The most important critical project on the text of the Book of Mormon to date is close to completion. Professor Royal Skousen's continuing study of the textual history of the Book of Mormon will be completed soon with the publication of Part Six of Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon, covering 3 Nephi 19 to Moroni 10, with addenda.1
What is a "critical edition"? Skousen defined it as follows:
Simply put, a critical edition is composed of two main parts, the critical text itself and an apparatus (consisting of notes at the bottom of the page, below the critical text). Usually, the critical text attempts to represent the original form of the text, while the apparatus shows the textual variants and their sources. The editors of the critical edition decide which textual variant best represents the original and put that in the critical text. The apparatus shows all the (significant) variants of the text and the sources for those variants (manuscripts, published texts, and conjectures). The apparatus thus allows the reader to evaluate the decisions of the editors.2In short: Skousen is looking at the available manuscripts for the Book of Mormon along with the earliest editions and publishing their exact contents so they can be evaluated. For anyone interested in what this watershed project is all about, here are some sources to check out:3
- Royal Skousen, "Towards a Critical Edition of the Book of Mormon," BYU Studies 30:1 (1990), pp. 41-69.
- Royal Skousen, "The Original Book of Mormon Transcript," Reexploring the Book of Mormon, John W. Welch, ed., (Deseret Book and FARMS, 1992).
- Royal Skousen, "Translating the Book of Mormon: Evidence from the Original Manuscript," Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence For Ancient Origins, Noel B. Reynolds, ed., (FARMS, 1997). (See also "Joseph Smith's Translation of the Book of Mormon: Evidence for Tight Control of the Text," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 7:1, pp. 22-31.)
- Royal Skousen, ed., Joseph Smith, trans., The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text, Yale University Press (2009).
Royal Skousen has single-handedly brought the textual analysis of the Book of Mormon to a professional level on par with the finest classical and biblical scholarship. This volume is the culmination of his labors, and it is the most textually significant edition since Joseph Smith's work was first published in 1830. It takes us back to the original manuscript (as best we can reconstruct it) and sometimes beyond, to the very words that were first spoken by Joseph Smith to his scribes.4In a 2006 review of earlier volumes of Skousen's critical text project Kevin Barney said he "would still like to see an actual critical edition in print at the conclusion of the critical text project, preferably in a smaller format than the large volumes."5 At the time Barney feared Skousen would not provide such an edition. This fear has been allayed and I look forward to checking out the "earliest text." Barney also gave an overview of some of Skousen's already-published work and disagreed with a few conclusions Skousen extracts from his data. Thus, Barney's article gives some needed perspective.
It is important to remember that Skousen's work comes in at least three varieties or approaches:6
1. His critical text project itself (which is, for the most part, strictly observable data, namely: writing in a technical form what the handwriting on the available manuscripts actually says. This is the most "objective" aspect of the process, though Skousen admits there is a subjective element here. The results can't be perfect, based on the available materials alone, as discussed in number 2 below).
2. His extrapolation of the data into the most persuasive readings (Skousen analyzes manuscript variants, spelling errors, transcribing errors, phonetic mishearings and so forth to determine the most likely and earliest text. This is more subjective though there are technical procedures employed. Skousen's Earliest Text is the easily-readable fruit of his labors. The longer volumes published by FARMS detail his reasoning).
3. His theory of the translation process as being "tight" (Based on data from the earliest text and manuscript evidence Skousen posits a translation theory).
Again, these comprise at least three separate but related areas, each more subjective than the last. In the first (more objective) area, Skousen presents "documents as direct indicators."7 Information is virtually uninterpreted, only insofar as Skousen (in a mix of part 1 and 2 above) includes footnotes and explanations which prefer one particular reading over another when handwriting is ambiguous or a phonetic mistake can be detected. Still, his work attempts to present all possible variants to track the changes over time, thus making the thrust of the entire publication a "direct indicator" piece of evidence. The data speaks for itself, literally. "What does the manuscript say?" There are arguable cases regarding some readings, but the project seeks to be as completely accurate and prima facie as possible.
In the second and third (more subjective) areas, Skousen more fully employs "documents as correlates."8 Skousen takes the data from the critical text, considers witness statements and internal textual evidence (like Hebraisms, etc.) and posits theories of translation, arguing for a "tight control" theory.9
It is important to remember that data from the first area can be utilized and interpreted differently by different people and Skousen's second area work does not contain inevitable conclusions, though they deserve close attention. Brant Gardner, for example, calls into question some of Skousen's conclusions in the second area, though he makes much use of Skousen's first area in his commentary on the Book of Mormon, Second Witness.10
The image combines the cover of Skousen's forthcoming book with the Title Page of the first edition of the Book of Mormon. The scan of the original page comes from John Hajicek's high-resolution full scan of a first edition found at inephi.com. I think the absence of such a rigorous text until now single-handedly calls into question the validity of wordprint studies (those that argue for and against "ancient" and/or multiple authorship of the Book of Mormon. A good primer on such studies is John B. Archer, John L. Hilton, and G. Bruce Schaalje, "Comparative Power of Three Author-Attribution Techniques for Differentiating Authors," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, 6:1. See also BHodges, "A New Book of Mormon Wordprint Analysis," LifeOnGoldPlates.com, Dec. 8, 2008. The authors of the most recent wordprint study didn't mention Skousen or make use of the critical text he's been publishing with FARMS.
See Royal Skousen, "Towards a Critical Edition of the Book of Mormon," BYU Studies 30:1 (1990), 41. For a great interview with Skousen after he began the project see "12 Answers From Royal Skousen," TimesandSeasons.org, Oct. 13, 2004.
These articles are not the only ones in which Skousen discusses his work on the critical text project, or various discoveries therein. Moreover, other articles by other authors regarding the translation process should be taken into consideration. I am currently working on a project called "TWA," or the "Translation Witness Accounts" project. We are seeking to compile into one source all known witness statements of the translation of the Book of Mormon. As a corollary I have been researching as many different translation theories as I can discover.
See the blurb on Amazon.com.
Kevin Barney, "Seeking Joseph Smith's Voice," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 15:1, pp. 54-59.
Skousen may explain the difference differently, I haven't seem him parse the differences but haven't checked the intro to the published critical text project volumes. This is a rather simple way of differentiating between what I view as two related but different aspects of historical inquiry.
See Vernon K. Dibble, "Four Types of Inference From Documents to Events," History and Theory, Vol. 3 No. 2 (1963), pp. 213. In this article Dibble is more particularly discussing how historians make inferences from documents to events.
Ibid., p. 210. This calls for further analysis I have not yet performed.
Some readers may believe that Skousen is sounding the "death knell" for people who believe in anything but a "tight" translation theory. However, Skousen's conclusions on the translation theory deserve consideration but need not be accepted as "granted" merely from Skousen's data, analysis, and opinions. There is a level of subjectivity in each step of his project, but it increases when Skousen starts to interpolate, or use documents as correlates.
See Brant Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, (Kofford, 2007-2008).