Monday, March 23, 2015

English in the Book of Mormon

On Saturday, March 14, 2015 I attended the conference "Exploring the Complexities in the English Language of the Book of Mormon" at BYU. Co-sponsored by Interpreter Foundation and BYU Studies, the presenters were Stanford Carmack, Jan J. Martin, Nick Frederick and Royal Skousen. Daniel C. Peterson introduced the conference and John W. Welch concluded it. Following are my notes.

Stanford Carmack is an independent scholar who lives on Cape Cod. He holds degrees in Linguistics and Law from Stanford and a PhD in Hispanic languages and literature from UC Riverside. He has written three very important articles published in 2014 and 2015 in Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture:
His presentation was entitled "Exploding the  Myth of Unruly Book of Mormon Grammar: A Look at the Excellent Match with Early Modern English."

Robert F. Smith published the first Book of Mormon critical text with FARMS in the 1980's. Since 1988 Royal Skousen has been working on his critical text which reached a milestone in 2009 with the Yale University Press publication of The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text. A Kindle edition appeared in 2013. Carmack is a contributor to Volume 3 of Skousen's critical text (in preparation).

Carmack makes extensive use of the 54,000 and counting volumes in Early English Books Online EEBO. Literature Online (LION) is another of his fundamental resources, as is the OED. He not only finds examples of Book of Mormon words and phrases, but also plots their usage frequencies by time period. He has demonstrated, conclusively in my opinion, that the original English text of the Book of Mormon revealed to Joseph Smith has strong affinities with Early Modern English (EModE 1470 - 1700). This era in the evolution of the English language includes Shakespeare (1564 - 1616) and the King James Bible ( KJV 1611). See the blog article "Early Modern English."

Carmack pointed out many examples of Book of Mormon vocabulary and syntax that are not in the KJV but are attested in EModE, thus dispelling the myth that Joseph simply plagiarized the Bible.

Some of the interesting language constructs Carmack discussed:
  • "mights" KJV always uses the singular "might"
  • "nor no manner of"
  • "if it so be that"
  • "it supposeth me"
  • "him supposeth"
  • "did" as an affirmative past-tense marker. The Book of Mormon uses did + a verb to express past-tense 27% of the time - over 1,800 instances. The Bible uses this syntax less than 2% of the time. This usage was common in EModE, peaking about 1560 and then tapering off sharply. The Book of Mormon is a good 16th century match at a deep syntactic level.
  • "didst" & "did" in the same sentence
  • command syntax using "that" or "to" with an embedded verb
  • causative syntax "cause us that we should"
  • "adieu" which was very common in EModE
  • "wearied him with their teasings"
  • "have went," "have became"
  • "had ought," "had came," "had gave" 
  • "people which was"
  • "hath" & "hath" or even "hath," "hast," & "hath" in the same sentence
  • "have" & "hath" in the same sentence
  • "engraven" & "molten" as verb stems
  • "even to that" meaning until
  • "th" versus "est" word endings
  • "ye" versus "thou"
  • "done" as a simple past-tense of "do."
  • "much provisions"
  • "should not do none" double negation
The question on everyone's' lips after Carmack's rapid-fire delivery was why? Why would the Lord have revealed a text in 1829 in a language that had not been spoken anywhere on earth for several generations? Carmack gave four cogent answers:
  1. KJV affinity. This language has an old-fashioned biblical feel.
  2. Witness of the gift and power of God. This makes the Book of Mormon miracle even that much more astonishing. No other 19th century work uses EModE syntax, not even pseudo biblical texts that are consciously mimicking KJV style. This is simply beyond human capability.
  3. Translation facility. The Book of Mormon is translation literature. The Lord knew this text would be widely translated (113 languages currently). Shakespeare and the Bible are the most translated bodies of literature in history, so EModE provides a good base text to support translations.
  4. Plainness. Even though EModE syntax sounds odd, even erroneous to modern ears, the meaning is seldom in doubt. Some of modern English's ambiguities were not yet in the language in the EModE era.
April 10, 2020 Note.
I just read Stan Carmack's "Bad Grammar in the Book of Mormon Found in Early English Bibles" in Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 36 (2020), pp. 1-28. It occurred to me there is a fifth possible reason why the text of the Book of Mormon was originally dictated in Early Modern English. This may have been a divine nineteenth century gift to honor the sixteenth century martyr, William Tyndale (1494-1536). Carmack quotes David Daniell saying that Tyndale's influence on the English language is so profound it cannot be measured. "Without Tyndale, no Shakespeare." Many words in the earliest text of the Book of Mormon are literally William Tyndale's words.
Page (Romans 4) from Geneva Bible, 1589 Edition
One of the Early English Bibles Following Tyndale
Jan J. Martin, whose advanced degree is from University of York, is delightful to listen to. I found myself wondering if she was a Brit who has spent a lot of time in the States, or a Yank who has spent a lot of time in the UK. She is an American who has spent enough time in the UK that her speech is peppered with charming British English. She is a specialist in biblical translations, currently an Assistant Visiting Professor of Ancient Scripture at BYU. Her presentation was entitled "Charity, Priest, and Church versus Love, Elder, and Congregation: The Book of Mormon's Connection to the Debate between William Tyndale and Thomas More."

