Why did Joseph Smith translate the Bible?

This article is not an official publication of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

The majority of this post contains information from two articles:
"Joseph Smith's Inspired Translation of the Bible" by Robert J. Matthews, Ensign, December 1972. 
"The Joseph Smith Translation" by David Rolph Seely, Ensign, August 1997.

Joseph Smith loved the Bible.  He read it often when he was young.  In fact, it was because he read the Bible as much as he did that he noticed different preachers were interpreting the same verse differently.  This observation is what caused him to question which religion was correct and go into a grove a trees to pray to find out.

To read what happened when Joseph Smith prayed to know which religion was true, click here. 

Three years later, Joseph Smith received a visitation from an angel who quoted Malachi.  Joseph noticed that what the Angel Moroni was saying was slightly different than the book of Malachi he had read in the King James Version (KJV).  Read Joseph Smith--History 1:36-40. This made Joseph realize that there must be errors in the KJV.

He said that he believed the Bible to be true as it was originally written but that the errors were a result of:

  • ignorant translators
  • careless transcribers
  • corrupt and designing priests
Basically he was saying some errors were made accidentally and others were made on purpose.  The plain and precious truths needed to be restored.

In June 1830 he was directed by God to use inspiration and revelation to revise the book of Genesis.  This is how we have the book of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price.  

While his work today is called a "translation," Joseph Smith did not translate the Bible in the traditional sense.  Meaning he did not go back to the Greek and Hebrew transcripts and render them in English from scratch.  Rather, he used the KJV to make 1. corrections, 2. additions, and 3. revisions to the biblical text.  

After he finished translating Genesis, the Lord instructed him to begin translating the New Testament. Later he translated the Old Testament and the Apocrypha mentioned in the D&C.  After he finished translating, which took him 3 1/2 years, he continued to work on the translation until he died.  

According to Robert J. Matthews (more on this amazing man later), Joseph Smith made 4 types of changes to the KJV Bible.  

1. Restored content once deleted from the Bible 
2. Recorded actual historical events that were never recorded or included in the Bible
3. Inspired commentary by Joseph Smith either enlarge, elaborated or adapted to a latter-day situation
4. Harmonization of doctrinal concepts revealed to him outside of translating the Bible but then discovered a Biblical passage was inaccurate

Joseph Smith never said specifically how he did this work, but looking at the final product, scholars can get an idea of the process.  

Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery purchased a Bible from E.B. Grandin.  This Bible was marked in ink and pencil by Joseph Smith.  He would cross out words and write symbols on the pages.  Additionally, there were five handwritten transcriptions in the handwriting of various scribes.  At the beginning they wrote out the entire passage whether it was altered or not.  That became too tedious so passages would be written that had been altered by the Prophet's inspiration and revelation.  

When the Prophet Joseph Smith was killed, there were almost 500 manuscript pages and 3,410 verses altered in the KJV Bible.  

After he died, Emma took the pages and the Bible as she considered them to Smith property and not Church property.  Brigham Young asked to take them to Utah with him and she refused.  They stayed in Nauvoo with her.  This single decision would result in a series of miraculous events and change Robert J. Matthews life.  

Here are two examples of how Joseph Smith's translation of the Bible restores plain and precious truths (changes are in bold):  

King James Version, Matthew 16:24–25: “Then said Jesus unto his disciples, if any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.
“For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.”
New translation, Matthew 16:25–28: “Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me.
“And now for a man to take up his cross, is to deny himself all ungodliness, and every worldly lust, and keep my commandments.
“Break not my commandments for to save your lives; for whosoever will save his life in this world, shall lose it in the world to come.
“And whosoever will lose his life in this world, for my sake, shall find it in the world to come.”


King James Version, Mark 9:43–44: “And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched:
“Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.”
New translation, Mark 9:40–41: “Therefore, if thy hand offend thee, cut it off; or if thy brother offend thee and confess not and forsake not, he shall be cut off. It is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands, to go into hell.
“For it is better for thee to enter into life without thy brother, than for thee and thy brother to be cast into hell; into the fire that never shall be quenched, where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.”