Why Does “19th Century Language” Appear in the Book of Mormon?

A primary argument made by critics of the Book of Mormon is that it is a work of fiction because its writing style reflects the language of Joseph Smith’s day. They do this by identifying phrases that are commonly found in both 19th century literature and the Book of Mormon, but which are not found in the Bible. If the Book of Mormon were truly an English translation of an ancient document, they argue, then these 19th century phrases should not be so prolific in the Book of Mormon.

If one were serious about proving that the writing style in the Book of Mormon is anachronistic to a text written between 600 B.C. and 400 A.D., then that person should also consult 18th-19th century English translations of other ancient documents to see whether such language is truly anachronistic. Most of the linguistic critiques of the Book of Mormon I have read do not account for these phrases also appearing in other English translations of ancient documents. The purpose of this article is to provide some examples where critics argue certain 19th century phrases should not exist in the Book of Mormon, and yet are found in English translations of other ancient documents.

The four English translations that I will be consulting are listed below:

  1. The Complete Works of Flavius Josephus (written between 78 and 93 A.D.; translated into English by William Whiston in 1737)
  2. The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides (written between 431 and 400 B.C.; translated into English by Richard Crawley in 1874)
  3. The History of Herodotus (written in 440 B.C.; translated into English by George Rawlinson in 1910),
  4. The Dialogues of Plato (Plato lived between 427 and 347 B.C.; translated by Benjamin Jowett in 1871)

Curious Workmanship

Some argue that “curious workmanship” (1 Nephi 16:10) is a unique 18th-19th century phrase that should not appear in the Book of Mormon if it were a real ancient document. The appearance of this phrase in the works of Flavius Josephus refutes this claim, since it is an 18th century English translation of a document written in Greek between 78 and 93 A.D.:

  • “Now the contexture of the curious workmanship of these stones was in three rows, but the fourth row would make one admire its sculptures, whereby were represented trees, and all sorts of plants” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book VIII, 5:2)

Adieu

Critics argue that the French word “adieu” (Jacob 7:27) should not appear in an English translation of an ancient document. English translations of Josephus and Herodotus, however, also use the word “adieu,” and they were neither French nor 19th century authors:

  • “Thus have I set down the genealogy of my family as I have found it described in the public records, and so bid adieu to those who calumniate me [as of a lower original]” (The Life of Flavius Josephus, 1)
  • “with such portion of their goods and chattels as the vessels could bear, bade adieu to Cyrnus and sailed to Rhegium” (Herodotus, Book I)

Ignominious Death

Some say that the phrase “ignominious death” (Alma 1:15) is unique to Joseph Smith’s day and therefore should not exist in an ancient text. Again, Josephus proves this argument wrong:

  • “Abimelech, the son of Gideon, who would needs take the tower in Thebes by force, and was killed by a large stone thrown at him by an old woman; and although he was a man of great prowess, he died ignominiously by the dangerous manner of his assault” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book VII, 7:2)
  • “He that blasphemeth God, let him be stoned; and let him hang upon a tree all that day, and then let him be buried in an ignominious and obscure manner” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book IV, 8:6)

American Freedom

Americans like to think that we were the first civilization that fought for liberty from kings. This is why there are great efforts to link the Book of Mormon to themes of the American Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Here are just a few examples of phrases not found in the Bible but are found in Mercy Otis Warren’s “History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution” (1805). These parallels with Warren’s book and the Book of Mormon were found by Thomas Donofrio in his article “Early American Influences on the Book of Mormon” at MormonThink. He uses this list in an attempt to prove that the Book of Mormon is a 19th century fiction. The problem is that these phrases and themes are found in other English translations of ancient texts. Josephus and other ancient authors describe civilizations throughout antiquity that fought to protect their freedom from tyrants, freedom from tribute to foreign nations, freedom to practice their religion, and freedom from slavery. I have provided a list of some of these parallels and their existence in other ancient works:

  • a free people (Warren, p. 33) / a free people (Alma 21:21)
    • “he would have the greatest honors decreed to him that a free people could bestow” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book XIX, 3:3)
    • “shake off the yoke of servitude, and to become a free people” (Herodotus, Book I)
  • a free government (Warren, p. 65) / a free government (Alma 46:35)
    • “Lacedaemonians, propose to put down free governments in the cities of Greece, and to set up tyrannies in their room” (Herodotus, Book V)
  • the cause of liberty (Warren, p. 24) / the cause of liberty (Alma 51:17)
    • “courage not to be moved by any dangers in the cause of liberty” (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book VII, 8:7)
  • their rights and privileges (Warren, p. 48) / their rights and privileges (Alma 30:27)
    • “made this speech concerning the rights and privileges of Hyrcanus” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book XIV, 10:7)
  • the cause of freedom (Warren, p. 146) / the cause of freedom (Alma 46:35)
    • “For not only did he thus distinguish himself beyond others in the cause of his country’s freedom” (Herodotus, Book VI)
    • “courage not to be moved by any dangers in the cause of liberty” (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book VII, 8:7)
  • cause of his country (Warren, p. 168) / cause of his country (Alma 62:1)
    • “For not only did he thus distinguish himself beyond others in the cause of his country’s freedom” (Herodotus, Book VI)
    • “Their bodies they spend ungrudgingly in their country’s cause” (Thucydides, Book I, Chapter III)
  • the freedom of their country (Warren, p. 172) / the freedom of their country (Alma 59:13)
    • “For not only did he thus distinguish himself beyond others in the cause of his country’s freedom” (Herodotus, Book VI)
    • “to plead for the liberty of their country” (Josephus, Wars, Book II, 6:1)
    • freedom of the city of Rome” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVI, 2:3)
    • “men whose glory it is to be always ready to give battle for the liberty of their own country” (Thucydides, Book IV, Chapter XIV)
  • the justice of their cause (Warren, p. 36) / the justice of the cause (p. 154) / the justice of the cause (Alma 46:29)
    • “but Aristobulus’s three hundred talents had more weight with him than the justice of the cause” (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book I, 6:3)
    • “I am confident in the justice of my cause” (The Dialogues of Plato, Apology)
  • deprive them of their rights (Warren, p. 332) / deprive them of their rights (Alma 2:4)
    • “I will therefore that the nation of the Jews be not deprived of their rights and privileges, on account of the madness of Caius” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book XIX, 5:2)
  • freemen (p. 175) / freemen (Warren, Alma 51:6)
    • “he also left some of the horsemen, called the Freemen, with Herod” (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book I, 13:3)
    • “killing all the freemen that fell into their hands” (Thucydides, Book V, Chapter XVI)
    • “if they be looked upon as freemen” (Herodotus, Book 4)
  • contrary to the laws of (Warren, p. 635) / contrary to the laws of (Helaman 6:23)
    • “and to pull down what had been erected contrary to the laws of their country” (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book I, 33:2)
  • liberties, property, wives and children (Warren, p. 277) / Their liberty, their lands, their wives, and their children (Alma 48:10)
    • “Be ye not afraid of them: remember the Lord, which is great and terrible, and fight for your brethren, your sons, and your daughters, your wives, and your houses” (Bible, Nehemiah 4:14)
    • “They added this also, that when they had built cities, wherein they might preserve their children, and wives, and possessions, if he would bestow them upon them, they would go along with the rest of the army” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book IV, 7:3)
    • “the Syracusans to fight for their country, and each individual for his safety that day and liberty hereafter” (Thucydides, Book VI, Chapter XX)
  • in defence of their liberties (Warren, p. 634) / in the defence of your liberty (3 Nephi 3:2)
    • “when we were so desirous of defending our liberty, and when we received such sore treatment from one another” (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book VII, 8:6)
  • spirit of freedom (Warren, p. 156) / spirit of freedom (Alma 60:25)
    • “Such was the natural nobility of this city, so sound and healthy was the spirit of freedom among us” (The Dialogues of Plato, Menexenus)
    • “trusting less in system and policy than to the native spirit of our citizens” (Thucydides, Book II, Chapter VI)
    • “Nay, indeed, Lysias observing the great spirit of the Jews, how they were prepared to die rather than lose their liberty” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book XII, 7:5)

Warfare

Critics often point out parallels between the Book of Mormon and battle tactics in the American Revolutionary War. Below is another list from the parallels provided by Donofrio in Mercy Otis Warren’s “History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution” (1805). Again, these are examples of 19th century language that is not found in the Bible, and therefore should not be found in ancient documents like the Book of Mormon. These phrases, however, are also found in the sources previously mentioned:

  • stand or fall (Warren, p. 104) / stand or fall (Alma 41:7)
    • “to his own master he standeth or falleth” (Bible, Romans 14:4)
    • “you chose the Athenians, and with them you must stand or fall” (Thucydides, Book III, Chapter X)
  • neck of land (Warren, p. 120) / neck of land (Alma 22:32)
    • “attempted to cut through this narrow neck of land” (Herodotus, Book 1)
  • narrow passage (Warren, p. 146) / narrow passage (Mormon 2:29)
    • “which stopped up the narrow passages, they retired to the camp” (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book II, 15:5)
    • “encompass the building, leaving only a narrow passage by which it is approached” (Herodotus, Book II)
    • “and so arrived in time to occupy the narrow pass between two hills” (Thucydides, Book IV, Chapter XIV)
  • the art of war (Warren, p. 270) / the arts of war (Ether 13:16)
    • “novices in the art of war” (Thucydides, Book VI, Chapter XX)
    • “to fight with one that was skilled in the art of war” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book VI, 9:3)
  • a council of war (Warren, p. 300) / a council of war (Alma 52:19)
    • “To the end he called the commanders that were under him to a council of war” (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book III, 7:8)
    • “they stopped at that place, and held a council of war” (Herodotus, Book 8)
    • “The Athenians, seeing them closing up in the harbour and informed of their further designs, called a council of war” (Thucydides, Book VII, Chapter XXIII)
  • to carry the point (Warren, p. 108) / not gain the point (Alma 46:29)
    • “which he might prevent by placing his camp round about them; and that they should think it a great point gained” (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book IV, 2:3)
    • “Having thus gained their point, the delegates returned home at once” (Thucydides, Book III, Chapter IV)
  • supplies of provisions (Warren, p. 208) / supplies of provisions (Alma 55:34)
    • “This Simon had his supply of provisions from the city, in opposition to the seditious” (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book V, 1:4)
  • fallen into his hands (Warren, p. 145) / fallen into his hands (Alma 53:11)
    • “that it was much better to fall into the hands of God, than into those of his enemies” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book VII, 13:2)
    • “the two next by falling into the hands of Gratus and Ptolemeus” (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book II, 4:3)
  • led captive (Warren, p. 241) / led captive (Alma 40:13)
    • “There were also led captive about thirty-two thousand virgins” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book IV, 7:1)
    • “Will not your city be the first we shall seek to lead away captive?” (Herodotus, Book III)
  • threw down their arms (Warren, p. 393) / threw down their weapons (Alma 52:38)
    • “but when they had lost their general, they were put to flight, and threw down their arms” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book XII, 10:5)
  • laying down their arms at the feet of the victorious Washington (Warren, p. 484) / threw down their weapons of war at the feet of Moroni (Alma 52:38)
    • “and assured them, that if they would lay down their arms, he would secure them from any harm” (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book III, 7:32)
    • “Whereupon three thousand of John’s party left him immediately, who came to Josephus, and threw their arms down at his feet” (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book II, 21:7)
  • to strengthen the hands of general Arnold (Warren, p. 256) / strengthen the hand of the Nephites (Alma 2:18)
    • “The charges which strengthen our hands in the war against the Athenians would on our own showing be merited by ourselves” (Thucydides, Book IV, Chapter XIV)
    • “to strengthen their hands in the works of the Lord God of Israel” (Apocrypha, I Esdras 7:15)
  • were obliged to fly (Warren, p. 103) / were obliged to flee before them (Alma 59:8)
    • “but followed him at his heels; he was also obliged to make haste in his attempt” (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book I, 6:6)
    • “and the rest of the entire nation were obliged to save themselves by flight” (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book II, 16:4)
  • fled in confusion (Warren, p. 374) / fled in much confusion (Alma 52:28)
    • “the Romans were at length brought into confusion, and put to flight, and ran away from their camp” (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book V, 2:4)
    • “they forgot their retreats and fled away in confusion to the deserts lying towards the north” (Herodotus, Book IV)
  • entrenchments to be thrown up (Warren, p. 105) / bank which had been thrown up (Alma 49:18)
    • “on the forty-seventh day [of the siege] the banks cast up by the Romans were become higher than the wall” (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book II, 7:33)
    • “A trench was dug all around the temple and the consecrated ground, and the earth thrown up from the excavation made to do duty as a wall, in which stakes were also planted” (Thucydides, Book IV, Chapter XIV)
    • “and out of the ditch, instead of a wall they cast up the earth” (Thucydides, Hobbes Translation, Book IV, 89)
  • to fall on the rear of the British (Warren, p. 183) / to fall upon them in their rear (Alma 56:23)
    • “if the enemy advanced into the plain against the troops of Agis, they might fall upon his rear with their cavalry” (Thucydides, Book V, Chapter XVI)
    • “he also parted his army into three bodies, and fell upon the backs of their enemies” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book XII, 8:3)
  • cut off the retreat (Warren, p. 277) / cut off the way of their retreat (3 Nephi 4:24)
    • “before the Athenians were aware, cut off their retreat to their ships” (Herodotus, Book V)
    • “and slew a great number of them, and cut off the retreat of the rest of the multitude” (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book IV, 1:8)
  • surrounded on all sides (Warren, p. 311) / surrounded them on every side (Mosiah 21:5)
    • “nor were strong enough to fight with the Romans any longer upon the square, as being surrounded on all sides” (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book VI, 7:2)
    • “When they advanced the next day the Syracusans surrounded and attacked them on every side” (Thucydides, Book VII, Chapter XXIII)
  • death and destruction (Warren, p. 303) / death and destruction (Alma 28:14)
    • “whether this is a discovery of their own, or whether they have learned from some one else this new sort of death and destruction” (Plato, Dialogues, Euthydemus)
  • an ignominious death (Warren, p. 584) / an ignominious death (Alma 1:15)
    • “he died ignominiously by the dangerous manner of his assault” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book VII, 7:2)
  • the intrigues of the governmental faction (Warren, p. 86) / the intrigues of the Lamanites (Alma 55:27)
    • “they destroyed the corn and had some hopes of the city coming over through the intrigues of a faction within” (Thucydides, Book II, Chapter VIII)
    • “he had also thought of preventing her intrigues, by putting her to death” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book XV, 4:2)

