“Weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth” in the Book of Mormon has been criticized as an obvious mistake based on plagiarizing the New Testament. But there’s no need to grieve over this case.
There are many questions like this that one case raise, for the Book of Mormon relies heavily on biblical language. It seems that when they fit, expressions from all over the Bible, including the New Testament, are used in the translation. The intertextuality with the KJV is actually remarkable. Pointing to a few words shared and crying foul misses the sophisticated way in which KJV language is used in the translation (more on this below).
Critics have objected to two aspects of the combination in Alma 40:13 of “weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth,” as well as “weep, and wail, and gnash their teeth” in Mosiah 16:2. The first objection is that this phrase is close to a New Testament phrase, “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12, 22:13, 24:51, 25:30 and Luke 13:28) that is not found in the Old Testament, making it seem that Joseph “plagiarized” from the New Testament. It is also close to “wailing and gnashing of teeth” in Matthew 13:42,50. Second, they object to “weeping and wailing” together since they mean roughly the same thing and are redundant, and allegedly not found in the Bible: “The Bible never uses both weep and wail because in all of these cases they are just alternate translations of the same original word” says one critic at https://m.reddit.com/r/exmormon/comments/1q1tmt/, for example. It’s an odd combination of arguments, though. First, we must reject a phrase in the Book of Mormon because it has a combination of words from the Bible, and second, we must reject it because it uses a combination of words NOT found in the Bible. That’s a relatively high hurdle for any divinely aided translation of scripture, IMHO.
Is it true that “weep” and “wail” don’t occur together in the KJV? Not so fast! Esther 4:3 seems to invalidate that specious argument: “there was great mourning among the Jews, and fasting, and weeping, and wailing; and many lay in sackcloth and ashes.” Here “weeping” is from Strong’s H1085, bekiy, and “wailing” is from Strong’s H4553, micepd, which in the KJV is typically translated as “mourning” or “wailing.” Further, Jeremiah 9:10 has the same combination: “For the mountains will I take up a weeping and wailing, and for the habitations of the wilderness a lamentation.” Later in Jeremiah 9:20 we have “wailing” and “lamentation,” which is close.
Regardless of how they are translated, a pair of similar words to express mourning is actually a legitimate ancient Hebrew practice attested in many places besides Esther. It’s just a natural part of parallelism in Hebrew, especially in poetical expressions. 2 Samuel 1:12 has “And they mourned, and wept, and fasted until even, for Saul, and for Jonathan his son….” The word “mourned” is Strong’s H5594, caphad, meaning “to wail, lament, mourn,” and “wept” is Strong’s H1058, bakah, meaning “weep, bewail, cry, shed tears.” A Hebrew word often translated as “howl” is Strong’s H3213, yalal, meaning “howl, wail, make a howling.” Both yalal and caphad are combined, for example in Micah 1:8 where they are translated in the KJV as “wail” and “howl” in “I will wail and howl,” followed by two other Hebrew words for mourning in “I will make a wailing like the dragons and a mourning as the owls.” That’s wail, howl, wailing, and mourning all in one verse, with four different Hebrew terms. Isaiah 14:31 has “Howl, O gate; cry, O city” in the KJV, with “wail” and “howl” in the NIV. Isaiah 22:12 has “weeping” and “mourning,” Isaiah 25:34 and Isaiah 65:14 have “cry” and “howl,” Jeremiah 4:8 has “lament” and “howl,” Jeremiah 6:26 has “mourning” and “lamentation,” Jeremiah 48:31 has “lament” and “cry.” Other examples with two terms for mourning or lamenting combined include Genesis 50:10 and many more.
“Wail” and weep” or “cry” cannot be said to come from the same word, as the critic alleged, and can be combined with other terms for mourning, as often happens in the Hebrew Bible. There’s no problem here. Translating a pair of terms for mourning as “weeping” and “wailing” poses no problem, even if it looks like it’s from the New Testament. It’s found in the Old Testament, but even if the Old Testament bulls-eyes from Esther and Jeremiah weren’t there, using New Testament terms in the translation is not a problem and does not invalidate the authentic Semitic origins of the Book of Mormon.
But what about “gnashing of teeth”? Isn’t that straight out of the New Testament? Perhaps, but as with much of the language in the New Testament, there are ancient echoes to consider. In fact, the combination of mourning with “gnashing of teeth” is found in the Hebrew Bible in Psalm 112:10: “The wicked shall see it, and be grieved; he shall gnash with his teeth.” Further, Lamentations 2:16 has “they hiss and gnash the teeth.” There is no reason why Book of Mormon writers could not have used similar terms to describe the grieving of the wicked, including a parallel pair of mourning-related terms. Gnashing (upon someone) with the teeth also occurs in Job 16:9, Psalm 35:16, and Psalm 37:12.
Whatever the original Hebrew/Egyptian words were, a poetical pairing of mourning-related words and the vivid imagery of gnashing teeth, all attested in the Old Testament, could naturally and appropriately be translated into familiar KJV language to yield “weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth.” This grouping has Biblical support but is not simply plagiarized from the Bible. It’s ideal for critics because they can object that it is too much and too little like the Bible.
For details on the profound level of interwoven language, see Nick Frederick’s presentation, “‘Full of grace, mercy, and truth’: The New Testament in the Book of Mormon,” presented at the 2015 Exploring the Complexities in the English Language of the Book of Mormon conference sponsored by The Interpreter. Also see “Why Did Ammon Borrow So Much from Tradition in Alma 26?” at Book of Mormon Central, June 30, 2016; Quinten Barney, “Samuel the Lamanite, Christ, and Zenos: A Study of Intertextuality,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 18 (2016): 159–70; “Why Does Jacob Quote So Much from the Psalms? (Jacob 1:7),” Book of Mormon Central, March 25, 2016, and Taylor Halverson, “Reading 1 Peter Intertextually with Select Passages from the Old Testament,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, 20 (2016): 151-176.