BoM Literal Translation: Hebraisms?

For several decades, the alleged presence of “Hebraisms,” or, linguistic elements of Hebrew, in the translation of the Book of Mormon have been taken as a significant proof of the Book of Mormon’s authenticity. Phrases like “rivers of water” (1 Ne 8:13, 26) demonstrate the Hebraic urtext. Some have suggested to me in private conversations that this element alone of the Book of Mormon is enough to demonstrate its truthfulness. I am interested in this topic as it relates to Handle’s post on Ostler’s expansion theory of the Book of Mormon as well as those who claim that the Book of Mormon is a literal, word for word reproduction of the original text, like Skousen. Which one solves the most problems?

Does Ostler’s theory deny the possibility of Hebraisms? Perhaps he can answer this himself, but it seems to me that a loose translation of the text that he is arguing for would eliminate Hebraisms as a possibility. Then, how do we explain these awkward English constructions? Well, perhaps they are just “biblicisms”, or imitative of biblical, or biblical sounding idiom. In other cases, they just might be English phrases. A Google search of “rivers of water” reveals that this phrase is used in English, and that it is associated with biblical idiom.

In contrast, Skousen argues that the Book of Mormon is a word for word reproduction of the original text and somehow demonstrates this from the study of the translated manuscripts. This entails that the Hebraisms the result of a wooden translation. The problem with this is that the Book of Mormon frequently quotes New Testament phrases. How does a literal translation explain this? It seems that it has to posit that the phrases are shared urtexts from a pre-exilic context that show up independently hundreds of years later on two different contexts. This strikes me as less likely than that Joseph idiomatically translates the original text to reflect familiar sacred language.

To be honest, I am unsure about how to resolve these problems. Both a literal translation and a free translation present different solutions and different problems. Can one theory solve them all?

10 Replies to “BoM Literal Translation: Hebraisms?”

  1. I really respect Skousen’s work but I don’t think he’s established that the text is a word for word “reporduction” in the least. Indeed almost no readable translations are word for word reproductions. To argue as well that Hebraisms would only survive extremely wooden translations seems off. Also many of the puported Hebraisms can also be seen as simply adopting a quasi-Biblical rhetoric as the style of translation.Don’t get me wrong, I’m not rejecting all of Skousen’s claims. However I think we have to be a bit cautious.I’d add that Blake’s model doesn’t invalidate some parts being word for word translations although it doesn’t require it. It merely suggests some parts might be expansions.

  2. Since neither theory holds that the Book of Mormon was translated from Hebrew, I’m not sure why finding Hebraicisms would constitute evidence of its truthfulness. I think it most likely that the phases in question are what you call biblicisms.

  3. ll,many argue that the background language of the book of mormon was hebrew, written in egyptian script, which isn’t as strange as it sounds since we actually have other examples of this. Clark,Why do you think that Hebraisms aren’t the result of a wooden translation? The idea, as I understand it, is that the text’s grammatical infelicities are the result of overly literal translations represented as Hebraisms. The other instance where these kinds of things show up besides translation literature is literature written by people whose primary language is different from that in which they write. I agree with both of you that many of these instances are likely “biblicisms”, but can we tell the difference? Are both of you willing to argue that there are no Hebraisms at all?

  4. Amen lastlemming! I think that biblicisms, specifically KJV biblicisms, are what we’re seeing here.Why don’t these camps ever see “Egypitianisms” in the BofM, especially if the book itself claims to be written using an amalgamation of the two languages? In fact, I would argue that Moroni (or was it Mormon? Can’t remember…) even says that if he had more room on the plates, he would have written in the Hebrew alphabetic script, which I think points to the idea that the vast majority of the BofM would have been written in a language closer to the Egyptian than to the Hebrew. But then again, maybe their use of the Egyptian would have been through the lens of the Hebrew, which would tend toward Hebrewisms. Either way, I don’t think there’s a definitive way to tell, but I would like to see an Egyptologist (besides John Gee) take a crack at finding Egyptianisms in the text, if there are any.

  5. I think much of the Book of Mormon is a “wooden translation” or transaliteration which accouts for the many “biblicisms” and “hebraisms”. Also, when a certain concept was being communicated that was identical to one found in the Bible, Joseph Smith used the same KJV language to express it. In this way the Book of Mormon has a “familiar spirit.” “And thou shalt be brought down, and shalt speak out of the ground, and thy speech shall be low out of the dust, and thy voice shall be, as of one that hath a familiar spirit, out of the ground, and thy speech shall whisper out of the dust” (Isa. 29: 4).

