Seeking Joseph Smith's Voice
Kevin L. Barney
I suspect that I was invited to participate in reviewing and commenting on the first volume of the commentary phase of Royal Skousen's Book of Mormon critical text project in part because I am in print as having some different views regarding Book of Mormon translation theory than Skousen does. Skousen is on record as preferring what he calls a "tight control" model of the translation, namely, that the English text of the Book of Mormon is a rather literal translation that closely follows its original language exemplar written on the gold plates. In contrast, I prefer what I call "eclecticism," which means that I do not approach the text with a single translation model in mind but remain open as to whether a given passage reflects tighter or looser control, or even midrashic embellishment, on the part of Joseph Smith as the modern translator. Rather than approach the text with an ideological commitment to how the translation relates to the underlying text in every instance, I prefer to simply follow the evidence as I see it in each particular passage, evidence that sometimes may point in one direction and other times in another. One of the more concrete ramifications of this difference of perspective is that I see Book of Mormon Isaiah variants as tending to revolve around the italicized expressions in the text of the King James Version (KJV), whereas Skousen does not.1
So if this were a book on underlying Book of Mormon translation theory, I would bring a different point of view to the table. But it is not. Rather, this book is a work of "lower criticism," part of a series dedicated to establishing, to the greatest extent possible, the original English text of the Book of Mormon as it was dictated in 1829. And on that subject, I see very much eye to eye with Skousen. I hope this fundamental agreement is not a disappointment to anyone, but in fact I am a great fan of the critical text project as a whole, and this commentary volume in particular. I think the project has been much needed, well conceived, and rigorously executed. My overarching reaction is to lavish all the praise I can muster for the work Skousen has done and is continuing to do on the Book of Mormon text.
The introduction (pp. 3–24) is both clear and concise.2 This is a particular virtue because it allows the reader to quickly and easily get into the meat of the commentary itself. I found that after reading just a few pages of the commentary, I had the methodology down and did not feel the need to constantly refer back to the introduction for an explanation of what Skousen was doing. I did, however, appreciate that the volume came with a bookmark-size card that summarizes the sigla used in the commentary; such cards have become an expected convenience to be included with critical texts that make use of numerous symbols. I especially liked how Skousen, after each description, gives a quick and concise synopsis of his reasoning and conclusion as to which reading to accept.
To be a good textual critic requires expertise in the relevant languages. Inasmuch as this project is not trying to look behind the original English text of the Book of Mormon, there is only one relevant language here, and that is English. Skousen is a professor of linguistics and English language at Brigham Young University, so he is well equipped for the task. I also thought he employed an appropriately light touch when it came to comments on possible Hebrew influence, generally as mediated through the KJV. A good example of this is in the 1 Nephi preface (pp. 49–50), where he is trying to decide between "they call the place Bountiful" and "they call the name of the place Bountiful." As I began to read that comment, I immediately suspected that the variant "name of the" reflected a common Semitic pleonasm. But Skousen's assistant, David Calabro, points out that both the pleonastic (as in Genesis 35:15) and nonpleonastic (as in Genesis 35:7) constructions are attested in Hebrew as reflected in the KJV, so reliance on what appears at first blush to be a Semitic pleonasm is not a safe basis for textual reconstruction. Skousen only occasionally refers to Hebrew usage as possible evidence, and when he does so he does it conservatively, keeping the emphasis where it should properly be: on the English manuscript and versional evidence. He comments on the Hebrew more directly with respect to the Isaiah quotations in 1 Nephi 20–21 and 2 Nephi 7–8, but again, his emphasis is properly on comparing the Book of Mormon text to the English of the King James Bible. I also noted a few places where Skousen could have used the Joseph Smith Translation (JST) as a further control for his position (for instance, in the tendency to modernize the relative pronoun which when it had a personal antecedent by replacing it with who [p. 29]), but Skousen already had an ample supply of more direct evidence and did not really need the further-afield JST evidence to make his case.
