by Luke Wayne
A central claim in Mormon history and doctrine is the assertion that Joseph Smith was able to translate ancient documents into English by the gift and power of God. The claim that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon from inscriptions on a set of ancient plates is literally at the heart of Mormonism. The religion is utterly dependant on the claim that Joseph Smith had a prophetic gift of divine translation.
On the one hand, one can see that this is false by simply examining the contents of the Book of Mormon itself (see, for example, HERE, HERE, and HERE, just for starters). However, we can also examine it from the other side by looking at Joseph Smith's alleged ability to translate. While there are no actual golden plates for us to examine, Joseph Smith also claimed to use his prophetic gift to produce a supernatural translation of one of the most studied and translated books of all time: the Bible itself! Since we have immediate access to what the Bible actually says in its original languages, this claim is easily testable. Did Joseph's supposed power from God actually allow him to translate accurately from ancient Greek and Hebrew? No. Not even close. Smith's attempt to translate the Bible through his so-called prophetic gift definitively proves that he did not actually have a prophetic gift, which also proves that the Book of Mormon and the religion Smith founded are fraudulent.
To take one clear example, let's look at how Smith translated John 1:1
And the Word Was...
One of the most familiar passages in many conservative Christian circles today is the prologue of John's gospel, especially John 1:1-18. This powerful testimony to who Jesus is and why He came opens with the words:
"Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος," (John 1:1).
Though most English-speaking Christians cannot personally read this, there is actually nothing mysterious at all about these words. They are all quite common Greek terms. Anyone who can read ancient Greek knows what each of these words means and how they grammatically fit together into this sentence. Indeed, while in many verses scholars will vary in their precise wording between their translations, the meaning of this particular verse is so exact that there is almost no variation at all here! It says:
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God," (John 1:1).
We can actually be quite sure that this is what the Greek sentence means. Virtually every major translation over the entire four-hundred-year history of modern English translations has read this way, word-for-word. William Tyndale translated the New Testament into English in the 1520s, and this is how the verse read. He was executed by the British crown for his translation. Yet, when the British Crown produced their own translations (such as the Great Bible, the Bishop's Bible, and finally the KJV), their Bibles read the exact same way in this verse. The Roman Catholics of the day aggressively objected to these Protestant Bible translations (and to the Greek New Testament texts from which they were translated), yet when they produced their own Bible translation primarily from the Latin Vulgate rather than the Greek (i.e., the first edition of the Douay Rheims Bible), their translators came up with literally the exact same wording for John 1:1. So too with more recent translations. Different publishing houses representing different theological perspectives and relying on different Greek manuscripts than their earlier counterparts can't help but come up with the very same wording for this verse. They can't get around it. It's simply what the words mean!
Even the handful of exceptions actually prove the point! Back in the 14th century, during the "middle English" period before even the early-modern form of our language found in the KJV, the John Wycliffe translation rendered this verse:
"In the beginning was the word, and the word was at God, and God was the word," (John 1:1, Wycliffe Translation).
The English here was a bit rough and the translation overly wooden even in its own day and is certainly difficult in ours, but it is saying precisely the same thing! A couple of other major translations differ in very tiny ways. The Geneva Bible says "that word" rather than "the word," and the New English Translation (NET) says that the Word was "fully God" rather than just "God," but this proves only that they are independent translations and not slavishly following what was written before them. The meaning is the same. They only further prove that we indeed know exactly what these words mean. Indeed, even the "New World Translation," the highly sectarian and willfully modified Bible of the Jehovah's Witnesses, translates this verse exactly like other translations except in the final word, where they change "God" to "a god" simply to avoid the verse's implications about who Jesus really is. Their translation is incorrect here, but even it betrays the fact that we know what these all these words mean. The JWs mistranslation is still an acknowledgment that the word "theos" is the Greek word for God/god. Again, we know what the words are. We know what they mean. The point is, this is a verse about which we can be fully and completely sure what it says and how best to translate it.
So, how did Joseph Smith handle such a clear and precise verse? He rendered it as:
"In the beginning was the gospel preached through the Son. And the gospel was the Word. And the Word was with the Son, and the Son was with God, and the Son was of God," (John 1:1, Joseph Smith Translation).
In doing so, he not only added in numerous words that are not in the Greek, but he also completely altered the meaning of the verse. There is nothing in the actual Greek text about the gospel, nothing about preaching, no word for "son," no reference to anything being "of God," and the verse is no longer about Jesus Himself but rather about the message He preached. This not only isn't a good translation, it isn't even a translation at all! It is a completely different set of sentences that is entirely alien to the New Testament. Joseph Smith did not have the power to supernaturally translate ancient Greek, and so his "translation," while creative, is not what John 1:1 actually says. Not even close.
But has it changed?
