The JST: A Test Case

Here’s Mark 2:14:

And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphæus sitting at the receipt of custom, and said unto him, Follow me. And he arose and followed him.

And here’s the JST for that verse, with the change underlined:

And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphæus sitting at the place where they receive tribute, as was customary in those days, and said unto him, Follow me. And he arose and followed him.

(Note that this JST is not included in LDS Bibles. Not all of them are.) The JST removes the phrase “receipt of custom” and replaces it with “place where they receive tribute, as was customary in those days.”

I’ve noticed that most LDS operate under the impression that the JST fixes changes that have been made over the years to the text and thus restores it to what it originally said. I think some JSTs do that, but not all. Maybe not even most. This is an example of a JST that does not, I think, restore the text to what it said originally. I say that for three reasons: first, Mark would not have referred to Jesus’ lifetime as “in those days,” as if it were in the distant past. Secondly, Mark would not have felt the need to explain what a “receipt of custom” (modern English: toll booth or tax office) was–his audience would have known all too well what it was. And third, it is nearly impossible for me to imagine the circumstances under which a scribe would have changed the phrase “place where they  . . . in those days” to “receipt of custom.” There is no theological, literary, logical, or other possible motive to make that change.

I think this is a pretty clear case where the JST changes the text in order to make it more understandable for the modern-day (in Joseph Smith’s time) audience. I’m certainly not the first one to notice that many JSTs are better understood as making the text more reader-friendly than as restoring a corrupted text, but I don’t think that that message is getting out of the LDS academic world and into the pews.

(As a side note, I’m actually fairly amazed at the number of JST changes that make the text easier to read–there is a lot of changing “saith” to “said” and that sort of thing. It makes me think that Joseph Smith thought that it was important that the text be as easy to read as possible for the average person. Which, in turn, makes me wonder what he’d think about our continued use of the KJV, but that’s a topic for another post.)



13 comments for “The JST: A Test Case

  1. September 25, 2013 at 1:58 pm

    I think some other in this category are the regular changing of “house” to “church” in the letters, referring to a congregation. Given that the earliest christians met together at houses, this seems like semantic clarification for modern benefit, not textual restoration. They certainly would have understood what was implied in “house.”

  2. Cyl
    September 25, 2013 at 4:54 pm

    I have these notes in my book from your class three weeks ago. I have already shared them!

  3. Kevin Barney
    September 25, 2013 at 7:05 pm

    Well done; I agree.

    (I published an article back in the 80s in Dialogue making this case, but your average member doesn’t read Dialogue. I agree with you that this scholarly understanding is not filtering down to the bulk of the membership.)

  4. September 25, 2013 at 9:22 pm

    So the obvious question is: If the JST is clearly not a translation but is, more or less, Joseph’s selective commentary on various Bible verses, why is this so hard to admit? Why the insistence on perpetuating the misleading use of “translation”?

  5. September 25, 2013 at 9:34 pm

    I think there are even several cases where Joseph misunderstood the KJV text, asked if it really meant what he thought it meant, was told “no”, and then changed it to something that made more sense to him. I’m too lazy to go try to find and example right now, though.

    I read most of what we see in the JST as notes Joseph made while struggling with the text. There’s a lot to learn from that, and it’s good that we have it available. But it’s a misunderstanding on our part to look at it all as inspired restoration of the original text; I don’t think Joseph ever intended it that way.

  6. jpv
    September 26, 2013 at 1:25 am

    I’m glad it’s called a translation. It gives a lot of light to the book of Abraham as revelation/translation that does not come from the source text, but conveys truths e.g. there needs be no concern that the English BoA does not match the papayri just as the JST Moses expansions don’t match the KJV.

  7. Julie M. Smith
    September 26, 2013 at 8:29 am

    Dave, I guess I don’t see it as “hard to admit” as much as people just not being aware of other possibilities besides a restoration of the text.

    Curtis, I agree with you. I think the changes to “God repented” are a good example of this–Joseph was fixing a problem in the KJV.

    jpv, good point.

  8. September 26, 2013 at 11:17 am

    I’m surprised, not by your assertion, but by the fact that it needed to be made. I always thought this was obvious. But then, I spent many sacrament meetings poring over footnotes to alleviate boredom as a teenager.

    As an unrelated side note, this is also how I learned how to conduct music.

  9. Eric
    September 26, 2013 at 12:23 pm

    As to whether the JST is a translation, I think it’s important to remember that in Joseph Smith’s day to “translate” had not only its most common meaning today, but also to explain or to interpret. To me, it makes sense to understand the JST as a translation in that sense rather than as a mere rendering of Hebrew or Greek to English.

