Monday Morning Theological Poll: Translation Edition

When we say, in the Articles of Faith, that we believe in the Bible, “as far as it is translated correctly,” what exactly do we mean?

Justify your answer below.


  1. Pedro Olavarria says:

    Perhaps Webster’s 1820 can help:

    TRANSLA’TE, verb transitive [Latin translatus, from transfero; trans, over, and fero, to bear.]

    1. To bear, carry or remove from one place to another. It is applied to the removal of a bishop from one see to another.

    The bishop of Rochester, when the king would have translated him to a better bishoprick, refused.

    2. To remove or convey to heaven, as a human being, without death.

    By faith Enoch was translated, that he should not see

    death. Hebrews 11:15.

    3. To transfer; to convey from one to another. 2 Samuel 3:10.

    4. To cause to remove from one part of the body to another; as, to translate a disease.

    5. To change.

    Happy is your grace,

    That can translate the stubbornness of fortune

    Into so quiet and so sweet a style.

    6. To interpret; to render into another language; to express the sense of one language in the words of another. The Old Testament was translated into the Greek language more than two hundred years before Christ. The Scriptures are now translated into most of the languages of Europe and Asia.

    7. To explain.

  2. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    I think the position of the Church (the “We” in your question) is that errors are the result of the game of literary telephone. At least, that was the initial implication in the early Church, though we may have moved in the direction of the primacy of Joseph’s revelatory process. But this ignores the fact that things were, indeed, left out for deliberate and nefarious reasons, and that understanding original texts, and contexts, is essential to scholarship and better lay understanding of the bible.

  3. One thing that has been surprising to me in my journey into the Church is that when discussing the Bible, most members don’t seem to realize that there are no original copies of the Bible anymore. There are some really old fragments (the size of a business card) from a couple hundred years after Jesus, but the oldest complete Bible is from the 4th century. So, there is no original to check the work against. The practice of textual criticism was intended to address this problem and prove what the originals say, without ever having them, but textual criticism has never really lived up to what it promised. In this sense, the Bible and the BoM are in the same boat – neither has originals to check the work against.

  4. I chose the fifth option, but to state it slightly less cynically, I think what Joseph Smith meant was that while scripture is important, we’re not required to abandon our own conscience or reason in favor of something that may not even be translated correctly, so when you read something in scripture and your conscience says “that can’t be right,” you should feel free to explore other possible readings or “translations” through your own creativity and the gift of revelation. The JST is basically him doing exactly that. The overall concern, imo, is the primacy of the spirit of revelation over the written word.

  5. Jared, I have also understood the matter as you articulated it. I wonder if there is any reason not to extend that same approach to scriptures other than the Bible and, of course, to what has been said in general conferences.

  6. No, no reason, imo. That doesn’t mean we just ignore scripture when we don’t like it. It simply means that we should feel free to see revelation, and that the spirit always has the last word.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    The 1820 Webster’s has a mistake. The Latin infinitive form is not transfero, but rather transferre.

  8. Jared Livesey says:

    We know what the author of those words meant by them.

    I believe the Bible as it read when it came from the pen of the original writers, ignorant translators, careless transcribers, or designing and corrupt priests have committed many errors. – Joseph Smith

    It is a declaration that we are scriptural literalists, and that we acknowledge that the Bible has not been translated – or, functionally, “transmitted” – entirely correctly. The Bible he would have been referring to is the King James Version.

    And, in a FAQ Joseph wrote about Mormonism, we find this:

    I answered the questions which were frequently asked me, while on my last journey but one from Kirtland to Missouri, as printed in the Elders’ Journal, Vol. 1, Number 2, pages 28 and 29, as follows:
    First–“Do you believe the Bible?”
    If we do, we are the only people under heaven that does, for there are none of the religious sects of the day that do.
    Second–“Wherein do you differ from other sects?”
    In that we believe the Bible, and all other sects profess to believe their interpretations of the Bible, and their creeds.
    Third–“Will everybody be damned, but Mormons?”
    Yes, and a great portion of them, unless they repent, and work righteousness.

    Again, according to Joseph, either we are scriptural literalists, or else we do not believe the scriptures.

    Thus, when Joseph said “we believe the Bible as far as it has been translated correctly,” he meant “we believe the Bible literally[.]”

    The question of this poll might be better rephrased as “Do we mean what Joseph Smith meant by the so-called ‘Fifth Article of Faith’?” The answer to that question is purely binary – either “yes,” or else “no.”

  9. 1. Even apart from questions of what “literally” means as to any particular text, it would seem that Joseph ultimately gave primacy to revelation and not to scripture (certainly not the KJV): “The old German translators are the most nearly correct — most honest of any of the translators; and therefore I get testimony to bear me out in the revelations that I have preached for the last fourteen years.” ( Joseph Smith, History of the Church 6:363)
    2. Irrelevantly, from what I’ve read and can find, there was no 1820 Webster dictionary. I think that’s a typo for 1828.

  10. Jared Livesey says:

    I must issue a correction – it’s the so-called “Eighth Article of Faith,” not the Fifth.

