The Word of God
Dan Vogel, ed.
George D. Smith
[p.113]In the time of Isaiah, some eight hundred years before the birth of Jesus, there was no Old Testament as we know it today. The five books of the Torah (the Law) were assembled about 400 B.C.; it was not until A.D. 90 that the Prophets and Writings were added to the canon by a council of teachers at Jamnia, thirty miles from the ruins of Jerusalem. With the inclusion of the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes in A.D. 135, the Hebrew Bible was complete.1 In Isaiah’s time there was no indication that this Jewish prophet’s writings would become part of a collection of Hebrew scriptures, let alone apply to events far in the future. This essay examines Isaiah’s prophecies in their historical context and compares their meaning as a message for his time with the expanded meaning that Christians—and specifically Mormons—have since applied to them thousands of years later.
Early Christianity emerged from Judaism, then lost much of its Jewish character in A.D. 70 when the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem branch of the church. Paul carried the Christian gospel to the Greco-Roman world where the church abandoned Jewish dietary laws and the practice of circumcision. No longer a sect within Judaism, Christianity was adopted by Emperor Constantine as the official religion of Rome and rode the wave of Roman expansionism to recognition, popularity, and eventually power. Cut off from its Jewish roots, Christianity incorporated ideas from Greek and Roman thought and took on a unique identity of its own.
By the time the Christian Bible was canonized about 393 [p.114] A.D. at Hippo, a Roman city in North Africa, Christians had come to regard the Old Testament as both a chronicle of religious events before Jesus and a prophecy of the advent of Christ. New Testament writers were seen as completing the work of Old Testament writers; the events they reported in the New Testament fulfilled the prophecies in the Old Testament. To Christians, Isaiah seemed to foretell the coming of a personal savior whose suffering would atone for humanity’s sins and bring everlasting life. To Jews, Isaiah seemed to predict the salvation of Judah from oppression and suffering, if it would keep its covenant with Yahweh, Judah’s savior and redeemer. Isaiah described the coming of a great king who would lead Judah to victory over its enemies.
When King Solomon died in 922 B.C., Israel split into two kingdoms: Israel in the north, Judah in the south. From the Judaic capital, Jerusalem, Isaiah began his prophetic mission two hundred years later in about 740 B.C. when the powerful nations of Assyria and Egypt threatened each other from opposite sides of Judah. His career spanned the last forty years of the eighth century through the reigns of four kings of Judah: Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. The Babylonian and Palestinian Talmudim—an official collection of Jewish law and tradition—indicate that Isaiah was killed by Manasseh, Hezekiah’s son and successor to the throne.2
The sixty-six chapters of the book of Isaiah cover three time periods: (1) the period when Judah was an independent kingdom in the eighth century B.C.; (2) the exilic period after Babylonia conquered Judah in 586 B.C. when the Jews had no country of their own; and (3) the postexilic period (after the Persians conquered Babylonia in 539 B.C. when a few of the exiles returned from Babylon to reestablish the Jewish community at Jerusalem). Although the whole work was traditionally ascribed to one author, biblical scholars generally regard the book as a composite from two or more authors living at different times. It is only in the first part of the book, chapters 1-39, that material from Isaiah’s eighth century is found; from chapters 40-66 the historical setting is the sixth century B.C. The people are no longer residents of Jerusalem but exiles in Babylon (43:14; 48:20). Jerusalem has been destroyed and awaits rebuilding (44:26-28; 49:14-23). Babylon is no longer a friendly ally (2 Kgs. 20:12-13), for she has destroyed Jerusalem. In contrast to the time of Isaiah, the Davidic dynasty is rarely mentioned. The literary [p.115] form is distinct: the tone has changed from threat and condemnation to consolation and hope; the style has changed from concise brevity to expansive lyricism. The later writings discuss exile and return to Jerusalem under Cyrus the Persian from a contemporary, not prophetic, viewpoint. Isaiah is generally considered to have written the first thirty-nine chapters (740-700 B.C.); an unknown prophet, referred to as Deutero-(second) Isaiah by Bible scholars, probably wrote chapters 40-55 during the Babylonian captivity (586-539 B.C.); and a Palestinian prophet called Trito-(third) Isaiah probably wrote chapters 56-66 after the return to Jerusalem (539-500 B.C.).3
Isaiah spoke frequently of the distinctive relationship between God and Judah. During political turmoil and threatened invasion from the alliance of Ephraim (Israel) and Syria, Isaiah prophesied that God would protect Judah and that Assyria would destroy both Ephraim and Syria. In fact Assyria did capture Damascus (732 B.C.) and Samaria, the capital of Ephraim (722 B.C.). When the northern kingdom fell, the “Ten Tribes of Israel” were scattered and lost. An account of these events is presented in Isaiah 7 and 2 Kings 16:5-9.
