Literary Dependence in the Book of Mormon: Two Studies
Note: The author would like to express appreciation to the late Wesley P. Walters for his assistance in this study.
Literary Dependence on the Bible — Part 1a
Whether it is an ancient record or a modern creation, the Book of Mormon1 demands examination, since it is represented to be scripture written prior to the discovery of America. One such task is determining the extent to which the Bible, especially the New Testament, was used as a source in its production, and if so, what this may mean regarding its historicity. Another task is identifying nineteenth century events reflected in the Book of Mormon.
The Use of the Bible in the Book of Mormon
Phrases from the New Testament appear in sections of the Book of Mormon ostensibly dating to hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus. This suggests that those Book of Mormon sections are in reality of much later composition. Consider a few of these New Testament phrases (written after 30 C.E.)2 which appear in 1 Nephi-Helaman (ostensibly recorded 600 B.C.E.-1 C.E.): "ye must pray always, and not faint" (2 Ne. 32:9/Luke 18:1); some will go "into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (Mosiah 26:27/Matt. 25:41); but "then shall the righteous shine forth in the kingdom of God" (Alma 40:25/Matt. 13:43). Believers should be "steadfast and immovable, always abounding in good works" (Mosiah 5:15/1 Cor. 15:58); ultimately this "mortal shall put on immortality" (Enos 27/1 Cor. 15:53), but until that day they need to grow "in the nurture and admonition of the Lord" (Enos 1/Eph. 6:4). Notice also that "Jew and Gentile, both bond and free, both male and female" (2 Ne. 10:16/Gal. 3:28), who fight against Zion shall perish. God is "the same, yesterday, today, and forever" (2 Ne. 2:4/Heb. 13 8); while believers "endured the crosses of the world, and despised the shame" (2 Ne. 9:18/Heb. 12:2). Finally, "if their works have been filthiness they must needs be filthy" (1 Ne. 15:33/Rev. 22:11).
New Testament Interpretations
The Book of Mormon asserts that ancient New World peoples possessed most of the Old Testament. However, Book of Mormon peoples would not have had access to the New Testament. Those who believe in the book's antiquity try to reconcile the presence of New Testament phrases by suggesting that in translating the book Joseph Smith was given an understanding of ideas on the golden plates but had to choose the words to express them. Consequently, where a thought was sufficiently close to biblical wording he adopted or adapted the biblical phrase. This does not sufficiently explain why he implemented the King James style throughout and not a "more original" style. It also ignores the fact that the adaptation of biblical texts is deeper than mere use of phrases from the New Testament in the Old Testament time period. The Book of Mormon does not simply introduce random New Testament phrases. It reflects on and expands New Testament meanings in an Old Testament context and creates Old Testament events that flow from these New Testament interpretations.
Alma 12 and 13 provide a good example of this in their use of the New Testament Epistle to the Hebrews. Hebrews employs Genesis 14:18-20 together with Psalm 2:7 and 110:4 to establish that the Messiah holds a priesthood higher than that of the Levitical priesthood, and that this priesthood "after the order of Melchisedec" superseded and abolished the Levitical priesthood (Heb. 5:5-10; 6:20; 7:1-12). ("Melchizedek" is the spelling in Old Testament and contemporary LDS usage.) The Book of Mormon builds on this New Testament interpretation and adds its own misinterpretation to create an entire order of priests "after the order of the Son" (Alma 13:9), "being a type of his order" (v. 16), of whom Melchisedec is but the leading example (v. 19). Furthermore, Hebrews's interpretation of Melchisedec's name and title ("King of righteousness ... King of peace") is expanded into an imaginary historical situation in which Melchisedec successfully calls his people to repentance and thus to righteousness and peace. This material is then worked together into a systematic doctrinal exposition that utilizes other New Testament phrases from such sources as the Gospels, 1 Corinthians, and Revelation. (Compare Alma 13:9, 13, 22 with parallel phrases in John 1:14; Matt. 3:8; Luke 2:10; and Alma 12:20; 13:28 with 1 Cor. 15:51-53;10:13; also Alma 12:14, 16, 17, and 13:11 with Rev. 6:16; 20:5-6, 14-15; 19:20; 14:10-11; 20:10, and 7:14.)
The Book of Mormon's own theological statements, therefore, are drawn from, depend on, expand, and explain interpretations already present in the New Testament. In using New Testament interpretations and material as a basis for building such theological statements and exposition throughout the book, New Testament quotations become a part of the fabric of the Book of Mormon text and cannot be regarded as mere figures of speech Joseph Smith employed in translating.
