Memory, Prophetic Translation, and the Lost 116 Pages

I am unfortunately at an advanced enough age that I have now encountered more than once something I have said, done, or written, that I have no memory of at all. This is a humbling experience. So while I was reading Kent Jackson’s excellent book Understanding Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible that Joseph Smith translated some sections of the Bible more than once, apparently having forgotten that he already had done so previously with a different scribe.

How do his second pass translations compare to the first? Did he translate the passages in exactly the same way?

Brother Jackson covers all these questions in chapter 19, titled “Translating More Than Once.” It is an interesting treatment because anti-Mormons often make a great deal of hay out of the fact that some passages in the Book of Mormon differ from analogous passages in the Bible that Joseph Smith retranslated. (That aspect is discussed in chapter 17 of this same book.) Was Joseph Smith just making it up as he went along, or do the different methods and times of translation show an underlying consistency that might be congruent with the idea of a flawed mortal being responding to inspiration from an omniscient and perfect divine being? Jackson (and myself) come down on the latter case.

While there are various modernizations and textual clarifications that are not consistent between the two translation passes, whenever there are substantive changes, the corrections/translations always appear in both versions, though not always at the same point in the text.

This seems consistent with the Synoptic Gospel writers, who seem to have a common corpus of the sayings of Jesus, though across the three Synoptic Gospels they may be placed in different contexts and settings.

It seems in both cases, there are things the Lord wanted us to have, and things He wanted to get across to us from the sacred texts that are important to Him. (I am reminded of one of the first things Jesus does when He meets the Nephites is examines their sacred records, and points out a prophecy that wasn’t recorded.) It would certainly be intimidating to Nephi to have to re-issue a “Jesus Translation” of his plates, though I am also sure he was glad to do it.

This opens the question to how tightly controlled was the translation to the Book of Mormon? Was the Lord worried about how minor (or perhaps major) variations in the re-translation of the 116 lost pages of the manuscript might undermine reception of the Book of Mormon? It seems like He was.

Brother Matthews himself says that:

It is important not to generalize too broadly from the revisions of these passages. They only show us how the Prophet revised Matthew 26, 2 Peter 3, and a few other passages, and the Joseph Smith Translation includes many kinds of texts and may represent a variety of prophetic approaches to revising them… [Other JST revisions] give the impression that they were revealed largely in verbal completeness… but that does not seem to have been the case with the texts discussed here… [It] is even less like the translation of the Book of Mormon, where God revealed English words visually to Joseph Smith. The revised words in the duplicate and synoptic translations seem, in contrast, to show an interplay between inspiration and Joseph Smith’s prophetic agency.”

Robert Matthews, end of chapter 19

We can’t really know based on the available data, but it seems like the actual text of the Book of Mormon as revealed through Joseph Smith was very important, important in a way that at least certain passages of Joseph Smith’s Bible translation were not. Whether that was because of the textual inerrantism of the culture in that day which would have affected the reception of the Book or Mormon, or because of a deeper reason, I don’t think anyone can be sure.

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