On the JST of Hebrews 7-9

A COMMENTARY ON JOSEPH SMITH’S REVISION OF HEBREWS 7-9

Kevin Barney

1. Hebrews 7:3

For this Melchizedek was ordained a priest after the order of the Son of God, which order was without Without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but. And all those who are ordained unto this priesthood are made like unto the Son of God; abideth, abiding a priest continually.

    The author of the letter to the Hebrews begins chapter 7 by quoting from the Septuagint version of Genesis 14:18-20. (Hebrews does not mention Melchizedek providing Abraham with bread and wine because that was not relevant to the author’s point here.) This letter seems to have been intended for a group of Essenes, and part of the argument was that Jesus had a superior priesthood to that of Levi. The author uses Melchizedek as an illustration of his point. The JST here makes three adjustments to this text: (i) Anciently there were a variety of traditions swirling about the figure Melchizedek. In many such traditions he was a human king (as he is portrayed in the scriptural account), but over time there arose some traditions that eventually understood him to be more than human. The JST of this verse is largely devoted to clarifying that, while Melchizedek was certainly an important and righteous human king and priest, he was nonetheless human, not supra-human. The JST reorganizes the text to have all the supra-human descriptions of Melchizedek (such as a series of terms with alpha-privative (a-) indicating negation: apator, ametor, agenealogetos “without father, without mother, without genealogy”) apply instead to the order of the priesthood, not to the man Melchizedek. (ii) Although we refer to the higher priesthood by the name Melchizedek, properly it is the priesthood after the order of the Son of God, as explained in D&C 107:1-4. (iii) The JST also clarifies that this priesthood may be widely held by mortal human beings.

    Paradigm Classification B (Midrashic Commentary)

2-4. Hebrews 7:19, 20 and 22 (7:21 is a parenthesis and is moved to follow 7:22)

For the law was administered without an oath and made nothing perfect, but was only the bringing in of a better hope did; by the which we draw nigh unto God. And inasmuch Inasmuch as this high priest was not without an oath, he was made priest: By by so much was Jesus made a the surety of a better testament.

    The italics were an influence on this passage. The addition of the law being “administered without an oath” at the beginning is an assimilation to that same language in verse 21 later in the passage. Also, the rhetorical use of litotes (i.e. “not without an oath” as an understated way of affirming “with an oath”) led Smith to make quite clear that priests under the Levitical priesthood became such “without an oath.” Under the Law consecration for priestly service required washings, donning sacred garments, being anointed, and the offering of special sacrifices, but not the swearing of an oath. Verse 21, which was moved so as to follow this text, makes clear that Jesus (like Melchizedek) was made a priest by the swearing of an oath, unlike Levitical priests. The oath is in KJV verse 21, which includes this text (referring to Jesus): “The Lord swear, and will not repent, Thou art a priest forever after the order of Melchisedec” (quoting Psalm 110:4).

    Paradigm Classifications A-1, A-2 and A-4 (English Paraphrase of KJV Text, Suspicion of Italicized Text and Assimilation)

5. Hebrews 7:26

For such an high priest became us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher than ruler over the heavens;

    The expression “made higher than the heavens” in modern translations is usually rendered something like “exalted above the heavens.” In either case, what does it mean? One possibility is that it is an allusion to the triumph of Jesus over cosmic powers, which “made ruler over the heavens” would seem to suggest.

    Paradigm Classification A-1 (English Paraphrase of KJV Text)

6. Hebrews 7:27

Who needeth And not daily, as those high priests, to offer who offered up sacrifice daily, first for his their own sins, and then for the people’s sins of the people: for he needeth not offer sacrifice for his own sins, for he knew no sins; but for the sins of the people. And this he did once, when he offered up himself.

    The JST intends no difference in meaning here, but simply reorganizes the material to make it clearer. The basic point is that the high priests had to offer up sacrifices continually both for the sins of the people and for their own sins, but Jesus offered up himself as a sacrifice once for all. With this reorganization of text the antecedent to the singular pronoun “his” in the second line is no longer the singular Jesus but now the plural “those high priests” in the first line, so the JST pluralizes the pronoun to “their.”

    Paradigm Classification A-1 (English Paraphrase of KJV Text)

7. Hebrews 7:28

For the law maketh men high priests which have infirmity; but the word of the oath, which was since the law, maketh the Son, who is consecrated for evermore forevermore.

    This is a simple modernization, connecting “for evermore” to “forevermore,” which is a British form of the adverb. Most modern translations simply have “forever” here.

