This question came from one of my daughters.
She is well aware that some passages in the Book of Mormon (such as quotations from the Book of Isaiah) come from the same sources as the Bible. For example, the brass plates, which Lehi and his family carried with them from Jerusalem, contained many of the same writings which appear in the Old Testament.
She also understands that the grammar of the King James Version of the Bible was the scriptural language of Joseph Smith. As I’ve written in another blog post, archaic language puts us in a different frame of mind and enables us to interact with scripture differently from the way we interact with everyday speech and writing.
Her question is a deeper one: In some cases, a passage in the Book of Mormon exactly matches a passage in the King James Version of the Bible, but was later revised in the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible. If he later decided the passage should be revised, why didn’t he revise it the first time, while he was translating the Book of Mormon?
An example appears in a blog post I wrote a few days ago:
|Matthew 6:13 (KJV)||And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil|
|3 Nephi 13:12||And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.|
|Matthew 6:14 (JST)||And suffer us not to be led into temptation, but deliver us from evil.|
What is a “correct” translation?
As I’ve thought about this question today, I’ve been struck by how often Book of Mormon prophets lamented their own limitations in writing. They were painfully aware of their inability to convey important truths with the clarity they hoped to achieve. For example:
- “I, Nephi, cannot write all the things which were taught among my people; neither am I mighty in writing, like unto speaking; for when a man speaketh by the power of the Holy Ghost the power of the Holy Ghost carrieth it unto the hearts of the children of men….. But I, Nephi, have written what I have written” (2 Nephi 33:1, 3).
- “Lord, the Gentiles will mock at these things, because of our weakness in writing…. Thou hast made our words powerful and great, even that we cannot write them; wherefore, when we write we behold our weakness, and stumble because of the placing of our words; and I fear lest the Gentiles shall mock at our words” (Ether 12:23, 25).
- “Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither my father, because of his imperfection, neither them who have written before him” (Mormon 9:31).
- “And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God” (Title Page of the Book of Mormon).
The miracle of human language is that sometimes, when we use words to communicate, other people understand what we mean. But communication is not an exact science, even in our native language, and it becomes all the more challenging when transforming a message from one language to another.
There is a scriptural passage which appears in all four of the standard works: the Bible, the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. That is Malachi 4:5-6:
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord:
And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse (Malachi 4:5-6).
On September 6, 1842, Joseph Smith wrote an epistle to the church, in which he quoted this passage. As he began to explain it, he wrote, “I might have rendered a plainer translation to this, but it is sufficiently plain to suit my purpose as it stands.” Then, he added, “It is sufficient to know, in this case, that the earth will be smitten with a curse unless there is a welding link of some kind or other between the fathers and the children” (Doctrine & Covenants 128:18).
As Joseph Smith makes clear in this epistle, he wasn’t looking for a “perfect” translation. He was trying to achieve sufficient clarity to suit a particular purpose. The King James Version was sufficient for this purpose, although the same passage had been quoted to him differently by the angel Moroni nearly 20 years earlier. (See Doctrine and Covenants 2). And even though he didn’t provide a different translation on this occasion, he immediately followed up with a clarifying phrase: the hearts of the fathers and children not only “turn to” one another; they are united by “a welding link.”
So when Joseph Smith revises a scriptural text, it does not necessarily invalidate prior versions. It may simply be adding clarity and providing additional insight to help us better understand the meaning of the text.
Today, I will be grateful for the richness of revealed truth which the Lord has made available to us through prophets. I will remember that human language is imperfect and that I must work to understand the meaning of the messages I have received from God. I will be grateful for the ongoing clarifications I receive from prophets to help me better understand His word.