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MormanityDid Joseph Use the Bible to Translate the Book of Mormon?
by Jeff Lindsay
In discussing Book of Mormon translation, many people assume that Joseph must have turned to the KJV when quoting relevant passages. However, multiple witnesses of the translation process report that his dictation was done with his face in a hat to help him see whatever he saw on the seer stone. This technique makes it impossible to read from a book or manuscript while dictating the text. None of the many witnesses reported the use of a Bible or other books or manuscripts. These witnesses weren't all LDS conspirators, either. One was non-LDS, Michael Morse, Emma Smith's brother-in-law, who stated:
When Joseph was translating the Book of Mormon [I] had occasion more than once to go into his immediate presence, and saw him engaged at his work of translation. The mode of procedure consisted in Joseph's placing the Seer Stone in the crown of a hat, then putting his face into the hat, so as to entirely cover his face, resting his elbows upon his knees, and then dictating word after word, while the scribes Emma, John Whitmer, O. Cowdery, or some other wrote it down." (W.W. Blair interview with Michael Morse, Saints Herald, vol. 26, no. 12 (June 15, 1879), pp. 190-91.)
This needs to be considered in discussions on Book of Mormon origins.
Many people have proposed theories for how Joseph did the translation of the Book of Mormon, or more specifically, the dictation of the text. Given the similarities between the KJV text and the Book of Mormon, it has been natural for people, myself included, to assume that there must have been direct usage of the Bible at least for the longer quoted passages. But upon further reflection, my previous assumptions don't really fit what we now know about the translation. Here are some key points:
1. The translation took place with a high degree of transparency. Participants and visitors were able to observe the work taking place. Dr. Royal Skousen emphasizes this point in his review of the witnesses to the translation in his recently recorded presentation at a Mormon Interpreter forum.
2. Not a single observer indicates anything other than direct dictation from Joseph. They raise no hint of any possibility of a manuscript that he was reading from, hidden, say, in the dark recesses at the bottom of his hat as he gazed at the seer stone. Even a cheat sheet hidden in the hat would be of little use.
3. Nobody reported that he was using a Bible in any way for the frequent passages based on the KJV. It was just straight dictation, as far as we know.
4. While there would be no shame in using a Bible to reduce the work burden and the possibility of copying errors for those passages that are explicitly quoted from the Old Testament, such as entire chapters of Isaiah, the possibility of using a Bible or any other book is contrary to witness observations, and was explicitly denied by Emma, as she described some of her early work as a scribe:
Q — [Joseph Smith III]. What is the truth of Mormonism?
A — [Emma]. I know Mormonism to be the truth; and believe the church to have been established by divine direction. I have complete faith in it. In writing for your father I frequently wrote day after day, often sitting at the table close by him, he sitting with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us.
Q —. Had he not a book or manuscript from which he read, or dictated to you?
A —. He had neither manuscript or book to read from.
Q —. Could he not have had, and you not know it?
A. — If he had anything of the kind he could not have concealed it from me.
Q. — Could not father have dictated the Book of Mormon to you, Oliver Cowdery and the others who wrote for him, after having first written it, or having first read it out of some book?
A. — Joseph Smith could neither write nor dictate a coherent and wellworded letter; let alone dictating a book like the Book of Mormon. And, though I was an active participant in the scenes that transpired, . . . it is marvelous to me, “a marvel and a wonder,” as much so as to any one else. (Edmund C. Briggs, “A Visit to Nauvoo in 1856,” Journal of History (Jan. 1916): 454; cited in Russell M. Nelson, "A Treasured Testament," Ensign 23 no. 7 (July 1993), 62.)
5. While many KJV verses are present verbatim, there are also frequent modifications, some subtle but profound. For example, the change of a "that" to a "when" in Isaiah 2:2 as quoted in 2 Nephi 12:2 introduces an apparent unnecessary error in English, but upon further inspection, it may be a beautiful example of a Hebraism (of a sort found in a variety of other places in the Book of Mormon) that actually enhances the significance of Isaiah 2:2 as applied to the context of the Restoration. It's the deep and subtle "mistake" that might suggest advanced Hebrew skills from its author, or yet another brilliantly lucky blunder from Joseph. See "Was Joseph Smith Smarter Than the Average Fourth Year Hebrew Student? Finding a Restoration-Significant Hebraism in Book of Mormon Isaiah" by Paul Y. Hoskisson in Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture (MormonInterpreter.com). There are many "errors" of this sort which can be readily dismissed as an error by those with eyes tuned to faults, but which can be sources of enhanced understanding and respect for those who are willing to look and see further.
6. Some of the alleged mistakes from the KJV that have entered into the Book of Mormon text are not necessarily errors, or if errors, may have been introduced by scribes rather than from revelation. This may be the case for the Red Sea questions, both with the introduction of "Red" in the quotation of Isaiah 9:1 (see also FairMormon on this issue), and in the Red Sea versus Reed Sea debate). I'll discuss this more fully in an upcoming post, "Feeling Blue Over the Red Sea?"
7. The Bible-related passages are not due to simple lifting of KJV text. Again, there are many subtle differences, and not just in the passages rendered in italics in many KJV printings. So what was the process in applying KJV language to the Book of Mormon?
