“Or in other words,” Separating Smithisms from the Book of Mormon Text

The Book of Mormon is an authentic record of an ancient people, but like any translation, the English text carries the mark of its translator. On the other hand that mark in the Book of Mormon seems to be more pronounced than one would expect from a traditional translation. This seems to be due to the spiritual method in which the Book of Mormon was translated. Although derived from an authentic ancient record, the book is overlaid with the inspired comments, elaborations, and interpretations of its translator, Joseph Smith. For our purposes we’re going to call these inspired additions “Smithisms.”

How can one separate in the text what was the product of antiquity and what was the product of the 19th century? In some cases you can’t, but in others it is more clear, as we’ll see below.

The phrase “or in other words” appears several times in the Book of Mormon. When these clauses appear in the Book of Mormon text they seem to usually represent Joseph Smith’s inspired interpretation of the previous clause, and are not part of the original, ancient record. This is based partly on the phrase’s numerous appearances in the D&C, the JST, as well as Joseph’s personal writings, and also that these clauses do not seem to flow as well in the Book of Mormon narrative and that the text reads fine (and sometimes better) when they are removed. In some cases these clauses are brief addendums, but in others they are detailed extensions of the original word or passage. Below are several examples where we might read the “or in other word” clauses (italicized in the examples) as Joseph’s Smith inspired insertions.

“And it came to pass that while my father tarried in the wilderness he spake unto us, saying: Behold, I have dreamed a dream; or, in other words, I have seen a vision.” (1 Nephi 8:2)

“Yea, even six hundred years from the time that my father left Jerusalem, a prophet would the Lord God raise up among the Jews—even a Messiah, or, in other words, a Savior of the world.” (1 Nephi 10:4)

“Now, whether the souls and the bodies of those of whom has been spoken shall all be reunited at once, the wicked as well as the righteous, I do not say; let it suffice, that I say that they all come forth; or in other words, their resurrection cometh to pass before the resurrection of those who die after the resurrection of Christ.” (Alma 40:19)

“And it came to pass that when Moroni had proclaimed these words, behold, the people came running together with their armor girded about their loins, rending their garments in token, or as a covenant, that they would not forsake the Lord their God; or, in other words, if they should transgress the commandments of God, or fall into transgression, and be ashamed to take upon them the name of Christ, the Lord should rend them even as they had rent their garments.” (Alma 46:21)

“And there began to be men inspired from heaven and sent forth, standing among the people in all the land, preaching and testifying boldly of the sins and iniquities of the people, and testifying unto them concerning the redemption which the Lord would make for his people, or in other words, the resurrection of Christ; and they did testify boldly of his death and sufferings.” (3 Nephi 6:20)

The same type of Smithism appears with other phrases that were most certainly not part of the original text, such as in 1 Nephi 20:1, which is a quotation of Isaiah 48:1. The Prophet’s addition is italicized.

“Hearken and hear this, O house of Jacob, who are called by the name of Israel, and are come forth out of the waters of Judah, or out of the waters of baptism, who swear by the name of the Lord, and make mention of the God of Israel, yet they swear not in truth nor in righteousness.”

Some possible interpolations are so deeply interwoven into the text that it is impossible to confidently separate them from the original text. The “in other words” additions are by the far the most evident and easier to separate, but not nearly unique; undoubtedly other parts of the text betray 19th century influence, such as the repeated usage of KJV-Bible language, including passages such as 1 Nephi 10:8-10’s usage of John 1:23, 26-29 in the following (common phrases bolded):

Yea, even he should go forth and cry in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the Lord, and make his paths straight; for there standeth one among you whom ye know not; and he is mightier than I, whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose. And much spake my father concerning this thing. And my father said he should baptize in Bethabara, beyond Jordan; and he also said he should baptize with water; even that he should baptize the Messiah with water. And after he had baptized the Messiah with water, he should behold and bear record that he had baptized the Lamb of God, who should take away the sins of the world. (1 Nephi 10:8-10)

He said, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias. … John answered them, saying, I baptize with water: but there standeth one among you, whom ye know not; He it is, who coming after me is preferred before me, whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose. These things were done in Bethabara beyond Jordan, where John was baptizing. The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. (John 1:23, 26-29)

The Book of Mormon records that Lehi saw in vision John baptizing Jesus, but the text is clearly reliant on John’s New Testament account in its description. It is seems safe to assume that the ancient record did record Lehi seeing a vision of the Messiah being baptized, but the details provided in the next are clearly Smithisms, although to what extent is impossible to tell. This passage is interesting in that, although clearly relying on the sequence of the first chapter of John, it instead uses the wordage which appears in the Matthew/Mark/Luke version of the Isaiah quote, not wordage which appears in John 1:23.

This is a version of a post I originally published in October 2010.