King James Bible Symposium: 'Holy language'
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This article continues coverage of the Feb. 23-25 BYU symposium on "The King James Bible and the Restoration." Coverage commenced with reports in the March 5 Church News. Those and other reports may be found online at www.ldschurchnews.com and in future issues of the Church News.
In recording the revelations of the Doctrine and Covenants, as with translating the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith and his contemporaries saw the King James Version of the Bible as "both the accepted and the expected language of scripture," said Eric D. Huntsman, BYU associate professor of ancient scripture.
"Further, when the biblical language was quoted or alluded to in a new volume of scripture like the Book of Mormon, these quotations would only be recognizable if they appeared in their familiar forms," said Brother Huntsman in his address at the King James Bible and the Restoration symposium Feb. 23. His topic was The King James Version and the Doctrine and Covenants.
Since the Doctrine and Covenants is not a translation of ancient documents or a collection of texts, "the continuing resonance of the Doctrine and Covenants with the King James Bible seems to have arisen from other factors," he said.
Among these is that some biblical passages seem to serve as catalysts for revelations, he said. "But in other instances, the influence of the King James Bible seems to be seen most in the fact that, for both Joseph's time and even still in our own, basic patterns of Jacobean prose [the sort of prose in the KJV] have taken on the sense of holy language as seen in attempts to render spiritual expressions and, more particularly, the voice of the Lord Himself, into English."
Both the King James translators and the Prophet Joseph Smith seem to have shared a desire to evoke a "sense of the divine" through the language with which they rendered scripture, Brother Huntsman said.
The 1604 Conference at Hampton Court, which commissioned the King James Translation, instructed translators to work toward a style "that would be appropriate, dignified and resonant in public reading," he said. "Nevertheless, it needed to sound and feel familiar to its audiences in the English churches, not completely different than what they had been hearing."
Thus, the idiom of the King James Version was already archaic when it was published. "And so with this consistent use of older forms together with archaic expressions such as 'behold' and 'and it came to pass,' they produced a certain formality that was not consistently suggested in the original text," he said.
Such formality was intended to make the book sound holy and scriptural, he said, comparing it to what Church leaders do today in encouraging Latter-day Saints to use the formal "language of prayer," which incorporates such King James pronouns as thee, thou, thy and thine.
"The almost unquestioned dominance of the King James Bible at the time of Joseph Smith created certain expectations regarding sacred language," he said. Those expectations would have made it difficult to accept either the Book of Mormon or the revelations that came through Joseph Smith had they not been written in a language similar to the King James Bible.
"Of course, Joseph and many of his contemporaries were not classically educated," Brother Huntsman said. But like so many people of that day, they were intimately familiar with the King James Bible.
He cited a study by Ellis Rasmussen showing that for every two verses of Doctrine and Covenants text there is an average of nearly three phrases that allude to or parallel the phrasing of the King James Bible. "A somewhat uniform scriptural idiom woven throughout the Standard Works helps us realize the Savior's injunction that we should expound and teach all the scriptures as one," Brother Huntsman said, alluding to 3 Nephi 23:14.
Of the large number of biblical allusions in the Doctrine and Covenants, only three appear with any frequency: "verily, I say unto you, "thus saith the Lord," and "the field is white already to harvest," Brother Huntsman noted. In addition to specific phrases from the King James Bible, biblical themes pervade the Doctrine and Covenants, he said, themes pertaining to the end of the world, universal moral principles, the Atonement, the purpose of life, to name a few.
Frequently, the Bible served as a catalyst for revelation, he said, adding there is no more striking example of this than Doctrine and Covenants 76, the revelation on the Three Degrees of Glory. It was sparked by a question that Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon had about the resurrection of life and the resurrection of damnation as taught in John 5:39.
"Much of this section is actually in the voice of Joseph and Sidney," he observed, yet the two were influenced by King James Bible language to the point that even when not echoing the Bible itself, they felt they needed to express themselves "in a different linguistic register." And the voice of Jesus Himself in Section 76 is distinctive.
"Some readers hearing the revelations of Joseph Smith today, whether they are the ones in the King James idiom or not, may not hear the voice of God in them," Brother Huntsman said in conclusion. "But for those of us who know the Lord Jesus Christ, when we hear the revelations that came through His prophet, we hear them differently. Like the semi-poetic discourses in John, Joseph Smith's efforts to write in a different register spark a deeper, more spiritual response than that caused by the word alone. This, I think, is one of the King James Bible's greatest influences on the Doctrine and Covenants, even more than the documentable cases of direct allusions or literary echoes. It is the example of people who loved God and strove the best they could to represent His word with theirs."