CES Reply: A Clumsy Way to Plagiarize

This is a serialization of “A Faithful Reply to the CES Letter from a Former CES Employee.”  You can download the whole PDF here, and you can also participate in the Latter-day Saint Survey Project by joining or creating one of the Canonizer camps in the links at the bottom of this post.

This is a line-by-line response to Jeremy Runnells’s October 2017 iteration of the CES Letter. Jeremy’s original text appears in green, the color of life. My response text appears in black, the color of darkness.

We have precious little information about how the Book of Mormon translation process actually worked, but the D&C suggests that it was not a passive exercise on Joseph’s part. D&C 9, the only contemporaneous document we have that describes the Book of Mormon translation in any respect, implies that the process required Joseph to “study it out in [his] mind” (D&C 9:8). This would suggest that it was Joseph’s responsibility to clothe the text in language, so his word choices may have influenced the final text in much the same way as any conventional translator’s would have.

Yet there is also a growing body of really fascinating research to suggest Joseph was engaged in what some refer to as a “tight” translation that limited his input. Royal Skousen’s “Critical Text Project” demonstrates that what initially seemed like bad grammar turns out to be consistent examples of Early Modern English, which dates from the the century prior to the KJV translation. Certainly Early Modern English would not have been the idiom Joseph Smith or any other 19th Century author would have used in writing an original work, nor is it an idiom that is present in anything else Joseph Smith wrote over the course of his lifetime.

In a tight translation, KJV language becomes far less problematic, as it would suggest that this was the language that the Lord gave Joseph Smith to read aloud to Oliver, and so the Lord, not Joseph, is responsible for the similarities between the two texts. For my part, it makes sense to me that the Lord would provide Joseph language with which he, and most of the Bible-reading world, would be comfortably familiar rather than an entirely different translation of the same material, as the mighty Hugh Nibley has argued.

And again, it’s important to note that this material wasn’t transcribed by Joseph but by Oliver, and there are plenty of witnesses to the process who insist that Joseph didn’t have any manuscript from which to read. There are also sections of the original Book of Mormon manuscript that demonstrate that Oliver was receiving the information from Joseph aurally, not copying out of a book. We’ll get to that in a moment.

Back to more of your Question #2, where you quote scriptures to prove your point.


Nevertheless the dimness shall not be such as was in her vexation, when at the first he lightly afflicted the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, and afterward did more grievously afflict her by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, in Galilee of the nations.

2 NEPHI 19:1 

Nevertheless, the dimness shall not be such as was in her vexation, when at first he lightly afflicted the land of Zebulun, and the land of Naphtali, and afterwards did more grievously afflict by the way of the Red Sea beyond Jordan in Galilee of the nations.

The above example, 2 Nephi 19:1  , dated in the Book of Mormon to be around 550 BC, quotes nearly verbatim from the 1611 AD translation of Isaiah 9:1 KJV – including the translators’ italicized words. Additionally, the Book of Mormon describes the sea as the Red Sea. The problem with this is that (a) Christ quoted Isaiah in Matt. 4:14-15 and did not mention the Red Sea, (b) “Red” sea is not found in any source manuscripts, and (c) the Red Sea is 250 miles away.

We’ve dealt with the italics issue above – all the words are the translators words, Milby, and not just the italicized ones – but there’s absolutely no question that “Red Sea” is a mistake. What’s interesting, though, is that it’s a mistake that severely undermines your first accusation of plagiarism.

After all, this is a mistake that has nothing to do with a 1679 version of the KJV. It is a mistake that is unique to the Book of Mormon. And there’s another mistake in the Book of Mormon with no KJV antecedent that helps to explain what’s going on here.

3 Nephi 25:2 reads, “But unto you that fear my name, shall the Son of Righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth and grow up as calves in the stall.” This is identical to Malachi 4:2, except that the word “Son” is used in place of “Sun.” The two words are homophones in English but not similar at all in Hebrew or Egyptian.

Again, it’s a mistake, but it’s also evidence that the Book of Mormon was produced by the very process that Joseph described, with Joseph reading text aloud and Oliver transcribing what he heard. In this instance, Joseph probably said “Sun” and Oliver wrote “Son,” and that was that. (Your favorite “unofficial apologists” at FAIR describe why this is probably the same reason why the Red Sea makes its erroneous appearance in 2 Nephi 19:1.)

Many who have examined the original Book of Mormon manuscript have concluded from the handwriting that it was written in short bursts, with Oliver transcribing a few sentences, stopping, and then starting again.

From Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling, page 72:

Close scrutiny of the manuscript (by a believing scholar) seems to support transcription. Judging from the way Cowdery wrote down the words, Joseph saw twenty to thirty words at a time, dictated them, and then waited for the next twenty to appear. Difficult names (Zenoch, Amalickiah) were spelled out.

Why would they do this? Nobody else was watching. If this is a fraud, why read out the whole thing in such a painstaking, time-consuming process, especially the words of the King James Bible that they could have been copied using far simpler methods? Isn’t this a ridiculously clumsy way to plagiarize? Doesn’t it suggest that maybe something else was happening?

Those probably are not the kind of question that interest you, because they don’t easily lend themselves to your theory that the Book of Mormon is a transparent fraud. But there is an important question raised by my admission of mistakes in the Book of Mormon text – namely, if this is the word of God brought forth by miraculous means, then why would it have any errors in it at all?

The Book of Mormon itself provides the definitive answer to that question on its very first page. “And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment-seat of Christ.” Again, that’s on the first page. The first frickin’ page. It’s been on the first page since 1830 when the book was originally published. How can anyone claim that the Book of Mormon ought to be inerrant when the Book of Mormon itself has always announced its errancy on its very first page?

Latter-day Saint theology puts the doctrine of agency at the center of our faith. Agency is the one thing God will never interfere with and never deny. Yet agency and infallibility are wholly incompatible, and we live in a fallen, imperfect world. We do not believe in infallible or inerrant prophets; inerrant scripture, or anything produced by mortals that cannot be mistaken. That requires each of us to rely solely on the Lord Jesus Christ, the only perfect being to ever walk the earth.

The Book of Mormon draws us closer to God, but it is not God, and we do not worship it. We should not be surprised that human weakness has not been excised from its pages.


…and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.

3 NEPHI 24:10

…and pour you out a blessing that there shall not be room enough to receive it.

In the above example, the KJV translators added 7 italicized words to their English translation, which are not found in the source Hebrew manuscripts. Why does the Book of Mormon, which is supposed to have been completed by Moroni over 1,400 years prior, contain the exact identical seven italicized words of 17th century translators?

We’ve covered this. Just about every verse in Isaiah has these kinds of italicized words, and your citation of them demonstrates a profound ignorance of how conventional translation works. So how does this add to your argument?

But okay, just for funsies, let’s take out those seven words. If Joseph had rendered 3 Nephi 24:10 as “… and pour you out a blessing that not enough,” which would be the kind of one-to-one, word-for-word translation you seem to be expecting, would you then consider him a prophet? My guess is that you would probably complain that he had offered up a terribly incoherent translation.

And you would be right.

Tomorrow, we’ll discuss what it means to say that the Book of Mormon is “the most correct of any book on earth.” In the meantime, take look at the Canonizer camps below. Join the one that best represents your point of view – or create one of your own!