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Thursday, July 2, 2009

And it Came to Pass that the Phrase "And it Came to Pass" was Discovered to be a Hebraism

Christopher Miller on his lurid website "Mormonism Disproved" argues that the high occurrence of the phrase "and it came to pass" in the Book of Mormon is evidence that "Joseph Smith was the single author of the Book of Mormon, that it was not translated, but created from his very creative imagination." And what exactly is the evidence that Mr. Miller provides for this claim? Why, nothing less than the fact that the phrase "and it came to pass" occurs at a much higher frequency in the Book of Mormon than in the current King James Bible. After all, according to our sleuth, "the extensive use of the phrase "and it came to pass" in the Book of Mormon across all of the books" clearly points to single authorship.

The final nail in the coffin, according to Miller, is the fact that the word "exceedingly" also occurs more often in the Book of Mormon than in the Bible. But it doesn't stop there. The thoroughly unbiblical phrase "in other words" is also evidence to Miller that Joseph Smith was a fraud.

I must admit that I was rather amused at not only the sheer desperation of these charges, but also at the fact that Mr. Miller betrays absolutely no knowledge of the fact that the phrase "and it came to pass" is actually a good Hebraism. Rather than belabor the point, I will simply be lazy and quote Professor Donald W. Parry on this matter:

The expression and it came to pass is the translation of a Hebrew expression used frequently in scriptural histories and chronologies and far less frequently in poetry, prophe-cies, or direct speech. Although in its Hebrew form the expression is found in the Hebrew Bible some 1,200 times, it was translated in the King James Version as "and it came to pass" only about 727 times. The King James translators probably found the expression redundant and cumbersome, which would explain why they often translated it as "and it became," "and it was," or "and." On a number of occasions they simply ignored the expression altogether.

Given the Semitic background of the Book of Mormon and the fact that it contains histories and chronologies comparable to those of the Old Testament, it is not surprising that and it came to pass is a characteristic feature of the book. Novelist and humorist Mark Twain once joked that if Joseph Smith had left out the many instances of and it came to pass from the Book of Mormon, the book would have been only a pamphlet.

Similar to Old Testament usage, the phrase and it came to pass is rarely found in Book of Mormon psalms, lamentations, proverbs, blessings, curses, prayers, speeches, and dialogues where the first-person pronoun (Ior we) is used. The expression is obviously missing from the Psalm of Nephi (2 Nephi 4:16–35); the speeches of such personalities as King Benjamin, Abinadi, Alma, and Jesus Christ; and the several epistles found in the Book of Mormon.[1]


But that is not all, Parry has noted elsewhere that "this expression is commonly mentioned in Hebrew grammars. See, for example, Joshua Blau, A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1976), 107."[2]

In the December 1992 issue of the Ensign, Professor Parry observed the following:

Mark Twain once joked that if Joseph Smith had left out the many instances of “and it came to pass” from the Book of Mormon, the book would have been only a pamphlet. (Roughing It, Hartford, Conn.: American Publishing Co., 1901, p. 133.) There are, however, some very good reasons behind the usage of the phrase—reasons that further attest the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.

The English translation of the Hebrew word wayehi (often used to connect two ideas or events), “and it came to pass,” appears some 727 times in the King James Version of the Old Testament. The expression is rarely found in Hebrew poetic, literary, or prophetic writings. Most often, it appears in the Old Testament narratives, such as the books by Moses recounting the history of the children of Israel.

As in the Old Testament, the expression in the Book of Mormon (where it appears some 1,404 times) occurs in the narrative selections and is clearly missing in the more literary parts, such as the psalm of Nephi (see 2 Ne. 4:20–25); the direct speeches of King Benjamin, Abinadi, Alma, and Jesus Christ; and the several epistles.

But why does the phrase “and it came to pass” appear in the Book of Mormon so much more often, page for page, than it does in the Old Testament? The answer is twofold. First, the Book of Mormon contains much more narrative, chapter for chapter, than the Bible. Second, but equally important, the translators of the King James Version did not always render wayehi as “and it came to pass.” Instead, they were at liberty to draw from a multitude of similar expressions like “and it happened,” “and … became,” or “and … was.”

Wayehi is found about 1,204 times in the Hebrew Bible, but it was translated only 727 times as “and it came to pass” in the King James Version. Joseph Smith did not introduce such variety into the translation of the Book of Mormon. He retained the precision of “and it came to pass,” which better performs the transitional function of the Hebrew word.

