Did Joseph Smith Blunder with an Impossible Quote from Malachi Before He Was Born?

In my last post, I mentioned that someone who left the Church cited the alleged plagiarism of Peter in Acts 3 as the first evidence in his list of objections to the Book of Mormon. He immediately followed with Nephi’s alleged quotation of Malachi 4:1 as another reason to reject the Book of Mormon. Malachi hadn’t been born when Nephi was writing. This issue has been a popular attack on anti-Mormon websites. Is this another case of utterly incompetent plagiarism by Joseph Smith? If so, it’s puzzling and almost inexplicable because Joseph definitely was aware that the Nephites would not have Malachi’s words on the brass plates. In fact, a section in 3rd Nephi, probably translated before Nephi’s writings on the small plates appended to the Book of Mormon, makes a big deal about this point. When the resurrected Christ visits the Nephites, He gives them some of Malachi’s prophetic words in 3 Nephi 24 and 25, then refers to them in 3 Nephi 25:2 as “These scriptures, which ye had not with you….” Those recited scriptures include Malachi chapter 4, the very chapter that Nephi is allegedly quoting. So if Joseph Smith was the author, clearly he knew that Malachi was not part of the brass plates with the scriptures the Nephites brought. So why on earth would he then flip open his Bible to Malachi to grab a phrase or two? Perhaps he was just randomly snatching memorized phrases from his mind without stopping to think about the source? Such incompetent plagiarism is, again, puzzling, and almost inexplicable once you study the text and realize how carefully crafted the Book of Mormon is. So what’s up with a ridiculous quotation from Malachi?

Well, it may not be a quotation at all. If Nephi said, “Here is a passage from Malachi” and then gave a lengthy verbatim section, then we would clearly have a quotation. What we have are a few common elements that are mentioned, and perhaps famous language in the KJV that fit as good language to use in a discussion of related concepts. Look, there is no question that King James language is used heavily in the Book of Mormon, and many times it seems that when a KJV phrase or passage fits, it is used as a matter of style. This does not mean that impossible quotations of nonexistent text were taking place in the Book of Mormon narrative. Sometimes the issue is one of confusing the style of the translation with alleged anachronistic plagiarism of specific passages.

Let’s get into the details and take a look. Here are the relevant passages:

Malachi 4:1 For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch. 1 Nephi 22:15 For behold, saith the prophet, the time cometh speedily that Satan shall have no more power over the hearts of the children of men; for the day soon cometh that all the proud and they who do wickedly shall be as stubble; and the day cometh that they must be burned

2 Nephi 26:4  Wherefore, all those who are proud, and that do wickedly, the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of Hosts, for they shall be as stubble.

2 Nephi 26:6  …and they shall be as stubble, and the day that cometh shall consume them, saith the Lord of Hosts.

The critics ask how it is possible that a Nephite could quote Malachi before the prophet was even born? But wait a moment. How clear is this quotation? A day will come … proud, wicked, burned…like stubble. Is mentioning that the wicked will be punished and burned as stubble really enough to show Nephi is quoting anybody in particular? If you talk about tacos and hot sauce, are you quoting Taco Bell?

Nephi’s discussion about the destruction of the wicked involved some very common elements in the writings of Isaiah and older prophets: the fall and destruction of the proud and wicked. Isaiah 2 and 5 come to mind, for example, as chapters that warn the proud. Isaiah 5:23,24 has the elements of punishment of the wicked, fire, stubble, and the Lord of hosts:

23 Which justify the wicked for reward, and take away the righteousness of the righteous from him!

24 Therefore as the fire devoureth the stubble, and the flame consumeth the chaff, so their root shall be as rottenness, and their blossom shall go up as dust: because they have cast away the law of the LORD of hosts, and despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.

Related imagery is used in Isaiah 33:11-12 to warn the wicked:

Ye shall conceive chaff, ye shall bring forth stubble: your breath, as fire, shall devour you.
And the people shall be as the burnings of lime: as thorns cut up shall they be burned in the fire.

See also Psalm 83.

And this goes back to Exodus 15:

6 Thy right hand, O LORD, is become glorious in power: thy right hand, O LORD, hath dashed in pieces the enemy.

7 And in the greatness of thine excellency thou hast overthrown them that rose up against thee: thou sentest forth thy wrath, which consumed them as stubble.

So the concept of the wicked being burned by the Lord as stubble is an ancient one from both Isaiah and Moses. It is possible that Nephi used ancient language to describe this, and that the specific phrasing was close enough to what we have of Malachi in the KJV that it was a suitable fit for translating Nephi’s words. It does not mean that Nephi was quoting future passages.

To forestall the allegedly “standard defense” that there might have been an older original source, some critics say that such theories fail because Nephi quotes other nearby parts of Malachi as well. Here is the smoking gun:

Malachi 4:2 But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall. 1 Nephi 22:24 And the time cometh speedily that the righteous must be led up as calves of the stall…

2 Nephi 25:13 Behold, they will crucify him; and after he is laid in a sepulchre for the space of three days he shall rise from the dead, with healing in his wings…

2 Nephi 26:9 But the Son of righteousness shall appear unto them; and he shall heal them…

The “Son of righteousness” phrase may have been lifted from Malachi as a suitable term that fit Nephi’s words, although if meant to use Malachi’s words as a close fit (or similar words from an earlier prophet Malachi is quoting?) it has a mistake by using “Son” instead of “Sun.” On the other hand, it is possible Nephi may have said something extremely close to what we have in the Book of Mormon. Yes, certainly the translation process of the Book of Mormon relied heavily on the KJV text and there is frequently a human touch, including errors like a scribe hearing “Sun” and writing “Son.” But in this case, a few words or a small phrase or two does not make a solid case for plagiarism.