Textual criticism often seems counterintuitive to one who is not experienced in it. As I read this commentary, I was pleased to see that Skousen is obviously a fine textual critic who consistently makes appropriate decisions and exercises sound judgment. Some illustrations where Skousen did the right thing, even if it might leave some readers scratching their heads, include the following:
Much of what Skousen discusses in such detail may seem like so many trifles to the casual reader. For instance, on page 113 he begins to spend nearly four pages on distinguishing between in and into. While such a difference may be immaterial to most readers, to Book of Mormon scholars much can hang on such seemingly trifling distinctions. Skousen's willingness to go to such lengths to establish the text testifies to the importance the Book of Mormon has achieved as a religious text.
Perhaps the most difficult—and dangerous—terrain for a textual critic to traverse is the conjectural emendation, which is a speculative attempt to solve a textual problem in the absence of hard manuscript evidence. Failure to engage in at least some conjectural emendation is a failure to take the job of textual critic seriously. But engaging in too many flights of whimsical textual fancy is even more problematic. I found that Skousen approaches necessary conjectural emendations with a very appropriate, conservative methodology. To illustrate:
I almost invariably agreed with Skousen's reasoning and conclusions. There were, however, a couple of counterexamples. The first has to do with the attribution of the work at the end of the title page. He rejects the evidence from the earliest sources for "by Joseph Smith Junior author and proprietor" in favor of "translated by Joseph Smith Junior." I found his analysis needlessly defensive here. Everyone knows that the "author and proprietor" wording had a copyright background, as he rightly explains. That some anti-Mormons have tried to turn this into an argument that Joseph did not really translate the book is just plain silly. Skousen defends this change on the grounds that the attribution is not part of the original text of the Book of Mormon, which is true, but if he is going to comment on it anyway and make a textual judgment about it, he should still approach it from a sound text-critical perspective. In my view, the wording he prefers is clearly secondary and should not be part of the critical text. Of course, one of the virtues of Skousen's commentary is that he fully explains the situation, so that even if one disagrees with his ultimate choice, as I do here, one has the information and analysis readily available to form one's own judgment.
I also had a minor quibble with his treatment of the strait versus straight issue beginning on page 174. First, I found it curious that Skousen chose not to cite previous treatments of this issue, including his own in the pages of this journal.3 Second, I thought he relied a little too heavily on the redundancy of "strait and narrow path" as an argument for the nonredundant "straight and narrow path." If this were simply English literature, the redundancy of the expression would be strong evidence against it; but Hebraic literature tends by its nature to be formulaic and repetitive.4 Skousen notes that in Matthew 7:14, "because strait is the gate//and narrow is the way," the adjectives strait//narrow are modifying different terms, gate//way, which is true. But formularity that finds expression in a parallel collocation, such as strait//narrow does in the Matthew passage, often results in the same terms being used elsewhere in nonparallel juxtapositions as well, such as the syndetic "strait and narrow path" would be.5 This is a minor point because I agree with Skousen's ultimate conclusion, but in my calculus I would weight the parallels with biblical passages deriving from the language of Isaiah 40:3 as more probative than the argument from redundancy.
As I read the commentary, it occurred to me that Skousen's work might actually succeed in bringing LDS and RLDS (now Community of Christ) editions of the Book of Mormon closer together in the future. Historically, Book of Mormon editions have been produced by sectarian committees along separate denominational lines. But Skousen's work takes into account prior editions from both traditions, and his lodestar is sound text-critical scholarship, with no place for sectarian bias. While I anticipate that, for the foreseeable future, Latter-day Saint editions will continue to be based on Orson Pratt's versification system and Community of Christ editions will not, I would not be at all surprised to see the editions produced by the two groups come closer together in their textual readings as a result of having the solid framework of a well-established critical text that Skousen is in the process of providing.
