Just like my last post, I want to note that I use academic studies throughout this post so I have moved all of the bibliography to the end of the document in order to facilitate a more convenient reading for those not interested in the notes. If you are interested in seeing where I am getting my ideas (or just to use the list of books to find some good reading) please look at the notes.
I am often asked what I think about different translations of the Bible. Latter-day Saints want to know if there are other translations that are worth using, and it is common to feel that studying anything outside of the King James Version (KJV) is somehow sinful or wrong, although not correct in the slightest. I would like to write in response to these questions and hopefully highlight how other translations are not only welcome, but also necessary, in a well-grounded study of the Bible for Latter-day Saints. This will be examined through Joseph Smith’s statements on the fallibility of the Bible, and also a comparison of the KJV with other, newer translations of our day.
It is a common thing for us to say that the Bible is difficult to understand, especially the Old Testament, and that therefore it is easier to just stick to the basics when it comes to the scriptures. The basics are good, they are wonderful, and we need to have and know them. The only problem is that the basics should not hold us back from learning more about the stories and general history behind the Old Testament. A basic knowledge of the stories and the history of the Bible are important for our faith because these are the very things our faith is based upon, although in Mormonism we are not necessarily attached to the idea that the scriptures are infallible. We would be left with nothing if the Old Testament did not inspire the New Testament writers to produce the texts that they did, and we would surely not have Restoration scripture and the teachings of the prophet Joseph Smith without the New Testament.[i] These are realities of our faith, which to me necessitates at least a basic knowledge of the Bible.
Joseph Smith’s View of the Bible
“I believe the Bible, as it ought to be, as it came from the pen of the original writers.”[ii]
What is the Bible of the original writers? Joseph Smith lived in the shadow of the Enlightenment, even if it did have “far less influence on [him]”[iii] than others of his time. He was adamant that the Bible was not in its original form, and that many changes had taken place in the text: simple and plain things had been removed from the gospel in the scriptures (cf. 1 Ne. 13:24-28), and serious errors had crept in that even made it difficult to discern what prophecies of the prophets were going to happen, how they would appear, and when.[iv] Joseph Smith is known to have revised the text of the Bible in his work on the Joseph Smith Translation (JST) in an attempt to get closer to what he saw as the “correct” text, but it is less known that he continued making changes all the way up to his death that were never included in the JST.[v] Some scholars have referred to Joseph Smith’s revisions post-JST (meaning any revisions made publicly or privately and not in the manuscripts) as “Joseph Smith Urtext,”[vi] and these later revisions are extremely important for understanding Joseph Smith’s continued experience to grasp what exactly was the Bible of the original writers.
Joseph Smith took up the task of revising the KJV like many others of his day; the revision itself was nothing new or different. The main difference is he did not work with any Hebrew, Greek, or foreign language manuscripts to work out his “translation.” Rather, Joseph Smith’s translation was worked out purely under the direction of the Spirit. He started the work of translation in June 1830 and it lasted until July 1833.[vii] It was not until the evening of Nov. 20, 1835 that Joseph Smith even owned a Hebrew Bible or lexicon,[viii] and not until that next January 26 that he met Joshua Seixas, the professor that taught Joseph and the School of the Prophets how to read and translate Biblical Hebrew.[ix]
Although the church is dedicated to its use of the KJV for very important (and legitimate) reasons,[x] it is important for us to understand that we cannot use the KJV alone if we are going to understand the meaning and message of the Biblical text. Joseph Smith made this statement about the KJV:
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.[xi]
Although not only noting translation errors, but transmission as well, this statement highlights the necessity for us as Latter-day Saints to have an interest in studying those aids that God has provided for us that help to actually understand what is being said in the Bible as we read it. I will now provide analyses of varying chapters of the Old Testament and how utilizing different translations will help us grasp the message of these texts.
