"No obstacles are insurmountable when God commands and we obey"
- - Heber J. Grant
June 14, 2013
Does 3 Nephi Wrongly Put Words from Peter in Christ's Mouth?
by Jeff Lindsay

A popular topic for critics of the Church is alleged Book of Mormon plagiarism. The argument is that the Book of Mormon can be simply explained as the fruit of copying, and often sloppy copying.

A favorite “weak spot” in the Book of Mormon often cited by critics to demonstrate this point is 3 Nephi 20:23, where the recently resurrected Christ cites the words of Moses from Deuteronomy 18:18-19, but actually seems to use language that is closer to Peter’s yet-be-written paraphrase of Moses in Acts 3:22-23 than it is to the Old Testament.

It’s easy to raise objections: “How can Christ be quoting a New Testament passage that hadn’t been written yet?” This was the first argument raised by one ex-Mormon in a video he made spelling out his reasons for leaving the Church.

Deut. 18:15, in warning those who would not hearken to the future prophet (Christ) that the Lord would raise up, the threatened punishment in verse 19 is that the Lord “will require it of him.” But Acts 3:23 warns that the non-hearkeners “shall be destroyed from among the people,” which is much closer to 3 Nephi’s warning that such rebels “shall be cut off from among the people.” Sure, it seems like a case of clumsy and ignorant plagiarism.

Let me begin with a few observations. First, this is not a case of direct copying, because the Book of Mormon uses “cut off” rather than Peter’s “destroyed.” Second, the parallel to Acts 3 doesn’t only occur here in 3 Nephi 20. It occurs multiple times in the Book of Mormon.

The same words from Moses are quoted in much the same way in 1 Nephi 22:20: “all those who will not hear that prophet shall be cut off from among the people.” That passage was written at a different stage in the Book of Mormon translation process, so if 3 Nephi 20 was just a sloppy blunder from Joseph the conman and his vast team of research staff, zealously gleaning, checking, and applying information from many dozens of books and references materials to create a best-selling fraud that would wow and convert folks for many decades, then why was the same mistake made again in 1 Nephi 22?

I mean, if you’re quoting Moses in a famous passage that every Bible student knows in Deuteronomy 18, why open to a lesser known paraphrase in Acts 3 for the quote? And why make that blunder twice?

More than twice, actually. 3 Nephi 21:11 speaks of those who will reject the Gospel of Christ and warns that “it shall be done even as Moses said,” namely, “they shall be cut off from among my people who are of the covenant.” Not just having some “required of him,” but the more serious “cut off” from among the people, or in this case, “from among my people.”

3 Nephi 21:20 again warns that the rebellious shall be “cut off from among my people.”

Now all these 3 Nephi passages could be lumped together and one could argue that Joseph just had that phrase in his head at the time and used it repeatedly during that day or week or writing. But how do we account for a First Nephi passage that was probably widely separated in time from 3 Nephi’s translation? Didn’t it ever occur to him and his scholarly co-conspirators to look up Deuteronomy rather than Peter for a quote from Moses?

Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy. And puzzling.

In fact, this is the kind of puzzle that ought to stir some thinking. The change in language from Peter and the persistent use of “cut off” in the Book of Mormon is not consistent with the sloppy plagiarism charge. So what is going on? Great question! Good questions with an open mind and some patience are often rewarded with interesting answers.

There’s a further question that students of the Bible might also wish to ask: “Why did Peter himself use language so different from Deuteronomy 18?” It turns out that Peter’s paraphrase does not follow the Septuagint in this case, so Peter appears to be departing from both the Greek and Hebrew texts. Why?

A possible answer to these questions, with interesting implications for the Book of Mormon, can be found in the Maxwell Institute’s publication, Insights, Vol. 27, No. 5 (PDF file), in the article on page 3, “The Prophet Like Moses” by John A. Tvedtnes and E. Jan Wilson. I recommend the PDF version to see the Hebrew more clearly, but an HTML version of the article is also available.  There is a lot of detail in this short article, but here’s one passage with one of the main points:

Based on analysis of the Hebrew in Deut. 18 and several relevant passages elsewhere, a plausible case can be made that the original Hebrew may have read “cut off” instead of “require it” and referred to being cut off “from among the people” or “my people” instead of “of him.”

Rather than both Peter and Joseph being sloppy in their quotations of Moses, there’s a reasonable case that Peter was informed by an ancient Hebrew source using language that differs slightly from the current Masoretic text, language that appears to be consistent with language uses consistently in the Book of Mormon.

As for the Book of Mormon’s version of Deut. 18, are we dealing with a terribly sloppy but very lucky blunder by a conman who inexplicably looked up and kept using Peter’s words when attempting to quote Moses, or are we dealing with an ancient text prepared by scribes whose version of Deuteronomy on the brass plates led them to understand Deut. 18 in much the same way that Peter did?

In light of intelligent questions coupled with scholarship, the way the Book of Mormon quotes Moses in Deuteronomy 18 is certainly interesting. What initially looks like a blunder upon further examination becomes an inexplicable blunder (“how could anyone be so stupid and sloppy?”), then a puzzle, and then an interesting find where a former weakness may actually be a strength.

It’s a small thing and is certainly no reason to run off and join the Church, but it’s hardly a reason to leave.

For more from Jeff Lindsay, see Mormanity at http://mormanity.blogspot.com and his Mormon Answers section at http://jefflindsay.com/LDSFAQ/.

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About Jeff Lindsay

Jeff Lindsay has been defending the Church on the Internet since 1994, when he launched his LDSFAQ website under JeffLindsay.com. He has also long been blogging about LDS matters on the blog Mormanity (mormanity.blogspot.com). Jeff is a longtime resident of Appleton, Wisconsin, who recently moved to Shanghai, China, with his wife, Kendra. He works for an Asian corporation as head of intellectual property. Jeff and Kendra are the parents of 4 boys, 3 married and the the youngest on a mission.

He is a former innovation and IP consultant, a former professor, and former Corporate Patent Strategist and Senior Research Fellow for a multinational corporation.

Jeff Lindsay, Cheryl Perkins and Mukund Karanjikar are authors of the book Conquering Innovation Fatigue (John Wiley & Sons, 2009).

Jeff has a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from Brigham Young University and is a registered US patent agent. He has more than 100 granted US patents and is author of numerous publications. Jeff's hobbies include photography, amateur magic, writing, and Mandarin Chinese.

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