The Prophet Joseph Smith may not have used the phrase at all—or at least not consistently—in the Book of Mormon had he created that record. The discriminating use of the Hebraic phrase in the Book of Mormon is further evidence that the record is what it says it is—a translation from a language (reformed Egyptian) with ties to the Hebrew language. (See Morm. 9:32–33.)[3]


Thus, far from being evidence of single authorship of the Book of Mormon, as the quixotic Mr. Miller implies, the continual occurrence of the phrase "and it came to pass" in the Book of Mormon is evidence of the book's ancient authenticity. It is likewise evidence for a Semitic primacy of the language of the Book of Mormon. 

But what about Miller's accusations about the use of "exceedingly" and "in other words" in the Book of Mormon? To me, this is much ado about nothing. I ask; so what if Joseph Smith, in translating the Book of Mormon into modern English, used these words and phrases? Surely one cannot fault him for using modern lingual expressions in translating an ancient language into a modern one. Such is nothing but sheer desperation to get anything on Joseph Smith to make him look bad. 

However, the fun does not stop there. Miller mocks the lengthiness of the Book of Mormon and the repetitive nature of the text. However, had Miller bothered to consult any Hebrew grammar, he would understand that lengthiness and repetitiveness is a common feature in biblical Hebrew. As Brian D. Stubbs explains:

Book of Mormon language frequently contains lengthy structures of rather awkward English. Some may consider these to be instances of poor grammar, weakness in writing (Ether 12:23—26), or the literary ineptness of a fraudulent author; however, I see them as potentially significant support for a translation from a Near Eastern language in an ancient American setting. Many of these lengths of awkward English parallel Semitic (and Egyptian) patterns, particularly the circumstantial or hal-clause.[4]

Jeff Lindsay, in summarizing Stubbs' arguments, notes:

He [Brian Stubbs] responds to Edward Ashment's attack on the Book of Mormon which claims the long, awkward sentences found in so many Book of Mormon verses are much different than the short, concise sentences found in the Old Testament, supposedly showing that the Book of Mormon was not derived from Hebrew. Stubbs shows that the short sentences alleged to be characteristic of Biblical Hebrew may be characteristic of the King James translation of the Old Testament, but are not characteristic of the actual Hebrew. In fact, numerous sentence structures in the Book of Mormon show much more in common with genuine Hebraic sentences than with the English of the King James Bible or with the English of Joseph Smith's day.[5]


Elsewhere, Lindsay observes to "complain about the Book of Mormon being too Hebraic, if you will, but the wordiness of the text is most reasonably interpreted as indirect evidence of authenticity rather than evidence of fraud."[6]

One final note. Miller, in mocking Nephi's comments in 1 Nephi 10:4, asks rhetorically if "any Hebrew speaking person in that time did not know what a Messiah was" and "if any biblical author would find it necessary to explain that to his audience." Contra Miller, who boasts that "common sense" demands that the answer is no, the answer, in light of biblical evidence, is in fact a resounding YES.

Consider, if you will, the fact that the Hebrew word for Messiah, "mashiach" or literally "anointed one", is never explicitly used for a title of Jehovah in the Old Testament, but instead has been applied to Israelite royalty (1 Sam. 24:6; 26:11; 2 Sam. 19:21; 22:51; Ps. 18:50; 132:17), Aaronic High Priests (Lev. 4:5) and even the Persian king Cyrus (Isa. 45:1) and you begin to understand why Nephi had to clarify with his readers who exactly he was speaking of when he mentioned the "Messiah, or, in other words, A Savior of the World" (1 Ne. 10:4). He wanted his readers to be sure that he was speaking of the Savior Jesus Christ, not others who have been held the label "Messiah".[7] Miller, it seems, can have his "common sense" all he wants, but he should not for one moment presume that such is evidence for his claim.

Thus, if our intrepid Don Quixote insists that the presence of "and it came to pass" and the lengthiness of the Book of Mormon is evidence of fraud, he will first have to explain this contrary evidence in favor of the Book of Mormon.

Notes:

[1]: Donald W. Parry, "Hebraisms and Other Ancient Peculiarities in the Book of Mormon", in Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, John W. Welch, eds., Echos and Evidences of the Book of Mormon (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2002), 163-64.

[2]: Ibid, note 11.

[3]: Donald W. Parry, "I Have A Question: Why is the phrase "and it came to pass" so prevalent in the Book of Mormon?", Ensign, December 1992, 29.

[4]: Brian D. Stubbs, "A Lengthier Treatment on Length", Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 5/2 (1996): 82

[5]: Jeff Lindsay, "Numerous Hebraic Language Structures", available online here: http://www.jefflindsay.com/BMEvidences.shtml#hebraic

[6]: Jeff Lindsay, "Too Wordy to be True?", available online at: http://www.jefflindsay.com/LDSFAQ/wordy.shtml

[7]: See the entry under "Messiah" in Dennis L. Largey, ed., The Book of Mormon Reference Companion (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2003), 536