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

Friday, February 05, 2016

A Witness of Book of Mormon Authenticy from a Non-LDS Scholar: Translation of the Afrikaans Version

Faith promoting stories sometimes have obvious weaknesses that can justify discarding the story as just another errant rumor. This can often be the case when enthusiastic LDS believers repeat something they heard or even experienced long ago or report something they heard from someone else. Even when the story is generally accurate, there can be legitimate reasons for questioning and rejecting the story due to gaps, missing details, or outright errors such as mistakes due to details they didn't fully understand or recalled incorrectly.

The story of the translation of the Book of Mormon into Afrikaans is an interesting example of a faith-promoting story that was easy to dismiss because of some apparently illogical and questionable elements. In light of newly available information, we can now correct an error or two in the story and recognize that the story has significant value. In this case, it's a story of a non-LDS scholar who stood as a witness of the ancient origins of the Book of Mormon.

The helpful new information is the transcript of the talk given by the translator, Professor Felix Mijnhard, at the special conference in Johannesburg on May 14, 1972, when he discussed his experience in translating the text. This information is shared by Charles Pyle in comments responding to "Die Boek van Mormon" at UnblogMySoul by John Pontius, who shares his recollection of Dr. Mijnhard's comments heard while he was a missionary in South Africa long ago. 

In his translation approach that commenced with the middle of the text--before he ever looked at 1 Nephi--Dr. Mijnhard found strong evidence that the text must have originally been in a language other than English. He eventually found that Hebrew was an excellent fit, for when he translated passages into Hebrew before translation into Afrikaans, awkward English suddenly made perfect sense. This didn't happen with other target languages he tried. He came to this conclusion before he read 1 Nephi and realized that the book claimed to have ancient Semitic origins.

With some the gaps filled in and errors corrected, thanks to Charles Pyle's input and the transcript of the talk Mijnhard gave in 1972, Kevin Barney at Common Consent feels that the story some of us once dismissed now makes sense, but perhaps is not as dramatic as some may have thought. I think the story is deeper than just being a case of someone noting the existence of some Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon. In any case, it's a notable example of a non-LDS scholar finding what he felt to be compelling evidence for ancient origins (and divine origins) in the Book of Mormon.

Not all that glitters is fool's gold. 


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post, Jeff. In one of the linked webpages we read the thoughts of the polyglot/translator Mijnhardt:

"The problem is how did [Joseph Smith] translate? Did he “see” the correct rendering as a whole or render each passage piece-meal? Considering the time stated for completing the whole work, I cannot believe the latter explanation."

And there it is: Skousen's tight control--i.e. word-for-word transmission to Joseph Smith.

Anonymous said...

Many of your ties to the BoM being an ancient Hebrew text ignore the "fact" that the BoM did not claim to be written in Hebrew but in Reformed Egyptian, a language that no one knows or has ever heard of.

Along the same lines, we can learn as much from the BoM omissions as we can from what is there. I realized today that some of the most important books of the Bible commence with a recitation of Hebrew lineage. There is no attempt in the BoM to establish Lehi's lineage. Part of that recitation in a Biblical context is to establish that one is qualified to be a prophet. If we are considering the BoM strongly as a Hebrew text (though not written in Hebrew), how can such a glaring omission be overlooked?

Also, if Lehi was a prophet, in Jerusalem no less, why was no mention made of him by his contemporaries? Wouldn't it be significant if a known prophet suddenly up and left?

Thirdly, if as you claim, Lehi's family didn't arrive on an empty continent, why would God need to send a Jewish family to the Americas when he could have just raised up a prophet from among the indigenous population?

Jeff Lindsay said...

Some people, especially kings, have extended genealogies given, but this is hardly a general requirement for prophets. For Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Micah, Joel, and other prophets, we are only told who their father is. For Daniel, Amos, Nathan, and Obadiah, for example, we don't even know that.

You might wish to consult the first chapter of the Book of Mormon and see that Nephi carefully establishes his position as the son of goodly parents, Lehi and Sariah. Later he discusses finding the details of his genealogy and mentions that he is of the tribe of Joseph. Details of the genealogy are presumably in the record of Lehi on the lost 116 pages of the Book of Mormon.

