The Original Language of the Book of Mormon
In my previous blogs I wrote about the Jewish Roots of the Book of Mormon. In fact the content of the Book of Mormon is all Jewish, and the language in which it was written is Hebrew, the principle language of the Nephites. The proof of these facts is multifaceted and this article can only present a small but valuable portion of the evidence that can be understood by the layman. Therefore it is my goal to lay out this material as non-technical as possible.
Many have been confused by the opening statement in the Book of Mormon which has wrongly been understood to mean that the Book of Mormon was written in an Egyptian dialect. In the opening words of the Book of Mormon, Nephi declares:
2 Yea, I make a record in the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians.
(1Nephi 1:2 (1:1 RLDS))
This has been one of the chief criticisms of the Book of Mormon, since Hebrew not Egyptian was not the primary language of Hebrews living in the area of Jerusalem at the time of Lehi’s departure.
However much later in the Book of Mormon we are told:
32 And now, behold, we have written this record according to our knowledge, in the characters which are called among us the reformed Egyptian, being handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech.
33 And if our plates had been sufficiently large we should have written in Hebrew; but the Hebrew hath been altered by us also; and if we could have written in Hebrew, behold, ye would have had no imperfection in our record.
34 But the Lord knoweth the things which we have written, and also that none other people knoweth our language; and because that none other people knoweth our language, therefore he hath prepared means for the interpretation thereof.
(Mormon 9:32-34 (4:98-100 RLDS)
If we take all of this information together it appears that “the language of my father” (1Nephi 1:2) was the Hebrew dialect while “the language of the Egyptians” actually refers to the written language of the Egyptians and which Mormon 9:32 calls “the characters which are called among us the reformed Egyptian”. The phrase “the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians” (1Nephi 1:2) means that the record was written in the Hebrew dialect, but with a form of Egyptian Characters.
(In fact several ancient examples have been found of texts written in the Hebrew or Aramaic dialects but in Egyptian characters. See Jewish and Other Semitic Texts Written in Egyptian Characters by John A. Tvedtnes and Stephen D. Ricks )
Joseph Smith himself seemed to have confirmed that regardless of what type of “characters” were used, the Book of Mormon was written in Hebrew. Speaking of the Title page of the Book of Mormon, Smith wrote:
“The title-page of the Book of Mormon is a literal translation, taken from the very last leaf, on the left hand side of the collection or book of plates, which contained the record which has been translated, the language of the whole running the same as all Hebrew writing in general; and that said title page is not by any means a modern composition, either of mine or of any other man who has lived or does live in this generation”
(History of the Church, 1:71)
The Book of Mormon indicates that the Nephites were still using some form of Hebrew at the time of their demise (Mormon 9:32-34).
In 3Nephi 9:18 (4:48 RLDS) Yeshua identifies himself as the “Alpha and Omega” as he is in the Book of Revelation. These are the first and last letters of the Greek Alphabet. Many scholars maintain that Yeshua spoke Hebrew and Aramaic rather than Greek and that his actual words in Revelation should be understood as the appear in the Ancient Aramaic manuscripts of Revelation as “Aleph and Tav” the first and last letters of the shared Hebrew and Aramaic alphabet. Egyptian Characters are not alphabetic but hieroglyphic, and they do not have a fixed order, there is no first or last Egyptian character. Therefore in 3Nephi 9:18 Yeshua must have actually said “I am the Aleph and the Tav” (obviously Greek letters meant nothing to the Nephites) demonstrating that the Nephites knew and used a form of the Hebrew language in the first century.
In Alma 43:13 (20:14-15 RLDS) 3Nephi 1:25 (1:30-31 RLDS) & 12:18 (5:65 RLDS) reference is made to "jot" and "title". This parallels Matthew 5:18 where the KJV has:
For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.
(Matthew 5:18 KJV)
In his Jewish New Testament David Stern Translates these words:
Yes indeed! I tell you that until heaven and earth pass away, not so much as a yud or a stroke will pass from the Torah—not until everything has happened.
(Mattityahu 5:18 JNT)
And in his Jewish New Testament Commentary he writes on this verse “Yud is the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet”. The Book of Mormon could not make reference to the Hebrew letter YUD if the Nephites were not still using Hebrew when these verses took place.
