The Critical Text of the Book of Mormon
by Royal Skousen
When people first hear about ‘The Critical Text of the Book of Mormon,’ some think it’s critical of the Book of Mormon. That is not what the word ‘critical’ means in this sense. A critical text is one that tells you different versions. Usually, a critical text tries to produce the earliest text possible. Critical texts are written for scholars; they are not written for general authors or readers. When you pick up a copy of Moby Dick to read, it probably won’t be a critical text. It’ll give you just one text. A critical text will have notes at the bottom; it’ll tell you how the text has changed. They will typically try to produce the oldest form of the text. This is the process that the Critical Text Project of the Book of Mormon is working on. For the Book of Mormon, the original text is an attempt to recover what Joseph Smith would have seen in the Nephite interpreters, sometimes called the Urim and Thummim. He also used another instrument called the seer stone. He used both of those, according to Martin Harris, depending on which he thought was more convenient. We are trying to recover what Joseph Smith either saw directly through those, or perhaps what he saw in his mind’s eye. My belief is that he actually saw the words in English.
In the critical text project, we are interested in the transmission of the original text. And, as it was transmitted, there were accidental errors, which did occur. They do not change the fundamental meaning of the text or any doctrine. There are some people in Salt Lake, like the Lighthouse Ministries, who are attempting all the time to find changes, and count them, and so forth, as if it were a terrible thing that the text has undergone errors, which proves it’s not from the Lord. This is somewhat ridiculous, because the Bible, itself, has undergone many changes. In fact, according to the verse-counting, there are many more changes in the Bible than there ever were in the Book of Mormon.
The fact that there are signs showing that the text has been transmitted by human beings doing their best, but nonetheless errors have occurred, is not evidence that it is not from the Lord. One of the interesting things is, we study the text and get back closer to what probably Joseph Smith received, we can find, I think, indications that indeed it did come from the Lord.
Some of the other things we study, besides the accidental changes, are the editing changes. The original text of the Book of Mormon, as we shall see, has expressions that aren’t English. An early speaker was talking about Hebrew language in the text. There are some Hebrew-like expressions in the original text that are so bad in English that they’ve been removed. We’ll look at a couple of those as well. But, there has been editing.
The original language of the Book of Mormon is in some respects in Joseph Smith’s dialect. When it was given to him, the Lord gave it to him in his own language. Doctrine and Covenants, Section 1, says that revelations were given in the language so that there would be understanding. So that people would understand. B.H. Roberts felt it was blasphemy to suggest that the text had been given in non-standard English, ungrammatical English. I don’t have any difficulties with this. I think the Lord speaks to each person in their own tongue. One of the interesting aspects of this is that what B.H. Roberts was perhaps suggesting was that if the Lord gave it to Joseph Smith it would be in his, B.H. Roberts,’ correct English. I think if we look at it that way, it shows a favoritism toward one’s own language.
The main aspect of this project is that there are two manuscripts of the Book of Mormon. The earliest one is called the ‘original manuscript’. This is the manuscript that the scribes wrote down as Joseph Smith dictated. They heard it; they wrote it down. There are a few places where it looks like they may have misheard or misinterpreted what Joseph Smith actually dictated. The evidence that I’ve found in this project is that what Joseph Smith received was from the Lord; it was correct; when the angel Moroni appeared to the Three Witnesses, the voice of the Lord said that the translation was correct. And, I think that’s what they’re referring to. However, the transmission of the text has occasionally produced an error. The scribes and Joseph Smith were doing their best to transmit it; and subsequent editors and typesetters, as far as I can tell, always tried to do their best. There was no sabotage, no attempt to corrupt it or anything like that. Everyone has always tried to faithfully reproduce the text. So, the original manuscript is what the scribes wrote down. We have now only 28% of it. Most of it has been destroyed accidentally.
