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Accusatory Questions

Why are many verses exactly same in the Bible and the Book of Mormon?  Is that not plagiarism?

by Jeff Lindsay

Specific language found in the King James Bible was obviously used in many cases when Joseph translated passages that quoted the Old Testament (several Isaiah chapters, for example) or translated passages that expressed ideas nearly identical to passages of the Bible. Besides the Isaiah chapters, the most obvious example occurs when the Resurrected Christ, during His brief but powerful ministry to the Nephites and Lamanites in the Book of Mormon, repeated the Sermon on the Mount. Most of the language in that section follows the King James version of the Bible.

The objection is often made that King James English is modern, while the Book of Mormon is ancient, so the Book of Mormon must be a fraud. After all, what is language from a book published in 1611 doing in a book allegedly dating to 400 A.D. and earlier? But King James English is not from the original Book of Mormon engravings - it is the vehicle that was used to translate ancient writings into English. A logical explanation is that King James language and phraseology was used as an effective and widely recognized medium for a sacred text, and exact words and phrases found in the King James Version were sometimes used when they adequately matched the meaning of the Nephite record or when Old Testament sources were being quoted.

Some LDS people believe that when Joseph Smith encountered a passage similar to one already existing in the Bible, the printed King James text was used as an aid when that text adequately conveyed the meaning of the passage being translated. The difficulty is that the multiple accounts of those who witnessed him translate never suggest use of the Bible and sometimes seem to rule out that possibility. John Welch and others have suggested that something more miraculous was involved than simply copying passages from an open King James Bible, something on the order of divine quotation or stimulation of latent memories of King James passages.

In any event, there are many differences between related Book of Mormon and King James passages, some major and some subtle, which remind us that Joseph was not simply copying from the Bible. The sophisticated differences between the Sermon on the Mount and the Book of Mormon's Sermon at the Temple are particularly noteworthy, as John Welch has shown in his book, The Sermon at the Temple and the Sermon on the Mount. Those differences actually resolve many great controversies about the meaning and purpose of the Sermon on the Mount, as well as questions about some of its more obscure or hard to understand passages. Something far more than mere plagiarism is involved. Perhaps Joseph's knowledge of the King James version was used as tool by the Lord to facilitate Joseph's translation of related Book of Mormon passages.

The number of passages in the Book of Mormon that directly quote Bible verses are still a minority of the total Book of Mormon text and hardly account for the Book of Mormon itself. If heavy quoting bothers you, please remember that hundreds of verses in the New Testament are quotes from the Old Testament, some with attribution and many without. In spite of many passages being similar between those two testaments, the New Testament truly is new and offers valuable sacred scripture about Christ, as is the case for the Book of Mormon.

Interestingly, New Testament writers quote the Old Testament in the language of the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament that came long after the original Hebrew scriptures. This point is important to understand:

"When Jesus and the Apostles and, for that matter, the Angel Gabriel quote the [Hebrew] scriptures in the New Testament, do they recite from some mysterious Urtext? Do they quote the prophets of old in the ultimate original? . . . No, they do not. They quote the Septuagint, a Greek version of the Old Testament prepared in the third century B.C. Why so? Because that happened to be the received standard version of the Bible accepted by the readers of the Greek New Testament."
(Hugh W. Nibley, "Literary Style Used in the Book of Mormon Insured Accurate Translation," in The Prophetic Book of Mormon, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989), Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Volume 8, p. 215.)

If New Testament prophets, apostles, and angels were allowed to quote what was then an accepted modern version of ancient scripture, we shouldn't be outraged that Joseph Smith would do the same (or be guided to do the same) in translating the Book of Mormon. (For more information on the nature of the modern Bible and its origins, see my LDSFAQ page on the Bible.)

I'd like to briefly return to the issue of differences between related passages in the Book of Mormon and the Bible. Some of the variants provide insight into Book of Mormon origins. For example, consider 2 Nephi 12, which quotes Isaiah 2. Verse 16 in the King James version says that the day of the Lord will be "upon all the ships of Tarshish." The Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament says that it would be upon the "ships of the sea" but does not mention the ships of Tarshish. The Book of Mormon version has both phrases: "upon all the ships of the sea, and upon all the ships of Tarshish...." I suggest that the version of Isaiah that Nephi had in 600 B.C. had both phrases on it, but the later Hebrew scriptures would lose one phrase while the Septuagint version would lose the other. In translating 2 Nephi 2:16, Joseph Smith still relied heavily on the King James version but had to add a phrase to properly follow the text he was translating. Several other variants in Isaiah passages find corroboration in recently discovered ancient Hebrew documents, while others do not. The issue of Isaiah variants is actually fairly complex and interesting, making it a hot topic now for scholars. The idea of a simple-minded copying of Bible passages has to be rejected, though it is clear that the King James Bible was used in many cases to facilitate translation.