    Also, understanding the word in that sense puts a different perspective on AoF 8, but I tend to think that’s exactly what Joseph Smith meant: He wasn’t saying that the Bible and the Book of Mormon are the word of God if they’re translated correctly in the modern sense, but if they’re interpreted or explained correctly.

  10. AaronT
    September 26, 2013 at 1:06 pm

    There’s also the interesting JST to Hebrews 11:40. The KJV says: “they without us should not be made perfect.” JST says: “for without sufferings they could not be made perfect.” Then, many years later, when the Lord was revealing the concepts of salvation for the dead to JS, JS cites to the KJV of Hebrews 11:40, in D&C 128:15, as proof that saving the dead was necessary for our salvation. In addition to being evidence that the JST is a commentary on the Bible, rather than a restoration of the original text of the book of Hebrews, it is also evidence that JS did not consider his “translation” of the Bible to be completed.

  11. stephen hardy
    September 26, 2013 at 4:11 pm

    Two points:
    Point One: My father was peripherally involved with the “new versions” of the scriptures that came out in 1979. He told me that there was a bit of a debate among the church workers who were making all of the revisions and footnote changes for that edition as to how to refer to what we call the “JST.” There were a number of workers who wanted to call it the “Joseph Smith Version”, because it clearly wasn’t what we would call a translation. However, the Joseph Smith Translation eventually won out, because that is how Joseph Smith himself referred to it.

    Point Two: Not too long ago I toured the Notre Dame de Paris. Our tour guide was fantastic. He talked about how the cathedral was partially destroyed in the 1790s as part of the French Revolution. At one point, there was a movement to completely tear it down. (Apparently Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” helped the public re-consider it’s value.) It was decided to restore it in the 1850s. An architect by the name of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc led the restoration. The process was somewhat controversial because it was clear that it wasn’t a true restoration. For example, he added a third spire which had never been there. When confronted, Viollet-le-Duc said (according to our tour guide) that he wasn’t restoring the cathedral to what it had been. Rather, he said, he was restoring it to what it should have been. To put it another way he wrote this: A restoration is a “means to reestablish [a building] to a finished state, which may in fact never have actually existed at any given time.”

    That is pretty much how I look at the JST. It is Joseph Smith’s version of what the Bible should be.

  12. JMS
    September 26, 2013 at 8:38 pm

    I think it is worth noting that the late Robert J. Matthews, who many considered to be the world expert on the JST, also did not believe that all JST references are a restoration of original text. This is what he says on page 253 of his classic, “‘A Plainer Translation’: Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible: A History and Commentary”:

    “To regard the New Translation as a product of divine inspiration given to Joseph Smith does not necessarily assume that it be a restoration of the original Bible text. It seems probable that the New Translation could be many things. For example, the nature of the work may fall into at least four categories:

    “1. Portions may amount to restorations of content material once written by the biblical authors but since deleted from the Bible.

    “2. Portions may consist of a record of actual historical events that were not recorded, or were recorded but never included in the biblical collection.

    “3. Portions may consist of inspired commentary by the Prophet Joseph Smith, enlarged, elaborated, and even adapted to a latter-day situation. This may be similar to what Nephi meant by ‘likening’ the scriptures to himself and his people in their particular circumstance.

    “4. Some items may be a harmonization of doctrinal concepts that were revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith independently of his translation of the Bible, but by means of which he was able to discover that a biblical passage was inaccurate.

    “The most fundamental question seems to be whether or not one is disposed to accept the New Translation as a divinely inspired document. Once this has been decided upon, it seems unlikely that any of us could determine with unerring accuracy which parts were of a particular category…. At the present time we just do not have the information … needed to establish empirically what parts are restoration, what parts commentary, and what parts simply the result of good judgment.”

  13. EFF
    September 26, 2013 at 9:22 pm

    Many of Joseph Smith’s changes to the biblical text are questionable. Further, there was more than one instance where he “re-translated” the same passage, having forgotten that he had already done it once before. Not surprisingly, the two translations differed significantly. Also, some of his changes to the Old Testament belie his unfamiliarity with the Hebrew language; they actually distort more than clarify.

    Philip Barlow’s excellent book, “Mormons and the Bible,” chronicles in some detail both the strengths and weaknesses of the JST. And a second edition of this fine work was just published by the Oxford University Press.

    There is good reason why the JST is not part of our canon of scripture (with the exception of the Books of Moses and Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price). I’m not suggesting that it has no value; what I am saying is this it should be considered carefully and with a measure of skepticism. (Of course, I’m inherently skeptical about most everything.)

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