Once Again: Joseph Smith, Richard Dawkins, and the Language of Translation

(Cross-posted from Ploni Almoni: Mr. So-and-So’s Mormon Blog) [This is another follow-up post to these posts here, here, and here.]

At the risk of overkilling this topic, I want to return to Richard Dawkins’ arguments against the Book of Mormon one last time. (I’m pretty sure I’ll leave it alone after this.)

In an online article where he expresses his disappointment that not every English state school has a copy of the King James Bible in its library, Dawkins opines on the incomparable quality of the King James Bible as a work of English literature while at the same time insisting that it is not a suitable guide to morality.1 “Ecclesiastes, in the 1611 translation,” Dawkins specifies, “is one of the glories of English literature (I’m told it’s pretty good in the original Hebrew, too).” (Having read large parts of Ecclesiastes in Hebrew, I can attest that it is.) “A native speaker of English who has never read a word of the King James Bible is verging on the barbarian,” Dawkins goes on to say as he affirms that the King James Bible “really is a great work of literature” that should be appreciated as such. Indeed, “an atheistic world-view,” Dawkins has said elsewhere, “provides no justification for cutting the Bible, and other sacred books, out of our education. . . . We can give up belief in God while not losing touch with a treasured heritage.”2

Something about Dawkins’ views on this matter struck me the other day as I was sitting in my New Testament class. My professor was going over the history of the transmission of the New Testament when he mentioned that the King James Bible was as much a revision of older English translations (such as the translation of William Tyndale accomplished in 1526) as it was a translation of the underlying Hebrew and Greek. After class I thumbed through a volume I own on the history of the King James Bible, a book recently produced by the Religious Studies Center at BYU, and came across this by Kent P. Jackson.

As the King James Bible was by design a revision of earlier translations— “out of many good ones, one principal good one”—its language was already old when it was created. It “was born archaic.” But this should not be overstated; it was not born four hundred years old, as it is today, yet it was deliberately cast in a language more antiquated than that of common speech. It was a “formal, ritualized language” that created an “atmosphere of holiness.” While the KJV provides a literal and faithful rendering of the original Hebrew and Greek texts, it “infuses that translation with a sense of beauty and ceremony.”3

This struck me as highly significant. Remember that Dawkins’ argument, per his TV interview last year, is that the Book of Mormon cannot be authentic because “[the Book of Mormon] 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.”4

So why is this significant? Despite the fact that the English of the King James Bible was already archaic for 1611, and was not written “the way people talked” at the time, Dawkins can’t seem to praise the KJV enough. But by his own standard he should be dismissing the KJV as a fake and “a work of charlatanry.” What gives?

My search into this matter of the archaic English of the King James Bible by 1611 standards didn’t end there. To find out if Jackson was correct, I did some more research and came up with a number of historians saying the same thing. David Lyle Jeffrey, for example, notes, “The deliberately archaic ‘voice’ of the King James Version was a result of the decision to use certain older forms of formal English in preference to street idiom in the royal translation.”5 In the same volume Alister E. McGrath comments on the archaic English of the King James Bible to the same point.

By the end of the sixteenth century, however, the forms “thou,” “thee,” and “thy” were in decline. In Shakespeare’s Richard III (1591), the singular or plural form “you” is used 379 times in conversations which cross social and class boundaries between commoners, nobility, and royalty. The older forms were nevertheless retained in the King James Version, despite clear shifts in the patterns of written and spoken English. Even by the standards of 1610, the continued use of such forms would have been seen as slightly archaic.

A similar issue emerges in relation to verbs, most notably the third person singular form of the present tense. Although early Tudor spoken English used forms such as “he saith” or “she goeth,” by 1610 these were being replaced with “he says” and “she goes.” There is evidence that, even where the older orthography was used in the Jacobean age, it was pronounced as if it were the new form. In other words, the phrase written as “he saith” might be pronounced as “he says.” Once more, the King James Bible chose to retain the older forms, despite the clear indications of future trends.6

So the translators deliberately chose “to retain the older forms” of English pronouns and verbs. But that’s not all. McGrath has elsewhere noted how contemporary readers of the King James Bible would’ve found the English (the same English that Dawkins can’t get enough of, mind you) antiquated.

