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NEPHI, JACOB, ISAIAH AND THE DEAD SEA SCROLLS

As many people know, the Book of Mormon quotes heavily from Isaiah. In fact, according to the footnote for 2 Nephi 12:2a, 433 verses of Isaiah are quoted by Book of Mormon prophets. These frequently come in the form of full-length chapters being quoted at a time. Sometimes these verses are word-for-word identical with the King James Version of the Bible, but often the wording has been changed. A few of the verses of Isaiah are actually quoted multiple times, typically by different characters at different times in the Book of Mormon.

An interesting example of this is Isaiah 49:25. This verse is first quoted by Nephi, as he recites Isaiah 48-49 to his brothers (see 1 Nephi 20-21). In this instance, verse 25 is identical to the KJV. Later, Nephi’s younger brother Jacob is asked by Nephi to preach the words of Isaiah to the people. Jacob starts off with Isaiah 49:22-26 (see 2 Nephi 6:6-7, 16-18). What is interesting here is that when Jacob gets to verse 25, it is quoted differently than when Nephi quotes it. Here is each verse, with the differences marked [1]:

But thus saith the Lord, even the captives of the mighty shall be taken away, and the prey of the terrible shall be delivered; for I will contend with him that contendeth with thee, and I will save thy children. (1 Nephi 21:25)

But thus saith the Lord: Even the captives of the mighty shall be taken away, and the prey of the terrible shall be delivered; for the Mighty God shall deliver his covenant people. For thus saith the Lord: I will contend with them that contendeth with thee – (2 Nephi 6:17)

As you can see, each verse has a phrase which the other is missing, and him in 1 Nephi 21:25 has been changed to them in 2 Nephi 6:17. How do we account for this apparent discrepancy? Why would Nephi quote the verse one way, and then Jacob quote it differently? A better question (I think) is this: If Joseph Smith is making all of this up, why would he have two different characters quote from the same verse differently? Wouldn’t such an inconsistency give him away as a fraud? Wouldn’t he want the two match each other (even if he altered them a little from the KJV)? To me, it seems that if Joseph Smith is brilliant enough to make the whole Book of Mormon up, he would be smart enough to make these two verses match.

But still we have the question, why don’t they match?

Geza Vermes, who is one of the world experts on the Dead Sea Scrolls, observed that “the Qumran scriptural scrolls, and especially the fragments, are characterized by extreme fluidity: they often differ not just from the customary wording but also, when the same book is attested by several manuscripts, among themselves.”[2] Thus, the Jews at Qumran had within their sacred collection of texts, variant copies of the same texts.

Following the same standard demonstrated in the Dead Sea Scrolls, 1 Nephi 21:25 and 2 Nephi 6:17 suggests the brass plates (the Nephites collection of sacred texts) also had multiple copies of the same texts, which at times varied from one another. Nephi quoted from one copy of Isaiah found on the plates, while Jacob quoted from another. Thus, you get the divergences found and noted above; but rather than being a problematic discrepancy, it becomes suggestive evidence of an ancient Jewish background for the Book of Mormon.

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Notes:

1. Extra words are bolded, words in place of each other are italicized.

2. Geza Vermes, The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2004), pg. 16. It is important to note that the Book of Isaiah is one of the most frequently attested biblical books in Dead Sea Scrolls collection.

Comments

  1. I think the more probable explanation is that Smith simply paraphrased the verse. Sometimes he quotes the KJV verbatim--translation errors and all. And other times, he renders the verse differently. I don't know, though, whether this is due to his forgetting the words, or if he's just taking literary liberties with the verse.

    Your explanation is possible too, but it suffers from two serious problems. First, as far as I'm aware, no manuscript of Isaiah validates Jacob's rendering of the verse. Second, the verse in question comes from the Deutero-Isaiah sections of Isaiah (40-66). There is a consensus among Biblical scholars (contested primarily by a few conservative evangelical scholars and LDS apologists) that the latter part of Isaiah was not in fact written by Isaiah, but instead an anonymous postexilic writer. And if that's the case, this portion of Isaiah would not have been included in the brass plates (because it hadn't been written yet!) and neither Nephi nor Jacob would have had access to the verse they're supposedly quoting.

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  2. Most scholars believe that Deutero-Isaiah wrote sometime during the Babylonian captivity (586–538 B.C.), and Trito-Isaiah wrote after the return from captivity, in the late 6th century. In order to accept multiple authorship of Isaiah, Latter-day Saints would have to push back the portions of Deutero-Isaiah that appear in the Book of Mormon to no later than just after 600 B.C. Personally, I have no problem doing so; there is no hard and fast reason that Deutero-Isaiah must be Exilic or post-Exilic.

    In an odd way, the Book of Mormon may actually support multiple authorship of Isaiah. Note that large portions of Isaiah that are ascribed to Deutero-Isaiah (particularly chapter 1 and chapters 41–43 and 46–47) and all of the material ascribed to Trito-Isaiah (chapters 56–65) do not appear in the Book of Mormon, even as allusions. This may indicate that these portions were not on the brass plates obtained by Lehi, and were, in fact, written by later authors, as scholarly theories suggest.

