Learning to Love
Doctrine and Covenants

Joseph Smith’s Inspired Revision of the Bible — The JST By Michael J. Preece

Joseph Smith’s Inspired Revision of the Bible — The JST

During his translation of the Book of Mormon, Joseph learned that the theological darkness and spiritual stumblings of the Christian world in the latter days were due in large measure to a wilful tampering with some of the earliest Bible texts—that “many plain and precious things” had been “taken away” or “kept back” by designing individuals in the periods incident to and following the original compilations of the Old and New Testaments (1 Nephi 13:23-34). “From what we can draw from the scriptures relative to the teaching of heaven,” Joseph observed in 1834, “we are induced to think that much instruction has been given to man since the beginning which we do not possess now” (HC, 2:18). More specifically, “From sundry revelations which had been received, it was apparent that many important points touching the salvation of men, had been taken from the Bible, or lost before it was compiled” (HC, 1:245).

Though we do not have in our possession a specific revelation instructing Joseph Smith to begin a careful study of the Bible, yet we do have numerous statements by the Prophet Joseph and the Lord indicating its value and overall import. Joseph and his scribes acknowledged that this specific assignment was a sacred mission appointed unto him (see D&C 76:15). Joseph was obviously receptive when the Lord commanded him to begin to “translate” or revise the Bible, by revelation (see D&C 37:1; 41:7; 45:60­61; 73:3; and 93:53).

At the time of Joseph Smith, Bible revisions were “in the air.” Religious revivalism reached a peak in the New York area in the early nineteenth century, and with it came a heightened awareness of the need for the Bible as a divine standard for living. In fact, New England was not the only section of the country that manifested an intense interest at this time in a study and scrutiny of the Bible. From 1777 to 1833 more than 500 separate editions of the Bible (or parts thereof) were published in America (see Margaret T. Hills, The English Bible in America [New York: The American Bible Society, 1961]; cited in Robert J. Matthews, A Plainer Translation: Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible, A History and Commentary [Provo, Utah: BYU Press, 1975], 9. Brother Matthews’s work is the definitive treatment of the background and significance of the JST). Many of these represented new or “modern” translations, often with an attempt to prepare paraphrased editions or alternate readings based upon comparisons with Hebrew and Greek manuscripts.

One example of these new translations was one by Alexander Campbell, the founder of the “Campbellites” or “Disciples of Christ.” He wrote his own revised version of the Bible. Alexander Campbell was the spiritual mentor of Sydney Rigdon who became a Campbellite minister. These facts led to speculation among some of those critical of the Church that perhaps Sidney Rigdon, not Joseph Smith, was primarily responsible for the creation of the inspired revision of the Bible. We know this is not true. For one thing, Joseph started work on the revision in Harmony, Pennsylvania, in June 1830, some six months before Joseph even met Sidney Rigdon. Sidney wasn’t converted until November 1830 and didn’t come to Fayette to meet the Prophet until as late as December 1830. By the time Sidney arrived in Fayette, Joseph had already translated all of the material that would one day become the Book of Moses.

Joseph Smith’s translation of the scriptures was highly unusual, however. Joseph had no background or training in ancient languages until later in life, when he did study Hebrew with a number of the leaders of the Church. Nor did he work with manuscripts written in the biblical languages in undertaking his study. What, then, was the nature of his “translation,” and how was it accomplished? Apparently the prophet Joseph began a careful reading and study of the King James Bible in June of 1830. He acted under divine direction according to his appointment as “a seer, a revelator, a translator, and a prophet, having all the gifts of God which he bestows upon the head of the church” (D&C 107:92). He sought to harmonize himself with the Spirit of God, as well as the mind and will of the ancient writers, so as to convey (as nearly as possible) not only that which was written, but also that which was intended.

The reader should understand clearly that Joseph Smith and the Lord himself viewed this “branch of his [Joseph’s] calling”—his work as Bible translator—as a key element in the grand restoration of the gospel. The translation of the Bible was not a gospel hobby, a parlor game, or a prophetic whim. Joseph’s work with the Bible was undertaken and received as a labor and a product of profound gravity. In the words of the Lord, Joseph was called “to do a great work and hath need that he may do the work of translation for the salvation of souls” (from a revelation to Frederick G. Williams, January 5, 1834 in Joseph Smith Collection, Letters, 1834, Church Historian’s Office, Salt Lake City).

