The Word of God

Summary: There are a number of verses found in the Book of Mormon that seem to be copied directly from the New Testament, which has caused critics of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to question the validity of this book, saying that it’s impossible for the same wording to be found in both the Book of Mormon and the New Testament, especially when they were supposedly written totally independently of one another, at widely different times and in vastly different locations. This article examines how this is very possible.

In the Book of Mormon we read, “before ye seek for riches, seek ye for the kingdom of God. And after ye have obtained a hope in Christ ye shall obtain riches” (Jacob 2:18,19). This is almost exactly what Jesus said as recorded in Matthew 6:33.

In the Book of Mormon we read about “the power of God, and the gift of the Holy Ghost, and [those who] quench the Holy Spirit, and make a mock of the great plan of redemption” (Jacob 6:8). The concept of “the gift of the Holy Ghost” is found exclusively in the New Testament and the apostle Paul warned us to “quench not the Spirit” (1 Thessalonians. 5:19).

In Mosiah 3:9 we read where King Benjamin is addressing his people and as he is telling them about the coming of Christ he says, “And lo, he cometh unto his own, that salvation might come unto the children of men even through faith on his name; and even after all this they shall consider him a man, and say that he hath a devil, and shall scourge him, and shall crucify him.”  However, the people to whom King Benjamin was speaking to had no idea what it meant to be scourged or to be crucified because that was an exclusive Roman form of punishment and the Nephites had no knowledge of the Roman Empire.

In Mosiah 18:21 we read, “And he commanded them that there should be no contention one with another, but that they should look forward with one eye, having one faith and one baptism, having their hearts knit together in unity and in love one towards another.” In Ephesians 4:4,5 the apostle Paul likewise talked about there being “one faith, one baptism.”

In Ether 12:6 we read, “I, Moroni, would speak somewhat concerning these things; I would show unto the world that faith is things which are hoped for and not seen” which is nearly identical to what the apostle Paul wrote when he said, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews. 11:1).

These, and many other quotes found in the Book of Mormon seem to come directly from what is written in the New Testament which has led critics to claim that this is proof that the Book of Mormon is a work of fiction. Their argument is that it is impossible for someone to accurately quote or even closely paraphrase someone’s words they had never seen nor heard.

In the case of Jacob, he is quoting almost verbatim what Jesus will say 600 years in the future and Moroni does the same with the words of an apostle whom he doesn’t even know nor has he ever read any of his writings. Therefore, the critics claim that this is positive proof that Joseph Smith merely copied quotes from the New Testament and included them in his fictional narrative and then claimed that it was ancient prophets living on another continent who made these statements. This is called plagiarism.

Then how do we explain these almost impossible coincidences of the same wording being found in both the Book of Mormon and in the New Testament, especially when they were supposedly written totally independently of one another, at widely different times and in vastly different locations?

The problem with answering this question is that Joseph Smith never gave us an explanation of how he was able to translate an ancient, unknown language written in what is referred to as “reformed Egyptian” (Mormon 9:32) that were inscribed on gold plates except to say that he did so by the power of God. However, that statement is vague and doesn’t give us any real insight into how Joseph was able to translate the Book of Mormon. Yet, even so, it is possible to arrive at a fairly accurate answer to this question through understanding the process by which any kind of translation is made.

The first thing we have to understand is that there are two ways of translating one language into another. One is called a literal translation and the other is a referred to as a paraphrased translation.

When we use the term “literal translation” what we generally mean is that we take a word found in one language and use its equivalent word in another language. For example, the Spanish word ventana means window as does the Italian word finestra, or the Norwegian word vinduet or the Russian word okho.  Therefore, it would seem that to translate from one language into another would be an easy task, however there are a number of problems that all translators encounter.

The first is that the way a sentence is structured in one language is not always the same as in another language. Take for example the French sentence, “Parlez vous Francios?” or the German, “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”   Literally translated they would read, “Speak you French?” and “Speak you German?” Although this is grammatically correct French and German, it is bad English so we would translate this as: “Do you speak French?” and “Do you speak German?” Although technically this is not a word-for-word translation we would nonetheless consider it to be a literal translation.

