In the LDS curriculum, we are now plodding through the Isaiah chapters in Second Nephi. So here is another installment on the Book of Mormon (previous post on 1 Nephi 1). I’m going to focus on 2 Nephi 9, which follows chapters 7 and 8 (Isaiah 50 and 51, more or less) and presents itself as a commentary on those two chapters. But only the first few verses of 2 Nephi 9 relate to the Isaiah material. By verse 5, Jacob (the speaker in the text) is talking about God showing himself to “those at Jerusalem” (another example of modalism, discussed in the previous post). By verses 6 and 7, it’s death, the resurrection, the Fall, and the Atonement. That’s a long way from Isaiah 50 and 51. The chapter is more like a Christian sermon than an exposition or even expansion of Isaiah 50 and 51. So what’s going on?
What Doesn’t Make Sense
To start with, the material on the brass plates, held out not as an early prototype of the Hebrew Bible or our Christian Old Testament (that, according to our current understanding, would be edited into the version we now have during the exile and post-exilic period) but as a more complete version of the Hebrew Bible, at least for the material available up to roughly 597 BC, when (in the text) Lehi and his group left Jerusalem. Chapter 13 in First Nephi tells that that the Christian Old Testament “is a record like unto the engravings which are upon the plates of brass, save there are not so many” (1 Ne. 13:23). What’s missing in our current Old Testament? “[M]any parts which are plain and most precious” (v. 26). Who removed these plain and precious parts? The great and abominable church, formed after the twelve apostles did their work (v. 24).
Two problems with this story. First, if the material in the brass plates as quoted throughout the Books of Nephi is so plain, why do we need page after page of explanation? If the brass plates version of Isaiah 50 and 51, as quoted in 2 Nephi 7 and 8, is so plain, why does Jacob spend roughly seven pages explaining it? And if that material was so plain, why does Jacob’s long explanation seem to talk about so many topics that seem to have nothing to do with 2 Nephi 7 and 8? The same phenomenon appears in 2 Nephi 25-33, presented as a commentary on the brass plates version of Isaiah 2-14, as laid out in 2 Nephi 12-24. Nephi’s commentary doesn’t really have much to do with the quoted Isaiah material but presents a lot of Christian doctrine.
The second problem with the story is that we now have a very good text of the Book of Isaiah from the Dead Sea Scrolls that goes back to the first century BC, well before the supposedly plain material was removed from the book, according to the Book of Mormon claim. Guess what? It’s pretty much just like the Book of Isaiah manuscripts from the first millennium AD that we had to rely on previously. There is no evidence that there was material removed. If changes over time occurred to books in the Bible, it was by expansion and addition, not by subtraction.
Just as a quick aside, some of these thoughts echo material and discussion in R. John Williams’ “The Ghost and the Machine: Plates and Paratext in the Book of Mormon,” chapter two in Americanist Approaches to The Book of Mormon (OUP, 2019), edited by Elizabeth Fenton and Jared Hickman. I read the essay last week. You should buy the book and read the essay. In a few months I’ll post a review here.
What Does Make Sense
If the Isaiah material in the Book of Mormon isn’t a plainer version of Isaiah and if it doesn’t present important material that Jacob and Nephi then summarize and explicate, then what is it? Who knows? Maybe it’s just filler. If you ever had to write a ten-page paper in college when you only have five pages of ideas, you know what I’m talking about. Do you have a better idea?
What does make sense is reading Isaiah in the context of the late eighth century BC, when Judah was threatened by the historical Assyrians and the historical Isaiah urged the historical Hezekiah to stand firm while the Assyrians besieged Jerusalem.
What does make sense is Second Isaiah (40-55) in the context of the Jewish exiles in Babylon in the sixth century BC, pining for a return to their homeland in Judah. Salvation was a return to Jerusalem, and the messiah was God’s agent in expediting that return, who turned out to be historical Cyrus, ruler of Persia, who conquered the historical Babylonians and then supported the return of the Jewish exiles (at least those who would go) back to Jersusalem.
What does make sense is Third Isaiah (55-66) on the theme of the rebuilt temple. It’s not as big or fancy as the original temple, but it was still precious to the small group of returned exiles and their descendants.
Anything Else in 2 Nephi 9?
If you ignore the Isaiah link and just read 2 Nephi 9 as an independent discourse, there’s a lot of interesting stuff. Spirits from hell and paradise, and bodies from the dust get, reunited in a physical resurrection (v. 10-12). At judgement, the devil and his angels (v. 16) are sent to “everlasting fire,” while all the resurrected folks, both good and evil (the “righteous” and the “filthy,” as described in the text) go to the Good Place. It’s a little confusing, but it sure seems like “the devil and his angels” refers to non-resurrected spirits (that one-third that followed Satan and never got a body so they could not be resurrected, but they do apparently get judged) and everyone else, whether righteous or filthy, gets resurrected and judged and none of these go off to everlasting fire (the Bad Place). It sure sounds like universalism (excluding the devil and his angels), notwithstanding the firm rejection of universalism in Alma 1 (see 1:4 in particular). There’s some confusion about who is resurrected with a body and who isn’t, and the text in verses 10-16 is a little confusing in light of later LDS doctrine, but that’s how I read it. If you think you deserve a nicer place in heaven than your heathen neighbor down the street, go read the D&C 76 version of “universal salvation with several levels” and you’ll feel better about it.
At the end of the chapter, Isaiah 55:1-2 is quoted at 2 Nephi 9:50-51. That’s very clear in my Maxwell Institute Study Edition of the Book of Mormon, another book you ought to buy. What’s also clear is about 20 extra words inserted into Isaiah 55:2, as quoted at 2 Nephi 9:51. It’s just spliced right in there, right in the middle of a classic Hebrew poetic parallelism. Here’s the KJV for Isaiah 55:2, rendered in poetic lines:
Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread?
and your labour for that which satisfieth not?
Hearken diligently unto me, and eat that which is good,
and let your soul delighteth in fatness.
And here is 2 Nephi 9:51, with the chunk of added material in bold type:
Wherefore, do not spend money for that which is of no worth,
nor your labor for that which cannot satisfy.
Hearken diligently unto me,
and remember the words which I have spoken;
and come unto the Holy One of Israel,
and feast upon that which perisheth not,
neither can be corrupted,
and let your soul delighteth in fatness.
You can see how the added material destroys the flow of the parallelism. That added chunk would not have been part of an original rendering of the verse unless the author was a very bad poet (and Second Isaiah was a very good Hebrew poet). So make of it what you will.
A final remark and a prompt. Because the orthodox LDS approach requires the square peg of the Book of Isaiah to be pounded into a round Book of Mormon hole, the LDS scholarship on Isaiah is (for me, at least) largely worthless. If you want to understand Isaiah 50-51, don’t read 2 Nephi 9 or an LDS commentary, just get a good translation and read non-LDS scholarship. I have The Book of Isaiah: A New Translation (Jewish Publication Society of America, 1972), which I actually bought at BYU for an Isaiah class. For the Old Testament and Isaiah, I read among others Brueggemann’s An Introduction to the Old Testament, Marc Zvi Brettler’s How to Read the Jewish Bible, and Robert Alter and Frank Kermode’s The Literary Guide to the Bible.
The prompt: So was there any discussion of Isaiah and what it’s doing in the Book of Mormon in your LDS Sunday School class? Or any other LDS class, whether seminary or Institute or BYU? I don’t mean that like “how on earth is Second Isaiah in the Book of Mormon?” I mean any discussion of what the Isaiah chunks are actually doing. How are they furthering the narrative? Did anyone in the class, for instance, raise their hand and say, “When I am feeling sad and depressed, I read the Isaiah chapters in Second Nephi, and I am comforted.” Or maybe, “Second Nephi seemed confusing until I came to the quoted Isaiah material, and then it all made sense.” I’m just wondering whether anyone has heard such a remark. Ever.
I’m usually silent on some of these posts, but I would respectfully point out that there are certain books and articles that should be taken into account while thinking about this post that can provide a bit more balance and information for the reader:
I’d refer to Don Parry’s work on Isaiah, particularly his recent work from Brill, “Exploring the Isiah Scrolls and their Variants” https://brill.com/view/title/55877. This book doesn’t really do much with the Book of Mormon and its HIGHLY technical, but it does show that Parry has serious credentials that are recognized internationally and that what he says about Isaiah and the Book of Mormon should not be easily discounted. Say what you want about Parry, but he’s got the credentials, being a member of the Dead Sea Scrolls International Team, etc.. He also recently wrote a critical piece on Jesus and Isaiah for Interpreter, “An Approach to Isaiah Studies”, https://journal.interpreterfoundation.org/an-approach-to-isaiah-studies/ His comments on other scholars and their thoughts on Jesus in Isaiah are interesting. Having said that, I thought the review over-reacted to Joe Spencer’s book on Isiah (which I found helpful in certain respects). While traditional Isiah scholarship breaks Isaiah into two (or even three) authors, even in the recent Hermeneia volume on Isaiah 1-39, J.J. M. Roberts says there’s no way to completely prove the two and three Isaiah theory. (Can’t remember the page number on that sorry, but its in an early footnote in the book).