One day in 1829, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery entered E. B. Grandin’s Book Store in Palmyra, and Joseph purchased a large pulpit-style edition of the Bible, a King James Version, weighing about five pounds for $3.75. This is the Bible he used for the “translation” process.

Neither the Prophet nor his scribes left a record explaining the details of the revision process. However, a reasonable reconstruction of the process seems to be that Joseph sat at a table with his large Bible in front of him, and a scribe sat opposite him ready to take dictation on sheets of paper. After prayer was offered, the Prophet read from his Bible and dictated the revisions while the scribes recorded what he said. The record which the scribes thus created became a “manuscript.” What exactly did the scribes include in their manuscript? Did they record only Joseph’s corrections, or did they include uncorrected materials as well? At times the scribes would write all of the verses in a chapter, including those Joseph didn’t revise. For example, the biblical text is written out in full (longhand) on the manuscripts for Genesis 1-24 and Matthew 1 through John 5. At other times, the scribes wrote only those verses or phrases that were revised. On some occasions, when Joseph read a verse or a chapter he did not feel to revise, he would simply announce, “correct,” and the scribe would enter that in his manuscript. At a later date, some of the materials initially pronounced “correct” were altered—either in the manuscript in written form or in some of his sermons over the pulpit. Some of these latter verbal corrections never made it to the manuscripts.

In his Bible, Joseph sometimes made marks (a check or an “X” or some other symbol) before and after those phrases or verses he corrected. Rarely did he write any of the changes in his Bible, but additional marks in the Bible (e.g., dots, slanted lines, circled words, or line-out words) were discovered to be essential (in conjunction with the manuscripts) in discerning exactly what Joseph intended about particular passages. Therefore, in order to publish a completed, corrected version of the Bible, one would have to have access to both Joseph’s Bible and the scribes’ manuscripts.

Joseph was assisted with his translation during the three-year period by a number of persons, but three men in particular were of greatest service as his amanuenses. John Whitmer, one the eight witnesses of the Book of Mormon plates, assisted Joseph early in the translation. The Lord explained to Joseph: “Behold, it is expedient in me that my servant John should write and keep a regular history, and assist you, until he is called to further duties” (D&C 47:1). Oliver Cowdery, one of the three witnesses of the Book of Mormon, had served faithfully as the scribe for Joseph in the translation of the Book of Mormon. The Lord explained to Oliver in a revelation given in April of 1829 that following the completion of the Book of Mormon translation, further labors lay ahead: “Behold, other records have I, that I will give unto you power that you may assist to translate” (D&C 9:2). Both John Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery were given new assignments after assisting the prophet Joseph for a short while, and the bulk of the scribal activity was accomplished by Sidney Rigdon. Sidney joined the Church in Ohio and joined Joseph Smith and the saints in New York in December of 1830. Brother Rigdon became involved immediately in the work with the Bible and labored consistently until the formal work of translation ceased in July of 1833.

As mentioned, Joseph started work on the revision in June 1830, and he worked on it intermittently until July of 1833. The work of revision took place in Harmony, Pennsylvania, Fayette, New York, Kirtland, Ohio, and Hiram, Ohio. By July 1833, 3,410 verses in the printed JST differ in textual construction from the King James Bible. This comprises roughly 12.5% of all the verses in the King James Bible. Of this number 25 verses compose the visions of Moses (Moses 1), 1,289 changes are in the Old Testament, and 2,096 in the New Testament. Of the books in the Old Testament, all received revision except Ruth, Ezra, Esther, Lamentations, Haggai, Malachi, and The Song of Solomon. It is interesting to note that at the bottom of one of the Old Testament manuscript pages is the following: “The Song of Solomon are not Inspired Writings.” Hence, the Song of Solomon is not contained in the printed edition of the JST. Of the books of the New Testament, only the second and third epistles of John received no revisions. In glancing over the Bible as a whole, some of the books that received more revisions than others were (the number indicates the number of verses which differ from the King James text):

