The Bible in the Book of Mormon (1999)
Curt van den Heuvel
To the ardent follower of Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon is the surest proof of his prophetic office. It is the one undeniable sign of his divinely given gifts of translation. To the skeptic, the Book of Mormon is an interesting example of early American frontier fiction, both quaint and pretentious, a living monument to human greed and gullibility. An analysis of the Book is useful, not because it tells us anything at all about ancient America, but rather for the insights that it gives us into the human psyche, into the mind of both the con artist and his mark.
It is evident that Joseph Smith used a number of sources in his monumental work. One of these was his own immediate environment, specifically the intense speculation about the origin of the Native Americans that fired the collective imagination of early nineteenth century New England. But, by far the most fruitful source of both ideas and prose in the Book of Mormon is the King James Bible.
It is an undeniable fact that the Book of Mormon quotes the Bible. This fact is acknowledged in the Book itself, in such phrases as ‘…now I, Nephi, write more of the words of Isaiah, for my soul delighteth in his words.’ (II Nephi 11:2). The Book of Mormon contains extensive quotes from Isaiah – some twenty-two chapters of the prophet are found in the Book, in many cases quoted verbatim from the King James Version.
What is less well known is that the Book of Mormon makes a large number of unacknowledged Biblical quotes. These quotes appear as part and parcel of the narrative of the Book, and are quoted by different authors at different times. It is these quotes that are of interest, because they reveal something about the origin of the Book of Mormon.
This article will look at the various ways in which the author of the Book of Mormon made use of the Bible in his text.
The Scope of the Problem
As already noted, there is a large amount of acknowledged, quoted material in the Book of Mormon. These include the prophets Isaiah and Malachi from the Old Testament, and the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) from the New.
It can also be shown that the Book of Mormon contains an extraordinary number of unacknowledged Biblical quotes. The exact number is difficult to pin down, for a variety of reasons, but can safely be said to exceed several hundred. The New Testament is by far the most fruitful source of these quotes. Of the twenty-six books of the New Testament, twenty of them are represented by one or more quotes in the Book of Mormon. The Old Testament also furnished a small number of unacknowledged quotes. Among these are quotes from Genesis, Exodus, Job, Micah, Hosea and Psalms.
Of the acknowledged quotes, Isaiah furnishes the largest amount of material. In general, this material is quoted almost verbatim from the King James Version. Some passages, however, do show a fairly substantial amount of reworking. For example, Smith embroidered on Isaiah 29:11,12 to transform the text into a ‘prophecy’ of the Anthon affair. (II Nephi 27:15 and following).
The changes that were made to the text are illuminating. In general, most of the changes occur in the italicized portions of the King James version (which the King James Translators employed to indicate that the translation is not original to the text). Smith either dropped or modified the italicized phrases. In some cases, the changes made to the text result in impossible readings. For example, II Nephi 19:1 adds the phrase ‘red sea’ to Isaiah 9:1, which makes no sense in the geographical context.
In several cases, the Book of Mormon follows King James Version translation errors. In the verse just cited, for example, Isaiah 9:1 should read ‘honor’ in the place of ‘grievously afflict’. The Book of Mormon makes the same mistake.
Two chapters of the prophet Malachi are quoted by Jesus in III Nephi 24 and following. The quote is almost verbatim from the King James Version, with some minor variations.
The Book of Mormon also puts the Sermon on the Mount into the mouth of Jesus in III Nephi 12:3 and following. Again, the quote is almost verbatim from the King James Version, with a few more substantial changes, possibly to remove anachronistic references (although the author did not completely succeed in this endeavor.)
There are a few short unacknowledged quotes from the Old Testament. Jesus quoted Micah, verbatim from the King James Version, in III Nephi 20:16 and following. Allusions to Psalm 51 show up in several Book of Mormon passages, and the Decalogue is quoted from Exodus in Mosiah 12 and 13.
Of particular interest are quotes that appear long before their sources were written. These include several hundred New Testament quotes and allusions, as well as one Old Testament anachronism. Malachi 4:1-2 is quoted or alluded to several times in First and Second Nephi. (See I Nephi 22:15 and II Nephi 26:4, for example). The problem is that Lehi and his family supposedly left Jerusalem before the Babylonian conquest – Malachi, however, was a post-exilic prophet.