I will go through and compare different translations of the same chapter of the Bible and hope to show that even without knowing how to translate Biblical Hebrew it is possible to understand the text of the Old Testament. Not only will this hopefully teach us how to search for the meaning of the text through comparison, but it will also help us learn how to tell what translations are closer to the Hebrew and the revelations of Joseph Smith, and therefore better for the use in a Sunday school setting.
I was first introduced to this exercise in a rigorous class entitled New Testament Studies, taught by Jared Anderson. We worked through a long list of comparisons and it turned out to be one of the best class assignments I have ever had. I will analyze the different translations looking for variances in the way the translators present their version of the text. I would strongly suggest that those reading take part in these kinds of exercises on their own and especially on other parts of the Bible; it is an incredibly rewarding experience. I will only analyze Genesis 1, as analyses can become lengthy very easily and could make this a very long post. Each of the analyses will be partial selections of the first part of each chapter selected, that way each analysis won’t run too long.
I will use the KJV and the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) Tanakh[xii] as the base texts, and in the analysis compare the KJV, New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), JPS Tanakh, New International Version (NIV), English Standard Version (ESV), and the Living Bible. The words in bold denote significant differences that will be discussed below.
|KJV Gen. 1
1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. 2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. 3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. 4 And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. 5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. 6 And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. 7 And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. 8 And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day. 9 And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so. 10 And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good. 11 And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so. 12 And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good. 13 And the evening and the morning were the third day. 14 And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years: 15 And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so. 16 And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also. 17 And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth. 18 And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good. 19 And the evening and the morning were the fourth day. 20 And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and the fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.
|JPS Tanakh Gen. 1
1 When God began to create heaven and earth–2 the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water–3 God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, a first day. 6 God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the water, that it may separate water from water.” 7 God made the expanse, and it separated the water which was below the expanse from the water which was above the expanse. And it was so. 8 God called the expanse Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, a second day. 9 God said, “Let the water below the sky be gathered into one area, that the dry land may appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry land Earth, and the gathering of waters He called Seas. And God saw that it was good. 11 And God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation: seed–bearing plants, fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so. 12 The earth brought forth vegetation: seed–bearing plants of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that this was good. 13 And there was evening and there was morning, a third day. 14 God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate day from night; they shall serve as signs for the set times–the days and the years; 15 and they serve as lights in the expanse of the sky to shine upon the earth.” And it was so. 16 God made the two great lights, the greater light to dominate the day and the lesser light to dominate the night, and the stars. 17 And God set them in the expanse of the sky to shine upon the earth, 18 to dominate the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that this was good. 19 And there was evening and there was morning, a fourth day. 20 God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and birds that fly above the earth across the expanse of the sky.”
At first glance these two translations are pretty similar. It becomes apparent that the JPS Tanakh owes a lot to the KJV, and is probably a revision of the KJV in many ways. Although the two differ in style, there are nice places of convergence. They agree in their translations of the construction of the imperative, “Let there be…” They utilize language that is similar, for example the KJV (and the Living Bible) translates vayavdel elohim in verse 4 as “and God divided,” and the JPS Tanakh (and the English Standard Version (ESV),[xiii] NRSV, NIV) translates it “and God separated.” In their exhaustive lexicon, Baumgartner and Koehler provide both “to separate, to divide from,”[xiv] showing that each of these translations work just as well as the other and mean essentially the same thing. There are many examples of similarities here, but how important are the differences?
The first example of divergence we find is in the beginning phrase, where the KJV (and the NIV, NRSV, translates the line, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” The JPS Tanakh decides instead to translate the first line as a dependent clause, and therefore renders the phrase, “When God began to create heaven and earth.” At first this does not seem like much of a difference, but once we know the historical background this becomes very important.
The five books of Moses did not appear out of thin air. They had their own historical setting, and different sections were produced at different times.[xv] Many of the stories found in the Old Testament had earlier Near Eastern precursors. An important text to note in comparison with Genesis 1 here is Enuma Elish. Ancient texts usually received their names from the first few words at the beginning of the text. Genesis in its Hebrew name is bereshit, meaning literally “in the beginning.” When enuma elish is translated from Akkadian it means “when above,” or “when on high.”[xvi] Scholars have noted the similarities between Enuma Elish and Genesis 1 for a long time, and in English it would be very hard to see the similarity without the more grammatically correct translation that the JPS Tanakh provides above.
