Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The Book of Mormon 2/18

I might as well go back to before I read the Book of Mormon (hereafter BOM). I got my first copy of the BOM in August of 1996. I know that because the friend who gave it to me wrote a dedication on the inside of it:
To Sam Harper
I hope this book brings you light and happiness.
Ryan Byrd
August 96'
He sent this to me after I had written him a letter telling him I had been visiting with some Mormon missionaries. The missionaries gave me references to read, which I did, but I didn't read the whole book at the time.

The first thing I noticed about the BOM was that it imitated the King James Version. It was not written in modern English, which made me suspicious. The King James Version had been the most widely read translation of the Bible for a few hundred years, so it would make sense that if you're going to try to pass off your writing as scripture that you might want to immitate what was already widely accepted as scripture. Putting it in Elizabethan English might give it an illusion of authenticity. But if it were translated by the power of God, then such pretensions would be unnecessary. God would speak in the language of the people he was talking to just as he did in the Bible. I asked the Mormon missionaries why it was in King James English, and they said it was for the sake of formality, or something like that.

My impression since then has not changed. I don't think the style of the BOM proves it is a fake, but it does make me suspicious. My suspicions have been heightened by my discovery that the original 1830 publication of the BOM had some grammatical errors that are not at all surprising under the assumption that the BOM was written (not translated) in the 1800's, but that would be surprising if the BOM was translated the way it supposedly was.

Lemme say something about that "supposedly was." There is no official Mormon position on exactly how Joseph Smith translated the BOM, but according to David Whitmer, it was translated like so:
Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling a parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. (Address to All Believers in Christ, Richmond, Missouri, 1887, p. 12)
David Whitmer was one of the three witnesses who in the introductory pages of the BOM signed a statement saying they had seen the plates (or a vision of the plates, depending on how you interpret it) and that they "had been translated by the gift and power of God."

Now I suppose a Mormon might say that grammatical mistakes are no indication that it was not translated by the power of God since perhaps grammar was not standardized among the early Mormons, and God was simply writing in their language. But if that's the case, we shouldn't expect it to be in King James English either. You see, that's the thing. There's an inconsistency. Was the Book of Mormon translated in 19th century backwoods language, or was it translated in 15th century King James language? Both, apparently. Though not a solid proof, I suspect the best explanation is that a 19th century author was simply making an imperfect attempt to imitate the language of the Bible, and he lapsed sometimes into his own vernacular.

You can use google to find a list of the grammatical changes made between the original 1830 edition of the BOM and subsequent editions, but I'll provide you with a few examples along with a link to a scanned copy of the 1830 edition so you can see for yourself.

Alma 23:7

"...they did not fight against God no more." --1830 edition

"...they did not fight against God any more." --1981 edition

3 Nephi 3:5

"Therefore, I have wrote this epistle, sealing it with mine own hand..." --1830 edition

"Therefore, I have written this epistle, sealing it with mine own hand..." --1981 edition

Alma 43:7

"Now this he done that he might preserve their hatred towards the Nephites." --1830 edition

"Now this he did that he might preserve their hatred towards the Nephites." --1981 edition

These same kinds of mistakes are found throughout the the BOM. The longest list I've been able to find through Google is here. Given the URL, it's obviously an anti-Mormon site, but you can easily check them out by looking up the references here and see it in a scanned copy of the 1830 edition. I've looked up a few on that page, and so far they all check out.

One last thing before moving on. If David Whitmer's account of how the BOM came to be is accurate, then that throws the whole enterprise into question, I would think. If it's true, then the golden plates were not consulted at all during the production of the BOM. They might as well have been left in the hills. How can anybody be sure that the BOM is a translation of those plates? What role did the plates play in anything? It seems to me that Joseph Smith himself ought to have had some questions about it.

Part 3

21 Comments:

At 6/03/2009 12:28 PM , Blogger Dave P. said...

