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Silk or Sow’s Ear? The Apologetic use of the If>And Construction

I am expressing my own opinions, and not those of the Interpreter Foundation. 

As Royal Skousen worked through the Book of Mormon manuscripts he discovered that there had been editing that made a smoother English reading where the original dictation had been somewhat grating to the ear. In at least one of those occasions, Skousen suggests that the original translation may have preserved an underlying Hebrew form that generated the revision to a more acceptable English phrase. He found that: “In the original text of the Book of Mormon we find a number of occurrences of a Hebrew-like conditional clause. In English, we have conditional clauses like ‘if you come, then I will come,’ with then being optional. In Hebrew this same clause is expressed as ‘if you come and I will come.’ In the original text of the Book of Mormon, there were at least fourteen occurrences of this non-English expression.” ((Royal Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon: Evidence from the Original Manuscript,” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The  Evidence for Ancient Origins. edited by Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1997, 88.)))

This appears to be an impressive confirmation of both the ancient Hebrew language behind the text and the literalness of the translation that preserved it. Daniel C. Peterson has noted: “Of course, Joseph Smith was poorly educated. He spoke and wrote nonstandard English. But it is extraordinarily doubtful that he or any other native speaker of English has ever spoken or written this way. An if-and conditional sentence grates on our ears.” ((Daniel C. Peterson, “Not Joseph’s, and Not Modern,” in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, edited by Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2002, 13–14.)))

It has become sufficiently impressive that it has moved from an apologetic argument for the Book of Mormon to one for Joseph’s Inspired Version of the Bible. Kent P. Jackson  has found an example of the if>and construction in the manuscript for Moses 6:52:

If thou wilt turn unto me, and hearken unto my voice, and believe, and repent of all their transgressions, and be baptized, even by water, in the name of mine Only Begotten Son, which is full of grace and truth, which is Jesus Christ, the only name which shall be given under heave, whereby salvation shall come unto the children of men, and ye shall ask all things in his name, and whatsoever ye shall ask, it shall be given. ((Kent P. Jackson, “If. . . And”: A Hebrew Construction in the Book of Moses,” in Bountiful Harvest: Essays in Honor of S. Kent Brown, edited by Andrew C. Skinner, D. Morgan Davis, and Carl Griffin, (Provo: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship and Brigham Young University, 2011), 207.))

This if>and conditional survived Joseph’s later editing of this verse. ((Ibid., 208)) Jackson concludes:

The King James translators were thorough and consistent in rendering the Hebrew if-and formation as if-then. Thus there are no examples in the English Bible from which Joseph Smith could have modeled this Hebrew, non-English construction, just as it was not found in American spoken English. When added to the evidence already published for the even more enigmatic “behold I” construction, we see a greater case being made for a Hebrew text behind the nonbiblical material in the Book of Moses. These phrases are nonsense in English, are found nowhere in the English Bible, but are perfectly good Hebrew. Even in limited numbers, a Hebrew original seems to be the best way to explain their presence in the manuscripts. ((Ibid., 210.))

The argument is based on two important assumptions. The first is that Joseph translated in such a way that he produced an intricacy of Hebrew construction that relies upon the precise translation of the word “and” rather than “then.” The second is that the presence of this construction therefore affirms an underlying Hebrew in both the Book of Mormon and the nonbiblical portions of the translation of the book of Moses. It is a fascinating argument that the presence of a deduced Hebrew construction becomes proof of a Hebrew original. The circularity of that argument is highlighted when we examine the evidence for that construction in the Book of Mormon.

As Skousen noted above, there were fourteen occurrences of the if>and construction in the pre-edited manuscript for the Book of Mormon. What Skousen does not explain are the thirty-nine examples of if > then clauses that are original to the manuscripts. ((To come up with these examples, I searched for “if, then” in the LDS Scriptures CD-ROM and checked them against Royal Skousen, Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon, to verify that they were original to the manuscripts. Only one current if > then construction was altered from an original if > and conditional (Alma 20:24). All other occurrences have been modernized by removing and without adding then to create an implied then conditional. Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon,” 88–89. Other implied conditionals exist, but since there is no way to be sure that they imply if > then instead of if > and, I did not include them in my survey.

