2 Nephi and the Deutero-Isaiah Problem in the Book of Mormon #BOM2016

2 Nephi 6-8 [1]

One thing that makes the “Isaiah chapters” of the Book of Mormon difficult is that is that the three major blocks of text are all read into the official record by different narrators at different times for different reasons.[2]  They cannot, therefore, be adequately characterized as a single thing. The first group (discussed here), supports Nephi’s argument (and Joseph Smith’s too) that the Lehites are the saving remnant of ancient prophecy–Israelites who will survive the Babylonian captivity and re-establish Zion on the American continent. To argue that a prophecy is being fulfilled, one must cite the prophecy and explain its fulfillment, which is precisely what Nephi does in the first set of Isaiah chapters.

The second set has a very different rhetorical context. It is Jacob, not Nephi, who reads Isaiah 50-51 into the text. And he does so immediately after telling his people that he has seen a vision of the fall of Jerusalem. “For behold, the Lord hath shewn me that they which were at Jerusalem, from whence we came, have been slain and carried away captive,” he affirms; “nevertheless, the Lord hath shewn unto me that they should return again.” (6:8).

Jacob’s desire to mention of the prospect of a return immediately after acknowledging the destruction gives us a sense of how difficult this news must have been for his people. They knew that Jerusalem was going to be destroyed—it’s why they left town after all—but the fact of its destruction must still have affected the Nephites who left the same way that it affected the Jews who survived: it almost destroyed their sense of religious identity, their concept of God, and their understanding of themselves as a chosen people made holy by God’s covenant with Abraham.

It is no accident, then, that the verses that Jacob reads from Isaiah were originally spoken to comfort the Jews who had been carried into captivity–and to assure them that their relationship with God was still intact:

For thus saith the Lord: Where is the bill of your mother’s divorcement? To whom have I put thee away, or to which of my creditors have I sold you? Yea, to whom have I sold you? Behold, for your iniquities have ye  sold yourselves, and for your transgressions is your mother  put away; wherefore, when I come, there was no man; when  I called, yea, there was none to answer. (2 Ne. 7:1-2)

These questions are rhetorical, of course (and more than a little sarcastic, but that’s Isaiah for you). The answer is that God has not divorced Israel, sold them, or put them away. They are the ones who broke up with Him. He remains their God, even though he has allowed Jerusalem to fall. And he invites the people of Israel back to the fold even as they are marching off to their captivity. God reminds them of their covenant and assures them that he has not forgotten:

Look unto Abraham, your father; and unto Sarah, she that bare you: for I called him alone, and blessed him. For the Lord shall comfort Zion: he will comfort all her waste plaees [places]; and he will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the Lord. Joy and gladness shall be found therein, thanksgiving and the voice of melody. Hearken unto me, my people; and give ear unto me, O my nation: for a law shall proceed from me, and I will make my judgment to rest for a light thing of the people. My righteousness is near; my salvation is gone forth, and mine arm shall judge the people. The isles shall wait upon me, and on mine arm shall they trust. Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look upon the earth beneath: for the heavens shall vanish away like smoke, and the earth shall wax old like a garment; and they that dwell therein, shall die in like manner. But my salvation shall be forever; and my righteousness shall not be abolished. (2 Ne. 8: 2-6)

Here, in one of the most optimistic passages in all of Isaiah, the prophet invites the Jews to re-establish the Abrahamic Covenant in their captivity—assuring them that, if they turn back to Him, he will remember them and pave the way for their return. This was an important message for the Jews after the destruction of Jerusalem, whether they were captive in Babylon or somewhere in Latin America building pyramids. It was the most important message in the world for the audience that Jacob was trying to reach.

When placed into the actual context of reception, these Isaiah chapters are neither daunting nor difficult: Jacob uses Isaiah to comfort the members of his family after he announces the destruction of Jerusalem. For them, as for the Jews who remained, Jerusalem was an ancestral homeland that conveyed a unique religious identity. Their religion was almost unthinkable without the Temple and the city that surrounded it. Jacob read these words for exactly the same reason that Isaiah first spoke them: to ensure a distraught people that God was still willing and able to redeem them.

But of course it’s not quite so simple. These Isaiah chapters have long been seen by Mormonism’s detractors as strong evidence for 19th century authorship, as they come from  a writer (or, more likely, a group of writers) that scholars now identify as “Deutero-Isaiah,” or Second Isaiah (Chapters 40-55). Unlike the original Isaiah corpus (Chapters 1-39), which suggest an 8th century origin, the Deutero-Isaiah chapters all presume that the destruction of Jerusalem has already happened–and they speak directly to the survivors as survivors. It doesn’t take long with a timeline to figure out that anything written after the destruction of Jerusalem could not have been on the Brass Plates of Laban, which Nephi and his brothers seized BEFORE the destruction of Jerusalem. This, in a nutshell, is the Deutero-Isaiah problem in the Book of Mormon.

