Two Approaches to Isaiah

This is going to be a post about Isaiah that does *not* talk about Second Isaiah. After addressing the transmission of the text of Isaiah, I will contrast two different approaches to reading and understanding that book and, more generally, any scriptural book.

First consider the LDS view of the Bible more generally:

We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly. (AoF 8)

“Translated” here means not rendered from Greek and Hebrew into English but transmitted down through the centuries. The claim is that the Bible we have today is a corrupted version of the text that existed at some time in the past, with passages, even large chunks of text, removed. This view is expressed very clearly in the Book of Mormon:

The Book which thou beholdest, is a record of the Jews, … and it is a record like unto the engravings which are upon the plates of brass, save there are not so many. … [W]hen it proceeded forth from the mouth of a Jew, it contained the plainness of the Gospel of the Lord, of whom the twelve apostles bear record … these things go forth from the Jews in purity, unto the Gentiles …. [T]hou seest that after the Book hath gone forth through the hands of the great and abominable church, that there are many plain and precious things taken away from the Book, … and after that these plain and precious things were taken away, it goeth forth unto all the nations of the Gentiles, yea, even across the many waters …. (1 Ne. 13, 1830 ed.)

According to this passage, the biblical writings went forth “in purity” from the Jews to the early Christian church. Only later were things taken out of (not added to) the Bible. This pared down Bible eventually crossed the Atlantic Ocean with European settlers and made its way into the hands of Joseph Smith. Consistent with this view of the Bible, Joseph Smith (with the assistance of Sidney Rigdon) set about repairing this corrupted Bible shortly after the LDS Church was established, adding many additional passages but removing few.

Enter the Dead Sea Scrolls

According to the LDS view as sketched above, if we were able to go back and read the ur-Bible “in purity,” we should see those additional plain passages that were later removed. It just so happens that such early manuscripts were discovered with the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) in the mid-20th century. In particular, the Great Isaiah Scroll (as it has come to be known) preserves almost the entire book of Isaiah. The scroll is dated to the second century BC. It pushes our knowledge of the text of the book of Isaiah back a thousand years. Remarkably, this second century BC text shows only minor differences, mostly grammatical, when compared to the medieval Masoretic texts that were previously our earliest complete text for Isaiah. There are no big chunks of text removed from earliest Isaiah. Apparently the text was transmitted much more correctly than the LDS tradition has generally supposed.

John J. Collins, a DSS scholar and author of The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography (Princeton Univ. Press, 2013), agrees. “The initial announcement of the Dead Sea Scrolls in April 1948 had trumpeted the discovery of the earliest known manuscript of the entire Book of Isaiah, and noted that it was older than any other complete Hebrew manuscript of the book by about a thousand years” (p. 185). He goes on to discuss how other scrolls discovered in other DSS caches showed early Hebrew texts largely supporting the textual variations in the Samaritan Pentateuch (SP) and the Septuagint. In other words, variations in these two sources were not simply the product of bad translation from a single Hebrew textual tradition; there were several different Hebrew textual traditions circulating in Palestine prior to the first century AD. Eventually the other traditions fell out of use, preserved only in the SP and the Septuagint, and the Masoretic text became normative for Judaism and, eventually, Christianity. Collins notes, “[I]t was the book that was authoritative, rather than a particular form of the text, just as in a modern context the authority of the book does not depend on the wording of any one translation. For Christians brought up to believe in verbal inspiration, this may come as something of a shock” (p. 189).

One Approach: Elder McConkie’s Ten Keys

So how should a Latter-day Saint approach the study of Isaiah (or, more generally, any book of the Bible)? In 1973, Elder Bruce R. McConkie published “Ten Keys to Understanding Isaiah” in the Ensign. He affirms the idea that Isaiah is difficult to understand: “Let us freely acknowledge that many people find Isaiah hard to understand. His words are almost totally beyond the comprehension of those in the Churches of the world.” He then offers ten guidelines for understanding the present book of Isaiah:

  1. Gain an overall knowledge of the Plan of Salvation and of God’s dealings with His earthly children.
  2. Learn the position and destiny of the House of Israel in the Lord’s eternal scheme of things.
  3. Know the chief doctrines about which Isaiah chose to write.
  4. Use the Book of Mormon.
  5. Use latter?day revelation.
  6. Learn how the New Testament interprets Isaiah.
  7. Study Isaiah in its Old Testament context.
  8. Learn the manner of prophesying used among the Jews in Isaiah’s day.
  9. Have the spirit of prophecy.
  10. Devote yourself to hard, conscientious study.

Another Approach: Historical Criticism

Isaiah scholar David P. Wright takes a different approach in “Joseph Smith’s Interpretation of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon,” published in 1998. As a scholar, Wright employs historical criticism to understand the text, essentially focusing on items 7 and 10 from Elder McConkie’s list of ten guidelines. Rather than using Book of Mormon passages to better understand Isaiah (number 4 on Elder McConkie’s list), Wright tends to use Isaiah to understand the Book of Mormon passages. Here is a helpful paragraph from the article:

The text of Isaiah in the [Book of Mormon] for the most part follows the King James Version. There are some variants, but these are often insignificant or of minor note and therefore do not contribute greatly to clarifying the meaning of the text. The [Book of Mormon], however, does provide interpretation of or reflections on the meaning of Isaiah. This exegesis is usually placed in chapters following citation of the text, though occasionally it is interspersed in the citation. It is noteworthy because, instead of laying out the original historical meaning of Isaiah, it reapplies the text to the time of Joseph Smith and to the course of Jewish and Christian history up to his time. (citations omitted)

Wright notes that interpreting Isaiah by applying the text to one’s own time (what he sees Joseph Smith doing) “is not unique in the larger context of Jewish and Christian traditions.” That’s also what Nephi recommended in 1 Nephi 19: “For I did liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be fore our profit and learning.” Coincidentally, that approach was used in a number of DSS commentaries on other books in the Hebrew Bible (most famously Habakkuk). New Testament authors as well regularly cite Old Testament passages and apply them to the life of Jesus or events in the early Christian church.

