Saturday, July 18, 2020

Archaic Book of Mormon Language

The archaic language of scripture has sometimes felt like a barrier to me and has made understanding the scriptures more difficult.  It often requires extra thought and care to gain the right understanding.  What myself and others frequently admit is that they simply gloss over things, and get into the habit of even ignoring some things due to the nature of the text. Some difficult textual elements can be partially understood from context, but even then, it's very easy to gloss over things and misunderstand things. 

And when it comes to scripture, that can make a difference.  

I've of course gotten used to the King Jamesian language of the Bible and Book of Mormon and some of it is nice, but overall it's been more of a barrier than anything for me. 

Some of the modern translations of the bible feel a lot more relatable and the messages more understandable and thus actionable as a result of modern language.  Given the quantity of modern biblical translations out there, it suggests the demand and desire for them is high.  

But speaking specifically about the Book of Mormon.  There was  really interesting blog post by the scripture committee who worked on the Restoration Edition Scriptures.  On June 18th 2017 they posted the following:

"There are a few things we’ve wanted to share that we’ve learned from Denver and that have shaped our understanding of this project. In response challenges that arise during the process of recovering the original scriptures, questions have been posed to him that have elicited the following: 
"I have received many explanations from the Lord to help me to understand what has been done and what needs to be done. One of the things that I have had opened to my understanding is that the translation of the Book of Mormon was done under the inspiration of God to help a hard-hearted people accept it, and therefore it accommodated some of what their prejudices imposed as a condition for them to be willing to even read it while entertaining the possibility that it was from God. 
If the text had not been rendered in a way to appeal to their hard hearts, they would not have taken it seriously...I have understood that the reason the "King Jamesian" language usage was employed was precisely to make the revelations seem consistent with the familiar language of scripture. PERIOD. It was a way to break down resistance to having something new claiming to be scripture. If it read like what was the gold-standard for God's word, then maybe it WAS God's word. 
I have often thought it would be possible to render a better modern language version, but have not done anything with that thought. We now face an almost identical issue: If we change the language to become modern, then there are many who are familiar with Mormonism and who may yet be willing to consider the ongoing restoration work as God's work--but who will become offended solely because we alter the language of the Book of Mormon. Their reaction will mirror the reaction of the 1830s because of prejudice and assumptions about the unchangeable "word of God." 
I have tried to use modern language in anything I have written in order to forge a transition between people's prejudice in favor of arcane language, coming from Joseph's time, into a future when using our own plain language will become commonplace. Thankfully Joseph's history was written in common language and we have that to use in scripture."
In 1830 the Lord called the church “true and living” (D&C 1:30). By 1832 the Lord stated that the church is “condemned” (D&C 84:54-57).  T&C 82:20
And your minds in times past have been darkened because of unbelief, and because you have treated lightly the things you have received, which vanity and unbelief have brought the whole church under condemnation. And this condemnation rests upon the children of Zion, even all, and they shall remain under this condemnation until they repent and remember the new covenant, even the Book of Mormon, and the former commandments which I have given them, not only to say but to do according to that which I have written, that they may bring forth fruit meet for their Father’s kingdom.
There is an  easy assumption to make that latter day saints were "saying" correctly all along.  But as the Restoration Edition Scripture Project showed, there were many things we had been saying incorrectly. Alterations and conspiracies altered the records and a recovery repentance effort had to take place.

The Restoration Edition Scriptures project was a necessary step of remembering, recovering and repenting.  The Book of Mormon text was restored to as pure a version to what Joseph Smith had produced as was possible.  It's a great thing.  A necessary step for the Restoration.  I love the new scriptures.  It helps us to "say" the things the Lord has said more correctly.

As I read the scriptures and begin now to "say" more correctly, since we have restored the scriptures as best we are able, there's also the other part of the condemnation about "doing".  We also have to do what the scriptures say.  And to do that, we'll all need to understand what they say.  The Holy Ghost is our guide of course to understand the scriptures.  But sometimes the nature of the language posses a difficulty to understanding.  

In studying these matters things with a friend I've learned some fascinating things about the original nature of the Book of Mormon language.  There are numerous archaic phrases, words, grammar, and expressions that are either totally obsolete to modern English or totally foreign to modern readers.  

Royal Skousen, since the 1980's, has been working on a Book of Mormon Critical Text project for the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies.  He has gone through all of this to a degree I had no idea about.    

Royal's project includes 5 "Volumes"

These 5 volumes are not 5 books.  Volumes 3-4 have numerous parts, each of them individually are 600+ page books.  Volume 3 has 7 parts.  Volume 4 has 6 parts.  As far as break down, Volume 3's first four parts break down like this:

Part 1, 627 pages.
Part 2, 1281 pages.
Part 3, 704 pages.
Part 4, 704 pages.

Volume 4 Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon, was a key part of the restoration edition scriptures project.

Volume 3 was less applicable to that project but has recently come to light as something very worthwhile as the restoration continues.  Parts 3-4 of Volume III for example are called: The Nature of the Original Language of the Book of Mormon.  Parts 1 and 2 are Grammatical Variation.  Part 5 The King James Quotations in the Book of Mormon.  Part VI is Spelling in the Manuscripts and Editions.  Volume 3 is very interesting and dense with research.

Needless to say, the overall Critical Text Project by Royal Skousen is a monumental project with significant, valuable,  and worthwhile insight into the Book of Mormon.  I’m not trying to get you to go buy it, I'm only showing how much work has been done by Royal.  In Volume III he utilizes an old Oxford historical English dictionary that you have to have a special subscription to even access. That dictionary covers over 1000 years of the English language.  

Given how much languages change over a period of 500 years, early English would be almost unintelligible to modern readers.

