Acceptance of the Bible by the Mormon Church is qualified by a statement credited to Joseph Smith and which now appears in article eight of the Mormon Articles of Faith, “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly.”
Joseph Smith is also quoted as saying, “I believe the Bible as it read when it came from the pen of the original writers. Ignorant translators, careless transcribers, or designing and corrupt priests have committed many errors.”1 Proclaiming belief in the Bible as originally written, as opposed to a corrupt contemporary version, assumes a knowledge of the original biblical text. As such, was Smith able to reestablish the “original” biblical text or, at least, the extent to which the Bible is “translated correctly“? Perhaps the best way to test his knowledge and abilities is to study his textual criticism of Genesis 1:1. Joseph Smith said:
I shall comment on the very first Hebrew word in the Bible. I will make a comment on the very first sentence of the history of creation in the Bible- Berosheit. I want to analyze the word. Baith–in, by, through, and everything else. Rosh–the head. Sheit–grammatical termination. When the inspired man wrote it, he did not put the Baith there. An old Jew, without any authority, added the word. He thought it too bad to begin to talk about the head! It read first, “The head one of the Gods brought forth the Gods.” That is the true meaning of the words. Baurau signifies to bring forth. If you do not believe it, you do not believe the learned man of God. Learned men can teach you no more than what I have told you. Thus, the head God brought forth the Gods in the grand style.
In the beginning, the head of the Gods called a council of the Gods; and they came together and concocted a plan to create the world and people it.
You ask the learned doctors why they say the world was made out of nothing; and they will answer, “Don’t the Bible say he created the world?” And they infer, from the word create, that it must have been made out of nothing. Now, the word create came from the word baurau, which does not mean to create out of nothing; it means to organize–the same as a man would organize materials and build a ship. Hence we infer that God had materials to organize the world out of chaos–chaotic matter, which is element, and in which dwells all the glory. Element had an existence from the time He had. . . .2
In a similar vein, Joseph Smith said:
. . . Paul says there are Gods many and Lords many; and that makes a plurality of Gods, in spite of the whims of all men. Without a revelation, I am not going to give them the knowledge of the God of heaven. You know and I testify that Paul had no allusion to the heathen gods. I have it from God, and get over it if you can. I have a witness of the Holy Ghost, and a testimony that Paul had no allusion to the heathen gods in the text. I will show from the Hebrew Bible that I am correct, and the first word shows a plurality of Gods; and I want the apostates and learned men to come here and prove to the contrary, if they can. An unlearned boy must give you a little Hebrew. Berosheit baurau Eloheim ait aushamayeen vehau auraits, rendered by King James’ translators, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” I want to analyze the word Berosheit. Rosh, the head; Sheit, a grammatical termination. The Baith was not originally put there when the inspired man wrote it, but it has been since added by an old Jew. Baurau signifies to bring forth; Eloheim is from the word Eloi, God, in the singular number; and by adding the word heim, it renders it Gods. It read first, “In the beginning the head of the Gods brought forth the Gods,” or, as others have translated it, “The head of the Gods called the Gods together.” . . . The head God organized the heaven and the earth. I defy all the world to refute me. In the beginning the heads of the Gods organized the heavens and the earth. Now the learned priests and the people rage, and the heathen imagine a vain thing. If we pursue the Hebrew text further, it reads, “Berosheit baurau Eloheim ait aashamayeen vehau auraits“-“The head one of the Gods said. Let us make a man in our own image.” I once asked a learned Jew, “If the Hebrew language compels us to render all word sending in heim in the plural, why not render the first Eloheim plural?” He replied, “That is the rule with few exceptions; but in this case it would ruin the Bible.” He acknowledged I was right. . . .3
Joseph Smith claimed that God Himself taught him that there is a plurality of Gods. He then states, “I will show you from the Hebrew Bible that I am correct, and the first word shows a plurality of Gods.”
In his attempt to show that the first word of the Bible, be-ray-sheet, indicates that there is a plurality of gods Smith actually proves the fallaciousness of his doctrine. To begin with, Smith’s transliteration of the Hebrew words of Genesis 1:1 betrays a flagrant lack of knowledge of the sound values of certain consonants and vowels (e.g., berosheit for be-ray-sheet, aushamayeen [alternately aashamayeen] for ha-sha-ma-yeem, vehau for ve-ayt, and auraits for ha’aretz).
