You are here

5 Hebrew Evidences in the Book of Mormon

Episode Transcript

5 Hebrew Evidences in the Book of Mormon (Part 1)

Most people know that the Book of Mormon has biblical elements in it, since it presents itself as a book of scripture. However, this has led some critics to argue that Joseph Smith fabricated the Book of Mormon. They claim he simply could have been trying to copy or imitate biblical style in creating this book in 1829.

However, scholars who have carefully studied the text have discovered fingerprints of ancient Hebrew that you would not find if you were just trying to mimic biblical style. These examples of distinctive Hebrew grammar are called Hebraisms. And these phrases or literary forms that might come across as clunky or unnatural English, actually reflect an original text influenced by Hebrew.

Non-Latter-day Saint scholars have used Hebraisms to date and identify ancient Hebrew texts that we only have in a more modern translations, like the Book of Mormon. For example, the Apocalypse of Abraham is a text that only exists in the language of Slavonic during the medieval period, but it contains peculiar Semitic grammar and little quirks here and there that helped scholars determine that this text was actually ancient and originally written in either Hebrew or Aramaic.

So by applying these same scholarly methods to the Book of Mormon, we can see if it holds up as an ancient record that claims to be written in the “learning of the Jews”. There are over a dozen types of Hebraisms, and the Book of Mormon has hundreds of examples of them. But here are just 5 types of Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon that I find particularly compelling.

1. And It Came To Pass

Mark Twain made fun of how many times the Book of Mormon says, “And it came to pass.”  In addition to calling it so boring it was like “chloroform in print,” he joked that if all occurrences of that phrase were taken out of the Book of Mormon, it would be nothing more than a pamphlet.

To his point, the Old Testament only uses this exact phrase “And It Came to Pass” about 300 times, while the Book of Mormon uses it over a 1,000 times. The truth is though, this phrase in Hebrew shows up way more than the King James translators of the bible let on.

The phrase “And it Came to Pass” in the Hebrew bible is vayahi, And this is a very common narrative marker that helps to separate different sections of a story and move along the storyline in a language where you just don’t have punctuation.

The reason this exact phrase doesn’t show up as much in the bible is because in English, this repetition of this phrase over and over comes across as tedious and boring. So when the King James translators came across this construction, they had various ways to render the phase, such as, “and it happened,” “And it was so”, “when”, “thus”, just “and”.

And when we count up all of these instances of the Hebrew phrase vayahi, it actually does show up in the Hebrew Bible over a 1,000 times, just like the Book of Mormon. Though the excessive use of “And It Came to Pass” sounded like bad English to Mark Twain because it’s not English. It’s Hebrew.

2. Plural Amplification

In English when we want to emphasize an idea, we tend to modify it with adjectives. To use a somewhat gruesome example, if we wanted to communicate that there was a lot of bloodshed, we might say that there was “horrendous,” or “so much,” or “a crazy amount of” bloodshed.

But in Hebrew, when an author wants to emphasize or amplify a noun, they will sometimes make the noun plural. So in this case a Hebrew author might say there was bloodsheds, with a plural “s.” For example, after Cain killed Abel in Genesis, the Lord said that Abel’s blood cries from the ground. The King James translators rendered this word as “blood,” singular. But when you look at the Hebrew itself, the word for blood, dam, is in fact plural here, in other words, “bloods.”

And we see this exact pluralizing of unexpected nouns in the Book of Mormon. So for example the text says, "As one generation passeth to another there shall be bloodsheds”, with that plural “s” to give it extra weight.

Another example is when the prophet Jacob preached that the Lord would teach us through “his great condescensions unto the children of men”. And later, the Book of Mormon says “the servants did go forth and labor with their mights”.

So what at first sounds to us clunky and unrefined English is actually a hint that this text doesn't come from English, but was rather influenced by Hebrew.

3. Seidel's Law

In English, we have standard practices to let people know when we’re quoting someone. We’ll put quote marks around the sentence or maybe even include a full citation or footnote where they can find the original source. Not so in ancient Hebrew, where they didn’t have punctuation and didn’t have the same mentality around using other people’s words.

In 1955 (over a hundred years after the Book of Mormon was published), scholar Moses Seidel noticed a pattern where a biblical text would quote an earlier passage, by reversing the order of the words. Over and over he saw that these prophets were inverting these quotations to let the reader know that they were drawing on an earlier source, kind of like English quotation marks. In biblical studies, this pattern has became known as Seidel’s Law.