    @JR, The subject of the so-called “Eighth Article of Faith” is not revelation, nor is it whether revelation trumps scripture, the subject is what we believe about the scriptures – the Bible and the Book of Mormon. To understand what Joseph meant by “believe” in our lying post-modern age of nearly universal unbelief and hypocrisy, it was necessary to point out something Joseph left implicit – that belief, as such, is literalistic. Anything else is unbelief.

    So either we mean what Joseph meant by the so-called “Eighth Article of Faith,” and therefore we believe the scriptures literally – or else we do not. Revelation is irrelevant to that subject.

    But on the subject of revelation, Joseph, who actually did received revelations from God, believed the scriptures literally – other examples from Joseph than the ones I produced can be added at length to demonstrate that he both practiced and taught thoroughgoing scriptural literalism – and it seems he did not believe revelation from God would result in a contradiction with the scriptures. He even went as far as to issue this declaration:

    If any man preaches to you doctrines contrary to the Bible, the Book of Mormon, or the Book of Doctrine & Covenants, set him down as an imposter…Try them by the principles contained in the acknowledged word of God; if they preach, or teach, or practice contrary to that, disfellowship them; cut them off from among you as useless and dangerous branches, and if they are belonging to any of the quorums of the church, report them to the president of the quorum to which they belong. (Times & Seasons, 5:490-491, April, 1, 1844, emphasis in the original.)

    To be sure, he was referring to the then-current edition of the D&C, not any edition afterwards.

    It is an open question as to whether we indeed do mean what Joseph meant by “AoF 8.”

    “What is the rule of interpretation? Just no interpretation at all. Understand it precisely as it reads.” – Joseph Smith, TPJS p. 276

    Once someone believes a source – a person, an institution, the scriptures, God – to be an unreliable source of information, defensiveness – what the scriptures call hardness of heart – and unbelief – disbelief, interpretation – takes the place of belief. And it is the first test of the Gospel to believe – literally – God’s word (Alma 32:22). Therefore we should be quite careful in how we hold up the scriptures to the world.

  11. Jared,
    You are sidestepping the question. “Literally” sounds great in the abstract, but in reality everything comes via interpretation, even if it is only in your own head. I appreciate that Joseph said those things and that, to a degree, he even attempted to read the scriptures literally, but it was always literally as he understood them. And how he understood them is a matter debated to this day.

  12. Jared Livesey says:

    @John C.,

    I acknowledge that today, in our lying, hypocritical, post-modern age, we speak of literalism as being an “interpretation” – but Joseph didn’t regard literalism as an interpretation. To “believe literally” would, in Joseph’s language, be redundant, since belief, as such, is literal. Literalism is the default, normative hermeneutic, the privileged interpretation, the one that does not require explication nor mention, and divergence from which requires justification.

    For example, for your comment(s) to make any sense to anyone (that is, if you intend to communicate information to your audience), you either have to be speaking literally, and you clearly are; or else you must provide or reference the key whereby the encoded meaning of your words may be decoded – that is, so your literal meaning may be understood; or else you would have to disclaim truth – I. E., “I was only kidding,” “I was being sarcastic,” “How dumb are you to believe me,” &c..

    “AoF 8” announces us as scriptural literalists. If we affirm “AoF 8” with the meaning it had when it was written, then we believe in a literal 7 day creation, an Earth which is literally on the order of 6000 years old, a literal Adam and Eve, a literal worldwide flood from which a literal Noah and his literal family were saved, a literal Jonah and a literal whale, a literal crucifixion and literal resurrection, literal walking on water, and so on.

    Joseph was as clear as possible as to how he understood scripture, and how scripture is to be properly understood – and that was at face value, literally.

    So, if we affirm “AoF 8,” do we do so with its original meaning?

  13. Mike R. says:

    Given the audience for the Wentworth letter, I’m inclined to read AoF 8&9 as being about more about the Church than about the Bible. Where you’ve got Lutherans and Presbyterians who adhere to “sola scriptura,” and Methodists who claim a scripture, reason, tradition and experience as sources of authority, what are the sources of authority in Mormonism? Well, first, the Bible — it’s treated as the word of God. But the church isn’t inerrantist — there are exceptions for translation errors. Since no originals exist, whether those errors were purposeful or negligent, late-stage errors in translation into English or early-stage errors in transmission of ideas, errors we can actually point to or errors that we believe must have occurred at some stage, aren’t questions the letter purports to answer; it just stakes the church out as bible-believing but not inerrantist. The rest of AoF 8 and 9 add the Book of Mormon, and all past, present, and future revelation as sources of authority, laying to rest the question of whether this is a “sola scriptura” church, a church that’s particularly bound to tradition, etc.

  14. Loursat says:

    A long time ago, I favored the kind of fundamentalist dogma that Jared Livesey argues for. It is not a path of peace and love, in my experience. My life is not necessarily easier without fundamentalist literalism, but I am happier, more productive and a lot nicer to be with. I feel consistently closer to the Spirit without it.

