Part 2: CES Letter Book of Mormon Questions [Section A]
by Sarah Allen
When I prayed about how best to start these, the answer I received was to lay a foundation first. If you know up front that the author of the Letter is telling one story to the public and another story to his friends in private, that it was specifically arranged to be as manipulative as possible, that it was not one man’s quest for answers to unanswerable questions but a group effort to collect every criticism they could find against the Church, and that the author is doing his best to purposely overwhelm you and destroy your faith, it helps you frame the information and process it more rationally than you would otherwise. When you’re aware of the slant, you can mentally guard against it.
Now that the foundation has been laid, it’s time to jump into the questions/concerns themselves. Before I do, though, I just wanted to say one thing: I’m just one person putting these posts together. I’m not a scholar, I’m not an apologist, I’m not a professional, and I’m not an expert. I’m just a girl who likes theology and history, particularly Church history, and wants to help support people in their faith. These posts are far from perfect, and they are not all-encompassing. I miss stuff. I read a lot, but there are a lot of things out there I haven’t read, and there are a lot of sources I haven’t come across. You’re all going to find sources I haven’t, and in some cases, you’ll come to different conclusions than I do. That’s great! As long as we’re all asking questions, searching for the answers, and relying on God for understanding, differences of opinion don’t matter.
Having said all that, let’s dive in.
What are 1769 King James Version edition errors doing in the Book of Mormon? A purported ancient text? Errors which are unique to the 1769 edition that Joseph Smith owned?
To begin with, translations often come down to the personal word choice of the translator, phrasing that they’re comfortable using. D&C 1:24 tells us that when the Lord speaks to us, He’s employing a similar tactic:
Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.
This is echoed in 2 Nephi 31:3:
For my soul delighteth in plainness; for after this manner doth the Lord God work among the children of men. For the Lord God giveth light unto the understanding; for he speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding.
Heavenly Father gives us revelation in the language that we know, using concepts and ideas we’re familiar with. I can testify that’s true because when the Spirit speaks to me, it’s often through quotes, scripture verses and references, song lyrics, poems, etc., that I’ve already heard before and am familiar with. I’ll pray for guidance, and phrases that I already know will pop into my head as a reminder. He uses those words because the concepts in them are familiar to me and He knows that I’ll understand the connection being made without Him having to explain it further.
In an extremely simplistic analogy, it’s almost like meme-culture. Memes are a popular way to communicate online because when people see the meme, they immediately understand the reference being made and the intent behind its usage.
Now, Heavenly Father doesn’t speak to me through memes, obviously. But the same principle applies: He uses my existing knowledge to communicate with me and teach me something new.
This is the same way that He taught Joseph how to receive revelation—He started out with objects Joseph was familiar with, seer stones, and eventually, Joseph grew comfortable enough that he no longer needed them. It would stand to reason, then, that He would teach Joseph and the early Saints in His fledgling church using language they were already familiar with: the King James Bible.
When New Testament Apostles, and yes, the Savior Himself, quote the Old Testament, they quote phrases from the Greek Septuagint instead of the Hebrew sources. Why? Because that was the language that the audience passing around the books of the New Testament were familiar with. It was easier for them to read and understand Greek phrasing than Hebrew or Aramaic, so that’s the version the copiers used when they were compiling the books.
It’s also the same thing that Ammon was doing with King Lamoni in Alma 18:24-28 when he catered his teaching to King Lamoni’s understanding.
In Joseph’s day, often the only book a family would own was the Bible, and it was overwhelmingly the King James Version. That was the standard edition that people read and studied from. That was the language that people on the American frontier were familiar with. Those were the verses they knew from their own reading. Why wouldn’t the Book of Mormon give those Isaiah verses in language that was already familiar to the people reading it for the first time?
On the page that Jeremy Runnells links to citing the errors in the text, there’s a long quote by Stan Larson, a man who left the Church and then wrote a biography lauding Thomas Stuart Ferguson, whom we’ll discuss later in this series, for also leaving the Church. The quote reads, in part:
The Book of Mormon account of Jesus’s sermon in 3 Nephi 12–14 originated in the nineteenth century, derived from unacknowledged plagiarism of the KJV. Smith copied the KJV blindly, not showing awareness of translation problems and errors in the KJV. Yet the Book of Mormon is not a slavish copy of the KJV—there are numerous words deleted, revised, or added to the text. Rather than translate from an ancient document, Smith seems to have quoted from Matthew 5–7 of the KJV and to have made certain revisions as a response to the English text of the KJV.
