The Original Text of the Book of Mormon IV: Word for Word Control over the Original Text

March 4, 2011 | 19 comments
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In this last section, I want to mention the evidence that the original text of the Book of Mormon is a precise English-language text, specified word for word, and that when it was given by means of the instrument to Joseph Smith, he could see that text and he read it off to his scribe. B. H. Roberts thought that reading off the text was too easy, but of course B. H. Roberts himself never received a text from the Lord in that way. There’s a lot of evidence that the translated text of the Book of Mormon was controlled down to the very word, in fact, to the very letter (at least for the spelling of Book of Mormon names).

The first type of evidence involves the occurrence of Hebrew-like constructions that are unacceptable in English and have consequently been edited out of the text. One example is the extra use of the conjunction and that follows a subordinate clause and comes right before the main clause. Recently I’ve discovered that these extra and ’s do not occur if the subordinate clause is simple. They only occur when there is some complexity in the subordinate clause, either an extra clause or a phrase that interrupts the flow of the text. When that happens, the Hebrew-like and usually appears. Here are some examples involving various subordinate conjunctions:

1 Nephi 8:13

and as I cast my eyes around about

that perhaps I might discover my family also

and I beheld a river of water

Helaman 13:28

and because he speaketh flattering words unto you

and he saith that all is well

and then ye will not find no fault with him

3 Nephi 23:8

and when Nephi had brought forth the records

and laid them before him

and he cast his eyes upon them and saith …

Mormon 3:4

and it came to pass that after this tenth year had passed away

making in the whole three hundred and sixty years

from the coming of Christ

and the king of the Lamanites sent an epistle unto me

Moroni 10:4

and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart with real intent

having faith in Christ

and he will manifest the truth of it unto you

by the power of the Holy Ghost

The last example is one of the most famous passages in the Book of Mormon.

All of these extra and ’s have been removed from the Book of Mormon text – and that’s because they are such bad English. But what does the occurrence of these extra and ’s say about the translation? It says that Joseph Smith had to have seen the and ’s. If he had just been getting ideas in his mind, there would have been no reason for him to have put these and ’s in – they’re non-English, and they haven’t occurred in any known dialect of English or in the history of the language. And their occurrence isn’t just an accident since there are so many examples of the extra and. Moreover, there is this wonderful passage from Helaman 12:13-21 where seven of them occur in the original text, virtually one after another, beginning with this one in Helaman 12:13:

yea and if he saith unto the earth

move

and it is moved

These extra Hebrew-like and ’s were really there. Joseph could see them, and so he read them off.

Another type of evidence, one even more surprising (and controversial to some) is that the meanings of the words in the Book of Mormon come from the 1500s and 1600s. To be sure, there are examples of archaic Book of Mormon word usage that can also be found in the 1611 King James Bible, such as the phrase “to cast an arrow”, which means ‘to shoot an arrow’. This is found in Alma 49:4: “the Lamanites could not cast their stones and their arrows at them”. But we also find that expression in the King James Bible, in Proverbs 26:18: “as a mad man who casteth firebrands arrows and death”.

Another example that also occurs in the King James Bible is the verb require with the meaning ‘to request’. In Enos 1:18 the Book of Mormon text reads “thy fathers have also required of me this thing” – in other words, Enos’s fathers requested this thing of the Lord. Similarly, in the King James Bible, in Ezra 8:22, Ezra refrains from requesting troops from the Persian king: “for I was ashamed to require of the king a band of soldiers and horsemen to help us against the enemy in the way”.

A third example is the use of the verb wrap with the meaning ‘to roll’, in 3 Nephi 26:3: “and the earth should be wrapped together as a scroll”. Compare this with the usage in 2 Kings 2:8: “and Elijah took his mantle and wrapped it together and smote the waters”.

All of these meanings can be found in the Oxford English Dictionary (referred to as the OED). For each of the three verbs already mentioned, their archaic meanings were typical of 1600s language and can therefore be found in the King James Bible. And one could argue, then, that they are in the Book of Mormon simply because Joseph Smith knew his Bible that well.