Also, as I read I entertained the (possibly fanciful) notion that the tools Skousen is in the process of giving us for Book of Mormon textual criticism may actually be superior to what we have for the Bible itself. For instance, the standard critical text of the Hebrew Bible, Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia,6 is woefully inadequate in its recitation of evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls (a new and improved edition is in the process of preparation), and Bruce M. Metzger's A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament,7 while a wonderful tool, is nowhere near as extensive or detailed as Skousen's work. I finally concluded, however, that in many respects this was an unfair, apples-to-oranges comparison, given the vastly greater number of witnesses, the greater antiquity of the sources, and the different languages involved in biblical textual criticism as compared with the textual criticism of the Book of Mormon. Still, I think Skousen's work stacks up quite well against the biblical materials with which I am familiar.
I must confess a certain disappointment with Skousen's decision not to produce an actual critical edition of the Book of Mormon, as he initially had contemplated in his essay "Towards a Critical Edition of the Book of Mormon" in BYU Studies.8 I have seen enough of the critical text project now to feel quite comfortable that all of the basic information will be made available through his chosen format in this series, and I have every intention of collecting all of the future volumes as they are issued. But I would still like to see an actual critical edition in print at the conclusion of the critical text project, preferably in a smaller format than the large volumes of the series so far, and for an inexpensive price. Such a volume could serve as a sort of summary of the conclusions Skousen has reached through the project as a whole, it would be accessible and within the buying power of students, and it would be portable (much like the critical editions produced by the United Bible Societies), something one could stick in a briefcase or read on a plane. I hope that Skousen has not completely closed the door on the possibility of issuing such an edition at the conclusion of the critical text project.
In conclusion, I was deeply impressed by this commentary. Skousen's linguistic control of the English language and his rigor in dealing with the textual materials was nothing short of masterful. This is an ongoing, seminal work in Latter-day Saint scholarship, and a standard against which subsequent text-critical studies of Mormon scripture will be judged. The bar has been set exceedingly high. I would like to finish by expressing to Skousen and those who have worked with him on this project my heartiest congratulations for a job very, very well done. Even casual students of the Bible have long had easily accessible the tools necessary to study it closely from a text-critical perspective; it is about time that the Book of Mormon joined the Bible's company in that regard. Skousen's text-critical scholarship is, in my judgment, well worthy of its object, the Book of Mormon, which is high praise indeed.
1. This difference in perspective can be seen by comparing on the one hand Royal Skousen, "Textual Variants in the Isaiah Quotations in the Book of Mormon," in Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, ed. Donald W. Parry and John W. Welch (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1998), 381–82, with David P. Wright, "Isaiah in the Book of Mormon: Or Joseph Smith in Isaiah," in American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon, ed. Dan Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalfe (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), 159–69. Skousen alludes to this issue on page 426 of Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon, Part One: Title Page, Witness Statements, 1 Nephi 1 – 2 Nephi 10 (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2004) but reserves full discussion for volume 3.
2. Skousen shows his age by using the letters DHC (p. 14) as an abbreviation for what used to be called the Documentary History of the Church. The contemporary practice is to use the abbreviation HC for History of the Church.
3. Noel B. Reynolds and Royal Skousen, "Was the Path Nephi Saw 'Strait and Narrow' or 'Straight and Narrow'?" JBMS 10/2 (2001): 30–33; and John W. Welch and Daniel McKinlay, "Getting Things Strai[gh]t," in Reexploring the Book of Mormon, ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1992), 260–62.
4. See James Muilenburg, "A Study in Hebrew Rhetoric: Repetition and Style," Supplements to Vetus Testamentum 1 (1953): 99.
5. See William R. Watters, Formula Criticism and the Poetry of the Old Testament, Beiheft zur Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 138 (New York: de Gruyter, 1976); and Kevin L. Barney, "Poetic Diction and Parallel Word Pairs in the Book of Mormon," JBMS 4/2 (1995): 15–81. In the terminology of James T. Duke, "strait + narrow" would be a "synonymous conjoined pair" (James T. Duke, "Word Pairs and Distinctive Combinations in the Book of Mormon," JBMS 12/2 : 32–41).
6. K. Elliger and W. Rudolph, eds., Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1977).
7. Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 3rd ed. (London: United Bible Societies, 1975).
8. Royal Skousen, "Towards a Critical Edition of the Book of Mormon," BYU Studies 30/1 (1990): 42–69.