2 Nephi 25-33
If you just read the words, you would think that Nephi was a huge fan of Isaiah—”great are the words of . . .” and all that. And Nephi certainly quotes plenty of Isaiah’s words to show just how great they are. But if we look a little bit closer, we can see Nephi doing everything possible NOT to be like Isaiah in his own writing. Nephi “glories in plainness.” Isaiah, not so much.
As soon as he finishes quoting Isaiah, Nephi starts to compare himself, quite favorably, to his prophetic predecessor. “Isaiah spoke many things which were hard for many of my people to understand,” he writes, “for they know not concerning the manner of prophesying among the Jews.” And rather than blaming his people for their ignorance, he acknowledges that he doesn’t want them to understand how Jews prophesy. “I, Nephi, have not taught them many things concerning the manner of the Jews;” he writes, “for their works were of darkness, and their doings were of abominations.” (2 Ne 25:1-2).
Let’s pause for a minute to see just what Nephi is saying here. Immediately after quoting twelve full chapters of Isaiah, Nephi turns around and makes three remarkable points: 1) most of his people won’t understand what Isaiah is saying because they don’t understand how Jewish prophecy works; 2) they don’t understand Jewish prophecy because Nephi made a conscious decision not to teach them anything about it; and 3) He didn’t teach them anything about Jewish prophecy because he thought that this manner of writing was implicated in “works of darkness” and “abominations.”
It sounds like Nephi is saying something like, “Isaiah has some good stuff to say, but only if you read it right. Otherwise, all that obscure mumbo jumbo can be dangerous. And rather than teach you how to read it, I am going to say what Isaiah would have said if he were a straight-talking, plain-speaker like me.” Only he says it like this:
Wherefore hearken, O my people, which are of the House of Israel, and give ear unto my words: for because that the words of Isaiah are not plain unto you, nevertheless they are plain unto all they that are filled with the spirit of prophecy. But I give unto you a prophecy, according to the spirit which is in me; wherefore I shall prophesy according to the plainness which hath been with me from the time that I came out from Jerusalem with my father . . . for I came out from Jerusalem, and mine eyes hath beheld the things of the Jews, and I know that the Jews do understand the things of the Prophets, and there is none other people that understand the things which were spoken unto the Jews, like unto them, save it be that they are taught after the manner of the things of the Jews. But behold, I Nephi, have not taught my children after the manner of the Jews. (2 Ne. 25: 5-6)
And Nephi goes on to make the kinds of clear and specific prophecies that appear nowhere in the Old Testament. He announces the exact time that the Messiah will be born, what his name will be, and that he will in fact be the Son of God (2 Ne. 25: 19). As Nephi presents it, anybody who really reads Isaiah with the spirit of prophecy will be able to draw all of this out. But that would require knowing something about Jewish writing, which is too dangerous to teach his people. So he just tells it like it is (or, rather, like it is going to be).
And then Nephi gets plain and precious about a lot of other things too. In the closing chapters of his narrative, he gives specific rulings on several of the main religious issues of the 19th century American frontier, such as universal salvation (2 Ne. 28: 6-9), the closed scriptural canon (2 Ne. 29:1-8), the gathering of the Lost Tribes (2 Ne. 29: 12-14), and the necessity of baptism for salvation (2 Ne. 31: 1-12). It’s like he knows just what we want to hear.
Since the very beginning of the Restoration movement, the specificity with which Nephi represents both the life of Christ and the religious context of 19th century America has been used as strong evidence of the Book of Mormon’s 19th century origin. In his famous review of the Book of Mormon, for example, Alexander Campbell remarks,
This prophet Smith, through his stone spectacles, wrote on the plates of Nephi, in his book of Mormon, every error and almost every truth discussed in N. York for the last ten years. He decides all the great controversies – infant baptism, ordination, the trinity, regeneration, repentance, justification, the fall of man, the atonement, transubstantiation, fasting, penance, church government, religious experience, the call to the ministry, the general resurrection, eternal punishment, who may baptize, and even the question of freemasonry, republican government, and the rights of man. All these topics are repeatedly alluded to. How much more benevolent and intelligent this American Apostle, than were the holy twelve, and Paul to assist them!!! He prophesied of all these topics, and of the apostacy [sic.], and infallibly decided, by his authority, every question. How easy to prophecy of the past or of the present time!!
Before accepting this argument completely, though, we should at least consider that the foreknowledge that the Book of Mormon attributes to Nephi is no greater or more anachronistic than the foreknowledge that Campbell himself—and most other Christians of the past 2000 years—attributed to Isaiah and other Old Testament prophets.
Those prophets, according to the standard Christian argument, had a sweeping understanding of the future. They knew that the Messiah would come in the form of a baby born in Jerusalem and that his ministry would be spiritual and not political. They knew that a Christian Church would be formed and would eventually cover the earth. And they knew that Christ would die, be resurrected, and the return again in the last days after a very specific set of events that they detailed. Anyone who really reads the Old Testament (so the argument goes) should be able to work all of this out.
The Christian tradition accepts unproblematically that Ancient Hebrew prophets had a full knowledge of the future and, for their own particular reasons, chose to communicate it in the form of vague types and confusing metaphors—and by choosing to live their lives as anticipatory symbols of the coming Messiah. Nephi believed this too, but he believed it with reservations. And he made a conscious choice not to hold his posterity responsible for Isaiah’s words alone. He created a cheat sheet so that everybody could follow along.
I understand that this cannot be used to prove anything about the ancient origin of the Book of Mormon. Prophecies about things that have already happened are certainly not inconsistent with a 19th century provenance. But it is not a slam dunk. The Book of Mormon claims that an ancient prophet named Nephi explained clearly a lot of things that (according to most Christians) the prophets of the Old Testament explained unclearly. To see this as inherent proof of a modern origin, we would have to accept the argument that prophets are inherently bad writers—or that one whose “soul delighteth in plainness” has no business speaking for the Lord.