Can We Prove Who Wrote the Book of Isaiah? Part 3: Controversial Issues in the Book of Isaiah

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These days, the answer to this question troubles many Millennials who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but computer assisted word-printing analysis or stylometry may help answer this question. But why is this a concern?

Questions come for the acceptance of the Deutro-Trito Isaiah theory so universal among Bible scholars. In their arguments, these scholars suggest the last third of the book of Isaiah, including chapters 48–54 which are quoted by Nephi, Jacob, Abinidai and even the Savior Himself, which were written after Lehi’s departure. For some this makes the Book of Mormon’s believability come into question, at least in the areas of the book that quote Isaiah.

In both Part 1 and Part 2 of this series of “Controversial Issues in the Book of Isaiah,” we have explained the theory of multiple authorship of Isaiah’s book in the Bible. In their argument for multiple authors, critical Bible scholars see the book of Isaiah in its present state as something that is not the product of one author but of two, three, or perhaps more.

Yet “in an unpublished dissertation at the University of Chicago, Mrs. Judith Reinken has made a vocabulary study according to modern statistical methods which simply does not support the thesis of different authorship; nor does it support the thesis of unity of authorship. This is to say that the vocabulary alone is not decisive. Nor is the style alone any more decisive.”This points to the fact that not all scholars are behind the Deutro-Trito theory, but most are.

This could be bewildering for some Church members, even those with a testimony of the Book of Mormon. So several Church scholars have set out to prove the unity of Isaiah using computer-assisted word-printing analysis.

In “Multiple Isaiah Theory and Stylometry” which we posted last Spring, Dr. Paul Fields, who has conducted extensive studies using stylometry wrote, “It is important to realize that none of the studies can establish that there was more than one writer of the text.  Although there is evidence of more than one writing style in the text, factors other than the identity of the author must be considered.

“More than one style does not necessarily indicate multiple ‘hands hold the pen.’  The same author can express himself or herself differently when writing at different times, to different audiences, on different topics, or for different purposes.  So, the presence of multiple writing styles cannot be asserted as indicating multiple people as authors of a text.”

Prior to the use of computers, which now allow for exacting stylometric studies, word-printing was a tedious way to analyze the authorship of manuscripts. John Hilton explained word-printing or stylometry as it is referred these days, as a science that examines word patterns “that, when properly done, …is an accurate, objective tool for measuring which authors did not write large documents.” This process has been used to prove who wrote the Federalist Papers and Shakespeare. But in reverse, it can also show a cohesiveness in authorship.2

The earliest computer-assisted word-prints of the Book of Mormon began at BYU in 1970, but since then there have been multiple studies both by Church members and others to explore authorship of the book. Along the way, Isaiah was included in some of those studies.

Wordprinting Isaiah in the Book of Mormon

Hilton clarified that “word-printing is based on what appears to be a normal human phenomenon.” Where when we speak naturally or “write… each of us uses a different set of noncontextual words, such as and, the, of, in, that, with, and so on. The rest of our vocabulary is heavily influenced by context… But our use of these noncontextual words remains relatively constant as the need to quote another person or to fit our words into a formal structure like poetry. These personal free flow writing patterns of using contextual words tend to be stable throughout a person’s life.”

However, he continues: “Isaiah’s writings contain a large amount of poetry, they also contain extensive quotations from the word of the Lord. Once again, this constraint on the writer’s free choice of words presumably weakens the pattern of noncontextual word choices that usually creates a recognizable personal word print. Together, the quotations and poetry constitute nearly 85 percent of the book of Isaiah, making successful word-printing difficult.”

Nonetheless, he concludes, “The present word-prints of the biblical text of Isaiah indicate a slight distinction between the first and second halves of the text.” However, that shift does not occur at chapter 40, but begins, “ten chapters earlier than is expected by their theory. The shift does make it seem likely that at some time during the text’s transmission, more than one editor, or nonliteral translator, or poet, or additional writer contributed to the extant text. But at the present time, we cannot say more than that, based on the word-printing evidence.”3

Wayne A. Larsen and Alvin C. Rencher used word-print analysis to study the Book of Mormon to prove that it had many authors. But they state that “in an analysis of word-print in the Book of Isaiah… Although virtually all the higher critics believe Isaiah is the product of two or more distinct authors, the Adams and Rencher work pointed to a unity of the Book of Isaiah. In fact, it showed a greater internal consistency for Isaiah than any other Old Testament book of that approximate time period.”

