This essay first appeared on the Interpreter blog. We have received permission from the Interpreter board and from the author, Stephen Smoot, to republish this essay here. Please click here to visit the Interpreter website. A follow-up post can also be read here.
Joseph Smith, Richard Dawkins, and the Language of Translation
The atheist controversialist Richard Dawkins has, on a few occasions, centered Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon in his polemical crosshairs. When he does speak about Mormonism, Mr. Dawkins typically brings up the Jacobean English of the Book of Mormon as evidence against its authenticity. In his aggressively anti-religious book The God Delusion, for example, Mr. Dawkins dismisses Joseph Smith as the “enterprisingly mendacious inventor” of the Book of Mormon, which Mr. Dawkins sneeringly writes off as “a whole new bogus American history, written in bogus seventeenth-century English.”1
This line of argumentation has been repeated by Mr. Dawkins on a number of occasions. When he ambushed the Latter-day Saint rock star Brandon Flowers on Swedish television, Mr. Dawkins once again repeated his favorite criticism against the Book of Mormon. “I have to say that when I read the book of Mormon recently, what impressed me was that this was an obvious fake,” he informed an unsuspecting Flowers. But what made it as such an obvious fake to Mr. Dawkins? “This was a 19th century book written in 16th century English. That’s not the way people talked in the 19th century – it’s a fake. So it’s not beautiful, it’s a work of charlatanry.”2
Finally, as he addressed a group of unknown size, Mr. Dawkins, who could hardly contain his bewildered disdain, exhaustedly complained that people in this day and age still believe the “mountebank” Joseph Smith, “who wrote a bogus book–––the Book of Mormon–––[and] although he was writing in the 19th century chose to write it in 17th century English.” “Why don’t people see through that?” Mr. Dawkins asked in perplexity.3
Thus, for Mr. Dawkins, the King James idiom in the Book of Mormon somehow disproves it’s a translation of an ancient document.4 Although Mr. Dawkins has not afforded us a thorough explanation backed with evidence and logic as to why he subscribes to this belief, and has offered nothing more than dogmatic assertions, he’s made his opinions very clear.5
I’ve always found this criticism amusing, if for no other reason than it betrays the fact that Mr. Dawkins doesn’t seem to have much experience translating languages (if he has, I’d be happy to be corrected). There is a very simple explanation for why Joseph Smith would have rendered his translation of the Book of Mormon into Jacobean English, which has been discussed elsewhere.6 But all amusement aside, and instead of focusing on the question of why the Book of Mormon was translated into early modern English, which has been more than adequately explained by others, I want instead to draw attention to biblical scholar E. A. Speiser’s translation of the celebrated Akkadian creation myth Enuma Elish, and ask Mr. Dawkins a few questions.
Speiser, who has also provided us a valuable translation of the book of Genesis,7 published his translation of the Enuma Elish in 1958 with Princeton University Press.8 What follows are a few pertinent excerpts.9
Speiser’s translation contained in Pritchard’s abridgement begins at the call of the god Marduk to be the champion of the divine council against the evil chaos monster Tiamat.
Thou art the most honored of the great gods,
Thy decree is unrivaled, thy command is Anu.
Thou, Marduk, art the most honored of the great gods,
Thy decree is unrivaled, thy word is Anu.
O Marduk, thou art indeed our avenger.
We have granted thee kingship over the universe entire.
When in the Assembly thou sittest, thy word shall be supreme.
When the gods praise Marduk, they speak as follows.
Lord, truly thy decree is first among gods.
Say but to wreck or create; it shall be.
Open thy mouth: the cloth will vanish.
Later we read of the terrible battle between Marduk and Tiamat, wherein the angry chaos goddess lets forth a cry.
Too important art thou for the lord of the gods
to rise up against thee!
Is it in their place that they have gathered, or in thy place?
An impatient Marduk returns Tiamat’s insult with his own.
Why art thou risen, art haughtily exalted,
Thou hast charged thine own heart to stir up conflict,
. . . sons reject their own fathers,
Whilst thou, who has born them,
hast foresworn love!
Stand thou up, that I and thou meet in single combat!
Marduk eventually defeats Tiamat and from her spoiled carcass fashions the cosmos. Addressing the moon, Marduk gives his orders to the heavens.
Thou shalt have luminous horns to signify six days,
. . .
When the sun overtakes thee at the base of heaven,
Diminish thy crown and retrogress to light.
At the time of disappearance approach thou the course of the sun,
And on the twenty-ninth thou shalt again stand in opposition to the sun.
The myth concludes with Marduk being exalted and praised in the divine council for his majesty and power in defeating Tiamat and establishing the cosmos.
With the preceding in mind, my questions for Mr. Dawkins are as follows:
1. If we’re to reject the Book of Mormon as a fabrication because it’s a purported translation that reads in Jacobean English, what are we to do with Speiser’s translation of the Enuma Elish?
