Doesn’t the Bible have a lot of translation errors?
LDS people often wonder if they can trust the translation of the Bible. This concern stems from Mormonism’s 8th Article of Faith, which reads, “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.”
Let’s speak to this objection using two categories: LDS Meaning and Biblical Reliability.
When we talk to LDS people about the 8th Article of Faith, most understand it to mean the translation of words, namely: “English Bibles have translation errors that a proper understanding of Greek and Hebrew would expose.”
When Joseph Smith wrote the 13 Articles in 1842, it would have been hard (though not impossible) for mid-Western Americans to access biblical languages. Very few of Joseph’s listeners could have challenged his assertion with any authority at all. But times have changed.
Anybody with a laptop and an internet connection can become quite skilled at translating biblical languages. Everyone has access to pre-compiled and mass-produced texts like the famous Greek NA27 or the Hebrew BHS. Using nothing more sophisticated than your favorite search engine, you can view and learn to translate from scanned images of Dead Sea Scrolls dating back to the 7th Century BC. In 2023, everyone can challenge Smith’s assertion.
LDS Church leaders know that there is nothing wrong with the vast majority of true English translations. And, so, in recent years, they have attempted to alter the meaning of the 8th Article. In the September 2015 edition of New Era magazine, for example, we find this statement written for its teenage audience: “In Joseph Smith’s day, the word translate didn’t just mean to take something from one language to another; it could also mean to transfer, convey, interpret, or explain.”
The problem is that when Smith used the word “translate,” he almost always meant the translation of language; he boasted frequently of his ability to bring real, ancient languages into English. Let’s cover three examples.
- First in Joseph Smith-History 1:64-67, referring to the Book of Mormon, he repeatedly refers to the translation of Egyptian characters into English.
- Second, the title page to the Book of Mormon clearly claims to translate the language of Nephi, Ether, and others.
- Third, in the Book of Abraham Joseph says, “Translated from the Papyrus, by Joseph Smith. A Translation of some ancient records that have fallen into our hands from the catacombs of Egypt.” Joseph Smith was fascinated by language and claimed to translate many of them by the gift and power of God.
There is, however, something else LDS Church leaders know. And that bit of information might also explain why they want to change the plain meaning of the word “translate.” That little piece of information is this: we have no record that Joseph Smith ever translated … anything. Nothing in the Book of Mormon can be verified because, as Smith claims, he returned the lone manuscript (the golden plates) back to the angel Moroni (Joseph Smith—History 1:60).
History, however, has preserved one translation attempt. In the Book of Abraham, Joseph Smith claims to have translated an Egyptian papyrus that he acquired in 1835. Praise the Lord, we possess that papyrus and Joseph’s “translation.” We can put him to the test. I don’t know how to interpret Egyptian hieroglyphics, but world-renowned linguist and Oxford Egyptologist Dr. Archibald Sayce did. And when asked to evaluate Joseph’s Book of Abraham translation, he wrote, “It is difficult to deal seriously with Joseph Smith’s impudent fraud.”1
To review, when Latter-day Saints tell me there are translation errors, I first ask them what they mean by translation. If by “translation,” they mean “interpretation,” I gently cover the material above. If, however, they mean the act of bringing one language into another, I talk about the material in our next section, Biblical Reliability.
As previously mentioned, most Latter-day Saints believe that the Bible contains numerous translation errors. And when they raise this concern, I’m delighted, for it opens the door to brag on the Bible’s extraordinary heritage of translation and preservation.
Whether it was Jerome’s 4th century translation into Latin or Tyndale’s 14th century translation into English, some of history’s greatest linguists have applied their immense talent and dedication to Biblical translation. Over 720 languages have the whole Bible and another 1600-plus have the New Testament. These translators rely on the findings of dedicated Greek and Hebrew scholars who have applied their trade for centuries.
So thorough has been their work that most seminary-trained pastors have studied original Biblical languages. More recently, robust Bible software makes the study of ancient language available to all. And we can only mention the entire world of commentaries, where scholars dissect every word of the Scripture from the original language, debate the slightest nuances of translation, and consider the theological ramifications of each. I’m hard pressed to think of a more accessible, reliable, and verifiable academic field than Bible translation.
What about the manuscripts underlie those translations? For centuries, Jewish scholars have carefully preserved their sacred texts, thus rendering over 17,000 Hebrew manuscripts dating back to the 7th Century BC. The New Testament is no less remarkable. The New Testament was originally written in Koine Greek (the Western world’s most common language at the time) and copied relentlessly in Rome’s most populous cities (Alexandria, Rome, Ephesus, and others).
The result is that we now have over 5,800 manuscripts retrieved from all over the Roman empire dating as early as the 2nd Century AD. Despite the time and space separating these manuscripts, they maintain astonishing consistency.
By contrast, the Book of Mormon has no original manuscripts and comes from a language (Reformed Egyptian) unknown to mankind, which was engraved on a substrate (golden plates) never used in writing before or since.
When your LDS friend mentions concerns over Biblical translation, you have a wonderful opportunity to brag on God’s preservation of the Bible. My suggestion is that you say something like this: “I’m so glad you mentioned Bible translation. Have you ever studied how we got the Bible? Is that something you’d be willing to study with me?”
From there, you’re off and running. And if you need a good resource for that study, let me recommend three. For a smaller, more entry level book, see How Do We Know the Bible is True? by John Ankerberg and Dillon Burroughs. For a more thorough treatment, you can check out How We Got the Bible by Neil Lightfoot. For a more theological slant, check out Layton Talbert’s The Trustworthiness of God’s Words.
J.S. Spaulding, As a Translator, 1912, pg. 23. Sayce goes on to say, “His facsimile from the Book of Abraham No. 2 is an ordinary hypocephalus, but the hieroglyphics upon it have been copied so ignorantly that hardly one of them is correct. I need scarce say that Kolob, etc., are unknown to the Egyptian language. Number 3 is a representation of the Goddess Maat leading the Pharaoh before Osiris, behind whom stands the Goddess Isis. Smith has turned the Goddess into a king and Osiris into Abraham. The hieroglyphics, again, have been transformed into unintelligible lines. Hardly one of them is copied correctly.” ↩