I think the grammar errors are minor quibbles. Keep in mind that Joseph was dictating to a scribe, who certainly could have let in 19th-century ways of speaking or conjugating verbs without realizing it, and the editing perhaps was not thorough enough to catch the errors the first time through. (Of course you could ask, why would God allow errors to be made in the first place? But the same could be asked of the Bible. In my opinion, what does the grammar matter, as long as the point gets made?)
As for the language used: the people of that time, and the Smith family in particular, were used to using "religious language" (read: the language of the King James Bible) when the time was appropriate. Joseph was translating from reformed Egyptian and could have used any language he wished, but I'm sure he felt the appropriate language would be the same used in the Bible, in order to give it the same weight. (and to jibe with passages in the Book of Mormon that are quoted directly from the Old Testament.) My opinion there is the opposite of yours, that if the book were in plain English people would be less ready to accept it as authentic.

 
At 6/03/2009 1:14 PM , Blogger Paul said...

Sam,

It is interesting that the LDS Church continues to support the KJV as their translation of choice (perhaps the only version they sanction, don't know) in light of the fact that most conservative and liberal non-Mormon scholars recognize it as a technically inferior translation. Why should that be? Are they in agreement with the radical King James Only type protestants, or is there something else going on?

After discovering that the BoM, where it contains direct scriptural parallels, includes the translation errors, italicized phrases, and anachronisms of the KJV, I think maybe I see a hint at the answer.

 
At 6/03/2009 1:20 PM , Blogger Sam said...

Dave, do you dispute the account of David Whitmer about how the BOM was translated? He said, "when it was written down and repeated to brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear." Since it was God who gave the translation, and since the next part wouldn't appear until the first was written down correctly, I don't see how it's possible for there to be grammar mistakes. There's another account in The Comprehensive History of the Church about Martin Harris' role as scribe:

By aid of the Seer Stone, sentences would appear and were read by the Prophet and written by Martin, and when finished he would say "written"; and if correctly written, the sentence would disappear and another appear in its place; but if not written correctly it remained until corrected, so that the translation was just as it was engraven on the plates, precisely in the language then used. (Comprehensive History of the Church, Vol. 1, page 29)



If that account is true, I don't see how it's possible for any errors to have crept in. Do you dispute this account?

If both of these accounts are wrong, then I can see how bad grammar could've crept in. If Joseph Smith translated the BOM the way most ordinary people translate, then it's easy to see how he could've made mistakes. But it seems like every Mormon account I look at claims that the BOM was translated by the power of God himself.

And there were far too many mistakes in the 1830 edition of the BOM to be dismissed as simple scribal errors.

You may be right about why the BOM imitates the language of the KJV, but I remain skeptical. My suspicion is that some kind of superstition was involved. I've even heard old preachers, when they pray, use "thee" and "thou" and all sorts of KJV words they don't use in their every day language. I think they do it because they think there's something special or holy or even supernatural about that dialect. And they get this idea because the KJV is written that way and differs from their ordinary dialect. My suspicion is that Joseph Smith tried to imitate the KJV for just that reason. I'm not hanging my hat on this argument. It's just a hunch on my part.

 
At 6/03/2009 1:23 PM , Blogger Paul said...

Dave,

I sympathize with some of what you say. But I'd like to take exception to one item.

You said, "Of course you could ask, why would God allow errors to be made in the first place? But the same could be asked of the Bible."

Perhaps you mean to point out the refining of the Scripture done by translators over time. However, this is a different thing for the Bible than for the BoM. The Bible was written in Greek, Hebrew, and some Aramaic. The Bibles we have are of necessity translated, and the revisions of these translations are due to our increasing understanding of the grammatical construction and word meaning of the source languages, as well as the continued discovery of earlier and better manuscripts. (And there has been MUCH improvement in these areas since the King James translation.)

