Diachronic or Synchronic? A Response to Nicholas J. Frederick


The fact that New Testament (NT) language appears throughout the Book of Mormon (BM) has troubled many readers. Some of the initial written responses to the work described in detail the King James English that pervades the text with special attention given to the NT passages that appear sprinkled throughout the book.[1]  Elder B. H. Roberts, who spent many years of his life writing about and defending the BM, discussed the presence of NT phraseology and ascribed the phenomenon to Joseph Smith (JS), the translator, rather than to the original historical authors.[2] This was for reasons dealing with the historical context that is assumed throughout the text of the BM. Authors like Nephi could not have had access to sources that would be included in the Christian NT several centuries later, so Roberts concluded that the connection must be through JS.

Although this was the approach taken by Roberts it has not been the view held by the majority of LDS readers. Over the years, LDS scholars have found approaches to address the relationship of the BM to the NT that differ markedly from Roberts’s approach. For example, John Tvedtnes explored the similar language shared between the “Allegory of the Olive Tree” in Jacob 5 and the NT, and in every example determined that the wording in Jacob was not dependent on any given NT passage, but rather the NT passage and Jacob 5 had similar Old Testament (OT) sources that they independently blended together from various OT verses.[3] Others, like Brant Gardner, have been more open to the possibility of NT influence, but inconsistent in identifying it.

Evaluating the Interaction

In a new essay exploring this issue, Nicholas J. Frederick has attempted to define a method for investigating the interactions between the BM and the NT that will work for a broad basis of readers and scholars. In his opinion it is appropriate to use the terms quotation, allusion, and echo when talking about the interaction between the OT and the NT,[4] but not so when discussing the BM and the NT. Frederick explains that this is because “as far as can be determined, the Nephites did not possess that record.”[5] Frederick makes it clear that his study will approach these interactions from a synchronic rather than a diachronic perspective.[6]

Frederick does this for two reasons. First, he argues that it is not often the case that students of the BM write papers from a diachronic perspective. For this reason Frederick wishes to do away with quotation, allusion, and echo for those that he perceives to be the major audience of his work. Since they aren’t asking questions of the direction of dependence then it will be more beneficial for him to focus on a synchronic approach, as a diachronic approach could convey “the wrong ideas about the relationship between the Bible and the Book of Mormon.”[7]

Second, since the Nephites did not possess the NT, Frederick wants to stay away from author-oriented discussions that imply a source behind the composition of the BM.[8] This approach not only stands in stark contrast from Frederick’s prior research, particularly his dissertation,[9] it is also not in line with much of the scholarship he cites throughout the essay. This will be explained further below.

What Frederick’s paper essentially argues is that rather than approaching the text from the perspective of influence, which leads to using the terms quotation, allusion, and echo, we should take several steps back to what he calls “biblical interactions.” It is apparent that by “biblical” Frederick means the NT, because as far as the OT texts are concerned Frederick is fine with applying the terms quotation, allusion, and echo. These biblical interactions come down to three simple terms: (1) precise biblical interaction, (2) probable biblical interaction, and (3) possible biblical interaction.[10] Frederick also applies five criteria that help him to establish whether the interactions between the BM and NT are precise, probable, or possible.[11] With these criteria he analyzes four case studies that provide specific examples of the kind of approach that he is hoping to see if others accept his methodology.

Yet after considering Frederick’s proposal, I was left wondering what the difference between a precise, probable, or possible biblical interaction was exactly. What does that actually mean for the text, and is a “precise biblical interaction” really that precise if the definition that is offered states that the interaction is “almost certainly interacting with the New Testament”?[12] I personally would hope for a bit more precision in analyzing textual interaction.

The list of interactions that Frederick offers highlighted in my mind the fact that we are not dealing simply with intertextuality in its widest sense when it comes to the BM and the NT, as Frederick seems to want to invite. Throughout the essay Frederick cites biblical scholar Jeffery M. Leonard. In his essay,[13] Leonard responds critically against another biblical scholar’s (Lyle Eslinger) work on inner-biblical allusions when he refuses to discuss the direction of dependence because he doubts that scholars can reliably know which text was written first. In Leonard’s opinion, “a more helpful approach to these texts would have been simply to embrace a more diachronic reading and then pursue the implications this reading entails.”[14] The same could be said of Frederick’s work in this new essay. Not only does Frederick’s language still utilize phrases that would imply a diachronic study,[15] the fact that we find all throughout the BM formal quotations of both late OT (those that would not have been available to pre-exilic Israelites) and NT texts is telling in itself. If we are going to discuss the full breadth of these interactions then we will have to have terminology that deals with the fact that the BM text often points the reader to prior textual sources,[16] and therefore, at the very least, forces scholars to adopt both synchronic and diachronic approaches (if not a fully diachronic approach). As Leonard states, “some [biblical] texts manifestly do allude to others (we need look no further than direct quotations for proof), it is clear that there is at least some diachronic element at work in the biblical text. That some scholars continue to work out methods for charting this process of development rather than wave a white flag to the challenges of historiography should be welcomed…”[17]

