Joseph Smith, the Bible, and the Book of Moses

by John Turner

Yesterday, I received via Interlibrary Loan a copy of Joseph Smith's New Translation of the Bible: Original Manuscripts (edited by Scott Faulring, Kent Jackson, and Robert Matthews). I am starting to worry that the insatiable Latter-day Saint appetite for books about Joseph Smith and early LDS history will deforest the world. The above-referenced volume is even bigger than the biggest Joseph Smith Papers volume.

I've often wondered exactly why Joseph Smith's "translation" of the King James Bible hasn't received more attention from scholars of Mormonism. There's a nice section on it in Phil Barlow's Mormons and the Bible, and Terryl Givens discusses it in By the Hand of Mormon. Smith, however, never published the bulk of his translation, and although the Utah-based LDS Church includes portions of it in the Pearl of Great Price and in footnotes to the King James Bible, in its entirety the Bible translation has never attained the authority of either the Book of Mormon or the Doctrine & Covenants. I love the image of Joseph Smith leafing through a King James Bible, reflecting upon the text, and then either expanding or correcting it. The translation work also prompted some of Smith's most significant revelations.

Smith and his scribe Oliver Cowdery purchased a Bible in 1829, which the prophet used for at least some of the translation work. Cowdery wrote the following on the flyleaf of the Bible: "The Book of the Jews And the Property of Joseph Smith Junior and Oliver Cowdery Bought October the 8th 1829 at Egbert B  Grandins Book Store Palmyra Wayne County New York." Further down, Cowdery noted: "Price $3.75 Holiness to the Lord." What Smith and Cowdery purchased was a version of the King James Bible published by Elihu Phinney in Cooperstown, New York. Version, because Phinney's edition modernized some of the language.

The Book of Mormon had announced that suggested that the Christian Bible was incomplete and imperfect. Many "plain and precious things" had been taken out of the Bible; the Old and New Testaments were corrupted texts in need of supernatural retranslation. Although he referred to his work as "translation," Smith did not attempt a retranslation of the Bible from its original languages. It was not a translation, as the term is commonly understood. Instead, an revelation sparked his episodic but somewhat systematic efforts to correct, clarify, and add to the King James text.

The work began with what Cowdery identified as "A Revelation given to Joseph the Revelator June 1830." It begins with Moses being "caught up into an exceeding high Mountain" and coming "face to face" with God. God tells Moses, "thou art in similitude to mine only begotten & mine only begotten is & shall be for he is full of grace & truth." Satan then appears and tempts Moses, unsuccessfully. "In the name of Jesus Christ depart," Moses dismisses the adversary and then again beholds God's glory. God then explains to Moses that "as one Earth shall pass away & the Heavens thereof even so shall another come." There would be no end to God's work and no end of worlds. At the end of this revelation, the text hints at Joseph Smith as the restorer of biblical truth. "[I]n a day when the children of men shall esteem my words as naught," God tells Moses in Smith's prologue to Genesis, "and take many of them from the book which thou shalt write, behold I will raise up another like unto thee." Over the next nine months, Smith proceeded with emendations to the first five chapters of Genesis. Because of the Moses prologue, the material became known to Latter-day Saints as the Book of Moses and is now included in the LDS Church's Pearl of Great Price.

The resulting manuscript is a much more theologically creative text than the Book of Mormon. In a reconciliation of the two accounts of human creation in Genesis, the Book of Moses explains the first as a spiritual creation and the second account as the physical creation of human beings. Thus, the text teaches that God created the spirits of men and women before the earthly days of Adam and Eve. The Book of Moses reaffirms the fortunate aspects of the fall introduced in the Book of Mormon, and it explains Satan's rebellion as an attempt to "destroy the agency of man" by promising to "redeem all mankind." Nevertheless, as was true of the Book of Mormon itself, Smith's "translation" of Genesis is highly christocentric. In accord with the Book of Mormon, the Book of Moses introduces Jesus Christ as central to the creation and salvation of human beings from the beginning of the world, and the expansions also state that a single divine "plan of salvation" began with Adam.

Out of what became the Book of Moses, what was most important to early Latter-day Saints was published in 1832 as a "Prophecy of Enoch." It expanded upon brief references to the character of Enoch in both Genesis and the New Testament (Enoch figured more prominently in rabbinical and apocryphal literature). In Joseph Smith's expansion of the early chapters of Genesis, Enoch, much like Moses, ascends a mountain, beholds "the heavens open," and is "clothed upon with glory." He talks with God "face to face." In the midst of ongoing battles against the enemies, Enoch gathers the "people of God" into a city. God calls his people "ZION, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them." God then takes the city of Zion into heaven and weeps over the remaining inhabitants of the earth, whom he plans to destroy in a flood save for the family of Noah. Enoch receives a vision of Christ's crucifixion, which sets free the spirits of those righteous men and women who died prior to his incarnation. He then sees a second gathering of God's elect at the time of the earth's final tribulation before Christ's return and millennial reign. Smith did not publish the entirety of the Book of Moses until shortly before his death, but the figure of Enoch, the concept of Zion, and the millennial gathering of God's saints became central to the development of the Church of Christ.

After the material on Moses and Enoch, Smith proceeded to read through most of the Bible, dictating revised passages to his scribes. In 1832, he began simply marking changes on the text of the Phinney Bible. That, I find, is a striking image. For Smith, nothing was ever settled. Everything was subject to change. The Book of Mormon. His own revelations. And the Bible.


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