During my scripture study, I was curious about the phrase “liken all scriptures” in 1 Nephi 19:23. “Likening scriptures” is kind of odd phrasing, so I wanted to know more about that choice of words. Instead I found a commentary that explained why it wasn’t wrong for the verse to refer to the “book of Moses” rather than “books of Moses”. This struck me as odd, since the verse actually reads “books of Moses”. To track the history of the verse I went to look it up in the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon. It is at this point that I discover a far more interesting change. I had known that the original edition of the Book of Mormon wasn’t split into verses, but I didn’t know that it also used different chapter breaks. The first edition has much longer chapters, and in a few cases the modern chapters break across original chapters.
In researching this topic, I found a blog detailing the chapter break with lots of useful tables. My new question became wondering if these chapter breaks were present in the original text, and it sounds like the answer is yes. This led me to a fascinating presentation by Royal Skousen about his work tracing the text of the Book of Mormon through its various manuscripts, copies, and printing.
I’d really like to try reading the Book of Mormon according to the original chapter breaks and in a more narrative format.
“Nor do readers get fatigued as they do when reading a two-column text that frequently breaks in the middle of words (by hyphenation) or in the middle of phrases and clauses, a process that puts a lot of stress on the reader in trying to negotiate the text. With the sense-lines, it’s also much easier to keep on reading. Some readers have discovered they can now read several chapters at a time instead of just the one chapter at a time that they were used to reading.”
Skousen also talks about the initial translation of the Book of Mormon. He gives examples of specific Hebrew constructions that sound terrible in English, consistent word choice when multiple phrasings would work, and the specific spelling of foreign names like Coriantumr.
“The original translated text is so consistent in this respect that it doesn’t look like it’s the result of a translator freely choosing how he should translate a given expression or word form each time he comes across it.”
He gives examples of various archaic phrases that consistently appear in the original text, even as some of the verses have been adjusted to modernize the language in later editions. I’m further intrigued by the challenge of trying to preserve a text while the language continues to change. My favorite example of this comes from the Bible with the phrase “by and by”. The phrase means “immediately” but it sounds like something that happens after a time. It’s an interesting balance to strike, because adjusting a text will improve clarity but learning the original text will also teach about the underlying language.
The initial change I was tracking down of “Book of Moses” to “Books of Moses” happened between the 1920 and 1981 editions of the Book of Mormon. My guess is that the change was made so that readers wouldn’t presume that Nephi was talking about the Book of Moses that is found in the Pearl of Great Price.