Joseph Smith, in 1841, placed the original manuscript in the cornerstone of the Nauvoo House. It lay there until 1882. Forty-one years later, Major Bidamon, the second husband of Emma after she had died, was finishing up the building, and tearing down the original foundation, and discovered the cornerstone. The seal had broken, probably years earlier, and moisture had gotten in, mold had started growing on the manuscript, and most of it was eaten up. Major Bidamon then gave most of the manuscript sheets to LDS people. Franklin Richards got most of what he had; and some other people as well. Twenty-eight percent still exists; and 25% is in our Church archives in Salt Lake City. The other 3% -- a little bit of it, I believe is at the University of Utah, and some individuals own small amounts. Two percent is owned by the Wilford Wood family.
Wilford Wood was a furrier in Bountiful, Utah, but his real love and bias were in Mormon memorabilia – collecting all kinds of things that had to do with Church history. He also bought property, sometimes for himself, sometimes for the Church. The Nauvoo Temple site, for example, was purchased by him; and President Hinckley recognized his daughter for this at the Temple dedication. It was through his instrumentality that many of the Church properties back east are now owned by the Church. In 1938, Wilford Wood went to Charles Bidamon, the son of Major Bidamon, living near Chicago, Illinois, who had a little clump of fragments. Those fragments that he purchased then lay in his safe in Bountiful until the early 1990’s. I heard that they might have something, so I went up there to see about them, and they were conserved in the Brigham Young University library. This (holding up a booklet) is one of those fragments that came out of the original manuscript. This is from the last part of Helaman which you can’t read because the ink was so badly faded from moisture. This is an ultraviolet photograph that is pretty-much readable. In any event, last summer we published this book, if you’re interested in some of the details of this project, and some copies are available at both FAIR and BMAF.
The other manuscript is the ‘printer’s manuscript’. Joseph Smith learned, like all of us have learned with computers, you have to have backup. He, as we know, loaned the 116 pages to Martin Harris to show his wife and some of her relatives, and, of course, it was stolen. So, Joseph instructed the scribes, Oliver Cowdery and those that were assisting him, to make a copy to take to the printer. They weren’t supposed to take the original; they took the printer’s manuscript for the most part. That is extant; it is still basically intact. It is owned by the Community of Christ (formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) in Independence, Missouri. It’s basically 99.9% intact, although some of the edges have worn off. In all of these, when Oliver was copying from the original to the printer’s, on average on any given manuscript page, he made about three mistakes. Most of them were very minor, like a plural to a singular word, or maybe a ‘the’ dropped out, or something like that. Occasionally, though, he did make mistakes that changed a word, and we’ll see a couple of these examples here. None of them, though, really significantly change in any way what the meaning of the Book of Mormon is or its basic understanding.
As part of this project, we have made transcripts of these two manuscripts. In 2001, we published the actual transcripts. They’re not the kinds of things you’d want to carry to Church. They are literal transcripts, letter for letter, what the scribes wrote down. The original transcript here is all in one volume, because of only the 28% extant – the Church’s 25% and all known legitimate portions are here. Mark Hoffman, the infamous forger, produced a few spurious portions, as well. But, we have excluded his contributions.
The entire printer’s manuscript transcript is in two volumes. When you look at these, we spell everything exactly as it was. You can read in typescript what is on the manuscript. When they crossed something out, we tried to figure out what was underneath, including erasures. If they spelled some word incorrectly, we had to figure out what it was. Eventually, we found that what is spelled may not be what it has been interpreted to be.
In the Critical Tex Project, the first two volumes have been published. As this thing progresses, we’re also going to have three other volumes – there will be a history of the text, which will go from the original manuscript to the printer’s, the kinds of changes and what it says about how Joseph Smith translated, and things like this.
The fourth volume that I’m working on right now, is where you go through the Book of Mormon, verse by verse, examining the evidence in the earliest manuscripts or the 1830 edition, or very early editions, for what it might have actually read, what Joseph Smith saw. Now, of course, we have no record of what Joseph Smith saw.
The fifth volume eventually will be an electronic collation comparing the editions, and the two manuscripts, so you can look up any phrase and see how it has been changed, and the history of the change. In that collation, there will be 20 editions of the Book of Mormon; five of them are RLDS, all the others are LDS from the 1830 up to the 1981 edition.
