Biblical Criticism & Isaiah in the Book of Mormon

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I do not like the expression Biblical Criticism as it may appear as an attack on sorts on the Bible, so I prefer the expression Biblical Text Evaluation. We will here introduce the topic of Biblical Text Evaluation and of the specific issue of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon. I want to say, at the outset, that I know the Book of Mormon to be the word of God; that I know that Joseph Smith translated the text through the power of the Holy Ghost, regardless of what additional tools may have been available to him; and that I know that Jesus is the Christ, our beloved Redeemer.

Certainly, there are individuals who have set out to diminish testimonies and plant the seeds of doubt. I hope this article will do the very opposite.

The field of Biblical Text Evaluation or is often divided into (1) lower criticism or textual criticism (we will prefer the latter term) and (2) higher criticism or literary criticism. In these contexts, the word criticism means analysis or evaluation (as compared to censure and disapproval).

Textual criticism is the attempt to determine what the original Scriptures (also called an autograph) may have looked like. No autograph of any portion of the Bible exists today. Not a single one. Instead, we have copies of copies of copies, etc. These copies are corruptions of the original autographs.

The one autograph that exists and has not deteriorated, is that of the Book of Mormon, and the Lord required that the Prophet Joseph Smith return that to the Angel Moroni for a wise purpose. What is that wise purpose? That we might turn our hearts and minds to God. That we may seek Him for answers.

The Prophet Joseph Smith explained: “I believe the Bible as it read when it came from the pen of the original writers. Ignorant translators, careless transcribers, or designing and corrupt priests have committed many errors” (History of the Church 6:57.),”

The textual critic is interested in comparing ancient manuscripts or textual variants in an effort to improve the text, through such ancient resources as the Masoretic text (𝕸), Syriac (𝔖) and Peshitta (𝔖), Targum (𝔗), LXX (𝔊), Vulgate (𝔙), and Dead Sea Scrolls (DSSB) (𝔔). Such records are not composed of a single representative text, but of multiple sources or variants.

My own interest in textual criticism is not so much to reconstruct the original text, I will be forever indebted to the Inspired Version for that, but to find proofs of the corrections made by the Prophet Joseph Smith as well as proofs that indeed the best of scholarship can only come to the same conclusions than those of the prophet, namely, that without the originals we are merely guessing as to what those autographs may have looked like.

The Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price are priceless sources of more accurate texts. For instance, on of my favorite scriptures is: “And one shall say unto him, What are these wounds in thine hands? Then he shall answer, Those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends” (Zechariah 13:6).

Almost without exception, modern translations have made every attempt to erase the Messianic meaning of this verse, and to erase the allusion to the atonement, and have twisted it beyond recognition. In another article we will look at the Hebrew and explain in more detail why this verse has been correctly translated in the King James Version, but for now we will just be grateful that the correct version was captured in the Doctrine and Covenants:

“Then shall they know that I am the Lord; for I will say unto them: These wounds are the wounds with which I was wounded in the house of my friends. I am he who was lifted up. I am Jesus that was crucified. I am the Son of God” (D&C 45:52).

Ignorant translators, careless transcribers, or designing and corrupt priests

If someone wished to come to a better understanding of what the Prophet Joseph Smith meant regarding the flawed transmission of the Biblical text, I would recommend Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible by Emanuel Tov (Judah Leon Magnes[1] Professor of Bible at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem). I also commend Invitation to the Septuagint by Karen H. Jobes and Moisés Silva, for a book focused on the LXX (𝔊).

Emanuel Tov well says about textual criticism: “This procedure is subjective as subjective can be … In modern times, scholars are often reluctant to admit the subjective nature of textual evaluation, so that an attempt is often made, conscious or unconscious, to create a level of artificial objectivity by the frequent application of abstract rules” (2nd Edition, p. 310). Elsewhere he notes that “textual traditions have all been influenced by abstract assumptions and prejudices” (2nd Edition, p. 181). Tov speaks extensively about textual corruptions, false conclusions, dogmatic approaches, subjective opinions and the like.

Much scholarship is affected by personal opinion. We simply cannot get away from bias in translating or analyzing Scripture, any more than we can in conducting most scholarly work.

Higher criticism

In contrast to textual criticism, higher criticism deals with the authenticity, inspiration and genuineness of these Biblical texts. Some higher critics, though not of our faith, are faithful believers in God and strong advocates for the divinity of Jesus Christ and the inspiration of Scripture. I have a large collection of such books and love reading them.

There are other higher critics—often wolves in sheep’s clothing—that do not believe that God reveals Himself to humans—not now, not formerly, not ever. What is worrisome is that their theories are making their way into the homes of Christian families and even into the hearts of some members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

When it comes specifically to Isaiah, I have gained much from books written from multiple perspectives.

There is safety in holding on to the Standard Works and the words of our Prophets, Seers, and Revelators—that is my bias. Always pay attention to what the Prophet, the First Presidency, and the Quorum of the Twelve have to teach us. Never cease to call upon God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Jesus Christ, pouring out our questions and letting Him know of our desire to learn. And remember, some things we not know now: “Yea, verily I say unto you, in that day when the Lord shall come, he shall reveal all things—Things which have passed, and hidden things which no man knew, things of the earth, by which it was made, and the purpose and the end thereof” (D&C 101:32–33).

I have made every effort to make my articles on Isaiah’s teachings uplifting, faith-promoting experiences. But there is much I have to learn. We can learn together.