On the basis of Smith’s own interpretation of the first verse of Genesis, one must reject his claim to divinely given knowledge of the plurality of gods doctrine or that this doctrine can be proved by reference to this verse. In his analysis of the first word of Genesis, be-ray-sheet, which Smith transliterates as berosheit, he reveals his lack of knowledge of the Hebrew language. He says that “When the inspired man wrote it, he did not put the Baith there. An old Jew, without any authority, added the word. He thought it too bad to begin to talk about the head! It read first, ‘The head one of the Gods brought forth the Gods.‘” How convenient to arbitrarily dismiss that which would interfere with ones explanation by ascribing it to an unidentified “old Jew.”
Throughout the centuries the Jewish people have transmitted the sacred text of the Torah with extreme care, so that not one letter should be changed, added, or deleted. When then could an unauthorized “old Jew” have made this change without causing protest over a spurious addition? Incidentally, the supposedly added “word” is not a word at all, but the single letter bet, which when prefixed to a word becomes the inseparable preposition “in.” Furthermore, if the affixing of this inseparable preposition is to be attributed to “an old Jew” why is Smith quoted in the History of the Church (see above) as saying of Genesis 1:1 that “It read first ‘In the beginning. . . .’” We must, therefore, conclude that Smith could not decide if “the inspired man” or “an old Jew” placed the prefix letter bet at the beginning of Genesis.
What is Smith’s source for this improbable tale about “an old Jew“? Why should this so-called “old Jew” even be concerned “about the head” being mentioned when in fact rosh, which is the Hebrew word for “head,” is not the proper pronunciation for the second syllable of the first word of Genesis? The second syllable should not be -rosh nor even -raysh, but simply -ray. There is no double shin in be-ray-sheet. The shin is the opening consonant of the last syllable -sheet. Smith calls the last syllable, which he transliterates as -sheit, a “grammatical termination.” However, no such “grammatical termination” exists in Hebrew. Properly, one can say that this word ends in the feminine singular construct ending -eet. If the text of Genesis 1:1 is rendered literally, the translation is: “In the beginning of God’s creating the heaven and the earth.” This translation is necessary because ray-sheet never means “the beginning” but rather “the beginning of” (cf. Genesis 10:10, Deuteronomy 18:4, Jeremiah 26:1). If the text were to be rendered: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” it would be necessary to write ba-ree-shonah, “at first,” rather than be-ray-sheet, which form occurs only in Scripture in the construct state.
Joseph Smith’s teaching that “Eloheim is from Eloi, God, in the singular number” further illustrates his unfamiliarity with the Hebrew language. The singular form of the noun “God” is ‘Eloha, not Eloi, which is not even a Hebrew word; ‘Eloi as used in Mark 15:34 means “my God” and may be a variant of the Aramaic ‘Elohi. Joseph Smith’s claim that the word ‘Elohim in Genesis 1:1, having a plural ending indicates that there are many gods is completely without merit. A careful investigation of the actual use of this word in the Scriptures will unequivocally show that ‘Elohim, while plural in form, is singular in concept. In biblical Hebrew, many singular abstractions are expressed in the plural form, for example, rachamim, “compassion” (Genesis 43:14, Deuteronomy 13:18); zequnim, “old age” (Genesis 21:2; 37:3, 44:20); n’urim, “youth” (Isaiah 54:6, Psalms 127:4). It is interesting to note that no less a Mormon authority than James E. Talmage, in his own writings, contradicted Smith’s rendering of the word ‘Elohim. “In form the word is a Hebrew plural noun; but it connotes the plurality of excellence or intensity, rather than distinctively of number. It is expressive of supreme or absolute exaltation and power. Elohim, as understood and used in the restored Church or Jesus Christ, is the name-title of God the Eternal Father. . . .“4
This understanding of the word is quite different from that of Smith’s who, in his ignorance of the Hebrew language, rendered ‘Elohim, in Genesis 1:1, as a plural. Scripture teaches us that ‘Elohim, which is the plural of majesty, is used not only in reference to God, but also for angels (divine beings) and human authorities of high stature in society. This can be clearly seen, for example, from the following usage. Manoach, the father of Samson (Judges 13:22), after seeing “an angel of the Lord,” said: “We shall surely die for we have seen ‘elohim.” Concerning human authority, we read in Exodus 22:8: “Both parties shall come before the ‘elohim [“judges”], and whom the ‘elohim [“judges”] shall condemn, he shall pay double to his neighbor.” It is, therefore, ludicrous to infer from ‘elohim, in the first verse of Genesis, the existence of a plurality of gods. Where is the plurality of persons when a single angel, referred to as ‘elohim, visited Manoach? How can the Mormon Church explain the words of the woman to Saul when, upon seeing Samuel, she explained: “I see ‘elohim coming out of the earth” (1 Samuel 28:13)? Although ‘elohim is followed by the verb in the plural, it refers to only a single individual as is clearly seen from verse 14: “And he said to her: ‘What is his appearance?’ And she said: ‘An old man is coming up; and he is wrapped in a robe.‘” Thus, even with a plural verb this noun may still refer to a single individual.
