Question: How do we explain multiple "Isaiahs" and the Book of Mormon?

Table of Contents

Question: How do we explain multiple "Isaiahs" and the Book of Mormon?

The challenge to the Book of Mormon is that Nephi quotes several chapters from Second Isaiah, who allegedly had not yet written his material in time for Nephi to quote from it

As part of the record Nephi creates for his people, he quotes heavily from the prophet Isaiah. The source for Nephi's text are the brass plates that he and his brothers obtained from Laban before leaving Jerusalem. Traditionally, the Book of Isaiah has been understood to be the composition of a single author living before Nephi, and before the Babylonian exile. However, modern scholars have found evidence in the Book of Isaiah that it was written by multiple authors spanning periods of time before and during the Babylonian exile, including before and after Nephi and his brothers obtained the brass plates. Nephi quotes from some of the passages of Isaiah that scholars believe were written after Nephi and his family left Jerusalem, creating a conundrum for students of the Book of Mormon.

The general division of Isaiah chapters according to this view looks like this:

  • Ch. 2-39, First Isaiah (Proto-Isaiah), written about 100 years before Lehi left Jerusalem, and so available to Nephi on Laban's brass plates.
  • Ch. 40-55, Second Isaiah (Deutero-Isaiah), written, at the earliest, 20-30 years after Lehi left Jerusalem, and so allegedly not available to Nephi on Laban's brass plates.
  • Ch. 56-66, Third Isaiah (Trito-Isaiah), written at least 60-70 years after Lehi left Jerusalem, and so not available to Nephi on Laban's brass plates.

The challenge to the Book of Mormon is that Nephi quotes several chapters from Second Isaiah, who allegedly had not yet written his material in time for Nephi to quote from it. The key question is, "Were those passages available to Nephi on the plates of brass?". If some parts of Isaiah were not written until after Nephi obtained the brass plates then they obviously would not be available for Nephi to quote from. Among the Latter-day Saints who are familiar with this issue there is more than one approach taken. Some argue for single authorship of Isaiah, disagreeing with multiple authorship theories of Isaiah. Others agree that the Book of Isaiah was authored by more than one person and look for ways to resolve that with the Book of Mormon. We will consider the latter position first.

Many Latter-day Saint scholars and students have come to agree with mainstream biblical scholars who suggest that parts of the Book of Isaiah were written by multiple authors and at different times

Many Latter-day Saint scholars and students have come to agree with mainstream biblical scholars who suggest that parts of the Book of Isaiah were written by multiple authors and at different times. There is no doctrinal or "official" LDS teaching that requires Latter-day Saints to see Isaiah as having been written by one author. Therefore, Latter-day Saints are free to form their own opinions of this issue. Hugh Nibley summarizes the main reasons why many believe Isaiah was written by multiple authors:

“The dating of Deutero-Isaiah rests on three things: (1) the mention of Cyrus (Isa. 44:28), who lived 200 years after Isaiah and long after Lehi; (2) the threats against Babylon (Isa. 47:1, 48:14), which became the oppressor of Judah after the days of Isaiah and (3) the general language and setting of the text, which suggests a historical background commonly associated with a later period than that of Isaiah.”[1]

Latter-day Saints who agree with this view do not do so because they don't believe that Isaiah could not prophecy of future events. Certainly it is within God's power to have Isaiah predict the name of Cyrus, or for Isaiah to write as if he were experiencing the Israelite exile to Babylon which would not happen for a couple hundred years. However, it would be very unusual for these things to happen. Those who accept the multiple authorship of Isaiah ask questions like, "Why would God have Isaiah predict the name of Cyrus, which would have been meaningless to his audience, and not predict the name of the Jesus?" In other words, if God is going to reveal the future name of an important person, it would seem that Jesus' name would have priority over Cyrus' name. The same question could be asked about why God would have Isaiah write as if he were experiencing the Babylonian exile. It would make little sense to his contemporary audience, and would not be very helpful to them. They would be long dead before any of those prophecies made sense. Could it be written like that to be a sign to future audiences that God has predictive power? Perhaps, but to some that seems like an unusual and trivial thing for God to do.

The important question to ask for the purposes of this study is not "Who wrote the text of Isaiah", but rather "When and how was the text of Isaiah written?".

Isaiah in the Book of Mormon

The primary Isaiah passages found in the Book of Mormon, along with the suggested author according to the multiple authorship view, are illustrated in the following table:

  • 1 Nephi 20 – Isaiah 48 - 2nd Isaiah
  • 1 Nephi 21 – Isaiah 49 - 2nd Isaiah
  • 2 Nephi 7 – Isaiah 50 - 2nd Isaiah
  • 2 Nephi 8 – Isaiah 51 - 2nd Isaiah
  • 2 Nephi 12 – Isaiah 2 - 1st Isaiah
  • 2 Nephi 13 – Isaiah 3 - 1st Isaiah
  • 2 Nephi 14 – Isaiah 4 - 1st Isaiah
  • 2 Nephi 15 – Isaiah 5 - 1st Isaiah
  • 2 Nephi 16 – Isaiah 6 - 1st Isaiah
  • 2 Nephi 17 – Isaiah 7 - 1st Isaiah
  • 2 Nephi 18 – Isaiah 8 - 1st Isaiah
  • 2 Nephi 19 – Isaiah 9 - 1st Isaiah
  • 2 Nephi 20 – Isaiah 10 - 1st Isaiah
  • 2 Nephi 21 – Isaiah 11 - 1st Isaiah
  • 2 Nephi 22 – Isaiah 12 - 1st Isaiah
  • 2 Nephi 23 – Isaiah 13 - 1st Isaiah
  • 2 Nephi 24 – Isaiah 14 - 1st Isaiah
  • 3 Nephi 16:18-20 – Isaiah 52:8-10 - 2nd Isaiah


2 Nephi 12-24 quotes 1st Isaiah. This is not a problem because it is agreed by scholars that this author wrote before Nephi obtained the brass plates. 1 Nephi 20-21, 2 Nephi 7-8, and 3 Nephi 16:18-20 all quote from 2nd Isaiah, which is a problem if those chapters were not written by 2nd Isaiah until after Nephi had obtained the brass plates. Third Isaiah is not quoted by the Book of Mormon. It is important to remember that the only part of 2nd Isaiah we need to account for is Isaiah 48-52.

The development of the text of Isaiah

There are a few important key points about the development of the text of Isaiah that may help resolve this challenge:

  • 1st Isaiah wrote during a time when a powerful nation, Assyria, threatened the destruction of Israel. While this was the immediate issue in 1st Isaiah's mind, he also may have been inspired to make general prophecies about a more future destruction of Israel. While not specifically mentioning "Bablyon" or "Cyrus", this 1st Isaiah may have made broad prophecies about a future threat to Israel separate from the immediate Assyrian threat.
  • LDS scholar Sidney B. Sperry has suggested that we pay attention to the research of several non-LDS scholars who "held that Isaiah 40-66 arose in exilic times, but consisted in considerable measure of ancient prophecies of Isaiah, which were reproduced by an author of Isaiah's school living in the exilic period, because the events of the day were bringing fulfillment of the prophecies." In other words, our current Isaiah 40-55 (or 40-66) may originate in primitive writings of 1st Isaiah, but which were reworked and reinterpreted by 2nd Isaiah.
  • In that same vein, LDS scholar Brant Gardner writes:
Rather than seeing the specificity of "Cyrus" or "Babylon" as denying Isaiah's authorship because they must have been written later, those same techniques of analysis suggest that others added those names later when fulfillment made the intent of the prophecy obvious. Cyrus might not have been named when Isaiah ben Amoz [1st Isaiah] wrote, but anyone living after the fact would certainly recognize the name and perhaps "improve" the original Isaiah text by adding the specifics of the fulfilled prophecy. If the earliest versions of Deutero-Isaiah were actually written by proto-Isaiah, they were later redacted on the basis of the similar historical facts of destruction and hope of return from exile that were part of both the earlier Assyrian and later Babylonian captivity."

Issues of Translation

However, this doesn't quite settle the issue yet. The question is asked, "What text was available to Nephi?" Nephi would have had available to him only the text of 1st Isaiah, a text which possibly included broad and perhaps vague prophecies of a future exile of Israel. The prophecies on Laban's plates of brass which Nephi was quoting from may not have specifically mentioned "Babylon" as that threat. Thus, what Nephi quoted as he inscribed on his plates was the original, early, 1st Isaiah version of Isaiah 48-52. However, the text that we have in the Book of Mormon of Isaiah 48-52 quotes from the later, 2nd Isaiah material (which is a reworked version of 1st Isaiah's earlier material) as found in the KJV Bible. How can this be?

The answer to this question will involve a brief consideration of the translation process of the Book of Mormon. There are two major methods that have been proposed for the translation of the Book of Mormon. The first is a "tight-control" method in which the text of the English version strictly matches the text of the gold plates, often right down to the spelling of names. The second method of translation is "loose-control", in which the English translation is a bit more fluid and matches the general meaning of the original reformed Egyptian text but may not strictly follow every word. Latter-day saint scholars and students fall into both camps, and some believe that both methods could have been used throughout the translation of the Book of Mormon. This is relevant to the question of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon because a "loose-control" theory, or something similar to it, would help account for why we have the KJV of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, as discussed below.

A Proposed Scenario

When considering the large quantity of KJV Bible quotations in the Book of Mormon many LDS scholars have proposed a scenario like this:

  • As Joseph was translating the text of the Book of Mormon, he would find himself translating something that he recognized as being roughly similar to texts from the Bible. This would occur most prominently when Nephi quotes from Isaiah.
  • Instead of translating Nephi's quotations of Isaiah, Joseph, deferred to the KJV translation of those chapters. This may have been done to save time and to respect the quality of the KJV Bible. The chapters of Isaiah that we find in the Book of Mormon were taken largely by Joseph Smith from the KJV Bible, instead of being translated from Nephi's version of that text. In other words, why reinvent the wheel when the work has already been done?
  • If Joseph Smith did this while translating the Book of Mormon, it would fall under the broad contours of the "loose-control" theory of the Book of Mormon.
  • As a result of this, the Isaiah chapters on Nephi's plates would have looked slightly different from the Isaiah chapters that we have now in the Book of Mormon. Remember, the only 2nd Isaiah chapters that show up in the Book of Mormon are Isaiah 48-52. Nephi's version of Isaiah 48-52 that he quoted on his plates was the primitive, early version written by 1st Isaiah which did not include specific references to Babylon. The version of Isaiah 48-52 that we have now in the Book of Mormon is not taken from Nephi's plates, but rather copied from the KJV Bible for reasons suggested above. That version of Isaiah 48-52 is the older, reworked material of 2nd Isaiah which inserted specific references to Babylon.

One final observation should be made. Scholars believe that Isaiah chapter 1 was not part of 1st Isaiah's original book,[2] but was a later addition by a later writer, perhaps 2nd or 3rd Isaiah. It is noteworthy that Nephi begins quoting Isaiah 2 and continues until Isaiah 14 without break, and never quotes Isaiah 1. If Isaiah chapter 1 was not yet a part of the record of Isaiah when Nephi obtained it would make sense that he would not quote Isaiah chapter 2.

A Single "Isaiah" and the Book of Mormon

Some take a conservative view and argue for the unity of Isaiah, suggesting that theories about multiple authorship are not correct. This approach was taken by one author in an old article in "The Ensign". The following represents part of that answer that was given (the full text may be read at the link on lds.org below):

Many non-LDS scholars claim that the second half of the book of Isaiah was written after the time Lehi left Jerusalem, Yet the Book of Mormon contains material from both halves. How do we explain this?

....

Literary style in Hebrew is much more accessible to computer analysis than is English. This is partly because the Hebrew characteristic known as the function prefix can help identify speech patterns of a given author. For example, how an author uses Hebrew function prefixes, such as those that translate into “and in this,” “and it is,” and “and to,” are expected to be unique with him. Thus, comparing parts of an author’s work with other parts, as well as comparing his work with work by other authors, can yield statistical evidence for claims of authorship.

Accordingly, we coded the Hebrew text of the book of Isaiah and a random sampling of eleven other Old Testament books onto computer tape. 3 Then, using a computer, we compared rates of literary usage (such as unique expressions and idiomatic phrases including the function prefix and other such literary elements) from text to text. Since any author varies within himself, depending on context, audience, his own change of style, and so forth, variations for a given author were compared with variations between authors for any literary element.

The results of the study were conclusive: there is a unique authorship style throughout the various sections of Isaiah. The rates of usage for the elements of this particular style are more consistent within the book of Isaiah, regardless of the section, than in any other book in the study. This statistical evidence led us to a single conclusion: based on style alone, the book of Isaiah definitely appears to be the work of one man. The two parts of Isaiah most often claimed to have been written by different authors, chapters 1–39 and 40–66, were found to be more similar to each other in style than to any of the other eleven Old Testament books examined.

L. La Mar Adams, “I Have a Question,” Ensign, Oct. 1984, 29

Notes

  1. Hugh W. Nibley, Since Cumorah, 2nd edition, (Vol. 7 of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Company ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1988), "Chapter 5: The Bible in the Book of Mormon", subsection "The Book of Mormon Explains Isaiah". ISBN 0875791395.
  2. John Barton, Isaiah 1-39 (London: T&T Clark International, 1995), 25–26. See also Michael Fallon, "Introduction to Isaiah 40–48," in Isaiah School in Exile—Isaiah 40–55 (accessed 6 September 2014), 194.