Why are we doing this? There are probably three major reasons. The first thing to point out is that this will basically be for scholars. These transcripts are really very easy to read, and you have to be really interested in the text to study them. One of the things we are very much interested in is what is the original language of the Book of Mormon? It has a lot of the Hebrew-like expressions and other things that have been edited out because they’re difficult to understand.
A second one that we’re interested in, and this I didn’t realize would come out, but we can learn a lot about the translation process itself. We can find evidence in the original manuscript what witnesses said about how Joseph Smith was translating. We’ll talk about that here in a minute.
The third one is that we do find corrections in the text by examining very carefully the manuscripts with good ultrasonic photographs.
I’m going to give you some examples. The first has to do with the original languages. Brother Don Parry has studied the Hebrew-like nature of the text. What’s really interesting is that there are some Hebrew-like expressions in the original text. They’re so literal Hebrew that they’re bad English. And they have been removed because they are hard to understand. Joseph Smith in the second edition of the Book of Mormon did some editing to clarify and to help people to read it. He removed a lot of the upstate New York grammatical things. His own grammar had changed, and also he never wanted the text itself to be burden for people to understand. We need to translate the Book of Mormon into Pidgin English, because we want people to read the Book of Mormon in their own language. So Joseph Smith made those changes, but for scholars, we are very interested in this original language, because the Hebrew-like language supports the idea that this is a literal translation and that these people were Hebrew in their origins.
One of the most famous passages in the Book of Mormon (Moroni 10:4) reads in the original this way, “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.” This is not very good English. What is that ‘and’ doing there? You might think that maybe the scribe just made a mistake as there are lots of ‘ands’ in the Book of Mormon. In Hebrew, when you say something like ‘If you come then I will come,’ the word ‘then’ isn’t there, or we could leave it out. In Hebrew there is an ‘and’. ‘If you come and I will come.’ The Book of Mormon has quite a few of these in the original text. They’ve all been removed now. Joseph Smith, himself, removed them for the second edition. This is one he removed, so that you don’t want somebody reading this passage and not understanding it. You want them to realize that they should pray about the Book of Mormon.
To show this is not an accident, we have an example from Helaman 12:13. (And there is a whole sequence, and practically every verse has an ‘if and’ in Hebrew.) We get something like, “Yea, and if he say unto the earth, move and it is moved.’ Again, the ‘and’ was taken out by Joseph Smith in the second edition. So, when you read your text today you don’t have to worry about them. But for scholars, this is really interesting to see this kind of literalness in the Book of Mormon. When the King James translators and other early translators of the King James versions translated the Bible, they never put those in. So people say that Joseph Smith knew the Bible really well and used Biblical language. That’s why the Book of Mormon sounds like the King James Bible. Well, no one ever claimed that he knew Hebrew at that time. He studied that later from a Hebrew professor. Yet those Hebraisms are in the Book of Mormon – this kind of literal Hebraic writing. The whole sequence of them shows that it isn’t just an accident. The scribes weren’t just drawing in ‘ands’ every so often. This is all intentional.
What does that say, by the way, of how Joseph Smith translated? If those ‘ands’ are in there, is Joseph Smith just getting ideas? A lot of scholars say that Joseph Smith just got ideas and he created things in his own mind – and that’s why it’s in such bad English. That’s the explanation of why it’s in Joseph Smith’s bad English. However, other people will look at that and say, “But the problem is if Joseph Smith just got ideas, where are all these ‘ands’ coming from?” To me it’s more of a sign that he’s seeing specific words; those little extra words that indicate its Hebrew origin.
There have been basically three theories of Joseph Smith’s translation over time. One is the ‘loose control’ theory. You get the ideas and put them in your own language and the Lord will let you do what you want to do. I don’t think there is evidence for that position, except that these things are sometimes ungrammatical. And, as I’ve indicated, I would expect the Lord to let Joseph use his natural language anyway.
