A Commentary on the JST of 1 Corinthians

I have written a paper with the captioned title and posted it on SSRN. You can read it here. I’d like to tell you a little bit about the genesis of this project.

Over the last couple of decades the Church has slowly been learning that it’s not a good idea to try to hide the ball on things that are but a mouse click away in this newfangled Internet age. Probably the sphere where the Church has made the most headway towards an ethic of transparency is in the realm of history, particularly with the crown jewel, the Joseph Smith Paper’s Project, but also with other initiatives, such as the Gospel Topics Essays, the forthcoming history of the Church, and so forth.

There are other areas that are lagging behind the progress on the history front, however, and one of these has to do with LDS scripture. One subset of those issues relates to common member (mis)understanding of the Joseph Smith Translation (JST) of the Bible. As I recite in the abstract to the linked article (which is just the introduction to the paper), every one of the hundreds (if not thousands) of comments I’ve heard relating to the JST in a church classroom has been grounded in an assumption that the JST is a pure textual restoration of the original text of the biblical passage. No LDS scholar of the JST actually believes such a thing. And to have such a wide, persistent and absolute disconnect between the scholarship and the assumptions made in Sunday School classes is not a good thing (in my view, at least).

Why does this disconnect exist? I can think of a few reasons:

  • The works that articulate a more nuanced understanding of JST revisions are mostly in older books that are obscure, out-of-print, or very expensive. I have these works in my personal library; I’m confident no one else in my ward has ready access to them or even knows of them.
  • When LDS scholars have described other types of things that may be going on in the JST text, they generally don’t give any actual examples.
  • There has been no attempt at popularization of a more nuanced understanding of the JST. The Ensign published an article on the Mountain Meadows Massacre, but nothing comparable to that kind of popularization in the JST realm.
  • Although I’m confident that every professor of Ancient Scripture in BYU Religious Education has a more nuanced understanding of the JST, I’m not at all confident that this kind of nuance is actually being taught in the classroom.[1] I’ve spent the last 35 years in northern Illinois, and during that time I’ve had many hundreds, probably thousands, of BYU grads come through my classrooms, and I have seen no evidence that they were taught any nuance about the JST whatsoever.

Let me tell you a story that supports my skepticism that the JST is being taught adequately in BYU Ancient Scripture courses. In the early 80s I was taking an Old Testament class from a senior, highly respected scholar in Ancient Scripture. He was talking about the passages in Exodus where it says the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart. These are considered somewhat problematic or challenging passages, because they seem to suggest that Pharaoh had no freewill and was punished for actions the Lord imposed upon him. So he’s going over various approaches to that challenging scripture, when a student raises his hand and reads the JST emendation that provides that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. And my teacher turned white as a ghost. Instead of using this as a teaching moment, he quickly dropped the subject and left the impression that yes, the JST had clearly solved the problem and there was no more to say about it. I have no idea whether there was some sort of a formal policy against approaching the JST with greater nuance or whether that was simply the accepted culture of the department, but a teaching opportunity to give greater context to the JST was lost that day. I’m guessing a scene like that has played out thousands of times over the decades in BYU Religious Education.

So the linked paper is my effort to make some small movement towards suggesting a more nuanced approach to how we read the JST. First, I’m posting this for free on the internet, so it should be easily available and easy to circulate and not limited to an out of print book from the 1980s. Second, I have done something no one has attempted before (at least to my knowledge): I have tried to make sense of every single JST emendation (including those not printed in the LDS 1979 edition of the KJV Bible) in a book of the Bible (in this case, 1 Corinthians).[2] That’s a total of 63 verses that receive some change in the JST. And to my eye, not a single one of those 63 revisions makes any sense at all as a restoration of original text. There are other things going on there. My hope is that working one’s way through the JST of an entire book will allow students to see the true breadth of the different types of revisions Joseph made to the KJV text.

And you know, I find myself generally impressed with Joseph’s effort. For an uneducated man he had a fine sensitivity to the text. I see the JST as largely an issue spotting exercise; he is looking for anomalies in the text and then proposing possible solutions to remedy  those anomalies. I was surprised by how many times Joseph was able to match in some way what other modern English translations have done, and this with no access to or knowledge of the underlying languages or texts.[3] He saw and wrestled with issues that an average GD student wouldn’t even see at all in the first place. Would that our students today would be even half so invested in trying to figure out what the scriptures mean!

[1] I assume this is much like the Documentary Hypothesis. When I was a student at the Y in the early 80s, the Documentary Hypothesis was not taught on campus at all. These days it is not taught generally, but by certain professors in certain courses. I’m guessing some professors might broach JST issues in the classroom. Andy Skinner is doing great work on the JST, so he might be a contemporary example. But I sincerely doubt that nuanced teaching concerning the JST is happening on any more than a very limited scale in Ancient Scripture.

[2] I chose 1 Corinthians because I gave a presentation on the JST of 1 Corinthians for a BYU conference in connection with the then forthcoming 1 Corinthians volume of the BYU New Testament Commentary series. Since I had already analyzed half of the JST revisions for that project, I just had to analyze the other half to complete the work that is linked in this post.

[3] I did a quick review of Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible and didn’t see any obvious influence in 1 Corinthians, so the use of sources is not a topic I have broached here.

 

Comments

  1. Thanks, Kevin! I look forward to reading this—I suspect it will be an invaluable resource.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Sam, as you can see, your and Stirling’s SSRN recommendation worked!

  3. Thank you! That’s a lot of work. I’ve rnjoyed reading it so far.

  4. Minor quibble, but the Ensign has had some great articles on the JST over the years. Just not recently. Alas most of the articles are from the 80’s and 90’s which tells something of the focus of the Ensign the past decade or two.

    i.e. https://www.lds.org/ensign/1997/08/the-joseph-smith-translation-plain-and-precious-things-restored?lang=eng

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for pointing us to that article, Clark. Dave is an old friend and is great. I agree that this is along the lines of what I would like to see; it’s a shame that the Ensign stopped publishing substantive material like this.

  6. Perhaps it should be called the Joseph Smith Commentary, or if one could find a word somewhere between translation and commentary.

  7. Kevin,
    Thanks for this excellent article (along with others over the years). You may be a “frustrated scholar” to quote your contribution to the Jack Welch Festschrift, but thanks for all your efforts and sacrifices. I echo your comments about the Ensign and remind all of us that “A Strange Thing in the Land” by Hugh Nibley ran for almost two years in the Ensign. Nothing quite like it since.
    I don’t know David Seely well, but I hope he’s getting close to his Anchor Bible volume on Deuteronomy Part Ii (with the late Moshe Weinfeld).

  8. I just got back from a study abroad at the BYU-Jerusalem center and we bluntly discussed Documentary Hypothesis, multiple Isaiah, and other instances of scripture in light of actual historical evidence. I’d imagine my experience at BYU is fairly different from the experience others had, say, 5-10 years ago. I’m exited for the future.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    Glad to hear it, Adam!

  10. lapstoneorg says:

    Hi Kevin, The link to SSRN at the top of the article doesn’t seem to be working. Can you check this?