Monday, October 24, 2011

Scribal Error

The process of transmitting The Book of Mormon from the original authors/engravers to modern readers has been long and complex. The following summarizes key points in the textual history of the 1981 English LDS edition. RLDS (modern Community of Christ) editions have different printing histories.
  • Nephi, Jacob, Alma, Mormon, Moroni (and others) engraved their words on metal plates. 
  • Mormon and his son, Moroni collected, copied, and condensed many original source documents into our current text.
  • Joseph Smith, Jr. with divine help verbally translated the ancient engravings into King James (Elizabethan) English.
  • Oliver Cowdery (and others) wrote Joseph's words on paper (original manuscript which is 28% extant).
  • Oliver Cowdery copied the original manuscript to the printer's manuscript which is essentially 100% extant.
  • E.B. Grandin and his employees (primarily John Gilbert) added punctuation and set the type for the 1830 Palmyra edition, largely from the printer's manuscript, but partly from the original manuscript. Because of corrections made during the various press runs and variations in collating printed signatures for binding, not all original 1830 edition copies are identical. 
  • Joseph Smith, Jr. (and others) made some changes from the 1830 edition as they printed the 1837 Kirtland and the 1840 Nauvoo editions based on the original and printer's manuscripts.
  • Orson Pratt introduced more changes along with the modern LDS chapter and verse structure in the 1879 edition.
  • James E. Talmage introduced additional changes in the 1920 edition.
  • The current 1981 edition was an attempt to harmonize the various previous editions in light of what textual scholars then knew about the original and printer's manuscripts.
The bottom line is there are many variants of and some known errors in The Book of Mormon text, and before one puts too much faith in the wording of a particular passage, the careful student will consult Dr. Royal Skousen's 6 volume, 4,060 page critical text or his more accessible 2009 Yale University Press edition (848 pages) of the text.
Dr. Royal Skousen's 6 volume Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon in red.
The 3 blue volumes are his studies of the original and printer's manuscripts.
Photo by Kirk Magleby, October 2011.
Some examples of  textual issues:
  • Even Mormon had trouble keeping everything straight in his mind all the time. In Alma 53:3 he engraved "the land," then corrected himself and because one can't erase engravings on metal plates, said "or, the city, Bountiful." As verse 4 makes explicit, it was the city and not the entire land that was fortified. Mormon had previously temporarily confused the lands of Bountiful and Moroni Alma 50:32
  • The same thing happened in Alma 56:14 where Mormon engraved "the  land of Manti," then corrected himself and said "or the city of Manti." As verses 13 & 15 make explicit, Helaman I recorded a list of cities in his epistle to Captain Moroni.
  • Alma 53:6 says that the city of Mulek was in the land of Nephi. That is simply not true. The city of Mulek was in the greater land of Zarahemla north of the narrow strip of wilderness. It was temporarily controlled by a Lamanite invasion force, but it was clearly located in traditional Nephite territory. Royal Skousen's critical text corrects this obvious error to read "the city Mulek which was one of the strongest holds of the Lamanites in the land of the Nephites."
  • Alma 51:26 says that the Lamanites under Amalickiah took posession of the city of Nephihah. That directly contradicts the previous verse and disagrees with the phrase in verse 26 that the named cities were all on the coast. It also contradicts Alma 59:5-11 that describes Nephihah's fall. The critical text corrects this error by replacing "Nephihah" with "Moroni" which was definitely the southernmost Nephite city along the east sea coast.
  • Alma 24:5 has Alma and his brethren going to the land of Midian. This is the only occurrence of this Biblical name in a Book of Mormon New World setting. Verse 5 tells us that Midian was near the land of Ishmael. The critical text takes issue with the name "Midian," replacing it with the well-attested "Middoni" that was definitely close to Ishmael.
  • Alma 53:22-23 says Helaman led his 2,000 stripling warriors into battle in the 28th year of the reign of the judges. Alma 56:9 says it was in the 26th year. They obviously can't both be right.
There are other examples, but this short list should be enough to caution the alert reader. Texts have variants. Copyists make both inadvertent and intentional changes. Jesus Christ was the only infallible person who ever inhabited our small planet. Careful exegesis of The Book of Mormon benefits enormously from Royal Skousen's and his predecessors' meticulous work of textual criticism.

FARMS published Robert F. Smith's 3-volume Critical Text of the Book of Mormon in the 1980's. One rabid anti-Mormon source immediately trumpeted in the media that FARMS, the quintessential defenders of the LDS canon, had come out with a text critical of the Book of Mormon. We quickly debunked that utter nonsense. A critical text is a work of supreme respect.