What are 1769 King James Version edition errors doing in the Book of Mormon? A purported ancient text?
In response, apologists sometimes claim that the Book of Mormon does not transmit translation errors, mainly focusing on the highly subjective nature of translating. For example,
No, the Book of Mormon does not contain unique errors from the King James Version bible.
And, apologists sometimes claim that what the CES Letter calls translation “errors” doesn’t necessarily agree with what Biblical scholars would call an “error” anyway.3
Does the Book of Mormon preserve King James Version translation errors? We can validate this claim directly by asking expert Biblical scholars whether they would view the King James translations as “errors”. These expert views can also give us our best, unbiased scholarly insight into what the Hebrew words recorded in the Bible would have likely meant to a Jew from that time period.
Method: email scholars and post to expert forums
I sought after an unbiased expert opinion on whether the verses noted in the CES Letter KJV errors appendix (which was borrowed with attribution from a post by curious mormon here) stand up to scrutiny. Because almost all the verses were from Isaiah, I decided to focus on those for this particular survey. I also discarded a couple verses whose translation accuracy seemed less questionable from the outset.
I sent out emails to about 15 scholars in Hebrew translation from the best liberal and conservative [i.e., biblical literalist] universities and tried to include what seemed to be the very best and most well-known scholars in the world on the topic based on a series of google searches. In addition, I posted these verses to AcademicBiblical and AskBibleScholars. My emails followed the same form as the posts linked above.
I suggested that scholars use this scale to rate the merit of each KJV translation:
4 = Perfectly Accurate (the KJV is correct) 3 = Somewhat Accurate (the KJV is somewhat correct) 2 = Neither Accurate nor Inaccurate (the KJV is neither correct or in error) 1 = Somewhat Inaccurate (the KJV is somewhat in error) 0 = Completely Inaccurate (the KJV is in error) U = don't know or undecideable
In my email/post, I noted the 1769 KJV translation along with the ESV translation (which is a well-respected modern translation) and pointed to Strong’s concordance for each word or phrase in question.
Very few scholars responded to my email requests; however, two eminent scholars did respond (one with numeric ratings) and some scholars responded in parts to my request in the reddit forums. Those who generated any kind of significant response are listed here:
- Jan Joosten4: Regius professor of Hebrew at Oxford (Oxford itself is considered the pinnacle of scholarship on the Bible by many). Regius chairs are the most prestigious chairs in Britain (there are only 9 of them at Oxford in total), and he is also editor-in-chief of the journal Vetus Testamentum and President of the International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies. Complete response with numeric ratings.
- Robert Alter: Professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley. Alter recently finished his own complete translation of the Hebrew Bible. Roger Baker, a BYU religion professor, gave Alter’s The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary a glowing review: “[Alter] uses English that is loyal to the Hebrew text and captures the nuances of poetic device, both in Hebrew and in English.”
- /u/fizzix_is_fun: self-professed fusion scientist who claims (and seems to demonstrate over and over again) fluency in Biblical Hebrew.
- SF2K01: uses the flair for a Jewish Orthodox Rabbi and a Masters degree in Ancient Jewish History and Hebrew Bible, and appears to be fully fluent in biblical Hebrew.
I should emphasize that nobody who answered these questions had any skin in the game—nobody knew this was about Mormonism at all—,and participants had a nice Likert scale to work with, so they had no reason to rate something “0 Completely Inaccurate (the KJV is in error)” unless they really felt that way about the KJV translation.
Verses that may not be in error at all
Verses that may not constitute a significant error
For various reasons, it is difficult to say definitively that these are “errors”.
Isaiah 6:2,6 / 2 Ne 16:2,6 seraphim vs. seraphims - [I didn’t ask anyone about these two verses since I don’t think they merit inclusion as a significant errors, at least until I can be convinced otherwise]
Isaiah 5:2 / 2 Ne 15:2 fence vs. dig - Joosten rates this “U”.
the word is attested just once: the cognates in other Semitic languages mean ‘to dig’ or ‘to turn over (the soil)’, but the Septuagint and medieval commentators take it to mean ‘to build a fence’
Alter implies KJV is incorrect (“ESV is correct”). User laustcozz notes that there is a relationship between digging and fencing which also means it’s hard to call the KJV translation a complete “error”. So, based on AcademicBiblical response, it’s difficult to call this an “error”.
Isaiah 13:21 satyrs - Joosten 3 (“somewhat accurate”) - “the word means ‘he-goats’ but it is used of mythical beings too (Lev 17:7)”. SF2K01 writes “Satyr carried Greek connotations that are not applicable. They’re primarily goats, occasionally thought to be some kind of demon due to the contextual rituals, probably tied into a foreign worship or a specific use of hairy creatures or even dress in said rituals. Here, as we’re not talking about anything ritualistic, the default remains goats.” Alter says “Reference is to goat-gods, so KJV is preferable”.