Old Testament Verses Differ
Genesis 662
Exodus 66
Psalm 188
Isaiah 178

New Testament Verses Differ
Matthew 483
Mark 349
Luke 563
John 159
Romans 118
1 Corinthians 68
Hebrews 47
Revelation 75

After July 1833, Joseph set the revision aside and apparently always intended to get back to it and do more. However, he never found the time to do much more revision work before his death in June 1844. He did, however, spend some time reviewing and revising the manuscripts—seeking to find appropriate words to convey what he had come to know by revelation.

The saints were commanded to provide temporal support to Joseph and his family so that he could complete work on the JST (D&C 43:12-14). Though they partially complied with this commandment of the Lord, sufficient assistance was not provided him. Despite several attempts by church leaders to get members to contribute to Joseph Smith’s temporal needs so that he could work on the translation of the Bible, financial difficulty hampered the progress of the work (see HC, 4:136-37, 164, 187, 493, 517). The process of translation was slowed, and efforts to prepare a manuscript for press were delayed because Joseph constantly had to lay aside his work on the manuscript to provide food and clothing for himself and his family. As a result the prophet was unable to finish his translation, even though the Lord had instructed that it be published (see D&C 94:10; 104:58-59; 124:89). The neglect of the early saints of this counsel was costly in knowledge and spiritual blessings.

Joseph commenced his revision with the book of Genesis from chapter 1 through chapter 19 verse 35—June 1830 through March 7, 1831. On this latter date, Joseph received a revelation in which he was instructed to begin a translation of the New Testament (D&C 45:60-62). Then for about a month he worked simultaneously on Matthew chapters 1 through 9 and Genesis 19 verse 36 through Genesis 24 verse 42. He then, in early April, turned his attention exclusively to the New Testament, and between April 7, 1831, and February 2, 1833, he completed the book of Matthew and the rest of the New Testament. After completing the New Testament, he went back to the Old Testament and revised Genesis 24 verse 43 through Malachi between February 2, 1833, and July 2, 1833. While he was in the process of translating the Old Testament, on March 9, 1833, Joseph inquired of the Lord concerning the Aprocryphal books which were found in his Bible. The Lords answer was received in D&C 91.

Although in some of the books of the Old and New Testaments he made no changes, he did give consideration to every book from Genesis to the book of Revelation.

On occasion, after finding a phrase he felt strongly about changing, he went through the Bible text and corrected all the places where the same offending phrase was used. An example of such a phrase is, “an evil spirit from God” (1 Samuel 16:14, 15, 16, 23) which Joseph changed to “an evil spirit which is not of God.”

In a few instances, Joseph received revealed knowledge that had no corresponding material in the King James Version. Examples include the “visions of Moses” (Moses 1), some material on Adam after he was cast out of the garden (Moses 5:1-15), and the “visions and prophecies of Enoch” (Moses 6:26 through Moses 7:68).

Some time after an initial “manuscript” was written, Joseph sat down with the scribe again and studied the manuscript and made further changes. He then dictated a “corrected” version of the manuscript. Then, in that same corrected manuscript, he continued on to revise additional Bible texts. Thus, a new manuscript was created. By this process we have three Old Testament (OT) manuscripts and two New Testament (NT) manuscripts. These are referred to as OT1, OT2, OT3, NT1, and NT2. One example illustrates the nature of these manuscripts. OT2 includes the revision of Genesis through Genesis 24:42. Beginning in 1831, the prophet went over this material again, making additional revisions, and he produced another manuscript separate and apart from the first. This later manuscript is now identified as OT3. It repeats the material of OT-2 with additional revision and also extends to the end of the Old Testament. Subsequently the prophet edited the same material (OT3) yet again, making many additional revisions in the margins, between the lines, and also by pinning on scraps of paper containing notes and revisions. No new manuscript was, however, created. Thus, these early chapters of Genesis were repeatedly revised and added to by the prophet Joseph Smith.

