We’re happy to share an other in our series of interviews by Kurt Manwaring. This week’s is his interview with Grant Hardy. He’s the author of the recently released The Book of Mormon: Maxwell Institute Study Edition. Kevin Barney recently reviewed that study edition. Prior to that he was well known for the Book of Mormon: A Readers Edition which nicely formatted the Book of Mormon into paragraphs following the original text. The new Maxwell Study Edition builds on that adding extensive notes and making use of Royal Skousen’s work on a critical text. Grant teaches Chinese history at University of North Carolina at Asheville. We’re quite excited to be able to share part of this interview with 10 Questions.
A few excerpts from Kurt’s interview.
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.
I fully agree that the tendency to make verses the main visual block for reading makes it difficult to read the scriptures. I truly wish that the Church would follow Grant’s work and redo the scriptures following paragraph markers with small indicators for verse number. I think people would get far more out of the scriptures. They should also really update the language so it is not so archaic. Simply adopting the New King James Version of the Bible, which primarily replaces archaic words with modern synonyms, would help tremendously. (I mentioned this in the 10 Questions with Thomas Wayment last month) I think the Church desperately needs a new edition of the scriptures. I think Grant’s edition goes a long way towards preparing for that.
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.
We’re pretty happy to have been the catalyst for Grant’s work. We’ve had a lot of posts over the years dealing with Grant’s work. You may find interesting a previous interview we had with Grant. (Part 1 and Part 2)
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.
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.
I think a real problem with most people’s scripture reading is just that they don’t read it like literature. I fall into that trap myself, tending to focus on a few verses rather than a full narrative. I think Grant’s formatting really leads to a different study experience. I know when I’ve read his Reader’s Edition I picked up on things I didn’t in the normal Church version.
Read the full interview with Grant over at 10 Questions. There’s a lot more material than we’ve quoted here.