Evidence #362 | August 9, 2022

Biblical Language

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Scripture Central


The extensive use of biblical language in the Book of Mormon was likely beyond Joseph Smith’s ability to produce in 1829, suggesting that its English translation was revealed by the gift and power of God.

In a 2018 publication entitled The Nature of the Original Language, Royal Skousen identified numerous instances of archaic biblical language—including vocabulary (66 instances), phrases (41 instances), and expressions (26 instances)—used throughout the Book of Mormon.1 These findings complement a growing number of studies which demonstrate that much of the language of the Book of Mormon had become rare, nonstandard, or obsolete by Joseph Smith’s day, indicating that its English translation was revealed to Joseph Smith word for word.2 The following sections highlight just a few examples of biblical vocabulary and phrases in the Book of Mormon, followed by a brief discussion of its use of biblical expressions.

Biblical Vocabulary


Usually, when the Book of Mormon uses the word prolong, it takes on its expected meaning in modern English: “to extend.”3 However, in two passages—2 Nephi 23:22 and Mosiah 21:35prolong appears to hold the archaic meaning of “delay, postpone, put off,” as identified in definition 2 of the Oxford English Dictionary.4

While the passage from 2 Nephi 23:22 is quoting Isaiah 13:22, the use of prolong in Mosiah 21:35 is original to the Nephite record: “They were desirous to be baptized as a witness and a testimony that they were willing to serve God with all their hearts; nevertheless they did prolong [i.e. “delay, postpone, put off”] the time; and an account of their baptism shall be given hereafter.”5 In addition to its presence in Isaiah 13:22, this archaic usage can be found twice in the writings of Ezekiel (Ezekiel 12:25, 28). Thus, its use in biblical texts is quite rare.

In connection with Mosiah 21:35, Limhi and his people eventually escape to Zarahemla, where they find priestood holders with authority to baptize them. Painting by Steven Lloyd Neal.  

A couple examples of the archaic definition of prolong in the OED come from the 18th century, but the majority come from Early Modern English (ranging from 1425–1681).6 In his search for this usage, Stanford Carmack found three more examples from the 1600s, as well as one from 1738, providing additional evidence that this usage was predominantly archaic.7 Similarly, Webster’s 1828 dictionary lists the archaic definition with a quotation from Shakespeare as an example.8


In today’s English, when an individual requires something of someone, it usually entails some type of demand or strong expectation. A parent, for example, may require a child to do homework before watching TV. This definition, however, doesn’t work well for Enos 1:18: “And the Lord said unto me: Thy fathers have also required of me this thing; and it shall be done unto them according to their faith.”

Enos praying. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

The problem, of course, is that it would seem inappropriate for faithful prophets to require (meaning “demand”) things of the Lord. Yet in older English, require could simply mean “to ask, request, or beseech a person to do something,” as listed under definition 1 of the Oxford English Dictionary.9 This appears to be the meaning in Enos 1:18. Unambiguous examples of this archaic usage also show up in the Bible, but only rarely (see Ezra 8:22; Proverbs 30:7).10 Webster’s 1828 dictionary provides the archaic definition but then quotes the passage from Ezra 8:22 and makes the following clarification: “In this sense, the word is Rarely used.”11

Biblical Phrases

For the Multitude

When Jesus Christ visited the people at Bountiful, they “did worship him; and as many as could come for the multitude did kiss his feet” (3 Nephi 17:10). The phrase for the multitude similarly shows up in John 21:6: “They cast therefore, and now they were not able to draw it for the multitude of fishes.” In each case, the meaning of for seems to correspond with definition 22 in the Oxford English Dictionary: “in consequence of, by reason of, as the effect of.”12 In other words, Christ’s disciples in John 21:6 couldn’t draw up the nets because there were too many fish. Likewise, only so many people in 3 Nephi 17:10 could physically come into contact with Christ because the multitude was too large.

From the shore, Christ tells the disciples to cast their net on the right side of the ship, and when they did, there was an abundance of fish. Image and caption via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

The passage in 3 Nephi is actually conceptually closer to several New Testament verses that likewise discuss people not being able to come near Jesus because of a crowd (Mark 2:4; Luke 8:19; 19:1–4). Except in each case, these biblical passages use the phrase for the press instead of for the multitude, as seen in Luke 8:19: “Then came to him his mother and his brethren, and could not come at him for the press.” Press is an archaic word for multitude or crowd.13

Interestingly, not only was the phrase for the multitude widely used in Early Modern English, but in some cases it was used in place of for the press in the three biblical passages listed above. “For instance,” writes Skousen, “Mark 2:4 in the 1560 Geneva Bible reads ‘and because they could not come near unto him for the multitude’. And Luke 8:19 in the 1582 Rheims Bible reads ‘and they could not come at him for the multitude’.”14 In a number of other examples ranging from 1550–1600, these same biblical passages are discussed or paraphrased and the phrase for the multitude is similarly used in place of for the press.15 In other words, the Book of Mormon seems to exhibit a widely-used Early Modern rendering for a biblical concept (for the multitude) that is not present in the most analogous passages in the King James Bible.  

