Ask the Apologist: Joseph Smith and Matthew 6:13
Q. Why was Joseph Smith not inspired to translate the plates directly into the words used in the Joseph Smith Translation (JST)? The specific point relates to Matthew 6:13. There are several other similar cases.
A. (by Kevin L. Barney) The question is obviously based on a number of assumptions, including the following:
- That Jesus said precisely the same thing in the New World as in the Old.
- That his words were correctly recorded originally by Matthew in chapter 6 of his Gospel (and that the JST ought to restore that original reading, which was lost over time by careless or vindictive scribes) and by Nephi (and Mormon) in 3 Nephi.
- That the vagaries of translation from the original languages to English are essentially irrelevant to the question.
- That there is no interpretive or explanatory component to either the Book of Mormon or the JST, but each is a “pure” textual restoration, representing precisely what was originally said in tape-recorder fashion.
- That there is no such thing as prophetic development; for instance, Joseph Smith knew no more in, say, 1844 than he did in 1830.
I think all of these assumptions are simply incorrect.
Let us look at the specific passage, Matthew 6:13, which states in the pertinent part: “And lead us not into temptation…” 3 Nephi 13:12 reads the same way. The JST of Matthew 6:13 alters this to “and suffer us not to be led into temptation.” So the question is, why didn’t Joseph render the 3 Nephi passage “and suffer us not to be led into temptation,” the idea apparently being that this is the one, true, and sole way to represent the passage in English, in all times, places, cultures and situations.
First of all, B.H. Roberts was of the view (and I agree with him) that Joseph often simply followed the King James Version (KJV) for long stretches in the Book of Mormon when it was sufficiently close to represent the original. Therefore, the wording in the 3 Nephi passage is not a specifically new translation of what was on the plates; what are the odds that Joseph would translate it and it would just magically equate to the KJV? The KJV was the source for that language, and thus it matches precisely. So here the translation is representational in nature.
Now, when Joseph undertook his JST project, he often simply followed what was in the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon (this is especially the case for the Isaiah passages, for instance), so usually the Book of Mormon and JST agree, but not always. There could be many reasons that Joseph introduced a variation in the JST that was not reflected in the Book of Mormon. In the Book of Mormon dictation, he may have simply not been focused on that particular passage. Perhaps he gained greater revelatory light and knowledge and insight over time. Ideas may have come to him in the later process that did not in the earlier. Joseph himself suggested many edits to the Book of Mormon for the 1837 edition, and the JST, although nominally completed in July of 1833, was something Joseph continued to work on for the rest of his life on and off, sometimes changing passages two or three different times in different ways. There was actually a certain amount of prophetic experimentation in these exercises.
There is a widespread assumption in the Church that the JST is a “pure” textual restoration, that it is simply a very literal English rendering of the words of the original manuscripts as the original authors penned them. But this is not correct. Yes, there are textual restorations in the JST, but there are a lot of other things as well.
Sometimes the JST represents an alternate translation in English without positing any change in underlying text whatsoever. To me it is truly ironic that we call it the Joseph Smith Translation, but no one ever considers that in some passages at least the JST may actually be simply an alternate English translation, and not a restoration of a text different than that underlying the KJV. And I think something like this may be what is going on in your Matthew 6:13 passage.
According to the Greek manuscripts of Matthew that have come down to us, the text reads:
και μη εισενεγκης ἡμας εις πειρασμον, αλλα ρυσαι ἡμας απο του πονηρου
A literal rendering of this into English would be something like:
“And do not bring/lead us into temptation, but rescue us from the Evil One”
The key issue involves the verb εισενεγκης, which is the aorist second person singular of the verb εισφερω, which means to bring or lead X into Y.
Now, both the KJV and 3 Nephi are very literal translations of this verb. There is, however, a theological problem with this translation: It gives the impression that God intentionally leads people into temptation (otherwise, why the need to ask him not to?). Yet, that is not the intent of the passage, which was using the verb “lead” in a figurative, weakened sense, not the strong sense of compulsion.
Now, one could make an argument that the JST is a textual restoration. The second century heretic Marcion used a proto-New Testament that included Luke but not Matthew. For Luke 11:4, which parallels Matthew 6:13, Marcion wrote:
μη αφἡς ἡμας εισενεχθηναι
“Do not allow us to be led into temptation”
Further, this form of the prayer was preserved by Augustine, who wrote “Many when praying speak as follows: ‘Let us not be led into temptation’.” (See Patrilogiae Latinae 34:1282.) Jerome offered “Do not lead us into temptation that we cannot bear.” (See Patrilogiae Latinae 25:485.)
Now when I first looked at this I thought to myself, “Aha! Here is evidence that the JST restores the original text!” But after working with the material more, I realized this was an overly simplistic and incorrect conclusion. Rather, the form of text I first quoted in Greek above, which is reflected in both the KJV and the Book of Mormon, is in all probability the original text. The united testimony of the Greek papyri, manuscript evidence, lectionaries, and the ancient versions supports it.
Instead, Marcion’s rendering was a theological amelioration of the text recorded in Matthew. This was a common amelioration among the earliest Christians, as shown by the writings of the Church Fathers. And the JST parallels that ameliorating text. Is it therefore wrong or of no value? Surely not. As I indicated above, a literal translation of the original text is almost inherently misleading. Therefore, the leading translation handbook on the Gospel of Luke suggests translating this passage using a passive construction, exactly as Joseph Smith did.
So, while the JST is in my view not a restoration of text, it is a superior English translation of the original. You can either consider it a midrashic theological commentary embedded right in the text itself, which was the way the Jews created the Aramaic targums, or you can consider it a superior translation of the same Greek text underlying the KJV. Either way, it is a theological improvement.
Joseph himself offered three different variations on this wording. We have already seen “suffer us not” from JST Matthew. JST Luke has “let us not be led” (the same concept, but using different Engl. wording). And later in life, Joseph offered “leave us not in temptation.”
The bottom line is, does God lead us into temptation? No. So Joseph undertook to correct that misimpression caused by an over-literal translation in the KJV. And in my view, he succeeded very well.