In my previous article here on the Book of Abraham, I showed that there is some reason to think that it was written in direct dependence on the Book of Genesis in the King James Version (KJV). That is, Joseph Smith was not translating the ancient Egyptian papyri in his possession; he was revising and expanding portions of Genesis as he found it in his copy of the KJV. This article will show that this conclusion is true beyond reasonable doubt.

Any thorough examination of the relationship between the Book of Abraham and the Book of Genesis must take into consideration both the big picture and the little details. The big picture is that three of the five chapters of the Book of Abraham parallel chapters in Genesis:

Abraham 1: New material not found in the Bible
Abraham 2: Parallels Genesis 11:28-12:13 with substantial additions
Abraham 3: New material not found in the Bible
Abraham 4: Closely parallels Genesis 1 with some additions
Abraham 5: Closely parallels Genesis 2 with notable addition and omission

Although I could go through all of this material here line by line, the curious reader will learn far more by doing the exercise for himself. If you have never done so, I recommend opening a copy of the KJV to Genesis and a copy of the Book of Abraham and comparing the chapters as listed above. Even better, you might print out a copy of Genesis 11:28-12:13 and Genesis 1-2 on paper and go through them verse by verse, comparing them to Abraham 2 and 4-5 (even marking up your paper to show the differences, or using a highlighter to mark the parallel wording). It won’t take long, and you’ll make your own discoveries and reach your own conclusions rather than having someone else spoon feed the information to you.

As I said, we want to look at the big picture, but we also need to look at the details. Here we can take a page from the notebooks of famous detectives from Sherlock Holmes to Lt. Columbo: it’s the little, seemingly insignificant details that often tell the tale.

Many people have the idea, perhaps held vaguely without ever having spelled it out, that translation is a simple, straightforward matter. They may suppose that the Hebrew words in Genesis had specific, fixed meanings, and translation is simply a matter of plugging in those meanings in English. Online-based translation services like Google Translate may even reinforce this impression today. However, it isn’t true. Translation is part science but also part art. Words in different languages generally have only rough correspondences, with synonyms and lots of room for wording things in different ways. Quite often, there are different yet equally good, valid ways to translate the same words.

Consider, for example, Genesis 1:28, which in the KJV refers to “fowl of the air.” Other old English versions had the same thing (e.g., Noah Webster’s 1833 Bible and the 1885 English Revised Version, ERV), but others read “fowl of the heavens” (Young’s Literal Translation [YLT], 1862/1898; Darby’s Bible, 1884/1890) or “birds of the air” (American Standard Version of 1901). These are all quite acceptable translations of the Hebrew words. The Book of Abraham, in its version of Genesis 1, has “fowl of the air” (Abr. 4:28), just as the KJV does. And there are several other places in the Book of Abraham where its wording is the same as the KJV but different from other English versions (and we are ignoring the newer, contemporary language versions at this point). Keep in mind that many of those older versions were themselves revisions of the KJV (this is clearly true, for example, for Webster’s and the ERV) and all of the others were undoubtedly influenced by the KJV. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, since those versions were not claiming to be inspired translations of some other, long-lost text!

The really telling point, however, is the fact that the Book of Abraham repeats some mistranslations of the Genesis text found in the KJV. A clear example comes from the same verse, Genesis 1:28, and its counterpart in Abraham 4:28. The two verses are nearly identical except for the extremely significant theological change of “God” to “the Gods” (a subject for another article!). In Abraham 4:28, “the Gods” are reported as saying: “We will cause them to be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it, and to have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” The underlined words are identical to the words in Genesis 1:28 KJV, sufficient evidence that the “translation” of Abraham 4:28 is dependent on the translation of Genesis 1:28 in the KJV. What makes this conclusion beyond reasonable dispute, however, is the mistranslation “replenish” for the Hebrew word (mil’), which meant “fill” (Darby, YLT, ESV, NASB, NET, NIV, NKJV, NRSV, etc.), not refill or replenish. The mistake can have theological consequences, since some people have read this verse in Genesis to mean that the earth was once “full” but some cataclysm had wiped out most or all of its earlier inhabitants, necessitating human beings to repopulate the earth! The only plausible explanation for the repetition of this mistake is that the text of the Book of Abraham is dependent on the text of Genesis as it reads in the KJV.

