Part I: An Oral Document
In August 2005 when Pres. Hinckley made his invitation (which morphed to a commandment in some minds) to read the Book of Mormon by the end of the year we found Rex Campbell’s narration of the Book of Mormon, Doctrine & Covenants and Pearl of Great Price and started listening. Earlier that year (I think) at the Association For Mormon Letters symposium my brother Dennis Clark had suggested after a session on scripture that we might well consider the Book of Mormon as oral literature since Joseph dictated the translation. He also suggested, though maybe at a different time, that we ought to think about Joseph as a translator like any other translator, someone who knew the language he was translating from.
Ironically, while listening to Campbell’s narration I didn’t think a lot about
the Book of Mormon as an oral narrative. I didn’t start thinking about that
until I had started my second reading of Deseret Book’s 1980 1st Edition facsimile.
I started my first reading around the time we got to the Words of Mormon,
pulling out the facsimile to follow along. I wanted to see what the differences
were, the 3,000+ differences I had heard about. I didn’t listen long before
pulling out pen and paper. The book is roughly 7×4 1/2″ and I cut some paper to take notes on, and started cataloging the differences I noticed. About the time I got to Helaman I took 4 sheets folded in half and made booklets. My notes became more thorough.
When I finished I decided to read from I Nephi to Words of Mormon to see what I had missed. And I kept reading after that, and started noticing a strong oral rhythm, and a great deal of oral literature, prayers, sermons, orations, blessings, instruction, conversation, trash talk (so to speak).
The oral literature suggests a culture used to preserving and passing records
along orally, which also suggests that many of the records were recorded orally before beng engraved.
So why didn’t I notice the oral rhythm when I heard Rex Campbell reading the book? Or other times I’ve read it? Part of what makes the rhythm noticeable is the length of the sentences, paragraphs and chapters. As he wrote the dictation, Oliver Cowdery designated some chapters, which RLDS/Community of Christ editions still use–LDS editions use much shorter chapters–but didn’t punctuate or paragraph the manuscript. The typesetter, John H. Gilbert, did that and his sentences and paragraphs are often long.
Gilbert’s sentences can be half a page or more and a few paragraphs go on for pages. Later editions keep most of Gilbert’s sentences and punctuation–though where he used semicolons we favor Emily Dickinson’s beloved em-dashes. We don’t notice the long sentences as much as we would in the first edition, though, because our editions break many sentences up into 2 or 3 or more verses.
The Book of Mormon’s oral rhythm is marked by lots of polysyndeton–using many ands to join phrases and clauses into long sentences–but we don’t notice the oral rhythm or long sentences because when Parley P. Pratt divided Gilbert’s long paragraphs into verses he didn’t do it by sentence. Some verses have more than one sentence, and many sentences span several verses. Because we print each verse as an indented paragraph starting with a capital letter we tend to think of the basic unit of scripture as the verse rather than the sentence or paragraph. Versifying The Book of Mormon affected the meaning of the book–or the way we read it–more than all of the 3,000 textual changes combined.
11 thoughts on “Gadianton the Nobler, Reflecting on Changes in the Book of Mormon”
I’ve noticed that too. Perhaps that’s how I should read the BofM next—from my facsimile (or perhaps an RLDS edition) so I can experience the text in a new way. The unnaturalness of the verses does chop up the original structure, for better or for worse. One result is, I think, that it makes us read it as a series of religious pronouncements rather than as epic tales and sermons as it actually is.
I noticed the same thing when I read the Tyndale version of the New Testament. The King James Version was largely based on the Tyndale translation, but the Tyndale version reads much more like a narrative. The minor changes to the text and the addition of verse segmentation makes the KJV feel much less natural.
One of the projects on my plate is a short-story collection that includes the KJV Esther. And you can bet I’ll be throwing out the verses and forming some more natural paragraphs.
Another thing about verses is how many readers define their reading by verse, whether in personal study or in a class. Taking part of a sentence alone in its own increases the likelihood of misinterpretation or no interpretation at all.
Interesting insight. Aside from seeing more traces of oral culture, what are some of the other differences you see in looking at the Book of Mormon this way?
