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The Book of Mormon and the King James Version (1999)

Curt van den Heuvel



The King James Version of the Bible is, in all likelihood, the most successful of all the English translations. Volumes have been written on its distinctive and rhythmic style, and it is still regarded as a triumph of modern English literature.

So great was the influence of the King James Version that it coloured and directed the development of the English language for decades. English speakers still uses such phrases as `a fly in the ointment', `go the extra mile', and `stick to the straight and narrow', often without realising that they are quoting the King James Version.

For many people, the King James Version was the Bible, to the point that God is still often represented as speaking Jacobean English. The English of the King James Version, even when it had become archaic, was still identified with the language of scripture in the minds of many of its readers. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that when Joseph Smith produced his sequel to the Bible, he cast it in Jacobean English. The dependence of the Book of Mormon on the King James Version, however, goes deeper than a mere affectation of style. Smith copied vast quantities of the Bible into the Book of Mormon, and the Bible that he used was the King James Version. We find, therefore, that the King James Version left an indelible mark on the Book of Mormon.

Affected Style

The most readily observed characteristic of the Book of Mormon is its affected Jacobean style. Being raised, as he was, in a Protestant household, Smith was very familiar with the cadences and flow of Jacobean English. He was, however, quite ignorant as to the actual grammar of the language. As a result, the prose is couched in a sort of fractured amalgam of New England tongue and Jacobean English. For readers who are very familiar with the King James Version, the differences in style between the native Book of Mormon text and the protracted interpolated Biblical passages are so striking as to be almost physically perceived.

Most English people are unaware that King James English is more than a few simple `thee's' and `thou's in the right places. The archaic words are actually part of the grammar, and indicate verb tenses and noun cases and number. For example, `thou' is the second person, singular, personal pronoun, while `ye' is the corresponding plural form. In addition, the second person personal pronoun is declined differently to its modern counterpart. Thus, `ye' or `thou' is used as the subject of a sentence, while `you' is used as the object of a sentence. Modern English has lost this distinction, using `you' for both the singular and plural forms of the word, as well as both noun cases. This distinction is subtle, and is not generally apprehended by the casual modern reader.

One can find numerous examples of inconsistent application of the Jacobean personal noun case in the Book of Mormon. For example, in Mosiah 4:22, the personal noun case switches from plural to singular in the same sentence `...and yet ye put up no petition, nor repent of the thing which thou hast done.' Technically, the last part of the sentence should read `...which ye have done'.

Note one more example, that of First Nephi 11:7 `...after thou hast beheld the tree which bore the fruit which thy father tasted, thou shalt also behold a man descending out of heaven, and him shall ye witness; and after ye have witnessed him ye shall bear record that it is the Son of God.'

The King James verb tenses also seem to have given Smith some trouble. Like the languages that it evolved from, in particular Latin and Saxon, Jacobean English used inflected word modifiers to conjugate verbs. Again, this distinction has largely been lost in modern English. Traces of this confusion are evident in the first edition of the Book of Mormon. For example, in First Nephi 12:9 the third person form of a verb is used with a second person subject `...Thou remembereth the twelve apostles of the Lamb?...'. Compare this with John 16:21 of the King James Version, where the third person form of `remember' is used correctly `...but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish...'. This verse was corrected to read `rememberest' in the later revisions of the Book of Mormon.

The implication of this is clear - Joseph Smith was familiar with the form, but not the substance, of King James English. Consequently, his prose displays a fundamental lack of understanding of the syntax and grammar of the tongue.

Translation Errors

Although a work of great literature, the King James Version does suffer somewhat in accuracy. There are basically three forms of translation errors that need to be considered:

Variant Readings: While not strictly a translation problem, it can be shown that where the King James Version differs from the Minority Text of the Greek New Testament, the Book of Mormon usually follows. This will be considered later.

Technical Terms: This is one of the greatest problems of the King James Version, although not really the fault of the translators. Generally, the use of incorrect words for some terms can be blamed on a less than perfect understanding of Hebrew vocabulary during the Elizabethan era. This, too, will be considered later.

Translation Errors: Although few in number, the King James Version does contain a number of undeniable incorrect translations. Again, this can sometimes be blamed on an imperfect understanding of Hebrew, but is also possibly due to the fact that the Authorised Version was basically translated by committee, with the various members having different strengths and weaknesses in the original languages. Generally, we find that when the King James Version commits a translation error, the Book of Mormon usually follows. Three examples will suffice.

