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Grant Hardy
Tuesday, November 16 2010

The Book of Mormon and the Manuscripts

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When the King James Bible was first published in 1611, it was based on the best Hebrew and Greek manuscripts that were available to the translators.  In the four centuries since then, thousands of biblical manuscripts and fragments have been discovered.  Perhaps the most exciting of these new finds were the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were nearly a thousand years older than anything that scholars had ever seen before.  Because these early manuscripts were copied by hand, they all differed slightly from each other, and in some cases they preserved readings that were superior to those that underlie the King James Version.  Most of the differences are rather minor, but there are gems among them (though one has to consult modern translations to gain access to them).

Here are four quick examples:

2 Samuel 13:21-22.  The story of Absalom killing his brother Amnon for raping his sister Tamar is grim in any version, but the KJV simply has, “when king David heard of all these things, he was very wroth.  And Absalom spake unto his brother Amnon neither good nor bad; for Absalom hated Amnon, because he had forced his sister Tamar.”  But notice the key narrative element added by the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Septuagint (an ancient Greek translation), and various manuscripts: “When King David heard of all these things, he became very angry, but he would not punish his son Amnon, because he loved him, for he was his firstborn. But Absalom spoke to Amnon neither good nor bad; for Absalom hated Amnon . . .” (New Revised Standard Version).  Sometimes, as David tragically learned, looking upon sin with leniency only leads to further, more serious problems.

Psalms 145:13.  The KJV, following 15th century Hebrew texts, reads “Thy kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and thy dominion endureth throughout all generations.”  The Dead Sea Scrolls has the same reading, but it adds another sentence, so that the complete verse is: “Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures through all generations.  The Lord is faithful to all his promises and loving toward all he has made” (New International Version).  There are no new doctrines taught in this recently recovered sentence, but to those who love the word of God, every line of scripture is precious.  (Similarly, the NSRV includes at the end of 1 Sam. 10 an entire paragraph from the Dead Sea Scrolls that was lost from the later texts on which the KJV was based.)

Matthew 5:22.  Modern translations delete the phrase “without a cause” from this verse (KJV: “I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment”), because it does not occur in the oldest and most reliable manuscripts.  It is similarly absent in the Book of Mormon version of the Sermon on the Mount (3 Ne. 12:22), thus providing a remarkable witness of the authenticity of that text.

1 John 4:19.  In the KJV, John teaches that because Christ, in performing the atonement, took the first step toward reconciliation, we can respond to his freely offered love and love him in return: “We love him, because he first loved us.”  Modern translations all follow better Greek manuscripts which universalize the first phrase: “We love, because he first loved us.”  In other words, the power of the atonement allows us to love not just God, but everyone else too.

The reconstruction of more accurate base texts for the Bible is one of the great scholarly achievements of the past century.  In fact, scholars at BYU have been involved in analyzing the Dead Sea Scrolls and one professor there, Donald Parry, has been invited to participate in creating the next edition of the Biblia Hebraica—the standard scholarly edition of the Hebrew Bible that is used by Jews, Catholics, and Protestants alike.  For Latter-day Saints who, along with Joseph Smith, “believe the Bible as it read when it came from the pen of the original writers” (HC 6:57), this is thrilling stuff.

It is also exciting that the Book of Mormon has begun to receive the same sort of scholarly attention in the work of Royal Skousen, a professor of linguistics at BYU.  For the last two decades he has been working on the Critical Text Project of the Book of Mormon (a critical text is one that is based on the analysis of manuscripts).  Unlike the Bible, for which there are thousands of manuscript fragments, the Book of Mormon is based on just two handwritten copies: the original manuscript, which was primarily written by Oliver Cowdery as Joseph Smith dictated the words of the Nephite record by revelation, and the printer’s manuscript, a copy that was made in order to keep the original safe during the typesetting process.  As is always the case, a few errors were introduced in the course of taking dictation, copying, and typesetting,

Recovering the earliest readings would be relatively easy if we still possessed the original manuscript intact, but Joseph put it in the cornerstone of the Nauvoo House in 1841.  When it was taken out some forty years later, it had suffered considerable water damage and only 28% has survived.  By contrast, the entire printer’s manuscript has been preserved by the Community of Christ (formerly the RLDS Church), so it is often possible to reconstruct what was in the original manuscript even for those parts that are now missing.  Skousen’s analysis has also demonstrated that the last sixth of the 1830 edition (Helaman 13:17 through Moroni 10:34) was set from the original manuscript, which means that for that portion of the text, the printer’s manuscript and the 1830 edition are equal witnesses for what was written in the original manuscript.

In 2001, FARMS published Skousen’s meticulous transcription of the extant original manuscript and the printer’s manuscript, and then from 2004 to 2009 they released six large volumes of textual analysis in which he considered over 5000 variations in the manuscripts and twenty printed editions.  Just last year, Skousen published his scholarly

reconstruction of the earliest text of the Book of Mormon with Yale University Press—which is an indication of how important this project is not just to Latter-day Saints, but to historians and scholars of religion. 

The Yale edition of the Book of Mormon contains several hundred readings that have never appeared in any previous editions, including 216 that were found only in the original manuscript, 187 from the printer’s manuscript (where the original is not extant), and 88 that were in both the original and printer’s manuscripts.  Most of these are simple variations of word choice or grammar or spelling that do not make a difference in the meaning (for instance, it appears that the chief judge Pahoran’s name was originally spelled as Parhoran), and none of them affect basic doctrine, but there are nevertheless some gems among them that add to our understanding of this sacred text.

Let me give you a dozen examples:

1 Nephi 12:18.  The current text reads “yea even the word of the justice of the Eternal God” while the original manuscript had “yea even the sword of the justice of the Eternal God”—which not only makes a little more sense but also connects to the tree of life imagery in the chapter (see Gen.


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