Retrospect and Prospect—A Panel

Robert J. Matthews

“The JST: Retrospect and Prospect—A Panel,” in The Joseph Smith Translation: The Restoration of Plain and Precious Truths, ed. Monte S. Nyman and Robert L. Millet (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1985), 291–305.

Robert J. Matthews was dean of Religious Education and professor of Ancient Scripture at BYU when this was published.

Those who attended this symposium were invited to submit questions in writing. These were then read to the panel and responses were made.

QUESTION: Is the Inspired Version as published by the Reorganized Church consistent with the original manuscript?

ROBERT J. MATTHEWS: To that I can answer confidently, yes. Now, another way of asking that question is, is the printed Inspired Version accurate; is it reliable? The answer is yes. That’s something we didn’t know for a long time. I would have to say it this way: if the manuscript is correct, then the published Inspired Version is correct, for they have followed the manuscript closely. There are a few corrections in spelling and grammar, and a few other things that are very minor, but I have gone over that manuscript several times and I am somewhat familiar with it; in my judgment and experience, yes, it has been published accurately.

QUESTION: Why did Joseph Smith make a new translation of the Bible?

ROBERT L. MILLET: Well, with all that we’ve said the last two days, I suppose that no one has come out directly and said Joseph Smith made a translation for the following reasons. I think there are, however, a few things we should keep in mind. Though we do not have the actual revelation in our possession commanding the Prophet to begin the translation, what we do have is occasional references to the fact that he and his scribes had been appointed to the task. He makes that clear in the vision of the glories (“While we were doing the work of translation, which the Lord had appointed unto us” [D&C 76:15; emphasis added]). So one reason would be very simple: the Lord commanded them to.

Second, this labor seemed to serve as a type of spiritual education for the Prophet himself. Unfortunately, some misunderstand the whole reason Joseph Smith is doing the translation, I have had numerous people ask me: “Isn’t Joseph Smith just ‘Mormonizing’ the Bible?” I assume they mean by that, isn’t he taking presently existing LDS doctrine, reading that into the Bible, and making it into a Mormon book of Scripture? The problem with that line of reasoning is that historically that makes very little sense; there wasn’t a great deal of Mormonism with which to Mormonize the Bible in June of 1830. The Prophet had translated the Book of Mormon, and certainly knew a number of things. What Joseph did was learn as he went. This proved to be a part of his education, as well as the education of the Church. So that would be a second reason, the spiritual education of the Prophet.

The third things that I would say is that the Joseph Smith Translation demonstrates to us how it was that revelation came to Joseph Smith, in some cases line upon line and precept upon precept. Even as he was able to review and revise some things, we see that revelation frequently comes in such a manner—bit by bit. In a sense the JST becomes a pattern or a type for every member of the Church. We don’t go to the scriptures to read into them what we already know; rather, we go to the scriptures to learn. So it becomes a type for how to receive revelation ourselves.

QUESTION: Did Joseph Smith actually finish the translation, and if not, how much did he do?

MONTE S. NYMAN: He did not finish the translation. I know that it is written in Church history that he finished it in July of 1833. We have no idea the percentage of completion. I think he did a pretty thorough job in the early parts of Genesis and in some parts of the New Testament, but if we consider the Old Testament prophets, that is another mater. I look at the prophet Isaiah, and realize that many areas are untouched. There is no way of knowing whether he did 10 percent or 20 percent or some other percent. What he did, he did well, but because of time and other factors, there was much that he did not get around to doing.

ROBERT J. MATTHEWS: I don’t think Brother Nyman will mind if I add a postscript to that. As you probably know, in the process of translation, Joseph Smith used two different systems—actually three. When they first began to translate, they wrote the scriptures out entirely—the whole thing, even passages and whole chapters in which there were no alterations to be made. Along the way the Lord, in Doctrine and Covenants 93:53, said to the Prophet, “Hasten to get the work done.” That’s a gentle nudge, a way of saying, “Can’t you do it a little faster?” So they adopted a faster system. The faster system was to only record the passage, just the verse that needed to be changed. Then, after a while they made an even quicker system; that is, they only wrote down on the paper the words(s) that needed to be changed. They would then put a little mark in the Bible where that word was supposed to go. That’s faster still. Now, I don’t know just exactly why it is, but in harmony with what Monte was saying, those passages that were written out in full generally have more changes than those passages which were done the faster way. For whatever it is worth, that is just a mechanical observation indicating that perhaps that procedure had something to do with how many changes were made.