What you really need to understand is that one's qualification as a prophet has nothing to do with one's ancestry. In fact, in Lehi's day and beyond, an important aspect of true prophets is that they carefully established the legitimacy of their role by relating the story of their divine commission. This was not based on their ancestry, and a prophet in that age relying on ancestry for his credentials would be a serious blunder. The Jewish Encylcopedia's article on Amos explains why:

Amos' prior professions [his statement that he was a herder] and his claim "I am not a prophet nor a son of a prophet" (7:14) indicate that Amos was not from the school of prophets, which Amos claims makes him a true prophet. Amos' declaration marks a turning-point in the development of Old Testament prophecy. It is not mere chance that Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and almost all of the prophets who are more than unknown personages to whom a few prophetical speeches are ascribed, give first of all the story of their special calling. All of them thereby seek to protest against the suspicion that they are professional prophets, because the latter discredited themselves by flattering national vanities and ignoring the misdeeds of prominent men.

Lehi is in the era after this turning point. He and Nephi carefully establish their legitimacy as prophets not by extraction or genealogy, but by showing how the Lord called them. That's what 1 Nephi 1 does for Lehi as legitimate prophet, and what later chapters of 1 and 2 Nephi do for Nephi's role as legitimate prophet and rightful ruler. It's very authentic stuff, which I'll address in more detail later.

There were many prophets in Judah's history who are not named. There was an entire "school of the prophets," few of whom are ever named. Nephi tells us that Lehi was one of many prophets sent by the Lord in his day, but has no need to name them (though Jeremiah is mentioned in 1 Nephi). The role of prophets is to speak the word of the Lord to their audience, not to share current events or list celebrities.

In Lehi's case, he appears to have fled Jerusalem shortly after his call as prophet. Jeremiah may have known him, but Lehi did not stay around to provide a lasting influence in Jerusalem. Even if they were close, I'm not sure why Jeremiah would have needed to mention him.

Your last question about why God would have needed to send Lehi's family to the Americas is puzzling. God could and probably did raise up prophets among other peoples in the America. But what He did with Lehi is a remarkable story that affected many thousands of his descendants and millions more today. If you have objections to God's handling of the matter, you'll have to take it up with Him.

Jeff Lindsay said...

Lehi's divine commission as prophet, by the way, brilliantly fits the ancient pattern we see among other prophets of his era. For fascinating details, see Blake T. Ostler, "The Throne Theophany and Prophetic Commission in 1 Nephi: A Form Critical Analysis," BYU Studies, Vol. 26, no. 4 (1986): 67-95; ojs.lib.byu.edu/spc/index.php/BYUStudies/article/viewFile/5635/5285divine. (The PDF file is 9 MB.)

As I will explain in the future, Nephi's call as a prophet also follows a similar pattern, when we understand the meaning of some symbolic elements.

Anonymous said...

- Reformed Egyptian is a script, not a language so it is analogous to using the Latin alphabet not for Latin but, maybe for, English....
- Nephi obtained the Brass Plates part of which was so that Lehi could ascertain his lineage. Lehi or Nephi just did not copy their lineage down but Lehi did verify that he was descended from Joseph.


Anonymous said...

Would a Jew really not have known his lineage?

Anonymous said...

Why, do Jews memorize their lineage? Did each Jewish household have their own book of remembrance? Do your know your lineage? Memorized or written down? Why is it odd to get a book that has your lineage?


Anonymous said...

I don't know...It's just that considering the way the different tribes divided up the land amongst themselves, according to tribe, I would suspect that if you were a Jew, you'd know which tribe you came from. Kind of like if you are a citizen of the United State, you know which state you were born in. Or if you are a European, you know which nationality you are.

Anonymous said...

It would stand to reason that an earlier Israelite would know his lineage, but the events of the Book of Mormon take place after the 10 tribes (including Joseph) are lost. There is speculation that some of the dispersed tribes including the tribes of Reuben, Simeon, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Ephraim, and Manasseh may have reintegrated into the Jewish group present in Jerusalem before its destruction. This could include descendants from the tribe of Joseph. It's also possible that Lehi wouldn't know his lineage before this if he were a culturally reassimilated Jew.

