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Once Again: Joseph Smith, Richard Dawkins, and the Language of Translation

(Cross-posted from Ploni Almoni: Mr. So-and-So’s Mormon Blog) [This is another follow-up post to these posts here, here, and here.]

At the risk of overkilling this topic, I want to return to Richard Dawkins’ arguments against the Book of Mormon one last time. (I’m pretty sure I’ll leave it alone after this.)

In an online article where he expresses his disappointment that not every English state school has a copy of the King James Bible in its library, Dawkins opines on the incomparable quality of the King James Bible as a work of English literature while at the same time insisting that it is not a suitable guide to morality.1 “Ecclesiastes, in the 1611 translation,” Dawkins specifies, “is one of the glories of English literature (I’m told it’s pretty good in the original Hebrew, too).” (Having read large parts of Ecclesiastes in Hebrew, I can attest that it is.) “A native speaker of English who has never read a word of the King James Bible is verging on the barbarian,” Dawkins goes on to say as he affirms that the King James Bible “really is a great work of literature” that should be appreciated as such. Indeed, “an atheistic world-view,” Dawkins has said elsewhere, “provides no justification for cutting the Bible, and other sacred books, out of our education. . . . We can give up belief in God while not losing touch with a treasured heritage.”2

Something about Dawkins’ views on this matter struck me the other day as I was sitting in my New Testament class. My professor was going over the history of the transmission of the New Testament when he mentioned that the King James Bible was as much a revision of older English translations (such as the translation of William Tyndale accomplished in 1526) as it was a translation of the underlying Hebrew and Greek. After class I thumbed through a volume I own on the history of the King James Bible, a book recently produced by the Religious Studies Center at BYU, and came across this by Kent P. Jackson.

As the King James Bible was by design a revision of earlier translations— “out of many good ones, one principal good one”—its language was already old when it was created. It “was born archaic.” But this should not be overstated; it was not born four hundred years old, as it is today, yet it was deliberately cast in a language more antiquated than that of common speech. It was a “formal, ritualized language” that created an “atmosphere of holiness.” While the KJV provides a literal and faithful rendering of the original Hebrew and Greek texts, it “infuses that translation with a sense of beauty and ceremony.”3

This struck me as highly significant. Remember that Dawkins’ argument, per his TV interview last year, is that the Book of Mormon cannot be authentic because “[the Book of Mormon] was a 19th century book written in 16th century English. That’s not the way people talked in the 19th century – it’s a fake. So it’s not beautiful, it’s a work of charlatanry.”4

So why is this significant? Despite the fact that the English of the King James Bible was already archaic for 1611, and was not written “the way people talked” at the time, Dawkins can’t seem to praise the KJV enough. But by his own standard he should be dismissing the KJV as a fake and “a work of charlatanry.” What gives?

My search into this matter of the archaic English of the King James Bible by 1611 standards didn’t end there. To find out if Jackson was correct, I did some more research and came up with a number of historians saying the same thing. David Lyle Jeffrey, for example, notes, “The deliberately archaic ‘voice’ of the King James Version was a result of the decision to use certain older forms of formal English in preference to street idiom in the royal translation.”5 In the same volume Alister E. McGrath comments on the archaic English of the King James Bible to the same point.

By the end of the sixteenth century, however, the forms “thou,” “thee,” and “thy” were in decline. In Shakespeare’s Richard III (1591), the singular or plural form “you” is used 379 times in conversations which cross social and class boundaries between commoners, nobility, and royalty. The older forms were nevertheless retained in the King James Version, despite clear shifts in the patterns of written and spoken English. Even by the standards of 1610, the continued use of such forms would have been seen as slightly archaic.

A similar issue emerges in relation to verbs, most notably the third person singular form of the present tense. Although early Tudor spoken English used forms such as “he saith” or “she goeth,” by 1610 these were being replaced with “he says” and “she goes.” There is evidence that, even where the older orthography was used in the Jacobean age, it was pronounced as if it were the new form. In other words, the phrase written as “he saith” might be pronounced as “he says.” Once more, the King James Bible chose to retain the older forms, despite the clear indications of future trends.6

So the translators deliberately chose “to retain the older forms” of English pronouns and verbs. But that’s not all. McGrath has elsewhere noted how contemporary readers of the King James Bible would’ve found the English (the same English that Dawkins can’t get enough of, mind you) antiquated.

