Open Questions and Suggestions regarding Isaiah in the Book of Mormon

Much in Barker’s work contradicts the assumptions and claims of various critical scholars regarding the nature of preexilic Judaism and consequently undermines their perception of conflicts with the picture in the Book of Mormon. If Barker is correct, how did a youthful, unlettered, Joseph Smith manage to produce so much the same picture?

Certain of Barker’s interpretations clash with the usual Latter-day Saint readings to be sure, most notably her acceptance on the dating of Isaiah chapters 40 to 55 to a Second Isaiah writing during the Babylonian exile. She devotes individual chapters in The Older Testament to her readings of Isaiah based on each of these divisions. This is not unusual. Most biblical scholars see the authorship of the Book of Isaiah deriving from two or three sources. According to this loose but respectable consensus, an original Isaiah wrote in Jerusalem during the reign of King Hezekiah (chapters 2–39), a later prophet wrote during the exile in Babylon (chapters 40–55), and, according to some, including Barker, a third prophet wrote after the return from exile (chapters 56–66). (Chapter 1 was added later as a summary.) The scholarly dating of Isaiah 40–55 to the exile is based on such things as the assumption that there is no real prophecy, the name of the Persian king Cyrus appearing in chapter 45, and themes in the text that seem to point to concerns and situations of the exile.1 That the Book of Mormon contains quotations of Isaiah 2–14 and a quotation and paraphrase of Isaiah 28–29 poses no difficulties for these theories, but it also contains Isaiah 48–51, part of 52, all of 53–54, and verses or allusions from 40 and 43.2 The Book of Mormon presumes that these passages (with the possible exception of Isaiah 54) were composed by Isaiah of Jerusalem and recorded on the brass plates that Nephi obtained from Laban.

A number of relevant studies on the so-called “Isaiah Problem” in the Book of Mormon often anticipate points of tension with Barker’s readings.3 In Since Cumorah, Nibley points out some ways that we can reconcile the Isaiah quotations with multiple authorship theories.4 He notes that the Book of Mormon does not quote any passages ascribed to the Third Isaiah (chapters 56–66), nor does it quote Isaiah 1, a chapter that many scholars think was written as a late summary of the book. While Welch observes that most Mormon commentaries simply take Isaiah at face value and attribute greater authority to the Book of Mormon than to the non-Mormon Isaiah scholars,5 he also points to Avraham Gileadi6 and Victor Ludlow7 as Latter-day Saint scholars who have made some potent arguments for the unity of Isaiah.8

We are not necessarily stuck in an “all-or-nothing” situation here, having to choose between Barker’s reading of authorship and concerns and the Book of Mormon’s attribution to preexilic authorship. The numerous points of interest in the big picture are sufficiently promising that I believe we can tolerate a degree of unresolved tension. Furthermore, even this apparent point of conflict with Barker’s perspective has tantalizing aspects. I have mentioned her key claim that the idea of strict monotheism was first asserted during the Babylonian exile by the Second Isaiah. However the Isaiah authorship and text transmission issue may eventually be resolved, most of the specific Isaiah passages and chapters that Barker cites to demonstrate the strict monotheism of the Second Isaiah do not appear in the Book of Mormon.

Barker says, “the prophecies of the Second Isaiah were, I believe, an interpretation of the ancient cult myth, and it was the experience of the exile which prompted the reinterpretation in terms of actual historical events.”9 Barker’s line of interpretation is fresh and fascinating:

The message of the prophet was that the divine word, as depicted in the myths and rituals of the old cult, had been fulfilled in history. The First Isaiah had interpreted the events of his own time in terms of that myth; the Second Isaiah completed this interpretation by showing that the lesser deities, the sons of the gods and all that they represented, really had been defeated and judged. They had ceased to exist . . .

The final defeat and destruction of the old gods, however, left several aspects of the original scheme adrift. The defeated beings had formerly borne the burden of the origin of evil, a necessary function in any theological scheme; they had been the opposing forces in the struggle to establish order in creation.10

Barker sees a “distinct pattern of association” running through verses in Isaiah 41 through 48:

[Isaiah] 41:21 introduces the former things.

[Isaiah] 42:8–9 says the former things have happened.

43:9ff challenges other nations to demonstrate their power by showing the former things and bringing their witnesses. . . . The powerlessness of these witnesses is part of a complex declaration of monotheism.

44:6–8 and 45:20–1 have the theme of the former things, but not the actual phrase. Both emphasize that power to know the future is proof of divinity.

46:8–10 demands that transgressors remember the former things. 48:3–5 says the former things were declared by Yahweh long ago, and have happened.

