Title: A New Approach to Studying the Book of Mormon
Editors: Lynn A. Rosenvall, David L. Rosenvall
Publisher: The Olive Leaf Foundation
Genre: Scriptural Reference
Year Published: 2017
Number of Pages: 720
Binding: Trade Paperback
Reviewed by Kevin Folkman for the Association for Mormon Letters
LDS church members are constantly being challenged by our leaders to read the scriptures, and especially the Book of Mormon, on a regular basis. It’s a worthy goal, and one that the faithful try to heed. But for me, “reading the scriptures” is also an internal challenge. I have “read,” for example, the Book of Mormon many times, along with all the rest of our standard works. In my case, “reading” is a lot different than “studying.” Reading the scriptures often feels like a chore to me, takes a lot of time, and repeated readings don’t always produce greater understanding. In response, I usually interpret the external challenge to read to actually be more about studying than just reading.
I don’t think I am alone in this. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of study aids and references for the scriptures available for the LDS church audience. Clearly, there is a great response from academics, general authorities, and others to providing these study aids. It would appear that they also view the admonition to “read” to really be about studying.
From a personal standpoint, I have read and applied a number of these study aids, and gained a lot from them. I have a greater appreciation for the Book of Mormon specifically because of the time I have spent cross-checking a book or article in one hand, and the Book of Mormon in the other.
And yet, I have also benefited from just “reading” the Book of Mormon in recent years. One of the most productive readings was to use Grant Hardy’s “The Book of Mormon: A Readers Edition,” published in 2005 by the University of Illinois Press. By removing the chapter and verse formatting of the scriptural text in favor of style similar to many modern Bible translations, the text was organized in paragraphs, poetic stanzas in italics, quotation marks, and content headings. A difficult text to read in the current chapter and verse format suddenly becomes more approachable, and much of the narrative flow and the interplay of authors and editors more apparent.
Now, there is another reformatting of the text by Lynn and David Rosenvall, in “A New Approach to Studying the Book of Mormon.” As a father and son team, the Rosenvall’s were involved a few decades ago in developing the first online edition of the LDS scriptures. During that time, they began to feel that it would be beneficial to “isolate the doctrinal precepts by reformatting the scriptures for easier reading and pondering” [studythescriptures.com, accessed 28 June 2017]. As a significant organizing strategy, they began to investigate an approach that emphasized events rather than chapters.
In some ways, the formatting is similar to Hardy’s, in that the event-driven method allows for a more comfortable reading as a narrative. Where they depart is in the use of the margins on either side of the single column text to identify speakers, quoted passages, chronology, and geography. For example, when Nephi recounts his father Lehi’s initial vision in 1 Nephi Chapter 1, the left margin identifies Nephi as the primary author, and then adds a reference to Lehi as the speaker of a quoted phrase in verse 12 by putting Lehi’s name in the left margin, and indenting and slightly reducing the print size of the quoted material. In the right hand margin, the place is identified as “Lehi’s house at Jerusalem,” and the date as 600 B.C., the same date as noted in the regular LDS version of the Book of Mormon.
As a text organized by events, there is a table of contents which identifies 214 specific events, along with the scriptural reference from the Book of Mormon, any corresponding Old Testament scriptures, and the date when available. These events are also identified in the text as subject headings, such as “Lehi Commanded to Flee Jerusalem,” at the beginning of what would be Chapter 3 of 1 Nephi.
The result is both a more readable text, and a valuable study aid, for what the Rosenvall’s as editors hope will lead to greater reading, understanding, and appreciation of the Book of Mormon. That all works very well, up to a point.
There are times, for example, where the concept of keeping track of the speakers and quotations can get extremely busy, sometimes even annoying to me. During Nephi’s vision of the Tree of Life, the list of speakers down the left hand margin crowds out much of the white space. In “Nephi Sees Vision of Lamb of God” and “Nephi Sees Vision of Future Events,” which corresponds with 1 Nephi chapter 11-13 [p52-64], we are treated by necessity to the constant change of speakers, including Nephi, the Angel, The Lamb of God, and The Spirit. This list of constantly changing speakers, which can be helpful, crowds the left hand margin, and can interrupt reading. There are more than 110 changes in voice in these two “events,” each dutifully listed in the left hand margin, and indented. In a few instances, Nephi quotes himself, as in “And I said,” followed by the indented text of what Nephi said to the Angel.
