Okay, let’s go over this again…

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An inquiry came to FAIR’s “Ask the Apologist” service this morning, asking for help with the following claim on the Wikipedia article “Linguistics and the Book of Mormon”:

Richard Packham has pointed out that several Biblical Hebrew names, including Aaron, Ephraim, and Levi are listed as Jaredites in the Book of Ether. He argues that these are anachronisms, since the Jaredites are supposed to have originated from the time of the Tower of Babel, and did not speak Hebrew.

Perennial ex-Mormon gadfly Richard Packham apparently fails to understand that the Book of Mormon is a translation, and translations render ancient words — including names — into modern forms that didn’t exist at the time.

For example, in the New Testament, there are several individuals named “James”, including an apostle and a bishop of Jerusalem. However, there was no name “James” in Greek during the first century A.D.; that word is a late-twelfth century Middle English form of the late Latin Jacomus, which itself derives from old Latin Jacobus. All of these are translations of the Koine Greek ιακωβον (Iakobos), which is a Greek version of the Hebrew יעקב (Ya’aqob), which itself is typically rendered in English as “Jacob.”

So Packham could also argue — erroneously — that the presence of “James” in the New Testament is an anachronism, since its Greek-speaking authors did not know Middle English.

When Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon, he naturally would have rendered ancient names into equivalent English forms that modern readers would understand.

Once again, for the record: The Book of Mormon is a translation. The presence of English (or even French) words in it does not mean that its writers knew English; only that Joseph Smith, the translator did.



A possible response to the above could be, “What about Book of Mormon names like Nephi, Abinadi, and Korihor? Those aren’t in the Bible and appear to be Nephite words — or at least examples of Joseph Smith not borrowing from the Bible.”

To that I would answer that translation of a proper name is often left to the discretion of the translator. I have heard Spanish speakers refer to me, in Spanish, as either Mike or Miguel, depending on their preference.

More to the point, there are numerous examples from the Bible where the translators chose to use transliterated versions of the original Greek or Hebrew name, or picked an English equivalent.

For example, the New Testament names Nicodemus (νικοδημος / Nikodemos), Didymus (διδυμος / Didumos), and Andronicus (ανδρονικον / Andronikos) are all pretty close approximations of the Greek original, while names like John (ιωαννην / Ioannes) and even Jesus (ιησους / Iesous) are heavily anglicized.

The King James translators were even inconsistent on rending the same person’s name the same way: The English name Paul in Greek is παυλος (Paulos). In the KJV this is almost always rendered “Paul,” except in Acts 13:7 where it is transliterated “Paulus.”

Likewise the name ιουδας, which is usually transliterated as “Judas” in the New Testament, and is Greek version of the Hebrew Judah. As it so happens, Judas came to be infamously associated with Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of the Lord. Because of this, all other references to ιουδας in the New Testament are rendered in some other fashion, even though they’re the same Greek word: Either “Juda” (8×), “Judah” (1×), or “Jude” (1×). The latter is, of course, the title of the penultimate book in the New Testament; the author’s name is the same as Judas Iscariot’s, but, to avoid confusion, the English rendition in the KJV and virtually all subsequent English translations has been “Jude.”

So, as a translator, Joseph Smith would have been free (or perhaps inspired) to use a transliteration of a name like Amalickiah, or an anglicized equivalent of an ancient name, even one with Greek roots like Timothy.

This entry was posted in Anti-Mormon critics, Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, LDS Scriptures on by .

About Mike Parker

Mike Parker has been involved in LDS apologetics since the mid-1980s, and on the Internet since 1997. He joined the team of FairMormon volunteers in 2002, and has been involved in the creation of the FairMormon wiki (http://en.fairmormon.org) and running the annual FairMormon conference. He is the recipient of FairMormon’s 2006 John Taylor Defender of the Faith Award. He resides with his gorgeous wife and two wonderful children in Utah's Dixie region.

8 thoughts on “Okay, let’s go over this again…

  1. Vader

    A good example is the name “Josh” appearing in the Book of Mormon. It strikes the modern skeptic as a good ol’ redneck country boy name, but it’s also a very reasonable Anglicization of the proper name Yaush found in the Lachish Letters.

  2. Greg Smith

    The most depressing thing about this is that Packham used to teach linguistics or some other language discipline.

    I find it hard to believe that he can be completely unaware of this phenomenon.

    It ain’t rocket science. But it is par for the course.

  3. Mike Parker Post author

    Great point, Greg. Packham introduced his turgid article “A Linguist Looks at Mormonism” this way:

    My interest in language in general and foreign languages in particular began when I was a child. When I was in high school I took every foreign language the school offered (Latin and Spanish), and when I began college I continued that study, with the intention of becoming a language teacher. I continued with Spanish, and also learned French and German, graduating with a major in German and minors in Spanish and English. My master of arts degree was in German, after which I began to teach (Latin, German and English). During that time I also studied Russian. I then had the opportunity to work toward a doctorate in historical and comparative linguistics, and spent four years in graduate school, learning Anglo-Saxon, Old Icelandic, Gothic, Sanskrit, classical Greek, Old and Middle High German, as well as extensively studying comparative and historical linguistic methodology. In the years since I have also studied Mandarin Chinese, Esperanto and Hebrew, and acquired a reading knowledge of Dutch and Italian. During my teaching career of thirty-five years I used comparative linguistic techniques in the classroom. I have found that my knowledge and experience with the phenomena of language give me a somewhat unusual perspective on Mormonism.

    As a trained linguist who, apparently, has done a fair amount of translating from one language to another, it’s shocking that he doesn’t understand this very rudimentary concept.

    The only explanation I can come up with that his desire to tear down his former faith has taken precedence over his intellectual honesty.

  4. Tobin

    Please don’t use other people’s false assumptions before addressing them. Moses and Aaron did not speak Hebrew and their names are not Hebrew in origin. They most likely spoke Coptic and the names are Afro-Asiatic in origin. The Afro-Asiatic languages have very old root origins and lead to Hebrew and Coptic. Also, the Jaredites share this Afro-Asiatic base and so finding these names among them is unremarkable.

  5. Mike Parker Post author

    Looking at the Biblical name John:

    Hebrew = Yochannan
    Greek = Ioannes
    Latin = Iohannes
    German = Johann
    Italian = Giovanni
    Russian = Ivan
    French = Jean
    Scottish = Ian
    Spanish = Juan
    English = John

    All the same name. Sometimes translated; sometimes transliterated.

  6. Neal Rappleye

    “The most depressing thing about this is that Packham used to teach linguistics or some other language discipline.”

    I didn’t realize Packham had a linguistic background until I was reading Brant Gardner’s book “The Gift and Power,” where Gardner quoted from Packham. Mind you this is in the middle of a very through discussion of the complications of translation, and then he quotes Packham regarding the expectation of the translation being “correct”. I immediately thought the same thing – with his background, he really should know better than to make rather naive arguments about anachronisms other matters for which linguistic issues maybe a factor.

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