Another similar problem is that in many languages, they don’t use possessive nouns. For example, instead of saying the bird’s feathers, they would say, the feathers of the bird. However, when translating that into English, the translator would most likely use the phrase, “the bird’s feathers” only because that’s how we would say it in English. Therefore, most of the time translators don’t literally make a word-for-word translation but instead make the sentence conform to the grammatically correct way it is written in English.

Even so, the various European languages pretty much follow a very similar sentence structure as we do in English but this is not the case with the ancient languages. For example, the sentence structure in the second century Latin is so radically different from that of English that if we were to translate it literally word for word, it would almost make no sense to us. And the same is true of other ancient languages.

The second problem faced by translators has to do with synonyms. A synonym is a word that is similar in meaning to another word which often times allows the translator to pick which English word they want to use in place of the foreign word. For example, synonyms for the word lie are: untruth, deception, falsehood, fib, or tall tale. Although each of these words convey a slightly different meaning, a translator has the option of choosing which synonym they want to use when translating the word “lie” in one language into another. Therefore, it is not uncommon to read slightly different wording when comparing an English translation from one foreign document with another English translation of the same document.

For example, in Isaiah 7:14 we read that “a virgin shall conceive and have a son.” However, the Hebrew word translated as virgin is almah, which simply means a woman who is old enough to be married. It doesn’t necessarily mean that she has never slept with a man, although that is often understood to be the case. Therefore, the Bible translators could have used an English word other than virgin, and in some of the modern translations they do.

Another example is the Hebrew word sheol. The translators of the King James Bible have chosen to use the word hell as the English equivalent but in reality sheol is a place of darkness where both the righteous and the unrighteous go when they die. Therefore, many modern translators prefer to use the word grave, instead because they feel it is a more accurate English word.

In Luke 2:14 of the King James Version (KJV) it reads “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” However, in the Revised Standard Version (RSV) it reads, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he [God] is pleased!” While in the Darby Translation (DT) it reads “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good pleasure in men,” and in Young’s Literal Translation (YLT) it reads “Glory in the highest to God, and upon earth peace, among men — good will.”

Most Christians are familiar with John 1:1 which reads, “In the beginning was the Word,” where “the Word” is referring to Jesus Christ. The Greek word for this is logos which appears 316 times in the New Testament but is translated 25 different ways. For example, it is translated as communication, thing, talk, the matter, question, rumor, treatise, intent, as well as a number of other English words.  (see Note at the end of this article.)

In addition to this, many people have wondered why there are so many “thee” and “thou” pronouns in the King James Version of the Bible? To us, this seems like a funny way of speaking, but back in 1611, when this Bible was first published, this is exactly how people spoke. In other words, when the King James Bible was first published, it was written in the common English language of that era.

Since we don’t speak that way anymore, the newer translations of the Bible are written using the words, grammar, and expressions that are in common usage today. And that’s because over time languages always change. For example, the Federalist Papers were written in 1789 but even though they were written in plain, proper English, today many people have difficulty understanding them.  Perhaps five hundred years from now people will look at our contemporary Bibles and say that we sure did talk funny in the twentieth century.

What all of this shows is that translators have a wide latitude when it comes to converting a word or phrase in a foreign language to a similar word or phrase in English as well as how to rephrase a foreign sentence into grammatically correct modern English.

But there is yet another problem with making a literal translation. There are times when a word in one language doesn’t have an equivalent word in English and there are three different forms of this problem.

The first is that a word or a phrase in one language has a meaning that is not easily translated into another. One example of this are idiomatic expressions such as telling someone to “get a life.” This is usually said in a sarcastic way or as a criticism towards someone who is wasting their life doing things that don’t matter, or who are so obsessed with doing one thing that they ignore everything else.

