As you may know, the BYU New Testament Commentary project started in the early 2000s and has published volumes on the book of Revelation, Gospel of Luke, and 1 Corinthians. Another bit of translation originally done for the project was just published, though not by the BYUNTC; it was announced and published as part of a revelation of Denver Snuffer, who, as you also may know, was excommunicated by the mainstream LDS church in 2013 and is now leader in a restoration/remnant movement that considers the mainstream LDS church to be in a state of apostasy.
Here’s what happened. One of the members of the steering committee of the BYUNTC was John Hall. He was listed as such on the project’s website until spring of 2014 but was then dropped from the listing that summer and so has not been affiliated with the project for nearly three years now. Back when he was still involved, Hall piqued curiosities and also raised eyebrows with his translation of the opening of the Gospel of John. The King James Version reads: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” According to Hall, the verse should be translated: “In the ruling council was a spokesman, and the spokesman was among the gods, and the spokesman was himself a God.
Though it was never published by the BYUNTC (to the project’s credit, good fortune, or both), Hall publicly spoke about his translation of John 1:1 more than once, and he was speaking for the project, whether officially nor not. He spoke about it at an “Empty-Nester’s F[amily] H[ome] E[evening]” in 2006. You can read the blogged notes here. He also spoke about it at the 2007 conference of the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, FAIR. You can read the talk here. Furthermore you can read about Hall’s translation as well as the BYUNTC in the second edition of P. L. Barlow, Mormons and the Bible, Oxford, 2013, page xliii. The notes from the 2006 FHE are admittedly paraphrastic. But they seem to be reliable enough, judging from the 2007 FAIR talk, which is Hall’s very writing.
Hall’s translation is wrong, or as FPR’s own TT has diplomatically put it, “highly problematic.” And it’s interesting to see how Hall may have adjusted his presentation to each audience, as though Hall himself realized on some level how problematic the translation is.
At the FHE, on the one hand, he is reported to have claimed that there is actual manuscript evidence for the plural “gods” in John 1:1 among the John Rylands papyri. The claim is simply not true, but no one at the FHE was likely to have known any better. It appears that Hall was referring to the famous John Rylands papyrus 52, which is in fact an early manuscript of the Gospel of John. However, not only does it lack any reference to plural “gods” in John 1:1, the manuscript lacks the entire opening of the gospel. It’s merely a fragment containing verses from chapter 18.
At FAIR, on the other hand, Hall didn’t claim manuscript evidence; he grounded his translation in the authority of Hugh Nibley. He said he learned it from Nibley while he was an undergraduate in Nibley’s class at BYU. Thus attributing the translation to Nibley, he presented it in terms of viable choices between the multiple meanings of words, and he had the Nibley of his memory gloss the Greek word for god as “godhead” and then “gods.” Of course, Nibley was no longer living, having died in 2005, so no one at the FAIR conference could confirm what Hall was saying, much as no one at the FHE was in a position to fact check his reported claim about manuscript evidence.
Following FAIR, there were some healthy skeptics and those who knew better than to believe him, but they weren’t going accuse Hall of willful deception. Later, commenting somewhat hyperbolically on the FHE notes in March of 2009, one person did accuse him: “None of the words he has selected for this are even associated with the words in the manuscripts. THIS MAN IS A LIAR! READER BEWARE!” At the other end of the spectrum, some people eagerly awaited more from him. Another person commenting on the FHE notes in March 2009 asked: “What is the status of this translation? Are any parts of it published yet? Is there an official website for it?”
Meanwhile Hall continued to be involved in the BYU New Testament Commentary project until 2014. For instance, he presented a paper at the project’s 2013 conference on BYU campus, where he was introduced as the team member responsible for the Letters and Gospel of John (he is not anymore). You can watch his presentation here. It’s a heady mix of scholarship and Hall’s brand of LDS ascent/temple theology and visionary mystical gnosis.
In short, Snuffer and the restoration/remnant movement are reinstating writings like Lectures on Faith, while cutting out others like the Song of Solomon and while adding still others. The additional scriptures include, among other things, Snuffer’s version of the Gospel of John, which is described as follows in the announcement: “The Revelation of the Testimony of St. John – as given through Denver Snuffer, Jr. – has been added. It will not replace the existing Testimony of St. John found in the New Testament, but will stand as it’s [its] own book.” Compare the heading to the book itself: “Below is a newly revealed account of John the Beloved’s Testimony of Jesus the Messiah:” Right after that is the opening verse: “In the Highest Council of Heaven there was One who spoke out. And the One who spoke out was among the Gods, and He was a God.”
Snuffer has revised and expanded it some, but this is Hall’s translation for the BYUNTC. Unlike Hall at the FHE in 2006 and at FAIR in 2007, Snuffer doesn’t claim manuscript evidence or attribute it to Nibley. He presents it as revelation, the ultimate source of authority for many Mormons, whether they be of this or that kind. I have no idea how many of Snuffer’s followers are going to realize or care that he has been influenced by Hall’s translation or that the translation is wrong. In a group that considers revelation to be chief, no amount of counter evidence tends to matter much.
Clearly I can’t end this post with that, and the buck doesn’t stop with Snuffer or Hall. As problematic as it is, Hall’s translation of John 1:1, just published as Snuffer’s revelation, is not really surprising.
Before Snuffer, before Hall, J. Reuben Clark hoped for an inspired, i.e., LDS, collation and translation of the manuscripts of the Bible. The BYUNTC made Clark’s hope something of a mission statement for the project. Hall referred to it in his presentations at the FHE in 2006 and at FAIR in 2007. You can read it right now on the about-us page of the project website:
Almost sixty years ago, President J. Reuben Clark wrote, “[I hope to] provoke in some qualified scholars having a proper Gospel background, the desire and determination to go over the manuscripts and furnish us, under the influence and direction of the Holy Ghost, a translation of the New Testament that will give us an accurate translation that shall be pregnant with the great principles of the Restored Gospel. We shall then have a reliable record of the doings and sayings of our Lord and Master Jesus Christ.” (Why the King James Version [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1956], viii–ix). A team of Latter-day Saint scholars has joined forces to produce a multi-volume commentary on the New Testament with a new rendition of the Greek texts of the New Testament books ….
Before Clark, of course, Joseph Smith claimed in the Book of Mormon that plain and precious things had been lost from the biblical books as they were copied and transmitted over the centuries, things that Smith claimed to restore. With respect to the Gospel of John in particular, he said he saw a vision of an autograph manuscript of John 21, written in the authorial first-person rather than the editorial third-person; see D&C 7 and my earlier blog post here. He also reworked the opening of John chapter 1 in his revelations, where it was promised that “the fulness of the record of John” would one day be had, thus creating a door for Hall and Snuffer to walk through; see D&C 93:1-18.
A final thought: Unless Mormonism as a whole takes biblical and religious studies scholarship seriously, neither the empty nester listening to John Hall’s translation for the BYU New Testament Commentary in 2006 nor the attendee of the restoration/remnant conference in St George in 2017 is going to be able to tell whether or not what they’re hearing is plausible. The same goes for the gospel doctrine class member who is studying D&C 7 and 93 this year in Sunday school.