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The Book of Mormon and the Bible

The Book of Mormon and the Bible

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“I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.”—Joseph Smith, History of the Church 4:461.

Joseph Smith published the Book of Mormon in 1830 just a month before he founded the LDS Church. He claimed that God inspired him to translate the Book of Mormon from some gold plates that the angel Moroni had shown him buried in a hill near his home in upstate New York. The main story line concerns the Nephites and Lamanites, two warring peoples descended from a family of Jews that had sailed from Arabia to the Americas six hundred years before Christ. The central event of the Book of Mormon is the appearance of Christ to the Nephites shortly after his ascension. The title “Book of Mormon” refers to a prophet named Mormon who wrote most of the book on the gold plates and entrusted them to Moroni (his son), who appended some final material to the plates and buried them in the hill about four hundred years after Christ.

The authenticity of the Book of Mormon is a much-debated subject. We will make no attempt to address most of the relevant issues on that subject here. Instead, we will focus on the relationship of the Book of Mormon to the Bible.

There is no question but that much of the Book of Mormon agrees doctrinally with the Bible. It could hardly be otherwise, since on average one of every nine chapters in the Book of Mormon is copied from the Bible! To be precise, 27 chapters of the Bible are repeated almost verbatim from the KJV in the 239 chapters of the Book of Mormon (see Table 1).

TABLE 1: MAJOR BIBLE PASSAGES IN THE BOOK OF MORMON
Book of Mormon KJV Bible
1 Nephi 20-21 Isaiah 48-49
2 Nephi 7-8 Isaiah 50-51
2 Nephi 12-24 Isaiah 2-14
2 Nephi 27 Isaiah 29:6-24
Mosiah 12:34-36; 13:12-24 Exodus 20:2-17 (Ten Commandments)
Mosiah 14 Isaiah 53 (the Suffering Servant)
3 Nephi 12-14
Matthew 5-7 (Sermon on the Mount)
3 Nephi 20:32-45 Isaiah 52
3 Nephi 22 Isaiah 54
3 Nephi 24-25 Malachi 3-4

The heavy use of the Bible in the Book of Mormon raises some difficult questions about the authenticity of the Book of Mormon as a translation of ancient historical documents. For example, in 3 Nephi 12-14, the Book of Mormon presents Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount, no more than about a year after his resurrection, nearly verbatim as it appears in the Gospel of Matthew (chapters 5-7) in the KJV. This claim is historically awkward on several levels.

For one thing, supposing that Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount exactly as it appears in Matthew 5-7, it is highly unlikely that Jesus—a consummate communicator, to understate the matter—would preach the exact same sermon to people on a different continent with their own culture six centuries removed from that of the people of Galilee. Even merely human preachers like Billy Graham would tailor their sermons more specifically for different cultures and audiences than the Book of Mormon presents Jesus doing.

Another problem is that Matthew almost certainly arranged Jesus’ teaching material and edited it for his readers. To give a simple example, in the Sermon on the Mount as it appears in Matthew, Jesus uses the expression “the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3, 10, 19, 20; 7:21). But this precise expression occurs only in Matthew (over thirty times). In the other Gospels, including parallel passages in Luke, Jesus always uses the expression “kingdom of God” (compare, for example, Matthew 5:3 with Luke 6:20). Biblical scholars unanimously agree that “kingdom of heaven” is Matthew’s paraphrase of what Jesus said, not his exact words (though of course the meaning is the same). So what is this phrase doing in the Book of Mormon? The obvious answer is that Joseph Smith copied the Sermon on the Mount into the Book of Mormon from the Gospel of Matthew.

Although the Book of Mormon makes heavy use of the Bible, it also calls into question the reliability of the Bible. “The Bible” as such did not exist until after Jesus came, and no one used the term “the Bible” (in Greek, ta biblia) to refer to that collection of books until about AD 200. Yet the Book of Mormon reports Nephi, supposedly speaking about six centuries before Jesus died, criticizing Christians who view the Bible as the sufficient, complete canon of Scripture:

“And because my words shall hiss forth—many of the Gentiles shall say: A Bible! A Bible! We have got a Bible, and there cannot be any more Bible. But thus saith the Lord God: O fools, they shall have a Bible; and it shall proceed forth from the Jews, mine ancient covenant people…. Thou fool, that shall say: A Bible, we have got a Bible, and we need no more Bible. Have ye obtained a Bible save it were by the Jews? Wherefore, because that ye have a Bible ye need not suppose that it contains all my words; neither need ye suppose that I have not caused more to be written.” (2 Nephi 29:3-4, 6, 10)

