Isaiah Variants in the Book of Mormon
John A. Tvedtnes
Reprinted with permission from Isaiah and the Prophets: Inspired Voices from the Old Testament (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1984), 165—77.
Of the 478 verses in the Book of Mormon quoted from the book of Isaiah, 201 agree with the King James reading while 207 show variations. Some 58 are paraphrased and 11 others are variants and/or paraphrases. it is to the variants that we will give our attention here.
Two factors led to my study of the Isaiah variants in the Book of Mormon. The first was a paper written by a friend of mine and now widely circulated as “evidence” against the Book of Mormon. It is essentially a statistical analysis of the frequency of changes made in the Isaiah passages in the Book of Mormon, and it concludes that because there are more such changes earlier on than later, this indicates that Joseph Smith wearied of making alterations as time went by. My objections to the study are basically twofold: First, some of the changes made by the Prophet fit the reading found in some ancient versions of Isaiah. Secondly, the study did not take into account that some of the changes were not in the first edition of the Book of Mormon but were added later. I contend that these changes have no bearing on Joseph Smith’s translation—Moreover, many of them were stylistic or grammatical, such as the change from “which” to “who” or “whom” when the referent is human. To my way of thinking, it makes more sense to examine substantive differences between the texts of the King James and Book of Mormon versions of Isaiah.
The second impetus for my study came from an assignment given me to serve on the Book of Mormon Hebrew translation committee. One of my specific tasks was to examine all of the biblical quotes in the Book of Mormon to determine what changes, if any, would need to be made to the Hebrew translations of those books when the passages were incorporated into the translation. It was my feeling that we should try to render the translated Book of Mormon passages into the form in which Nephi and other Book of Mormon writers would have known them from the brass plates of Laban, which they took with them.
It was first necessary to identify all of the variants and paraphrases from Isaiah found in the Book of Mormon.1 To do this I read and reread each of the texts several times, checked out the cross-references, and looked up the key words in exhaustive concordances of the Bible and of the Book of Mormon. My wife and I then proceeded to compare the King James (KJV) and Book of Mormon (BM) texts of Isaiah, looking for differences. I read aloud from the BM while she followed in the KJV, and we marked the differences in green ink in a special copy of the Book of Mormon. Next. we did the same thing with the BM and the original 1830 edition, noting any differences in red ink. We used blue ink to mark differences between it and the RLDS version and some few items I was able to obtain from the handwritten BM manuscripts.
The next step was to look up all of the variant verses in different versions of the book of Isaiah: the Hebrew Massoretic text (MT), the Hebrew scrolls found at Qumran (notably IQIsa, which contains all sixty-six chapters), the Aramaic Targumim (T), the Peshitta (P), the Septuagint (LXX) or Greek translation, the Old Latin (OL) and Vulgate (V), and the Isaiah passages quoted in the New Testament. I also read dozens of articles and books written by the top experts on Isaiah and gleaned from them leads to other manuscript variants, such as those found in quotations by the early Church Fathers and other little-known documents.
To be frank, I did not expect to find the volume of support for the BM version of Isaiah that I did in fact discover. I knew enough about ancient manuscripts to realize that there were oftentimes several different versions, no two of which agreed completely with one another. In such cases it is impossible to know which version, if any, is the “original.” It was therefore necessary to allow for errors on the brass plates of Laban from which the BM Isaiah passages were taken.
I have classified the variants according to seventeen different types. Some of these classifications are favorable to the BM versions, while others favor the KJV. Still others favor neither. In the listing below, those favorable to BM are marked +, those neutral =, and those unfavorable -.
|Type of Variation||Frequency||Relation to BM|
|1. BM superior to KJV as a translation from MT Hebrew||4||+|
|2. Version support for BM||36||+|
|3. Evidence of ancient scribal error favoring BM||13||+|
|4. Evidence that BM is from a more ancient text than MT||1||+|
|5. Singular-plural distinctions|
|a. Version support for BM||5||+|
|b. Other (perhaps all due to abbreviation)||6||=|
|6. BM and KJV equally valid translations from MT||18||=|
|7. BM and KJV/MT disagree, where some other versions also disagree without supporting either||8||=|
|8. Textual additions found elsewhere in Bible (2 in Isaiah)||4||–|
|9. Deletion of KJV italicized words in BM2 (8 returned after 1830)||59||=|
|10. Change of KJV italicized words|
|a. Not affecting meaning||35||=|
|b. Affecting meaning||2||–|
|11. BM variations from KJV (=MT) without explanation||43||–|
|12. Uncorrected BM scribal/printer errors 3||29||N/A|
|13. BM scribal/printer errors subsequently corrected||17||N/A|
|14. Attempts at updating KJV language in BM||25||N/A|
|15. Changes in post-1830 editions of BM (mostly for style or spelling)||47||N/A|
|16. Internal variations in BM Isaiah passages||Not counted here|
|17. Paraphrases||Not counted here|
Of the 234 variants rated, 59 are +, 126 are =, and 49 are -. That is, there are more favoring the Book of Mormon than the KJV, while most favor neither.