The Book of Mormon, on the other hand, has no need of "translation," unless one wished to do a modern lingo paraphrase. The only reason to touch the BoM otherwise is exactly for the purpose of correcting mistakes in the original.

 
At 6/03/2009 1:41 PM , Blogger Sam said...

Paul, I asked about that on Yahoo Answers once. Most of them said they use the KJV because they think it is a superior translation. It's more literal than modern translations. Most of them don't completely dismiss other translations; they just trust the KJV more. I suspect it's a matter of tradition more than anything else.

In "Rendering Fiction" by David Shepherd, published in The New Mormon Challenge, he has a long discussion about the quotations from Isaiah in the BOM. He says that the BOM usually avoided italicized words, but the BOM followed the KJV even when the KJV got it wrong. I won't go through the particular arguments because it's too long, but here are a list of examples he cites:

2 Nephi 12:4/Isaiah 2:4
2 Nephi 13:2,3/Isaiah 3:2,3
2 Nephi 16:13/Isaiah 6:13
2 Nephi 18:20/Isaiah 8:20
2 Nephi 19:5/ Isaiah 9:5
2 Nephi 20:4/Isaiah 10:4
2 Nephi 20:15/Isaiah 10:15
2 Nephi 20:27/Isaiah 13:15
2 Nephi 23:22/Isaiah 13:22
2 Nephi 27:27/Isaiah 29:16
Mosiah 14:3/Isaiah 53:3

If you compare these to modern translations, such as the NIV, NRSV, NASB, and most other modern translations, you can see the difference. Of course there is always room for debate when it comes to differences in translations, so I don't think this is a knock down drag out argument against the BOM, but it is enough to cause me doubts.

And the doubts keep piling up as you'll see in upcoming entries in this series.

 
At 6/03/2009 1:46 PM , Blogger Sam said...

The Bibles we have are of necessity translated, and the revisions of these translations are due to our increasing understanding of the grammatical construction and word meaning of the source languages, as well as the continued discovery of earlier and better manuscripts.



That's true, Paul, but I would also add that the Bible was not translated by the power of God like the BOM supposedly was, but by Hebrew and Greek scholars using ordinary mortal skills. So it's not a fair comparison in the first place.

 
At 6/03/2009 2:31 PM , Blogger Dave P. said...

For the comparison of the KJV with the BOM, I will defer to Michael Ash of FAIR, a group of Mormon apologists. He has a short paper that addresses the comparison.

I can't dispute David Whitmer's account of how the translation took place, but we may be disagreeing on the meaning of "correct" and "precisely in the language then used." Correct may in this case mean doctrinally or rhetorically correct (with God leaving grammar issues up to the editors), and the language then used might also refer to the meaning of the words and not their specific grammatical qualities.

(Ash makes the point in his paper, linked to above, that to make a direct word-for-word translation would be problematic: the differences in syntax and idiom and that sort of thing would render a word-for-word translation completely illegible. Therefore "precisely in the language then used" can't mean word for word.)

Paul, I apologize for my aside about the translation of the Bible. Sam is right that we Mormons take a greater burden on ourselves with the claim of divinely-guided translation.

 
At 6/03/2009 3:29 PM , Blogger Dave P. said...

For what it's worth here is another from FAIR. Unfortunatey his tone is somewhat defensive because he's answering virulent anti-Mormon critics, and preaching to the choir.

 
At 6/03/2009 3:55 PM , Blogger Sam said...

Dave,

Thanks for the links. I just read the first one, but I haven't read the second one yet. I don't agree with everything it it, but I do grant that there are lots of possibilities for why the BOM would be in the language of the KJV that don't necessarily entail fraud. It's just that I think the possibility of fraud seems more likely than any of these other possibilities.

I agree that "correct" in the above account may mean doctrinally or rhetorically correct, rather than word for word correct. I also agree that it's possible "precisely in the language then used" could mean the words used in the translation carry the same meaning as the words revealed by the seer stone without necessarily being grammatically identical, but I find that highly unlikely.

