Many people find problematic the extent to which the Book of Mormon quotes the King James Version of the Bible, because this practice can make the Book of Mormon look more like a cobbled-together 19th-century text than a translation of an ancient artifact (bearing in mind Joseph Smith’s idiosyncratic usage of “translation”). Without claiming to offer a solution to this conundrum, I’d like to put forward an 1820s analogue, in which the translator of a recently recovered text relied uncritically on the King James Version, in the process masking some interesting details of the scriptural text presented.
This analogue is a Latin theological treatise, De doctrina Christiana, generally attributed to John Milton, but unpublished in his lifetime. For complex reasons, the manuscript of this treatise ended up among various state papers in a cupboard at Whitehall, where Robert Lemon, sr., discovered it in 1823. The editing and translation of this treatise soon garnered royal support, and the task fell to Charles Richard Sumner, Cambridge graduate and soon-to-be bishop of Winchester.
Apparently feeling some urgency, Sumner worked quickly, staying up nights with a wet rag on his forehead and copious amounts of green tea to hand—in the end taking only fifteen months to translate 745 manuscript pages (a feat not too dissimilar to Joseph’s). Because approximately half of the manuscript consists of scriptural citations, an obvious shortcut suggested itself: much easier to look up a verse in the KJV than to translate it fresh, so this is what Sumner did. His editions of the treatise in both Latin and English were published in 1825. (The BYU library has a copy of the English volume.)
The problems with Sumner’s approach have subsequently become apparent. In 2012, Oxford published a new edition of the treatise as volume VIII in The Complete Works of John Milton (still in progress). One of the editors, J. Donald Cullington, checked each of the Latin citations against other Latin translations of the Bible available at the time. In most instances, the citations accorded with the Old Testament of Franciscus Junius and Immanuel Tremellius or the New Testament of Theodore Beza, but in a few cases it seems that Milton decided that he could do a better job of rendering the Greek or Hebrew than his predecessors had. Cullington records several such instances in the Oxford index—but he also translates Milton’s Latin rather than relying on any existing translation, whereas Sumner leaves these Miltonic renderings indistinguishable from any others.
If such instances indicate some of the trouble in Sumner’s reliance on the KJV, the rabbit hole goes deeper still, for in select cases, Milton decides that the “external scripture” (about whose textual corruption he complains) isn’t good enough, so he turns to the “internal scripture” of the spirit, which authorizes him to render some passages in ways at odds with any scholarly precedent, including the original languages. Significantly, one of these instances occurs in the chapter on Christian Liberty (Book 1 Chapter 27), where Milton renders Romans 12:2 as follows: “et ne conformemini huic seculo, sed transformemini renovatione mentis vestrae ad explorandum quaenam sit voluntas Dei illa bona et accepta, & perfecta [Oxford trans: And do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind for exploring what exactly God's will is: that good and acceptable and perfect [will].]”
Among the many things that Milton does in rendering this verse, two are significant for our purposes. First, “accepta” hints at the “acceptable” of the KJV, against the Vulgate’s beneplacens or Beza’s placens. So even Milton leaned on the KJV sometimes. Second is “ad explorandum,” which is a bigger deal. Latin has no way of reproducing the grammar of the Greek purposive expression eis to dokimazein humas, where humas is the subject of the infinitive, but ut probetis (the rendering in both Beza and the Vulgate) seems to me like the most straightforward way of doing it: a basic subjunctive purpose clause, with the pronoun implied by the verb. Milton’s formulation drops the pronoun altogether, resulting in a less personal, more generalized purpose to the transformation being urged. Then there is the choice of word. Probo pretty directly captures the idea of testing or trying conveyed by the Greek, and while exploro can also have this meaning, its primary sense has more to do with searching than with testing. So Milton is subtly shifting the scriptural sense in a direction reminiscent of the “Nation … so prone to seek after knowledge” portrayed in Areopagitica, a place where people are both “searching” and “trying all things.”
Thus, Sumner’s reliance on the KJV really does leave some riches buried—among them, ironically, a sign of Milton’s own use of it. What, then, of the analogue to the Book of Mormon? Closer scrutiny of Milton’s Latin reveals some commonalities between his practice as a translator and Joseph’s: in many instances, a received version was adequate to the job, while others called for a spiritual intervention. (Joseph, in fairness, seems to have intervened in this way with much greater frequency than Milton.)
Even so, with the Book of Mormon we do not have the option of peeling back Joseph’s layer of mediation, as we do with Sumner’s, so as to probe and re-translate the text in the manner of the new Oxford De doctrina Christiana. It seems to me, however, that in using the familiar language of the KJV the Book of Mormon makes its departures from received scriptural texts more transparent than they would have been had Joseph produced a fresh “translation.” While people like me might revel in the opportunities for textual criticism that such a translation would provide, the Book of Mormon presents a text that could readily be compared with a book that many 19th-century Americans already owned. This democratizing detail is, I believe, quite significant in its own right.
Having said that, though, the realities of a global church and the general supercession of the KJV in the Anglophone world by more reliable translations make this ready parallel less useful now that it was in 19th-century America. In the absence of an original, perhaps it would have been nice after all if Joseph had translated all of the Book of Mormon’s scriptural quotations instead of leaning on the KJV quite so heavily as he seems to have done.
Note: the controversy over the authorship of De doctrina Christiana is too complicated to go into here, so I’ll refer interested readers to Gordon Campbell et al., Milton and the Manuscript of “De doctrina Christiana” (Oxford, 2007). Milton’s version of Romans 12:2 appears on MS 333 (p. 718 in the Oxford edition). The quotation from Areopagitica can be found on p. 31 of the 1644 printing (available on the subscription database Early English Books Online; the text can be read for free here).