Colby Townsend argues for more engagement with biblical scholarship when studying Isaiah in The Book of Mormon.

Academic / Technical Report
Colby Townsend

Colby Townsend, "'The Robe of Righteousness': Exilic and Post-Exilic Isaiah in The Book of Mormon," Dialogue :A Journal of Mormon Thought 55, no. 3 (2022): 75-106

Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought
Colby Townsend
Reading Public

The book of Isaiah has enjoyed an enduring presence within Christian thought since the earliest period of Christian history. Isaiah has famously been called “the fifth gospel” because of its ubiquitous presence within Christian writing, thought, and history and its immense influence on the New Testament. The importance of Isaiah within broader Christianity carries over into early Mormon texts as well, and readers of The Book of Mormon get a sense early on in their reading that they will have to deal with a significant amount of quoted material from Isaiah if they are going to engage the book and take it seriously. The book’s earliest character and émigré prophet, Nephi, explicitly states that he does not just want his readers to know his interpretation of Isaiah’s message. Instead, he wants them to read and know Isaiah’s words, mediated at least through a slightly revised and updated version of the King James text of Isaiah.

Scholars of The Book of Mormon have noted at least since H. Grant Vest that it is a historical problem for the book to quote from Isaiah chapters 40–66 because it is widely accepted in biblical scholarship that this section of the book dates to after 600 BCE, the period when Lehi and Nephi left Jerusalem. Numerous previous studies have examined the “problem of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon,” however, few have set this issue in the more comprehensive, poignant problem of the influence of the entire King James Bible on the composition of The Book of Mormon as a whole. As a contribution to the larger project of examining the King James Bible’s influence on The Book of Mormon, this essay focuses on several aspects of the problem of Isaiah in The Book of Mormon as they relate to the more significant issue. I will focus on two problems with the use of Isaiah in The Book of Mormon. First, previous scholarship has assumed that none of Third Isaiah has had any effect on the text of The Book of Mormon and the Isaiah chapters it quotes. This assumption has relied on a mistaken way of identifying influence by looking only for long quotations. Second, I examine how biblical scholarship on Isaiah complicates having a block quotation including portions of not only Isaiah chapters 40–55 but also those from chapters 2–14 as well. It was just as unlikely for a sixth-century Israelite immigrating from the Middle East to the Americas to have Isaiah 2–14 as they appear in the KJV as it was to have 40–55, and it is the fact that most of the scholarship on The Book of Mormon up to now has obscured this that I wish to address.

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