If we are going to take Frederick’s proposals and his definitions of the “biblical interactions” then how do we label texts like 1 Ne. 3:20, 1 Ne. 22:15, 17, 20, 23-24, and Alma 12:33-35?[18] Each of these texts, formally quote a prior text that the Nephites would not have had access to, and there are so many more that could be added all throughout the BM. According to Frederick’s definitions the best we could do to explain this phenomena is to call each of them “precise biblical interactions.” But this does not fully explain the relationship between these BM texts and their late OT or NT antecedents. What does “precise” mean when a text tells the reader it is quoting an earlier source, especially when the quotation deviates in a word or two added or left out (which is sometimes the case, for example, in the Isaiah chapters)? If a few words are left out is it still a precise interaction? I would assume that probable or possible wouldn’t fit either, especially when the text explicitly shows that it is interacting with a specific, identifiable source.

Besides the quality of the relationship, I was left wondering what exactly does biblical interaction mean? While it is great that Frederick and the audience he is writing to will be able to recognize the multitude connections between the BM and the NT, is biblical interaction really the last step? Is it really okay for us to to place the cap there and not describe how the BM is actually interacting with the NT in its narrative simply because the implications of the analysis might make some believers uncomfortable? The alterations to the lexicon or the context highlight the way that the author of that section of the BM read the biblical source, or at the very least the kind of biblical language that the author felt was appropriate for the new context. None of this is discussed in Frederick’s new essay, as he only seeks to establish the fact that there are interactions.

This can work when a new methodology is directed to an audience that is closed to literary connections between the BM and the NT. And it seems that Frederick is likely writing with that audience in mind, especially when the methodology he employs in his dissertation is contrasted with this new essay. While the new methodology might serve the purposes of an audience that is not open to connections between the BM and NT, it is unlikely to be of any use to audiences outside of this group. This excludes most if not all non-Mormon academics, but a lot of Mormon scholars and lay readers as well. Frederick’s study places a cap at finding the literary connections, “biblical interactions,” and offers nothing beyond this point. Even in the case of the BM stating that the text comes from “the words of Moses, which he spake saying” (1 Ne. 22:20, with the ensuing quotation taken from Acts 3 and not Deuteronomy)[19] it would be “inappropriate” in Frederick’s methodology to label this text a formal quotation simply because it comes from the NT.

From a strictly academic standpoint the question of intertextuality rests solely on literary grounds. From this perspective, the question of authorship, which includes both internal and external data, should be set aside and bracketed for a moment, but not in the way that Frederick is attempting to do in this essay. We should not bracket the issue based on the assumptions that we might have from external historical sources or internal claims of the text’s place in history, and thereby assume that a certain kind of relationship will or will not be found between the BM and the NT; nor should we use traditional beliefs as a means to argue that terms like quotation, allusion, and echo are inappropriate when discussing the BM’s interaction with the NT. Rather, the point of departure must first be the text itself. What do the words themselves say? What specific examples have brought past scholars like Grant Hardy to the conclusion that the King James Bible has influenced the content of the BM? Once we have read the words and take note of their strong connections with the KJV, (both formally and informally), then we can discuss what kind of relationship exists between the NT and the BM, and the questions of composition and authorship can be further explored using actual data. Until that point Frederick’s model will likely act as a deterrent toward further investigations of this kind. His approach places a cap on intellectual inquiry that will likely be used to argue against those who do not fit his target audience.

Similar to Leonard’s argument about the NT quotations of the OT, the BM manifestly alludes to and quotes several parts of the KJV. The fact that the Nephites would not have had access to either the NT or the KJV invites scholars to “work out methods for charting this process of development rather than wave a white flag to the challenges of historiography.”[20]


[1] This includes both Alexander Campbell and Eber D. Howe. Howe was particularly astute in his discovery of NT phrases throughout the text, and was surprisingly thorough, although admittedly biased, in his appraisal of the direction of dependence. See Eber D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (ed. Dan Vogel; Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2015).

