Monday, October 05, 2009

Textual Criticism and the Book of Mormon

It may seem a bit strange for a Mormon to be speaking about textual variants in the Book of Mormon for the simple reason that Mormons have long charged the Bible with corruption. In fact, one of the most common Mormon claims is that "We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly." Unfortunately, "translated" is confused with "transmitted," as i've heard Mormons time and time again assert that the Bible has been "translated so many times that we are not sure what it might have originally said." And so they argue, "That's why we need the Mormon Scriptures, as well as modern prophets."

Thus, the Mormon arguments are made without considering the consistency of their own position. That's where The Book of Mormon: its earliest text comes into play. This is no work of LDS apostates. It is written by Royal Skousen, a professor of linguistics and English language at Brigham Young University. And what's interesting about this whole thing is that Mormons have, for years, criticized the accuracy of the Bible's transmission without having looked in their own backyard.

Anyone who has studied Mormonism is or should be aware that the Book of Mormon is not the textually pure book that Missionaries at your door have made it seem. In fact, I don't think there has ever been a time where I have not asked a missionary, "Do you believe the LDS Scriptures have ever been altered in any way?" I don't think i've ever gotten a "yes" to that question. To most Mormons i've talked to, the LDS Scriptures are infallible in both content as well as transmission. Sure, no one can expect a book to be free of any and all errors; whether typographical or other easily-resolvable issues. But would an 800 page book need to be written if this were the case? Perhaps Mormon textual criticism is not as polished as most Mormons think it is.

Am I arguing that the textual variants in the book of Mormon deem it impossible to get back to the original? Probably not. But am I arguing that perhaps Mormons have been a bit inconsistent in arguing against the Bible's textual tradition? Absolutely. I don't know when or if I am going to ever have the time to check out this book. But I do hope to see some more reviews of this work as well as future comparative studies between the BoM and the Bible's textual tradition.

(ht: Evangelical Textual Criticism)


Marcus McElhaney said...

This is a great post! I find textual criticism and textual transmission very, very important. It is one of the charges skeptics make against the Bible (the ones with just enough fodder from Bart Ehrman). It's real important to be able to show that we can trust the translation of the Bible that we read, study, and live by.

Have you ever read the The King James Controversy by James White?

I'm also interested in comparing the textual content, transmission, and translation of The Bible,The Book of Mormon, and The Koran

Mike Felker said...

Hey Marcus, thanks for the comment! Yes, i've read "The King James Only Controversy" and have found it to be the best introductory work on textual criticism available.

From what I hear, White is doing his next Ph.D thesis on the textual comparison between the Bible and Koran, which will be a very important piece of research once its available.

Hopefully, in the future, someone will do a comparative study of the three you mention (plus more maybe).

I also agree that textual criticism is something that cannot be ignored and should be familiar by all Christians.

Mariano said...

I once told Prof. Paul Maier that I wanted to do a chart comparing various scriptures of various world religions but, it was very, very difficult to find textual/manuscript type of information about any other religious text.

His eyebrows shot up and he basically said that no one else seems to care about that but Christians.

Keep up the good work and the God work.