Saturday, July 02, 2005

Does God Punctuate?

And in what language and by what conventions?

Dave of Dave's Mormon Inquiry points out the somewhat embarrassing fact that when Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon from some vaguely defined Semitic dialect into English, his draft version contained no punctuation and very few paragraph or verse breaks. All of these marks were added by the 27 year-old typesetter, John H. Gilbert.

All this would seem unremarkable--what writer doesn't rely on his or her proofreader for final editing decisions?--except for the fact that Smith's translation is supposed to have been personally overseen by God himself. Smith had in his possession two artefacts, the Urim and Thummim, which served as some sort of conduits to God's wisdom, and he did not allow people to witness the process of translation, instead emerging with (unpunctuated) manuscript copy at the end of the day.

Gilbert himself made no such claims to divine guidance, according a quote Dave excerpts:
"I punctuated it to make it read as I supposed the Author intended, and but very little punctuation was altered in proof-reading" [done by Smith and Oliver Cowdrey].
Gilbert sounds like a professional. I wonder whether that capitalization of Author is conventional or theological!

The punctuation of the Book of Mormon has remained in a low state of flux, as comparisons of the 1830 and later editions make clear.

Mormons generally don't let this sort of thing bother them. Some commentors at Dave's site who do let it bother them refute the conundrum by pointing out that many Semitic languages have little or no punctuation; others have recourse to the "good enough" argument; still others remind us of Joseph Smith's grammar-school education.

Myself, I want to have a debate with God over the Oxford comma, the emphatic colon, and the proper use of parantheses. The Mormon tradition I was raised in was profoundly textualist: I think this story could pose a paradox for those who want to retain the belief in both scriptural literalism (or even scriptural close reading) and latter-day revelation.

Or not. I still find it curious, though.


Anonymous Anonymous:

We believe the Bible to be the word of God. As far as it is translated correctly, we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.

5/21/2007 04:07:00 PM  

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