One of the most interesting aspects of the King James Bible is its use of ways of speaking that were already becoming archaic in the standard English of the first decade of the seventeenth century. By adopting these older forms, the King James Bible had the unintended effect of perpetuating ways of speaking that, strictly speaking, were dying out in everyday English speech. . . . [T]he King James Bible would actually have been perceived to be slightly old-fashioned and dated even from the first day of its publication.7

McGrath isn’t alone on this point. Seth Lerer has similarly written concerning the language of the KJV,

Much of its vernacular, as we well know, was cobbled together out of earlier translations, Tyndale and Coverdale in particular, and by the early seventeenth century it was already perceived as old-fashioned. Certain grammatical uses, in particular the -th suffix for the third person singular verb and the grammatical gendering of particular nouns . . . were perceived by contemporaries as unrepresentative of everyday spoken usage.8

So the English of the KJV was “unrepresentative of everyday spoken” English in 1611. In other words, to paraphrase Dawkins, “that’s not the way people talked in the early-17th century.”

But why, one might ask, was this done? Why didn’t the translators of the KJV just use contemporary English? Adam Nicolson answers,

[The English of the KJV] is not the English you would have heard on the street, then or ever. It took up its life in a new and distinct dimension of linguistic space, somewhere between English and Greek (or, for the Old Testament, between English and Hebrew). These scholars were not pulling the language of the scriptures into the English they knew and used at home. . . . It was, in other words, more important to make English godly than to make the words of God into the sort of prose that any Englishmen would have written.9

Did you catch that last part? The translators, according to Nicolson, deliberately used an uncommon form of English in order to make Scripture sound more “godly” (sound familiar?), even though this meant that the English wouldn’t have been the kind “that any Englishmen would have written” in 1611.

But besides discovering these facts about the English of the King James Bible, I was also pleasantly surprised to discover that the Book of Mormon is not the only scriptural translation whose language was significantly influenced by the English of the King James Bible. In his comments on the history of the Jewish Publication Society’s 1917 edition of the Hebrew Bible, Leonard J. Greenspoon explains how there was a direct influence on the JPS Tanakh by the KJV.

This connection between the Protestant KJV and the Jewish translations into English is nowhere better or more fully documented than in the edition of the Jewish Publication Society of America (JPS) brought out in 1917. . . . Where it was necessary for any reason to incorporate materials not found in the KJV or its revision, editor in chief Max L. Margolis deliberately chose KJV-sounding language, so as to achieve a text that seamlessly combined the new with the old.10

For example, here is the 1917 JPS Tanakh’s translation/revision of Psalm 23.

A Psalm of David. HaShem is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul; He guideth me in straight paths for His name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; Thou hast anointed my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of HaShem for ever.

And here is the 1917 JPS Tanakh’s rendering of Psalm 24.

A Psalm of David. The earth is HaShem’S, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.

For He hath founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the floods.

Who shall ascend into the mountain of HaShem? and who shall stand in His holy place?

He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not taken My name in vain, and hath not sworn deceitfully.

He shall receive a blessing from HaShem, and righteousness from the G-d of his salvation.

Such is the generation of them that seek after Him, that seek Thy face, even Jacob. Selah

Lift up your heads, O ye gates, and be ye lifted up, ye everlasting doors; that the King of glory may come in.

‘Who is the King of glory?’ ‘The HaShem strong and mighty, HaShem mighty in battle.’

Lift up your heads, O ye gates, yea, lift them up, ye everlasting doors; that the King of glory may come in.

‘Who then is the King of glory?’ ‘The HaShem of hosts; He is the King of glory.’ Selah

Notice the unmistakable attempt to capture the archaic “thou,” “thy,” “ye,” “yea,” and “-eth” on the end of verbs. Does Dawkins think that Max L. Margolis, the editor of the 1917 JPS Tanakh, is a fraud and a charlatan because he consciously imitated King James English?

Or what about R. H. Charles, one of the great pioneers on Jewish and Christian pseudepigrapha, who published his Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament in 1913 at the same university where Dawkins teaches? Here is a verse from Charles’ translation of the pseudepigraphal Martyrdom of Isaiah.

And whilst he (Hezekiah) gave commands, Josab the son of Isaiah standing by, Isaiah said to Hezekiah the king, but not in the presence of Manasseh only did he say unto him: ‘As the Lord liveth, whose name has not been sent into this world, [and as the Beloved of my Lord liveth], and as the Spirit which speaketh in me liveth. (Martyrdom of Isaiah 1:6–7)

Notice the archaic “-eth endings on the verbs in an attempt to recapture the voice of the KJV. Here is an excerpt from Charles’ translation of the book of Jubilees (sometimes called “lesser Genesis”).

