Three Big Controversies Surrounding the Book of Isaiah Getting to Know Joseph Spencer (part 2 of 3)

This is part three of a 3-part conversation with Joe Spencer

Ken Krogue continues his three-part interview with Joeseph Spencer, who explains his view on scholarly controversy surrounding the Book of Isaiah.

Joe: As a philosopher, what strikes me there in Isaiah is that there’s a kind of philosophical edge to him. A philosopher tries to find the general, the very universal, right? The conceptual or the patterns in things and then extract them and say, this has broad significance. Isaiah’s doing that. He’s tracking things happening in history, but then also extracting them from history in a way that you can see their universal applicability or something.

Ken:  Our readers love to hear the exciting stuff, you know, and we were talking just before the show began, of the three main issues that seem to be hot is historical being fulfilled in end times right. Is it about Nephi’s day or our day?

That’s one, the scholars have been debating for years, and you’ve said recently they’ve even moved on, but the big question is, was there one Isaiah?

And if I can summarize, I understand that Isaiah prophesied, and he mentioned Cyrus by name 150 years into the future. And then it happened. So, there’s this big debate. Was there one Isaiah who saw that? Was there a series of Isaiah’s? They call it Deutro-trito Isaiah.

The second big issue, and then throughout Isaiah, there’s this discussion of the suffering servant that was prophesied. Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Joseph Smith talked about him also, and Orson Hyde talked about them. So, something’s going on there.

You’ve mentioned there are a few things, the scholars would you say to those three big mainstream issues that would really be interesting?

Joseph:  Yes. Let me speak to each of them individually if that’s all right.

Controversy #1: Isaiah on End Times vs History of His Day

Joseph: So, for the first one, I think the question of the applicability of Isaiah today, maybe the way to phrase that one, is it something that we trap in the past through historical scholarship or does it have some kinds of ongoing relevance? And in some sense, that’s a question about all of scripture. To the extent that I can find the Book of Mormon and the ruins of Meso-America, that’s beautiful and maybe confirms my faith, but there’s a certain sense in which I’ve trapped it in the past and now I don’t know, why do I care about my ritual.  There is a point at which I want to say no, I want to read the book about me, right?

Ken:  And I have to wonder: would Nephi have gone to the trouble if it was only applicable about then?

Joseph:  Exactly.

Ken:  Would he write it to his descendants?

Joseph:  Precisely. So, I think that’s a really important question about all of scripture. The more we study it historically, the better we will understand it. But we have to be careful to find a balance between historical understanding and losing the text in the past. I don’t think Isaiah was looking at the last days when he wrote his prophecies and so on.

Ken:  How do you feel he was a John, the revelator kind of experience?

Joseph: It’s possible. I’m not going to say he didn’t, but the way that he reads to me is that he has looked laser-focused on his own time. What’s happening in the next century or two or something like that. The book of Isaiah clearly wants to generalize it and universalize it in certain ways. That’s unmistakable though. It took some talking to work through that, but I don’t think he’s trying to describe events in our days in a straightforward way, but Nephi teaches us to read Isaiah that way. So, I don’t want to say at the same time that we shouldn’t read it as about the last days.

Ken:  So, Isaiah might not be in your opinion, but Nephi definitely is pointing us to look at it.

Joseph:  What I want to say is you’d better read Isaiah as about the last days, even if that’s not what he’s talking about. I think this is how we read the Doctrine and Covenants, right? There’s a revelation given to David Whitmer under these circumstances and we all know that, but in Sunday school, no one says, okay, this is only for David. We go, how is this applicable to us? How do we think about ourselves in similar circumstances? And that’s what Nephi is trying to tell us to do with Isaiah. Even if Isaiah is not talking about the last days directly, Nephi says these patterns, these prophecies, they’re applicable.

Ken:  That’s pretty tightly debated, isn’t that. I mean we’re talking to people who swear it is only last days. Others where it’s only historical, but you’re bringing in, well Isaiah historical, but Nephi applying to our day. That’s a different approach.

Joseph:  And what I would say, I’m trying to figure out what the best way to say this is. I mean, the way that most biblical scholars would talk about this is that you have to draw a line between two ways of thinking about a text. You can think about the text as historical.  Or you can think about the text as scriptural. And basically, what I want to say is we should think about Isaiah as both, right? So, a good historian is, frankly, I’m not aware of a single historian who works on the Old Testament things who would say that Isaiah was prophesying of last days.  None of them.

Ken: So, there’s definitely historical.

Joseph:  They would just say, we’re looking at this as a source in history. We’re trying to reconstruct ancient history. There are those who would read it, just as scripture, be in some sense, ignorant of all the history. And they’re going to say, well, of course, this is about the last days, this is what I see here. And I want to say, I think the most responsible approach is to say, there’s history here and the best reconstruction of the history is Isaiah is not thinking of last day stuff. Maybe he is, but he’s not making that obvious if he is, but because it’s also scripture, we claim it as ours. And as a book to be guided by, then we are not only free to but in some sense responsible to read it in light of our own times.

