Helaman 5:23 Textual Variants

Royal Skousen
and it came to pass that Nephi and Lehi were encircled about as if by fire even insomuch that they durst not lay their hands upon them for fear lest they should be burned nevertheless Nephi and Lehi were not burned and they were as standing in the midst of fire

One wonders here if the text at the end of this passage didn’t originally read with an if, as “and they were as if standing in the midst of fire”. Elsewhere the narrative in this chapter has 12 instances of as if:

The case later in verse 23 of “as standing in the midst of fire” is the only instance in the earliest text for this chapter where we have as instead of the expected as if. Note especially the example in Helaman 5:36 where as if is followed by a present-participial clause: “and they were in the attitude as if talking or lifting their voices to some being which they beheld”. Earlier in the text, there is one more example of as if followed by a present-participial clause:

All these examples support emending Helaman 5:23 to read “as if standing in the midst of fire”.

We can find evidence in the printed editions for the loss of if from as if, including one case in this same chapter of Helaman:

In the original manuscript, there is one example where Oliver Cowdery initially omitted the conjunction if. In Alma 46:21, after writing the phrase “or in other words”, Oliver first skipped the if and started to write the subject pronoun they. After writing the th of they, he caught his error and overwrote the th with the correct if. But since that correction was unclear, he then crossed it out and wrote inline if they. (For this scribal error, see line 10 on page 317ªof 𝓞.) Of course, this initial error in 𝓞 did not involve any as.

Nonetheless, there are a number of cases elsewhere in the text where we have as instead of the expected as if. In fact, for the phrase “as (if ) it were”, there are 15 instances without the if and 9 with it. Note, in particular, the following contrastive pair that involve fire (just like in Helaman 5:23):

For further discussion of other textual difficulties with the phrase “as it were”, see under Alma 36:7.

Besides the as if, we also expect in Helaman 5:23 for the as if to come after standing: “and they were standing as if in the midst of fire”, as with other examples in Helaman 5 referring to the fire; in these other cases, the as if follows the verb:

But since as is a possible substitute for as if, we could also have as without the if after standing: “and they were standing as in the midst of fire”; this reading is strongly supported by the one in 3 Nephi 17:24, where as follows descending: “and they saw angels descending out of heaven as it were in the midst of fire”.

Yet the as can precede standing in Helaman 5:23. For modern readers, the as before standing makes it seem like the text is questioning whether Nephi and Lehi were actually standing. Yet the use of as if elsewhere in Helaman 5 shows that in verse 23 Nephi and Lehi were really standing. The as if in this chapter is used to show that we have an eyewitness account, not that everything taking place was hypothetical. For instance, in verse 25 the as if in “as if they were struck dumb with amazement” is used to make clear that the narrative is carefully reporting what Nephi and Lehi were observing, yet there is nothing hypothetical here: the Lamanites were indeed struck dumb with amazement. Similarly, the prisons walls were about to tumble down (verses 27 and 31), the voice came from above (verses 29 and 46), the voice was a whisper (verses 30 and 46), the earth was about to divide asunder (verse 33), Nephi and Lehi were talking to some being (verse 36), and the fire was real (verses 23, 44, 45), only it didn’t burn any of them. Thus here at the end of verse 23, the phrase as standing is not saying that Nephi and Lehi were not standing, only that they were observed to be standing. Given this interpretation of as if and as in Helaman 5, the earliest reading in verse 23, as standing, is fully acceptable.

David Calabro (personal communication) suggests another possible emendation here: the as could be an error for the prepositional a; that is, the text originally read “and they were a standing in the midst of fire”. We can definitely find support in the earliest text for use of the prepositional a after plural were:

Calabro also points out the difficulty of hearing the difference between as and a when the following word begins with an s (namely, standing here in Helaman 5:23). Later in the printer’s manuscript, there is an example where the indefinite article a was either misheard as as when 𝓞 was written down or miswritten as as when copied from 𝓞 into 𝓟:

Once more, the following word, state, begins with an s. Here in Helaman 5:23, the substitution of as for a could have been further facilitated by the numerous uses of as if in the chapter, especially the earlier one in this verse (“Nephi and Lehi were encircled about as if by fire”).

Although this emendation of as to a is possible, the critical text will maintain the as, the reading of all the (extant) textual sources. First of all, there is some evidence that the if is not necessary in Helaman 5:23. Moreover, the as can come before standing since the equivalent as if is used throughout Helaman 5 to report on what was actually observed rather than to claim that those events only appeared to happen.

Summary: Maintain in Helaman 5:23 the occurrence of as without the expected if: “and they were as standing in the midst of fire” (the reading of all the extant textual sources); there is some evidence in the text that as is an alternative to as if, chiefly in the phrase “as (if ) it were”; it is possible that the as may be an error for a, but since the oldest extant reading will work, the critical text will maintain the as.

Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon, Part. 5