I love a good study Bible. Earlier this year I found a nearly new NIV Archaeological Study Bible on sale at a library for a dollar—a 98% savings off the cover price!—and I’m getting a lot of mileage out of it.
I’ve been thinking about study Bibles a lot after reading Bill Hamblin’s much-needed rant about the demise of Book of Mormon studies at BYU, such as it ever was. At one point, he summarizes what’s missing in the curriculum:
Most simply, BYU could offer in depth courses on each of the major books of the Book of Mormon, combining some of the smaller books into one. Note that Religious Education offers a class on Isaiah, but no class on the book of Alma or Helaman or Nephi? Why? Beyond in depth classes on major books of the Book of Mormon, BYU should offer classes on Book of Mormon geography, history, archaeology, linguistics, literature, theology, culture, language (ancient Near East and Maya), textual criticism, religion, law, warfare, apocalyptic, reception history, the Bible in the Book of Mormon, etc.
He’s clearly right, of course, but I want to suggest another avenue besides BYU classes for improving Book of Mormon studies among Latter-day Saints.
It’s time we have a decent study edition of the Book of Mormon.
A Book of Mormon study edition would serve the same purpose as a classic study Bible: an encyclopedic resource for a variety of academic knowledge about the text, which will guide any general reader in understanding the nature and meaning of that text more accurately.
A good study Bible tends to have a core of basic features: introductions to and outlines of individual books, section headings within chapters, arrangement of text in poetic forms, maps and charts embedded in the text, and extensive explanatory footnotes. These resources all exist in spades for the Book of Mormon, and they mirror Professor Hamblin’s requested material, but they have yet to be collected in a single study edition.
Two deal breakers for our hypothetical new book: first, the book absolutely has to include the text of the Book of Mormon itself, with all the other materials just supplementing it. Thus, an otherwise excellent resource like the Book of Mormon Reference Companion, which otherwise fits the bill nicely, is disqualified.
Second, the focus of the book—including annotations and illustrations—must be scholarly, not devotional. There are already devotional versions out there, but the kind of material a serious study edition needs will focus more on summaries of research than it will on quotes from General Conference.
Consider two steps in this direction already in print:
Grant Hardy’s The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition meets several of the criteria, including the most important: a complete text with supplements. But those supplements are not nearly extensive enough. Though he offers a brilliantly arranged text with section headings, there are barely any footnotes and only a smattering of visual study aids, all grouped in a small appendix at the back.
Contrast this with The Book of Mormon for Latter-day Saint Families. The title already tells you to expect more of a devotional volume, and indeed, this work clearly exists to improve family scripture study with an eye towards faith and discipleship.
But it also offers what may be the best study edition so far: there are numerous explanatory footnotes and maps, plus some charts (all a mix of devotional and objectively explanatory). There are useful section headings, though the text is otherwise unarranged. I think this qualifies as a terrific junior study edition.
The biggest obstacle in a study Book of Mormon would be the need to pull together material from several disparate publishers. I imagine a collocation of:
• Selected charts from Charting the Book of Mormon. Hardy has a couple of these in the appendix of his Reader’s Edition, but far more deserve to be read widely, and alongside the relevant material.
• Introductions and outlines like those in the Church’s Book of Mormon Seminary Teacher Manual. (In this, the seminary manual is actually better for studying the nature of the text than the Gospel Doctrine manual or the Institute textbook.) The only other place I’ve found quality outlines that could be integrated into this project was at Sixteen Small Stones.
• Short articles from To All the World: The Book of Mormon Articles from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism. These brief but useful entries find equivalents in almost any study Bible. When a new character or concept is introduced in the text, including the relevant article on the facing page makes for a very useful study tool.
• Like many of you, I’ve jury-rigged my own study edition over the years. In seminary, they used to encourage us to glue little paper squares with quotes from the prophets into our scriptures. I still do that, but now it also includes materials like these, which I shrink down on my printer’s copier and onto thin paper, which I then cut out and glue in.
When I read Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon, I shrunk and copied a couple of dozen pages which I then cut out and inserted into their appropriate places in my copy of the Book of Mormon. I’ve found this to be an invaluable study aid. So, add that to my study edition wish list.
• We would need the Church’s permission to use the text of the Book of Mormon, of course. I’m not sure how much the Church would be inclined to cooperate, though. Only rarely does the Book of Mormon appear in editions that are authorized but not created in-house. That’s understandable: the Church has a duty to guard the integrity and sanctity of the text.
But the other factor that might make them reticent is even bigger: a reluctance to be officially associated with definitive statements about the objective nature of the book. Though older editions had pictures of locations that seemed congruent with the narrative, such things have long been out of fashion, for fear of being later contradicted, and that priority of integrity and sanctity being compromised.
But I think that we can make a strong case that we have reached the point where a great deal can be said with certainty. Also, a disclaimer could be added, stating that no information in this edition is necessarily endorsed by the Church.
For any who question the value of a study Book of Mormon, I’d say that while the basic missionary edition is fine for what it’s meant to do, there are a great many people who need to be exposed to the book, but who wouldn’t be open to the little blue paperback. A study edition would endow the text with the aura of intellectual respectability which it deserves; it could go places the missionary edition couldn’t; it could reach people the missionary edition couldn’t reach.
And it would do wonders for strengthening all of us in our study of the book—focused, grounded faith would grow.
So preparing such an edition would have difficulties, but wouldn’t it be worth it to be able to have an illustration of the chiastic elements in Alma 36 that’s actually right next to that chapter in the Book of Mormon?
A couple of final considerations:
Would this project be most effective as a physical edition (in a book proper), as a web site, or as an app? (Or all of the above?)
Also, we now face a problem similar to the dreaded Book of Mormons vs. Books of Mormon debate: what’s the best name for this edition? “Study Bible” has such a simple, natural ring to it, but does Study Book of Mormon? Or the Book of Mormon: Study Edition? Or what?
Please share ideas for names, platforms, and ideal content in the comments below. And if you know anyone who could help make this all a reality, give them a head up, would you?
[cross-posted at Millennial Star]