Further evidence that some form of Hebrew was the spoken language of the Nephites is the apparent Hebrew influence on certain Native American languages. In his paper A Curious Element in Uto-Aztecan, Brian Stubbs has shown that the Uto-Aztecan Native American language family has within it a distinct Hebrew influence. (See Epigraphic Society Occasional Papers Volume 23 1998 pp. 109-140)
BYU scholar John Tvetness has stated:
The Book of Mormon contains numerous idioms and syntax which are not typically English but which would be perfectly normal in a Hebrew setting…. Although it is not presently entirely clear what the actual writing system of the Nephites was, there are a number of factors which support the idea that the language from which Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon was, in fact, Hebrew, though recorded in a “reformed Egyptian” writing system.
(The Ensign; Oct. 1986 p. 64)
The Book of Mormon was written in Hebrew,
but with reformed Egyptian characters that looked like those above.
but with reformed Egyptian characters that looked like those above.
The Hebrew Behind the English
Next me must consider the mode of translation of the Book of Mormon. Joesph Smith translated the Book of Mormon through the “gift and power of God”. This appears to have been a manifestation of the gift of the interpretation of tongues (1Cor. 12:10; Moroni 10:16 (10:11 RLDS)). This gift was a supernatural knowledge of the interpretation of “languages and diverse kinds of tongues” (Moroni 10:16). Smith saw a word on the plates and had revealed to him the range of meaning of that word. What was not revealed to him in this process was the intended meaning of the original author. It was the gift of translation of languages, not the gift of reading of minds of original authors. If an original author of a portion of the Book of Mormon used an ambiguous word or phrase, Smith would have had a knowledge of the range of meaning of that word or phrase, but not a knowledge of what the original author intended it to mean. This manner of translation means that it was possible at times for Smith to translate a word of phrase with a meaning that was a “correct” in the sense that it was a legitimate interpretation of the word or phrase before him, but was not the meaning intended by the original author.
The fact that Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon involved a certain degree of his own input can be easily demonstrated. It is no secret that Smith’s word and phrase choice was influenced by the King James Version Bible. But what is truly interesting is that when the Book of Mormon quotes a portion of the Bible (or uses language correlating with phrases that appear in the KJV) Smith tends to follow the word and phrase choice of the King James Version, with which he was clearly familiar. However when the Book of Mormon only draws loosely from the Bible, Smith often uses word choices that are more correct that those used by the KJV.
For example when the Book of Mormon quoted the phrase “thou shalt not kill” (Ex. 20:13; Deut. 5:17; Matt. 5:21) the Book of Mormon follows the KJV exactly (in Mosiah 13:21 (7:120 RLDS); 3Nephi 12:21 (5:69 RLDS). Here the Hebrew word RATZACH רצח (Strong’s 7523) is rendered in a general manner as it is in th KJV as “kill.”
However when this commandment is more loosely referenced Smith renders the same word more specifically as “murder”:
And again, the Lord God hath commanded that men should not murder…
(2Nephi 26:32 (11:110 RLDS))
This translation is actually better translation of this word than that of the KJV. The LDS 1987 edition of the KJV has a footnote to the word “kill” in Ex. 20:13 saying “HEB murder.” And many modern translations render the word “murder.”
Another example is found in Mosiah 14:3 which is quoting Isaiah 53:3:
He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
(Mosiah 14:3 (8:18 RLDS))
Here the Book of Mormon follows the language of the KJV.
However when this material is only loosely referenced, different words are used:
And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.
(Alma 7:11 (5:20-21 RLDS))
The Hebrew word translated by the KJV as “sorrows” in Is. 53:3 is MAKOV מכאב (Strong’s 4341) which the 1955 Jewish Publication Society Tanak translates in Is. 53:3 as “pains.”
The Hebrew word translated by the KJV as “grief” in Is. 53:3 is HOLI הלי (Strong’s 2483) which the 1955 and 1985 Jewish Publication Society Tanak translates in Is. 53:3 as “disease.”
Smith’s translation was, therefore, affected by two factors apart from the gift of translation: the range of meaning of the original Hebrew words and phrases and Smith’s own life experience. Smith had a knowledge of the range of meaning of the original Hebrew words or phrases, but had to depend on his own human understanding to choose which English words or phrases to use. This process lent itself to instances where Smith might have chosen an English word or phrase from within the range of meaning of the original Hebrew word or phrase, which was not the meaning intended by the original author. Perhaps this is why the Title Page of the Book of Mormon says “…if there are faults they are the mistakes of men.”