Understand of

In the original text of the Book of Mormon, there are two passages in which the verb understand takes a direct object with the word of inserted between them:

  • “we might read and understand of his mysteries” (Mosiah 1:5)
  • “they will not understand of thy mercies” (Alma 33:16)16

There happens to be only one similar construction in the King James Bible, found in Nehemiah 13:7: “And I came to Jerusalem, and understood of the evil that Eliashib did for Tobiah.” Skousen notes that the phrase “to understand of X” is listed in the Oxford English Dictionary and has citations from the Early Modern period, suggesting that the phrase is “quite archaic.”17

Biblical Expressions

The Book of Mormon also features a number of expressions that are similar or identical to those found in the King James Bible. In some cases, these expressions are rare in biblical passages. For instance, the phrase “breathe out threatenings” occurs five times in the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 18:17; Mosiah 19:3; Alma 35:9; Alma 54:19; 2 Nephi 5:5), yet it only occurs once in the Bible (Acts 9:1–2).18 The expression “go no more out” is similarly represented in the Nephite record, yet it only shows up in 2 Samuel 21:17 and Revelation 3:11–12.19 As a final example, in the entire Standard Works the expression “frankly forgive” shows up only in 1 Nephi 7:21 and Luke 7:42.20

After arguing with his brothers, Nephi "frankly" forgives them. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

It shouldn’t be assumed that the 26 examples provided by Skousen fully represent the Book of Mormon’s use of biblical expressions. As explained by Skousen, these are only “some of the [examples] that have caught the interest of Stanford Carmack and me as well as my students over the years.”21 Undoubtedly, others could be cited. In addition, even though all these expressions can be found in the Bible, it doesn’t mean that they ultimately derive from that source. Some expressions, such as frankly forgive, were widely used in various contexts in Early Modern English both before and after their implementation in the Bible.22


In total, the Book of Mormon implements well over one hundred distinct words, phrases, and expressions that are found in biblical texts. This is in addition to the many biblical passages that are quoted or closely paraphrased, such as the well-known Isaiah chapters in 2 Nephi 12–24.

In some cases, the specific manner in which the Book of Mormon implements these linguistic features is different from their usage in the Bible, and yet is still in keeping with Early Modern English. In other instances, the Book of Mormon implements rare or obscure examples of archaic language in biblical texts. Together, this data suggests that whoever produced the English text of the Book of Mormon would have needed a deep familiarity with biblical language (or the language of Early Modern English which helped shape biblical language).

Yet there is reason to believe that Joseph Smith most likely hadn’t acquired such knowledge by 1829.23 To be sure, he wasn’t completely ignorant of the Bible. Joseph’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, once reported that in his formative years Joseph told her: “I can take my Bible and go into the woods, and learn more in two hours, than you can learn at meeting in two years, if you should attend all the time.”24 Richard Bushman has noted that “a neighbor remembered the Smiths holding school in their house and studying the Bible.”25 It should also be remembered that Joseph was led to the sacred grove by reading verses from the Bible,26 and the angel Moroni quoted verses from the Bible to him in their first encounters, verses that Joseph later remembered with precision (see Joseph Smith—History 1:11–13, 36–41).

On the other hand, there is evidence that Joseph’s mastery of the Bible was far from complete. Joseph’s mother, in contrast to her previously reported statement, also remembered that at “19 years of age” Joseph “had never read the Bible through by course in his life for [he] was less inclined to the study of books than any child we had.”27 This accords with David Whitmer’s description of Joseph being “ignorant of the Bible.”28 It is also supported by various reports that Joseph was surprised to discover from the Book of Mormon that Jerusalem was a walled city—a detail that is clearly and repeatedly established in many biblical texts.29

Thus, while the historical record affirms that Joseph had some familiarity with the Bible in 1829, it casts doubt on his being well-versed or intimately aware of its contents. This stands in contrast to the text of the Book of Mormon, which manifests a deep familiarity with biblical content and language on a variety of levels. The extensive presence of biblical language in the Book of Mormon thus supports Joseph Smith’s consistent claim that he dictated the Nephite record by the gift and power of God.

Royal Skousen with the collaboration of Stanford Carmack, The Nature of the Original Language, Parts 3–4 of The History of the Text of the Book of Mormon, Volume 3 of The Critical Text of the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: FARMS and BYU Studies, 2018), 693–1042.

Bible2 Samuel 21:17Ezra 8:22Nehemiah 13:7Proverbs 30:7Isaiah 13:22Ezekiel 12:25Ezekiel 12:28Mark 2:4Luke 7:42Luke 8:19Luke 19:1–4John 21:6Acts 9:1–2Revelation 3:11–12Book of Mormon1 Nephi 7:211 Nephi 18:172 Nephi 5:52 Nephi 23:22 Enos 1:18Mosiah 1:5Mosiah 19:3Mosiah 21:35Alma 33:16Alma 35:9Alma 54:193 Nephi 17:10


2 Samuel 21:17

Ezra 8:22

Nehemiah 13:7

Proverbs 30:7

Isaiah 13:22

Ezekiel 12:25

Ezekiel 12:28

Mark 2:4

Luke 7:42

Luke 8:19

Luke 19:1–4

John 21:6

Acts 9:1–2

Revelation 3:11–12

Book of Mormon

1 Nephi 7:21

1 Nephi 18:17

2 Nephi 5:5

2 Nephi 23:22

Enos 1:18

Mosiah 1:5

Mosiah 19:3

Mosiah 21:35

Alma 33:16

Alma 35:9

Alma 54:19

3 Nephi 17:10

Book of Mormon

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