I also agree that it's impossible to give a coherent word for word translation from one language to another, but that point is irrelevant, because the issue is whether the 1830 edition of the BOM is a word for word copy of the translation revealed in the seer stone, not whether it's a word for word translation of the original language on the plates.

I would think that any sincere person who was receiving a translation by God himself and told to copy it down would at least try to copy it down exactly like God revealed it. And even if we grant that God thought "close enough" and moved on, it seems that Joseph Smith and his scribes were awfully sloppy in their attempt at accuracy. After all, there weren't just a few mistakes.

 
At 6/03/2009 4:47 PM , Blogger Paul said...

Sam,

As I understand it, some italicized text actually did make it into the BoM. For example, III Nephi 24:5 quoting Malachi 3:5.

Perhaps I see the KJV connections as being more problematic than you. Though maybe you see it as less problematic than other issues yet to be disclosed to us :)

 
At 6/03/2009 4:48 PM , Blogger Paul said...

Dave,

Even though I think it odd for an inspired writing to find it necessary to bind itself to a provincial and rapidly outdating linguistic style (however attractive), I don't think it is a defeater for the BoM that it uses the Old English prose. However, it's not just the fact that it follows the KJV style, but that it often includes the exact phraseology and word choices in its translation, even where they are shown to be errant or anachronistic.

Since, as you say, making a direct word-for-word translation is problematic, then we should expect more differences between the uninspired KJV translators working from the meager source materials of their time and the inspired BoM team working from the best possible source. To say that the best translational choices always tend to be what the KJV translators settled on would seem incredible to me given the problematic nature of that translation.

 
At 6/03/2009 5:06 PM , Blogger Sam said...

As I understand it, some italicized text actually did make it into the BoM. For example, III Nephi 24:5 quoting Malachi 3:5.

Yes it did. Just not in most cases. This is what Shepherd said:

More substantially, Wright provides further evidence of the Book of Mormons's dependence on the AV text of Isaiah by showing how Joseph Smith's suspicion of italicized words in the AV led him to diverge frequently from the AV when coming across these "suspect" words in his base text. [87]

note 87: D.P. Wright, "Isaiah in the Book of MOrmon...and Joseph Smith in Isaiah," Part 1: King James Version Language, online: http://members.aol.com/jazzdd/IsaBoM1.html. Wright suggests that were the BoM to be an independent translation, it would not show literal agreement but a "KJV flavour."


I don't think it's all that significant that Joseph Smith used italicized words from the KJV because it's not as if the italicized words are just arbitrary. They're added there for clarity--to make sense of the translation. As Dave pointed out, it's not possible to give a coherent word for word translation. There has to be a little paraphrasing involved that would include the addition (or even subtraction) of some words.

You might argue that it's significant that he used the same italicized words the KJV used, though. I guess the significance of it would depend on how many other equally viable options there were.

 
At 6/07/2009 1:01 AM , Blogger Carl said...

In Joseph Smith's day, the most popular version of the Bible was by far the KJV. Since the BoM was translated to stand as a companion to the Bible and as another testament of Christ, it makes sense that it should be written in the same form of language in order to be compatible.

There were several people who served as scribes for Joseph while he translated the plates over the course of 2 months. And there are several differing descriptions of the process he used.

The plates were not translated literally word for word, the ideas, intent and meaning is what was translated. There is also record, though I don't recall which scribe and don't have the reference handy, of Joseph translating from the plates as if he were simply reading a book, leaving the scribe unable to get in any form of punctuation. The scribe in this case also recorded that Joseph would periodically stop to correct a mistake the scribe had made, despite having not been able to see the error from where he was.

The BoM was compiled from the writings of several prophets over the course of centuries, just like the Bible was, in several place the BoM author at that time explains that he's compiling and/or translating the writings of another. It's the meaning and intent that was translated, the final form only matters in it's ability to communicate it's message to it's intended audience.