John Tvetness writes:
Some passages of the Book of Mormon can be better understood in Hebrew than in English because the Hebrew reflects word-play or a range of meaning which gives more sense to the passage.
(The Ensign; Oct. 1986 p.64)
Tvetness gives an example:
Many… passages in the Book of Mormon take on richer meaning if the passages are read as translations of Hebrew. For example, in 1 Nephi we read that as Lehi “prayed unto the Lord, there came a pillar of fire and dwelt upon a rock before him.” (1 Ne. 1:6, italics added.) Here, English usage would prefer the verb “sat” rather than “dwelt.” But the Hebrew verb, in fact, has both meanings.
(The Hebrew word in question here is YASHAV ישב (Strong’s 3427). The noun form is YESHIVA a seat, dwelling, also used for a Jewish school. It is interesting to note that in the above mentioned paper by Brian Stubbs, Stubbs points out that this same word correlates with the Uto-Aztecian word YESIPA which has exactly the same range of meaning.)
Another example is in 1Nephi 1:15 (1:14 RLDS) where Lehi, having seen a vision of the destruction of Jerusalem says “his soul did rejoice”. The Hebrew word behind “rejoiced” here most certainly must have been GIL גיל (Strong’s 1523) which can mean “rejoiced” but can also mean “trembled”. Certainly Lehi’s soul did not “rejoice” at seeing the destruction of Jerusalem, but it “trembled” at seeing the destruction of Jerusalem.
In the Lord’s Prayer as given in the Book of Mormon Yeshua says:
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
(3Nephi 13:12 (5:105 RLDS))
This agrees with the parallel text in the KJV for Matthew 6:13. However Bullinger writes:
Active verbs were used by the Hebrews to express not the doing of a thing, but the permission of the thing the agent is said to do.
(Figures of Speech Used in the Bible; 1898; E.W. Bullinger)
And in the Joseph Smith Translation of Matthew 6:13 Smith translates the same phrase:
And suffer us not to be led into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
(Matt. 6:13 (6:14 RLDS) JST)
The translation given by Smith in 3Nephi 13:12 was within the range of possible meaning of the words and phrases before him, but did not reflect the original intent of their meaning as used by Yeshua as it is properly expressed in the Joseph Smith Translation of Matthew.
Finally let us look at the way the Book of Mormon renders the Hebrew word ERETZ ארץ (Strong’s 776) which can mean either “land” or “earth.”
In Ether 13:17 we read:
But he repented not, neither his fair sons nor daughters; neither the fair sons and daughters of Cohor; neither the fair sons and daughters of Corihor; and in fine, there were none of the fair sons and daughters upon the face of the whole earth who repented of their sins.
(Ether 13:17 (6:18 RLDS))
Since the Hebrew word behind “earth” would have been ERETZ the English “land” would actually make better sense in this passage.
In Third Nephi we read that at the death of Yeshua:
And thus the face of the whole earth became deformed, because of the tempests, and the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the quaking of the earth.
(3Nephi 8:17 (5:22 RLDS))
However the context seems to refer only to the lands occupied by the Nephites and Lamenites so that ERETZ here is also better understood as “land” rather than “earth.”
Finally Third Nephi, it its parallel to the “Sermon on the Mount” says “the meek shall inherit the earth” (3Nephi 12:5 (5:52 RLDS)) in agreement with the KJV wording of Matthew 5:12. However both are quoting Psalm 37:11 where the context seems to be that of the inheritance of “the land” [of Israel].
Smith translated the Book of Mormon through the gift of the interpretation of languages. This gift gave him a knowledge of the range of meaning of the original Hebrew words and phrases, but it did not give him the ability to reach back in time and read the minds of the original authors. It was a knowledge of the language, not a knowledge of what the ancient author was thinking. Smith had to rely on his own human knowledge and life experience to choose what English words or phrases within the range of meaning to use. From the many examples given in this article we can see that some passages in the Book of Mormon can be better understood by reaching behind the English to the underlying original Hebrew, because the Hebrew may reflect a range of meaning which gives more sense to the passage.