Sponsored by BYU Studies—Grant Hardy is the editor of the Maxwell Institute Study Edition of the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ.
Welcome! Before we begin, would you tell us a little bit about yourself and your academic background?
As an undergraduate at BYU, I majored in ancient Greek and minored in Chinese. I then went on to get a PhD in Chinese Language and Literature from Yale, specializing in Classical Chinese, which was roughly the equivalent of Latin in Imperial China. I have taught Chinese history ever since, although about 10 years ago I receive a joint appointment in Religious Studies as well as History, which reflects my additional teaching and research interests in Buddhism and world scripture.
When did you first notice you had an affinity for languages and when did you realize it was something you could pursue academically?
I’ve always been interested in ancient texts and languages, perhaps as a result of an early attraction to scripture. Inspired by Hugh Nibley, I signed up for an ancient Greek class the first semester of my freshman year. (Why else would you go to college?)
Serving a mission in Taiwan and learning Mandarin opened up a new world for me, and over the course of my education, I’ve taken classes in eight or nine foreign languages, though I wouldn’t say that I have a particular affinity for them. They don’t come easily. I have to work hard and I’m afraid that I’m only really competent in just a couple of them, but I find languages fascinating. In fact, just last semester I was finally able to take my first class in Hebrew—something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time.
What are some of the common threads between language and the historical issues with which you are most fascinated?
Languages are tools to get closer to original sources, to better understand the authors and their cultures, and studying them can help us become more careful, perceptive readers. Perhaps because my formal training is in literature rather than history, I have been drawn to ancient histories—how they were constructed and how they communicate with readers.
My first book, based on my dissertation, was a study of the early Chinese historian Sima Qian, who wrote an astonishing history in the 1st century BC in which he attempted bring together information about the entire world—as he knew it—from legendary times to his own era. It’s organized into a unique form in which, rather than a single linear narrative, different details and stories about particular individuals are spread through various categories of annals, chronological tables, treatises, hereditary houses, and biographies.
While I was working on my dissertation, and later the book, I often thought of Mormon, since Sima Qian also despaired of his contemporaries and buried a copy of his history for the benefit of “the sages and scholars of later ages.”
What factors led to you writing about the Book of Mormon in The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition, and Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide? Did your work on those books have any direct influence on your eventual role as editor of the Maxwell Institute Study Edition of the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ?
When I was studying ancient Greek at BYU, I was introduced to modern translations of the Bible, which often read much more easily than the King James Version. This is not just a result of the language but also the formatting, which generally puts the text into paragraphs with superscripted verse numbers, quotation marks, poetic stanzas, and section headings.
I wondered if it would be possible to do something similar for the Book of Mormon, though without changing the words.
In addition, as a professor in New York and North Carolina, I discovered that several of my non-LDS colleagues had copies of the Book of Mormon in their offices, usually given to them by LDS students.
But when I asked if they had read it, they admitted that they had given up after several dozen pages. It was hard to follow the narrative and keep track of all the new names, and there didn’t seem to be enough there to sustain their interest.
Those observations were the basis of the Reader’s Edition, which reformatted the 1920 text of the Book of Mormon (to avoid copyright issues) in a manner that I hoped would make it easier for outsiders to follow the narrative and grasp the meaning of the book. It was published by the University of Illinois Press and targeted toward a non-Mormon academic audience who wanted more familiarity with what, by any account, is a classic of American religious history. I was pleased, of course, when many Latter-day Saints discovered it and found its formatting useful.
It took me about ten years to edit the Reader’s Edition as I tried to bring out features and structures of the text that had long been hidden in our standard edition.
What was particularly striking to me was the way that the main narrators—Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni—had shaped the source materials at their disposal to better communicate their ideas about God and salvation.
Eventually, I wrote Understanding the Book of Mormon to share what I had learned from editing the Reader’s Edition about the intentions and techniques of the book’s narrators. It approached the Book of Mormon from a literary perspective, and I tried to explain things in a way that would make sense to both Latter-day Saints and outsiders, as is appropriate for a book published by Oxford University Press. Both the Reader’s Edition and Understanding the Book of Mormon were precursors to the new Maxwell Institute Study Edition.
Introduce the Study Edition and explain how the book came to be.
In 2015, there was an announcement that Church universities would move from a two-semester required Book of Mormon course to a one-semester course—due in part to the increasing numbers of returned missionaries who would be in those courses—and there was some discussion about how best to teach the new curriculum.
I was invited by Times and Seasons to put together a sample syllabus for how I would do things—just for fun, I don’t teach the Book of Mormon at my current university. When my syllabus was posted online, the Maxwell Institute invited me to come to Provo and actually teach the course as a summer workshop. In doing so, I realized that it would be very helpful if students could use a college edition of the Book of Mormon, so I developed a draft version that adopted the same basic formatting as the Reader’s Edition, but with lots of revisions.