The second theory is ‘tight control’. This is the one I’ve been arguing for. The Lord gave it to Joseph Smith word for word. He had to exercise tight control – read it off carefully, make sure the scribes copied it down correctly. Witnesses said they read it back to Joseph for him to check. Apparently Joseph wasn’t looking over to see if it was correct. Sometimes errors occurred because they just couldn’t hear a difference.
The third theory is ‘iron-clad control.’ The people who witnessed the translation seemed to believe in this. The Urim and Thummim wouldn’t even let them move on if a common English word was misspelled. Emma said she thought it happened this way. David Whitmer said it happened this way. But, if you look at the original manuscript, this theory cannot be true. Names were sometimes spelled correctly at first, then misspelled later. There are errors in the original manuscript that cannot be correct. The scribes could go on if there were mistakes. They had to take ‘tight control’ and exercise their best effort. And the evidence suggests that they always tried to use their best effort I don’t know of any time in the translation process when anybody didn’t try to do their best. The ‘iron-clad control’ theory probably came from the notion that they saw Joseph Smith spelling out words, and what he spelled out were Book of Mormon names. He never spelled out Biblical names—he expected the scribes to know how to spell Isaiah, etc. But he had to spell out Book of Mormon names that they wouldn’t know. The scribes saw that taking place, then went further and thought that he was not going to allow any misspellings. That really isn’t correct.
What are some evidences that they were controlling the spelling of names? Here are two names in the Book of Mormon that are going to be very difficult to spell if you just hear them. Zenock is the first one. When it was dictated to Oliver, he first wrote it with a ‘----ck’ at the end. Well, most things that end like Zenock would be ‘ck’ in English. There is no Biblical name that ends in ‘ck’. And there is no other Book of Mormon name that ends in ‘ck’. This is an English spelling. When Oliver first wrote it, he then crossed it out and spelled it correctly with a ‘ch’. The name Zenoch is spelled like Enoch. It’s the first time it occurred in the translation sequence. He spelled it phonetically, and it was correct. What’s interesting about this is when Oliver came to copy this for the printer’s manuscript, he misspelled it every time. He went back into the ‘ck’ spelling. And, your current Book of Mormon has the ‘ck’ spelling. But it is ‘ch’ like Enoch. One thing that’s sort of funny is that in the back of the Book of Mormon, where the list of names is spelled and pronounced, it is spelled correctly with a ‘ch’.
Another one is in Alma. It does occur earlier in the Book of Mormon, but it occurs in the Small Plates. The evidence is that the Book of Mormon was translated with the Small Plates last. After Joseph lost the 116 pages, he just kept going on in Mosiah, through Alma and all the way through to the end of Moroni, then he did the Small Plates. So, this is actually the first occurrence of this name in the Book of Mormon text. He spelled it incorrectly first.
Now the next one is even better. Coriantumr. This is the first time it also occurs in the text in that translation sequence. Notice how Oliver spells it the only way we’d expect him to—Coriantummer. If you’re going to spell Coriantumr, you’re going to put a vowel in there. In English, we would never spell it ‘mr’. Oliver crosses it out in the manuscript, then spells it ‘tumr’. What’s really interesting is that the ‘r’ at the end ends with a flourish. He puts the ‘r’ in with a huge swirl. He never wrote his ‘r’s’ that way anywhere else in the translation. It’s sort of “How did you expect me to spell it this way?” And, you couldn’t, even if Joseph had pronounced it Cor-i-an-tum-r. Joseph had to spell it out letter by letter – tumr. This agrees, then, with what the witnesses said about his spelling out the Book of Mormon names.
What does that mean? That means that Joseph Smith could see the actual letter-spelling. Whether he saw the words in the interpreters or in his mind’s eye through the interpreters we don’t know. But the control of the text leads me to suggest that it was word for word.
