Evangelical Questions: Why did Joseph Smith change the meaning to some verses in the Bible?
by Jennifer Roach, MDiv, LMHC
This week we come to a very important verse in scripture. John 1:1 traditionally translated, “In the beginning was the word.” You’ll find it that way in almost every translation. It’s often the first verse beginning Greek students learn, “Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος” and straight away they are introduced to the complexities of translating. The text literally says, “In the beginning was the logos.” We look at that verse now, with the benefit of centuries of translation on our side and know “logos” means Jesus in some sense. Translators, theologians and scholars have been settled on this for a very long time. So it’s a fair question to ask, “Why did Joseph Smith step out of the established translation on this verse?” Now, your Evangelical friends or family members may not be able to point to this specific verse and see the differences, but if you’re in conversation with them about the New Testament the issue of Joseph’s variations in translation are going to come up eventually. Let’s look at how Joseph translated the same verse:
John 1:1 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. (JST)
There’s a lot going on here and we’re going to break it down into pieces. First we’ll talk about what your Evangelical friends think when they hear that different translation and why they hear it that way. And then we’ll talk about what Joseph is doing in this translation and how it opens up meaning even your Evangelical friends might appreciate.
First, what do Evangelicals hear when they hear that kind of translation?
There are many verses in the Bible that have translation variations and most Evangelicals are completely comfortable with this. They understand that the many different translations of the Bible are trying to do different things. For example, they understand that a translation like The Message (which isn’t actually a translation, it’s a paraphrase) is trying to do something radically different than a translation like the English Standard Version (ESV). The Message is attempting to put the Bible’s message into fresh contemporary language so that the modern reader can hear it and understand it in their own context. The language is meant to sound good on your ears. Meanwhile the ESV is trying to give as close to a word-for-word translation as possible even if it has to mean sacrificing the lyrical sound of a passage. So when they hear a different translation they’re not reacting to the fact that differences have been brought in. They’re used to that.
The thing that is bothersome for them is that they doubt Joseph’s abilities as a translator and they use his “wrong” translation of John 1:1 as proof that if he couldn’t even translate the Bible correctly, what chance did he have of translating the Golden Plates correctly?
The Golden Plates and the Bible
One of the things your Evangelical friend might be wondering about is how you can trust the Book of Mormon to be true when we have no access to the Golden Plates to check Joseph’s translation work? The interesting assumption behind that question is that we have originals of the Bible to check against. Many people (Evangelicals and others) have either seen pictures of old manuscripts, or perhaps they’ve seen one in person such as the Codex Sinaiticus which is on public display at the British Library in London. Because these manuscripts are very old many people assume they are the actual documents that the original writers literally wrote. Sinaiticus is considered the oldest complete manuscript – but even it is only dated back to the 4th-century. It’s not like we can do a direct comparison to the Biblical text either. The originals simply do not exist. Now, there is a science called “textual criticism” which identifies and tracks the variations in the text. This process is very good at identifying exactly where changes happened, which manuscripts got copied with which changes and more. But, it’s not 100% accurate, and has been wrong in the past. So we’re still in a situation where the translation of the Bible and the translation of the Book of Mormon are in pretty similar boats.
Still, Evangelicals feel nervous about a novel translation of John 1:1 (or any of Josephs’s other novel translations) because no other translations are in agreement with what he’s doing. They hear it as a subtle way to smuggle “incorrect meaning” into the scriptures. But is that what’s happening here?
What Does Joseph See in John 1:1?
So, if you remember, here is what Joseph is doing in the very first part of the verse, instead of, “In the beginning was the word,” or ““Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος,” we get, “In the beginning was the gospel preached through the Son.” Joseph is swapping out, “the word” for, “the gospel preached through the Son.” And the question becomes, what is he doing here and why?
What is “Logos”?
Most Latter-day Saints are not particularly interested in philosophy, and for understandable reasons. But in order to get at some important content here I want to glance in the direction of philosophy for just a moment because it is the best way to understand what this “logos” actually means.
Logos is a huge concept in Greek philosophy. It doesn’t have an exact translation in English. You have probably been taught, “it means Jesus” and that’s true insofar as the concept points to Jesus, but the word itself doesn’t mean, “Jesus.” The word means something close to, “the metaphysics that are universal law.” One Greek philosopher, Heraclitus said, “the world is animated and kept in order by fire, and this fire is the Logos.” In his example it is the thing that makes everything else work. Plato and Aristotle understood logos as something like, “the very principles of logic.” The Stoic philosophers said logos was the vitalizing force guiding the universe. Jumping forward many centuries we see the philosopher Hegel saying that logos is the “absolute concept” of the universe.
So we have the literal Greek text saying, “in the beginning was the logos and the logos was with God and the logos was God.” Our English translations almost universally translate “logos” as “word” and what they’re trying to do there is say something like, “In the beginning the ‘logic that makes all logic make sense” was with God…” Or, “In the beginning the, ‘story that ties together all the stories’ was with God.” Or even, “In the beginning the “thing that makes everything work” was with God.” But what we humans do is simplify things. We no longer hear, “in the beginning was the word” and understand it to mean all of these things, we just hear, “the word” and plug in, “Jesus.” Which isn’t untrue necessarily, but it certainly misses a lot of meaning.
