September 21, 2009

Review: Royal Skousen's "The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text"

Author: Royal Skousen
Publisher: Yale University Press
Genre: Religion/Textual Criticism
Year: 2009
Pages: 789+ introduction, preface
Binding: Harcover
ISBN13: 9780300142181
Price: 35.00

Using his typically flowery prose, Oliver Cowdery described the exhilaration of assisting with Joseph Smith's translation of the Book of Mormon:

"These were days never to be forgotten—to sit under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven, awakened the utmost gratitude of this bosom! Day after day I continued, uninterrupted, to write from his mouth, as he translated...the history, or record, called 'The book of Mormon.'"1
Cowdery spent about sixty-five to seventy-five days writing Smith's dictation on the original manuscript before copying the entire book onto a printer's manuscript.2 In contrast, Royal Skousen's "Critical Text Project," a meticulous study of the Book of Mormon manuscripts and twenty printed editions has taken something like 7,300 days (over twenty years).

Overview of the "Critical Text" project:
Beginning in 1988 Skousen scoured the available sources and produced transcriptions of the original and printers manuscripts of the Book of Mormon. He noticed that Cowdery had committed about three errors per page as he copied from the original to the printers manuscript and decided a full analysis of variants was needed. Skousen analyzed letters, words, phrases, capitalization, spelling, punctuation, versification, deletions, insertions, corrections, handwriting, spacing, ink flow, and other aspects of the manuscripts to determine what the earliest text contained (The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text, pp. xvi-xvii. Hereafter the page numbers are cited in parentheses). Between 2004 and 2009 Skousen published six large volumes of "detailed, rational arguments for his editorial decisions concerning the original text, based on his reconstruction of the actions and intentions of scribes and editors, comparisons with other passages, statistics, biblical parallels [and] languages, early English usage and dialects, the writing habits of particular scribes, pronunciation, and typical errors of the eye or hand made in copying" (xvii).3 Overall, he analyzed "5,280 cases of variation (or potential variation)" and decided which words were original to Joseph's dictation (xxxv). Recognizing the bulky and costly nature of that series, Skousen decided to make his conclusions available in a readable and affordable one-volume format called The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text. Grant Hardy, a scholar who provides the book's preface,4 calls the book "the next-best thing" to being present during Joseph's dictation: "a real-time transcription of his revelation of the text" (xiv).

Overview of the Earliest Text:
The physical book is slightly hefty—about 800 pages—and bound so it can lay open and flat on a table. Grant Hardy's engaging introduction situates the Book of Mormon within the realm of world scripture by noting important similarities and differences with other sacred texts (vii-xxviii). Following a quick overview of the Book of Mormon narrative Hardy describes the circumstances of its production—including angelic visitation, the use of various scribes, a stone in a hat, and impressive speed. He describes Skousen's work and provides some examples of differences between the current LDS edition of the Book of Mormon and the original text, and the likely reasons for the difference. In 1 Nephi 13:24 the current phrase "the gospel of the Lord" should read "the gospel of the Lamb." The original manuscript reads "gospel of the land," which was changed in that manuscript to "Lord." Skousen argues a scribe misheard "land" for "lamb," and restores the originally dictated word. In another example an entire word is missing in the current text. Alma 39:13 says: "acknowledge the faults and that wrong that ye have done." The original text read "acknowledge the faults and repair that wrong that ye have done." Skousen discovered a stray ink blot that made "repair" look like "retain" (see p. xviii). Perhaps because the instruction to "retain that wrong" seemed like bad advice the copyist left the word out and Skousen returned it. Readers might enjoy discovering such variants themselves by comparing current Book of Mormon editions with Skousen's Earliest Text. Skousen also includes a useful appendix of "Significant Textual Changes" for quick reference (739-789) and a helpful genealogy-like chart of the different printed editions from 1830 to the present (744).