This is both a bizarre and hilarious claim. Did Joseph copy the KJV blindly, not showing awareness of translation problems and errors? Or did he instead delete, revise, and add to the text? If he’s making revisions to the text, isn’t that by default creating a new translation?
Besides, the sermon given in 3 Nephi is not the Sermon on the Mount. It’s very similar in many places, true, but it was a different sermon given to a different group of people on a different continent under different circumstances.
Next, there’s a list of 14 supposed translation errors. A few are simple anachronisms that make sense, such as “satyr” instead of “wild, demonic goat.” The book was being translated to English for a 19th century audience. Given what we discussed above about Heavenly Father using the language we understand, why wouldn’t the translation use a term they were more familiar with? Others can be explained away by word choice. Different translations have variations depending on the translator. Still others on that list may well be errors. I genuinely don’t know.
If they are, does that mean that when Joseph was translating, when he came across Biblical passages, he just reached for the Bible and copied them over word for word? Interestingly enough, no. No witnesses ever described Joseph reading from the Bible during the translation period. Several of them said point blank that he did not. In fact, there’s no evidence he even owned a Bible at that point in his life. The Bible he read as a child belonged to his parents. When he was translating, he was a newlywed without a penny to his name and no home of his own. Whatever possessions he had were few and likely not expensive. A Bible may well have been something he couldn’t afford yet. He and Oliver later went out and purchased a Bible together, which heavily suggests he didn’t have one to read from before that.
Additionally, in his Critical Text Project comparing the original manuscript with the printer’s manuscript and various print editions of the Book of Mormon, Royal Skousen found that the errors in the original manuscript were the types of errors made from copying something being spoken, not from something written down. They didn’t copy those verses from the Bible. That’s the way the words appeared to Joseph, and that’s the way he read them to Oliver and his other scribes. (Interestingly, Skousen also points out that while working on the JST, Joseph did just hand over a copy of the Bible to his scribes and tell them to copy certain portions. After decades of work on this project, he can tell the difference between those moments in the different texts.)
Using the Original and Printer’s Manuscripts of the Book of Mormon, Latter-day Saint scholar Royal Skousen has definitively shown that none of the King James language contained in the Book of Mormon could have been copied directly from the Bible. He deduces this from the fact that when quoting, echoing, or alluding to the passages, Oliver (Joseph’s amanuensis for the dictation of the Book of Mormon) consistently misspells certain words from the text that he wouldn’t have misspelled if he was looking at the then-current edition of the KJB.
Witnesses to the translation process never reported that a Bible or any other book was present during the translation. Given this evidence, we could assume that the Biblical passages were revealed to Joseph during the translation process in a format almost identical with similar passages in the King James Bible. Joseph performed most of the translation in the open using the stone and the hat. Thus how do we get the language from the King James version of the Bible?
When considering the data, Skousen proposes that, instead of Joseph or Oliver looking at a Bible, that God was simply able to provide the page of text from the King James Bible to Joseph’s mind and then Joseph was free to alter the text as he pleased. In those cases where the Book of Mormon simply alludes to or echoes KJV language, perhaps the Lord allowed these portions of the text to be revealed in such a way that they would be more comprehensible/comfortable to his 19th century, Northeastern, frontier audience….
You can say that Joseph just memorized blocks of text and then repeated them during the translation process, but that wasn’t an ability Joseph showed himself capable of at any other point in his entire life, and if he didn’t even own a Bible, that’s quite a remarkable feat indeed. The Book of Mormon wasn’t even written in KJV language; it was written in Early Modern English from over a century before the King James Version was compiled. Joseph couldn’t have done that intentionally, so I think it’s safe to say that there was a lot more going on with the translation than we’re aware of.
Personally, I believe that the best explanation is the way that Joseph received the revelation now known as D&C 7: he used his seer stone or the Nephite Interpreters (the header just says Urim and Thummim, which was used interchangeably for all three stones, so it’s not clear which stone was used) to inquire whether John the Revelator had died or was still alive. In response, a parchment written in what were described as hieroglyphs appeared, with the English translation written beside it in luminous letters, and that was read aloud to Oliver Cowdery. That parchment was written by John himself and hidden somewhere by him, and reproduced by the Spirit in the stone the same way that the Book of Mormon text appeared.
My belief is that a similar process happened with the Biblical passages in the Book of Mormon: the Bible text appeared in the stone, and if the Book of Mormon text was close enough in meaning to the text from the Bible, Joseph just kept it. When it differed enough to be significant, he included those changes. This is also similar to his own comments later in his life. When he was quoting a particular verse in Malachi, he said, “I might have rendered a plainer translation than this, but it is sufficiently plain to suit my purposes as it stands.” It is entirely possible that he felt likewise during the Book of Mormon translation.
