Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Nephi the Hebrew

Discussions of the Book of Mormon here have frequently included complaints from critics about the poor writing style, especially the annoying use of the phrase "and it came to pass." Critics say that Joseph was just imitating Bible language in his clumsy fraud, but it doesn't take much reading to realize that when it comes to awkward KJV language, the Book of Mormon definitely exceeds the Bible. "And it came to pass" occurs much more frequently. Laziness on Joseph's part? Perhaps. Or there could be another reason. Donald W. Parry, Donald W. Parry, an instructor in biblical Hebrew at Brigham Young University, addresses the common question about this phrase in the LDS publication, The Ensign, Dec. 1992, p. 29:
Why is the phrase “and it came to pass” so prevalent in the Book of Mormon?

Mark Twain once joked that if Joseph Smith had left out the many instances of “and it came to pass” from the Book of Mormon, the book would have been only a pamphlet. (Roughing It, Hartford, Conn.: American Publishing Co., 1901, p. 133.) There are, however, some very good reasons behind the usage of the phrase—reasons that further attest the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.

The English translation of the Hebrew word wayehi (often used to connect two ideas or events), “and it came to pass,” appears some 727 times in the King James Version of the Old Testament. The expression is rarely found in Hebrew poetic, literary, or prophetic writings. Most often, it appears in the Old Testament narratives, such as the books by Moses recounting the history of the children of Israel.

As in the Old Testament, the expression in the Book of Mormon (where it appears some 1,404 times) occurs in the narrative selections and is clearly missing in the more literary parts, such as the psalm of Nephi (see 2 Ne. 4:20–25); the direct speeches of King Benjamin, Abinadi, Alma, and Jesus Christ; and the several epistles.

But why does the phrase “and it came to pass” appear in the Book of Mormon so much more often, page for page, than it does in the Old Testament? The answer is twofold. First, the Book of Mormon contains much more narrative, chapter for chapter, than the Bible. Second, but equally important, the translators of the King James Version did not always render wayehi as “and it came to pass.” Instead, they were at liberty to draw from a multitude of similar expressions like “and it happened,” “and … became,” or “and … was.”

Wayehi is found about 1,204 times in the Hebrew Bible, but it was translated only 727 times as “and it came to pass” in the King James Version. Joseph Smith did not introduce such variety into the translation of the Book of Mormon. He retained the precision of “and it came to pass,” which better performs the transitional function of the Hebrew word.

The Prophet Joseph Smith may not have used the phrase at all—or at least not consistently—in the Book of Mormon had he created that record. The discriminating use of the Hebraic phrase in the Book of Mormon is further evidence that the record is what it says it is—a translation from a language (reformed Egyptian) with ties to the Hebrew language. (See Morm. 9:32–33.)
Yes, the Book of Mormon is filled with narrative where this phrase should be found and used heavly. A short word with a long translation contributes to the sense of poor writing and dryness in the text, but that comes from standard writing in Hebrew or other Semitic languages. But where the Book of Mormon gets poetics, as in 2 Nephi 4 and in some of the chiastic passages, there's a different feel. In future posts, we'll address the persistent nature of Hebraisms in the text, one of the many interesting evidences for authenticity as an ancient Hebrew text.

Since I just mentioned the opening chapters of First Nephi in recent posts, I'll point to one minor but interesting example. When Lehi declares that he had a vision in a dream, be uses terrible English but very good Hebrew when he says "I dreamed a dream." Check out FAIR Mormon's page on Hebraisms. More to come....

26 comments:

Annie Japannie said...

Interesting! There's another possible Hebraism that I discovered while reading the Book of Mormon in Japanese. It was in Mosiah 7, verse 11 - the English wording is "I should have caused that my guards should have put you to death." I noticed this because the wording is very elegant in Japanese; they have a causative - a verb conjugation that means "to cause someone to V." As I read it in Japanese and noticed how appropriate and native-like it sounded, I flipped back to the English, where I found the much more cumbersome "should have caused that …" A native English speaker, in that situation, would have said "I should have commanded my guards to put you to death," or inserted a similar verb. We're not accustomed to having a causal form of a verb.

When I returned from my mission, I asked a good friend of mine who is an Orthodox Jew and speaks Hebrew very well if Hebrew had a causative mood. She told me that it does, and that it is used often.

Now, the part I don't know is whether this knowledge would have been available to Joseph Smith or how often it occurs in the KJV. But I did think it a rather interesting little tidbit to stumble across on my own.