One of the most interesting aspects of the King James Bible is its use of ways of speaking that were already becoming archaic in the standard English of the first decade of the seventeenth century. By adopting these older forms, the King James Bible had the unintended effect of perpetuating ways of speaking that, strictly speaking, were dying out in everyday English speech. . . . [T]he King James Bible would actually have been perceived to be slightly old-fashioned and dated even from the first day of its publication.7

McGrath isn’t alone on this point. Seth Lerer has similarly written concerning the language of the KJV,

Much of its vernacular, as we well know, was cobbled together out of earlier translations, Tyndale and Coverdale in particular, and by the early seventeenth century it was already perceived as old-fashioned. Certain grammatical uses, in particular the -th suffix for the third person singular verb and the grammatical gendering of particular nouns . . . were perceived by contemporaries as unrepresentative of everyday spoken usage.8

So the English of the KJV was “unrepresentative of everyday spoken” English in 1611. In other words, to paraphrase Dawkins, “that’s not the way people talked in the early-17th century.”

But why, one might ask, was this done? Why didn’t the translators of the KJV just use contemporary English? Adam Nicolson answers,

[The English of the KJV] is not the English you would have heard on the street, then or ever. It took up its life in a new and distinct dimension of linguistic space, somewhere between English and Greek (or, for the Old Testament, between English and Hebrew). These scholars were not pulling the language of the scriptures into the English they knew and used at home. . . . It was, in other words, more important to make English godly than to make the words of God into the sort of prose that any Englishmen would have written.9

Did you catch that last part? The translators, according to Nicolson, deliberately used an uncommon form of English in order to make Scripture sound more “godly” (sound familiar?), even though this meant that the English wouldn’t have been the kind “that any Englishmen would have written” in 1611.

But besides discovering these facts about the English of the King James Bible, I was also pleasantly surprised to discover that the Book of Mormon is not the only scriptural translation whose language was significantly influenced by the English of the King James Bible. In his comments on the history of the Jewish Publication Society’s 1917 edition of the Hebrew Bible, Leonard J. Greenspoon explains how there was a direct influence on the JPS Tanakh by the KJV.

This connection between the Protestant KJV and the Jewish translations into English is nowhere better or more fully documented than in the edition of the Jewish Publication Society of America (JPS) brought out in 1917. . . . Where it was necessary for any reason to incorporate materials not found in the KJV or its revision, editor in chief Max L. Margolis deliberately chose KJV-sounding language, so as to achieve a text that seamlessly combined the new with the old.10

For example, here is the 1917 JPS Tanakh’s translation/revision of Psalm 23.

A Psalm of David. HaShem is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul; He guideth me in straight paths for His name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; Thou hast anointed my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of HaShem for ever.

And here is the 1917 JPS Tanakh’s rendering of Psalm 24.

A Psalm of David. The earth is HaShem’S, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.

For He hath founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the floods.

Who shall ascend into the mountain of HaShem? and who shall stand in His holy place?

He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not taken My name in vain, and hath not sworn deceitfully.

He shall receive a blessing from HaShem, and righteousness from the G-d of his salvation.

Such is the generation of them that seek after Him, that seek Thy face, even Jacob. Selah

Lift up your heads, O ye gates, and be ye lifted up, ye everlasting doors; that the King of glory may come in.

‘Who is the King of glory?’ ‘The HaShem strong and mighty, HaShem mighty in battle.’

Lift up your heads, O ye gates, yea, lift them up, ye everlasting doors; that the King of glory may come in.

‘Who then is the King of glory?’ ‘The HaShem of hosts; He is the King of glory.’ Selah

Notice the unmistakable attempt to capture the archaic “thou,” “thy,” “ye,” “yea,” and “-eth” on the end of verbs. Does Dawkins think that Max L. Margolis, the editor of the 1917 JPS Tanakh, is a fraud and a charlatan because he consciously imitated King James English?

