Crawling Over the Book of Mormon

“If anyone is foolish enough or misled enough to reject 531 pages of a heretofore unknown text teeming with literary and Semitic complexity without honestly attempting to account for the origin of those pages… then such a person, elect or otherwise, has been deceived; and if he or she leaves this Church, it must be done by crawling over or under or around the Book of Mormon to make that exit.”Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland, October 2009 General Conference

Probably the number one argument for the ancient origin of the Book of Mormon is the presence of numerous alleged Hebraisms in the text. These Hebraisms are asserted to come in such wide varieties and to appear so frequently that some apostles and Hebrew-speaking apologists see the book “teeming” with “Semitic complexity”. Other Hebrew scholars however, see things differently.[1] How can we objectively determine what constitutes actual evidence for Semitic authorship of the text?

That we should expect any Hebraisms at all in the Book of Mormon requires the following crucial assumptions:

  1. Reformed Egyptian is merely a shorthand script (not a language itself) for writing Hebrew.
  2. The condensed script somehow preserves Hebrew grammar, syntax, logography, morphology etc.
  3. The Nephite’s alteration of Hebrew (Mormon 9:32-33) did not change the grammar, syntax etc.
  4. Joseph dictated a tight word-for-word translation of the Reformed-Egyptian Altered-Hebrew to Oliver Cowdery.[2]

If any of these assumptions are invalid then there is no reason to expect any genuine Hebraisms to have made it onto the original manuscript. Although there is no evidence to suggest any of the above assumptions are valid (other than perhaps Joseph’s spelling out of certain names, suggesting tight translation), let’s assume for the moment that they are all true, and hence that the text should reflect Classical Hebrew style and grammar. We can then choose one of two approaches for evaluating the Hebraisms on a case by case basis.

The first (most common) approach is to scour the text to find some parallel with biblical poetry or other language pattern, then announce the discovery of a subtle literary ploy, proclaim the highly sophisticated understanding of the Nephite author, and declare victory.

A second (less common) approach is to (a) establish controls for discerning between actual Hebraisms and normal/acceptable English, and (b) determine quantitatively if the Hebraisms appear with significantly greater frequency in the BoM than in the D&C or other non-Nephite writings.[3]

To illustrate the differences between these two methodologies, let’s look at cognate accusatives as a test case. Cognate accusatives consists of a verb immediately followed by a noun derived from the same root; for example: “cursed with a sore cursing”, “work all manner of fine work”, “judge righteous judgments” etc. These types of expressions occur in the Bible and are thought to constitute genuine Semitic constructs. Hence, it may be cause for excitement to read that Lehi “dreamed a dream” or that the abominable church “yoketh them with a yoke” and so forth. Our enthusiasm may be dampened however, when we learn that the very first cognate accusative to occur in the BoM, “handle with our hands”, occurs not in the Nephite text but in The Testimony of Eight Witnesses.[4] We might be further discouraged to read in the D&C that the Lord will “work a marvelous work” (18:44), that He “cursed them with a very sore and grievous curse” (104:4), that Joseph “desired, with exceedingly great desire” (127:10) etc. What does it mean when cognate accusatives flow freely not only from the mouths of Nephites but also from Joseph Smith when speaking either for himself or for the Lord?

Perhaps the most popular Hebraism is the chiasmus, a rhetorical form characterized by reversal of structure, such that clauses display inverted parallelism; e.g.,

A: But many that are first
     B: shall be last;
     B: and the last
A: shall be first. (Matthew 19:30).

Short chiasmi occur naturally and unintentionally in virtually all writing; e.g.,

A: Old King Cole
     B: was a merry old soul,
     B: and a merry old soul
A: was he.

Much longer chiastic structures appear to occur in the Book of Mormon; e.g., Mosiah 3:18-19, Alma 36 and many others. It has been asserted that chiasmi of more than two elements are almost unknown outside of ancient writings.[5] The D&C however, contains many examples of lengthy chiastic structures; e.g., 88:34-39:

A: And again, verily I say unto you, that which is governed by law is also preserved by law and perfected and sanctified by the same. That which breaketh a law, and abideth not by law, but seeketh to become a law unto itself, and willeth to abide in sin, and altogether abideth in sin, cannot be sanctified by law, neither by mercy, justice, nor judgment. Therefore, they must remain filthy still.
B: All kingdoms have a law given;
       C: And there are many kingdoms;
          D: for there is no space
             E: in the which there is no kingdom,
             E: and there is no kingdom
          D: in which there is no space,
       C: either a greater or a lesser kingdom.
    B: And unto every kingdom is given a law;
A: and unto every law there are certain bounds also and conditions. All beings who abide not in those conditions are not justified.