QUESTION: Why has no other Prophet in the Church completed the translation of the Bible?

JOSEPH F. McCONKIE: I think the obvious key here is that in all things wherein we do the Lord’s work we have to be called of the Lord to do it. There are undoubtedly prophets who are spiritually and intellectually qualified to do that work, but they haven’t received the call to do it. Let me suggest to you a classic case study that illustrates the principle. In 1 Nephi chapter 14 we read about Nephi having had the same revelation that John the Revelator had, the one recorded in the book of Revelation. Nephi desired to write it, and surely there is no question about his competency and ability to do it. He was about to do it when, in effect, the Lord said, “Nothing doing; I’ve already given that assignment to another by the name of John.” Maybe John was still making major preparations in the preexistence, I don’t know. But John was due to come along in six hundred years and write the vision, and it was his mission and his commission. For that reason Nephi was told not to do it. Now, without question there are prophets who have been trained from eternity and who will come forth at the right point in time to do that work.

QUESTION: Why does the Church, meaning The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, not accept Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible? (That is a trick question, so be careful.)

ROBERT A. CLOWARD: The simplest answer is that we do accept the Joseph Smith Translation. But if I can complicate it a little bit, let me go on from there. Since the translation was made, there are parts of it that have been more available to the Church. From 1832 to 1851 parts of it were published in various periodicals. In 1851 the first edition of the Pearl of Great Price was published in Liverpool, England, including parts of what we now call the book of Moses and chapter 24 of Matthew, which were taken directly from the Joseph Smith Translation. As a Church, we have had since that time, and now have as part of our canon or standard works, those portions of the Joseph Smith Translation. I think that it is a fortunate thing that the name Pearl of Great Price was put on that book and if I can apply a parable, I can see a process going on in the Church today that goes back to the parable the Lord gave on a pearl of great price. You remember the parable about a pearl hidden in a field. When it was discovered where the pearl was, a man went and sold all that he had and he purchases the field. I see the Joseph Smith Translation as being a pearl for our day, and one at a time members of the Church are discovering where the field is. They are putting in the study and the work that it takes to purchase the field and find the pearl and receive the worth that it represents. Though we do accept the translation, the process of making it part of individual lives is a process of individuals encountering and studying and finding the worth of Joseph Smith’s work.

QUESTION: For a number of years we have called Joseph Smith’s work with the Bible the Inspired Version. Why have we now begun to call it the Joseph Smith Translation?

GERALD N. LUND: Joseph Smith himself in several places in his history refers to it by the word translation. His most typical title is the “New Translation of the Bible.” When the Reorganized Church published an edition in 1936, they chose to call it the Inspired Version. Both words are accurate; a version of the Bible is obviously an appropriate title, and it is clearly and inspired version. As I understand it, when the Scriptures Publications Committee talked about putting the JST corrections in the new LDS edition of the Bible, they chose to go with the phrase that the Prophet preferred and call it the “translation,” and therefore it became the Joseph Smith Translation.

One other reason might have had a practical basis: If within the footnotes it was listed a IV, many might misunderstand that designation as being a Roman numeral IV. JST is easier to pick up in the reading.

ROBERT J. MATTHEWS: Also, had they called it the New Translation, as the Prophet did, NT looks surprising like New Testament when it is in the footnotes. For those reasons it was called the Joseph Smith Translation. Now, one thing we learn and feel a reverence for is scripture. We feel much reverence for the words of the prophets, and any of the prophets. Calling it the JST is no careless, reckless thing, that suggestion itself was taken by the Scriptures Publications Committee, which consists of Elders Monson, Packer, and McConkie, to a meeting in the temple with the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve and it was there officially adopted. That piece of work, the work that Joseph Smith did, was officially adopted by that group in the temple as the Joseph Smith Translation, to be officially abbreviated JST.

