For those interested in Semitic studies: SEMBASE: a database project for the study of Semitic roots

Gold Plates Touchstone Home

Gold Plates Touchstone

studies by A. Chris Eccel, Ph.D.

Biblical Variant Readings in the Book of Mormon (below)
Archaeology: Quest for the Nephites
Archaeology: Nephite Isolation
Lehi's Jerusalem: Bible vs Book of Mormon
The Lost Pages: Stolen or Scuttled?
The Issues of Nephite Language and Chronology
Weighty Issue of a Gold Bible

Biblical Variant Readings in the Book of Mormon

By A. Chris Eccel, Ph.D.

[NOTE: Due to the length of this study, including the table comparing BOM varians with King James mistranslations, the study here is shortened. The whole study can be downloaded in PDF format, at the bottom of this page.]

In 1830, Joseph Smith and his collaborators published the Book of Mormon, the history of Pre-Columbian America from c. 600 BCE to about 421 CE, approximately 1,000 years, which they claimed had been translated from “reformed Egyptian” inscribed on gold plates. It further claims that the Americas were totally devoid of human settlement until the foregoing date, when God led some Hebrew families to this promised land. They divided into two groups, the righteous (Nephites) and those who rejected the church of God, the Lamanites. The latter were cursed with a “dark and loathsome skin” but eventually totally exterminated the Nephites. The native Americans that the Europeans found in the Americas were/are the Lamanites. This “new Bible”, as many called it, contained the names of numerous Nephite and Lamanite cities, some of them fortified, and provided many details of their economy and equipment, including horses, cows, sheep, goats, iron smelting, steel working, chariots, swords and armor, a complex gold and silver coinage, and other objects. Since no Lamanite or Nephite city has ever been found, nor any of the items of their material culture, much less Hebrew or Egyptian inscriptions or documents, interpretation of Biblical and other Middle Eastern material has been the focus of Mormon apologetics.

The Book of Mormon reads like nineteenth-century Christian writing; this is accounted for by the assertion that Christianity has been the true religion ever since Adam, although it was lost and had to be restored from time to time (similar to much earlier Muslim theological history). The Nephites brought with them the Bible as it existed by 600 BCE, already assembled as a single sacred book, and written in Egyptian (!) on brass plates. The writer of the text on the gold plates quoted extensively from Biblical materials, especially Isaiah, which was on the brass plates, and other materials, including the Sermon on the Mount, which Jesus delivered again when he visited the New World after his resurrection, to make the Nephites and Lamanites Christians, at least for about a century, when people started falling away from the “truth.” The Biblical materials in the Book of Mormon are primarily the King James text, which was used in translating the gold plates, since people were used to it. It differs from the King James version, according to the Mormons, when the original text requires different wording to be a correct translation, and according to the critics, in order to make it look as though it is not just the King James version, pure and simple. These variants, which are supposed to be the correct translation of the original text, of Isaiah, and other Biblical texts, have been a focus of apologist research. The claim is that some ancient Biblical manuscripts occasionally agree with the Book of Mormon variants, and since Smith et al. had no access to these manuscripts, and did not know the languages, they could not have come up with variants that enjoy this ancient textual support.

It can be argued that the concept of the Brass Plates, a Bible containing the scriptures that existed in 600 BCE, is anachronistic. The idea of collecting sacred books into a single book did not exist, historically, until Emperor Constantine commanded the Christian leaders to identify the books they accepted, in the Council of Nicaea, so that he could have them all copied into a single volume. It came to be called the Biblia Sacra, biblia being the plural of biblion, a Greek noun meaning “book.” But the reply is obvious: “This simply shows that whoever produced the Brass Plates was way ahead of his time.” Fine. But for the secular researcher, it shows that the authors of the Book of Mormon could not imagine a time when there was no Bible in the current sense of the word.

This study has tried to be exhaustive, although that is always an unattainable ideal. The Biblical passages in the Book of Mormon that were gleaned for examination are very close to exhaustive, and certainly includes all passages of any significant length.