Elsewhere, Wright contrasts two different approaches he calls traditionalist and historical critical, which more or less correspond to the two approaches noted above. Both have their place. While facts and context are helpful for a Gospel Doctrine teacher to share with a class on Sunday, the historical critical approach standing alone is as unsuited for a Sunday School class as is a devotional or traditionalist approach for a college course or seminar. Likewise, at times you may read Isaiah with your study bible in one hand and a scholarly commentary in the other, but at other times you read for personal profit and learning, applying the text to your own life and how to live it better.

10 comments for “Two Approaches to Isaiah

  1. It’s hard to parse Nephi here, without wondering how exactly this information was conveyed to him.

    It’s been suggested that perhaps Nephi refers less to scripture on the textual level (that is, an important chapter or verses or lines of Isaiah are missing) and more on the canonical level (that is, something that was supposed to be preserved, canonized, and included was not.) Perhaps Zenos, Zenock, Jacob 5, etc. lend support to that hypothesis.

    On the other hand, let’s not overplay the DSS. I’ll hold off on that comment until I can locate the paper I’m thinking off.

  2. Thanks for the article. Though I agree that an exclusive, historical critical approach is not necessarily the best for Sunday School, I would favor more scriptural scholarship in Sunday School than is typically found. I don’t see the historical critical approach as a current threat to the “how does this remind you of a time you felt the spirit” approach in the Sunday School manuals.

  3. at times you may read Isaiah with your study bible in one hand and a scholarly commentary in the other, but at other times you read for personal profit and learning

    Not that the two approaches are mutually exclusive, of course.

  4. Hey Ben, can you provide a reference for the paper/book that discusses this idea: “It’s been suggested that perhaps Nephi refers less to scripture on the textual level (that is, an important chapter or verses or lines of Isaiah are missing) and more on the canonical level (that is, something that was supposed to be preserved, canonized, and included was not.)”

  5. If I can remember/find it again, I will. I’m not as bibliographically sharp on the Book of Mormon as I used to be. I’m pretty sure it was not a book-length treatment, as much as a paper or a footnote somewhere.

  6. Ben, IMHO the theory stands on its own, no matter who said it. In fact, I think you were the first person to help me dispel the myth of the pernicious scribe, omitting “plain and precious” passages to meet diabolical ends.

    The canonical model for what the BoM is saying, just makes much more sense.

  7. Another theory regarding Nephi’s use of Isaiah…is that he begins quoting Isaiah shortly after he states that he has been forbidden from writing any more of the things which he was shown concerning the last days.

    The way he chooses to expound on the writings of other prophets (Zenock, Neum, Zenos, Moses, Isaiah) seems to be to elaborate on the view that he now has from his own visionary experiences. Now that he has seen with clarity the end from the beginning, he begins quoting other prophets who he recognizes have seen the same thing.

    It would seem to me that Nephi uses the words of Isaiah to say things that he has seen but is not allowed to say. He quotes Isaiah for much of 2 Nephi, and then spends chapters 25 and 26 elaborating on the message of Isaiah as it relates to his own people’s destiny. He returns to quoting Isaiah in chapter 27, and spends the next 3 chapters (2 Ne 28-30) explaining why he thinks those words apply to those who will live in the latter days.

    Perhaps Nephi loves Isaiah because he was authorized to say poetically what Nephi wasn’t authorized to say plainly….but the words of Isaiah are plain to Nephi…because he’s seen them.

  8. It seems that our current OT is pretty similar to what was established as biblical by Jesus’ time (especially where Isaiah is concerned), so whatever “plain and precious” items were removed were likely in association with the changes in Judaism happening during and just after the Babylonian exile. I also don’t necessarily see it as a pernicious scribe, but people supporting what they felt was the correct theological view (among many).

    I know the conflict of the two scriptural approaches mentioned (traditionalist vs. historical-critical) are a major part of Peter Enns’ “Inspiration and Incarnation” book that Ben S. has recommended on other blog posts. It was a good read for me, and helps me accept the traditionalist approach as a valid form of interpretation, even if it sometimes feels a little shaky. For me it helps to remember that I’ve often received inspiration during a conference talk that seems incredibly pertinent to my life, only to discover later reading the written version that the inspired message I’d received wasn’t anywhere near what the speaker was originally addressing. I view some of the conclusions of the GD manual as similarly subjective, but I’ve witnessed the spiritual value of those views for many in my SS class. It’s a constant struggle for me to tone down the historical-critical views that I tend to find more intellectually and spiritually fulfilling in order to better meet the needs of my class.

  9. While Isaiah may not have changed much since 200 BCE, let’s note that there are dozens of important books among the DSS that did not make it into our Bible. There are many plain and precious books that were taken away that we now do not have in our Bible, but were considered sacred by ancient Jews (or Christians for many other texts).

    Next, it may be that Nephi had a similar, but different, version of Isaiah than what is now available. When you look at some of the differences in Nephi’s quoting of Isaiah and see some major changes in Isaiah 29, for instance, it may lead us to a different northern kingdom version. After all, Zenock, Zenos and others also made it into the Brass Plates, which did not make it into the Masoretic or LXX.

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