And there are many other similar kinds of idiomatic phrases such as, you sound like a broken record, he was hung out to dry, straighten up and fly right, dancing with the devil, just in the nick of time,  the grass is always greener on the other side, wake up and smell the roses, whistling past the graveyard, preaching to the choir, and there’s more than one way to skin a cat. If we were to literally translate these phrases into another language, their meaning would be completely lost and, in most cases, someone who speaks a different language would be totally baffled by what these phrases mean.

A similar problem to this is that there are colloquial words and phrases that every generation uses that are unique to them such as hunky dory, carbon copy, fiddlesticks, knucklehead, the cat’s meow, heavens to Betsy, gee whillikers, Jumping Jehoshaphat! and Holy smoke. And the same is true in reverse. There are saying in French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Japanese and nearly all other languages that would lose their meaning if we were to translate them word for word.

The second most common form of this problem is that there are different words in another language that only has one word in English. For example, in French there are three different words that mean “you” but each word in French has a very specific meaning. There is one French word for “you” that is used when talking about people in general. Then there is another word “you” that is used when talking to or referring to friends or close associates. And then there is a third French word “you” that is only used when talking with intimate family members such as a spouse, parents, or children. Yet those distinctions are completely lost when we can only translate those three different French words into the one English word “you.” In Korean, there are seven different words which we would translate as “pride,” but in Korean each of those words convey a very different meaning. Therefore, when we translate them into English all of those different meanings are lost.

And then there are words in one language that have no equivalent word in English. For example, in the Old Testament we read about dragons. This comes from the Hebrew word tanniym which can refer to a land or sea “monster.” But there is no exact definition of what the ancient Hebrews considered to be a monster. It could be a large sea serpent or a whale or a large, ferocious looking land beast. Therefore, not knowing exactly what the word tanniym means, the King James translators decided to use the English word dragon, while today’s modern-day translators have decided to use other words.

We also read about unicorns in the Old Testament but this comes from the Hebrew word reham. The problem is that biblical translators have no idea what this word means. They believe it was probably an animal that the ancient Hebrews were familiar with but which has since become extinct, therefore when looking for a word in English to describe reham translators have to use their best guess.

In the book of Genesis, we read where Jacob gave his son Joseph a “coat of many colors.” This phrase comes from the Hebrew words kethoneth passim, however, biblical scholars are not sure what this phrase actually means. It could mean a long coat with sleeves, or a coat with colorful stripes, or a brightly colored vest, or a richly ornamented robe, or simply a special garment. Because of this uncertainty we find many of the newer English translations each using different words to describe what Jacob gave to Joseph.

Because of these many problems, some people prefer to use a different kind of translation technique known as paraphrasing where, instead of making a word-for-word translation, they do a meaning-for- meaning translation. In other words, instead of replacing one foreign word with its equivalent English word, they try to convey the meaning of what is being expressed.

For example, in one particular business there is a sign in Spanish that reads: “No usar telefonos celulares.” A literal translation would be “No use telephone cellular” but we would translate that as: “Don’t use your cell phones.” However, a paraphrase translation would be: “The use of cell phones in this facility are not allowed (or not permitted/forbidden/banned/illegal).” As we can see, that’s not what the sign actually says but it is what the sign means. Thus, a paraphrase translation is one that expresses the meaning of the message rather than providing a literal word-for-word translation. It is thought by some that in this way the reader gains a clearer understanding of what the original writer was trying to say.

For this reason, there are many different paraphrase Bible translation on the market today, such as God’s Word Translation, The Good News Translation, The Living Bible, The Message, The Contemporary English Version, and many others.

However, the problem with this kind of translation is that it’s more interpretive than it is objective. By that we mean that it is the translator who determined the meaning of what the foreign writer was trying to convey. In some cases that is easy to do but in other cases the translator tends to interpret the meaning of the written words according to their own ideas and bias. Therefore, in a paraphrase translation of the Bible we get what the translator thinks the original writer is trying to say, which may or may not be entirely correct.

With this understanding, the question we need to ask is, which kind of process did Joseph Smith use when translating the Book of Mormon?  Did he look at the reformed Egyptian markings and give us their equivalent English word, or did he give us a paraphrased rendering of what Mormon was trying to tell us, or did he used a combination of both? As stated earlier, Joseph Smith didn’t give us a clear explanation of the translation process he used, therefore we have to look for clues in what information we do have.

