Notes on Book of Mormon philology. The philological instinct

I. The philological instinct

When I look at recent studies of the Book of Mormon, the biggest deficit I see is the lack of instinct for philology.

Philology once formed the foundation of the humanistic disciplines, although its influence has been waning for many decades. Today, praising a book for its solid philological handiwork is the Judas kiss of academia. The field underwent some renovation in the 1980s and 1990s with the emergence of the New Philology in medieval studies, but an “exciting development in philology” remains something of an oxymoron.

When I say I note a lack of philological instinct in Book of Mormon studies, I don’t mean that there are no philologists in the field (see Royal Skousen’s work on the original English text, for example), and I’m not primarily concerned with research on the Book of Mormon’s fortunes since 1829, or the quest to discover Joseph Smith’s presumptive sources. What I mean is that for a text that says so much about its physical creation, preservation, transmission, compilation, abridgment and expansion, many studies that accept the Book of Mormon as scripture nevertheless show little interest in what typically happens to texts as they are created, preserved, transmitted, compiled, abridged and expanded.

In the following I’ll disagree with several articles published in the Interpreter and the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, but this is not meant as a criticism of those journals. They’re the outlets most likely to publish articles about the Book of Mormon that I’m interested in, and I cite them often for that reason, even if I’m usually dissatisfied by the approach to philology (or lack of one) that I find in many of the articles both journals publish.

A few scholars, including Brant Gardner and John Sorenson, have done philological work on the Book of Mormon, asking philological questions and arguing on the basis of philological material. What follows isn’t a critique of Gardner’s recent Labor Diligently to Write: The Ancient Making of a Modern Scripture, which I’ll cite several times and is full of interesting insights and thought-provoking suggestions, but which I hadn’t read until most of this was already written. Both Gardner and Sorenson approach the Book of Mormon from the field of anthropology and have made numerous contributions to the field, but in both cases, I find they take the text’s own account of its history at face value without considering the kinds of things that regularly occur to texts over time.

Philology is an element of many academic disciplines, but currently required in very few of them. It’s possible for one scholar to acquire philological experience and another working in the same field to be entirely untouched by it. Philological instincts have to be trained in disciplines outside of Book of Mormon studies, in fields where working directly with older documents or multiple versions of a text is possible, unlike the special case of the Book of Mormon where only a modern translation is available. Anita Wells, for example, is well served by her training and experience as an archivist (although I think the right model for approaching the Book of Mormon philologically is the library rather than the archive, but we’ll get to that eventually). Without detracting from the contributions of lawyers publishing on the Book of Mormon, legal studies and professional experience rarely provide an instinctive understanding of philology.

All these people have and continue to do interesting and valid research, and yet after reading their work, I frequently end up protesting to myself that some statement or another advanced as fact is simply impossible to verify, that speculations are being built on top of speculations, that some other possibility is being ignored, or that some basic question has been left unaddressed. If you’re protesting that you are so a philologist and you do have philological training and are engaged in philological studies (as defined by your field) of the Book of Mormon, I won’t try to dissuade you. I’m not particularly interested in splitting hairs over the definition of philology. I will say, however, that in almost every case, an essential element missing from your work is an instinctive sense for the processes of textual change over time.

I’m not a proponent of skepticism for its own sake. The people involved with a text’s creation and transmission can generally be assumed to be acting with sincerity. But in the late medieval and early modern material I primarily work with, a text’s account of its own creation tends to be the most malleable part of the text, even as much of the rest can remain stable for centuries. So my philological instinct when it comes to the Book of Mormon is not to take the text’s account of its own creation at face value while looking to other cultures (ancient Israel, for example) to provide cultural context by analogy, but instead to look for analogies in the textual history of other works while trying to locate the cultural context in the text itself to the greatest extent possible. Our expectations for the textual history of the Book of Mormon should be informed by what is known of the textual history of the Bible, or Arthurian romance if you prefer, or other works.

* * *

This will be too long for a single post, so I’m splitting it into several parts. Here’s the full outline of what’s coming up next.

I.The philological instinct

II. What did Mormon know?

III. Mormon’s sources
IIIa. Nephite literacy
IIIb. The material culture of Nephite literacy
IIIc. The source structure of the Book of Mormon

IV. The puzzle of 3 Nephi

V. The permissibility and utility of philology for studying the Book of Mormon
Va. The permissibility of philology
Vb. The utility of philology
Vb1. Useful cautions
Vb2. What did the Nephites know about Nephi?
Vb3. The overdetermination of Nephite origins
Vb4. Jacob and Sherem

5 comments for “Notes on Book of Mormon philology. The philological instinct

  1. Jonathan, this excites me; I look forward to reading the whole thing. Over the past year or two I’ve (finally!) taken the time to read Royal Skousen’s BoM text, as well as Grant Hardy’s guide to the BoM text, and they both whetted my philological appetite. I’m not trained in any kind of textual studies, but I’ve been able to have some interesting conversations about such matters with my oldest daughter (who just completed her MLS with a book history specialization at Toronto), and I’d like to learn more from someone like you about what it means to ask philosophical questions about the provenance and transmission of texts. So thanks for planning this out–it should make for some good reading!

  2. Thanks, Russell. Hopefully the next several posts will be interesting. Mostly it will involve pointing out things that are unknowable, and a fair amount of speculation that is most likely wrong.

    I don’t often get degree envy, but when I do, it’s for an MLS from Toronto with a specialization in book history.

  3. Philology is the study of language in oral and written historical sources; it is the intersection of textual criticism, literary criticism, history, and linguistics. Philology is more commonly defined as the study of literary texts as well as oral and written records, the establishment of their authenticity and their original form, and the determination of their meaning. A person who pursues this kind of study is known as a philologist.

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