Words and phrases used only in a KJV context
There are a fairly large number of words that appear only in a King James context. The implication here is that these words are the result of biblical quotations, and are not simply a coincidental part of the author’s vocabulary.
A few examples – the word ‘manifestation’ (or its plural) is used in I Corinthians 12:7, in the phrase ‘…the manifestation of the Spirit…’. This verse (and a number of surrounding verses) is quoted in Moroni 10:8. This, in itself, is not an anachronistic quote, since Moroni lived long after the establishment of the New Testament canon (although it is a little unclear how these New Testament quotes managed to cross the continental divide.) However, we find that every time the word ‘manifestation’ is used in the Book of Mormon, regardless of context, author or time, it appears in the phrase ‘manifestation of the Spirit’. This can hardly be ascribed to coincidence.
As another example, the word ‘bitterness’ appears in Acts 8:23, in the phrase ‘…the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity.’ We find that every time the word ‘bitterness’ is used in the Book of Mormon, it appears in the phrase ‘gall of bitterness’, again regardless of context or author. (Even more significant, the word, in all but one instance, also occurs with the phrase ‘bonds of iniquity’.)
A final example: every time the word ‘intents’ is used in the Book of Mormon, it appears in the phrase ‘thoughts and intents of the heart’, as in Hebrews 4:12.
This writer has listed close to one hundred such words and phrases, which always, or almost always, appear in the Book of Mormon in a KJV context.
New Testament Paraphrases of Old Testament Verses
The New Testament contains a very large number of references to the Old Testament. Often, we find that the New Testament quote differs from its Old Testament source, for one of two reasons – either the writer paraphrased the text in order to make a point, or the writer was quoting from one of the ancient versions, usually the Greek Septuagint, which differs markedly from the (Masoretic) Hebrew Old Testament.
On a number of occasions, the Book of Mormon quotes a New Testament paraphrase of an Old Testament passage. One of the most glaring examples of this phenomenon is found in I Nephi 22:20. The text claims that this verse is a quotation from the Old Testament, from Deuteronomy 18:15,19 to be precise. However, the actual quote in the Book of Mormon is much closer to Acts 3:22,23, which is a paraphrase of the Deuteronomic passage.
On a number of occasions, we find that when the Book of Mormon quotes a Biblical passage, other quotations from the same passage are clustered near the original quotation. The implication here is that the author of the Book of Mormon read the phrase in the Bible, and either unconsciously or consciously worked the surrounding phrases into the text.
For example, I Nephi 22:15 contains an anachronistic quote of Malachi 4:1. However, we find that verse 24 of the same passage contains a reference to ‘calves of the stall’, a quotation from Malachi 4:2. II Nephi 26:4 also contains a reference to Malachi 4:1, as does verse 6 of the same passage. Verse 9 of the passage contains a reference to Malachi 4:2, as does the preceding chapter, II Nephi 25:13.
A second example: Mosiah 16:7-10 contains references to three consecutive verses of I Corinthians 15 (verses 53 to 55), the famous chapter on the Resurrection of the body.
Jesus quotes the Epistles
Third Nephi records the visit of Jesus to the Americas, after his resurrection. Jesus delivers a number of sermons, most of which are found in the New Testament gospels. On a number of occasions, however, Jesus seems to quote from other New Testament books, before the books themselves were written.
In III Nephi 20:23-26, Jesus quotes a sermon that Peter had yet to deliver at Pentecost, recorded in Acts 3:22-26.
In III Nephi 18:29, Jesus quotes a line that Paul had not yet written, in I Corinthians 11:29, with regard to the Eucharist.
A final example: In III Nephi 28:8, Jesus quotes I Corinthians 15:52-53 with regard to the Resurrection.
Not only does the Book of Mormon contain a large number of unacknowledged quotes, but it appears that in several cases, a Biblical passage inspired a Book of Mormon narrative.
