According to those contemporaries of Joseph Smith who observed the Book of Mormon translation process, Joseph Smith did not look at or read from the golden plates while translating the Book of Mormon. He reportedly placed the instrument (whether it was always the “Urim and Thummim”, or “interpreters,” or sometimes some other seer stone, is not discussed in this essay) in darkness and the words which shone forth from it were written in English. Joseph dictated the English words to his scribe, who handwrote the dictation into a manuscript. Although many Mormons have supposed Joseph read the engravings on the plates, or that he read reformed Egyptian words emitting from the instrument, no one who has ever specifically described the dictation process has corroborated this version of what took place. All agree that what Joseph was reading was already in English. It had already been translated when Joseph read it. Joseph had referred to himself as the “translator” of the Book of Mormon on the book’s title page, but if he had decided to describe himself with perfect precision, he would have conferred on himself the wordy title of “Dictator of the Already-Translated Text,” or something similar.
Over the last three decades, noted scholar Royal Skousen and a team of volunteer research assistants at Brigham Young University, who were joined in the last few years by professional linguist Stanford Carmack, have focused attention on the critical text of the Book of Mormon–i.e., the words that were actually dictated by Joseph Smith to his scribe before any editing took place. The surprising finding of this research has been that the earliest text of the Book of Mormon was written, not in the English spoken in the early 19th century when Joseph lived, but in Early Modern English, using the grammar, syntax and expressions which were peculiar to the language spoken in the British Isles and America during the era roughly defined as between 1470 and 1740 A.D. Of course, some Early Modern English was contained within the 1611 King James Version of the Bible and in other well-known classics, and was thus still in use and familiar to people in Joseph’s day. But the most significant conclusion supported by this research is the previously unimaginable fact that not only are large portions of the Book of Mormon’s original text written in language completely obsolete in Joseph Smith’s time, and spoken and written by virtually nobody on earth when the Book of Mormon was translated in 1829 and published in 1830, but that Joseph Smith himself, like everyone else, had no familiarity with any of the obsolete grammar, syntax and expressions he was reading. He had never used the obsolete Early Modern English grammar, syntax and expressions before the Book of Mormon came forth, and he never did thereafter. In fact, in 1837, when preparing a second edition of the Book of Mormon, Joseph tried to edit out the obsolete Early Modern English which he didn’t recognize, and which he considered in error.
The findings above beg this question: If Joseph Smith himself was not responsible for translating the “reformed Egyptian” written on the plates into English, who DID translate it into that language? Since no one anywhere in 1829 spoke or wrote using the peculiar, obsolete form of English in the Book of Mormon’s first manuscript, who could have possibly been responsible for preparing the text which Joseph read in the instrument? Royal Skousen, speaking at a conference of the Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum in 2014, explained that his team’s research pointed to the unavoidable conclusion that Joseph produced “a translation of a translation,” having dictated that which had already been translated by unknown others. Since the translation came from an approximately 270-year period of English history, the idea of a translation “committee” had been hypothesized by researchers to allow for the fact that no one person could have lived long enough to accomplish it by himself or herself.
The following letter was written in 2016 by Scott Mitchell, a frequent contributor to this website, to Stanford Carmack. It has since been shared with other Book of Mormon scholars as well. The letter, reprinted here by permission from Scott, hypothesizes that the identities of those responsible for translating the Book of Mormon text into Early Modern English for Joseph to read may be discernible from scriptural clues within the Book of Mormon itself. We feel his hypothesis and conclusions well supported and worthy of strong consideration.
Dear Brother Carmack:
I’m the man who approached you after your April 6 Book of Mormon grammar lecture at BYU and requested your e-mail address. Because of the scholarly devotion you’ve demonstrated to the linguistic analysis of the Book of Mormon, I wanted to share the following hypothesis with you. My hypothesis concerns another hypothesis—the “translation committee” one which Royal Skousen, whom I greatly admire, has been endorsing up until recently, but of which he claimed at last week’s lecture to have “repented.” I feel strongly that the hypothesis that a group of unknown individuals translated the Book of Mormon text from reformed Egyptian into Early Modern English, so that Joseph Smith could read the text when he peered into the stone, deserves more attention, not less. I also believe withdrawing support from this hypothesis, merely because of the speculation it’s caused regarding who might have been on such a committee (which was Royal’s stated reason for his “repentance”), is premature. His original hypothesis was important, as it answers so many otherwise unanswerable questions about the Book of Mormon translation process.