Fortifications, Walls, Ditches, Wooden Stakes, Etc.

Some argue that siege warfare is reminiscent of the American Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. While it bears some similarities (minus the guns and cannon fire), these are battle tactics found throughout antiquity across cultures. Here are some examples:

From Thucydides’ “The History of the Peloponnesian War”:

  • Meanwhile Hippocrates made a levy in mass of the citizens, resident aliens, and foreigners in Athens, and arrived at his destination after the Boeotians had already come back from Siphae, and encamping his army began to fortify Delium, the sanctuary of Apollo, in the following manner. A trench was dug all round the temple and the consecrated ground, and the earth thrown up from the excavation was made to do duty as a wall, in which stakes were also planted, the vines round the sanctuary being cut down and thrown in, together with stones and bricks pulled down from the houses near; every means, in short, being used to run up the rampart. Wooden towers were also erected where they were wanted” (Thucydides, Book IV, Chapter XIV)
  • “the Athenians started from the wall which they occupied, and from this point built
    a cross wall looking towards Megara down to the sea on either side of Nisaea; the ditch and the walls being divided among the army, stones and bricks taken from the suburb, and the fruit-trees and timber cut down to make a palisade wherever this seemed necessary” (Thucydides, Book IV, Chapter XIII)

Josephus thoroughly describes siege warfare throughout Jewish history:

  • “Alexander was afraid of him, when he was marching against the Arabians; so he cut a deep trench between Antipatris, which was near the mountains, and the shores of Joppa; he also erected a high wall before the trench, and built wooden towersin order to hinder any sudden approaches; but still he was not able to exclude Antiochus, for he burnt the towers, and filled up the trenches, and marched on with his army” (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book I, 4:7)
    • On a side note, it is interesting to me how an ancient war strategy was to fill up an enemy’s ditch surrounding their fort, and the Book of Mormon states, in what I think is an example of dark humor, “and instead of filling up their ditches by pulling down the banks of earth, they were filled up in a measure with their dead and wounded bodies” – Alma 49:22)

Sun Tzu mentions fortifications of walls and ditches in “The Art of War” (Translated by Lionel Giles):

  • “If we wish to fight, the enemy can be forced to an engagement even though he be sheltered behind a high rampart and a deep ditch” (VI:11)

Gadianton Robbers and the Free Masons

Some argue that the Gadianton Robbers are an analogue to the Free Masons. During Joseph Smith’s day they were considered a secret society that many believed were murderers who sought to overthrow the government. Much closer analogues can be found in Josephus, who describes robbers splitting the people into factions, robbers assassinating their enemies, robbers dwelling in caves, and expeditions to eradicate the robbers from the land:

  • “he presently met with an opportunity of signalising his courage; for, finding there was one Hezekias, a captain of a band of robbers, who overran the neighboring ports of Syria with a great troop of them, he seized him and slew him, as well as a great number of the other robbers that were with him; for which action he was greatly beloved by the Syrians; for when they were very desirous to have their country freed from this nest of robbers, he purged it of them: so they sung songs in his commendation in their villages and cities, as having procured them peace and the secure enjoyment of their possessions” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book XIV, Chapter 9:2)
  • “that there might be no want of a supply for the soldiers for the time to come. Antigonus was sensible of this, and sent presently over the country such as might restrain and lie in ambush for those that went out for provisions. So these men obeyed the orders of Antigonus, and got together a great number of armed men about Jericho, and sat upon the mountains, and watched those that brought the provisions…He also went thence and resolved to destroy those robbers that dwelt in the caves, and did much mischief in the country…These caves were in mountains that were exceedingly abrupt, and in their middle were no other than precipices, with certain entrances into the caves, and those caves were encompassed with sharp rocks, and in these did the robbers lie concealed, with all their families about them” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book XIV, Chapter 15:3-5).
  • “there he lighted upon one Rezon, who had run away from Hadadezer, king of Zobah, his master, and was become a robber in that country, and joined friendship with him, who had already a band of robbers about him. So he went up, and seized upon that part of Syria, and was made king thereof. He also made incursions into the land of Israel, and did it no small mischief, and spoiled it, and that in the lifetime of Solomon. And this was the calamity which the Hebrews suffered by Hadad” (Josephus, Antiquities, Book VIII, 7:6)
  • “When these matters were laid before Caesar, he wrote back to Varro to destroy those nests of robbers, and to give the land to Herod, that so by his care the neighboring countries might be no longer disturbed with these doings of the Trachonites; for it was not an easy firing to restrain them, since this way of robbery had been their usual practice, and they had no other way to get their living, because they had neither any city of their own, nor lands in their possession, but only some receptacles and dens in the earth, and there they and their cattle lived in common together” (Josephus, Antiquities, Book XV, 10:1)
  • Now, no place of Galilee remained to be taken but the small city of Gischala, whose multitude yet were desirous of peace; for they were generally husbandmen, and always applied themselves to cultivate the fruits of the earth. However, there were a great number that belonged to a band of robbers, that were already corrupted, and had crept in among them, and some of the governing part of the citizens were sick of the same distemper. It was John, the son of a certain man whose name was Levi, that drew them into this rebellion, and encouraged them in it. He was a cunning knave, and of a temper that could put on various shapes; very rash in expecting great things, and very sagacious in bringing about what he hoped for. It was known to every body that he was fond of war, in order to thrust himself into authority; and the seditious part of the people of Gischala were under his management” (Josephus, Wars, Book IV, 2:1)

Gangs of robbers are also described cross-culturally. In the commentary on the Art of War, Chang Yu describes how a gang of robbers which hid in the mountains was defeated:

  • “Wu-tu Ch’iang was a robber captain in the time of the Later Han, and Ma Yuan was sent to exterminate his gang. Ch’iang having found refuge in the hills, Ma Yuan made no attempt to force a battle, but seized all the favorable positions commanding supplies of water and forage. Ch’iang was soon in such a desperate plight for want of provisions that he was forced to make a total surrender.” (Chang Yu’s commentary in Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” IX:1, p. 137)

Factions, intrigues, and combinations are also found in antiquity:

  • “they destroyed the corn and had some hopes of the city coming over through the intrigues of a faction within” (Thucydides, Book II, Chapter VIII)
  • “he had also thought of preventing her intrigues, by putting her to death” (Josephus, Antiquities, Book XV, 4:2)
  • “it was this clause that was the real origin of the panic in Peloponnese, by exciting suspicions of a Lacedaemonian and Athenian combination against their liberties” (Thucydides, Book V, Chapter XV)
  • “they prepared therefore their chariots, and gathered their soldiery together, their cities also combined together, and drew over to them Askelon and Ekron” (Antiquites, Book V, 3:1)
  • “the Ambraciots having come and urged them to combine with them in attacking Amphilochian Argos” (Thucydides, Book III, Chapter XI)

This is just a small sample of instances where 19th century phrases are found in English translations of ancient documents, which are useful in refuting claims that similarities between the Book of Mormon and 19th century literature are proof of it being a work of fiction.

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