Rather than allowing students to easily fall back into the patterns of scripture study they had developed before and during their missions, I thought it might be useful if they could encounter the familiar words in a new format that would allow for a different sort of engagement with the text—one that focused on larger contexts, connections, and authorial intentions instead of favorite verses.
In the same way that college biology should be different from high school biology, a university course in the Book of Mormon should be appreciably different from seminary.
To that end, a college edition of the Book of Mormon could be a valuable supplement to their missionary scriptures.
The Maxwell Institute expressed interest in publishing the new edition, and as the project developed over the next couple of years, I continued to make revisions and add more footnotes pointing out literary features of the text and internal allusions—many of which I had first noted in Understanding the Book of Mormon. I also included the sorts of appendices, maps, and charts that I thought college students might find useful in their overall understanding of how the text came to be, how it is structured, and how to respond to common criticisms.
It was something of a breakthrough when the Church gave us permission to use the official 2013 edition of the text, and another milestone when the Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book agreed to become joint publishers with the Maxwell Institute.
The new Study Edition, unlike the Reader’s Edition, is produced from an explicit position of faith, and it is aimed at Latter-day Saints who want to read the Book of Mormon as sacred scripture, but with increased understanding. The 2013 text has been reproduced exactly, with no changes in wording and only the minor adjustments in punctuation necessary to introduce quotation marks and poetry.
Briefly introduce the layout of the Study Edition and explain what criteria were used in designing it. How does the layout compare to other editions of the Book of Mormon, specifically the original 1830 edition and the 2013 edition?
The Book of Mormon was first published in 1830 in with chapter breaks from the dictation but paragraphs that were determined by the non-LDS typesetter John Gilbert (who also added all the punctuation). Because he appears to have used “and it came to pass” as a paragraph marker, some of the paragraphs are quite long, sometimes continuing over several pages. In 1879, the text was broken into shorter chapters and numbered verses. These innovations made it easier to locate particular passages, but they also tended to break up the flow of the narrative and the rhetorical coherence of the sermons. Eventually chapter headings, cross-references, and double columns were also introduced, which facilitated gospel discussions and made the Book of Mormon look more like Bibles of the early twentieth century.
Of course, Bible translations of the sort that most Christians use today are organized into paragraphs and poetry, so the Study Edition, like the Reader’s Edition before it, is both a return to the original layout of the Book of Mormon and also a move toward more modern biblical formatting. Readers will find the running section headings particularly useful, since it is easy to see at any point in the text who is speaking and on what topic. And skimming though the headings provides a quick overview of the narrative and major structural divisions.
How does the layout of a book affect a reader’s experience with the text?
It’s hard to explain the difference that paragraphs, section headings, quotations marks, and poetic stanzas make until you actually try it. The stories make more sense, interconnections are more obvious, and the themes and ideas fit together more clearly.
There is tremendous benefit in sitting down and reading 20 or 30 pages in a sitting, and this edition makes that much more possible, even enjoyable. There is also the advantage of seeing everything in context, something that the section headings in particular facilitate.
It’s easy to keep in mind not just the immediate context of favorite verses, but also the big picture that Nephi or Mormon themselves had in mind.
I believe that just about anyone will gain deeper understanding and new insights as they encounter the familiar words in this reader-friendly format. In addition, Brian Kershisnik’s marvelous woodcuts—specially commissioned for the Study Edition—will provide a new perspectives on beloved stories and figures that we have long imagined in terms set by Arnold Friberg long ago.
Tell us more about the “study” part of the Study Edition. How many total references are there to the Printer’s and Original Manuscripts? What benefits does that provide readers using this edition?
In the text of the Study Edition, I emphasized the original 1830 chapter breaks (which were part of the gold plates) and used boldface type to indicate places where Nephite writers used phrases from scripture they had just quoted, as well as places where the Book of Mormon versions of Isaiah and Matthew differ from the King James Bible (this is one of the ways the Book of Mormon functions as a sort of biblical commentary).
In the headings and the footnotes I highlighted the structure and literary patterns inherent in the text that can be difficult to perceive in a verse-by-verse format. Most importantly, I included footnotes drawn from Royal Skousen’s groundbreaking work of textual criticism indicating passages where better readings from the Original and Printer’s Manuscripts had been accidentally lost in copying, typesetting, and printing though the years.
As I mentioned earlier, the words are identical to the official 2013 edition, but in the footnotes I’ve included nearly 200 readings from the Original Manuscript and another 200 from the Printer’s Manuscript, as well as about 100 conjectural emendations from Skousen’s Analysis of Textual Variants—a massive, comprehensive study of the text in six large volumes and some 4100 pages. (I tried to carefully select those findings of his that would make the most difference for contemporary readers of the 2013 text). The conjectural emendations represent Royal’s considered, scholarly judgment as to the original readings in cases where the handwritten manuscripts are clearly defective.
