Towards a Book of Mormon Study Edition

This is a guest post from Jamie Huston, who blogs at Gently Hew Stone. Jamie describes himself as “yet another world music / Criterion Collection / Hudson River School / camping / genre fiction-loving libertarian Mormon English teacher. And father of 7.”

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I love a good study Bible. Earlier this year I found a nearly new NIV Archaeological Study Bible on sale at a library for a dollar—a 98% savings off the cover price!—and I’m getting a lot of mileage out of it.

I’ve been thinking about study Bibles a lot after reading Bill Hamblin’s much-needed rant about the demise of Book of Mormon studies at BYU, such as it ever was. At one point, he summarizes what’s missing in the curriculum:
Most simply, BYU could offer in depth courses on each of the major books of the Book of Mormon, combining some of the smaller books into one. Note that Religious Education offers a class on Isaiah, but no class on the book of Alma or Helaman or Nephi?

Why?

Beyond in depth classes on major books of the Book of Mormon, BYU should offer classes on Book of Mormon geography, history, archaeology, linguistics, literature, theology, culture, language (ancient Near East and Maya), textual criticism, religion, law, warfare, apocalyptic, reception history, the Bible in the Book of Mormon, etc.

He’s clearly right, of course, but I want to suggest another avenue besides BYU classes for improving Book of Mormon studies among Latter-day Saints.
It’s time we have a decent study edition of the Book of Mormon.A Book of Mormon study edition would serve the same purpose as a classic study Bible: an encyclopedic resource for a variety of academic knowledge about the text, which will guide any general reader in understanding the nature and meaning of that text more accurately.

A good study Bible tends to have a core of basic features: introductions to and outlines of individual books, section headings within chapters, arrangement of text in poetic forms, maps and charts embedded in the text, and extensive explanatory footnotes. These resources all exist in spades for the Book of Mormon, and they mirror Professor Hamblin’s requested material, but they have yet to be collected in a single study edition.

Two deal breakers for our hypothetical new book: first, the book absolutely has to include the text of the Book of Mormon itself, with all the other materials just supplementing it. Thus, an otherwise excellent resource like the Book of Mormon Reference Companion, which otherwise fits the bill nicely, is disqualified.

Second, the focus of the book—including annotations and illustrations—must be scholarly, not devotional. There are already devotional versions out there, but the kind of material a serious study edition needs will focus more on summaries of research than it will on quotes from General Conference.

Consider two steps in this direction already in print:

Grant Hardy’s The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition meets several of the criteria, including the most important: a complete text with supplements. But those supplements are not nearly extensive enough. Though he offers a brilliantly arranged text with section headings, there are barely any footnotes and only a smattering of visual study aids, all grouped in a small appendix at the back.

Contrast this with The Book of Mormon for Latter-day Saint Families. The title already tells you to expect more of a devotional volume, and indeed, this work clearly exists to improve family scripture study with an eye towards faith and discipleship.

But it also offers what may be the best study edition so far: there are numerous explanatory footnotes and maps, plus some charts (all a mix of devotional and objectively explanatory). There are useful section headings, though the text is otherwise unarranged. I think this qualifies as a terrific junior study edition.

The biggest obstacle in a study Book of Mormon would be the need to pull together material from several disparate publishers. I imagine a collocation of:

  • Selected charts from Charting the Book of Mormon. Hardy has a couple of these in the appendix of his Reader’s Edition, but far more deserve to be read widely, and alongside the relevant material.
    Introductions and outlines like those in the Church’s Book of Mormon Seminary Teacher Manual. (In this, the seminary manual is actually better for studying the nature of the text than the Gospel Doctrine manual or the Institute textbook.) The only other place I’ve found quality outlines that could be integrated into this project was at Sixteen Small Stones.
  • Short articles from To All the World: The Book of Mormon Articles from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism. These brief but useful entries find equivalents in almost any study Bible. When a new character or concept is introduced in the text, including the relevant article on the facing page makes for a very useful study tool.
  • Like many of you, I’ve jury-rigged my own study edition over the years. In seminary, they used to encourage us to glue little paper squares with quotes from the prophets into our scriptures. I still do that, but now it also includes materials like these, which I shrink down on my printer’s copier and onto thin paper, which I then cut out and glue in.
  • When I read Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon, I shrunk and copied a couple of dozen pages which I then cut out and inserted into their appropriate places in my copy of the Book of Mormon. I’ve found this to be an invaluable study aid. So, add that to my study edition wish list.
  • We would need the Church’s permission to use the text of the Book of Mormon, of course. I’m not sure how much the Church would be inclined to cooperate, though. Only rarely does the Book of Mormon appear in editions that are authorized but not created in-house. That’s understandable: the Church has a duty to guard the integrity and sanctity of the text.

But the other factor that might make them reticent is even bigger: a reluctance to be officially associated with definitive statements about the objective nature of the book. Though older editions had pictures of locations that seemed congruent with the narrative, such things have long been out of fashion, for fear of being later contradicted, and that priority of integrity and sanctity being compromised.

But I think that we can make a strong case that we have reached the point where a great deal can be said with certainty. Also, a disclaimer could be added, stating that no information in this edition is necessarily endorsed by the Church.

For any who question the value of a study Book of Mormon, I’d say that while the basic missionary edition is fine for what it’s meant to do, there are a great many people who need to be exposed to the book, but who wouldn’t be open to the little blue paperback. A study edition would endow the text with the aura of intellectual respectability which it deserves; it could go places the missionary edition couldn’t; it could reach people the missionary edition couldn’t reach.

And it would do wonders for strengthening all of us in our study of the book—focused, grounded faith would grow.

So preparing such an edition would have difficulties, but wouldn’t it be worth it to be able to have an illustration of the chiastic elements in Alma 36 that’s actually right next to that chapter in the Book of Mormon?

A couple of final considerations:

Would this project be most effective as a physical edition (in a book proper), as a web site, or as an app? (Or all of the above?)

Also, we now face a problem similar to the dreaded Book of Mormons vs. Books of Mormon debate: what’s the best name for this edition? “Study Bible” has such a simple, natural ring to it, but does Study Book of Mormon? Or the Book of Mormon: Study Edition? Or what?

Please share ideas for names, platforms, and ideal content in the comments below. And if you know anyone who could help make this all a reality, give them a head up, would you?

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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter-day Saints) for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but may have privately defied the commandment for love of his wife, Emma.

12 thoughts on “Towards a Book of Mormon Study Edition

  1. I was surprised, in reviewing this post for publication, that there is no mention of The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text.

    Edited by Professor Royal Skousen, The Earliest Text benefits from extensive collaboration between Professor Skousen, the LDS Church, and the Community of Christ. The CoC permitted Professor Skousen extensive access to the extant documents associated with the Book of Mormon.

    Amlicites, anyone? Or did you (like me) miss that the Amlicites mentioned in the printed text mysteriously disappear to be replaced by “Amalekites.”

    One fun insite from the Skousen edition is an understanding that the original English used in the translation was not the vernacular of Joseph Smith’s day, but rather the English spoken by William Tyndale. Or at least that’s what memory indicates.

  2. I would also like to see such a BoM. Howeve, there are a few problems that would occur in making it.

    First, Mormonism does not have a set theology. Our leaders disagree often on the interpretation of various passages. For example, the missionary booklet, “True to the Faith” notes that Nephi’s statement “we are saved by grace after all we can do” (2 Ne 25) means we have to work hard to be saved by grace. Meanwhile, Pres Uchtdorf gave us a new interpretation (and correct IMO) in last Conference, in that it means we must be “reconciled to Christ” – a very different view of the verse.

    With continuing revelation and no set theology, we would quickly find the study BOM become out of date, as our own view of the theology changes. Imagine if Elder Bruce R. McConkie would have written a Study BoM back int he 1970s. It would have been very authoritative for decades, and as with Mormon Doctrine, would have slowed our ability to refine and improve our theology.

