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):
- Portions may amount to restorations of content material once written by the biblical authors but since deleted from the Bible.
- Portions may consist of a record of actual historical events that were not recorded, or were recorded but never included in the biblical collection
- 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).
- 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.
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.