That being said, it's also quite possible that all descendents of Joseph were dispersed by the Assyrians and this would be proof of a grave error in the Book of Mormon--both theories are possible so any conclusion drawn from either would be speculation.

It is interesting to note that Nephi addresses why the lineage was not provided:

1 And now I, Nephi, do not give the genealogy of my fathers in this part of my record; neither at any time shall I give it after upon these plates which I am writing; for it is given in the record which has been kept by my father; wherefore, I do not write it in this work.

2 For it sufficeth me to say that we are descendants of Joseph.

It sufficed him only to include the part of his lineage that would apply to the "two sticks" interpretation of the biblical passage:

16 Moreover, thou son of man, take thee one stick, and write upon it, For Judah, and for the children of Israel his companions: then take another stick, and write upon it, For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim, and for all the house of Israel his companions:

17 And join them one to another into one stick; and they shall become one in thine hand.

Another interesting note is that he identified with Joseph, not Ephraim or Manasseh, as many descendends would have done.

As for Egyptian being a script and not a language, according to Nephi, he conveyed Jewish ideas through the Egyptian language: "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." I think a closer modern-day comparison might be using Chinese or Japanese characters to write phoenetic English words or idas. This would be very cumbersome and problematic. It would be interesting to know if Mr. Lindsay has come across evidence of other Hebrews writing using "Reformed Egyptian."

James Anglin said...

What other intermediate languages did Mijnhart try, besides Hebrew? If Hebrew was a language more different from both English and Afrikaans than any of his other options, then this would explain a less awkward result very simply.

Translations between more dissimilar languages are always freer translations. The freer the translation, the more alternative renderings are available. The more alternative renderings from which to choose, the more chances to make an awkward text into something sensible.

This isn't necessarily an explanation that would naturally strike a person who knew several languages and was trying out Hebrew. Mijnhart may well have been really impressed. Nonetheless the apparently wonderful coherency that he found in his Hebrew text may well have been a simple artifact.

One has to think about such things.

Anonymous said...

So let me get this straight. . .

A Hebrew renders his Hebrew thoughts in Egyptian on plates of gold. It's then translated from Egyptian to English, many times without the text in front of the translator. Next, another translator (who actually uses the English text), takes the English version and attempts to translate it to Afrikaans and finds it too difficult. He then translates English into Hebrew, then translates Hebrew to Afrikaans? Is the Afrikaans version of the Book of Mormon still "the most correct of any book on earth"?

Anonymous said...

Back to the question of lineage. If Lehi and Nephi were of the house of Joseph, how did they perform rites in the law of Moses without a Levite?

Anonymous said...

Anon...the official answer that I've read is that Lehi didn't need a Levite because as a prophet, he had the Melchizedek Priesthood. Of course, no where does it suggest in the text that he had any Priesthood at all. Joseph Smith wasn't using the word Priesthood until 1831. The law of Moses set forth the requirements for only one high Priest at a time. This foreshadows the one high priest who was to come later and mediate the new covenant, namely Jesus Christ. From the point of view of the author of Hebrews, a Melchizedek Priesthood holder entering into the Holy of Holies to make an offering for sin would've been ludicrous if not downright blasphemous.

Ryan said...

I would just like to point out that the word "priesthood" does appear in the Book of Mormon in at least 2 chapters: Alma 4 and Alma 13. So Joseph was definitely using the word by 1829, and there is some indication in the BoM that the Nephites had it.

Anonymous said...

Ryan,...what I meant was that he never used the word to refer to any power or authority after the end of the Law of Moses. Even in Moroni when Moroni is telling us how to ordain Elders or bless the sacrament, he never says it is down by the power of Priesthood. It doesn't show up. Ever. Anywhere until 1831. Except in reference to the Law of Moses. Even Bushman points this out in Rough Stone Rolling.

Anonymous said...

down = done

Anonymous said...

