The “Most Correct” Book?

Joseph Smith taught that the Book of Mormon is “the most correct of any book on earth”?

What? With all those errors?

Because prophets (and scribes and others) write scriptures, and these people are fallible, scriptures have mistakes. But don’t we learn that the scriptures are the word of God? Well, yes, they are the word of God in that they contain God’s message for us. But in general, the words in the scriptures were spoken and written by fallible men — often inspired, but still fallible. Some Christians believe the Bible to be inerrant. Mormons do not (or should not) believe the Bible, the Book of Mormon, or any other scripture to be inerrant. The Book of Mormon itself doesn’t claim to be inerrant (Mormon 8:17). Besides errors from their fallible original authors, scriptures accumulate errors as they are copied, translated, copied, and translated again, etc. Each step introduces accidental errors as well as unavoidable ambiguities and errors due to the impossibility of creating a perfect translation between very different languages. Meanings are often lost, and gained, in translation. Copyist errors (as well as intentional changes meant to correct previous errors) are also common. Biblical manuscripts often had glosses (notes written in margins to clarify the text), and these were sometimes inserted into the text itself by later copyists. Even though more akin to artistic license than error, sometimes Old Testament scriptures are adapted to new situations in both the Book of Mormon and New Testament.

The current edition of the Book of Mormon differs in many places from the printer’s manuscript, which in turn differs from the original manuscript, which in turn no doubt differs from the preceding iteration of text. So what about Joseph Smith’s statement that the Book of Mormon is “the most correct of any book on earth”? Well, in the next phrase he explained what he meant: “…and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.” Joseph Smith’s concern with correctness was with doctrine more than with grammar or historical detail. This was how he judged scripture. (It was also how he approached much of his “translation” of the Bible.) Scripture is written, not to be grammatically flawless or historically inerrant, but to bring us to God by explaining and illustrating correct doctrine. This means that all of the stories in scripture do not necessarily have to be factual in every detail — or in any detail, for that matter. They may be allegorical — in other words, fictional. Even in the stories in the Bible that are factual, the words that were historically spoken by the characters are, of course, not the same words that appear in our English Bibles. Different words were spoken because a different language was spoken. Also, there are usually phrases (idioms) that don’t translate word for word between languages. A translator must then choose between translating the words or conveying the general idea. Also, the original recorder of an event generally could not have known the exact words spoken by the participants, and would have had to try to reconstruct conversations based on his understanding of the circumstances. In the Book of Mormon, such reconstructions are sometimes preceded by “after this manner,” which means “along these lines.” Also, standards of journalism and authorship were much different in ancient times than they are today. This is all okay. Scriptures, like prophets, are not to be objects of our worship, but rather instruments that God uses to get our attention. Those instruments can fulfill their purpose without being infallible or inerrant. Only God is perfect, and we worship only him.

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