Paratextuality and Chapter Headings

In 2004 the church authorised a publication of the Book of Mormon by the publisher Doubleday. Along with this new edition there was a change in the wording of some of the chapter headings. These changes were first systematically studied by a BYU student on the LDSphilosopher website who did a side by side comparison of the two editions, the results of his study can be found here. At the end of last year the Salt Lake Tribune announced that the changes were introduced into the churches online editions and were planned to be in the next edition published by the church.

The significance of these changes did not go unnoticed by the blogging community who were quick to pick up on the changes made to the chapter headings. The Mormon Matters website did a podcast in which the changes were considered in relation to a renewed commitment to the King James bible. In particular was a focus on the changes in reference to the Lamanites and racial comments on them.

The BlackLDS website gave an instructive analysis of the changes. In this they not only looked at the changes made to the chapter headings, they also looked at the introduction and change in the footnotes to certain passages of scripture. The changes that are dwelt on generally are the change in 2 Nephi 5 and Mormon 5. In 2 Nephi chapter 5 the words in the chapter heading “the Lamanites are cursed, receive a skin of blackness” were changed to “the Lamanites are cut off from the presence of the Lord, are cursed,” and in Mormon chapter 5 it removes “The Lamanites shall be a dark, filthy and loathsome people” and replaces it with “Because of their unbelief, the Lamanites will be scattered, and the Spirit will cease to strive with them.“

Both of these changes are significant as it distances the church from racist interpretations of the scripture. In 2 Nephi 5 it shifts the meaning that a skin of blackness was the curse, to the notion that it was being cut of from the presence of the Lord, this is mirrored in the passage in Mormon 5 which no longer associates dark with filthy and loathsome. In conjunction with these change are significant changes to the footnotes. These really amount to more references to 2 Nephi 26:33 in footnotes to the following scriptures: 1 Nephi 12:23, 2 Nephi 5:21, Alma 3:6, Mormon 5:15. This new footnote means that the reader should see them in reference to this scripture which talks about the all inclusiveness of God, that

‘he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both jew and gentile.’ (2 Nephie 26:33)

The addition of this footnote changes the way in which the reader understands and interprets the scriptures mentioned above, all of which could be used, and in fact has been used to justify a racist doctrine. The point of this post however is not to discuss the racial implications of these changes but reflect upon the way in which chapter headings and footnotes impact upon the way in which we understand and interpret scripture. This was noticed by a comment on the changes at the Times and Seasons coverage of the changes when Julie M. Smith said:

I think there is a message here on the power of the footnotes and headnotes to influence how we read. I frequently find myself frustrated with the direction in which the notes takes the reader.

The role of footnotes can be understood more in light of paratextuality. Recently I have been reading up on the literary theories of intertextuality, in particular the theories of the French thinker Gerard Genette and paratextuality. Intertextuality comes out from the work of Julie Kristeva, Mikhail Bakhtin and Roland Barthes. The basic idea is that in order to understand any text we need to look at the relationship that it has to other texts, that each text is made up of networks of quotations, references, inferences, and allusions. We can not understand a text then in isolation but must understand it in reference to way in which it is embedded in this network of textual relationships. That each word used in a text is a signifier to all the other ways in which the word has been used in the texts of the moment in which the text is composed. Barthes describes this in the following way:

the text is entirely woven with citations, references, echoes, cultural languages (what language is not?) antecedent or contemporary, which cut across and through and through in a vast stereophony. (Barthes, Image – Music – Text, 1977, p160)

If then we want to find the meanings of a text it means reconstructing the citations, references that are intrinsic to the text by virtue of the language that it is written in. Gerard Genette built upon these ideas and refined the theory and subdivided it. One of the subdivisions that he gives is paratextuality. Paratext is the devices that are put around the text within the book, and outside of it. These are mechanisms that are designed to mediate and direct the reader in ways in which the text should be read. These are the titles, subtitles, prefaces, introductions and material arrangement that inform the reader of how they should understand the text.

Genette places a high significance of the role of the paratextual elements of a book or text. This is because they help us to understand what the author intends, and the framework is an indication of what they are attempting to do with the text. They are a means of communicating what the text is and the intention of it. For a sacred text such as the Book of Mormon this is very significant. They are also ways in which the publisher can intrude upon the text and change the text without a physical change to the text itself. In the simple case of the title of the book this in a subtle change radically alters the readers experience. Changing the subtitle from ‘The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Christ’ to ‘The Book of Mormon: A 19th Century Historical Fiction’ radically interferes with the readers experience and way in which they will understand and take meaning from the text. Nothing has been altered in the actual text, but the meanings that can be gained have been reconfigured by the addition and removal of four words to the paratext of the text.

