Introduction to Textual Criticism
As the Book of Mormon is the cornerstone of our religion, so the original manuscript was the cornerstone of the Nauvoo House, or at least it was in the cornerstone from 1841-1882, when Lewis Bidamon, Emma’s second husband, removed it. It was badly damaged by water and mold and only about 28 percent survives. Joseph’s scribes made a copy for the printer which survives intact except for a few lines.
That is a great deal more than we have of the original manuscript for any other scripture from antiquity. We don’t have any manuscript within hundreds of years of the original for any book of the Bible, or other ancient books. (And, of course, we don’t have the original records for the Book of Mormon, only the manuscripts of a translation.) We even lack original manuscripts for many books much less ancient, Shaxberd for example.
But we do have many copies of books from antiquity ranging from hamburger-sized fragments and smaller to nearly complete. Textual criticism is a discipline developed to figure out how to handle the differences between the many copies of a work. Sometimes the differences are copyist’s errors, or errors where a scribe didn’t read the original correctly. But there are many cases where a scribe or editor simply didn’t value what the author had written and made some changes. And this still happens today.
Walking through BYU’s English department a quarter century ago (doesn’t that make me sound old?) I saw an article on someone’s door called “Book Burning Without Ever Lighting a Match,” wherein Ray Bradbury tells how a reader sent him a list of 300 changes made in Fahrenheit 451 since the original publication, changes made by his publisher without his permission or knowledge. More recently I found Tom Hollander’s narration of A Clockwork Orange which included the essay “A Clockwork Orange Resucked,” wherein Anthony Burgess explains why the original American edition, and thus Stanley Kubrick’s movie, lacked the last chapter.
Burgess says his American readers may not like the last chapter any more than his American publisher did, but at least they can finally know what he wrote, like the rest of the world already does. And that is the aim of textual criticism, to figure out what the author actually wrote.
As a discipline textual criticism is entirely non-controversial. Except when it isn’t. When applied to scripture the methods of textual criticism are often called higher criticism, and many Christians, and probably more than a few Orthodox Jews and Muslims, would agree with the author of an encyclopedic work on Mormon Doctrine who said the work of some Biblical scholars “is called _higher criticism_, though as has aptly been said it should more accurately be called _destructive criticism_” because they work “without faith, without revelation, without the gift of the Holy Ghost, without a knowledge of the plan of salvation” (p. 354).
Let me restate that. Christians who reject Mormons as unsaved non-Christians would nonetheless agree with an outspoken Latter-day Saint who was unapologetic in stating that the rest of Christianity was apostate, but who, despite the apostasy of Protestants, agreed with the old Protestant notion that a particular denomination was in the great and abdomenal clutches of the Devil, the belly of the beast. How odd that Muslims, Jews, and Christians, who often mistrust each other, should share an assumption about the work of the uninspired (as they consider it).
It is important to remember that when people disagree, even about fundamentals, they often agree about something even more fundamental. In the last lecture of his 12-CD course on Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew Bart Ehrman says there are more variants between all the sources we have for the New Testament than there are words in the New Testament. He is quick to note that the vast majority of these differences are minor, differences in spelling or punctuation or grammar, and easy to resolve.
The lectures don’t focus on textual criticism, but Ehrman’s conclusion that the group that eventually triumphed and became orthodox Christianity introduced changes into the New Testament texts to support their readings will resonate with many Latter-day Saints familiar with Joseph Smith’s words about “ignorant translators, careless transcribers, or designing and corrupt priests . . . commit[ting] many errors” (Documentary History of the Church VI:56-57). But those same Saints would likely mistrust Ehrman as a secular scholar unconvinced of Jesus’ divinity or resurrection.
Under Career Wikipedia’s article on Ehrman says, “Ehrman became an Evangelical Christian as a teen. His desire to understand the original words of the Bible led him to the study of ancient languages and to textual criticism, to which he attributes the inspiration for an ongoing critical exploration of the basis of his own religious beliefs, which in turn gradually led to the questioning of his faith in the Bible as the inerrant, unchanging word of God. He now considers himself an agnostic. Nevertheless, Ehrman has kept ongoing dialogue with evangelicals” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bart_Ehrman).
Under the section Views on Biblical Inerrancy Wikipedia says,
In an interview with the BBC, Ehrman said:
I think that there is no doubt that the Bible is filled with human error. Both the copies that we have which are changed by scribes, there is nobody who can doubt this. All you need to do is take two manuscripts and compare them with one another and they’re different: hundreds, maybe thousands of places.
When asked if the Bible is the Word of God, his usual answer is by asking: “Which bible? Is it the Bible that you buy in your local bookstore? Is it the Bible found in manuscripts? If in manuscripts, which manuscripts?” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/theoldestbible/pip/9vwi1/)
This may sound like Ehrman’s study has led him to a different conclusion than Evangelicals, and therefore to a different set of fundamental assumptions, but his fundamental assumptions are the same. He still agrees with Evangelicals that to be the word of God scripture must be inerrant and unchanging.
A fundamentally different assumption might say scripture has to be true, not perfect, indeed can never be perfect because the Lord works through imperfect people. Joseph Smith believed something similar and Mormons who read scholars like Ehrman with that belief in mind should be able to read their evidence without feeling threatened by their conclusions–and I do find Ehrman a careful scholar, engaging and accessible, well worth reading.
Still, many Latter-day Saints share an assumption with other Christians similar to scriptuiral inerrancy, and it is worth talking about that assumption and Joseph Smith’s alternative, which we’ll do in part VI. That should conclude the introduction to textual criticism. After that I’ll do a short series on the tools I use in thinking about textual changes in the Book of Mormon, then we’ll start looking more in-depth at the changes.