Other examples are: 5:1-23, 11:1-30, 29:30-33, 60:1-14, 61:23-30, 63:17-49, 88:51-61, 93:23-38, 101:44-53, 104:68-69, 107:8-18, 107:72-76 and 109:29-50.[6]

The trouble with chiasmus is that parallel elements cannot be precisely defined. With sufficiently loose tolerances, such that any word or idea in a clause can be matched to any similar word or vaguely related idea in a parallel clause, chiastic structures of almost any size can be found in almost any text.

What apologists really need is a definitive construction, common in biblical Hebrew, that is found in the Book of Mormon and nowhere else in Joseph’s writings. Such is the hope attached to if-and conditional sentences.

Conditional sentences typically contain two clauses: a condition clause called the protasis, and a result clause called the apodosis; e.g., “If you build it, they will come.” The if-and conditional sentence, “If you build it and they will come.” constitutes improper English. According to Royal Skousen, the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon contains at least fourteen instances where “and” occurs in place of “then”, or a comma, as a bridge between the protasis and apodosis in various conditional sentences, suggesting that “and” was specifically controlled for.[7]

Skousen’s claim is remarkable not only because if-and conditionals are extremely awkward English but also because they appear nowhere in the KJV Bible. Hence, unlike other Hebraisms, these phrases cannot be explained by Joseph trying to imitate Bible language. According to Daniel Peterson, if-and conditionals constitute “language contamination,” i.e., leakage from the text’s original language into the translation language.[8] But do such phrases constitute “a subtle divine hint that the original language of the Book of Mormon wasn’t English,” as Peterson alleges?

It is important to realize that the Hebrew letter ו (waw) in a conditional sentence serves more as a marker than an actual word. Ancient languages like Arabic and Classical Hebrew lacked punctuation; hence, words/letters like waw were used as vehicles for marking, similar to the modern comma, semicolon etc. The meaning of waw therefore depends on context. It often means “and” but when linking protases to apodoses it should be translated as “then” or a comma. The Masoretes were aware of this and treated the waw conjunction as a vehicular (rather than linguistic) device. Nevertheless, let us suppose that Joseph, upon seeing the Reformed Egyptian equivalent of waw in his seer stone, was given “and” as its English equivalent, regardless of context. Does this actually show up in the original translation manuscript?

Skousen and Peterson trumpet Helaman 12:13-21 as containing the most impressive examples of if-and conditional expressions:

13 yea and if he sayeth unto the earth move and it is moved
14 yea if he say unto the earth thou shalt go back that it lengthen out the day for many hours and it is done . . .
16 and behold also if he sayeth unto the waters of the great deep be thou dried up and it is done
17 behold if he sayeth unto this mountain be thou raised up and come over and fall upon that city that it be buried up and behold it is done . . .
19 and if the Lord shall say be thou accursed that no man shall find thee from this time henceforth and forever and behold no man getteth it henceforth and forever
20 and behold if the Lord shall say unto a man because of thine iniquities thou shalt be accursed forever and it shall be done
21 and if the Lord shall say because of thine iniquities thou shalt be cut off from my presence and he will cause that it shall be so[9]

They present these seven cases as if they were complete sentences, each with its own protasis and apodosis, but this is not in fact the case.

Printer’s Manuscript of Helaman 12:7-13:3

Joseph did not indicate sentence structure in his dictations. The original manuscript (pre editing) is entirely devoid of punctuation.[10] John Gilbert had to guess at punctuation when they divided the text into sentences for printing.[11] This was no easy task because Joseph was master of the run-on sentence (e.g., the sacrament prayers). His revelations are saturated with strings of “and…” clauses. For example, consider his lengthy “jaws of hell” conditional sentence in D&C 122:5-7. (The multi-part protasis is green and the apodosis is purple.)

