What About the Isaiah Problem in the Book of Mormon? Part 2: Controversial Issues in the Book of Isaiah

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Nearly all academics, even some in the Church, doubt that Book of Isaiah comes from one prophet and maybe not even from God. They date the last third of the Book of Isaiah to the 6th century BC nearly 200 years after Isaiah’s death and after Lehi’s family left Jerusalem with the brass plates—that is the “Isaiah Problem,” as it is called, in the Book of Mormon.

“If the author of the latter part [of Isaiah] were another prophet, who was contemporary and lived among the people whom he consoled, how can it possibly be believed that his name would be entirely forgotten? Isaiah ben Amoz who lived centuries before the Exile was well remembered and details of his life recorded. Furthermore it is indeed strange that Isaiah ben Amoz who denounced the people and whose message was certainly not welcome at the time should be remembered and his writings preserved but the name of this supposed Second Isaiah who preached a message of consolation whose message must have been quite welcome should be forgotten and, indeed, so completely forgotten that we do not even know his name. (Freehof, Isaiah, pp. 199-200. 

If Chapters 40–66 were not compiled or written until after Lehi’s family left for the Americas, then what is it doing in Mosiah, First, Second and Third Nephi? Nephi quotes from Isaiah chapters 48-49, his brother Jacob quotes from Isaiah 50–51, Abinadi quotes from Isaiah 53 in Mosiah 14, and the Savior quotes Isaiah 52 and 54 in 3 Nephi. Of course, if the Book of Isaiah only made it to Proto-Isaiah (Chapters 1-39), Lehi would not have had those final chapters on the Brass Plates, making it impossible to quote from.

Most Church members see the Book of Mormon as evidence of unity in Isaiah, for them the discussion is mute. But those same Church members may not immediately see the “Isaiah problem,” as it is called. And though members of the Church may not question the authorship of Isaiah, enemies of the Church do. The bottom line for these folks is that at least seven chapters of the Isaiah shouldn’t show up in the Book of Mormon.

Church Leaders and the “Isaiah Problem”

This debate goes back a long time with church leaders and scholars defending Isaiah in the Book of Mormon. During the last century, as the theory of Deutro-trio Isaiah became popular, several apostles addressed the problem.

B. H. Roberts, who was President of the First Seven Presidents of the Seventy in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1888 until his death in 1933, wrote about this issue twice in the Improvement Era.1  In June 1911, he wrote:

“It is insisted that there are two Isaiah’s instead of one. Some Isaian critics …think they can trace …seven different authors in Isaiah. But generally is represented that there are at least two, and perhaps more—but two at least; that first Isaiah it was the prophet himself …is the author the first 39 chapters of Isaiah; but from chapter 40 to 66, is written by other authors, and, …that this portion of Isaiah was not written until some 50 years, at least, after Lehi left Jerusalem.”

Roberts then cites three common positions of the time. First, is that scholars who accept the theory “dismiss the miraculous” nature of prophecy, which we as Church members do. Second, that though Isaiah’s literary style shifts beginning with chapter 40, this is likely a function of his long period of service as Judah’s prophet. Third, that the theological messages of Isaiah change beginning in chapter 40, and this because, as Roberts calls it, is “the more important part of the book; it is the Messianic part of the prophecy.”

Elder James E. Talmage speaking in April conference in 1929,  said:

“It has been declared and proclaimed by a certain school Bible students, commentators, and scholars, that book of Isaiah was written not entirely by Isaiah the Prophet, …but that book is the work of at least two men, and perhaps of many …who lived somewhere near the end of the Babylonian captivity or exile, fully a century after the death of Isaiah…

“Such is the speculation concerning the duality of authorship in that book; but, once started, these learned investigators have undertaken to dissect in Isaiah …to the extent of denying his authorship other parts of chapters, and of certain verses from the rest.