The climax of two passages (Isaiah 43:13; 46:9), and the emphasis elsewhere at Isaiah 40:18 and 45:14, shows that the other great shift which formed the theology of the Second Isaiah was that Yahweh the Holy One of Israel was also El. Israel was therefore no longer at the mercy of contending angelic forces, of which her Yahweh was but one. If Yahweh was El, the others were nothing.

In contrast to these passages, we find one other, Isaiah 43:16–19, which follows upon the court scene where the gods are declared to be nothing. Here, and only here, the prophet exhorts to forget the former things, and a whole new understanding of Yahweh is outlined.11

For me, a most intriguing aspect of Barker’s line of argument here is that only one of these passages, from Isaiah 48 about fulfillment of prophecy, appears in the Book of Mormon.12 None of the rest of the argument appears, and that passage by itself does not sustain it. Therefore, the possibility remains that these passages, which are key to Barker’s argument, could have been composed, edited, or reinterpreted after Lehi’s departure from Jerusalem. That said, I should point out that a few other Isaiah passages that she discusses to suggest exilic editing in Isaiah do appear in the Book of Mormon. For example, in The Great Angel, she cites as exilic a passage from Isaiah 51:13, which we have as 2 Nephi 8:13. She sees this passage as an example of a fusion/transformation of an ancient El title as the progenitor of the earth with Yahweh taking the creative role and becoming a maker rather than a progenitor: “‘Yahweh your maker, who stretched out the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth.‘ (Isaiah 51:13).”13 Yet, in this case, I think there is no real cause for concern. In Latterday Saint theology, Yahweh is the creator, rather than the progenitor. Or perhaps this could be an instance where the translation is “sufficient to suit my purposes as it stands.”14

Another example of a Book of Mormon Isaiah quotation that Barker sees as exilic appears when she asks “how does [Second Isaiah’s] Abraham (Isaiah 51:2), who symbolizes the exiles, relate to the Abraham of Genesis who carries the royal promises, and the patriarch who does not recognize the indigenous Yahweh worshippers (Isaiah 63:16)?”15 Isaiah 51:2 is part of the Isaiah quotation in 2 Nephi 8, which has an interesting context. In Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, John Thompson has an article called “Isaiah 50–51, the Israelite Autumn Festivals, and the Covenant Speech of Jacob in 2 Nephi 6–10.” He writes that “from the structure and themes of 2 Nephi 6–10, one may conclude that Jacob’s speech was given in connection with a covenant-renewal celebration that was most likely performed as part of the traditional Israelite autumn festivals required by the law of Moses.”16

Recent studies like Thompson’s make it plain that it is not just a matter of Isaiah scholarship raising issues for the Book of Mormon, but that the Book of Mormon should be recognized as raising issues for Isaiah scholarship. Remember that Barker cites authorities that believe that these Isaiah passages were based on the liturgy of a preexilic festival, and here we find that the Book of Mormon quotes them in that context. Why should that be so if the passages were entirely exilic?

The story of Abinadi in Mosiah 11–17 contains a quotation of Isaiah 53 and a discourse that shows an understanding of Isaiah 52.17 Of this passage, a trio of researchers concluded, “no other day on the Israelite calendar fits the message, words, and experience of the Prophet Abinadi more precisely than does the ancient Israelite Festival of Pentecost.”18

During the post-resurrection ministry in 3 Nephi, Jesus quotes Isaiah 54 about his role as the bridegroom and Israel as the forgiven bride. Welch points out that since Jesus was there to quote these passages, the chapter might not have been on the brass plates that Nephi obtained from Laban in Jerusalem.19

The quotation of Isaiah 48 and 49 in 1 Nephi 20 and 21 seems to resonate deeply with the experience of Nephi in the Arabian desert20 and is also apt because “no chapters in all of scripture teach this faith and hope in Israel’s future redemption better than Isaiah 48 and 49. Similarly, no chapters more forcefully address Israel’s rebellious hypocrites . . . than do Isaiah 48 and 49.”21

Mormon scholarship has shown that the Isaiah quotations in the Book of Mormon are not mere “filler” but have a meaningful place and purpose in the text. Critics to date have passed on explaining why this should be so, in favor of the much more manageable task of asserting a simple dependence of the Book of Mormon Isaiah quotations on the King James Bible and to contrast the Book of Mormon with the multiple Isaiah authorship hypothesis. The Book of Mormon, however, insists that different versions of scriptural books existed22 and presumes that existing books have been edited. And what exactly are the parameters of an inspired translation, given in Joseph Smith’s language and weakness, according his understanding?23 No one knows. If the Isaiah issue cannot be said to be decisively resolved, there is, as Thomas Kuhn observes, something to be said for “tolerating crisis.” He comments that “like artists, creative scientists [and I presume to add, scholars and laypersons] must occasionally be able to live in a world out of joint.” Kuhn describes this situation as an “essential tension.”24 Despite the current irresolution of the Isaiah situation, the Book of Mormon’s use of Isaiah has been tantalizingly fruitful, and remains, in my view, very promising. Personally, I think Barker’s overall views can be reconciled with the Book of Mormon.

