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  • Writer's picturestephenstrent7

Isaiah in the Book of Mormon



                              The Prophet Isaiah, Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel, 1509


Where Science Meets the Book of Mormon: Come Follow Me Lesson: February 19-25; 2 Nephi 6-10


One of the primary approaches to scientific investigation is to take a small example of a much larger phenomenon to test a hypothesis concerning that phenomenon. That way, we can take a small enough snap-shot to test the larger hypothesis without having to take on the entire panorama. 2 Nephi has several chapters where the book of Isiah is presented to the reader. In 2 Nephi 6:4, Jacob stated, “And now, behold, I would speak unto you concerning things which are, and which are to come; wherefore, I will read you the words of Isaiah. And they are the words which my brother has desired that I should speak unto you. And I speak unto you for your sakes, that ye may learn and glorify the name of your God.” For the test of my hypothesis, I have chosen arbitrarily 2 Nephi 7:1. My hypothesis is that the text of Isiah, quoted throughout several chapters of 2 Nephi, is similar enough to that in the King James Old Testament to represent a similar source but different enough to not have been quoted directly from that source — suggesting a similar but unique and different source — such as the Brass Plates of Laban. In science, we often cite a null hypothesis, which is the mirror opposite of the actual hypothesis, but is more directly testable. The null hypothesis in this case is that the verse 2 Nephi 7:1 is indistinguishable from the “quoted” verse of the King James Isiah 50:1 and, therefore, the former is simply a direct copy of the latter. Rejection of the null hypothesis in this case would tend to support the original hypothesis. However, in scientific investigation, the larger hypothesis can never be completely proven because there may be cases where the test of the null hypothesis did not include variations contained in the larger picture.


The heading to 2 Nephi 7 states: “Jacob continues reading from Isaiah: Isaiah speaks messianically—The Messiah will have the tongue of the learned—He will give His back to the smiters—He will not be confounded—Compare Isaiah 50. About 559–545 B.C.


Jacob then reads, apparently from the Brass Plates of Laban, what is now 2 Nephi 7:1, “Yea, for thus saith the Lord: Have I put thee away, or have I cast thee off forever? For thus saith the Lord: Where is the bill of your mother’s divorcement? To whom have I put thee away, or to which of my creditors have I sold you? Yea, to whom have I sold you? Behold, for your iniquities have ye sold yourselves, and for your transgressions is your mother put away.”

 

The quoted verse is from Isiah 50:1, here, as rendered in the King James Version: “Thus saith the Lord, Where is the bill of your mother’s divorcement, whom I have put away? or which of my creditors is it to whom I have sold you? Behold, for your iniquities have ye sold yourselves, and for your transgressions is your mother put away.”

 

A simple reading of the two versions disproves the null hypothesis: that 2 Nephi 7:1 and the King James Isaiah 50:1 are identical; and, therefore, tends to support the larger hypothesis that all of Isaiah, quoted in 2 Nephi is not identical but is taken from a similar but unique and different source.

 

However, as with any scientific investigation, we can go beyond simply testing the null hypothesis and ask what about the two versions is identical, or nearly so, and what parts are different. By so doing, we may gain additional insight into the two versions, and their possible sources. One way to do this is to look at a source that may be as close as possible to the original text from which the King James Bible was translated to see what words and idioms in the Book of Mormon version may have been borrowed directly from the King James version as opposed to coming from some other source. I like the material presented at Bible Hub, from Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, for that purpose. As far as I can tell, that website (biblehub.com) tends to be a relatively impartial source of such material.

 

A complicating factor here is the Old-World versions and translations of Isaiah. Before the Babylonian captivity, Israelite scholars probably wrote in some form of Canaanite (see my blog: The Scriptures Are Read to Israel, July 18-24, 2022). It is likely that both the version of Isaiah on the Brass Plates of Laban and those carried by the captive scholars into Babylon were nearly, if not completely identical. It is possible that what the scholars carried into Babylon was a memorized version of the original. After the captivity, Israelite scholars would have begun writing in Hebrew. It was probably some Hebrew version, recopied many times, that became the foundation of the Masoretic Hebrew from which the King James Bible was translated. None-the-less, this later Hebrew is as close as we are going to get to any original text.      

 

The Hebrew for the opening phrase: “Thus saith the Lord…” would be: כֹּ֣ה ׀ (kōh) יְהוָ֗ה (Yah·weh) אָמַ֣ר (’ā·mar): “Thus the Lord says…” The phrase: “Where is the bill of your mother’s divorcement…” would be: אֵ֣י (’ê) אִמְּכֶם֙ (’im·mə·ḵem) סֵ֣פֶר (sê·p̄er) כְּרִית֤וּת (kə·rî·ṯūṯ): “Where mother divorce document…” The verb “is” in the King James is shown in italics indicating that it was added — because the verb in Hebrew is implied, not stated. The word “your,” although not italicized, was also apparently added. The phrase: “…whom I have put away…” would be: אֲשֶׁ֣ר (’ă·šer) שִׁלַּחְתִּ֔יהָ (šil·laḥ·tî·hā): “…who sent away…” Apparently,          

 “I have” is also implied here. The remainder of Isaiah 50:1 has similar transliterations. The word “creditors” comes from the Hebrew מִנּוֹשַׁ֔י (min·nō·wō·šay): “to lend, borrow on security, interest.” “…for your iniquities…” comes from בַּעֲוֺנֹֽתֵיכֶם֙ (ba·‘ă·wō·nō·ṯê·ḵem): “iniquity, guilt, punishment for iniquity.” “…and for your transgressions…” וּבְפִשְׁעֵיכֶ֖ (ū·ḇə·p̄iš·‘ê·ḵem): meaning “transgression.”1

 

Given that verbs and possessive personal pronouns were implied and left out of Hebrew writing, it is even more likely that such parts of speech were left out of the short-hand version of the Reformed Egyptian of the Book of Mormon. That said, let’s compare some of the phrases in 2 Nephi 7:1 to those in Isaiah 50:1. For example, the phrase, “Where is the bill of your mother’s divorcement…” is nearly the same in both sources. The words “is” and “your” are added in both cases, but apparently implied in the original of both. Furthermore, the word “bill” in each case is the same, whereas the preferred translation of (sê·p̄er) כְּרִית֤וּת would be “document.” These identical phrases in 2 Nephi 7:1 and Isaiah 50:1 would imply that the former was copied from the latter. There are other similarities, but this comparison will suffice.

 

However, before that phrase, 2 Nephi 7:1 has the added phrase, Yea, for thus saith the Lord: Have I put thee away, or have I cast thee off forever?” Here is a phrase that is not in Isaiah 50:1, it is the same “King James” type of phraseology but it is not present in Isaiah 50:1. So, the verse in 2 Nephi sounds like a repeat of what is in Isaiah but with some added text. How did that happen?

 

In an 1879 interview with his mother for the Saints’ Herald, the official paper of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (now the Community of Christ) Joseph Smith III asked about his father’s translation of the Book of Mormon, “Had he not a book or manuscript from which he read, or dictated to you?” Emma responded, “He had neither manuscript nor book to read from.” Question from Joseph, “Could he not have had, and you not know it?” Answer from Emma, “If he had had anything of the kind he could not have concealed it from me.”2 Therefore, if Joseph Smith, Jr. was quoting directly from Isaiah, he must have had the chapters that appear in 2 Nephi memorized. Furthermore, he must have been able to insert additional passages very smoothly around the memorized passages — and blend them in so smoothly that they sounded like they fit seamlessly. This sort of half memorizing, half insertion would require the mind of a first-class genius, in my opinion — or some external assistance.


Joseph Smith III continued, “Could not father have dictated the Book of Mormon to you, Oliver Cowdery and the others who wrote for him, after having first written it, or having first read it out of some book?” Emma answered, “Joseph Smith [and for the first time she used his name direct, having usually used the words, ‘your father’ or ‘my husband’] could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter; let alone dictating a book like the Book of Mormon. And, though I was an active participant in the scenes that transpired, and was present during the translation of the plates, and had cognizance of things as they transpired, it is marvelous to me, ‘a marvel and a wonder,’ as much so as to any one else.”3


Then Joseph asked, “Mother, what is your belief about the authenticity, or origin of the Book of Mormon?” Emma replied, “My belief is that the Book of Mormon is of divine authenticity — I have not the slightest doubt of it. I am satisfied that no man could have dictated the writing of the manuscripts unless he was inspired; for, when acting as his scribe, your father would dictate to me hour after hour; and when returning after meals, or after interruptions, he would at once begin where he had left off, without either seeing the manuscript or having any portion of it read to him. This was a usual thing for him to do. It would have been improbable that a learned man could do this; and, for one so ignorant and unlearned as he was, it was simply impossible.”4


Orson Scott Card, who has published over fifty novels, and who is the only person to have won a Hugo Award and a Nebula Award in consecutive years, has stated, “Joseph Smith never asked the scribe to read back where he left off. That’s a miracle. I can’t do that. No writer that I know of can…even after one day I must go back and reread several pages before starting to write again.”5 I agree with Card. I have written around forty books to date and I cannot pick up where I left off writing without re-reading large parts of what I have previously written — and I cannot write without relying heavily on outside sources — even for my novels.

 

In a letter to James Arlington Bennett, dated Nauvoo, Illinois, Nov. 13, 1843, Joseph Smith stated, “…truth; for truth is a matter of fact; and the fact is, that by the power of God I translated the Book of Mormon from hieroglyphics, the knowledge of which was lost to the world, in which wonderful event I stood alone, an unlearned youth, to combat the worldly wisdom and multiplied ignorance of eighteen centuries, with a new revelation, which (if they would receive the everlasting Gospel,) would open the eyes of more than eight hundred millions of people, and make ‘plain the old paths,’ wherein if a man walk in all the ordinances of God blameless, he shall inherit eternal life...”6

 

At the Church website, study manual, Book of Mormon translation, we are told, “In the preface to the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith wrote: ‘I would inform you that I translated [the book], by the gift and power of God.’ When pressed for specifics about the process of translation, Joseph repeated on several occasions that it had been done ‘by the gift and power of God’ and once added, ‘It was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon.’”7 

 

According to several accounts, Joseph placed either the interpreters or, more commonly, the seer stone, which had been in his possession for several years, into a hat, pressed his face into the hat to block out extraneous light, and read aloud the English words that appeared on the instrument.8 One of the early scribes and one of the three witnesses, Martin Harris, “…sat across the table from Joseph Smith and wrote down the words Joseph dictated. Harris later related that as Joseph used the seer stone to translate, sentences appeared. Joseph read those sentences aloud, and after penning the words, Harris would say, ‘Written.’ An associate who interviewed Harris recorded him saying that Joseph ‘possessed a seer stone, by which he was enabled to translate as well as from the Urim and Thummim, and for convenience he then used the seer stone.’”9 “The principal scribe, Oliver Cowdery, testified under oath in 1831 that Joseph Smith “found with the plates, from which he translated his book, two transparent stones, resembling glass, set in silver bows. That by looking through these, he was able to read in English, the reformed Egyptian characters, which were engraved on the plates.”10 

 

Despite the statements by Harris and Cowdery, it is my opinion that Joseph didn’t just see English sentences on or in the seer stone. If so, then the statements in Doctrine and Covenants section 9, about Oliver having to “study it out” in his mind makes no sense. They sat across the table from Joseph and recorded what he said, but neither of them actually saw what he saw in the seer stone.

 

Grant Hardy, Professor of History and Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina Asheville, has stated, “Some Latter-day Saints believe that the seer stone allowed Joseph to bypass the first step in such a way that the meaning of the golden plates’ text was revealed to him in a nonverbal or preverbal form, which he then put into his own words…At the same time, however, the process was not as straightforward as ordinary reading, since David Whitmer reported that if Joseph was not spiritually in tune (as when he had some sort of argument with his wife Emma), the device did not work.”11 I agree with Hardy, that Book of Mormon text was “revealed to him in a nonverbal or preverbal form, which he then put into his own words…” 

 

With all of this said, here is what I think may have happened with 2 Nephi 7:1, and all other parts of the Book of Mormon: as Joseph Smith was translating this part of the Book of Mormon, dictating to Oliver Cowdery as he looked into his hat at the seer stone, he was told in his mind by the power of the Holy Ghost what was recorded on the Gold Plates. Doctrine and Covenants 8:2 tells us, “Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart.” Joseph then stated in English what had come into his mind as a nonverbal idea. Because Jacob was quoting here from the Brass Plates the words of Isaiah, which was similar to but not identical to what we now have in the King James Bible, those were the ideas coming into Joseph’s mind.

 

Ben Johnson has stated, “The King James Bible has long been celebrated as one of the most significant texts of all time, not only for its accessible portrayal of the Christian religion, but also for its ability to spread the English language worldwide to become the dominant global language (in both a commercial and cultural sense) that it is today…The King James Bible has contributed 257 phrases to the English language, more than any other single source, including the works of Shakespeare. Expressions such as ‘a Fly in the ointment,’ ‘thorn in the side’ and ‘Do we see eye to eye,’ which are still commonly used today all originated in the Bible.”12

 

It is very likely, even indeed, almost certain that the King James Bible was the only book in the Smith home as Joseph was growing up. As he had very little formal schooling, the Bible would have been Joseph’s primary, if not only, source of material that he learned to read. Even though he may not have memorized the entire Bible, he certainly would have committed to memory a large number of passages, including catchy phrases from the Bible. One such phrase was likely: “Where is the bill of your mother’s divorcement?” Even though the word “document” is probably more accurate than “bill,” it does not give the phrase the same sort of memorable cadence as does the word “bill,” which is likely why the latter word was chose by the King James translators. The verse in 2 Nephi 7:1 then includes more text than King James Isaiah 50:1, which also came into Joseph’s mind and which he then dictated as he understood the phrases in King James English. Joseph Smith was relatively uneducated, but the Lord chooses those who are prepared for specific missions. Because Joseph’s education came largely from the Bible, and perhaps because he had an uncanny ability to retain phrases, he was well prepared for his foreordained task of translating the Book of Mormon.


I think many of us as missionaries and mouthpieces of the Lord have had the experience stated in Doctrine and Covenants 84:85, “Neither take ye thought beforehand what ye shall say; but treasure up in your minds continually the words of life, and it shall be given you in the very hour that portion that shall be meted unto every man.” I have certainly had this experience many times. I think this is also what Joseph Smith experienced in translating the Book of Mormon, he had treasured up in his mind the words of Isaiah, and when his mind was brought to those words in the Book of Mormon, he translated the thoughts he was given into the words he knew.    

 

Trent Dee Stephens, PhD

 

 

References

 

1.      biblehub.com/isaiah/50-1.htm; retrieved 11 February 2024

2.      Last Testimony of Sister Emma, Saints’ Herald, Oct. 1, 26 (19): 289-290, 1879; archive.org/details/TheSaintsHerald_Volume_26_1879/page/n287/mode/2up?view=theater; retrieved 14 February 2024

3.      Ibid

4.      Ibid

5.      Card, Orson Scott, comments during Q&A at the Association of Mormon Letters meeting April 22, 2017, in Orem, Utah

6.      Smith, Joseph, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Period 1, Deseret Book, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1978, 6:74

7.      Minutes, Church conference, Orange, OH, Oct. 25–26, 1831, in Minute Book 2, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, available at josephsmithpapers.org; Welch, “Miraculous Translation,” 121–9; see also churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics-essays/book-of-mormon-translation?lang=eng; retrieved 15 February 2024

8.      Ibid

9.      One of the Three Witnesses, Deseret Evening News, Dec. 13, 1881; as cited at churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics-essays/book-of-mormon-translation?lang=eng; retrieved 15 February 2024

10.  A.W.B., Mormonites, Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate, 2, April 19, 1831, p. 120; as cited at churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics-essays/book-of-mormon-translation?lang=eng; retrieved 15 February 2024

11.  Hardy, Grant, byustudies.byu.edu/article/the-book-of-mormon-translation-process; retrieved 14 February 2024

 

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