Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Analysis of Textual Variants Now Available Online FREE

I was born in Colorado Springs, Colorado in May of 1987. A year later, in Provo, Utah, Royal Skousen took over the FARMS-sponsored Book of Mormon Critical Text Project (CTP from this point on). For the last quarter-century and some change, Skousen has been dedicated to that project, while I have just been living a rather ordinary and unaccomplished life. Frankly, I cannot personally imagine what it would be like to spend what is essentially my entire lifetime (up to this point) with a dedicated focus to a single topic of study. Yet that is exactly what Skousen has done. And anyone who has even lightly pursued the fruits of his labors can only stand in appreciative awe at the breadth and depth of Skousen’s work.

Skousen himself has given the background history to the project. The fruits of the CTP finally began to published in 2001, starting with the ultra-violate photographs and transcriptions of the extent fragments of the original manuscript (plus relevant background commentary on the history of the OM, paper type and size, parts of the Book of Mormon extant, the scribes based on handwriting analysis, etc.), and a two-volume set of the same for the printer’s manuscript. These were already important and significant contributions to Book of Mormon scholarship. Never before had the two earliest extent versions of the Book of Mormon been both published in full and studied so thoroughly. But that was only the tip of the iceberg.

The next step was the monumental effort to study each and every variant in the text from these two manuscripts and 20 different print editions from 1830 to 1981. Between all these editions, Skousen documented over 100,000 changes, which he then analyzed carefully to determine which reading is most likely the original. (Unsurprisingly, earlier readings tend to be favored over later ones.) This analysis was published between 2004–2009, and spanned across 6 different volumes of 650–720 pages each, for a total of 4060 pages! Called Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon (ATV), it was indeed a monumental effort.

To some, this might all seem pretty over-the-top—who needs such extensive study of every change in the Book of Mormon? I would argue, and I think Skousen would agree, that as the foundational text of our faith—the “keystone of our religion,” in the words of Joseph Smith—knowing the precise language of the text in its original form is of utmost importance. It is, after all, declared the word of God in Article of Faith 8.  Still, I can imagine that most people do not need all the thorough analysis involved here. So can Skounsen, which is why he made the ultimate fruit of his analysis—simply the text of the Book of Mormon in what is most likely its earliest form—available in a single volume, without all the extra analysis, called The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text, published by Yale University Press in 2009.

While Yale’s Earliest Text edition of the Book of Mormon will serve most needs, anyone who wishes to engage serious study of the Book of Mormon—academic or otherwise—will no doubt find that at times, having the extend analysis would be helpful. This is especially so if one is making academic arguments, or even merely personal meditations on the text, which hinge on specifics of vocabulary and grammar. Yet, the monumental size of the ATV has naturally made it costly—$300 for the whole set—and difficult to access to. Until now. As of October 7, 2014, the entire ATV was made freely available online via the Interpreter Foundation

Dr. Skousen and Interpreter are to be commended for making this landmark in Book of Mormon scholarship widely accessible any and all Book of Mormon students, from the most erudite scholars of the text, to average members of the church who would simply like to get closer to the text of the Book of Mormon as God revealed it to Joseph Smith. In doing so, they have rendered for the Latter-day Saints and the community of scholars who study Mormonism a great service. I would encourage every Latter-day Saint to explore it and get familiar with the ATV and learn to use it, at least occasionally, in their study of the Book of Mormon. 

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