Book of Mormon

What is the Annotated Book of Mormon?

It’s basically the equivalent of an academic study Bible for the Book of Mormon.

The Book of Mormon is a complex literary work with a close relationship to the Bible. Grant Hardy’s work in creating the Annotated Book of Mormon is designed to communicate that complexity and provide insights into the Book of Mormon that appeal to both believers and non-believing scholars. This interview with the author is about his new annotated edition published by Oxford University Press.

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Read more about the Book of Mormon in the Annotated Book of Mormon.

Table of Contents

What is the Oxford Annotated Book of Mormon?

The Annotated Book of Mormon is basically the equivalent of an academic study Bible for the Book of Mormon. I have long appreciated good study Bibles, such as the New Oxford Annotated Bible and the HarperCollins Study Bible, which reprint the biblical text with brief explanations at the bottom of every page.

In addition to providing background and insights, the annotations give readers something to look for in most verses, and thus help focus attention on the scriptural text itself. I wondered if something similar might be done for the Book of Mormon.

Listen to The Oxford Comment interview Grant Hardy about the only academic annotated Book of Mormon.

When I contacted my regular editor at Oxford University Press, however, she referred me to their Bible Division, which specializes in Bibles and study Bibles. The Executive Editor there, Donald Kraus, has been doing this for nearly forty years and is one of the best in the business. He was enthusiastic about the project and we went through several rounds of sample annotations to figure out what might work best for the Book of Mormon. (Incidentally, this volume is the first non-biblical scripture ever published by OUP’s Bible Division.) 

Over the course of six years, I wrote about five hundred pages of annotations, which went through six drafts, in addition to the introductions to individual books and the general interest essays that readers expect in study Bibles. Through the entire process, we tried to keep in mind a dual readership: Latter-day Saints who are already familiar with, and religiously invested in the Book of Mormon, and outsiders who may be coming to the Mormon scripture for the first time out of curiosity or scholarly interests. We wanted to make sure we were giving the former audience something new, and the latter audience everything they might need to make sense of the Book of Mormon.

As with Oxford’s Jewish Study Bible and Catholic Study Bible, I was invited to edit the volume from a believer’s perspective, in order to give academic readers a sense of what Latter-day Saints themselves might see in their sacred text.

How Is It Different From the Reader’s Edition and the Maxwell Institute Version?

Those two earlier editions reformatted the scriptural text in the manner of modern Bible translations, with section headings, paragraphs, superscripted verse numbers, quotations marks, and poetic stanzas where appropriate. They did not include many footnotes, other than indications of textual variants from the original and printer’s manuscripts, and just a few study aids in the form of maps and charts. Both books primarily offered the text of the Book of Mormon in a more reader-friendly format.

By contrast, the Annotated Book of Mormon includes not only the reformatted scriptural text and maps and charts from the Maxwell Institute Edition, but thousands of annotations and another 200 pages of introductions and essays. These new study aids are nearly as long as the Book of Mormon itself. 

The Reader’s Edition was published by the University of Illinois Press and aimed at a non-Mormon audience. The Maxwell Institute edition, co-published by BYU and Deseret Book, was intended for Latter-day Saints. The Annotated Edition is more attuned to mainstream biblical scholarship and the needs of academic readers. 

The annotations point out literary patterns, narrative connections, and theological implications.

A difference that may not be immediately apparent is the shift in base texts. The Reader’s Edition used the 1920 text of the Book of Mormon, which is in the public domain. The Maxwell Institute Edition was licensed by the Church to use its official 2013 text, but the policy has since been changed and Church entities—including BYU and Deseret Book—are no longer allowed to publish the copyrighted scriptural text in anything other than the official formatting.

The Maxwell Institute was told to not reprint the Study Edition after current stocks were sold out, so it is no longer available. The Annotated Edition returned to the 1920 text.

Fortunately, the 1920 and 2013 texts are very similar, differing in less than 200 words out of nearly 270,000 (aside from 136 instances of exceeding being changed to exceedingly), with almost half of the modified words being restorations of accidentally deleted phrases in just seven verses (Mosiah 17:15; 29:15; Alma 29:4; 32:30; 3 Ne. 3:23; 16:10; Morm. 9:34). The Annotated Edition includes footnotes identifying discrepancies between the 1920 and 2013 texts. 

How does it compare to the New Oxford Annotated Bible?

The layout of the two books is quite similar, with the scriptural text in double columns, a few textual notes below the right-hand column, and then large blocks of annotations laid out across the bottom of each page. Individual books have their own introductions, with a few broader introductions for the Small Plates, Mormon’s Abridgment of the Large Plates, and Moroni’s Additions, matching the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NOAB)’s introductions to large sections such as the Pentateuch, the Historical Books, the Prophetic Books, and the Gospels.

