By its own account, the Book of Mormon was originally written in a form of Hebrew using a modified Egyptian alphabet. And if witness accounts are correct, Joseph Smith wasn’t the one who translated the book into English. The words that he saw in his seer stone were already in English. Witness accounts also tell us that Joseph Smith didn’t make use of any reference books, including the Bible, as he was “translating.” Although he likely did some minor smoothing and perhaps some modernizing of the text as he went, the text of the Book of Mormon appeared in his seer stone more or less in it’s current English form.
This is hinted at in the Book of Mormon itself (2 Nephi 27:19-20):
Wherefore it shall come to pass, that the Lord God will deliver again the book and the words thereof to him that is not learned; and the man that is not learned shall say: I am not learned. Then shall the Lord God say unto him: The learned shall not read them, for they have rejected them, and I am able to do mine own work; wherefore thou shalt read the words which I shall give unto thee.
According to this scripture, both “the book” (the gold plates) and “the words thereof” would be delivered to Joseph Smith, a young man of meager education. All he had to do was “read the words.” That pretty much describes what the witnesses saw–Joseph Smith dictating the English words that he saw in his seer stone.
But if Joseph Smith didn’t translate the ancient record into English, who or what did?
Was it his seer stone? Not likely. Nowhere in sacred history has a stone translated anything. The Urim and Thummim of the Bible, which likely consisted of one or more stones, was used as a communication device to transmit the words of Jehovah to the high priest. Joseph Smith’s seer stone (which he later called a Urim and Thummim) may have functioned in the same way — as a sort of stone-age device for conveying text messages.
Joseph Smith may have thought his seer stone was somehow doing the translating, and that he, as the one working it, was the sole “translator.” In a broad sense of the word, he did translate the book — he converted it from a whatever it was before to a modern printed text. And at the time, there wasn’t a better word for what he did than the word translate. If Joseph Smith had been a young man translating the Book of Mormon today, however, he wouldn’t have been thinking, “Hey! I’m translating the gold plates with this miraculous stone” but rather, “Who sent me this really long text message on my ‘smartstone.'”
Did God or angels in heaven do the translating? Not likely. God’s earthly work is generally done by mortals. He didn’t miraculously create the ark for Noah. He doesn’t preach the gospel for us, or miraculously provide names of our ancestors for temple work. And when the Book of Mormon needs to be translated into a new language today, a mortal human with knowledge of the appropriate languages does the task by normal scholarly means. Wouldn’t we expect that the English translation Joseph Smith saw in his stone would have been produced the same way?
So who was the mysterious translator?
We don’t know, but it appears that it is written mostly in a style of English of about the 1500s. A flurry of recent papers (see the links below) provides evidence that the language of the Book of Mormon is genuine Early Modern English, rather than an attempt to mimic the style of the King James Bible.
Was it translated by someone who lived and learned English in that period? Or by someone who absorbed the English of texts from that period? We simply don’t know. If the translation of the book into English was started in the 1500s or 1600s, it wasn’t finished until at least the late 1700s, given that the edition of the King James Bible used in the translation appears to have been no earlier than 1769. What’s clear is that the English of the Book of Mormon is the earliest English that was more or less standardised (English started to become stable with the use of the printing press in the 1500s and 1600s) and that the King James text in the book is from a King James Bible edition close to the 1769 Oxford edition that is still the basis for most King James Bibles printed today.
I find this new information about the translation of the Book of Mormon exciting! It points to a deeper, richer history for this book than either believers or skeptics have supposed. Not everyone shares this excitement, and some Mormons have even experienced crises of faith upon learning about these things. How you respond to this information is largely a matter of your expectations and your ability to change the way you see things without doubting everything you have believed. Please make sure your expectations are healthy.
More Fascinating Reading
The Archaic Vocabulary of the Book of Mormon
The Implications of Past-Tense Syntax in the Book of Mormon
Tyndale Versus More in the Book of Mormon
What Command Syntax Tells Us About Book of Mormon Authorship
A Look at Some “Nonstandard” Book of Mormon Grammar
Sorting Out the Sources in Scripture
Changes in The Book of Mormon
The Original Text of the Book of Mormon and its Publication by Yale University Press
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