The insertion of Biblical passages was tricky business. This was supposed to be a divine translation, and so these passages would be expected to be perfect translations of the original text, including much of Isaiah, and the words of Jesus on the Mount. Yet the authors dared not depart too far from the accepted text that their prospective audience knew and cherished. They opted to insert primarily the following (with the Biblical and the Book of Mormon references, the latter in parentheses.):

Longer passages:

Isaiah 2-14 (in 2 Nephi 12-24); Isaiah 48-49 (in 1 Nephi 20-21); Isaiah 50-51 (in 2 Nephi 7 & 8:1-23); Isaiah 53 (in Mosiah 14); Isaiah 54 (in 3 Nephi 22); Malachi 3 & 4 (3 Nephi 24 &25); Matthew 5:3—7:27 (in 3 Nephi 12:3—14:27)

Other passages:

Isaiah 29:3-5 (2 Nephi 26: 14-19); Isaiah 29:6-24 (2 Nephi 27:1-35); Isaiah 29:13-23 (2 Nephi 27:25-35); Isaiah 52:7-10 (Mosiah 12:21-24); Isaiah 52:11-15 (3 Nephi 20: 41-45); Exodus 20:2-4 (Mosiah 12:34-36); Exodus 20-4-17 (Mosiah 13:12-24); Micah 4:12-13 (3 Nephi 20:18-19); Micah 5:8-14, 15 (3 Nephi 21:12-18, 21); Matthew 3:2 (Helaman 5:32); Matthew 3:10 (Alma 5:52)

There are many other Biblical verses interwoven into the text here and there. These passages are often reworded to the point that they can be thought of as paraphrases. The reader is left to assume that yet other Biblical material was in Nephite possession that was not included in the Book of Mormon.

The Distribution of the Variants

The process of identifying the Book of Mormon variant readings in the longest Biblical inclusions revealed that they did not occur randomly. Furthermore, they vary in importance. The Book of Mormon translation is supposed to have come from God. Therefore, the fact that the Biblical passages were written in “reformed Egyptian” on the gold plates is irrelevant: the translation would be a revelation of the best English wording of the original text. For Isaiah, that would be his Hebrew composition. A Book of Mormon variant that simply changes the spelling of an English word does not imply any difference between the King James wording and Isaiah’s original text. A variant that adds a ten-word phrase does imply that the underlying Hebrew text had this phrase, which is missing in the King James version. These are extreme cases; other variants may or may not imply a discrepancy between the original text and the King James.

To study their distribution, I first divided the variants into the following categories:

I (first order): variants that presuppose at least some sort of difference in the source document (i.e., the wording in the gold plates required this change).

Ia: first order variants consisting of at least three words.

III (third order): variants that are totally English-language based, and do not raise the presumption of a difference in the underlying text, mostly very minor changes.

II (second order): those that cannot be readily assigned to order one or three.

The four largest texts listed above were selected for analysis since they are long enough to develop a distribution pattern that can be meaningfully analyzed. I then graphed out the variants according to three categories, all variants, second order (minor) variants, and first order variants. The numerical results are found in the table below, and the graph follows the table.

Distribution of Book of Mormon Variants

Orders: I, Ia, II & III; Quarters: 1, 2, 3, 4
Order I variants that exceed three words in length: Ia

Graph of the Book of Mormon Variants

( adapted from A. Chris Eccel,
An Analysis of the Distribution of the BM Variants,
unpublished paper, Chicago, 1972)

The most obvious observation is that it is always the first quarter of a passage that has the most variants. The probability of this happening, if the distribution should be expected to be random, is a very simple calculation, expressed mathematically as .25 x .25 x .25 x .25 = .00390625, or only four chances in a thousand. (based on Eccel, op. cit.) Note that this distribution feature becomes more acute with the more serious variants, and that in the case of the Sermon on the Mount, the variants in the first quarter outnumber those in the last three quarters combined.

The explanation for this distribution is equally obvious. Changes were made for the purpose of calming suspicions regarding the use of the King James version. Making these changes was both tedious and time-consuming. Once it was thought that the reader had accepted the passage as normal, it was no longer necessary to make as many changes. The process seems to be governed either by a time-efficiency principle, or a laziness principle. In either case, this pattern is not consistent with the claim that the variants occur because the Bible had been changed, and the Book of Mormon is correcting the King James in accordance with the original text divinely revealed in the process of translating the gold plates.

And upon all the ships of the sea.

