How studying the humanities helps me avoid faith crises: notes on deutero-Isaiah in the Book of Mormon

Clark’s post and his links to David Bokovoy’s discussion of deutero-Isaiah at Rational Faiths  reminded me that the dating of Isaiah does not cause me much concern, mostly because I am averse to crises, but also as a direct consequence of my academic studies and research. I accept that the best possible dating of many parts of Isaiah, including some passages cited in the Book of Mormon, is much later than the eighth or sixth century B.C.; and I don’t think the best option is to explain their presence (in Isaiah or in Mosiah) through divine intervention, even as I believe in prophecy and revelation; and I think that the best explanation for the Book of Mormon is that it was a historical text written on real plates.

Biblical Studies is not my field, so I have to evaluate the problem of deutero-Isaiah by analogy to my own studies. My research does include work on premodern texts, however, and the textual history of prophecies, and I’ve even managed to publish a few things, so I don’t feel like I’m completely unqualified to have an opinion.

About Isaiah, I should first concede that unitary authorship is not important to me, among other reasons because unitary authorship is nearly unknown. By the time any text is two days old, let alone after centuries of transmission, it is already the work of many hands. We canonize Isaiah as it has been constructed over many centuries and not a hypothetical original,  eighth-century B.C. Isaiah. After copyists, editors, and redactors have done their work, it is not possible to un-frappé the text, even though attempting to do so is often unavoidable. The best interpretation of the remaining evidence of a text’s history will still be tentative.

A composite Isaiah is not in itself a problem for straightforward Book of Mormon historicity, but dating of deutero-Isaiah to after the time Lehi is thought to have left Jerusalem could be. How strong is the evidence for a post-exilic deutero-Isaiah? David Bokovoy lays out three kinds of evidence. First is what we might call cultural historical context; specifically, in the  eighth century, Jerusalem was the inviolable Zion, while deutero-Isaiah reflects a conquered Jerusalem, therefore (the argument goes) those passages must have been composed later. It’s a very reasonable way to interpret the evidence. And yet I also know from the prophetic texts I have studied that names are the kind of specific detail that is easily modified as an older text is given new meaning as it continues to circulate. A text written earlier about one city can easily be pressed into service to lament Jerusalem centuries later. Another problem with dating composition from an apparent ex eventu prophecy is that sometimes prophecies are fulfilled (at least if viewed in the proper light), and in fact nothing else is as effective at guaranteeing further circulation of a prophetic text. A failed prophecy of Jerusalem’s fall will become a true prophecy, if one only waits a few centuries. Establishing a time of last redaction is easier, but the relevant question here is the time of first composition, and determining that is extremely difficult.

The second kind of evidence that David Bokovoy explains is linguistic, with several examples of post-exilic Hebrew usage or Aramaic influence in deutero-Isaiah. The contention is that more modern language indicates more recent composition, although for the texts I work with, more modern language can just as well reflect a living text that has been continuously transmitted, translated, and updated, while archaic language is a sign that a text had become formulaic, fossilized, or ignored entirely. In practice it is often not possible to distinguish a modern composition from a modern revision, or to determine a text’s ultimate time depth. It seems at first glance reasonable to think that we can reliably recognize when an older text has been modernized. My experience, however, is that this assumption often proves incorrect in practice. As you’re staring at your textual witnesses, there is ample evidence that the text existed in earlier forms and has undergone redactions, but reconstructing those earlier stages proves to be fiendishly difficult. One constructs a stemma codicum in fear and trembling.

The third kind of evidence David Bokovoy mentions concerns citations of and allusions to post-exilic writings such as Jeremiah in deutero-Isaiah, with the assumption that the writer of deutero-Isaiah had Jeremiah in mind, and not some older text. And in fact there is little alternative; for discovering intertextual connections, we must rely on the texts we have. But we should always be conscious that our corpus was not their corpus. For premodern literature, especially as far back as 600 B.C., the gaps are many times larger than our knowledge. Again, I don’t think that the reconstruction of a post-exilic deutero-Isaiah is false; to the contrary, I suspect it’s the best possible reading of the evidence. But I’ve also experienced the limitations of that evidence.

On the other side of the equation, I have questions not only about the textual scholarship on Isaiah, but also about how we read the Book of Mormon. I think the Book of Mormon is, as it claims, a work written by many authors over several centuries, much like the Bible, and so I assume that similar care must be taken when it comes to what the text says about itself, including its genesis and dating. Lehi leaving Jerusalem around 600 B.C. may be the simplest way to interpret the evidence, but I am not strongly tied to that date. We usually don’t take national theophanies and sacralized accounts of ethnogenesis at face value when dating a text, but those are the only firm anchors in history for the Book of Mormon’s narrative.

Finally, one has to recognize that the Book of Mormon was translated less into English than into Joseph Smith’s revelatory language, which was dominated by the language of the King James Bible, with linguistic units of all sizes playing a role, from single words to excerpts consisting of multiple chapters. The Book of Mormon advertises its biblical allusions, and an analysis of its text has to begin with an awareness that the text is awash in stuff from the KJV. The KJV material doesn’t worry me, again because I am familiar with similar kinds of prophetic intertextuality from my study of Reformation-era prophets. The basis of the Book of Mormon in the language of the KJV does mean that assumptions about the non-English text of the plates must be quite tentative, however.

