I may have erred recently when I spoke of the awkward phrase “in them days” as perhaps the most embarrassing language problem in the original text of the Book of Mormon. That phrase only occurs twice and is easy to miss, especially since it’s long been edited out of the text. It was interesting, though, that it’s not only acceptable Early Modern English, but also occurs in both cases in the midst of what appears to be Hebraic poetry, almost as if it were an ironic marker saying saying, “Look here! This is not as clumsy as you think.”
A much better candidate for the most embarrassing language issue in the text is the ubiquitous and often annoying phrase, “and it came to pass.” It has offended many, especially those eager to find fault with the Book of Mormon. Though it is biblical, of course, it is vastly overused compared to the Bible, occurring at over twice the rate found in the Bible. Clumsy, dull, awkward, annoying, and downright embarrassing. And it was even worse in the earliest text of the Book of Mormon, since many of its most awkward and annoying occurrences have been edited out to make the text sound like better modern English, though it’s still highly loaded with the phrase. So there’s my candidate for the most embarrassing aspect of the original Book of Mormon text.
It’s also a good candidate for a marker having other interesting meanings, including another “Look here! This is not as clumsy as you think” marker. Donald W. Parry, an instructor in biblical Hebrew at BYU, explained why, as quoted at FAIRMormon.org:
- The English translation of the Hebrew word wayehi (often used to
connect two ideas or events), “and it came to pass,” appears some 727
times in the King James Version of the Old Testament. The expression is
rarely found in Hebrew poetic, literary, or prophetic writings. Most
often, it appears in the Old Testament narratives, such as the books by
Moses recounting the history of the children of Israel.
As in the Old Testament, the expression in the Book of Mormon
(where it appears some 1,404 times) occurs in the narrative selections
and is clearly missing in the more literary parts, such as the psalm of
Nephi (see 2 Ne. 4:20–25); the direct speeches of King Benjamin,
Abinadi, Alma, and Jesus Christ; and the several epistles.
- But why does the phrase “and it came to pass” appear in the Book
of Mormon so much more often, page for page, than it does in the Old
Testament? The answer is twofold. First, the Book of Mormon contains
much more narrative, chapter for chapter, than the Bible. Second, but
equally important, the translators of the King James Version did not
always render wayehi as “and it came to pass.” Instead, they were at
liberty to draw from a multitude of similar expressions like “and it
happened,” “and … became,” or “and … was.”
- Wayehi is found about 1,204 times in the Hebrew Bible, but it
was translated only 727 times as “and it came to pass” in the King James
Version. Joseph Smith did not introduce such variety into the
translation of the Book of Mormon. He retained the precision of “and it
came to pass,” which better performs the transitional function of the
- The Prophet Joseph Smith may not have used the phrase at all—or
at least not consistently—in the Book of Mormon had he created that
record. The discriminating use of the Hebraic phrase in the Book of
Mormon is further evidence that the record is what it says it is—a
translation from a language (reformed Egyptian) with ties to the Hebrew
language. (See Morm. 9:32–33.)
[Ensign (December 1992), 29]
Interesting, no? But it gets even more intriguing.
One of our persistent critics was recently asked on this blog if he could conceive of any evidence in favor of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon that would at least motivate him to admit that it was “interesting.” He took up the challenge and kindly responded by listing four things (see the original comment here):
I think all of us doubters would be mightily impressed with a Central American inscription, written in Egyptian hieroglyphics, independently authenticated and dated to 600 BCE, that translated into I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents….
Pushover that I am, I would personally be satisfied with a Mayan inscription reading And it came to pass…. Or a 1600-year-old skeleton at the base of Hill Cumorah with a steel sword lodged in its ribs. Or the bones of a 1900-year-old horse unearthed amid the wheels and yoke of a chariot.
Nice list. Several are unreasonable and just aren’t going to happen, but . . . be careful what you ask for, folks. As one of my other readers quickly pointed out with a link, there is in fact a Mayan glyph meaning essentially “and it came to pass,” and a non-LDS scholar is the one who said “it came to pass” is a reasonable translation for it.
The Mayan usage and the whole story around “and it came to pass” is actually much more interesting, as told by Brant Gardner in
“Does ‘And it came to pass’ Come to Pass Too Often?,” Meridian Magazine, July 7, 2004. Read this, please. There you will see that “and it came to pass” was actually used frequently by the typesetter as a marker for breaks in the unpunctuated Book of Mormon text, akin to how it was used in Hebrew. You will also learn more about the surprisingly interesting Mayan connection. Since our critic was not, of course, serious in his statement, I can fully understand why none of this will actually be particularly “interesting” to him and don’t expect any softening of his stance, but to those open to investigating the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, this glaring, clumsy weakness in the text may actually be a surprising strength. It’s worth thinking about.