The following verses use the if > then construction in the manuscripts:

1 Ne. 10:21, 16:3; 2 Ne. 31:13; Jacob 4:9, 5:64; Mosiah 2:18, 4:21, 29:13, 29:27; Alma 10:23, 12:13, 12:33, 14:24, 22:16, 30:43, 32:17, 33:22, 34:33, 41:14, 44:7, 54:18; Hel. 7:8, 8:12, 9:2; 3 Ne. 18:30, 26:9, 10; 27:8, 27:10; Morm. 6:21, 7:10, 9:10; Ether 8:10, 12:27; Moro. 7:5, 7:38, 39; 10:32, 33.))The use of this construction as an apologetic for an underlying Hebrew form requires the assumption of a very tight control over the vocabulary on the English translation from the plates. However, the evidence demonstrates that there were two different ways in which conditionals appeared in the same manuscript. The very fact that it could occur in two ways undermines the assumption of exclusive and literal translation. The fact that there are many more occurrences of the more common condition further diminishes the apologetic value of the if>and construction.

Although it is true that it is difficult to find this construction in English literature, it is not impossible to find it in Joseph’s language. I have only been able to find one instance, but the existence of that example removes the assumptions about how it appeared in Joseph’s translations:

<1833> Dec.18 ‘behold he is blessed of the Lord for his constancy and steadfastness in the work of the Lord wherefore he shall be blessed in his generation and they shall never be cut off and he shall be helped out of many troubles and if he keep the command=ments and harken unto the <council of the> Lord his and [and] his rest shall be glorious.” ((Dean C. Jesse, comp. and ed., The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, 23; emphasis mine.))

The phrasing here is somewhat awkward, but the final phrase is a conditional, and in the location of the expected “then” appears “and.” The presence of this form in a non-Book of Mormon text from Joseph indicates that, at a minimum, it was available to Joseph, despite being nonstandard. ((It might be argued that Joseph learned the form from the Book of Mormon, since the example comes after the translation. However, the fact that a different form was nearly three times as prevalent suggests that the model was insufficient to influence the later use. It is more likely that both forms were available to him in his nonstandard English.)) It is against this evidence of the two different types of conditionals in the Book of Mormon and the presence of the construction in Joseph’s vocabulary that I suggest that the instance Jackson has discovered in the book of Moses means exactly the opposite of the conclusion he has drawn.

Even Jackson understands the difficulty of asserting that Joseph’s translation of the Bible always reflected an underlying Hebrew or Greek text: “In some cases, he inserted new words to strengthen or clarify a passage, as in Matthew 26:25 and 29 in NT1 and in the second translation of 2 Peter 3:4. It is difficult to know in these instances whether the corrections represent the restoration of the original biblical ideas or words or some other means of making the text more meaningful for modern readers.” ((Kent P. Jackson and Peter M. Jasinski, “The Process of Inspired Translation: Two Passages Translated Twice in the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible,” BYU Studies 42, no. 2 (Summer 2003): 58.))

Most importantly, Jackson and Peter M. Jasinski discuss examples some rare times when Joseph provided two translations of the same biblical passage. They note that “the most important changes in the Inspired Version are those that introduce new content or change a verse’s meaning. In several passages in the duplicate translations, we see the introduction of new content into the text—new thoughts that alter the meaning or expand the scope of the passage. A few of these content additions are found only in one of the translations.” ((Ibid., 59; emphasis mine.))

When Jackson and Jasinski highlight the fact that the Inspired Version was not generated in a way that assured a very tight control over the English text, the assumption that supported the single instance of the if>and construction as evidence for such control vanishes. Therefore, the if>and construction should be retired from LDS apologetics on the weight of the combined evidence against it:

  • It is a circular argument that relies upon a particular theory of how Joseph’s translation and is then suggested as a proof of that translation method.
  • The dual options for the construction in the Book of Mormon translation negate the foundational assumption upon which the argument that it is a Hebrew construction is based.
  • It has at least one instance where it is present in Joseph’s non-translation vocabulary.
  • Its presence in the book of Moses (part of the Inspired Version) where there is otherwise no consistent evidence of close correlation to an ancient original language should confirm that its presence comes from Joseph’s vocabulary instead  being the result of a carefully controlled translation of an underlying Hebrew construction.




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