Introduction to Textual Variants
Typographical errors are not the only source of textual variants, typographical practices also contribute. Take a piece of paper and fold it horizontally in the middle, then fold it again vertically in the middle. This gives you 8 pages. Go through and write the page number on each page. Now unfold the sheet and look where the page numbers are.
If you held the sheet facing you to make the first fold page 1 will be the lower right hand corner on the back, page 8 in the lower left hand corner, with page 5 upside down above page 8 and page 4 upside down above page 1. On the other side of the sheet you’ll have 2 and 7 in the lower left and right respectively and 3 upside down above 2 with 6 upside down above 7.
Folding the sheet twice produces a quarto, but the Book of Mormon was printed as an octavo, meaning the printer folded the sheet a third time, to produce a signature of 16 pages. Or, depending on the size of the sheets he was using Egbert Grandin may have used two sheets to produce a signature 7 1/2″ x 4 1/2″.
In his elegant and breezy discussion of the First Folio in Shakespeare: The World as Stage Bill Bryson explains that all this folding means that pages weren’t typeset sequentially. The compositor had to figure out which text was going to appear on which page before the typesetter began setting the type. The estimate was not always accurate and typesetters sometimes left out letters or words or whole lines to make pages end where they should.
When The Book of Mormon was published printing practices had not changed dramatically in the time since Shaxberd. (There would be some big changes within 30 or 40 years. For a discussion of printing practices in Joseph Smith’s time and the changes that affected the 4th and later editions see Douglas Campbell’s “White Versus Pure: Five Vignettes, Dialogue Volume 29, Number 4, Winter 1996, 119-131. )
Typesetters still left letters or words out, which can change the meaning of a passage, even if the change is only subtle.
I love the story where Alma is preaching on the hill Onidah and a group of poor people comes up behind him and asks where they can go to worship because they aren’t permitted in the synagogues. Alma literally turns his back on the others, who presumably aren’t terribly receptive, because he doesn’t turn back to them. (I mean literally literally not figuratively. I am fascinated by the many instances in scripture where actions are both literal and symbolic, or where a figure of speech plays out in the physical world, as in this passage, Alma 32:6-7.)
Alma teaches them that they can exercise faith anywhere, even if they don’t have a building to meet in and quotes Zenos to that effect, a moving discourse meant to comfort outcasts. So why does he scold them immediately after quoting Zenos? “Now behold, my brethren, I would ask if ye have read the scriptures?” (Alma 33:14). Granted, it’s a mild scolding, but why scold at all? Shouldn’t he be encouraging them to read the words of Zenos rather than scolding them for not reading their scriptures at all. The subtle rhetorical shift in the passage has puzzled me for a long time.
My recent big-0 birthday coincided with Statebird Book offering Royal Skousen’s typographical facsimile of The Original Manuscript of the Book of Mormon, and parts 1 & 2 of his Analysis of Textual Variants in the Book of Mormon for half price, or about $80 for all three. With some birthday money I bought them. So, when I got to the bottom of page 317, lines 42-43 in my 1st edition facsimile I checked it against the original manuscript (OM), which is extant for this passage, and it reads “these scriptures.” So Alma is not scolding them, he’s asking them if they are aware of the scriptures that can comfort them.
So what happened? Well, here’s 317:42,
Now, behold, my brethren, I would ask, if ye have read the
The end of the line happened, and John H. Gilbert needed two spaces. He hadn’t had to add any spaces to justify the line, so he couldn’t take any out, so he dropped two letters rather than having to go back and add 4 spaces to fully justify the line. Our current text reads,
Now behold, my brethren, I would ask if ye have read the
If he had taken out those two commas later editors removed Gilbert could have written these, but maybe he was rushed for time. I went over to Statebird Book and checked the FARMS (I’m just going to leave out the periods) preliminary Critical Text (that wasn’t half price), which was published a few years after the 1981 Book of Mormon edition, and this variant appears there. I hope after Skousen and his group have finished their work the Church will publish a new corrected text including this variant.
I have another couple of examples, but I think I’ll leave them for Part III.