[2] B. H. Roberts, New Witnesses for God: The Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: The Deseret News, 1909), 448; cited also in Nicholas J. Frederick, “Evaluating the Interaction between the New Testament and the Book of Mormon: A Proposed Methodology,” in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 24 (2015), 9, nt. 25.

[3] See John A. Tvednes, “Borrowings from the Parable of Zenos,” in Stephen Ricks and John W. Welch, eds., The Allegory of the Olive Tree: The Olive, the Bible, and Jacob 5 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 19**), 373-426.

[4] Frederick, “Evaluating the Interaction between the New Testament and the Book of Mormon,” 5.

[5] Frederick, “Evaluating the Interaction between the New Testament and the Book of Mormon,” 5.

[6] Frederick, “Evaluating the Interaction between the New Testament and the Book of Mormon,” 11.

[7] Frederick, “Evaluating the Interaction between the New Testament and the Book of Mormon,” 11, nt. 27.

[8] Cf. Frederick, “Evaluating the Interaction between the New Testament and the Book of Mormon,” 6.

[9] Nicholas J. Frederick, “Line Within Line: An Intertextual Analysis of Mormon Scripture and the Prologue of the Gospel of John” (Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation; Claremont Graduate University, 2013).

[10] Frederick, “Evaluating the Interaction between the New Testament and the Book of Mormon,” 12.

[11] The criteria that Frederick employs are all familiar within intertextual studies, although he uses terms that are slightly different to describe the criteria. The only one that deviates is his second criterion, the “criterion of dissimilarity.” This is problematic because in biblical studies there is already a criterion of dissimilarity, but it is a completely different thing. To be more precise Frederick means something closer to the “criterion of infrequency.” His use of the term dissimilarity will be problematic for any biblical scholar simply because there is already a meaning and a history to the “criterion of dissimilarity.” See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criterion_of_dissimilarity (Last accessed 9/26/2015).

[12] Frederick, “Evaluating the Interaction between the New Testament and the Book of Mormon,” 12. Emphasis mine.

[13] Jeffery M. Leonard, “Identifying Inner-Biblical Allusions: Psalm 78 as a Test Case,” Journal of Biblical Literature 127/2 (2008), 241-265.

[14] Leonard, “Identifying Inner-Biblical Allusions,” 262.

[15] i.e. “undeniable that the Bible plays a role in the textual construction of the Book of Mormon,” 3; “one of the most noticeable aspects of the Book of Mormon is its integration of the King James Bible into its own text,” 3; “the Book of Mormon prefers to weave phrases from the New Testament into its own text,” 7; “phrases in the Book of Mormon maintain the same word order they had in the New Testament, while other times words may be added or removed…” 7; emphasis mine in each.

[16] Contrary to Frederick’s statement on page 7.

[17] Leonard, “Identifying Inner-Biblical Allusions,” 257.

[18] 1 Ne. 3:20=Acts 3:21; 1 Ne. 22:15=Mal. 4:1; 1 Ne. 22:17=1 Cor. 3:15; 1 Ne. 22:20=Acts 3:22-23; 1 Ne. 22:23-24=Mal. 4:1-2; and Alma 12-13 weaves Heb. 3-4 throughout the entire pericope, see David P. Wright, “‘In Plain Terms that We May Understand’: Joseph Smith’s Transformation of Hebrews in Alma 12-13,” in Brent Lee Metcalfe, ed., New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993), 218-220.

[19] There are times when the NT uses the OT that the NT text claims to be quoting a particular prophetic text but is in fact quoting another. Mark 1:2-3 is exemplary, although you wouldn’t know it from the KJV. The King James translators translated their Greek NT with what we now know to be unreliable, late manuscripts. Scribes had altered the text, so that when the King James translators came to Mark 1:2 they read, “As it is written in the prophets.” The earliest manuscripts read, “As it is written in the book of Isaiah the prophet.” The quotation comes from possibly three texts, verse 2 quotes either from Ex. 23:20 or Mal. 3:1 and then verse 3 from Isa. 40:3. It is more likely that verse 2 is quoting Mal. 3:1 because of the shared context; on this see Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 135-136. Although the author of Mark states that he is quoting only from Isaiah, scholars still recognize the “interaction” with Malachi a quotation.

[20] Leonard, “Identifying Inner-Biblical Allusions,” 257.