CES Letter Mormon: Evidence of the Book of Mormon: Hebraisms

Todd Noall

Todd Noall

Source Expert

Todd Noall is an author and religious scholar at Mormonism Explained with a focus on the history and theology of religion.

Fact Checked by Kevin Prince

Some people have disparaged the Book of Mormon for being too repetitive. For example, Edward Meyer, a prominent scholar of ancient history, found it to be “clumsy, monotonous in the extreme, and repetitious.” And Mark Twain once joked that if Joseph Smith had left out the phrase “and it came to pass,” then the Book of Mormon would have only been a pamphlet. These types of criticisms, like The CES Letter, may cause some to wonder, does the Book of Mormon have any literary merit?

Ironically, the very things that early critics found to be offensive to their modern literary tastes have in many cases turned out to be remarkable evidence of its Hebrew origins. The Book of Mormon indicates that the ancient prophets who wrote it tried to preserve the literary traditions and learning of their Hebrew ancestors. The early Hebrew language didn’t have punctuation or paragraph breaks. Instead, Hebrew writers used various types of repetition to group, separate, compare, or contrast ideas. Scholars refer to these repetitions as “parallelisms,” and the Book of Mormon is chock-full of them.

Some structures are short and simple. For instance, synonymous parallelisms, such as this passage in Genesis, state an idea in one way and then repeat it, using similar words. A similar structure is found in Second Nephi. Other parallelisms are more elaborate. One structure called “gradation” repeats each successive idea until it builds to a climactic conclusion, as can be seen in this example from the Book of Joel. Moroni chapter 8 offers a similar parallel structure, which shows how the doctrine of Christ leads step by step to eternal life.

Perhaps the most impressive type of Hebrew parallelism in the Book of Mormon is chiasmus. This structure presents a series of words or phrases in one order and then repeats and reuses them in the opposite order, as in this passage from the Book of Isaiah. A similar example can be found in the Book of Alma. Not all chiasms are so simple, though. This chiasm in Leviticus 24 introduces seven ideas in one order and then precisely reverses them in the opposite order. Alma 36 offers an even more elaborate example from the Book of Mormon, where 17 ideas are given in one order and then reversed.

Over two dozen categories of Hebrew parallelism have been identified in the Book of Mormon, and some of them show up in dozens and even hundreds of instances. One scholar has identified more than 350 instances of chiasmus alone. That means that on average, a proposed chiasm shows up on at least every other page of the Book of Mormon. It’s by no means an overstatement to say that the Book of Mormon is saturated with Hebrew parallelisms.

But parallelisms aren’t the only Hebrew features in the text. It contains many other grammatical and literary features that are typical of the Hebrew language. For instance, while English writers usually avoid repeating adjectives or conjunctions when making lists, Hebrew writers often included them before each item in the list. Notice how the conjunctions “and,” “or,” “neither,” and “nor” are repeated in these biblical passages. The same types of redundancies are found many places in the Book of Mormon.

Another peculiar feature of the Hebrew language is its use of “if/and” conditionals. In English, we usually follow an “if” clause with the word “then” or with an implied use of “then.” But Hebrew authors would sometimes add the conjunction “and” to finish the “if” clause. Surprisingly, the Book of Mormon has a number of if/and conditional sentences that somehow got preserved in the English translation. We know that these aren’t accidental mistakes because this feature, which doesn’t show up anywhere in the English language, occurs seven times in a row in the original text of Helaman chapter 12.

A common editing feature found both in the Bible and the Book of Mormon is known as “repetitive resumption.” After interjecting a comment into a history or story, a Hebrew editor would typically follow up the interjection by repeating the phrase which came before it. For instance, after stating the phrase “Shiz did not cease to pursue Coriantumr” in Ether chapter 14, the editor inserted commentary about the divine punishments which were upon the people. Then, before resuming the narrative, the editor restated the phrase from the beginning with only slight variation, picking up exactly where he had left off.