    Even the Encyclopedia of Mormonism (which I like a lot), is showing its age, with many of its articles now of lesser value than they once were. For example, it precedes the discovery of the Arabian Bountiful.

    I would suggest an electronic Wikipedia of BoM study, where topics and info can be added or updated as needed, or when new information hits the horizon. There are current attempts at this, such as at feastupontheword.org, where articles, links, and discussions on scripture and Sunday School lessons on all the scriptures are available (including my own efforts on the Sunday School lessons).

    Here is an article I wrote on the BoM and Documentary Hypothesis – with some corrections noted by others in the comments – http://feastuponthewordblog.org/2011/12/27/the-book-of-mormon-and-the-documentary-hypothesis-from-gerald-smith/

    Perhaps an electronic version of the BoM, with links to online resources for various topics or verses would be of great value in this way.

  3. I second Kent G. Budge’s endorsement of Gardner’s “Second Witness” of which his recent work “Traditions of the Fathers-The Book of Mormon as History” is a very limited but still valuable digest.
    I am nibbling away at it, given that it comes in twelve volumes and even in the Kindle edition at slightly less than $10 per volume that is a considerable chunk of my reading budget. However there is a fair amount of repetition in Second Witness that could probably be taken care of by more references to previous notations of certain situations.

  4. I’d also suggest that the text should be based on Royal Skousen’s ‘earliest text’.

    Also, there probably needs to be several such ‘study versions’ to allow for variety in interpretation. I own some different study Bibles, and they certainly don’t all agree with one another.

  5. For myself, I would be less interested in any study Book of Mormon that didn’t point out how Helaman 5:12 differs from the Isaiah passages regarding whirlwinds. Specifically, the Isaiah passages are clearly talking about a desert whirlwind, while Helaman 5:12 is graphically describing hurricane/cyclone conditions, along with tsunami-related storm surge.

    Besides which, Helaman 5:12 deserves to be on everyone’s “must memorize” list simply because of its devotional content.

  6. Additionally, we need a wide-margin edition to allow copious note-taking right in the book itself. An example of such can be found at “The Garden Tower” (www.bradjackman.com). So what would we name it?
    The Book of Mormon: Study Edition: Wide Margin Edition 🙂 ?

  7. This is a great idea. Grant Hardy’s edition already does much to improve Book of Mormon literacy, but an even more extensive volume would be good as well.

    You would need to be very careful of adding things in that are speculative in nature. That would only come back to bite the Church if proven to be wrong later on. However, including good, solid research would be awesome.

    If, for example, you treat the subject of geography, you’d have to show various possibilities in an unbiased way and be sure to make clear that they are “possible” locations. It can get sticky.

    I think a print edition would be more widely read and used – ESPECIALLY if it were the work of many scholars and didn’t just have one guy’s name on the front. You could come out with new editions when new research became available.

    An online version or app would be great too. The electronic editions could be free so that it gets into as many hands as possible.

  8. Aotonbo: GMTA! For a church that encourages us to mark up our scriptures, make notes, and become scriptorians, a wide margin would help a lot to serve that goal.

    I’d also like to see diglot (two languages, with parallel verses) editions of the Book of Mormon. They’d sell (firguratively speaking) like hotcakes (figuratively speaking). It would accelerate flooding the earth with the BoM with people wanting to get copies merely to learn some English. There is no wrong reason to read the Book of Mormon. And the Holy Ghost would have access and opportunity to touch and inspire millions of more people.

  9. To summarize,

    I think we have a desire for the Royal Skousen text with wide margins, the ability to parse in a text of choice (e.g, the “current” English text, a foreign translation), and a set of notes according to the scholar’s preferences.

    I would propose that this is, perhaps, best served by an app that displays this information on a screen or lets you print the chapters as you go, on regulation paper.

    The only bad thing about a side by side comparison with the earliest text version is that it might risk losing the beauty of how Royal Skousen arranged the earliest text, with each line representing a sentence or complete phrase.

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