by Luke Wayne
Joseph Smith, the founding "prophet" of Mormonism, allegedly possessed the miraculous ability to translate texts by the gift and power of God. While most people know that Smith supposedly did this to produce distinctly LDS texts like the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham, fewer are aware that Smith also claimed to supernaturally translate the Bible itself. Since the Bible is the most well preserved and thoroughly studied book in all of ancient literature and its languages (Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic) are very well known even today, we can easily test Joseph Smith's alleged miraculous abilities by evaluating his version of the Bible. When we do so, it becomes abundantly clear that Smith did not have any supernatural gift of translation or even any natural aptitude for it. Smith's "translation" of the Bible is no translation at all. (For just a few examples of this, see our articles HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE).
To avoid the implications of this, many Mormons argue that Joseph Smith never finished his translation, and so we are in no position to judge it accurately. If Smith had only been able to complete it, later work he might have done may have fixed any problems we think we see in it. This argument fails on two fronts. First of all, even if it were true that Smith still planned to change additional portions of the Bible, it would not eliminate the fact that the changes he already did make were demonstrably wrong. Short of just repudiating everything he had already done (which would obviously not help the Mormon's case here), nothing Smith might have gone on to do would change the erroneous nature of the work he had already completed. Thus, even if it were true that Smith had not finished his alleged translation, what he did complete would still be more than sufficient to show that he was not actually able to translate. Yet, when we look at early Mormon sources and even authoritative Mormon Scripture, it is clear that Smith did, in fact, finish his supposedly "inspired" version of the Bible. The Mormon defense is not only irrelevant, it is also untrue.
Joseph Smith and the JST
Official Mormon Scriptures do not tell us exactly when work on the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible (JST) began, but according to George Q. Cannon, Smith's effort to translate the Bible began in Dec. 1830, shortly after Sydney Rigdon joined the Mormon church, though the work was interrupted by both opposition and the decision to move to Kirtland, OH.1 Cannon was an early convert to Mormonism who became an Apostle under Brigham Young and eventually served as First Counselor to Young and several subsequent Mormon prophets. At any rate, his account fits well with the timing of the first mention of Smith's translation found in the collection of Mormon scripture known as the "Doctrine and Covenants" (D&C). On February 9, 1831, God allegedly spoke to Smith in Kirtland, OH, saying:
"Thou shalt ask, and my scriptures shall be given as I have appointed, and they shall be preserved in safety; And it is expedient that thou shouldst hold thy peace concerning them, and not teach them until ye have received them in full. And I give unto you a commandment that then ye shall teach them unto all men; for they shall be taught unto all nations, kindreds, tongues and people," (D&C 42:56-58).
That this passage is, indeed, referring to the JST is confirmed by later LDS leadership, such as Apostle Bruce R. McConkie.2 So, we learn upfront that Joseph Smith was not to teach from his new translation of the Bible at all until it was entirely completed. At that time, he was commanded to teach them to all nations. These details will be important later on. Less than a month later, God is supposed to have spoken to Smith again, saying:
"And now, behold, I say unto you, it shall not be given unto you to know any further concerning this chapter, until the New Testament be translated, and in it all these things shall be made known; Wherefore I give unto you that ye may now translate it, that ye may be prepared for the things to come," (D&C 45:60-61)
In context, the "chapter" in question is the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24.3 The point here is that Joseph Smith would not learn any more about this chapter until he translated the New Testament. God Himself supposedly told Smith that it was "given to him" to translate the New Testament and, indeed, it needed to be translated in preparation for things to come. The effort was still ongoing throughout that year. George Q. Cannon again describes Smith continuing "his work of translating the Bible, Sidney Rigdon writing at his dictation" during October and November of 1831.4 Shortly thereafter, we read in a so-called revelation from January 10, 1832:
"Now, verily I say unto you my servants, Joseph Smith, Jun., and Sidney Rigdon, saith the Lord, it is expedient to translate again; And, inasmuch as it is practicable, to preach in the regions round about until conference; and after that it is expedient to continue the work of translation until it be finished," (D&C 73:4-5).
So, according to the D&C, God told Joseph to continue the work until it was finished. According to Cannon, Smith was supernaturally sustained in the effort. He states that in November of 1832, "To one not divinely sustained the burden of work now laid upon Joseph would have been oppressive. The little time he could snatch from the labors of the ministry was devoted to diligent labor upon the translation of the Bible."5 Then, according to the words of Joseph Smith himself as preserved in "History of the Church," we read:
"I completed the translation and review of the New Testament, on the 2nd of February, 1833 and sealed it up no more to be opened till it arrived in Zion," (History of the Church, Volume 1, pg 324).