Notes

  1. And, as shown in note 132, the title “Lord of Hosts” is common in Isaiah 1–39 and rare in Isaiah 40–66. There may be contextual reasons for this difference in use, such as the association of this title with judgment. For a general summary of the arguments for the multiple authorship of Isaiah, see John L. McKenzie, Second Isaiah, The Anchor Bible, vol. 20 (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1968), xv–xxiii.
  2. See John Gee, “‘Choose the Things That Please Me’: The Selection of the Isaiah Sections in the Book of Mormon,” in Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, ed. Donald W. Parry and John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1998), 67–91, John W. Welch, “Authorship of the Book of Isaiah,” in Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, ed. Donald W. Parry and John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1998), 423–43.
  3. Sidney B. Sperry, “The ‘Isaiah Problem’ in the Book of Mormon,” reprinted in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 4/1 (spring 1995): 129–52.
  4. Nibley, Since Cumorah, 113–15, 121–34.
  5. Welch, “Authorship of the Book of Isaiah,” 423–24.
  6. Avraham Gileadi, The Apocalyptic Book of Isaiah (Provo, Utah: Hebraeus, 1982), and The Literary Message of Isaiah (New York: Hebraeus, 1994). Note that regarding the Pentateuch, Barker says, “the complex patterns in the Pentateuch, both in small units and in the extended compositions, are now recognized as evidence of a literary artistry far beyond anything that can be called ‘compilation.’ The scissors and paste methods of the earlier hypotheses are now seen to be unrealistic. The Pentateuch as we now have it is probably the product of one mind, that of a genius” (The Great Angel, 23). That mind would use existing sources and reflect a particular point of view. Gileadi’s arguments for the unity of Isaiah are similar, based on his identification of complex patterns in small units and extended compositions. One wonders what Barker might make of them. We should note that the book of Mosiah demonstrates complex overlapping literary structures overall (e.g., the chiastic patterns running over the entire book [see John W. Welch, “Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies 10/1 (1969): 69–84], chiastic patterns running through King Benjamin’s discourse, and chiastic passages within the discourse [see Welch, “Parallelism and Chiasmus in Benjamin’s Speech,” in King Benjamin’s Speech: “That Ye May Learn Wisdom,” ed. John W. Welch and Stephen D. Ricks (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1998), 315–410]), and the evident use of multiple sources within.
  7. Victor L. Ludlow, Isaiah: Prophet, Seer, and Poet (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1982).
  8. See Welch, “Authorship of the Book of Isaiah.”
  9. Margaret Barker, The Older Testament: The Survival of Themes from the Ancient Royal Cult in Sectarian Judaism and Early Christianity (London: SPCK, 1987), 162.
  10. Ibid. Compare and contrast 2 Nephi 2 on the need for “opposition in all things.”
  11. Barker, The Older Testament, 165–66.
  12. 1 Nephi 20.
  13. Margaret Barker, The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God (London: SPCK, 1992), 19. Compare 2 Nephi 8:13.
  14. Doctrine and Covenants 128:18.
  15. Barker, The Older Testament, 170.
  16. John S. Thompson, “Isaiah 50–51, the Israelite Autumn Festivals, and the Covenant Speech of Jacob in 2 Nephi 6–10,” in Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, ed. Donald W. Parry and John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1998), 143.
  17. See John W. Welch, “Isaiah 53, Mosiah 14, and the Book of Mormon,” in Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, ed. Donald W. Parry and John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1998), 295–97.
  18. John W. Welch, Gordon C. Thomasson, and Robert F. Smith, “Abinadi and Pentecost,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon, ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992), 138.
  19. See also Cynthia L. Hallen, “The Lord’s Covenant of Kindness: Isaiah 54 and 3 Nephi 22,” in Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, ed. Donald W. Parry and John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1998).
  20. S. Kent Brown, “What is Isaiah Doing in 1 Nephi?” in From Jerusalem to Zarahemla (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, 1998), 9–27. Compare Barker’s discussion of Isaiah 49 in The Revelation of Jesus Christ: Which God Gave to Him to Show to His Servants What Must Soon Take Place (Revelation 1.1) (Edinburgh: Clark, 2000), 164.
  21. Andrew C. Skinner, “Nephi’s Lessons to His People: The Messiah, the Land, and Isaiah 48–49 in 1 Nephi 19–22,” in Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, ed. Donald W. Parry and John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1998), 119.
  22. 1 Nephi 13:23, 25–29.
  23. See Doctrine and Covenants 1:24–29.
  24. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1970), 79.