There is a long history of such conjectures, some of which were made by Oliver Cowdery, John Gilbert, and even Joseph Smith himself; Royal is extraordinarily scrupulous and conservative in his suggested readings. And finally, the footnotes include 100 instances were alternative punctuation could make a difference in meaning—remember that most of our current punctuation was done by John Gilbert in 1830—and these also rely heavily on Skousen’s work.
These textual footnotes are one of the main reasons this publication can be called a “study edition.” They encourage readers to think about the exact meaning of the words, and how the meaning might shift with slightly different words or punctuation.
One of my main goals was to help readers turn to the text itself and focus on what is actually there, as opposed to important but ultimately external details about Joseph Smith, historical geography, and the writings of later Church leaders.
I hope that this publication will put into the foreground the witness of ancient prophets and the book’s own testimony of Christ (though I am certainly grateful for prophetic guidance since 1830).
What is this book — and what is it not?
All this talk of footnotes and study aids may make it seem like it’s the “Book of Mormon made harder.” That’s not quite right.
While the footnotes and appendices can be useful to those who wish to delve deeper into the details, the typography of the Study Edition (expertly done by the Andrew Heiss) makes it easy to ignore the notes and simply read through the text.
Most people will find that this version of Book of Mormon reads much more smoothly than they have hitherto experienced. The chapters flow, the narrative is clearly marked out (especially in cases of flashbacks and simultaneous narrative strands), episodes of dialogue are easy to follow, and the poetry (even Isaiah!) is more readily comprehensible.
Also, at least in my opinion, it is easier to hear the distinct voices of different writers and narrators, much as we might appreciate the characteristic cadences and styles of particular apostles in General Conference.
And yet it’s not exactly the “Book of Mormon made easier” either.
My intention was not to add or subtract from the scripture, but rather to simply highlight what has always been there—the marvelous structure and careful literary crafting that has sometimes been obscured by earlier formats. And in places where, for example, Nephi is doing some complicated scriptural interpretation, as in 1 Nephi 22 or 2 Nephi 26–27, my job was to make that as clear as possible.
How was the decision made to include the testimony of Emma Smith? Did Mary Whitmer leave behind any historical accounts of her witness and was she ever considered for inclusion?
I just made the decision myself. In the Reader’s Edition, Emma’s testimony was included in the back matter, along with other historical documents. For this volume I put the Testimonies of the Three and Eight Witnesses front and center, as in the official edition, and I also put the famous interview with Emma there.
In part, it was a response to the growing sense that we have not given enough attention to women’s voices in our religious tradition. But mostly, it’s because I find her testimony so moving and compelling.
The other witness statements were issued jointly and were fairly miraculous—seeing an angel in one case, with a dramatic unveiling of the gold plates themselves in the other.
Emma, however, speaks very matter-of-factly about things she experienced daily over the course of several years. She was involved with the translation from the beginning, accompanying Joseph to the hill to get the plates and then acting as his first scribe, and she knew him better than anyone—his heart and faith, as well as his natural abilities and limitations. (She’s not particularly intimidated by her husband!)
Some readers may find her very personal, measured account a little more persuasive than the affidavit-like statements of the other witnesses, which today can sound a bit legalistic.
And it just seemed like time to give Emma her due.
Mary Whitmer could be considered another witness since she told of how an angel showed her the gold plates. It’s a significant, impressive story, but unfortunately we don’t have it in her own words. What has survived is a retelling by her grandson, and for that reason I chose to include it in an appendix at the end, along with several other accounts from both women and men who participated in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon.
How has your understanding of and appreciation for the Book of Mormon changed since your early 20s? How do you hope it will evolve in the next 20 years—and how might the Study Edition affect those changes?
In the 1980s, when I first started thinking about a reader’s edition, I wasn’t sure if the Book of Mormon would divide into coherent paragraphs; it’s possible for a fragmented, somewhat haphazard text to still be an authentic revelation.
Since that time, however, I have come to better appreciate the beauty and integrity of the Nephite record, at least some of which comes through in translation. And in working so closely with the text, I have gained a greater respect for book’s original authors and editors. Nephi, Jacob, Alma, Mormon, and Moroni represent some of the most spiritually mature and compelling voices within our religious tradition.
The Study Edition reflects my current understanding of their work, but I hope that over the next twenty years, as I continue to study and write, I will come to know them better, and through them come to know the Savior himself more fully.
Are there any other thoughts you would like to share?
Because I regard the Book of Mormon as sacred scripture, all the royalties from the Study Edition are being donated directly to the Humanitarian Aid Fund of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
This interview is made possible thanks to the generous sponsorship of BYU Studies.