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Defending the Faith: Top Book of Mormon expert Royal Skousen to lecture

Published: Thursday, Feb. 7 2013 5:00 a.m. MST

Readers along Utah’s Wasatch Front will have a rare opportunity to hear from the foremost expert on the history of the text of the Book of Mormon between late February and the middle of March.

In a series titled “25 Years of Research: What We Have Learned about the Book of Mormon Text,” professor Royal Skousen will discuss “The Original and Printer’s Manuscripts” (Tuesday, Feb. 26), “The Printed Editions” (Tuesday, March 5) and “The Nature of the Original Text” (Tuesday, March 12).

A professor of linguistics and English language at BYU, Skousen is the founder of the “analogical modeling” approach to linguistics and the author of several technical books on that subject. He has taught at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of California at San Diego, served as a Fulbright lecturer at the University of Tampere in Finland (he is fluent in Finnish), done research as a fellow of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands, and, since 2003, served as an associate editor of the “Journal of Quantitative Linguistics.”

Among Latter-day Saints, though, he’s best known for having devoted a quarter of a century to meticulous study of the creation of the English text of the Book of Mormon and its transmission thereafter.

There is, quite simply, no person on the planet who knows more about this subject than Royal Skousen, and there never has been. He’s published the results of his research in numerous articles and several large volumes, as well as in his Yale University Press edition of “The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text,” which appeared in 2009.

And his findings are fascinating.

Glitches that have crept into the text through nearly two centuries of copying and printing shouldn’t lessen confidence in the Book of Mormon, says Skousen. Absolutely no saving doctrine is affected. In fact, his study has left him more and more impressed with the consistency of the text as it was originally dictated. What he calls its “systematic” nature becomes powerfully obvious, he argues, as scribal errors and printing mistakes are stripped away.

The evidence, Skousen says, strongly supports the traditional Latter-day Saint view of the Book of Mormon as a text that was orally dictated by Joseph Smith to a scribe, but that the Prophet Joseph didn’t write and with which he was unfamiliar before he dictated it. Furthermore, Skousen argues, the text contains “Hebraisms” — that is, constructions that are awkward or unusual in English but that seem to reflect an underlying original Hebrew or closely related Semitic language.

Here’s a small sampling of other findings:

In current printed editions of 1 Nephi 12:18, we’re told that “a great and terrible gulf divideth," "the children of men," "even the word of the justice of the Eternal God.” In the original manuscript, though, it’s the “sword” of God’s justice that does the dividing.

The devil is probably the “proprietor of hell” rather than its “preparator” (as 1 Nephi 15:35 reads in our current English editions).

In 1 Nephi 15:36, the wicked should be “separated from the righteous” rather than “rejected from” them.

In Alma 19:30, the Lamanite queen “clapped” her hands for joy when she came out of the trance that caused her conversion. She didn’t merely “clasp” them demurely.

At Alma 43:13-14, careful textual research eliminates a potential problem regarding population: According to the current printed text, the “descendants” of the priests of Noah were, somewhat improbably, “as numerous nearly as were the Nephites” altogether. However, in the original manuscript, Oliver Cowdery wrote “desenters,” which became “descendants” but should almost certainly read “dissenters.” In other words, by themselves the offspring of the priests of Noah didn’t almost equal the numbers of the Nephites. But their alliance with the Amlicites and the Zoramites did.

Intriguingly, too, Skousen (a specialist, be it remembered, in linguistics and the English language) contends that the language of the Book of Mormon isn’t Joseph Smith’s early 19th-century dialect, but English of the 1500s and 1600s. Indeed, certain elements of Book of Mormon vocabulary may derive from a period prior to the King James Bible — which is certainly something to ponder.

Sponsored by the Laura F. Willes Center for Book of Mormon Studies and the Harold B. Lee Library, the lectures will be held at 7 p.m. in the Gordon B. Hinckley Center on the BYU campus.

Daniel C. 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. He is the founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org, the general editor of “Interpreter."

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