Prophecies from New Testament Times
A second feature of the Book of Mormon's use of the Bible is how it presents prophecies about the New Testament time period. In 1 and 2 Nephi (600-545 B.C.E.) are prophecies of the coming of Jesus Christ. The prophecies in these two books use the language recorded in the New Testament, even the phasing of the King James Version. These events in the life and ministry of Jesus were recorded in the New Testament and written by the men then involved. Since the Book of Mormon did not appear until 1830, it is easy for the book to prophesy of events that had already occurred. Indeed, material in the Book of Mormon that is supposed to date to Old Testament times, reads like a late Christian document, written after the New Testament was compiled.
Transmission of New Testament Thought
Furthermore, the Book of Mormon preaches the "doctrine of Christ" nearly 600 years before Jesus initiated his ministry in Palestine. Notice the use of Christian terms and doctrine of "the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, which is one God" (2 Ne. 31:21), which comes from Matthew 28:19. This formula also occurs in Alma 11:44 (about 82 B.C.E.), but nowhere in the Hebrew Bible is anything of this type mentioned. The Book of Mormon throughout its Old Testament period material, uses b ideas, and doctrines that come from the New Testament.
The Book of Mormon teaches that "many plain and precious things" were "taken away" from the Bible: "they have taken away from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and most precious" (1 Ne. 13:26, 28). The claim that writings were taken "from the gospel of the Lamb" — the New Testament — is problematic. In fact, when one examines the New Testament manuscript material, which reaches back to the second century C.E., evidence that material was taken away is lacking. There are, however, some places where material was added. One such example is Mark 16:9-20. This passage was probably added to Mark during the second century. Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus, both copies of the New Testament produced in the fourth century, along with a few other New Testament Greek manuscripts, do not contain this addition. Most New Testament scholars, after examining early manuscripts that contain Mark 16, find that the early writings of the church fathers support the view that verses 9-20 were not originally part of Mark.3
Interestingly, passages in the King James Version of Mark 16:9-20 appear in three separate places in the Book of Mormon: 3 Ne. 11:33-34; Morm. 9:22-24 and Ether 4:18.
The Book of Mormon justifies this use of the Bible, and especially New Testament words and ideas, by suggesting that Christianity existed in Old Testament times: "Wherefore, I speak the same words unto one nation like unto another" (2 Ne. 29:8). Were these same words spoken to ancient Hebrew prophets? By examining Old Testament documents, we can see that the Book of Mormon has a gospel that was not taught and practiced in the Old Testament period. Rather, it was taught when Jesus and his apostles preached it as recorded only in the New Testament.4
The Book of Mormon is part modern and part ancient, the ancient part coming from the Bible itself. Many familiar themes that are pre-Christian and contained in the earlier portion of the Book of Mormon are found in the Old Testament. Book of Mormon writers reportedly possessed these writings, and it would be natural for Israelite ideas to be in a book of Semitic origin.5
During the ministry of Jesus in Palestine, his disciples did not comprehend much of what he said to them. After his resurrection, they began to understand what he meant, and a few wrote down accounts as they remembered them. A passage from John 12:16 emphasizes: "These things understood not his disciples at the first: but when Jesus was glorified, then remembered they that these things were written of him, and that they had done these things unto him" (see also Mark 9:32; Luke 9:45; 18:34).
By contrast, the Book of Mormon states that Nephite prophets already understood Jesus' mission, including the date of his birth, the name of his mother, his baptism, death, resurrection, and miracles. In relating these events, it uses later knowledge (written and recorded in the New Testament) and retroactively places them in a historical situation that predates Jesus' birth. These anachronisms mark the Book of Mormon as a work produced after Jesus was resurrected and the Christian church was established.
Third Nephi and the New Testament
The central book in the Book of Mormon is the book of Third Nephi.6 It is represented as having been recorded upon plates of gold and abridged by the hand of a historian named Mormon. This book purports to give an account of Jesus Christ appearing in ancient America soon after His resurrection. This section will demonstrate that many passages from the New Testament were used for the Third Nephi account. What is being examined is the authenticity of the record of Third Nephi (i.e., its ancient character) and not the expression of Christ-like teaching.7
This reported visit is the climatic and central story in the Book of Mormon. Just prior to this supposed visitation, Third Nephi depicts vast destruction occurring on the American continent over a period of three hours, simultaneous with Jesus crucifixion (3 Nephi 8:19). Following this, thick darkness came upon the face of the land for the space of three days. The surviving American inhabitants are described as having heard a voice speaking words that in part were derived directly from the King James New Testament, and which are found exclusively in the Gospel of John.
