Did Joseph Use a Bible?

In discussions of Book of Mormon translation, many assume that Joseph must have turned to the KJV when quoting relevant passages. However, multiple witnesses of the translation process report that his dictation was done entirely by using the hat method, with his face in a hat to look at whatever he saw on the seer stone, making it impossible to read from a book or manuscript. None of the many witnesses reported the use of a Bible. These witnesses weren’t all LDS conspirators, either. One was non-LDS, Michael Morse, Emma Smith’s brother-in-law, who stated:

When Joseph was
translating the Book of Mormon [I] had occasion more than once to go into his
immediate presence, and saw him engaged at his work of translation. The mode of
procedure consisted in Joseph’s placing the Seer Stone in the crown of a hat,
then putting his face into the hat, so as to entirely cover his face, resting
his elbows upon his knees, and then dictating word after word, while the
scribes Emma, John Whitmer, O. Cowdery, or some other wrote it down.”
(W.W. Blair interview with Michael Morse, Saints Herald, vol. 26, no. 12 (June
15, 1879), pp. 190-91.)

This needs to be considered in discussions on Book of Mormon origins.

Update, Nov 1, 2015: More Things to Keep in Mind, Including the “Good Enough” Theory for KJV Use

I appreciate the many efforts from commenters here to propose theories for how Joseph did the translation of the Book of Mormon, or more specifically, the dictation of the text. Proposing plausible theories for Book of Mormon creation is tough work if one cares to consider the relevant evidence. Some creative and interesting efforts have been offered here, and I thank my readers for at least taking the steps of engaging some of the evidence.

Given the similarities between the KJV text and the Book of Mormon, it has been natural for people in and out of the Church, myself included, to assume that there must have been direct usage of the Bible at least for the longer quoted passages. But upon further reflection, I don’t think my previous assumptions fit what we understand about the translation. Here are some key points:

1. The translation took place with a high degree of transparency. Participants and visitors were able to observe the work taking place. Dr. Royal Skousen emphasized this point in his review of the witnesses to the translation in his recently recorded presentation at a Mormon Interpreter forum.

2. Not a single observer indicates anything other than direct dictation from Joseph. They raise no hint of any possibility of a manuscript that he was reading from.

3. Nobody reported that he was using a Bible for the frequent passages based on the KJV. It was just straight dictation, as far as we know.

4. While there would be no shame in using a Bible to reduce the work burden and the possibility of copying errors for those passages that are explicitly quoted from the Old Testament, such as entire chapters of Isaiah, the possibility of using a Bible or any other book is contrary to witness observations, and was explicitly denied by Emma, as she described some of her early work as a scribe:

Q — [Joseph Smith III]. What is the truth of Mormonism?
A — [Emma]. I know Mormonism to be the truth; and believe the
church to have been established by divine direction. I have complete
faith in it. In writing for your father I frequently wrote day after
day, often sitting at the table close by him, he sitting with his face
buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour
with nothing between us.
Q —. Had he not a book or manuscript from which he read, or dictated to you?
A —. He had neither manuscript or book to read from.
Q —. Could he not have had, and you not know it?
A. — If he had anything of the kind he could not have concealed it from me.
Q. — Could not father have dictated the Book of Mormon to
you, Oliver Cowdery and the others who wrote for him, after having
first written it, or having first read it out of some book?
A. — Joseph Smith could neither write nor dictate a coherent
and wellworded letter; let alone dictating a book like the Book of
Mormon. And, though I was an active participant in the scenes that
transpired, . . . it is marvelous to me, “a marvel and a wonder,” as
much so as to any one else. (Edmund C. Briggs, “A Visit to Nauvoo in 1856,” Journal of History (Jan. 1916): 454; cited in Russell M. Nelson, “A Treasured Testament,” Ensign 23 no. 7 (July 1993), 62.)

5. While many KJV verses are present verbatim, there are also frequent modifications, some subtle but profound. For example, the change of a “that” to a “when” in Isaiah 2:2 as quoted in 2 Nephi 12:2 introduces an apparent unnecessary error in English, but upon further inspection, it may be a beautiful example of a Hebraism (of a sort found in a variety of other places in the Book of Mormon) that actually enhances the significance of Isaiah 2:2 as applied to the context of the Restoration. It’s the deep and subtle “mistake” that might suggest advanced Hebrew skills from its author, or yet another brilliantly lucky blunder from Joseph. See “Was Joseph Smith Smarter Than the Average Fourth Year Hebrew Student? Finding a Restoration-Significant Hebraism in Book of Mormon Isaiah” by Paul Y. Hoskisson in Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture (MormonInterpreter.com). There are many “errors” of this sort which can be readily dismissed as an error by those with eyes tuned to faults, but which can be sources of enhanced understanding and respect for those who are willing to look and see further.

