This post was inspired by Julie’s post on the KJV at T&S. (I was going to link to it, but their server seems to be down as I write this.)
The “official” English language Bible in the Church today is the 1979 LDS King James Version. This project was initiated by Harold B. Lee, who was a protege of J. Reuben Clark, Jr. In 1956 President Clark published his book, Why the King James Version, which, although not widely read, was very influential in the modern development of the KJV as the Church’s de facto official English translation. This book was a collection of notes assembled by President Clark essentially as a lawyer’s brief against the Revised Standard Version (and, by implication, other modern translations). Although President Clark’s son was a classics professor at BYU and knew Greek (I have in my library a collection of Cicero’s orations that once belonged to J. Reuben Clark III), President Clark did not take advantage of his son’s knowledge, relying instead on secondary Protestant sources.
I can understand President Clark’s conservative reaction against modern translations. The specter of higher criticism had been a significant issue at BYU in the early years of the 20th century, and there were many KJV expressions that had acquired a distinctive LDS resonance (such as “the dispensation of the fullness of times”) that was lost in the RSV wording. I continue to use the KJV as my principal English Bible, both at Church and at home, using other translations mostly for reference.
Having said that, however, I believe much of President Clark’s venom against the RSV was misplaced and shortsighted. For instance, I have a difficult time getting worked up about the fact that the RSV replaced the word “charity” in 1 Cor. 13 with “love.” If only he had consulted his son, he might have seen that at the very least the RSV translators had sound reasons for the choices they made.
Following in President Clark’s footsteps, there is a tendency for LDS curriculum writers to consult non-LDS biblical scholarship only in extremis, and then to consult only dated, highly conservative sources (such as the commentaries of Keil and Delitzsch). While it is true that in many respects Mormon views of scripture (such as the unity of Isaiah or Pauline authorship of Hebrews) will only find support in the most conservative sources, much of Mormon theology is hardly “conservative” by traditional standards. By failing to read widely in other translations, commentaries and studies, we run the risk of missing significant insights of great interest to us as Latter-day Saints.
To illustrate, consider KJV Psalm 8:5: “For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels [‘elohim], and hast crowned him with glory and honour.” Under the influence of the Septuagint’s angelous, the King James translators have rendered ‘elohim as “angels.” Compare with this the RSV rendering: “Yet thou hast made him little less than God [‘elohim], and dost crown him with glory and honor.”
The word ‘elohim is ambiguous, and could be translated “God” (as in the RSV), “the Gods,” “the gods,” “a god” (as in the NEB), “the angels” (or any other of a number of names for lesser divine beings), or “divine,” among other possibilities. In my own (admittedly biased) view, the Septuagint is an interpretive rendering reflecting a conscious theological attempt to distance God from man. By giving a fresh rendering of the Hebrew, the RSV better conveys the original intent and is a much stronger translation than the KJV.
Further, this passage from the Psalms is quoted in Hebrews 2:7. The KJV reads as follows: “Thou madest him a little lower [brachu ti] than the angels [angelous]; thou crownedst him with glory and honour, and didst set him over the works of thy hands”. Compare with this the RSV: “Thou didst make him for a little while lower [brachu ti] than the angels, thou hast crowned him with glory and honor”. The RSV relegates “and didst set him over the works of thy hands” to a footnote for textual reasons (which is precisely the kind of thing that so riled President Clark).
The KJV understands brachu ti as meaning “a little lower,” while the RSV takes those words as meaning “for a little while.” The main argument for the KJV interpretation is the fact that the Hebrew expression in Psalm 8:5 (the Hebrew enumeration is actually 8:6) clearly means “a little lower,” referring to class. But the author of Hebrews was not quoting the Hebrew text, but rather the Septuagint. The Greek expression brachu ti generally refers to time, and many translators and commentators take it that way in Hebrews. The RSV is not only a better representation of the Greek, but once again it provides a more intriguing reading in terms of the Mormon theology of divinization. (Some commentators seek to avoid this implication by reading the passage as referring to Jesus only.)
One of the great Mormon “heresies” is our positive view of man, that we are of the same species as God and, as his children, have the potential to become like God. Here are two related passages where the concept is obscured (perhaps intentionally) in the KJV, but is at least arguably made manifest in the more faithful treatment of the RSV.