The Sermon on the Mount: Plagiarism, Discipleship, and Reconciliation

As a student of Book of Mormon and someone who has shared it with others many times, I’ve asked and been asked many questions about the Book of Mormon. One of these questions is why several portions of the book simply repeat portions of the King James Version of the Bible. This week’s Come Follow Me reading – 3 Nephi 12-14 – is a prime example.

These chapters are part of what the introduction to the Book of Mormon describes as the “crowning event” of the book: the resurrected Jesus Christ visiting the people in the Americas. These chapters are remarkably like Matthew 5-7.

Before my answer, a caveat. I am not a biblical scholar. Take this post as a beginning, not an end. I choose to live my life by teachings found in the Book of Mormon, so I have spent time thinking about the issue, but these thoughts are likely to be incomplete.

A question of translation

Growing up with the Book of Mormon, I had no issues with the repetition. It makes sense that Christ, as God of the whole earth, has a similar message for all his children, no matter where they lived. The Nephites had as much need of the words of Isaiah, Malachi, and Christ as the Jews and Old World Christians.

This still leaves the problem of mistranslations and additions. Over the centuries, translators made errors and some things were added to later manuscripts. One example is the doxology. This phrase is found at the end of the Lord’s Prayer in the King James Version: “for thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.” Matt. 6:13. The earliest manuscripts of Matthew don’t contain this phrase, leading biblical scholars to think it was a later addition. It is, however, in the Book of Mormon.

If Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon from ancient sources into English, why does it contain phrases from English translations centuries after the New Testament was recorded?

If Joseph Smith had claimed to have written a word-for-word translation, then I wouldn’t expect KJV phrases to have made it into the work. But he made no such claim. He claimed to have made the translation with the help of God. So, one conclusion you can arrive at is that the added phrases were familiar to Joseph Smith and acceptable to God.

In a sense, Joseph Smith himself was the translation tool. He had grown up reading the King James Version, so the phrases it contained became part of the Book of Mormon. If Joseph Smith had grown up with the RSV, then I assume that the phrases it contains would be in the Book of Mormon.

For heavily studied texts, even one word begins to hold immense significance. And so some probably find my answer unsatisfactory. However, I only have so much time, so I consider this question answered to my own satisfaction and move on to the next.

Evidence of priority and a call to discipleship

That question is: why didn’t Jesus give the people something different? I believe this repetition indicates two things: 1) that these lessons are important and 2) that Christ wants all people to be his disciples.

So what is in this important call to discipleship?

  • The beatitudes. Christ lists people are blessed: the poor in spirit, the meek, the mourning, the peacemakers, the merciful, the pure in heart, the persecuted believers.
  • Disciples are meant to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
  • Those who love Christ will keep his commandments.
  • Believers will seek to live the spirit of the law, which requires doing good beyond the letter of the law and the expectations of society.
  • Seeking the welfare of others and the blessings of heaven instead of the treasures on earth.
  • The way we live is evidence of who we are.
  • Jesus invites his disciples to be perfect as He or our Father in heaven is perfect (interestingly, in the Matthew version he only lists Father in heaven). This is quite the challenge. We must be perfect as God.

To be a disciple is to learn, as its Latin root implies. These few chapters provide a great deal of learning. Even without the rest of scripture, there is a lifetime worth of learning here. As I strive to be a Christian – or a disciple of Christ – I strive to be poor in spirit, meek, mournful, a peacemaker, merciful. I strive to be the salt of the earth and a light – making the lives of those around me better and brighter. I strive to keep God’s commandments, which includes not speaking angry words, not lusting, and reconciling with my brother. I strive to seek the treasures of heaven before those of earth, meaning (partly) that I do all these things without seeking praise from others.

One teaching that stands out is Christ’s invitation to reconcile with our brother. I’ve heard and seen friendships and family relationships broken by today’s politics. While Christ did invite his followers to leave behind family to follow him, he also gave them this instruction. It is clear to me that if there is a choice between doing what is right or preserving a relationship, we should choose what is right. But sometimes doing right is setting aside our greater priority for a time and preserving that relationship.

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