Let me clarify. The word Priesthood never shows up in any Mormon source in reference to any power or authority after the death of Christ.

Anonymous said...

Until 1831.

Ryan said...

Interesting take. I suppose you'll disagree, but what I see is the following:

a) in Alma 13, the priesthood is identified as being "without beginning of days or end of years," which seems sufficient to me to show that the priesthood would exist after the death of Christ

b) Alma 13 also references those who received the priesthood as being "ordained" to that position

c) In 3 Nephi, the Savior gives the disciples authority to baptize, and also says there will be someone "ordained" to administer the sacrament

d) In 4 Nephi, there is discussion of those who are "ordained" in the stead of the disciples who had died.

e) In Moroni, as you mention, we are given the specifics of how to prepare the sacrament, ordain others, etc. Although he does not use the word "priesthood," he does make clear that it is Elders and Priests who bless the sacrament, and prior to that he tells how to make someone a Priest.

From all of that, it seems clear enough to me that the word "priesthood" was indeed in Joseph's vocabulary prior to the organization of the church, and that there is a connection between priesthood and authority to perform certain rites. You are welcome to disagree, but I hope you can at least see that the Mormon perspective is not unfounded.

Ryan said...

Also, references c-e indicate that this "ordination" (ie priesthood) were present after Christ's ascension.

Anonymous said...

c). But it never says "priesthood."

d). No Priesthood. Moroni 3 says that leaders were ordained, not by Priesthood, but by the power of the Holy Ghost: "And after this manner did they ordain priests and teachers, according to the gifts and callings of God unto men; and they ordained them by the power of the Holy Ghost, which was in them."

No Priesthood, Ryan.

Ryan said...

I don't dispute that it doesn't say "priesthood" in those particular verses. I'm only saying that there is a pretty clear connection.

Anonymous said...

Why do you follow the sacrament prayers as laid out by Moroni with utmost precision, but you do not follow the pattern for ordaining priesthood leaders set forth by Moroni with the same precision?

Anonymous said...

When Joseph Smith first talked about ordaining someone to "priesthood," it was in June of 1831 at a conference. He assembled some Elders to have them ordained to the "High Priesthood," which he later wrote as meaning the Melchizedek Priesthood. Yes...he was ordaining ELDERS to the Melchizedek Priesthood!

Well, the first man he laid his hands on to ordain to Priesthood was, much to the shock of Hyrum Smith, who was present, suddenly overtaken by a demonic spirit. Joseph Smith cast out the demonic spirit, who then lept into another man. The possessions continued throughout the remainder of the day.

Read your church history, folks.

Ryan said...

I like the sudden change of topic. I think we've deviated far enough from the original post, so I will bow out here.

bearyb said...


Just FYI, your claim "Why do you follow the sacrament prayers as laid out by Moroni with utmost precision..." is not precisely correct. There is one word that is different in D&C 20, and it is the one that should be used.

Anonymous said...

Hi everythingbeforeus,

What are your references? The josephsmithpapers.org relates this account:


Based off of the josephsmithpapers.org web site, you seem to have taken some artistic license in your description of the events.

It also sounds like you expected the church to be restored fully formed, as we enjoy it now in its present form complete with the term Elder being associated with someone who has the Melchizedek Priesthood rather than a growing process.


Anonymous said...


Rough Stone Rolling. Pages 156-157. Bushman's source is Levi Hancock's diary. Also John Whitmer's writings.

Anonymous said...

Hi everythingbeforeus,

I love Rough Stone Rolling. Indeed, you did take some artistic license in your description:

- It does not say that Harvey Whitlock was the first to be ordained to the high priesthood (josephsmithpapers.org confirms this)
- Hyrum was not surprised that Harvey was first (he wasn't the first) nor that Harvey was ordained to the high priesthood but rather that Harvey became possessed (who wouldn't be surprised - again, josephsmithpapers.org confirms this)

What did happen:

- Elders were being ordained to the high priesthood
- Possessions by evil spirits happened
- People were surprised (including Hyrum)
- Heavenly visions also happened

Rough Stone Rolling and josephsmithpapers.org both agree.