“… my testimony as to the genuineness of the book of Mormon is sufficient to set at rights with me any question as to the authorship of the book of Isaiah.”2 

Talmage went on to explain how he recalled the German school of theologians who put forth the “positive and emphatic denial of the unity of the Book of Isaiah.” To which he replied, “Why trouble yourselves about the matter? I know that claim is false …for I have received the testimony promised by the Lord through the prophet Moroni concerning the integrity and genuineness of the Book of Mormon.” Then he explained how the Brass Plates of Laban taken to the Americas by Lehi’s family contains word for word transcriptions from Isaiah. He stated because of this, “the entire Book of Isaiah must have been in existence” at the time Lehi’s family left Jerusalem in 600 BC. Then he pointed to the words of Jesus while visiting the Americas after his death as a “higher authority.” Then he said, “Take the words of the Lord Jesus Christ himself when he appeared as a resurrected being amongst the Nephites. In preach to them, he quoted one entire chapter of Isaiah… I repeat, Jesus Christ quoted to the Nephites almost word for word what we now know as the fifty-fourth chapter of his book.”3 

Elder Bruce R. McConkie writing for the Ensign in October 1973 stated:

“Isaiah’s writings, in an even more perfect form than found in our Bible, were preserved on the brass plates, and from this source, the Nephite prophets quoted 414 verses and paraphrased at least another 34. …the Book of Mormon prophets interpreted the passages they used, with the result that this volume of latter-day scripture becomes the witness for and the revealer of the truths of this chief book of Old Testament prophecies. The Book of Mormon is the world’s greatest commentary on the book of Isaiah.

“And may I be so bold as to affirm that no one, absolutely no one, in this age and dispensation has or does or can understand the writings of Isaiah until he first learns and believes what God has revealed by the mouths of his Nephite witnesses as these truths …the saints of God know thereby that the sectarian speculations relative to Deutero-Isaiah and others being partial authors of the book of Isaiah are like the rest of the vagaries to which the intellectuals in and out of the Church give their misplaced allegiance.”4 

Church Scholars and the “Isaiah Problem”

In Since Cumorah, Hugh Nibley wrote,”…our immediate concern is not with the unity of Isaiah but with the dating of the Deutero-Isaiah since the charge against the Book of Mormon is that it quotes from that work, which did not exist at the time Lehi left Jerusalem. The dating of Deutero-Isaiah rests on three things:

  1. The mention of Cyrus (Isaiah 44:28), who lived 200 years after Isaiah and long after Lehi;
  2. The threats against Babylon (Isaiah 47:1, 48:14), which became the oppressor of Judah after the days of Isaiah; and
  3. The general language and setting of the text, which suggests a historical background commonly associated with a later period than that of Isaiah.

“The late date of Deutero-Isaiah is one of those things that have been taken for granted by everybody for years so that today it would be hard to find a scholar who could really explain it and impossible to find one who could prove it.”5  Naturally, he goes on to refute each item he listed, but his statement above was written 30 years ago.

In all the above it is clear to see that text-critical Bible scholars would agree that chapters 40–66 compiled, written or edited after the time Lehi’s family has left Jerusalem. This becomes problematic for those scholars who believe those chapters were written after the destruction of Jerusalem and the resulting Babylonian captivity because much of Isaiah 48–54 is found in the Book of Mormon, well after their departure.

Most scholars who are members of the Church ultimately resolve the question of authorship by accepting the scriptures for what they are. Among these are Victor Ludlow, Sidney Sperry, and Avraham Gileadi, all of whom have advanced arguments based internal unities they find in all sixty-six chapters which we posted in Part 1. 

Other Church scholars who have defended the unity of Isaiah, include John Welch who wrote “Authorship of the Book of Isaiah” which was published in Isaiah in the Book of Mormon. He wrote, “Latter-day Saint scholars have …undertaken the study of many of the unifying characteristics that are indeed demonstrable in the book of Isaiah as it is found in the Bible.