The problem with this proposal is that there is archaic 1500s and 1600s usage in the Book of Mormon text that is not found in the King James Bible. Consider the original occurrence of the conjunctive but if in Mosiah 3:19: “for the natural man is an enemy to God … and will be forever and ever but if he yieldeth to the enticings of the Holy Spirit”. Here but if means ‘unless’, and that meaning occurred in Early Modern English (for this meaning the OED gives citations dating from 1200 to 1596). We have this 1580 example from Sir Philip Sidney: “He did not like that maids should once stir out of their fathers’ houses but if it were to milk a cow.” The editors for the 1920 LDS edition of the Book of Mormon decided to emend the reading in Mosiah 3:19, replacing but if with unless, which is semantically correct and makes the text understandable for modern readers.

Another Book of Mormon example uses the verb commend in a sentence with the meaning ‘to recommend’: “and now I would commend you to seek this Jesus” (Ether 12:41), which in today’s English would read “and now I would recommend you to seek this Jesus”. The OED gives a date in the 1600s for this usage, which has now died out.

Another very interesting example of archaic usage in the original text is the phrase “to counsel someone” with the meaning ‘to counsel with someone’. There are two examples of this usage in the original text (in Alma 37:37 and Alma 39:10), for which the 1920 LDS committee added the preposition with (which is correct as far as the meaning goes). But when we go back to Early Modern English, we get uses of the phrase “to counsel someone” with the meaning ‘to counsel with someone’, as in this 1547 example from John Hooper: “Moses … counseled the Lord and thereupon advised his subjects what was to be done.”

Another example is the original use of the verb depart with the meaning ‘to part, divide, or separate’. This meaning for depart was regularly used in English Bibles up to the 1611 King James Bible. But by then that meaning for depart had become archaic, so the King James translators systematically eliminated that use of depart from their translation, so there are no examples in the King James Bible of what had regularly occurred in earlier English translations. Yet the Book of Mormon has this particular use of depart in Helaman 8:11 in the printer’s manuscript: “to smite upon the waters of the Red Sea and they departed hither and thither”. The 1830 typesetter just couldn’t believe that departed was correct, so he replaced the word with parted (thus he set “to smite upon the waters of the Red Sea and they parted hither and thither”). We have examples from the 1557 New Testament of the Geneva Bible like “they departed my raiment among them” (John 19:24), translated in the 1611 King James Bible as “they parted my raiment among them”.

In the following example from Helaman 9:17, language usage from the 1500s and 1600s leads us to consider assigning the meaning of ‘to expose’ to the verb detect: “and now behold we will detect this man and he shall confess his fault”. Such usage can be found, for instance, in this example from Richard Hooker in 1594: “The gentlewoman goeth forward and detecteth herself of a crime.”

The adjective extinct now refers to the death of a species, but in Early Modern English it could refer to the death of a person, as we find in a 1675 English translation of Machiavelli’s The Prince: “the Pope being dead and Valentine extinct”. And we find such usage in the original (and current) text of the Book of Mormon: “and inflict the wounds of death in your bodies that ye may become extinct” (Alma 44:7).

Here is an interesting example from Helaman 7:16 where the text uses the verb hurl but it more likely refers to dragging rather than throwing: “yea how could ye have given away to the enticing of him who art seeking to hurl away your souls down to everlasting misery and endless woe”. And the OED provides a 1663 citation from Robert Blair where hurl is assigned the meaning ‘to drag or pull with violence’: “The new creature was assaulted, hurled, and holed as a captive.” And this is what we expect in Helaman 7:16, that Satan will drag us down to hell.

The expression “to pitch battle” no longer exists as such in modern English; today we have it only in the set phrase “a pitched battle”. In fact, we generally think of a pitched battle as an intensively fought one, but originally what it referred to was a fully set battle. Interestingly, the Book of Mormon uses the original, now archaic, syntactic expression in Helaman 1:15: “and they came down again that they might pitch battle against the Nephites”. In Early Modern English there is Christopher Marlowe’s 1590 example in the passive, “Our battle, then, in martial manner pitched.” But such general use of the verb phrase “to pitch battle” no longer exists in English.