So when Joseph translates, “In the beginning was the gospel preached through the Son,” he is not mistranslating, he is bringing in a layer of meaning that is largely lost to the modern reader. I read this as Joseph saying, “In the beginning God’s plan to animate this whole world was the Gospel, and it was Jesus who was going to carry that Gospel out.” Instead of Greek philosophy’s, “The universe is animated through fire.” We get, “The world is animated through the Gospel plan.” And now all of a sudden it has a whole new depth of meaning and the question of, “Why did Joseph change the Bible when no one else translates it that way?” has a far easier answer.
Insofar as it is Translated Correctly
You might be tempted to say that John 1:1 clearly is a spot of the Bible that has not been translated correctly, that Joseph got it right and everyone else got it wrong. This is tricky ground and I want to explain why.
Technically, “in the beginning was the word” is a correct translation in that it is a literal translation of the Greek sentence that is on the page. The translation is fine. What we see happening in Joseph’s translation is that he is opening up a new layer of meaning in an artistic way that is not identical to the literal translation. Your Evangelical friends might object to this by saying that it is taking too many liberties and that translation should be as close to a word-for-word translation as possible. However, at the same time, Evangelicals love The Message version of the Bible which renders John 1:1 like this, “The Word was first, the Word present to God, God present to the Word. The Word was God.” Now, that is not what is on the page in Greek. It is a translation which is bringing out some nuance that is not there in the traditional translation. An interesting thing for Evangelicals to grapple with is, “Why is it okay for The Message to bring out a layer of meaning, but it’s not okay for Joseph Smith to do so?”
This also brings up the issue of various Bible translations. Our leaders have said that we are to use the King James version in public worship, and for some very good reasons. But your Evangelical friends might think you crazy for going along with it because the language is sometimes hard to understand. On the other side, sometimes Latter-day Saints are skeptical of the variety of translations. Although today we’ve seen that John 1:1 gets translated the same way almost across the board, that isn’t true for many verses and there can be wildly different translations. Latter-day Saints can have the same worry about non-KJV translations that Evangelicals have about the Joseph Smith translation – that they’re bringing in corrupted meaning or have been mistranslated. Let me give you a brief run-down on other translations that might be helpful to you to add alongside your KJV translations.
As we’ve already alluded to in today there are a few different philosophies behind Bible translations, as well as a few different categories of source material. We’ll talk about source material first. Remember, we don’t have any originals of the Bible. We have manuscripts and fragments. Between the time of Christ and the invention of the printing press we have almost 6,000 manuscripts and fragments of the New Testament. Most of them are fragments, some fragments are as small as a business card, others are almost complete books, and no two are identical. So Bible translators have to make some choices about which manuscripts and fragments they are going to use as source material to translate from. You can read in the preface of each Bible about which manuscripts are their source material; different versions use different source material for different reasons. That’s an interesting thing to know, but unless you are an academic it’s not going to be super helpful to you. What is helpful is that translator’s philosophy, something they will also tell you about in the preface. There are 3 basic philosophies. 1)Word-for-word 2) Thought-for-thought 3) Paraphrase into modern language.
First, you should know that the word-for-word translations are not actually translating word-for-word. No such thing is possible. The Hebrew of the Old Testament lacks a grammatical structure that English speakers rely on. In English (and any other modern language) we can break down a sentence into its parts of speech and understand how each one functions. Hebrew doesn’t let you do that, the structure is just not there so the translators have to introduce it into the English version – if they didn’t the whole thing would be unintelligible to you. It’s true to a lesser degree for Greek as well. So what the word-for-word translators are doing is trying to get as close to that as possible – even when they have to sacrifice readability to do so. Translations that fall into this category include the English Standard Version, the New American Standard Bible and the Revised Standard Version.
In contrast the thought-for-thought translators are trying to take a thought from the source material and stay true to that thought as they bring it into English. They’re less concerned about staying as close to the words as possible and more concerned with actually getting the meaning across. These translations sound better to our ears and are generally more understandable, but they sacrifice staying close to the source material. Translations that fall in this category are the New International Version or the New American Bible, among others.
The final category of translation are Bibles that are not actually considered real translations because the source material was not the Greek and Hebrew from an ancient manuscript. Their source material is a Bible previously translated into English. They take the English sentence and make it sound modern or fresh. These are called paraphrases and while they’re not a great choice for serious study, they can be a good choice for devotional reading. The Message and The Living Bible, as well as others, fall in this category.
When the issue of translations comes up with your Evangelical friends or family it can feel overwhelming and you might feel hesitant to talk about it for fear of lack of knowledge. But as you can see in John 1:1, Joseph Smith was brining out meaning in the text the same way other Bible translators do today. And your friends outside of our church might even enjoy hearing about what Joseph was doing in that text.
More Come, Follow Me resources here.
Jennifer Roach earned a Master of Divinity from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, and a Master of Counseling from Argosy University. Before her conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints she was an ordained minister in the Anglican church. Her own experience of sexual abuse from a pastor during her teen years led her to care deeply about issues of abuse in faith communities.