“While these unifying characteristics provide evidence single authorship, at least to the extent that one would usually expect find commonalities throughout any book written by a single author, these unities do not necessarily establish authorship, though they are most easily explained as the result of a single hand.”6

Welch continues by tackling the issues of form, content, and prophetic foreknowledge. He writes, “Any author, working as Isaiah did over long lifetime, might well produce an eclectic book that contains poems, prophecies and narratives. Describing Isaiah as a genius of Hebrew literature he continued, “…it is evident that various sections and chapters of the book of Isaiah were drafted originally as independent prophecies or separate oracles that were eventually gathered together on single scroll”  and that “…some of the stylistic differences between the various parts of Isaiah may be the result of the work of a scribe or collector.”7

Regarding content, Welch points to Kent Jackson‘s “The Authorship of the Book of Isaiah” in 1 Kings to Malachi and Victor Ludlow’s Isaiah: Prophet, Seer, and Poet, then writes that “Isaiah came to understand more about the future during his lengthy prophetic ministry, he naturally adapted his theological ideas to different needs, insights, and circumstances.”8

Moving to prophetic foreknowledge, Welch explained that the argument against the unity in Isaiah, “…is an agreement against the possibility of divine, prophetic inspiration about future historical developments. Some scholars believe that Israelite prophets spoke only to and about their contemporaries. …Other scholars, including Latter-day Saints, however, believe that prophets are not restricted to foretell only a certain portion of the immediate future. God may see fit reveal much more information to his servants than we realize or presently understand.”8

Isaiah’s Authorship is Debated Among Current Church Scholars

The Isaiah Problem in the Book of Mormon
Kent P Jackson, professor of ancient scripture at BYU

To demonstrate the divisive nature of this problem among Church scholars today, let’s compare an essay written by Kent Jackson with some peer responses. In 2016 Jackson wrote “Isaiah in the Book of Mormon,” one of several essays in a series A Reason for Faith, published by Deseret Book. In the paper, he supported the idea of a single author in Isaiah, which backs the Book of Mormon’s inclusion of selected chapters from Isaiah.

The Isaiah Problem in the Book of Mormon
David Bokovoy, online professor at Utah State University in Bible and Jewish Studies

In response to his essay, several scholars wrote counter-points. In his “The Truthfulness of Deutero-Isaiah: A Response to Kent Jackson (part 1) David Bokovoy took the essay apart at Rational Faiths—Keeping Mormonism Weird. His position is that there were multiple authors who wrote Isaiah after Lehi left Jerusalem, making parts of the Book of Mormon problematic since Lehi could not have had those words on the Brass Plates.

Then last month Yakov ben Tov compared his views with Jackson in his “The Isaiah Nephi Could Not Have Known: A Response to Dr. Kent Jackson,” at Faith Promoting Rumor.

I have contrasted some of their views below, which shows the battle lines of the two camps regarding the authorship of the book of Isaiah as has been discussed previously in other posts in this blog:

Point
Counter Point
Jackson points out that, “If the Book of Mormon did not quote from ‘Second’ Isaiah, the discussion of authorship would have little meaning for Latter-day Saints; it would not matter to us either way. But because there is material after chapter 39 in the Book of Mormon, the issue is important.” Bokovoy counters with, “I am a Latter-day Saint, and I find the evidence that Isaiah 40-55 is exilic material written by later authors rather than the historical Isaiah irrefutable.” With that, he begins his two-part essay post at Rational Faiths—Keeping Mormonism Weird
Jackson writes, “From the outset, it must be made clear that multiple-authorship theories for the book of Isaiah have no support from any ancient manuscripts or traditions.” Then he explains that the Greek Septuagint from the third century BC is the earliest known translation of Isaiah. It includes the 66 chapters we find in our Bibles today. Similarly, he points out that the Great Isaiah Scroll, part of the Dead Sea collection, dates to the second century BC, and also has all 66 chapters we use today. Then he states, “No ancient document—including the New Testament and the rabbinic literature—shows any hint that readers in antiquity questioned Isaiah’s authorship of the entire book. Some modern scholars, however, see features within the text of the book that cause them to conclude that in its present state, it is not the product of one author but of two, three, or perhaps more.”7 Ben Tov counters that, “…scholars have recognized for at least the last half-century that the large gap between Isa. 33 and 34 on the Great Isaiah Scroll of the Dead Sea Scrolls (1QIsaa) is evidence that anciently the book was viewed as being separated at least in half.8 ” Ben Tov continues, complaining that Jackson is not up to date with contemporary critical research and then says: “This is a significant point if Jackson and others hope to grapple with the theological implications of the Book of Mormon being dependent on texts written in or near Jerusalem well after Nephi supposedly leaves for the New World. If scholarship on the authorship of Isaiah has created a problem in chronology and availability of Isaiah for the Book of Mormon, then it is of prime importance that those studies are correctly understood and explained. Unfortunately, Jackson has not excelled at either of those points.”
In his essay, Jackson says that Church members “who accept the evidence from the Book of Mormon and believe that prophets can see beyond their own time should have no difficulty accepting the idea that the Isaiah chapters in the Book of Mormon were compiled before 600 BC.”  He did allow for the idea that in the century after Isaiah’s death and before Nephi acquired the plates of brass, that while Isaiah himself may have gathered and compiled his the revelations, others may have done it for him—even after his lifetime? In Bokovoy’s response he both applauds Dr. Jackson “efforts at addressing this topic,” but he has “some serious concerns with his essay.…I sincerely appreciate the fact that Jackson seeks to expose LDS readers to the topic of Deutero-Isaiah and to provide them with an apologetic response that will help retain religious convictions,” he wrote.” But it’s not simply the archeological evidence of the Cyrus Cylinder that Jackson’s essay ignores. The essay fails to consider any of the evidence that I believe provides the strongest case for the mainstream scholarly consensus concerning Isaiah 40-66.”
Quoting W. F. Albright, Jackson explained  “the prophetic books are not really books but rather ‘anthologies of oracles and sermons.’”8  He writes that Isaiah is a collection like the Bible; it was written and compiled in ways not really known. Quoting Kenton Sparks, Bokovoy writes “’a sober and serious reading of Isaiah will easily suggest to readers that large portions of this prophetic collection were not written by an eighth-century prophet whose name was Isaiah’9
Jackson’s view is that we cannot know “with certainty on many issues related to how and when the book of Isaiah became what it is today. What we do know is that Lehi and his sons had at least part of the book with them when they left Jerusalem…” Referring back to Sparks’ confidence concerning Deutero-Isaiah, Bokovoy writes, “Perhaps it is because the evidence for the mainstream view is so compelling. And this evidence simply has to be accommodated for by people of faith, including Latter-day Saints.”
Jackson states that “Scholars who believe in the essential unity of the book acknowledge the change [of tone beginning at chapter 40], but they do not see them as grounds for denying the material in chapters 40–66 to Isaiah son of Amoz. “ Ben Tov argues, “…almost all scholars who specialize in the study of the book of Isaiah agree that Isaiah of Jerusalem did not write most or all of the following chapters of the book: 1-5, 13-14, 24-27, 34-35, 36-39, 40-55, and 56-66. “
Jackson describes how Nephi obtained the plates of brass and then used them to teach his people about his own vision, which he was forbidden to write. Most frequently quoting from parts of Isaiah, “…decades before ‘Second’ Isaiah was supposed to have been written. This is the most important piece of evidence for Isaiah’s authorship of later chapters. “ Bokovoy derides this, “In other words, the most important evidence Jackson can produce to counter the scholarly consensus concerning Deutero-Isaiah is the Book of Mormon itself.” Then he explains that Jackson approach may not, “…ultimately prove to people struggling with their faith over issues such as the attestation of Deutero-Isaiah in the Book of Mormon.”
Jackson states that authorship within the book of Isaiah is not “centered on biographical references or literary style,” but is mostly centered on this basic question: “Can a prophet see beyond his own time?One’s answer to the question necessarily determines whether one can accept the book being in place when Nephi acquired it or whether one must date parts of it to a later time. Those who begin with the assumption that people cannot see beyond their own day must logically conclude that Isaiah could not have written those sections of the book that speak to a different historical setting than his own. In contrast, those who understand the true nature of revelation and prophetic foresight have no trouble with prophecies of future events” (pp. 74-75). Bokovoy acknowledges that most scholars would not consider the possibility of divine communication idenifying Cyrus by name as a future “annointed one” to Judah then he cites Kenton Sparks concerning this prophecy: “It strains the imagination to believe that Isaiah addressed these theological debates about a gentile messiah some one hundred and fifty years before they took place, and that his response to those debates was copied and recopied for many years by scribes—and read by audiences—who could not have made heads or tales out of Isaiah’s rhetoric. It is more sensible to conclude that the prophet’s words did not predict these debates so much as presupposes them” (God’s Words in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriate of Critical Biblical Scholarship, pp. 106-7)
In his conclusion, Jackson stated that Church “members who accept the evidence from the Book of Mormon and believe that prophets can see beyond their own time should have no difficulty accepting the idea that the Isaiah chapters in the Book of Mormon were compiled before 600 BC. “ Concluding, Ben Tov writes. “The Isaiah that Nephi and his descendants might have known would not have included a lot of the chapters that are explicitly quoted in the Book of Mormon. This is an obvious issue and one that deserves serious and honest attention.”