When King Ahaz doubts that the Lord will protect Judah from the two attacking nations, Isaiah assures him: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a young woman shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Is. 7:14). The name “Immanuel” is Hebrew for “God is with us,” an appropriate name for a child whose birth would convince King Ahaz that God would protect Judah.4 Isaiah further tells Ahaz that Assyria will destroy Judah’s enemies even before the child is able to speak: “For before the child shall have knowledge to cry, my father, and my mother, the riches of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria shall be taken away before the king of Assyria” (Is. 8:4).
Christians interpret these passages of Isaiah as a prophecy of the birth of Jesus Christ. Matthew, after recounting Jesus’ birth, quotes Isaiah to indicate that the birth “fulfilled [that] which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet” (Mt. 1:22-23). In many editions of the King James Bible, the headnote for Isaiah 7:14 reads “Christ promised for a sign.” The 1979 LDS cross-referenced King James version uses the note: “Christ shall be born of a virgin.”
The difference between the meaning of the Hebrew word [p.116] ‘alm’ah and the Greek word parthenos is crucial to the different interpretations given to Isaiah by Jewish and traditional Christian scholars. ‘Alm’ah means “young woman” and can refer to either maiden or newly married woman.5 The Septuagint version, a Greek translation made by some seventy or so Jewish scholars in the third century B.C., inappropriately translated the Hebrew ‘alm’ah as parthenos which means exclusively “virgin,” one who has not had sexual intercourse.6 Christians adopted the Septuagint mistranslation, “virgin,” which is found today in the popular King James version of 1611. Reflecting recent Bible scholarship, the Oxford Revised Standard version uses “young woman.”7
The seventy or so Jewish scholars who translated the Hebrew “young woman” into the Greek “virgin” may have wanted to make the birth of Immanuel more extraordinary. But the Christians, who chose to believe that Immanuel was Jesus, read great significance into the idea of virgin birth. Reflecting the spirit-matter dualism of such popular religions from Persia as Mithraism, Manicheism, and Gnosticism—all offshoots of Zoroastrianism—early Christians, especially Paul, regarded sexual gratification as the work of Satan. Since they believed that the world of physical desire was evil, they emphasized that Jesus must have been born of a virgin mother.8
Biblical scholars have wrestled with the problems presented by these passages. In 1973 Claus Schedl, professor of biblical studies at Redemptorist College in Mautern, Austria, argued that the name Immanuel, which expresses Isaiah’s belief that God will not forsake Judah, is itself a sufficient explanation of the Immanuel prophecy. He noted that ‘alm’ah appears in the Old Testament nine times, two in a musical reference, and seven in the sense of “young marriageable maiden.” He explains, “It was presupposed that such a maiden would soon marry and share the expected blessing of childbirth. Any contemporary historian who heard the prophet’s oracle: ‘Behold a young woman shall conceive and bear a son,’ would hardly think in terms of a miraculous conception and birth.”9
In 1973 professor of Old Testament studies A. S. Herbert, writing in The Cambridge Bible Commentary on the New English Bible, elaborates upon the meaning of “young woman” in Isaiah 7:14: “The Hebrew word, like the English, does not preclude the meaning of ‘virgin’ that appears in the [King James] Authorized Version, but usage would hardly suggest it.” Herbert finds contemporary support [p.117] for this interpretation: “Almost the same words occur in the Ras Shamra text (found at the ancient Ugarit on the Syrian coast) ‘A young woman shall bear a son’; the noun is the same as in Hebrew. The point of the oracle is clear. A pregnant woman, probably one of Ahaz’ wives, will bear a son with a name which will give assurance of divine protection, yet since this sign has been rejected, within a few years this same divine presence will bring the disastrous subservience to Assyria.”10
Frederick Moriarty, a Jesuit scholar writing in the Jerome Biblical Commentary, concludes that the birth of a son, “God is with us,” is vital for Judah for another reason. The overthrow of the Davidic dynasty by an enemy would indicate the cancellation of God’s promise to guide and protect the house of David forever (2 Sam. 7:12-16). Moriarty feels that the young child may be the future King Hezekiah, whose birth would signify the continuing presence of God among the people of Judah and a renewal of the promise made to David. He suggests that Isaiah unknowingly prophesied the birth of Jesus as a fulfillment of the Davidic promise: “This does not mean, of course, that Isaiah foresaw the fulfillment of this prophecy in Christ, but he expressed the hope that Christ perfectly realized.” Thus, a “fuller meaning” (sensus plenior) emanates from the scripture, intended by God, but not by the human author.11
