The Complexity of the Book of Mormon

During the most recent General Conference, Elder Ted R. Callister (General Sunday School President) spoke about the Book of Mormon, and particularly about its complexity as evidence for its inspiration. All too often, however, I see assertions of the opposite, that almost anyone with some basic familiarity with the Bible or an open copy of the King James version could write it. I came across many such claims during the writing of my thesis, and just the other week found a similar statement in a “Concise Oxford Dictionary of Religions” I came across in a charity shop (namely that the book’s authenticity was doubted because of its “reminisces of the King James version”; I didn’t check at the time, but would be intrigued to know if the contributors had felt the need to make similar statements in regards to other faiths).

These statements typically take the form of sweeping generalizations, with little evidence because few of those making such comments seem to have taken the trouble to examine the book itself closely. In contrast, one very clear finding throughout my thesis was just how exceptionally complex the Book of Mormon’s use of biblical material actually was, far more complex than I’d suggest most actual readers pick up. Furthermore, again and again I found evidence that the authors of the Book of Mormon would have needed to be far more familiar with biblical material than the critics claimed. One example from Chapter 3:

Nephi then proceeds to place a condition upon the fulfilment of this covenant:

And I would, my brethren, that ye should know that all the kindreds of the earth cannot be blessed unless he shall make bare his arm in the eyes of the nations.

(1 Nephi 22:10)

At first glance this appears to be a simple assertion, a claim that this ‘marvelous work’ is to be accomplished by a display of divine power. However, what this misses is that the two halves of this verse are not connected simply by assertion, but by a chain of associated passages:

And I would, my brethren, that ye should know that all the kindreds of the earth cannot be blessed unless he shall make bare his arm in the eyes of the nations.

(1 Nephi 22:10)

Yea, and all the earth shall see the salvation of the Lord, saith the prophet; every nation, kindred, tongue and people shall be blessed.

(1 Nephi 19:17)

The Lord hath made bare his holy arm in the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.

(Isaiah 52:10; bold, italicised, and underlined text marks linked passages.)

Thus the reference to the blessing of ‘all the kindreds of the earth’ not only refers to the just quoted covenant with Abraham, but also alludes to the second half of 1 Nephi 19:17, attributed as a quotation of the non-biblical prophet Zenos. In turn, the first clause of 1 Nephi 19:17, ‘and all the earth shall see the salvation of the Lord’, corresponds to the second part of Isaiah 52:10 (not quoted here, but quoted four times – twice explicitly – elsewhere in the Book of Mormon in Mosiah 12:24, Mosiah 15:31, 3 Nephi 16:20 and 20:35). Finally, returning to 1 Nephi 22:10, we find the first half of Isaiah 52:10 supplying the final phrase of the verse.[1] This is extremely unlikely to be coincidental; instead it appears that the various stages by which the author linked these phrases together in 1 Nephi 22:10 have been left out, leaving only the conclusion.

[1]     Grant Hardy appears to have noticed the same connection, see Hardy, Reader’s Edition, p. 58, footnotes f and g.

As I then point out a little further down:

As noted in chapter two, one particular suggestion has been offered to explain this connection: that Joseph Smith had access to a King James Bible in front of him to assist him. While such suggestions face difficulties from eyewitness statements to the dictation process, this idea has been advanced by both critics and believers in different forms.[1] Thus Wesley Walters, holding that Joseph Smith was the actual author, argues that Joseph Smith must have had ‘his KJV Bible open in front of him’, the only alternative being memorization.[2] Sidney Sperry, on the other hand, while regarding Joseph Smith as a translator, has also argued for the possibility that a Bible was used for help in translating when Joseph Smith came across passages that were recognisably from the Bible and when the KJV was considered adequate.[3]

Yet the above example, and others like it, of the Book of Mormon’s use of the Bible present such suggestions with substantial logical problems. While the idea of working directly from an ‘open’ Bible might suffice for explicit quotations, it is a less adequate explanation for the situation above in which phrases are interwoven into the text and associated by an unwritten chain in which the intervening steps are omitted.[4] Any author would need substantially more familiarity than Wesley Walters’ scenario appears to grant (that is ‘enough to scatter biblical phrases freely’).[5] Likewise any translator attempting to use the KJV as a mundane aid to fill the gaps of any translation would need extensive biblical awareness simply to find the chain of relevant texts. There are historical reasons such scriptural fluency on the part of Joseph Smith has not been assumed.[6] A range of historical and theological possibilities could be suggested that do not require Joseph Smith to have this biblical familiarity; the book itself claims to be interpreted ‘by the gift of God’ (title page). What is clear, however, is that an open Bible alone is insufficient to explain the evident familiarity with the biblical text and the close connection the Book of Mormon has with the KJV.

[1]     All eyewitness statements to the dictation process deny the presence of other texts. Welch, The Sermon at the Temple, p. 132; Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, p. 70; Givens, By the Hand of Mormon, pp. 30–32.

[2]     Walters, The Use of the Old Testament, p. 36.

[3]     Welch, The Sermon at the Temple, p. 135; Sperry, ‘The text of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon’, pp. 80–81.

[4]     Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon, pp. 67–68.

[5]     Walters, The Use of the Old Testament, p. 13.

[6]     For instance, Emma Smith’s report that at one point during the dictation of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith expressed concern as to whether Jerusalem had walls. John W. Welch and Tim Rathbone, ‘Book of Mormon Translation by Joseph Smith’, Encyclopedia of Mormonism: The History, Scripture, Doctrine, and Procedure of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. by Daniel Ludlow (New York: Macmillan, 1992), p. 210; See also Barlow, Mormons and the Bible, p. 13.