QUESTION: Why did Joseph Smith in his sermons sometimes quote the King James Version on passages that he had already corrected in his translation?

CLYDE J. WILLIAMS: First of all, I think the fact that Joseph did not have and the people of his time did not have a complete published edition or version of the JST would make it very difficult for a congregation to know exactly what he was referring to. That is one possible reason. Another factor may have been the particular audience to which he was speaking—what their needs were, and their background. Let me give you an example from Doctrine and Covenants 128, where we find a rather interesting passage. The Prophet Joseph has just quoted Malachi and, as you know, Malachi 4:5—6 is quoted different ways in two or three different places in our scriptures. After quoting that passage he makes this statement, “I might have rendered a plainer translation to this but it is sufficiently plain to suit my purpose as it stands” (D&C 128:18). And then he moves on. The point is that often what was needed to be drawn from a particular passage could be supplied by the King James Version, so he would quote it as it was recorded there because of the people were familiar with it and had access to that passage.

Another example might be Hebrews 11:30, where we find in the King James Version what appears to be reference to doing work for the dead. “The without us cannot be made perfect,” and so on. In the JST it is changed in such a way as to refer to sufferings. As you read chapter 11 in Hebrews and all that is found there, it is obvious that the context and flow of that chapter has to do with those who have endured suffering and how it literally perfected them. And so the JST change does fit the context. Yet on later occasions Joseph Smith would refer to that passage and would us it in the context of work for the dead. I think the point here is that the principle in either case it true. The Prophet Joseph Smith did not feel himself bound by any particular written word, but rather to be bound by revelation and true principles.

QUESTION: What evidence do we have that Joseph Smith intended to publish his translation of the Bible and if there is such evidence, why didn’t he do it?

KEITH W. PERKINS: Probably two reasons: Money and time. In Doctrine and Covenants 43:12—13 the Lord was very plain that the Saints, if they wanted to learn the mysteries of the kingdom from the Prophet Joseph, needed to help him financially and temporally. It is interesting that the Latter-day Saints expected Joseph Smith to be a prophet, seer, revelator, mayor, administrator, general translator, and yet support his family financially, build his home, chop his wood. And so the Lord had to remind them that if they wanted Joseph to have the time to do the work that was necessary for more doctrine, then they must help him by giving him money, food, and other items. Unfortunately, that was not done as often as it should have been done. As a result, we did not get as much as we might have obtained. Section 94 talks about buildings that were to be established in Kirtland. One of those buildings was to be for publication, and part of that publication the Lord said was to be the Joseph Smith Translation. Section 104 talks about publishing the scriptures, again referring to the New Translation. Incidentally, in the manuscript for section 104, reference is made to the copyright which was to be obtained for the New Translation of the Bible. That copyright has never been found, but it apparently was obtained.

Finally, the Lord said in Doctrine and Covenants 124:89 that William Law had a responsibility to give of his means so that the new Translation could be published. In Church history, as some of you know, William Law began to lose his testimony and in fact did not follow the Lord’s counsel in this regard. I suppose had William Law done what he should have done, we would have had the printed translation much sooner. Instead, we have had to wait over 125 years before we could get it printed in our own literature, and it was a great loss. But certainly the Lord intended that they publish it. Back in 1833 Joseph Smith wrote a letter to W. W. Phelps, who was publishing some of the translations in the Evening and Morning Star; Phelps was instructed not to publish any more, because the Prophet intended to publish the Book of Mormon and the JST New Testament together in a book. But that was never done; he didn’t have time to finish it.

QUESTION: How should I use the JST in teaching the gospel?

