Nicholas Frederick and Joseph Spencer propose that God could have revealed Deutero-Isaiah to Book of Mormon prophets.

Nicholas J. Frederick

Nicholas Frederick and Joseph Spencer, "The Book of Mormon and the Academy," Religious Educator vol. 21 no. 2, 2020

BYU Religious Studies Center
Nicholas J. Frederick, Joseph M. Spencer
Reading Public

Isaiah in the Book of Mormon

Two potential anachronisms in the Book of Mormon, however, have drawn a special sort of attention, and they’re of more direct interest to us. The first concerns Isaiah. The past century and a half has seen a consensus emerge among biblical scholars that the Book of Isaiah weaves together writings that originated in three dramatically different periods of Israel’s history. The first set of writings are generally believed to go back to Isaiah of Jerusalem, who wrote during the eighth century before Christ. The second and third sets of writings, however, are believed to have originated more than a century later than Isaiah’s own lifetime and to have been appended to the collection of Isaiah’s writings long after his death. Isaiah scholars debate the details, but the vast majority agree on the general picture. It’s important to note that there are Isaiah scholars who take a dissenting position, but nearly all who do begin from conservative Christian theological assumptions about biblical inerrancy (that is, about the Bible being wholly without error because it’s God’s word).

All this poses difficulties for the Book of Mormon because Nephi quotes from certain supposedly later portions of the book of Isaiah. According to the Book of Mormon, Nephi and his family left Jerusalem with the brass plates (Nephi’s source for Isaiah) at the beginning of the sixth century before Christ.

At least parts of what he quotes from Isaiah, however, are generally believed to have been written no earlier than a few decades into the sixth century—and certain other parts still later. Even the parts of Isaiah Nephi quotes that definitely originated earlier, it’s often argued, only received the shape they have in the Book of Mormon rather late, decades after Nephi’s family would have left for the promised land. Consensus scholarship thus suggests that there’s something anachronistic about the Book of Mormon’s quotations of Isaiah. This difficulty has long been recognized by Latter-day Saint scholars, who have been writing about it since the 1930s.

Some, too eager to solve this potential problem for the Book of Mormon quickly, have suggested that biblical scholars come to their conclusions simply because they don’t believe in real (predictive) prophecy. This grossly oversimplifies matters, however. It’s true that biblical scholars—really, scholars of all kinds—are too quick to draw secularizing conclusions without having sifted all the evidence, but there are various kinds of evidence that lead scholars to their conclusions regarding authorship. And anyway, it’s foolhardy to insist that the conclusions of biblical scholarship result solely or even primarily from the scholars’ worldview. Worldviews always play a role in scholarship, to be sure, but so does evidence, and it’s the evidence that needs to be dealt with. To show that Isaiah passages quoted in the Book of Mormon existed in their final form by the time Nephi acquired the brass plates, it would be necessary to engage directly and convincingly with the evidence for the dating discussed by Isaiah scholars.

For our part, we feel that the question of whether the Book of Mormon’s uses of Isaiah are decidedly anachronistic hasn’t yet been asked earnestly. It isn’t enough for critics to point to scholarly consensus to establish that the Book of Mormon stumbles on this point. Consensus changes, and it always has blind spots. But it also isn’t enough for defenders of the Book of Mormon’s antiquity to line up scattered points of evidence regarding the single authorship of Isaiah or to cast aspersions on the motivations of biblical scholars. The fact is that no Isaiah scholar has yet fully put to the test the hypothesis that all the parts of Isaiah quoted in the Book of Mormon (and no more) had their final form by the beginning of the sixth century before Christ. Scholars of other persuasions have no motivation to pursue this hypothesis, and Latter-day Saint scholars with relevant training haven’t given sufficient attention directly to this question to decide it. Nothing definitive—certainly nothing definitive enough to risk one’s faith commitments on—has yet appeared in answer to such questions. It would be wonderful to see this issue receive the most serious treatment possible. For the moment, that hasn’t happened, and so every conclusion drawn is premature.

Further, though, it’s simply unclear just how important it would actually be to show that every Isaiah passage quoted in the Book of Mormon had been authored and given final shape by Nephi’s day. Perhaps God wished modern readers of the Book of Mormon to have a fuller Isaiah text than was available to Nephi on the brass plates. Because we don’t have access to the gold plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated or the brass plates from which Nephi claims to have drawn his Isaiah text, we don’t know how exactly the English text of the Book of Mormon is meant to reproduce the ancient sources. From our perspective, then, it seems more than a little overhasty for a believer to decide against the Book of Mormon’s truth because of its uses of Isaiah. To the contrary, the brilliance of Nephi’s interaction with Isaiah’s prophecies—the careful program of Nephi’s interpretations of Isaiah—is a substantial reason to give the book the benefit of the doubt. We find prophetic inspiration all throughout the Book of Mormon’s work with Isaiah, and that’s received too little attention so far. While we’re waiting for further and decisive work on the historical issues, we’re happy to give our time to sorting out what the Book of Mormon actually does with the writings of Isaiah.

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