Or what about R. H. Charles, one of the great pioneers on Jewish and Christian pseudepigrapha, who published his Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament in 1913 at the same university where Dawkins teaches? Here is a verse from Charles’ translation of the pseudepigraphal Martyrdom of Isaiah.

And whilst he (Hezekiah) gave commands, Josab the son of Isaiah standing by, Isaiah said to Hezekiah the king, but not in the presence of Manasseh only did he say unto him: ‘As the Lord liveth, whose name has not been sent into this world, [and as the Beloved of my Lord liveth], and as the Spirit which speaketh in me liveth. (Martyrdom of Isaiah 1:6–7)

Notice the archaic “-eth endings on the verbs in an attempt to recapture the voice of the KJV. Here is an excerpt from Charles’ translation of the book of Jubilees (sometimes called “lesser Genesis”).

And to Adam also he said, ‘ Because thou hast harkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree of which I commanded thee that thou shouldst not eat thereof, cursed be the ground for thy sake: thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to thee, and thou shalt eat thy bread in the sweat of thy face, till thou returnest to the earth from whence thou wast taken; for earth thou art, and unto earth shalt thou return.’ (Jubilees 3:25)

Notice the archaic pronouns, as well as, again, the archaic forms of the verbs. I could produce many more examples of this sort of thing going on throughout Charles’ work, but the point should be obvious. Why do Margolis and Charles get a pass, but Joseph Smith is condemned in no uncertain terms?

Finally, in my research I also came across this statement by David W. Bebbington. Not knowing exactly where to fit this in above, I’ll just throw it in right here.

By the 1820s, the language of the early seventeenth century had become so much in vogue that the most popular preacher in London, Edward Irving, deliberately adopted its archaic idiom. “The whole Philosophy of Europe serveth infidelity,” as Irving once declared, sounded more powerful than if he had used the current form of the verb, “serves.” The characteristic of the times was not to modernize the English Bible but to imitate its accepted translation.11

Notice the date. Joseph Smith was translating the Book of Mormon (while trying to “imitate” the “accepted translation” of the KJV, no less) at exactly the same time. So why doesn’t Dawkins, out of fairness, write a scathing condemnation of “the most popular preacher” of the time? If he’s going to condemn the Yankee farmer Joseph Smith for using King James English in the 1820s, then he better do the same for the Scottish preacher Irving.

Lest someone object that this last example comes from England and not the United States, I would remind the reader of the work of Eran Shalev,12 as well as the observation by McGrath that “there is no doubt that the King James Bible was a formative influence on the shaping of American English. As the great American man of letters Noah Webster (1758–1843) pointed out, ‘the language of the Bible has no inconsiderable influence in forming and preserving our national language.’ Its role in public discourse was guaranteed through its prominent role in the worship of the churches and in private devotion.”13

So why is it that Dawkins loves the archaic English of the KJV and yet despises the archaic English of the Book of Mormon? Why was his foundation willing to consider paying money to place KJV Bibles in English schools on the one hand, and yet he can only sneer in contempt at the Book of Mormon on the other?

I wonder if it’s because Dawkins apparently isn’t aware of the fact that the English of the King James Bible was already archaic when it was produced. I wonder if it’s because Dawkins does know this, but doesn’t care about employing a double standard. I wonder if it’s because Dawkins has an innate prejudice against Joseph Smith and the Mormons. I wonder if it’s because Dawkins’ views on this point are little more than an arbitrary, uninformed opinion that has scarcely any historical or logical support.

In other words, I wonder if it’s simply because, on this matter, at least, Dawkins doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

  1. “Why I want all our children to read the King James Bible,” online at http://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/may/19/richard-dawkins-king-james-bible (Accessed January 9, 2014). 

  2. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 2nd. ed. (Great Britain: Mariner Books, 2008), 387. 