If thou art called to pass through tribulation; if thou art in perils among false brethren; if thou art in perils among robbers; if thou art in perils by land or by sea; If thou art accused with all manner of false accusations; if thine enemies fall upon thee; if they tear thee from the society of thy father and mother and brethren and sisters; and if with a drawn sword thine enemies tear thee from the bosom of thy wife, and of thine offspring, and thine elder son, although but six years of age, shall cling to thy garments, and shall say, My father, my father, why can’t you stay with us? O, my father, what are the men going to do with you? and if then he shall be thrust from thee by the sword, and thou be dragged to prison, and thine enemies prowl around thee like wolves for the blood of the lamb; And if thou shouldst be cast into the pit, or into the hands of murderers, and the sentence of death passed upon thee; if thou be cast into the deep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.

Helaman 12:13-22 is actually comprised of three complete sentences, in which the “and”s in question are all part of the protases (changes to punctuation and capitalization are in red):

yea, and if he saith unto the earth, Move, and it is moved; yea, if he saith unto the earth, Thou shalt go back, that it lengthen out the day for many hours, and it is done; and thus according to his word, the earth goeth back, and it appeareth unto man that the sun standeth still; yea, and behold, this is so; for sure it is the earth that moveth, and not the sun.

And behold, also, if he saith unto the waters of the great deep, Be thou dried up, and it is done; Behold, if he saith unto this mountain, Be thou raised up, and come over and fall upon that city, that it be buried up, and behold it is done; and behold, if a man hideth up a treasure in the earth, and the Lord shall say, Let it be accursed, because of the iniquity of him that hath hid it up, behold, it shall be accursed.

And if the Lord shall say, Be thou accursed, that no man shall find thee from this time henceforth and forever, and behold, no man getteth it henceforth and forever; and behold, if the Lord shall say unto a man, Because of thine iniquities thou shalt be accursed forever, and it shall be done; and if the Lord shall say, Because of thine iniquities, thou shalt be cut off from my presence, and he will cause that it shall be so; and wo unto whom he shall say this, for it shall be unto him that will do iniquity, and he cannot be saved; therefore, for this cause, that men might be saved, hath repentance been declared.

In punctuating Joseph’s translations, Cowdery, Gilbert et al. were occasionally compelled to sneak in periods to put interminable protases out of their misery. Skousen and Peterson make the same mistake in jumping to the apodosis before Joseph is finished with the protasis. The Helaman examples are all of the form:

If [God says something]
and [something happens and God says something else and something else happens…]
[then you finally get the apodosis].

Joseph’s stream-of-consciousness dictation style, in the cadence and rhythm of a frontier sermon, appears to explain all fourteen of Skousen’s alleged if-and conditional constructs in the 1830 BoM. According to Skousen, Oliver Cowdery mistakenly removed the if-and conditional in 1 Nephi 17:50 in the printer’s manuscript and Joseph erroneously edited out the remaining thirteen if-and Hebraisms in the 1837 publication. Since these alleged Hebraisms were never really there in the first place, it rather appears that Skousen has, in essence, edited the Hebraisms into the original manuscript.

So what happens if we embark on an apologetic hunt for Hebraisms in some other book of known authorship? Robert Patterson has applied the same methodologies to Green Eggs & Ham as apologists have applied to the Book of Mormon and found Dr. Seuss’ text to be packed full of Hebraisms and teeming with literary and Semitic complexity.[12] We could conclude from his results that Elder Holland et al. would be foolish to reject 72 pages of text without honestly attempting to account for the origin of those pages. However anyone making such a conclusion, elect or otherwise, would be misled and deceived. Elder Holland is free to reject the ancient authorship of Green Eggs & Ham for perfectly obvious reasons. No crawling is necessary.


[1] David P. Wright, “Isaiah in the Book of Mormon …and Joseph Smith in Isaiah, Part 4: Disparities with Hebrew Language, Text, and Style,” in American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon, by eds. Dan Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalfe, 157-234. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002.

