Behold, I say unto you, Nay.

Motivated in part by my correspondence with Bruce Charlton, who holds the book in high esteem, I recently reread the entire Book of Mormon for the first time in about 12 years. Where my past readings of the book had always been slow and drawn-out, a chapter or two a day, this time I read the whole thing in two weeks — and did most of that reading in two (non-consecutive) days, during two long flights between Taiwan and the United States.

Reading the whole book in such a short period of time, you naturally notice things you wouldn’t otherwise about the structure and unity of the book as a whole. One little thing that caught my attention this time was a rhetorical device which is virtually absent from the Bible but which appears again and again throughout the Book of Mormon: rhetorical yes/no questions which the speaker or writer answers himself with “(Behold,) I say unto you, Yea/Nay.”


Given how closely the diction of the Book of Mormon is patterned after that of the King James Bible, it is somewhat surprising that this particular formula doesn’t appear in the KJV at all. The closest it comes is “I tell you, Nay,” which is used three times by Luke’s Jesus (Luke 12:51; 13:3, 5). Jeremiah also twice answers a rhetorical question with a simply “nay,” with nothing corresponding to “I say unto you” (Jeremiah 6:15; 8:12). Unless I’ve missed something, nowhere else in the entire Bible does a speaker or writer answer his own yes/no questions. (In fact, the words yea and nay in general occur far less frequently in the Bible than in the Book of Mormon. As a proportion of the total number of words in the book, nay is 2.3 times more frequent in the BoM than in the KJV, and yea is a whopping 10.7 times more frequent — making the latter even more characteristic of BoM language than the infamous “it came to pass,” for which the figure is 8.8.)

In the Book of Mormon, on the other hand, rhetorical questions followed by “(Behold,) I say unto you Yea/Nay” occur 33 times — recorded by at least 5 different writers and attributed to 12 different speakers spanning the entire thousand-year history of the Nephites.

No. Speaker References
8 Nephi 1 Ne. 15:16; 17:33, 34. 2 Ne. 26:25-28; 31:19
1 Jacob Jacob 2:14
1 Jarom Jarom 1:2
1 King Benjamin Mosiah 5:14
3 Abinadi Mosiah 12:37; 13:26, 32
10 Alma the Younger Alma 5:8, 9, 25; 7:17; 32:18, 29, 31, 35, 36; 42:25
2 Amulek Alma 11:24; 34:11
2 Ammon Alma 26:31, 33
1 Captain Moroni Alma 60:23
1 Jesus Christ 3 Nephi 12:26
1 Moroni Mormon 9:15
2 Mormon Moroni 7:29, 37

The prevalence of this structure throughout the book could be seen as a small piece of evidence that it is the work of one person (Joseph Smith) rather than of several different writers who lived hundreds of years apart. This fact that the structure also occurs in Joseph Smith’s own writings (see Doctrine & Covenants 84:59; 132:35) lends support to this interpretation.

Alternatively, for believers in the historicity of the book, the structure could be seen as a rhetorical device which became conventional among the Nephites — apparently originating with Nephi himself and subsequently imitated by his descendants down through the centuries. By the first century, it was apparently so well entrenched that Jesus himself felt the need to insert it into the Sermon on the Mount in order to meet the rhetorical expectations of his Nephite audience.


Filed under Book of Mormon

3 responses to “Behold, I say unto you, Nay.

  1. “Bruce Charlton, who holds the book in high esteem” – I’m sorry if I gave the wrong impression, but I hardly know the Book of Mormon (although I picked up a second copy, secondhand and very cheap, just today). Indeed, I hardly know the Old Testament part of the Bible.

    It takes me an awfully long time – I mean years – properly to read, let alone get to know, this kind of text. I have only been a Christian of any kind of activity for four and some years. I am certainly working on these matters, but there is a long way to go.

    My evaluation of the BoM is at a broad brush level – based on sampling – that it is an astonishing thing for a semi-literate and uneducated man (or indeed anyone) to have dictated in a few months. And indeed as a thing in itself (aside from the speed of production) it is very remarkable – especially for its structure and blend of content; it seems quite distinctive in form, probably unique.

    I have read parts of it, and seen the chidlren’s story versions of the whole BoM on, and also have listened to some chunks read out on – but I don’t suppose my direct experience would amount to more than half the text. Obviously I am not even in the same ballpark as you in terms of the BoM!

    That aside, I don’t really think this approach can establish the status of the book either way – obviously it advertizes itself as a translation, and all translations are of their time and bear the imprint of the translator.

    As to the factuality of the BoM, my understanding is that there is essentially no positive evidence for it, but that (with various caveats and approximations, such as would apply to the Old Testament) it cannot be proven that the events of the BoM did *not* happen – in general or in essence. Which would seem to suffice for a scripture.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Bruce.

    The fact that the BoM is meant to be a translation does complicate matters, but I think this type of linguistic analysis still has a place. The reason I chose a rhetorical device, rather than a more word or expression, is that I would expect this sort of thing to be conserved in any reasonably faithful translation. Something like “it came to pass” can be seen as an artifact of translation, since it has no real meaning in itself and could be added to a translated text without compromising its correctness. However, it seems to me that rhetorical questions-and-answers should occur in a translated text only if they were present in the original. Can you imagine a legitimate translation of the Bible adding dozens of instances of this rhetorical device to the text? I suppose it is just possible (“Behold, do men light a candle and put it under a bushel? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; but on a candlestick…” would perhaps pass muster), but it would be pushing the limits of what counts as a translation.

    As for the evidence against the BoM’s historicity, there is quite a lot of it. The biggest problem is that the land described in the BoM does not really match the Americas or any part thereof. The most popular theory — that it took place in Mesoamerica, with the Isthmus of Tehuantepec filling the role of the “narrow neck of land” — depends on the assumption that when the text says north it actually means “west” and that the other points of the compass have been similarly rotated nearly 90 degrees! The BoM is also full of such things as horses and chariots, steel swords, etc., which are unattested in pre-Columbian America. Believers either must assume that they did exist (and later disappeared leaving no evidence at all), or they must reinterpret the words of the text so that horse means “tapir,” steel means “volcanic glass,” and so on. One author has gone so far as to hypothesize that the BoM actually took place on the Malay Peninsula, that being the only place on earth that matches the geographic features, animals, and technologies described in the book! The other main line of evidence against the BoM is the fact that it quotes extensively from portions of the Bible which would have been unavailable to the Nephites. (I discussed one example of this in a recent post; there are many, many more.)

    • I regard all this as data rather than proof – in the sense that the BoM works as scripture, and is regarded as true by many intelligent and informed people. What this makes me think is not that they are mistaken, but what truth means. It does mean something, and what that is is real truth (correspondence with reality – which means there is real reality) – but clearly it is not the kind of truth that is dependent upon point-by-point correspondence of a long text (far, far too long and complex for most people ever to be able to hold in mind at once) with the latest discoveries of ‘science’. I don’t suppose effective (and true) scripture ever has worked that way.

      But an addition fascination for the BoM is that it was actually written, published and disseminated under precisely this kind of scrutiny!

      And yet despite, or because?, of this, has become the basis of the most successful religion to emerge since, well what, Islam maybe?

      As I have said – my scientific background leads me to a much more broad brush approach to truth – a kind of ‘overall truth’ in which it is accepted that many details don’t add up or clash with what is currently known. This is the case for all scientific theories (at least, all living scintifici theories) so it is what I have come to expect.

      I remain convinced that there is some great truth in Joseth Smith’s Mormonism, and in the late Nauvoo form of it (because the Restored Mormons just blended back into Liberal Christianity) – I;m not sure whether it was one thing, or several things – but my assumption is initially that it is one thing from which all else follows. At present I am inclined to think it was the theology – as described by McMurrin (although that is not sufficient, since McMurrin understood it but did not believe it – it may nevertheless be the single necessary basis).

      (Apologies – I cannot properly proof read this comment on the computer I am working on – nor even scroll back to look at it: I hope it is understandable.)

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