I’d also indicate that Royal Skousen has recently put out a book on the use of the KJV in the Book of Mormon which I would look at in conjunction with the “term paper filler” theory.
Naturally, this is an area with room for broad disagreement, but the above provide some additional information.
I can’t tell, but if you are THE Dave B. I’m thinking of, then my prior post was a bit presumptuous (although its not really aimed at you).
Our teacher typically makes little effort to engage the text (more than once we’ve gone an entire class without addressing the assigned reading even once). This time she at least had assigned readers read a few of the verses, then got uncomfortably close to some anti-Semitic rhetoric, and finished with “this Isaiah stuff is all about Christ.” I don’t expect even minimal quality from her so I can’t even say it was a letdown.
Does it make me a bad person or weak of mind that I find the Isaiah chapters in the Book of Mormon comforting?
I’m clearly not a gospel scholar, like so many of us that just have to get on with making a living and making our lives work, so I’m at a point where I use scripture mainly for comfort in a difficult and challenging life that often doesn’t make any logical sense to me anymore. So I use Isaiah mostly like poetry, images that open up possibilities in my mind, and sometimes increase my sense of importance to God.
A few things:
1) The “3 Isaiahs” theory falls apart quickly if really dig into the materials and analyze the passages. The text is modified ALL OVER the place with fingerprints all pointing to the Babylonian Captivity. A simple example is Isaiah 13 and 14. “Proto Isaiah” that proves that the text is modified all over the place by switching from a conquest of Babylon to Assyria mid chapter. If you study the destruction of Assyria vs Babylon, you’ll see that Isaiah 13 and 14 is talking about Assyria but they Jews in Babylon edited the text to say Babylon to fit their current situation.
Also, the “Trito Isaiah” passages talk all about idolatry which was non existent in post-exilic Jerusalem which is when the book is supposedly written.
2) Isaiah 50:10 quotes, those in darkness which is alluding to Isaiah 49 which Luke quotes from as referring to Christ during Simeon’s blessing of Christ. If you want to argue that Luke is written after the fact and “just threw that in”, that’s fine but for those that believe that the spirit reveals truths in scriptures, there’s a non BOM example of how those passages are interpreted as referring to Christ. Isaiah 50 & 51 is also about redemption and restoration.
3) Yes you should read the Isaiah passages in their context with Jewish sources. However, you have to understand that this means that all references to Christ that the New Testament uses will be explained away and you’re stripping Christ from Isaiah.
4) The BoM continually preaches that you can’t understand Christ without understanding The Fall. So if Jacob is going to teach Christ from the Isaiah passages, he’s got to start at the beginning even if it’s not in the text.
Anything else in 2 Nephi 9?
Just how much of 2 Nephi 9 is near verbatim passages from the KJV New Testament.
A few examples:
Matt. 25:34: inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world
John 15:11: that your joy might be full
2 Nephi 9:18: they shall inherit the kingdom of God, which was prepared for them from the foundation of the world, and their joy shall be full forever.
Matt. 24:35; Mark 13:31; Luke 21:33: Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away
2 Nephi 9:16: his eternal word, which cannot pass away
(In the KJV, it is only in the Gospels where we see the concept of words passing away)
Matt. 11:25: thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent
2 Nephi 9:43: But the things of the wise and the prudent shall be hid from them forever
Acts 17:30: commandeth all men every where to repent
2 Nephi 9:23: commandeth all men that they must repent
Rom. 8:6: For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace
2 Nephi 9:39: to be carnally-minded is death, and to be spiritually-minded is life eternal
1 Corinth. 15: 53: For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality
2 Nephi 9:7: this corruption could not put on incorruption
2 Cor. 11:14: for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light
2 Nephi 9:9: that being who beguiled our first parents, who transformeth himself nigh unto an angel of light
Heb. 12:2: endured the cross, despising the shame
2 Nephi 9:18: endured the crosses of the world, and despised the shame of it
Rev. 19:20: These both were cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone.
2 Nephi 9:19: the devil, and death, and hell, and that lake of fire and brimstone
2 Nephi 9:26: death and hell, and the devil, and the lake of fire and brimstone, which is endless torment
God revealed to Jacob the passages of many different authors of various epistles and writings of early Christians that had not yet been written? I guess God sometimes gives very specific revelation to some prophets and other times when it comes to blacks and the priesthood and the Book of Abraham (or at least the idea that it came from papyri made into facsimiles) God gave very, very vague revelation that his imperfect messengers just got wrong and we had to correct later.
“Yes you should read the Isaiah passages in their context with Jewish sources. However, you have to understand that this means that all references to Christ that the New Testament uses will be explained away and you’re stripping Christ from Isaiah.”
