"Hard questions about the Joseph Smith Translation" formed the theme of Robert L. Millet's presentation at the BYU symposium. He is dean of religious education and professor of ancient scripture at BYU.
Here are some of the questions he addressed with excerpts from his answers:Why did Joseph Smith translate the Bible?
"First and foremost, he was commanded of God to do so. . . . The Prophet referred to this labor as a `branch of
hisT calling' (History of the Church 1:238.)
"Second, the work proved to be an important part of Joseph Smith's spiritual education. The Prophet did not translate the Bible primarily on the basis of what he already knew; he learned great and important truths in the process. He wasn't, as some have suggested, merely `Mormonizing the Bible'; a moment's reflection suggests that there would have been very little Mormon doctrine with which to Mormonize the Bible in June of 1830.
"Third, the work of translation illustrates a concept of revelation that has great relevance for all members of the Church. Revelation often comes line upon line to prophets, just as it does to you and me. The fact that Joseph Smith worked and revised and prepared the manuscripts of the JST from 1830 until the time of his death demonstrates this principle.
"Fourth, it is worth noting that over 50 percent of the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants were received during the time period associated with the formal work of Bible translation. . . . It is important also that we recognize that revelation in the form of biblical revisions was being received at the same time that revelation in the Doctrine and Covenants was being received; the same spirit of inspiration was at work with Joseph the Seer."
Did the Prophet actually finish the work of translation?
"The answer to this question is a clear-cut `Yes and No.' He finished it in the sense that he gave attention to every book in the Old and New Testaments. (He did not make changes in every book, but he did consider them.) He did not finish it in the sense that he made every change or clarification that ever would be made. . . .
"President George Q. Cannon . . . noted: `We have heard Brigham Young state that the Prophet before his death had spoken to him about going through the translation of the scriptures again and perfecting it upon points of doctrine which the Lord had restrained him from giving in plainness and fulness at the time of which we speak .' (Life of Joseph Smith the Prophet, p. 148, note, emphasis added.)
" . . . Elder Bruce R. McConkie has written in Mormon Doctrine: `In many passages all necessary changes were made; in others he was "restrained" by the Spirit from giving the full and clear meaning. As with all revealed knowledge, the Lord was offering new truths to the world, "line upon line, precept upon precept. . . ." Neither the world nor the saints generally were then or are now prepared for the fulness of biblical knowledge.' (p. 348, emphasis added.)"
How do we explain the fact that the Prophet made certain changes in the Bible during the years of translation - between 1830 and 1833 - and then later used the language from the King James Version to make a differing doctrinal point?
"This illustrates the gradual unfolding of truth through the translation; not everything of theological significance came forth through the translation or by 1833, and, perhaps as suggested earlier, the Lord only made known through His latter-day seer what He wanted the Saints to know at the time. This opens the door to the fascinating concept that a passage of scripture may be rendered more ways than one. In short, an alteration need not invalidate the original KJV passage. For example, Mal. 4:5-6 is as true as it can be, even though Moroni's rewording of this scripture adds a doctrinal dimension that is not apparent in the original."
What do we conclude when the JST differs from the same passage in the Book of Mormon, such as in the Sermon on the Mount?
"I cherish the Book of Mormon. . . . But I must add that I am convinced that the JST has clarifications and insights that in some cases even surpass those found in the Book of Mormon (see Bruce R. McConkie, `The Bible: A Sealed Book'; in Doctrines of the Restoration, p. 291).
" . . . I do not know whether the Prophet and his scribe utilized a King James Bible when they translated the Book of Mormon and am not aware of anyone now living who knows for sure. If in fact they did use the Bible, and if and when the Prophet sensed by revelation that the message on the golden or brass plates was sufficiently close to what was had in the KJV, he may have decided to simply go with the translation language most familiar to the people. He obviously did not sit down and copy everything from the Bible, given the hundreds of differences between the passages in the Bible and the Book of Mormon."
What of those times when the changes in the JST do not seem to fit the context, or alter the context, or when they seem to give the text a different flavor entirely? What do we conclude when we find that our most ancient Old and New Testament texts do not reflect the changes from the JST?
"Because we are uncertain as to what change falls into what category - restoration of text, restoration of events or words not previously recorded, prophetic commentary, harmonization of text with other passages - we are not really at liberty to say whether the KJV or the JST is historically correct. . . . I would be very careful about dismissing outright something . . . from the Prophet because it doesn't fit the text or texts or contexts with which we are most familiar and thus most comfortable.
" . . . Is our trust in the traditional texts so certain that we would be willing to dismiss or ignore what Joseph Smith delivered because it strikes a discordant chord with what we have learned elsewhere? Are we absolutely confident that what we now have is what once was, so far as ancient texts and manuscripts are concerned? . . . We must not turn a deaf ear to the warning Elder McConkie issued in 1984:
Those who turn to the original tongues for their doctrinal knowledge have a tendency to rely on scholars rather than prophets for scriptural interpretations. This is perilous; it is a sad thing to be numbered with the wise and the learned who know more than the Lord.' (The Bible, a Sealed Book,' in Doctrines of the Restoration, pp. 284-85.)"
What exactly is the JST and how does it compare with the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants or Pearl of Great Price?
"The JST is one of many sources of divine truth, one of several ways by which the God of heaven has begun His restitution of all things (Acts 3:21) and, more specifically, His restoration of plain and precious truths in these last days. In my mind it holds a place at least as important as the other books of scripture given in our dispensation and is deserving of our ponderous and prayerful attention."