Source Criticism and the Books of Moses and Abraham

Latter-day Saint (LDS) scripture is filled to the brim with biblical quotations, allusions, and echoes that tie back to earlier scriptural writings. The use and interpretation of scripture goes far back in the Jewish and Christian traditions,[1] and can sometimes be as difficult to untangle as the authorship of the books of the bible. It has been an integral aspect to the creation of new scriptural texts to rework and use earlier authoritative religious literature and it should not be too surprising to find a blog post dedicated to this area of study on books as important to the Mormon faith community as those in the LDS Pearl of Great Price.[2] Joseph Smith (JS) not only spent an enormous amount of time producing the books of Moses and Abraham, but they also became very important through their transmission process and gained new meaning and significance when they were both canonized during the October 1880 LDS General Conference.[3]

In this post I will look specifically at the Book of Moses (BMos). I will consider the Book of Abraham (BoA) in a subsequent post. I will look at each text through the lens of source criticism, since both of them are essentially two different revisions of the King James Version’s (KJV) Genesis text, we can therefore track the similarities and differences between each text and its sources. This aspect of the study of these two books is not new (nor would it be new to the Book of Mormon [BM]), but there are several important observations that have not been made up to this point that I think will be important for future discussions. Past studies have also lacked not only methodological rigor,[4] they have also been limited in their understandings of the wider field of source criticism. I hope to offer a few short notes that will help future discussions (online or otherwise) of the composition of these two important texts, and to keep the focus on the texts themselves.

The Book of Moses

Joseph Smith (JS) and Oliver Cowdery purchased a bible printed by H. & E. Phinney in Cooperstown, New York in October 1829 from E. B. Grandin’s bookstore, the printer of the BM.[5] They began work on what was later labeled the “Joseph Smith Translation” (JST) or the “Inspired Version.” The former title is a misnomer in current academic studies because JS did not translate the text of the bible from the Hebrew and Greek into the English language in the way that it would be assumed by calling his work a “translation.” Rather, he worked directly with this printed edition of the bible and revised the English to something closer to “the revelations which God [had] given to [him]…” up to that point.[6]

The work was started June 1830, with the completion of the BMos material circa Dec. 1830, as the last date noted before the end of the BMos material is “Dec. 1”[7] in the earliest manuscript, Old Testament 1 (OT1). Parts of it were printed in several early Mormon periodicals throughout the next several decades, and it was then, after several decades, canonized during the October 1880 General Conference of the Mormon church. Since that time Mormons have read this material as authoritative canonical scripture. It will be my aim to respect this high standing of these sacred texts while at the same time making important observations that need to be brought to bear in an informed interpretation of these texts.


When discussing sources I think it is important to point out that the highly loaded term “plagiarism” should only be used in certain settings. It is not enough for some one to find that a text used an earlier source and then label the circumstances of the composition plagiarism. There have to be certain claims made by the text or its author for the designation to fit. As far as the BMos is concerned the term does not fit at all. Not only is it made obvious for the intended reader that these are biblical characters, the BMos is an explicit revision of the Genesis text; it still remains the bible, but in altered form. It is meant to be an authoritative correction of the prior text, and therefore it does not hide its source at all.

The only exception of this is in the BMos’s use of NT material. Rather than quoting from this material and attributing its authorship to himself, the author of Moses 1 has used a familiar text’s structure (i.e. Matt. 4), not its content, to re-present the figure of Moses and the creation accounts of Genesis. In the context of the BMos it is advised that the term plagiarism not be used, which should be obvious to the reader when they understand the original function of the BMos material.

Although a closer analysis will be necessary in the future, for the present blog post the BMos’s relationship to the KJV of Genesis can be delineated in the following way:

  • Moses 1 is dependent on the structure and content of Matt. 4 in its construction of the temptation of Moses, transforming Moses into a messianic figure in the same way the author of Matthew transforms Jesus into a new Moses. Moses 1 agrees with Matt. 4 against the temptation of Jesus found in Luke 4. This is a critical observation for understanding not only Moses 1, but in formulating one’s approach to interpreting it. The connections between Moses 1 and Matt. 4 can be summarized with the following: Moses 1:1=Matt. 4:8 (“up into an exceeding high mountain”); Moses 1:12=Matt. 4:9; 15:9; Mark 7:7; Luke 4:7 (satan says “worship me”); Moses 1:15=Matt. 4:9; Luke 4:7 (“Worship God for him only shalt thou serve”); Moses 1:17=Matt. 4:9 (“and worship me”); Moses 1:18=Matt. 4:9 (“Depart hence, Satan”); Moses 1:19=Matt. 4:9 (“worship me”); Moses 1:20=Matt. 4:10 (“Depart hence, Satan”); and Moses 1:21=Matt. 4:10 (“Depart hence, Satan”). The rest of the chapter is sprinkled with language that is shared among the gospels, some that is unique to the gospel of John, and language from the rest of the NT and OT.
  • The block quotation of Genesis can be summarized this way: Moses 2:1b-3:25=Gen. 1:1-2:25; Moses 4:5-31=Gen. 3:1-24; Moses 5:16aß, 17, 19-23, 32-48=Gen. 4:1-7; 8-24; Moses 6:2-4=Gen. 4:25-26; Moses 8b-14, 16-17a, 18-21bα, 24-25, 39bß=Gen. 5:1-22a; Moses 8:5-12a=Gen. 5:25-32; Moses 8:14, 17-18a, 21b-22, 25-30=Gen. 6:1-4aα, 4b-5, 6-13. It is apparent that almost all of the Genesis material is included throughout the BMos. JS and scribe were sure to include everything while they added their additional material.
  • The description of the creation in Genesis is placed in the first person singular in the voice of God, it is assumed that Moses is the author of the Pentateuch (cf. Moses 1:40-41),[8] and several additions are included throughout the block. The grammatical alterations and the additions to the text of Genesis break the natural flow of several verses, which can be seen particularly in the earliest BMos manuscripts. It becomes apparent upon closer inspection that these variants are dependent on the English of the KJV.
  • The sections of Moses 6-8 that do not utilize the text of Genesis are sprinkled with quotations, allusions, and echoes of various books throughout the KJV, with a focus on the New Testament (NT) gospels.