There are other examples to show this kind of exactness of language. This is from 1 Nephi 1:8, and comes from Jack Welch. This is describing Lehi’s vision. Jack said, “He thought he saw God sitting on his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels in the attitude of singing and praising their God.” The words in italics on the screen are the ones I want you to look at. Later, half way through the book, about as far away as you could get from this, we have Alma describing to his son, Helaman, of the experience he went through (Alma 36:22) and he said, “Methought I saw, even as our father Lehi saw, ‘God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels, in the attitude of singing and praising their God’.” It’s a literal quote, word for word. This, to me, suggests that words are being given. If it is just the ideas, he’s got to really work on it so he gets the words. He’s not being allowed to just paraphrase. It’s coming through word for word.
Let’s look at a couple of examples of one of the most important discoveries of this project – how systematic the original text of the Book of Mormon is. Earlier I gave a lot of examples of where the original text was absolutely consistent, like maybe 50 times a certain thing was expressed this way, but in the transmission of the text, sometimes there were little wrinkles or mistakes, where a phrase would get slightly changed. Yet the original was absolutely consistent. Here are a couple of examples.
The first one has to do with ‘the sword of the justice of the eternal God’. Everywhere in the Book of Mormon it refers to the ‘sword’ of God’s justice. In the current Book of Mormon, it reads, because Oliver miscopied another scribe, who was a bad scribe, the ‘word’ of the justice of the eternal God. This doesn’t really cause any problems because with God’s justice, there will be a day of judgment and you will hear your judgment so it will be the ‘word’. It will work. However, when you look at the rest of the text it always refers to the ‘sword’ of God’s justice, never to his ‘word’.
And here is another one: “. . . the ‘sword’ of the justice of the Eternal God.” (Ether 8:23) This is exactly the same phraseology that was used originally in 1 Nephi 12:18. What’s interesting about this one is the scribe who wrote ‘sword,’ the ‘w’ looks like a four-stroke ‘w,’ instead of using three strokes. Even when I looked at it, I thought it was a ‘w’ with just an extra stroke. This scribe just made a mistake. Then one day I thought, “Did that scribe ever make four-stroke ‘w’s’? I then said, “That’s not ‘word’ that is ‘sword’. Then I looked down the manuscript and saw the word ‘saw’ written by this scribe, and it looks like an undotted ‘i’ then ‘aw’. So that’s how this guy made his ‘s’s’. We make an ‘s’ with a little curve at the bottom; he didn’t. Not very good in scribal practice. We don’t know who this scribe was, but he probably wasn’t one of the Whitmers. What I thought was really interesting in all of this is that the original text is very consistent. It’s a very dramatic metaphor – the justice of God is like a sharp ‘sword’ to separate people at the time of judgment. That’s the way the Book of Mormon refers to the justice of God.
The next example shows that there really are mistakes in the original manuscript. This is what one of these bad scribes wrote (1 Nephi 7:5), “The Lord did soften the heart of Ishmael, and also his whole whole.” I don’t think you can accept that. Oliver interpreted that as, “The Lord did soften the heart of Ishmael, and also his household.” That makes pretty good sense; however, the question we have is, why would the scribe have written the word ‘whole’ twice? As I looked at the word ‘household’ in the Book of Mormon text, I found all these examples that talk about a patriarch and his household, it’s always his whole household. They all go along. One interesting one is in Alma 22, “his whole household”. What I think the ‘whole whole’ came from was that Joseph read off, ‘Ishmael and his whole household’. But the scribe winds up writing two ‘wholes,’ one for ‘whole’ and one for ‘hold’. The ‘whole household’ would make it consistent with all other similar usages in the manuscript of the ‘whole household’ meaning everyone in the house. This does show that the original can have errors.