So my experience doing somewhat similar research has given me a sense of the distance that lies between the best possible reading of the available evidence, a plausible argument that can withstand peer review, a traditional and devotional reading of scripture, and ultimate historical reality. Everybody is trying to do the best they can with what they have, and I’m not going to be too concerned if there is some slippage between the various sides. While the Book of Mormon and deutero-Isaiah are pointing in opposite directions, they’re nudging, not battering each other.

For deutero-Isaiah in the Book of Mormon (and a host of other issues), we can think of the problem like a light switch. We have some indications from biblical studies that the switch is flipped to OFF, while we have some other indications from the Book of Mormon that the switch is flipped to ON. Rather than panicking over the contradiction or getting caught in the debate between OFF and ON, we want to take in all the evidence we can get. Eventually we may find that what we are looking at is not a simple up-or-down switch, but actually an in-or-out press button, or a dimmer slide, or a dial that goes up to eleven.

7 comments for “How studying the humanities helps me avoid faith crises: notes on deutero-Isaiah in the Book of Mormon

  1. Good post. And as you note appeal to the best explanation doesn’t entail truth especially when the evidence is circumstantial and weak.

  2. This is an interesting, informative, insightful post. But I wonder if you could spell out, for slower readers (or at least for me), what it adds up to with respect to possible crises of faith. From what you say, it’s clear that we can’t expect to have certainty regarding the exact authorial process for a text like Isaiah, or the Book of Mormon. And overly simple descriptions (e.g., Mormon inscribed the word on a metal plate; Joseph read the inscription on the plate and gave the exact English translation) are likely misleading. I get that. But what sort of scenario(s) do you have in mind that might account for the inclusion in the Book of Mormon of language from texts written a continent away, to which the book’s authors would not have had (natural) access? What are the faith-friendly ways in which that language might have gotten from the deutero-author into the 19th-century English translation? I apologize for the question: probably you’ve answered it in the original post, but I wasn’t able to make out exactly what you were suggesting.

  3. SDS, I can’t speak for Jonathan on those topics, but I think once you accept a loose translation rather than a tight translation that those issues resolve themselves. You then have the U&T in some fashion taking phrases that convey a similar idea out of Joseph’s memory. Those most often are KJV phrases but also come from common theological or rhetorical phrases that he likely heard in his environment.

    The bigger issue aren’t these loose phrases with a “close enough” relation to the underlying text but extended quotations that almost certainly reflect quotations in the underlying text.

    If you’re interested a good discussion of the arguments for a loose translation along with explaining what that entails, I’d check out Brant Gardner’s excellent The Gift and the Power. Even if you ultimately may not agree with him I think it’s a must read for oriented the nature of the debate.

  4. SDS, there are several possibilities. Maybe in some cases, a passage from deutero-Isaiah is older than it looked (and so doesn’t cause a problem for the traditional dating of the Book of Mormon). Or maybe the Brass Plates left Jerusalem later than the traditional dating has it (there are gaps in the Book of Mormon’s chronicle of history, and the internal story suggests at least a couple places where record keeping wasn’t very good, and who knows how well the editors were able to reconcile the records at their disposal). And that’s all before the problem of the KJV in the translation process that Clark describes. Maybe Joseph Smith’s revelatory process always rendered one word of Nephite writing into a word of English, although I suspect that it was rather a process that might find the best possible translation of a word or phrase with a much larger (or smaller) linguistic unit drawn from the KJV, maybe reflecting a Nephite citation of a verse from Isaiah with a verse from the KJV, or maybe reflecting that verse with a chapter. So when an issue like deutero-Isaiah comes along, we can look at it from a lot of different angles and possibly learn something interesting.

  5. Regarding this comment, “First is what we might call cultural historical context; specifically, in the eighth century, Jerusalem was the inviolable Zion, while deutero-Isaiah reflects a conquered Jerusalem, therefore (the argument goes) those passages must have been composed later. It’s a very reasonable way to interpret the evidence.”

    This is of course a generalization about deutero-Isaiah, and I agree with it being “a very reasonable way to interpret the evidence,” but what gets overlooked is the issue of what gets imagined, noticed and valued as evidence given the assumptions, methods, and problem field of particular approach. I sometimes run across an approach to chapters within those labeled deutero-Isaiah that brings out things that the “conquered Jerusalem” contextual filter and lens simply does not see, and therefore, does not bother to interpret or weigh in the balance. This one, in particular, deserves serious consideration with respect to the Fourth Servant song (Isaiah 53 and Abinadi) with implications for generalizations about deutero-Isaiah. I hadn’t read it when I wrote my chapter on Isaiah in the Book of Mormon in Paradigms Regained in 2001. I should have done. It makes a difference in what should count as evidence, though, not if we don’t read it.

    And discussions of the KJV influence on the translation are interesting and important, but Thomas Wayment noticed a passage in Alma 7:11 where Alma quotes Isaiah 53:4, but apparently Joseph Smith did not recognize it as a quote he had already translated KJV style in Mosiah. Alma 7:11 provides a more literal and more accurate translation of the Hebrew.

  6. Jonathan:

    First, EXCELLENT post. For me your thoughts hit the nail on the head, but when I try to convey them, they come across as sounding like I’m saying I just don’t care about the details. Wish I was as articulate as you. Well done, and thank you.

    Second, “dial that goes up to eleven” FTW! Well played, my friend.

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