Having degrees in the Classics (Greek and Latin) and the Semitic languages, I found the study of Book of Mormon variants to be especially fascinating, although the research was long and tedious. I not only used the standard critical editions for the Bible (Rudolf Kittel’s Biblia Hebraica, Alfred Rahlfs’ Greek Septuaginta, Eberhard Nestle’s Novum Testamentum Graece, and Alberto Colunga & Laurentio Turrado’s Biblia Sacra iuxta Vulgatam Clementinam), but also the principal editions of the Old and New Testaments in Aramaic, Coptic, Ethiopic, pre-Vulgate Latin and Arabic.

Most of the editions in the bibliography are actually rendered unnecessary by the use of the critical editions. There is no such thing as Isaiah in Hebrew, pure and simple. In fact, there are a number of ancient Isaiah manuscripts, and differences among them, variant readings. An editor, such as Kittel, selects the manuscript that he considers to be the most reliable as his editio princeps, his base text. He then compares it with every other source, not only the other Hebrew manuscripts, but Aramaic, Greek, Latin, Coptic and Ethiopic. At times he will decide that a reading in another Hebrew manuscript is more probable than the reading in his base edition, and will make the substitution. When he does, he lists what his base edition originally said as a footnote, as a variant. When he decides in favor of his base edition, the variant from the other manuscript is listed as a foot note as well. In the end, he produces his edition, called a recension, that is thought to be an improvement over the base manuscript, but in the footnotes he lists all other readings from all the manuscripts used that could reasonably be important. In this manner, he produces a resource that provides the user all significant evidence from all ancient manuscripts. So no one is required to accept Kittel’s decisions. Scholars can examine the other possibilities listed in the footnotes, called the critical apparatus. However, in addition to these standard critical editions, I also tediously combed through other critical editions and published manuscripts. The sources are listed in the bibliography. The numerous sources that I used helps my work come very close to its ideal of being exhaustive.

Now, let us consider the Mormon apologists’ pièce de résistance:

Isaiah 2:16

And upon all the ships of the sea,

and upon all pleasant pictures.
2 Nephi 12:16

And upon all the ships of the sea

and upon all the ships of Tarshish

and upon all pleasant pictures

Defenders of the Book of Mormon have been delighted to find that the Greek Septuagint has the phrase added in the Book of Mormon: “And upon all the ships of the sea.” Joseph Smith, a farmer’s son, knew no Greek, and did not have access to the Greek text. This can only be explained by the fact that the Book of Mormon text is a divine translation of Isaiah’s original, which must have had this phrase.

First, note the Biblical context is using a style called parallelismus membrorum (parallel members). This can be illustrated as follows (Isaiah 2:12-17):

12. For the day of the Lord of hosts shall be upon

every one that is proud and lofty and upon every one that is lifted up
and he shall be made low:

13. And upon all the cedars of Lebanon
that are high and lifted up
and upon all the oaks of Bâshan,

14. And upon all the high mountains and upon all the hills that are lifted up,

15. And upon every high tower, and upon every fenced wall,

16. And upon all the ships of Tarshish, and upon all pleasant pictures.

17. And the loftiness of man shall be
bowed down,
and the haughtiness of men shall be
made low

and the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day.

The parallelism is in the paired items: ones proud and lofty parallel with ones lifted up; cedars of Lebanon parallel with oaks of Bâshan; high mountains parallel with lifted up hills; high tower parallel with fenced wall; ships of Tarshish parallel with pleasant pictures; and loftiness of man parallel with haughtiness of men. The parallelism of verse 16 seems to be from the association between ships of Tarshish and the beautiful goods they bring.

The addition of a member in the Book of Mormon version of verse 16 violates this parallelism. This alone makes it improbable.

Furthermore, while the Book of Mormon adds the phrase, “and upon all the ships of the sea,” the Greek does not; rather, it translates Tarshish as “of the sea.” So the Greek does not provide support.

The Alexandrian translator, a native speaker of Greek, Hebrew being already a dead language, knew that Tarshish was a foreign word. He could treat it as a proper name, as other translators had done, or he could try to figure out what language it came from, and thereby its meaning. To understand his situation, we must bear in mind these characteristics of Hebrew writing in his day:

By translating Tarshish as “of the sea” he got a meaningful phrase, “all the ships of the sea.” He did not add this phrase, he just translated “Tarshish,” at least to his satisfaction. His version is totally faithful to the Hebrew original, which agrees completely with the King James translation. The Book of Mormon authors, by contrast, added a whole new element, violating the parallelism in the context, and finding no support at all, in any ancient manuscript, neither in the Greek, nor in language versions translated from the Greek. It is nothing more than a common English phrase suggested by the context.