Another example is the repetition in Abraham 2:18 of a mistake in the KJV at Genesis 12:6. Here are the two texts:

And Abram passed through the land unto the place of Sichem, unto the plain of Moreh. And the Canaanite was then in the land. (Gen. 12:6 KJV)

And then we passed from Jershon through the land unto the place of Sechem; it was situated in the plains of Moreh, and we had already come into the borders of the land of the Canaanites, and I offered sacrifice there in the plains of Moreh, and called on the Lord devoutly…. (Abr. 2:18)

The text of Abraham 2:18 reads as an expansion of the Genesis 12:6 text, with words added here and there around the original English rendering in the KJV, with the use of first person (“we,” “I”) instead of third person. What proves beyond reasonable doubt that the text of Abraham is based on Genesis in the KJV is that Abraham 2:18 uses the expression “the plain of Moreh” (merely changing plain to plains). We know that this expression must come from the KJV for a very simple reason: it is a mistranslation of the Hebrew text of Genesis 12:6. The Hebrew word ’ēlôn means “oak” (or perhaps a similar large, great tree), not “plain” or “plains,” as all contemporary English versions and even many of the versions from the previous century recognize (for example, Darby, ERV, YLT, ESV, HCSB, NAB, NASB, NET, NIV, NLT, and NRSV).

These mistranslations really settle the issue definitively: the literary dependence of the Book of Abraham on the KJV is the only plausible explanation for the similarities.

Might Joseph Have Been Inspired to Use the KJV?

How might a Mormon apologist deal with this evidence? The most likely strategy would be to acknowledge that the English translation of the Book of Abraham reflects awareness of the KJV text of Genesis but then argue that Joseph was inspired to use the KJV wording where it was sufficiently similar to the Book of Abraham original to convey the basic idea. A similar explanation has been used by some Mormon scholars to explain the obvious verbal similarities between the Bible chapters in the Book of Mormon and the KJV translation of those chapters.

Such an explanation creates another problem, which is to explain the many places where the Book of Abraham deviates from the wording of Genesis in insignificant ways. Here again, the details turn out to be very informative. Why change “having” (Gen. 12:8) to “there” (Abr. 2:20) or omit “that” twice (Gen. 12:11, 12; Abr. 2:22, 23)? Why change “went” (Gen. 12:10) to “concluded to go” (Abr. 2:21)? There are many such inconsequential differences between the two texts that do not affect their meanings at all. If Joseph had been inspired to use the KJV of Genesis where it was “close enough” to the meaning of the Book of Abraham, then he would have used it where it was “close enough,” which means he would not have changed the wording of parallel verses in what are clearly insignificant ways. What the explanation really seems to mean is that Joseph used the wording of the KJV wherever it was suitable except when he didn’t—which is no explanation at all.

The reason why the Book of Abraham follows the KJV so closely in many respects but makes inconsequential changes here and there is easy to see. The changes create some verisimilitude to the claim that the Book of Abraham is a different text than the Book of Genesis. Some of them are little more than stylistic changes or grammatical improvements, while others are more overt verbal changes that make the text sound different even though its content has not been changed significantly. Any verbal differences, though, contribute to the impression that one is reading a different text.

Had Joseph been inspired to revise the Genesis text in this way, one would not expect him to (1) retain much of the wording of the KJV in many places, (2) make substantial changes in some places, (3) make inconsequential changes in other places, and (4) in some places leave translation mistakes unchanged. The only explanation that seems to account for all four types of phenomena in the Book of Abraham text is that Joseph Smith produced it using the KJV as a base source text, making whatever changes he saw fit. Divine inspiration does not offer an adequate explanation of these facts.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, July 15th, 2014 at 12:43 pm and is filed under Biblical studies, Mormonism. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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