Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Joseph Smith and the First Verse of the Bible

Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Joseph Smith and the First Verse of the Bible

Article excerpt

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I. INTRODUCTION

Joseph Smith as the great prophet of the latter-day restoration of original Christianity often used his prophetic gift to correct or clarify the Bible. One of the most interesting texts that we find him returning to again and again during the course of his prophetic career is Genesis 1. In the present article we will be examining Joseph Smith's differing treatments of one of the key verses in that chapter, the very first verse of the Bible.

II. GENESIS 1:1 IN THE JOSEPH SMITH TRANSLATION/BOOK OF MOSES

On 26 March 1830, scarcely two months after the Book of Mormon arrived at Egbert B. Grandin's bookstore, Joseph Smith was in hot pursuit of his second great revelational project, the "Inspired Version," also called the Joseph Smith Translation (= JST). In many ways this second project was even more ambitious than the first. According to the Book of Mormon, the Bible had gone forth, "from the Jews in purity, unto the Gentiles," but had afterward been corrupted, so that "many plain and precious things" were taken from it (1 Nephi 13:25 and 28). So it now fell to Joseph as latter-day prophet to put things right again by restoring the Bible to its original purity. In a prophesy given in June 1830, which now appears in a part of Mormon Scripture called the Pearl of Great Price Book of Moses (= Moses) God is presented as speaking directly to Moses about the future coming of one who would restore the Scriptures.

And in a day when the children of men shall esteem my words as naught and take many of them from the book which thou shalt write, behold, I will raise up another like unto thee; and they shall be had again among the children of men-among as many as shall believe (Moses 1:41).

This passage undoubtedly refers to Joseph Smith's own project of restoring the Bible, indeed it stands as a prophetic introduction at the beginning of his restored Bible. In carrying out his task Joseph used as his base text a copy of the King James Bible published in 1828 by H. & E. Phinney, Cooperstown, New York, which he and Oliver Cowdery had purchased from Palmyra ... printer and bookseller Grandin on 8 October 1829. The text of Gen 1:1 in that Bible reads:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

Joseph Smith's "restored" version of this verse now appears in the JST 1:3 (= Moses 2:1), which reads in the original handwritten OT MS 1:

. . . in the beginning I created the Heaven & the Earth. . . . (italics added)

The replacement of the KJV's "God" with "I" recasts the verse in the first person, so that God speaks directly to Moses. This modification is carried on throughout the larger passage of Gen 1:1-2:3 where the KJV's "God" is repeatedly expanded to read "I God" (34x). Here in 1:1, however, "I" actually replaces "God." In English the replacement of "I" for "God" requires the changing of one word only. In Hebrew it would also be necessary to replace the third person singular form of the verb created ... (bara') with a first person singular form ... (bara' ti).

The most significant thing, however, to notice about Smith's insertion of the first person pronoun I here and throughout the larger passage (58x) is that by doing so he is affirming that Elohim, the name of God in Genesis 1, though plural in form, is nevertheless being used as a singular noun, accompanied by singular verbs. If he had understood Elohim to be plural in the context, he would have written, not, "in the beginning I created . . . ," but, "in the beginning we created. . . ."1 The importance of this will become clear later.

III. THE BOOK OF ABRAHAM

The second text we will look at is from the Book of Abraham (= Abraham), which is also found in the Pearl of Great Price. Abraham was first published in the official LDS Church paper Times and Seasons, beginning with the 1 March 1842 issue. …

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