Monday, October 10, 2011

Chiasmus and the JST in Hebrews

Using the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible is problematic, at least in part, because Joseph Smith never completed the project. Robert Matthews, the late professor of religion at Brigham Young University, made the JST his life's work and concluded "that the work of revision was an on-going process that was never quite completed, and that, had the Prophet lived longer, he might have revised many more passages." What makes the work of interpretation more difficult is the fact that Joseph Smith's revisions frequently overlapped; when he revised the same biblical passage multiple times, early revisions were overwritten with new language. Matthews explains that "where there are multiple manuscripts of the same chapters, the later manuscript is more extensive and contains additional revisions over the earlier."

There are places, accordingly, where I struggle to make sense of the Joseph Smith Translation--or where I feel that some truth contained in the language of the King James Version of the Bible has been lost in his revisions, perhaps because that passage required further clarification and revelation. I'm more willing to accept those passages, however, because other changes in the JST clearly restore something missing the in original text. One such passage shows up in the first chapter of Hebrews, where the Joseph Smith translation of verses six and seven restores the clarity of Paul's chiasmus.

In Hebrews Paul uses the Old Testament to testify that Jesus Christ was the Messiah promised by the prophets, and he opens his epistle to the Jews with a chiasmus (verses 5-14) that centers around two messianic psalms:

For unto which of the angels said he at any time, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee? And again, I will be to him a Father, and he shall be to me a Son? And again, when he bringeth in the firstbegotten into the world, he saith, [JST: And let all the angels of God worship him, who maketh his ministers as a flame of fire. And of the angels he saith, Angels are ministering spirits.]


But unto the Son he saith, Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: a sceptre of righteousness is the sceptre of thy kingdom. (Quoting Psalms 45:6)


Thou hast loved righteousness, and hated iniquity; therefore God, even thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows (Quoting Psalms 45:7)


And, Thou, Lord, in the beginning hast laid the foundation of the earth; and the heavens are the works of thine hands (Quoting Psalms 102:25)


They shall perish; but thou remainest; and they all shall wax old as doth a garment; and as a vesture shalt thou fold them up, and they shall be changed: but thou art the same, and thy years shall not fail. (Quoting Psalms 102:26-27)


But to which of the angels said he at any time, Sit on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool? Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation? 


The chiasmus contains three major movements:

RED--Rhetorical questions demonstrating that the Son is higher than the angels, who are ministering spirits;
BLUE--Verses from the Psalms explaining that the Son's mission and character are eternal and unchanging;
GREEN--Verses from the Psalms stating that the Son qualified himself for his salvific role in the pre-existence (in the first verse, he was anointed for his redemptive mission because he "loved righteousness and hated iniquity"; in the second, he created the earth "in the beginning).

Paul's purpose here is to remind Jews of what they already believe regarding the Messiah so that he can demonstrate to them that Jesus Christ was the Messiah. To that end, he quotes from the Psalms and writes in chiasmus, a form of Hebrew poetry. Joseph Smith's translation contributes to that chiasmus in a small way by restoring the description of angels as "ministering spirits" to verse seven of the King James Translation, which corresponds to the "ministering spirits" in verse 14. I seriously doubt that Joseph Smith understood that changing verse seven would restore an ancient Hebrew poetic form that he probably didn't know existed, but his revision restores unity to Paul's chiasmus.

I don't always understand the inspiration behind Joseph Smith's inspired revisions probably, at least in part, because those revisions were never completed. But changes like this one--that clearly restore textual coherence in ways that Joseph Smith probably never realized--have led me to accept the JST as an inspired, if incomplete, addition to canonical scripture; they are yet another testimony of Joseph Smith's seership.