2. Does Speiser’s Jacobean English translation of the Enuma Elish bring into doubt the antiquity of the text, as Joseph Smith’s Jacobean English translation of the Book of Mormon supposedly does? Indeed, is Speiser’s translation “a work of charlatanry” because he produced it in the 20th century and yet wrote it in 17th century English, which is “not the way people talk” these days?10 (Incidentally, as it turns out people actually did “talk like that” in the 19th century, both in religious and non-religious discourse.)11
3. Why would Princeton University publish a translation of an ancient text rendered in Jacobean English if such was an illegitimate maneuver?
4. Do you allow Speiser to utilize Jacobean English in his translation because he’s translating an indisputably ancient text, whereas you do not grant Joseph Smith the same courtesy because he claimed to translate a text of disputed authenticity? If so, why? On what rational grounds do you create this exception?
There are more questions that come to mind, but these four should be sufficient for now. I hope the point of this brief article is clear. If we’re to allow Speiser to render his translation of an ancient text into King James idiom in the 1950s (!), then surely we must also allow Joseph Smith to do such in the 19th century. Not to do so is to employ a tremendous double standard.
There are legitimate questions one can raise about the provenance of the Book of Mormon, including questions about Joseph Smith’s method of translation, but Mr. Dawkins’ naïve and uninformed criticism on this point is not one of them.12 Those looking for a rigorous analysis of the translation and language of the Book of Mormon would do well to look elsewhere.13
- Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 2nd. ed. (Great Britain: Mariner Books, 2008), 234.
- Katherine Weber, “Brandon Flowers of ‘The Killers’ Defends Mormon Faith Against Richard Dawkins,” online at http://www.christianpost.com/news/rock-star-brandon-flowers-defends-mormon-faith-to-richard-dawkins-81826/.
- See “Richard Dawkins talking about Mormonism and Joseph Smith,” online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d95M8jk3mv0.
- Actually, I genuinely wonder if Mr. Dawkins is aware of the fact that the Book of Mormon purports to be a translation. His routinely slip-shod comments on the book have only shown he’s aware that it was published in the 19th century, but not much more.
- That Mr. Dawkins would hold to such dogmatism is odd, considering how much he esteems himself to be a man of science and reason.
- See generally Brant Gardner, The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, Utah: Greg Kofford Books, 2011), passim, but especially 302 (available here); Hugh Nibley, The Prophetic Book of Mormon (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1989), 212–218 (available here); Daniel L. Belnap, “The King James Bible and the Book of Mormon,” in The King James Bible and the Restoration, ed. Kent P. Jackson (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2011), 162–81. On the English of the Book of Mormon, see also Royal Skousen, “The Archaic Vocabulary of the Book of Mormon,” Insights: A Window on the Ancient World 25, no. 5 (2005): 2–6. If Mr. Dawkins wants to be taken seriously, I’d advise he quickly brush up on this literature.
- E. A. Speiser, The Anchor Bible: Genesis (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1964).
- James B. Pritchard, ed., The Ancient Near East: Volume 1, An Anthology of Texts and Pictures (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1958), 31-39. As the copyright page indicates, Speiser’s translation in this volume is an abridgement found in another Princeton publication, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, published in 1950.
- I have, for the sake of readability, silently omitted Speiser’s critical notations of the text.
- Incidentally, Speiser is not the only modern translator to render his translation of an ancient text into Jacobean English. See Matthew Roper, “A Black Hole That’s Not So Black,” Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 6/2 (1994): 165–67; John A. Tvedtnes and Matthew Roper, “Joseph Smith’s Use of the Apocrypha: Shadow or Reality?” FARMS Review of Books 8/2 (1996): 334–37; Nibley, Prophetic Book of Mormon, 217–218. John A. Tvedtnes, “Answering Mormon Scholars,”Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 6/2 (1994): 235–37, also shows how the language of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was influenced by Jacobean (KJV) English. We might ask Mr. Dawkins if he considers Abraham Lincoln a faker because “people didn’t talk like that” in the 19th century.
- Eran Shalev, “‘Written in the Style of Antiquity’: Pseudo-Biblicism and the Early American Republic, 1770–1830,” Church History 79/4 (2010): 800–826. Shalev devotes a few words on the Book of Mormon. “The tradition of writing in biblical style [in the early 19th century] paved the way for the Book of Mormon by conditioning Americans to reading American texts, and texts about America, in biblical language. Yet the Book of Mormon, an American narrative told in the English of the King James Bible, has thrived long after Americans abandoned the practice of recounting their affairs in biblical language. It has thus been able to survive and flourish for almost two centuries, not because, but in spite of the literary ecology of the mid-nineteenth century and after. The Book of Mormon became a testament to a widespread cultural practice of writing in biblical English that could not accommodate to the monumental transformations America endured in the first half of nineteenth century.” Shalev, “‘Written in the Style of Antiquity’,” 826, footnotes silently removed.
