Most of you are probably aware that the earliest editions of the Book of Mormon (starting with the 1830 first edition) had different chapter divisions than the current LDS editions. The chapter-and-verse divisions that we are used to were devised by Orson Pratt in 1879 for what was the ninth published edition (chronologically speaking); in so doing, he chopped up the original chapters, which were for the most part longer than the ones we have now. For example, First Nephi chapter I in the 1830 edition maps to 1 Nephi chapters 1-5 in the current LDS edition.
What you may be less aware of is that Royal Skousen, as part of his critical text analysis of the Book of Mormon, believes that the (original) chapter divisions existed on the plates themselves:
It appears that Joseph Smith himself specified the placement of the original chapter breaks. In the translation process, Joseph seems to have seen some visual indication at the end of a section that the section was ending; perhaps the last words of the section were followed by blankness. Recognizing that the section was ending, Joseph then told the scrip to write the word chapter, with the understanding that the appropriate number would be added later. Scribal evidence from the original and printer’s manuscripts supports this interpretation. Oliver Cowdery’s Chapter is always written rapidly and with the same ink flow as the surrounding text. But his chapter numbers are almost always written with heavier ink flow and more carefully. In many cases, Oliver took time to add serifs to his roman numerals. And in one case, the chapter number was written in blue ink while all the surrounding words (including the word Chapter) were written using the normal black ink.
The use of the word chapter and he corresponding numbers is not part of the original text and can therefore be considered noncanonical. But the breaks that Joseph Smith apparently saw can be considered a part of the original text and should be indicated in the [critical] text, perhaps by placing white spaces between sections. (Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon, Part One: 1 Nephi 1 – 2 Nephi 20, Royal Skousen, FARMS, 2004, p. 44).
Note that, by contrast, the paragraph breaks in the 1830 edition are not extant in the original and printer’s manuscripts and instead were added by the typesetter; ibid., p. 45.
If we assume that Skousen is correct and that the 1830 chapter breaks represented compositional divisions on the Book of Mormon plates themselves, then it is fair to consider that Nephi may have had conscious reasons for how each division (‘chapter’) was structured. Nephi wrote all of 1 Nephi, as well as 2 Nephi 1-5 (Second Nephi I-IV in the 1830 edition) between 30 and 40 years after leaving Jerusalem (cf. 2 Nephi 5:28-34). Nephi had already been keeping his “other history” on the “other plates” (cf. 1 Nephi 6, 2 Nephi 5:29-30), so this represented a new writing venture for him, and one that took many years to complete. As has been pointed out by many, many commentators over the decades, Nephi almost certainly wrote his “small plates” record, among other reasons, to defend himself against Laman and Lemuel’s claims (which became a lasting Lamanite tradition) that he was a liar and a thief, not to mention a usurper of Laman’s leadership rights under primogeniture. Finally, given the apparent difficulty of engraving upon the metal plates, it is likely that Nephi did some degree of composing, outlining, or otherwise structuring what he was going to engrave in each division before starting it.
Putting all that together, it is fair I think to hypothesize that Nephi may have had a deliberate structure to each of the chapters in First Nephi, as well as Second Nephi I-IV (2 Nephi 1-5), which together make up the totality of Nephi’s historical record on the small plates; the rest of Second Nephi comprises Jacob’s sermon, excerpts from Isaiah, and Nephi’s own prophecies, preaching and testimony, all without any other historical information or setting (contemporary to Nephi, that is).
This is a long lead-in to what will be a series of posts
looking at First Nephi I-VII and Second Nephi I-IV (using Skousen’s The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text, Yale University Press, 2009) to see what themes or structures can be derived from the presentation and contents of each chapter.
The next post covers First Nephi’s title and introduction. ..bruce..