In a variation on the “dual revelation” notion, Mormon apostle Bruce R. McConkie has asserted that Isaiah hid his meaning because of the wickedness of the people. The ancient prophet, McConkie writes, “spoke in figures, using types and shadows” to hide messages in parables. In the 1980 LDS Gospel Doctrine teacher’s manual, McConkie declares that the virgin birth prophecy was “dropped into the midst of a recitation of local historical occurrences so that to the spiritually untutored it could be interpreted as some ancient and unknown happening that had no relationship to the birth of the Lord Jehovah into mortality some 700 years later.”12
Schedl argues that the child prophesied by Isaiah was not Jesus but could have been Hezekiah. “The whole point of the Immanuel prophecy,” Schedl insists, “is centered on the promise that the house of David will never be annihilated.” When Ahaz acceded to the throne in 735 B.C., he was at the marriageable age of twenty (2 Kgs. 16:2). The Hebrew ‘alm’ah is simply the young bride-consort of King Ahaz, Schedl reasons. Since Hezekiah was only five years old [p.118] when he succeeded to the throne in 728 B.C., his birth would fall in the year 734/733, about a year after the Immanuel prophecy in 735/734. Since the prophecy fits the events of that time, “it follows that Isaiah did not understand the word ‘alm’ah in its New Testament sense.” Schedl concludes that the New Testament authors do not quote the Old Testament in keeping with the canons of historical criticism: “In their interpretation of Scripture, they are the children of their time.”13
The debate between Judaism and traditional Christianity over the meaning of the Jewish scriptures impinges on passages throughout Isaiah. One of the choruses in Handel’s Messiah is adapted from Isaiah 9:6: “For unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The Mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.”
The King James version relates this verse to the birth of Jesus, but Jewish scriptures indicate a different meaning. The Soncino commentary on the traditional Hebrew scriptures adds these notes to the crucial verse: “A Child. The verse has been given a Christological interpretation by the Church, but modern non-Jewish exegetes agree that a contemporary person is intended. The Talmud and later Jewish commentators understood the allusion [as] to the son of Ahaz, viz. Hezekiah. Hezekiah as a lad had already given promise of his future greatness as a religious and political leader… As the son of Ahaz he was ‘Crown Prince’ during his father’s lifetime… The meaning of the Hebrew words [in the KJV, “Wonderful, …”] is ‘Wonderful in counsel is God the Mighty, the Everlasting Father, the Ruler of Peace.’ The child will bear these significant names in order to recall to the people the message which they embodied” (Soncino Isaiah, notes to 9:6).14
The Old Testament term translated as “redeemer” has also been subject to conflicting interpretations. After the Babylonian conquest of Judah, Deutero-Isaiah (chaps. 40-55) speaks to the Jews in exile of the “Lord and thy Redeemer,” who is defined here by Jewish commentary as an avenger: “Redeemer. The Hebrew ‘goel’ is a technical term applied to the nearest relative whose duties included the redemption or buying back of the kinsman who sold himself or his sold property or, if killed, the avenging of his blood by slaying the murderer. It is possibly in this sense applied to God, the Re-[p.119]deemer and Avenger of His People Israel” (Soncino Isaiah, notes to Is. 41:14).15
This avenging role of the Lord is explained in the next chapter: “The Lord shall go forth as a mighty man, he shall stir up jealousy like a man of war: he shall cry, yea, roar; he shall prevail against his enemies… I will destroy and devour at once” (Is. 42:13, 14). In Isaiah 43 God is further defined as redeemer and savior: “Before me there was no God formed, neither shall there be after me. I, even I, am the Lord; and beside me there is no saviour… Thus saith the Lord, your redeemer, the holy one of Israel” (Is. 43:10, 11, 14). The God of Israel is defined as the only God, and the force which shall save Israel from its enemies. God is identified as the savior; no savior son is mentioned: “I am the Lord, and there is none else, there is no God beside me… O God of Israel, the Saviour… Israel shall be saved in the Lord with an everlasting salvation: ye shall not be ashamed or confounded world without end” (Is. 45:6, 15, 17). In the context of defeat and exile, Deutero-Isaiah uses “savior” and “redeemer” to denote the God of Israel who will avenge the suffering of his people, Judah, and make them mighty and respected among all nations. The New Testament writers, Paul and John, interpreted these passages as Isaiah’s prediction that Jesus’ death would make individual salvation from death possible, that Christ exchanged his death for humanity’s sins (see Heb. 9:12, 26-28; 1 Jn. 1:7; Jn. 11:25).16