GEORGE A. HORTON JR.: I think the answer to that may be obvious to every one of us. We should use it in the best manner we possibly can, just as we would teach with any other scripture. The first thing to do is to be aware that there are contributions in the Joseph Smith Translation that might be appropriate to any given subject. In a sense, it is like putting the picture of a puzzle together. We might think of having stacks of miscellaneous parts to put in this great picture. As we put the puzzle together, we learn that the more pieces we can put into the puzzle, the more plain, clear, and beautiful the picture is going to appear. So we’re going to look for every one of those pieces, and some of them are going to be JST pieces. In December of 1974 there was a Church News editorial that essentially gave the members of the Church the notion that it was appropriate to use the JST in both teaching and writing about the doctrines of the Church. It did, however, add one little suggestion. The article said it would be appropriate that if the matter under study is already in our canonical scripture, we should quote that first. In other words, if there is something in the Book of Moses, quote the Book of Moses first rather than quote the same verse out of the Joseph Smith Translation. Once one has used all of the sources that are now available (those actually canonized as scriptures), then he or she is free to go to any other source that is available. The only thing I could add to that is that we should do so with testimony, with the Spirit, and with knowledge that those things were inspired, that the Lord gave them for a purpose. Thus, if we can find any help in the JST, it obviously would have some significance and would be appropriate in our teaching.

QUESTION: Would you recommend that missionaries use the JST in teaching the gospel?

GEORGE A. HORTON JR.: If I were standing in front of my own branch over at the MTC and a missionary asked me, “Should we use the JST?” I suspect that my immediate answer would be, probably not, as least not to begin with. I believe the role of the missionary is not to teach some of the deeper doctrines of the Church. The first thing he should do is bear testimony of the Lord and the restoration of the gospel through the Prophet Joseph Smith. Once that is established, I suppose that if they have an investigator or, even better, a member of the Church who has accepted the message of the Restoration, who has a testimony of the Prophet, who knows about the Book of Mormon and who has read the Book of Mormon, then perhaps they are ready to go on to some of these other things. But I think it would be counterproductive if they were to immediately turn to the JST. Now, they might ease into the JST once they’ve established the Prophet as the divine representative. If a person is accepting of that, then they are on good ground. There is that little caveat in the first chapter of the book of Moses where the Lord said that these things are to be given to those who believe. With that caution in mind, I might introduce it, but I’d only bring it up as they had gone from step to step in the faith to where they were ready to receive it.

QUESTION: Why is it that we don’t have more than eight chapters of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price? Did not Franklin D. Richards, who compiled the Pearl of Great Price in 1851, have access to more than that?

ROBERT J. MATTHEWS: It appears that Franklin D. Richards did not have more than that. In fact, if you examine a Pearl of Great Price as published in 1851, the material that we now call Moses is put in sketchily and piecemeal, a part here and a part on another page and apart on another page; none of it is called the book of Moses. It is just called excerpts from another translation. It was not until Elder Orson Pratt organized the material and brought if forth in the Pearl of Great Price in 1879 that it began to look like our present book of Moses. Now it would seem entirely appropriate—and perhaps the time will come—when the book of Moses and the Pearl of Great Price might be extended. It would seem consistent to me that it ought to be extended at least down to Abraham, then you could pick up with the book of Abraham as the next item in the Pearl of Great Price. As indicated earlier, scriptures are sacred and used with care. Obviously, that sort of thing would have to be recommended and approved by the first Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve. Since I am not a steadier of the ark, I don’t know when that will ever come up, but someday you might see it.

QUESTION: Who is responsible for the little informational headings preceding each chapter in the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price?