Note: this is just my personal theory. Brant Gardner suggested something similar in his book The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon, and I believe he’s right. Others likely have other theories, and many of those theories are valid. This is something everyone has to investigate and resolve for themselves.
When King James translators were translating the KJV Bible between 1604 and 1611, they would occasionally put in their own words into the text to make the English more readable. We know exactly what these words are because they’re italicized in the KJV Bible. What are these 17th century italicized words doing in the Book of Mormon? Word for word? What does this say about the Book of Mormon being an ancient record?
First of all, those italicized words are often not repeated word for word. Many of them are different than in the Bible. In his interview with the Interpreter, Skousen explains that a good 38% of the differences between the verses are found strictly in the italics, and that another 23% of the differences rely on those italics to make sense. Beyond that, though, they’re there for the same reason they’re there in the Bible: the Book of Mormon is a translation from another language (actually, a double translation—Hebrew [and later, whatever language the Nephites spoke] to Reformed Egyptian, and Reformed Egyptian to English). Phrases that make perfect sense in one language often need additional words when you translate them to English.
For example, try to describe a taco without using the Spanish word. We don’t have a corresponding word in English so we use the Spanish word, because saying “folded flatbread filled with meat, cheese, and vegetables” is too long when we can just use a single Spanish word that means the same thing. It’s the same with the German word “schadenfreude.” We don’t have a word for that feeling in English, so we’ve co-opted the German word. But if we didn’t use the foreign words, we’d have to explain the concept using many more English words. Those italicized words are inserted for the translation to make sense for the same reason, because they don’t have a singular word that matches the idea being expressed.
My favorite part of this section in the CES Letter, though, is that it uses Isaiah 9:1 and 2 Nephi 19:1 to illustrate this point. This was a mistake on Jeremy’s part, because one of the things he mocks about 2 Nephi 19:1 is actually another evidence in favor of the Book of Mormon’s authenticity. The Letter quotes the two verses like so:
Isaiah 9:1 (KJV):
Nevertheless the dimness shall not be such as was in her vexation, when at the first he lightly afflicted the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, and afterward did more grievously afflict her by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, in Galilee of the nations.
Nevertheless, the dimness shall not be such as was in her vexation, when at first he lightly afflicted the land of Zebulun, and the land of Naphtali, and afterwards did more grievously afflict by the way of the Red Sea beyond Jordan in Galilee of the nations.
The above example, 2 Nephi 19:1, dated in the Book of Mormon to be around 550 BC, quotes nearly verbatim from the 1611 AD translation of Isaiah 9:1 KJV – including the translators’ italicized words. Additionally, the Book of Mormon describes the sea as the Red Sea. The problem with this is that (a) Christ quoted Isaiah in Matt. 4:14-15 and did not mention the Red Sea, (b) “Red” sea is not found in any source manuscripts, and (c) the Red Sea is 250 miles away.
I love this example so much, you guys. First of all, if you click the link to the scriptures showing Isaiah 9:1, you’ll see that the word “her” in “afterward did more grievously afflict her by the way of the sea…” is also italicized, and is removed from the Book of Mormon. So, in an example showing that the Book of Mormon copied the italics exactly, it uses an instance where the Book of Mormon changed the italics. I’m sorry, but that’s hilarious.
Second, though, this is where it gets kind of cool. It was assumed for ages that the mention of the Red Sea was simply an error of Oliver Cowdery’s when copying down the Book of Mormon manuscript. No big deal, there are others, nobody’s perfect, mistakes happen. Just look at the famous “sword”/”word” example, right? But over the past two decades or so, thought on that supposed error is changing.
In ancient Israel, there were several major trade routes, two of which were the Via Maris, or “The Way of the Sea” in Greek, and The King’s Highway. The Way of the Sea hugged the Mediterranean Sea and did lead into the Jordan valley, so it’s often pointed out by Biblical scholars that this is likely what the Isaiah verse is referring to, that Israel would be invaded by the Way of the Sea going westward toward Galilee.
However, in ancient times, the King’s Highway (which also eventually goes into Jordan) was known as…yep, you guessed it, the Way of the Red Sea. That would mean that Israel would be invaded from the South East, which also just so happened to be the route that the Israelites took during the Exodus from Egypt into Canaan. It’s also likely the beginning route that Nephi’s family took during the beginning of their own flight from Israel.
