Gadianton the Nobler, Reflections on Changes in The Book of Mormon

Introduction to Textual Variants
Part III

In Part II I discussed John Gilbert’s omission of two letters to justify a line. In this part I want to look at two other instances that may involve missing letters.

Joseph Smith began his discourse of Sunday October 15, 1843 with a comment on his love for the Constitution and its guarantees of religious freedom, but said there was one defect, that there was no way of ensuring that the people who were administering our freedoms would actually protect them, so that the US president wouldn’t say “Your clause is fully justified but I can do nothing for you to get those last two letters into the line.”

Joseph’s transition from speaking about Constitutional protections to speaking about textual errors is almost that abrupt. There’s a one-paragraph transition, and I think the transition is Joseph’s way of telling why his religion is unpopular:
Executive writs could be issued when they ought to be, and not be made instruments of cruelty to oppress the innocent, and persecute men whose religion is unpopular.

I cannot believe in any of the creeds of the different denominations, because they all have some things in them I cannot subscribe to, though all of them have some truth. I want to come up into the presence of God, and learn all things; but the creeds set up stakes, and say, “Hitherto shalt thou come, and no further;” which I cannot subscribe to.
[page break]
I believe the Bible as it read when it came from the pen of the original writers. Ignorant translators, careless transcribers, or designing and corrupt priests have committed many errors.
(Documentary History of the Church VI:56-57)

The DHC introduces this discourse, “The following synopsis was reported by Dr. Willard Richards.” This is somewhat fuller than the notes Willard Richards made in the Joseph Smith Diary (see The Words of Joseph Smith, compiled by Andrew F. Ehat & Lyndon W. Cook BYU Religious Studies Center, 1981 pp 254-55), so he probably fleshed his notes out soon afterward, but it’s still a synopsis, and Joseph’s transition may not have been as abrupt as it feels. But this was not the first time Joseph had made the connection between denying revelation and persecuting the Lord’s people, and Joseph was hardly the first prophet to make that connection.

In 2 Nephi 29, Nephi addresses the people who will reject his words, saying, “A Bible, a Bible, we have got a Bible and there cannot be any more Bible” (verse 3). Nephi answers them by explaining that the Lord speaks to many people and commands them to write their witness, then asks a question that strikes me as wonderfully Jewish in its rhetoric, especially if you give it a slightly ironic tone, “Wherefore murmur ye, because that ye shall receive more of my word?” (verse 8).

But before asking this question Nephi explicitly connects rejecting additional scripture with persecuting the Jews:
4 But thus saith the Lord God: O fools, they shall have a Bible; and it shall proceed forth from the Jews, mine ancient covenant people. And what thank they the Jews for the Bible which they receive from them? Yea, what do the Gentiles mean? Do they remember the travails, and the labors, and the pains of the Jews, and their diligence unto me, in bringing forth salvation unto the Gentiles?
5 O ye Gentiles, have ye remembered the Jews, mine ancient covenant people? Nay; but ye have cursed them, and have hated them, and have not sought to recover them. But behold, I will return all these things upon your own heads; for I the Lord have not forgotten my people.
6 Thou fool, that shall say: A Bible, we have got a Bible, and we need no more Bible. Have ye obtained a Bible save it were by the Jews?

Which is rather long introduction to a brief examination of two cases that might be careless transcriptions. I’ll talk more about why additional scripture and the idea that scripture has mistakes can be so disconcerting in Part 4.

Consider this passage from 412:10-13
And it came to pass in the forty and
sixth, yea, there were much contentions and many dissensions;
in the which there were an exceeding great many which de-
parted out of the land of Zarahemla,

If you compare this with Hel. 3:3 you’ll see examples of two changes Joseph Smith made exceeding many of in the 2nd and 3rd editions, which to who and exceeding to exceedingly:

And it came to pass in the forty and sixth, yea, there was much contention and many dissensions; in the which there were an exceedingly great many who departed out of the land of Zarahemla,

There’s also a change that doesn’t occur in RLDS 1955 Hel. 2:3 (RLDS and LDS chapters and versification differ), so I assume it was made after Joseph Smith’s death. The parallelism in “there were much contentions and many dissensions” has been changed, probably from the sense that much is singular and feels awkward with a plural noun. Rather than change much to many as a plural the editors (I’m guessing in 1912 or 1920, but I haven’t checked) made the verb and noun singular.

