Book of Mormon Origins – The Bible, by Mike Thomas

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This is the first of a short series we are going through this year on where Joseph Smith may have found some inspiration from in his creation of the Book of Mormon. Many people say how could Smith have simply made it all up? We share the view that he did no such thing, there was a variety of sources involved, chiefly the Bible. We are not claiming to be doing anything really new here, for much more detailed information regarding this please go to Utah Lighthouse Ministry or Mormon Think. This book in particular from UTLM is particularly useful regarding the Bible. However we are going to bring a few points up and are open to some dialogue.

The Synoptics

The first three Gospels are known as the Synoptic Gospels because they are noticeably similar in language and content (from the Greek syn, “together with,” and optic, “seeing” – “seeing together”) 91 percent of Mark’s Gospel is found in Matthew, 53 percent of Mark is found in Luke. Perhaps the authors used a common source we don’t now have, or they may have been interdependent, perhaps later Gospels depended on, Mark, the earliest extant Gospel.

This is not controversial, its how historical accounts are written and/or compiled. The Bible is not dictated from heavenly halls to an earthly amanuensis, it is recorded as God deals with men and women in an historical and cultural context. In its transmission it is subject to the usual vagaries of the historian’s/custodian’s method and purpose, but always with a godly oversight that ensures man’s writing reflects God’s mind, purposes and will. This is the true miracle of Judeo/Christian Scripture, it is recorded and transmitted by man yet remains fully God’s written Word.

Mark was a close associate of Peter and is reporting him, the material coming from Peter’s sermons. Matthew leans heavily on Mark despite being an eye-witness of Gospel events, probably because he simply agreed with Mark’s account and found it a good aide-memoir. Luke describes at the start of his account of Jesus and the early church how he set out to investigate “everything from the beginning” and “write an orderly account” (Luke 1:1-4) providing a researcher’s eye-view.

This understanding throws up some interesting clues about the original writing process. For example, parallels can be found between Matthew 9:2-8, Mark 2:3-12 and Luke 5:18-26, the healing of the paralytic. There is verbatim agreement between Matthew 10:22a, Mark 13:13a and Luke 21:17. One interesting outcome is literary fatigue,  which occurs when one writer depending on another sometimes makes errors of omission, continuity, and detail.

An example of this is found in Luke’s account of the healing of the paralytic (Luke 5:17-26) In his account Mark lays out the story for us in some detail (Mark 2:1-12) but Luke, obviously depending on Mark, forgets to mention, or transfer across, the essential detail that Jesus was in a house, failing to correctly set the narrative. The reader can finally work it out when they get to verse 18 of Luke’s account; “Oh, I see, Jesus was inside a house.” This is a minor glitch and needn’t trouble us, but it demonstrates the mechanics of Gospel writing and transmission.

The Book of Mormon

This understanding is important when considering claims made for the Book of Mormon (BOM) which is meant to be original material translated from the Gold Plates, apart from the acknowledged quotes from the Old Testament. As Joseph Smith builds his picture of the Ancient Americas he is not meant to be depending on pre-existing texts, earlier accounts, or other sources. Certainly, it would make no sense for the BOM to get its material from the New Testament since the BOM describes people who left Jerusalem some 600 years before Christ.

Yet Alma 18 & 19, some 90 years BC, contain a story remarkably similar to the account of the raising of Lazarus as recorded in John 11. Whereas Lazarus had been dead for three days, in the BOM King Lamoni lay comatose for “two days and two nights” in what seems like a “slain in the Spirit” experience that was popular in the early days of Mormonism.

What is interesting is the confusion in the account of Lamoni. They were about to bury him because they insisted, “he stinketh,” which is what was said of Lazarus in John 11:39. But Lamoni was patently not dead so why should anyone say that he smelled of death? The queen herself detects no such smell. To confuse the issue further the BOM prophet Ammon speaks of Lamoni as though he were dead, assuring the queen “…he shall rise again,” echoing Jesus’ words to Martha in John 11:23.

Elsewhere in the BOM this phrase is used correctly to refer to resurrection from the dead, not to describe waking from a Spirit induced sleep (Alma 32:22; Helaman 14:20). Joseph Smith, using the Gospel of John as a source for this story, seems to have unconsciously copied across phrases that made sense in the original but make no sense in the copy. Thus we begin to see that, when Joseph Smith “translated” the BOM he had an an open Bible before him.

