Interpreter Peer Reviewed

Interpreter Peer Reviewed

Monday, July 27, 2020

KJV italics and Joseph as an unlearned reader

Today we're going to look at an article titled "Missing Words: King James Bible Italics, the Translation of the Book of Mormon, and Joseph Smith as an Unlearned Reader."

The article addresses the issue of italicized KJV text in the Book of Mormon.

So far, so good. This remains an interesting topic subject to a variety of interpretations.

But then the abstract explains the proposed solution.

Some of the minor variants are easily explained as errors of dictation, transcription, or copying, but others are not so readily accounted for. While some are inconsequential, others negatively affect Isaiah’s text by confusing its meaning or violating grammatical norms. Most have no clear purpose. The disruptive character of these variants suggests they are secondary and were introduced by someone who was relatively uneducated in English grammar and unfamiliar with the biblical passages being quoted. They point to Joseph Smith, the unlearned man who dictated the Book of Mormon translation. Even so, it seems unlikely that a single individual would have intentionally produced these disruptive edits. They are better explained as the product of the well-intentioned but uncoordinated efforts of two individuals, each trying to adapt the Book of Mormon translation for a contemporary audience. Specifically, many of these variants are best explained as the results of Joseph Smith’s attempts to restore missing words to a text from which some words (those italicized in the KJV) had been purposefully omitted by a prior translator.

Yes, that's right.

We have an article seeking to read the mind of the mysterious unknown supernatural translator (MUST) of the Book of Mormon.

This is another article fleshing out the contours of JDT (Joseph Didn't Translate).

Once JDT was announced as "the" conclusion derived from an intensive study of the text of the Book of Mormon (the "Early Modern English" or EME data), it was inevitable that questions would arise about the identity and time/space location of the MUST. Some proposed that maybe John Wesley was the UST, inexplicably working from the Spirit World.

Now we're speculating--mind-reading--about the intentions of the MUST.

I applaud what the author tried to do here. There is a need for a better explanation of the strange changes to the Isaiah chapters. But the author's acceptance of JDT as a given has caused him to overlook the best solution--a solution he stumbled across and didn't even realize it.

You need to read the entire article to appreciate it, but let's discuss a few excerpts.

Key quotation:

The most authoritative witness accounts describe Joseph Smith dictating the Book of Mormon translation with a hat pulled close to his face to exclude the light, which would have made reading from a physical text impossible.29 

IMO, the most authoritative witnesses were Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, but their consistent teachings are always omitted from articles such as this that push JDT as the only possible reality.

If Joseph Smith used a physical bible, he would have had to do so frequently, since biblical interactions are scattered throughout the Book of Mormon. 

The unstated premise here is that biblical passages and language could not have been part of Joseph's mental language bank. Yet Joseph described in his own handwriting how he applied himself to studying the scriptures and how he had an intimate acquaintance with Christian doctrines. Not only the Book of Mormon, but the D&C and his personal writings are full of KJV language and allusions.

Pretending this alternative does not exist sets up a classic false dilemma logical fallacy that this entire article relies on without recognizing it. 

Continuously removing his face from the hat to make use of a physical Bible would not have gone unnoticed by those who watched him translate. Both Joseph’s wife Emma and David Whitmer asserted that Joseph used no notes or books during translation. Martin Harris and Oliver Cowdery reportedly asserted the same.30 

Let's say, arguendo, that this is a good point. (I think they had a specific reason to make these claims that drove their statements, but that's a separate topic.)

An alternative idea — that Joseph Smith had the ability to memorize large portions of the Bible (including, for Larson’s explanation, the locations of the italicized words) — also lacks historical evidence. 

Denying the historical evidence is a symptom of confirmation bias, if not cognitive dissonance. Joseph famously recognized that Moroni quoted Malachi differently from the way it is in the KJV. He also recognized the many other long passages Moroni quoted. Joseph gave around 200 sermons, most of them undocumented, but he never used a prepared text. He was able to speak for hours, quoting scripture and weaving it into his discourses, all without notes or reading from the Bible.

If Joseph Smith referred to a biblical text while translating, it may have been one he saw in vision.31
The idea that God provided Joseph Smith with a vision of the English translation does not imply that God was the translator, nor does it imply that the translation was perfect; God could have shown Joseph a translation produced by someone else, whether immortal or mortal.39

The vision alternative is always there. The twist presented here that the vision was incomplete--or, worse, misleading--raises numerous potential problems, not the least of which is, why would God show an imperfect translation that the "unlearned reader" would have to correct? 

In August of 1831, The Sun printed the following as part of its report of the origin of the Book of Mormon, based apparently on an interview with Martin Harris:
So, in order to convince Harris that he could read from the plates, Jo deposits them in his hat, applies spectacles, and refers Harris to a chapter in the Bible which he had learned by rote; and which he read from the plates, with surprising accuracy; and what astonished Harris most, was, that Jo should omit all the words in the Bible that were printed in Italic. And, if Harris attempted to correct Jo, he persisted that the plates were right, and the Bible was wrong.40
While this is not one of the more authoritative accounts relating to Joseph Smith’s dictation of the Book of Mormon, being secondhand at best, it is the only one that makes any mention of italics.41

Not only does the article mention italics, it mentions Joseph learning the Bible by rote and reciting it! That is historical evidence from 1831 that the author just said didn't exist.