But there is something more interesting here in the change the editors did not make. Consider the way Chapter II of the first edition opens, 412:3-10:

AND now it came to pass in the forty and third year of the
reign of the Judges, there was no contention among the people
of Nephi save it were a little pride which was in the church,
which did cause some little dissensions among the people,
which affairs were settled in the ending of the forty and third
year. And there was no contention among the people in the
forty and fourth year; neither was there much contention in
the forty and fifth year.

The first three repetitions of “forty and _____ year” set up an ominous (in The Book of Mormon “save it were a little” is always ominous) parallelism. Why break the parallelism by dropping year in line 12 and replacing it with an emphatic yea?

And it came to pass in the forty and
sixth, yea, there was much contention and many dissensions;

Parallel repetition is a form of emphasis designed to help us remember, but there’s nothing to emphasize with a yea. Or rather the emphasis comes in line 13 in the word exceeding:

in the which there were an exceeding great many which de-
parted out of the land of Zarahemla, and went forth unto the
land northward to inherit the land;

Because of all this it is reasonable to assume that yea in line 12 is Oliver Cowdery’s scribal error, that he meant to write year, and that he didn’t catch the error when he copied the manuscript for John H. Gilbert, the typesetter.

I’ll conclude with one other example that might be a scribal error, or Gilbert leaving letters off.

The sentence on 417 lines 32-38 reads,
For as their laws and their governments were es-
tablished by the voice of the people, and they which chose
evil were more numerous than they which chose good, there-
fore they were ripening for destruction, for the laws had be-
come corrupted; yea, and this was not all; they were a stiff-
necked people, insomuch that they could not be governed by
the law nor justice, save it were to their destruction
(Hel. 5:2-3).

It’s likely that the laws in line 35 should be their laws, given how the phrase is used in lines 10, “their laws had become corrupted” (Hel 4:2), and 32. Also, the sentence is about their laws, and only refers to the law when it’s talking about the concept of law: “they could not be governed by the law nor justice.”

The original manuscript is not extant for this section, so I’m relying on my sense of how important parallel constructions are in The Book of Mormon. In Part 4 of this introduction we’ll talk a little more about the assumptions textual critics make, why textual criticism can seem disconcerting or threatening, and why it needn’t be.

5 thoughts on “Gadianton the Nobler, Reflections on Changes in The Book of Mormon”

  1. I don’t mean for that last sentence to sound ominous or suspense-building. I suspect most Latter-day Saints who have studied a few of Joseph Smith’s words are familiar with the comment about the errors of “ignorant translators, careless transcribers, or designing and corrupt priests,” and accept it as common sense. I’m always a bit surprised when I hear people arguing that because a text is an amalgamation or comes through several hands it’s not inspired–or when I hear people assume that those claiming a text passed through several hands are also claiming the text cannot therefore be inspired.

  2. .

    Naturally. I’m interested to hear your take on this question.

    I heard a presentation last week from someone who seems to feel that obvious errors in the Book of Moses prevent acceptance of Joseph as a prophet.

    I couldn’t accept his basic arguments at all. Anyone whose testimony hinges on something in our world being Perfect will always be disappointed.

  3. Theric, Thanks for the note. Around Christmas, by mistake, I received a review copy of Steven Harper’s Making Sense of the Doctrine and Covenants. Deseret Book apparently mixed up the list of books and reviewers, or my guardian angle (probably obtuse) inspired someone to send me that book. It’s a really fine piece of scholarship. Harper got a PhD in early American history so he could understand the background of the D&C, but the book really reminds me, especially the beginning, of the opening shots of To Kill a Mockingbird, where the camera pans over the treasures in a cigar box. He starts the book with “A Brief History of the Doctrine & Covenants,” particularly with the decision to publish the Book of Commandments (see Section 67). He says Joseph and his editors proceeded on the premise that,”Joseph represented the voice of God as He condescended to speak in what Joseph called his own crooked, broken, scattered, and imperfect language” (p.6). He also says, “It is important that the revelations are true, not that they are flawless” (p. 6). I’ve used that phrase as a key in considering textual changes in the Book of Mormon, and in thinking about revelation in general.