Hardy concedes that such discussion of variants may seem like trivial "quibbling" to some readers. However, he reasons, this is a book to which "millions of people are passionately devoted—it is scripture, after all, in which every word is considered a gift from God—and no amount of attention to detail is unwarranted" (xix). Some of Skousen's discoveries could easily be incorporated in a future (as yet unplanned) official LDS edition of the Book of Mormon, but Hardy explains why the Earliest Text itself won't become official (xx). The original text includes more repetitious language and less grammatical precision—even Joseph Smith desired a more polished text, which is why he personally helped edit the 1837 and 1840 editions, making "several thousand changes, virtually all grammatical or stylistic in nature" (xix). Hardy knows believers and outsiders may see the implications of Skousen's work differently, but believes the Earliest Text is "an indispensable tool" for the anyone interested in studying the beginnings of Mormonism. He closes the introduction noting three contexts for future studies: The Book of Mormon as Latter-day Saint scripture, American scripture, and increasingly, World scripture (xxi-xxvii).

The editor's preface (xxix-xlv) describes the sources Skousen used to compile the Earliest Text—two manuscripts and "twenty significant printed editions" (xxix). He explains his methods and several obstacles he faced. For instance, Skousen ideally accepted the earliest extant reading, but unfortunately the original manuscript was damaged and scattered; only 28 percent survives. Next, he could rely on the printers manuscript and the 1830 edition. When these differed he made his best effort at determining which was correct (acknowledging the occasional possibility that both could be wrong if they could be compared to the original manuscript).

Skousen also discusses what I see as the most troublesome aspect of the project: the manuscripts don't have paragraphs or punctuation (reflecting the nature of a dictated manuscript). John Gilbert, typesetter for the 1830 edition, was pretty accurate in describing the manuscript as "one solid paragraph, without a punctuation mark, from beginning to end" (xlii). Though Skousen believes Gilbert did a "credible job" and notes that subsequent editions of the Book of Mormon have generally followed his decisions, he decided to punctuate the Earliest Text himself from scratch (ibid.). With no revealed or dictated punctuation, Skousen had to decide how to make the book readable without doing unnecessary damage to the original dictation. He decided to use "sense-lines" by breaking up the lines of the text according to verbal phrases and clauses. The text reads something like this:

30   Behold, I speak unto you as though I spake from the dead,
       for I know that ye shall have my words.
31   Condemn me not because of my imperfection,
       neither my father because of his imperfection,
       neither them which have written before him,
       but rather give thanks unto God
       that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections,
       that ye may learn to be more wise than that which we have been.
(Mormon 9:30-31, p. 672).

The margins contain the versification of the current LDS edition which was added to the Book of Mormon by Orson Pratt in 1879 (xl). Originally, the Book of Mormon was not divided into verses and the chapters were divided differently. Skousen includes the current verse and chapter structure and the original chapter divisions are marked with a special symbol, alerting readers to the book's original structure.5 The reason I call this "troublesome" is because the placement of punctuation can change the entire meaning of a sentence.6 Skousen wanted the book to be readable and his decision was rather unavoidable; the sense-lines keep the idea of dictation at the forefront of the reader's mind. Skousen hopes the format "will help even longtime readers see the Book of Mormon from a fresh perspective," a commendable (and I believe fruitful) effort. Many Latter-day Saints will benefit from reading an edition of the Book of Mormon that differs from the double-columned footnote-heavy official LDS edition. Many scholars will be grateful to be one step away from the original dictation.

Skousen's Earliest Text is a "must" for anyone interested in studying the Book of Mormon deeply, differently, freshly, and otherwise. Indeed, these are days never to be forgotten, to sit and read the printed words that were written as they fell from the lips of the prophet. Knowing the countless hours and resources poured into this publication by a renowned professor of linguistics and English language has awakened the utmost gratitude of this reviewer's bosom!

 5 out of 5 plates

*Landmark publication
*Top-notch scholarship
*A fresh look at scripture
*Beautiful, affordable edition


Emphasis in original, Cowdery's letter was first published in the Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate, Vol. I. No. 1. Kirtland, Ohio, October, 1834, p. 14. The account is reprinted in the Pearl of Great Price as a footnote to Joseph Smith—History.