  3. Kent P. Jackson, “The English Bible: A Very Short History,” in The King James Bible and the Restoration, ed. Kent P. Jackson (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2011), 21, notes removed. 

  4. “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/. 

  5. David Lyle Jeffrey, “Introduction,” in The King James Bible and the World It Made, ed. David Lyle Jeffrey (Waco, TX, USA: Baylor University Press, 2011), 2. 

  6. Alister E. McGrath, “The ‘Opening of Windows’ The King James Bible and Late Tudor Translation Theories,” in The King James Bible and the World It Made, 23. 

  7. Alister E. McGrath, In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How it Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2001), 265–266, 276. 

  8. Seth Lerer, “The KJV and the Rapid Growth of English in the Elizabethan–Jacobean Era,” in The King James Version at 400: Assessing its Genius as Bible Translation and its Literary Influence, ed. David G. Burke, John F. Kutsko, and Philip H. Towner (Atlanta, Georgia: Society of Biblical Literature, 2013), 43–44. 

  9. Adam Nicolson, God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2003), 211. 

  10. Leonard J. Greenspoon, “The King James Bible and Jewish Bible Translations,” in Translation that Openeth the Window: Reflections on the History and Legacy of the King James Bible, ed. David G. Burke (Atlanta, Georgia: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009), 133. See also the comments of Naomi Seidman, “‘A New Garb for the Jewish Soul’: The JPS Bible in the Light of the King James Bible,” in The King James Version at 400, 480. “The JPS 1917 translation is thus not a new translation at all but a minor revision of a minor revision of the KJV.” 

  11. David W. Bebbington, “The King James Bible in Britain From the Late Eighteenth Century,” in The King James Bible and the World It Made, 51. 

  12. Eran Shalev, “‘Written in the Style of Antiquity’: Pseudo-Biblicism and the Early American Republic, 1770–1830,” Church History 79/4 (2010): 800–826. 

  13. McGrath, In the Beginning, 294. 

7 thoughts on “Once Again: Joseph Smith, Richard Dawkins, and the Language of Translation

  1. It was only in 1993 that Oxford University Press came out with a modern English version of the Apocryphal New Testament (ed. J. K. Elliott). The classic King James Version style translation by M. R. James (OUP, 1924, and reprinted many times since) had, until that time, been the standard. As Elliott explains:

    “In the 1920s those who were likely to turn to a volume entitled The Apocryphal New Testament were probably familiar with the Bible, in the Authorized Version, and so it was appropriate for James to employ a style intended to remind the reader of it. Nowadays those who refer to apocryphal texts are not necessarily Bible readers, and, even if they are, they are more likely to use a modern version.”

  2. As a response to Dawkins I think that only the last paragraph was necessary – any more simply added too much dignity to an ‘argument’ that didn’t deserve it.
    As an article in it’s own right, I thought it was interesting. Thank you.

  3. I don’t get the problem here? Dawkins made those statements as a point to show that the Book of Mormon isn’t true. Now, if he believed the KJV of the bible to be true, this would be a great piece. But he views it only as literature. Also, there is a difference when compiling a version of the bible from other versions and something that is believed to be a direct translation. Everyone knows that the KJV is not the original version or a direct translation, it makes sense as to why they would use that language. For Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, 1) Why would he translate in a way that he doesn’t speak? and 2) If it is the true word of God, then why does it need to be translated in a way to make it seem special?

    • Jordan,

      The problem is two-fold. 1) Dawkins is applying a double standard. He thinks the Book of Mormon is false because of it’s use of archaic language but doesn’t apply the same criticism to the KJV. If he’s going to be fair, he should. He should not praise the English of the KJV as making it beautiful literature but should condemn it, as he does with the Book of Mormon, as a “fake” on the same grounds. 2) Dawkins seems totally unaware of the fact that people have been writing and translating scripture and other significant texts in archaic forms of their respective languages for a long time. The Israelites did it. The Egyptians did it. The Babylonians did it. And English-speaking Christians and Jews have done it. Why then is Joseph Smith the only one who’s not allowed to do it? Why is he singled out as a fraud and a charlatan for using archaic language in his scriptural productions? Dawkins gives no justification for his argument. He just asserts it as fact without any support. So besides applying a double standard, Dawkins is also ignorant of what writers and translators of scripture have been doing for a long time.

