One of the more interesting and unexpected by-products of the tech boom is how much more technically aware people have become in their media consumption. Take special effects for example. Green screen effects that would’ve wowed audiences in past generations are today easily spotted and considered cheap and clumsy.
The same can be said for story-telling techniques. With the proliferation of media channels, ham-fisted clichés in scripts (such as all bombs being defused with one second left on the timer) are quickly noticed. In fact, many comedy films will spoof these tropes as a way of showing just how phony such situations are.
These tropes can even be found in written material. Imagine a story where the document is supposed to sound archaic. Many times, writes will lapse into what TVTropes.org called “Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe.” Here’s their explanation:
Be the tale set in glorious 1300s Scotland or vexing 1840s Cardiff, appropriately "old-fashioned" English shalt if based on the archaic King James Bible. Thine formula is simple: addeth thou "-eth" and "-est" to random verbs, scattereth thou silent Es like the leaves of autumne, bandyeth about the words "thee", "thou", "thine", "doth", "hast", and "forsooth", reverseth 'pon every other occasion thine noun-verb order, and strewth, thou doth be the next Billy Shakespeare!1I bring all this up because it became relevant after an ongoing conversation I had with a couple of Mormon missionaries. The young men had asked me to read 3 Nephi 11, as they found that chapter particularly moving. I went ahead and read the entire book of 3 Nephi to make certain I had the full context of the book. But in so doing, a glaring pattern emerged: over and over again, I kept reading the phrase “it came to pass.” The phrase appears fifteen times in chapter one alone! Moreover, the phrase wasn’t being used correctly. In the King James Bible, “it came to pass” was used as bridge to connect the prior narrative to the next section after some portion of time had elapsed, such as in 1 Kings 18:1 where it says “And it came to pass after many days…” In 3 Nephi, the phrase is being used sometimes for the immediate reaction of Nephi to an event that is now happening. The phrase just sticks out like a sore thumb.
This made me a bit more curious, though. If you go the online version of the Book of Mormon at LDS.org, you can search for the phrase “came to pass” (in quotes) and it will show the phrase is used 1824 times in the Book of Mormon. Compare that to the King James Bible, where the phrase is used 456 times in a work that is three times as long! That’s about a 1200% increase in frequency—which makes it kind of a tell that the phrase falls more into the trope category than it does appropriate translation.
The Mormon ResponseBYU Studies, however, thinks this proves Joseph Smith was a better translator than the King James translators. At this page, they created a chart mapping the frequency of the phrase “it came to pass” from each book in the BOM. They then write:
Some readers wonder why these words occur so often in the Book of Mormon compared with the Bible. Actually, the Hebrew word wayehi is translated in the King James Version of the Bible as "it came to pass," but it is also translated as "it happened, came, had come, became, arose, was, now," and so forth. Therefore, what was an extremely common phrase in the Bible appears to be less so because it was translated into various phrases instead of a single one. Apparently, Joseph Smith was quite consistent in translating it with the phrase "it came to pass" every time.2Here's the problem, though. The Hebrew וַיֶּ֑ה (wayehi ) would never have occurred in the original texts of the Book of Mormon at all. The book itself claims to have been written in reformed Egyptian hieroglyphics that were altered according to the language of the Nephites at that time. (Mormon 9:32). Mormon goes on to write that “none other people knoweth our language; and because that none other people knoweth our language, therefore he hath prepared means for the interpretation thereof” (Mormon 9:34). So the standard grammar of the Hebrew wayehi doesn’t apply. It’s the translation where we are to judge.
The word wayehi literally translates to “and it was.” If that was the phrase that appeared over and over in the BOM, then perhaps the above defense would have some validity. But translators are intentionally choosing to use the phrase “it came to pass” to denote a passage of time. In other words, if the translators were to translate wayehi only and exclusively into “it came to pass,” it would be bad translating. But since it was God who supposedly interpreted the reformed Egyptian language to Joseph Smith, revealing the meaning of each word to him, it would mean that God was guilty of bad translation.
The missionaries I spoke with didn’t seem that bothered with the problem of the “Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe” trope appearing in the Book of Mormon. Of course, that isn’t the only historically problematic thing about the work. To me, it’s pretty clear that BYU Studies is trying to impose damage control. We can apply Ockahm’s Razor to this instance. The best explanation for the overuse of “it came to pass” is Joseph Smith wasn’t sophisticated enough to understand how that language is properly used. He relied on the “Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe” trope to try and make his audience believe what he had written should be accepted as archaic.
2. "134 - ‘It Came to Pass’ Occurrences in the Book of Mormon.” BYU Studies, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 10 Nov. 2017, http://www.byustudies.byu.edu/charts/134-it-came-pass-occurrences-book-mormon. Accessed 2019-01-02.