Wednesday, 23 February 2011
A Mormon Besom
2011 marks the four-hundredth anniversary of the King James Bible, which, along with the works of Shakespeare, played an important role in the codification of early Modern English.
We sometimes encounter Bible pastiche as satire, but by far the longest and most influential example of the genre is Joseph Smith Jr.'s Book of Mormon (The Blether Region assumes here that most readers are not themselves latter-day saints and hopes that terming the work "pastiche" will not cause offence). Smith claimed he had translated the work from the "Reformed Egyptian" language of antique plates that he had discovered — they subsequently disappeared — and that the third testament to which they amounted was a literal historical record of a part of the Jewish people that had found their way to the New World. Critics have pointed out that no trace of the civilisation that they describe has ever been uncovered in America, and the book also mentions a host of animals either never present there or recently introduced by European settlers.
Be that as it may, Smith's literary achievement in the Book of Mormon is immense, so much so that Penguin Classics even publishes an edition. Consider the following from the First Book of Nephi, chapter 1, verses 140-1:
140 And it came to pass that Zoram did take courage at the words which I spake.
141 Now Zoram was the name of the servant; and he promised that he would go down into the wilderness unto our father.
Just as happens in the King James Version, there is a belletristic non sequitur (they obviously had different literary standards in the Bronze Age). First a character — with a convincingly Hebrew-sounding name — is mentioned as if we already know him, then we are told who he is, but he is referred to with the definite article.
The Blether Region previously posted on the word besom, which is used in the King James Version. It also appears in the Second Book of Nephi, chapter 10, verse 45:
45 I will also make it a possession for the bittern, and pools of water: and I will sweep it with the besom of destruction, saith the Lord of hosts.
This is word for word what appears in Isaiah, chapter 14, verse 23. No surprise there, readers will say; if Smith did not copy the verse directly, he had probably learnt it by heart as part of Bible study. More intriguingly, exactly as in the King James Version, in the Book of Mormon the word besom appears exactly once. Smith could have had access to Cruden's Concordance, but the Blether Region likes to think that he was a sufficiently good scholar of the King James Version to know himself.
Of course, if one takes Communism to be one of the world's great religions, as some have claimed, then Karl Marx's Das Kapital must have been a more influential "Bible" than the Book of Mormon. In 2011, however, with Communism discredited, it looks like Mormonism has the brighter future — a faith with 14 million adherents that looks set to gain many more.