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


  1. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 2nd. ed. (Great Britain: Mariner Books, 2008), 234. 

  2. 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/. 

  3. See “Richard Dawkins talking about Mormonism and Joseph Smith,” online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d95M8jk3mv0. 

  4. 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. 

  5. That Mr. Dawkins would hold to such dogmatism is odd, considering how much he esteems himself to be a man of science and reason. 

  6. 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. 

  7. E. A. Speiser, The Anchor Bible: Genesis (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1964). 

  8. 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. 

  9. I have, for the sake of readability, silently omitted Speiser’s critical notations of the text. 

  10. 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. 

  11. Eran Shalev, “‘Written in the Style of Antiquity’: Pseudo-Biblicism and the Early American Republic, 17701830,” 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. 

  12. 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. 

  13. I suggest that the reader begin (but not end) with the work of Royal Skousen, which can be conveniently accessed online here: http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/authors/?authorID=57. 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.” 

14 thoughts on “Joseph Smith, Richard Dawkins, and the Language of Translation

  1. An excellent riposte, Stephen.
    Thanks.
    The tendency to use Elizabethan and Jacobean English style has pretty much gone by the boards now that Ephraim Speiser’s generation is no longer with us. The real kicker is that Dawkins’ own countrymen were so attached to consciously archaic English that it is astonishing that it escaped his notice. In his 1924 translation of The Apocryphal New Testament (OUP), for example, Montague Rhodes James deliberately employed archaic English style. J. K. Elliott replaced that edition with his modern translation in 1993 (OUP).

    • Robert,

      Your comments remind me not to forget to mention R. H. Charles’ venerable two volume translation “The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament,” published by Oxford (the university where Dawkins teaches) in 1913.

      Anyone familiar with Charles’ translation will know he also utilized Jacobean English for his translation (lots of “thee,” “thou,” “ye,” “thine,” &c.).

  2. I am sorry, but I don’t follow your logic at all. Richard Dawkins point is that using the Jacobean language is anachronistic, not that Jacobean language cannot be beautiful. (By the way, this is only one point he makes in his attack on the BOM). The fact the Joseph Smith often mis-used the grammar of the Jacobean era has often been discussed. I don’t see what Mr. Dawkins, mine or your experience with translation has to do with it. (I would also caution you on claiming the Mr. Dawkins question is bogus). This question has puzzled scholars faithful and anti- for a very long time. Some have offered some oddly sophisticated answers as speculation. For me personally, I am puzzled when I see LDS scholars frequently defend other challenges about the language by arguing that Joseph used the language he was most familiar with. But on this point, they seem to take a different posture. I think Mr. Dawkins is simply starting the conversation by noting what thinking, reasonable people of eductation who are not conditioned to look at the BOM as a believer often find striking and unexpected in their initial encounter with the language, and not just because of the Jacobean-ish style. There are many reasons. Harold Bloom, a widely respected (and almost as controversial) critic, one highly familiar with Jacobean language has had even harsher words regarding his read of the BOM. I do agree with you that Mr. Dawkins could make his point much stronger by referring to other aspects of the BOM. In fact, he has. A quick survey of YouTube will demonstrate that. However, I wouldn’t lead someone familiar with all of the challenges leveled at the BOM over the years to find anything new in his thoughts critique of Joseph Smith or the BOM. Also, from my view, I don’t think Richard Dawkins is interested enough in the BOM to ever be a serious critic. I now digress, but as my very simple minded laborer farmer Sunday School teacher told me when I first started reading the BOM in grade school, “reading the BOM is purely a spiritual adventure, it should never be approached as an adventure in scholarship or history”. I don’t mean to imply that everyone has a positive “spiritual adventure” when they read it. Many, including Mr. Dawkins, clearly don’t.

    • Dan,

      Let me clarify.

      Richard Dawkins appears to fundamentally misunderstand what the Book of Mormon claims to be. It claims to be a translation. Joseph Smith did not claim to be the author of the book (the obligatory copyright reference to him as “author and proprietor” notwithstanding) but its translator. The English text of the Book of Mormon does not claim to go back any further than the 19th century. As a translator, inspired or otherwise, it was therefore Joseph Smith’s prerogative to translate the original language (reformed Egyptian) into whatever language or idiom he so desired. Dawkins, for some bizarre, unexplained reason, won’t grant this prerogative to Joseph Smith as a translator, and instead insists that the book is a fraud because of its Jacobean English.