This then means that the changes to chapter headings, are not simply a language change but they reflect deeper changes to the way in which the Church intends the text to be read. This means that the footnotes, headings, titles, introductions of the standard works are highly significant parts of the way in which we approach and use scripture, it is needed then that we explore in detail the function that chapter headings have on how we interpret scripture.  The changes give us a reason then to stop and consider how the headings have been used to structure the way we think in a bigger context then the changes made in the 2004 edition.

This entry was published on June 22, 2011 at 12:12 pm and is filed under Book of Mormon, Gerard Genette, Intertextuality, Mormon, Paratextuality, Racist, Roland Barthes. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

6 thoughts on “Paratextuality and Chapter Headings

  1. Interesting thoughts, Jacob. I agree that the supplemental text surrounding the main text can do a lot to steer our reading of the main text. That’s one reason I like reading, e.g., a version of Isaiah that includes good footnotes because it points out where he is quoting or alluding to previous writings—it shows how one of the roles of prophets is to steer our reading of previous prophets’ writings.

    You may be interested in a project I’ve been working on, which I’ve called the Structured Edition of the standard works. It is my attempt to use what you call paratext to call attention to the original prophetic author’s outline. I use headings, shaded boxes, icons, and other features to organize the text without actually changing the text. You can judge for yourself how effectively I’ve done it:

  2. Oh, and one minor correction to your article. I was not the first person to notice the changes; I actually had a friend point them out to me, and learned more about them by calling the Church scripture department. If anything I did was a “first,” it might have been my thorough side-by-side comparison of the changes.

  3. I think it interesting that you would chose to have a highly annotated text of Isaiah to read. I think I would prefer one without them, so that I would be forced into looking at them myself, but thats because I struggle with the idea of anyone imposing their way of reading a text on me. That is a good point about the role of a prophet being to show us how to read and understand what previous prophets have said though, as long as they don’t say this is the only way to interpret it then I am ok with it.

    I had a look at your Structured Edition, it looks similar to Grant Hardy’s readers edition but with more study apparatus then his edition. I think any way of restructuring the and organising the text can be useful and I think it would be interesting to compare the way in which you both break the text into paragraphs. I like what you have done, I think the thematic paragraphs are far more useful then verses which fracture the text instead of seeing it as a whole, and leads to passages being torn from their context and used incorrectly.

    (I made the change so you are now the first to do a systematic study of the changes)

  4. Thanks, I’m glad you liked it.

    Jacob: I think any way of restructuring the and organising the text can be useful.

    I agree. In fact, in some situations, when there were two equally valuable or equally likely ways to structure a passage, I went with the least common way of looking at it, simply because I wanted to encourage people to think about the text in new ways and consider previously overlooked possibilities. (For example, Moses 4:32 seemed like it could be summarizing the previous section or introducing the next section; either possibility seemed plausible. So I opted for the latter, in part because people usually don’t think of it that way because of the chapter break.)

    I think it would be interesting to compare the way in which you both break the text into paragraphs.

    Me too. To encourage that and make it easier for people, I put up a webpage where I will be posting Word files of ready-to-go files that people can work on themselves, inserting paragraph breaks, headings, etc. I think it would be really fun to generate discussions, e.g., of how two or three people structured the same passage in different ways, and how that affects interpretation:

  5. I just had a look at the do it yourself scriptures page. It looks like a really good resource. Although I could only find the pearl of great price on it. I think its a really good way of making one think about the scriptures in new ways. I think when you try and think about it in a different way it helps to foster revelation and insight into different perspectives on it.

  6. Jacob: I could only find the pearl of great price on it.

    To clarify, I have two Redesigned Scriptures projects on my website. Do-It-Yourself Scriptures is the project I described in comment #4 above—Word files that allow someone to create their own version, with headings, etc. The Structured Edition is the project I described in comment #1 above—PDF files of my own version, where people can take a look at my the results I came up with.

    I’m glad you found it useful. I hope more people try out the Do-It-Yourself project, because you learn so dang much by trying it! 🙂

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