A Book I Would Like to See

October 8, 2004 | 6 comments
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With luck we should soon be hearing from Professor Royal Skousen, who is the mastermind of the critical text of the Book of Mormon. There is another critical text edition that I would like to see: A critical text of the Doctrine and Covenants.

Such an edition would show all of the different changes that have occured in the various texts of the revelations. Most Mormons are aware that there are numerous changes in the text of the Book of Mormon. Some of these are simple gramatical corrections or rephrasing. Others involve more substantial shifts, but none of these are very large (in my opinion).

The Doctrine and Covenants has an even more complicated textual history. In many cases, the Church Archives still has the original manuscript versions of the revelations. Most were published in Church periodicals before being published first in the Book of Commandments and then in later various editions of the Doctrine and Covenants. The text of many of these revelations evolved. Hence, there are differences between manuscript versions, periodical versions, early canonized versions and later canonized versions. In some cases the shifts are little more than typographical or gramatical correction. In other cases, the shifts are more interesting.

For example, D&C 8:6 refers to the fact that Oliver Cowdry has been given “the gift of Aaron.” The earliest published version of this revelation, however, refers to the gift of working with the rod, which scholars generally accept as a reference to Oliver’s use of a divining rod.

Even more interesting to me than such deletions are textual additions. For example, Joseph frequently expanded his revelations by inserting bits and pieces of text that he recieved as part of the Inspired Translation of the Bible. Hence, the current D&C often silently includes JST material.

Also of interest would be the pre-canonization life of various texts. For example, there are comparatively few revelations from the Nauvoo period. By this I mean texts that Joseph produced as a result of direct inquiry of the Lord in which the Lord speaks in the first person. Rather, many of our Nauvoo-era sections are actually redacted bits of Joseph’s sermons that were written in journals and subsequently cannonized in Utah.

There are some stabs at producing this kind of a critical text. To my knowledge the most comprehensive attempt is a thesis that was produced at BYU and attempts to provide a textual history of the revlations. It is extremely long, the structure is very unwieldy and my understanding is that it is incomplete. Signature recently produced something that sort of looks like a critical edition of some of the revelations, but it is incomplete and doesn’t seem to have really been designed as a comprehensive reference work.

The production of such a text would be a hugely difficult task, I suspect. The sources are scatter and in the case of the JST very disorganized. For example, Joseph frequently edited the bible by literally sticking scraps of paper with textual changes in the margins of the book, or marking up the pages themselves. Figuring out when all of this was done and how it relates the D&C would be a very difficult task.

Perhaps more interesting, however, is the theological issue of how one deals with textual changes in the D&C. Certainly, Joseph’s process of textual revision, refinement, and expansion makes difficult any model of revelation as reciept of an inerrent and unchanging text. (Although my understanding is that there are some texts that seem to have been dicated very rapidly, word for word, and then never changed. I personally suspect that you have lots of different processes at work.) Also, one is left with the tricky issue of figuring out the canonical status of earlier versions of the revelations, a question that opens up the whole issue of what it means for a revelation to be canonical.

With luck, perhaps Professor Skousen will take up this project next.

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6 Responses to A Book I Would Like to See

  1. danithew on October 8, 2004 at 11:49 am

    Sounds like a great idea and quite a project. Thanks for sharing some insights as I’ve never thought much about this possibility.

  2. Kevin Barney on October 8, 2004 at 2:46 pm

    I think Michael Marquardt does at least some of this in his book, the Joseph Smith Revelations:

    http://www.signaturebooks.com/js.htm

    I don’t have the book so I can’t give a direct report.

    There is also the Robert Woodford dissertation on the textual history of the D&C, which was never published but is available from UMI (at their normal flat rate fee for a dissertation, which is a steal inasmuch as this one fills three large looseleaf notebooks). It might actually be published someday, but not in the near future, so anyone really interested in this should go ahead and spring for it now.

    I think it would be good for our people to see these changes, which might prove to be a corrective to some of our fundamentalist ideas about the production of scripture.

  3. Kevin Barney on October 8, 2004 at 2:48 pm

    Oops, I just reread the post and saw that you already mentioned these two sources. Somehow I had missed that when I first read it.

    I agree that a critical edition of the D&C would be a great tool, but also very difficult to produce.

  4. Aaron Brown on October 9, 2004 at 12:59 am

    Are there any good BYU Studies or Dialogue articles dealing with these textual issues? Does anyone know? I’d be interested. I recall Quinn talking about some of this in passing somewhere, but I’m imagining there is something else published out there that is relatively easily accessible and that you all haven’t yet mentioned. Am I wrong?

    Aaron B

  5. Clark Goble on October 9, 2004 at 1:55 am

    I think to really do the task justice, as you alluded, you not only need to have the changes, but explain why the changes were made. i.e. context for the changes. That really is a big job, and is slightly different from what Skousen was doing. Let’s be honest, most of the changes Skousen dealt with are minor printer issues with little doctrinal significance. The big changes were with the first couple editions and not the later editions. That’s different with the D&C where there was many more changes – especially between the Book of Commandments and the D&C.

    Of course the real text that needs a critical edition is the JST. There the differences are fairly significant and often there are very different texts. Further, like the D&C, the earlier variations are often fairly significant.

    I’d also like to see a general reference text of the Book of Abraham and related texts. (i.e. the Kirtland Egyptian papers, the Grammar, and related texts)

  6. Kevin Barney on October 9, 2004 at 11:48 am

    Clark, help is on the way. The Religiouis Studies Center has just now published its critical edition of the JST. It’s quite pricey–about $90. I’ive ordered a copy and should have it in my hands shortly.

    FARMS eventually will publish a critical text of the BoA, prepared by John Tvedtnes. And Brent Metcalfe is working on a critical text of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, which might be out in 2005. So these things are in the pipeline.