More (1478 - 1535) was high church, clerical, Catholic. Tyndale (ca. 1494 - 1536) was low church, lay, Protestant. Theology is dependent on language. "God is but his word" was the way Tyndale phrased it. Alexander Campbell, one of Joseph Smith's most virulent critics, characterized the Book of Mormon as a crude compilation of the theological debates swirling on the American frontier in the 1820's. Martin showed the Nephite text is much more subtle, nuanced and sophisticated. It deftly navigates the waters between More and Tyndale just like every 16th century English Bible translation was forced to do. Major English Bible translations from Tyndale to the KJV:
  • Tyndale 1526
  • Coverdale 1535
  • Matthew's 1537
  • Great 1539
  • Geneva 1557
  • Bishops' 1568
  • Douay-Rheims 1582 (Catholic)
  • King James 1611
More argued Greek New Testament agape should be translated "charity," presbuteros "priest," and ekklesia "church." Tyndale passionately advocated for "love," "elder," and "congregation." Both men were executed in their prime and their debate was never resolved.

All 8 of the Bible translations shown above favor "love" over "charity." The KJV uses "charity" 29 of 252 times which is 11.5%, a higher usage rate than in any of the other versions. The Book of Mormon uses "charity" 27 times and "love" 66 times, for a usage rate of 29%. The Book of Mormon also uses several qualifying adjectives with the word "love" such as "pure," "everlasting," and "perfect" which bring it close to the caritas of the Vulgate: love imbued with god-like qualities. 4 Nephi 1:15 is one example of the high standard to which "love" is usually held in the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon is a wonderful blend of charity, high order love such as the love of God, and carnal or materialistic love.

All 8 of the Bible translations shown above favor "elder" over "priest" and the two terms are roughly synonymous with "high priest" being a separate office. Note that the 2013 LDS edition of the KJV does not follow the original 1611 text in many instances. The Book of Mormon, on the other hand, uses the word "priest" 105 times and the word "elder" in an ecclesiastical sense only 9 times. In this case, the Book of Mormon contradicts the KJV. In the Book of Mormon, "elder" and "priest" are separate offices with an elder superior to a priest. Elders ordain priests Moroni 3:1.

The Bible translations up to 1540 use "congregation" 100% of the time. Beginning with the Geneva Bible, the word "church" predominates. The Book of Mormon has 235 instances of "church" and only 2 of "congregation." Tyndale thought the word "church" should be reserved for the "elect." The Book of Mormon church is thoroughly egalitarian.