From the Oxford Dictionary Page:
Prof. Glanville Price (Languages in Britain & Ireland (2000) 148) has remarked with some truth that ‘the language of Beowulf would be almost as unintelligible to a man of Chaucer's time as it is to the modern reader.’
Beowulf is an Old English epic poem and one of the most important works of Old English literature. The manuscript was produced between 975 and 1025.

Geoffrey Chaucer was a 14th century English poet.

Professor Price said the English language of Beowulf would be almost unintelligible to an English speaker of the 14th century.  What does that mean for us reading ancient scripture?  

Given what history shows about language becoming harder, not easier to understand, this is an interesting topic for modern students of scriptures.  Some of the language of the Book of Mormon dates back far older than Joseph Smith. One might expect Joseph would have used words with meanings current to the early 1800's. Such as you might find in the Websters 1828 American English dictionary. But that isn't the case. Royal Skousen's research makes it clear the language (words, syntax, grammar etc..) of the Book of Mormon proves to have language originating and based in much much older English. Reformer period, 1500-1600's.

We know Joseph translated the Book of Mormon by the gift and power of God, which was not a word for word translation such you might do today with a foreign language dictionary between say, Russian and Spanish. The process Joseph followed was not that. It was by the gift and power of God.  But the language we got was early English.  Which begs the question of why?  Why would the gift and power of God produce a book of scripture in a language that will be increasingly difficult for people to understand?  That takes us back to the quote from the scripture committee earlier in the post.      
So where does all of this take us?  One of the things I've learned form Royal's work is that the way modern readers commonly read and understand some passages in The Book of Mormon is not the same meaning as the original archaic language. It's modern readers, including me, as a result of evolved language who have interpreted various things incorrectly.  Due to how language has evolved and shifted, the Book of Mormon holds keys people may not have noticed because they just get glossed over.  

My friend is detail oriented researcher and has been studying these works by Royal Skousen in depth. Here are a few small examples of archaic language that might be interesting.

3 Nephi 9:4
And behold, the whiteness thereof did exceed all whiteness, yea, even there could be nothing upon earth so white as the whiteness thereof. And Jesus said unto them, Pray on. Nevertheless, they did not cease to pray.

This is what Royal Skousen has to say:

"As discussed under this passage in volume 4, the normal "nevertheless" doesn't make sense here because these people do continue to pray. There seems to be no apparent reason why Jesus would tell them to pray on when they had no intention of stopping anyway. But the second edition of the OED, under definition 5b for "never", refers to the original transparent phrase "never the less" in Middle and Early Modern English and describes it as a negative emphatic with the meaning "not in any way less" or "by no means less". In other words, the equivalent sentence reads "and by no means did they cease pray". Even though this is a multiple negative, the basic meaning (in standard English) is "and by no means did they cease to pray".

The passage would read:

"And Jesus said unto them, Pray on. And by no means did they cease to pray."

Doesn't that make a whole lot more sense?

Alma 19:7.  Alma is teaching his son about the resurrection and we get this phrase:
Now, my son, I do not say that their resurrection cometh at the resurrection of Christ, but behold, I give it as my opinion that the souls and the bodies are reunited of the righteous, at the resurrection of Christ and his ascension into Heaven.
This is what Royal Skousen has to say:

"In today's English, we tend to interpret the word 'opinion' as representing simply one's point of view and not especially backed up by evidence. But here in Alma [19:7], the word is being used more strongly, with considerable more conviction than what the modern meaning implies." The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) has this: "thought of what is likely to be the case" or "expectation based on knowledge or belief".  In modern English we might say "considered judgment".

Alma's words would read:

Now, my son, I do not say that their resurrection comes at the resurrection of Christ, but behold, I give it as my considered judgement that the souls and the bodies of the righteous are reunited at the resurrection of Christ and his ascension into Heaven. 

It's nice that we learn Alma isn't spouting off an opinion he's not really sure about, but it's instead offering a considered judgement.

Two from Jacob:
Jacob 4:1 - "And they are a stiffnecked and a gainsaying people, but as many as will not harden their hearts shall be saved in the kingdom of God."
From Skousen:

The archaic verb "gainsay" - "to speak against". It appears 5 times in the KJV Bible - Romans 10:21; Luke 21:15, Acts 10:29; Titus 1:9; Jude 1:11. In summary of this word Skousen he gives the definition of "given to contrariness".

(Side note: Other related biblical words might be "froward")

Another expansion of the definition of gainsaying is: quarrelsome and contradictory, opposing one another, disagreeing and arguing and challenging one another, refusing to reach agreements when they ought to be achievable.

Keep that in mind as you read the phrase again (with some parenthesis thoughts stuck in there temporarily by me) and see if the passage doesn't hit home a lot more to our day:

Jacob 4:1 - "And they are a stiffnecked and a quarrelsome people (given to contrariness, refusing agreement when it ought to be achievable), but as many as will not harden their hearts shall be saved in the kingdom of God."

Jacob 5:6. This is Sherem talking, as his situations dawns on him of what has been going on. 
"And he said, I fear lest I have committed the unpardonable sin, for I have lied unto God; for I denied the Christ and said that I believed the scriptures, and they truly testify of him. And because I have thus lied unto God, I greatly fear lest my case shall be awful but I confess unto God."
Skousen's research reveals:  The word "but" here does not have its normal meaning but rather the archaic meaning "unless, except".

It would read:

And because I have thus lied unto God, I greatly fear lest my case shall be awful unless I confess unto God.

These are just a few examples. There are many more.  The Book of Mormon we all read today may still be sealed in certain sense in part due to archaic language.

I believe the Book of Mormon is well worth our study.  Joseph didn't just forge this book, or borrow it, stealing from other sources.  This is a book worth deep investigation.