Imagine being Nephi, with the Hebrew love of wordplay, puns, and symbolism as part of your ingrained culture, fleeing from Jerusalem along the same path that your ancestors fled to Jerusalem from Egypt centuries before. Imagine reading that prophesy of Isaiah’s, that the Messiah would travel that same route (and it’s entirely possible that He did as a child when Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt, and during their return to Israel).
… The King’s Highway also was part of what was known in ancient times as the Way of the Red Sea, which led out of Egypt along the shores of the Red Sea, passed through Edom and changed direction after meeting with the Way of the Sea, in Galilee, to go into Mesopotamia. It is possible that Joseph journeyed this way, or at least part of this way, to avoid going through Judaea when he took Jesus into Nazareth as a young child. If so, it would be quite correct in that the light would pass into the region of Naphtali via the Way of the Red Sea. Joseph sought to avoid contact with Archelaus and a back route would be one of the best ways to avoid contact.
We also know that Jesus went into the wilderness for his temptation after being baptized in a region on the other side of the Jordan. The English Book of Mormon has Bethabara as do several versions of the Bible while [several other translations have] Bethany beyond Jordan. He would then have come down from Galilee to be baptized on the other side of the Jordan (east of the river; ‘beyond Jordan’ meant to the east of the Jordan River), and come down around the Way of the Red Sea and around the Dead Sea to the Wilderness of Judaea. Remember, Jesus wandered the wilderness for forty days, plenty of time to travel around the Dead Sea in that manner, that region being one the most inhospitable in the main. There are possible hints that Jesus came through Edom or Idumea. One way that he could have done so is to travel the Way of the Red Sea, which passes through Edom….
When I originally posted this on Reddit, I cited the now-deleted Conflict of Justice blog and I haven’t been able to fully reconstruct it with other links. Because I thought it was an interesting take, I’m going to requote it again here, despite not having an up-to-date link to cite:
Now, consider the context. This is prophesying of dark days ahead for Israel. Biblical scholars say Isaiah 9:1 is supposed to be part of the last verse of chapter 8: “And they shall look unto the earth; and behold trouble and darkness, dimness of anguish; and they shall be driven to darkness.” It is saying Israel was afflicted by this trade route, but it would also be greatly blessed along this trade route by the arrival of a great light. This particular conjugation of the Hebrew word kabad which is translated as “grievously afflict,” is translated in 1 Kings 12:10 as “heavy.” Same with 2 Chronicles 10:10, it is translated as “heavy.” Lamentations 3:7 translates it as “weighed down.” In each case, this third-person masculine singular perfect conjugation of kabad means “heavy.” Now, in various ancient languages, “weight” was synonymous with “honor.” A similar-sounding Phoenician name means “honored one.” It is similar to a Zinjirli word for “honor.” So, in certain cases, “weight” is thought to refer to “honor.” The imperative masculine singular conjugation is translated as “glory” in 2 Kings 14:10. So when we look at the context of Isaiah 9:1, we start with the end of Isaiah 8, which speaks of seeing gloom on the earth and being thrust into darkness. Then, Isaiah 9:1 says there will be no gloom, for while in the past he hekal the land, translated as “lightly afflicted,” he will now or in the future hikbid the Way of the Sea. There is a dichotomy here between hekal and hikbid, and some scholars say it is “heavy” versus “glory”–he has afflicted and now will honor. But KJV translators thought it was the other way around–he has lightly afflicted and then did more grievously afflict. This is because “hekal signifies literally to make light.” Modern translators think that because the rest of the chapter tells of the glorious coming of the Messiah, the future instance of kabad should mean “honor” and the past-tense instance of kabad should be afflict, but the Book of Mormon changes everything by switching ‘Way of the Sea’ to ‘Way of the Red Sea.’ This alters the meaning of the verse entirely. Now, instead of the future kabad coming along the Mediterranean coast to Galilee, it is coming along the King’s Highway, which leads from Egypt to Galilee. This reinforces the KJV interpretation of light affliction, heavy affliction, and then a great light.
Biblical scholars say Jesus compared himself to this route, Way of the Red Sea, when He said: “I am the way (highway), and the truth, and the life; no man cometh to the Father, but through me (John 14:5-6).” Jesus would be the people’s great hope, just like the route led them to deliverance in the great Exodus. Nephi understood that Israel would be invaded and afflicted through the same route Israel had used to settle the land, and the same route Nephi used to flee Israel, and that eventually the Messiah would be the true “King’s Highway.” The Book of Mormon is full of symbolism of Jesus and walking the “true path,” the same kind of symbolism we also see in Psalms 119, which compares the King’s Highway to God’s path: “I have chosen the way of truth… I will speak of thy testimonies also before kings.” Blessings come after times of affliction.
