The first thing to notice here is that Joseph introduces his change to Hebrews 6:1 as an example of how he addresses the supposed problem of errors in the Bible arising from “ignorant translators, careless transcribers, or designing and corrupt priests.” His point here is that the Bible contains “errors” either through ignorance (on the part of translators), accident (on the part of copyists), or deliberate changes to the Bible (on the part of “designing and corrupt priests”). The last category appears to refer to apostate church leaders whom Joseph Smith thought may have deliberately altered either the original-language texts or subsequent translations of those texts into other languages (or both). We are evidently to understand, then, that the error that Joseph claims to have found in Hebrews 6:1 is either a copying error or a translation error. Either way, Joseph was claiming that the KJV wording did not accurately represent the original wording of Hebrews 6:1—either because the original text differed from that used by the KJV or because the KJV simply mistranslated the text. This means that Smith’s change to Hebrews 6:1 cannot be explained as merely updating the language of the KJV. Smith explicitly tells us that Hebrews 6:1 as it read in his day was in error and that he was correcting it.
Second, Joseph explains quite directly the rationale for his thinking that Hebrews 6:1 in the KJV was worded erroneously. He drew that conclusion because Hebrews 6:1 KJV appeared to him to be inherently contradictory: “If a man leaves the principles of the doctrine of Christ, how can he be saved in the principles? This is a contradiction. I don’t believe it.” Quite simply, Joseph thought what Hebrews 6:1 KJV said did not make sense. Notice that Joseph made no claim to receive a supernatural revelation that the word “not” was missing from the text. No doubt he wanted people to believe that he was supernaturally guided in his revision of the KJV, but his description of the process by which he came to view the KJV as erroneous was a matter of rational reflection. As he came to the passage, he observed something that seemed to him to be contradictory, and he remedied the problem by altering the text to “render it as it should be.”
A simple examination of the Greek editions of the New Testament known to the KJV translators shows that they did not overlook the Greek word for “not” at Hebrews 6:1 (me, a Greek word which does appear later in the same verse). The problem, then, is not mistranslation. This leaves only the supposition that the Greek text of Hebrews was miscopied, omitting (accidentally or deliberately) the word for “not.” However, manuscript discoveries since Joseph Smith have not lent any support to the supposition that the text actually said “not leaving” rather than “leaving.” The earliest known manuscripts containing Hebrews 6:1 are the Chester Beatty Papyri, discovered in the twentieth century and dating from about AD 200. Not one of the many other Greek manuscripts of Hebrews contains the word “not” at Hebrews 6:1, nor do any of the manuscripts of ancient translations of Hebrews into Coptic, Latin, and other languages. The wealth and distribution of Greek and other language version manuscripts are sufficient to prove that the current wording of Hebrews 6:1 considerably pre-dated the earliest known manuscript of Hebrews. Thus, we can absolutely rule out the notion that the KJV mistranslated the Greek text, and we can also definitively rule out as extremely improbable the notion that the Greek text was miscopied.
When we consider Joseph’s rationale for his correction of the KJV, it becomes clear that the real problem is that he simply misunderstood the KJV. He thought “leaving” meant abandoning, whereas in this context it meant going beyond--that is, it meant not staying at the elementary level. The Greek word aphiemi translated “leaving” can mean to abandon in some contexts, but in other contexts it can mean to “leave behind” in the same sense as in English, that of moving beyond something basic or elementary. (Thus, a teacher might tell her class, “Today we’re going to leave addition and move on to subtraction.”) Hebrews 6:1 is in fact speaking about something basic or elementary (“the principles,” which translates the Greek words tes arches…logon, rendered in modern versions as “elementary principles,” “elementary teaching,” or the like [ESV, HCSB, NAB, NASB, NET, NIV, NJB, NKJV, TNIV, etc.]). This proves beyond any reasonable doubt that “leaving” here in context means moving beyond in instruction, as the relation between “leaving” and “let us go on” also makes clear. Thus, for example, the NET translates, “we must progress beyond the elementary instructions about Christ and move on to maturity,” and a footnote comments, “Grk ‘Therefore leaving behind.’ The implication is not of abandoning this elementary information, but of building on it.”
This understanding of the text was current in Smith’s day, so he could have known this just by studying available commentaries—or even by hearing a moderately well-informed sermon on the passage. For example, Matthew Henry (who wrote in the early 1700s, more than a century before Smith) had the following comment on the passage:
“In order to their growth, Christians must leave the principles of the doctrine of Christ. How must they leave them? They must not lose them, they must not despise them, they must not forget them. They must lay them up in their hearts, and lay them as the foundation of all their profession and expectation; but they must not rest and stay in them, they must not be always laying the foundation, they must go on, and build upon it” (Commentary on the Whole Bible, at Heb. 6:1).
More than a century before Henry, John Calvin made the same point:
“Now, he bids them to leave these rudiments, not that the faithful are ever to forget them, but that they are not to remain in them; and this idea appears more clear from what follows, the comparison of a foundation; for in building a house we must never leave the foundation; and yet to be always engaged in laying it, would be ridiculous” (Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, at Heb. 6:1).
Smith’s failure to understand this point is clear proof that he was not inspired in his “translation.” By adding the word “not,” he not only failed to clarify the text’s real meaning, he actually showed that he did not understand what he was revising. This is about as clear an example of an uninspired rewrite as one could imagine.