The prophet Ezekiel wrote, “And the tree of the field shall yield her fruit, and the earth shall yield her increase”. This is actually an inverted quotation from Leviticus 26, when the Lord declared “And the land shall yield her increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit”.

In the Book of Mormon, Alma asked the people of Zarahemla, “can ye look up to God at that day with a pure heart and clean hands?” And this is a direct inversion of the classic Psalm from the bible, “Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? … He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart”.

One could speculate that Joseph Smith simply messed up or forgot the precise bible quote. But when you see this pattern occur over and over again, it becomes a lot harder to dismiss as an accident, especially when the Nephite prophets are quoting each other internally.

The final prophet of the Book of Mormon, Moroni, wrote what is now the Title Page, in which he described that part of the plates were “a record of the people of Jared, who were scattered at the time the Lord confounded the language of the people, when they were building a tower to get to heaven”.

When you go through the text carefully, you actually discover this is an inverted paraphrase from the words of an earlier prophet in the book of Mosiah, where the people discovered “an account of the people who were destroyed, from the time that they were destroyed back to the building of the great tower, at the time the Lord confounded the language of the people and they were scattered abroad upon the face of all the earth”. So, by flipping the order of these elements, Moroni may have been subtly referencing this prophet’s earlier statement.

These inverted quotations are examples of “unmistakably ancient literary forms” that sure would have been difficult to fabricate, considering that this feature of the bible wasn’t known to modern scholars until the 1950s.

4. Cognate Accusative

The classic musical Les Miserables made famous the phrase “I Dreamed A Dream” in a song from Act I of the same name. But outside of Broadway, we don’t tend to speak like this normally in English, repeating the same word in the same breath. But when Lehi in the Book of Mormon declared, “I have dreamed a dream”, it may actually be a hint of the book’s ancient origins because of what scholars call a cognate accusative. This is just a technical way of describing when a verb and its object come from the same root word, which was very common in ancient Hebrew writing.

The Hebrew of Deuteronomy 23 explained the laws for when you “vow a vow”. Numbers 17 said that Aaron’s rod doth “blossom blossoms”. Psalm 14 speaks of how the people “feared a fear”. And although some of these instances do come through in the English translation, the King James translators often tried to avoid these repetitions by using other words.

The Book of Mormon, however, seems to have preserved this same quirk of the Hebrew language. In Nephi’s vision, the Lord declared that he would “work a great and a marvelous work”. After breaking off from his own tribe, Nephi said he “did teach my people to build buildings”. And the prophet Alma was known to “judge righteous judgments”.

So when Lehi declared to his family that “I have dreamed a dream,” he was using that classic, ancient, Hebrew construction to give added emphasis to his prophetic vision of the Tree of Life.

5. Prophetic Perfect

When prophets prophesy they’re talking about events that are going to be happening in the future. But a funny thing about the Bible, is often these prophets will speak about these future events in the past tense. Isaiah talked about a future suffering servant as if he had already done these things: “he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.”

The idea here is that these ancient prophets had seen so vividly and were so certain about these future, imminent events, that to them it was as if it had already happened. This is exactly how the Book of Mormon portrays prophecy. The prophet Jarom explained that during his day “to look forward unto the Messiah, and believe in him … as though he already was”.

Before Lehi had traveled across Arabia or the oceans, he prophesied, “I have obtained a land of promise”. When Nephi spoke of Jesus Christ’s future ministry he said, “After he was baptized with water the Holy Ghost descended upon him in the form of a dove”.

This is such a counter-intuitive way for modern, English speakers to talk about future events, but it is right at home in the ancient world.

Not a single one of these items is going to prove the Book of Mormon true. But for biblical and Hebrew scholars who have taken time to study this text very carefully, the frequent and varied use of these and a lot of other Hebraisms point to the Book of Mormon being heavily influenced by ancient Hebrew writing—or “the learning of the Jews” as Nephi puts it. All of this combined is what led Rabbi Joe Charnes to conclude, “That there are Hebraic or linguistic Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon seems fairly apparent.”

If you're interested in learning more about these literary evidences for the Book of Mormon, I'd recommend watching this next video which dives into this topic in a lot greater detail.