And to Adam also he said, ‘ Because thou hast harkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree of which I commanded thee that thou shouldst not eat thereof, cursed be the ground for thy sake: thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to thee, and thou shalt eat thy bread in the sweat of thy face, till thou returnest to the earth from whence thou wast taken; for earth thou art, and unto earth shalt thou return.’ (Jubilees 3:25)

Notice the archaic pronouns, as well as, again, the archaic forms of the verbs. I could produce many more examples of this sort of thing going on throughout Charles’ work, but the point should be obvious. Why do Margolis and Charles get a pass, but Joseph Smith is condemned in no uncertain terms?

Finally, in my research I also came across this statement by David W. Bebbington. Not knowing exactly where to fit this in above, I’ll just throw it in right here.

By the 1820s, the language of the early seventeenth century had become so much in vogue that the most popular preacher in London, Edward Irving, deliberately adopted its archaic idiom. “The whole Philosophy of Europe serveth infidelity,” as Irving once declared, sounded more powerful than if he had used the current form of the verb, “serves.” The characteristic of the times was not to modernize the English Bible but to imitate its accepted translation.11

Notice the date. Joseph Smith was translating the Book of Mormon (while trying to “imitate” the “accepted translation” of the KJV, no less) at exactly the same time. So why doesn’t Dawkins, out of fairness, write a scathing condemnation of “the most popular preacher” of the time? If he’s going to condemn the Yankee farmer Joseph Smith for using King James English in the 1820s, then he better do the same for the Scottish preacher Irving.

Lest someone object that this last example comes from England and not the United States, I would remind the reader of the work of Eran Shalev,12 as well as the observation by McGrath that “there is no doubt that the King James Bible was a formative influence on the shaping of American English. As the great American man of letters Noah Webster (1758–1843) pointed out, ‘the language of the Bible has no inconsiderable influence in forming and preserving our national language.’ Its role in public discourse was guaranteed through its prominent role in the worship of the churches and in private devotion.”13

So why is it that Dawkins loves the archaic English of the KJV and yet despises the archaic English of the Book of Mormon? Why was his foundation willing to consider paying money to place KJV Bibles in English schools on the one hand, and yet he can only sneer in contempt at the Book of Mormon on the other?

I wonder if it’s because Dawkins apparently isn’t aware of the fact that the English of the King James Bible was already archaic when it was produced. I wonder if it’s because Dawkins does know this, but doesn’t care about employing a double standard. I wonder if it’s because Dawkins has an innate prejudice against Joseph Smith and the Mormons. I wonder if it’s because Dawkins’ views on this point are little more than an arbitrary, uninformed opinion that has scarcely any historical or logical support.

In other words, I wonder if it’s simply because, on this matter, at least, Dawkins doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

  1. “Why I want all our children to read the King James Bible,” online at (Accessed January 9, 2014). 
  2. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 2nd. ed. (Great Britain: Mariner Books, 2008), 387. 
  3. Kent P. Jackson, “The English Bible: A Very Short History,” in The King James Bible and the Restoration, ed. Kent P. Jackson (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2011), 21, notes removed. 
  4. “Brandon Flowers of ‘The Killers’ Defends Mormon Faith Against Richard Dawkins,” online at 
  5. David Lyle Jeffrey, “Introduction,” in The King James Bible and the World It Made, ed. David Lyle Jeffrey (Waco, TX, USA: Baylor University Press, 2011), 2. 
  6. Alister E. McGrath, “The ‘Opening of Windows’ The King James Bible and Late Tudor Translation Theories,” in The King James Bible and the World It Made, 23. 
  7. Alister E. McGrath, In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How it Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2001), 265–266, 276. 
  8. Seth Lerer, “The KJV and the Rapid Growth of English in the Elizabethan–Jacobean Era,” in The King James Version at 400: Assessing its Genius as Bible Translation and its Literary Influence, ed. David G. Burke, John F. Kutsko, and Philip H. Towner (Atlanta, Georgia: Society of Biblical Literature, 2013), 43–44. 
  9. Adam Nicolson, God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2003), 211. 
  10. Leonard J. Greenspoon, “The King James Bible and Jewish Bible Translations,” in Translation that Openeth the Window: Reflections on the History and Legacy of the King James Bible, ed. David G. Burke (Atlanta, Georgia: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009), 133. See also the comments of Naomi Seidman, “‘A New Garb for the Jewish Soul’: The JPS Bible in the Light of the King James Bible,” in The King James Version at 400, 480. “The JPS 1917 translation is thus not a new translation at all but a minor revision of a minor revision of the KJV.” 
  11. David W. Bebbington, “The King James Bible in Britain From the Late Eighteenth Century,” in The King James Bible and the World It Made, 51. 
  12. Eran Shalev, “‘Written in the Style of Antiquity’: Pseudo-Biblicism and the Early American Republic, 1770–1830,” Church History 79/4 (2010): 800–826. 
  13. McGrath, In the Beginning, 294. 

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