From the earliest days of Christianity, Christians have believed that the “servant of the Lord” depicted in Isaiah 40-55 portrays Jesus.17 Handel’s Messiah incorporates the “servant” passages of Isaiah 53: “He was despised and rejected by men; Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. And with his stripes we are healed.” The Covenanters of the Dead Sea community at Qumran preserved fairly complete texts of Isaiah, which are essentially the same as the traditional Hebrew texts and which clarify the Jewish background of the New Testament.18 The Dead Sea Scrolls agree with the rabbinical annotations that the Lord’s servant is “the righteous people of God.” The Soncino notes identify the servant as symbolic of the nation Israel in exile, martyred and humiliated by the Babylonians because of its transgressions but destined to survive.19 Bible scholar Christopher North contends that the “suffering servant” passages reflect Deutero-Isaiah’s great disappoint-[p.120]ment in Cyrus’s failure to recognize Yahweh as world king and also the prophet’s new insight into the meaning of Israel’s suffering both for the present and for the messianic future.20
The Soncino notes to Isaiah acknowledge that Jewish commentators disagree whether the servant is Israel, the king-messiah, or Isaiah.21 But the servant is Israel in passages such as Isaiah 49:6-26: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel. I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” And Isaiah 41:8: “But thou, Israel, My servant Jacob whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham, My friend.” The Jerome Biblical Commentary states, “The Servant is Israel, alive in all her leaders and intercessors: Abraham (49:6); Moses (42:6); Jeremiah (49:1); wise men (50:4ff); David (53:1); and the suffering exiles (52:13-53:12).”22
Harry M. Orlinski, originator of the Hebrew-to-English translation of the Jewish Bible (Jewish Publication Society of America), suggests that in each of the so-called “suffering servant” songs of Isaiah 52-53, the servant is the prophet rather than Israel. Arguing against a vicarious atonement in which first Israel then Christ suffers for the sins of the unworthy, Orlinski contends that “servant” has no special meaning in the exegesis, or critical interpretation, of Second Isaiah but rather developed in Christian circles after the significance of Jesus’ life and death came to be reinterpreted. He concludes that the concept of a “suffering servant,” who literally assumes the sins of a nation, is “postbiblical in origin (probably from a pagan Hellenistic, not a Judaic source)… It was only after suffering—vicarious suffering—came to be associated with Jesus that these concepts were read back into the passage of the Hebrew Bible most favorable for such interpretation, chapter 53 of Isaiah.” The concept of vicarious suffering and atonement is found neither in Deutero-Isaiah nor anywhere else in the Bible: “It is a concept that arose in Jewish and especially Christian circles of post-biblical times.”23
Strongly scripturalist from its foundation, Mormonism has also manifested an intense interest in Isaiah. The Book of Mormon not only records Jesus’ appearance in the Americas but also quotes Isaiah at length and gives a unique interpretation to several pas-[p.121]sages. Joseph Smith also reported miraculous experiences which involved key passages in Isaiah.
Isaiah 29 is significant for Mormonism. In this chapter Isaiah describes the inability and unwillingness of the people and their leaders, “drunken without wine,” to understand the word of Yahweh. The leaders read but do not understand; although they should know better, they are willfully perverse and refuse to abide in the Lord. The masses, on the other hand, cannot even read the law, for they do not know how. Finally a marvelous work and a wonder occurs when a faithful remnant rescues all of Israel. The eyes of the blind are opened and the deaf can hear. Thus Israel returns to the word of Yahweh. Several groups have seen themselves as that faithful remnant, among them the Qumran community, the early Christians, and the Mormons.
Three consecutive passages from Isaiah 29 have been given unique Mormon interpretation. The first involves a sealed book. Isaiah laments the inability of the people to recognize the importance of the Lord’s messages which the prophet has communicated to them. He compares his words to a sealed book which the learned and unlearned for different reasons are unable to read: “They are drunken, but not with wine; they stagger, but not with strong drink. For the Lord hath poured out upon you the spirit of deep sleep, and hath closed your eyes: the prophets and your rulers, the seers hath he covered. And the vision of all is become unto you as the words of a book that is sealed, which men deliver to one that is learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I cannot for it is sealed. And the book is delivered to him that is not learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I am not learned” (Is. 29:9-12).