OK. And your point? Jewish prophets create an image of an archetypal messiah and then Jesus’s followers situate Jesus snugly within this already laid-out older Jewish framework and then proclaim Jesus’s earthly ministry to be a fulfillment of prophesy and the followers of Jesus to be the rightful interpreters of the Tanakh. Isaiah never talks of Jesus or Christ (well, Christ is just Greek for messiah, both of which mean “anointed one”). Many a Jewish theologian would beg to differ with the Christian interpretation of the Book of Isaiah.
I always assumed that the Isaiah sections were things not in the brass plates which was why he was adding them here.
Thanks for the comments, everyone.
Terry H, thanks for the reference. Please, feel free to comment more in the future. Despite his credentials and praiseworthy academic achievements, Prof. Parry is dedicated to making historical Isaiah (the man and the book) fit into the Book of Mormon text, rather than take a more objective approach of balancing facts and judgment when faced with seemingly contradictory or inconsistent texts. In other words, he is taking the BoM as infallible, and statements of LDS GAs about scriptural facts as infallible, regardless of what the texts and scholarship about historical Isaiah (the man and the book) might say. He takes the same approach with the Flood: geology and science be damned, if LDS GAs say there was a global flood, then that’s what the Bible was saying. See his Jan. 1998 Ensign article. He reads every OT occurrence of the tetragrammaton as a reference to Jesus Christ, so of course he sees Jesus everywhere in Isaiah.
Good for you, wayfarer. If you enjoy the Isaiah poetry in First and Second Nephi, you should get the Maxwell Study edition and see it arranged in poetic lines and stanzas. You would enjoy it more that way. I might even enjoy it a little bit that way.
Andy, certainly a full analysis of Isaiah is beyond a few paragraphs in a blog post. Isaiah is the longest book in the OT. It underwent considerable growth and editing over the exilic and post-exilic period. Your own comment seems to acknowledge that. The 1-39 and 40-66 break is convenient but not absolute. There’s material in Isaiah 36-39 that comes straight from 2 Kings. There are verses in Isaiah that are almost identical to verses in Micah (compare Isa. 2:2-6 with Micah 4:1-4). Just because Christians read Jesus into almost every OT passage doesn’t mean that Mormons should, too. It’s not like we need to take Christian misreadings of the OT as a starting point for LDS understanding of the Bible. We can do better.
John W, thanks for the references. Food for thought.
There are no problems with the BOM that cannot be explained by viewing it as a 19th-century work of fiction.
“First, if the material in the brass plates as quoted throughout the Books of Nephi is so plain, why do we need page after page of explanation? ”
It’s more of the same smug, arrogant spiritual humble bragging that Nephi is so good at.
“Many people don’t understand Isaiah but it’s easy folks. Lots of people are saying they can’t understand Isaiah but I understand Isaiah better than any prophet that has ever lived. Believe me.”
Fred VII, Dave B. doesn’t appear to be trying to claim that understanding Isaiah is easy or that he understands Isaiah. What he is claiming is that Nephi and Jacob are claiming that Isaiah is plain and clear, but then go onto provide many pages of explanation and tangential Christian argumentation that has nothing to do with Isaiah. If it is plain, then why the additional explanations?
@ Dave B, Yes, I am saying there were lots of edits during the exile. That’s one of the reasons that I take issue with the 3 Isaiahs. The Isaiah Yale Anchor Bible trilogy does a great job being even handed talking about both sides of the argument.
Just to clarify, I’m not talking about Christians reading Christ into Isaiah, I’m talking about the New Testament authors reading Christ into the Isaiah passages.
@ Dave B and to John W: Article is saying they doesn’t see how the Isaiah passages quoted correlate to Jesus and I’m saying Jewish commentaries are the wrong place to go to find how they do.
If you want a book that attempts to seriously figure out what the Isaiah chapters are doing in 1 and 2 Nephi — as in, how do they relate to the chapters that come before and after and advance the literary and theological aims of those books — I highly recommend Joseph Spencer’s “The Vision of All” (https://www.amazon.com/dp/1589586328/). Review here: https://bycommonconsent.com/2016/11/02/response-the-vision-of-all/.
I taught this past week and I showed how Jacob is using Isaiah to apply to the Nephites’ situation: the Judahites in exile were facing an existential crisis, the passages from Deutero-Isaiah that Jacob quotes address these concerns, which likewise mirror concerns the Lehites had. Just as God would restore the Abrahamic covenant with the Judahites and bring them out of exile, he would do the same with the Lehites. All of this Jacob uses to point to the ultimate restoration- right relationship with God made possible through Jesus Christ.