Numerous theories have been considered over the years to explain the origin of the BOM, and in a future post we may look at them, but any explanation must surely start with the Bible, which is quoted extensively, consciously, and unconsciously throughout the text. Indeed, Joseph Smith appears to have mined the Bible, including the apocrypha, for stories, phrases, words, names and ideas for his new “scripture.”

The use of the Bible in the BOM occurs on different levels. The most obvious is when BOM characters quote whole chapters from the Old Testament. In 2 Nephi 11:2 the main character writes, “…now I, Nephi, write more of the words of Isaiah, for my soul delighteth in his words,” before going on from chapter 12 to quote Isaiah chapters 2-14. In the index of the BOM there is a list of places where Isaiah and others are quoted and, including the above example, we find:

1 Ne. 20&21/Isa.48&49; 2 Ne.7&8/Isa.50&51; 2 Ne.12-24/Isa.2-14; 2 Ne.27/Isa.29; Mosiah 14/Isa.53; Mosiah 15/parts of Isa.52; 3 Ne.22/Isa.54.

3 Ne.24&25 are chapters from Malachi 3&4 while 3 Ne.12-14 reproduces the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 5-7.

Aside from these acknowledged examples there are hundreds of unacknowledged uses of the Bible in the BOM, including one or more quotes from 20 of the 27 books of the New Testament. Old Testament books used include Genesis, Exodus, Job, Micah, Hosea and Psalms.

Honour, or Affliction?

Joseph Smith also transferred across errors from the King James Bible. 2 Nephi 19 reproduces Isaiah 9, verse 1 of which reads in both:

“Nevertheless the dimness shall not be such as was in her vexation, when at the first he lightly afflicted the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, and afterward did more grievously afflict her by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, in Galilee of the nations.” (KJV, BOM)

 

Where the KJV tells that God, “afterward did more grievously afflict her by way of the sea…” modern translations correctly say “made glorious,” or “glorify,” or “honour.” Here are three examples of the correct translation:

 

“But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.” (ESV)

 

“Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress, in the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honour Galilee of the Gentiles, by way of the sea, along the Jordan-” (NIV)

 

“Yet there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish, as in the former time. He degraded the land of Zebulun, and the land of Naphtali, so afterwards He will glorify the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, Galilee of the nations.” (MKJV)

 

Unfortunately, Joseph Smith didn’t have a more accurate, modern translation to draw from and nor, it seems, did his prophetic gift alert him to the problem.

 

Isaiah, or Paul?

 

Another feature of of this process is the anachronistic use of New Testament paraphrases of Old Testament verses. Alma 5:57 is a reference to 2 Corinthians 6:17 which is, in turn, a paraphrase of Isaiah 52:11;

 

“And now I say unto you, all you that are desirous to follow the voice of the good shepherd, come ye out from the wicked, and be ye separate, and touch not their unclean things; and behold, their names shall be blotted out, that the names of the wicked shall not be numbered among the names of the righteous, that the word of God may be fulfilled, which saith: The names of the wicked shall not be mingled with the names of my people; “

 

So is Alma quoting Isaiah, or Paul? We might understand how Alma would have access to the Isaiah text but how has he come to quote a text from some 100 years in the future?

 

A further example is 1 Nephi 22:20, a quote from Deuteronomy 18:15,19;

 

“Jehovah your God will raise up to you a Prophet from the midst of you, of your brothers, One like me. To Him you shall listen…And it shall happen, whatever man will not listen to My Words which He shall speak in My name, I will require it of him.” (KJV)

 

In the BOM it becomes, “For Moses truly said to the fathers, “The Lord your God shall raise up a Prophet to you from your brothers, One like me. You shall hear Him in all things, whatever He may say to you. And it shall be that every soul who will not hear that Prophet shall be destroyed from among the people.” (1 Nephi 22:20)

This is a paraphrase of the Deuteronomy text from Acts 3:22-23. So how did Nephi some 580 years BC come to quote Luke from c.70AD?

This last text has an interesting, although troubling application in Mormonism. The BOM correctly identifies Jesus as the one spoken of here. The next verse states;

“And now I, Nephi, declare unto you, that this prophet of whom Moses spake was the Holy One of Israel; wherefore, he shall execute judgement in righteousness.” (1 Nephi 22:21)

However, the BOM Seminary Student Manual, commenting on the previous chapter, which follows the same theme and quotes Isaiah 59, begins by identifying Jesus in these chapters but goes on to make an unequivocal application to Joseph Smith;

Verses 1–9 [of 1 Nephi 21] describe the Savior, Jesus Christ, who was called before His birth (see v. 1), whose words cut to the hearts of the wicked like a sharp sword (see v. 2), whose life is unblemished like a polished shaft (see v. 2), who is a light unto the Gentiles (see v. 6), and who is despised of men (see v. 7).