In the Pearl of Great Price Joseph Smith reported that in February 1828 his scribe Martin Harris, carrying a transcript of Book of Mormon characters, brought back the words of the learned Columbia University professor Charles Anthon: “I cannot read a sealed book.” In late biblical context, “sealed books” refer to apocalyptic writings about the end of the world which are to be sealed or closed up until that event occurs. However, Mormons interpret Anthon’s comment as fulfillment of the passages from Isaiah quoted above.24 The Book of Mormon itself quotes the “sealed book” passages of Isaiah 29 as prophecy of the Harris/Anthon experience: [p.122] “Their learned shall not read them, for they have rejected them” (LDS 2 Ne. 27:20; RLDS 2 Ne. 11:142).25
The second passage describes a people who will not listen to or respect Yahweh: “Wherefore the Lord said, Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honor me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men …” (Is. 29:13). This passage has special meaning for Mormons. In the early 1820s after Smith prayed to inquire which church he should join, nearly the same words were uttered by a glorious “personage” Smith later identified as Jesus: “The Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: ‘they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.'”26
From the LDS point of view, it might make sense for Jesus to quote Isaiah to Joseph Smith, even out of its initial context, since Mormons consider Isaiah’s words to have been inspired by Jesus in the first place. Unlike the rest of Christian theology, Mormon theology regards Yahweh of the Old Testament, creator of the world, as the same Jesus who was later born in Nazareth. Mormon scriptures present Jesus as using the same words, “their lips draw near, but their hearts are far from me,” to describe Jesus speaking both as Yahweh in the Old Testament and as the Son in 1820, thousands of years apart.
In the third passage, Isaiah describes a marvelous work by which Yahweh will bring the people of Judah to understand: “Therefore, behold, I will proceed to do a marvellous work among this people, even a marvellous work and a wonder” (Is. 29:14). Also: “They also that erred in spirit shall come to understanding, and they that murmured shall learn doctrine” (Is. 29:24). These passages, which Isaiah applies to the spiritual transformation of the people of Judah in the eighth century B.C., were given a new interpretation twenty-five hundred years later. The restoration of the church of Jesus Christ in the latter days, including the publication of the Book of Mormon, has been identified as Isaiah’s “marvellous work.” Isaiah 29:14 is quoted in 2 Nephi 27:26 (RLDS 2 Ne. 11:146-47) in the Book of Mormon, and all of 2 Nephi 27 (RLDS 2 Ne. 11:116-60) identifies the Book of Mormon with this “marvellous work.”
[p.123]The use made of these three consecutive sections of Isaiah 29 indicates the important place that this Old Testament book occupies within the Mormon faith. As Latter-day Saint students of the scriptures know, the Book of Mormon quotes nearly verbatim from the King James version nineteen entire chapters of Isaiah and parts of several others.27 Although the Book of Mormon draws heavily from Isaiah, most contemporary scholars would not believe all of the chapters quoted were available to the Nephite writers.
In the Book of Mormon Lehi and his family leave Jerusalem around 600 B.C., taking with them some “brass plates” containing the writings of Hebrew prophets up to that time. It is natural that Isaiah, who wrote prior to 700 B.C., would be included. However, in his writings Nephi quotes chapters of Isaiah which Deutero-Isaiah wrote after 586 B.C. during the Babylonian exile and after Nephi had left for America. Isaiah 48-49 and parts of 50-52 and 55 are quoted with some changes in 1 Nephi 20-22 (RLDS 1 Ne. 6:8-7:70) and 2 Nephi 6-9 (RLDS 2 Ne. 5:1-6:106). Also Isaiah 53-54 is partially quoted in Mosiah 14 (RLDS Mos. 8:15-27) and 3 Nephi 22 (RLDS 3 Ne. 10:9-25). Nephi also quotes Malachi (4:1-2), who wrote around 460 B.C., about 140 years after Nephi left Jerusalem with the brass plates (see LDS 1 Ne. 22:15; LDS 2 Ne. 25:13; 26:4, 9; RLDS 1 Ne. 7:33; RLDS 2 Ne. 11:22, 65, 73).28 The difficulties of authorship implied by such chronological and geographical separation might be resolved by assuming that the Isaiah of the eighth century B.C. prophetically foresaw and authored the later exilic and postexilic writings in advance. Latter-day Saint writers in fact turn the Isaiah chronological problem around and use it to support the single-author theory of all Isaiah writing, even that dealing with the rebuilding of Jerusalem two hundred years after Isaiah lived.