Behold, I am Jesus Christ the Son of God. ... I am in the Father, and the Father in me ... I came unto my own, and my own received me not. ... And as many as have received me, to them have I given to become the sons of God; and even so will I to as many as shall believe on my name ... in me is the law of Moses fulfilled (3 Nephi 9:15-17, emphasis added for similar words in John; compare John 14:11; 1:11-12).
Most of these words attributed to Jesus in this Third Nephi passage are found in John's Gospel, and they are actually John's words rather than the words spoken by Jesus himself. The account in Third Nephi has them spoken in America long before John penned them in the Old World circa 90 C.E.
The voice continued with further words from John's Gospel as well as from the Book of Revelation.
I am the light and the life of the world (3 Ne. 9:18; cf. John 8:12).
I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end (3 Ne. 9:19; cf. Rev. 21:6; 22:13).
Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. The Third Nephi pericope opens with this Johannine-derived material, and depicts the purported post-resurrection visit of Christ to the Israelites of America.
The account reports that a voice "as if it came out of heaven" (11:3) was soon heard in "the land Bountiful" (11:1). The voice echoed the words that opened Jesus' ministry in Palestine: "Behold my Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased, in whom I have glorified my name - hear ye him" (11:7, emphasis added; cf. Matt. 3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22; see also Matt. 17:5).8
1. The Book of Mormon was first published as The Book of Mormon: An Account Written by the hand of Mormon, Upon Plates Taken from the Plates of Nephi. By Joseph Smith, Junior, author and proprietor (Palmyra [New York]: Printed by E. B. Grandin, for the author), 1830. Since a number of churches use and publish the Book of Mormon, the edition used here is the 1981 edition published by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah. In 1982 it was renamed and the title is now The Book of Mormon, Another Testament of Jesus Christ. The versification is the same as the 1879 Salt Lake edition and as used by the Church of Jesus Christ in Monongahela, Pennsylvania, and called "The Record of the Nephites" by the Church of Christ (with the Elijah Message) in Independence, Missouri. The edition of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Independence) has different versification but the chapters are the same as the 1830 first edition. The Church of Christ (Temple Lot) and a few other Mormon groups also use this latter versification.
2. C.E. (Common Era) and B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) are alternate designations corresponding to A.D. and B.C. and is often used in scholarly literature.
3. See, for example, George Eldon Ladd, The New Testament and Criticism (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1967), 72-74.
4. Gordon Irving wrote, "Mormons naturally developed a view of the past which held that the gospel of Christ as preached in the New Testament had been preached to all men since the beginning of the world and that whenever God's church had existed on earth, it had enjoyed the same gifts as the apostolic church. The order set up in Jesus' day was thus projected both backward to Adam and forward in time to the Mormons themselves and on beyond to the Millennium. This much was accepted by all Mormons, although individuals might differ somewhat as to details and implications of the idea" (Gordon I. Irving, "Mormonism and the Bible, 1832-1838," Senior Honors Project Summary, University of Utah, Aug. 1972, 4-5; see also Irving, "The Mormons and the Bible in the 1830s," Brigham Young University Studies 13 [Summer 1973]:474).
5. A theory that the Book of Mormon is part ancient and part modern containing expansive commentary by Joseph Smith has been published. See Blake T. Ostler, "The Book of Mormon as a Modern Expansion of an Ancient Source," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 20 (Spring 1987):66-123. This article contains numerous references to material in the Book of Mormon which has a close relationship to the biblical text. Ostler states, "The presence of the KJV [King James Version] in the book is, it seems to me, indisputable" (102).
6. This book was first named "III Nephi" in the 1879 Salt Lake edition.
7. The question of the wording of the Sermon on the Mount as recorded in Third Nephi is explored in Stan Larson, "The Sermon on the Mount: What Its Textual Transformation Discloses concerning the Historicity of the Book of Mormon," Trinity Journal 7 (Spring 1986):23-45. Larson's study has been updated and retitled "The Historicity of the Matthean Sermon on the Mount in 3 Nephi," in Brent Lee Metcalfe, ed., New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993), 115-63). For the Third Nephi account, Nephi supposedly recorded the text soon after the reported visit of Jesus, and this record was later abridged by Mormon, after whom the Book of Mormon is named (see 3 Nephi 16:4; 23:4; 26:7, 11). See Ronald V. Huggins, "Did the Author of 3 Nephi Know the Gospel of Matthew?," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 30 (Fall 1997):137-48.
8. Other ideas from the New Testament appear earlier in Third Nephi, such as the "star" in the heavens (3 Ne. 1:21), which was used in telling about the birth of Christ (Helaman 14:5) to the people in the New World (see Matt. 2:2, 7, 9-10). And the day before Jesus was born it was claimed that Jesus had said "I come unto my own" (3 Ne. 1:14; cf. John 1:11).