Isaiah in the Book of Mormon

In 1903 President Joseph F. Smith received an inquiry as to why there were portions of the Isaiah chapters in the Book of Mormon that were identical to those in the King James Version. The letter came from a Mr. H. Chamberlain, of Spencer, Iowa. Chamberlain noticed that even the words “supplied by the translators” were included in the KJV. In the Gathering of Israel article series, we review the fact that italics in the Authorized Version stand for ellipses, that is, words or expressions not found in the Hebrew text but that are supplied by the translators to help us understand the Bible. Chamberlain rightly points out that it is unimaginable for two translators of the same text to coincide perfectly with each other—and even more improbable when we are dealing with different text sources (i.e., the Book of Mormon plates vs. the Masoretic text (𝔐). Chamberlain fittingly maintains that the only way that this could be so was if the Prophet Joseph Smith made use of the KJV in translating the Book of Mormon.

President Joseph F. Smith delegated the task of answering Mr. H. Chamberlain’s concerns to Elder B. H. Roberts who agreed with Chamberlain’s concerns and deductions. Elder Roberts responded in part: “while Joseph Smith obtained the facts and ideas from the Nephite characters through the inspiration of God, he was left to express those facts and ideas, in the main, in such language as he could command; and when he found that parts of the Nephite record closely paralleled passages in the Bible, and being conscious that the language of our English Bible was superior to his own, he adopted it, except for those differences indicated in the Nephite original which here and there make the Book of Mormon passages superior in sense and clearness. Of course, I recognize the fact that this is but a conjecture …”[2]

Dr. Sidney B. Sperry likewise wrote: “There are 433 verses of Isaiah in the Nephite record. Of these, 234 verses were changed or modified by the Prophet Joseph Smith so that they do not conform with the King James version. Some of the changes made were slight, others were radical. However, 199 verses are word for word the same as the old English version. We therefore freely admit that Joseph Smith used the King James version when he came to the text of Isaiah on the gold plates. As long as the familiar version substantially agreed with the text on the gold plates record he let it pass; when it differed too much, he translated the Nephite version and dictated the necessary changes.”[3]

Dr. Sperry elsewhere elucidated: “When Joseph Smith came to these quotations he very wisely followed the King James Version except in points where the record before him differed sufficiently, whereupon he made the appropriate changes to conform to the ancient version. The fact that he made changes is in itself quite remarkable. No real evidence exists that he had at that time been expertly taught about textual criticism and the history of the Bible text. My own experience has been that very few intelligent people in the Church even today recognize fully the implications that follow from the presence of Isaiah texts in the Book of Mormon. Any Bible scholar knows the text followed by the King James Version contained corruptions.”[4] Brother Sperry goes on to give numerous examples of how the Prophet Joseph Smith’s translation is supported either by other ancient manuscripts or by more literal translations. As we study Isaiah together, we will note some of the discoveries I have made that give support to the Prophet Joseph Smith’s translation.

BYU Professor Daniel H. Ludlow, one of the LDS giants among the scholars, also explained: “When Joseph Smith translated the Isaiah references from the small plates of Nephi, he evidently opened his King James Version of the Bible and compared the impression he had received in translating with the words of the King James scholars. If his translation was essentially the same as that of the King James Version, he apparently quoted the verse from the Bible; then his scribe, Oliver Cowdery, copied it down. However, if Joseph Smith’s translation did not agree precisely with that of the King James scholars, he would dictate his own translation to the scribe. This procedure in translation would account for both the 234 verses of Isaiah that were changed or modified by the Prophet Joseph and the 199 verses that were translated word-for-word the same. Although some critics might question this procedure of translation, scholars today frequently use this same procedure in translating the biblical manuscripts among the Dead Sea Scrolls.”[5]

This is exactly how most new translations are carried out. The interpreter compares the original text to the available translations. As I write this article I have been working on the Aramaic Targums on the book of Zechariah. There were two main scholarly translations of that text into English: The Aramaic Bible (Volume 14, Minor Prophets, Kevin J. Cathcart and Robert P. Gordon) translation of Zechariah and the translation of Zechariah by Dr. Jerome Lund (part of the Targum Onqelos, Jonathan and the Writings project), both of them frequently identical.

This is how our own LDS Spanish Reina Valera 2009 version was translated. The same technique was also clearly used by the Authorized Version translators as they compared the text of previous Bibles to the Hebrew.

So, as we embark in the study of Isaiah, keep in mind that we do not always have the original text available to us. And that is OK. The Dead Sea Scrolls, for instance, show that the changes from the Masoretic text have not been very large, compared to those of the Qumran findings. Sometimes the little details, however, will be of vital importance. We will try and point out where the ancient records or the revealed records of the restored Church give weight to a particular translation.

Notes

[1] My great grandmother’s sister (or great grandaunt) on my Jewish side of the family, Beatrice Lowenstein, was the wife of Judah Magnes. See both 2nd and 3rd editions of Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, 2001, 2012, respectively.

[2] B. H. Roberts, Defense of the Faith and the Saints, 2 vols., 1:269–274.

[3] Dr. Sidney B. Sperry, The “Isaiah Problem” in the Book of Mormon  by Dr. Sidney B. Sperry), Improvement Era 1939-1

[4] Sidney B. Sperry, Evidence of Translation: Comparison with Ancient Versions, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 4/1 (Spring 1995): 211–14.

[5] Daniel H. Ludlow, A Companion to Your Study of the Book of Mormon, p.141.

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Gregorio Billikopf belongs to the Llanquihue Branch, Puerto Montt Stake, in the south of Chile. He is the author of Isaiah Testifies of Christ and an emeritus academic of the University of California and professor of the University of Chile; author of Party-Directed Mediation: Facilitating Dialogue between Individuals and other books. Gregorio’s paternal grandparents are Lithuanian Jews and German Jews and on his mother’s side of the family he is Chilean. He found Christ through reading the Book of Mormon. You may contact him through bielikov2@yahoo.cl.

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