Having briefly reviewed the procedure of this study and some of its statistical results, I want now to turn to an examination of some examples of the variants.4 The examples presented here have been chosen on the basis of the ease with which I can explain them to non-Semiticists and the favorable light which they shed on the Book of Mormon translation.
Two terms which should be introduced here for the non-linguist are “dittography” and “haplography.” The first refers to the repetition of words (e.g., “I went to the the store”), while the second refers to the dropping of a word or words because it/they resemble(s) what immediately precedes or follows. These types of mistakes are scribal errors and are common occurrences in handwritten documents, notably when the scribe is fatigued. Let us compare Isaiah 2:6 with 2 Nephi 12:6:
KJV “Therefore” is extended in BM to read “Therefore, O Lord.” There was probably an abbreviation, k”y, read by MT as ky (“therefore”) and by BM as ky Yhwh (“therefore, O Lord”). That this was the case is evidenced by the fact that there must have been Hebrew versions reading ky Y’qb (“therefore, O Jacob”) and ky Ysr’l (“therefore, O Israel”), with words beginning with the same letters, for different LXX manuscripts so translate in the Greek.
Isaiah 2:11 compared with 2 Nephi 12:11:
BM adds to the beginning, “And it shall come to pass that . . . ” IQIsa and LXX add the conjunction “and,” in partial agreement. MT probably lost the conjunction (Hebrew w-) by haplography, for it is the last consonant of verse 10.
Isaiah 2:14 compared with 2 Nephi 12:14:
BM adds information to the KJV text in verses 12—14. In each case, the additional information enhances the parallels found in the poetry. In verse 14, for example, BM adds “and upon all the nations which are lifted up, and upon every people. ” Obviously, the “nations” and “people” parallel each other. In order to see the complete list of parallels between words such as nation, people,” “hills,” and “trees,” note verses 12—15.
In a number of passages, BM adds the conjunction “and” to the text of KJV and finds confirmation in at least some of the versions. The examples of this are listed below, along with the versions which support BM.
|Isaiah 3:9||=2 Nephi 13:9||IQlsa, LXX, Peshitta, 1 Targum|
|Isaiah 3:14||=2 Nephi 13:14||LXX|
|Isaiah 3:26||=2 Nephi 13:26||LXX|
|Isaiah 48:8||=2 Nephi 20:8||IQIsa|
|Isaiah 48:13||=1 Nephi 20:13||IQIsa, LXX, S, Peshitta|
|Isaiah 48:14||=1 Nephi 20:14||IQIsa|
|Isaiah 50:9||=2 Nephi 7:9||LXX|
|Isaiah 48:22||=1 Nephi 20:22||IQIsa (BM adds “also”)|
|Isaiah 51:18||=2 Nephi 8:18||LXX (BM “and” replaces KJV “there is”)|
|Isaiah 48:5||=1 Nephi 20:5||BM adds “and” to KJV in a place where MT has the conjunction but KJV did not translate it!|
Isaiah 2:5 compared with 2 Nephi 12:5:
At the end, BM adds, “Yea, come, for ye have all gone astray, every one to his wicked ways. ” The wording is found in Isaiah 53:6 and is thus something one might expect in the book. The Hebrew behind BM would have begun with the words b’w ky, “come, for . . . ” Compare the next-to-last word of the same verse, b’wr (“in light”), and the first word of verse 6, ky (“for”), which may have influenced the dropping of the BM wording by haplography in MT.
Isaiah 2:16 compared with 2 Nephi 12:16:
KJV: “And upon all the ships of Tarshish”
BM: “And upon all the ships of the sea,
and upon all the ships of Tarshish”
Here, BM adds a line not found in KJV. Interestingly, LXX reads “And upon every ship of the sea, and upon all views of pleasant ships,” with the last part paralleling KJV/BM “and upon all pleasant pictures.” The Greek talassa, “sea,” resembles the word Tarshish. But both the Targum and the Vulgate have “sea” with LXX instead of Tarshish. The matter is a very complex one, for which a complete discussion cannot be included here. BM appears to have included the versions of both MT and LXX/T/V. MT could have dropped the nearly identical second line by haplography.
