A complex relationship between the King James Version of the Bible and other LDS scripture — the Book of Mormon in particular — provides a unique dimension for Latter-day Saints as they join the rest of the world in observing the 400th anniversary of the King James version, Daniel L. Belnap said.
An assistant professor of ancient scripture at BYU, Brother Belnap spoke of that relationship with the Book of Mormon in his address Feb. 23 and 25 at the King James Bible and the Restoration symposium.
For one thing, he said, the Book of Mormon "includes large blocks of biblical text translated in King James-sounding English similar to equivalent passages in the Old and New Testaments of the King James Version."
In addition there are "numerous paraphrases of biblical text as well as allusions to biblical events and use of biblical imagery," he added.
But beyond mere similarity in language, "the Book of Mormon includes a meta-narrative in which the significance of the Bible in God's plan is demonstrated through its role in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon," he said, adding that this meta-narrative (a theme in which the text references itself) is found predominately in the writings of Nephi outlining God's covenant with His children.
"While the Book of Mormon has much to say about the text referred to as the Bible, whether or not this record means the King James Version is another question entirely, one that may have a surprising answer," Brother Belnap said.
He noted that for large, non-English-speaking segments of the Church the King James Version is not the canonical Bible. Instead, "the Bibles they use are not translations of the King James Version into the native language, but Bibles that have long traditions in their own native tongue." Yet because the Book of Mormon was originally translated into King James-sounding English, the KJV influences every Church member "by virtue of its cadence, language and terminology appearing in the original Book of Mormon," he said.
For Brother Belnap, this prompts two questions:
"Why does the Book of Mormon incorporate King James English?"
"How did such English get into the Book of Mormon text?"
The first is the easier one to answer, at least from a cultural perspective, he said, explaining that Americans in the early 19th Century, used King James English in sermons and discourses "to apply a sense of tradition" to what was being spoken.
In trying to determine how Joseph Smith incorporated so much King James English into his translation of the Book of Mormon, one must recognize that "none of the accounts describing the translation process mention that he used a Bible, and, in fact, a few of the accounts state explicitly that Joseph did not use any biblical text during the translation process," Brother Belnap said.
Moreover, there is not a clear understanding of what the translation process was, as Joseph would only say that it came forth "by the gift and power of God."
"Whether or not a looser or tighter form of the translation process was utilized is unknown, since evidence can be provided either way," Brother Belnap said. He noted that the lack of any firm answer as to the translation process requires that one rely on the Holy Ghost to find peace in Joseph's declaration of its divine origin.
The relationship between the Book of Mormon and the Bible is also manifested in the "meta-narrative," Brother Belnap said.
Nephi's vision in which an angel shows him the colonization of the New World by Europeans depicts their possession of the Bible. A pattern emerges, he said, in which the Bible's role in establishing the Abrahamic covenant among the peoples of the earth is shown. "Plain and precious truths" removed or held back from the Bible are ultimately restored through the emergence of the Book of Mormon.
The question of whether the Bible in Nephi's vision is the King James Version "cannot be addressed with certainty, since no particular biblical text is delineated by the prophet or the angel," Brother Belnap said. Yet, he added, there are indications it may in fact be the King James Version.
If Nephi's vision alludes to the colonization of North America by Britons, "then the history of the Bible in the early United States suggests that Nephi may have seen the King James Bible because of its popularity, both among colonists and later established generations," he said.
Such popularity stemmed from the fact that the King James Version, unlike the earlier Geneva Bible, did not contain marginal commentary, he said. Therefore, readers in the American colonies felt freer to draw their own conclusions from their reading of the text than they might have otherwise.
"Thus, it is in this environment with a Bible uniquely designed to emphasize the literal nature of covenants while allowing for personal revelation that the Father's covenant promised so long ago began to be fulfilled," Brother Belnap remarked. "The relationship between the King James Version and the Book of Mormon is a strong one in terms of language and cadence and a powerful one in terms of covenantal faith."