      The point of my post was to point out that Dawkins is employing a double-standard, as other professional, scholarly translators of a body of indisputably ancient texts (I mention two examples in the post: one in the body of my post and another in a comment) have also used Jacobean English, at least to some degree, in their translations. And they were translating in the 20th century with academic institutes! If they’re allowed to do such, why can’t also Joseph Smith? This is the point of my post.

      Furthermore, as I point out in footnotes 10 and 11, it is not anachronistic for Joseph Smith to have used Jacobean English in a 19th century scriptural production. As Roper, Tvedtnes, and Shalev show at length, a venerable tradition of rendering both scriptural and non-scriptural texts into Jacobean, King James English existed in 19th century America. Joseph Smith was not outside the norm with his decision to render his translation into Jacobean English. That seems out-of-place for us today, but it wasn’t in the 19th century. Dawkins has thus fallen prey to a rather simple-minded presentism.

      My post is also not a discussion of the “misuse” of English grammar in the Book of Mormon — although I will mention that Royal Skousen’s work has shown that much of what we’ve assumed to be poor grammar in the Book of Mormon is actually only poor modern English grammar, not poor early modern English grammar, but that’s another discussion. My post is rather to address this unfounded claim that, by virtue alone of it being rendered in Jacobean English, the Book of Mormon is a fraud. This is Dawkins’ claim. And it is a claim I find, as I said, bogus.

      Whether one actually believes Joseph Smith was translating an ancient document is, I might add, meaningless to this discussion. Even if one doesn’t believe Joseph Smith’s claims, it is fallacious to impose on the Book of Mormon claims it doesn’t make for itself.

      We can discuss why God would have inspired Joseph to translate the Book of Mormon the way he did, or what implications the grammar and language have on understanding the nature of the Book of Mormon’s translation, but Dawkins, who is routinely so poorly informed on these matters, doesn’t bring any of that up, so neither did I. These are theological/historical discussions outside the purpose of my post.

      You say, “For me personally, I am puzzled when I see LDS scholars frequently defend other challenges about the language by arguing that Joseph used the language he was most familiar with.” I can’t think of any serious historian familiar with Joseph Smith’s writings and speech who wouldn’t immediately concede that Jacobean, King James English was the religious, scriptural language that Joseph Smith was most familiar with. It’s peppered throughout his writings, journals, speeches, etc., etc. It was almost certainly with him from an early age, when he was reading the KJV with his family, hearing it preached in church, etc.

      You say, “I think Mr. Dawkins is simply starting the conversation by noting what thinking, reasonable people of eductation who are not conditioned to look at the BOM as a believer often find striking and unexpected in their initial encounter with the language, and not just because of the Jacobean-ish style.” I think you’re being too generous. Dawkins is not interested in “starting a conversation.” He is an ideological polemicist out to prove Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon a fraud. He’s not interested in having a “conversation.” If he were, he’d actually engage, in a meaningful manner, the decades of scholarship Mormons and non-Mormons have produced on the nature, language, history, theology, and importance of the Book of Mormon. Has he done this? Absolutely not! His comments have merely betrayed a rather crass and polemical ideology, not to mention an abysmal ignorance concerning Mormonism, and that he has no interest in any sort of “conversation.”

      You say, “Also, from my view, I don’t think Richard Dawkins is interested enough in the BOM to ever be a serious critic.” You are, of course, absolutely correct. He isn’t a serious critic or scholar of the Book of Mormon. Not by a long shot. This is why it is all the more puzzling that he’s taken seriously at all by anybody, at least with regards to the question of the veracity of the Book of Mormon. But we live in a puzzling world, and taken seriously he is. Thus my blog post in response to him.

      I hope this helps clarify my post.

      Cheers!

      • My bigger problem with the whole thing is that Joseph smith translated it in one fell swoop via the seer stones. (A feat that is only possible through divine intervention as it would normally take weeks or months to do something like that).

        So given he translated it under some sort of divine power, why are there grammatical errors in jacobean english? Why would god wait many millenia to share his word, and choose a man who is incapable of a perfect translation through his divine power?