Finally, I give an example of an unexpected extension of the noun rebellion in Mosiah 10:6: “and he began to stir his people up in rebellion against my people”. In today’s English, we think of the word rebellion as hierarchical, that rebellion occurs in opposition to higher authority. But this example from the Book of Mormon refers to the Lamanite king as stirring up his people, the Lamanites, against the people of Limhi, a Nephite people that are in virtual slavery to the Lamanites. The meaning of the phrase “in rebellion” in Mosiah 10:6 seems to simply mean ‘in opposition’; there the phrase “in rebellion” lacks any kind of hierarchical implication. Thus far I have found only one example (and an early one at that) with this more general meaning for the noun rebellion (used by Gilbert Haye in 1456, as cited in the OED): “if man should have this rebellion and contrariety, any against another, when they are of diverse complexions?”

The third type of evidence that shows the preciseness of the original text of the Book of Mormon deals with various set expressions and word forms that were consistently used in the original text but are no longer consistent in the standard text. In over a hundred different expressions and word forms, the text has developed various exceptions to its original consistency, exceptions that we might call “wrinkles in the text”. The original translated text is so consistent in this respect that it doesn’t look like it’s the result of a translator freely choosing how he should translate a given expression or word form each time he comes across it. Here are some examples; I first give the numerical count for usage in the current standard text, then in the original text:

whatsoever, never whatever

72 to 2 in the current text; 75 to 0 in the original text

conditions, never condition

12 to 2 in the current text; 14 to 0 in the original text

this time, never these times

60 to 1 in the current text; 61 to 0 in the original text

“observe to keep the commandments”, never “observe the commandments”

10 to 1 in the current text; 11 to 0 in the original text

“thus ended a period of time”, never “thus endeth a period of time”

43 to 4 in the current text; 47 to 0 in the original text

“to do iniquity”, never “to do iniquities

21 to 1 in the current text; 22 to 0 in the original text

“if it so be that …”, never “if it be so that …”

36 to 2 in the current text; 38 to 0 in the original text

“to have hope”, never “to have hoped

17 to 1 in the current text; 18 to 0 in the original text

“the Nephites and the Lamanites”, never “the Nephites and Lamanites”

14 to 1 in the current text; 15 to 0 in the original text

Thus the original text appears to be a fully controlled text. The Yale edition restores more than one hundred of these kinds of systematic phrases and word choices.

Another type of evidence for the systematic nature of the original text can be found in identical citations that come from completely different parts of the text. One well-known pair of citations involves a reference to Lehi’s vision of the heavenly scene. Originally identified by John W. Welch, this language is first quoted in 1 Nephi 1:8 as “and he thought he saw God sitting upon his throne surrounded with numberless concourses of angels in the attitude of singing and praising their God”, then the same precise language, word for word, is used considerably later, in Alma 36:22: “yea and methought I saw – even as our father Lehi saw – God sitting upon his throne surrounded with numberless concourses of angels in the attitude of singing and praising their God”.

Another example of identical citation involves a liturgical expression found in Mosiah 3:8, which originally read as follows: “and he shall be called Jesus Christ the Son of God / the Father of heaven and of earth / the Creator of all things from the beginning”. Later, in Helaman 14:12, we get the same language, word for word: “and also that ye might know of the coming of Jesus Christ the Son of God / the Father of heaven and of earth / the Creator of all things from the beginning”. Interestingly, in Mosiah 3:8 the 1830 typesetter accidentally deleted the preposition of before the noun earth, giving “the Father of heaven and earth” rather than the correct “the Father of heaven and of earth”. So in the current text these two liturgical citations are no longer identical.

There is also evidence for letter for letter control over the spelling of Book of Mormon names. The witnesses of the translation process indicated that whenever the scribe had difficulty in spelling an unknown name correctly, Joseph Smith would spell it out for him. And we can find clear evidence of the spelling out of Book of Mormon names in the original manuscript. For instance, in Alma 33:15, when Oliver Cowdery had to spell the name Zenoch for the first time in the original manuscript, he initially spelled it as Zenock. Then he immediately crossed out the misspelling, Zenock, and wrote inline the correct spelling, Zenoch. Later on, in Helaman 1:15, Oliver originally spelled the first occurrence of the name Coriantumr as Coriantummer, a phonetic spelling. Again, he crossed out the misspelling and then wrote inline the correct Coriantumr. In this instance, Joseph would have been required to spell out the name letter for letter in order to get the otherwise impossible sequence mr at the end of the name.