There were a vast number of changes made to the original transcript and early editions of the BoM. The overwhelming majority of these were grammatical, punctuation or spelling errors which had no affect on the meaning of the text.

Of the 5 changes to the Book of Mormon text which could change the intent, all of them were made by Joseph during his lifetime. As the translator of the text, and as the Prophet of the Lord, he was entirely within his rights to do so.

In many places where the BoM quotes the Bible, there are in fact often differences which change the meaning of the passage. Because the BoM has the more recent translation thru the Power of God, it stands to reason that the BoM contains the corrected versions of those passages. By leaving everything identical to the KJV including the italics, attention is drawn to the differences that matter.

Of the 11 total witnesses who testify in the beginning of the BoM, several of them either left or were excommunicated from the church. Some of them then spent the rest of their lives campaigning against Joseph. At least one of them later rejoined the church. None of them ever recanted their testimony of the plates.

 
At 6/07/2009 1:21 AM , Blogger Carl said...

It is interesting that the LDS Church continues to support the KJV as their translation of choice (perhaps the only version they sanction, don't know) in light of the fact that most conservative and liberal non-Mormon scholars recognize it as a technically inferior translation.

A true understanding of the scriptures doesn't come from having the most literal translation, but by having the spirit help you to understand it's meaning in your life.

One of the benefits of having a living Prophet of the Lord is that the Lords meaning can be made clear, without trying to decipher what prophets 2000 years ago wrote. The Bible and BoM serve as testaments to Christ and the gospel, they also serve as moral compasses if you will. They keep us aligned and pointed in the correct direction. In that capacity, they serve their purpose.

There couldn't be any need to change the version of the Bible used because man is unlikely to have any new insights to the gospel that the Lord has not already revealed, if not through the Prophets of old, then through the living Prophet.

An important distinction to make is that God himself did not translate the BoM. Joseph, a man, translated it through the Power of God. The difference is between God standing over Joseph's shoulder and reading it for him, and God giving Joseph the ability to make sense of it on his own. The Lord laid out a task and gave Joseph what he needed to accomplish it.

 
At 6/07/2009 1:50 AM , Blogger Sam said...

Of the 5 changes to the Book of Mormon text which could change the intent, all of them were made by Joseph during his lifetime.

What were those five changes?

Of the 11 total witnesses who testify in the beginning of the BoM, several of them either left or were excommunicated from the church. Some of them then spent the rest of their lives campaigning against Joseph. At least one of them later rejoined the church. None of them ever recanted their testimony of the plates.

They all signed a statement that somebody else wrote (I’m guessing Joseph Smith), but I’ve read a few of the testimonies they wrote themselves, and according to those testimonies, they didn’t actually see the plates. Instead, they saw visions of the plates. Some of them only felt the plates with their hands while the plates remained covered. I would be interested in knowing if any of them at all ever claimed to see the actually plates with their own eyes.

An important distinction to make is that God himself did not translate the BoM.

A few comments up, I quoted two different versions of how the BOM was translated. They both agree that Joseph stuck his face in a hat with a seer stone, and the translation appeared before him. He then read it to his scribe. If those accounts are true, then it seems to me that God did translate the BOM. That’s why I’m having difficulties with the mistakes that were in it. Given the translation process, it doesn’t seem like there would be so many mistakes. Joseph Smith didn’t translate the plates; he just read the translation that was given to him by the seer stone.

 
At 6/26/2009 1:53 PM , Blogger Angela said...

Just a quick not on the KJV because the yahoo answer you got may be a commonly held opinion, but it is moronic. From what I can tell, the preference for the KJV in Mormondom is due to three reasons:

1 - because JS used it as a source in the BOM when quoting certain passages from the Bible.