  3. No non-Mormon scholars acknowledge the existence of either a “reformed Egyptian” language or a “reformed Egyptian” script as it has been described in Mormon belief. Therefore, Smith translated a language that never existed. There is nothing to back up his claims yet there is overwhelming amounts of historical, archaeological and linguistic evidence to suggest he made it all up.

    • Adam:
      The Book of Mormon doesn’t describe what it means by reformed Egyptian, so suggesting that there is nothing like what is described is a bit off the mark. Saying that linguists don’t recognize such a language also makes several presumptions that don’t fit the argument. To give a slightly different example, there is a written language called Linear B. We can be sure that if anyone who spoke that language described what they wrote, it wouldn’t be Linear B. The label given is only a reference.

      As for there being nothing to back up the claims of the Book of Mormon, the evidence is not nearly as clear as you suggest. There is actually a very large amount of evidence that supports the Book of Mormon. Since you offer no specifics I can offer none in return, but on each count you mention (historical, archaeological, and linguistic) I am aware of very little evidence that contradicts the Book of Mormon, and for what appears to be a contradiction there are perfectly understandable arguments for how the data still fit into the picture. I wonder how much of the evidence for or against the Book of Mormon you have personally worked with, rather than simply borrowing things you have seen elsewhere on the Internet?

  4. I’ve read the book of mormon cover to cover while a student in my twenties. I always had a problem when i read whole sections lifted from the King James Version of the Bible. Coming from Orthodox Christian heritage I was familiar with the Bible, especially Isaiah copied completely onto the book of mormon. Also, a section in the book writes that they knew at the time being represented that the earth rotated around the sun, which theory did not come until much later. Hence the writer gives away his period by such a statement. Then there’s the problem of many accounts of livestock, metal, fruits, grains, all it left even by a desolated culture would have flourish unabated. I think that others found either Spaudling’s work and Ethan’s Smith work, or both and intended to fuse them together for fame and fortune.

    • Dear Johnny,

      Nephi had very good reason to explore Isaiah, especially if Nephi was trying to help Native people understand. Isaiah can be difficult on its own, without the large cultural barriers. You may be familiar with midrash and targum, which were tools often used to overcome such barriers. Nephi may have employed such explanatory methods, and it would make sense for him to do so. However, if that is the case then Nephi’s explanations could have the opposite effect if presented to a modern-day audience. If Nephi’s intention was to communicate Isaiah’s message to the reader, then we can see how Joseph would have reason to translate Nephi’s words into the form of Isaiah most comprehensible to modern readers. To Joseph, that could have meant the KJV, and if Joseph presented the idea of substituting the KJV in place of Nephi’s midrash, and found the idea acceptable to the Lord, that would explain the presence of KJV Isaiah in the Book of Mormon.

      When it comes to the earth rotating around the sun, off the top of my head I’m not sure which verse you are referring to, but certainly the Lord knew the earth rotated around the sun and could reveal it to man any way He chose.

  5. Not to bring up an article that is two years old, but I thought Dawkin’s own argument against the Book of Mormon on that Swedish TV show was overall fallacious. For example, he appealed to authority of the time by saying Joseph Smith was a “convicted charlatan”. So, was Copernicus a charlatan and the heliocentric view complete lies because the authorities of his time convicted him? I bet Dawkins would go into some explanation about how religion had to do with that, but I would remind him of the general complexity that creates, and that, well, the Missourian government wasn’t exactly secular either.

    It’s a horrendous double standard, and undoubtedly, a lot of his comments where charged and took advantage of his opponent’s lack of debate skills.

    Great article!

  6. Where issues of faith are concerned, there is no amount of logical arguing that will change a believer’s mind. I do, however, want to point out that a translation of an existing text from one ancient language into another previously spoken language is one thing, while writing a book in a previously-spoken language without being able to produce the original text is problematic. Like I said, it is a matter of faith.

  7. To me it seems like the author of this post is arguing in favor of the truth or the BOM based on the premise that if you cannot disprove the book conclusively it must be true.

    This seems to me to be a very slippery slope. What if you cannot conclusively disprove the existence of bigfoot or the chupacabra are they real?

    I can make many fantastical truth claims and challange you to disprove them.

    Can you offer any arguments based on logic and reason without relying on supernatural faith based claims that the book is authentic?

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