Far from being a clumsy parody of Jacksonian American theological polemics, the Book of Mormon beautifully synchronizes More's Catholicism with Tyndale's Protestantism. The Book of Mormon contribution to the More/Tyndale debate ends in a draw. Its refined treatment of theological and religious issues go much beyond Joseph Smith's innate capabilities. It should come as no surprise, then, that the Book of Mormon also deftly handles many other contentious issues that have riven Christianity for centuries such as favor earned versus grace freely given, authority through lineal descent versus the priesthood of all believers, culpability for original sin versus newborn innocence, essential sacraments versus confession of faith, etc.
Nick Frederick holds a PhD in the History of Christianity from Claremont. He is an Assistant Professor of Ancient Scripture at BYU where his research interests focus on intertextuality between the Bible, particularly the New Testament NT, and LDS scripture. His presentation was entitled "'Full of Grace, Mercy, and Truth': Exploring the Complexities of the Presence of the New Testament within the Book of Mormon."

This was the presentation that caused me to re-examine my preconceptions. The Brass Plates of Laban are a plausible explanation for the presence of so much of Isaiah (about 1/3) in the Nephite text. I can easily understand why our risen Lord chose to quote Malachi 3 & 4 to the Nephites at the Temple in land Bountiful as recorded in 3 Nephi 24 & 25. The Savior's masterful recasting of Matthew 5-7 as the Sermon at the Temple in 3 Nephi 12-14 I find moving and persuasive. But Nephiquoting from the Acts of the Apostles ostensibly written by Luke ca. AD 70? That caused me to think more deeply than I ever have before about intertextual dependencies in the Book of Mormon.

Biblicists classify instances of intertextuality as quotations, allusions and echos. Frederick has identified about 1,800 potential shared phrases between the New Testament and the Book of Mormon. Not counting 3 Nephi 12-14 reduces that number to 778. 333 are precise and therefore highly likely dependencies (quotations). 338 are very likely (allusions) and 107 are likely (echoes). New Testament phrases are quite evenly distributed throughout the entire Book of Mormon. The books of Matthew, John, Revelation, 1 Corinthians, Acts and Hebrews are the most referenced. Frederick wrote his dissertation on the many tight relationships between 3 Nephi 9 and John's prologue to his gospel.

After showing dozens of instances of New Testament intertextuality with the Book of Mormon, Frederick began to explore patterns in the data.
  • Grand visions have similarities. 1 Nephi 11-14 corresponds in many ways with the Revelation of John.
  • The Book of Mormon weaves NT phraseology into complex literary tapestries that go far beyond mere cut and paste plagiarism.
  • We tend to focus on the similarities between the Sermon at the Temple and Matthew 5-7, but 3 Nephi, including chapters 12-14, have remarkable affinities with the writings of John.
  • The life experiences of Almaand the sons of Mosiahclosely mirror those of the Apostle Paul. We should not be surprised to find intertextuality between them and we do.
  • The correlation between Mormon 9 and Mark 16 is lengthy and precise. Both Mark and Moronisummarize the life and ministry of the Savior with its implications for believers.
  • The resurrected Savior explicitly says he shared the same words in the Old World and the New 3 Nephi 15:1. Jesus' logia are a necessary and sufficient urtext behind many dependencies such as Moroni 7:45 and 1 Corinthians13:4-7.
  • In the spirit of Nephi's "plainness in the which I know that no man can err" 2 Nephi 25:7, the Book of Mormon often makes things explicit so as to be crystal clear. Deuteronomy 18:15, 19 is the source for both 1 Nephi 22:20 and Acts 3:22-23. The Lord Himself quoted Nephi in personally announcing the fulfillment of Moses' prophecy 3 Nephi 20:23.
  • The Book of Mormon is closer to the New Testament than it is to the Old Testament OT.
  • The Yale 2009 text is closer to the NT than is the LDS 1980-2013 text.
  • Context is often determinative. Passages about faith or priesthood have strong similarities.
So why do we find Luke showing up in First and Second Nephi? In the time of Joseph Smith, the KJV was considered the voice and language of God. Steven C. Harper's aritcle "Infallible Proofs, Both Human and Divine: The Persuasiveness of Mormonism for Early Converts" Religion and American Culture 10 (1) 99-118 (Winter, 2000) shows that the reciprocity of the Book of Mormon and Bible mutually corroborating each other powerfully influenced the saints in Joseph Smith's day. Mormon 7:9 prophesied this intertextual validation.

