The BYU Edition of the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible
Kent P. Jackson
Kent P. Jackson (email@example.com) is a professor emeritus of ancient scripture at BYU.
The first thing to know about the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible (JST) is that it isn’t a collection of excerpts in footnotes. We are most familiar with it in that form, printed at the bottom of pages in the Latter-day Saint editions of the Bible, but the Joseph Smith Translation is more than that.
It is a book, a single document that the Prophet and his assistants recorded on a stack of manuscript pages that still exist. The easiest way to label its content is to say that it is a revision of the Bible. It is a new Bible, albeit a limited one because Joseph Smith did not deal with every chapter and verse in the traditional Bible. Additionally, he also added a lot of new material that is not found in any other Bible at all.
How the JST Came to Be
In June 1830 Joseph Smith received a revelation that is the narrative of a series of visions experienced by the ancient prophet Moses. It was the start of the Joseph Smith Translation, though Joseph himself likely didn’t know he was beginning a Bible revision until after he finished dictating the account’s words to his scribe.
That revelation is now chapter 1 of the Book of Moses. After the Moses revelation, the Prophet revised the early chapters of Genesis in order and gave us new accounts of the Creation, the experiences of Adam and Eve, and a new history of the early generations of humankind. After the Prophet’s lifetime, the text that was written on the first twenty pages of the Genesis manuscript was placed in the Pearl of Great Price, and eventually it was given the title “Book of Moses.” The greatest contribution of this part of the JST is that it shows that the gospel of Jesus Christ was taught in the earliest days of human history.
Because of the Book of Moses, which has been in the Pearl of Great Price for more than a century and a half, Latter-day Saints have long been familiar with some of the most important material in the JST. The problem is, they didn’t know it. The reason for that is simple: it wasn’t until the 1981 edition of the Pearl of Great Price that its origin was identified in a heading. Before that time, some historians and scripture scholars knew where the Book of Moses came from, but not many others did. Whole books were written about it without mentioning that it is part of the JST. Even today, if you ask your neighbor in Sunday School next week where the Book of Moses came from, she or he will correctly identify it as having been revealed to Joseph Smith but will not likely know that it is part of the Joseph Smith Translation.
The Genesis material we have in the Pearl of Great Price is only the beginning of the JST. Joseph Smith continued through half of Genesis until he received a revelation instructing him to set the Old Testament aside for a season and begin revising the New Testament (Doctrine and Covenants 45:60–61). This he did starting the next day, and he and his scribes worked on the New Testament until they finished it. After that, the Prophet picked up where he left off in Genesis and translated the rest of the Old Testament. On July 2, 1833, he and his counselors in the First Presidency of the Church (both of whom had served as his scribes) announced that the translation of the Bible was finished. After that date, we have no record of the Prophet ever speaking again of translating the Bible, but we have frequent references to him trying to get the entire translation published as a book, a desire that was not fulfilled in his lifetime.
In 1851 Elder Franklin D. Richards of the Quorum of the Twelve, presiding over the Church in Britain, compiled a mission booklet that contained a selection of Joseph Smith’s translations, revelations, and narrations. Among other items, he included in it most of what is now in the Book of Moses, and he also included Joseph Smith’s translation of Matthew 24, now called Joseph Smith—Matthew. This is the origin of the Pearl of Great Price, which has gone through several editions since then and has been among the Church’s standard works since 1880.
What Is the Joseph Smith Translation?
The Joseph Smith Translation can be called a translation because it is not in the original biblical languages. Yet because a good portion of it revises an already existing text—the King James Version (KJV)—the best word for much of it is revision. Taking the King James Bible in hand, Joseph Smith revised about 3,600 of its verses, or about 12 percent of the total. In those revisions, we can say that he made two kinds of changes: those that revise the words without changing the meaning, and those that change the meaning of the existing biblical passages.
In the first category, we have hundreds of cases in which he revised the text simply to make it easier to read, often just rewording for clarity. In many cases he made the words more modern, such as changing shall to will, which and that to who when referring to humans, ye to you, and replacing old verbal endings like -est and -eth with modern forms. In some places he inserted names to replace pronouns, like changing “And he said” to “And Abraham said” (Genesis 18:32). Changes like these restore no lost truth; they merely make the language more understandable or clearer. They are numerous and unmistakable in the JST, but the Prophet didn’t make these changes consistently, and it is clear that they weren’t his top priority.
As for the revisions that change meanings, those changes were often in response to passages that miscommunicate ideas or contain inaccurate statements—for example, when God “repents” of evil or the statement “No man hath seen God at any time,” the latter of which the Prophet changed to “And no man hath seen God at any time except he hath borne record of the Son” (John 1:18).
The many revisions of existing text, like the examples above, tell only part of the story. The Prophet also added thousands of words of new revealed text that has no counterpart in existing Bibles. Many Latter-day Saints are already familiar with much of the new text, because the JST’s most important new material is in the Book of Moses. But even throughout the New Testament, Joseph Smith revealed new text that enlightens the story of Jesus, puts greater focus on important matters, and clarifies the Savior’s teachings.