The point of this passage is that when the Book of Mormon was published in the nineteenth century, “Gentiles” (that is, traditional Christians) would object to the claim that the Book of Mormon is scripture and insist that the Bible is the only scripture that we have or need. In other words, the Book of Mormon reports Nephi in the sixth century BC prophesying a rebuke against Christians twenty-five centuries later who question the claim that the Book of Mormon is scripture. This is just one of several statements in the Book of Mormon designed to deflect modern criticism of the book. Another example is the comment explaining that any defects or errors that might be found in the Book of Mormon resulted from the need to write in a (supposedly more compact) Egyptian script instead of Hebrew (Mormon 9:32-33).The Book of Mormon addresses modern Christian concerns in other ways, notably in claiming to settle specific theological, pastoral, and cultural controversies that were raging among American Protestants in Joseph Smith’s day. Here are just a few examples:

  • Confusion about what the Bible teaches is the result of many plain and precious things being lost or removed from the Bible, which resulted in widespread apostasy in Christianity (1 Nephi 13-14).
  • Believers on earth before the time of Jesus were saved through faith in Jesus Christ, because the prophets spoke explicitly about Jesus by name (e.g., 2 Nephi 25:13-20).
  • The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are “one God” (2 Nephi 31:21; Mormon 7:7).
  • There is an intermediate state between death and resurrection in which righteous spirits are happy in paradise and the wicked are in outer darkness (Alma 40).
  • America as a land of freedom is a fulfillment of prophecy (3 Nephi 21).
  • God revealed the gospel in ancient times in both hemispheres, even sending Jesus to the
  • Nephites to preach the gospel to them (3 Nephi 11-27).
  • The time of miracles and revelations is not past (Mormon 9).
  • The American Indians are Israelites (Mormon 7:1-2; Moroni 1:5; etc.). 
  • Infants should not be baptized (Moroni 8:4-26).

The directness with which the Book of Mormon so frequently addresses modern Christians and their concerns (or objections) explains why Mormons often say that the Book of Mormon was “written for our day,” as LDS President Ezra Taft Benson put it (Gospel Principles, 47). However, it would be more precise to say that the Book of Mormon was written for the people of Joseph Smith’s day in the nineteenth century, not for people living in our day. The fact is that the Book of Mormon, while addressing numerous specific issues of burning interest to American Christians in the early nineteenth century, says nothing about most of the burning issues of the early twenty-first century. The Book of Mormon says nothing about abortion, biblical criticism, environmental issues, evolution, feminism, genetic engineering, homosexuality, Islam, multiculturalism, nuclear war, postmodernism, religious pluralism, socialism, and other such issues that have marked Christianity in the past fifty years or so. Thus, the Book of Mormon appears to have been written very specifically to address issues of concern to American Christians in the first half of the nineteenth century—not before, and not after, that period of time.

Ironically, although the Book of Mormon addresses nineteenth-century Christian theological and practical issues, it does not reveal many of the distinctive doctrines and practices of the LDS religion that separate it from traditional, historic Christianity. In fact, on some key issues, the Book of Mormon actually contradicts Joseph Smith’s later teachings. As just noted, the Book of Mormon affirms that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are “one God.” Yet Joseph Smith later taught explicitly that they were “three Gods” and even denied that they were or could be “one God” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 370).Here are some of the distinctive LDS doctrines that the Book of Mormon does not mention:

  • Plurality of gods
  • God the Father having a physical body
  • Heavenly mother
  • Humans preexisted as spirits in heaven
  • Eternal progression
  • Celestial marriage
  • Baptism for the dead
  • Three heavenly kingdoms or degrees of glory

The significance of the Book of Mormon within the larger context of LDS religion is that it establishes for Mormons three key claims: that the text of the Bible is corrupt, making it an insufficient guide to the Christian faith; that Christianity by Joseph Smith’s day was essentially apostate; and that God called Joseph Smith to be the prophet of the Restoration. The second and third claims rest on the foundation of the first claim that the text of the Bible is untrustworthy. As we have seen, Joseph Smith’s understanding of this issue was simply wrong. 

Questions for Reflection
  • Is the way the Book of Mormon uses whole chapters from the Bible compatible with its claim to be ancient scripture?
  • Why does the Book of Mormon so directly address theological concerns and objections that were irrelevant in ancient times but burning issues in Joseph Smith’s day?
For Further Study
 
Book of Mormon Page. IRR’s articles on the Book of Mormon.