A common criticism of the Book of Mormon is that the text has undergone some 4000 changes, and therefore the Mormons’ claim that it is the word of God is proven false. Those who level this charge actually undersell it: If every change of punctuation or spelling is counted, there actually have been over 100,000 edits to the Book of Mormon. There isn’t any dispute as to the existence of revisions. The more important questions relate to their nature and significance.
What Types of Changes Have Been Made?
The original handwritten transcript of the Book of Mormon was a bit of a mess. Joseph Smith dictated his translation to scribes, who then wrote it out longhand, with no punctuation whatsoever. When the transcript was typeset, some punctuation was added, and the text was formatted like a novel, broken into long chapters, but without verses, as it appears now. Much of that early “formatting” work was done by the publisher himself rather than by Joseph Smith. That first edition is a tough read (I’ve read a replica of it a couple of times), because there were a number of typesetting errors (“sword” becomes “word,” for example) and punctuation gaffes. Given the publishing technology of the day, and the education levels of the individuals participating in the process, such errors should not come as any surprise.
Joseph Smith was well-aware that the resulting product required additional work, and he made many of the technical changes, and all of the substantive changes, in subsequent editions of the Book of Mormon. These changes aren’t a surprise to any Mormons with even the vaguest sense of Church history, and they have been discussed extensively by scholars within the Church. So, pardon me if I don’t turn in my CTR ring and run back to the Lutheran church just because you point out their existence. To be completely honest, I’m convinced there is a missing comma in one verse of Alma, and it absolutely drives me nuts.
Granted, some of the edits were substantive, as Joseph Smith tried to clarify certain passages to avoid confusion regarding doctrine (for example, changing a reference to Mary as the “mother of God” to the “mother of the Son of God,” which is consistent with the rest of the chapter). But if Joseph was a prophet of God and the translator of Book of Mormon, such changes certainly were his right to make.
After Joseph Smith’s death, later editions of the Book of Mormon underwent less extensive changes, with the most recent (published in 1981), making every effort to conform to the original manuscripts. At that time new chapter summaries were included, as well as more extensive footnotes and an improved index. The font was changed, too, if you really want to pick nits.
Don’t All of Those Changes Prove that the Book of Mormon Isn’t True?
There are at least a couple of problems with using these textual revisions to “prove” that the Book of Mormon isn’t true. First, it assumes that the Book of Mormon claims something that it does not: Inerrancy. Second, it sets a standard that other scripture, namely the Bible, itself cannot meet.
Joseph Smith taught that Book of Mormon was “the most correct of any book on earth and the keystone of our religion.” But he never claimed that the book was perfect in every respect (a claim that would have made no sense, given that his revisions to the text were no secret to anyone). Because of our belief in continuing revelation, Mormons don’t view much of anything as inerrant or unchangeable. You cannot prove the Book of Mormon false by showing that it doesn’t deliver on a promise it didn’t make.
But there is also a problem of the pot calling the kettle black on this issue, as even those who hold that the Bible is inerrant (a common belief among many Christians) do not try to hold it to this same standard. Considering that, at my last count, there were about 3 bazillion translations of the Bible, many of which contradict each other in fundamental ways, one is hard-pressed to believe that this criticism of the Book of Mormon is made in good faith.
And it isn’t just varying translations that create a problem for the Bible. Various editions of the Bible have suffered from significant typographical errors. Perhaps the most notorious was a 17th-century edition dubbed the “Devil’s Bible” which omitted an important “not” from Exodus 20, resulting in a troubling commandment: “Thou shalt commit adultery.” While some readers of that edition might have high-fived each other at the time, that typographical error certainly does not destroy the validity of the Bible as a holy text.
Finally, there are no reliable “original” texts of the Bible that we can compare to existing versions. My understanding is that archaeologists have discovered almost as many early Christian versions of New Testament texts as there are words in the New Testament. Compared to the Bible, the consistency between the current edition of the Book of Mormon to its original manuscript is nothing short of astounding.
Challenging the Book of Mormon based on the number of its textual revisions is a fundamentally dishonest exercise. It suggests that Mormons are ignorant of such changes (we aren’t), that it disproves something Joseph Smith said about the book (it doesn’t), and that the Bible has no such failings (not so much). The validity, verity and value of the Book of Mormon simply cannot be determined by the placement of a comma. Rather, the Book of Mormon must be evaluated in the same way as any other word of Christ: Through the whispering of that Spirit of Truth, promised by the Savior himself.