What importance does the ability to tie Genesis 1 to Enuma Elish have for Latter-day Saints? It brings Genesis 1 back to its original historical context, which is closer to that taught by Joseph Smith. Michael D. Coogan, professor of Religious Studies at Stonehill College, explained the background of Genesis 1 this way:
Although at first reading, Genesis 1 is apparently monotheistic, with a sole creator responsible for everything that exists, several ancient polytheistic texts have similarities to the Genesis account. One of those is Enuma Elish…The poem opens with a description of the world before creation, “When above the skies had not been named, Nor earth below pronounced by name…”[xvii]
The original context of Genesis 1 was enveloped in a world that was very different from the way modern day Christians and Jews read the text. Although polytheism is not an accurate term, earliest Israelite practice and belief would fall somewhere between henotheism and monolatry (a hotly debated topic), with a belief in a council of divine beings who worked under Yahweh to help answer any of the problems that came up with human beings. Although this is much stronger in the Yahwistic account of Israel, it is still apparent in the Priestly account found in Genesis 1. Even verse 2, with its descriptions of darkness covering or being upon the face of the deep, ties back to the ancient battle of the storm god fighting and overpowering the chaotic primeval sea.
The Hebrew term for “deep,” tehom, never occurs here with the definite article (ha, literally “the”) which means that tehom is a noun and should be translated “Deep.” Tehom is a cognate of the Akkadian Tiamat, who is the chaotic primeval sea in Enuma Elish.[xviii] Marduk sends an evil wind to fight against Tiamat, and overcomes her with this wind. This is heavily reflected in Gen. 1:2.
Although the Epic of Gilgamesh is closer to the Book of Abraham in describing a council of Gods creating the world, Enuma Elish provides a beautiful window into the ancient world that Genesis 1 comes out of, and the Book of Abraham and Joseph Smith’s later teachings tap into.
You may have noticed the next variant and wondered why the JPS Tanakh chose to translate this the way they did. Ruah in Hebrew means literally “wind,” “breeze,” or “breath.”[xix] In verse 2 “wind” is a much better translation than “Spirit,” and the JPS translation of “a wind” instead of “the wind” fits grammatically here.
“Wind” is a better translation in verse 2 for the same reason as the beginning of verse 1 as described above. This ties nicely into Enuma Elish where Marduk sends a mighty wind to overcome Tiamat:
Face to face they came, Tiamat and Marduk,sage of the gods…To her face he dispatched the evil wind, which had been behind…And he forced in the evil wind so that she could not closer lips. Fierce winds distended her belly…He shot an arrow which pierced her belly, Split her down the middle and extinguished her life…[xx]
The JPS Tanakh is much more aware of the historical milieu that the author of Genesis 1 was working under. This milieu fits Joseph Smith’s interpretations of the text, and can help us in seeing and understanding Joseph’s perspective and thought process when he was working on the text of the Book of Abraham. No one within Christianity was prepared for the revelations that Joseph Smith received in Abraham about the creation of the world, the council of the Gods, and the interpretation that it was not God alone in Genesis creating the world. Joseph Smith was, in many ways, ahead of his time in this regard.[xxi]
There are many other variants above that we could discuss, but that would turn this post into a lengthier one than is probably necessary. Can you find anything interesting either in the bold type I provided or elsewhere in Genesis 1 that you find striking? It doesn’t even have to be in Genesis, what other places in the Bible can you look at to compare these translations and find some important insights?
