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Defending the Faith: Daniel Peterson: Poor English, but good Hebrew — a divine hint of Book of Mormon truth?

Published: Thursday, Oct. 28 2010 5:00 a.m. MDT

Professor Royal Skousen's path-breaking work on the textual history of the Book of Mormon has yielded many important results. I've already mentioned his edition of "The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text" (Yale, 2009), and the large, meticulously produced volumes he has published on the subject with the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS, now part of BYU's Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship) should not be overlooked. Here, though, I would like to examine one specific discovery that has emerged from his research:

In grammar, "conditional sentences" are sentences that discuss hypothetical situations and their consequences. Languages use a variety of constructions and verb forms to form such sentences. Conditional sentences typically contain two clauses: One is the condition clause, or "protasis," and the other is the consequence or result clause, the "apodosis." So, for example, we say, "If you cook it (condition), (then) I'll eat it (result)." Syntactically (for those who worry about such things), the condition is the subordinate clause, whatever its position in the sentence, while the result is the main clause.

A very common form of conditional sentence is the "if/then" construction, with the word "then" being optional: "If the newspaper keeps publishing Peterson's columns, I'll scream." What is absolutely not a common conditional form — in any period or dialect of English — is an "if/and" construction. Native speakers simply don't use it. We never say things like, "If the newspaper keeps publishing Peterson's columns, and I'll scream" or "If you cook it, and I'll eat it." Yet, although it never survives into English Bible translations, this construction is common in biblical Hebrew.

That is why it is significant to find "if/and" conditionals in the earliest English Book of Mormon, which presents itself as the translation of a record written by ancient Hebrews and their descendants. Joseph Smith would not have seen the Hebrew "if/and" conditional sentence in the King James Bible. Yet, in the original dictation manuscript of the Book of Mormon, 1 Nephi 17:50 reads "if he should command me that I should say unto this water be thou earth and it shall be earth." That "and" was removed when Oliver Cowdery produced the so-called "Printer's Manuscript," but similar constructions — too many to dismiss as coincidental — appeared in the 1830 first edition. Consider these specimens, from Helaman 12:13-21:

"yea and if he saith unto the earth move and it is moved"

 

"yea if he say unto the earth thou shalt go back that it lengthen out the day for many hours and it is done …"

 

"and behold also if he saith unto the waters of the great deep be thou dried up and it is done"

 

"behold if he saith unto this mountain be thou raised up and come over and fall upon that city that it be buried up and behold it is done"

 

"and if the Lord shall say be thou accursed that no man shall find thee from this time henceforth and forever and behold no man getteth it henceforth and forever"

 

"and behold if the Lord shall say unto a man because of thine iniquities thou shalt be accursed forever and it shall be done"

 

"and if the Lord shall say because of thine iniquities thou shalt be cut off from my presence and he will cause that it shall be so"

And notice how the very familiar passage recorded at Moroni 10:4 reads in the original printing:

"And if ye shall ask with a sincere heart with real intent having faith in Christ and he will manifest the truth of it unto you by the power of the Holy Ghost."

Such expressions — poor English, but good Hebrew — were eliminated by Joseph Smith himself in the second printing of the Book of Mormon. Though an unlettered man, he was a native speaker of English; he knew that these constructions were "wrong." What we see in them, I think, is "language contamination," leakage from the text's original language into the translation language — much the way Spanish/English interpreters sometimes slip into "Spanglish." But why would such things appear in "the most correct book?" Perhaps as a subtle divine hint that the original language of the Book of Mormon wasn't English.

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