6. Some of the alleged mistakes from the KJV that have entered into the Book of Mormon text are not necessarily errors, or if errors, may have been introduced by scribes rather than from revelation. This may be the case for the Red Sea questions, both with the introduction of “Red” in the quotation of Isaiah 9:1 (see also FairMormon on this issue), and in the Red Sea versus Reed Sea debate). I’ll discuss this more fully in an upcoming post, “Feeling Blue Over the Red Sea?”

7. The Bible-related passages are not due to simple lifting of KJV text. Again, there are many subtle differences, and not just in the passages rendered in italics in many KJV printings. So what was the process in applying KJV language to the Book of Mormon?

8. In addition to the evidence from witnesses, including at least one non-LDS witness, of a translation process that precluded the use of any text or book for the dictated text that was given at a prodigious rate, the allegation of Joseph’s direct use of a KJV Bible faces a further impediment: What Bible? There is no evidence that Joseph owned one as he was doing the translation, and an important piece of evidence suggesting he did not. After the Book of Mormon was completed and the typesetting was underway, he began his work of rendering an “inspired translation” of the Bible by taking an important first step: buying a Bible. Here I quote from a page at FAIRMormon.org:

There is no evidence that Joseph owned a Bible during the Book of Mormon translation

The difficult financial circumstances of Joseph’s family during the Book of Mormon translation are well known.[8] There is no evidence that Joseph owned a Bible during the Book of Mormon translation.[9] In fact, Oliver would later purchase
a Bible for Joseph, who used it in producing his revision of the Bible
(which became known as the Joseph Smith Translation). This purchase
occurred on 8 October 1829, from the same printer that was then setting
the type for the already-translated Book of Mormon.[10] Why would Joseph, poor as he was, get a Bible if he already owned one?

But How Could God Allow Mortal Error in His Work?

Skousen and others have concluded that Joseph dictated the text, including the KJV excerpts, through revelation. If that were the case, how could there be mistakes that were conveyed in that process? How could the Lord pass up on the opportunity to correct the KJV and render a perfect translation ready for peer review that would finally impress and convince our harshest critics?

The theory that makes the most sense to me is that the KJV text is relied on as a general rule, for it is the language of scripture, and passages from the Bible are used verbatim or nearly so when they are good enough. Good enough for what? Good enough for the Lord’s work, which is directed at saving souls, not impressing those who are looking for faults. So the language we are familiar with is used, even when it is not the most scholarly way of handling the ancient Hebrew text, as long as it is “good enough.” So if a poetic passage from Isaiah refers to prancing satyrs in the KJV but some modern scholars think he might have meant goats, since this is a relatively inconsequential issue, the translation sticks with the KJV satyrs. Sorry, goat lovers. Likewise, when 3 Nephi 12:22 keeps the KJV’s untranslated Aramaic word “Raca” instead of rendering an unavoidably debatable translation of this word, for which a correct translation is presently unknown apart from its obvious meaning, based on the context, of conveying contempt, Raca is clearly “good enough” for conveying doctrine, but those looking to find fault will cry fowl, or rather, Raca.

How could God allow errors or imperfections to creep into His holy word? In case you haven’t noticed, nearly every aspect of every volume of scripture we have has involved human hands and minds. This includes understanding what was said or what happened in the first place, writing it or speaking it, transmitting it in various ways, translating it, editing it, copying it again and again, and printing it. And then comes the reading and interpretation thereof. Each step has the possibility of human error. There is complexity on every page of scripture, as there is in each life. Error is a reality, one that greatly worried the original authors of the Book of Mormon text, but those errors seem to be in minor matters, while the divine power of the text provides a clear and persistent signal about the divinity of Christ and the reality of the Restoration, in spite of its human errors and “good enough” elements.

In fact, nearly everything God does in His church, both ancient and modern, has involved human agents who are prone to error. He gives us the chance to grow by being involved in His work and having responsibility, but that comes at the price of imperfection. Quite unreliable. A real mess! In terms of the standards of modern scholars, it’s all completely unacceptable.