Though Joseph Smith himself clearly said here that the New Testament was completed, denial about the plain meaning of these words began very early in Mormon history. Commenting on the above passage from Smith, George Q. Cannon states:
"On the second day of February, 1833, the Prophet completed, for the time being, his inspired translation of the New Testament. No endeavor was made at that time to print the work. It was sealed up with the expectation that it would be brought forth at a later day with other of the scriptures. Joseph did not live to give to the world an authoritative publication of these translations. But the labor was its own reward, bringing in the performance a special blessing of broadened comprehension to the Prophet and a general blessing of enlightenment to the people through his subsequent teachings."6
He then adds in a footnote:
"We have heard President 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 fullness at the time of which we write."
Thus, at least Cannon and seemingly also Brigham Young himself (if Cannon's testimony is to be believed) denied that Joseph Smith actually finished the New Testament when he said he did. Instead, Cannon reframes Smith's words to mean it was finished "for the time being." This not only strains the meaning of Smith's own words, it also awkwardly places Smith in direct disobedience to God's alleged charge that Smith should continue the work until it is completed. But, at any rate, Cannon's assertion is refuted by simply continuing on in the sources. On March 6, 1833, Smith is supposed to have received another revelation in which God said:
"And, verily I say unto you, that it is my will that you should hasten to translate my scriptures, and to obtain a knowledge of history, and of countries, and of kingdoms, of laws of God and man, and all this for the salvation of Zion. Amen," (D&C, 93:53).
According to D&C, God wanted the entire Bible finished, and quickly! The Old Testament was still to be completed, and it was supposedly God's will that Smith hasten to do so. Just a few months later, Joseph Smith wrote in a letter on July 2, 1833, that:
"We are exceedingly fatigued, owing to a great press of business. We this day finished the translating of the Scriptures, for which we returned gratitude to our Heavenly Father, and sat immediately down to answer your letters." (History of the Church, Volume 1, pg 368)
Thus, Smith himself claims to have finished not just the New Testament but the whole Bible. That "God" also considered the translation to be fully completed and ready for printing is evident in a so-called revelation from exactly one month later to the day (August 2, 1833):
"And again, verily I say unto you, the second lot on the south shall be dedicated unto me for the building of a house unto me, for the work of the printing of the translation of my scriptures, and all things whatsoever I shall command you," (D&C 94:10).
So, we have Smith's own words that in 1833 he completed first the New Testament and then the entire Bible. We then have a "revelation" to set aside space to print this translation. It could not get much clearer that the Joseph Smith Translation was entirely finished, could it? Yet, there is still even more to consider. On January 19, 1841, Joseph Smith allegedly received a revelation, the relevant portion here regarding a man named William Law, stating:
"If he will do my will let him from henceforth hearken to the counsel of my servant Joseph, and with his interest support the cause of the poor, and publish the new translation of my holy word unto the inhabitants of the earth," (D&C 124:89)
Law was commanded to, among other things, "publish the new translation of my holy word unto the inhabitants of the earth." Whether Law actually went on to do so is not relevant. God told him to do so. Now, remember, we noted above that D&C 42:56-58 explicitly commanded that the JST would not be publically taught until it was completed, but then afterward God would command for it to be published to all nations. And here in D&C 124:89, God is commanding that it be published to all nations. As with our other evidence, the only consistent way to read these "revelations" is to say that Joseph Smith entirely finished his "translation" of the Bible.
And again, we must remember the fact that Smith was commanded to "continue the work of translation until it be finished" and to "hasten to translate my scriptures." The Mormon cannot say that persecution or disruptions left Smith no way to accomplish what God had commanded, as the Book of Mormon itself says:
"And it came to pass that I, Nephi, said unto my father: I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them," (1 Nephi 3:7).
Thus even if the D&C, along with Smith himself and other Mormon authorities, did not make it abundantly clear that Smith did finish the JST, the Mormon would still have to conclude either that Smith did complete it or that Smith was in sin for not completing it. Nevertheless, the sources are abundantly clear. The JST is exactly as Smith intended it to be, and we can rightly evaluate him based on its contents.
Joseph Smith completed the JST. Even if he had not done so, it would still be entirely fair to utilize the portions he did complete to evaluate his ability as a translator. Yet, since he did finish it, the Mormon red herring about the JST's unfinished nature falls away and proves to be little more than embarrassment about the JST's obvious and inexcusable errors. Joseph Smith could not miraculously translate the Bible. He did not have a prophetic ability to translate ancient texts, which means he did not translate any other books either, not even the Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith is not a prophet, and the Mormon church is false.
- 1. George Q. Cannon, The Life of Joseph Smith, The Prophet (Juvenile Instructor Office, 1888) 83
- 2. Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine (Bookcraft, 1966) 383
- 3. Confirming this, George Q. Cannon states in The Life of Joseph Smith, pg 111, regarding this section in the D&C: "A rehearsal is then given of instructions and predictions which He gave to His disciples, similar, but in greater fullness to those recorded in the 24th chapter of Matthew in the New Testament."
- 4. Cannon, Life Of Joseph Smith, 124
- 5. Cannon, Life of Joseph Smith, 139
- 6. Cannon, Life of Joseph Smith, 147-148