In Appendix D of that same report, Larsen and Rencher reported their findings on “the unity of Isaiah. Many present-day Bible scholars accept the theory that there were at least two authors of the Book of Isaiah. The principal divisions are chapters 1–39 and 40–66. We compared these two using word frequencies for the portions available in the Book of Mormon. Although we ran this test four times, we could get no significant results. This means we were unable to detect any statistical difference which would support the theory that Isaiah has more than one author.”5

Of course, this sampling was from the Book of Mormon, so it only included one-third of Isaiah’s chapters. They cautioned that “the tests on Isaiah… involved much smaller sample sizes than the tests on the book as a whole; therefore statistical differences would be harder to find, even if there were a real difference.”6

In Isaiah and the Prophets: Inspired Voices from the Old Testament, Adams wrote “A Scientific Analysis of Isaiah Authorship,” where he concluded that “the statistical results in this study do not support the divisionists’ claim that little or no evidence exists for unity of the book of Isaiah. To the contrary, the results strongly support single authorship of the book. …The book of Isaiah also exhibited greater internal consistency than any of the other books [of the Old Testament] when authorship style was analyzed.

“These results do not exclude the possibility that minor changes in the text have been made by scribes and editors since the time of its origin. However, the evidence indicates that in spite of such possible changes, an overall style has been retained… The results of this research bear witness that the book of Isaiah has a literary unity characteristic of a single author. These results, therefore, confirm the claims made in the Book of Mormon and the New Testament by later prophets and by the Savior that Isaiah was the author of the book bearing his name.”7

Other Wordprinting studies of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon

I feel that Kent Jackson sums this up best when he wrote:

“Latter-day Saints, who accept the evidence from the Book of Mormon and believe that prophets can write to future generations, should have no difficulty accepting the essential unity of the book of Isaiah as the product of Isaiah son of Amoz from the eighth century B.C. Yet many interesting questions about it remain to be answered.

“The noted Old Testament scholar W. F. Albright pointed out that the prophetic books are not books but ‘anthologies of oracles and sermons.This description certainly fits the book of Isaiah. Like the Bible itself, it is not a book but a collection. And, as with the Bible itself, the circumstances under which it was written and compiled are not clearly known. Did Isaiah record his prophecies himself, or did he dictate them to scribes? If they were dictated, was Isaiah responsible for their final poetic structure, or were others? Did Isaiah gather and compile the revelations himself, or did others do it? Were they collected in his lifetime, or later? Were they edited or reworded by later scribes? Though the answers to these questions are not critical for our understanding of Isaiah’s message, they may explain such things as changes in emphasis, organization, and literary style of the revelations that make up the book of Isaiah.”

Click here to see  Part 1 Click here to see  Part 2

Reported in FairMormon without citation in Deutero-Isaiah in the Book of Mormon?
John L. Hilton, New Developments in Book of Mormon Research, Ensign, February 1988
3 John Hilton, “Word Printing Isaiah and the Book of Mormon”, Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, Deseret Book and FARMS, pp. 4394–43
Adams and Rencher, “The Popular Critical View of the Isaiah Problem,” 149–57; Adams and Rencher, “A Computer Analysis of the Isaiah Authorship Problem,” 95–102.
Ibid.
Ibid.
L. La Mar Adams, A Scientific Analysis of Isaiah Authorship, in Isaiah and the Prophets: Inspired Voices from the Old Testament, Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1984), 151–64.
Kent Jackson, Authorship of the Book of Isaiah, Studies in Scripture, vol. 4: 1 Kings to Malachi, Deseret Book, p. 11

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I am a retiree from Scouting. There I blogged for VoiceOfScouting.org, 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.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Writing styles and word-printing studies are so complex: Did Moses really write the Book of Genesis? Did the apostle, John the Beloved, really pen the Revelation of Jesus Christ? Did Joseph Smith Jr. really write all save a few of the sections of the Doctrine and Covenants we have today? All of these writings are so diversified from the main body of each individual’s writings it could be said that we need to doubt authorship of these prophets. All of these writings and a few others have a different style, flavor, context than the main body of their writings. Over the 40+years I have been keeping a journal and writings of promptings, feelings, thoughts I receive my writing has changed very much. So who do we believe? Easy, the Lord, Jesus Christ, through a prophet of God. They will never, ever lead us astray.

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