The Real Test #1: the Longer Variants

When the Book of Mormon variants reach a certain length, and greater significance, there is no longer room for torturous interpretation. These variants are as follow.

The Longer Book of Mormon Variants

including additions (A) and omissions (O)

Isaiah 2:5 (2 Nephi 12:5): yea, come, for ye have all gone astray, every one to his wicked ways (A)

Isaiah 2:11 (2 Nephi 12:11): And it shall come to pass that (A)

Isaiah 2:14 (2 Nephi 12:14): and upon all the nations (A)

Isaiah 2:14 (2 Nephi 12:14): and upon every people (A)

Isaiah 5:8 (2 Nephi 15:8): that lay field to field (O)

Isaiah 9:4 (2 Nephi 19:4): as in the day of Midian (O)

Isaiah 13:8 (2 Nephi 23:8): they shall be in pain as a woman that travaileth (O)

Isaiah 13:22 (2 Nephi 23:22): For I will destroy her speedily; yea, for I will be merciful unto my people, but the wicked shall perish. (A)

Isaiah 14:2 (2 Nephi 24:2): yea, from far unto the ends of the earth; and they shall return to their lands of promise. (A)

Isaiah 14:4 (2 Nephi 24:4): And it shall come to pass in that day (A)

Isaiah 14:11 (2 Nephi 24:4): is not heard (A)

Isaiah 29:6 (2 Nephi 27:2): And when that day shall come (A)

Isaiah 29:7 (2 Nephi 27:3): the multitude of (O)

Isaiah 29:4 (2 Nephi 26:15): low in the dust (A)

Isaiah 29:4 (2 Nephi 26:15): for the Lord God will give unto him power, that he may whisper concerning them, even as it were (A)

Isaiah 29:7 (2 Nephi 27:3): even all that fight against her and her munition (O)

Isaiah 29:9 (2 Nephi 27:4): all ye that doeth iniquity (A)

Isaiah 29:10 (2 Nephi 27:5): because of your iniquity (A)

Isaiah 29:16 (2 Nephi 27:27): But behold, I will show unto them, saith the Lord of Hosts, that I know all their works (A)

Isaiah 29:17 (2 Nephi 27:28): But behold, saith the Lord of Hosts: I will show unto the children of men that (A)

Isaiah 29:20 (2 Nephi 27:31): assuredly as the Lord liveth they shall see that (A)

Isaiah 48:1 (1 Nephi 20:1): or out of the waters of baptism (A)

Isaiah 48:2 (1 Nephi 20:2): who is the Lord of Hosts (A)

Isaiah 48:3 (1 Nephi 20:3): and they came to pass (A)

Isaiah 48:5 (1 Nephi 20:5): and I showed them for fear (A)

Isaiah 48:7 (1 Nephi 20:7): they were declared unto thee (A)

Isaiah 48:10 (I Nephi 20:10): but not with silver (O)

Isaiah 48:11 (1 Nephi 20:11): I will not suffer (A)

Isaiah 48:14 (1 Nephi 20:14): yea, and he will fulfill his word which he hath declared by them (A)

Isaiah 48:22 ( 1 Nephi 20:22): And notwithstanding he hath done all this, and greater also (A)

Isaiah 49:1 (1 Nephi 21:1): And again: Hearken, O ye house of Israel, all ye that are broken off and are driven out, because of the wickedness of the pastors of my people; yea, all ye that are broken off, that are scattered abroad, who are of my people, O house of Israel (A)

Isaiah 49:7 (1 Nephi 21:7): and the Holy One of Israel, and he shall chose thee (O)

Isaiah 49:8 (1 Nephi 21:8): O isles of the sea (A)

Isaiah 49:8 (1 Nephi 21:8): my servant (A)

Isaiah 49:12 (1 Nephi 21:12): And then O house of Israel (A)

Isaiah 49:13 (1 Nephi 21:13): for the feet of those who are in the east shall be established (A)

Isaiah 49:13 (1 Nephi 21:13): for they shall be smitten no more (A)

Isaiah 49:14 (1 Nephi 21:14): but he will show that he hath not (A)

Isaiah 50:1 (2 Nephi 7:1): Yea, for thus saith the Lord: Have I put thee away, or have I cast thee off forever? (A)