Lucy Mack Smith said Joseph Smith at age 18 had never read the entire Bible and was more inclined to meditation than to study. The fact that at age 24, from April 7 to July 1, 1829, he dictated almost the entire Book of Mormon in a revelatory marathon is nothing short of amazing. The Book of Mormon is precisely a "marvelous work and a wonder" as Nephiprophesied 2 Nephi 25:17 quoting Isaiah 2 Nephi 27:26, Isaiah 29:14 who alluded to King David Psalms 105:5 who echoed 1 Chronicles 16:2 or vice versa. So, finding intertextuality between the New Testament and the Book of Mormon should be a source of wonder for modern readers.

Divine timekeeping is superior to mortal reckoning Moses 1:6. So, what seems anachronistic to us may be the power of God at work in the world inspiring various people in various places at various times. That is the clear message of 2 Nephi 29. 2 Nephi9 29:2 in particular says the words of the Nephites in the Book of Mormon will come through God's own mouth and be His own words. So, when we see Moses Deuteronomy 32:35 quoted by Isaiah Isaiah 34:8, Isaiah 35:4 and Jeremiah Jeremiah 51:6, the question becomes who quoted whom when Paul used similar terminology writing to both the Romans Romans 12:19 and the Jews Hebrews 10:30? In what way did the voice of the Lord come to Mormon Mormon 3:14  as he included the same words in his own writings Mormon 3:15? To what scripture was Moronireferring when he engraved his own version of the famous passage Mormon 8:20? We know that content has flowed and will flow freely between different groups of people 2 Nephi 29:13. We also know there is an underlying unity to God's word 2 Nephi 29:14 analogous to the latter-day gathering of Israel. In the final analysis the historical transmission process underlying textual criticism does not adequately account for the divine hand of providence at work in sacred writ. The real question then becomes "Is text X the word of God yes or no?" In the case of the Book of Mormon the answer is unequivocally yes.
Royal Skousen holds a PhD in Linguistics from the University of Illinois. He is a Professor of Linguistics and English at BYU. He has been the editor of the Book of Mormon Critical Text since 1988. His presentation was entitled "A theory! A theory! We have already got a theory, and there cannot be any more theories!"

Skousen has a wonderfully dry, understated wit. Audiences have to pay attention because, like Nibley, some of Skousens best comments are unscripted & off the cuff. This is what we know about the translation process from eyewitnesses:
  • The text of the Book of Mormon was revealed to Joseph Smith word for word
  • The Prophet was not at liberty to express ideas in his own words
  • Words appeared in the interpreters or the seer stone
  • Joseph's head was buried in a hat to exclude light so he could better read the words 
  • Joseph could see 20 - 30 words at a time
  • He read aloud about 10 words at a time to his scribe who wrote them down
  • The scribe then read the text back to Joseph who compared it with the revealed words
  • When Joseph and his scribe felt they had the right words recorded, the divine display changed
  • The translation team worked for about 6 hours per day
  • Proper names were spelled out the first time they appeared
  • The process was transparent, out in the open, seen by all
  • The plates themselves, nearby but not consulted, were wrapped up in a cloth of some kind
  • After breaks, Joseph Smith began where they had left off without notes or prompting
6 people left us eyewitness accounts of the translation methodology. One of the most important was Michael Morris, Emma Smith's brother-in-law. Morris never joined the Church.

The Book of Mormon text uses systematic phraseology. 131 expressions appear 100% of the time, without exception. This remarkable standardization was a big help in the process of re-constructing the original text. Skousen's first inkling that the text may be pre-modern came in 1998 when Renee Bangerter suggested the "ceremony" in Mosiah 19:24 may actually be "sermon."  The OED showed sermon meaning talk or conversation, but that usage died out after 1594. Then in 2003 Christian Gellinek suggested "pleading bar" for "pleasing bar" in Jacob 6:13. Pleading bars in judicial settings are attested in the 1600's.