We have briefly examined the beginning of the first chapter of Genesis to see if it is beneficial to study different translations of the Bible. Although not going into as much depth, or looking at as many chapters as I would have liked, this has provided a window into the past that we normally would not get if we were only reading the KJV. This window that sheds so much light on Israelite thought in the ancient world and how it relates to Joseph Smith’s views of the creation is not even the tip of the iceberg. We were only beginning to see the tip come up out of the water and the fog. There are so many more places like this throughout the Old and New Testaments that I can only hope you will take my invitation to look a little closer for yourself and see what you can find.
[i] “The King James Version of the Bible is particularly helpful in this journal for identifying JS’s biblical paraphrasing and allusions,” Dean C. Jessee, et al, eds., The Joseph Smith Papers: Journals, Volume 1: 1832-1839 (Salt Lake City: The Church Historian’s Press, 2008), 475.
[ii] JS, Journal, Oct. 15, 1843, in Scott H. Faulring, ed., An American Prophet’s Record: The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989), 420.
[iii] Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 184.
[iv] “some 7 or 8 young men called to see me part of them from the city of N. York they treated me with the greatest respect I shewed them the fallacy of Mr [William] Millers data. concerni[n]g Millnim [Millennium] & preached them quite a sermon. shewed them, that the error is in the Bible or translation. & that Miller is in want of information The prophecies must be fulfilld sun be turnd into darkness & moon into black & many more things before Christ come,” in JS, Journal, Feb. 11, 1843, in Andrew H. Hedges, et al, The Joseph Smith Papers: Journals, Volume 2: December 1841-April 1843 (Salt Lake City: The Church Historian’s Press, 2011), 260-261.
[v] See B. H. Roberts, ed., The History of the Church (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1978), 6:475; cf. also chapter 7 of David Bokovoy’s forthcoming volume, Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis-Deuteronomy on this. I am indebted to David for this reference.
[vi] See David Bokovoy, op. cit.
[vii] Robert J. Matthews, “A Plainer Translation”: Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible, A History and Commentary (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1985), 26-39.
[viii] JS, Journal, Nov. 20, 1835, in Dean C. Jessee, et al, eds., op. cit., 107.
[ix] JS, Journal, Jan. 26, 1836, in Dean C. Jessee, et al, eds., op. cit., 173.
[x] If the church was to adopt another translation as the text used in the Sunday Schools of the church future generations would have a hard time comparing the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price to whatever new version is used at the time. The concepts derived from the Old and New Testaments utilized in Restoration scripture would be lost, and the divide between our understanding of the Bible and our other scriptures would only lengthen.
[xi] Joseph F. Smith, ed., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1938), 9-11; quoted in Matthews, op. cit., 247.
[xii] I am using Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds., The Jewish Study Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).
[xiv] Koehler and Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: Brill, 2001), 1:110.
[xv] See the dates provided in my last post here: http://rationalfaiths.com/latter-day-saints-christian-know-old-testament/.
[xvi] Michael D. Coogan, The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 32-37; and E. A. Speiser, “The Creation Epic,” in James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1955), 60.
[xvii] Michael D. Coogan, op. cit., 32.
[xviii] Koehler and Baumgartner make this note on tehom, “not to be derived from a vb., probably a primary noun, perhaps going back to a general Semitic *tiham(at) sea; so as such it is not a loanword from Akkadian!,” HALOT, 2:1690.
[xix] Koehler and Baumgartner, HALOT, 2:1198.
[xx] Michael D. Coogan, op. cit., 34.
[xxi] I will briefly note here that it does seem clear that Joseph Smith’s views on multiple deities being involved in creation is derived from his understanding of elohim, where the im ending would denote a masculine plural ending. Normally Joseph would have been right in his assumption (which he describes fully in History of the Church 6:475), but in this case this assumption is faulty. In Hebrew the verbs surrounding the subject of the sentence take the gender and number of the subject. In Genesis 1 the verbs take the masculine singular around elohim, and therefore we must conclude that elohim here is a single entity. With this in mind, though, Joseph Smith was much more open to revising his traditional view to the revelations and information he received. In this case he grasped something about ancient Israelite thought that had been lost to the world for probably 2,500 years.