Isaiah 50:1 (2 Nephi 7:1): Yea, to whom have I sold you? (A)

Isaiah 50:8 (2 Nephi 7:8): and I will smite him with the strength of my mouth (A)

Isaiah 50:10 (2 Nephi 7:10): let him trust in the name of the LORD, and stay upon his God. (O)

Isaiah 51:1 (2 Nephi 8:1): ye that seek the LORD (O)

Isaiah 51:2 (2 Nephi 8:2): and increased him (O)

Isaiah 51:7 (2 Nephi 8:7): I have written (A)

Isaiah 51:9 (2 Nephi 8:9): in the generations of old (O)

Isaiah 51:11 (2 Nephi 8:11): and holiness (A)

Isaiah 51:15 (2 Nephi 8:15): that divided the sea (O)

Isaiah 51:20 (2 Nephi 8:20): save these two (A)

Isaiah 52:6 (3 Nephi 20:39): Verily, verily, I say unto you, that (A)

Isaiah 52:11 (3 Nephi 20:41): And then shall a cry go forth (A)

Isaiah 54:4 (3 Nephi 22:4): and shalt not remember the reproach of they youth (A)

Isaiah 54:9 (3 Nephi 22:9): nor rebuke thee (O)

Micah 5:8 (3 Nephi 21:12): my people who are (A)

Micah 5:10 (3 Nephi 21:14): Yea, wo be unto the Gentiles except they repent (A)

Micah 5:15 (3 Nephi 21:21): in anger (O)

Micah 5:15 (3 Nephi 21:21): them; even as upon (A)

Matthew 3:11 (1 Nephi 10:8): that cometh after me (O)

Matthew 5:3 (3 Nephi 12:3): who come unto me (A)

Matthew 5:6 (3 Nephi 12:6); with the Holy Ghost (A) Matthew 5:12 (3 Nephi 12:12): ye shall have great joy (A)

Matthew 12:13 (3 Nephi 12:13): Verily, verily, I say unto you, I give unto (A)

Matthew 12:14 (3 Nephi 12:14): Verily, verily, I say unto you, I give unto (A)

Matthew 5:18 (3 Nephi 12:18): Till heaven and earth pass away (O)

Matthew 5:19 (3 Nephi 12:19: [total change] And behold, I have given you the law and the commandments of my Father, that ye shall believe in me, and that e shall repent of your sins, and come unto me with a broken heart and a contrite spirit. Behold, ye have the commandments before you, and the law is fulfilled. (A)

Matthew 5:20 (3 Nephi 12:20: Therefore come unto me and be ye saved. (A)

Matthew 5:20 (3 Nephi 12:20): your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (O)

Matthew 5:20 (3 Nephi 12:20): ye shall keep my commandments, which I have commanded you at this time (A)

Matthew 5:21 (3 Nephi 12:21): and it is also written before you, that (A)

Matthew 5:23 (3 Nephi 12:23): bring thy gift (O) shall come unto me, or shall desire to come unto me (A)

Matthew 5:24 (3 Nephi 12:24): Leave there thy gift before the altar (O)

Matthew 5:24 (3 Nephi 12:24): unto thy brother, and (A)

Matthew 5:24 (3 Nephi 12:24): unto me with full purpose of heart, and I will receive you (A)

Matthew 5:25 (3 Nephi 12:25): the adversary deliver to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison (O)

Matthew 5:26 (3 Nephi 12:25): And while ye are in prison can ye pay even one senine? Verily, verily, I say unto you, Nay. (A)

Matthew 5:27 (3 Nephi 12:27): Ye have heard that (O)

Matthew 5:29 (3 Nephi 12:27): And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of the members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. (O)

Matthew 5:29 (3 Nephi 12:27): Behold, I give unto you a commandment, that ye suffer none of these things to enter into your heart. (A)

Matthew 5:30 (3 Nephi 12:30): And if thy right had offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee (O)

Matthew 5:30 (3 Nephi 12:30): one of they members should perish, and not that thy whole body (O)

Matthew 5:30 (3 Nephi 12:30): ye should deny yourselves of these things, wherein ye will take up your cross, than that ye (A)

Matthew 5:33 (3 Nephi 12:33): ye have heard that (O)

Matthew 5:35 (3 Nephi 12:33): neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King (O)

