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

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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. This criticism/question is not new to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For instance, the semi-official encyclopedic work Encyclopedia of Mormonism (1992, 2007) broached it in their entry on Isaiah in the Book of Mormon.[1] 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 official position from the Church 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.”[2]

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 are illustrated in the following table:

Isaiah in the Book of Mormon.jpg

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. Along with the quotations from the above table, Third Isaiah is alluded to in Jacob 6:3 of the Book of Mormon. It is important to remember that the only part of 2nd Isaiah we need to account for is Isaiah 48-53 and the only part of Trito-Isaiah (it should be remembered that some scholars reject trito-Isaiah) being the one verse from Isaiah 65 (65:2). Thus we have four chapters and four verses to account for.

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.
  • Latter-day Saints scholar Sidney B. Sperry has suggested that we pay attention to the research of several non-Latter-day Saint 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. This is very likely the best approach and one the easily accounts for the both the essential unity of the text of Isaiah and the presence of material from other chapters. Marc Schindler described this approach in detail in this article from FairMormon papers.
  • In that same vein, Latter-day Saint 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 (which presumably would include the 1st Isaiah version of the 4 chapters and 4 verses of Deutero-Isaiah that we need), a text which possibly included broad and perhaps vague prophecies of the threat 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 would have been the original, early, 1st Isaiah version of Isaiah 48-52 and all of chs. 2-40. 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. Some may believe that the Book of Mormon must have been a translation in which nothing but formal equivalency (word for word translation) would be what God would provide as the translation. The problem is that the Book of Mormon does not represent a one-for-one conversion of text from Reformed Egyptian to English. There is much language, for example, that quotes, echoes, or alludes to the King James version of the Holy Bible. This includes the passages claimed to belong to Deutero-Isaiah. The Book of Mormon often does not translate the version that Nephi would have had, but simply uses the text as rendered in the King James Bible. Oddly enough, this actually should not lead one to believe that Joseph Smith simply plagiarized from it. Using the Original and Printer's Manuscripts of the Book of Mormon, Latter-day Saint scholar Royal Skousen has identified that none of the King James language contained in the Book of Mormon could have been copied directly from the Bible. He deduces this from the fact that spelling of words had indeed been standardized prior to the translation of the Book of Mormon (contrary to popular belief) and that Oliver Cowdery (Joseph's amanuensis for the dictation of the Book of Mormon), when quoting, echoing, or alluding to passages in Bible, consistently misspells certain words from the text that he wouldn't have misspelled if he was looking at the then-current edition of the KJB.[3] Additionally, it should be noted that the current edition of the Book of Mormon notes that "more than half of the 433 verses of Isaiah that are used in the Book of Mormon" differ from the Isaiah text in the KJV "while about 200 verses have the same wording as the KJV."[4]

A Proposed Scenario

When considering the the data, Skousen proposes that, instead of Joseph or Oliver looking at a Bible (which is now definitively confirmed by the manuscript evidence and the unequivocal statements of witnesses to the translation to the Book of Mormon), that God was simply able to provide the page of text from the King James Bible to Joseph's mind and then Joseph was free to alter the text as would be more comprehensible/comfortable to his 19th century, Northeastern, frontier audience. This theology of translation may feel foreign and a bit strange to some Latter-day Saints, but it seems to fit well with the Lord's own words about the nature of revelation to Joseph Smith. Latter-day Saints should take comfort in fact that the Lord accommodates his perfection to our own weakness and uses our imperfect language and nature for the building up of Zion on the earth. Thus:

  • 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 word-for-word, the Lord gave the passages from Isaiah as contained in the KJV . This may have been done to cater to Joseph's contemporary audience, to save time, and to respect the aesthetic value that the KJV held at that time (and does now to an extent). 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 had already been done?
  • 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 and we have just the one echo from Trito-Isaiah. Nephi's version of Isaiah 48-52 that he quoted on his plates was the primitive, early version written by 1st Isaiah which might not have included specific references to Babylon. The version of Isaiah 48-52 that we have now in the Book of Mormon would not then be taken directly from Nephi's plates, but rather adapted 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,[5] 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 1.

Theories of 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 on churchofjesuschrist.org at the link 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.[6]

Eliminating the Crticism

Thus, to eliminate the criticism we should recognize that:

  • We have four chapters and four verses to account for. We don't need to have the entire book of Isaiah date to a certain time—just those passages in the Book of Mormon.
  • The Book of Mormon uses KJV Language. There are perhaps a few reasons for it: (1) Joseph's model of revelation is one in which the Lord speaks after the manner of their language. King James vernacular was their's (D&C 1:24), (2) The end of that verse in Doctrine and Covenants suggests that he does this so that they can come to understanding. So when we have King James language in the Book of Mormon, it is to point out clearly what theological issue is being engaged. The Book of Mormon teaches that this is one of its purposes in 2 Nephi 29; (3) If we didn't get any language from the Nephites that matched or alluded to King James Language, we would be closer to thinking that they were trying to communicate an entirely different message or teach something else entirely.
  • Literary arguments for dating a text are often highly subjective and most prone to disagreement. Many scholars use narrative criticism to establish the dating of a text. It's one of the trickiest ways to date a text and several scholars have pointed out the fallacies of doing so.[7] This is significant: we have no manuscript evidence that would establish that there were multiple authors. The earliest manuscript of the text "ha[s been] dated using both radiocarbon dating and palaeographic/scribal dating[,] giving calibrated date ranges between 356–103 BCE and 150–100 BCE respectively."[8]
  • All it would really take to eliminate the argument would be to find a copy of Isaiah—either in its wholeness or even just a couple of fragments that had portion(s) of deutero and trito Isaiah on them— within 7th century strata. The problems with this are that:
    • The texts themselves, if preserved, would most likely be contained within temple deposits. These would have been ransacked by the Babylonians when they took Israel captive circa 600 BCE. Upon taking Israel, the Babylonians would have pillaged and destroyed the Israelite's temples, records, and other belongings. This is actually recorded in the Old Testament itself.[9] The most likely temple to find the texts from Isaiah in would be the Temple of Solomon which is buried under the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. It is archaeologically inaccessible by law for religious and political reasons.
    • The texts, if they survived outside temple deposits and survived Babylonian or other foreign invasion, would have been deposited in environments for which it is doubtful they would survive for hundreds of years. For example, K.A. Kitchen commenting on arguments against the historicity of the Exodus narratives in the Bible, wrote the following:
    • Egyptian gods gave only victories to kings —and defeats indicated divine disapproval, not applause! It is no use looking for administrative registers giving the Hebrews "customs clearance" to clear out of Egypt. In fact, 99 percent of all New Kingdom papyri are irrevocably lost (administrative and otherwise), the more so in the sopping mud of the Delta; the few survivors hail from the dry sands of Sawwara and Upper Egypt, far away from Pi-Ramesse's total of our administrative texts so far recovered from Pi-Ramesse![10]
Thus, depending on what environmental conditions obtained upon deposition, the papyri or scrolls upon which the text of Isaiah that we would need to make a fully-informed decision on authorship may be lost. But even in good taphonomic conditions, it may be years before such a document might be uncovered. Consider that one archaeological excavation took some 30 years to uncover a Philistine cemetery in southern Israel.[11] These processes take time, and we shouldn't expect everything to come to us so easy. We should remain patient on the Lord (1 Nephi 21:23) and know that sometimes we may never find remains of what we're looking for. That this argument against the Book of Mormon is an argument from silence is the most damning point against it and one that should provide all of us pause when evaluating how problematic it really is for our faith. In light of the foregoing analysis, perhaps we shouldn't stress so much.

Additional Reading

  • Spencer, Joseph M. The Vision of All: Twenty-five Lectures on Isaiah in Nephi's Record. Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford, 2016. This book is remarkable in that, as part of its analysis, it demonstrates clearly that the selection of Isaiah passages in the Book of Mormon is one done at random but that there is a unifying theme and purpose that drives Nephi's use of Isaiah.
  • Sperry, Sidney B. "The ‘Isaiah Problem’ in the Book of Mormon," Book of Mormon Compendium. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1968.
  • Jackson, Kent P. "Isaiah in the Book of Mormon," A Reason for Faith: Navigating LDS Doctrine and Church History. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2016.
  • Carr, David. “Reaching for Unity in Isaiah,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 18, no. 57 (1993): 61–80. There is a large bibliography of scholars who believe in a single Isaiah in notes 3-5 of this article.
  • Harrison, R. K. Introduction to the Old Testament. Grant Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1969, 371–78.
  • LaSor, W. S., D. A. Hubbard, and F. W. Bush. Old Testament Survey. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982.
  • Parry, Donald; Welch, John W. Isaiah in the Book of Mormon. Provo, UT: FARMS, 1998.
  • Adams, Larry L., and Rencher, Alvin A. "A Computer Analysis of the Isaiah Authorship Problem," BYU Studies 15 (Autumn 1974): 95-102.
  • Andersen, Francis L. "Style and Authorship," The Tyndale Paper 21 (June 1976): 2.
  • Gileadi, Avraham. A Holistic Structure of the Book of Isaiah. Ph.D. diss., Brigham Young University, 1981.
  • Kissane, E. J. The Book of Isaiah. 2 vols. Dublin, Ireland: 1941, 1943.
  • Ludlow, Victor L. Isaiah: Prophet, Seer, and Poet. Salt Lake City, 1981.
  • Tvedtnes, John A. "Isaiah Variants in the Book of Mormon," Isaiah and the Prophets, ed. M. Nyman. Provo, Utah: 1984.
  • Young, Edward J. Introduction to the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: 1949.

Book of Mormon Central KnoWhys (including article and video):

Saints Unscripted:

Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship:

Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship, "Their Imperfect Best: Isaianic Authorship from an LDS Perspective"

Daniel T. Ellsworth,  Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship, (September 15, 2017)
For Latter-day Saints, the critical scholarly consensus that most of the book of Isaiah was not authored by Isaiah often presents a problem, particularly since many Isaiah passages in the Book of Mormon are assigned post-exilic dating by critical scholars. The critical position is based on an entirely different set of assumptions than most believers are accustomed to bring to scripture. This article surveys some of the reasons for the critical scholarly position, also providing an alternative set of assumptions that Latter-day Saints can use to understand the features of the text.

Click here to view the complete article

Notes

  1. Legrande Davies, "Isaiah: Texts in the Book of Mormon," Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel Ludlow (New York: MacMillan Publishing, 1992 and 2007). Worthy of mention is that two then-current apostles, Elder Neal A. Maxwell and Elder Dallin H. Oaks, and one future apostle, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, were advisors for the encyclopedia and its editorial board. They are recognized in the acknowledgements to the encyclopedia.
  2. 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.
  3. Interpreter Foundation, "The History of the Text of the Book of Mormon," <https://interpreterfoundation.org/the-history-of-the-text-of-the-book-of-mormon/> (25 January 2020).
  4. See footnote 2a in 2 Nephi 12 in either the 1989 or 2013 editions of the Book of Mormon.
  5. John Barton, Isaiah 1-39, (London: T&T Clark International, 1995), 25–26. See also Michael Fallon, "Introduction to Isaiah 40–48," Isaiah School in Exile—Isaiah 40–55 (6 September 2014), 194.
  6. L. La Mar Adams, "I Have a Question," Ensign 14 (October 1984): 29.
  7. Benjamin D. Sommer, "Dating Pentateuchal Texts and the Perils of Pseudo-Historicism," The Pentateuch: International Perspectives on Current Research eds., Thomas B. Dozeman, Konrad Schmid, and Baruch J. Schwartz (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2011), 85-108.
  8. Wikipedia, "Isaiah Scroll," <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaiah_Scroll> (25 January 2020). Citing Jull, Timothy A. J.; Donahue, Douglas J.; Broshi, Magen; Tov, Emanuel, "Radiocarbon Dating of Scrolls and Linen Fragments from the Judean Desert," Radiocarbon 37-1 (1995): 14. doi:10.1017/S0033822200014740. Also citing All About Archaeology, "The Dead Sea Scrolls," <https://www.allaboutarchaeology.org/dead-sea-scrolls-2.htm> (25 January 2020).
  9. Wikipedia, "Siege of Jerusalem (587 BC)," <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Jerusalem_(587_BC)> (25 January 2020).
  10. Kenneth A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, MA: William B. Eerdmans, 2010), 311.
  11. ABC News, "Philistine cemetery uncovered in archaeological dig in Israel, Goliath's people were 'normal sized'," <https://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-07-11/old-bones-cast-new-light-on-goliath-people/7584904> (4 November 2019).