The Book of Mormon is also full of Hebrew idioms and prophetic expressions. Biblical prophets would sometimes curse their enemies using comparisons called “simile curses.” In 2nd Kings, the Lord threatens to “wipe Jerusalem as a man wipeth a dish, wiping it, and turning it upside down.” Similarly, in the Book of Mormon, the prophet Abinadi told King Noah, “Thou shalt be as the blossoms of a thistle, which, when it is fully ripe, if the wind bloweth, it is driven forth upon the face of the land.”

Both the Bible and the Book of Mormon are filled with scriptural allusions, typological narratives, and wordplays or puns. It is well established, for example, that Nephi modeled his family’s journey to the promised land on the story of the Israelite exodus from Egypt. In dozens of ways, Nephi drew upon and emphasized parallels between the two stories. At the same time, Nephi made extensive comparisons between himself and other early Israelite leaders, such as King David. This chart highlights 38 specific parallels between Nephi’s slaying of Laban and David’s slaying of Goliath. These are exactly the type of deep intertextual comparisons that the Hebrew authors of the Old Testament are known to have used. This sheds light on some of the questions in the Mormon CES Letter

The Book of Mormon’s frequent use of Hebrew wordplays is no less impressive, especially when considering the fact that Joseph Smith didn’t study Hebrew until five years after the Book of Mormon’s publication. One classic example deals with the name Jershon. In Hebrew, this name would mean “place of inheritance,” and in the Book of Mormon, that is precisely its importance. It was given to the people of Ammon as a place of inheritance when their Lamanite brethren threatened to destroy them. Dozens of other Hebrew wordplays in the Book of Mormon could be cited, and the list of categories goes on and on.

Mark Twain even had a valid point about the Book of Mormon’s frequent use of “and it came to pass.” It does seem rather redundant in English, yet even this phrase supports the argument for Hebrew origins. It is used much more frequently in the historical narratives of the Bible, and the Book of Mormon is mostly historical narrative. In addition, the King James translators didn’t like how often biblical writers used this phrase in Hebrew, and so they changed the wording about half the time when they translated the Bible into English. This means that Joseph Smith likely wouldn’t have known that biblical authors used this phrase so frequently merely by reading his King James Bible.

Some people have tried to underplay the significance of the Book of Mormon’s Hebrew features by noting how Hebraisms, as they’re often termed, can occasionally show up by random chance. In other cases, they’ve suggested that Joseph Smith picked up on these things simply by reading the Bible or the biblical scholarship of his day. The problem with these claims is that there are simply far too many Hebrew features in the Book of Mormon, in both type and quantity, to assume that they were created by mere chance. And although it’s possible that Joseph picked up on a few of these things in his readings of the Bible, it’s highly improbable that he discerned and then implemented all of them so expertly on so many occasions. As for the idea that Joseph Smith was well-versed in the biblical scholarship of his day, there is simply no historical evidence that this was the case. In fact, all the evidence from both contemporary critics and believers indicates that the 23-year-old Joseph was not well-read at the time of the translation. The bigger problem, though, is that even if he had somehow gained access to advanced biblical research, the scholars of his day were still unaware of many types of Hebrew features that can be found in the Book of Mormon. With this knowledge it can help us to have answers to some of the questions in the LDS CES Letter.  

The fact is that its Hebraisms are simply too numerous and too authentically ancient to reasonably suppose that anyone in 1829 could have produced a text using them all. Their presence demonstrates that the Book of Mormon is a remarkably rich work of literature. It just follows the expectations of ancient, rather than modern, literary standards. Because these Hebraisms make little sense coming from a young frontier farmer like Joseph Smith, they provide remarkable evidence that the Book of Mormon was truly written, as the text itself claims, by ancient prophets trained in the Hebrew literary traditions of their ancestors.

By Todd Noall, Source Expert

Todd Noall is an author and religious scholar at Mormonism Explained with a focus on the history and theology of religion.

Fact Checked by Mr. Kevin Prince, Source Expert

Kevin Prince is a religious scholar and host of the Gospel Learning Youtube channel. His channel has garnered over 41,000 subscribers and accumulated over 4.5 million views. Mr. Prince also created the Gospel Learning App, a reliable platform where individuals seeking truth can access trustworthy answers to religious questions from top educators worldwide.

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