One of the most interesting examples of this phenomenon is found in Alma 18 and 19, the story of King Lamoni’s healing. The story bears a rough resemblance to the narrative of the raising of Lazarus in John 12. What is most striking, however, is the number of words and phrases in the Book of Mormon passage that seem to come from John, such as ‘stinketh’ (Alma 19:5), ‘sleepeth’ (Alma 19:8), ‘he shall rise again’ (Alma 19:8) and ‘believest thou this?’ (Alma 19:9).
Other Book of Mormon scenes that seem to have been inspired by the Bible: The conversion of Alma in Mosiah 27:10-24 and the story of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9:1-18; Alma and Amulek’s escape from prison in Alma 14 compared with Paul and Silas’ rescue from prison in Acts 16; Jared’s daughter dancing for Akish in Ether 8 and Salome dancing for Herod in Matthew 14.
Fatigue in the Book of Mormon
Fatigue is a literary phenomenon that sometimes occurs when one author is heavily dependent on another. It produces small errors of continuity and detail, which result from the latter author omitting structural details while modifying the source.
As an example, consider the story of the healing of the paralytic in Luke 5. The gospel records that there were so many people in the house, that the friends of the patient were forced to let him down through the roof.
Luke 5:19 And when they could not find by what way they might bring him in because of the multitude, they went upon the housetop, and let him down through the tiling with his couch into the midst before Jesus.
The problem is that Luke has failed to mention that Jesus is in a house.
Luke 5:17 And it came to pass on a certain day, as he was teaching, that there were Pharisees and doctors of the law sitting by, which were come out of every town of Galilee, and Judaea, and Jerusalem: and the power of the Lord was present to heal them.
What has happened here is that the author of Luke, in using Mark 2 for his source, has forgotten that he did not set the story in a house, creating a minor aberration in the flow of the narrative when he finds that he has need of a housetop.
Can we find similar examples of fatigue in the Book of Mormon? There are at least two candidates.
As noted in the previous section, Alma 18 and 19 contains a story which is very similar to the resurrection of Lazarus as recorded in John 11. The most obvious difference is the fact that whereas Lazarus had died, and had been dead for some time, King Lamoni was in a deep sleep (possibly comatose). Strangely enough, however, after informing his wife that the King is simply asleep, the prophet Ammon goes on to claim that he “…shall rise again” (19:8). This seems a rather curious phrase to use of someone who was merely asleep, especially when we consider that both times the phrase is used elsewhere in the Book of Mormon (Alma 33:22 and Helaman 14:20), it refers to a resurrection from the dead.
Could it be that in copying his source (the gospel of John), Smith used a phrase that made sense in John’s narrative (“…Thy brother shall rise again…” in John 11:23), but not in the Book of Mormon story?
A second example concerns the parable of the Vineyard, as recorded in Jacob 5. This is a long parable which casts the nation Israel in the metaphorical role of an Olive tree in a vineyard.
Jacob 5:3 For behold, thus saith the Lord, I will liken thee, O house of Israel, like unto a tame olive-tree, which a man took and nourished in his vineyard; and it grew, and waxed old, and began to decay.
The parable appears to be drawn from two biblical sources – the Song of the Vineyard in Isaiah 5, and Paul’s discussion of the relation of the Gentiles to the Jews in Romans 11. The problem for the author of the Book of Mormon is that Isaiah and Paul used slightly different metaphors – Isaiah that of a vineyard, and Paul an Olive tree. It is thus quite significant that halfway through the parable, Zenos appears to forget that he is using an Olive tree as his metaphor, and begins to use the whole vineyard as his focus.
Jacob 5:41 And it came to pass that the Lord of the vineyard wept, and said unto the servant: What could I have done more for my vineyard?
Significantly, the break appears at the same point that the Book of Mormon quotes a passage from Isaiah:
Isaiah 5:4 What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it? wherefore, when I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes?
From this point on, the prophet Zenos refers exclusively to the “fruit of the vineyard”, apparently forgetting that vineyards yield grapes, not olives.
Naturally, Mormon scholars have long been aware of the problem, and have come up with several theories to account for the phenomenon.
