The Original Text of the Book of Mormon III: Alternative Readings and Conjectural Emendations

Now let us turn to the actual list of the 719 significant textual changes. Here is the beginning of the list: skousen23

For each set of alternative readings, I indicate with a pointer the one I have accepted as the original reading. For each case, I always list the reading of the original manuscript, if it exists, plus the reading of the printer’s manuscript and the reading in the 1830 edition. I then list any other edition that deviates from its copytext – that is, any place where the editors or typesetters for that edition decided on some other reading, either an earlier one or perhaps a new conjecture. And so you can actually reconstruct the whole history in each case, providing you refer to the stemma that shows the copytext relationships for the editions.

Here’s the second page of the list of significant changes: skousen24

The Yale edition, as already noted, derives from volume 4 of the critical text. In volume 4 there are 5,280 cases of variation that I considered. It turns out that 2,241 of these differences show up in the Yale edition. This last count, I should point out, excludes most cases of grammatical variation in the text. Nor is this number particularly important because most of these changes aren’t earthshaking.

However, there are a couple of numerical counts that are important. One is that there are 606 changes in the Yale edition which have never appeared in any standard printed edition of the Book of Mormon, in neither the LDS nor the RLDS textual traditions. And if you look at those readings that account for the number 606, you will see that the vast majority come from the manuscripts:

216 from O

88 from both O and P

2 from copies of the title page

187 from only P (in cases where O is not extant)

113 conjectural emendations

Over half of the new readings (304 of them) come from the original manuscript. And 187 come from the printer’s manuscript (these are cases where the original manuscript is not extant). There are also two new readings in the title page that come from other early copies of that page. None of these 493 readings have ever been implemented in any of the standard printed editions. In addition, there are 113 conjectures. I will come back to conjectures in a moment.

What is important to note here is the significance of the original manuscript in restoring the original text. For the six books of volume 4 of the critical text, I recently went through the 491 new readings that come from the two manuscripts and I divided them up according to which book in volume 4 they are discussed. For three of the books (the first, fourth, and fifth), large portions of the original manuscript are extant (each of these books is marked below with an asterisk). And for each of those books, consider the number of new changes that show up:

O P both
*1 Nephi 1 – 2 Nephi 10 95 6 38
2 Nephi 11 – Mosiah 16 2 34 5
Mosiah 17 – Alma 20 0 58 3
*Alma 21 – Alma 55 93 12 28
*Alma 56 – 3 Nephi 18 25 50 13
3 Nephi 19 – Moroni 10 1 27 1

For the first and the fourth book, about 75 percent of the original manuscript is extant, and we get almost 100 new changes for both of these books. For the fifth book, about 25 percent of the original manuscript is extant, and we get a proportional amount of new changes. For the three other books of volume 4, we have hardly anything of the original manuscript, and it shows. What this really means is that by human endeavor we aren’t going to recover as much of the original text for these parts of the text. It makes a real difference when we don’t have the original manuscript.

A second numerical count that is quite important is that the Yale edition introduces 241 new readings that make a difference in meaning. By the phrase “difference in meaning” I mean that if we translate the reading into another language there will be a change in the words – that is, there will be some word difference, no matter what the language. For each of these 241 readings, the change makes a difference in meaning, not just in phraseology.

A good example of this kind of meaning change is found in 1 Nephi 12:18, which reads as follows in the original manuscript: “and a great and a terrible gulf divideth them / yea even the sword of the justice of the Eternal God”. But Oliver Cowdery miscopied this into the printer’s manuscript as “yea even the word of the justice of the Eternal God”. In other words, Oliver replaced sword with word. And that’s the reading that’s been retained in the text ever since. Yet when we look at the rest of the Book of Mormon, we discover that there are seven references to “the sword of God’s justice” but no examples of “the word of God’s justice”:

Alma 26:19          the sword of his justice

Alma 60:29          the sword of justice

Helaman 13:5       the sword of justice (2 times)

3 Nephi 20:20      the sword of my justice

3 Nephi 29:4        the sword of his justice

Ether 8:23            the sword of the justice of the Eternal God

In particular, note that the example in Ether 8:23 (“the sword of the justice of the Eternal God”) is identical to the original reading in 1 Nephi 12:18. In considering the translation of this change in words, I know of no language where sword and word are the same word. Every translation is going to end up making the change here. This is what I mean then by a change in meaning. Of course, this change doesn’t make a huge difference in meaning. To be sure, one can accept a reference to God’s justice being enacted by his word. But that isn’t what the text originally read in 1 Nephi 12:18. It read sword.

Some people have asked whether any textual restoration ever alters doctrine – and the answer is, no. Whenever a change involves doctrine, we find that the original reading has the correct doctrine. An example of this is found in Alma 39:13, where Alma is talking to his son Corianton and tells him to go back to the Zoramites and, in the original manuscript, “acknowledge your faults and repair that wrong which ye have done”. When Oliver Cowdery finished writing this page in the original manuscript, he accidentally dropped some ink on the page. And on the letter p in repair a drop of ink fell right on top of the ascender for the p, which ended up making the p look like it’s been crossed. In fact, the p ends up looking like a t. Moreover, Oliver’s r’s and n’s often look alike, so when Oliver came to copy this part of the text into the printer’s manuscript, he copied it as “acknowledge your faults and retain that wrong which ye have done”. That reading doesn’t quite work, and so the 1920 LDS committee decided to just remove the word retain because it didn’t make any sense. Thus they ended up having Alma say to Corianton that he should go back and “acknowledge your faults and that wrong which ye have done”. In other words, “go back and say you’re sorry”. But the need for Corianton to repair his wrong had now been removed from this passage.

When we look at other parts of the Book of Mormon text, we indeed find that when people confess their sins, they do everything they can to repair the wrongs or the injuries they have done. Here’s one from Mosiah 27:35: “zealously striving to repair all the injuries which they had done to the church / confessing all their sins”. And here’s one from Helaman 5:17: “they came forth and did confess their sins … and immediately returned to the Nephites to endeavor to repair unto them the wrongs which they had done”. So by putting back the word repair in Alma 39:13, the correct doctrine of repentance is restored. The doctrine hasn’t been changed.

In the Yale edition you will also find 15 new readings for Book of Mormon names. For me, the most interesting one is that the actual name for the surviving son of king Zedekiah was Muloch, not Mulek, the implication being that Zedekiah named this son after the pagan god Moloch that they sacrificed children to, thus suggesting a rather ominous aspect to king Zedekiah’s character.

Conjectural Emendations in the Text

I pointed out above that the Yale edition has 113 new conjectural emendations, and some people have been critical of this. But I think it’s worth noting that in every printed edition of the Book of Mormon there are numerous readings that are the result of conjectural emendation. A conjecture is introduced into the text whenever a typesetter, a scribe, or an editor doesn’t like the particular reading of his copytext and doesn’t like any of the other readings that might have appeared in earlier editions or in the manuscripts, and so he decides on a new reading. That’s a conjecture. (Here I exclude emendations involving grammatical editing.)

What we find in the history of the Book of Mormon text is that conjectures have been quite common, and in many instances they are necessary. Sometimes the original manuscript has such a bad reading that no one is going to accept it. Consider, for instance, the reading of the original manuscript in 1 Nephi 7:5: “the Lord did soften the heart of Ishmael and also his hole hole”. That’s the way the original manuscript reads, hole hole. In fact, this is the corrected reading in the original manuscript, which means that that is what that scribe, probably one of the Whitmers, finally decided on. When Oliver Cowdery copied this passage into the printer’s manuscript, he just couldn’t accept the reading of the original manuscript. He decided that hole hole was household, thus writing in the printer’s manuscript “the Lord did soften the heart of Ishmael and also his household”. My conjecture, on the other hand, is that the original text here actually read “the Lord did soften the heart of Ishmael and also his whole household”. That would explain why the original manuscript ended up having two instances of hole, one standing for whole, the other for the hold of household.