This process provides insight into what is meant by the term “translation.” When Joseph Smith translated the Bible, he was not limited to what was found on the working page in front of him, whether that page was a page from the King James Version or a handwritten draft of his own early revision. The text seemed have been only a “starting point,” but the Spirit of revelation was always an additional source of information. In the case of the Bible translation, the manuscript source was the King James Version. This suggested certain ideas, but the Spirit apparently suggested many enlargements, backgrounds, alternate readings, prophetic commentaries, clarifications, corrections of the original, and additional concepts not found on the page. Thus, the term “translation,” when referring to Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible, differs somewhat from that normally used when one thinks of translating languages. To a prophet, a revelation is a more vital and dependable source than a written text. This progressive, open-ended process that was used in translating the Bible may give us a more instructive clue in understanding Joseph Smith’s “translation” of the Egyptian papyrus from whence came the Book of Abraham. It may not have been a literal translation at all, and the Book of Abraham may go far beyond what was actually written on the papyrus.

Non-LDS people often mistakenly think that the JST is the LDS version of the Bible. The King James Version is and always has been our version of the Bible. The existence of the JST does not imply that we believe the Bible to be incorrect. We do believe, however, that what he wrote was true and was what the Church needs in these latter days. We believe further that the JST is true in all of its doctrinal particulars. We consult the JST as a supplement to our canonical scriptures. Believing what is written in the JST does not nullify our belief in the KJV Old or New Testaments their power in our lives.

Portions of the Genesis translation were published in the early church documents, such as The Evening and Morning Star (1832-33) in Independence, Missouri, in the Lectures on Faith in 1835, and in the Times and Seasons (1843) in Nauvoo. These excerpts were all taken from the early drafts (OT2), and thus the early periodicals do not reflect the complete revisions eventually made by the prophet. The JST was never published in full during Joseph’s lifetime.

The completed manuscripts and the Bible were kept hidden in Joseph’s home in Nauvoo. After the death of Joseph, Brigham Young sent Willard Richards to Emma to try and obtain these materials. Emma refused to part with them, and the Mormons went west without them.

A partial copy (less than half) of the original manuscripts OT3 and NT2 was made privately by Dr. John M. Bernhisel in Nauvoo in the spring of 1845. This “Bernhisel Manuscript” was brought to Salt Lake City in 1848 and is now in the archives of the Church Historical Department. Its value stems from its early date, but unfortunately it consists only of excerpts of the original manuscripts, and it was not used as a source for any of the materials in the Pearl of Great Price.

Elder Franklin D. Richards, a member of the Twelve and president of the British Mission, published for the British saints in 1851 certain excerpts of the JST in a pamphlet which he titled The Pearl of Great Price. At that time he did not have access to the original manuscripts. He therefore used the excerpts from The Evening and Mormon Star and the Times and Seasons. He also had access to a handwritten copy of the manuscript containing some portions of the translation that had not been printed in the church periodicals. By use of these sources, he was able to include some materials from the JST in his printing of the Pearl of Great Price.

All of the original manuscripts and Joseph’s Bible came into the hands of the Reorganized Church in 1866 who published a completely revised Bible containing most of Joseph’s revisions in 1867 under the title, “Holy Scriptures.” The manuscripts used to complete this work were OT3 and NT2 with a small amount of material taken from OT2. Thus, this RLDS publication was taken from manuscripts that contained the prophet’s final and most complete revisions. In fact this publication represented a better and more complete text than did the corresponding material in the Pearl of Great Price that had been published sixteen years earlier in 1851.

The published revision was for many years called the “Inspired Version,” but is now more properly called the Joseph Smith Translation (abbreviated JST). In the past it has been known by several names including the “New Translation,” the “Inspired Revision,” or the “Inspired Translation.”