      Finally, to answer your two other questions.

      1) Eran Shalev shows in his article how writing in what he calls “pseudo-biblical English” or what I call “KJV” or “Jacobean” English persisted well into the 19th century. Contrary to what Dawkins keeps asserting, it wasn’t abnormal for Joseph Smith to use this form of English in his day. Was it archaic? Yes. Was it the kind of English you’d hear on the streets? No. But it wasn’t totally foreign or unprecedented. As I further show, people have been using this form of English well into the 20th century.

      2) Any translation, including any scriptural translation, needs to render the original language into a target language that is intended for a specific audience. The initial audience for the Book of Mormon was 19th century American Protestants. The language of this audience, insofar as scriptural or sacred language goes, was the sort of pseudo-biblical English discussed by Shalev. For Joseph to have rendered his translation of what was intended to be scripture for this audience into this idiom is completely understandable. He was making it “special” in that by using this idiom he was classifying the intended nature of the text: scripture, something sacred, something that meant to be read and heard as the Word of God. As Shalev discusses, other contemporary writers were doing similar things in ante-bellum America. They would render English texts into this idiom to give it a sacrosanct nature, or to call the reader’s mind back to Scripture, and in so doing create a stronger religious identity within a community of believers.

      Finally, also remember that the KJV is both a translation of the underlying Hebrew and Greek (they used the medieval Masoretic Text and Erasmus’ Textus Receptus, respectively) as well as a revision of early translations. For the KJV translators to choose to retain Tyndale’s by-then archaic language in their translation for the purpose of trying to make it sound more godly and euphonic puts them directly in the same camp as Joseph Smith.

      I hope this helps to clarifies things.

  4. As much as I enjoyed this discussion, I wonder if it is not great reasoning in an unnecessary cause. If we have learned nothing else from Royal Skousen’s work, especially his detailed explication of the translation process, focused on reconciling and amalgamating the statements of all of Joseph Smith’s scribes into a single narrative description of how the “translation” took place, we find: (1) there was no translating or rendering into English performed by Joseph or any of his scribes; (2) about 15-16 words or characters of the ancient script appeared on the face of the interpreter, with the English rendering shown beneath it; (3) Joseph read the English version out, spelling letter-for-letter the proper nouns and larger words; (4) the scribe wrote down exactly what Joseph read out, then repeated back what he/she had heard and written; (5) if there was agreement that what had been written was what Joseph had read, the next 15-16 characters and their English rendering then appeared. Nowhere in this process is their input from a human hand in deciding the appropriate language. It is, perhaps, this fact alone that justified Joseph in calling the Book of Mornon ”the most correct book.”

    • That assumes, Joseph Platt, that there was no psychofeedback mechanism in which much of the information contained on the plates was looped through the mind of Joseph Smith and then appeared in “brite roman letters” on the stone surface.

      Aside from the obvious question about the way in which the Holy Spirit effected the extraordinary translations in Acts 2 (on Pentecost), if God does indeed speak to “men according to their language, unto their understanding” (2 Ne 31:3, D&C 1:24), and if a prophet receives “the spirit of wisdom and revelation,” and “the eyes of [his] understanding [are] enlightened” (Eph 1:17-18), does that really suggest that he is no more than a tabula rasa talking dog? Is that how we understand the OT prophets? Modern prophets?

      Not long ago, an LDS stake patriarch (Richard Bushman) publicly discussed the mechanics of the blessings he received on behalf of those coming to him: He noted that it was sometimes difficult to put the ideas he received into words, and that he found himself editing his words later when typing up the recorded blessings. This is reminiscent of Joseph Smith himself editing his own words for the 1837 and 1840 editions of the Book of Mormon. It cannot have been word perfect for him to have done that so extensively.

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