The Joseph Smith Translation and Romans 4:5

Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, claimed to possess the ability to translate miraculously by the gift and power of God. This was the basis for his claim to be a prophet. The Book of Mormon was allegedly translated by Smith from a set of ancient plates which were afterward taken up to heaven. But Joseph Smith also claimed to prophetically translate other documents with his alleged gift, including a new "translation" of the Bible itself! Since the Bible is the most thoroughly studied and accurately transmitted book of 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 Romans 4:5.

Does God Justify the Ungodly?

The verse in question here traditionally reads:

"But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness," (Romans 4:5, KJV).

Joseph Smith made two significant changes to this in his "translation," which are highlighted here in bold:

"But to him that seeketh not to be justified by the law of works, but believeth on him who justifieth not the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness," (Romans 4:5, JST).

While one might argue that the first change was not intended to be strict translation but was simply a paraphrase or commentary meant to clarify the meaning of "him that worketh not," the second change cannot be explained in any such way. The insertion of the word "not" completely reverses the meaning of the text. It is not only different but, in fact, exactly the opposite of what the KJV says. Joseph Smith is thus clearly claiming here that the KJV mistranslated this passage in a crucial way that reverses its meaning entirely. Thus, if Joseph Smith was right, this would be an extremely important insight. If he is wrong, however, it demonstrates that he did not have a supernatural gift of translation and thus was not a prophet. This, therefore, is an important text to examine.

Text, Transmission, and Translation

The New Testament, like any ancient work, was passed on in ancient and medieval times through hand copying. For this reason, it is quite normal to find minor variations in wording between the various manuscripts. Yet, when it comes to Romans 4:5, we find that there are actually no meaningful variants at all! This verse was remarkably well copied and well preserved. Our numerous manuscripts in the original Greek and in the ancient translations (such as the Syriac, Latin, Coptic, Slavonic, Armenian, etc.) all say precisely the same thing. This is useful to know because it means that there is really no room to debate what the original Greek wording was here. We can, therefore, skip that distraction and focus entirely on what the words mean. In other words, this is an especially good place to look if we want to know if Joseph Smith could actually translate from another language (in this case, Greek) into English. The clause here is:

"πιστεύοντι δὲ ἐπὶ τὸν δικαιοῦντα τὸν ἀσεβῆ,"

These are the words that either mean "but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly," or "but believeth on him who justifieth not the ungodly." So what these Greek words actually mean?

πιστεύοντι Believes
δὲ But
ἐπὶ On; Upon
τὸν The
δικαιοῦντα One who justifies
τὸν The
ἀσεβῆ Impious; Lacking reverence or awe toward God; Having contempt for God; Ungodly

The crucial fact here is that, when we look at the clause regarding God justifying the ungodly, there is no word here that means nor implies negation. There is nothing that would entail or could rightly be translated "not" in this phrase. This is why every translator in all of history, regardless of religious perspective, has rendered this verse in essentially the same way. Indeed, the level of agreement among independent translators, even those hostile to one another, demonstrates just how clear this wording is! For example, after Protestants began producing English translations in the 16th century (which would ultimately culminate in the KJV), the Roman Catholic church commissioned there own translation for the express purpose of correcting alleged Protestant "errors" in their Bibles. Roman Catholics do not agree with Protestants on justification by grace alone through faith alone. They consider this to be a Protestant "error." Therefore, if there were any way to read the Greek wording (or even the Latin of the Vulgate) that would have allowed them to avoid this verse saying that God justifies an ungodly person who does not work but believes, they would have certainly done so. Yet, when we look at the translation they produced, it reads: 

"But to him that worketh not, yet believeth in him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is reputed to justice," (Romans 4:5, Douay Rheims).

The verse is essentially the same as the KJV. It could not be otherwise, because that is precisely what the Greek words say. Indeed, long before the Reformation, the Wycliffe Bible of the 1300s read:

"Soothly to him that worketh not, but believeth into him that justifieth a wicked man, his faith is areckoned to rightwiseness," (Romans 4:5, Wycliffe).

Modern scholarship has not reversed this unanimity. We still read:

"But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness," (Romans 4:5, NASB).

And, again, even the Roman Catholic translators of today are forced to agree:

"But when one does not work, yet believes in the one who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness," (Romans 4:5, NABRE).

There is simply no way to read Joseph Smith's "not" into these words, and that's why no translator who was actually looking at Paul's words has ever done so. Even Smith's reinterpreting the simple phrase about the "one who does not work" into the bulkier and more ambiguous phrase about a "law of works" is entirely unhelpful if not misleading and certainly does not qualify as an actual translation of Paul's words. Smith got this passage dreadfully wrong.

Meaning and Context

It is also worth noting that Paul's whole point is that God does graciously justify the ungodly. Perhaps Joseph Smith misread "justify" here in the more modern sense of making excuses for something, as if it was saying that God would simply explain away the sinner's ungodliness. If so, Smith was further demonstrating his lack of divine insight by his gross misreading of the text. But that is not the meaning of "justify" in this context. To "justify" here is a legal declaration whereby the person's faith is accounted to them as righteousness in God's courtroom even though they have no righteous works of their own. Just before our verse, drawing on the example of Abraham, Paul reminds his readers (even in Smith's version) that:

"For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness," (Romans 4:3, JST).

Right afterward he also draws on the example of David, who said:

"Saying, Blessed are they, through faith, whose iniquities are forgiven and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin," (Romans 4:7-8, JST).

The point here is not God's blessing on those who need no forgiveness. The point is God's blessing on those who are marred by sin and in need of covering and who receive it by faith, not by their own works of righteousness or their own "godliness." They are ungodly sinners, but they are blessed because God will not impute their sin to them; He will not hold it to their account. They are justified by God through faith. In this, they are blessed! The next chapter expounds on this even more. Note that here even the JST reverses it's position and acknowledges that God does justify the ungodly! 

"For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth his love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him," (Romans 5:6-9, JST).

Christ died for who? "The ungodly." He died for us "while we were still sinners," in stark contrast to a righteous or good man. And what did this do for ungodly sinners? They are "justified by his blood." Again, who are the ones justified by Christ's blood? The godly? No. The ungodly sinners are justified by His blood.  Joseph Smith's changes to Romans 4 not only destroy the flow of Paul's argument there, they also create a hopeless contradiction between Romans 4 and Romans 5! The whole point of the gospel is that, on account of the sacrifice of Christ, God does justify the ungodly through faith apart from works. Joseph Smith didn't believe Paul's gospel, and so he tried to change Paul's words to bring them in line with his own ideas, but it's hard to change enough words to remove this plain and repeated truth from the book of Romans. Smith's changes introduce only confusion and contradiction. He did not accurately translate Romans 4:5. He had no such gift. He was not a true prophet of God.