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?


Filed under Book of Mormon

8 responses to “BoM Literal Translation: Hebraisms?

  1. Clark Goble

    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. Last Lemming

    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. TrailerTrash

    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.

    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. David J

    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. Anonymous

    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. Anonymous

    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. Jared E.

    “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.”

    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. Anonymous

    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