Verses that may contain a significant error
Isaiah 10:18 standardbearer - Joosten says U - “this word is attested only here, its meaning is unvertain [sic]”. Alter says “ESV a better guess”. But SF2K01 writes “KJV complete nonsense here (assuming נס = נסס). It is clear that נסס is a weakening of some sort and the meaning holds across local semitic languages.”
Isaiah 3:2 / 2 Ne 13:2 prudent - Joosten rates this a 0 (“completely inaccurate”); Alter implies KJV is incorrect (“The diviner is correct, and the last term should be ‘expert in incantations.’”). fizzix_is_fun rates this a 0 (“completely innacurate”), but acranger notes that “prudent” had a somewhat different meaning in 1769 which makes this less inaccurate to my mind. So, a possible error.
Verses that seem to contain significant errors
Isaiah 2:16 pictures - BYU scholars Pike and Seely examine this verse in great depth and conclude “We are thus not presently aware of any solution that satisfactorily accounts for all the questions regarding 2 Nephi 12:16 in its relation to the preserved text of Isaiah 2:16”.6 Joosten rates it a 0 (“completely inaccurate”) - “the word means ‘ships’ (the word was borrowed from Egyptian, which the KJV translators had no access to)[ESV] against all the ships of Tarshish, and against all the beautiful craft.” fizzix_is_fun calls this a U. Alter says “It’s all guesswork by context”.
Isaiah 3:3 eloquent orator - Joosten rates this a 0 (“completely inaccurate”) - “ESV is better”. fizzix_is_fun rates this a 1 (“somewhat inaccurate”). Alter implies this is incorrect (“expert in charms” [the ESV translation] is correct).
Isaiah 9:1 grievously afflict - Joosten 0 (“completely inaccurate”) - “but I sympathize, the verse is really difficult”. SF2K01 writes “כבד can refer to heavy as in weight or honor. Best to think of it as “dealt with seriously” or harshly”. Alter thought I gave incorrect verse and chapter so didn’t comment.
Isaiah 11:3 of quick understanding - Joosten 0 (“completely inaccurate”) - “the text means ‘his smelling will be in the fear of the Lord’”. SF2K01 writes “Literally given breath, meaning animated, lively or “enspirited” in discussing a moral quality. Neither translation works well here.” Alter says KJV and ESV “are entirely wrong” (Hebrew means something like “his spirit” or “his breath.”)
Isaiah 13:22 wild beasts and dragons - Joosten 2, 0 “ESV is much closer to the mark”. SF2K01 writes “אי as indicated is some kind of howling animal, תנין are mysterious sea serpents (sometimes crocodiles). Dragon carries too much European mythological weight so not a great translation for us.” So, “wild beasts” seems okay-ish, but dragon is “completely inaccurate”. Alter implies this is incorrect (“ESV is correct.”)
Isaiah 49:5 though Israel be not gathered - Joosten - “the Hebrew here has two alternate reading lo[w] ‘to him’/lo[’] ‘not’; according to the context ‘to him’ is correct” (I assume he would call that a 0). SF2K01 writes “The text is written utilizing the word לא meaning not, but results in the problematic reading of “Israel will never be gathered” when combined with יאסף. This is traditionally corrected to לו meaning “to Him” which makes more sense grammatically (there are lots of problematic texts which mistake the ו O for an א O and vice versa, so it is a common scribal error).” Alter implies this is incorrect (“ESV is correct.”)
At least 6 verses seem—based on scholarly consensus—to contain significant translation errors, as judged by at least two eminent scholars and additional biblical scholars who appear competent. Two additional verses may contain significant errors, but these seem more debatable. Based mostly on more archaic meanings of words used in King James translations, a few verses that appear to be translation errors to many scholars may not, in fact, be errors.
What does this mean for modern and ancient origin theories of the Book of Mormon? We might expect Joseph Smith to have pulled from an available Bible in trying to convey the essence of the plates in language that would be familiar to his audience. We do not expect Joseph to rely on his Bible when the meaning on the plates would be incorrectly and inadequately expressed. The repeated one-for-one reliance on a faulty translation for particular words and phrases suggests either that no ancient text was being referred to, or—more generously—no ancient text was being closely referred to during that portion of the translation.
After I made him aware, Conflict of Justice defended the essential accuracy of each verse I discuss above. The next step in discussing these verses should be to subject his defenses to scrutiny from modern Bible scholars. Are the defenses sound?
