With the exception of some sections from the Doctrine and Covenants, we do not have the original manuscripts for any of our scriptures. All original documents for the Old and New Testaments are gone. What we have are copies (and usually copies of copies) or interpretations of copies. Likewise, Moroni’s golden plates are no longer in our possession. Even the original Book of Mormon translation manuscript (only 28% of which has survived) is a “translation” of the ancient Nephite book and not the original document.
No document was present when Joseph Smith received the Book of Moses by revelation. Section 7 of the D&C was given as revelation wherein Joseph saw a translation from the “parchment” which was “written and hid up by” the Apostle John. Finally, when it comes to the Book Abraham, the text we have in our scriptures is a “translation” of information that was either contained on some portion of the Joseph Smith Papyri that has been lost or, like the Book of Moses and text from the Apostle John, was given by direct revelation without the presence of the original source document.
Without the original “autographs” we can never be positive that we have the precise and pristine words penned by the original prophets and scriptural authors. When we compare ancient copies of New Testament books, for example, we find a number of differences. Generally, such differences don’t affect the integrity of the text, but there are instances where omissions or additions do change the meaning of some verses.[i]
The translation of the scriptures into modern languages presents additional problems that can influence the meaning of the text. A translator attempts to convey the meaning of the original by selecting words and phrases that make the most sense to his audience. This becomes especially problematic with ancient languages wherein we can’t ask the meaning of phrases from those who lived in that culture. But even when we do know what they meant, it is often difficult to translate precise meanings from one culture (or an ancient culture) into another (or modern) culture.
For example, candles were invented in China in around 200 BC and were not known in biblical lands until about 400 AD[ii]-long after the books in the Bible were written. Despite the absence of candles in biblical antiquity, the Old and New Testaments refer to candles seventeen times. “Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick,” we read in Matthew 5:15. In Zephaniah we find that the Hebrew word ner is translated as “candle” in the King James Version Bible. “And it shall come to pass at that time that I will search Jerusalem with candles…” (1:12). The New Revised Standard Version Bible (NRSV) translates ner as “lamps” and the New Living Translation Bible (NLT) as “lanterns.”
In a twenty-first century context, not one of these words is precisely correct. The ancient people of the Bible used oil lamps. For modern readers in the United States a “lamp” (NSRV) refers to what you might have on your night stand or in your living room. A “lantern” (NLT) would typically evoke an image of a camping lantern. Even if the early seventeenth century, when the King James Bible was translated, lamps and lanterns would have looked different than the oil lamps of biblical times.
In ancient days the oil lamp was little more than a shallow clay cup of oil with a wick. Even if the King James translators would have used “oil lamp” we wouldn’t get a fully accurate meaning of the original. As non-LDS Hebrew scholar Joel Hoffman explains:
“The word-level translation suggests that if ner means oil lamp,’ then the only possible translation is oil lamp.’ But here’s the problem. When the original text uses ner, the point is something readily at hand, a common object used by default to light up dark spaces (among other purposes). … on a concept level, all three translations [KJV, NSRV, & NLT] are better than oil lamp.'”[iii]
Biblical numbers frequently present problems for translators as well. Ancient societies often had many “round” numbers that were not literal but conveyed a concept. “I’ve told you a thousand times” doesn’t mean I’ve counted those thousand instances but rather that I’ve told you the same information on many repeated occasions. Modern Americans also utilize round numbers such as 5, 10, 100, or “a dozen.”[iv] If we want a dozen eggs or a dozen roses, we are talking about literal numbers. If we have “a dozen” reasons not to attend an opera we would be speaking figuratively compared to if we said we had “twelve” reasons not to attend.
Near Eastern ancient cultures didn’t know the concept of zero and were challenged when it came to multiplying large numbers. As a result, frequently used round numbers were the products of small numbers (such as two times three and three times four). Thus we find frequent round numbers such as 6, 10, 12, 40, and 70. These numbers do not always reflect accurate counts.
Much of the Bible is in symbolic language designed to poetically convey important moral concepts rather than to describe accurate history. The round numbers mentioned above, for example, often conveyed symbolic meanings. Four represented the created world: four winds, corners of the earth, seasons, directions, and types of living creatures. Seven and Twelve symbolized completeness. Forty and Seventy represented limited and comprehensive quantities of time and were also not to be taken literally in all circumstances.[v]
Understanding the problem faced by translators of ancient texts, we can more fully appreciate Article of Faith 8: “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly….” We may have a tendency to think this refers to how different Christian faiths interpret scriptural passages in different ways. Or we may believe the “translated correctly” refers to copy errors (both additions and deletions) that took place as the biblical texts were preserved through the years by different scribes. The problem of “translated correctly” also refers, however, to the fact that translating from one language (or culture) to another is bound to cause some ambiguities and misinterpretations. We have to be careful to understand ancient texts from within the context of the culture that produced the text.
But what about those scriptures revealed through the instrumentality of Joseph Smith? Surely God would give him accurate translations of those ancient texts? That will be the discussion of our next installment.