    Paradigm Classification A-3 (Modernization)

8. Hebrews 8:4

 For if he were on Therefore while he was on the earth, he offered for a sacrifice his own life for the sins of the people. should not be a Now every priest, seeing that there are priests that undedr the law, must needs offer gifts, or sacrifices, according to the law:

    The Greek here is a contrary to fact condition: “So if he were on the earth he would not be a priest.” (Some translations add “still living” to try to make the contrary to fact nature of the condition clear.) The idea is that Jesus was not then on the earth, so he was in fact a priest. The Law defines earthly priesthood, not heavenly priesthood. (See the Anchor Bible, 377.) But Smith naturally observes that the sacrifice Jesus made of his own life did indeed occur while he was yet on the earth, so he must have been a priest at that time as well. Although “gifts” is a literal reading of the Greek, the JST clarifies that what is meant was sacrifices. The CEV, TLB and TPT for the same reason also use “sacrifices” here.

    Paradigm Classification A-1 (English Paraphrase of KJV Text)

9. Hebrews 9:8

The Holy Ghost this signifying this, that the way into the holiest of all was not yet made manifest, while as yet the first tabernacle was yet standing:

    The JST simply changes the word order in two cases. Although either would be proper, “signifying this” seems more natural than “this signifying.”

    Paradigm Classification A-1 (English Paraphrase of KJV Text)

10. Hebrews 9:10

Which stood consisted only in meats and drinks, and divers washings, and carnal ordinances, imposed on them until the time of reformation.

    This change was based on the italics. The Greek text of the verse begins with “only in foods and drinks,” but in English some introductory language is required. The Anchor Bible has “[since they] only concern foods and drinks. . . .” DARBY has “[consisting]” and RGT has “consisted,” both similar to the JST.

    Paradigm Classification A-2 (Suspicion of Italicized Text)

11. Hebrews 9:15

And for this cause he is the mediator of the new testament covenant, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament covenant, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance.

    The basic meaning of diatheke in Hellenistic Greek is “testament” (in the sense of a last will and testament), and it is consistently translated that way in the KJV. But in the Septuagint that Greek word was also used to translate Hebrew berith meaning “covenant,” and in Greco-Roman usage of the first century A.D. the word was often used with the sense of a compact, contract or covenant. (“Old Testament” and “New Testament” are also cases where the word means “covenant,” the old covenant meaning God’s covenant with Moses and the new covenant meaning the gospel of Jesus.) Accordingly, in Hebrews the JST consistently replaces “testament” with “covenant.” Most modern translations make the same change in this verse.

    Paradigm Classification A-1 (English Paraphrase of KJV Text)

12. Hebrews 9:16

For where a testament covenant is, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator victim.

    The JST correctly changes “testament” to “covenant” in verse 15, but here in verse 16 the reference to the death of a testator suggests diatheke should be understood as a will. (That is, a will is only effected when the one who made it dies.) The JST changes “testator” to “victim” to put this into a sacrificial context as opposed to a legal context.

    Paradigm Classification A-1 (English Paraphrase of KJV Text)

13. Hebrews 9:17

For a testament covenant is of force after men are the victim is dead: otherwise it is of no strength at all while the testator victim liveth.

    [See the comment on Hebrews 9:16 above.]

14. Hebrews 9:18

Whereupon neither the first testament covenant was dedicated without blood.

    This change was motivated by the italics, but Smith correctly supplies the word “covenant” here, which is also used in most modern translations.

    Paradigm Classification A-2 (Suspicion of Italics)

15. Hebrews 9:20

Saying, This is the blood of the testament covenant which God hath enjoined unto you.

    Again, the vast majority of modern translations use “covenant” here rather than “testament.”

    Paradigm Classification A-1 (English Paraphrase of KJV Text)

16. Hebrews 9:21

Moreover he sprinkled likewise with blood both the tabernacle, and all the vessels of the ministry.

    Something like JST “likewise” is necessary here. Most modern translations have “in the same way.” CJB, LEB, MEV and NKJV actually have “likewise” to match the JST.

    Paradigm Classification A-1 (English Paraphrase of KJV Text)

17. Hebrews 9:26

For then must he often have suffered since the foundation of the world: but now once in the end of the world meridian of time hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.

    The author assumed that they were living near the end of the world. But as Smith was revising this text, 1900 years had elapsed and the world had not yet ended. So the JST is harmonizing this text with actual history by putting it in the “meridian of time” rather than at the “end of the world.” Modern translations tend to have something like “at the culmination of the ages” (such as NIV).

    Paradigm Classification B (Midrashic Commentary)

18. Hebrews 9:28

So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he and he shall appear the second time without sin unto salvation unto them that look for him.

    The JST intends no change in meaning but simply reorganizes the text, moving “unto them that look for him” from preceding the verb “appear” to following the verb.

