The Joseph Smith Translation and Hebrews 6:1

by Luke Wayne
11/13/2019

Most people know that Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, claimed to miraculously translate the Book of Mormon from a set of ancient plates which were afterward taken up to heaven. What some may not know is that Joseph Smith also claimed to prophetically translate other documents by the gift and power of God, including a new "translation" of the Bible itself! Since the Bible is the most thoroughly studied and accurately transmitted book from antiquity in all of human history, and since the languages in which the Bible was written are so widely known, this provides the perfect opportunity to evaluate Joseph Smith's claims. Was he really able to accurately translate the Bible? When we examine his work, the clear answer is no, he could not. One good sample verse is in Hebrew 6:1.

Leaving or Not Leaving

If we were to open the old KJV and read the verse the way Joseph Smith would have read it in English Bibles of his own day, it would say:

"Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God," (Hebrews 6:1, KJV).

In Joseph Smith's translation, he added a single word which reversed the meaning of the first clause:

"Therefore not leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God," (Hebrews 6:1, JST).

Thus, we see that this is not a simple difference in wording while saying the same basic thing, nor can it be explained as merely a commentary or a paraphrase to clarify the meaning. The change completely reverses the meaning. Joseph Smith was claiming that the KJV not only mistranslated the verse, but mistranslated it in a way that made it mean exactly the opposite of what the text really says. Obviously, only one of these translations can be right. So which is it?

Text, Transmission, and Translation

Since any text from the ancient world that has survived down to today has done so through hand copying, it is quite normal to find at least some minor variation in wording between one manuscript and another. But when it comes to Hebrews 6:1, the verse is shockingly stable. There are actually no textual variants at all for the clause we are examining. Every single copy reads exactly the same here, and every single ancient translation reflects that same stability. Thus, this is a verse for which we can be quite sure that we know exactly, word for word, what the Greek text of the original said! That makes this an especially good test case for Joseph Smith as a translator because it allows us to focus on the meaning of the Greek words without any room for quibbling over what the wording should be. We know that this clause, in the Greek, is:

"Διὸ ἀφέντες τὸν τῆς ἀρχῆς τοῦ Χριστοῦ λόγον..."

So, now we need only ask: does this say "Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ" or "Therefore not leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ"? Joseph Smith's claim to be able to translate supernaturally (and thus, his claim to be a prophet) depends on the latter being the correct translation. So, what do these words mean?

Διὸ Therefore
ἀφέντες Letting go (by extension: leaving or moving beyond)
τὸν The
τῆς The
ἀρχῆς Beginning (by extension: elementary or fundamental things, principles)
τοῦ The
Χριστοῦ Of Christ
λόγον Word (by extension: discourse, teaching, doctrine)

As you can see, there is no word here that means nor implies negation. There is nothing here that would entail "not" in this passage. This is why every translator in all of history since the book of Hebrews was written until now, regardless of religious perspective, has rendered this verse in a manner that agrees with the KJV here. The wording may be slightly different, such as the NASB's:

"Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God," (Hebrews 6:1, NASB).

But the meaning is precisely the same, and there is plainly no concept of "not." The data is not ambiguous here. We can be quite certain of what this verse says and that Joseph Smith got it wrong. A closer examination of the meaning and context of the verse makes it clear just why he got it wrong and further demonstrates that he was acting as a mere man who misunderstood the verse and not as an inspired prophet working under the gifting and power of God.

Meaning and Context

Despite the overwhelming, unanimous evidence that Smith got this wrong, I have had Mormons defend the JST reading here on the grounds that the original New Testament author could not possibly have meant what the KJV says. Does the New Testament really promote the idea of "leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ"? Is that honestly something we are supposed to do? There obviously must have been a "not" there! Leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ is clearly not a good thing, right? This is almost certainly the thinking that led Joseph Smith to add the "not" into the passage in the first place. He read these words the same way that his modern Mormon defenders do, and they are all missing the point!

The way we use words and compose sentences changes over time. The older English of the KJV can sometimes create problems for later readers without them even realizing it. This is one of those cases. The word "principles" here, for example, is being used in the sense of  "fundamentals." It is taking about the basics, the elementary concepts for beginners. When the KJV encourages its readers in Hebrews 6 in "leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ," it is talking about moving beyond the mere basics to grow into full maturity! Note how later translators render this into modern English:

"Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God," (Hebrews 6:1, NKJV).

"Therefore let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God," (Hebrews 6:1, NIV).

"Therefore we must progress beyond the elementary instructions about Christ and move on to maturity, not laying this foundation again: repentance from dead works and faith in God," (Hebrews 6:1, NET).

Even in older English translations, the word "leaving" in Hebrews 6:1 is sometimes rendered as "intermitting,"1 a word that implies temporarily setting aside the discussion for a specific purpose. The verse is not talking about abandoning the elementary doctrines, but it is talking about growing beyond the mere basics into deeper things so as to grow into full doctrinal maturity. That this is what the author of Hebrews meant is abundantly clear by simply reading the whole context, starting at the end of chapter 5:

"Concerning him we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil. Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of instruction about washings and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment," (Hebrews 5:11-6:1-2).

The entire point is that the readers needed to grow up and move beyond the basics. They were babies still on milk who should be eating solid food by now. They needed deeper, more mature instruction on matters beyond the most elementary principles, and this is what the author intended to give them. Once we actually read the whole passage, we realize that the problem Joseph Smith was trying to fix with his "not" doesn't actually exist. Reading an old translation and failing to follow the author's train of thought, Smith had totally misunderstood the verse. In trying to "correct" it, he actually undid the author's real point! Such an error would at least be understandable were the man not claiming to be translating miraculously by the gift and power of God! Joseph Smith had no such gift. His translation is not accurate and adds nothing to anyone's understanding of God's inspired word. Indeed, it alters the meaning of passages in ways that obscure, remove, or even reverse the original author's true meaning. Smith's claims to divinely translate ancient texts are false, and thus he was not a prophet of God.

 

 

  • 1. See, for example, the 1582 Douay Rheims New Testament