What to Make of “Plagiarism” of the Bible in a Purportedly Ancient Text? A Jewish Scholar Offers a Thoughtful Perspective

Book of Mormon coverThe Book of Mormon’s frequent “plagiarism” of passages from the Bible is one of the most common criticisms raised against it’s authenticity and antiquity. It’s actually not very much like the way plagiarism is done in modern times, when an author uses someone else’s words as if they were the author’s creation. The Book of Mormon usually explicitly indicates that Isaiah or some other writer is about to be cited, or when, for example, Christ repeats the Beatitudes for His New World audience, it is clear what is being done: Christ is the author of those words, not Joseph Smith, with King James language used in the translation not as plagiarism but as appropriate language for a sacred text. 

Citation of well known works with attribution is not plagiarism. But there are other times when passages from Isaiah or others are used without explicit acknowledgement. As John Tvedtnes noted in “Was Joseph Smith Guilty of Plagiarism?,” FARMS Review 22, no. 1 (2010): 261–75, “following the insertion of chapters 2–14 of Isaiah into his own book (2 Nephi 12–24), Nephi gave his own prophecy (in 2 Nephi 27) in which he cited snippets of Isaiah’s writings and even a paraphrase of Isaiah 29.” Such plagiarism of the Bible is highly contrary to our modern sensibilities. Shame on Nephi or Joseph Smith, depending on your views on authorship. 

Our modern views, though, may not be appropriate in assessing plagiarism in a potentially ancient text. In a recent post,  “The Words of Gad the Seer: Thoughts on a ‘Lost Book’ Preserved by the Jews at Cochin, India,” I discussed an apparently ancient Hebrew work, only recently translated and published, The Words of Gad the Seer. Professor Meir Bar-Ilan, a Jewish scholar at Meir Bar-Ilan University in Israel (named after his famous grandfather) and an expert in pseudepigrapha (the class of ancient works, often in Hebrew, often dating from 300 BC to 300 AD and generally falsely ascribed to more ancient, prominent figures) has done a great deal of work on this text. He critiques claims that the book is relatively modern (dating to the medieval era) and instead argues for its antiquity in “The Date of The Words of Gad the Seer,” Journal of Biblical Literature
109,  no. 3 (1990): 477-493 (also available at Jstor.org). He estimates its origins to be in
late antiquity, in the first centuries of the Christian era, though it could still be older than that, as I argue in my prior post.

His peer-reviewed publication offers nine arguments for the antiquity of The Words of Gad the Seer. The first argument
deals with the issue of biblical plagiarism, which makes up a large fraction of the book without any attribution to the actual biblical sources. Shame on “Pseudo-Gad”! — or whoever authored The Words of Gad the Seer. But let’s withhold the shaming for now and consider Professor Bar-Ilan’s first argument for antiquity:

The Words of Gad the Seer incorporate three chapters from the Bible as if they were part of the whole work. Chapter 10 here is Psalm 145, chapter 11 is no other than Psalm 144, and chapter 7 is a kind of compilation of 2 Sam 24:1-21 with 1 Chr 21:1-30, a chapter that deals with the deeds of Gad the Seer. As will be demonstrated later, the Biblical text in Gad’s book is slightly different from the masoretic text, with some ‘minor’ changes that might be regarded as scribal errata, though others are extremely important. In any case, this phenomenon of inserting whole chapters from the Bible into one’s treatise is known only from the Bible itself. For example, David’s song in 2 Sam 22:2-51 appears as well in Psalm 18:2-50, not to speak, of course, of other parallels in Biblical literature. It does not matter where the ‘original’ position of this chapter was. Only one who lived in the ‘days of the Bible’, or thought so of himself, could have made such a plagiarism including a Biblical text in his own work. [emphasis mine]

Fascinating! This is not some unschooled Latter-day Saint apologist desperately trying to argue that heavy biblical plagiarism is not a reason to reject the antiquity of an allegedly ancient document like the Book of Mormon. It is a prominent scholar of Hebrew literature writing in a respected peer-reviewed journal on biblical literature stating that the extensive “plagiarism” of biblical material in a work is a characteristic of ancient literature that helps rule out a relatively modern origin for the text. The things Nephi and other Book of Mormon writers do with other biblical texts, widely condemned as blatant modern plagiarism by our critics, might actually be indicators of antiquity, not modernity. 

Do any of the myriad of modern books that are claimed to be sources that Joseph drew upon likewise plagiarize large chunks of the Bible?  Some pseudobiblical works like the First Book of Napolean or Gilbert J. Hunt’s  The late war, between the United States and Great Britain may use some biblical phrases and imitated KJV language, but I don’t recall seeing plagiarism of significant passages from the Bible. It’s interesting that a primary “weakness” of the Book of Mormon, it’s shameless use of significant portions of biblical text, is actually an indicator of antiquity, per a scholar keenly familiar with ancient Hebrew and biblical texts. “This phenomenon of inserting whole chapters from the Bible into one’s treatise is known only from the Bible itself…. Only one who lived in the ‘days of the Bible’, or thought so of himself, could have made such a plagiarism including a Biblical text in his own work.” This certainly changes things relative to the plagiarism argument against the antiquity Book of Mormon. Once again, an apparent weakness of the Book of Mormon may have just become a strength, thanks to modern non-Latter-day Saint scholarship. 