ROBERT J. MATTHEWS: I would be glad to tell you who did that, but first let me say one other thing. The Scriptures Publications Committee used many people for many things. It was somewhat agreed that it was a group project and that although individuals worked on certain things, it would not be noised abroad that this person did this thing and that person did another thing. So that is why you cannot find in any published works who did what. I think it would be no breach of etiquette or of confidentiality if I were to say with pleasure that Elder Bruce R. McConkie produced those headings. Now I don’t know anybody else who could do it so well all of the headings are definitive and interpretive; they are a valuable part of the new edition of the scriptures. Occasionally people say to me, “we have a marvelous topical guide” (and let me say that there are people here who helped on the topical guide), “there are a lot of other good things in this new edition of the scriptures, but there is no commentary.” It struck me one day that the commentary is in the chapter headings. In fact, try this exercise sometime. Start with Genesis and just read the headings—Genesis 1, then Genesis 2, Genesis 3, and do this for about fifteen chapters. You’ll see that those headings are not only good for the chapter in which they are placed, but they are consecutive and relate will to one another.

QUESTION: Last night you referred to Doctrine and Covenants 35:18 (in which the Lord informs Sidney Rigdon that Joseph Smith had been given the keys of the mysteries of those things that were sealed). Does that mean that no more mysteries will be revealed until Joseph returns?

ROBERT J. MATTHEWS: I don’t think that is what it means, although I do believe that most of the doctrine for this dispensation was revealed through the Prophet Joseph Smith. Elder McConkie alluded to that in his address. In Doctrine and Covenants 5:10 we are told that this generation shall receive the Lord’s word through the Prophet Joseph Smith. That does not limit the word to him, but it does indicate that he laid the doctrinal foundation.

QUESTION: Can and should we purchase Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible to use in teaching classes in the Church? Would it be appropriate to do so?

ROBERT J. MATTHEWS: I think everybody on the stand here behind me and two-thirds of you there in the congregation would say “Yes, you can”; “Yes, you should”;’ “Yes, it would be appropriate.” Now, that leads to another question.

QUESTION: How many excerpts or correction in the Joseph Smith Translation were included in the new LDS edition of the Bible; and why were not all of them included?

ROBERT J. MATTHEWS: In the LDS edition of the King James Bible, there are close to 700 actual verses from the JST in the footnotes and in the appendix. There seemed no need to include in the footnotes the text to the book of Moses or the text to chapter 24 of Matthew, since it was felt that everyone who had the new LDS edition of the Bible would also have a pearl of Great Price. It seemed to be a saving of space not to include the text of Moses and chapter 24 of Mathew in those footnotes. If we count close to 700 verses that are there, plus the 400 in the book of Moses and 70 or so in chapter 24 of Matthew, we have around 1,150 passages or verses available to us from the JST. That gives a clue as to how many we have.

Now, why were they not all included? I can give you two of the reasons. First, the book was getting large anyway. Second, we do have essentially all the changes that are obviously, plainly doctrinal. This was a matter of judgment. Another practical consideration was that the Reorganized Church has the original manuscript, and they have it copyrighted. They own it as far as the laws of the land can establish that. It seemed to be a bit of prudence not to go to them and say, “We want you to give all of the JST to us.” So what was done was this: a selection was made of about 700 verses, a list of those verses was prepared, and it was presented to the RLDS historian. We indicated that we were planning a new edition of the Bible, had intentions to use some JST footnotes, and were going to fit these into the text. The RLDS Church historian felt that this would be a great idea. When the job was done, we wanted some agreement between the publishing houses, the Herald House for the Reorganized Church and Deseret Book Company for the LDS Church. A legal contract was drawn up and the RLDS Church was gracious and even pleased that we wanted to use the JST. You see, that’s a good sign, and it left a sweet feeling, a good taste in their mouth. They were not asked for everything, but I do think we have everything that is doctrinally significant.

QUESTION: What is the present position of the RLDS Church with regard to the Inspired Version?

ROBERT J. MATTHEWS: Let me preface this with some comparisons. I cannot speak for the RLDS Church. Officially they hold the JST in honor and respect. But I think I have detected some slippage among them in some areas. The RLDS Church has taken a dim view of the book of Abraham. In fact, if you study the RLDS history you can see them progressively accepting the book of Abraham less and less until now they reject it altogether. Some of them have shown a trend in that direction somewhat with the Book of Mormon. They haven’t rejected it, but they have begun to discount its doctrinal and historical value. There is sometimes a difference between one member and another member. It would be hard to say that all Latter-day Saints believe this thing or that all Latter-day Saints don’t believe that thing. The same is true with the Reorganized Church; they don’t all believe alike, but there is a good number among them (some among their leadership) who have taken a lesser view of the Book of Mormon. Along that line, now that we’ve established a pattern, “What is the present position of the RLDS church in relation to the Joseph Smith Translation?”