Franklin S. Harris, Jr., in The Book of Mormon: Messages and Evidences (The Deseret News Press Salt Lake City, Utah, 1961), discusses several other Isaiah variants (pp. 50-52):

To Isaiah 29:6 the Book of Mormon (2 Ne. 27:2) reads "and with" for "and" in four places. The Syriac reads as the Book of Mormon suggests. In some cases the Book of Mormon text adds "and," which in Hebrew is represented by a single character "waw," inferring there has been an omission from the present Hebrew text, the addition is confirmed by the Septuagint and the Syriac. Examples are found in Isaiah 3:14 (2 Ne. 13: 14); 48:13 (1 Ne. 20:13); 50:9 (2 Ne. 7:9); 51:18 (2 Ne. 8:18). In Isaiah 48:5 (1 Ne. 20: 5) the Book of Mormon adds "and" which is literally what the Hebrew reads. The Authorized Version translators used "even" in English. "In Isaiah 14:4 (2 Nephi 24:4) the Book of Mormon adds 'And it shall come to pass in that day,' which is without support in the Hebrew. But of striking interest is a similar reading in Codex Alexandrinus (now in the British Museum), 'and thou shall say in that day.' The latter is not found in (Codex) Vaticanus. . . ."

"In Isaiah 2:20 (2 Nephi 12:20) where the Book of Mormon reads 'he hath made' for 'they made' the reading is confirmed by Codex Alexandrinus which renders 'he made.' In Isaiah 51:15 (2 Nephi 8:15) the Book of Mormon revises the Authorized Version 'His name' to read 'my name' and interestingly these readings are found in the Septuagint and Latin."

In Isaiah 5:5 (2 Ne. 15: 5) the Book of Mormon adds "I will" making the clause read "and I will break down the wall thereof." This reading is precisely that of the Septuagint which renders "and I will pull down its walls."

"In Isaiah 5:7 (2 Nephi 15: 7) the Authorized Version translators render the Hebrew 'but behold' which is literally 'and behold' as suggested in the Book of Mormon. To Isaiah 29:21 the Book of Mormon in 2 Nephi 27:32 adds the phrase "and they" to the beginning of the verse. The Septuagint and Syriac both read the same as the Book of Mormon.

For Isaiah 51:15 the Book of Mormon (2 Nephi 8:15) revised the Authorized Version "his name" to read "my name" and interestingly the Book of Mormon form is found also in the Septuagint and the Latin.

These variants find support in other Biblical texts and cannot be explained by slavish copying of the King James Version nor by random guesswork from Joseph Smith. It seems plausible that Joseph was translating an authentic ancient source which had relationships to other ancient sources.

Some questions remain, of course. In several cases, for example, King James language is used that some scholars now say stems from old translation errors. In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, one critic has identified 11 places where the King James version may be in error, based on comparison with recently discovered ancient manuscripts, and where the Book of Mormon allegedly preserves the error. John Welch carefully considers these challenges in his book, The Sermon at the Temple and the Sermon on the Mount, pp. 147 ff. In no case is it clear that the Book of Mormon translation is actually incorrect. The differences are so minor as to really make no serious difference in meaning. For example, early Greek manuscripts speak of the body "going off into hell," while the Book of Mormon and the KJV speak of the body being "cast into hell." Is there really a difference here? Other issues are even more trivial, such as whether a plural "ye" or singular "thou" should be used. A more interesting problem concerns the use of the word "almsgiving." I quote from Welch (p. 150):

Matthew 6:1. The earlier texts begin, "Take heed that ye do not your righteousness before men"; later ones and the KJV read, "Take heed that ye do not your alms before men." Third Nephi 13:1 also talks about "alms." Has the Sermon at the Temple rendered a false translation? Again the answer is no, mainly because the "righteousness" discussed in Matthew 6:1-4 is unquestionably "almsgiving." All Greek manuscripts that read "righteousness" (dikaiosune) in Matthew 6:1 still have "alms" (eleemosune) in Matthew 6:2. Since the "righteousness" referred to in Matthew 6:1 is clearly "almsgiving," it is not incorrect to translate dikaiosune there as "almsgiving."

For further clarification, the Sermon at the Temple begins 3 Nephi 13:1 with a sentence that is not present in the Sermon on the Mount: "Verily, verily, I say that I would that ye should do alms unto the poor" (3 Nephi 13:1). Since this text makes the topic of these verses explicitly clear, continuing with a reference to "righteousness" would have been awkward, although this could have been done and the reader still would have understood its meaning to be "righteous almsgiving."

Moreover, in Hebrew (and presumably in the Nephite language) there is not nearly so much difference between the two Semitic words "righteousness" (zedeq) and "almsgiving" (Syriac, zedqtha; Hebrew zodaqah, which at Qumran meant "righteousness . . . justified by charity"), as there is between the two Greek words dikaiosune ("righteousness") and eleemosune ("generosity"). Indeed, one of the most important attributes of any person (including God) who is zedeq is that he is charitable: he "gives freely, without regard for gain." "The righteous (zedeq) sheweth mercy and giveth" (Psalm 37:21; see also Daniel 4:27 [Hebrew text 4:24]). If Jesus said in Hebrew, "Watch your zedeq," what did he mean? His message was about generosity, not just "righteousness" in some general sense. The Greek word dikaiosune (from dike, "justice") is, therefore, not a satisfactory term to convey the full meaning of the Hebrew zedeq or its Aramaic cognate, the languages Jesus spoke. "Doing alms," on the other hand, comes closer to conveying the meaning of "righteousness justified by charity." Assuming that Jesus said to the Nephites something like, "Watch your zodaqah" (since he would not have spoken to the Nephites in Greek), Joseph Smith was most correct to translate this by reference to charitable "alms."

