Royal Skousen has completed an extensive study of the original Book of Mormon text—or at least as original as it is possible to get. We do not have the original plates on which it was written and only about 28 percent of the original copy as made by scribes exists today. It was placed in a cornerstone and when it was recovered, it had been damaged by moisture and mold. Mistakes were made when the scribes, who wrote what Joseph dictated, when it was copied, when it was printed, and in various other levels of preparation. The study demonstrates that the mistakes were simply those anyone would make in any sort of project. We know the Bible was copied over by scribes who often made mistakes as well. In a large handwritten project, mistakes are inevitable.
Skousen insisted the researchers use formal scholarly methods to complete the study. Although he is a believing Mormon (the nickname sometimes applied to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), he wanted to use academic methodology so the study would have academic validity.
Skousen explained, “There are two main goals for a critical text of the Book of Mormon. The first is to determine, to the extent possible, the original English-language text of the book. The second purpose is to establish the history of the text, including both accidental errors and editorial changes that the book has undergone as it has been transmitted down through time in its many editions.”
He notes there are challenges in doing the study. Joseph read from the original plates. It is possible for errors to arise as one reads aloud. The scribe had to understand what Joseph said correctly and to record it correctly. Scribes were then directed to make an official copy for the printer and this too offered opportunities for mistakes. All but one-sixth of the typeset was made from this copy, not the original text.
Scribes made an average of two to three changes between the original dictated copy and the printer’s text. The printer added additional mistakes or changes and most of these were not caught in later editions.
Daniel C. Peterson, a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at Brigham Young University says that the study allows us to know more than has ever been known before about the changes in the manuscript and the study proves that the changes were not faith-destroying. They were, in fact, unimportant changes.
As an example, Peterson offers the following:
1 Nephi 12:18 originally read, “And a great and a terrible gulf divideth them; yea, even the sword of the justice of the Eternal God.” Oliver Cowdery thought the word “sword” was “word” because of the scribe’s handwriting. In fact, the researchers on this modern project also initially thought it said word. However, a study of the entire book makes clear that the phrase in other parts of the book is always sword, not word. There are no mentions of “the word of the justice of the Eternal God.”
Nothing he found would alter existing doctrine, although he says it sometimes restores the original doctrine. He suggests this is true of Alma 39:13, which in the original read, “but rather return unto them, and acknowledge your faults and repair that wrong which ye have done.” This aligns with Mormon teachings on the importance of restitution in the repentance process. However, Oliver Cowdery, who was the scribe for this section, had a leaky pen that day and the manuscript has drops of ink on the page. Some happened to drop on the word “repair” and this combined with Cowdery’s habit of looping his r’s downward. When Oliver copied it over, the placement of the ink drops caused him to think he’d written “retain.” This mistake was not found until James E. Talmadge was working on the 1920 edition and he and his committee realized the verse made no sense. It removed one essential aspect of repentance—but it was one Mormons already knew through other teachings, so it didn’t change doctrine.
Some of the mistakes were merely humorous. One typesetter misread “robber” as nobler, leaving the infamous Gandianton Robbers as the Gadianton Noblers.
The project, according to scholar Terryl Givens, is more complicated than merely reading the first version available. There were times when Skousen had to study every reference to a word and match it to common errors made by specific scribes. For instance, he noted that two scribes commonly dropped plurals, and this meant he had to decide if a word was really meant to be singular or plural, based on that scribe’s habits and the context in other places in the book.
There are some who mistakenly think God takes all the work out of scripture. Since we know the Bible was handwritten not by God, but by fallible men, there have been a variety of errors that have crept in. Different versions of the Bible contain different wording due to errors in copying or differences in translation. The same is true of the Book of Mormon. God is perfect, but His servants are not. We must anticipate that there will be unimportant errors—but none that impact the great gospel truths of the Book of Mormon.
Sarah Petersen, BYU professor Royal Skousen concludes his discussion on changes to the Book of Mormon original text, Deseret News, March 19 2013
Terryl L. Givens, The Book of Mormon Critical Text Project, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies: Volume – 15, Issue – 1, Pages: 32-35, 71, Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute, 2006
Royal Skousen, History of the Critical Text Project of the Book of Mormon, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies: Volume – 11, Issue – 2, Pages: 5–21, Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute, 2002