The Brigham Young University Edition
In 1979 the Church published a Latter-day Saint edition of the Bible in English. Among its most important features was the collection of hundreds of Joseph Smith Translation excerpts in footnotes and in an appendix in the back of the book. We now also have Spanish and Portuguese Latter-day Saint Bible editions, and in every language in the world in which the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price are now available, whether in print or online, a collection of JST excerpts is also available.
The entire JST has also been previously published. In 1867 the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (now Community of Christ) printed an edition that came to be known as the Inspired Version. It includes not only the revisions Joseph Smith made and the new text he revealed but the rest of the King James Bible as well, so it is not possible to tell from it which verses the Prophet revised and which he didn’t. In more recent years, a few academic transcriptions have been published that highlight differences between the Joseph Smith Translation (also called the New Translation) and the King James text.
In 2004 the Religious Studies Center (RSC) published a facsimile edition of the writing on the JST manuscripts, complete with the scribes’ original spellings, cross-outs, and insertions. That edition was made after years of carefully transcribing the writing on the original documents. During the research that went into that volume, scholars discovered that earlier transcriptions contained errors because of misinterpretations of early manuscripts. Since then, the RSC transcription has been included in the Joseph Smith Papers, where it is available for everyone to see, along with high-resolution images of the manuscript pages.
The evidence is clear that Joseph Smith considered his translation finished and wanted to get it printed. But he didn’t intend it to be published in the rough-draft form in which his scribes first recorded his dictated words. After the dictation, he had the manuscript prepared for publication by creating new verse divisions that made verses on average about three times as long as the traditional verses in the Bible. Capitalization and punctuation were also added to the text, but not with great skill and not consistently. For the most part, the spelling variants of the different scribes remained on the manuscripts.
In late 2021 the Brigham Young University Press, in cooperation with the Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book Company, published a new edition of the Joseph Smith Translation in book form: Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible: The Joseph Smith Translation and the King James Translation in Parallel Columns. This edition comes from the text on the original JST manuscripts as found in the 2004 RSC volume and the Joseph Smith Papers website. It faithfully reproduces the words as they were written by Joseph Smith and his scribes, but it is a “finished” publication, rather than an as-is transcription, so it includes modern spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. It also includes, for the first time in any publication, the new verse breaks that Joseph Smith and his scribes developed for the JST.
This is a Latter-day Saint edition of the whole Joseph Smith Translation, the first of its kind. It includes only the biblical text written on the original manuscripts, so it does not contain verses the Prophet did not change or dictate to his scribes. Its intent is to make easily available in one volume the entire JST, in a format that is dignified and worthy of the revelatory material that it contains. Whereas the English Latter-day Saint edition of the Bible (2013 edition) includes excerpts from about 800 selected verses of the JST, the BYU edition contains all 3,600 verses the Prophet revised, in addition to the thousands of new words he added. Those who spend time in its pages will find that the Joseph Smith Translation is not only readable but is also a gold mine of gospel truth.
To aid readers, the BYU JST presents in a parallel column the corresponding verses of the King James translation. The comparison between the two is not what the new volume is about, however. It is about the message of Jesus Christ that is contained in the New Translation, one of the great fruits of the prophetic ministry of Joseph Smith.
Understanding Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible
The Religious Studies Center is pleased to announce the publication of Understanding Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible, by Kent P. Jackson. Long in the works, this new volume is the first book-length treatment of the JST in decades and reflects the latest scholarship on the Prophet’s translation of the Old and New Testaments.
Kent Jackson has been researching and writing about the Joseph Smith Translation for many years, and this book presents the culmination of his research. It explains in clear terms how the JST came to be, the work of Joseph Smith dictating its text, and the work of the Prophet’s scribes recording it. It deals with the difficult questions about what the Joseph Smith Translation is, and it outlines the prophetic instincts that guided Joseph Smith as he prepared the translation. It has a special emphasis on the contributions the JST makes to the Restoration of the fulness of the gospel. Chapters focus on the relationships between the JST and the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants, and they tell the story of how excerpts of it made their way into the Pearl of Great Price and how selections have been published in Latter-day Saint editions of the Bible and alongside other scriptures.
This new book invites readers to access the Joseph Smith Translation directly themselves, and thus it provides an excellent companion volume to BYU’s recently published Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible: The Joseph Smith Translation and the King James Translation in Parallel Columns.
Jackson writes, “What would the answer be if someone were to ask, ‘What is the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible about?’ What is its subject matter? What is its message?” He answers, “From its beginning, indeed from its very first page, the Joseph Smith Translation is a witness of Jesus Christ. It is about Jesus and his mission as Savior of the world. Its subject matter is Christ’s gospel, and its message is that his Atonement is the way to salvation for all of humankind.”
We invite you to find both these volumes at deseretbook.com and wherever Latter-day Saint books are sold.