KJV Language of the Book of Mormon

KJV Language of the Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon was supposedly translated from Reformed Egyptian, a now unknown language.  Yet Smith translated this language into the same words and phraseology of King James English, which did not exist until at least 1,000 years after Moroni died.

Book of Mormon RussianIronically, the King James version (KJV) itself reflects an earlier stage of the English language. Its translators, though referring to the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Old and New Testament, relied heavily on previous English translations of the Bible, resulting in the fact that much of the language of their Bible can be traced to Tyndale or even to Wycliffe. Moreover, because most nineteenth-century Americans used the KJV, it is likely that had Joseph Smith tried to use a style other than that of the current Bible in the Book of Mormon, his contemporaries would have rejected it as unscriptural in its language.

When Baptist scholar Robert Lisle Lindsey began his work with the gospel of Mark in Israel, he initially translated it “into simple modern Hebrew from the Greek text. The text was then distributed to Hebrew-speaking readers and comments invited.” Many of those who reviewed the work expressed “the desire that the Gospels, as ancient works, should be read in Old Testament Hebrew style.”[1] His biblical Hebrew translation subsequently received great reviews. Joseph Smith would likely have encountered the same kind of resistance had he translated the Book of Mormon into early nineteenth-century English. Indeed, it was not until the turn of that century that scholars were even prepared to modify the KJV text and, even after they did so, many people found it hard to give up the centuries-old English translation.

We have a parallel in the work of Robert Henry Charles, who, at the turn of the twentieth century, produced a translation of a number of Old Testament‑period pseudepigraphic texts such as 1 and 2 Enoch, the Letter of Aristeas, the Apocalypse of Moses, the Life of Adam and Eve, etc. He rendered the texts into KJV English and and this was nearly a century after Joseph Smith had done the same thing for the Book of Mormon. Charles was a noted British scholar and Oxford University still reprints his original 1913 work, The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament. Charles used the KJV language  because, 1) it was the scriptural language familiar to most English‑speaking Bible readers of his day, and 2) it made it possible for his readers to readily identify Bible quotes in the text. Charles noted, for example, that the New Testament frequently quoted from some of these noncanonical works, so to ensure that his readers saw the tie, each passage cited in the New Testament was rendered in the way it appeared in the KJV Bible, with Charles’s notes giving the New Testament reference.

Another parallel to this situation is found in the New Testament, where Jesus and his apostles, John the Baptist, and even the angel Gabriel, quote passages from the Old Testament. These passages are not rendered into the koine Greek in which the New Testament was written, but are taken from the Septuagint Greek translation of the second or third century BC that was being used by early Christians. Consequently, they reflect an earlier stage of the Greek language and sometimes do not accurately render the Hebrew original. The Book of Mormon is in good company with the New Testament.

For detailed studies of this topic, see:

  • John A. Tvedtnes and Matthew Roper, “‘Joseph Smith’s Use of the Apocrypha’: Shadow or Reality?” in Review of Books on The Book of Mormon 8/2 (1996)
  • John A. Tvedtnes, Defining the Word: Understanding the History and Language of the Bible (American Fork: Covenant, 2006)

[1] From Lindsey’s Introduction to A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark (Jerusalem: Baptist House, n.d.), 76; see also 78-79.