Isaiah 2:20 compared with 2 Nephi 12:20:
KJV: “they made each one for himself”
BM: “he hath made for himself”
MT reads literally, “which they made for him.” Most LXX manuscripts follow MT with the plural verb, but delete the dative “for him.” LXXA and Vulgate have the singular verb, like BM. lQlsa is torn at this point, but there is evidence that it kept the plural verb, adding a new subject, “his fingers” (only the last of the word remains on the damaged scroll). The previous verb in the same verse is in the singular, so we should expect the same here, rather than the plural of MT. Moreover the forms ‘sh (“he made”) and ‘sw (“they made anciently would have both been written alike, ‘s, with the unwritten vowels (Hebrew originally being written without vowels, which were not added until the early part of the Christian era).
Isaiah 3:1 compared with 2 Nephi 13: 1:
The problem found in this verse is known to biblical scholars, who generally consider the text to be corrupt (the New English Bible deletes the problematic passage). KJV speaks of “the stay and the staff” but then goes on to mention the “stay of bread” and the “stay of water.” The word translated “stay”, from MT is ms’n, while its feminine counterpart, ms’nh, is translated “staff.” The occurrence of the latter but once in MT/KJV destroys a parallel (probably caused by dropping the feminine singular suffix) which is corrected in BM.
Isaiah 3: 10 compared with 2 Nephi 13: 10:
KJV: “to the righteous”
BM: “unto the righteous”
While there is no difference in meaning here, BM nevertheless seems to be stressing the preposition. Curiously, there is no preposition at this point in MT, though one would expect it. It is there, however, in IQIsa (as a superscript) and the Peshitta (which also has the plural, thus confirming BM’s “them” vs. KJV’s “him” which follows). The parallel word, “wicked,” in the same verse, does have the preposition in MT, and we should expect it to be here also. We thus have evidence of the antiquity of the text from which BM came, as compared with MT.
Isaiah 3:26 compared with 2 Nephi 13:26:
KJV: “and she being desolate”
BM: “and she shall be desolate”
Isaiah 6:12 compared with 2 Nephi 16:12:
KJV: “and there be a great forsaking”
BM: “for there shall be a great forsaking”
In these two cases, MT has a finite verb which was not so translated by KJV but which is reflected in BM. Thus BM better fits MT in these instances than does KJV.
Isaiah 5:30 compared with 2 Nephi 15:30:
KJV: “if one look”
BM: “if they look”
In English, the words “one” and “they” are both used to express an indefinite subject; while the MT has the verb in the singular, it could be understood collectively. (In Isaiah 8:22, the same singular form occurs in MT but is translated as “they shall look” by KJV, in a passage parallel to this one.) But LXX has a plural verb here, agreeing with BM.
Isaiah 9:3 (MT 9:2) compared with 2 Nephi 19:3:
KJV: “and not increased the nation”
BM: “and increased the nation”
Jewish scholars of the MT sometimes realized that a mistake was present in the biblical text. But since it was forbidden to alter the sacred scriptures, they left the error as a Ketib (“that which is written”), while adding a footnoted Qere (“that which is read”) to be vocalized in reading the text. In this passage, the Ketib of MT has the negative particle, while the Qere deletes it, as do twenty Hebrew manuscripts, all of which substitute the word lw (for 1′, which is pronounced the same), “for him.” Compare the same expression in Job 12:23 and Isaiah 26:15, both of which are like BM.
Isaiah 9:9 (MT 9:8) compared with 2 Nephi 19:9:
There are many instances of singular-plural differences between the KJV and BM texts. One of the classic examples is found in this passage, where KJV has “inhabitant” and BM reads plural “inhabitants.” MT has the singular word, which, however, can often have a collective meaning in Hebrew. As in a number of the other examples of this type found in the study, BM is supported by LXX, which also has the plural. And like other examples, we have here the distinct possibility of a Hebrew abbreviation being read as singular by MT and as plural on the brass plates of Laban. The abbreviation may well have been w-yw”s, which is the very form found at this point in IQIsa! In any event, the sole difference between the singular and plural construct forms of this word would be the addition of the letter -y, to the end of the plural. This smallest of all Hebrew letters could easily have been lost from the text.
