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Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon
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Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon
The Book of Mormon does indeed have authentic Semitic constructions in it, but LDS need to tread cautiously in establishing them. Each must be evaluated on its own merits. Hebraisms that could have been known to Joseph Smith may still be authentic, and may still enhance our appreciation of the text, but they are weak evidence for Book of Mormon antiquity.
Question: What is a 'Hebraism'?
A Hebraism is a way of speaking or writing that uses the grammatical or rhetorical styles of Hebrew
A Hebraism is a way of speaking or writing that uses the grammatical or rhetorical styles of Hebrew. For example, if originally written in English, the Book of Mormon would speak about "brass plates" instead of "plates of brass." However, "plates of brass" matches how a Hebrew writer or speaker would express themselves.
Therefore, Book of Mormon scholars look for evidence of the Book of Mormon's ancient Hebrew origins by identifying phrases or expressions which are not typical for an English speaker of Joseph Smith's day which may reflect a 'direct translation' of the underlying Semitic-style language of the Book of Mormon.
The presence of hebraisms does not prove the Book of Mormon is an ancient record, but they suggest that the translation was (at times, at least) relatively 'tight,' and require the critic to explain where Joseph Smith would have picked up such expressions in rural New York of the 1820s.
Question: Do Hebraisms exist in the Book of Mormon?
A number of Hebraisms exist in the structure of the Book of Mormon
The Book of Mormon does indeed have authentic Semitic constructions in it, but LDS need to tread cautiously in establishing them. Each must be evaluated on its own merits. Hebraisms that could have been known to Joseph Smith may still be authentic, and may still enhance our appreciation of the text, but they are weaker evidence for Book of Mormon antiquity since Joseph could have gotten them from his contemporary environment.
Many LDS sources argue that Hebraisms exist. Some have been overly enthusiastic or operated using problematic methodology. For example, Hebrew and other Semitic languages frequently give give a verb a cognate direct object for emphasis, eg. "he dreamed a dream" or "He hit him a hitting." Since the KJV translators were frequently literal in rendering the Hebrew, the Old Testament contains many English examples of this. Thus, the presence of the cognate accusative throughout the Book of Mormon, though a valid Semiticism, cannot be used as strong evidence for the Book of Mormon. (An appreciation of such devices can enhance our appreciation of the text, however.)
For a Semiticism to be strong evidence it must be
- present in the Book of Mormon, but
- not common to Joseph's language environment (i.e., the KJV, or English of his day.)
Several such constructions exist. For example, in Alma 27:22, the Nephites give the land Jershon to the Anti-Nephi-Lehi's "for an inheritance." Jershon follows a common Hebrew practice of creating names by suffixing -on to the tri-consonantal root. In this case, we have the root y-r-sh, which means among other things, "to inherit." (Hebrew /y/ is usually represented in English with a j.) In other words, the Nephites give the land "Inheritance" to the Anti-Nephi-Lehi's for an inheritance. If making up names at random, one could eventually make some that fit Hebrew patterns. However, the extreme unlikelihood of an imaginary name making sense in a reconstructed Hebrew original argues against this being the case with Jershon.
Dan Peterson notes the use of Hebrew idioms and cognate accusative structures in the Book of Mormon:
A number of details from the Book of Mormon text appear to support a view of the book as a rather literal translation from an ancient document.33 In an ancient Hebrew idiom, for example, arrows are "thrown" (see, for example, Alma 49:22). Also, just as in ancient Hebrew and other Semitic languages, in a construction known as a "cognate accusative," the word denoting the object of a verb is sometimes derived from the same root as the verb itself. "Behold," says the prophet Lehi, "I have dreamed a dream."35 Similarly, the (to us) redundant that in such expressions as "because that they are redeemed from the fall" and "because that my heart is broken" is a Hebraism (see, respectively, 2 Nephi 2:26 and 2 Nephi 4:32). 
Question: Why does "and it came to pass" appear so often in the Book of Mormon?
This much-maligned phrase is actually evidence of the Book of Mormon's authentic antiquity
Some have mocked the frequent repetition of "and it came to pass" in the Book of Mormon. Mark Twain famously joked that if the phrase were omitted, Joseph would have published a pamphlet instead of a book. As it turns out, however, this much-maligned phrase is actually evidence of the Book of Mormon's authentic antiquity.
The phrase “and it came to pass,” appears 727 times in the King James Version of the Old Testament
Donald W. Parry, an instructor in biblical Hebrew at BYU, wrote in the Ensign:
The English translation of the Hebrew word wayehi (often used to connect two ideas or events), “and it came to pass,” appears some 727 times in the King James Version of the Old Testament. The expression is rarely found in Hebrew poetic, literary, or prophetic writings. Most often, it appears in the Old Testament narratives, such as the books by Moses recounting the history of the children of Israel.
As in the Old Testament, the expression in the Book of Mormon (where it appears some 1,404 times) occurs in the narrative selections and is clearly missing in the more literary parts, such as the psalm of Nephi (see 2 Ne. 4:20–25); the direct speeches of King Benjamin, Abinadi, Alma, and Jesus Christ; and the several epistles.