Ken:  Well, that’s helpful. Thank you. Let’s move on to the other two.

Controversy #2: Authorship of the Book of Isaiah

Joseph:  Authorship. The first thing I would say about authorship is that it’s a very old conversation; eighteenth century.  Before the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, this question had already been raised. And the book that really sort of solidified it and got a lot of consensus building and so on was written in 1892 by a scholar named Duhm, (not doom, although some people might feel like that’s appropriate), Bernhard Duhm. But it was a very old hypothesis.

Ken:  Did I summarize it correctly, that it was primarily that debate on Cyrus?

Joseph:  It’s a little bit more complicated than that. I’ll see if I can spell that out a bit. So, this goes even further back. There are people in the medieval period who were pointing out that there are probably more than one book or more than one prophet involved in. The consensus that emerges at the end of the 19th century and then dominates the 20th century is that there are three distinct authors here behind the text, that often get called first Isaiah, second Isaiah, third Isaiah or just Isaiah-deurto and Isaiah-trito. Just fancy ways of saying first, second and third.

Ken: Would they be related?

Joseph: In terms of genealogy, no. In terms of intellectual inheritance, yes.

Ken: So, they would have studied the previous?

Joseph: Right, exactly. People often talk about a kind of Isaiah School of prophecy or something like that. First Isaiah would live in the eighth century, the way we think of the book of Isaiah traditionally. Second Isaiah would live in the sixth century. There’s a debate about whether he would be in Jerusalem or whether he would be in Babylon at the time. And then third Isaiah would actually be later, maybe even into the fifth century after Jews have returned to Jerusalem. That’s the traditional hypothesis.

It’s gotten much more complicated in the last 34 years. And so, when I hear Latter-Day Saint scholars saying something like, well, here’s what the consensus is on authorship, I want to say, you’re 50 years behind. It’s much more complex. I want to be really clear: that’s not to say that most biblical scholars now assume single authorship.  Most don’t. The massive consensus is against unified authorship.

But what’s emerged is I would say two major developments. One is that most of the scholars working on trying to place Isaiah in an ancient context. They look at what they call redaction history. The idea is can we reconstruct the process over several centuries through which this book took its shape, and so they want to say, what can we attribute to an eighth-century figure and then can we figure out at what point people altered the text, edited the text, reorganized its materials, and so on. And that gets really complicated.

There are scholars who have literally deposited a seven or eight-century long process of that taking shape and hundreds of hands involved and so on. There’s a point at which where you have to raise your eyebrows a bit and kind of say from the text alone, you’re reconstructing. That seems a bit fishy, but that’s a major field in Isaiah scholarship. Redaction history has replaced the kind of, can we nail down what’s authentically Isaiah in the eighth century?

The other major development is that there’s been an emergence of interest in what we would probably just call literary readings of Isaiah. And the idea there is to say, can we find themes that run through the whole book that joined the book together, most scholars working on this don’t assume single authorship, but they nonetheless assume that the book as we have it, is a kind of unified whole. So rather than trying to say, oh, there’s first Isaiah and he’s got his project, and second Isaiah is a completely different thing they say, now these are related, and the book is trying to tell us something by the way it’s structured and organized. So yeah, it’s the primary conversation, and Isaiah scholarship has nothing to do with first, second and third Isaiah, or has nothing to do with this debate about whether there is a single author. Almost everyone assumes there are multiple authors.

Ken:  So that debate in scholar’s eyes is already closed.

Joseph:  Largely.

Ken:  Is there anybody who’s not?

Joseph:  Yeah, that’s certainly. Evangelical Christians who work in the biblical studies world, not by any means, all of them, but certainly some of them.

Ken:  They’ve still got the door open?

Joseph:  They do.  And the reason is that they’re committed to biblical inerrancy. The idea that nothing in the Bible could be in any way wrong because this is God’s book, and so they say if it says the book of Isaiah at the beginning, then Isaiah is the author.

Ken:  Where are the Latter-Day Saints on this, the scholars?

Joseph:  There aren’t a lot of Isaiah scholars in the church.  You can count them on one hand.

Ken:   Who are they?

Joseph:  So, Donald Perry is probably the most well-respected scholar, if you will. He’s a very recognizable name in the world of Biblical studies. He doesn’t write and publish from my knowledge of Isaiah.

Ken: A ton of Dead Sea Scroll focus.

