Mormons and the Bible in the 21st Century

Given this future, it is notable that the LDS church in 2009 published Santa Biblia, the church's own edition of the Spanish Bible, complete with scaled down annotations generally paralleling those in the official English LDS edition of the Bible (1979), which in turn entwine the biblical text with other Mormon scriptures. The Spanish chapter headings are closely translated from those in the LDS English Bible, which view the text through a literalist lens colored by a conservative version of Mormon Christianity. Like the headings in the English LDS Bible, for example, the Spanish heading to Genesis 49, wherein Jacob blesses his sons, interprets Shiloh and Stone of Israel as "Christ," and Joseph's branches as the Book of Mormon's "Nephites" and "Lamanites."

The choice to eschew the 1960 revision as the new LDS Spanish Bible's basis and to adopt instead the 1909 Reina-Valera translation (traditionally used by Protestants) may have been influenced by copyright restrictions on the former. In any case, the church's announcement of the new Bible also expresses its sentiment that the Spanish of the 1909 Reina-Valera "is comparable in the dignity of its language to the King James Version . . . in English."It is not the case that the LDS church uses antique biblical translations in all languages for its modern adherents, but the fact that they did so for its own edition of the Bible, in the language soon numerically to dominate Mormonism, is significant. It means that as the church grows in areas that speak additional languages, it will likely remain consistent with precedent set in Spanish and English by issuing its own editions of the Bible in these respective languages. This will entail the translation of the "Mormonized" chapter headings and cross references, as well as the need to address the problem of whether to choose a contemporary version of, say, Russian, which the populace more readily understands, or an older version which is understood to retain "a dignity comparable to the King James English Bible."

This leads us to a final consideration here -- the future role of the King James Bible in the Mormon canon. During its first century, the KJV was the movement's common, inherited, but not sole Bible. Joseph Smith patterned the language of the Book of Mormon after it as the sacred language familiar to him. But he spoke often of its limitations and drew on other translations frequently. The KJV morphed from the common Bible of Mormonism to its de facto official version only by 1979, after a series of traceable changes in perspective beginning after the Civil War. In that year, as noted earlier, the church published its own edition of the KJV, with an elaborate accompanying interpretive apparatus (chapter headings, Bible dictionary, topical guide, references, and footnotes) that conditions how the Saints understand the text, much as the famous Scofield and Ryrie Study Bibles shape and reinforce the dispensationalist views of fundamentalist Protestants.

In 1992, the Church's First Presidency made the implicit explicit by publishing a letter pronouncing the KJV to be the Church's official English Bible. Because of this, and because abandoning the KJV would raise questions about transposing to modern form the language of the Book of Mormon, and because the beautiful and antique Jacobean phrasing of the KJV seems to contemporary ears a sacred language that buffers the devoted from the mundane and the profane, this policy of championing the King James Bible is not apt to change in the next half-century.

In the subsequent fifty years, however, the Church may have to consider an alternate strategy. Although the KJV remains a popular translation, especially among older Christians, it has already been a quarter-century since it was dethroned as America's best-selling Bible. Its star is descending. Virtually no other major denomination in the United States uses it as an official translation, and its Mormon use in the year 2050 will seem to contemporaries akin to the Amish rejection of automobiles. Retention of young Mormons coming of age and of new converts has grown to a critical concern for the LDS church, as it is among most contemporary religions. English-speaking peoples two generations from now will increasingly find early 17th-century prose to be an alien tongue; this will not generally aid retention. Moreover, any respect that leaders and followers come to pay to modern biblical scholarship will need eventually to come to terms with the fact that the King James Bible was translated from Hebrew and Greek texts inferior to and more recent than those now available to us.

So, any change from the KJV is problematic, and yet the failure to change is only going to grow more problematic as the decades pass. Our crystal ball says that before the century expires the church will address the dilemma by retaining the King James Bible, but also reclaiming the tradition of original, 19th-century Mormonism in which use of additional translations was encouraged. This further implies the official or unofficial embrace by church authorities of paraphrasings of the Book of Mormon, cast in contemporary prose, to supplement the official text.

8/9/2010 4:00:00 AM