Book of Mormon/Translation/Method/Mainly italics altered

Modification of the italicized text in Book of Mormon Biblical passages

Question: What do the italicized words in the Bible represent, and why is it relevant to the Book of Mormon?

Italicized text is used in some Bible translations to indicate when a word has been "added" because of necessity of English grammar

Often, the italicized word is a word which is implied in the original Greek or Hebrew text, but must be explicitly used in English. It is claimed by some that Joseph Smith was aware of this, and while copying the KJV passages, tended to alter the italicized words to make it look more like a translation.

Some members accept the possibility that the italicized words are often altered "intentionally," but disagree with what this means about the translation. They do not see it as threatening Joseph's inspiration, the divine nature of the translation, or the reality of an ancient text on the plates. Others hold that there is no evidence that Joseph even had access to a Bible, nor that he was aware of the italics' meaning.

Either option is a viable response, and each has its strengths and weaknesses. Hopefully more data will be forthcoming to help resolve the issue, that we might better understand the translation process of the Book of Mormon.

Question: Did Joseph know what the italics in the Bible meant?

Joseph didn't even know that Jerusalem had walls around it. His basic knowledge of the Bible was limited

Just as there is no evidence that Joseph owned a Bible, there is even less that he had any knowledge of what the italicized words in the translation meant. Emma made Joseph's early ignorance crystal clear:

When he stopped for any purpose at any time he would, when he commenced again, begin where he left off without any hesitation, and one time while he was translating he stopped suddenly, pale as a sheet, and said, ‘Emma, did Jerusalem have walls around it?’ When I answered, ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘Oh! [I didn’t know.] I was afraid I had been deceived.’ He had such a limited knowledge of history at that time that he did not even know that Jerusalem was surrounded by walls.[1]

If Joseph didn't know this, how do the critics expect that he knew what the italics in a Bible (which he likely did not own) meant? This is something which many modern Bible readers do not know. However, one cannot conclude with certainty that Joseph did not understand what the italicized words meant. Some LDS scholars believe that he did.

Furthermore, italicization patterns varied between Bibles, and an analysis of Joseph's Book of Mormon "changes" to the KJV concluded that changes to the italics were not a determining factor.[2]

Question: Could Joseph have used a Bible during and simply dictated from it during Book of Mormon translation?

Nobody ever reported seeing a Bible, because Joseph was looking at the stone in the hat in full view of witnesses

The witnesses of the translation are unanimous that Joseph did not have a book or papers, and could not have concealed them if he did have. Since much of the translation was done via Joseph's seer stone placed into his hat to exclude the light, it is not clear how the critics believe Joseph concealed a Bible or notes in the hat, and then read them in the dark.

Emma Smith described this portion of the translation:

Q — [Joseph Smith III]. What is the truth of Mormonism?
A — [Emma]. I know Mormonism to be the truth; and believe the church to have been established by divine direction. I have complete faith in it. In writing for your father I frequently wrote day after day, often sitting at the table close by him, he sitting with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us.
Q —. Had he not a book or manuscript from which he read, or dictated to you?
A —. He had neither manuscript or book to read from.
Q —. Could he not have had, and you not know it?
A. — If he had anything of the kind he could not have concealed it from me.
Q. — Could not father have dictated the Book of Mormon to you, Oliver Cowdery and the others who wrote for him, after having first written it, or having first read it out of some book?
A. — Joseph Smith could neither write nor dictate a coherent and wellworded letter; let alone dictating a book like the Book of Mormon. And, though I was an active participant in the scenes that transpired, . . . it is marvelous to me, “a marvel and a wonder,” as much so as to any one else.[3]

Question: Did Joseph own a Bible at the time of the Book of Mormon translation?

There is no evidence that Joseph owned a Bible during the Book of Mormon translation

The difficult financial circumstances of Joseph's family during the Book of Mormon translation are well known.[4] There is no evidence that Joseph owned a Bible during the Book of Mormon translation.[5] In fact, Oliver would later purchase a Bible for Joseph, who used it in producing his revision of the Bible (which became known as the Joseph Smith Translation). This purchase occurred on 8 October 1829, from the same printer that was then setting the type for the already-translated Book of Mormon.[6] Why would Joseph, poor as he was, get a Bible if he already owned one?

Question: Why does 2 Nephi 19:1 change the word "sea" in Isaiah 9 to "Red Sea"?