Joseph:  Exactly, he does Dead Sea Scrolls. He’s done a lot of work on 1st Samuel. So, he’s done a lot of text history stuff, but yeah, he hasn’t published a lot on Isaiah for a non-Mormon, but he writes a lot on Isaiah for Mormons. So David Barkervoy has written a bit about Isaiah though his specialization is primarily elsewhere in the Bible.

Ken:  I’ve put you on the spot a little bit. Any others just come to mind? The first time we met you, you had a pretty big shelf of not only the LDS, but the whole shelf was full of Isaiah scholars.

Joseph:  There’s no Mormon. I mean people have contributed to the scholarly conversation about Isaiah. Very, very few Latter-day Saints. Maybe one; just not a lot.  And it would be worth, I mean, I really think it’d be an important thing for the latter-day saints to get involved in that conversation.

So in the actual field of Isaiah scholarship, the consensus is multiple authorship. Now can we reconstruct its history? The few who resist tend to be evangelical scholars. And it’s worth saying there are a lot of evangelical scholars who write about Isaiah who is not regarded as good scholars, but there are a couple who insist on single authorship, who is widely regarded as good scholars. John Oswald would be a very good example. So there are a couple of Isaiah scholars out there who are insisting on single authorship and make arguments for single authorship who are not the sort laughed out of the academy. It’s an option. I think it’s an important thing.

It’s regarded as a very conservative option, but it’s an option.

Controversy #3: Who is Isaiah’s Suffering Servant

Ken:  Okay, well that’s helpful. So that’s the second big question. So how about the third one? The servant question.

Joseph:  The servant question, yes.  A lot of scholars have lost interest in that question too. It was also made really important by Bernhard Duhm, the same book in 1892 because in his commentary on Isaiah, he extracted what he called four servant songs from just Isaiah 40 through 55 and said these seem to have had been originally distinct. They seemed to have come from another context and then it had been forced into this text and that started a kind of long, ongoing conversation about the servant. There’s a great deal of scholarship over the course of the 20th century, but the last 20 to 30 years, that conversation has in a lot of ways died down in part because…

Ken:  In the scholarly world.

Joseph:  In the scholarly world, and partly because there was –

Ken:  In our world of here, we’re getting it from all directions.

Joseph:  Yes, it doesn’t surprise me.

Ken:  It seems to be escalating.

Joseph:  And that will be. What happened was there was  a book, a very, very thin little book by  David Klein’s, title was something like, I, He, We, something like something like that, but basically made the argument that trying to figure out who the servant is, misses the point of the book of Isaiah.  If the book of Isaiah wanted you to know who the servant is, it would tell you, and that the way it’s written is trying to do something else. And that shifted attention away from trying to figure out who the servant is, to say, how is this organized literarily, and what is it doing with the servant. And I think the results have been far more fruitful than the debate over who the servant is.  Obviously, Latter-day Saints have something invested because the New Testament’s insists that the servant is Christ and the book of Mormon makes that same move.  Abinadi interprets it that way as well.

Ken:  Yes, Isaiah in Mosiah14.

Joseph:   Yes, exactly. So, the Latter-day Saints tend to have a stake…

Ken:  Who are the candidates? So, Christ, in fact, that was written into the scripture headings.  The Messiah.  And then we’re hearing Joseph Smith, we’re hearing John the Revelator. We’ve heard John the Revelator. We’re hearing that it’s some descendant of David; Davidic bloodlines still to come that we don’t know.  We’ve had the arguments made by LDS scholars that it’s a composite of the book of Mormon, that it’s not a person, it’s a book.  Israel, literally the state of Israel says it means Israel. It’s a composite of a group of people. And we went back through some of the literature, some of the latter-day saint literature and when David O. McKay was the prophet, everyone’s swore up and said he was David.  He was a prophet, you know, and so we were 8 different… and they’re still being debated, and it seems like they’re escalating.  But you’re not seeing that in your world.

Joseph:  Not in the scholarly world.  I’m trying to decide how blunt I can be about Latter-day Saint’s interpretation.  I’ll decide that in a moment.

Ken:  We believe in radical candor here.

Joseph:  I’ll be candid in a moment.  I’ll speak first about the scholarly world though. In the scholarly world, there are sort of two major options that are discussed.  So obviously there’s the traditional interpretation that it’s Christ. Most scholars today would say no, like the vast majority of scholars.

Ken: They would say text doesn’t support that.

Joseph:  They would just say Isaiah is not looking that far down the road. Christians can read it that way, but that’s a Christian reading, that’s not  Isaiah. Okay. So, the two…

Ken:  This goes back to the sort of the Cyrus idea.  He wasn’t meaning of the future.

Joseph:  Right.  Exactly. So, the two options that usually get discussed in the literature that is, one would be that it’s Israel as a composite.  Not meaning the state of Israel started in 1947 but meaning Israel as the people.  That is by far the most common Jewish interpretation today.

