PROVO — The nature of the original text of the Book of Mormon was the focus of Royal Skousen, a professor of linguistics at BYU, during the conclusion of his lecture series on the original and printer's manuscripts of the Book of Mormon on March 12.
Daniel C. Peterson, a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, acknowledged the work Skousen has done with the critical text project. Peterson expressed the benefits he has seen because of Skousen's work.
"Without (the critical text project) we would still be at the mercy of critics shouting about the number of changes made to the Book of Mormon text after its first printing, claiming both that our failure to acknowledge those changes demonstrates a cover-up, and that the sheer fact of the changes proves Joseph Smith a false prophet," Peterson said during his introduction for Skousen. "We now know far more than they ever bothered to learn about the nature of those changes, and we know that the changes are anything but faith destroying."
Peterson also mentioned the strict and professional behavior that Skousen maintained throughout the project.
"Although he is a deeply believing Latter-day Saint, he has maintained — successfully from the very beginning — that the project must be run according to the most rigorous academic principles," Peterson said.
The Book of Mormon is considered another testament of Jesus Christ for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a companion the Bible. It was translated by Joseph Smith from gold plates with the help from several scribes.
Skousen discussed the original manuscript, conjectural emendations or changes that had been made to the text, and the nature of the original English language text. Skousen recounted that only 28 percent of the original text is available. Joseph Smith had placed the original manuscript in the cornerstone of the Nauvoo House and, once it was recovered, mold and other natural causes had destroyed much of the copy.
But through the 28 percent of the original copy and by also using the printer's manuscript, Skousen has been able to identify where and why some changes took place.
Several specific examples were given, such as the text in 1 Nephi 12:18. In the original text the verse read, "And a great and a terrible gulf divideth them; yea, even the sword of the justice of the Eternal God."
"The word is 'sword,' but (scribe) Oliver (Cowdery) misread it," Skousen said during the last lecture on March 19. "It was mis-copied by him as 'word.' "
Skousen explained how he was able to view the original copy of this section in order to determine the possible misreading.
"We had the original, and people had read it, and I misread it myself as 'word' because of the way it was written by the scribe," Skousen said. "But if we look at the whole text, we will find that there are only references to the 'sword of the justice of God'; there are no examples in the text of the 'word of the justice of God.' "
Skousen suggested that the correction had never been made because "the word of the justice of God" also could make sense. But Skousen pointed out that he has never come across a change that conflicts with doctrine.
"Some people ask me, 'Do we ever find ones that change the doctrine?' and the answer is no," Skousen said. "There have been none that have changed the doctrine, but there have been a few which restore the correct teachings and the doctrine."
An example of such corrections can be found in Alma 39:13. According to Skousen, the original text read, "... but rather return unto them, and acknowledge your faults and repair that wrong which ye have done."
Skousen explained that in this verse, Alma is telling Corianton that he is supposed to go back to the Zoramites and acknowledge his faults and repair what he has done wrong.
"What happened on this particular page in the original manuscript is that when Oliver got done writing it, he dropped ink — little ink drops are all over this page," Skousen said.
It just so happened that some ink had dropped on the word "repair," causing the "p" to look like a "t." Skousen also explained that Cowdery often looped his "r's" down, causing it to look similar to the letter "n."
"Once the typesetter set Gadianton the robber as Gadianton the nobler," Skousen said. "It's one of the best readings in the 1830 because he misread Oliver's 'r' as an 'n.' "
But with the combination of the drops of ink and the letter "r," "repair" easily looked like "retain."
"Oliver himself misread this one once the big, heavy ink blob was there, and he read it as 'retain,' " Skousen said. "It sat there in the Book of Mormon until the 1920 edition."
It wasn't until Elder James E. Talmage, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve until his death in 1933, and the committee pondered the meaning of the word "retain" for the 1920 edition that it was ultimately removed from the text. Skousen expressed the benefits that just this one example can bring.
"'Restore" and 'repair' then means that the full notion of repentance appears in this statement, instead of just part of it," Skousen said. "So it doesn't change any doctrine, but it's reaffirming the true doctrine that we know."
A display of the critical text project is available to view at the L. Tom Perry Special Collections section at the Harold B. Lee library at BYU. Some early editions of the Book of Mormon, along with materials and artifacts of the critical text project, are included in the display.
Sarah Sanders Petersen is an intern for Deseret News where she writes for Mormon Times and other feature articles. She is a communications major and editing minor from Brigham Young University.
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