Matthew 5:38 (3 Nephi 12:38): Ye have heard that (O)

Matthew 5:43 (3 Nephi 12:43): Ye have heard that (O)

Matthew 5:45 (3 Nephi 12:45): and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust (O)

Matthew 5:46 (3 Nephi 12:46): For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? (O)

Matthew 5:46 (3 Nephi 12:46): Therefore those things which were of old time, which were under the law, in me are all fulfilled (A)

Matthew 5:47 (3 Nephi 12:47): And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? (O)

Matthew 5:47 (3 Nephi 12:47): Old things are done away, and all things have become new. (A)

Matthew 6:1 (3 Nephi 13:1): Verily, verily, I say that I would that ye should do alms unto the poor (A)

Matthew 6:10 (3 Nephi 13:10): Thy kingdom come (O)

Matthew 6:11 (3 Nephi 13:11): Give us this day our daily bread (O)

Matthew 6:25 (3 Nephi 13:25): Remember the words which I have spoken. For behold, he are they whom I have chosen to minister unto this people (A)

Matthew 6:32 (3 Nephi 13:32): (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek) (O)

Mark 1:7 (1 Nephi 10:8): among you whom ye know not; and he is (A)

Acts 3:24 (3 Nephi 20:24): Verily, I say unto you (A)

Acts 3:25 (3 Nephi 20:25): and ye are of the house of Israel (A)

Acts 3:26 (3 Nephi 20:26): and this because ye are the children of the covenant (A)

1 Corinthians 12:5 (Moroni 10:8): but the same Lord (O)

1 Corinthians 12:6 (Moroni 10:8): And there are diversities of operations (O)

1 Corinthians 12:8 (Moroni 10:9): of God, that he may teach (A)

1 Corinthians 12:8 (Moroni 10:10): that he may teach (A)

1 Corinthians 12:9 (Moroni 10:11): exceeding great (A)

1 Corinthians 12:10 (Moroni 10:13): [replacing “prophecy”] that he may prophesy concerning all things (A)

1 Corinthians 12:10 (Moroni 10:16): languages and of divers kinds of (A)

1 Corinthians 13:4 (Moroni 7:45): charity vaunteth not itself (O)

1 Corinthians 13:5 (Moroni 7:45): Doth not behave itself unseemly (O)

The key observation here is that the longer additions or omissions listed above all lack support in the ancient manuscripts.

The Real Test#2: King James Mistranslations

The King James translation was begun in 1604 and completed in 1611. It was done by several teams (companies). The First Oxford Company translated from Isaiah to Malachi. They were John Harding (Professor of Hebrew at Oxford; died in 1610), John Rainolds (Reynolds; 1549-1607; a Greek scholar, educator and Puritan protagonist), Thomas Holland (1539-1612; Calvinist scholar and theologian), Richard Kilby (1560-1620; Regius Professor of Hebrew, responsible for translating the latter part of the Old Testament), Miles Smith (1554-1624; Calvinist scholar, accomplished in the Biblical languages), Richard Brett (1567-1637; clergyman and student of Latin, Greek, Aramaic, Arabic, Hebrew and Ge'ez), Daniel Fairchough (1582-1645; a chaplain and theological disputant, especially in debates against the Jesuits) and William Thorne (1569?-1630; a chaplain and orientalist who had been Regius Professor of Hebrew at Oxford). The translation of the Old Testament was based primarily on the Masoretic text of The Second Rabbinic Bible, edited by Jacob Ben Chayyim and printed by Daniel Bloomberg in 1525, but for some passages not present in this edition, recourse has had to First Rabbinic Bible edited by Felix Praetensis in 1517-18.