Conclusion

There are three goals that have guided me in producing The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text. First of all, I wanted to present the text in an inviting format and provide a clear text with minimal editorial intrusion, one that would be fully accessible and easy to read – and for both LDS and non-LDS readers. Second, I wanted to publish the most accurate text possible, one with readings based on the two manuscripts and the earliest editions. And finally, I wanted to provide access to all the significant textual changes that the text has undergone over the years, from the manuscripts and early editions up to the current LDS and RLDS editions. But since I did not want these variants to intrude upon the text itself, I placed them in an appendix.

As I have studied the original text and the evidence of how it was transmitted, it’s become very clear to me that this text was revealed to Joseph Smith word for word and that he could actually see the spelled-out English words. We do not know the precise mechanism that allowed Joseph to received the text in this way, but the evidence argues that the text was a specific English-language translation that was revealed through him. It is indeed a marvelous work and a wonder.

Royal Skousen is editor of the Book of Mormon Critical Text Project and professor of linguistics and English language at Brigham Young University. The first two parts of this series are here, here, and here.

19 Responses to The Original Text of the Book of Mormon IV: Word for Word Control over the Original Text

  1. Dane on March 4, 2011 at 8:24 pm

    Royal, I was in a Dan Ventura’s graduate quantum computing seminar with you ten years ago. I’m sure you don’t remember me, but I remember you there. I remember you stating that you were taking the class as part of your language research, even though you were not a computer-science person yourself. It’s wonderful for me now to see how this all is turning out now, a decade later. Thank you for doing this.

  2. Cameron on March 5, 2011 at 12:16 am

    Amazing work Royal, thank you so much for this awesome work you are doing and your testimony.

  3. Jana H on March 5, 2011 at 10:27 am

    Wow, fascinating stuff! Thank you!

  4. Jakob J on March 5, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    It is great to have these arguments for tight control laid out so concisely, thanks.

  5. Last Lemming on March 5, 2011 at 1:30 pm

    The consistency in the spelling of names strikes me a kind of a two-edged sword. It implies that Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni all followed the same spelling conventions without error. Genealogists can tell you that two hundred years ago, people didn’t maintain the same conventions with regard to their own names over their lifetimes, much less anybody else’s. Are we to believe that Book of Mormon people maintained that kind of discipline for 1,000 years?

  6. Kirk Caudle on March 5, 2011 at 3:46 pm

    Best of the four parts. Simply fantastic!

    I have always been a bit skeptical that Joseph could actually see the spelled-out text. However, this post won me over. I doubt anyone could make a greater case against this.

  7. Dave K. on March 5, 2011 at 4:08 pm

    Last Lemming – A potential explanation for the consistency of names in the BOM is that the text is largely an abridgment compiled by one author – Mormon. Is it not possible that he unified the spelling conventions amongst all the Nephi’s, Lehi’s, etc?

    Another explanation would be that the spelling conventions were unified by whoever performed the english translation. There is an ongoing debate amongst scholars as to whether the translation was tight or loose or some combination of the two. I have come to believe that the best model for understanding Joseph’s original manuscript is to view it as only the last “step” in the translation process, not the entire process. I believe that Joseph did not actually translate the text from reformed egyptian into english. Rather, as Skousen elucidates here, he performed a tight dictation of an english text that was revealed to him. Where did the english translation come from and by whom? I’m not really sure. It must have happened long after Moroni’s mortal ministry because english did not exist in the the 5th century CE. Skousen’s work suggests that the translator was versed in 16th and 17th century english, which leaves well over a century for the translation to have occurred. I believe that someone with a native understanding of Reformed Egyptian and a less-than native understanding of english performed the translation. This model best explains why we see so many hebraisms in Joseph’s original manuscript. Joseph did not correct them because he was precisely dictating what he saw. The real translator (Moroni?) did not correct them because he did not realize (as Joseph would have) that they were improper english. This theory also allows for an explanation of why the Isaiah chapters appear to have largely been copied from the KJV. They were – but by the real translator, not Joseph.