The common impression most people have is that Joseph Smith sat at a table with the plates in front of him and as he looked at the engraved inscriptions he was able to know their English meanings, however, he has also said that he translated the Book of Mormon through the power of God. Since Joseph had no knowledge of ancient Reformed Egyptian writings, it is clear that he couldn’t read what was written on the plates. In that case, it had to be God who was giving him what he wanted the English translation to say.

We also know that the title page of the Book of Mormon gives us the purpose of the book, which is for “the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations.”  Since it is the message contained in the Book of Mormon that is vitally important to God, therefore it is obvious that giving a literal, word-for word translation was not something that was particularly high on God’s list of priorities. And if that is true, then it seems certain that God gave Joseph a rendering of Mormon’s words that was designed to help convince people to believe in Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world.

To show how easily God could do this, in Hebrew the word for anointed savior is Messiah, but in Greek that same word is translated as Christ. Therefore, it would be an accurate literal translation for someone to use the word Christ in place of the word Messiah whenever it is found in the Old Testament. Since the Book of Mormon is meant to be a witness of Christ and his mission, it would be an accurate literal translation for God to use the word “Christ” when in fact the Nephite prophets may have actually used the word “Messiah” or a word in their language that meant the anointed one.

In fact, Jesus has been called by many different names. He refers to himself as Alpha and Omega and has been called the Redeemer, the Prince of Peace, the Lamb of God, the Deliverer, the Great Jehovah, and over 200 other names. Yet, no matter which name we use, we are talking about the same person and can therefore accurately translate all of these various names as Jesus Christ.

Furthermore, since people living in 1830 were very familiar with the writings of the New Testament, it appears that, at least in some places, God gave Joseph a paraphrase of Mormon’s words by including similar language found in the New Testament in order to help us gain a clearer meaning of Mormon’s message. In other words, Mormon may not have used the actual wording we see in the New Testament, but his message and doctrine was nonetheless the same as those who wrote the New Testament, and a paraphrase translation would show the similarity in message and doctrine between these two books of scripture.

For example, Jesus told the people of his day that all the Old Testament prophets testified of him, and on the day of his resurrection, while Jesus was walking with two of his disciples as they traveled to the village of Emmaus “beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Yet, as we read the Old Testament those testimonies are not clearly evident even though they are there. However, the Old Testament scriptures cited in the Book of Mormon plainly talk about the life and mission of Jesus and in doing so it makes it much easier to see how all the prophets testified of Christ. In this way, the Book of Mormon fulfills its stated mission to be a second witness of Christ.

Since God was the actual translator of the Book of Mormon we have today, then his interpretation of what Mormon wrote would obviously be highly accurate, even if he did not render it to Joseph Smith literally, word-for-word. And if God was the one who provided the translation then we can say with certainty that the Book of Mormon truly is the word of God.


Related articles can be found at The Nature of Scripture.

NOTE: The Greek word logos is translated in the New Testament as:

  • the word – John 1:1
  • for the cause – Matt 5:22
  • communication – Matt. 5:37
  • sayings – Matt. 7:24
  • an account – Matt. 12:36
  • thing – Matt. 21:24
  • talk – Matt. 22:15
  • reckon – Matt. 25:19
  • the matter – Mark 1:45
  • question – Mark 11:29
  • fame – Luke 5:15
  • rumor – Luke 7:17
  • treatise – Acts 1:1
  • this matter -Acts 8:21
  • intent – Acts 10:29
  • tidings – Acts 11:22
  • speaker – Acts 14:12
  • mouth – Acts 15:27
  • reason – Acts 18:14
  • exhortation – Acts 20:2
  • speech – Acts 20:7
  • work – Rom. 9:28
  • utterance – 1 Cor. 1:5
  • preaching – 1 Cor.1:18
  • concerning – Phil. 4:15
  • show – Col. 2:23