II Nephi 12:16, a quotation from Isaiah 2:16 reads as follows `And upon all the ships of the sea, and upon all the ships of Tarshish, and upon all pleasant pictures.' The problem here is that the word `pictures' should be translated as `ships', which makes more sense. The New International version reads `..and every stately vessel...'.

As an aside, this verse adds the phrase `upon all the ships of the sea' to the King James wording. Mormon scholars have often pointed out that this follows the Septuagint, and should thus be considered a more ancient reading of the Biblical text. In fact, this is not entirely true. Neither the Septuagint nor the Masoretic text have both phrases; they include either one or the other. A close examination of the text will reveal the reason for this. Isaiah 2:16 is part of a poetic section which employs a device known as a rhyming couplet. Each stanza of the poem consists of two complimentary phrases. The Book of Mormon, however, has three phrases at this section, and thus could never have been an original part of the text. The obvious conclusion is that Smith had access to a Septuagint translation, or, more likely, to a commentary on Isaiah that included the Septuagint reading.

A more serious translation error affects Isaiah 9:1, copied into the Book of Mormon as II Nephi 19:1 `...and afterwards did more grievously afflict by the way of the Red Sea beyond Jordan in Galilee of the nations.' A translation error in this verse of Isaiah has given the text almost the opposite meaning to the original. The phrase `did more grievously afflict' should be rendered as `honour' in English. Thus the New International Version reads `...In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles...'.

Again, as an aside, the Book of Mormon adds the qualifier `Red' to the King James Version. A glance at a map of Palestine will show why this rendering is impossible. The Red Sea is located on the Southern border of Palestine, over 250 miles from the Sea of Galilee.

A third example is found in II Nephi 21:3, a quotation from Isaiah 11:3. The phrase `And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord...' should read `...and he will delight in the fear of the LORD...' as in the New International Version. Here, the Hebrew word `rawah', in this context, is correctly translated `delight in' as opposed to `quick'.

Mention should be made of II Nephi 16:2, where the 1830 version follows the King James' incorrect usage of the word `seraphims' as a plural for `seraphim'. This was corrected in later versions of the Book of Mormon text, although it has never been corrected in the King James Version.

Italicized Phrases

Whenever the King James translators added a clarifying word or phrase to the text, they placed the phrase in italics to distinguish it from the original. Joseph Smith was obviously aware of this fact, and the majority of his changes to the Biblical text occur as modified or dropped King James italicized phrases. However, this process is inconsistently applied in the Book of Mormon text. Often, we find that a King James clarifying phrase has been left intact in the copied text, even though the phrase was never a part of the original Biblical text.

As an example, III Nephi 24:5, quoting Malachi 3:5 reads `...and that turn aside the stranger, and fear not me...'. The King James Text reads `...and that turn aside the stranger from his right, and fear not me...'. The Book of Mormon omits the phrase `from his right', which was added to the Isaiah text in italics by the King James translators. However, in III Nephi 24:10, the phrase `...that there shall not be room enough to receive it...' follows the King James Version, even though seven of these words are not original to the text. The King James Version of Malachi 3:10 reads `...that there shallnot be room enough to receive it...'.


Just as Smith's divine inspiration was unable to inform him when he was copying a translation error, it seemed equally unable to update some of the archaic language of the King James Version. As previously noted, the Authorised Version had some trouble with Hebrew technical terms. This is very apparent with animal names. The King James Version often refers to `dragons', `unicorns' and `satyrs', all mythological beasts. This had led more than a few would-be Bible interpreters into interesting, but nonetheless entirely incorrect directions.

The fact is that these names were interpolated whenever the actual animal referred to was unclear or unknown. Later research has uncovered the truth behind the Hebrew names, and most modern English Bibles no longer refer to such interesting creatures. II Nephi 23:22 contains a reference to dragons. `And the wild beasts of the islands shall cry in their desolate houses, and dragons in their pleasant palaces...'. This is a quotation from Isaiah 13:22. Most modern translations have `jackals' for `dragons', and `hyenas' for `wild beasts'.

Verse 21 of the same chapter has a reference to satyrs. `But wild beasts of the desert shall lie there; and their houses shall be full of doleful creatures; and owls shall dwell there, and satyrs shall dance there.' This word `satyrs' is translated `wild goats' in most modern translations.