John Welch and Tim Rathbone settle on sixty-five to seventy-five workdays in "How Long Did It Take Joseph Smith to Translate the Book of Mormon?" John W. Welch, ed., Reexploring the Book of Mormon: The F.A.R.M.S. Updates (Deseret Book and F.A.R.M.S., 1992), pp. 1-8; Elden Watson, "Book of Mormon Translation Timeline" at To read more about the original and printer manuscripts see Royal Skousen, "Book of Mormon Manuscripts," Encyclopedia of Mormonism (Macmillan 1992), pp. 185-186. Skousen also describes the manuscripts in The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text (Yale University Press 2009), pp. xxix-xxx. 

Skousen's Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon, which consists of six parts (in six books!). A description of the project and its various parts is available in "12 Questions and a Book by Royal Skousen," Frank McIntyre, Times & Seasons blog, 6 September 2009. For more on the background of Skousen's work and some recommended articles he has published see Blair Hodges, "Royal Skousen's Critical Text Project and The Book of Mormon,", 20 August 2009.

Grant Hardy, chair of the history department at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, is also the editor of the excellent The Book of Mormon: A Reader's Edition. In his introduction he commends Skousen for bringing "the textual analysis of the Book of Mormon to a professional level on par with the finest classical and
biblical scholarship." For more, see "Hardy says Skousen Project 'on par with the finest classical and biblical scholarship,'", 31 August 2009.

Brant Gardner's excellent series Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 vols., (Kofford 2007-2008) makes full use of Skousen's work to show how the original chapter structure appears to have been consistent and deliberate. Pratt's divisions slightly damage the meaning and flow of the Book of Mormon narrative. For a more concise look at his conclusions, see Brant Gardner, "Mormon's Editorial Method and Meta-Message," FARMS Review 21:1 (2009), 83-105, or at

For one example of variant readings based on punctuation, check out my discussion, "Nephi's Scribal Error?,", 12 November 2008.


Loyd said...

My copy came in from Amazon last week. I also found his use of punctuation to be a little be problematic--especially considering the purpose of the book. I also wish he structured the book in the order it was most likely translated, beginning the text with Mosiah and placing the first several books at the end.

BHodges said...

I can't remember if he holds the Mosiah-first theory. I meant to mention that, Metcalfe has an article on it in one of the Signature volumes he edited. Good catch.

Jacob J said...

Very nice review, thanks.

Brant said...

There really was no way that Skousen could alter the order of the books, since his intent was to produce the earliest text of the Book of Mormon and the only text that was ever published uses the order we are familiar with. There is perhaps more analysis that might be made about what is missing, but that is speculation and his text is based on what he can document.

If we have to be careful of our definitions, it is the earliest text of the English Book of Mormon. From what I have seen of the way Skousen works, I don't think he would even entertain attempting to reconstruct what was on the plates themselves (except as his hypothesis of tight translation would suggest that the English text really is representative of those plates).

Loyd said...

Perhaps then the subtitle "Earliest Text" is a bit misleading then. I don't have my copy with me right now, but if I recall from what I read in his preface correctly, it seems that Skousen was not trying to provide the earliest text (as in written text), but was rather trying to reproduce the actually words spoken by Joseph Smith. If this is the case, then it seems that the text in the book should have been printed in the order it was given.

This is especially true for a critical edition which is supposed to have academic value. To place 1 Nephi at the beginning of the text seems to imply that there was in fact an original ancient text that Joseph was translating--something which I believe should have been bracketed out of this edition.

Furthermore, for this text to have even more academic value, structuring the books in the order that they would have been dictated by Joseph gives scholars a more "correct" look at the text as it was given, enabling scholars to look at the intrarelational structures of the text.

BHodges said...

Loyd, I wonder if Skousen talks about this in the Critical Text volumes.

BHodges said...

Incidentally, there's an ongoing project to put together a critical text of the Qur'an using the oldest available manuscripts.

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