 

The manual goes on to claim:

Because the lives of prophets are sometimes seen as types, or examples, of the Savior, these verses could also properly be applied to Isaiah. They might also be applied to the Prophet Joseph Smith:

He was foreordained. He testified: “Every man who has a calling to minister to the inhabitants of the world was ordained to that very purpose in the Grand Council of heaven before this world was. I suppose I was ordained to this very office in that Grand Council” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 365; see also 2 Nephi 3:7–15).

His words were sharp and his life a polished shaft. He said: “I am like a huge, rough stone rolling down from a high mountain; and the only polishing I get is when some corner gets rubbed off by coming in contact with something else, striking with accelerated force against religious bigotry, priestcraft, . . . lying editors, suborned judges and jurors, . . . backed by mobs, blasphemers, licentious and corrupt men and women—all hell knocking off a corner here and a corner there. Thus I will become a smooth and polished shaft in the quiver of the Almighty (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 304).

He was sent to be a light unto the Gentiles. The Lord declared to him, “This generation shall have my word through you” (D&C 5:7–10; see also D&C 86:11).

He was despised of men. The angel Moroni prophesied that both good and evil would be spoken about Joseph among all people (see Joseph Smith—History 1:33).

Lets rerun that:

Because the lives of prophets are sometimes seen as types, or examples, of the Savior, these verses could also properly be applied to Isaiah. They might also be applied to the Prophet Joseph Smith:

 

There is much to be said about the use of typology (typos, ‘seal-impression’) in the Christian faith, but look carefully at what has been done here.

 

  1. This is about Christ
  2. People are sometimes seen as “types” of Christ (no justification for following this line)
  3. Isaiah might be seen as a type of Christ (He is not)
  4. Joseph Smith can also be seen as a type of Christ (Where they really wanted to arrive)

 

A ‘type’ is, “a way of setting forth the biblical history of salvation so that some of its earlier phases are seen as anticipations of later phases, or some later phase as the recapitulation or fulfilment of an earlier one.” (New Bible Dictionary)

 

The most obvious example comes from Romans 5:14 where Adam as head of the old creation, is an obvious counterpart to Christ, head of the new creation. All humanity is viewed as being either “in Adam”, in whom “all die”, or, “in Christ”, in whom all are to be “made alive.” (NBD)

 

Biblical typology runs in one direction, whether in anticipation or recapitulation, leading from the type to Christ. Adam, Abel, Abraham, are all types of Christ. So are Noah’s Ark, the Ark of the Covenant, the sacrificial system, cities of refuge, etc. The idea is that we see “shadows” of Christ in these people and things. Paul writes of such things in Colossians 2:16-17. The type is a shadow, the reality is Christ.

 

The Mormon argument appears to run in the other direction, from reality to shadow; the verse is about Christ; Christ has ‘types’,; Isaiah might be a type; so might Joseph Smith. But if you want to find a type of Christ in Isaiah it is not the prophet but King Hezekiah. Isaiah is not a “type” of Christ but he must be made so to achieve the conceit that makes Joseph Smith a type of Christ. It is convoluted but achieves its end if readers are unwary, and don’t know or understand biblical typology.

 

But then, if Mormon uses of the Bible in the Book of Mormon are so slipshod and cavalier I suppose it is too much to expect correct exegesis. This is why it is important to look at these things, because it isn’t just a question of interpretation. There are established, trustworthy, and well understood methods of handling Scripture and when words are twisted there are consequences, in this instance of eternal importance.

 

If you want to read more on the elevation of Joseph Smith in Mormonism you can read Joseph Smith and Jesus the Christ on the Mormon Chapbook.

 

Mike Thomas was a Mormon for 14 years, became a Christian in 1986 and for many years worked with Reachout Trust speaking and writing about Mormonism. He still researches Mormonism and occasionally posts his thoughts on Mormon issues on The Mormon Chapbook

 

The Book of Mormon covers a similar period to the Bible, from 2,200 BC to 400 AD but, while the Bible contains 66 books the Book of Mormon contains only 15 books and is less than half the size of the Old Testament.

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