The lay believer often assumes that the KJ translation is so good that one can argue from it, word for word, as though it were the Hebrew original. In fact, there are many problems in the translation. The following table reviews some of these, and compares them with the Jewish Aramaic targum translation and the Septuagint Greek translation. One must bear in mind that the Hebrew is the original and trumps all else. The translations are important only when they can shed light on Hebrew words or phrases that are still poorly understood. At times, both the Aramaic and Greek indulge in a bit of translator's license, and even some exegesis. The KJ translators used Masoretic Hebrew manuscripts, and also consulted the Greek and Aramaic when needed. The Masorets were a famous family that was dedicated to preserving the scriptural tradition (masorah means "handing down, transmission, tradition", in Aramaic). Their text did not change the consonantal text, but added vowels and marks for liturgical intonation. The time line is approximately the Great Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa, carbon-14 dated several times with results: 335-324 BCE and 202-107 BCE), the Greek Septuagint (possibly as early as late 2nd century BCE), the Aramaic Targum Jonathan (Yonatan, early 1st century CE) and the Masoretic text of the prophets (c. 900 AD). The antiquity of the Great Isaiah scroll is hugely important, as this text confirms the accuracy of the Masoretic text, and shows the great care the rabbis have exercised in passing Isaiah's text down to us. Although it is the best-preserved of the Dead Sea Scrolls, it does have some occasional small damaged parts, resulting in occasional lacunae in the text.

Since the Book of Mormon Isaiah inclusions are held to be a divine translation, restoring lost or poorly transmitted scriptures, the obvious question is: when the King James translation is wrong, or poor, does the BOM version correct or improve upon it?

The detailed analysis of each mistranslation or weak/dubious translation in the relevant King James Isaiah passages is too lengthy to be presented here, and involves Hebrew and Greek fonts. Here is just a tiny part of the table to illustrate the work.

The full study can be downloaded below, in PDF format.
Isaiah lived between 750-700 BCE. There has been a large amount of excellent research on the received text, focusing on the Hebrew text. It analyzes the content, the occurrence of words, terms and syntax, comparison with well documented historical events and comparison with other books of the OT. The results, that enjoy a high degree of consensus among leading scholars, are: 1) Isaiah wrote, or dictated to be written, passages of varying length at various times in his life, in response to events and his situation. 2) At an early date, these documents were collected by followers of his mission, and edited together. There are passages that were added by these editors, probably sincerely believing that their additions were consistent with and supportive to the materials from Isaiah himself. 3) The initial compilation included chapters 1-39, which preserve the material done by Isaiah himself, plus some additions. It was mostly completed prior to c. 600, i.e., the captivity of the leading Judeans during the short reign of Jehoiachin. 4) Chapters 40-55 are a later product, under Isaiah's name, either done during the exile in Babylon, or shortly after. 5) Chapters 56-66 are of even later composition, clearly postexilic. 6) Editing chapters 1-39 continued into or possibly even after the exile, and consequently they contain some later material as well. All of this is contrary to the position of the Book of Mormon. Although it is not clear that it asserts that all of chapters 1-66 were contained on the brass plates of Laban, minimally, chapters 2-14, 29, 48-51 and 53 are claimed to have been on the plates, and the fact that they follow the masoretic text very closely, the claim precludes later additions to this chapters.
Translation is a notoriously difficult process. Can a poem really be translated at all? If it is translated literally, and the result is not poetry, is it really a translation? One option for the translation of a ten-line ancient poem might be to do it twice, on the left-hand page a totally literal translation, with footnotes, and on the facing page, if the translator thinks he is a bit of a poet, an adaptation of the text into poetic form. It would involve a bit of what is called translator’s license, but may more adequately convey the meaning of the ancient poet. So too, a very pious and sincere ancient rabbi, translating Isaiah’s Hebrew into Greek or Aramaic, may encounter passages where a strictly literal translation might not even work in the other language, in which case he may render the verse with a bit of paraphrasing. In other passages, he may feel that a literal translation will not convey Isaiah’s message, and that it is more important to make that message clear than to be literal. Of course, another rabbi might not agree with his view of what Isaiah’s message was in the verse in question, but the translating rabbi is sure that he knows. This is exegesis, and his rendering of the verse is exegetic translation. Although the Septuagint and Targum versions of Isaiah represented in the table are fragmentary, limited just to words or phrases, yet a careful examination of the table will give the reader some idea of the degree to which these ancient translators struggled with the meaning of Isaiah’s Hebrew composition.
It is not uncommon for religious groups to believe that they have a divine translation of scripture. Traditional Greek Orthodox believers hold that when the Septuagint was translated, seventy-two rabbinical scholars were sequestrated, each in a totally isolated location, and asked to translate the entire OT. When done, the seventy-two totally independent translations were compared and found that they were 100% word-for-word identical, proof that they came from God. The word Septuaginta, in Latin, means seventy, and refers to the number of these legendary translators (72). I have met American Bible-thumping fundamentalists who believe that the King James translators were equally inspired. This is a position that is necessary to their belief that they can treat the English text exactly as though it were what Isaiah wrote in Hebrew, to make their literalist theological arguments. And indeed, although the KJ has many translation deficiencies, it is far more literal than either the Septuagint or Targum Jonathan.
The table above is not a table of King James mistranslations. Certainly, it does contain many mistranslations. It also contains many passages where minimally the KJ has provided a poor or dubious translation. It also contains passages where the KJ translators made their best guess regarding words, particularly those contained in the OT only once (hapax legomena), which still cannot be said to be known for sure. My translation of the masoretic Hebrew text is not totally mine, since I based it very carefully on some of the most prominent of modern Hebrew dictionaries, which often include a reference to, and even a translation of difficult passages such as these. In the end, the validity of this study does not depend on the accuracy of the translation of each and every table entry. Taken overall, the entries make it clear that the KJ has many deficiencies, and support the following conclusions:
1. The King James translation is seriously defective.
2. The table contains numerous opportunities for correction or improvement by a totally perfect, or nearly so, divine translation of Isaiah.
3. In the vast majority of cases, the version of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon retains the KJ wording, or makes such minor edits that they are totally irrelevant to the problems recorded in the table. In only a few cases, more substantive changes are made, but never agreeing with ancient sources. The BOM version neither corrects the KJ translation, nor improves upon it. Not eve n once.
4. This result is perfectly consistent with all other evidence regarding the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. The BOM Isaiah text is exactly what we would expect from authors producing a nineteenth-century historical fiction.

