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Defending the Faith: 'Earliest Text' a boon to readers

Published: Thursday, May 27 2010 12:00 a.m. MDT

Professor Royal Skousen, an internationally respected linguistic theorist based at Brigham Young University, has devoted more than two decades to intensive, meticulous study of the textual history of the Book of Mormon. His recent Yale University Press edition of the book is a very important product — though not the only product — of that dedicated engagement.

"The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text" (list price: $35) represents the bottom-line results of one of the most impressive and sustained individual scholarly undertakings in the history of Mormonism. The multiple volumes already published by Skou?sen through the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS, now part of BYU's Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship) are wonderful, and, for serious scholars of the Book of Mormon, they're indispensable.

But they're also very large, rather expensive, and … well, multiple. In other words, they're unwieldy for speedy reference, when one simply wants to see the text quickly in order to know the likely original reading of this or that passage.

There has long been a need for a single, convenient volume that would make the fruit of Skousen's labor readily accessible, and now it's here. Moreover, with its "sense-lines" and its superb physical characteristics (e.g., it easily stays flat on a table or a desk, even when opened virtually to the front or the back of the volume), "The Earliest Text" is a wonderful version for simply reading the book through. It's a great study edition.

What are "sense-lines"?

With the help of the national award-winning typographer Jonathan Saltzman, Skousen has laid the text of "The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Edition" out in a page-wide column on each of the volume's wide pages. It has then been divided into the standard verses, with the verse numbers placed visibly but unobtrusively in the left margin.

But, more than this, the verses have been divided into multiple lines, each line representing a significant, separate unit of thought. This may seem a small thing, and in some ways it is, but it substantially clarifies the flow of the text and greatly eases reading.

It's instructive to read the responses to the Yale edition of the Book of Mormon that appear on Amazon.com.

A Virginia woman writes, "This format makes my autistic daughter feel like she is reading shorter verses. She'll read huge chunks, as long as they are composed of 'short verses.' "

A reader in California reports that he has particularly enjoyed the sense-lines. "I have read the Book of Mormon many times, but after reading a couple of chapters I was always ready to quit. With the Earliest Text, I started to read it at the beginning — and before I knew it, I was at Chapter 4. … I didn't feel (the) stress in my reading which I usually feel while reading the double-column version in the standard edition. … I plan to always use the 'Earliest Text' for my daily reading."

"The Earliest Text" changes no doctrines, but it will almost certainly change the way even experienced readers of the Book of Mormon perceive and understand the book's sense and style. They will notice aspects of the book that they have previously overlooked. Their understanding will be enhanced.

In fact, although Skousen (himself a believer) has been a consummate scholar who has followed the evidence where it leads, never trying to skew or spin things in a faithful direction, many of those who study "The Earliest Text" carefully will find this edition faith-promoting — as well they should.

For one thing, it illustrates the remarkable consistency of the text as Joseph Smith dictated it, and it even contains Hebraisms that have been edited out of official editions over the years because, although they exemplify good Hebrew style, they're odd English.

As a reader from Michigan observes of "The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text" on the Amazon.com site, it "allows us to stand a bit closer to the words of the original revelation."

For those who believe that God intervened to restore lost scripture through Joseph Smith in the early 19th century, there can scarcely be any higher commendation than that.

Daniel Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative and as director of outreach for the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship.

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