Presumably the author infers that the Sun article was ridiculing Harris, so the claim that Joseph had learned a chapter in the Bible "by rote" was a cynical interpretation of what Harris said. But it is also the most obvious (and logical) solution to the italics problem. 

Joseph reciting these passages from memory would surely produce precisely the type of errors we see in these Isaiah chapters.

then we read this:

This account says that “all the words” italicized in the Bible were missing from the dictated text, while in most of the Book of Mormon’s quoted biblical chapters, some of those words are present. Also, in most of the biblical chapters in the Book of Mormon, there are many words added at locations not associated with the KJV’s italicized words, in contrast to the “surprising accuracy” noted in The Sun.

Martin Harris was the scribe for the 116 pages, which are lost. The author overlooks this. Instead, he refers to the Original Manuscript dictated after the 116 pages were lost. He's comparing apples and oranges.

Then he ignores his own source and says that, instead of having learned the Bible by rote, Joseph (i) saw the KJV in vision without any italicized words and (ii) inserted his own replacements for the missing words, which account for the discrepancies in the text.

Apart from citing examples from the OM, not the 116 pages that Martin Harris referred to, Spencer ignores the obvious explanation.

Joseph recited these passages from his excellent yet imperfect memory.

While Joseph Smith had been commanded to “read” the visioned words (2 Nephi 27:20), his editing of them may have been at his own initiative.

Having the MUST give Joseph an imperfect or incomplete text to read was bad enough. But now Joseph didn't even read the text accurately? He inserted his own words? What does that do to the rest of the Book of Mormon? How much was provided by the MUST, and how much was Joseph's "expansion" or imagination?

This line of reasoning, if taken seriously, destroys any remaining credibility of the text, assuming there was any credibility left once we accept the idea that the MUST, removed in time and space from the plates, nevertheless somehow translated the plates and then transmitted his/her/its translation to the supernatural teleprompter. 

Why would a presumed prior translator of the Book of Mormon have omitted the KJV’s italicized words from the quoted biblical chapters? In the absence of any record of the translator’s thoughts on this topic, we can only speculate. 

To say the least.

I will mention one possible motivation. The words in italics may have been omitted by the translator in order to avoid the confusion, opportunity for derision, and general distraction from the book’s message that including them might have caused.

In using the KJV as a base text for the Bible chapters in the Book of Mormon, the translator would have been faced with the question of what to do with the KJV’s italicize words. Should they be included but differentiated from the rest of the text as they are in the KJV? Or should they be included but not differentiated? Or should they be omitted altogether?

One thing that is clear is that the option of distinguishing italicized words was [Page 67]not chosen by the translator of the Book of Mormon, or if it was, it was not successfully implemented, since the KJV’s italicized words that do appear in the printed Book of Mormon are not distinguished from the rest of the text in any way.

According to the Ancient Variants Hypothesis and the Italics Revision Hypothesis, Joseph Smith was responsible for the English wording of the Book of Mormon and took much of it from an open King James Bible. 

The classic false dilemma logical fallacy.

According to the Missing Words Hypothesis, a prior translator filled that role, with Joseph Smith simply seeing in vision and dictating the work of the prior translator, and making minor edits as he dictated it.

The edits may have been minor where we can check them against the KJV, but what about any edits Joseph made to the rest of the text? According to the Missing Words Hypothesis, the MUST could have omitted words anywhere in the text, just as Joseph could have edited whatever he wanted to when he saw the words in vision.

If all of the italicized words were already omitted from the text Joseph Smith visioned, then their absence was the default situation. It required no intentionality on Joseph Smith’s part. The two italicized word are missing from verse 5 because Joseph Smith simply dictated what he saw without taking any action to revise it. This lack of action could have been due to any one of a number of factors such as lack of attention, momentary indifference born of fatigue, confusion as to what the missing words were or where they should go, or a momentary change of heart and decision to let the revealed word stand as it was given instead of trying to correct it.

Now we have Joseph Smith not only not translating, but reading the words off the stone (or in the vision) incorrectly, due to indifference? This is chaos. 

Most of these revisions have been retained in subsequent Bible translations in the KJV lineage of Bibles, such as the ESV, NASB, and NRSV, and are also supported by the most respected independent translations of the Masoretic Text, such as the NIV and NJPS.74 The RV is essentially a corrected version of the KJV. If the Book of Mormon’s rendering of Isaiah 6 and 7 constituted a more accurate translation than the KJV, it would be expected to differ from the KJV in ways that parallel at least some of these revisions. It does not. In every case it more closely follows the KJV. This suggests at least that the Book of Mormon’s purpose in quoting Isaiah was not to correct translation errors in the English Bible. In particular, this assessment fails to support Roberts’s belief that the many minor variants in Book of Mormon Isaiah are due to Joseph Smith’s comparison of the KJV with his own translation from the plates and selection of the translation that gave “the superior sense and clearness.”

Because this article is based on a false dilemma logical fallacy, it disintegrates into speculation about not only the MUST's subjective motivations, but also about the "Book of Mormon's purpose," as if the book itself was sentient.

If the variants are due to Joseph's imperfect memory as he recited these passages, there's no need to speculate about the intentions of the MUST, why the Lord would allow the UST to provide a deficient text in the first place, or why Joseph would have been indifferent or confused as he read the words provided by the MUST.

The imperfect memory theory is supported by the evidence cited in this very article, but the author skipped right over it in his eagerness to promote JDT and MUST.

the end

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