Finding Biblical Hebrew and Other Ancient Literary Forms in the Book of Mormon

The late Hugh W. Pinnock of the Seventy has produced a conveniently organized handbook of literary devices used in the Book of Mormon. Building on John Welch’s and Donald Parry’s work on literary forms in scripture, the book begins with a short introduction to a wide array of Hebrew writing forms, including material on the difficulty of translating any ancient text in general and of translating rhetorical forms specifically. The remaining three chapters treat individual forms, classified as “forms of repetition,” “forms of parallelism,”and “miscellaneous forms.” Each of these chapters is divided into short sections illustrating various ancient rhetorical devices (for example, anaphora, epistrophe, polysyndeton, chiasmus, and so on). Individual sections define the term and give illustrative examples from the Bible and Book of Mormon. “Anaphora,” for example, is defined as “repetition of the same word or phrase in several successive clauses,” and 2 Nephi 9:31-38 is given as an example. It consists of nine phrases, each beginning with “Wo unto.” In addition to quoted examples, Elder Pinnock also cites in each section numerous further Book of Mormon and Bible examples for the reader to examine.

While this will be a useful tool for a nonscholarly Latter-day Saint audience (there are numerous better handbooks and dictionaries of literary devices, but these do not directly apply themselves to Latter-day Saint scripture), there is some risk that this same lay audience may misunderstand what is going on. Thus some caution may be warranted. First, the nonscholarly audience must analyze these forms as they appear in the English text of the scriptures, which is not the form in which the scriptural authors originally wrote. Elder Pinnock briefly mentions translation problems, but however well translated a text may be, original forms are always somewhat obscured by the translation process itself, and new forms are introduced by the translator. Obviously, there are limitations in the serious analysis of literary forms in translated texts. Second, a general reader may be left with the impression that these forms are uniquely Hebrew forms, when in fact they were used in nearly all the literature of the ancient world, and indeed many of them continue to be used in modern literatures. Most of the forms discussed by Elder Pinnock are Greek or Latin forms as well as Hebrew.

Published in BYU Studies Quarterly 40:1
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