I remember well Royal’s provocative statement about three years ago at the 2013 Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum conference that after lengthy analysis, he’d concluded that the Book of Mormon was “a translation of a translation.” His assertion was that Joseph Smith had only read words in the stone that had already been translated into early modern English by someone else. After his lecture, I spoke with him about this, and he told me that scholars were understandably reluctant to speculate as to whom the Lord might have entrusted with such a task, since such speculation was so far afield of recognized LDS church history. Then, last year , while speaking at the BYU Studies/Mormon Interpreter conference on the Book of Mormon, where you also spoke, Royal went even further. He stated that the Book of Mormon translation into English appears to have been the product of a committee working over multiple centuries to translate the text into early modern English. At the conference, brief speculation centered on who these special committee members might have been, and whether they were certain heavenly beings. My hypothesis, elaborated below, is that perhaps the answer to this speculation is more discernible than speculative. We might be able to make an educated guess regarding the identities of the committee members, based not only on narrative clues provided by the man Mormon in the Book of Mormon text, but also on [what I consider to be] logical arguments which considerably narrow the field of likely candidates.
Before considering the strong clues provided by Mormon, though, I need to explain that my hypothesis is influenced greatly by my perception that the production efforts behind the Bible and Book of Mormon were always labor-intensive. The Lord didn’t do all the work himself, but instead commanded and inspired many men to do it, and never removed the difficulty from the projects. From what I’ve learned, ancient prophets spent much of their lives learning the language forms of their times, prayerfully studying God’s earlier words, and then painstakingly adding their own inspired writings to the ever-accumulating scriptural corpus. Their efforts spanned millennia before Moroni engraved his final words into the plates 421 years after Christ’s birth. Thus, given this history, it seems reasonable to infer that God wouldn’t refrain from requiring of other servants much additional labor to translate the Book of Mormon into a language that Joseph Smith would be able to read. So, in determining the identities of those souls whom God would select to perform this monumental task of rendering into English the chosen text, I looked for individuals who met these criteria:
1. They had to be servants of God wholly committed to spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ.
2. They had to be able to read and understand the reformed Egyptian script in which the sacred records had been written.
3. They had to have access to the sacred plates between Moroni’s time and Joseph Smith’s time.
4. They had to translate the characters into an early modern English Joseph Smith could at least read, even if he wasn’t familiar with many of its names, words, expressions and grammar. (Translating into an obsolete early modern English, unfamiliar to Joseph Smith, would also provide intrinsic evidence to critics that Joseph hadn’t himself authored the book.)
5. To accomplish No. 4, the translators would have to live in the right part of the world, during an approximately 270-year-long period, to learn early modern English so well themselves, that they would be familiar with relatively rare usages employed by some of the learned writers of that era.
6. They’d either have to pass their work product on to others at the end of their individual lives, or they’d have to not be subject to death in the first place. (You probably know by now where I’m going with this, but please keep reading. The scriptural support is, in my mind, the strongest argument.)
7. They’d have to have God-given powers to transmit their translated text into the instrument(s) from which Joseph Smith would later read in dictating the Book of Mormon.
When describing the mission and future labors of the “Three Nephites”, as we call them, Mormon planted within his description a conspicuous phrase which, when used in the Book of Mormon and Bible, had only referred to one thing. Reading Mormon’s words and this peculiar phrase today, they seem pregnant with significance. From Third Nephi Chapter 28 I’ve highlighted below in boldface some of the relevant surrounding verses, and the important keyword phrase in verse 32 in red:
6 And he said unto them: Behold, I know hour thoughts and ye have desired the thing which John, my beloved, who was with me in my ministry, before that I was lifted up by the Jews, desired of me . . .
8 And ye shall never endure the pains of death; but when I shall come in my glory ye shall be changed in the twinkling of an eye from mortality to immortality; and then shall ye be blessed in the kingdom of my Father.