8. In addition to the evidence from witnesses, including at least one non-LDS witness, of a translation process that precluded the use of any text or book for the dictated text that was given at a prodigious rate, the allegation of Joseph's direct use of a KJV Bible faces a further impediment: What Bible? There is no evidence that Joseph owned one as he was doing the translation, and an important piece of evidence suggesting he did not. After the translation of the Book of Mormon was finished and the typesetting was well underway, he began his work of rendering an "inspired translation" of the Bible by taking an important first step: buying a Bible. Here I quote from a page at FAIRMormon.org:
There is no evidence that Joseph owned a Bible during the Book of Mormon translation
The difficult financial circumstances of Joseph's family during the Book of Mormon translation are well known. There is no evidence that Joseph owned a Bible during the Book of Mormon translation. In fact, Oliver would later purchase a Bible for Joseph, who used it in producing his revision of the Bible (which became known as the Joseph Smith Translation). This purchase occurred on 8 October 1829, from the same printer that was then setting the type for the already-translated Book of Mormon. Why would Joseph, poor as he was, get a Bible if he already owned one?
Of course, it's possible that he still had access to a Bible, as he must have had when he was in his 15th year, searching for truth as he read passages in the Bible such as James 1:5. But whatever family Bible he had used, he might not have had the same access when he was away in Harmony translating the Book of Mormon, and he clearly felt a need to invest in one for his inspired translation of the Bible, but after he had completed the Book of Mormon translation.
How Could God Allow Mortal Error in His Work?
Royal Skousen and others have concluded that Joseph dictated the text, including the KJV excerpts, through revelation. If that were the case, how could there be mistakes that were conveyed in that process? How could the Lord overlook the opportunity to correct the KJV and render a perfect translation ready for peer review that could easily impress our harshest critics?
The theory that I prefer is that the KJV text is relied on as a general rule, for it is the language of scripture, and passages from the Bible are used verbatim or nearly so when the KJV is good enough.
Good enough for what? Good enough for the Lord's work, which is focused on saving souls, and not so much on impressing those who are looking for faults. So the language we are familiar with is used, even when it is not the most scholarly way of handling the ancient Hebrew text, as long as it is "good enough." So if a poetic passage from Isaiah refers to prancing satyrs in the KJV but some modern scholars think he might have meant goats, since this is a relatively inconsequential issue, the translation sticks with the KJV satyrs. Sorry, goat lovers. Likewise, when 3 Nephi 12:22 keeps the KJV's untranslated Aramaic word "Raca" instead of rendering an unavoidably debatable translation of this word, for which a correct translation is presently unknown apart from its obvious meaning, based on the context, of conveying contempt, Raca is clearly "good enough" for conveying doctrine, but those looking to find fault will cry fowl, or rather, Raca.
How could God allow errors or imperfections to creep into His holy word? In case you haven't noticed, nearly every aspect of every volume of scripture we have has involved human hands and minds. This includes understanding what was said or what happened in the first place, writing it or speaking it, transmitting it in various ways, translating it, editing it, copying it again and again, and printing it. And then comes the reading and interpretation. Each step adds the possibility of human error. There is complexity on every page, as there is in each life. Error is a reality, one that greatly worried the original authors of the Book of Mormon text, but those errors seem to be in minor matters, while the divine power of the text provides a clear and persistent signal about the divinity of Christ and the reality of the Restoration, in spite of its human errors and "good enough" elements.
In fact, nearly everything God does in His church, both ancient and modern, has involved human agents who are prone to error. He gives us the chance to grow by being involved in His work and having responsibility, but that comes at the price of imperfection. Quite unreliable. A real mess! In terms of the standards of modern scholars, it's all completely unacceptable.
If only He'd just come down and do all the speaking, writing, translating, and typesetting Himself (which should be trivially easy--I mean, He claims to be omnipotent, right?). Then we could have a reliable record at last, one that could be properly reviewed in light of the latest scholarship. Why not, unless He has something to hide? But hiding seems to be the modus operandi here--everything from His physical presence right down to the alleged golden plates.
Of course, it's not just a definitive written record that we will need for review. We must also require that He regularly subject Himself to scientific inquisition and peer review by leading scholars and highly credentialed skeptics to assess His works, His belief systems and social policies, and His suitability as Lord and God. When appropriate, these review panels would also hold Him accountable for past errors. If only He would meet these reasonable demands, then maybe we'd be willing to seriously consider His claims, right? And with the proper certifications and consensus from peer review, He may even have shot at being worshiped. Conceivable, anyway.
Hmm, when it comes to gaining the admiration of critics, the Book of Mormon will always be between a Raca and a hard place.
Coming back to reality, God's marvelous work and wonder in the Book of Mormon is not about winning over critics with no need for faith and contemplation on their part. For those who want faults, they are there. Satyrs instead of goats. Raca untranslated. Red Sea, not Reed. Archaic words in Isaiah maintained instead of being updated. There's a boatload of fun for those whose goal is to mock, with remarkable evidences of Semitic origins and divine influence for those willing to consider the possibility and exercise faith, or at least an open mind.
So how did Joseph do the translation? With a manuscript from Solomon Spaulding in one hand and a Bible in the other? Behind a screen with a host of documents he could rifle through to find one phrase or concept at a time? With a team of scholars, a vast frontier library, and the latest maps of Arabia from European presses? Or was it by rapid fire dictation to scribes (completely unnecessary if an original text was available), creating text far faster than most modern translators and authors do, with his head in a hat striving to see whatever a seer sees when gazing into a seer stone, relying on scribes to correctly hear and record his words by hand, giving us an imperfect text that continues to surprise and bless those willing to give it a chance nearly 200 years later? As for me, I continue to be surprised and blessed, and encourage you to give it a chance.
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