Anonymous said...

Where is reformed Egyptian in your theory?

Anonymous said...

Reformed Egyptian was the script that was used, not the spoken language.

Darren said...

Where is reformed Egyptian in your theory

We Mormons store it in the closet to have it ready to use when convenient. ;>)

Darren said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Darren said...

Annie;

Very neat connection.

Anonymous said...

As a Jew, I find it a little weird to read posts with titles like "Nephi the Hebrew," not to mention entire books like the BoM that purport to be a history of a branch of my own people (and that turn them into Christians to boot). I'm not complaining, I guess, because after all it's a free country. I'm just saying it's a little weird.

Imagine that I showed up one day telling the story of Zorgax the Mormon, who in the 1830s, sensing the imminence of the Missouri persecution, decamped with his family to the wilds of Saskatchewan, thereby setting off a long chain of events that included the transformation of the Zorgaxians from Mormons into good, sensible atheists like me.

You Mormons might find such an addition to your own history, as you know it, to be a bit strange.

That's kind of how I find the BoM and these discussions of its authenticity as a history of a bunch of Jews-turned-Christians.

Just sayin'.

-- Eveningsun

Papa D said...

That's a good, valuable, interesting point, Eveningsun. Thanks for sharing it.

On a lighter side, would it help to remember that Nephi and his family weren't Jews? lol

Jeff Lindsay: said...

Eveningsun, what an amazing coincidence: I just got a call from Zorgax the Ex-Mormon. He's not exactly in the wilds of Saskatchewan, but close enough in the wilds of Brooklyn. Well, it's a small cosmos after all.

Anonymous said...

PapaD, Lehi and Sarai must have been Jewish. Just look at the Arnold Friberg painting.

Jeff, that call must have been a prank. In one of the least-known events in American history, the real Zorgax, an outspoken abolitionist as well as visionary atheist, was visiting Maryland in 1865 and was killed while attempting to apprehend the fleeing John Wilkes Booth.

Storytelling is fun!

To my previous comment I should add that the strange sense I feel in reading the Mormon scriptures would presumably be felt by an ancient Babylonian, could one of them be brought forward in time to read the Israelite revisions of his sacred myths (e.g., the Flood story). This person might well shake his head and say, "I like the bit about the sons of gods and daughters of men, but the story's just not the same without Utnapishtim."

As the Preacher said, there's nothing new under the sun. Anyone who cares to look can see that the Hebrew scriptures are just as much mashups as the Mormon scriptures.

-- Eveningsun

Papa D said...

"As far as it is translated correctly" has MUCH broader application for me than for most members, as you probably are aware from things I've written here.

Anonymous said...

...the strange sense I feel in reading the Mormon scriptures...

So, why do you read them? Keep grinding that axe...

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, I study the LDS scriptures first for professional reasons. One of my specialties as a teacher is 19th-century American literature, and no American Lit survey class is complete without introducing students to the King Follett discourse and excerpts from the Book of Mormon.

Second, I read them because, as I've said elsewhere, I am in a very modest way active in the gay rights movement, and since the Church has chosen to engage itself in the politics of gay rights, I have an interest in undermining public confidence in the Church's authority, and to do that it helps to know what that authority is founded on.

Third, literary, theological, and political debate is fun.

-- Eveningsun

Darren said...

and since the Church has chosen to engage itself in the politics of gay rights, I have an interest in undermining public confidence in the Church's authority

Wow. A professor who readily admits his bias. It is your very interest to read Mormon scripture *in order to* "undermine" them. So much for objectivity or any advocation to science.

One of my specialties as a teacher is 19th-century American literature, and no American Lit survey class is complete without introducing students to the King Follett discourse and excerpts from the Book of Mormon.

First off, professor, I do not know why parts of the Book of mormon and the King Follett discourse are essential to an American literature class. The latter is NOT original document, went through revisions from who know whom and thus we have no idea as to what Joseph smith taught exactly; nor to the content of the report. Snce your objective is to undermine what the LDS is, there's no need for consistency on your part to get hold of original documents and self critique them.

I'm sure you make a full discolsure to the students who pay a lot of money to get their college credits.

Darren said...

Third, literary, theological, and political debate is fun.

That I agree with.

Anonymous said...