Now, one last example. But, think about these mistakes. They are not earth-shaking, testimony-breaking changes. A lot of people try to build big things out of accidental mistakes. The Lord has allowed the signs of human transmission to occur. But He made sure that it never really interferes with the basic message. This one has to do with something that’s very insightful in helping us understand a principle of the gospel. This is in Alma 39:13. Alma is talking to Corianton, the bad missionary son. Sometimes we remember this big, long discourse, but we don’t remember that Alma told his son to go back to those people that he’d been such a bad example to. Your current text reads this way, “rather return to them, and acknowledge your faults and that wrong which ye have done.” That sounds okay. He is supposed to go back and acknowledge his faults and the wrong that he’d done. This current text that we have comes from the 1920 edition. Prior to that time, all editions clear back to the printer’s manuscript reads, “rather return unto them, and acknowledge our faults, and ‘retain’ that wrong which ye have done.” ‘Retain a wrong.’ Now, this usage is sort of weird. You can see why the 1920 committee thought they’d better do something about this. Maybe you could think of it as ‘retaining the wrong so it doesn’t spread outward’. But, it is sort of a problem, so it was removed in 1920. When we look at the original manuscript, there’s a word there that looks like ‘retain’. However the crossing of the ‘t’ is not a regular crossing that Oliver would have made. In fact, it’s a big, black splotch of ink across the letter. Then you look at that page that Oliver had written, when he got done, apparently he was messing around with his ink or something, and there are drops of ink all over the sheet. That crossing of the ‘t’ isn’t a crossing. When you take away that splotch, you see it’s the letter ‘p’. The upstroke went up high and got the splotch of ink on it. Then, when you go to the end of the word, and what looks like an ‘n’ is actually an ‘r’. The word is ‘repair’. It isn’t ‘retain’. But Oliver very often wrote his ‘n’s’ like ‘r’s’. It’s like when the 1830 edition was printed, the typesetter misread ‘Gadianton the robber’ and spelled out ‘Gadianton the nobler’. Now that is a change. That was removed, it was pretty obvious. So, what the original text read in Alma 39:13 is “rather return unto them and acknowledge your faults, and ‘repair’ that wrong which ye have done.” And that really made sense. He wasn’t just telling his son to go back and say, I’m sorry, but he was to repair what he had done wrong.
This actually turns out to be consistent when you look at other passages in the Book of Mormon. For instance, this one in Helaman 5:17, about some dissenters who had repented; it says “and they confessed their sins and were baptized unto repentance and immediately returned to the Nephites to endeavor to repair unto them the wrongs which he had done.” It’s the same language. This doesn’t change the doctrine, but it makes us realize once more that repentance is more than just saying, I’m sorry I did this. But that we need to repair the wrongs that we have done as much as possible. The Book of Mormon has several other passage that support this. So, this is one example to show how consistent the original text is.
I would like at the end here to give my testimony of the Book of Mormon. It’s not dependent, though, on the work that I’ve been doing. Everything that I have found supports my belief that the text was revealed to Joseph Smith, I believe word for word. My own testimony comes from about 25 years ago, when I was reading the Book of Mormon. In the middle is this wonderful experience where first, King Lamoni is in his own state of unconsciousness, and being cleansed and having his spiritual experiences, then later when he and his wife and Ammon are in that state. You remember Abish comes up and takes the queen by the hand, and she comes out of her trance. (Incidentally, the original text says she ‘clapped’ her hands – the current text has ‘clasped’. But she is really excited; and she said she’d seen her Savior. When I was reading this, the Spirit witnessed to me – This really happened. I’m grateful the Lord gave me a testimony that these events really happened. So, my testimony is based on my own spiritual witness of its truth. But it’s been very exciting in this project to see case after case the hand of the Lord in that translation. When the voice of the Lord said to the Three Witnesses that this was a true translation, it is. I’m grateful for that.
Royal Skousen received his Ph.D. in Linguistics in 1972 from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. He is a Professor of Linguistics and English Language at BYU. He has taught linguistics at the University of Illinois, University of Texas Austin, University of California San Diego, and University of Tampere in Finland, where he was a Fulbright professor. He has published three books on analogical modeling, a non-rule approach to language description. His recent linguistics work is in applying quantum computing to analogical modeling. Since 1988, he has been the editor of the Book of Mormon Critical Text Project. In 2001, FARMS/BYU published the first of two volumes of the critical text; facsimile transcripts of the two manuscripts of the Book of Mormon (the original manuscript and the printer’s manuscript).