So What?

The Book of Mormon texts of Isaiah claim to be taken from various Nephite writings, which quoted from the text on the Brass Plates of Laban. It has often been assumed that when God revealed the English translation to Joseph Smith, it was a translation of Isaiah’s original text. The large number of relatively long and very substantive additions (mostly) and deletions in the Book of Mormon text make this seem unlikely. However, I know of nothing to require this assumption. It could be argued that the text on the Brass Plates had already been modified, and that the revealed translation is a translation of the Brass Plates, not Isaiah’s original. In fact, if this were the case, then the fact that Laban had a copy that had already been translated into Egyptian introduces another variable, the accuracy of that translation. The mission of Joseph Smith is usually defined in terms of the restoration of all things, and it is hard to understand why God would reveal anything other than the original.
If the comparison of the variants with the ancient manuscripts fails to make a case against the claims made for the Book of Mormon, it must be also said that clearly this study also finds no evidence in its support.
The division of the Isaiah text into chapters evolved over time. We do not know what this division might have been prior to the Great Isaiah Scroll (Q). The beginning and end points of the three long Book of Isaiah inclusions correspond with the chapter divisions in the King James (KJ). These divisions were determined by content, so it is not surprising to find that the divisions in Q largely correspond with those in KJ, but not altogether. The KJ break between 51:23 and 52:1 does not exist in Q. Having all breaks in agreement with KJ breaks is consistent with a nineteenth century origin.
It is much more unlikely, as indicated above, that the variants, whatever their source, would be concentrated in the first quarter of the inclusion. This clearly indicates that the Book of Mormon variants were introduced by its nineteenth-century authors. Reworking the first quarter substantially would be enough to deflect the accusation that the quotations had come straight out of the King James Bible. From that point on it would not be necessary to introduce so many changes.
Since the KJ is far from a perfect translation, we would certainly expect that the BOM version would correct or at least improve on the KJ translation. But it slavishly copies every clear error and dubious rendering.
The main conclusion from the traditional analysis of these variants is that they do not provide support for the Book of Mormon, while the analysis of their distribution and the comparison of the BOM version with KJ errors provide strong evidence for a nineteenth century origin. Finding evidence against the book was never a central objective of this research. Pre-Columbian American archaeology provides a clear answer to this issue. No amount of interpretation of Old World archaeology or internal BOM textual analysis can rescue the Book of Mormon from disconfirmation by the facts on the ground in the New World. This said, certain apologists have had a hay day with the Isaiah material, interpreting it to an audience lacking the background to properly assess their claims.

[The bibliographies are in the PDF download.]

This is the end of a reduced version of a longer study of the variants.

While reserving my copyright to this study, it may be downloaded for free, and cited at will, as long as it is properly referenced. It can be read with Acrobat Reader.