2 - because the KJV was used by JS in his Joseph Smith Translation (which was his way of saying "Here's what I think this is supposed to say")

3 - because McConkie and Ludlow did extensive footnoting and topical guide (based on the KJV) that is used in all our correlated teaching materials.

#1 is not a real issue, and #2 wouldn't take too much to address, but #3 would require a major effort to redo using a superior translation. Is it worth doing? Personally, I think so, but it's probably not that high a priority because we rely on ongoing revelation more than scholarship.

 
At 10/21/2011 10:01 PM , Blogger Richard W 4Christ said...

I don't think spotting grammatical errors in the BOM should be used to prove any suspicion against its authenticity even though I personally don't believe in it. We have to be truthful and fair. The King James Version of the Bible has many grammatical errors too. A lot to be honest, but I do see the extremely stronger case that the Bible has over the BOM. At least you have a Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek premise to personally research when properly translating the Bible, but the Book of Mormon doesn't have this at all. At least we can understand why the Bible has grammatical errors. But we don't know why the BOM has errors because there is nothing by which it was translated to we may know. This may be debateable too, but I agree that it has not been presented. But Sam, if you base your suspicion on the grammatical errors, then you'll run into a ditch if the BOM followers recognize the numerous grammatical mistakes amd errors in the KJV Bible. I could list quite a whole bunch of errors if you want, but I only wanted to point out to be careful not to use grammatical errors as any reason explain any type of suspicion of the BOM or else that would mean that they can present a case that Bible believers are logically suspicious of the Bible due to grammatical errors.

 
At 10/21/2011 10:45 PM , Blogger Sam said...

Richard, the grammar errors in the KJV are just what we should expect since the KJV was translated by ordinary mortal methods. The reason grammar error create problems for the BOM is because the BOM was supposedly translated by God himself. If you look at the way Martin Harris claims that the translation took place, we should not expect any grammatical errors at all.

 
At 10/22/2011 2:54 PM , Blogger Richard W 4Christ said...

When you put it that way, you're right Sam. I get you. There was just a part in your blog that I maybe misunderstood when you said the grammatical errors prompt suspicion. I was just looking at the logic of it,but I now see the point that you were making as regarding one being translated from other languages versus the one claiming to be directly from God.

 
At 10/25/2011 6:06 PM , Blogger Tyson said...

I thought I would add a couple comments.

First, I noticed the mention of the witnesses who "saw" the plates. There are actually two seperate accounts. There is the witness of the 3 and then the witness of the 8. Both accounts are substantially different.

The witness of the 3 includes a spiritual manifestation along with a temporal experience. They heard the voice of God, saw an angel come down from heaven, saw & beheld the plates, and were then commanded of the Lord.

The witness provided by the other 8describes a temporal event. The spiritaul manifestation is absent. Smith showed them the plates where they handled them with their own hands, and saw the engravings.

In regards to some of them leaving the church...I have to consider another who left the Savior long ago. Every man has their own agency. Non are free from sin by themself. Judas was another who walked with the Savior and was called as an apostle...yet he left. I don't think the fact they left the faith establishes any concrete precidence.

As mentioned before, many of the corrections made to the Book of Mormon came from Joseph himself. It was his footnotes and marginal corrections that were used to make the corrections. See the footnote provided at the bottom of the page called, "A Brief Explanation about The Book of Mormon" found in the front of the book. It says the changes made were in conformity with prepublication manuscripts and early editions edited by Joseph Smith. Apparently, changes occured at print. I wonder if they were made by the typsetter or who ever set the book to print.

As for the KJV language...what writing style would be most effective. Those who read the bible not only today, but back in Joseph's time recognize it's style as a religious text. If God was going to bring for another sacred text...why couldn't he bring it forth in a manner already accustomed to by those who are most likly to accept it.

 
At 10/26/2011 4:06 PM , Blogger Sam said...

Tyson, does the original manuscript of the BOM translation still exist? I mean the original one that was written down by Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdry, etc.? I have not been able to find this out.

 

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