The relationship as far as I can tell is that it too might be going the way of the book of Abraham and the Book of Mormon. How could it help but do that? The thing about the JST that makes it better than any other Bible is the doctrine. But after a hundred years, it seems they are getting a little careless in the way in which they deal with the doctrine, and therefore it seems to me that the JST is not held today by the RLDS in as high esteem as it was a hundred years ago. Now, you may have a neighbor who is an RLDS member and he might say that this isn’t true. Well, it may not be true in his mind, but the JST does not seem to have quite the same shine and glitter and luster among the RLDS officials today that it did a hundred years ago. Have they rejected it? No, but I think they have rejected, or at least neglected some of the concepts that are within it.


I would like to thank Brother Nyman and Brother Millet and many others. They shouldered the responsibility for this symposium. There are many others: Brother Millet and Brother Alan Parrish did much by way of advertising; the members of this panel, who have delivered lectures and who have worked so hard, have put a great amount of work into the production of this symposium. I think you should know that I did not suggest this symposium. I hesitated for at least two seconds before I said yes after it was suggested. I believe it was a thing that was needed. I’m glad we did it. I hope you’re glad we did it. There will be a publication that will come out of this sometime in the near future. Now, to all of those who labored so hard and to all of you who came who made it a success, we give our thanks.

Let me reflect on a change that has taken place in my short lifetime. Twenty-five or thirty years ago, if you were to announce you were going g to speak at a fireside on the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, people looked at you as if you were a little strange; they would hope that the blinds would be drawn and the door would be locked and that no one would see them come or leave. There was a cloud hanging over the New Translation and as much misunderstanding as there has ever been, I suppose, about anything. I have seen that cloud gradually dispel. The fact that it is now a prominent part of the new LDS edition of the Bible surely shows that it has gained its proper place or at least is on its way. It is gaining a place in the hearts and the understanding of the membership of the Church. It could not have been in our new Bible if the First Presidency and the Twelve had not permitted it to be so. Now, that indicates a change that has taken place through the years.

Because we have access to the manuscript and because we now know more about the JST and the background than we did before, we now appreciate the Prophet Joseph Smith in an additional dimension. We’ve always known about him in some other ways: the First Vision, the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, priesthood, temples. Now we have all of those and yet see him in an additional dimension. We also understand the Book of Mormon better than we used to because of the JST. We understand the Doctrine and Covenants better than we used to. We understand Church history better than we used to. We understand the Bible better than we used to, and so it truly is an improvement and a light that is growing brighter. As to the future for the JST, I believe that it has only one way to go: it will become stronger and greater and better appreciated, it will be read by more people, and will contribute to the understanding of the gospel and thus to the salvation of many people. I would say that the future for the JST is not only rosy, it is bright!

The JST represents an ideas or a concept whose day had come, and I invite all who want to know more about the gospel to consider studying the Joseph Smith Translation, because it is scripture and because it came from the Lord through the Prophet Joseph Smith, I would say pray about it. Then, when we get that under our belts and neckties and understanding, we will be a little more ready when other things come forth from the Lord. I believe it was time in the economy for the Lord that this book should become known to the Latter-day Saints. More could be said about that, but we don’t have time to say it, so I pray that the blessings of the Lord might be upon us.

I bear testimony that we’re living in a new era, a progressive era, a reflection of President Kimball’s statement in April 1979 conference that we had “paused on some plateaus long enough. Let us resume our journey forward and upward,” with that suggestion and with this opportunity that lies before us to become better acquainted with the scriptures, I say that we are living in a very special day. The faster we become acquainted with the word of the Lord that he has already given us, the sooner more will come. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.