For example, in 1909 Mormon historian and General Authority B. H. Roberts argued that the Book of Mormon’s use of transcripts from the later part of Isaiah’s writing, after Nephi left Jerusalem, is “new evidence for the Isaiah authorship of the whole book of Isaiah.” Other LDS writers such as Sidney Sperry, Hugh Nibley, Victor Ludlow, Monte Nyman, LaMar Adams, and Elder Mark E. Petersen advocate similar positions.29 The 1980 Gospel Doctrine Teacher’s Supplement states: “The Book of Mormon is also clear evidence that Isaiah is responsible for the entire sixty-six chapters. Whole chapters from all parts of Isaiah are quoted from the [p.124] brass plates which Lehi took from Jerusalem about 600 B.C.”30 A singular exception, Mormon Old Testament scholar Heber C. Snell in 1948, advocated the composite authorship of Isaiah.31
A further and perhaps more serious complication is that it is the quotations from an as-yet-unwritten Isaiah which have been given a different context in the Book of Mormon than they have in the Bible. In Isaiah 48 and 49, for example, the prophet offers hope to his exiled people in Babylon that they will be restored to their homeland and even be a light of the Lord’s covenant to the gentiles: “Go ye forth of Babylon, flee ye from the Chaldeans, with a voice of singing declare ye, tell this, utter it even to the end of the earth; say ye, The Lord hath redeemed his servant Jacob” (Is. 48:20). And: “And he said, It is a light thing that thou shouldst be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth” (Is. 49:6).
After quoting these statements in 1 Nephi 20 and 21 (RLDS 1 Ne. 6:8-56), Nephi expounds upon the prophesies of Isaiah in 1 Nephi 22 (RLDS 1 Ne. 7). Speaking between 588 and 570 B.C., he comments that the house of Israel “sooner or later” will be scattered (the Babylonian exile began in 586 B.C.) and relates his own interpretation of Isaiah: “And it meaneth that the time cometh that after all the house of Israel have been scattered and confounded, that the Lord God will raise up a mighty nation among the Gentiles, yea, even upon the face of this land [presumably America]; and after our seed is scattered the Lord God will proceed to do a marvelous work among the gentiles, which shall be of great worth unto our seed” (LDS 1 Ne. 22:7-8; RLDS 1 Ne. 7:15-17).
This marvelous work is the gift of the gentiles—the Book of Mormon—to the scattered Jews, a message by which they shall be restored to the gospel of Jesus Christ and thus to their inheritance as the chosen people of God. This interpretation reverses the message of Deutero-Isaiah to the captive Jews in Babylon. Isaiah states that the Jews shall be a light to the gentiles. Nephi portrays the gentiles as bringing light to the Jews: “And now, I would prophesy somewhat more concerning the Jews and Gentiles. For after the book of which I have spoken shall come forth, and be written unto the Gentiles, and sealed up again unto the Lord, there shall be many which shall believe the words which are written; [p.125] and they shall carry them forth unto the remnant of our seed. And then shall the remnant of our seed know concerning us, how that we came out from Jerusalem, and that they are descendants of the Jews. And the gospel of Jesus Christ shall be declared among them; wherefore, they shall be restored unto the knowledge of their fathers, and also to the knowledge of Jesus Christ, which was had among their fathers” (LDS 2 Ne. 30:3-5; RLDS 2 Ne. 12:79-82).
Isaiah wrote during a time of Judah’s impending military destruction in the last half of the eighth century B.C. A second author (and perhaps a third) wrote of the Babylonian captivity and the return to Jerusalem. Isaiah promised God’s continued protection of the Jews by prophesying that a young woman would bear a son with the name, “God is with us” (Immanuel). The child’s name would also mean, “Wonderful in counsel is God the Mighty, the Everlasting Father, ruler of Peace.” And throughout the difficult Babylonian exile, Deutero-Isaiah continually refers to the God of Israel as “redeemer” and “savior,” Yahweh’s historical role in the salvation of Israel. The “suffering servant” symbolizes Israel in captivity.
Just as Jewish and early Christian writers adapted Isaiah to their own purposes, Mormon writers two thousand years later have also invoked new and contemporary meaning from three consecutive passages of Isaiah 29: a “sealed book,” “lips … near, heart far from me,” and “a marvelous work and a wonder.” These passages, which originally described Isaiah’s struggle to have his people listen to Yahweh’s message, become words of prophetic fulfillment used by Charles Anthon in speaking about Book of Mormon characters, by Jesus in speaking to Joseph Smith, and as a characterization of the Book of Mormon—multiple new meanings taken from a single Old Testament context. Further, Nephi quotes extensive passages from Isaiah, some of which Deutero-Isaiah wrote after Nephi’s departure for the New World.
Although Mormon writings have “updated” these Old Testament passages into a foreign time and context, the great Isaiah scriptures can be legitimately applied to later circumstances for which they might have similar relevance, such as voicing the timeless hope for the day when nations “shall beat their swords into plowshares.”
George D. Smith is president of Signature Books, Inc. “Isaiah Revisited” first appeared in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 16 (Summer 1983): 37-51.