There is another unusual self-quotation that takes place in Jacob chapter 4 between verses 7 and 8, with verse 8 indented and in a smaller type face, indicating that Jacob is quoting himself. This is perhaps a formatting error, as I find nothing in the text to justify a separate quotation, and in fact verse 8 wraps itself around to the next page and continues the rest of the verse in the larger type face, and no longer indented. [p165-166]
In a similar vein, the quoted texts from Isaiah in 1 and 2 Nephi often include as speakers, “Isles of the Sea,” “Kings,” and “Man,” with “Man” referring to all humankind [p83, 86, 121]. Authors frequently quote themselves, resulting in multiple indentations nested within the same identified speaker. These small items can and did interrupt on occasion for me the sense of reading a narrative text, compared to Hardy’s Readers’ Edition.
At other times, I questioned the choices made during the organizing of the text into events. In Ether, the Rosenvall’s treat the narrative around building ships to cross the sea separately from the Brother of Jared’s vision of seeing the finger, and then the entirety, of the spirit of the Lord. The partitioning of these events seems oddly placed. While they can be viewed in the story as two separate events, the division occurs between the Brother of Jared’s prayers asking for the Lord to light the stones, and his subsequent vision of the Lord’s finger. If a division is called for, in my view the natural break would occur after the Lord responds to the Brother of Jared’s question about how to light the ships with the question “What will ye that I should do that ye may have light in your vessels?” This is the break that occurs between chapters 2 and 3 of the Book of Ether in the canonized text, and feels more natural to me than the division here. [p661-662]
Similarly, I wondered about the parable of the Olive Grove in Jacob chapter 5. The Rosenvall’s division of events includes all of Jacob’s reflective writing in chapter 4 in this segment. Even Jacob himself seems to set up a break in verse 17 of chapter 4 when he asks a question, then tells the reader in verse 18 that he will “unfold this mystery unto you.” Chapter 5 in the canonized text then relates Zenos’ remarkable parable. The lack of a break in the Rosenvall’s formatting turns a long chapter into an even longer event. The question of how to treat long quoted passages of text is not addressed here. If Jacob is quoting the writing of Zenos directly, do we need to or can we know if these are the words of Zenos, or is Zenos relating a parable that he heard elsewhere? This does not seem to be a concern to the editors, as they continue noting every change of voice in the left hand margin.
While reading “A New Approach,” I learned some things that I had not known before. In the Book of Ether, named after the prophet who recorded the story of the Jaredites, only the very last verse of the book is attributed as a direct quote from Ether himself. For actual content, that book might better be named the First Book of Moroni. The many excerpts from the writings of Zenos throughout the Book of Mormon become much more obvious in this text, which I found helpful. A number of years ago, I had tried to excerpt all the writings of Zenos into a “Book of Zenos” for my own study effort. It will be interesting for me to compare my own efforts with what the Rosenvall’s have identified.
The editors go to great lengths to emphasize not “one jot or tittle” of the text has been changed, only the changes in formatting of the text into events and paragraphs [p10]. This reinforces what this particular edition is not, which is a critical text or commentary. They make no attempt at exegesis, or raise any questions or insights about any portion of the text, and quote Joseph Smith’s statement that the Book of Mormon is “the most correct of any book on earth.” Certainly, the Rosenvall’s have made editorial choices in the formatting of the text, but do not attempt to lead the reader to any conclusions beyond what the scriptures themselves ask of the reader.
Overall, I see “A New Approach to Studying the Book of Mormon” as a valuable study aid, especially for those who may have had difficulty reading the Book of Mormon in its canonized form, or for first time readers, or those who are seeking clarity regarding its record of events, characters, and chronology. The few difficulties I noted might have been resolved with some outside professional editing.
What little I was able to find out about the publisher, the Olive Leaf Foundation, comes from a website www.achoiceland.com. There, the Rosenvall’s have documented their theory of a possible limited geographical setting for the Book of Mormon in the Baja California peninsula. No reference is made of a board of directors or staff, only a brief nod to volunteer help in developing their geographic model and creating a website. The “New Approach” also has a related website, www.studythescriptures.com, with a similar lack of information.
The brief introduction to the book itself makes no acknowledgment of any outside help, other than the permission granted by the LDS Church to publish the Book of Mormon text. That does not take anything away from what David and Lynn Rosenvall have accomplished in producing this new format of the Church’s foundational scripture.