  6. The translation of the Book of Abraham is also interesting. It is my opinion that if the original papyrus still existed, Joseph Smith’s translation wouldn’t match up. Because, I think he wrote what should have been on the papyrus, and was not confined by what actually was on the papyrus.

  7. “Also, when a certain concept was being communicated that was identical to one found in the Bible, Joseph Smith used the same KJV language to express it.”boz,I’ve heard people claim this in the past, that Joseph Smith did this intentionally. The problem is I have never heard anything that constitutes proof that he actually did. Can you provide a historical reference that points to JS actually doing this?

  8. I’m no apologist. I don’t know of any specific quote from Joseph Smith on this issue. I think this was God’s intent more than Joseph Smith’s. Robert J. Matthews, “The Bible and Its Role in the Restoration,” Ensign, July 1979, 41

  9. 1 Ne. 1:2
    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.

    Mosiah 1:4
    4)For it were not possible that our father, Lehi, could have remembered all these things, to have taught them to his children, except it were for the help of these plates; for he having been taught in the language of the Egyptians therefore he could read these engravings, and teach them to his children, that thereby they could teach them to their children, and so fulfilling the commandments of God, even down to this present time.

    Morm. 9:32
    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.

    The Book of Mormon seems to make a distinction between the “language” and “characters” of Egypt. The Brass Plates and Nephi’s record were written in the Egyptian language, whereas the gold plates were written in reformed Egyptian characters.

    There is a difference between Egyptian language and Egyptian characters. Egyptian characters could be used to write other languages. Papyrus Amherst 62 uses Demotic Egyptian script to write an Aramaic version of Psalm 20. Aramaic is a sister language to Hebrew, just as Spanish is to Italian. Modified Egyptian script was the basis for the Meroitic written language. However, Coptic is Egyptian language written in Greek letters.

  10. As for KJV biblicisms……

    More than ten years ago, John Tvedtnes and Stephen Ricks made a case for viewing Zarahemla as zerahemla(זֶרַע חֶמְלָה),“seed of compassion”(1). Assuming that Mormon’s modified Egyptian script was used to write an underlying Hebraic text, there is reason to believe at least part of this etymology is correct.

    Ancient Hebrew poets made frequent use of puns on the proper names of people and places(2). Many of these puns are based on the etymologies of the names being used. In Hosea 12:2-3, the author plays with “to supplant”(עָקַב) and Jacob(יַעֲקֹב). In Hosea 9:16, the same thing occurs with Ephraim(אֶפְרַיִם) and “fruit”(פְּרִי)(3). As for Zarahemla, the root word for hemla(חֶמְלָה),”merciful,compassion”, is hamal (חָמַל). This word is occasionally translated in the KJV Bible as “spared”(4).

    Mosiah 9: 2
    2)and we returred, those of us that were spared(חָמַל), to the land of Zarahemla(זֶרַע חֶמְלָה), to relate that tale to their wives and their children.
    3 Ne. 8: 24
    24)And in one place they were heard to cry, saying: O that we had repented before this great and terrible day, and then would our brethren have been spared(חָמַל), and they would not have been burned in that great city Zarahemla(זֶרַע חֶמְלָה).

    The Nephite writers of the Book of Mormon imitated and were influenced by the poetry of the Old World. Assuming that the underlying text from which the Book of Mormon was translated was in some form of Hebrew, the etymological relationship between spared and -hemla is evidence for the etymology offered by Ricks and Tvedtnes.

    1) The Hebrew Origin of Some Book of Mormon Place Names; Stephen D. Ricks, and John A. Tvedtnes; Journal of Book of Mormon Studies: Volume – 6, Issue – 2, Pages: 255-59. Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute, 1997.
    2) Classical Hebrew poetry: a guide to its techniques. By Wilfred G. E. Watson, pg 244.
    3) KJV Hosea 12:2-3
    The Lord hath also a controversy with Judah, and will punish Jacob(יַעֲקֹב) according to his ways; according to his doings will he recompense him. He took his brother by the heel in the womb(בַּבֶּטֶן, עָקַב אֶת-אָחִיו),
    KJV Hosea 9:16
    Ephraim(אֶפְרַיִם) is smitten, their root is dried up, they shall bear no fruit(פְּרִי): yea, though they bring forth, yet will I slay even the beloved fruit of their womb.
    4) 1 Samuel 15:9 But Saul and the people spared Agag(וַיַּחְמֹל שָׁאוּל וְהָעָם עַל-אֲגָג)
    2 Samuel 21:7 But the king spared Mephibosheth(וַיַּחְמֹל הַמֶּלֶךְ, עַל-מְפִיבֹשֶׁת)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *