The book of First Nephi (in the Book of Mormon) reflects four significant (and similar) additions that Joseph Smith made to the original text before the publication of the second edition in 1837. The changes are indicated by italics in the following:
1830: Behold, the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of God
Now: Behold, the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of the Son of God (11:18)
1830: Behold, the Lamb of God, yea, even the Eternal Father!
Now: Behold, the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father! (11:21)
1830: yea, the everlasting God was judged of the world
Now: yea, the Son of the everlasting God was judged of the world (11:32)
LDS apologists say that Joseph Smith made these “deliberate editorial insertion[s]” himself; he added the words “the Son of,” “as was his right as the translator,” in order to clarify the actual meaning of the 1 Nephi passages. The apologists conclude, “Although some have claimed that the meaning of the text was altered by these additions, a more plausible explanation is that the editorial insertions clarified to whom the verses referred.”
Though Mormons may find comfort in the idea that Joseph merely clarified these Book of Mormon verses, a thoughtful evaluation of the additions reveals that he also altered the meaning of his original English text.
Consider this. I am the mother of a particular human being called Dana, but I am not the mother of the son of Dana; I am the grandmother of the son of Dana. If official documents are altered to indicate that I am the mother of the son of Dana, I am then defined as the mother of an entirely different human being. This would not be a clarification; it would be a radical change. If, however, the original document were in error, the change would constitute both an altered meaning and a clarification (i.e., a correction that also served to clarify).
The Book of Mormon originally said the virgin is the mother of God. Now it says the virgin is the mother of the Son of God. Today’s Mormonism proclaims that the Father is God. The Son is identified as “also a God” (LDS Bible Dictionary, “God,” emphasis mine). Therefore, originally (if we take a literal approach) the passage taught that the virgin is the mother of God the Father; now it says the virgin is the mother of the Son of God the Father. It looks like Joseph Smith’s “editorial insertion” altered the meaning and clarified the subject of the passage. His original translation was in error so he corrected it. Or, as some critics of Mormonism believe, Joseph’s “clarification” became necessary because of his changing theology. They note that early Mormonism was Trinitarian, or perhaps Modalistic, but became polytheistic as Joseph developed his new religion. When one God became many Gods, more precise language was required for Mormon scripture to make sense.
A similar problem is reflected in the other three altered verses cited above. In Mormonism, remember, the Father and the Son are two different Gods. So is the Lamb of God the Eternal Father, or the Son of the Eternal Father? LDS apologists suggest that the answer is both. They say either reading (with or without “the Son of”) means the same thing because in other places in the Book of Mormon “the Eternal Father” clearly refers to Jesus Christ. If both renderings mean the same thing, then why was there a need for clarification through Joseph’s “editorial insertions”? Furthermore, if Jesus Christ is (or can be) the Eternal Father, then shouldn’t we consider the possibility that Joseph made this particular change in order to clearly define the Lamb of God as the Son of Jesus Christ?
An easier (and perhaps better) way to amend the 1 Nephi passages might have been to just use proper noun markers: “the virgin…is the mother of a God” and “the Lamb of God is an Eternal Father.”
Regardless of Joseph’s intent in placing “deliberate editorial insertions” into the Book of Mormon text–whether to alter or clarify or both–it is a curious thing. Did he initially mistranslate the passages and later receive divine instruction for fixing his mistakes? (Joseph no longer had the gold plates to check the accuracy of his initial translation.)
Or did Joseph realize, after the 1830 edition was published, that people were prone to misunderstanding those portions of the Mormon scripture and decide that he could make it easier to grasp by simply inserting words to support his own interpretation?
Or was it God Himself who determined that some parts of this inspired translation that had been accomplished “by the gift and power of God” turned out to be too ambiguous and therefore needed revision?
What seems most plausible to me is that Joseph Smith was not acting under divine guidance or inspiration when he wrote the Book of Mormon–or when he corrected his first published draft. As author of the Book of Mormon he had every right to alter and edit his text as he saw fit. And this is what he did.