2. Soncino Books of the Bible: Isaiah (with Hebrew text and English translation), ed. A. Cohen (London: Soncino Press, 1967), Introduction, ix-xiv. The first edition of the complete Hebrew Bible was printed at Soncino, Italy, in 1488. Earlier the sacred Hebrew texts had been copied and recopied by the Masoretes. No manuscript actually written by the author or editor of any Old Testament book is extant. Scholars conclude that the Dead Sea scrolls “confirm beyond all doubt the general accuracy of the Massoretic text.” The Cambridge Bible Commentary, The Making of the Old Testament, ed. Enid B. Mellor (London: Cambridge University Press, 1972), 144-45.
3. Peter R. Ackroyd, “The Book of Isaiah,” The Interpreter’s Commentary on the Bible, ed. Charles M. Laymon (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1971), 329-71. See also Soncino: Isaiah, introduction; and Carroll Stuhlmueller, “Deutero-Isaiah,” Jerome Biblical Commentary, eds. Raymond E. Brown, et al. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1968), ch. 22; Harry M. Orlinski, Studies on the Second Part of the Book of lsaiah, vol. 14 in Supplements to Vetus Testamentum (Leiden, Holland: E. J. Brill, 1977), 15.
5. Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, eds., A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907), 761; J. D. Douglas, ed., New Bible Dictionary, 2d ed. (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1982), 1237-38.
Philadelphus of Egypt commissioned about seventy Jewish scholars, theoretically six from each of the Twelve Tribes, to translate “The Law” into Greek; it was then called the Pentateuch. The term Septuagint was later applied to the whole Greek Old Testament. The first version of the Bible in a language other than Hebrew became the Bible of the Christian church, quoted by Paul and the evangelists. Also, through reading the Septuagint, many gentiles converted to Judaism. Many Septuagint translations arose, and two hundred years later the Jews revised the Greek translations to conform more closely to Hebrew, later abandoning the LXX. Jerome discarded Latin versions of the LXX which had been amplified by the Church Fathers when he translated his Latin Vulgate version in the fifth century A.D.
7. The English versions of the Bible are based on fragments from the seventh century A.D. The Catholic Douay version of 1582 was translated from the Latin Vulgate but gave much attention to the Septuagint translation; the 1611 King James versions (KJV) came from the Hebrew text of the [p.127]Old Testament and the Greek text of the New Testament. It was used to revise the existing English Bibles, which had also influenced the KJV. The several Revised Standard versions have incorporated the benefits of discovered texts and recent scholarship. The Oxford Annotated Revised Standard version is used in this essay.
8. Edward McNall Burns, Western Civilizations, 4th ed. (New York: Norton, 1955), 86-89, 221-24; Ninian Smart, The Religious Experience of Mankind, 2d ed. (New York: Scribners, 1976), 249-53. Williston W. Walker, A History of the Christian Church (New York: Scribners, 1959), 51-53. The Apostle Paul contrasts the flesh and spirit in Romans 8:22-25 and I Corinthians 15:50.
12. Bruce R. McConkie, “Ten Keys to Understanding Isaiah,” Ensign 3 (Oct. 1973): 80-83, quoted in Old Testament Part Two, Gospel Doctrine teacher’s supplement (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1980), 83. The possibility of “dual prophecy” is raised in Monte S. Nyman, Great Are the Words of Isaiah (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980), 55-59.
16. In “The Mormon Christianizing of the Old Testament” (included in this volume), Melodie Moench Charles observes that in the Old Testament view, people are not regarded as inherently sinful and have no need for a redeemer to take away the effect of Adam’s sin (never referred to after its first telling) or their own. “If they were obedient, they were in God’s favor.” The messiah sought after in the Old Testament was a just king who would bring peace and prosperity, a righteous man who served God, not a deity himself.
18. Millar Burroughs, The Dead Sea Scrolls (New York: Viking, 1955), 326-45, 348. See pp. 186, 267 for W. H. Brownlee’s interpretation of the “Lord’s servant” in the Jerusalem Habakkuk Scroll, dated about 63 B.C.
to Morna D. Hooker, Jesus and the Servant: The Influence of the Servant Concept of Deutero-Isaiah in the New Testament (London: S.P.C.K., 1959), which concludes that the early church did not attach any great significance to the servant passages or regard them as the key to understanding the atonement (p. 133). Relating the atonement issue to the identity of the “Servant,” Orlinski comments that neither in Isaiah 53 nor elsewhere in the Bible do the sinful get off scot-free at the expense of the prophets, or anyone else. All Second Isaiah says is that “the individual person, whoever he was, suffered on account of Israel’s transgression.… The spokesmen of God suffered because of the nature of their calling.… The prophets had come and suffered to bring [the transgressors] God’s message of rebuke and repentance.” Deutero-Isaiah says that the prophet “bore the grief and carried the sorrows of the people, having been wounded for their transgressions and bruised for their iniquities” (pp. 56-59).