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  3. What leads you to believe that the Deutero author is only responsible for 41-43 and 46-47? All of the sources I found attribute 40-55 or 60 to Deutero-Isaiah.

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  4. Jon,

    First off, I know this is several months later and so you may not ever read this, but I was reading something that reminded me of this, so I thought I would comment.

    I think Mike's point is that the chapters which MOST STRONGLY SUGGEST a Deutero-Isaiah are 41-43 and 46-47. Thus, Mike is simply pointing out that the chapters that lead scholars to conclude that Isa. 40-55 are Exilic or post-Exilic are (coincidentally?) left out of the BoM. Such "convenient" omissions might actually suggest authenticity for the BoM. As Kevin Christensen explains:

    "Indeed, even the apparent conict between the Book of Mormon quotations and the notion of a Second Isaiah, written during the exile (p. 470 n. 19), fits better than might appear at first glance. The seven chapters containing the Second Isaiah's arguments for monotheism do not appear in the Book of Mormon Isaiah quotations. And most of the Second Isaiah chapters that do appear in the Book of Mormon have ties to preexilic festival liturgies and could, therefore, be older, even if parts of Isaiah 40—55 had been edited, composed, or reinterpreted later. The Isaiah situation cannot be said to be completely resolved, nor can it be said to be less than very promising." (Kevin Christensen, "A Response to Paul Owen's Comments on Margaret Barker," FARMS Review 14:1,pg. 193-222)

    As far as your objection that "no manuscript of Isaiah validates Jacob's rendering of the verse," I respond that while that is true, no manuscript dates back to 600 BC either. While the case of the BoM is certainly strengthened when its variant readings of Isaiah are attested to in ancient manuscripts, we shouldn't expect every variant to be validated when nothing we have even comes to close to dating as far back as the BoM claims to. If the BoM is really quoting an Isaiah text(s) that pre-dates 600 BC, we should expect it to have otherwise unknown variants - just as the Dead Sea Scrolls uncovered a whole host of differences which were previously unknown. Thus, I do not find that fact to be a “serious problem.”

    I find your suggestion that he just “paraphrased the verse” entirely untenable. Certainly the BoM contains paraphrases of Biblical passages (including some from Isaiah) and otherwise employs KJV phraseology while not necessarily quoting from the Bible, but just read the two verses in question – and the context provided by 2 Nephi 6 – it is clear that both verses are meant to be a quotation. Royal Skousen, a textual critic who has overseen the BoM critical text project, examined every Isaiah reference found in the BoM and identified whether the verse was a quotation or paraphrase; he identified both 1 Nephi 21:25 and 2 Nephi 6:17 as quotations. (Royal Skousen, “Textual Variants in the Isaiah Quotations in the Book of Mormon,” in Donald W. Perry and John W. Welch, eds. Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, pg. 369-370)

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  5. That said, I find it inconsistent to suggest that Joseph Smith can make-up the whole BoM – and keep all of its plots, stories, events, dates/facts, etc. straight and consistent in his head – and quote extensively from Isaiah, including whole chapters (all from memory), and yet suggest that he couldn’t manage to quote the same verse the same way twice. I could accept the “him/them” substitution as an accident. I could even possibly accept the absence of “and I will save thy children” as an instance of memory lapse. But the extra phrase in 2 Nephi 6:17 is not an accidental change, nor does it seem to be an on-the-fly substitution made due to failure to remember the next line (in fact, there is no phrase in the KJV where this phrase appears). No, the extra phrase seems to be a deliberate addition. So we are left with the question – if Joseph Smith is making the BoM up, why would he make a deliberate change to this verse (Isa. 49:25) in one instance, but not in another? Given the attitude of nineteenth century Christians (and even modern Christians today), the notion that the same verse could have two different renderings just doesn’t fit Joseph Smith’s contemporary culture.

    It does, however, fit the ancient Jewish culture that Nephi and Jacob are supposed to have come from. Which is the whole point of my post in the first place. This, in my mind, makes issues like Deutero-Isaiah beside the point here (not that I don’t think the deutero-Isaiah issues have no bearing on the BoM at all), because I am not dealing with whether these verses would have been available to Nephi and Jacob, only that this “anomaly” of the same verse being quoted differently better fits an ancient, rather than modern, context.

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  6. Muhammad was also visited by an angel, Jesus said not to trust ANY angel. Angels are a company or association, not a race descended from a common ancestor (Luke 20:34-36).
    Isaiah 14:12-15. Ezekiel 28:12-17. Luke 10:18. Revelation 12:3-9.
    Jude 6, 9. 2nd Peter 2:4.

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  7. Stephen,

    I haven't the slightest idea what this is supposed to have to with the topic of this blog post. Nonetheless, I don't know of any scriptural passage when Jesus says not to trust any angel. And such would be problematic for the Bible itself, since John receives the book of Revelation from an angel.

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