But surely there must be some modern examples where similar biblical plagiarism has occurred, for while Professor Bar-Ilan may not be aware of away, there are millions of texts he has never seen. If you know of some relevant counterexamples to help add nuance to his argument and the debate over biblical plagiarism in the Book of Mormon, please let me know.

His second argument is also of interest, pointing out that the way Bible content is merged and reworked in the document is also uncharacteristic of modern writings but is an indicator of antiquity.  That is also a characteristic of Nephi’s writings, for example, in the Book of Mormon as he combined various passages and reworked them in elegant ways, something Matthew Bowen and others have discussed, See, for example, Matthew Bowen, “Onomastic Wordplay on Joseph and Benjamin and Gezera Shawa in the Book of Mormon,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 18 (2016): 255-273. The unattributed plagiarism example cited by John Tvedtnes in 2 Nephi 27 is such a case of combining and reworking biblical passages. Common in antiquity, not so common in our era, adding another argument for Book of Mormon antiquity.

 

Author: Jeff Lindsay

21 thoughts on “What to Make of “Plagiarism” of the Bible in a Purportedly Ancient Text? A Jewish Scholar Offers a Thoughtful Perspective

  1. Again there is no evidence that this applies to the Book of Mormon. The problems with Bible passages in the Book of Mormon are bigger. Some of them were written hundreds of years after Lehi and his family supposedly left Jerusalem. Others are full of textual errors and oddities from the King James Bible.

  2. And scholarly consensus is that this text is pseudographia and not the original text referenced in the Old Testament. This is a bad argument for justifying similar pseudo graphical elements in the Book of Mormon.

  3. The argument is about the antiquity of the text, not who it’s final author or editor was. It may have nothing to do with the real prophet Gad, but it’s use of biblical texts points to antiquity, not modern times. It certainly is relevant to the debate over the antiquity of the Book or Mormon.

  4. Jeff writes: "primary 'weakness' of the Book of Mormon"

    There Jeff goes with his imaginary bogeymen. I do not a single person claiming the inclusion of chapters of Isaiah is an argument against Book of Mormon antiquity, let alone a primary argument. Shameless use of KJV style attempting to sound scriptural and ancient, yes. Adding chunks of Biblical text to assist the attempt, yes. Shameless and hokey maybe, but not an argument against antiquity.

    The weakness-to-strength thing is Jeff's shtick. Only his shtick relies on creating fake weaknesses or weaknesses no one has ever heard of. At Jeff's age, he will never change, grow, and progress to better reasoning. He is sticking to his shtick.

    As Anon 6:43 observes, Jeff's shtick requires him to gloss over the actual arguments made, which suggests Jeff's engages in his shtick as deliberate sleight of hand.

  5. The argument is Smith was attempting to imitate ancient scriptural style. The skeptics point to various tells of the imitation slipping out and Smith slipping in, for example, phrases like "he was a going to try" which is now removed from Alma.

    Jeff is pointing to the accuracy of the imitation, attributing the accuracy to not being an imitation but rather actual ancient scripture. Of course, this is not at all the same as turning weakness into strength, refusing to consider the observed failures of the imitation.

  6. The argument is Smith was attempting to imitate ancient scriptural style. The skeptics point to various tells of the imitation slipping out and Smith slipping in, for example, phrases like "he was a going to try" which is now removed from Alma.

    Jeff is pointing to the accuracy of the imitation, attributing the accuracy to not being an imitation rather actual ancient scripture. Of course, this is not at all the same as turning weakness into strength. It is refusing to consider the observed failures.

  7. "Apologists are looking for possible locations that might match what Smith wrote. Your reference may be to the land of the Nihm tribe (hardly a good homonym and also unconvincing because [1 Nephi] 16: 34 refers to a location, not a general tribal area) in Yemen, or perhaps to Nehhm, an even less convincing homonym that ought to be pronounced nothing like “Nahom”. Keep looking."

    https://www.quora.com/Like-Joseph-Smith-Mohammed-also-claims-an-angelic-visitation-Should-we-believe-both/answer/Dick-Harfield?comment_id=151780055&comment_type=2

  8. It seems what "anonymous" is ignoring here is the unlikely occurrence of the Book of Mormon accuracy hit with NHM fitting the appropriate location and time period, aligning also with the possible nearby location of Bountiful being the lush garden coastal area in Southern Oman, with a harbor fitting ship building requirements. I'm often skeptical for fun, but tell me how did Joseph Smith accidentally get these on target?

    1. A Wikipedia link does not an argument make. Try harder. How does the Texas sharpshooter fallacy apply here? On what analytical basis do you decide between the observance of legitimate observed patterns and Texas sharpshooter? You can’t just shout out “A fallacy! A fallacy!” You’d better explain how exactly it applies.

      Stunning how Anons are so ready to casually dismiss Jeff’s work (which demonstrates considerably more background knowledge)…and are yet so lazy.