25. See Dan. 12:4 and Rev. 22:10. LDS 2 Nephi 27:4-23 admixes Isaiah 29:9-12 with the description of a book (the Book of Mormon) that would be delivered to another (Harris) who would show it to “the learned” (Anthon) who would say he could not read the book. The chapter of Nephi is dated “between B.C. 559 and 545.”
27. William L. Riley, “A Comparison of Passages from Isaiah and Other Old Testament Prophets in Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews and the Book of Mormon,” M.A. thesis, Brigham Young University, 1971, calculates that the Book of Mormon uses 407 of the 1,292 verses in Isaiah, about one-third of the total. Robert N. Hullinger estimates that in numbers of words “the Book of Mormon uses Isaiah for one-tenth of its content” (Mormon Answer To Skepticism: Why Joseph Smith Wrote the Book of Mormon [St. Louis: Clayton Publishing House, 1980], 72).
28. Perhaps the first Mormon to deal with the “Isaiah problem”—that Nephi quotes from exilic Isaiah scriptures which would have been unavailable to him—was B. H. Roberts. In his New Witness for God, 3 vols. [p.129] (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1909), 3:449-60, Roberts lists the arguments for independent authorship of chapters 40-46 of Isaiah: (1) the events are later; Jerusalem is ruined, those whom the prophet addresses are not contempories of Ahaz and Hezekiah, but exiles in Babylon; the prophet would never abandon his own historical position, but speaks from it; (2) Isaiah 1-39 uses a unique literary style, but these images and allusions are not continued in 40-66; (3) the theology of 40-66 shows an advance which emphasizes Jehovah’s infinitude as the creator, the sustainer of the universe, the author of history, the first and the last, the incomparable one, etc. Roberts questions that several authors wrote Isaiah on the grounds that (1) there is no identity given for other authors, (2) the Jews convinced Cyrus by the prophecies of Isaiah to let them return to Jerusalem thus providing that Isaiah was capable of prophecy, (3) surely Jesus would not mistake Isaiah (61:1, 2) in quoting him (Luke 4:16-22), and (4) given the “overwhelming evidence for the truth of the Book of Mormon,” transcipts from the later part of Isaiah’s writings is “new evidence for the Isaiah authorship of the whole book of Isaiah” (pp. 459-60).
Sidney B. Sperry, professor of Old Testament Languages and Literature at Brigham Young University, asserts that Isaiah wrote the whole book which goes under his name, a work other scholars insist covered 250 years. 3 Nephi 23:1 (RLDS 3 Ne. 10:27) quotes Jesus as saying, “Great are the words of Isaiah.” In this Sperry finds evidence of the single author theory: “The Savior himself points out that Isaiah 54 came from the mouth of the great eighth century prophet.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 2 (Spring 1967): 75. See also Sperry’s Problems of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1964) and Answers to Book of Mormon Questions (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1967).
L. LaMar Adams and Alvin C. Rencher, “A Computer Analysis of the Isaiah Authorship Problem,” Brigham Young University Studies 14 (Autumn 1974), assert that “the book of Isaiah has a literary unity characteristic of a single author.” Hugh W. Nibley in his Since Cumorah (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 137-52, confronts the charge that the Book of Mormon quotes from Deutero-Isaiah, “which did not exist at the time Lehi left Jerusalem” (p. 139). He lists three sources of dating Deutero-Isaiah: (1) the mention of Cyrus (44:28), who lived 200 years after Isaiah and long after Lehi, (2) the threats against Babylon (47:1, 48:14), which became the oppressor of Judah after the days of Isaiah, and (3) the general language and setting of the text which suggests a historical background commonly associated with a later period than that of Isaiah (p. 139). Nibley then answers these with a question: “If others than Isaiah wrote about half the words in his book, why do we not know their names?” (p. 143). The usual scholarly answer is because they are Isaiah’s students, compiling Isaiah’s words with later material in three [p.130] successive transmissions. The names of Cyrus and Babylon were thus added later. The question remains: If these final words were added to Isaiah after Nephi left Jerusalem, how did he get them on the brass plates for Joseph Smith to translate almost exactly as they appeared in the King James version of the Bible? See also Victor L. Ludlow, Isaiah: the Prophet, Seer, and Poet (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1982), 541-48; Monte S. Nyman, Great Are the Words of Isaiah (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980), 253-58; L. LaMar Adams, The Living Message of Isaiah (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1981), 17-19; Mark E. Petersen, Isaiah for Today (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1981), 140-2.