Isaiah 10:29 compared with 2 Nephi 20:29:
KJV “Ramah” (MT Rmh) is rendered “Ramath” in BM. This would be the more ancient form of the name, with the old feminine -ath suffix which, in later (usually even biblical) Hebrew disappeared in the pausal form of the noun. Compare verse 28, where both KJV and BM have the name “Aiath,” with the same feminine ending. This is particularly interesting, since it is ‘yt in MT, but was written as ‘yht in IQIsa, with the -t suffix apparently added as an afterthought (it is in superscription), following a writing which shows later pronunciation. That is, IQIsa originally wrote it as “Aiah”—as MT wrote “Ramah”—and later added a superscript letter to show the older form “Aiath,” possibly copying an older manuscript. This provides evidence that the brass plates are from an older source than MT.
Isaiah 13:3 compared with 2 Nephi 23:3:
KJV: “for mine anger, even them that rejoice in my highness”
BM: “for mine anger is not upon them that rejoice in my highness”
MT reads l-‘py ‘lyzy g’wty, literally “to/for mine anger, the rejoicers of my highness.” Both KJV and MT are gibberish and require some correction. We probably have here a case of double haplography. To illustrate, let us reproduce the Hebrew of MT and a Hebrew translation of BM:
MT: l- ‘py ‘lyzy g’wty
BM: l’ ‘py ‘l ‘Iyzy g’wty
The MT scribe or a predecessor has—perhaps after a long, tiring day of work—made two deletions here. First, he deleted the Hebrew letter aleph (transliterated ‘) from the negative particle, resulting in the preposition l-. Because the earliest Hebrew writing has no spaces to divide words, the mistake would have been easily made. The second deletion involved the preposition ‘l (“upon”). Both of these cases of haplography occurred because of the proximity of other identical alphabetical elements to those being deleted. It is true that in biblical Hebrew we would normally expect ‘yn instead of l’ as the negative particle in nonverbal sentences such as this. However, the Bible has many examples of such a use for 1′, four of which occur in Isaiah (27:11; 37:19; 53:2; and 55:8).
Isaiah 13:22 compared with 2 Nephi 23:22:
BM adds to the end of the verse, “For I will destroy her speedily; yea, for I will be merciful unto my people, but the wicked shall perish.” There is partial confirmation in the versions. LXX adds, “quickly shall it be done, and shall not be delayed, ” while IQIsa adds “more (still, yet). ” It is possible that MT dropped this verse ending by haplography. The portion added in BM would begin with the Hebrew word ky, “for,” which happens to be the initial word in the next verse (14: 1). Moreover, 14:1 is not a logical successor to 13:22 without the BM addition, which introduces the subject of the Lord’s mercy toward Israel.
Isaiah 14:2 compared with 2 Nephi 24:2:
After KJV’s “to their place,” BM adds, “yea, from far unto the ends of the earth; and they shall return to their lands of promise.” MT has only “to their place,” finding agreement in LXX and Targum Codex Reuchlinianus. However, BM has support from some of the versions, such as Bibliotheque Nationale Ms.1325 (reading “to their land”) and IQIsa (“to their land and to their place”). Note that verse 1 has “to their own land, ” which may have influenced the dropping of the BM portion in MT. Also, immediately after the BM addition, MT/KJV has “and the house of Israel shall possess them in the land of the Lord. “Here, too, we have “land” and also byt (“house”), a word which resembles bryt (“covenant”), possibly the “promise” of the BM passage. (Cf. the use of bryt in the promise of land to Abraham in Genesis 17:7—10; Psalm 105:8—11.)
Isaiah 14:3 compared with 2 Nephi 24:3:
KJV reads “the day,” while BM reads “that day.” Though MT agrees with KJV, there are some Hebrew manuscripts which add h-hw’, “that.” (The full story behind the changes in vss. 3—4 requires a considerable background in Hebrew syntax on the part of the reader and is therefore not detailed here. It is nevertheless of interest that it provides further evidence of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon’s source—the brass plates of Laban—as an ancient document.)
Isaiah 14:32 compared with 2 Nephi 24:32:
KJV: “What shall one then answer the messengers . . . ?”
BM: “What shall then answer the messengers . . . ?”
BM makes “messengers” the subject here. The Hebrew verb is singular in MT, but is plural in IQIsa, LXX, and T, thus agreeing with BM (though all have mlky, “kings of,” instead of ml’ky, “messengers of”).