To avoid grappling with this problem, many Latter-day Saints resist even exploring the view–now generally accepted by scholars in at least some form–that the Book of Isaiah has multiple authors and consists of texts written in both the 8th century, when the Assyrians were threatening the Kingdom of Israel, and in the 6th century, after the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem. This is, they say, simply the result of secular scholars who don’t believe that an 8th century prophet could have foreseen and reacted to events a century and a half in the future

In his book, Understanding the Book of Mormon, Grant Hardy faces this issue head on, critiquing the positions of Latter-day Saints who dismiss the Deutero-Isaiah problem as “simply the work of academics who do not believe in prophecy.” He asserts that this is “clearly an inadequate (and inaccurate) response to a significant body of detailed historical and literary analysis” [3] I could not agree more. But I also agree with what Hardy says next: that a more promising avenue for faithful Latter-day Saints “is to acknowledge that we probably know less about what constitutes an ‘inspired translation’ than we do about Ancient Israel. Once one accepts the possibility of divine intervention, the theology can accommodate the (always tentative) results of scholarship.” [4]

The Deutero-Isaiah chapters in 1st and 2nd Nephi are an uncomfortable presence, but not an inexplicable one, for, as Hardy affirms, accepting a divine provenance for the Book of Mormon provides the theological basis to resolve difficult historical issues. And we do not have a very good sense of what it means for a prophet to translate sacred texts solely through inspiration–with no training in, or knowledge of, the original language.

And once we get past the discomfort of seeing something where we don’t think it should be, we can appreciate the value of Isaiah’s core message in these chapters–a message as comforting to us today as it was to the people of Jacob (and, indeed, the people of Israel):  Even at the very moment that we are suffer the natural consequences of our worst decisions and actions, God loves us as a devoted parent and waits patiently, with open arms, to welcome us back into His Kingdom.


[1] Return readers will remember that, in previous posts, I have tried to cite both the 1830 edition and the modern editions, which divide text into chapters differently. I am officially giving up. I will still read and quote from the 1830 edition, but the citations will all be from modern chapters and verses.

[2] The three blocks of Isaiah chapters that I refer to are: 1) Isaiah 48-49 in 1 Nephi 20-21; Isaiah 50-52:1-2 in 2 Nephi 7-8; and the very long block of Isaiah 2-14 in 2 Nephi 12-24. A fourth block of a single chapter (Isaiah 29) appears in 2 Nephi 27.

[3] Hardy, Grant. Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. p. 69.

[4] Ibid.


  1. Clark Goble says:

    I think the easy answer, albeit speculative and not apt to convince the critics, is that Isaiah is a composite authorship but not a simple composite of two or three distinct authors. Rather we have some proto-author that is then taken and transformed in the exile. The Book of Mormon translation then follows the KJV of the text with some differences despite Nephi having some porto-text different from what’s in the masoretic texts.

    Of course I fully understand why that won’t be persuasive to many. I tend to agree that the most difficult issues with regards to the Book of Mormon are horses and deutero-Isaiah. I think there are somewhat plausible approaches, but no evidence yet sufficient to really silence critics.

  2. Clark Goble says:

    To add, the proto-isaiah text theory won’t account for arguments regarding priority of quotation or allusion of deutero-isaiah to other texts. I’m aware of that issue but am not sure if the idea of deutero-isaiah itself being reworkings of earlier text could resolve those issues.

  3. Clark Goble says:

    Sorry — shouldn’t have used the term porto-isaiah since that’s often used to refer to first Isaiah as opposed to Isaiah 1. But hopefully you get the idea.

  4. You’ve just written a significant portion of my lesson for me — thanks. It will be more powerful to discuss what Nephi and Jacob do with Isaiah, for starters, than to talk about revelation and Isaiah in the general terms sketched by the manual. These chapters aren’t specifically covered there, but with your help in noting the relationship between the passages — which seems so obvious, duh, now that you point it out — it seems an easy, organized, and fruitful way to make sense of a dreaded section. So, thanks.

  5. fn1: This bums me out. I got an 1830 version to follow along, and this move now forces me to pay closer attention. Darn you for making me learn even more.

  6. Now I’m channeling Clark, following up to my own comments…

    Hooray for Grant Hardy and Michael Austin for dispensing with the lazy answer to the Deutero-Isaiah problem. The “the world got it wrong because, you know, we’re right” response is damning because it prevents you from looking deeper. In my experience, it’s been those instances that I’ve been forced to confront difficult moments that have resulted in getting further light and knowledge.

  7. When I first heard of the deutero-Isaiah issue, I read numerous articles on it, and ended up reading Joseph Blenkinsopp’s fantastic teatment of the issue in the Anchor Bible series. I expected to see some slam-dunk mountain of evidence that would justify the scholarly consensus, and I didn’t see that, so I read Blenkinsopp a second time, looking for what I might have missed. I still don’t see it. I get that the idea predictive prophecy is not the only reason for scholars’ rejection of the book as a unity, but it does seem to color their evaluation of many other items of evidence that they cite for multiple authorship. And given the fact that there is huge uncertainty about the chronological order in which the sections comprising Isaiah were created, I just don’t find the case nearly as persuasive as other scholarly theories, like the DH or the Deuteronomist school.

    Honestly, would someone please enlighten the rest of us as to why we should accept this theory in light of the ill-founded assumptions and the counter-arguments? BCC has some great contributors and a host of possible guests that could post on this issue in more depth, and I for one would really welcome a better treatment than what I’ve read.

  8. Dan: the case as I see it is fairly straightforward. Chapter 40 tells about God returning to Jerusalem and the Temple, which implies exile. The real issue with the “secular scholars who don’t believe in prophecy” line is that it’s concept of prophecy is impoverished, having been reduced to prediction alone. Which strikes me as strange, given that the folks making this argument routinely sustain men as prophets for whom prediction is a minor aspect of their ministry at best. Personally, I consider deutero-Isaiah to be intensely prophetic. After all, the defeat of a people was usually construed as the defeat of their god (as in, the destruction of Jerusalem means that Marduk pwned YHWH), so reasserting YHWH in the wake of that is pretty powerful (and the rhetorical challenge of doing so is what makes the suffering servant passage so intense). And, as Mike says, I think that the relevant uses of Isaiah in the BoM work best when you read them as deutero-Isaiah (i.e., when you read them as addressed to people experiencing exile, not to people whose great-great-grandchildren will experience exile). Admittedly, this reading only makes the historicity issue more acute, but it also in my view makes the BoM more potent. Talk about a complicated dilemma!

  9. Clark Goble says:

    HDP, I think lots of people were talking about it before. I always thought the approach amongst too many 90’s era apologetics was Giliadi’s and to channel the unity of Isaiah view. We should note though to be fair that this remains a big debate in certain circles. I’m much more on the composite text side obviously but there has been a surprising backlash in some academic circles. (Non-Mormon) Although those from a certain critical tradition have just dismissed the backlash. (Thinking of some reviews of various books by Jon Levenson I recently read)

    Dan, I think often the actual arguments are left out. We should be forthright and note that a lot of the arguments are circumstantial. Not everyone will look at the evidence the same way. To me the basic arguments are pretty persuasive. However as with so much about early texts, it’s argument without strong evidence the way historians might like. Coming from the sciences it’s sometimes hard to wrap my head around how much consensus has such weak evidence — that’s not to say it’s wrong mind you. However when science papers in the hard sciences are often lucky to get a 20% replication rate it makes me think that these areas with ridiculously weak positive evidence are going to have a lot of false conclusions. So a bit of healthy skepticism is in order.

    All that said, I again note that in this case I find the evidence pretty persuasive. In particular passages seem to go beyond what prophesy would likely describe and talk about events as if they’ve happened. I think though editing of the texts after the predicted events have transpired and the BoM translation following these later emendations as found in the KJV explains most of this.

    The trickier issue are quotations and paraphrases from later texts. However again if we have strong oral and textual traditions out of which new texts are created in the exile (as everyone agrees) then we have to acknowledge the possibility of proto-texts that everyone’s referring to. (Something the Book of Mormon seems to strongly suggest I might note)

  10. Kevin Christensen says:

    I recall being introduced to the Isaiah problem by Hugh Nibley in Since Cumorah in a section on “The Isaiah Question.” Later, in 1998, John Welch included a section on “Authorship of Isaiah in Light of the Book of Mormon” in the big FARMS volume on Isaiah in the Book of Mormon. Among other things, Welch points out that since Jesus quotes Isaiah 54, that chapter need have been on the brass plates. John Thompson’s essay on Isaiah 50-51, the Israelite Autumn Festivals and the Covenant Speech of Jacob in Second Nephi 6-10 makes the observation that many scholars see those chapters as based on the liturgy on a pre-exilic festival, and Jacob happens to quote Isaiah in that context.

    In surveying Margaret Barker’s work for LDS readers in Paradigms Regained, I had to discuss the Isaiah problem because she discusses First Second and Third Isaiah at length in The Older Testament, and in the Isaiah section of the Eerdman’s Commentary on the Bible that was invited to write. For me, the interesting bit was that in Barker’s view it was Second Isaiah who redefined theology towards strict monotheism in response to the Exile, declaring that Yahweh was El, and that the second Isaiah chapters in which that argument appears do not appear in the Book of Mormon. One essay of Barker’s that I had not read when I wrote was her argument that Isaiah 53 was written in response to Hezekiah’s bout with the plague “see “The Original Setting of the Fourth Servant Song” at http://www.margaretbarker.com/Papers/FourthServantSong.pdf , which also means that that particular chapter must have been pre-exilic.

    In Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, there is a bibliographic section on LDS approaches up to 1998 so it becomes easy to see who said what when.

  11. Jason, yes, this is exactly it for me. There is a lot of linguistic evidence that I can’t really evaluate because I don’t read Ancient Hebrew. But I trust the scholars who work with this because I know how easy it would be for me to spot a modern passage mixed in with 200 year old writings. Language changes over time, and things like word choice, sentence style, rhetorical devices, grammatical choices, etc. leave very discernible traces on texts.

    But for me it is exactly as you say: the chapters identified as Deutero Isaiah only make sense when they are viewed as a prophet’s exhortations to a people in exile. The words of comfort, the assurances of God’s continued love, the re-assertion of the Abrahamic Covenant, and the foretelling of a return to Jerusalem (which is a fair bit of predictive prophecy itself) all make powerful sense in a sixth century context and no sense at all in an eighth century context when Assyria, not Babylon, was the major threat to Israel.

    And sure, God could have told Isaiah really specific things about Babylon, the captivity, Persia, Cyrus, and all that. But a God who could do that could certainly tell Jacob and Nephi what Deutero-Isaiah said to Israel so they could repeat it to their people. I mean, once we have God working magic to tell people stuff they would not otherwise know, we no longer have to restrict Jacob to writing down what was actually on the brass plates of Laban (nor, for that matter, do we have to restrict Joseph Smith to writing down what was actually on the gold plates of Mormon). Insisting on a rigorous, natural explanation for these things just pushes the spooky stuff back somewhere else. The whole idea of God speaking to prophets is not subject to rigorous, natural explanations as we currently understand them.

  12. @MichaelAustin, how does that account for very specific KJV language appearing in the BOM? The problem I have with your theory is that in this magical world where God is communicating with all these people, and there are no limitations, should we not expect different results? Why would God inspire all these people to write down words that culminate into a conspiracy of scriptural fraud today? Is God actively trying to undermine his own historical record and create doubt?

  13. Michael,

    I’m not a Hebrew specialist either, though I did a year of Modern Hebrew in college- just enough to allow me to write a good contemporary pop song called Bahura Mi Kibbutz (“Kibbutz Woman”).

    I see the merits of these arguments that focus on the anachronistic nature of the messages in 40-55. Maybe I was surprised by the lack of other evidence in comparison to the other things I’ve studied; as I mentioned, the Documentary Hypothesis has so many converging lines of evidence, it’s really overwhelming. By contrast, the deutero-Isaiah theory has some elements that make sense, but when the fall of the King of Babylon figures prominently in 14, and when some scholars are positing, for example, that the servant songs are out of place in the corpus of exilic Isaiah, and other scholars are positing that 40-55 are an amalgamation of several different bodies of work, it becomes difficult for me to accept that the idea of a pseudonymous exilic author or redactor of 40-55 is a cohesive theory that can be sustained by evidence.

    I know I’m just a Hebrew dropout, but this theory sometimes seems like the Enron of Biblical scholarship. Nevertheless, I keep an open mind and maybe I’ll come around.

  14. Andrew, that is a good question, since there is really no way that JS could have gotten so much specific KJV language in anything like an independent translation. And that certainly could suggest a 19th century origin. But my understanding of “inspired translation” is also potentially broad enough that it could encompass God telling (or inspiring, or somehow informing) Joseph Smith something like, “go get the Bible in your parent’s bedroom and copy the following chapters out of Isaiah.”

    Your question, “Why would God inspire all these people to write down words that culminate into a conspiracy of scriptural fraud today?” is not actually a question, since it embeds an assertion that is actually an answer. If one believes the Book of Mormon to be a “scriptural fraud,” then the presence of both the Deutero-Isaiah chapters and the KJV English are evidence to support that conclusion. If one believes it to be an inspired document–whatever that means–then neither the presence of Deutero-Isaiah or the existence of passages from the KJV are going to be deal-breakers.

    To put it another way: once one has accepted golden plates, angels, seer stones, and translation of “Reformed Egyptian” by somebody with no training in languages, one has already accepted an essentially otherworldly origin for the Book of Mormon. If one accepts this otherworldly origin–for whatever reason–it is not that difficult to imagine scenarios where the King James Version of Deutero-Isaiah becomes part of the text. if one does not accept it, of course, then nothing in what I have said could possibly provide evidence in favor of such a proposition.

  15. Folks- I must apologize for my detour into the merits of the theory. Back in my younger days when I was formulating Bahura Mi Kibbutz and the like, I really believed that the central question around the BoM was whether it was “true,” as evidenced by its validation in the fields of archaeology, linguistics, etc., but I’ve come to believe that the most interesting and productive discussions of the BoM are ones that basically punt those issues and explore the functioning of the text. This series is a great example of that.

  16. “I’ve come to believe that the most interesting and productive discussions of the BoM are ones that basically punt those issues and explore the functioning of the text.”

    Dan, I could not agree more with this sentiment. In my experience, the polemics both for and against the historicity of the Book of Mormon yield very sterile interpretations–interpretations designed to support/oppose the coming forth narrative rather than the actual text. Once we simply decide that we don’t care that much about these questions, it becomes a much more interesting (and, I would argue, relevant) text.

  17. @MichaelAustin, you may be misunderstanding me a bit. I was not “[embedding] an assertion,” but speaking about reasonable conclusions. There is a difference between possibilities and probabilities. Is it possible Joseph used a Bible during the translation process? Sure, seems pretty obvious that is the case, but he never described a process like this. The supposedly first hand accounts directly contradict this notion in point of fact. As someone who was born in a time that is far removed from all this history, what can I do? I have to look at the evidence as it exists. And if it’s “true” in the sense that the plates were real, nephites were real, etc., then why would the Lord engineer this miraculous scenario in such a sloppy way? This isn’t just a matter of having faith. The evidence directly contradicts the story. Regardless of how you slice it, you’re saying God intentionally did things in a way that he had to know would look suspicious. It’s almost like saying god is real, but then evangelizing atheism. There is a god, and he’s an atheist.

  18. Kevin Barney says:

    On using a Bible: first, Joseph never described the process at all. Second, the witness statements don’t seem to allow for the use of a Bible, true, but here’s something that has occurred to me: The extensive Isaiah quotations come at the very tail end of the translation process (assuming, as all serious scholars do, the priority of Mosiah). So we don’t necessarily have witness statements from the specific time period when 2 Nephi was being translated.

    For me, that is all besides the point. The characteristics of the text show the influence of the KJV on the text, however that was accomplished (reference to a Bible, extensive memorization, an angel dictating the KJV text to Joseph, or whatever).

  19. Andrew: Look, I get that you don’t believe that the BoM is an ancient document. As I said several times in the other thread, that’s fine. I can assure you, though, that Mike’s first encounter with the issue of KJV language in the BoM was not your comment in this thread. You can take for granted, I think, that around here we’re pretty aware of any challenge to BoM historicity you might care to raise. We’re also generally aware of (though not always persuaded by) apologetic responses to those challenges. And yet, for all this, we find value in reading the text carefully, as though it were true (which nobody can prove to be the case). If we are conspirators in a scriptural fraud, as you suggest, we are probably impervious to the arguments with which you are quixotically attempting to redeem us from our error.

    All I’m saying is that if we are what you seem to take us to be, the question of what you hope to accomplish here becomes a bit puzzling. Perhaps instead of inveighing against Mormonism, go try to accomplish some good in the world. Gamaliel’s advice to the Sanhedrin still holds: if Mormonism is of the devil (or irrationality, or whatever), it will come to nothing. Align yourself with what is true and work for it with all you’ve got. It’s more productive than commenting on blog posts by deluded folks like me and Mike (with whom I’d gladly go to hell, which I’m sure you’ll be happy to inform me doesn’t really exist anyway).

  20. Way simplistic (so laugh if you will) but even on my most ancient text days I picture Joseph Smith inspired with “here the plates record a post exile comfort speech so pick up Isaiah on the subject–you won’t find better and they’re all to the same purpose anyway.”

  21. Andrew, I am a professional translator. If I were God orchestrating the translation of the BOM, I would definitely make sure that biblical texts appearing in the BOM mimicked the biblical language as closely as possible, perhaps even to the point of introducing anachronisms if there were differences between KJV and Brass Plates Isaiah. Why? Because the point is not to produce a literally translated historical curiosity, it is to produce a useful spiritual text that servers as a sort of sequel to the Bible. Thus the two should be similar in idiom and possess significant intertextuality. And, if you go to an LDS Sunday school and see how these texts are used, you will see that this ability to cross-reference without getting bogged down in differences of translation is exceedingly useful. Would it also be interesting to have different version of the Isaiah passages? Perhaps, but it wouldn’t add much in a spiritual sense, and certainly wouldn’t convince any doubters. This is also one of several reasons why we haven’t updated the language of our scriptures from KJV in English despite the benefits that would come from that. Consistency of religious idiom can matter a great deal for a community.

  22. This reminds me of the nonsensical argument Richard Dawkins made on ?Swedish? TV to Brandon Flowers that the BOM must be a fraud because if it were real JS would have translated it into his own idiom rather than mimicking biblical idiom. Few things have made my translator’s brain want to explode quite so acutely.

  23. Nice try. However, the simple answer is that it is a 19th century creation. One can always ad hoc anything or say God will provide the answers, one day, after we are dead. Nevertheless, the simple response remains that it was a 19th century creation, maybe inspired, by from the 19th century just the same.

  24. Clark Goble says:

    Kevin (5:19) There are pretty extensive KJV quotations in other places like 3 Nephi as well. I’m not sure of the point of the Bible being present or not. If it’s a fraud, as some suggest, then it would almost certainly have to have been composed earlier so the presence of the Bible wouldn’t matter. If it’s authentic and from God then the presence of the KJV as a way of translating doesn’t necessarily depend upon the presence of such texts. So I confess I don’t see the focus on the presence during the transcription process as neither of the main models require it.

    That said, in terms of the text it’s undeniable there’s a dependence upon the KJV. But again both the main contemporary apologetic models and the main naturalistic critiques both acknowledged that. So it doesn’t give us much.

    Exiled (5:53) There are lots of simple answers. None of them really explain the evidence well. The fact is the process is odd for the believer in real plates as well as the critic.

    Andrew (11:15) I confess that while this wouldn’t be the way I’d translate a text were it me, I’m not sure I’d say it’s sloppy. We’re all biased by the modern translations we raise and some of the standard processes used, like footnotes and explanations for troublesome idioms or where text is quoting. Regardless of how one views the book but that’s clearly not the strategy at hand. The problem for those who see KJV as merely sloppy is to explain why it’s not done consistently through the text? Particularly the issue of transliterations. If Joseph is sophisticated enough a fraud to adopt a standard transliteration scheme for non-KJV names, then why wouldn’t he be sophisticated enough to not simply quote the KJV? The usual response is that the non-KJV structures are just subconsciously picked up from reading the KJV by this untrained youth. I confess that seems to boggle the mind. Yet if we’re talking someone sophisticated enough to fake the rest, why on earth would they quote the KJV like this?

    Even if one rejects the real plates, real Nephite theory, it seems we’re left with someone sophisticated in some ways and unexplainably sloppy and ignorant in others.

    Michael (12:05) & Dan (11:54) I’ll confess I find repeated debates over historicity to be fairly boring after a time. It’s rather rare new arguments or data appear. So no one changes their positions. It becomes a bit of a kabuki dance.

    That said, I think picking a context for a text is rather significant when one does turn carefully to the text. It simply means radically different things depending upon whether one reads it as written by a naive boy in the burned out district talking about religious concerns among early 19th century Protestants or people with some near eastern understanding thrown into a largely mesoAmerican context. I’d add that I think one big flaw with too many apologetics or exegesis informed by the apologetic stance is that the near eastern context is privileged beyond what is likely to have survived while the mesoAmerican context is discounted or ignored. But all these things do matter.

    A great example of this is how to read passages like Mosiah 15 which simply have radically different meanings depending upon the context picked (19th century modalist conceptions of God versus some semblance of pre-exilic heavenly ascent and merkabah literature)

  25. Clark- you have really captured my thoughts on the matter. There is no explanation I have seen that explains all of the available evidence, and the tired critical vs. apologetic debates treat the text like an engineering problem. Having grown up trusting in our standard inerrantist devotional scholarly consensus, I’m now very reluctant to place my trust in any other scholarly consensus as an authority on how I should approach these texts. The questions of historicity and textual transmission are still interesting to me, but literary analysis has done me the huge favor of pointing out how little I understand of narratives I’ve read 30+ times. What a blessing.

  26. Clark:

    Can’t one read almost anything into a text like the bible or the Book of Mormon? Christians read Christ into Isaiah where it doesn’t really exist and the Book of Mormon, like it usually does, expands on this and makes it more fantastical using the mound builder myth as a guide. Occam’s razor suggests that it is myth on top of myth. Anachronisms like deutero Isaiah demand this conclusion. One can continue to believe the myth but belief does not change reality. It never has.

    However, this doesn’t mean one can’t find value in these texts. One can find value in many fictional works.

  27. Clark Goble says:

    Exiled, no one can’t read nearly anything in a rigorously supported way into any text.

    The question isn’t whether one can find value but what values one can find in fiction.

  28. Clark Goble says:

    I should add that while I enjoy literary analysis there are pretty big limits of what such readings can support. That is what grounds our beliefs. I might find value in reading Hamlet, but such readings can’t ground ethically or politically such beliefs. If I think it’s wrong to betray there’s no way to ground that in the text of Hamlet. Such literary readings can at best provide questions but such questions have to be answered outside of the text.

    Contrast this with documents that have authority (such as say the Constitution in the United States). While there remain different ways of reading the text, not all readings are equally supportable and of course the place of the text grounds the implications of such readings in a way that a reading from Hamlet simply can’t do.

    Now of course there are certain strains of postmodern thought which thinks that everything is like Hamlet. That authority exists only because we chose to let it function as such. Effectively that there are no grounds, whether in ethics, epistemology or politics. I simply don’t buy that perspective. I think there is always something outside of the text functioning.

  29. Clark, I think that, even if one accepts that the Book of Mormon narrative is 100% historical, we must acknowledge that it functions more like a novel than almost any other text that makes a comparable truth claim. This is because the knowable context is entirely contained within the text. Once we get past 2nd Nephi–in which the narrator can be pegged to the knowable context of pre-exillic Jerusalem–we have no knowledge of Nephites and Lamanites other than that which can be derived from the text of the Book of Mormon itself.

    With almost every other scripture in the LDS Canon (and with Hamlet and the Constitution), we have contextual referents: we know things about Ancient Israel that are not part of the Old Testament, things about Ancient Rome that are not part of the New Testament, things about 19th century America that are not part of the Doctrine & Covenants, and so on. Not true for the Book of Mormon.

    This means, I would argue, that even contextual/historical readings require a fair bit of what people call “literary criticism,” since all such readings are completely dependent on the text. Without a knowable context of original reception, all we have is close reading, which is essentially what “literary criticism” means.

  30. Clark Goble says:

    Michael, that seems an odd choice for defining how a fictious novel functions. While what you say is true – that we know little of the historical context I’m not sure that’s a good way to tie it to fiction. After all there are lots (perhaps most) fictions that we know the context for. Outside of fantasy and science fiction most stories take place in a historically reasonably well known setting.

    Of course what make fiction different is that we have no knowledge of the characters at all as real persons.

    But again, I’ll agree with your earlier comments. I think this has been going around and around.

    To literary criticism, of course that’s a pretty broad category and sometimes does overlap with history even done in more positivist ways.

  31. Good conversation. I totally agree with the sentiment that it’s much more interesting to study the actual text and punt the issues around provenance.

    I guess I was under the impression that roughly half of the verses in 2 Nephi vary from their sister verses in Isaiah. Isn’t there a footnote in the BoM somewhere that says that there are 433 verses quoted from Isaiah, and either 200 or 233 of those verses contain differences from the KJV? I couldn’t quickly find the footnote, but I swore I’ve read it. I’m not totally losing my mind because I did manage to find an article by Tvedtnes that starts out with this: Of the 478 verses in the Book of Mormon quoted from the book of Isaiah, 201 agree with the King James reading while 207 show variations. Some 58 are paraphrased and 11 others are variants and/or paraphrases. It is to the variants that we will give our attention here.

    I’ve always been struck by the footnote to 2 Ne. 12:16: The Greek (Septuagint) has “ships of the sea.” The Hebrew has “ships of Tarshish.” The Book of Mormon has both, showing that the brass plates had lost neither phrase.

    Setting aside the conclusion about the brass plates, but acknowledging that many of the verses in 2 Nephi don’t match Isaiah, it seems to me that if Joseph were using a Bible as a translation tool that it would not have done much good, since he would still be changing it a lot. Doesn’t it seem more likely that Joseph simply saw the words in the hat, and that those words did largely (but not completely) mimic the KJV? Or do people think he used the KJV as a reference but then dictated that to Oliver with the variations, using something like the JST translation of the Bible method (i.e. read the Bible itself and then make changes as directed via revelation)?