Once he began looking for archaic vocabulary, EModE terms were evident throughout the text:
  • require meaning request
  • cast arrows meaning shoot arrows
  • wrap meaning roll
  • for the multitude meaning as many as could
  • but if meaning unless
  • counsel meaning to counsel with
  • depart meaning divide in parts
  • errand meaning message
  • extinct meaning dead
  • detect meaning expose
  • withstand meaning oppose
  • retain meaning take back
  • thou meaning plural
  • descendant meaning plural
  • view meaning vision
  • unwearingness meaning unweariness
  • to become for oneself meaning to become of age, to become independent
  • morrow month meaning next month
  • wist meaning know
Helaman 13:37 "in them days" (Yale Text) is boorish modern English. It was acceptable EModE usage. The word "and" in an interruptive or extended subordination clause takes you back to the main clause. EModE has multiple instances of "and" that we would consider run-on sentences in modern English. Examples are 1 Nephi 8:13, 3 Nephi 23:8 and Moroni 10:4. Book of Mormon vocabulary is filtered, massaged and carefully prepared. Every word was known to Joseph Smith and his scribes, although many meanings had changed since the EModE era.

The Book of Mormon fits well in the 1500's. It takes an expansive view of mankind in line with the renaissance, enlightenment and reformation. It deals with many of the issues that were debated in reformed Protestantism.

Abinadi was burned at the stake as a heretic. Mosiah 17:13 should read "scorched" not "scourged." During the 1500's, many people were burned at the stake along with their scriptures. "Secret combinations" describe Catholic and subversive political groups, not freemasons. The Book of Mormon refines the KJV resolutions of the Tyndale/More debate. The Book of Mormon is definitely low church in its practices, but high church in many of its doctrines. Mosiahand Alma1 had to wrestle with the same church/state issues that plagued the 1500's and 1600's. The Book of Mormon solution that excommunication was not a civil crime Mosiah 26:35-26 eventually became obvious to western society generally after the tumultuous EModE years.

The Book of Mormon shows the hand of the Lord. Joseph Smith was not really its translator. He was its transmitter through divine instrumentality.
John W. (Jack) Welch read Greek Philosophy at Oxford and holds a JD from Duke. He is the Robert K. Thomas Professor of Law at BYU.

All the presenters deserve our thanks and praise. "Thank" and "praise" are the same word in both Greek and Hebrew. Jack began serving as General Editor of BYU Studies in 1991. Since that time many significant discoveries have helped us better understand the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon is very complicated. We must take it seriously. Superficiality is quite offensive to the Lord. The presenters in this conference have taken a new tack and are examining the text through the lens of new disciplines. Practically every academic discipline has something important to contribute that will help elucidate the Book of Mormon. Welch then listed well over a dozen disciplines that have shed light on the Nephite text in our day. These include Arabic, the discovery of the Hittites in 1950, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Hebraisms, Statistics, Botany, Geography, Theology and now Historical Linguistics. Noting that March 14, 2015 was the 10th year anniversary of Hugh Nibley's funeral, Welch commented that Hugh would have enjoyed these conference proceedings.

In a sacred text, every word counts for something. For years we thought bad grammar was an embarrassing weakness in the Book of Mormon. Looking at it now through an EModE lens we know it is one of the text's greatest strengths. We will find Hebrew, Elizabethan English, 19th century, 20th century, and even 21st century phraseology in the Book of Mormon. It is simply a miraculous, marvelous translation.

Some of the research we take for granted today was not possible before the computer age. We now have the Yale text that we can compare quickly with many other databases. Jack has found over 3,000 possible New Testament phrases in the Book of Mormon. We know, for instance, that Alma 32 quotes from both the OT and NT. It includes wording from 22 discrete passages in many different books of the Bible. That level of synchronicity is beyond human capacity.

Church historians of an earlier era were embarrassed at the image of Joseph Smith with his head buried in his hat. The hat is our strongest evidence of a divine translation through the gift and power of God. Joseph Smith was not consulting reference materials. He was not collaborating with a team of experts. He was reading words that appeared on a stone in the bottom of a hat. The whole thing is simply astonishing and supernatural.

Joseph put his face in a hat to shut out light so the words appearing on his seer stone were easier to read. This is a direct fulfillment of Alma 37:23 interpreted in light of pre-1981 editions of D&C Sections 78, 82 & 104 where Joseph Smith is called "Gazelam."

Article last updated April 10, 2020.