King James archaisms are not limited to animal names. It seems that articles of apparel also caused their share of problems for the translators. A protracted quotation from Isaiah perfectly illustrates this problem. II Nephi 13:18-23 reads


In that day the Lord will take away the bravery of their tinkling ornaments, and cauls, and round tires like the moon; The chains and the bracelets, and the mufflers; The bonnets, and the ornaments of the legs, and the headbands, and the tablets, and the ear-rings; The rings, and nose jewels; The changeable suits of apparel, and the mantles, and the wimples, and the crisping-pins; The glasses, and the fine linen, and hoods, and the veils.'

This is a quotation from Isaiah 3:18-23. Although these terms are, for the most part, correctly translated in the King James Version, it is almost certain that neither Joseph Smith nor his intended audience had any idea what they meant. The King James Version committee translated this passage using words from their own era, which reflected the fashion of the day. Two hundred years later, in the early nineteenth century, on a different continent, these words were mostly obsolete. The New International Version throws some light on the issue


In that day the Lord will snatch away their finery: the bangles and headbands and crescent necklaces, the earrings and bracelets and veils, the headdresses and ankle chains and sashes, the perfume bottles and charms, the signet rings and nose rings, the fine robes and the capes and cloaks, the purses and mirrors, and the linen garments and tiaras and shawls.'

In at least two other places, Smith's divine muse was unable to supply him with the answers to some textual questions that had vexed Biblical scholars for centuries. The first is found in II Nephi 28:30. `...I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little...' This is a reference to Isaiah 28:13. `But the word of the Lord was unto them precept upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little...' Although most English Bibles follow the King James version to some degree, the exact meaning of the Hebrew text is uncertain. Most scholars are of the opinion that they are nonsense words, similar to an English person using the words `blah, blah, blah'.

A similar problem afflicts III Nephi 12:22, a quotation from Matthew 5:22. `...And whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council...' The exact meaning of the Aramaic word `Raca' is unknown, although it is generally thought to denote a term of contempt. The King James translators left the word untranslated, as do most English Bibles. It is indeed unfortunate that Smith's divine pipeline was unable to provide him with the true meaning of the word.

A final example will suffice. There is at least one archaic spelling that confused Smith, and that was the word `strait'. This word is used in Matthew 7:14 in the familiar phrase `...strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.' Joseph Smith evidently thought, as do most English readers, that `strait' is simply a variant spelling of `straight'. In fact, it is not. The word `strait', in this context, means `restricted' or `difficult'. Nevertheless, the first edition of the Book of Mormon uses the word `straight' when it quotes Matthew in III Nephi 14:14. In fact, the 1830 version of the Book of Mormon uses the word `straight' every time that `strait' is meant. (See, for example, I Nephi 21:20, where the King James Version of Isaiah 49:20 has `strait'. The word `straight' makes no sense in this context.) Most of these were corrected in subsequent versions.

This is telling indeed, for it is evident that only an English person would confuse the two words. A Nephite, who had no knowledge of English, would certainly not make that mistake. In spite of this, we find that at least one of the Book of Mormon characters displayed similar confusion about the word. In II Nephi 9:41, the prophet Nephi speaks these words `...Behold, the way for man is narrow, but it lieth in a straight course before him...'. It is quite certain that Smith was alluding to the King James version here. Not only does the word `gate' appear in the same sentence, but we also find the phrase `And then are ye in this strait and narrow path which leads to eternal life...' in II Nephi 31:18. When Smith revised the Book of Mormon, he corrected the spelling of II Nephi 31:18 to `strait', but was obviously unable to change II Nephi 9:41, since the context makes it clear that the word `straight' is meant.

To summarise the foregoing: the Book of Mormon is evidently unable to update the archaic language of the King James Version, even when such language is technically incorrect. The fact that these shortcomings seem to mirror the gaps in Smith's knowledge is strong evidence that Smith, not a collection of ancient American prophets, was the sole author of the Book of Mormon.

Anachronistic Terms

There are a number of terms that the King James Version introduced to the English world, which subsequently became part of the Spiritual vocabulary.