If only He’d just come down and do all the speaking, writing, translating, and typesetting Himself (which should be trivially easy–I mean, He claims to be omnipotent, right?). Then we could have a reliable record at last, one that could be properly reviewed and critiqued in light of the latest scholarship.  Why not, unless He has something to hide? But frankly, hiding seems to be the modus operandi here–everything from His physical presence right down to the alleged golden plates.

Of course, it’s not just a definitive written record that we will need for review. We must also require that He regularly subject Himself to scientific inquisition and peer review by leading scholars and highly credentialed skeptics to assess His works, His belief systems and social policies, and His suitability as Lord and God. When appropriate, these review panels would also hold Him accountable for past errors. If only He would meet these reasonable demands, then maybe we’d be willing to seriously consider His claims, right? And with the proper certifications and consensus from peer review, He may even have shot at being worshiped. Conceivable, anyway.

Hmm, when it comes to gaining the admiration of critics, the Book of Mormon will always be between a Raca and a hard place. 

Coming back to reality, God’s marvelous work and wonder in the Book of Mormon is not about winning over critics with no need for faith and contemplation on their part. For those who want faults, they are there. Satyrs instead of goats. Raca untranslated. Red Sea, not Reed. Archaic words in Isaiah maintained instead of being updated. There’s a boatload of fun for those whose goal is to mock, with remarkable evidences of Semitic origins and divine influence for those willing to consider the possibility and exercise faith, or at least an open mind.

So how did Joseph do the translation? With a manuscript from Solomon Spaulding in one hand and a Bible in the other? Behind a screen with a host of documents he could rifle through to find one phrase or concept at a time? With a team of scholars, a vast frontier library, and the latest maps of Arabia from European presses? Or was it by rapid fire dictation to scribes (completely unnecessary if an original text was available), creating text far faster than most modern translators and authors do, with his head in a hat striving to see whatever a seer sees when gazing into a seer stone, relying on scribes to correctly hear and record his words by hand, giving us an imperfect text filled that continues to surprise and bless those willing to give it a chance nearly 200 years later? As for me, I continue to be surprised and blessed, and encourage you to give it a chance.


Author: Jeff Lindsay

160 thoughts on “Did Joseph Use a Bible?

  1. It's easy to say Joseph just copied passages from the Bible, but a comparison of passages in the BoM and the Bible shows significant variations. The presence of the variations demonstrates that they didn't just copy the Bible, because if they did the number of variations would be much, much smaller. These variations are also not random, as you would expect if someone was reciting the passages from memory. As indicated by the quote from Michael Morse, Joseph could not have been working from a prepared text. The presence of the variations also indicates that neither Joseph nor Oliver went back afterwards and "corrected" the text between the initial transcription and the publication. They left it, variations and all.

  2. It's easy to say Joseph just copied passages from the Bible…

    Indeed it is, because that is the most straightforward explanation for the evidence, and something we are all familiar with from experience. The "presence of variations" does not change this a whit, for even when copying is not perfect, it is still copying.

    For those of us not predisposed to accept "God did it" as an explanation, the presence of KJV wording in the BoM is ipso facto evidence of copying, regardless of whether that copying is perfect or whether there are any recorded witnesses to it.

    The evidence for the 19th-century origins of the BoM is overwhelming and decisive. Everything needed to compose it was present in 1820s New England.

  3. "The evidence for the 19th-century origins of the BoM is overwhelming and decisive. Everything needed to compose it was present in 1820s New England."

    The evidence for 19th century origins is no where near decisive according to most experts on the Book of Mormon.


  4. Dead body with a knife in the back.
    Police investigator #1: What have we got here? Okay, this person was stabbed in the back with a knife.
    Police investigator #2: But we have witnesses who say he was not stabbed in the back.
    Police investigator #1: I'm standing here looking at a knife in this person's back, it's right here, see for yourself!
    Police investigator #2: Are you sure it's a knife? Because the witnesses say…no knife
    Police investigator#1: Are you telling me you don't see a knife in this person's back??
    Police investigator#2: Yeah, I see the knife, but I've been told there wasn't one so I just don't believe it

  5. "relevant passages"

    Jeff, are there not KJV translation errors and added italicized words also found in the BoM? Why only mention "relevant passages"?

  6. If it was a lie or hoax it would have eventually unraveled.

    It has been proven that there are multiple authors in the Book of Mormon, and if read carefully some of the authors can be differentiated.


  7. OK: "The evidence for the 19th-century origins of the BoM is overwhelming and decisive. Everything needed to compose it was present in 1820s New England." Wrong.
    ff: "Jeff, are there not KJV translation errors and added italicized words also found in the BoM? Why only mention "relevant passages"?" Inaccurate and misleading. Please supply verses for "errors".

