The Joseph Smith Translation as a Midrash

There is a small debate (though that word is probably too strong) in the LDS community about the nature of the Joseph Smith Translation (JST). Most average LDS probably assume that it is a restoration of what the original biblical authors wrote down. But many LDS scholars and thinkers would argue that the JST is far more complex than that. For example, Robert Matthews argued that the JST is sometimes one thing and sometimes another thing (here):

  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. (See 1 Nephi 19:23-24; 2 Nephi 11:8).
  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.

This post is focusing briefly on points 3 and 4 above. In most places the JST should probably be considered to be an inspired commentary on the text of the Bible. LDS scholar David Bokovoy for example doesn’t consider the creation account in the Book of Moses to be a restoration of what the original authors of Genesis wrote (part 1 and part 2). Instead of replacing what is found in the Bible with the JST, we should read the Bible as the primary text and the JST as an inspired commentary (Midrash) on the Biblical text. It can provide insights and clarifications through the advantage of modern day revelation. Just how it all works I’m not quite sure, but the idea seems right.

Wikipedia describes “Midrash” as “a way of interpreting biblical stories that goes beyond simple distillation of religious, legal or moral teachings. It fills in many gaps left in the biblical narrative regarding events and personalities that are only hinted at.”

The JST isn’t unique in this. Various ancient Jewish books are commentaries on the Bible. Even more interesting is that even books of the Bible are midrashic commentaries on other books of the Bible. LDS graduate student of the Bible Daniel McClellin noted recently:

I think Chronicles certainly qualifies as alterations of scriptural texts. Much of Samuel and Kings were copied verbatim [by the Chronicler], but much was also altered, including adding Levites where there were no Levites, taking out offending narratives, copying texts from various psalms and pasting them into speeches by various people, changing who said what to whom, and a wide variety of other alterations. Clear ideological concerns are discernible in the alterations as well.

http://www.mormonapologetics.org/topic/47779-do-bible-authors-add-to-or-take-away-from-biblical-texts/page__view__findpost__p__1208799880

The Oxford Bible Commentary makes this note about the Book of Chronicles as well:

The text’s major sources are Genesis to 2 Kings and Ezra 1:1-3, whilst a large number of other OT texts are incorporated. One can regard Chronicles as a textual interpretation, particularly in passages where the Chronicler interprets events using the Pentateuch and other parts of the canon as his source, instead of the more frequently used books Samuel and Kings. The Chronicler’s reworking of sources can more or less be described as a midrash, Targum, or ‘the rewritten Bible’. (pg. 268, H.P. Mathys)

The commentary goes on further to explain how the Chronicler updates certain doctrines he comes across in his rewriting of scripture to fit (then) modern sensitivities and beliefs.

I haven’t had the opportunity to fully flesh out these thoughts, but I wanted to get them down in “ink” so I can think about them more in the future and perhaps get feedback from anyone interested in this stuff. Feel free to comment.

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7 comments on “The Joseph Smith Translation as a Midrash

  1. Jeremy says:

    I’ve always considered and taught the JST translation to be a “divine commentary.” However, I’ve always treated the Book of Moses differently, as a scriptural text in and of itself. This may be because the Book of Moses has been canonized, but the JST by and large has not been canonized. (Do the footnotes constitute portions of the canon?)

    Another thing that doesn’t sit well with me is the numerous commentaries by GA’s and such that refer to the Book of Moses as “portions of the Genesis account that were removed during the translation process.” I don’t have my books here with me, or else I could look for a few quotes. How do you treat such references?

  2. James says:

    Hi Jeremy. This discussion could benefit from a secure definition of the word “scripture”, but since we haven’t got one (and LDS debate this all the time) we are left with sort of a gray area between “scripture” and “non-scripture”. You’ve described the JST as “divine commentary”, and I like that description. Is that scripture? If it is inspired of God, is it scripture?

    As I noted above, the Books of Chronicles are essentially “divine commentary” on all of the history that comes before it. We accept that book as “scripture.” The Book of Moses is part of the JST, and it is canonized while the rest of the JST isn’t. I don’t know why.

    But you brought up something very specific. I’d agree with you GA’s and regular members almost universally consider the Book of Moses to be a literal restoration of what was originally penned by the author of Genesis, but which was subsequently removed. Within the framework of the “Midrashic theory” I’m supporting for the JST (and because the Book of Moses is part of the JST) I’d have to say that they are all incorrect. I’d defer to David Bokovoy’s arguments for further support of that opinion.

  3. nshumate says:

    Here is how the Lord describes the Bible translation in D&C 35:20, addressing Sidney Ridgon, who was to be the scribe:

    And a commandment I give unto thee—that thou shalt write for him; and the scriptures shall be given, even as they are in mine own bosom, to the salvation of mine own elect…

    That doesn’t clear up anything, since all four of Matthews’ descriptions could come under that. I just thought it important to have this reference in the discussion.

  4. nathan000000 says:

    James: GA’s and regular members almost universally consider the Book of Moses to be a literal restoration of what was originally penned by the author of Genesis, but which was subsequently removed. Within the framework of the “Midrashic theory” I’m supporting for the JST (and because the Book of Moses is part of the JST) I’d have to say that they are all incorrect.

    James, why does Midrashic theory and the book of Moses being part of the JST rule out the possibility that the book of Moses is a restoration of lost text? I think there are several other possibilities, and I suppose the book of Moses could be modern commentary/likening, but why do you think it’s definitely not original text that’s been restored?

    I ask because there is at least one example outside the JST of the Lord revealing a passage that had been written down at one point but subsequently lost to the modern world: D&C 7 is “a translated version of the record made on parchment by John and hidden up by himself.” As I understand it, the parchment was never in Joseph’s possession, but the Lord gave him a vision of the document and revealed the translation as well. Could this no also be what happened with the book of Moses?

    P.S. Hi, Other Nathan. Stop following me around the net.

  5. Hoe can I be following you if I was here first?

  6. James says:

    nathan000000000,

    You asked why the Book of Moses, according to the Midrashic theory, could not be a restoration of original text. Well, as I understand it, by definition a Midrash is not a restoration of original text. That is why.

    But, I think what you were really getting at is that you want to know the reasons why we should consider the Book of Moses to be Midrashic in nature. Well, part of the reason is because it is a part of the JST, which I think is 95% Midrashic in nature. But another point is that the Book of Moses clearly tries to tidy up some issues left in Genesis. For example, the Book of Moses proposes a “spiritual” creation and then a subsequent “physical” creation. This is apparently a solution to the question of why there are two different creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2. But scholars have long realized that Genesis 1 and 2 were penned by two different authors and later merged together by a redactor. Whoever wrote the Book of Moses is trying to clear up that little problem a different way.

    I’m not an apologist for this particular perspective, but I do lean towards it. For more details from someone better qualified than I check out the blog posts by David Bokovoy that I linked to in the main portion of the post.

    I also suspect there is an “apocryphal” element to the Book of Moses.

    Thanks for stopping by my blog.

    James

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