General interest essays that summarize developments in scholarship appear at the end of each volume, followed by a glossary of standard terms from biblical scholarship and a few maps and charts. The glossary entries in the Annotated Book of Mormon (ABoM) were mostly taken from other OUP Study Bibles, and occasionally the ABoM includes additional information in text boxes, like those in OUP’s Jewish Annotated New Testament.

The ABoM places its section headings in the scriptural text, unlike the NOAB which relegates them to the annotations, but we felt that would be helpful to academic readers who tend to be much less familiar with the Book of Mormon than with the Bible.

The Book of Mormon often interacts with the Bible in subtle, thoughtful ways.

In both volumes the annotations point out literary patterns, narrative connections, and theological implications. There are fewer historical references in the ABoM annotations because the Book of Mormon is not as well-situated in mainstream history as the Bible.

There are, for instance, no non-Nephite records that mention Nephites, and there are no artifacts or settlements that can be conclusively identified as belonging to the Nephites. I sometimes mention connections that Latter-day Saint scholars have made to the ancient Americas, as well as obvious anachronisms, but that is not a major theme of the annotations.

Another significant difference between the ABoM and academic study Bibles such as the NOAB is that the latter generally bring together contributions from dozens of scholars, with the general essays each being written by a different specialist.

Don Kraus and I considered trying something similar for the ABoM, but the field of Book of Mormon studies is not developed enough, with enough scholarly consensus and enough practitioners to make it work. So, I ended up writing all the essays myself.

This was not entirely unprecedented, but Don tells me the ABoM is the first single-author commentary like this that OUP has published in over a century—since the Scofield Reference Bible produced by Cyrus Scofield in 1917.

(Speaking of consensus, biblical scholars generally agree on the main literary divisions, allusions, and arguments of, say, the book of Romans. Most modern Bible translations use similar section headings in similar places in the text. Book of Mormon scholarship is just not there yet.)

Why are the ways it borrows, adapts, or interprets the Bible a focus of the annotations?

Latter-day Saints and non-members have completely different ideas about the historicity of the Book of Mormon, yet both groups can agree that the Mormon scripture was written to be a companion to the Bible, particularly the King James Bible. This is evident from the Book of Mormon’s archaic diction, narrative style and themes, and pervasive use of phrases from both the Old and New Testaments.

Comparing the Book of Mormon and the Bible is a scholarly endeavor in which believers and outsiders can work together and learn from each other, but the former don’t know the Bible very well, and the latter don’t know the Book of Mormon.

The Annotated Book of Mormon is an attempt to help bridge that gap. (The lack of courses devoted to mainstream biblical scholarship and religious studies at BYU is a major hindrance to Latter-day Saint efforts to speak beyond their religious peers to the wider academic community.)

It seemed to me that far from being an instance of plagiarism or superficial fan fiction, the Book of Mormon often interacts with the Bible in subtle, thoughtful ways.

Are there other points of common interest?

Scholars with different beliefs about the origin and religious significance of the Book of Mormon could still agree on a few points:

  • Textual transmission
  • Literary structure
  • Narrative techniques
  • Reception in nineteenth-century America.

There might even be common ground in identifying nineteenth-century ideas and phrases in the text (my annotations regularly call attention to these), since Latter-day Saints view the Book of Mormon as an inspired translation designed to be intelligible and inspiring to modern English-speaking readers who care about Christian theology and the Bible.

That’s what I did, and it took me a full year.

Several of these issues are covered in the general essays, where I try to offer fair and respectful overviews of long-running debates, based on secondary literature and the comprehensive, detailed analysis found in the annotations.

Those essays include considerations of the theology and literary qualities of the Book of Mormon, its role in American history and in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and what it means to read the book as ancient history, as fiction, and as world scripture.

I am hoping the general essays will help situate our Latter-day Saint sacred text into broad scholarly conversations about history, literature, religion, and scripture, and for each essay I have included a list of influential articles and books for further reading.

How did Grant Hardy analyze biblical quotations, allusions, and verbal parallels?

You must be referring to the fifteen-page appendix at the end of the volume, which is the most comprehensive, carefully vetted list of biblical quotations, allusions, and verbal parallels ever produced.

The only way to construct such a list responsibly is to read through the entire Book of Mormon very slowly and look up every phrase in a computer database to see if there is anything similar in the Bible. Then you have to evaluate each cluster of similar words in terms of syntactic complexity, distinctiveness, sequence, and context to try to determine which parallels might be intentional or coincidental, in other words, deliberate allusions as opposed to formulaic expressions or meaningless overlap.

That’s what I did, and it took me a full year.

Heather, my wife, did the same thing independently not once but twice, over the course of many years, and then she compared our results, as well as every other list of biblical quotations and allusions she could get access to. Her “common usage” list is about twice the length of the appendix in the Annotated Book of Mormon, which only includes instances of borrowed phrasing we thought we could reasonably defend as significant. It was truly a labor of love.