  8. Anon, please remember that I qualified my comments with the words For those of us not predisposed to accept "God did it" as an explanation.

    Obviously, experts who are also LDS, and are thus predisposed to accept "God did it" as an explanation, disagree with non-LDS scholars. Something very similar is true when it comes to creationism. LDS apologetics these days is in fact little better than creationism, and in the academic world has pretty much the same status.

  9. O. Kolob, you can't simply chalk it up to bias. Mormon scholars are the real experts on the Book of Mormon. Non-Mormon scholars haven't come close to doing the kind of work on the BoM that LDS scholars have done. That said, yes, there is most certainly a bias on the part of LDS scholars. But there is no less of a bias on the part of those scholars who believe the BoM to be a work of fiction, most of whom enter the discussion with that assumption firmly in place.

    Anon, Maybe the "body" fell from the balcony of a high-rise after he was stabbed in the back. Metaphors can be too narrow or misplaced if we don't know all the facts — and sometimes even if we *do* know all the facts.


  10. Okay Anon. Maybe the best approach is to enter this debate without any assumptions in place at all. What conclusion do you think a person like that would come away with?

    Your own church leaders have declared that the ONLY way to know if the book is what it claims to be is to pray about it. Thus, the ONLY way a person like that is going to join your camp is if he/she engages in an unscholarly approach.

    In my opinion, it is oxymoronic to call anyone who accepts and researches the book as an authentic ancient record a "scholar."

  11. ETBU nails it in the comment above.

    I have no problem with anyone who says their spiritual experience — testimony, prayer, whatever — has led them to believe in the historicity of the BoM. There are plenty of people who say exactly this, and who see no need to use a secular, materialist methodology to defend their belief. They know that a leap of faith is exactly that: a leap of faith. They are honest and upfront about the primacy of the spiritual in their belief system. They are secure enough in their belief that they don't need to shore it up with the cultural authority of secular scholarship. Their faith is enough.

    But: if the chain of reasoning leading up to a conclusion is ultimately grounded in such a spiritual experience — that is, if nonbelievers cannot find such an argument persuasive without themselves having such a spiritual experience — then you don't get to dignify that reasoning with the word "scholarship."

    Anyone who has ever said "Ultimately, it's a matter of my religious faith/testimony" is admitting that it's not a matter of scholarship.

    Scholarship is a communal enterprise. It is conducted by people of all faiths and of no faith. Biologists who are Mormon, Muslim, and atheist can all put their names on the same scientific paper, precisely because, as scholars, they leave their varying spiritual experiences out of the conclusions they draw from the evidence. As people, they have very different spiritual commitments, often contradictory spiritual commitments. But as scholars they have a shared commitment to methodological naturalism as the foundation of their research. The minute that one of them says "Hey, guys, I know the evidence and the argument look compelling to you, but my faith leads me to draw a very different conclusion," that one is kicked off the team, for the simple reason that he is no longer conducting biological research.

    Sure, the believer can be a "scholar" in their other work, in whatever work remains unaffected by their faith. This is why we can all agree that there are plenty of Mormon scholars who believe in the BoM. But you cannot call their BoM arguments "scholarship." Skousen's textual editing of the BoM is scholarship. But his arguments about the historicity of the book, however much they draw on his scholarship, are not scholarship, because those arguments ultimately depend on his religious faith. His religious faith affects the way he interprets the evidence, it affects the question of the burden of proof, etc. It's not just a matter of first premises, it's something that influences the argument at several levels.

    And please, everyone, spare us those silly arguments about how secular scholarship is itself grounded in some ultimate metaphysic. Of course it is. This observation is trivial, and irrelevant. It's irrelevant because the secular metaphysical groundings of scholarship — most notably, its rejection of "God did it" as an explanation — are part of the very definition of scholarship. If an explanation of an observed material phenomenon is "God did it," it ain't scholarship.

    Again I would point to the special pleading or double standard used by LDS apologists. As people, and often as scholars, when they are thinking about virtually every other area of human inquiry, these apologists accept the secular assumptions and methods of genuine scholarship. But when the topic is the historicity of their scriptures, they make an exception. An LDS film scholar doesn't need a testimony to be persuaded of the influence of Holinshed on Shakespeare. Methodological naturalism works just fine. Ditto for the efficacy of an experimental drug, the construction of an electric car, the history of Italian nationalism, you name it. But when the question is 19th-century influence on the Book of Mormon, all that goes out the window.