In support of this reading, consider the rest of the text of the Book of Mormon: whenever a passage refers to a patriarch and his household, the text always refers to his entire household. In corresponding contexts, we have either “all his household” or “his whole household” (the latter reading occurs in Alma 22:23). The ultimate point here is that in 1 Nephi 7:5 one can’t accept the reading of the original manuscript, hole hole. There must be a conjecture here, either household or whole household (or perhaps some other possibility). For that phrase,  every text of the Book of Mormon is going to have to read as some kind of conjecture.

When we look at the current standard text, we find that there are 654 conjectured readings. On the other hand, there are 354 in the Yale edition. It turns out that the Yale edition accepts a lot of difficult readings that have otherwise been removed over time from the standard text. In volume 4 of the critical text, I considered 1,346 cases of conjectural emendation. About one fourth of them (26 percent) were accepted. It’s also worth noting that when we compare the Yale edition with the current standard text there are 187 conjectures that both texts agree on. So there is considerable agreement in conjectures between the two texts in addition to the differences.

It’s also instructive to consider the individuals who have had the most influence in introducing conjectural emendations into the text. Oliver Cowdery, the main scribe for both manuscripts, made 131 conjectures, of which the Yale edition accepts about 30 percent. For instance, in 1 Nephi 7:1 the original manuscript reads: “that his sons should take daughters to wife that might raise up seed”. When Oliver copied this into the printer’s manuscript, he added the pronoun they, thus “that his sons should take daughters to wife that they might raise up seed”. In volume 4 of the critical text, I provide the arguments for why I think the pronoun they was in the original text. By the way, you won’t find that discussion in the Yale edition, although the change is listed in the appendix. The arguments are all in volume 4 of the critical text.

On the other hand, here is one of Oliver Cowdery’s conjectural emendations that I think he got wrong. In 1 Nephi 13:24 the original manuscript reads “it contained the fullness of the gospel of the Land”, which seems impossible. When Oliver copied this passage into the printer’s manuscript, he changed “the gospel of the Land” to “the gospel of the Lord”. He obviously couldn’t accept the word land here, and he thought Land looked like Lord. In actuality, the reading of the original text was very likely “the gospel of the Lamb”. The original scribe apparently misheard lamb as land but without the d at the end being pronounced, which he then wrote as Land in the original manuscript. At every other place in the Book of Mormon (namely, in four places in 1 Nephi 13), the text consistently reads “the gospel of the Lamb”, never “the gospel of the Lord”. Of course, “the gospel of the Lord” is possible, but that isn’t the way the Book of Mormon expresses it.

John Gilbert, the typesetter for the 1830 edition, made a total of 167 conjectures, of which a large percentage, 47 percent, are accepted in the Yale edition. The reason so many are accepted is that in many cases Gilbert was confronted with a manuscript reading that was unacceptable yet it was easy enough to figure out the correct reading. That’s why the percentage of acceptance is so high for him. Here’s an example from 1 Nephi 17:48 where I think he was right. His manuscript copy read “and whoso shall lay their hands upon me shall wither even as a dried weed”. Gilbert interpreted the word weed as an error for reed, and thus he set the text as “even as a dried reed”.

On the other hand, in Alma 5:35 Gilbert replaced the verb put with hewn, giving “and ye shall not be hewn down and cast into the fire” rather than “and ye shall not be put down and cast into the fire”, the reading of the printer’s manuscript. Normally the Book of Mormon text refers to people being hewn down and cast into the fire. Even so, the occurrence of put down was more likely an error for the visually similar cut down, so that the original text (and original manuscript, not extant here) probably read “and ye shall not be cut down and cast into the fire”. The word cut was likely written with a capital C in the original manuscript, with the result that the scribe who copied the text into the printer’s manuscript misread the capital C as a capital P, thus introducing put as the verb.

