In Tents #43 He is Risen and Other Texts That Don’t Behave as Textual Critics Think They Do Part IV

If you grew up mildly fascinated by the textual history of the Book of Mormon printed in the front of the 1920 edition (but not the 1981)

First English Edition published in

First issued, and divided into chapters and verses
with references

First issued in double-column pages, with
chapter headings, chronological data,
revised foot-note references,
pronouncing vocabulary,
and index, in 1920

you’re aware that Mormon didn’t divide the plates into chapters and verses. He apparently indicated major episode divisions, which correspond to the original chapter divisions in the first edition. Brother Pratt’s chapters are much shorter, and have less to do with the way Mormon conceived episodes than with the liturgical and ecclesiastical needs of the Church, and the desire to have the Book of Mormon formatted like the Bible.

Of course, the Bible wasn’t always divided into chapters and verses either. Those divisions also were made to accommodate the liturgical and ecclesiastical needs of churches and congregations, including the need for a uniform referencing, since no two copies of scripture would have the same passage on the same page or scroll.

But the lack of chapter divisions doesn’t mean the ancient writers didn’t have their own conventions for marking the end of one section and the beginning of the next. Robert Alter points out in The Five Books of Moses that the genealogical lists function this way.

Another way of marking episodes is what Alter calls an envelope structure, where the end of the episode reiterates the beginning. Thus the cosmological creation story begins, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” and ends “These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created.”

Which is interesting to think about when I consider that copy of James Moffatt’s translation that was on the shelf below the TV at my parents’ house. Moffatt did some rearranging of the text to make it accord better with his understanding of the documentary hypothesis about how the texts were originally arranged. He begins Genesis with 2:4a:

This is the story of how the universe was formed.

Now any writer who was paying attention in high school creative writing class, indeed any reader who knows that a story beginning in media res is more interesting than one that starts with a slow introduction, will find Moffatt’s arrangement unsatisfying.

You start the story of your origins with lofty dignified language, not a lame summary phrase like, “This is the document that declares the American colonies’ independence from Great Britain.”

You start your story of origins in the beginning, emphasizing that there was a beginning, and that God was there at the beginning, and in the beginning, as creator of heaven and earth.

But Moffatt wasn’t the only scholar not to understand the structure of biblical narrative. Why is the verse that brings the cosmological creation back to the beginning in Chapter Two, rather than being the end of Chapter One? Perhaps some medieval scholar thought that since God rested after the sixth day, so should the chapter.

I Corinthians 12 is another example of a poor place to break a chapter. Paul ends a long list of spiritual gifts, and rhetorical questions designed to highlight the value of the different gifts, with an exhortation to “covet earnestly the best gifts.” But he qualifies the exhortation, “yet shew I unto you a more excellent way.”

That should be a transition introducing the more excellent way, but some medieval scholar felt the chapter should end there–perhaps because the next section is a lovely hymn and the scholar felt it should stand alone, or would be easier to find as its own chapter rather than the second half of chapter 12. So the hymn that defines the more excellent way is cut off from the verse that introduces it as a more excellent way by a chapter break, which makes chapters 12 and 13 feel like discrete thoughts rather than a whole rhetorical unit.

But the Medieval scholars who worked on chapter divisions weren’t the first who didn’t quite grasp how their work affected the rhetorical structure of the scriptures, or who found that the scriptures didn’t behave quite the way they wanted. Hundreds of years before that the Masoretes–the scholars working between the 5th and 10th centuries CE in Jerusalem, Tiberias, and Babyonia to fix the vowel points and cantillation in the Hebrew Bible–ran into some interesting challenges.

In Exodus 23:15 the Lord is talking about the feast days the Children of Israel should keep.

Thou shalt keep the feast of unleavened bread: (thou shalt eat unleavened bread seven days, as I commanded thee, in the time appointed of the month Abib; for in it thou camest out from Egypt: and none shall appear before me empty:)

Alter renders the last clause “and they shall not appear in my presence empty-handed” with a note that

“The original form of the Hebrew indicated “see My face [or presence],” but the Masoretes revocalized the verb as a passive, “to be seen” or “to appear” in order to avoid what seemed like excessive anthropomorphism” (451).

Or consider Genesis 18:22:

And the men turned their faces from thence, and went toward Sodom: but Abraham stood yet before the Lord.

Alter renders the last clause “while the Lord was still standing before Abraham” with the note:

The Masoretic text has Abraham standing before the Lord, but this reading is avowedly a scribal euphemism, what the Talmud calls a tiqun sofrim, introduced because the original formulation smacked of lese-majeste (89).

Texts don’t always behave the way readers or scholars or textual critics think they do or should. Sometimes (often?) that’s because there is a problem with the text, but our sense that something is wrong with the text can also come from our assumptions. Our ideas about how texts work come from experience with texts, but our experience is often influenced by our ideas about how texts work. We approach texts with ideas about how they came to us, and respond to things like textual variants according to those ideas, so that people who hold a text sacred and those who don’t are likely to give very different accounts of the same text.