[2] Many apologists shun the tight translation model since it cannot explain the verbatim copying of many chapters from the KJV Bible. These apologists favor a loose translation model, whereby Joseph was free to render ideas in his own words and borrow extensively from the KJV text. — Blake T. Ostler, “The Book of Mormon as a Modern Expansion of an Ancient Source,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 20 (Spring 1987): 66-124.

[3] Edward H. Ashment, “‘A Record in the Language of My Father’: Evidence of Ancient Egyptian and Hebrew in the Book of Mormon” in New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology, Brent Lee Metcalfe, ed.

[4] We also might note that the curious phrase “curious workmanship” in the witness statement was a favorite expression of the Nephites and Jaredites as well (1 Nephi 16:10, 18:1, Alma 37:39, Ether 10:27).

[6] Boyd F. Edwards and W. Farrell Edwards, “Does Chiasmus Appear in the Book of Mormon by Chance?” BYU Studies 43:2.

[7] Royal Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon: Evidence from the Original Manuscript” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origens by Noel B. Reynolds.

[8] Daniel C. Peterson, “Poor English, but good Hebrew — a divine hint of Book of Mormon truth?Mormon Times, 28 October 2010.

[9] The original manuscript of Helaman 12 is not extant. — Dean C. Jessee, “The Original Book of Mormon Manuscript,” BYU Studies 10, 259-78 (1970).

[10] The only textual divisions in the original manuscript are the occasional word “chapter”.

[11] John Gilbert, the compositor for the 1830 edition, added punctuation, paragraphing, and other printing marks to about one-third of the pages of the printer’s manuscript. These same marks appear on one fragment of the original, indicating that it was used at least once in typesetting the 1830 edition. Gilbert described the process as follows: “After working a few days, I said to [Hyrum] Smith on his handing me the manuscript in the morning, ‘Mr. [Hyrum] Smith, if you would leave this manuscript with me, I would take it home with me at night and read and punctuate it, and I could get along faster in the daytime, for now I have frequently to stop and read half a page to find how to punctuate it.’  His reply was, ‘We are commanded not to leave it.’  A few mornings after this, when [Hyrum] Smith handed me the manuscript, he said to me, ‘If you will give your word that this manuscript shall be returned to us when you get through with it, I will leave it with you.’  I assured Smith that it should be returned all right when I got through with it.  For two or three nights I took it home with me and read it, and punctuated it with a lead pencil. This will account for the punctuation marks in pencil, which is referred to in the Mormon Report, an extract from which will be found below.     …     Every chapter, if I remember correctly, was one solid paragraph, without a punctuation mark, from beginning to end. Names of persons and places were generally capitalized, but sentences had no end.  The character or short ‘&’ was used almost invariably where the word ‘and’ occurred, except at the end of a chapter.  I punctuated it to make it read as I supposed the author intended, and but very little punctuation was altered in proofreading.     …     [Oliver] Cowdery held and looked over the manuscript when most of the proofs were read.  Martin Harris once or twice, and Hyrum Smith once, Grandin supposing these men could read their own writing as well, if not better, than anyone else; and if there are any discrepancies between the Palmyra edition and the manuscript these men should be held responsible. Joseph Smith, Jr., had nothing to do whatever with the printing or furnishing copy for the printers, being but once in the office during the printing of the Bible [Book of Mormon], and then not over fifteen or twenty minutes.” — RECOLLECTIONS OF JOHN H. GILBERT, 8 September 1892, Palmyra, New York, typescript, BYU.

[12] Robert Patterson, “Hebraicisms, Chiasmus and Other Internal Evidence for ancient Authorship in Green Eggs and Ham,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 33, no. 4 (Winter 2000): 173-178.

One response to “Crawling Over the Book of Mormon

  1. Straightforward statistical calculations show that chiasms in Green Eggs and Ham could easily have emerged by chance, and therefore provide no evidence of its ancient origin. Chiasms in the Book of Mormon have small likelihoods of emerging by chance, and must therefore have appeared in the Book of Mormon by authorial design. For these reasons, it is misleading to use chiasmus in Green Eggs and Ham to disparage the probative value of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon.

    For supporting calculations, see Ref. 6 and our most recent publication, “When Are Chiasms Admissible as Evidence?”, BYU Studies 49:4 (2010) by Boyd F. Edwards, W. Farrell Edwards. Both are available free online.

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