Preliminary Reports Study Multiple Authorship of Book of Mormon Texts

The Book of Mormon, in many places, is textually complex. Careful study of the words and ideas in the book sometimes requires the reader to be sensitive to who wrote the words in question. Occasionally, for example, Mormon quoted the words of earlier prophets directly; other times, he or Moroni abridged or paraphrased those earlier statements. The task of attributing authorship to a particular verse or section can often become an intriguing and rewarding challenge.

Several layers of influence may exist in certain Book of Mormon texts. Upon close analysis of the words of Abinadi in Mosiah 12-16, for instance, one recognizes that the words we now read there (1) were first spoken by Abinadi, (2) were recorded shortly afterward from memory by Alma after he narrowly escaped from the court of Noah (see Mos. 17:4), (3) were next incorporated into the Record of Zeniff (Mos. 9-22), (4) were apparently then included in the Book of Mormon by King Mosiah II, and (5) finally were abridged by Mormon, all before they were translated by Joseph Smith. There was opportunity, therefore, at each stage in this development of the Abinadi text, for these various inspired writers to choose or to modify certain words, or to include or exclude selected parts of the record to make the point each prophet had in mind. For example, Mosiah II seems particularly interested in contrasting the righteousness of his father, King Benjamin, with the wickedness of King Noah. Thus, he may have included the Record of Zeniff in his Book of Mosiah and possibly abridged that record so as to emphasize the risks of having a wicked king, thereby supporting his establishment of the chief judgeship (Mos. 29:18). Obviously, stating absolutely who “wrote” the words in Mosiah 12-16 is not a simple matter.

Two Preliminary Reports now available explore some of these matters further. John W. Welch’s “Preliminary Comments on the Sources Behind the Book of Ether” discusses the Book of Ether. That text, as we now have it, (1) began with certain king lists, records and traditions of the Jaredites known to Ether; (2) those were written into a record by Ether on the 24 gold plates (Eth. 1:6; Mos. 8:9; 28:11,17); (3) that record was translated by King Mosiah II (Mos. 28:13); and (4) abridged by Moroni, who added a substantial amount of his own material to the final book. It appears, for several reasons, that Moroni did not retranslate the record of Ether, but that he worked from the inspired translations of Mosiah II. The multiple levels discernible here may bear significantly on one’s understanding of the Book of Ether as we now have it.

Second, Alvin C. Rencher, of the BYU Department of Statistics, has completed a new report. It lists by author every chapter, verse, or part verses in the Book of Mormon. His report, entitled “Book of Mormon Authorship Chronology,” attributes a predominant author to each verse in the book. Using this report, one can quickly distinguish, for example, which words in Alma 20:2-4 originated primarily with each of four different authors—the Lord, Mormon, Ammon II, and Lamoni.

John Hilton and Kenneth Jenkins first made such a tool available. See “A Full Listing of Book of Mormon References by Author and Literary Form” (F.A.R.M.S. Preliminary Report H&J-82). Their report, however, is not as legible or as easy to use as is Rencher’s, nor does it identify the “miscellaneous authors” individually by name, as Rencher does. Both reports will continue to have value, however, especially since the assignment of predominant authorship in several instances still remains uncertain. Nevertheless, Rencher’s list is another step forward. It can help all readers and speakers avoid errors when attributing authorship to passages from the Book of Mormon.