Elegantly produced and weighing in at 652 pages, the first part of volume 4 in Professor Royal Skousen's ongoing Book of Mormon critical text project has just come from the press. Volumes 1 and 2, containing transcripts of the original manuscript and the printer's manuscript of the Book of Mormon, were published by FARMS in 2001. Volume 3, which will describe the history of the Book of Mormon text from Joseph Smith's original dictation through the current standard editions, will appear after all parts of volume 4 have been published. Volume 3 will include a complete analysis of the grammatical editing of the Book of Mormon.
Entitled Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon, this fourth volume considers every significant change that has occurred in the English Book of Mormon over the 175 years since Joseph Smith first dictated it to his scribes; it also considers a number of conjectured revisions for specific passages. It draws not only upon the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon and upon the printer's manuscript prepared by Oliver Cowdery and two other scribes but also upon 20 significant printed versions ranging from the 1830 edition to the current standard editions published by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Community of Christ (formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints). In certain cases, Professor Skousen, an internationally known professor of linguistics and English language at Brigham Young University who has directed the Book of Mormon critical text project for the past 16 years, carefully analyzes evidence from usage elsewhere in the Book of Mormon to assist in establishing the original reading. Moreover, where applicable, he marshals additional evidence of language usage from dialectal and earlier English, as well as data from the King James Bible and the original biblical languages, Hebrew and Greek. His purpose throughout is, as precisely as human means permit, to recover the original English-language text of the Book of Mormon. Part 1 of volume 4 commences with the title page and the witness statements and then proceeds from 1 Nephi 1 through 2 Nephi 10. It thus represents approximately one-seventh of the Book of Mormon as we have it. Successive parts of volume 4 will be published at the rate of one per year over the next four years until the entire text is analyzed.
Here in part 1 of volume 4, Professor Skousen examines 774 cases of variation or potential variation in his quest to determine the original reading of the Book of Mormon text. In 420 instances, the current standard version varies from his proposed original text, and 157 of these have never appeared in any standard printed edition of the Book of Mormon. Most of the 420 differences involve variation in phraseology, but 75 of them alter the meaning in ways that would affect translation—though never in a manner that changes either doctrinal content or the fundamental meaning of the text.
One of the most important findings of the critical text project, says Professor Skousen, is that "the original text of the Book of Mormon is much more consistent in its usage and phraseology than the current standard text." Occasional errors of transmission have created what he terms textual "wrinkles," where novelties have been introduced instead of the words and phrases that are consistently found elsewhere in the text.
For example, in our current version, 1 Nephi 8:31 states that Lehi "saw other multitudes feeling their way" toward the tree of life. However, Professor Skousen observes that the original text is wholly consistent elsewhere in representing people as pressing, never feeling, their way. As it turns out and just as one might have expected, the original reading of 1 Nephi 8:31 explains that Lehi "saw other multitudes pressing their way" toward the tree of life. When Oliver Cowdery was preparing the printer's manuscript, he misread the handwriting in the original manuscript of the unknown scribe 3, mistaking pressing for feeling.
At 1 Nephi 10:10, the current text describes John the Baptist as having baptized the Lamb of God, "who should take away the sins of the world." But the original manuscript reads sin, in the singular. Elsewhere, the original Book of Mormon text normally speaks of the Savior as taking away the (plural) sins of mankind, but in the two places where it speaks of the atonement in connection with John's baptism of Jesus (here in 1 Nephi 10:10 and in 2 Nephi 31:4), it uses the singular sin—precisely as does John the Baptist himself in the New Testament (see John 1:29).
Other corrections include identifying the devil as the "proprietor" of hell at 1 Nephi 15:35, rather than as its "preparator," and changing the spelling of the name of a nonbiblical Old World prophet from Zenock to Zenoch (which, incidentally, is more acceptable as a Hebrew name).
An interesting case occurs at 2 Nephi 7:11, where the printer's manuscript has "behold all ye that kindleth fire." Professor Skousen argues persuasively that Oliver Cowdery misheard Joseph Smith's dictated "kindle a fire"—which, of course, sounds very similar—and notes it as evidence that the original manuscript, for which this portion of the text is missing, was, just as Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery always said it was, orally dictated rather than copied.
Professor Skousen's critical text project is a landmark of meticulous, painstaking academic research, representing a high point in the history of Latter-day Saint scholarship. For decades, detractors of the Book of Mormon have pointed to textual changes in the book as evidence of its falsehood. Now, at a level of careful scholarship far beyond anything ever produced on this subject by any critic of the book, Royal Skousen has shown, without having set out to do so, that the text of the Book of Mormon is even more impressive than believers have previously recognized.