Oh, relax, Darren. There's nothing wrong with having a bias as long as one is open about it. Do you think LDS professors don't have a bias? Do you think Terryl Givens, who is perhaps the most famous LDS American lit prof, doesn't have a bias? One can see his pro-Mormon bias all over his By the Hand of Mormon, but it's still a good book.

What matters in a college literature classroom is not pretending to objectivity, but presenting sound arguments and grading fairly. And you have no evidence whatsoever that I come up short in either way.

And surely you're not suggesting that just because I'm a teacher I can't take my knowledge and values out into the political arena?

I do not know why parts of the Book of Mormon and the King Follett discourse are essential to an American literature class.

American literature surveys have from the beginning included religious writings like Jonathan Edwards' sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," and The Journal of John Woolman. The number of profs who also include samples of the Mormon scriptures is growing, as people like me argue for their importance. The BoM is a great example of how early 19th-century Americans treated contemporary questions about Native American origins, how they tried to square their intense patriotism and Christianity with the fact that the Christian sacred story unfolded solely in the Old World, etc. Smith's ideas in the King Follett sermon are in many ways a perfect illustration of what Ralph Waldo Emerson says in his famous essay "Self Reliance." Fascinating and important stuff, and the Mormon scriptures can help us understand it better.

Of course, in a secular classroom the default is to treat these texts as human creations reflecting their time and culture. In this I am treating the Mormon scriptures exactly the same as professors at secular schools have long treated the Hebrew Biblle and New Testament. (And probably the way BYU profs treat the Greek myths and Hindu scriptures in a world lit class.)

I'm sure you make a full disclosure to the students who pay a lot of money to get their college credits.

Of course I do. I also explain to them precisely how genuine objectivity in literary study is impossible. And trust me, my students always get their money's worth.

-- Eveningsun

Darren said...

Eveningsun;

There's nothing wrong with having a bias as long as one is open about it.

Having a bias you are at least open about it. That is good but I would not goso far as to say "there's nothing wrong" about it. Just my opinion.



But his bias isn't to discredit. (And I don't recall ever hearing of him before - literature is not my thing).

And surely you're not suggesting that just because I'm a teacher I can't take my knowledge and values out into the political arena?


Sure you can. It's just difficult to take your comments as objective.

Smith's ideas in the King Follett sermon are in many ways a perfect illustration of what Ralph Waldo Emerson says in his famous essay "Self Reliance." Fascinating and important stuff, and the Mormon scriptures can help us understand it better.

Now that does sounds interesting.

And no ned to defend hw you present LDS literature in a literature class. I just wanted to know why LDS literature wuld be essential in your class. You replied to that so thank you.

Anonymous said...

I have an interest in undermining public confidence in the Church's authority...

And, having expressed that motivation, how can you expect to have any credibility? Why should anybody trust anything you say? You're intentionally spinning everything you write!

Anonymous said...

And, having expressed that motivation, how can you expect to have any credibility? Why should anybody trust anything you say?

You can't possibly mean that, Anonymous. Think of it this way. In a courtroom trial, the prosecutor has a motivation to convict. The defense attorney is motivated to acquit. Each has a bias, an interest, a motivation. But so what? Does that mean no one need listen to the cases they present? Does that mean the jurors should not trust anything these people say? Of course not. (After all, one of the two sides is probably right!) It just means the jurors should evaluate the quality of the evidence and the soundness of the arguments presented to them.

Jeff Lindsay has an obvious pro-Mormon bias. He is motivated to persuade others of his version of the truth. He even admits it! Does that mean he's "intentionally spinning everything he writes"? Does that mean no one can trust anything he says?

Does that mean we should all go running around screaming "Bias! Bias! Don't let that man teach in our universities! OMG think of the children!"?

Or are things like "motivation" and "having an interest" only disqualifying when they apply to me?

-- Eveningsun

Anonymous said...

Au contraire, my friend. A person who is striving to persuade others to a position by promoting that position is vastly different from a person who "promotes" a position by attempting to undermine perceived opponents on unrelated topics. It's an ad hominem strategy.

Then there's the issue of one who purports to be an educator while intentionally biasing what he says in order to achieve an objective unrelated to education. That's a betrayal of trust.

It's not a question of motive, it's a question of unknown motive. When you comment on DNA studies, for example, do you do so sincerely, or do you cherry-pick and spin in order to create an impression you know to be misleading because it advances a different agenda? What you are doing is inimical to civil discourse.

Anonymous said...