Was the JST ever really completed? In a letter written by Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, and Frederick G. Williams to the brethren in Zion and dated July 2, 1833, the Prophet said, “We this day finished the translating of the Scriptures, for which we returned gratitude to our Heavenly Father.” To this Sidney added, “Having finished the translation of the Bible, a few hours since, and needing some recreation, we know of one way we can spend our time more to divine acceptance than in endeavoring to build up His Zion” (HC, 1:368-69). It is likely the word “finished” meant they had made the changes appropriate at that time. Certainly Joseph Smith did not consider 1833 the end of needed changes in the biblical text. We know that Joseph still “worked diligently on it [the JST] during the closing years of his life,” and it is clear, at least to Robert J. Matthews, that “the work was not perfected” by that time (“Joseph Smith’s Efforts to Publish His Bible Translation,” 64). Further, “before his death” Joseph had spoken with Brigham Young “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 write,” which was February 2, 1833 (Cannon, Life of Joseph Smith the Prophet, 148).

After its publication, copies were sent west to all of the Utah Church’s General Authorities. It was variously received. Orson Pratt was in ecstasy and allegedly stayed up nights reading it. He even preached conference sermons from it. Brigham Young, on the other hand, felt that little good could come from the “Josephites” as he called those who did not come west (the Mormons in Utah were the “Brighamites”), and he called upon all members of the Utah Church, who had copies, to burn them. Brigham further counseled Orson Pratt never to quote from it again. Thus, in the days of Brigham Young it was an anathema to even own a copy of Joseph’s Bible.

Orson Pratt outlived Brigham Young, who died in 1877, and in 1878 the new church President, John Taylor, asked Orson Pratt to ready a new edition of the Pearl of Great Price. Orson included, in this new edition, Genesis 1 verse 1 through chapter 6 verse 13 quoted verbatim from the Reorganites’ publication, and these writings were entitled, “Selections from the Book of Moses.” This title clearly implies that Moses wrote more than is contained therein. Also included in this 1878 edition of the Pearl of Great Price were the revised Matthew 23 verse 39 through Matthew 24 which we now refer to as the “JS-M.”

Since the time of Brigham Young, Joseph’s inspired revision has gradually increased in favor with the Church. Our present new edition of the Bible published in 1979 contains about 690 of the 3,410 corrected verses in the footnotes and in the appendix. We now refer to these revised materials as the “JST,” or the Joseph Smith Translation. That part of the JST now regarded as canonized scripture includes Genesis 1:1 through Genesis 6:13, Matthew 23:39 through Matthew 24, and those 690 verses contained in our 1979 edition of the Bible.

We believe that the JST is inspired, but we do not believe that it restores the original texts of the biblical books.

Some have suggested that Joseph was simply “Mormonizing” the Bible in his work with the JST. In other words, some have suggested that he was simply making his way through the Bible and changing verses so as to make them agree with Mormon doctrine. Certainly the work with the Bible was not begun in an intellectual vacuum. The Prophet had gained a significant amount of knowledge and doctrinal insight from his experiences with the Book of Mormon. In addition, there can be no doubt but that Joseph had learned by personal revelation many things prior to his commencing the revision of the Bible in June 1830, the details of which he may never have disclosed to the saints. But it would be a mistake to overlook the fact that as Joseph prayerfully studied the Bible between June 1830 and July 1833, he received new specific revelation from the Lord regarding the passages therein. In short, “through the experience of translating the Bible Joseph Smith was to come into possession of knowledge he did not previously have. . . . The labor was to be its own reward and would result in the spiritual education of the Prophet” (Matthews, A Plainer Translation, 53).

There is an important and intimate relationship between Joseph’s Bible revision and the revelations contained in the Doctrine and Covenants. Robert J. Matthews explained: “Many of the revelations that compose the Doctrine and Covenants have a direct relationship to the translation of the Bible which the Prophet Joseph was making at the time the revelations were received” (Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible, 255). There are two types of relationships between the JST and the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants: First, some of the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants are actually instructions given by the Lord to Joseph regarding Joseph’s work on the revision. The second type of relationship involves the fact that some of the doctrinal revelations contained in the Doctrine and Covenants were given to Joseph while he was engaged in the “translation” process and were doubtless inspired by the materials he was revising. Examples of these two types or categories include the following (again, quoting from Robert J. Matthews):

In the first category, examples include:

  1. the appointment of scribes (D&C 25:6, D&C 35:20, and D&C 47:1)

  2. to cease translating while moving from New York to Ohio (D&C 37:1)

