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BYU prof finds truth and error(s) in Book of Mormon

Published September 11, 2009 12:00 am

2009 edition » In new volume from Yale, linguist details hundreds of changes that could be made to match earliest text.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Joseph Smith may have called The Book of Mormon the "most correct of any book on Earth," but that doesn't mean it couldn't use some correcting -- even now, 179 years after it first came off the press.

Regarded by a worldwide faith of nearly 14 million members as Holy Writ, the book is not wholly without errors -- typos, omissions, grammatical goofs and altogether wrong words. Mistakes have crept into the text since LDS Church founder Joseph Smith dictated the original manuscript, which he says he translated with God's help from gold plates.

Truth is, the book -- which tells the story of ancient American inhabitants who sailed from the Holy Land -- contained more than 2,000 textual errors in its first edition in 1830, according to Brigham Young University professor Royal Skousen's new book, The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text , due out later this month from Yale University Press.

"If someone has the view that nobody has made a mistake, they are going to be gravely disappointed," Skousen says. "You see the fingerprints of human beings all over this text from its original dictation from Joseph Smith."

Yet Skousen also sees the fingerprint of heavenly revelation in the not-so-perfect text -- so closely analyzed by this professor of linguistics and English that multicolored sticky tabs curl from the pages of the 20 editions (some bound with rubber bands) in the basement office of his Spanish Fork home.

He has unearthed Hebrew-like sentences within the original manuscript containing conditional "if-and" phrases, instead of the more traditional "if-then" English constructions, that were altered in the earliest editions. He has discovered more than 130 words and phrases that, although printed in different variations in today's 1981 text, are fully consistent in the original documents. And he has identified redundancies -- an extra 47 of the seemingly ubiquitous "and it came to passes" deleted from various editions -- that reflect similar redundancies that appeared in the Hebrew Bible but weren't included in the King James version.

While The Book of Mormon's language has evolved since the dictation of Smith's original manuscript, Skousen says he has found no changes or errors within its pages that challenge fundamental LDS doctrines.

"It is a marvelous text," Skousen says. "I have never found anything that is not faith promoting."

Still, he has documented hundreds of cases of textual transformations within the book -- the "sword" of justice becoming the "word" of justice, the wicked being "rejected" rather than "separated" from the righteous, and the Lord knowing how to "succor" his people instead of "suffer" them.

He also has noted occasional mix-ups between Book of Mormon figures Benjamin and Mosiah, an abundance of spelling and grammatical slips, and sometimes-sentence-changing omissions such as this one from the Book of Alma, in which a prophet-father counsels his promiscuous son on how to find forgiveness.

"Acknowledge your faults and repair that wrong which ye have done," the original manuscript reads. The 1830 edition changed "repair" to "retain." The 1920 and 1981 editions omit "repair" and "retain."

Based on more than two decades of research, Skousen's new volume (due out Sept. 22) features a reconstruction of The Book of Mormon's original text, complete with an appendix that highlights more than 700 significant textual changes since Smith's dictation.

This new edition of the bedrock LDS scripture -- appearing in an easier-to-read contemporary format -- emerges from Skousen's analysis of the original transcript (only 28 percent of the document survived), the printer's version of the manuscript (a copy of the original) and the 1830 edition.

It also boasts a prestigious publisher: Yale University Press.

"What this says -- from the standpoint of being published by a press of that stature -- is that Mormonism has become an exceedingly important part of the story of American religion," says Jan Shipps, a longtime scholar of Mormonism and an emeritus professor of history and religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis.

The Yale edition also reflects Skousen's insistence on an independent scholarly review of The Book of Mormon, which he argues is necessary to bring the text "out of obscurity."

"The book stands on its own," Skousen says. "I don't think that anyone needs to worry that by having it independently produced divorces it from someone getting a spiritual experience reading it."

The LDS Church declined to comment on Skousen's work or the likelihood of the faith someday revising its 1981 text to reflect his findings. Instead, the church reprised a statement from 2008 noting that any editorial revisions to The Book of Mormon have been to eliminate typographical, grammatical and syntactical mistakes.