Joseph deleted the word "her" and added the word "Red" to the quote of Isaiah 9 in the Book of Mormon

Although the King James Version of the bible contains the word "her" in Isaiah 9, the standard Masoretic Hebrew (MT) text from which the KJV derived does not contain this word. Therefore, this particular change by Joseph matches the original text more precisely than the KJV does. John Tvedtnes explains:

9:1 (MT 8:23) = 2 Ne. 19:1

KJV: "afflict her by the way of the sea"

BM: "afflict by the way of the Red Sea"

The deletion of italicized "her" is understandable, since it is not in MT. (I) However, BM [Book of Mormon] must be wrong in speaking of the "RED Sea", which is certainly not "beyond Jordan, in Galilee", nor near the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali. This appears to be a case of scribal over-correction, due to prior mention of the Red Sea in the BM text.[7]

In other words, Tvedtnes suggests that the addition of the word "red" is an example of Oliver Cowdery "over-hearing" (hearing "sea" and adding "red" in error).

Jeff Lindsay: "there are a couple of reasonable possibilities consistent with the concept of the Book of Mormon being an authentic ancient text translated by divine aid (but still going through fallible human hands in the process)"

The following response is provided by Jeff Lindsay,

In the Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 19:1 reads:

Nevertheless, the dimness shall not be such as was in her vexation, when at first he lightly afflicted the land of Zebulun, and the land of Naphtali, and afterwards did more grievously afflict by the way of the Red Sea beyond Jordan in Galilee of the nations. [emphasis added]

This verse is a quotation of Isaiah 9:1, which reads in the KJV as follows:

Nevertheless the dimness shall not be such as was in her vexation, when at the first he lightly afflicted the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, and afterward did more grievously afflict her by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, in Galilee of the nations.

The Book of Mormon deletes "her" from the KJV and changes "sea" to "Red Sea." Based on verse 1 in light of verse 2 from Isaiah, many people conclude that the sea is the Sea of Galilee, not the Red Sea. The KJV for Isaiah 9:2 is:

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.

So yes, these verses do appear to be a prophecy of the ministry of Christ, and the Sea of Galilee would make sense. So why does the Book of Mormon have the puzzling reference to the Red Sea? Here is a possible explanation offered by D. Charles Pyle in e-mail received June 2004:

There are those who say that this is an error. It is possible that it is a scribal error on the part of Oliver Cowdery in copying the printer's manuscript from the original manuscript. The problem is that this cannot be proven or disproven because this portion of the original manuscript no longer is extant. It also is possible that the Egyptian textual translation of the Hebrew is in error and that Joseph Smith translated it, error and all. On the other hand, it also is possible that it is not an error at all.

The King's Highway also was part of what was known in ancient times as the Way of the Red Sea, which led out of Egypt along the shores of the Red Sea, passed through Edom and changed direction after meeting with the Way of the Sea, in Galilee, to go into Mesopotamia. It is possible that Joseph journeyed this way, or at least part of this way, to avoid going through Judaea when he took Jesus into Nazareth as a young child. If so, it would be quite correct in that the light would pass into the region of Naphtali via the Way of the Red Sea. Joseph sought to avoid contact with Archelaus and a back route would be one of the best ways to avoid contact.

We also know that Jesus went into the wilderness for his temptation after being baptized in a region on the other side of the Jordan. The English Book of Mormon has Bethabara as do several versions of the Bible while [several other translations have] Bethany beyond Jordan. He would then have come down from Galilee to be baptized on the other side of the Jordan (east of the river; 'beyond Jordan' meant to the east of the Jordan River), and come down around the Way of the Red Sea and around the Dead Sea to the Wilderness of Judaea. Remember, Jesus' wandered the wilderness for forty days, plenty of time to travel around the Dead Sea in that manner, that region being one the most inhospitable in the main. There are possible hints that Jesus came through Edom or Idumea. One way that he could have done so is to travel the Way of the Red Sea, which passes through Edom. The records of Jesus' life and travels are scanty at best and it is impossible to know for certainty at this time. In any case, I am not willing to state without good evidence that this passage is in error with any degree of certainty, for in my opinion there is no certainty either way. I have sifted through much contradictory 'evidence' and have formed no solid conclusion on this textual matter.

Bottom line: we're not really sure, but there are a couple of reasonable possibilities consistent with the concept of the Book of Mormon being an authentic ancient text translated by divine aid (but still going through fallible human hands in the process). There is a plausible basis from the ancient world for referring to the sea as the Red Sea. On the other hand, if Joseph were relying on his knowledge of the Bible and fabricating the text, changing "sea" to "Red Sea" would make no sense. What would motivate a Bible literate fabricator to make such a change?[8]

Barney: "three types of evidence favoring the conclusion that Joseph understood the meaning of the italicized words"

Some LDS scholars do believe that Joseph may have understood the meaning italicized words. Kevin Barney: [9]

I think there are basically three types of evidence favoring the conclusion that Joseph understood the meaning of the italicized words. First, and most importantly, is the distribution of the variants in Joseph’s inspired translations, which show a clear (though by no means absolute) tendency to revolve around the italicized words. Skousen and Wright agree roughly on this distribution, which is somewhere in the neighborhood of 30%, give or take, but they draw different conclusions from it. My experience spending a fair amount of time examining variants is that the italics were a significant factor.

Second is the practice of often crossing out italicized words in the “marked Bible” used as an aid in preparing the JST. Anyone with access to the critical text can see this phenomenon for herself, since they have actual pictures of the marked Bible text.

Third are near-contemporary statements from Joseph’s milieu evincing a familiarity with the purpose of the italics. A prominent example is this from a W.W. Phelps editorial in the Evening and Morning Star (January 1833):

The book of Mormon, as a revelation from God, possesses some advantage over the old scripture: it has not been tinctured by the wisdom of man, with here and there an Italic word to supply deficiencies.—It was translated by the gift and power of God.[10]

Ensign (Sept. 1977): "If his translation was essentially the same as that of the King James version, he apparently quoted the verse from the Bible"

Richard Lloyd Anderson (Ensign, September 1977):

In fact, the language in the sections of the Book of Mormon that correspond to parts of the Bible is quite regularly selected by Joseph Smith, rather than obtained through independent translation. For instance, there are over 400 verses in which the Nephite prophets quote from Isaiah, and half of these appear precisely as the King James version renders them. Summarizing the view taken by Latter-day Saint scholars on this point, Daniel H. Ludlow emphasizes the inherent variety of independent translation and concludes: “There appears to be only one answer to explain the word-for-word similarities between the verses of Isaiah in the Bible and the same verses in the Book of Mormon.” That is simply that Joseph Smith must have opened Isaiah and tested each mentioned verse by the Spirit: “If his translation was essentially the same as that of the King James version, he apparently quoted the verse from the Bible.” [11] Thus the Old Testament passages from Isaiah display a particular choice of phraseology that suggests Joseph Smith’s general freedom throughout the Book of Mormon for optional wording. [12]


  1. Joseph Smith III, “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints’ Advocate 2 (Oct. 1879): 51.
  2. See "Italics in the King James Bible," in Royal Skousen, "Critical Methodology and the Text of the Book of Mormon (Review of New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology by Brent Lee Metcalfe)," FARMS Review of Books 6/1 (1994): 121–144. off-site
  3. Edmund C. Briggs, “A Visit to Nauvoo in 1856,” Journal of History (Jan. 1916): 454; cited in Russell M. Nelson, "A Treasured Testament," Ensign 23 no. 7 (July 1993), 62.
  4. Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana and Chicago, Illinois: University of Illinois Press; Reprint edition, 1987), 95–100. ISBN 0252060121.
  5. Matthew Roper, "A Black Hole That's Not So Black (Review of Answering Mormon Scholars: A Response to Criticism of the Book, vol. 1 by Jerald and Sandra Tanner)," FARMS Review of Books 6/2 (1994): 156–203. off-site See also John A. Tvedtnes and Matthew Roper, "Joseph Smith's Use of the Apocrypha: Shadow or Reality? (Review of Joseph Smith's Use of the Apocrypha by Jerald and Sandra Tanner)," FARMS Review of Books 8/2 (1996): 326–372. off-site
  6. Robert J. Matthews, A Plainer Translation": Joseph Smith's Translation of the Bible: A History and Commentary (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1985), 26; cited in footnote 165 of John Gee, "La Trahison des Clercs: On the Language and Translation of the Book of Mormon (Review of New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology by Brent Lee Metcalfe)," FARMS Review of Books 6/1 (1994): 51–120. off-site
  7. John Tvedtnes, "The Isaiah Variants in the Book of Mormon," FARMS Preliminary Reports (1981).
  8. Jeff Lindsay, "Why does 2 Nephi 19:1 incorrectly change 'sea' in Isaiah 9 to 'Red Sea'?", LDS FAQ: Mormon Answers.
  9. Kevin Barney, "KJV Italics," (13 October 2007)
  10. W.W. Phelps, The Evening and the Morning Star (January 1833)
  11. Daniel H. Ludlow, A Companion to Your Study of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), p. 141.
  12. Richard Lloyd Anderson, "By the Gift and Power of God," Ensign (September 1977).