This is why Isaiah prophesies of Jesus immediately after Isaiah 9:1: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6).”
Changing it to the Way of the Red Sea may not have been a mistake at all, and actually fits much more strongly into the Hebrew culture of symbolism and wordplay than the original phrasing found in Isaiah. If this is true, it makes it a more authentic piece of ancient Hebraic writing, the very thing that Jeremy claims it can’t be because of “errors” just like this one.
The Book of Mormon includes mistranslated biblical passages that were later changed in Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible. These Book of Mormon verses should match the inspired JST version instead of the incorrect KJV version that Joseph later fixed.
This fundamentally misunderstands what the JST is. In some places, such as JST Matthew, it’s a catalytic revelation out of essentially thin air, just like the Book of Moses and, some believe, the Book of Abraham. In others, it’s Biblical commentary. In still others, it’s rephrasing to make the doctrine more clear to modern day readers or correcting grammar issues. And in others, it’s an inspired correcting of errors or tweaking conflicting passages that had entered into the translation over centuries of repeated copying and translating. It is not a translation in the typical sense of the word, correcting the text into some magical, perfect Ur text of what the Bible originally said when it was first written. It was just clarifying a few things here and there that he felt should be clarified.
Jeremy continues with this—A typical example of the differences between the BOM, the KJV, and the JST:
3 NEPHI 13:25-27
25: …Therefore I say unto you, take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?
26: Behold the fowls of the air, for they sow not, neither do they reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?
27: Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?
MATTHEW 6:25-27 (From the King James Version Bible – not the JST)
25: Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?
26: Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?
27: Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?
MATTHEW 6:25-27 (Joseph Smith Translation of the same passages in the LDS Bible)
25: And, again, I say unto you, Go ye into the world, and care not for the world: for the world will hate you, and will persecute you, and will turn you out of their synagogues.
26: Nevertheless, ye shall go forth from house to house, teaching the people; and I will go before you.
27: And your heavenly Father will provide for you, whatsoever things ye need for food, what ye shall eat; and for raiment, what ye shall wear or put on.
His examples are wrong again, as he compares 3 Nephi 13:25-27 to Matthew 6:25-27 to the JST version of Matthew 6:25-27, as though they’re identical. However, he cuts out the entire first half of 3 Nephi 13:25 because it’s different:
25 And now it came to pass that when Jesus had spoken these words he looked upon the twelve whom he had chosen, and said unto them: Remember the words which I have spoken. For behold, ye are they whom I have chosen to minister unto this people. Therefore I say unto you, take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?
He claims they’re identical and uses it as an example of Joseph copying the KJV without updating it, and yet, he cut out three lines of text to make that claim. Then, he cites the wrong verses for the JST. If you actually look at the footnotes in your scriptures, at verse 25, there’s the footnote for the JST verses cited above. But if you look at the JST footnote for verse 30, it now becomes Matthew 6:34, and in the JST footnote to 6:33, it now becomes 6:38. JST Matthew 6:25-27 doesn’t replace those original verses, it shifts them down. They now come after the addition of the new verses.
So, in one instance, he deletes half the verse to hide that it’s fundamentally different from the original while claiming they’re identical, and then, he cites the wrong “corrected” verses in the other instance when they actually are identical if you look read them in the right order. The whole thing is essentially a giant facepalm moment.
Christ’s Sermon on the Mount in the Bible and the Book of Mormon are identical. But Joseph Smith later corrected the Bible. In doing so, he also contradicted the same identical Sermon on the Mount passage in the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon is “the most correct book” and was translated a mere decade before the JST. The Book of Mormon was not corrupted over time and did not need correcting. How is it that the Book of Mormon has the incorrect Sermon on the Mount passage and does not match the correct JST version in the first place?
The Sermon on the Mount is not identical to the sermon given to the Nephites. It matched in a lot of places, but it was a different sermon given to a different people in different circumstances, and the text of the Book of Mormon includes differences in the sermon highlighting that—such as the ones in the very first verse he cites. It was never meant to be 100% identical.
Beyond that, the quote saying that the Book of Mormon was the most correct book was obviously not talking about punctuation, grammar and word choice. It was talking about doctrine. It has the most correct doctrine of any other book. The doctrine didn’t alter at all in this supposed example.
Anyway, I’m going to wrap this one up here. Regardless of whether there are KJV errors in the Book of Mormon, the truth is that we really don’t know what was going on with the translation or how it was translated before it was transmitted to Joseph. We know a lot, but we don’t know everything. Personally, I’m okay with that. The answers will come eventually. For now, this is one of the times were I’m choosing to exercise patience.
Sources used in this entry: