Brant A. Gardner discusses the influence of 19th-century vocabulary and idiomatic expressions and the KJV on the Book of Mormon text.

Brant A. Gardner

Brant A. Gardner, The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2011), 187-95

Greg Kofford Books
Brant A. Gardner, Hugh W. Nibley
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Modern Vocabulary and Idiomatic Expressions

We see a clear dependence on Joseph’s language culture when idiomatic expression occur that emphasize cultural content from Joseph Smith’s time rather than that of the ancient text. For instance:

And it shall come to pass that I will smite this my people with sore afflictions, yea, with famine and with pestilence; and I will cause that they shall howl all the day long.

Yea, and I will cause that they shall have burdens lashed upon their backs; and they shall be driven before like a dumb ass. (Mosiah 12:4-5)

Abinadi uses the phrase “they shall be driven before like a dumb ass.” The phrase is not discussing animals, but rather a description of an action. The description depends on the reader’s familiarity with what it means to be “driven before like a dumb ass.” Both the animal as a beast of burden and the behavior of driving it are presumed. Mesoamerica, however, had no known asses nor any other beast of burden. Without the animal, the rest of the phrase cannot communicate its desired meaning. The idiomatic phrase makes sense in Joseph’s time but had no referent in ancient America. It cannot be a literal translation of a plate text idiom using Mesoamerica as the plate text culture.

Alma 14:29 has another metaphorical phrase that depends on Joseph Smith’s culture:

. . . fled form the presence of Alma and Amulek even as a goat fleeth with her young from two lions; and thus they flee from the presence of Alma and Amulek.

The metaphor immediately communicates both the dangerous presence of predators and the response of the weaker animals. However, neither lions nor goats were native to ancient Mesoamerica; therefore, this relationship between them would have been unavailable to generate the metaphor.

The reference to “other sheep” (3 Ne. 15:17) relies on the New Testament context (John 10:16) and a cultural familiarity with herding sheep. Jesus is the good shepherd and beings his flock together. Because there were no sheep in the New World, Jesus must have communicated this information using culturally familiar imagery for his Nephite audience. Joseph’s translation, however, preserves the language more familiar to a New Testament audience.

Conflicts between modern vocabulary and plausible plate text go beyond animals. In Alma 29:4, Joseph uses a word that evokes the intended emotion but depends on both an instrument and agricultural process that were unknown in Mesoamerica. The text is: “I ought not to harrow up in my desires the firm decree of a just God” (emphasis mine). The Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of the English Language defines “to harrow” as “to draw a harrow over (a field, etc.)” and “to disturb the mind or feelings.” The harrow itself is a “farm implement, commonly a frame set with spikes or teeth, or disks, or leveling plowed ground, breaking clods, etc.” Neither that instrument nor the agricultural concept were part of the Mesoamerican agricultural world. The Mesoamerican planting method did not involve tilling a field. Mesoamerican farmers used a stick to make a hole into which they dropped the corn and beans. The English verb requires a familiarity with the action of the farm implement to expand it into a metaphor applied to emotions. Therefore, the underlying text did not require the translation of the world for the implement, only a word that communicated an emotion that in English could be represented by “to harrow.” The connection between “harrow” and the plate text is plausible, but that connection cannot have been a literalist equivalent.

A similar anachronistic use of metaphors occurs in Mormon 5:18. Mormon describes his wayward people: “But now, behold, they are led about by Satan, even as chaff is driven before the wind, or as a vessel is tossed about upon the waves, without sail or anchor, or without anything wherewith to steer her; and even as she is, so are they.” Certainly the plate described a people who were easily led, but it could not have used metaphors that depended upon threshing wheat or on ships possessing sails, anchors, and rudders. Wheat was not a Mesoamerican crop. Corn and beans have husks and shells but noting similar to chaff. Mesoamerican vessels were paddled, not wind-driven.

Earlier, Nephi records: “But, behold, the righteous, the saints of the Holy One of Israel, they who have believed in the Holy One of Israel, they who have endured the crosses of the world. . . . “ (2 Ne. 9:18). The presence of the word crosses is anachronistic. Even though it might be argued that Nephi understood the importance of the cross in the Savior’s death (based on 1 Ne. 19;3; 2 Ne. 6:9, 10:4-5, 25:13) it is unclear how well Nephi’s people would have understood crucifixion as a mode of execution. Without both that common understanding and the religious and cultural need that transformed it into the metaphor that we see in 2 Nephi 9:18, it is unlikely that the English translation replicates the vocabulary from the plates. Rather, Joseph was suing a commonly understood metaphor to communicate the message.

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The Influence of the King James Version

The Book of Mormon’s imitation of King James translation language and style is so obvious it does not need demonstration.

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Only the influence of KJV phrasing explains “jot or tittle” in 3 Nephi 1:25. Smith’s Bible Dictionary explains that the jot is “the English form of the Greek iota, i.e., the smallest letter of the Greek alphabet. The Hebrew of yod, or y, formed like a comma (‘). It is used metaphorically to express the minutest thing.” Easton’s Bible Dictionary defines a tittle as “a point, (Matt. 5:18; Luke 16:17), the minute point or stroke added to some letters of the Hebrew alphabet to distinguish them from others which they resemble; hence, the very least point.

The reference to the jot might have been part of the plates if it referred to the Hebrew yod and if the Nephites retained sufficient knowledge of Hebrew writing that it could be a useful metaphor. However, the tittle is a visual coding for vowels, a system developed after Lehi and his family left Jerusalem. Thus tittle could not be a literal translation of a lexeme in the Nephite vocabulary. The presence of this phrase is due to the KJV model.

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Mormon’s sermon recorded in Moroni 7 has several passages that depend upon 1 Corinthians. Of the most obvious connections, Nibley noted:

But what about the Faith, Hope and Charity” passage in Moroni 7:45? Its resemblance to 1 Corinthians 13 is undeniable. This particular passage, recently singled out for attack in Christianity Today, is actually one of those things that turns out to be a striking vindication of the Book of Mormon. For the whole passage, which scholars have labelled “the Hymn to Charity,” was shown early in this century by a number of first-rate investigators working independently (A. Harnack, J. Weiss, R. Reizenstein) to have originated not with Paul at all, but to go back to sole older but known source. Paul is merely quoting from the record.

Understanding that Paul is quoting an earlier source is important but perhaps not as useful in resolving the issue as Nibley suggests. For this particular argument to have real merit, the earlier version must not only predate Paul but must have exited 600 years before Christ. There is no way to trace it that far back, and it is unrealistic to assume that that it would have retained such a tight resemblance over that number of years. Again, the best explanation is that the specific translation is the result of Joseph’s language culture—specifically his familiarity with certain KJV New Testament passages. Although the meaning of the language might have been on the plates, the form of the resulting translation cannot represent a literalist translation of the plate text.

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