 

Not all scholars are so polarized. Joseph Spencer, for example, is a BYU religion professor who explained this about the world of Isaiah scholarship and its two major camps of thought :

“One gets called ‘Liberal Protestant Scholarship,’ and other gets called ‘Conservative Evangelical Scholarship.’ Liberal Protestant Scholars tend to be more secular and tend to just say ‘Let’s sift the evidence and so on. What does it look like is going on?’ And almost all if not all, say ‘Isaiah is written by multiple authors over several centuries.’

“Conservatives scholars are Evangelical scholars who are committed to Biblical inerrancy, the idea that there is no problem in the Bible at all. This is God’s word, it can’t be wrong. And so they tend to say ‘If the Book of Isaiah says The Book Of Isaiah, then this whole thing had to be written by Isaiah of Jerusalem in the 8th century B.C.’

“Conservative Evangelical scholars tend to find ways to explain problems that suggest multiple authorship, so they tend to go through it very carefully, and say ‘This is more nuanced. These data work against the ideas that most scholars agree with’. So there are a number of scholars who definitely say ‘No, this is one author!’”

Then Spencer concluded: “I take the Book of Mormon at its face value because I believe the Book of Mormon. And so I trust it, somehow this works out …Let’s move a lot more slowly, let’s take our time before we draw wild conclusions. And so I get a little frustrated when I hear people say something like ‘Look, it’s just clear, all scholars agree, Isaiah was written by multiple authors’, I’m gonna say ‘Ok, but let’s move more slowly, let’s not be so sure of ourselves.’”

It was nice to hear that testimony from such a young BYU scholar. It gives me hope that I am not alone taking the Book of Mormon for what it seems to be, an inspired work.

Part 1   Part 3

Footnotes:

B. H. Roberts, “Higher Criticism and the Book of Mormon,” The Improvement Era  (June 1911): 668. (A more precise account of the Isaiah problem by B. H. Roberts is printed in the Improvement Era 12 (July 1909): 681–89 under the title “An Objection to the Book of Mormon Answered.”)
2  James E. Talmage, Conference Report, April 1929, pp. 45-47
Ibid.
Bruce R. McConkie, Ten Keys to Understanding Isaiah, Ensign, Oct 1973
5Hugh Nibley, Since Cumorah, Chapter 5: The Bible in the Book of Mormon.
6John Welch, Authorship of the Book of Isaiah, Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, FARMS, p.436
Ibid.
8 ibid.

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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.

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