Book of Mormon Intertextuality

Royal Skousen is the editor of the Book of Mormon Critical Text Project. He has been a conservative voice on the topic of the method of translation of the Book of Mormon, arguing that the text as we have it was dictated by Joseph Smith.

“I began to see considerable evidence for the traditional interpretation that witnesses of the translation process claimed: (a) the text was orally dictated, word for word; (b) Book of Mormon names were frequently spelled out the first time they occurred in the text, thus indicating that Joseph Smith could see the spelling of the names; and (c) during dictation there was no rewriting of the text except to correct errors in taking down the dictation… Joseph Smith was literally reading off an already composed English-language text.”

My Testimony of the Book of Mormon, Scholarly and Personal, December 2009

His recent position on intertextuality is causing a stir.

“One incredible aspect of the Book of Mormon is the complex blending into the text of phraseology from all over the King James Bible. Other scholars have been working on this issue and generally refer to it as “intertextuality”… Here I am not referring to the language of the long biblical quotations in the Book of Mormon (from Isaiah and Matthew, for instance) but within the Book of Mormon text proper…

“We end up with these general results with respect to the archaic nature of the Book of Mormon: (1) the words, phrases, and expressions mainly date from the 1530s through the 1730s; (2) the syntax best matches that of the second half of the 1500s; and (3) there is an astounding blending in of King James phraseology (from both the Old Testament and the New) throughout the Book of Mormon…

“Is the Book of Mormon English translation a literal translation of what was on the plates? It appears once more that the answer is no. The blending in of specific King James phraseology, from the New Testament as well as the Old Testament, tells us otherwise. The Book of Mormon is a creative translation that involves considerable intervention by the translator (or shall we say translators, since we’re in a speculative mood). There is also evidence that the Book of Mormon is a cultural translation…

“Did the Lord himself do the translation, or did he have others do it? The answer is: We have no idea, and it’s basically a waste of time trying to figure out how the translation was produced.”

— “The Language of the Original Text of the Book of Mormon.” BYU Studies Quarterly 57, no. 3 (2018))

See sections started at 1h00m12s and 1m28s36s.

“All of this quoting from the King James Bible is problematic, but only if we assume that the Book of Mormon translation literally represents what was on the plates. Yet the evidence in The Nature of the Original Language (parts 3 and 4) argues that the Book of Mormon translation is tied to Early Modern English, and even the themes of the Book of Mormon are connected to the Protestant Reformation, dating from the same time period. What this means is that the Book of Mormon is a creative and cultural translation of what was on the plates, not a literal one. Based on the linguistic evidence, the translation must have involved serious intervention from the English-language translator, who was not Joseph Smith. Nonetheless, the text was revealed to Joseph Smith by means of his translation instrument, and he read it off word for word to his scribe. To our modern-day, skeptical minds, this is indeed ‘a marvelous work and a wonder.'” (Book of Mormon Critical Text Project, Volume 3, Part 5: The King James Quotations in the Book of Mormon, The History of the Text of the Book of Mormon, p. 6)

Nicholas J. Frederick summarizes a related problem (which he attempts to address):

“Terms such as quotation, allusion, and echo may be appropriate and even accurate for describing the way the Book of Mormon interacts with the Old Testament. After all, Nephi states that he has a record, the brass plates, in his possession. Readers of the Book of Mormon should then expect to encounter passages such as Genesis or Isaiah from the Old Testament. However, these terms become problematic when discussing passages from the New Testament found in the Book of Mormon, since, as far as can be determined, the Nephites did not possess that record.”

— “Evaluating the Interaction between the New Testament and the Book of Mormon: A Proposed Methodology“, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 24 (2015)


The following three LDS scholarly views attempt to explain the anachronistic presence of the King James Bible translation of the New Testament in the Book of Mormon text. Ranked from conservative to liberal:

  1. Joseph Smith dictated the Book of Mormon word-for-word from an already-composed “Early Modern English” (EModE) translation that another/others (unknown) had already accomplished. It was a creative English translation, but not one that Smith himself produced beyond dictation. This is the view of Royal Skousen (as I understand it).
  2. Smith creatively and collaboratively participated in the translation process of the Book of Mormon, using his 19th-century setting (including the language of the inherited King James Bible) to translate the original language of the Book of Mormon into intelligible linguistic categories. This is the view of Brant Gardner (as I understand it).
  3. Smith creatively and collaboratively expanded upon the ancient text of the Book of Mormon. He addressed theological controversies of the 19th century by adding stories and speeches to the ancient core of the Reformed Egyptian text. This is the view of Blake Ostler (as I understand it).

The traditional and mainstream narrative, that God was providing a live translation to Joseph Smith as he dictated, seems all but abandoned by LDS scholars.

According to a FairMormon post, as I read it, Skousen is holding to a form of the expansion theory, but an expansion that Smith himself did not participate in:

“Skousen argues that the themes of the Book of Mormon – religious, social, and political – do not derive from Joseph Smith’s time (also an 1831 claim of Alexander Campbell’s), but instead are the prominent issues of the Protestant Reformation, and they too date from the 1500s and 1600s rather than the 1800s – examples like burning people at the stake for heresy, standing before the bar of justice (often called the pleading bar in the 1600s), secret combinations to overthrow the government, the rejection of infant baptism, the sacrament as symbolic memorial and spiritual renewal, public rather than private confession, no required works of penance, and piety in living and worship. Skousen believes that the Book of Mormon would have resonated much more strongly with the Reformed and Radical Protestants of the 1500s and 1600s than with the Christians of Joseph Smith’s time.”

— Celebrating Two New Books in the Book of Mormon Critical Text Project: The Nature of the Original Language of the Book of Mormon

Summarizing the critical view:

“The skeptical theory is that the Book of Mormon is also an unsuccessful attempt to archaize, in that it aimed at the KJV but failed to nail it. Where Carmack apparently sees skillful “blending” of EModE and King James English, a skeptic sees a single fake dialect of amateur Bible-ese whose grammar ranges erratically between accurate KJV and older forms.”

— “Physics Guy” on MDDB, September 28, 2018

Richard Bushman from an interview with Bill Reel:

I think right now the Book of Mormon is a puzzle for us, even people who believe it hardily in every detail, it’s a puzzle.

To begin with we have the puzzle of translation: translating the book without the plates even in sight and wrapped up in a cloth on the table. So, it’s not something that comes right off the pages, the characters on the plates. So we don’t know how that works.

And then there is the fact that there is phrasing everywhere–long phrases that if you google them you will find them in 19th century writings. The theology of the Book of Mormon is very much 19th century theology, and it reads like a 19th century understanding of the Hebrew Bible as an Old Testament. That is, it has Christ in it the way Protestants saw Christ everywhere in the Old Testament. That’s why we now call it “Hebrew Bible” because the Jews never saw it quite that way. So, these are all problems we have to deal with.

The New Testament in the Book of Mormon: Excerpts from Laura Hales’s interview of BYU Religion Professor Nick Frederick

Roger Terry, editorial director at BYU Studies, writes:

“King James text (both Old and New Testament) appears all throughout the book, and it is often skillfully woven into the text in intricate and surprising ways. This fact leads to some conclusions about the Book of Mormon text that create some interesting dilemmas for scriptural purists.”

Which KJB was used to produce the Book of Mormon?

See 6:42 (EME), 9:52 (BofM not given in 19th century English), 18:41 (on dictation, reading it back)