In his monumental apologetic work New Witnesses for God, the noted Mormon scholar B. H. Roberts addressed the question of protracted KJV quotes in the Book of Mormon. Quoting then president Joseph Fielding Smith, Roberts wrote the following:
When Joseph Smith saw that the Nephite record was quoting the prophecies of Isaiah, of Malachi, or the words of the Savior, he took the English Bible and compared these passages as far as they paralleled each other, and finding that in substance, they were alike, he adopted our English translation; and hence, we have the sameness to which you refer.
The problem that naturally accompanies this explanation should be obvious. If the Book of Mormon plates did indeed contain an ancient version of Isaiah, it should stand to reason that this version would be textually superior to that contained in the King James Version. The latter used a Hebrew text which, at the time that the KJV was produced, dated from no earlier than the ninth century AD. If Smith was able to translate the rest of the non-Biblical passages of the Book of Mormon with apparent consummate ease, why did he suddenly abandon his divine gift in favour of a text that could not hope to be any more accurate?
Further, as we have seen, the Isaiah text of the Book of Mormon often reflects the problems and shortcomings of the King James Version. This should not have been the case, if, as President Smith alleged “…except for those differences indicated in the Nephite original …here and there made the Book of Mormon version of passages superior in sense and clearness.”
Indeed, President Smith has raised a suspicious point: if Smith had access to an English Bible as he was translating the Book of Mormon, what was there to prevent him from simply copying large portions of the work into his own narrative? This, after all, is precisely the allegation of the skeptic.
Another theory, popularized by Hugh Nibley, states that the Holy Spirit of God gives the same words to all his prophets. Again, there are several problems with this theory. Firstly, it presupposes that one believes in such a thing as Divine inspiration, which is by no means an established fact. An appeal to this theory, then, basically amounts to a circular argument.
The problems with this solution are, in fact, legion. It has yet to be demonstrated that such a phenomenon has occurred before. In the real world, whenever one document closely quotes another, this is evidence either of one document using the other as a source (such as a research paper, or the New Testament quoting the Old), or of outright plagiarism (such as the Gospel of Barnabus using Dante’s Inferno). This necessarily means that the document that uses the former as a source must have originated later. In the case of the Book of Mormon, which contains copious quotes from the New Testament, the implication is that the book actually originated after the formation of the Christian scriptures. Further research will show that the Book of Mormon relies on a specific version of the New Testament, namely the King James Version.
In evaluating any of the apologetic responses, it would be good to keep the law of parsimony in mind. This is a simple law of common sense (also known as Occam’s Razor), which states that in the absence of any contradictory information, the simplest solution to a problem is generally the correct one. We can apply this law to the question of biblical quotations in the Book of Mormon as follows:
a) God, for some reason known only to himself, allowed the Nephite prophets to make copious quotes from the King James Version of the Old Testament, and anachronistic quotes from the New, or
b) The Book of Mormon is a nineteenth century work, and Joseph Smith simply copied the King James Version into the Book of Mormon.
It does not require much reasoning to see which solution is the simplest.
There really is only one theory which fully accounts for all the features of the phenomenon. This theory is that the Book of Mormon was written by someone who either had a KJV Bible in front of him, or was intimately familiar with its contents. When we add to this phenomenon other Book of Mormon problems , such as the lack of any historical, archaeological or linguistic confirmation, the large number of anachronistic terms and items referenced in the book, and its mirroring of the issues and problems of the nineteenth century Protestant Church, we come to the inescapable conclusion that the Book of Mormon originated in the early nineteenth century.
 See “The Book of Mormon and the Bible” (<URL:http://www.primenet.com/~heuvelc/bom/intro.htm>, n.d.), spotted January 16, 1999 for a cross reference listing of New Testament quotes in the Book of Mormon.
 David Wright has an in-depth examination of the Isaiah quotes in the Book of Mormon in his article “Isaiah in the Book of Mormon …and Joseph Smith in Isaiah” (<URL:members.aol.com/jazzdd/IsaBM1.html>, n.d.), spotted January 16, 1999.
 See “Questions on the Book of Mormon, its Author and his Work” (<URL:http://www.california.com/~rpcman/BOMQUEST.HTM>, n.d.), spotted January 16, 1999 for an overview of the historical problems of the Book of Mormon.