    I’m not inclined here to debate the arguments against literalist belief systems. I will observe, however, that Joseph Smith’s thought was broad enough to inspire and support both fundamentalist literalism and other, more enlightened ways of knowing. I believe that in working out our faith, we must resist the sclerotic tendencies of all systems of belief. Joseph Smith is a brilliant example of how to do this, if we will take his example to heart. He never stopped thinking and never stopped seeking greater light and knowledge. As a result, he changed, and sometimes he made mistakes. But he never stood still.

    On the subject of John C.’s provocative poll: I like it! I just can’t decide how to vote. What makes this so illuminating is that every one of the choices has plenty of proponents in the church today. I have my own opinions, of course, but if the question is what do “we” believe, then the answer must surely be all of the above.

  15. I have questions about the pronoun “we.” Do we mean “we” as in the institutional church, or the general membership of the church, or me personally? Because those are all three different answers. I have come to understand “translated” in a much different way than I used to. So I went with the “literary telephone\best intentions” choice, for my choice. I do think that there is a majority of church members who lean towards the scriptural literalist view, and not many who are aware of the way that the current Bible was assembled from all those different texts. I also perceive that both the lay leadership and general authorities would be quite divided on all this as well.

  16. Wondering says:

    Just idly wondering how a whale got into Jared Livesey’s litany of literals in place of the KJV’s “great fish,” the Hebrew word for fish used in the book of Jonah being rarely used in the OT and perhaps only in Jonah and in Nehemiah 13:16. In Nehemiah it seems that it likely does not mean “whale.”

  17. “Joseph didn’t regard literalism as an interpretation.”
    That doesn’t mean he wasn’t engaged in interpretation. Nor does it mean you aren’t. This is especially the case with ancient ritual or mythic texts like what we find in Genesis.

  18. Also, while I get why people haven’t chosen the inerrant Bible answer, I feel like they are lying to themselves about what most Mormons believe. Because I’ve heard a lot of people taking it as inerrant in church.

  19. Bro. B. says:

    Seems to me that to say Brother Joseph was a scriptural literalist is a hard position to defend, with the fact that he made so many changes to the Bible via the JST and was not able to complete it, and his statements even in modern texts like the D&C to the effect of “I might have rendered a plainer/better translation but it suits my purposes.”

  20. Buendia says:

    Joseph’s process of “translation” was not at all what we generally think of when we use that word, but rather a creative or revelatory process. We know that from both the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham “translation” processes, and to a lesser degree, from the JST. Add to that Joseph’s constant tinkering with the D&C revelations and his complete willingness to adjust doctrine (including radically altering it), and I think we can acknowledge that Joseph’s understanding of “translation” was about getting to what he saw as underlying truths rather than an exact replication of the original thought in an old text.

    I also think that when we use the caveat of “as far as it is translated correctly” today, we generally do so in order to excuse parts of the Bible that we find problematic, incomplete, or in conflict with our other beliefs. As times change and our sensibilities change, so too does our list of things in the Bible that we consider likely to be “translated incorrectly”. Some people hew closely to actual scholarship and an understanding of context to make their lists; others lean more directly into what the prophet and apostles are saying at any given time.

    For most of us, though, I think that there is something at play that is more than seeking a thorough understanding of the original intent. At best it is an effort to understand the original intent and then making a case for how that original intent fits into our own worldview; at worst, it is making things up or purposely twisting the words of the Bible to argue a narrative that the text clearly doesn’t support. In other words, I think we really want the Bible to be inerrant, and if we have to completely alter the original meaning or words to make it fit into our beliefs and therefore be inerrant, then so be it, and we’ll blame translational errors for the altering. If push comes to shove, I think most members would be quick to claim an uncomfortable Bible passage has translational errors rather than acknowledge a genuine disagreement between the Book of Mormon/D&C/PoGP/modern prophets and the Bible.

    As such, I chose “We’re saying that we don’t really care what the Bible says, because if we disagree with something in there, it probably was not translated correctly.”

  21. Bro. B. says:

    Buendia, that is a very interesting take. I suppose that’s what anybody does when they “liken all scripture unto us.” Whether that be with an “institutional bent” ie. reading into the text “what the prophet and apostles are saying at any given time,” or Church leaders themselves doing this with Isaiah vs. Jews making Isaiah all about the original contextual meaning of his day, or an “individual bent” to match scripture to “their own worldview.” In that case I don’t know if we want to make scripture “inerrant,” as you say, just usable. Having said that, I think there is value in an originalist point of view of scripture, similar to a Justice Clarence Thomas who wants to strip away years of patina, paint and varnish off the original US Constitution to reveal what the beauty of the original bare wood had to say.

  22. Erasmus says:

    “Literal” as commonly used is a terribly imprecise term and fairly useless, as evidenced by the discussion here. I disagree pretty strongly with Jared. On the other hand, fundamentalists pretty regularly deny that *they* are doing any interpreting. Other people interpret, but they are not. Exhibit 1, Ken Ham.

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