  32. I think the lack of DNA, archaeological, anthropological and linguistic evidence shows that he didn’t see anything on the rock (although that is what others claimed he did). The apologetic thus has to move toward an inspired fiction or pious fraud model.

  33. Clark Goble says:

    David, there definitely are verses with differences – in some cases big differences. How much of that is a transformation of the underlying text by Nephi, how much is an accidental artifact of the translation process and how much is an expansion at the time of translation seems impossible to know without the original texts. In some cases the differences don’t matter much. In other cases I think them quite significant.

    I do think we should be somewhat cautious assuming that the Book of Mormon reflects the brass plates. While there’s certainly an influence and most scholars agree that whatever texts came to make up Isaiah were in a different shape pre-exile, I think we should be cautious. Nephi and Jacob seem quite open to more midrashic or outright appropriation and editing of the underlying texts. Also the influence during the translation process of the KJV can’t be neglected. But again, working out what change happened when seems difficult if not impossible.

  34. Maybe this is a comment for another post, but I’m especially fascinated with the way deutero-Isaiah is used by Abinadi and Noah’s priests. I’d the Nephites saw themselves as the last remaining branch after the destruction of Israel, they may have seen parallels between the exile discussed in second Isaiah and their exile away from the land of their inheritance when Nephi led them again into the wilderness, and Zeniff’s people may have seen their return to that land as a fulfillment of the restoration of Zion. If so, that might explain why the priests were so interested in arguing Isaiah with Abinadi.

  35. Clark Goble says:

    Abinadi is so interesting for a variety of reasons. For one we have zero idea of where he came from. For an other it’s worth asking how he had a copy of Isaiah. So many questions of that even though it’s my favorite part of the Book of Mormon. A lot of Abinadi is a kind of priestly battle over the meaning of priest. One can’t help but assume Abinadi is coming from a very different tradition entirely. I tend to read his quotations of Isaiah in light of Alma 12-14 which has some interesting bits of priesthood as understood by one segment of the Nephites.

    This is one of those places where the text more or less demands that a lot more is going on in the background that we just don’t have a clue about.

  36. Really interesting points, Clark. Maybe the record of Zeniff is at least in part a cautionary tale about how things can quickly go south when a given group believes that it is the living embodiment of the fulfillment of prophecy about the restoration of Zion, and favored of God, and with overzealousness, assumes that that means that they are justified by God in everything they do. So much of the later chapters of Alma are about the pride cycle as it applies to material pride. Maybe Zeniff’s record is an example of the pride cycle as applied to religious pride.

  37. Clark Goble says:

    I think that cautionary narrative is definitely an important part of things as is just taking important historical events and drawing theological implications from them on the part of Mormon. It is interesting how Mormon focuses most of his history on a relatively short period from 100 BC – 30 AD. Admittedly we don’t know much of what was on the 116 pages, but it seems clear it wasn’t an Alma length history of Nephi through Benjamin.

  38. re. the OP, I’m fascinated by Jacob’s relationship with Jerusalem…a city he might never have seen. I picture him like that kid in Mad Max who never lived in a world that was any different. He grew up on the wild, right? Traveling all over the world but perhaps interacting with very few people during his lifetime?

  39. Clark Goble says:

    Kyle that’s the exact way I think of him too: Mad Max. LOL. Glad I’m not the only one.

  40. It’s interesting to read the differences in the text versus the KJV while keeping the italicized parts of the KJV text in mind. There were Bibles in the 1820’s that also noted the ships of Tarshish alternative in that particular text. There are a couple possible homeoteleutons / something similar to that in the 1830 equivalent of 2 Nephi 19:4 and 23:8, and some day I hope to search through early Bibles to look for evidence as to which ones could have been used for the BoM translation, since they all differ somewhat in their italicizations, etc. Even though 8 Oct 1829 was written as the purchase date of the Bible used in the Inspired Version translation, and 1 Nephi was being typeset by September (based on the Abner Cole plagiarizations), I still haven’t ruled out that that particular bible could have been used for these Isaiah texts.

  41. Maybe he JS borrowed the bible earlier and finally paid for it when able to at the completion of the BOM printing (all conjecture and speculation ) but seems reasonable to allow someone to borrow a bible when they were going to pay 3k $ for a large printing project…. even si still wouldnt rule out divine direction of using best known sources to get a heavenly point across. Very puzzling for sure.

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