We find that at least two of these terms appear in the Book of Mormon as well. In John's gospel, Jesus leaves his disciples with a promise of a coming indwelling of the Holy Spirit just before his Passion. John 14:26 begins `But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost...'. The Book of Mormon, in at least one place, uses the same word for the Holy Spirit. Moroni 8:26 reads `...and because of meekness and lowliness of heart cometh the visitation of the Holy Ghost, which Comforter filleth with hope and perfect love...'.

The word that the King James committee translated as `Comforter' is the Greek word `parakletos'. Again, the exact meaning of this word is uncertain. Jerome left it untranslated in the Vulgate - `paracletus autem Spiritus Sanctus...', and it is variously translated in modern English Bibles (the New International Version and the Revised Version both use `counselor'). The word itself is constructed from two Greek words, the preposition `para' meaning `with' and the verb `kaleo' meaning `to call'. Thus, the meaning is clear enough, although there is no direct English equivalent. It is quite telling that the Book of Mormon uses a late English term for a Biblical concept.

A second archaic word that seems to have crept into the Book of Mormon is the word `charity'. This word appears in Paul's famous treatise on Faith, Hope and Charity in I Corinthians 13. In fact, the Greek word that is translated `charity' in the King James Version is the word `agape'. This word is consistently translated `love' elsewhere in the King James Version. The Book of Mormon, too, contains much on Faith, Hope and Charity, including a protracted quotation from I Corinthians 13. Moroni 7:45 reads `And charity suffereth long, and is kind, and envieth not, and is not puffed up, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil, and rejoiceth not in iniquity but rejoiceth in the truth, beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.'

It is interesting that the Book of Mormon not only uses the same archaic King James word for `love', but also that Smith felt that he had to explain this fact. II Nephi 26:30 declares that `...all men should have charity, which charity is love.' Ether 12:34 reads `And now I know that this love which thou hast had for the children of men is charity...' In the same chapter as the Corinthians quotation, we find in Moroni 7:47 `But charity is the pure love of Christ...'. Also in Moroni 8:17 we find `And I am filled with charity, which is everlasting love...' Logically, this statement makes no sense, since `charity' and `love' are actually the same word.

Variant Readings of the Textus Receptus

The King James Version was basically a revision of the earlier works of Wycliffe and Tyndale. However, the translators did use a specific Greek text for their revision, that of Erasmus, usually called the Textus Receptus (Latin for `Received Text'). This is basically a late text of the Majority family. Modern Biblical criticism has produced a more accurate text, based mostly on textual finds that postdate the King James Version. It can be shown that where the King James Version differs from the Alexandrian text, the Book of Mormon usually follows. This is most evident in the text of Matthew that appears in III Nephi. However, it can also be shown that the Book of Mormon quotes at least two texts which are now considered to be spurious.

I John 5:7 reads `For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.' This verse has almost no Greek manuscript support, and is generally considered to be a late interpolation. Legend has it that Erasmus included it in his Greek text under duress. Nevertheless, this text seems to have inspired one or two quotations in the Book of Mormon. II Nephi 31:21 reads `...and the only and true doctrine of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, which is one God...'. Mormon 7:7 reads ` sing ceaseless praises with the choirs above, unto the Father, and unto the Son, and unto the Holy Ghost, which are one God...'.

A similar problem affects Mormon chapter 9. Verses 22 through 24 read


For behold, thus said Jesus Christ, the Son of God, unto his disciples who should tarry, yea, and also to all his disciples, in the hearing of the multitude: Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature; And he that believeth and is baptized shall be saved, but he that believeth not shall be damned; And these signs shall follow them that believe--in my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick and they shall recover...

Similarly, Ether 4:18 reads


Therefore, repent all ye ends of the earth, and come unto me, and believe in my gospel, and be baptized in my name; for he that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned; and signs shall follow them that believe in my name.

Both these passages are quotations from Mark 16, verses 15 through 18:


And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.

The problem here is that these verses are part of the so-called long ending of Mark, generally thought to be a late addition to the Marcan text. Neither the Siniaticus nor the Vaticanus, the two oldest Greek texts, have this ending. (The New International Version has a note which reads `The most reliable early manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20'). If this is true, it is quite impossible for Jesus to have spoken these words.


It is very evident that the Book of Mormon owes much to the King James Version. Since this particular version of the Bible was not translated until 1611, it means that the Book of Mormon cannot be an ancient work as Joseph Smith claimed.