      1. Yep. All Jeff can do is brandish words like “complex”, “rich”, and “brilliantly fitting” as if they have magical abracadabra power to conjure evidence into existence. No matter how well-intentioned his deliberately poor reasoning is, it paves a road to nothing and nothing is all he has.

        The fact is, according to the Book of Mormon narrative, in the space of eight years the miraculous journey could have been anywhere from 50 to 1000 miles along the Red Sea and then “nearly” east according to the route the Liahona took them. According to the Book of Mormon narrative, eight years is enough time have ended anywhere from Doha to Aden. Hunting for random inscriptions in the great space in between is exactly the methodology describe by Kennedy-Lincoln parallels.

        It is case closed, until Jeff finally decides to actually address the question of how his methodology is different from crackpot theories which draw connections to pre-Columbia civilizations and the fabled City of Atlantis.

        1. All of it is Texas Sharpshooter, lets just start with NHM. A 140 miles inland is not “the same fertile parts”. Texas Sharpshooter. Nehem is not a graveyard, it is a mountain range area and east of the famous incense trail. Texas Sharpshooter. BOM doesn’t describe them moving across the mountains. The burial sites referenced with the inscriptions aren’t in Nehem. The altar does NOT have Nehem written on it. Objectively false. An altar was found. And it has ancient writings believed to resemble the English sounds N H M. But this refers to a family/tribe, not a physical place. And it’s not known that this tribal name matches with the Nehem place name. A whole bunch of liberties are being taken to correlate data for which no relationship has actually been established. That is just for starters on NHM, we could go on and on with the rest. It is all Texas Sharpshooter, self declared bullseyes.

          1. Stephan, this is really amazing. Nehem/Nehhm are literal placenames given on real maps, undoubtedly forms of the name Nihm which describes a tribe, yes, but also the region of the tribe. Non-Latter-day Saint scholars referring to the inscriptions on the altars and other inscriptions with the NHM name on it (the tribe is now typically spelled as Nihm) often speak of the region of Nihm and the land of Nihm. You can also read of Mount Nihm and Wadi Nihm. There’s an obvious and strong link between tribal names and territory in Yemen.

            It’s not just the Nihm tribe that gives its name to physical places. Haram, Hadraumat, Ma’in, and other tribes have links to similarly named regions, lands, or even specific towns. There’s no reason to believe that somebody in the tribal lands of the NHM tribe would not reasonably say that they were in a place that others called NHM.

            You say, “The altar does NOT have Nehem written on it. Objectively false. An altar was found. And it has ancient writings believed to resemble the English sounds N H M.” Objectively false? The altar — or rather, three altars, all dating to slightly before Nephi and Lehi would have set foot in the area, is engraved with a well-understood alphabet that clearly spells out a word that is best transcribed as NHM in the Roman alphabet. That word is a name, an ancient name that is found in many other transcriptions and writings across many centuries, clearly linked to the Nihm tribe, whose name can be spelled as Nehem. So if your point is that the text of the altar is not written in a Roman alphabet with the modern letters NHM, yes, you are right, but to say that it does not express Nehem or Nihm on it is simply wrong, as is the claim that NHM is only a tribal/family name and not a place. I’ll do a new post today getting into some of the details.

      2. Hoosier – It is impossible to reply when the moderater won’t publish. The fact you complain of “anons” prove you know you are wrong. Burden is on you to demonstrate “legitimate observed patterns” are not a Texas Sharpshooter, not the other way around. It is put of the asserters due diligence. Your supposed “legitimate observed patterns” are Texas Sharpshooter by definition.

    1. Comments aren’t blocked, but need to be approved occasionally. Those giving links to hostile sites, in violation of my policies here, are often not approved, but I approve the vast majority of comments. There is a spam blocking feature from Askimet — sorry if that has been hindering something you wanted to share.

  9. Apologists are looking for possible locations that might match what Smith wrote. Your reference may be to the land of the Nihm tribe (hardly a good homonym and also unconvincing because 16: 34 refers to a location, not a general tribal area) in Yemen, or perhaps to Nehhm, an even less convincing homonym that ought to be pronounced nothing like “Nahom”. Keep looking.

    1. I’ve heard an Arab speaker from Sana’a, familiar with the Nihm tribe, pronounce Nihm for me. It sounded very much like Nehem with a hard “h” sound. The vowels can vary among dialects, but the NHM word is one that Hebrew speakers could easily hear as related to the meaningful word נחם (nḥm). The issue of the pronunciation of NHM and Nahom/nḥm is covered in depth at https://journal.interpreterfoundation.org/book-of-mormon-minimalists-and-the-nhm-inscriptions-a-response-to-dan-vogel/.

      You are also incorrect in saying that Nihm can only refer to a tribe, not a physical location. There are modern scholars of Yemen and some ancient Yemeni engravers of inscriptions and other Yemeni authors who apparently lack your rigid perspective. See https://www.arisefromthedust.com/nahom-nhm-only-a-tribe-not-a-place/.

      1. There you go with your strawmen again.

        But alas you have admitted you incapable of genuine dialogue and have to call rational thought “hostile”. A cop-out that concedes and admits you wrong.

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