    Of course, there is no direct evidence in our historical record to substantiate any of this theory. Its strength lies in providing an explanation for all the translation issues – loose/tight, Isaiah, etc.

  8. Believe All Things on March 6, 2011 at 12:40 am

    Thank you for a very insightful article.

  9. Jonovitch on March 6, 2011 at 12:45 am

    Mr. Royal Skousen, this is simply incredible work. I can’t tell you how impressive this all is to me. It is amazing the number of hours (days, years) you must have spent on this. The innovative technologies, the original research, the delicate reconstructions — simply incredible. I consider myself very lucky to have read the few highlights you have shared here. I thank you for your insights and your work and your discoveries. It has advanced the serious study of the Book of Mormon by an immeasurable amount.

  10. Danny on March 6, 2011 at 3:54 pm

    Thank you for this post! I had one question though: How does the tight control model account for the changes that the JST makes to Jesus’ sermon as presented in 3 Nephi? That is, from my understanding of loose control theory, Joseph could have reached 3 Nephi, recognized similarities with Matthew and simply used the familiar structure and wording as found in the NT. Then, when providing an inspired version of Matthew, Joseph’s changes subsequently apply to similar verses in 3 Nephi. With tight control, however, why would there be verses in the BoM that are word for word from the KJV Bible that Joseph later revises in the NT and thus require revision in the BoM?

  11. chris on March 6, 2011 at 9:10 pm

    How awesome. I never considered the angels which ministered unto the King James translators also ministered unto Joseph in “translating” the Book of Mormon.

  12. chris on March 6, 2011 at 9:15 pm

    Or perhaps it was one of the King James translators themself who did the translation.

    I can imagine William Tyndale being called home to to the Lord in a violent death with another great work to complete — renering the Book of Mormon into his native tongue for the later-day prophet, who would go on to suffer his own violent death as a result of living up to the testimony he received.

  13. Cameron on March 6, 2011 at 11:58 pm

    Chris, I like your thinking. I think we should assume less in the church and practice more healthy what-ifs such as that, and be content that we don’t know yet.

  14. Adam Greenwood on March 7, 2011 at 11:15 am

    Pretty persuasive stuff.

    On the other hand, the case for non-tight control is also pretty persuasive when its laid out.

    Ultimately, I currently opt for non-tight control on theological grounds:

    http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2007/12/revelation-made-flesh/#more-4318

  15. Wm Jas on March 7, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    One of the non-English constructions which I’ve noticed turns up in the BoM several times is “it supposeth me” for “I suppose.” I have never been able to find that phrase anywhere except in the BoM. Is there anything comparable in Hebrew?

  16. Adam Greenwood on March 8, 2011 at 10:52 am

    What’s curious is that Joseph Smith later edited out some of these Hebraisms. Is the supposition that he felt he had a divine mandate to alter the divinely translated text to make it more understandable for ordinary mortals, or is the supposition that when translating Joseph was in an elevated mental/spiritual state and didn’t remember afterwards that the dictation was word for word? Either explanation would work, but I’m curious if tight-control advocates prefer one over the other.

  17. BHodges on March 8, 2011 at 2:33 pm

    Great series! Thanks to Skousen and thanks to T&S.

  18. psychochemiker on March 8, 2011 at 4:16 pm

    Adam,
    Couldn’t it be possible that revelation “in general” comes in a looser, foggier way, and that the BoM came via very tight “word for word” control?

    Just an idea…

  19. Grant on March 9, 2011 at 10:55 am

    The Lord’s instructions about translation specifically and revelation in general (“you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right”) have always seemed to me to point to non-tight control. If the Lord is sending the English text, tightly controlled, for Joseph to read from the seer stone, why would he prescribe to Oliver a different way to translate? But the reason Oliver thought that he could translate without taking any “thought save it was to ask” was that he saw Joseph dictating the Book of Mormon, apparently neither taking thought nor asking, i.e., by dictating the tightly controlled text from the interpreters or the seer stone. Tight control seems to account for Oliver’s expectations but is inconsistent with the Lord’s instructions to Oliver.

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