Joseph Smith made a large number of conjectures (198 of them) in his editing for the second edition of the Book of Mormon (published in 1837). For the third edition (published in 1840), he made 19 more conjectures. In most of these cases, Joseph was simply trying to remove difficult readings from the text. Many of these original, difficult readings are, nonetheless, acceptable. (Only about 16 percent of Joseph Smith’s 1837 conjectures are accepted – and even less for the 1840 conjectures, about 11 percent.) I suspect Joseph often thought “That reading is difficult for people to understand, so let’s change it to this.” For instance, in Ether 3:9 there is a change in the 1837 edition where Joseph correctly inserted the word not, changing “for were it so / ye could not have seen my finger” to “for were it not so / ye could not have seen my finger”. On the other hand, in Mosiah 21:28 Joseph Smith replaced king Benjamin with king Mosiah in order to deal with a perceived problem in chronology. I think, in this case, Joseph’s emendation was unnecessary. You can read the arguments in volume 4.

We can also consider the number of conjectures in the more significant editions since 1840 and identify how many of them are accepted in the Yale edition:

1849 Orson Pratt 8 2 25%
1852 Franklin and Samuel Richards 17 5 29%
1879 Orson Pratt 9 4 44%
1905-11 German Ellsworth 8 2 25%
1920 James E. Talmage 130 22 17%
1981 scriptures committee 10 4 40%

Note in particular the high number of conjectural emendations in the 1920 LDS edition, largely the result of James E. Talmage’s determination to emend difficult readings in the text. The large majority of these emendations were unnecessary, although they made the text easier to read. Only about one conjectured reading out of six in the 1920 edition is accepted in the Yale edition.

A number of LDS scriptural scholars have independently made suggested emendations prior to the critical text project. In many respects, these are good suggestions, and a rather high percentage, 48 percent, have been accepted:

Paul Cheesman 1 1
Stan Larson 7 3
Hugh Nibley 1 1
W. Cleon Skousen 1 1
Sidney B. Sperry 3 3
John Tvedtnes 10 2

In my work as editor of the critical text project, I have proposed 401 conjectures, 103 of which I have accepted – or 26 percent (about one reading out of four).

Of particular help in this project have been people who have independently sent me suggestions for change or identified readings that seemed strange in some way. In all, 42 individuals have corresponded with me and have recommended 173 changes, of which 36 – or 21 percent (about one out of five) – have been accepted. Thus the Yale edition reflects a tremendous amount of input from careful readers of the text. Here I list eight people who basically went through the whole text of the Book of Mormon looking for readings that seemed problematic: David Calabro, Joanne Case, Lyle Fletcher, Ross Geddes, Heather Hardy, Paul Huntzinger, Brent Kerby, and Greg Wright. You will find their suggestions discussed in volume 4, and in many instances their suggested changes made it into the Yale text.

Next: Word for Word Control over the Original Text

Royal Skousen is editor of the Book of Mormon Critical Text Project and professor of linguistics and English language at Brigham Young University. The first two parts of this series are here and here.

9 comments for “The Original Text of the Book of Mormon III: Alternative Readings and Conjectural Emendations

  1. It is staggering to witness the shear massiveness of this project and what you’ve accomplished. Conveniently convinced in my armchair that the Book of Mormon is worth taking this seriously (i.e., devoting one’s life to it), I’m thrilled to see you actually doing so and then sharing the fruits of your labor with the rest of us. And thank you for sharing some of that with us here at T&S.

  2. “In my work as editor of the critical text project, I have proposed 401 conjectures, 103 of which I have accepted – or 26 percent (about one reading out of four).”

    What does Skousen mean by this? That his propositions have been given to a scripture committee? Or that they were accepted already independent of his suggestions? Or something else?

  3. Blair: It looks like he’s saying that while he personally came up with several hundred alternate conjectural readings, only some of them he himself thought were solid enough to use for the Yale presentation of the text.

  4. I’ve been grateful for all of this work. Two days ago I pulled out my copy of the Yale edition and started looking closely at the differences between it and our current Book of Mormon edition. Specifically, I just took a single chapter each day (1 Nephi 1 and 1 Nephi 2) and looked at what differences I might see.

    It’s been very interesting and I love the use of sense lines to organize the text into a much more readable format.

  5. Re: comment #4 and #5,

    There are 354 in the Yale edition…

    …In volume 4 of the critical text, I considered 1,346 cases of conjectural emendation.

    About one fourth of them (26 percent) were accepted.

    354/1346 = 0.263 or 26%

    I think he meant accepted by Yale.

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