William J. Hamblin responds to George D. Smith's argument that questions around Isaiah authorship refute the historicity of the Book of Mormon.
William Hamblin, “‘Isaiah Update’ Challenge,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 17, no. 1 (Spring 1984): 4-7
Hamblin offers a critique of the assumptions underlying biblical scholarship, and offers a suggested possibility for the existence of another author in the time of Lehi.
The issues raised by George D. Smith, Jr., in "Isaiah Updated" (Summer 1983) are very important for the LDS community, yet for the most part, he failed to make explicit many of his assumptions and the resultant implications.
His paper has two major arguments. First, the existence in the Book of Mormon of portions of Isaiah 48-55 (purportedly written after 587 B.C. by "Second Isaiah") represents a major historical anachronism; and second, Mormons have interpreted certain passages in ways which do not coincide with the apparent meaning of the text.
Brother Smith writes that "most biblical scholars now find the evidence persuasive . . ." concerning the multiple authorship of Isaiah, which is quite true. However, not all the "scholars" (an amorphous and ill-defined body indeed) agree with the multiple authorship theory; those who do disagree among themselves about the exact nature of the multiple authorship and scholarly concensus is no proof that their opinions are correct. Scholarly concensus on an issue would indicate that we should give serious thought to their arguments, but it does not mean that we should accept their conclusions as facts. What is much more important than the scholarly consensus are the specific assumptions and arguments which the scholars use to support their position.
One fundamental assumption of many of these scholars is that there is no "real" prophecy: prophets did not and could never truly prophesy concerning the future. Smith seems to share this assumption as far as Isaiah is concerned. For most Latter-day Saints, denial of the prophetic strikes at some very vital roots. However, if one admits the possibility that Isaiah actually prophesied instead of just writing social commentary in an ancient literary style called "prophecy," then many, if not all, of the arguments against single authorship vanish.
For the sake of argument, let us accept that only chapters 1-39 were written by the "real" Isaiah. Where does that leave the Book of Mormon? Since Nephi could not have quoted from a work not yet written, we must conclude either that Joseph Smith was a fraud or that the Book of Mormon is only an inspired but nonhistorical parable or allegory whose value lies only in its ethical and theological principles. Does Brother Smith wish to maintain either of these positions or does he draw a different conclusion?
There is, however, a third possibility. One can accept most of the scholarly arguments in favor of Deutero-Isaiah, except that of dating. The Book of Mormon makes it clear that Lehi's group did not leave until after King Zedekiah ascended the throne (1 Ne. 1:4) as a Babylonian vassal in 597 B.C. after the first Babylonian invasion of 598-7, and after the first Babylonian Deportation. Lehi and his group left Jerusalem some time after the first year of Zedekiah, sojourned in the wilderness for an undetermined period, then returned to get the brass plates. It may well have been a year or even two or three before they obtained possession of the brass plates, conceivably as late as 595 or 594 B.C. 1 Nephi 1:4, which provides the Zedekiah date, also states that "there came many prophets prophesying." Was one of these prophets Deutero-Isaiah? If he existed, it is not unreasonable to suppose he began writing his prophecies after the first deportation and continued adding to them for many years. Indeed, we could theorize that Lehi knew Deutero-Isaiah and got copies of his prophecies directly from him.
Thus, if we posit that Deutero-Isaiah began writing as early as 597, 596, or 595 B.C. after the first Babylonian deportation instead of after the second deportation of 587, the problems regarding DeuteroIsaiah in the Book of Mormon are greatly diminished.
Brother Smith's second major point is that many Mormon interpretations of passages of Isaiah are not consistent with the apparent meaning of the text in its historical context — another way of saying that Mormon interpretations are different than interpretations given by other religious or scholarly groups. That is, of course, to be expected.
I believe, along with Brother Smith, that we have the responsibility to submit LDS interpretations of scriptures to detailed scrutiny using all the exegetical tools at our disposal, something which, I'm sorry to admit, I feel we often fail to do. But we also have the responsibility to submit the interpretations of other religions or scholars to equally rigorous scrutiny, which I feel Brother Smith has failed to do. In many cases he almost seems to unquestioningly accept scholarly or non-LDS interpretations of Isaiah and then conclude that the LDS interpretations must be incorrect. Of course, if one accepts the assumptions and biases of Jews or Catholics or secular scholars, one will naturally accept their conclusions. Brother Smith points out that many of the passages which Christians often interpret messianically are not so interpreted by Jewish theologians and secular scholars. That is hardly surprising. If they thought a passage in Isaiah truly referred to Christ they would probably become Christians. What becomes clear from Brother Smith's review of the problem, but which he unfortunately never explicitly states, is that there is no consensus of interpretation for most of the passages discussed. He mentions eleven different interpretations of the "Servant." In view of such disagreement, why should we assume that it is the Mormon/Christian interpretation which is faulty?
Even after one recognizes that approaching a text with different viewpoints will yield different conclusions, Brother Smith still offers arguments which might indicate that some LDS interpretations may not be completely compatible with the apparent meaning of the text. It is important to point out that there is no universally accepted methodological standard by which the correctness of a scriptural/historical interpretation can be judged. A major methodological problem of biblical scholarship is that it thrives on diversity and new interpretations. What graduate student ever got a Ph.D. by studying a problem and concluding that a previous interpretation was correct? Scholarly reputations are built on providing new insights, not on agreeing with what has already been said.