In Genesis 1:1 the verb bara, “he created,” in the singular, preceding ‘Elohim, contradicts positing a plurality of gods. That the singular form ‘Eloha and the plural form ‘Elohim are identical, when referring to the God of Israel , can be seen from their interchangeable use in Isaiah. In Isaiah 44:6 we read: “Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel, and his Redeemer the Lord of hosts: I am the first, and I am the last, and besides Me there is no God [‘Elohim].” This is followed in verse 8 by: “Is there a God [‘Eloha] beside Me?” If the truth of the doctrine of a plurality of gods depends in any measure on the plurality in form of the noun ‘Elohim, the use of ‘Eloha, the singular of the noun, within the same context, most decidedly disproves it. The underlying reason for the grammatically plural form ‘Elohim is to indicate the all-inclusiveness of God’s authority as possessing every conceivable attribute of power.
The use of the plural for such a purpose is not limited merely to ‘Elohim, but also applies to other words of profound significance. For instance, Isaiah 19:4 uses ‘adonim (“lords“) instead of ‘adon (“lord“): “Into the hand of a cruel lord” (literally “lords,” even though referring to one person), and Exodus 21:29: “Its owner [literally, be’alav, “its owners“] also shall be put to death.” ‘Elohim means “gods” only when the Scriptures apply this plural word to the pagan deities. The pagan Philistines applied the title ‘elohim to their god Dagon (Judges 16:23-24, 1 Samuel 5:7). The Moabites, likewise, used the word ‘elohim to describe their god Chemosh (Judges 11:24). That the plural form of ‘Elohim does not at all imply a plurality of gods is a fact attested to by the ancient Greek version of the Scriptures, the Septuagint, which renders ‘Elohim with the singular title ho Theos (“the God“).
The Book of Mormon gives evidence that Joseph Smith apparently learned about the functioning of the masculine plural ending -im, which he renders as -heim, some time after his alleged translation of that book. Hebrew masculine plurals generally end in -im. To add an -s to such words when introducing them into English is incorrect. For example, the Hebrew noun keruvim may be written in English as cherubim or even cherubs, but never cherubims. The noun cherubim is already in the plural form (cherub in the singular). To add an -s to it would be similar to the adding of an -s to the word children. The noun cherubim appears three times in modem editions of the Book of Mormon (Alma 12:21, 42:2-3), and is used correctly. However, in the first edition of the Book of Mormon the word appeared in all three places as cherubims, with the -s improperly added.5 Two of the changes were made prior to the 1888 edition, however, Alma 12:21 of the 1888 edition still retained the word cherubims and was apparently changed at some later date. Similarly, the plural of seraph is seraphim. Seraphim appears twice in the Book of Mormon (2 Nephi 16:2, 6). While it is used correctly in modern editions, in the first edition it appears improperly as seraphims.6 The 1877 edition of the Book of Mormon reads, at 2 Nephi 16:2, 6, the same as the 1830 edition, therefore, the changes must have been made at a later date. The appearance of these two erroneous plural forms in the first edition of the Book of Mormon should come as no great surprise.
Smith, as we have seen above, had little, if any, knowledge of Hebrew language and grammar. In writing the Book of Mormon, assuming he is the author, Smith relied heavily on the King James Version of the Bible, where these two nouns are erroneously rendered as cherubims (for example, Genesis 3:24) and seraphims (for example, Isaiah 6:2). All said, Smith shows himself to have been a fraud who misled his followers with fanciful renderings of Scripture.
1 Joseph Fielding Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1958, p. 327.
2 Joseph Smith, Journal of Discourses, Liverpool: F.D. Richards, vol. 6 (1844), pp. 4-6.
3 Joseph Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed., B.H. Roberts, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, vol. 6, 1976 p. 475.
4 Talmage, Jesus the Christ, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1962, p. 38.
5 See the first edition of the Book of Mormon, pp. 256, 337, 338.
6 See the first edition of the Book of Mormon, p. 91, lines 28 and 38.