Critics usually forget to give the Book of Mormon credit where it is due. One important example involves Matthew 5:22, which reads (KJV) "Whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment." The Book of Mormon version (from the Sermon at the Temple) lacks the troublesome phrase "without a cause." Likewise, many early New Testament manuscripts lack that phrase. The difference in the texts, in this case, has genuine doctrinal importance - and here we find the Book of Mormon agreeing with earlier manuscripts and not with a possible error in the King James version.

Anti-Mormon writer Stan Larson has also alleged that the Sermon on the Mount in 3 Nephi does not match the earliest Greek texts. John Gee responds to the charges in Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1994, pp.67-68:

Another example . . . is Stan Larson's work, wherein he tries to use textual criticism to show that the Book of Mormon is not an authentic witness to the words of Jesus because its readings do not match those of several third- and fourth-century manuscripts of the Sermon on the Mount in eight places.

Larson maintains that "there is no evidence that anything was written down in Jesus' Aramaic language" (p. 117), although the early second century writer Papias wrote that "Matthew compiled the accounts in the Hebrew language" [Papias, fragment 2, in Eusebius, Historiae Ecclesiasticae III, 39, 16.] Unjustly disparaged for years, Papias's comment has now been vindicated with the publication in 1987 of the Hebrew text of Matthew preserved in at least nine manuscripts [George Howard, The Gospel of Matthew according to a Primitive Hebrew Text (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1987)]. Any attempt to reconstruct the original text of Matthew which fails to take this important version into account may justly be said to be defective as it preserves many early readings. Specifically, three of Larson's eight examples are not supported by the Hebrew version (Examples 12, 4, pp. 12124). Thus, at Matthew 5:27 the Hebrew has lqdmwnym, paralleling the disparaged tois archaiois whose parallel "by them of old time" appears in 3 Nephi 12:27. At Matthew 5:44, the Hebrew has 'hbw 'wybykm w'sw twbh lswn'km wmk'yskm whtpllw bsbyl rwdpykm wlwhsykm ("love your enemies, and do good to those who hate you and provoke you and pray on behalf of those who persecute you and oppress you"). Though this is not identical to 3 Nephi, it nevertheless has those phrases that Larson is so positive are not in the original text. At Matthew 5:30, the Hebrew concludes with msy'bd kl gwpk bghynm ("than that thy whole body perish in hell"). Even if this text does not directly support the Book of Mormon, it destroys Larson's requisite unanimity.

It is extremely difficult to reconstruct an original text from multiple conflicting variants. Sometimes several manuscripts may agree, yet they all depart from what may have been the original. Relying on the dates of multiple surviving manuscripts as an indicator of accuracy is also inadequate, for sometimes a later manuscript preserves a newly discovered and correct original reading that was lacking in earlier manuscripts. It is speculative at best to argue that the Book of Mormon is not valid because some verses closely follow the King James text while departing from some manuscripts that are earlier than the ones used by the KJV translators. Indeed, Gee later notes the improper methodology of such attacks (Gee, pp. 70-71):

From the perspective of textual criticism, there is a further flawed assumption that needs to be exposed. Larson, as many before him, assumes that variants in the Book of Mormon should be reflected in Old World manuscripts. As far as textual criticism goes, it is methodologically incorrect to expect the Book of Mormon to agree or disagree with any given manuscript or set of manuscripts on any given textual variant. We no more expect the Book of Mormon to agree with Sinaiticus on any given variant than we expect the Peshitta or Codex Scheide to agree with Sinaiticus on the same variant. The purpose of textual criticism is not to establish the validity of the manuscript witnesses - such validity is always a given - but to use the manuscript witnesses to establish the text. Thus, from the standpoint of textual criticism, Larson cannot use a hammer whose purpose is nailing down the text to saw the Book of Mormon off from his list of manuscript witnesses. While his study demonstrates the independence of the Book of Mormon, this is precisely what we would expect if it is what it claims to be.

Naturally, I can't answer all questions about the translation and the translation process. There is a difference, though, between an anomaly and a fatal flaw. The former requires research to fine tune our understanding, while the latter is so serious that it demands a major paradigm shift. Details of how the King James version was employed are needed to fine tune our understanding of the Book of Mormon - they do not comprise a fundamental crisis for the text. The Book of Mormon is still true - I hope you'll read it!

(See The Book of Mormon home page; Response to Criticism home page; Accusatory Questions home page)

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