Isaiah 48:11 compared with 1 Nephi 20:11:
KJV: “for how should my name be polluted?”
BM: “for I will not suffer my name to be polluted”
While KJV finds support in the third-person conjugation of MT, OL, and LXX (the latter having the word “name, ” which is not present in the Hebrew text), the majority of the versions back the BM by having the verb in the first person (IQIsa, V, and one Targum [while another agrees with MT]. See Ezekiel 39:7; compare Ezekiel 20:9.
Isaiah 48:14 compared with 1 Nephi 20:14:
After the word “things,” BM adds “unto them.” The addition also appears in LXX. The Hebrew behind BM would read ‘lh ‘lhm, literally “these unto them” (with “things” being understood—actually unnecessary—in the Hebrew). MT evidently dropped the second word by haplography because it resembled the first. This example also provides evidence that BM derives from an older text than MT (i.e., the brass plates).
Isaiah 49:1 compared with 1 Nephi 21:1:
BM adds a preface to the KJV verse. Because the preface is in chiasmus, a poetic style used in biblical Hebrew wherein parallel lines form an “X” shape when diagrammed, it is good evidence of the authenticity of the account on the brass plates, even though there is no support from the versions. The preface may be outlined as follows:
B O ye house of Israel,
C All ye that are broken off and driven out
D Because of the wickedness of the pastors of my people;
C’ Yea, all ye that are broken off, that are scattered abroad,
B’ Who are of my people, O house of Israel.
A’ Listen, O isles, unto me.
The Hebrew of this addition would begin with the word svm’w, “hearken,” which also begins the section to follow. The loss of the preface in MT was probably due to haplography because of the resemblance of the two parts beginning with the same word.
Isaiah 50:2 compared with 2 Nephi 7:2:
KJV: “their fish stinketh, because there is no water, and dieth for thirst”
BM: “and their fish to stink because the waters are dried up, and they die of thirst”
From the perspective of the English, there seems to be no real justification for BM to reword this passage. But the Hebrew is again helpful. There are, in fact, two variants for the first verb in this passage, as found in ancient texts:
MT (=V) tb’sv “shall stink”
IQIsa (=LXX) tybsv “shall dry up”
BM has both of these meanings, deriving from words which closely resemble one another. It is likely that the other early Hebrew versions lost one or the other of the original two verbs by haplography.
Isaiah 51:9 compared with 2 Nephi 8:9:
BM deletes from KJV the words “in the generations of old.” Some Hebrew manuscripts give partial support by deleting the word “generations.”
Isaiah 51:15 compared with 2 Nephi 8:15:
KJV: “his name” (Hebrew svmw)
BM: “my name” (Hebrew svmy)
The two letters forming the suffix for pronominal possession look very much alike in Hebrew and are frequently confused in later manuscripts. This would indicate that the error is in MT, not BM (where the 600 B.C. date would preclude confusing the letters, which at that time were not alike). Support derives from LXX, which reads “my name.”
Isaiah 54:15 compared with Nephi 22:15:
KJV: “shall . . . gather together”
BM: “shall . . . gather together against thee”
LXX adds “to thee,” thus confirming BM. The addition agrees with the rest of the verse, reading, “whosoever shall gather together against thee . . . “
It has long been my contention that the best scientific evidence for the Book of Mormon is not archaeological or historical in nature, as important as these may be, but rather linguistic. This is because we have before us a printed text which can be subjected to linguistic analysis and comparison with the language spoken in the kingdom of Judah at the time of Lehi.
One of the more remarkable linguistic evidences for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon as a translation from an ancient text lies in the Isaiah variants found in it. The examples given here, though sketchy, are presented to offer some of that evidence to all those who seriously inquire after the origins of the Book of Mormon.
1. At that time I was unaware that others had done a similar work. However, inasmuch as I was able to discover a larger list than heretofore recognized, I feel justified in the approach taken.
2. Words which appear in italics in the King James Bible were added to make sense of the English translation and do not exist in the Hebrew text from which KJV derives.
3. The items marked N/A (“not applicable”) do not bear on Joseph Smith’s translation, but only on later printed versions of the Book of Mormon, and in some few cases on the manuscript prepared by Oliver Cowdery from dictation.
4. It is not possible to list all of the Isaiah variants in the Book of Mormon here. I have prepared an exhaustive study of these which is as yet unpublished, although it is presently circulated in manuscript form by the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies at Brigham Young University. In my opinion, some of the very best evidence for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon as a translation from an ancient text is to be found in this study.