I have received several questions from friends and associates in relation to the recent release of Royal Skousen’s The Book of Mormon : The Earliest Text (New Haven, CT: Yale, 2009). This volume is the culmination of the Critical Text Project, an effort to reproduce through textual criticism, inasmuch as it is possible, the original text of the Book of Mormon as dictated. Most of the questions tend to revolve around what relationship this text might eventually have to the official edition (1981) presently in use. Will such a text usurp the present official edition? Will the selections made by Skousen ever find there way into a future official edition? Etc.
Since the “Introduction,” authored by Grant Hardy answers at least one of these questions quite admirably I thought it would be of use to those interested in this question, as well as those attempting to assess the value of this volume for purposes other than scholarly inquiry, to reproduce an excerpt therefrom:
It will be apparent that the original text is both more repetitive and less grammatical than the standard version. These qualities have always posed a problem for readers, and even for Joseph Smith himself. In his editing for the 1837 and 1840 editions, he made several thousand changes, virtually all grammatical or stylistic in nature, in an attempt to modernize the language. (He even removed forty-seven instances of the ubiquitous phrase “and it came to pass.”) Critics have often seized on these corrections to ask why a text claiming divine origins was not more eloquent, or to wonder why God would not have gotten things right the first time. These are theological rather than historical questions, and to his credit Skousen has edited both conservatively and unapologetically, by which I mean that he had been willing to follow the data wherever it leads, but only when there is a preponderance of evidence. The Earliest Text reverses most of Joseph Smith’s secondary editing.
One result of this choice is that it is very unlikely that the LDS church will ever adopt The Earliest Text as its official, canonical version. To do so would be to turn back on a path towards grammatical regularization begun by Mormonism’s first prophet. Moreover, the LDS church has concerns and priorities that take precedence over exact scholarly reconstructions. Skousen’s project has been done independently, without ecclesiastical approval or endorsement, but the church has nevertheless been supportive of his efforts, granting him complete access to the original manuscript and providing support from university resources. To once again cite the example of New Testament scholarship, it could be argued that the Greek text, as established in the Nestle-Aland twenty-seventh edition, has the best claim be being accepted as the canonized word of God, but most people will benefit from translations. So also, the current LDS edition of the Book of Mormon can be considered a translation of sorts into more standard English. (Grant Hardy, “Introduction” in The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text, Ed. Royal Skousen [New Haven, CT: Yale, 2009], pp. xix-xx. Hereafter “Introduction.”)
This statement sheds some light on several questions related to the relationship between The Earliest Text and the 1981 edition. First amongst these is revealed in the 1981 edition itself where an introductory piece entitled “A Brief Explanation About The Book of Mormon” notes:
About this edition: Some minor errors in the text have been perpetuated in past editions of the Book of Mormon. This edition contains corrections that seem appropriate to bring the material into conformity with prepublication manuscripts and early editions edited by the Prophet Joseph Smith.
The “concerns and priorities” of the “LDS church” are thus in part revealed, consistency with “prepublication manuscripts and early editions edited by the Prophet Joseph Smith” being among them. Therefore, since “The Earliest Text reverses most of Joseph Smith’s secondary editing” it is clear that it is not merely “very unlikely that the LDS church will ever adopt The Earliest Text as its official, canonical version” but virtually assured that The Earliest Text will never usurp an “edition contain[ing] corrections that seem appropriate to bring the material into conformity with prepublication manuscripts and early editions edited by the Prophet Joseph Smith.”
However, it should also be noted that many of the revisions are “quibbles over prepositions, articles, plurals, variant word forms, and so forth” and “do not seem to make much of a difference in meaning.” (Introduction, p. xix.) I would be a bit more cautious in my assessment and state only that the revisions do not alter meaning significantly but may in some cases alter the meaning subtly.
1981 Edition:That ye turn to the Lord with all your mind, might, and strength; that ye lead away the hearts of no more to do wickedly; but rather return unto them, and acknowledge your faults and that wrong which ye have done.The Earlist Text:that ye turn to the Lord with all you mind, might, and strength,that ye lead away the hearts of no more to do wickedly,but rather return unto them and acknowledge your faultsand repair that wrong which ye have done.
1981 Edition:And it came to pass that he sent a petition, with the voice of the people, unto the governor of the land, desiring that he should read it, and give him (Moroni) power to compel those dissenters to defend their country or to put them to death.The Earliest Text:And it came to pass that he sent a petitionwith the voice of the people unto the governor of the land,desiring him that he should heed itand give Moroni, power to compel those dissentersto defend their country or to be put to death.