Latest Findings in the Critical Text Project
These are the best of times for Book of Mormon studies. Since 2001, FARMS (now part of the Maxwell Institute) has been publishing the long-anticipated findings of Professor Royal Skousen's Book of Mormon Critical Text Project. Each massive volume in this landmark study, appearing on a yearly basis, averages nearly 670 oversize pages of research and analysis that reward careful examination with expanded views of the founding text of Mormonism.
In seeking to recover the original English-language text (i.e., precisely as the Prophet Joseph Smith received it), this ambitious project is identifying many variant readings and yielding paradigm-changing insights into the translation process and the systematic nature of the text. These findings will keep serious students of the Book of Mormon profitably engaged in assessing the ramifications for many years to come. As an essential scholarly tool, the critical text promises to boost the professional rigor and overall quality of Book of Mormon scholarship to a new level.
The most recent publication by Skousen, an internationally known professor of linguistics and English language at Brigham Young University, is part 3 of volume 4 of Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon, covering Mosiah 17 through Alma 20. Like its predecessors, this installment sheds light on numerous variant readings that have entered the text through scribal, typesetting, and editing errors and inconsistencies. Before Skousen began publishing his findings, readers of the Book of Mormon naturally assumed that unfamiliar or awkward phraseology in the text was due to a strictly literal translation from the ancient source language or to Joseph Smith's language habits and idiosyncrasies. Part 3 of Skousen's Analysis of Textual Variants continues to illuminate such questions. Although the current Book of Mormon does preserve telltale aspects of ancient language (e.g., Hebraisms, chiasmus), the old assumptions of source-language carryover do not hold in every instance. The picture is more complicated.
For one thing, early production practices spawned more transcription errors than previously recognized. A case in point is Mosiah 17:13, where the description of Abinadi's execution should, in order to correct a scribal mistake, read scorched instead of scourged: "they took him and bound him and scorched his skin with fagots." 1 Further, the evidence increasingly supports the theory that the original vocabulary of the Book of Mormon dates from the 1500s and 1600s, not the 1800s of Joseph Smith's time. That is, the vocabulary agrees with the language of Early Modern English yet is not identical to the vocabulary of the King James Bible. In the English of the 1500s the verb scorch (not scourge) was used to describe people being burned at the stake. So an odd phrasing long thought to describe a strange execution practice in ancient times turns out to be a simple scribal error that, once corrected, smooths out a "wrinkle" in the text.
Such findings support Skousen's view that the translation process was tightly controlled—that is, the text was revealed to Joseph Smith word for word, and even letter by letter (he could see, for instance, the English spelling of the names), rather than interpreted solely through his own faculties and expressed exclusively in his own language. If accurate, this understanding intensifies the miraculous dimension implicit in Isaiah's description of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon as a "marvelous work and a wonder" (Isaiah 29:14 // 2 Nephi 27:26).
Part 3 analyzes 898 cases of variation (or potential variation), of which 360 warrant readings that differ from the standard text. Of the latter, 82 have never appeared in any standard printed edition of the Book of Mormon. The original manuscript is extant for only a few pages of this part of the text, so most of the newly proposed changes are found in the printer's manuscript (61 of them, including 3 changes also found in the original manuscript). This part of the text entails a fairly large number of conjectural emendations (21 of them), probably because the original manuscript is generally missing here. However, only 24 of the 360 proposed changes make a difference in meaning that would show up when translating the English text of the Book of Mormon into another language. In addition, 17 changes make the text fully consistent in phraseology or usage, while 5 changes restore a unique phrase or word choice to the text.
Some of the interesting points discussed fully in part 3 of Analysis of Textual Variants include the following.
Such important findings are the result of nearly two decades of preparatory work that is now making possible a thorough and systematic analysis of the Book of Mormon text. Professor Skousen has shown himself to be a master of organizing and processing large amounts of data in order to recover, where humanly possible, the original English text of the Book of Mormon. He goes wherever the evidence leads him, and to date the evidence makes a convincing case that the original text is more consistent in usage and phraseology than initially thought.
Those closest to Skousen's work find his preparation, method, and excruciatingly thorough analyses to be of the highest scholarly order. His critical text is poised to make its mark as a seminal contribution to Mormon studies, one whose influence will be felt far into the future since no text-based study of the Book of Mormon will be complete without reference to it.
To order a copy of this essential research tool, go to the FARMS Web site and, at the bottom of the notice for this book, click on the link to the BYU Bookstore.
1. Skousen follows the spelling fagots rather than faggots per modern practice, as set forth, for example, in Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed.