The details of the translation process that gave us the Book of Mormon offer a variety of mysteries and challenges, but the greatest challenge is for theories based on Joseph Smith as author and fabricator. If he or friends of his concocted a manuscript, why go through the painstaking oral dictation process? Why not just bring forth the manuscript and declare the work done? And how could the dictation process be done by looking in a hat with no manuscript present, as confirmed by multiple witnesses, not all of whom were members of the Church? The details of the Original Manuscript and Printer’s Manuscript confirm the story as told by Joseph and witnesses: one document was created by oral dictation written down by scribes, and the other was created by copying from the Original Manuscript.
I’d like to highlight one aspect of those details today that are worth careful reflection: the division of the text into chapters. Here is an excerpt from Royal Skousen’s 1998 article, “How Joseph Smith Translated the Book of Mormon: Evidence from the Original Manuscript” from the Maxwell Institute (here I used strikethrough instead of brackets to indicate deleted text):
The word chapter and the corresponding chapter numbers were not part of the revealed text
Evidence from both the original and printer’s manuscripts shows that Joseph Smith apparently saw some visual indication at the end of a section that the section was ending. Although this may have been a symbol of some kind, a more likely possibility is that the last words of the section were followed by blankness. Recognizing that the section was ending, Joseph then told the scribe to write the word chapter, with the understanding that the appropriate number would be added later.
There is considerable evidence in both manuscripts to support this interpretation. First, the word chapter is never used by any writer in the text itself, unlike the term book, which is used to refer to an individual book in the Book of Mormon (such as the book of Helaman) as well as a whole set of plates (such as the book of Nephi, meaning the large plates of Nephi).
Second, chapters are assigned before the beginning of a book. For instance, in the original manuscript, we have the following at the beginning of 2 Nephi:
second Chapter I
The / Book of Nephi / An account of the death of Lehi…
Oliver Cowdery first wrote Chapter at the conclusion of the last section in 1 Nephi—that is, at the conclusion of Chapter VII in the original chapter system; our current chapter system dates from Orson Pratt’s 1879 edition of the Book of Mormon (which has 22 chapters in 1 Nephi). At this point, Joseph Smith had no indication that a new book was beginning. All he could see was the end of Chapter VII (namely, the words “and thus it is Amen” followed probably by blankness or maybe a special symbol). Later, when Oliver was adding the chapter numbers, he first assigned the Roman numeral VIII to this first chapter of 2 Nephi. But when he realized that this was actually the beginning of a new book, he crossed out the whole chapter designation and inserted (with slightly weaker ink flow) “Chapter I” after the title of the book, which originally was simply designated as “The Book of Nephi”. Later he realized that there was more than one book of Nephi, which led him to also insert the word second (with considerably heavier ink flow).
This system of assigning chapters also explains why the two manuscripts have chapter numbers assigned to the short books found at the end of the small plates (Enos, Jarom, Omni, and the Words of Mormon) as well as 4 Nephi. These books contain only one section, but at the beginning of each of these short books, Joseph Smith apparently had no knowledge that this was the case. This fact further shows that Joseph himself did not know in advance the contents or structure of the text.
Probably the strongest evidence that the word chapter is not original to the revealed text is that the chapter numbers are assigned later in both manuscripts. The numbers are almost always written with heavier ink flow and more carefully. In many cases, Oliver Cowdery took time to add serifs to his Roman numerals. On the other hand, his Chapter is always written rapidly and with the same general ink flow as the surrounding text. In the printer’s manuscript, at the beginning of Chapter XVII in Alma (now the beginning of Alma 36), the Roman numeral XVII was written in blue ink, not the normal black ink. This example clearly suggests that this part of the original manuscript itself did not yet have chapter numbers assigned to it when Oliver started to copy it, perhaps six months after it had been dictated.
Let that sink in. When Joseph finished First Nephi, he didn’t know he was done. He just said chapter, and then continued dictation. When he began Words of Mormon and other short books, he didn’t know there would be only one chapter and thus had no need for breaking it up into chapters at all. The evidence from the manuscripts suggests that as he was dictating his text, he was dictating something he was not intimately familiar with. He didn’t know the structure that was to follow.
Some have supposed that his “hat trick” of dictating text could be done by just memorizing sections of an already carefully worked out document. If he were the fabricator of the document or co-conspirator using someone else’s document, whether the document was memorized or just smuggled into the hat with a miraculous flashlight, he would at least have known when a book was finished and when a book was short without chapter breaks. The evidence from the manuscripts challenges theories based on fabrication by Joseph.
A plausible theory for the Book of Mormon as a modern fabrication needs to account for witnesses–not only the numerous witnesses of the gold plates, but the witnesses of the translation process, and the surviving witnesses of the Original Manuscript and the Printer’s Manuscript. Those manuscripts witness not only of the dictated, oral nature of the Book of Mormon translation, but also of Joseph’s own ignorance of the structure of the text he was dictating. They also witness of Hebraisms and other artifacts of language that challenge any theory based on Joseph as the author. These witnesses need to be explained, especially the witnesses of ink and paper that continue to speak. Something fascinating is happening on those pages, and it merits further study.