    I’ve heard the argument that a particular passage where the Book of Mormon quotes the Bible comes from a bad textual variant in the Bible, a variant we know was not in the original text, therefore it could not have appeared in a text dating from 600 BC or just after the Resurrection, therefore Joseph wrote the Book of Mormon rather than translating it. Without reading and studying the argument carefully my first impression is that such arguments may tell us what edition or printing of the Bible Joseph Smith used in translating the Book of Mormon, but not how.

    Joseph did not say a lot about how he translated. A useful summary of how little he said, and how much others said, is Richard Van Wagoner and Steve Walker, Joseph Smith: “The Gift of Seeing,” Dialogue 15:2, Summer 1982, 49-68. ( It occurs to me that perhaps he didn’t say a lot about it because he had learned by sad experience telling about his first vision to be circumspect in what he said about his other visions.

    In The Book of Commandments, the revelation to Oliver Cowdery in Chapter VII, verse 3 reads:

    “O remember, these words and keep my commandments. Remember this is your gift. Now this is not all, for you have another gift, which is the gift of working with the rod: behold it has told you things: behold there is no other power save God, that can cause this rod of nature, to work in your hands, for it is the work of God; and therefore whatsoever you shall ask me to tell you by that means, that will I grant unto you, that you shall know.”

    D&C 8:6-8 reads:
    6 Now this is not all thy gift; for you have another gift, which is the gift of Aaron; behold, it has told you many things;
    7 Behold, there is no other power, save the power of God, that can cause this gift of Aaron to be with you.
    8 Therefore, doubt not, for it is the gift of God; and you shall hold it in your hands, and do marvelous works; and no power shall be able to take it away out of your hands, for it is the work of God.

    Harper says that perhaps Joseph revised the wording for the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants because the Protestant tradition had developed a hostility toward the idea of physical objects as a means of revelation. When I read Walker and VanWagoner’s article I was initially offended at all the references to peeping into the hat, until I realized they weren’t talking about whether Joseph translated the Book of Mormon, but how. I mentioned that to Steve and he said, “We were offended too. This is not our usual picture of Joseph.”

    So perhaps Joseph didn’t say a lot about the physical objects that helped him translate because he didn’t want to sound even weirder than he already did, and it’s quite possible that one of the physical objects was his Bible.

  4. I guess the why not is part of what we’ll talk about in part IV. Once when I was visiting from Seattle I read a report, probably in the SL Tribune, about a meeting of the B.H. Roberts Society where a panel was discussing whether Joseph wrote or translated the Book of Mormon. One said “Joseph Smith’s linguistic fingerprints are all over the Book of Mormon.” I examined that metaphor in a Sunstone Symposium paper called “Linguistic Fingerprints,” and spent an hour or so at the Sunstone offices looking at the archives for the B.H. Roberts Society, but I couldn’t find an announcement that sounded like it was for that meeting so I don’t know who created that metaphor.

    The metaphor’s unstated assumption seems to be that if Joseph had translated the Book of Mormon you’d find no trace of his language or personality in it, but that doesn’t fit with the Lord’s instructions to Oliver Cowdery about studying the translation out in your own mind rather than assuming the Lord would just pour it through your mouth.

    Joseph Smith’s linguistic fingerprints are all over the Book of Mormon in the same way the linguistic fingerprints of dozens of 15th, 16th, and 17th century scholars are all over the Bible that millions throughout the English-speaking world still read despite all its difficulties.

    As I’ve suggested I’ll be talking in part IV about why the concept of textual variants and scribal errors can be so disconcerting that Chaim Potok’s first two novels deal with the subject, and possibly his third or fourth, In The Beginning, which I haven’t read yet, but it’s about the education of a Bible scholar.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s