A typical Mormon response is to say that Joseph Smith was right, but that all the Greek texts (and all ancient translations in Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, Slavonic, Ethiopic, etc.) were all changed and corrupted. Thus, they claim, Joseph Smith is actually restoring the lost words of what John really said. Yet, when we look at the evidence, such a conspiracy theory turns out to be rather impossible.
First of all, we not only have vast and widespread manuscript evidence from all over the ancient world both in the original Greek and in many ancient translations, we also have astonishingly early manuscript evidence! The verse appears in very ancient copies like P66 and P75, both of which date back as early as the late second century! Considering that John was probably written in the 90s AD, we're talking maybe 100 years between the writing of the gospel and our earliest copies of it. Considering how long books often lasted and remained in use in the ancient Roman era, the original was very plausibly still around at that time. But that's not all! We also have other surviving Christian documents from all over the known world where the verse was being frequently quoted. We find John 1:1, worded precisely the same way it is today, quoted throughout the second-century by people like Irenaeus of Lyons (western Europe)1 Theophilus of Antioch (Syrian Antioch, modern-day Turkey)2 Clement of Alexandria (Egypt)3 and many others. Thus, every copy of John being quoted all across Europe, Asia, and Africa even in the earliest years of Christianity all read the same way as our Bible's do today.
It's also noteworthy that people agreed on this wording for John 1:1 across all theological perspectives. Tertullian (a Latin writer in Carthage, North Africa) joined the Montanists, a prophetic sect rejected by the mainstream churches. Yet, his copy of John still read exactly the same way.4 Hippolytus was part of a rival church in Rome that had broken with the recognized Bishop of Rome, yet his Bible likewise contained the very same wording for John 1:1.5 Even the Valentinian Gnostic heretics in the second century cited the verse the very same way.6 Thus, this was not a reading imposed by one particular church or leader. Everyone who had a copy of John, whether within the orthodox Christian churches or outside of them, all had the same reading since the earliest days of the church! And they don't merely quote the verse, they all build arguments on the verse that clearly depend on the same precise wording, the wording we have today!
Many other early writers, while not directly quoting the verse, make it clear that they possessed the verse in its current form. Ignatius of Antioch, for example, writing maybe ten years after John wrote his gospel, said:
"On this account also they were persecuted, being inspired by His grace to fully convince the unbelieving that there is one God, who has manifested Himself by Jesus Christ His Son, who is His eternal Word, not proceeding forth from silence, and who in all things pleased Him that sent Him," (Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Magnesians, Chapter 8).
Writing as close to the time of John as one could possibly imagine, and in fact a close friend and associate of John's disciple Polycarp, Ignatius echos John's testimony that Jesus Himself is the eternal Word. The Word is not the gospel preached by the Son. The Word is Jesus, just as John 1:1 tells us still today. Likewise, only a decade or two after that, the ancient "Epistle to Diognetus" expounds:
"God Himself, who is almighty, the Creator of all things, and invisible, has sent from heaven, and placed among men, Him who is the truth, and the holy and incomprehensible Word, and has firmly established Him in their hearts. He did not, as one might have imagined, send to men any servant, or angel, or ruler, or any one of those who bear sway over earthly things, or one of those to whom the government of things in the heavens has been entrusted, but the very Creator and Fashioner of all things—by whom He made the heavens—by whom he enclosed the sea within its proper bounds—whose ordinances all the stars faithfully observe—from whom the sun has received the measure of his daily course to be observed— whom the moon obeys, being commanded to shine in the night, and whom the stars also obey, following the moon in her course; by whom all things have been arranged, and placed within their proper limits, and to whom all are subject—the heavens and the things that are therein, the earth and the things that are therein, the sea and the things that are therein—fire, air, and the abyss—the things which are in the heights, the things which are in the depths, and the things which lie between. This messenger He sent to them," (Epistle to Diognetus, Chapter 7).
The one sent is the Word, the creator, the one who made and sustains heaven and earth. The Word was sent by God and is God. The author of this letter is obviously expanding on John 1:1, and not the John 1:1 that Joseph Smith imagined! To give just one more instance, Athenagoras of Athens wrote:
"But the Son of God is the Word of the Father, in idea and in operation; for after by Him and through Him were all things made, the Father and the Son being one," (Athenagoras, A plea for the Christians, Chapter 10).
Such examples could be multiplied, but these are enough to demonstrate that the reading we have today was the universal version of the text from the very time that John wrote it on forward. The reading has witnesses right from the start, was cited by orthodox Christians, heterodox Christians, and even outright heretics across three continents within the first century of the text's existence. It is found in all of our manuscripts (some of them shockingly early) and is likewise found in every ancient translation in a wide variety of African, Asian, and European languages throughout and beyond the Roman Empire. There is simply no place for a conspiracy here. The text always said this. Joseph Smith was wrong.