Appendix: LDS scholars corroborate
At least four LDS scholars acknowledge errors in or significant divergence between the Book of Mormon Isaiah compared with our expectations of what Isaiah from an ancient source would likely appear.7
If the Book of Mormon’s rendering of Isaiah 6 and 7 constituted a more accurate translation than the KJV, it would be expected to differ from the KJV in ways that parallel at least some of these revisions. It does not. In every case it more closely follows the KJV. (emphasis added)
Latter-day Saints sometimes brush such criticism [that the Book of Mormon pulls from deutero-Isaiah] aside, asserting that such interpretations are simply the work of academics who do not believe in prophecy, but this is clearly an inadequate (and inaccurate) response to a significant body of detailed historical and literary analysis.
Recent Isaiah scholarship has moved … in favor of seeing the book of Isaiah as the product of several centuries of intensive redaction and accretion. In other words, even Isaiah 2–14 would have looked very different in Nephi’s time than it did four hundred years later at the time of the Dead Sea Scrolls, when it was quite similar to what we have today.
Dan McClellan, the Scripture Translation Supervisor for the LDS Church, responded to the question “What are your thoughts on the historicity of the Book of Mormon in light of your understanding of the documentary hypothesis?” He responded (emphasis added):
Thank you for the question. This is probably the biggest challenge that’s facing Latter-day Saint apologists these days. How can they account for the Book of Mormon as a translation while also confronting the indisputable fact that it quotes from Biblical passages that were composed centuries after Lehi and his family left Jerusalem with the Brass Plates, and even more challenging that it quotes directly from the King James version of those passages including some translation errors and idiosyncrasies unique to the King James version? Some scholars try to discount the Documentary Hypothesis or Deutero Isaiah as a way to side-step the challenge. That has not ultimately proven to be successful—I don’t think it can be. I think apologists are going to have to confront the fact that Joseph Smith played a role in the articulation of the text in some way, shape, or form.
LDS scholar Stephen Smoot acknowledged (emphasis added):
…and so I think all parties can agree that there are King James citations and errors, but the question is what kind of a translation is it …
These LDS scholar observations seem consistent with the idea that the Book of Mormon is a preservation of the KJV Isaiah rather than approximating what we might expect from an ancient source, necessarily.
The CES Letter continues the question by asserting that the errors are unique to the 1769 “edition” of the Bible:
What are 1769 King James Version edition errors doing in the Book of Mormon? A purported ancient text? Errors which are unique to the 1769 edition that Joseph Smith owned?
It is worth noting that the KJV carries these specific translation errors across both the 1611 and 1769 King James versions, so they are not unique to the 1769 version and no other version or printing of the King James Bible, as implied by the question. That said, the Bible verses embedded in the Book of Mormon do show a clear reliance on the 1769 King James version of the Bible and not on the 1611 version.8 So, until someone demonstrates the uniqueness of translation errors to the 1769 version (say, compared to other editions or printings of the King James Bible), the question is probably better shortened, as I did in this analysis. ↩
The examples in the appendix are not the only examples of errors in the KJV by any means. For example, Stan Spencer, and LDS researcher, has detailed eight examples in Isaiah chapters 6 and 7 where a more accurate translation would likely follow the revised version (RV). He writes: “The RV is essentially a corrected version of the KJV. If the Book of Mormon’s rendering of Isaiah 6 and 7 constituted a more accurate translation than the KJV, it would be expected to differ from the KJV in ways that parallel at least some of these revisions. It does not. In every case it more closely follows the KJV.” He finishes his assessment by referring to these as “translation errors.” ↩
For instance, see this comment on mormonscholar
This really isn’t substantiated real well outside of Mormon critical circles. What a MoCrits terms an “error” doesn’t jive with what most biblical scholars agree is an “error.”
Joosten was recently sentenced to a year in jail from downloading child pornography. Arguably, his expertise and scholarly interpretations should stand on their own merit, but in the interest of transparency and because some may not be inclined to trust scholarship coming from a source that is morally compromised, I include this footnote. ↩
None of these statements should be viewed as concessions for a non-historical Book of Mormon: in various ways, these scholars have argued for a divine and/or a historical Book of Mormon despite these acknowledgements and in some instances have provided contextualizations for understanding the errors as part of a divine/historical process. ↩
The reliance of the Book of Mormon on the 1769 King James version as opposed to the 1611 King James version may be easily demonstrated by lining up Book of Mormon verses pulled from the Bible using the original manuscript or first printer’s edition (where the original manuscript is not extant) and comparing them to the 1611 King James and the 1769 King James Bibles. I give one typical example in the introduction here. ↩