9 And again, ye shall not have pain while ye shall dwell in the flesh, neither sorrow save it e for the sins of the world; and all this will I do because of the thing which ye have desired of me, for ye have desired that ye might bring the souls of men unto me, while the world shall stand . . .
25 Behold, I was about to write the names of those who were never to taste of death, but the Lord forbade; therefore I write them not, for they are hid from the world.
26 But behold, I have seen them, and they have ministered unto me.
27 And behold they will be among the Gentiles, and Gentiles shall know them not.
28 They will also be among the Jews, and the Jews shall know them not.
29 And it shall come to pass, when the Lord seeth fit in his wisdom that they shall minister unto all the scattered tribes of Israel, and unto all nations, kindreds, tongues and people, and shall bring out of them unto Jesus many souls, that their desire may be fulfilled, and also because of the convincing power of God which is in them.
30 And they are as the angels of God, and if they shall pray unto the Father in the name of Jesus they can show themselves unto whatsoever man it seemeth them good.
31 Therefore, great and marvelous works shall be wrought by them, before the greath and coming day when all people must surely stand before the judgment-seat of Christ;
32 Yea even among the Gentiles shall there be a great and marvelous work wrought by them, before that judgment day.
Verse 32 specifies one particular work to be performed among the Gentiles which is singled out as demanding special attention. As I’ll explain, I believe Mormon is telling us in this verse that the committee who translated the words on the golden plates into Early Modern English was comprised of the three chosen disciples. In addition to the scriptural argument below, these men fit perfectly all the criteria set forth above, and importantly, no one else does. Their desire to bring souls to Christ could find no better fulfillment than to participate in bringing forth the Book of Mormon, which had testifying of Christ as its stated purpose. Similarly, it would be hard to imagine these men succeeding at bringing souls to Christ on a grander scale than that accomplished by making readable the Book of Mormon’s ancient words, unless they also participated in biblical translation.
As other Book of Mormon scholars have noted, the singular scriptural phrase “marvelous work”, when preceded by the indefinite article “a”, is prophetic code for the Book of Mormon. A word search reveals that every place where that phrase is found within our ancient scriptures, it exclusively denotes the coming forth of the Book of Mormon; nothing else. See Isaiah 29:14, I Nephi 14:7, I Nephi 22:8, II Nephi 25:17, II Nephi 27:26, II Nephi 29:1 and III Nephi 21: 9. In fact, the identical phrase is used for the same referent by Isaiah, then the first Nephi (multiple times), then Jesus himself, and then Mormon. To argue that Mormon used this same phrase by coincidence, and not because he meant it to denote one specific thing the three disciples would accomplish, especially when he paused in verse 32 to single out one particular, preeminent work among many that the three disciples would perform, strains credulity. The writing and translating of the Book of Mormon was “tightly controlled,” as you and Royal Skousen have demonstrated, and I don’t think Mormon would use loosely what he knew well was a term of art.
While reading the above-quoted verses, I found it also significant, perhaps, that in addition to the appearance of the three chosen Nephites to Mormon, as mentioned in verse 26, they also appeared and ministered to Moroni (see Mormon 8:11). Moroni mentions this fact in the verse immediately preceding his admonition to not reject the record because of the imperfections within it (Mormon 8:12). It’s possible these appearances and ministerings were not only ones of comfort and encouragement to the last two Nephite prophets, but at some point a practical necessity as well, since arrangements for the finishing of the record and protection of the plates had to be made by the men who would eventually take custody of them.