Understanding the details of the Book of Mormon text and its close relationship to the Bible raises some questions, certainly, but is no reason to reject the Book of Mormon. Rejecting the Book of Mormon over Nephi’s non-quotation of Malachi is an unjustified over-reaction, I’m afraid.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

11 thoughts on “Did Joseph Smith Blunder with an Impossible Quote from Malachi Before He Was Born?

  1. This is where I sometimes disagree with both critics and apologists. An assumption is made that our text of the Book of Mormon is a verbatim transcript of an ancient record. Did Joseph even look at the golden plates when doing his "translation"? I understand that the historical record indicates that he used both a Urim and Thummim and a seer stone when dictating to one of his scribes. He would apparently look into a hat (to ensure darkness) until a light appeared, in which was the original language with its English equivalent; and this remained until it was written down. As a believer, I think angels were present to inspired Joseph. I'm more concerned with what they say now more than what may or may not have been in the plates. You say there are anachronisms? Maybe so. That doesn't prove or disprove anything. What the angels said to Joseph in the late 1820s is more important than what said then. Likewise, if they thought a passage from the Book of Mormon, but borrowed from the King James Bible, was adequate and to the point, even if it may not have derived from an ancient biblical document, so what?

  2. I agree with cadams in principle. I love the idea that Joseph may have been familiar enough with the Bible that he could use that language to express truths that the Book of Mormon prophets were teaching. So what if the language is similar? It's beautiful. And if you study the subtle differences, sometimes additional light is made known. All-in-all, the translation process is a beautiful one and one that I love to learn more about. Thanks for posting this topic!

  3. One rule of thumb for explaining such things is to first eliminate magic. The words Joseph saw didn't appear by magic. They were most likely translated by someone familiar with both languages and given to Joseph Smith. Hey, what about the original King James translators? They most likely ended up in Paradise with nothing to do – maybe they learned Reformed Egyptian and did the translation.

  4. Anon,

    Never even thought of that. Maybe Tyndale was one of the angels who helped Joseph with the translation.

  5. I can guarantee that neither the King James translators nor Tyndale translated the Book of Mormon. There are too many pronoun and verb conjugation errors than these careful scholars would have committed. It is more likely that Moroni learned English (we know he did) and that he was the source of the English text. Whoever translated the BofM was not completely conversant with King James English. More on this in an upcoming article.

  6. @Roger,

    I'm a pretty careful reader, but I don't agree with your "many errors" statement. I'm familiar with Royal Skousen's work, which is quite interesting, but "many errors"? Enlighten us.

    (BTW, I brought up the KJV translators simply to illustrate how narrow-minded and arrogant a lot of people are when evaluating God's work. There are a ridiculous number of possibilities for most things, and that's by using just the human intellect that doesn't understand anything at all in comparison with God's understanding. In other words, if I came to some kind of intellectual conclusion about the state of things with no contribution by the Holy Spirit, I'm probably wrong. Human beings are good at repenting and forgiving, but not so good at understanding.)

  7. When two writers of scriptural use the same words, is it plagiarism?
    When God uses the same words with different prophets, is it plagiarism? Is 2 Nephi 12:2-4 a plagiarism of Isaiah 2:2-4? If so then we must agree that Micah 4:1-3 is also an example of plagiarism.

    There are many examples of where the Bible “plagiarizes” itself.
    2 Kings 18-20 – Isaiah 36-39
    Matthew 10:35-36 – Micah 7:6
    Matthew 13:13 – Isaiah 6:9-10
    Mark 4:12 – Isaiah 6:9-10
    Luke 19:40 – Habakkuk 2:11
    Acts 13:41 – Habakkuk 1:5
    1 Corinthians 4:13 – Lamentations 3:45
    Hebrews 3:7-11 – Psalms 95:7-11
    Hebrews 8:8-12 – Jeremiah 31:31-34
    James 2:9 – Proverbs 28:21
    1 Peter 3:10-12 – Psalms 34:12-16
    Revelation 1:15 – Ezekiel 43:2

    If the Book of Mormon plagiarizes, then, as shown, the Bible is equally guilty. I just do not believe that it is plagiarism when two Scriptural writers use the same words. God does not plagiarize when he merely quotes himself.

  8. The Bible plagiarizing itself is NOT an anachronistic. We fully expect the gospel writers to quote and borrow language from the Old Testament but we don't expect Nephi to. He left Jerusalem hundreds of years before Malachi.

  9. The Bible plagiarizing itself is NOT an anachronistic. We fully expect the gospel writers to quote and borrow language from the Old Testament but we don't expect Nephi to. He left Jerusalem hundreds of years before Malachi.

  10. Mr Margaritas: Nephi didn't say he was quoting Malachi. God was quoting himself as also per Mr. Dorrity above. You will find any revealed doctrine will say the same things because revelation on end of days will be the same information – all due respect!

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