Not so, Anonymous. You're trying to argue that what I do is somehow "vastly different" than what Jeff does. Well, good luck. First of all, you're confusing my political activities with what I do in the classroom. You did it in a subtle way, though. Here's what you wrote:

Then there's the issue of one who purports to be an educator while intentionally biasing what he says in order to achieve an objective unrelated to education. That's a betrayal of trust.

This would have made some sense if you had written "intentionally biasing what he says in the classroom in order to...." But if you had said that you would have been wrong on the facts. As I noted above, you're conflating two arenas of discourse in a way that's highly misleading and for which you have no evidence whatsoever (and that leads you to unfairly impugn my professional ethics, I might add).

Second, it's not ad hominem for me to argue (as I do in the political arena) that the LDS position on gay marriage is suspect because LDS theology is wrong. The two things are very much related.

Doesn't the Church itself hold that if the Book of Mormon is not authentic, the Church is not true? Well, then, if the BoM is not authentic then the Church's political pronouncements cannot be trusted solely on the Church's authority. If I can persuade a Mormon to doubt the authority of the scriptures and of the Church, then half my battle is already one, because then that person has to form an opinion about gay marriage based on logic and evidence rather than mere obedience.

If, in the process, the Church itself suffers, well, that's a danger to which any church exposes itself when it decides to play politics.

For the benefit of all those who, like Anonymous, are predisposed to make unwarranted accusations against me, let me distinguish between two things:

1. Undermining the LDS position on gay marriage by undermining the theology generating that position.

This is something I do only in the political arena (e.g., newspaper op-eds, presentations at campus forums, and the like).

2. Treating the LDS scriptures as 19th-century literature and presenting arguments about their relations to their historical, cultural, and literary contexts, and doing so from the same secular perspective that any respectable academic would adopt when teaching any religious scriptures.

This is something I do in the classroom.

If anyone still feels that what I do is a "betrayal of trust" and "inimical to civil discourse," feel free to explain why. But if you are going to impugn my ethics, please give us some good reasons.

-- Eveningsun

Papa D said...

Fwiw, from the perspective of an active LDS member who also was a history teacher (and now works at a private, religion-founded, small, liberal arts college), there is nothing wrong with how Eveningsun has presented what he says in a public forum like this and in the classroom. Outside of a religion class or a religious institution, when a religious text of any kind is taught (like in a history or literature class), such a text simply must be analyzed and taught as the writing of mankind - and, in the case of the Book of Mormon, it is legitimate to discuss it as the product of 19th Century America AND/OR the product of translation by a 19th Century American.

Yes, concern is legitimate when he has expressed that he has a "mission", if you will, to discredit the LDS Church - but that is in the public forum and not in the classroom.

The problem arises if the teacher explicitly chooses to "attack" the religious claims of a religious book in class (again, unless the setting allows or encourages it - like at a Baptist University, where the bias is understood upfront by all). In that case, the teacher is going outside the history or literature arena and changing the structure of the class to a religion class.

I didn't read anything in Eveningsun's comments to indicate he attacks Mormonism and the Book of Mormon in the classroom.

Anonymous said...

My apologies to Eveningsun for insinuating that he might be anything but objective in the classroom setting. I apologize also for my anger. We clearly disagree on whether the Book of Mormon is of divine origin, but that is no justification for my response. I beg your pardon.

Mateo said...

"Having a bias you are at least open about it. That is good but I would not goso far as to say "there's nothing wrong" about it. Just my opinion."

Darren, you realize you have a very extreme bias in favor of the church being true, right?

It's a fallacy to say that just because you have a known and obvious bias towards the church being true that any one of your arguments must be dismissed.

For me personally I think it's important to recognize one's bias, be willing to try and understand where an alternative point of view is coming from (and why) yet still be able to "stick to one's guns." So to speak.

Where bias really becomes dangerous (as I can tell) is when a person is blind to their bias and refuses to admit it exists. When they dismiss arguments and merely insist that they are right and others must be wrong.

Mateo said...

Basically, when people giving up on even attempting to think critically about a subject they have given into their bias in such a degree that it seems to have blinded them.

I don't know that I really see that as the case with Eveningsun. I've noted plenty of times where he has conceded that this point or that point is valid (even if he often goes on to explain how the same can be said of any number of other religions and philosophies that are discredited by LDS members as "ridiculous".)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the apology, Anonymous. You exemplify the civility that makes this such a great blog.

-- Eveningsun