We might be justified as well in placing extra significance in the fact that one of the original twelve Nephite disciples, Nephi, had already been personally charged by Jesus with strictly maintaining the completeness of the scriptural record (III Nephi 23: 6-13). This Nephi seems to have had some special stewardship over assuring the completeness of the message on the plates, and Jesus had entrusted him to record Jesus’s own sermons to the Nephites. I hypothesize, and I believe the Book of Mormon indicates, that this Nephi was one of the three disciples preserved to complete this sacred task by translating the plates into a Bible-like form of English. Evidence for this conclusion lies in the fact that the death of this Nephi is never mentioned in the Book of Mormon, despite his stature as a major prophetic figure in the Nephites’ chronology. To omit any mention of what became of him was contrary to the practice followed throughout the Book of Mormon narrative for other Nephite record keepers like him. It isn’t even recorded that he just left and was never heard of again, as was done with Nephi his father and Alma the son of Alma. The next record keeper, the Nephi mentioned in IV Nephi 1:19 as having died 110 years after Christ’s birth, was clearly a different Nephi, for if “Third” Nephi died, according to III Nephi 28: 3 he would have done so at the age of 72.
Of lesser importance (but nonetheless fun to speculate about), it might be possible that the allusion to John in III Nephi 28:6 also means more than first meets the eye. John had been preserved from death for one of the same reasons why I believe the Three Nephites were also being preserved–to allow him to bring forth the Book of Revelation, which had great import of its own for the latter-day reader. See I Nephi 14: 18-27; Ether 4: 16. (Interestingly, like John, who was known to scripture readers as “John the Beloved,” the comparably-situated Three Nephites were also referred to by Mormon as the “beloved” disciples. (See Mormon 1: 13,16.)
I will close here. The paragraph that follows my name below should be regarded as a relatively unimportant footnote on a Church history topic related to the subject of this letter. Meanwhile, I hope scholars everywhere who study the Book of Mormon text and translation process (especially those like you, who may enjoy some subtle conversational liberties not fully enjoyed by others employed at my undergraduate and graduate alma mater, BYU) will dare to seek answers to initially speculative questions, even if those answers seem to break new historical ground.
Scott S. Mitchell
Note: Perhaps the statement in III Nephi 28: 30 that the Three Nephites would have the ability to appear as angels should be considered in light of early Mormon history. In April of 1838, when Joseph Smith first straightforwardly provided the name of the angel who visited him to reveal the existence of the golden plates, he stated in dictation to George Robinson that the angel had identified himself as Nephi. Robinson’s transcription was subsequently recopied and can be read today. See Joseph Smith, History, 1838-1856, Book A-1, created 11 June 1839-24 Aug. 1843; Manuscript History of the Church Drafts No. 1 and 2, June 1839. Though a statement naming Moroni as the angel was published in Elders’ Journal three months after the initial dictation to Robinson, Joseph repeated the Nephi version in a separate dictation to Howard Coray in 1841, see Manuscript History of the Church, January 1, 1843. The Nephi version is also found in Joseph Smith’s own first-person account in the earliest formally published official history of the church in the Times and Seasons, when Joseph Smith was editor. See Times and Seasons 3 no. 12, p. 726 (15 April 1842). Four months later, an editorial by either Parley P. Pratt or Thomas Ward in the Millennial Star, published by the LDS Church in England, stated: “Again when we read the history of our beloved brother, Joseph Smith and of the glorious ministry and message of the angel Nephi, which has finally opened a new dispensation to man, and commenced a revolution in the moral, civil, and religious government of the world.” Millennial Star 3 no. 4 (Aug. 1, 1842) p. 71. The Nephi version also appeared in the Pearl of Great Price, published in England in 1851, and in Lucy Mack Smith History in 1853. These accounts would seem to corroborate the inference that if the Three Nephites participated in bringing forth the Book of Mormon, one of them was the “third” Nephi, brother of Timothy and father to Jonas.
Many years later, the “Nephi” version still persisted. John Taylor twice split the historical baby by teaching that Moroni and Nephi had both appeared to Joseph Smith in connection with producing the Book of Mormon, see Journal of Discourses 19: 82 (29 July 1877) and 21: 161 (7 December 1879).
(Though long after Joseph Smith’s death the Church redacted these references to Nephi and altered them to read “Moroni”, claiming that the earlier texts had “probably” been the result of repeated “scribal error” and lack of editorial care, the understanding that Nephi was the angel who appeared to Joseph Smith was clearly prevalent for decades after the Book of Mormon story was first told, and was backed by what I consider to be the strongest sources. However, this issue isn’t of great importance, and neither is my opinion of it. It’s also entirely separate from the arguments above.)