Yet there is still more evidence to back up the wording we find in all our manuscripts today. John's gospel, as it has existed throughout church history, uses the term "Word" in a way that would have been especially meaningful to Jews of John's day. It fits the time period and culture extraordinarily well in a way that Joseph Smith's version does not.
The term "the Word" had come to take on special meaning to the Jews of the Roman era. For example, throughout the Aramaic translations of the Old Testament (known as the Targums), God's activity whenever manifesting Himself to or interacting with men (or in creation in general) is often described in terms of God's "Word" (or Memra). In a Targum of Genesis 28:20-21, for example, instead of vowing that the Lord will be his God, Jacob vows that the Word of the Lord will be his God.7 In the Targum of Genesis 9:12, instead of a covenant between God and Noah, a covenant is made between God's Word and Noah.8 In places like Exodus 20:1, the Targums even have "the Word" speaking words of His own,9 and one late Targum of Deuteronomy 4:7 describes the Word sitting on His throne and receiving the prayers of the people.10 The Word was not a message or a declaration; it was a way of referring to God's personal presence!
Similarly, the first-century Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, also relied heavily on the language of "the Word" to explain God's interactions with His creation.11 "The Word" was, again, personal and in some sense God Himself manifest. The Word was not the gospel message, but rather the personal and active presence of the creator God made manifest.
Even in Samaritan tradition, this same language appears, albeit we admittedly don't have documentation of it in their community until later. In the apocryphal "Samaritan Joshua," the story of Balaam is retold and expanded. When Balaam asks God if he should go and curse Israel, the text explains:
"God then desired to make a manifestation of His mysteries: now behold He could not do this Himself, nor could He do it through one who worshiped after the manner of the children of Israel, nor could He do it in writing, nor by the agency of any of His angels, but only by sending unto him His very Command. And the companion of Balaam, upon beholding the specter of the Command of God, fled away." Robert T. Anderson and Terry Giles, "Tradition Kept: The Literature of the Samaritans" (Hendrickson Publishers, 2005) 72
God sends His "command," who is not a prophet, a message, a writing, or even an angelic being, but something much higher and loftier than that. The "Command" then appears in visible form, and people flee at the sight. The "Command" goes on to have a personal conversation with Balaam. Thus, through these in other sources, we see that the language found in the traditional reading of John 1:1 actually fits perfectly into the Jewish culture of the day in a way that later gentile scribes or Christian translators would not have known. It makes no sense to think that this wording was a later corruption. It is, instead, exactly what we would expect an early Jewish disciple of Jesus like John himself to write.
Joseph Smith Versus Joseph Smith
Finally, it should be noted that Joseph Smith's changes to John 1:1 actually contradict changes he made elsewhere in the same chapter! In Smith's version of 1:1, "the word" is the gospel which was preached by the Son. The word is not the Son. The word is not God. The word is not a person at all. The word is a message proclaimed by Jesus, not Jesus Himself. Yet, later on, we read:
"And the same Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. John bare witness of him, and cried, This is he of whom I spake, He who commeth after me is preferred before me: for he was before me. For in the beginning was the Word, even the Son, who is made flesh, and sent unto us by the will of the Father," (John 1:14-15, Joseph Smith Translation).
Even Joseph Smith's own changes and additions here speak of the Word as personally being Jesus, the Son, rather than being the gospel. Thus, even Joseph Smith testifies that Joseph Smith got John 1:1 completely wrong.
From this especially clear and well-attested text, we easily conclude that Joseph Smith did not have the miraculous power to translate. He may have believed he was translating the Bible accurately, but he was not. He may have believed he had translated an ancient book called the Book of Mormon, but he had not. Whatever his personal beliefs or motives may have been, in reality, he did not have the prophetic insights, gifts, or powers he claimed to have. And since these claims are the entire basis of his claim to be a prophet, the plain and obvious conclusion is that Joseph Smith is not a true prophet and the religion he founded is not a true church.
- 1. See, for example, Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 11 and Book 5, Chapter 18
- 2. See, for example, Theophilus of Antioch, To Autolycus, Book 2, Chapter 22
- 3. See, for example, Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book 1, Chapter 8 and Exhortation to the Heathen, Chapter 1
- 4. See, for example, Tertullian, Against Hermogenes, Chapter 20 and Against Praxeas, Chapter 7
- 5. For example, see Hippolytus of Rome, "Against the Heresy of one Noetus" section 14
- 6. Their words are preserved in Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 1, Chapter 8
- 7. Michael L. Brown, "Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus - Volume 2: Theological Objections" (Baker Books, 2000) 21
- 8. Ibid, 19
- 9. Ibid, 20
- 10. Ibid, 21
- 11. Ibid, 21-22