Put another way, the major problem of scholarship may be how we treat sources that disagree with us, like that little book that’s sweet to the mouth and bitter to the belly.

I’ll have more to say about this next month, and maybe the month after that and after that. In the meantime, what are your favorite examples of texts that don’t quite behave?

I heard a good example on Radio West just after the article “Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham” appeared on

Doug Fabrizio’s guest, David Bokovoy, told him that the word translation meant something different to Joseph Smith than it means to us, that it involved moving something to a higher condition, like we mean when we say Enoch was translated. Fabrizio asked whether, if that was the case with the Book of Abraham, it might also be the case with The Book of Mormon. Bokovoy said the Book of Mormon is a different case because its translation involved objects, like the Urim and Thummim, that Joseph didn’t claim to use with The Book of Abramam. Which suggests that the word translation may have had different meanings to Joseph Smith, depending on what he was translating.

Yesterday on the Frontrunner train I heard two guys talking about the Church’s article. One said he thought the papyri had nothing to do with the Book of Abraham, that the Book of Abraham was a revelation Joseph had while pondering deeply about the papyri, and he never thought to ask the Lord if it was a translation like the Book of Mormon or a revelation like those “sudden strokes of intelligence” he liked to talk about.

Your turn.

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2 Responses to In Tents #43 He is Risen and Other Texts That Don’t Behave as Textual Critics Think They Do Part IV

  1. Dennis Clark says:

    I like your examples, since they speak to the general theme. But there seems to me to be another way in which texts don’t behave as they should. We pervert them.

    As far as I can tell, “thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain” has nothing to do with “bad words” or “cursing.” In its context, it seems to mean “Don’t take the name of god upon you and then not live up to what that requires,” as in the baptismal covenant of Mosiah 18. To do so would be a vain renaming of oneself. “Swear not at all,” in its context, clearly refers to making vows to perform an act in the name of God, and not to one’s use of ungenteel words.

    My sense of Jesus is that he was continually violating the genteel norms of the leaders of his people. And always willing to correct them. But that was usually by returning to the texts and re-defining them, and altering them as needed, but not by complaining that people used bad words. And as for “cursing,” “God damn you” truly is a curse, and definitely an example of taking the Lord’s title in vain, since he will not damn you at my request. And it can easily be seen as taking the Lord’s name in vain, since any such request from me would indicate that I had turned my back on God and was seeking to use Him only as an agent of harm to you.

    Well, carry on. Good work, my friend.

  2. Harlow says:

    Thanks for your comment, Dennis. Another form of perverting the scriptures may be making claims for them that they don’t make for themselves–though that may be more a lack of understanding than deliberate perversion. For example, the Book of Mormon makes specific claims about who wrote it, why, on what medium, how the record was passed from keeper to keeper, and the tools that would aid a future prophet to bring if forth to the world centuries after it was written.

    The Book of Abraham doesn’t make any of those claims, but having worked with the Book of Mormon, Joseph might have assumed that the Book of Abraham was the same kind of translation, and it may have been–we only have small fragments and there were five long papyrus scrolls. But the medium Joseph was translating from might have been more like the parchment he saw in D&C 7. (In The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon, Brant Gardner sees this section as key to understanding how Joseph could quote verbatim from the KJV in his translation, when no accounts of the translation mention him having a Bible present.)

    We’ve had to learn that some of the things we claim for the Book of Mormon may not be accurate, for example that the Nephites and Lamanites “are the principle ancestors of the American Indians,” as the introduction to the 1981 edition said. The Book of Mormon doesn’t make that claim. It also doesn’t claim there were no other groups on the continent when Lehi and party arrived, even though we’ve assumed it claims both things.

    It’s important to be able to distinguish between the claims we as a culture make about scripture and the claims scripture makes for itself. Otherwise if the cultural claims fail we may think the scriptural claim has failed. If you believe there’s no error in the Bible, and someone claims that “ignorant translators, careless transcribers, or designing and corrupt priests have committed many errors,” and proceeds to demonstrate it, you may think they’re trying to invalidate the Bible’s status as scripture, or argue against the idea of divine inspiration, or demonstrate there’s no God.

    But the Bible doesn’t claim to be a flawless text, and it’s possible to believe, with Joseph Smith, that the Bible is revealed scripture and has errors introduced both deliberately and carelessly. Someone who uses Joseph’s statement as a framework for understanding biblical scholarship will find a book like Richard Elliott Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? an enlightening portrait of corrupt and designing priests and politicians appropriating sacred texts for their own theological and political and economic ends.

    Someone who doesn’t use Joseph’s remarks as an interpretive guide will read the book differently. My younger sister suggested the book would disabuse me of my notions of divine origin for the Bible. In contrast, my oldest brother outlined Friedman’s argument and said, “A prophet taking the records of his people and editing them into a continuous narrative. Does that sound familiar?”

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