The church reports 4,000 edits since its first 1830 edition -- "which" was changed to "who" 891 times, "was" became "were" 162 times and "that" was deleted 188 times.

"The purpose of each new edition is to eliminate the human errors that have occurred," the statement reads. "This is all aimed at bringing the text into conformity with the message and meaning of the original manuscripts."

Critics contend that changes to The Book of Mormon's text cast doubt on Joseph Smith's claim that he translated the book through divine revelation. If the words truly came from God, they argue, why would they need correcting?

Perhaps one of the most controversial changes came in describing what would happen to dark-skinned people who followed Jesus Christ. The printer's manuscript suggests in 2 Nephi 30:6 they would become "a white and delightsome people." Later editions state that they would become "a pure and delightsome people."

Skousen dismisses any political motivations behind the current use of the word "pure," saying similar phrases with possible racial implications appear in 10 other places in the text. If the church meant to sanitize the book racially, he asks, why didn't it change all of those references?

As for Skousen, he has changed the text back to "white" to reflect the earliest manuscripts.

Daniel Peterson, a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at Brigham Young University, calls Skousen's work a "monument of LDS scholarship."

While some may view The Book of Mormon's textual imperfections as destructive to the faith, Peterson doesn't see it that way. To the contrary, the mistakes made in the earliest transcript confirm Smith's story that he dictated the narrative to a scribe. Why? Because the errors in that first manuscript were mistakes of hearing. Later errors in the printing process were mistakes of seeing.

Shipps, who is not a Mormon, seems equally willing to give the book -- though flawed -- the benefit of a doubt.

"I don't think it raises serious questions about The Book of Mormon as a text," Shipps says. Without modern-day recording equipment, "it makes perfect sense that a book that was taken down by dictation would get spelling wrong or words out of place."

Skousen doesn't expect all of his changes ever to appear in the church's official version of The Book of Mormon. It would be tough to read, for one thing, with nonstandard English and grammatical eyesores that appeared before the first printing.

But he believes many of the more significant shifts, supported by his analysis of the manuscripts, someday will.

"It may take a while," he says, "but I think they will probably end up in the standard text."

And, when they do, his goal, finally, will have come to pass.

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Tweaks over time

The Book of Mormon has undergone thousands of changes through the years as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has corrected typos, grammatical errors and mistaken words. Brigham Young University professor Royal Skousen highlights some of the most significant changes in his latest book, The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text. Several examples are listed below:

1 Nephi 13:24

"It contained the fullness of the gospel of the Land." (original manuscript)

"It contained the fullness of the gospel of the Lord." (printer's version, 1981 edition)

"It contained the fullness of the gospel of the Lamb." (BYU Critical Text Project)

1 Nephi 17:48

"Whoso shall lay their hands upon me shall wither even as a dried weed." (original manuscript, printer's version)

"Whoso shall lay their hands upon me shall wither even as a dried reed." (1830 edition)

"Whoso shall lay his hands upon me shall wither even as a dried reed." (current 1981 edition)

Mosiah 21:28

"King Benjamin had a gift from God." (printer's version, 1830 edition)

"King Mosiah had a gift from God." (1837 edition, 1981 edition)

Alma 39:13

"Acknowledge your faults and repair that wrong which ye have done" (original manuscript)

"Acknowledge your faults and retain that wrong which ye have done" (printer's version, 1830 edition)

"Acknowledge your faults and that wrong which ye have done" (1920, 1981 editions)

The book also highlights several Hebrew-like sentences that contained the word "and" in places not normally found in English -- a construction Skousen argues was not the product of scribal error, but rather intentional usage.

Helaman 13:28

"And because he speaketh flattering words unto you and he saith that all is well, and then ye will not find no fault with him." (The "and" was removed in the 1837 edition)

"And because he speaketh flattering words unto you, and he saith that all is well, then ye will not find fault with him." (1981 edition)

Moroni 10:4

"And if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, and he will manifest the truth of it unto you by the power of the Holy Ghost." (The "and" was removed in the 1837 edition.)

"And if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost." (1981 edition)

Source: The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text