In the FARMS mag several years back (2000?) they ran an article about the Maori. The gist was that the Maori read the BofM as a series of stories rather than a sequence of doctrinal verses and thus their take on it is quite different than the average Americans.
So I read through the Book of Mormon as quickly as I could, to try and gain a sense of its scope as story, as epic, et cetera. And it did provide a different sort of experience that has colored the way I’ve talked about the Book ever since.
Th. Thanks for your comments. One way to make a scripture new is to read in a foreign language. I have enough high school German and French to read Le Livre de Mormon and Das Buch Mormon. More than once I’ve found myself saying, “Is that really what the English says?” I came across someone’s missionary copy of the Luthertext des Neue Testament in a used bookstore about 25 years ago and bought it because Joseph Smith said Luther’s was the best translation he knew. Before I read it (twice) I don’t think I had read the NT through since Seminary, but I could recognize a lot of the phrasing and rhythms of the KJV, so I suspect King James’s scholars knew the Luthertext.
Th. and Stephen, thanks for your comments about versification. Royal Skousen says in Analysis of Textual Variants in the Book of Mormon, Part One, that the book has been divided into chapters and verses 4 times, “the 1852 LDS system, followed by the 1874 RLDS edition; the 1879 LDS system, followed by all subsequent LDS editions; the 1892, and the 1908 RLDS system, followed by all subsequent RLDS editions” (p. 12). Some, maybe most, of the smaller churches use editions published by the larger churches. My copy of RLDS 1955 has a rubber stamp inside the cover that says CHURCH OF CHRIST / (TEMPLE LOT) / 10068 CLAIRMONT DR. / ST. LOUIS 21 MO.
We split texts into verses for ease of reference and study. Once you versify a text it’s a lot easier for people with different editions or copies to find the same passage. Versification can certainly change the way we read a text and think about it, but I think our problem of reading verses as discrete units is partly a typographical problem. There are a lot of Bible editions editions that superscript the verse numbers within a paragraph so they’re a lot less obtrusive.
Another problem is that the Hebrew Bible is very long and if you print it in two columns to save paper you don’t format it as poetry, so a lot of people don’t realize how much of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles are poetry. Willis Barnstone says Yeshua as recorded in the Gospel of Mattai is one of the great world poets.
I’ve been reading the Jewish Publication Society translation of The Torah, and the versification looks pretty much the same, so it predates Christianity. Some of the footnotes in Willis Barnstone’s translation The New Covenant, Part 1, The Gospels and Apocalypse suggest that the verses indicate line breaks in the manuscripts they were versifying from.
Your comment about the Maori reading the Book of Mormon as a series of stories may mean that they don’t have an exegetical tradition like the western exegetical tradition. I’ll have a lot to say about the assumptions we make when we interpret texts in future postings.
Thanks for your question, Jonathan. I’ll talk more about what else I’m looking at in parts 2 and 3 of the overiew, which I’ll probably post on Monday. I’ve noticed a lot of poetry in the Book of Mormon besides the chiastic passages. The changes also suggest to me that Joseph wanted to revise the translation, but he felt such urgency to get it into print that he waited until the 2nd and 3rd editions. Also, I’ve learned from studying his grammatical errors that the Book of Mormon is a highly crafted literary work. The errors interrupt the flow of the work, but when they’re not there you don’t notice how smoothly it flows. I’m also going to be talking about modernizations. Around 1975 I was walking through the BYU Bookstore and noticed a Book of Mormon published by Harcourt Brace and Jovanovich. It has the preface to the RLDS 1966 modernization so I think it’s a reprint. It’s easier to read in some ways, but at some cost to the rhythm.
This is part of what I like about my Oxford edition of the Bible.
And this is another part of what I like.
Like you, I think reading multiple translations is helpful in broadening understanding. I’m fine with having a standard text (the KJV), but I do not like how some people treat other translations as unclean. Given the frequency with which other translations are quoted in General Conference, I think this is clearly an erroneous stance.
For those looking for a free e-text reader’s edition of the Book of Mormon Ben Crowder has created one.
I should also add that it’s great to see Harlow getting his feet wet with this whole blogging thing. I look forward to the future posts (although no pressure on timing — I have at least three blog posts series that I have yet to complete).