What modes of salvation do Lehi and Nephi present?

This is a topic I come back to regularly in my introductions and annotations. The Old Testament and the New Testament tend to talk about salvation in different ways.

In the Hebrew Bible, which focuses on the story of Israel, salvation generally refers to the Lord intervening in human history, in this life, to provide prosperity, protection, land, and posterity to the faithful. God deals with human beings as members of communities, meting out rewards and punishments to entire nations and peoples. Resurrection and the afterlife are hardly ever mentioned. This general outlook can be referred to as “salvation history,” to borrow a term from biblical scholarship.

By contrast, New Testament writers teach that individuals can believe in Christ, repent of their sins through the atonement, accept baptism, and strive to keep the commandments regardless of their ethnicity or place of origin. After they die, each person will be resurrected and judged according to their own actions, before going on to their eternal reward or punishment.

I like to use the Latter-day Saint term “plan of salvation” to describe this more otherworldly, individualistic perspective, though it does not necessarily include ideas of the preexistence or the three degrees of glory (neither of which appear in the Book of Mormon). 

Once you see it, this arc of Nephite history is quite striking.

The Book of Mormon integrates these two modes of salvation in interesting ways. Lehi and Nephi are very familiar with salvation history, and they regularly speak about the destinies of Jews and Gentiles (that is, “the nations”), particularly when they are interpreting Brass Plates prophets such as Isaiah or prophesying themselves about their posterity.

At the same time, they have received new revelations about a coming Messiah who would redeem not just Israel, but be a “Savior of the world” (1 Ne. 10:4). Lehi, Nephi, and Jacob all talk about the last judgment and eternal life. (You may be reminded of the different modes of salvation exemplified in Lehi’s dream of the tree of life at 1 Nephi 8, and Zenos’s allegory of the olive tree at Jacob 5.)

It is useful to think about what these new doctrines might have meant to Lehi’s family, who had been driven from Jerusalem and suffered great losses as a result of salvation history, that is, the collective wickedness of Judah and the resulting Babylonian conquest. It must have given them comfort to realize that they could be blessed for their individual faithfulness—if not in this life then in the next—even while their society was falling apart.

How does Mormon weave them together?

We often think of the Book of Mormon in plan of salvation terms, as an invitation for individuals to accept Christ, repent, and be saved. Many Nephite prophets speak this way, and there are some dramatic examples of individual conversion such as Alma1 and Alma2. But it doesn’t take 500 pages to convey the basic message of faith, repentance, baptism, receiving the Holy Ghost, and enduring to the end. Mormon is abridging the Large Plates with large-scale historical developments in mind, and that lends itself to salvation history, where large groups of people rise and fall collectively. These include not only natural, biological communities such as the Nephites, Lamanites, Mulekites, and Jaredites, but also voluntary communities like the Nephite church or the Anti-Nephi-Lehies or the Gadianton robbers. 

We see references to both types of salvation in Alma’s preaching. When he was first converted, the angel commanded him to “Go, and remember the captivity of thy fathers in the land of Helam, and in the land of Nephi; and remember how great things he has done for them, for they were in bondage and he has delivered them” (Mosiah 27:16).

Later, Alma begins his sermon at Zarahemla in just this way, reminding his listeners how the Lord had delivered the people of Limhi from slavery to the Lamanites, but he continues: “Have you sufficiently retained in remembrance the captivity of your fathers? . . . And moreover, have ye sufficiently retained in remembrance that he has delivered their souls from hell?” referring to that more personal, eternal type of salvation (Alma 5:6). 

Watch a portrayal of Alma preaching.

In a similar style of merging, the restoration of the Church (surely one of God’s saving acts in history) was not simply to provide a vehicle for individuals to come to Christ and make covenants, but the Lord has expectations for the Church collectively, and as members we have a shared responsibility to represent the best of Christian principles to prepare the world for the Second Coming.

I’m not sure that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is always seen as a force for good in the world; that’s on all of us.

In what ways does the Book of Mormon reverse the history of Israel?

I assume this question is a response to an observation I made in the introduction to Mormon’s abridgment of the Large Plates (pp. 220-221). It is easy enough to see that Israelite history moves from judges to kings, while Nephite history develops from kings to judges. When I looked more closely, however, the pattern seemed to be much more extensive, and I came up with this schematic:

This means that when Christ appears at Bountiful to the Nephites, he is not only fulfilling centuries of prophecies, he is also redeeming the Nephites from the effects of the fall of Judah and returning them to the era of their covenantal foundations. They are once again in the presence of God. In 3 Nephi, Jesus will go on to establish a new covenant with his people—a covenant that fulfills rather than supersedes the law of Moses and Israel’s special relationship with God in salvation history.

