PROVO — Many scholars believe there's no such thing as perfect Bible translation, yet despite the flaws in the King James Version of the Bible, it remains the version treasured by much of the world, including members of the LDS Church. During a three-day symposium sponsored by BYU in honor of the KJV's 400th anniversary this year, scholars shared insights about the translation's connection with the LDS faith, its historical background, textual distinctions and literary influence.
Robert Millet, a professor of ancient scripture in BYU's Religious Education Department, pointed out that because Mormons believe in an open canon, others often suggest that Mormons don't revere the Bible, or have even replaced it with their 'own Bible,' referring to the Book of Mormon.
Yet, Millet quoted Elder M. Russell Ballard who emphasized that Mormons love the Bible as one of the "pillars of our faith" and a powerful witness of Jesus Christ.
"The more we read and study the Bible and its teachings, the more clearly we see the doctrinal underpinnings of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ," Ballard said in LDS General Conference, April 2007. "We tend to love the scriptures that we spend time with. We may need to balance our study in order to love and understand all scripture."
While Mormons believe the Bible, specifically the King James Version, to be the word of God, such belief doesn't mean that every sentence contains an exact replica of God's words, Millet explained.
When God spoke to prophets, they didn't become mindless ventriloquists but instead were enlightened and filled with intelligence and truth, then able to convey the word of God, he said.
"Clearly, many factors impacted the prophetic message," Millet said. "Personality, experience, vocabulary. The word of the Lord as spoken through Isaiah is quite different than as spoken through Luke, and both are different from Jeremiah or Mark. The LDS concern … is not the perfectness with which such messages were recorded, but the inspiration behind the message," he finished.
Thus, scriptures for Latter-day Saints are not the ultimate source of knowledge, but often precede the ultimate source — revelation.
Yet some translators have gotten caught up in specific words, such as the Greek "baptizo," which literally translated means "immersion." However, that didn't mesh well with some translators' belief in sprinkling, explained BYU professor of ancient scripture Kent Jackson. Thus some translators simply transliterated the word as "baptism" rather than "immersion."
One 19th-century translator was troubled by the word "Hades," which means the world of departed spirits. Yet, because the word "hell" had so much "medieval baggage," Jackson said, the translator just used the Greek word instead.
Thanks to latter-day revelation, troublesome words like bishop, church, deacon, devil, eternal, hell, repent and Satan don't bother Latter-day Saints.
The word angel, for example, in Greek and Hebrew is most correctly translated as "messenger," yet it's written as "angel" in the King James Version of the Bible.
"But because we understand 'angel' from modern revelation, we have a correct idea when the word appears," Jackson said. "Not that the King James Version used the right word, but that modern revelation makes the word work."
The King James English is interwoven throughout the Book of Mormon, in both small phrases and large blocks of text, said Dan Belnap, professor of ancient scripture, yet Joseph Smith didn't use a biblical text during the translation process.
Smith declined to say exactly how translation happened, and instead called it something that "happened through the gift and power of God," Belnap quoted.
One of the reasons for the similar language between the two books may be a fulfillment of the Lord's promise in Doctrine and Covenants 1:24 that He would reveal truth unto his servants "after the manner of their language."
"The 'manner of language' suggests that such transmission would occur in the actual language, but also in specific mannerisms that would be recognized by the audience," Belnap said, "(thus) establishing the (Book of Mormon's) validity to people already familiar with the word of God via the King James' English."
After all, it was James 1:5 in the King James Version of the Bible that prompted young Joseph Smith to retire to the woods and pray for knowledge, which led to a vision that changed the course of his, and millions of others', lives.
Had Smith been reading the Geneva Bible, a pre-King James Version with extensive marginal notes, his experience may have been dramatically different, Belnap said.
In the explanation for James 1:5, the Geneva Bible notes explain that lacking wisdom means to "endure patiently what favor God layeth on him."
"The importance of a Bible free from explicit commentary (became) foundational for the restoration," Belnap said. "If the Geneva Bible had been used by Joseph, it's very possible he would have simply waited it out."
John Tanner, former academic vice president at BYU, said his goal is to emphasize what we hear and not just what we see in the text of the King James Version of the Bible.
"Everyone recognizes that the language sounds authoritatively scriptural," he said. "It was not simply a matter of royal mandate nor even adoption by the established church — it is a function of linguistic and rhetorical choices that have (made) their way into our collective, cultural soul."
As apparent in the title page of the King James Version's first edition in 1611, the book was originally appointed to be read aloud in churches in public communal worship, Tanner said. This is in contrast to William Tyndale's New Testament translation, which was intended for individual study.9 comments on this story
"I believe that the aural power of the text was intentional," Tanner said. "To be sure, the translators wanted first and foremost to be accurate … (and) they produced the most accurate English translation of its day. However, the translators wanted the translation to sound scriptural, hence, they give it this antique veneer … and succeeded in this far beyond what any of them could've imagined in 1611."
Symposium events Friday
The free symposium continues this evening from 7 - 9 p.m. at the LDS Conference Center Little Theater in Salt Lake City.
7:05 - 7:40 - John S. Tanner - The Aural Authority of the KJV
7:40 - 8:10 - Dan L. Belnap - These Last Records: The Relationship between the KJV and the Book of Mormon
8:10 - 8:40 - Robert L. Millet - What the Holy Bible Means to Latter-day Saints
8:40 - 9 p.m. - Q&A, closing