Ken:  Yes, we see that.

Joseph:  And in a lot of ways it makes the most sense of the text, so when it talks about the servants suffering and all these people looking on and say suffering for our sins, Israel says that’s the history of our people.  We’ve suffered for the nations. The other major option, that’s often discussed, is that it’s actually a real literal person in Isaiah’s day, in second Isaiah’s day, right, so someone probably the prophet himself being persecuted for his prophecy. So, Isaiah is the servant.  Probably second Isaiah initially discussed. So those are the two options that get discussed the most. Christians obviously traditionally regard it as Christ. The most traditional Jewish interpretation is that it’s the Messiah although of course, they don’t identify that with Jesus.  So those are the options sort of traditionally.  Latter-day Saints have done a lot of funky things with this. So here, I’ll get candid for a moment. I get so nervous about being so definitive, but, I think a lot of what gets said about the servant being some Davidic figure, etc., etc., is largely nonsense. Not just because I want to be like a good responsible historian and show my scholarly bonafide’s right, but just because it doesn’t make a lot of sense of the text.

Ken:  Can you give an example? Just come up off the top of your head.

Joseph:  There’s nothing within the context of say Isaiah 53 or Isaiah 52: 13 through Isaiah 50: 3,12, which is all one song or one poem. There’s nothing there that suggests that what we’re dealing with is a royal figure. There’s nothing there that decides that it should be of the lineage of David at all. You have to have some sort of systematic reading of the whole of the book of Isaiah and it forces things to mean certain things. And I’m just really highly skeptical of those kinds of readings.  They seem to make a lot of leaps and not use a lot of evidence. And, I want solid evidence that this is the best way.

Ken:  I was just at a conference three, four weeks ago where that was the main thesis of three of the seminars. It was Joseph Smith.

Joseph:  And that’s a very traditional reading of 3 Nephi 20 and 21, right.  So 3 Nephi, 20 and 21 there, Christ takes  Isaiah 52 and the very last verses where It talks about the servant.  And he talks about this being the figure who was going to be marred but then healed and he’s clearly talking about the context of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. And so, this sort of automatic or the easiest reading of that passage is that there Jesus is applying the certain passages to Joseph Smith. So that’s a very traditional interpretation. You go back over commentaries, I think Elder McConkie says that and so on. Right? So, that’s a very traditional latter-day saint interpretation of 3 Nephi, 20 and 21. Is that what Isaiah himself is talking about?

Again, I would say no. I think Isaiah is talking about his own time and Nephi, and Christ and the Book of Mormon and saying yes, but reapply this. And so, I don’t think Christ is there saying that’s what Isaiah was talking about. He’s saying you can use those there to think about the events of the restoration and so on. I think the better reading of 3 Nephi 20 and 21 is the one that was worked out by Gaye Strathearn and Jacob Moody in a paper that was published in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. They argue that it’s not talking about Joseph Smith. It’s talking about the Book of Mormon itself. And you mentioned this is a possibility.

Ken:  Yes, that one’s resurfaced quite a bit.

Joseph: I think that’s the best reading of the text. The word Christ is reapplying the servant to, the servant passages to…is not Joseph Smith, but the book of Mormon. It’s going to be marred and it’s going to be healed through the loss of lost manuscript. And then through the replacement with the small plates. So that’s another possibility, but other than the scholarly world, this is not…. I mean, these are not options they’re talking about at all for obvious reasons, right? They’re not going, could this be Joseph Smith, or could this be the book of Mormon?

From where I’m sitting, I would say Isaiah’s own discussion of the servant,  I think the richest interpretation, the richest work going on, is this stuff going on in the scholarly world, saying stop trying to identify what’s Isaiah doing with the servant, how do we reconstruct the role he’s playing, first. And then second, we can say how does Christ reapply it in the Book of Mormon and there, I think the best reading is, he’s applying it to the Book of Mormon itself.

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I am a retiree from Scouting. There I blogged for, a site with more than 250,000 readers. During 42 years in the workplace, I've had many years senior level management with the BSA, professional associations, and high tech user groups. My background includes capital fundraising; outdoor adventure program development; property and construction management; event/conference planning; risk management and safety; lobbying federal, state and local government agencies; public relations; strategic planning; member advocacy and staff/volunteer training. Along the way, I have also taught Gospel Doctrine Classes and been both the ward and stake Sunday School President. In these settings, I have seen teachers and class members minimize Isaiah, a book Christ has commanded us to "search diligently." (3 Ne 23:1) With that in mind, I will do my best to explore and post my discoveries about the book of Isaiah. I am not a Bible scholar; like you, I read Isaiah in the Old Testament cycle of study in LDS Gospel Doctrine Classes and again in the Book of Mormon Cycle, so this is a whole new scripture adventure for me.


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