        Paradigm Classification A-1 (English Paraphrase of KJV Text)

Comments

  1. Great comments, Kevin!

    My problem with the JST revisions of Heb 7:3 is that it completely alters the meaning of the text in a way that prevents readers from understanding what the author is actually doing. The whole point of the author’s argument here is that Melchizedek IS suprahuman, at least in terms of longevity.

    The author wants the readers to see Jesus as the new high priest, but since Jesus is not a Levite, he has to come up with a creative argument to show why Jesus can claim to have priesthood. And to do that, he associates Jesus with the mysterious character from the OT, Melchizedek. Very little is said about Melchizedek in the OT (see Gen 14:13-24). The important details are that he is mentioned as being a priest, long before the Israelite priesthood was established by Moses, and that he is not a Levite (mainly because there weren’t any yet), so his priesthood is apparently independent of those things.

    But how is Jesus qualified to have this same priesthood that Melchizedek held? Well, to demonstrate that the author utilizes a Jewish method of interpretation known as “non in tora, non in mundo,” basically, “if it is not mentioned in the torah, it can be assumed not to exist.” Obviously the Jews didn’t literally believe this, but they used this concept as a tool to derive meaning from and interpret some of the more enigmatic texts in the OT. In the Genesis account of Melchizedek, there is no mention of his ancestry, his parents, his lineage, or his descendants. Through a strict application of “non in tora, non in mundo,” Melchizedek can be said, in some sense, to be eternal (Heb 7:2-3, 8).

    And it is precisely that characteristic that he shares with Christ. By establishing a likeness between Melchizedek and Jesus, the author can draw a further comparison between the priesthood of Melchizedek and the priesthood of Jesus. That is, whatever the nature of this mysterious, non-Levitical priesthood that Melchizedek held, Jesus can lay claim to that same priesthood because he too is eternal, and so he is also qualified for this eternal priesthood which requires an eternal nature (Heb 7:15-16, 24). And just as that alone qualified Melchizedek for this mysterious, non-Israelite, priesthood despite his lack of Levite lineage, so Jesus can claim it even though he is not a Levite.

    It’s a fascinating argument, and unfortunately the JST does real harm to the text by completely altering the author’s point. I don’t have a problem with Joseph coming up with new theological ideas through his reading of the New Testament, but my concern is that most members will come to this passage in Hebrews, rely on Joseph’s interpolation since that makes the text fit with modern LDS understanding, and move on. All without ever understanding or appreciating the argument that the author is actually making.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Jon, thanks for that thoughtful take on the passage, much appreciated.

  3. These have to take a ton of work. They are fascinating.

    Semi-related: What is the time frame JS was doing the editing? Did we not adopt his edition because the CoC held the copyright?

    Thanks

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Greg, the JST was produced over three years, from summer 1830 to summer 1833. And your guess is correct, Emma had the manuscripts when the LDS went west.

  5. Kevin, thank you so much for all of your effort and insights putting this series together! What a tremendous service.

  6. Kevin, I agree with Alex S. This series is fantastic. I am anxious to see how much of the JST material is used in the BYUNT Commentary volume by Draper & Rhodes which is at press right now. I assume you have been involved in some capacity (though not the writing of it).

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Terry, yes, I did prepublication reviews of two of their volumes, including 1 Corinthians. That was actually the genesis for this project, because it led me to publish a commentary on the JST of that book, and eventually I decided to keep going with the other NT epistles here on the blog. It has been a lot of fun, and I have frankly been surprised at how sensitive Joseph was to the text.

  8. Mark Ashurst-McGee says:

    Kevin, I like you last comment about how sensitive Joseph was to the text.

    I also wonder if I am seeing a pattern in some of these changes.

    Take for example your treatment of Hebrews 9:18.

    You write: “This change was motivated by the italics, but Smith correctly supplies the word ‘covenant’ here, which is also used in most modern translations.”

    I’ve usually considered Joseph Smith’s suspicion of italics as merely a naïve misunderstanding of how translation works–merely this and nothing more.

    But now some of your commentary is making me wonder if I am the one being naïve. Smith is targeting some of the italicized text but he is succeeding in replacing it with BETTER translations. Is it possible that while he has a fairly simple suspicion of the italicized text he takes that as an opportunity to read more closely and do better revisionary work? Maybe he feels that the direct cognates are more likely to be translated correctly while the non-cognate filler is more susceptible to human error. Maybe he is applying study and faith–and maybe even inspiration–when he targets italicized text. Or maybe it’s not like that at first, but as he carries on through the text, reading deeply, he develops more of a sense of this.

    I would love to hear your thoughts on this idea.

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