Obviously, like Elder Callister, I’d attribute this complexity and familiarity with the biblical text not to Joseph Smith, or any other 19th century figure, but to far older figures and ultimately divine inspiration. However, what is clear are that repeated claims that the Book of Mormon simply copies the Bible, and that anyone with an open Bible could have written it, are simply not true.


More examples of this complexity, and much else, can be found in my book, The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible, which is available as a free PDF from this site, or may be obtained in paperback or in kindle format (including from Amazon.com here and Amazon.co.uk here).

2 Nephi 15

This chapter includes one of the few places where the KJV reading of Isaiah is undoubtedly superior to what we find in the Book of Mormon; most of the time the textual differences serve to make the text more understandable, or emphasise some particular element or interpretation. In 2 Nephi 15:8, however, we find the following:

Wo unto them that join house to house, till there can be no place, that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth!

(2 Nephi 15:8)

The correct meaning of this can be inferred, but it is plainer when we turn to the KJV. A textual comparison of the two shows the following:

Wo unto them that join house to house <that lay field to field>, till there can be no place, that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth!

(2 Nephi 15:8//Isaiah 5:8, where bold indicates text found only in the BoM, and <triangular brackets> text found only in the KJV)

Thus the KJV reads:

Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place, that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth!

(Isaiah 5:8)

That crucial line “that lay field to field” makes clear that we’re not talking here of some specific condemnation of buying the neighbouring property and knocking it through, but rather the accumulation of property, especially at the expense and displacing of others (“that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth”). That’s something we definitely see in the Bible – perhaps the most gratuitous example being the murder of Naboth so that Ahab could seize his ancestral inheritance (1 Kings 21) – and in our time too. I confess my first thought was “eminent domain!”, but setting my animus against Trump aside, this is not just a danger for the rich and powerful. Covetousness and heaping up of possessions are a spiritual danger, especially when they come by means of diminishing others.

Of course, possessions are not the only thing that can be a danger – we can also be distracted by our pleasures, our entertainments and the vain things of the world:

Wo unto them that rise up early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink, that continue until night, and wine inflame them!

And the harp, and the viol, the tabret, and pipe, and wine are in their feasts; but they regard not the work of the Lord, neither consider the operation of his hands.

Therefore, my people are gone into captivity, because they have no knowledge; and their honorable men are famished, and their multitude dried up with thirst.

Therefore, hell hath enlarged herself, and opened her mouth without measure; and their glory, and their multitude, and their pomp, and he that rejoiceth, shall descend into it.

(2 Nephi 15:11-14//Isaiah 5:11-14)

While it’s drink and music and feasting that are mentioned here it can surely apply to any pleasure or luxury that can consume our time and our mental attention. I guess I’d better cut back on Magic: The Gathering

2 Nephi 12

And it shall come to pass that the lofty looks of man shall be humbled, and the haughtiness of men shall be bowed down, and the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day.

For the day of the Lord of Hosts soon cometh upon all nations, yea, {shall be} upon every one; yea, upon the {that is} proud and lofty, and upon every one who {that} is lifted up, and he shall be brought low.

Yea, and the day of the Lord shall come upon all the cedars of Lebanon, for they {that} are high and lifted up; and upon all the oaks of Bashan;

And upon all the high mountains, and upon all the hills, and upon all the nations which {that} are lifted up, and upon every people;

(2 Nephi 12:11-14//Isaiah 2:11-14, bold indicates text not found in the KJV, underlined text indicates substitutions for text in curly brackets)

Pride is a major theme of the Book of Mormon, which depicts pride as the pre-eminent source of evil. Much of the narrative of the Book of Mormon shows the dangers of pride. But the book not only warns against pride – it also warns that the time left for such pride is limited, and a reckoning is coming. It is little surprise that the Book of Mormon quotes Isaiah so much, since that too warns of God’s judgment upon the proud. When one looks at the textual differences between Isaiah as quoted in the Book of Mormon and in the King James Version, however, its striking that many of the textual differences stress this impending judgment: both the imminence (“soon cometh upon all nations”) and the universal scope (“upon all the nations” and “upon every people”) of this divine wrath are emphasised above.

While there’s obviously a personal application to this, and maybe personal pride is what I and maybe others should be most concerned about, in my current sombre mood I can’t help but reflect on our culture as a whole. When I read Isaiah, and read (as I will once again in forthcoming chapters) of divine judgment coming upon rich and proud cities, I can’t help but see not ancient Babylon or Tyre, but our own cities and our own wealth. Even in the recent political commotion, when people are perhaps shocked a little out of complacency and the assumption that nothing bad can happen to us, the response seems to be one of rage and enmity. Humility is derided and mocked. Yet perhaps there’s more to be learned personally from this too: that in all these things, big and small, grand or personal, salvation will come from humble acceptance of the Lord’s will. Angry striving and proud self-assertion will not change our fate, but will only bring upon us the Lord’s judgment. And that applies to any of us, for:

O house of Jacob, come ye and let us walk in the light of the Lord; yea, come, for ye have all gone astray, every one to his wicked ways.

(2 Nephi 12:5//Isaiah 5, bold as above)

Yet while much of this chapter warns all of us about the Lord’s forthcoming judgments, it does also promise an age of peace. The Lord will “rebuke many nations”, but after that – and I believe this must apply to our own personal conflicts and the weapons of our pride as much as it does actual weapons – “they shall beat their swords into plow-shares, and their spears into pruning hooks – nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (2 Nephi 12:4//Isaiah 2:4).