Implications of the Data

There are several implications from the above observations that need to be made apparent. First, through source-critical comparison it is apparent that the sections not quoting directly from the Genesis material are dependent largely on other parts of the KJV, particularly the NT gospels. The closeness of Moses 1 to Matt. 4 is striking, and the direction of dependence must fall from Matthew to Moses. The fact that Moses also utilizes language from the other gospels, and several epistles throughout the NT, supports this view. This strongly suggests that the composition of the BMos material is post-1611 CE. JS and his scribes were working on the text in a post-1611 CE setting, two hundred years later in New York State.

Second, if the first set of implications is taken seriously, the question of how much JS knew about the biblical text can be answered with more clarity than in previous research. It has recently been argued that JS knew very little personally about the bible until he sat down to work on the revision.[9] If this were true, why do we find that the first chapter of his revision, Moses 1, is so heavily dependent on Matt. 4? Taking this into account as well as the use of scripture in JS’s revelations prior to the translation of the BM and the BMos we have a fascinating picture of the breadth and depth of the language of scripture that JS was intimately and comfortably familiar with.[10] The idea that JS did not know the bible prior to working on the revision must be rejected due to the vast amount of evidence to the contrary.

Third, the BMos fits most comfortably in the genre of “rewritten bible,” similar to early Jewish texts of the Second Temple period, but more closely resembling Christian texts composed centuries later. The heavy use of NT language and concepts places the BMos in a realm that does not exactly fit early Jewish pseudepigrapha or Midrash, and if placed in relation to other texts it will need to be compared to Christian texts that share a similar worldview as the BMos.

To end this post I would like to offer some of my own observations. For many Mormons the points that I have raised above will be brand new; for some it may be unsettling and for others it may be enlightening. For many scholars the information may or may not be surprising, but for many it will be new. This is due to the fact that there has been a long standing stigma against source criticism in Mormon Studies, which in turn has resulted in an ignorance of these basic facts. Although it has long been recognized that the BMos is a revision of Genesis, the influence from the NT has not been a focus. It is time that this data enter into the discussion more transparently.

While it is possible (and expected) for some to disagree with the way I outlined the implications of the data above, it will be important for future studies dealing with JS’s translation of scripture to note that the connections between the KJV and the BMos, as these points are undeniable and need to be dealt with (appropriate to the author’s approach, audience, and limits to their research). This is the real data. The heavy use of these passages throughout the eight chapters of the BMos need to be an integral aspect of any study of the text, and need to be brought to bear in any future discussion. Not only does it enlighten historical critical questions about the BMos, it can also bring the text into conversation with other books in the canon in a devotional context that otherwise likely would never happen. The observations can have positive influence on various purposes of the text, and should not be rejected at first sight simply because they do not necessarily accord with traditional models for understanding the BMos.


[1] For the Hebrew Bible see Michael Fishbane, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (Clarendon: Oxford University Press, 1985); and for the New Testament see Steve Moyise, The Old Testament in the New: An Introduction (Continuum Biblical Studies Series; London: Continuum, 2001).

[2] This importance is found in many aspects of the contemporary Mormon religious experience. There are several commentaries and series that have looked both at the the BMos and the BoA, and hours upon hours have been spent in online message boards arguing about the relevance of these texts for Mormon faith.

[3] See Brian M. Hauglid, A Textual History of the Book of Abraham: Manuscripts and Editions (Studies in the Book of Abraham, No. 5; Provo: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2010), 15.

[4] This is true for almost all works, except possibly the recent publication of David E. Bokovoy’s book Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis-Deuteronomy (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2014). Bokovoy spends chapters 7 and 8 discussing these texts, but while his methodology is sound much of his time is spent describing topics outside of the two books. These posts will only discuss the contents of the BMos and the BoA and their individual relationships with the KJV.

[5] Kent P. Jackson, “Joseph Smith’s Cooperstown Bible: The Historical Context of the Bible Used in the Joseph Smith Translation,” BYU Studies, vol. 40, no. 1 (2001), 41.

[6] B. H. Roberts, ed., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (repr.; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1978), 6:307. This quotation was originally given in the context of describing the German translation of the bible and how JS connected religiously with it, more than any of the English translations of the time.

[7] See the bottom of page 11 of OT1, Church History Library, MS 19655, Fd. 1, item 1–Fd. 2, item 9.

[8] Note that these verses also claim that parts of what Moses was going to write down would later be restored, supporting the claim that virtually the entire text of Genesis 1:1-6:13 is present in Moses, will several editions between the blocks (cf. the list of correspondences in the bullet point list above).

[9] Daniel C. Peterson has also utilized Gee’s argument in other settings since this blog post, particularly here, starting at about 35:24:

[10] For Doctrine and Covenants sections 3-20 (dating from July 1828-Summer 1829) see Ellis T. Rasmussen, “Textual Parallels to the Doctrine and Covenants and Book of Commandments as Found in the Bible” (Unpublished Master’s Thesis; Provo: Brigham Young University, 1951), 38-95.


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