- The careful reader will note that Mr. Dawkins is not claiming the Book of Mormon is false because of apparent textual dependency on the KJV for the Book of Mormon’s biblical citations. (I’d be surprised if his understanding of the Book of Mormon was informed enough to even recognize such.) Rather, he’s arguing that it’s false by the mere fact that it’s imitating KJV language. There is a world of difference between these two criticisms. One is legitimate and worthy of careful analysis. The other is bogus, and is perpetuated only by those who are ignorant of how translations work.
- I suggest that the reader begin (but not end) with the work of Royal Skousen, which can be conveniently accessed online here: http://publications.maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/people/royal-skousen/. Other useful material by Skousen can be accessed here: http://www.mormoninterpreter.com/25-years-of-research-what-we-have-learned-about-the-book-of-mormon-text/. Since he has made himself a commentator on the language of the Book of Mormon, I am particularly interested if Mr. Dawkins could address the information uncovered in Skousen’s research concerning non-English Hebraisms. See Royal Skousen, “The Original Language of the Book of Mormon: Upstate New York Dialect, King James English, or Hebrew?” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 3/1 (1994): 38. “What is important here is to realize that the original text of the Book of Mormon apparently contains expressions that are not characteristic of English at any place or time, in particular neither Joseph Smith’s upstate New York dialect nor the King James Bible. . . . [T]he potential Hebraisms found in the original text are consistent with the belief, but do not prove, that the source text is related to the language of the Hebrew Bible.”
Just a clarification — is it the use of “thee and thou” (and the proper declension of helping verbs) that makes the language “Jacobean”? Is it possible that Speiser recognized the in original text of the Enuma Elish the structure of a second person familiar, and utilized “thee and thou” as a mechanism to accurately depict that? Second person familiar still exists in languages like German and French, and is very tiny geographies that use English. But are there other things that make the BOM language “Jacobean” besides second person familiar?
Also, it seems little bit of a straw man to stand up Dawkins and smack him with this. There are much more convincing linguistic criticisms of the BOM than Dawkins. He is a convenient foil because he is so outspoken about his atheism. But defeating Dawkins on the use of Jacobean English (or even second person familiar) in the BOM hardly seems like a definitive (or arguably even productive) battle. Just my 2 cents.
NW Wisdom Seeker,
Yes, the archaic forms of the pronouns and the archaic forms of the verbs are what make this “Jacobean.” Of course, modern English doesn’t distinguish between the second person singular (or plural, for that matter) nominative and accusative pronouns. It’s always just “you.” For Speiser to use “thou,” “thy,” and “thee” in this case makes it archaic. The other thing in the Book of Mormon, and other English translations that I cite in my follow up post, that makes it “Jacobean” is the archaic “-eth” suffix on various verbs, usually going with a third person pronominal subject, like “he doeth,” “he liveth,” “he speaketh,” etc.
As for this post being a straw man, I kindly disagree. First, I do not believe that I have misrepresented Dawkins’ argument to make my critique look better. I quoted him from multiple sources to ensure I wasn’t misrepresenting him. Second, I acknowledge in my post that there are legitimate criticisms and questions of the Book of Mormon on linguistic grounds. The reason I’m picking on Dawkins and his silly argument is not primarily because of his outspoken atheism, although that is part of it, but because of the little cult following he has on the Internet where I see lots of people uncritically repeating his fallacious arguments against the Book of Mormon or otherwise looking to him as some sort of respectable authority on this topic. He’s not, and anyone would do very well to stay far away from his arguments.
Hope that helps clarify things.
When the Dead Sea Scrolls were first translated into English, were they translated into Jacobean English?
I don’t know exactly, but Hugh Nibley has cited two examples of mainstream translations of the scrolls (from 1955 and 1964) that did. (See chapter ten in “The Prophetic Book of Mormon”.)
Huston Smith changed how I view people like Dawkins when they talk about religion. Smith said, they mostly attack third grade theology. From what I’ve read of Dawkins’ religious arguments, he fits that description exactly, despite his keen biological insights. I suppose I should take that as a warning against being dogmatic on issues about which I have only a novice level of knowledge.
Richard Dawkins – awwww, bless his little heart. He sure is a funny chap.
Is Speiser claiming his work to be scripture as Joseph Smith claimed? Is your comparison apples to apples?
I will also point out that the Old English prose problem is only 1 of a myriad of difficulties with the Book of Mormon. I would refer one to “Studies of the Book of Mormon” by BH Roberts for a fairly inclusive look into these issues, non-inclusive of the Jacobean English problem discussed here.
B.H. Roberts’ attempt to articulate what he considered to be the biggest challenges to the Book of Mormon in the 1920s is not really that helpful nearly a century later, unless, of course one is ignorant of the answers found to Roberts’ questions (and many that he did not know to ask) during the past several decades. On second thought, Dawkins would probably consider Roberts’ studies to be current and state-of-the-art.
Know that I agree with you though in regards to Dawkins. Too extreme a position either direction usually causes one to lose credibility…
Please post links for the answers that Roberts brings up. I would love to see them.