  3. to begin the translation of the New Testament (D&C 45:60-61)

  4. to hasten to complete the translation (D&C 93:53)

  5. not to translate the Apocrypha (D&C 91:1-6)

  6. to establish a house for printing the translation (D&C 41:7, D&C 94:10, D&C 104:58, and D&C 124:89)

  7. other related instructions (D&C 26:1, D&C 42:56-61, and D&C 90:13)

In the second category are revelations on doctrinal subjects that grew out of, or came as a result of, the translation but are more or less self-contained and can be understood quite well apart from their historical context. In other words, it is not essential for one to know that these revelations were given during the translation in order to understand their basic message. In this category we find such examples as:

  1. The vision of the degrees of glory, section 76, was received by Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon on February 16, 1832 as a result of prayerful pondering of John 5:29.

  2. Section 77 is a question and answer session with the Lord, wherein Joseph learned valuable insights as he was revising the book of Revelation.

  3. Section 91 (as already mentioned) is a set of instructions regarding the collection of noncanonical records known today as the Old Testament Apocrypha.

  4. Section 132 is a revelation on eternal (including plural) marriage. Though it does not seem to have been recorded finally in its present form until July of 1843, there is evidence to suggest that it was received as early as 1831, at the time Joseph was translating the Old Testament.

  5. Other sections with strong ties to biblical passages include section 7 (John 21:20-25); section 29 (early chapters of Genesis); section 46 on gifts of the Spirit (any relationship to 1 Corinthians 12?); section 74 (1 Corinthians 7:14); section 84 which has a number of themes (oath and covenant of the priesthood, the rest of God, etc) similar to themes found in the book of Hebrews; section 86 parable of wheat and tares (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43); sections 88 and 93 both of which have language and concepts found in the book of John; sections 102 and 107, and section 113 (book of Isaiah).

  6. There is perhaps an indirect relationship between the book of Enoch material (Moses 6-7)—the JST of Genesis (November -December of 1830)—and the revelations in early 1831 which deal with the establishment of Zion. The Lord identified himself to Joseph Smith in a revelation given January 2, 1831 in an interesting manner: “I am the same which have taken the Zion of Enoch into mine own bosom” (D&C 38:4). In February of 1831 the Lord revealed the “Law of the Church” (D&C 42), in which particular details of the law of consecration and stewardship—the economic pattern by which the saints were able to be “of one heart and one mind,” and by which there would be “no poor among them” (Moses 7:18)—were made known.

  7. The significant doctrinal statement concerning the age of accountability of children (D&C 68:25-26) was given by revelation in November of 1831. This, however, was not the first time in our dispensation where such information was made known. While translating Genesis 17 (sometime between February and April 1831), Joseph Smith recorded the following regarding the Abrahamic covenant and the token of circumcision: “And I will establish a covenant of circumcision with thee, and it shall be my covenant between me and thee, and thy seed after thee, in their generations; that thou mayest know for ever that children are not accountable before me until they are eight years old” (JST, Genesis 17:11).

Thus we see that the concept of an age of accountability of children was known by the prophet Joseph through his work of Bible translation some six to nine months before section 68 was received.

The Prophet was actively engaged in making the translation of the Bible from June 1830 until July 1833. Examination of the chronological table in the forepart of the Doctrine and Covenants will quickly show that most (over 50%) of the doctrinal revelations were received during this period. I believe this is not a coincidence but rather a consequence. It was Joseph Smith’s study and translation of the Bible that set the stage for the reception of many revelations on the doctrines of the gospel. There is an inseparable connection between the new translation of the Bible and many of the revelations that constitute the book of Doctrine and Covenants” (Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible, 255-56).

There is, in this relationship between Joseph’s study of the Bible and the revelations he received, an important living lesson for each of us regarding the way that each of us might receive personal revelation. As we study the scriptures and inquire of the Lord as to the meaning of them, surely personal revelation to each of us will come. In this way, the doctrines of the kingdom will “distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven” (D&C 121:45). The JST is a bold demonstration of the fact that revelation comes through a careful study of the scriptures.

- Michael J. Preece