That is to say, Book of Mormon history from the time of Lehi to Christ’s coming represents a reversal of the Babylonian exile (though the Nephites will never return to the Holy Land, since they have been given a new land of inheritance).

Once you see it, this arc of Nephite history is quite striking, though I don’t know whether it simply reflects the historical data, or whether Mormon edited his sources to highlight this pattern, or whether it was intended by Joseph Smith (for those who believe the Book of Mormon sprang from his mind).

You might also be interested in the text box on p. 682, which outlines a reversal of the fall of Adam through the primeval history (Genesis 1–11) and the brother of Jared’s experience (Ether 1–3), though this is accomplished more through verbal parallels than grand narratives. 

What does Grant Hardy hope will be the impact of the Annotated Book of Mormon?

I am hoping this volume will make it easier for more people to read the Book of Mormon with a greater understanding of the book’s structure, narrative, biblical connections, and themes. Many Latter-day Saints still stumble over the Isaiah chapters, or the fact that Moroni is the author of Mormon 8-9 while Mormon wrote Moroni 7-9.

The Book of Mormon can seem opaque and haphazard, especially in the Church’s current official edition, but its individual books, narratives, and sermons are often highly organized, with significant repetitions and allusions. In the annotations, I try to highlight some of what I think the original authors (or author) intended for readers to see.

It would be nice if the Annotated Book of Mormon establishes a baseline that scholars can take into consideration before reaching for more insights.

I have tried to show everyone—Latter-day Saints and outsiders alike—that the Book of Mormon is better than they think it is. Despite its somewhat awkward diction, there is a fair degree of sophisticated narration, spiritual insight, and coherent thought. It is not perfect, by any means, but there’s more to the book than just a few favorite quotes and stories, along with our constant refrain that it is “another testimony of Jesus Christ.” When we’re dealing with a sacred text, the details matter.

There is still more to say about this puzzling, inspiring scripture.

I hope that Latter-day Saints who find value in the Annotated Book of Mormon will seek out and use academic study Bibles such as the New Oxford Annotated Bible, and I hope that non-Mormon academics will come to see the Book of Mormon as an intriguing, worthy example of world scripture. It lends itself remarkably well to the genre of study Bibles. 

What are your feelings about the Book of Mormon?

It should be obvious by now that I regard it as a gift from God. Because this volume includes the entire scriptural text, all my editor’s royalties will be going to the Church’s Humanitarian Aid Fund; I am uncomfortable making money from something I hold sacred. I believe the Book of Mormon is, in some way, a translation of an ancient record, but a miraculous translation that is flexible enough to accommodate modern elements and phrasing from the King James Bible, but also close enough to convey literary features such as inclusios, internal allusions, and meaningful repetitions.

To my mind, the Book of Mormon is one of the most impressive aspects of our religious tradition. 

What is next for Grant Hardy?

I am currently working on yet another introduction to the Book of Mormon, this time for the Oxford University Press series Guides to Sacred Texts. Even after the Annotated Book of Mormon, there is still more to say about this puzzling, inspiring scripture.

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About the interview participant

Grant Hardy is professor of history and religious studies and former director of the humanities program at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He earned his BA in ancient Greek in 1984 from Brigham Young University and his PhD in Chinese language and literature from Yale University in 1988. Hardy is known for literary studies of the Book of Mormon.

Further Reading

Book of Mormon Resources

By Chad Nielsen

Biotech professional. Armchair historian. Latter-day Saint.

2 replies on “What is the Annotated Book of Mormon?”

I’m glad this book is kinda making a splash, but the splash is not nearly large enough. Rather than a rock landing in water, this is more like a nuclear explosion. This edition is a masterpiece. It’s nearly a lifetime of close reading and deep study distilled into one volume. It’s the greatest edition of the Book of Mormon ever published–by a long shot. Grant probably knows more about the Book of Mormon than anyone since Mormon. This is monumental. Goshdangit, I just can’t seem to get the point across the way I would like to. Can’t find the right words – but hopefully some of it is coming through.

President Hinckley speaking of Pres. Marion G. Romney’s unexcelled knowledge of the Book of Mormon (at his funeral):

I respected him for his tremendous mental capacity. He was a man of intelligence. He had a remarkable power of concentration as he read and studied. He was gifted with a rare capacity for scholarship. He had excelled in his studies as a student of the law. He prepared all of his presentations as a practicing attorney would, with infinite care and research. He similarly studied the gospel. No one among his brethren was an abler student of the Book of Mormon. He read it scores of times. He read it deliberately, carefully; he pondered it, and prayed over it. He loved the Book of Mormon, and no one ever said anything critical of it that he could not overcome with conviction and persuasion. Its words of power and truth became the foundation of numerous talks which he gave.

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