But why does the phrase “and it came to pass” appear in the Book of Mormon so much more often, page for page, than it does in the Old Testament? The answer is twofold. First, the Book of Mormon contains much more narrative, chapter for chapter, than the Bible. Second, but equally important, the translators of the King James Version did not always render wayehi as “and it came to pass.” Instead, they were at liberty to draw from a multitude of similar expressions like “and it happened,” “and … became,” or “and … was.”
Wayehi is found about 1,204 times in the Hebrew Bible, but it was translated only 727 times as “and it came to pass” in the King James Version. Joseph Smith did not introduce such variety into the translation of the Book of Mormon. He retained the precision of “and it came to pass,” which better performs the transitional function of the Hebrew word.
The Prophet Joseph Smith may not have used the phrase at all—or at least not consistently—in the Book of Mormon had he created that record. The discriminating use of the Hebraic phrase in the Book of Mormon is further evidence that the record is what it says it is—a translation from a language (reformed Egyptian) with ties to the Hebrew language. (See Morm. 9:32–33.)
There is also a New World connection to the phrase "and it came to pass"
For several years, researchers have been aware that the phrase and it came to pass is a good translation of a common Hebrew element. Bruce Warren also reports the confirmation by Mayan experts that an element translated "and it came to pass" functioned in at least four ways in Mayan texts: (1) As a posterior date indicator in a text that meant "to count forward to the next date," and (2) as an anterior date indicator that signified "to count backward to the given date." Additionally it could function (3) as a posterior or (4) anterior event indicator, meaning "counting forward or backward to a certain event."5 Warren finds instances of all four functions of and it came to pass in the Book of Mormon, as well as combined date and event indications in both posterior and anterior expressions. For example, "And it came to pass that the people began . . . " is a posterior event indicator (3 Nephi 2:3), whereas "And it had come to pass . . . " is an anterior event indicator (3 Nephi 1:20).
- Repetition of the word "and" in the Book of Mormon
- Adverbials in the Book of Mormon
- Antenantiosis in the Book of Mormon
- Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon
- Hebrew clauses in the Book of Mormon
- Colophons in the Book of Mormon
- Conjunctions in the Book of Mormon
- Cognates in the Book of Mormon
- Construct state in the Book of Mormon
- The divine feminine in the Book of Mormon
- Hebrew legal issues and the Book of Mormon
- The phrase "It came to pass" in the Book of Mormon
- Use of numbers in the Book of Mormon
- Ancient poetry and the Book of Mormon
- Prepositions and the Book of Mormon
- Pronouns and the Book of Mormon
- The "land of Jerusalem" in the Book of Mormon
- Hebrew forms of parallelism in the Book of Mormon
- Use of the plural in the Book of Mormon
- Repetition of the Definite Article in the Book of Mormon
- Simile curses in the Book of Mormon
- The Tree of Life in the Book of Mormon
- Merismus in the Book of Mormon
- Prophetic speech in the Book of Mormon
- Names and titles of Deity in the Book of Mormon
See FairMormon Evidence:
View more evidence of Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon
Other interesting linguistic forms
These forms are included for interest's sake, or because their role as Hebraisms has not yet been established. They are included here because they may make difficult passages more easily understood.
Alma 36:9 reads in part "If thou wilt of thyself be destroyed, seek no more to destroy the church of God."
This is a rhetorical device called anapodoton. The technical term is Greek, meaning "without the main clause." (The prefix ana- means "without," and apodosis means "main clause.")
Anapodoton is a figure in which a main clause is suggested by the introduction of a subordinate clause, but the main clause never occurs. It is an intentional sentence fragment. Here the fragment, archaically put, means "even if you have no care for your own soul...."
As is obvious from the context, it does not mean (as a native English speaker might read it) "if you want to be destroyed, stop trying to destroy the church"!
- See Donald W. Parry, "Hebraisms and Other Ancient Peculiarities in the Book of Mormon," in Echoes and Evidences, 176–77.
- Daniel C. Peterson, "Mormonism as a Restoration," FARMS Review 18/1 (2006): 390–417. off-site wiki
- Origen Bachelor, Mormonism Exposed Internally and Externally (New York: Privately Published, 1838), 9. off-site
- Mark Twain, Roughing It (Hartford, Conn.: American Publishing Co., 1901), 133.
- Donald W. Parry, "I Have a Question: Why is the phrase 'and it came to pass' so prevalent in the Book of Mormon?," Ensign (December 1992), 29.
- Robert F. Smith, " 'It Came to Pass' in the Bible and the Book of Mormon" (Provo: F.A.R.M.S., 1980).
- Paul Y. Hoskisson, John W. Welch, Robert F. Smith, Bruce W. Warren, Roger R. Keller, David Fox, and Deloy Pack, "Words and Phrases," in Reexploring the Book of Mormon, edited by John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1992).