This is going to be a post about Isaiah that does *not* talk about Second Isaiah. After addressing the transmission of the text of Isaiah, I will contrast two different approaches to reading and understanding that book and, more generally, any scriptural book.
First consider the LDS view of the Bible more generally:
We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly. (AoF 8)
“Translated” here means not rendered from Greek and Hebrew into English but transmitted down through the centuries. The claim is that the Bible we have today is a corrupted version of the text that existed at some time in the past, with passages, even large chunks of text, removed. This view is expressed very clearly in the Book of Mormon:
The Book which thou beholdest, is a record of the Jews, … and it is a record like unto the engravings which are upon the plates of brass, save there are not so many. … [W]hen it proceeded forth from the mouth of a Jew, it contained the plainness of the Gospel of the Lord, of whom the twelve apostles bear record … these things go forth from the Jews in purity, unto the Gentiles …. [T]hou seest that after the Book hath gone forth through the hands of the great and abominable church, that there are many plain and precious things taken away from the Book, … and after that these plain and precious things were taken away, it goeth forth unto all the nations of the Gentiles, yea, even across the many waters …. (1 Ne. 13, 1830 ed.)
According to this passage, the biblical writings went forth “in purity” from the Jews to the early Christian church. Only later were things taken out of (not added to) the Bible. This pared down Bible eventually crossed the Atlantic Ocean with European settlers and made its way into the hands of Joseph Smith. Consistent with this view of the Bible, Joseph Smith (with the assistance of Sidney Rigdon) set about repairing this corrupted Bible shortly after the LDS Church was established, adding many additional passages but removing few.
Enter the Dead Sea Scrolls
According to the LDS view as sketched above, if we were able to go back and read the ur-Bible “in purity,” we should see those additional plain passages that were later removed. It just so happens that such early manuscripts were discovered with the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) in the mid-20th century. In particular, the Great Isaiah Scroll (as it has come to be known) preserves almost the entire book of Isaiah. The scroll is dated to the second century BC. It pushes our knowledge of the text of the book of Isaiah back a thousand years. Remarkably, this second century BC text shows only minor differences, mostly grammatical, when compared to the medieval Masoretic texts that were previously our earliest complete text for Isaiah. There are no big chunks of text removed from earliest Isaiah. Apparently the text was transmitted much more correctly than the LDS tradition has generally supposed.
John J. Collins, a DSS scholar and author of The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography (Princeton Univ. Press, 2013), agrees. “The initial announcement of the Dead Sea Scrolls in April 1948 had trumpeted the discovery of the earliest known manuscript of the entire Book of Isaiah, and noted that it was older than any other complete Hebrew manuscript of the book by about a thousand years” (p. 185). He goes on to discuss how other scrolls discovered in other DSS caches showed early Hebrew texts largely supporting the textual variations in the Samaritan Pentateuch (SP) and the Septuagint. In other words, variations in these two sources were not simply the product of bad translation from a single Hebrew textual tradition; there were several different Hebrew textual traditions circulating in Palestine prior to the first century AD. Eventually the other traditions fell out of use, preserved only in the SP and the Septuagint, and the Masoretic text became normative for Judaism and, eventually, Christianity. Collins notes, “[I]t was the book that was authoritative, rather than a particular form of the text, just as in a modern context the authority of the book does not depend on the wording of any one translation. For Christians brought up to believe in verbal inspiration, this may come as something of a shock” (p. 189).
One Approach: Elder McConkie’s Ten Keys
So how should a Latter-day Saint approach the study of Isaiah (or, more generally, any book of the Bible)? In 1973, Elder Bruce R. McConkie published “Ten Keys to Understanding Isaiah” in the Ensign. He affirms the idea that Isaiah is difficult to understand: “Let us freely acknowledge that many people find Isaiah hard to understand. His words are almost totally beyond the comprehension of those in the Churches of the world.” He then offers ten guidelines for understanding the present book of Isaiah:
- Gain an overall knowledge of the Plan of Salvation and of God’s dealings with His earthly children.
- Learn the position and destiny of the House of Israel in the Lord’s eternal scheme of things.
- Know the chief doctrines about which Isaiah chose to write.
- Use the Book of Mormon.
- Use latter?day revelation.
- Learn how the New Testament interprets Isaiah.
- Study Isaiah in its Old Testament context.
- Learn the manner of prophesying used among the Jews in Isaiah’s day.
- Have the spirit of prophecy.
- Devote yourself to hard, conscientious study.
Another Approach: Historical Criticism
Isaiah scholar David P. Wright takes a different approach in “Joseph Smith’s Interpretation of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon,” published in 1998. As a scholar, Wright employs historical criticism to understand the text, essentially focusing on items 7 and 10 from Elder McConkie’s list of ten guidelines. Rather than using Book of Mormon passages to better understand Isaiah (number 4 on Elder McConkie’s list), Wright tends to use Isaiah to understand the Book of Mormon passages. Here is a helpful paragraph from the article:
The text of Isaiah in the [Book of Mormon] for the most part follows the King James Version. There are some variants, but these are often insignificant or of minor note and therefore do not contribute greatly to clarifying the meaning of the text. The [Book of Mormon], however, does provide interpretation of or reflections on the meaning of Isaiah. This exegesis is usually placed in chapters following citation of the text, though occasionally it is interspersed in the citation. It is noteworthy because, instead of laying out the original historical meaning of Isaiah, it reapplies the text to the time of Joseph Smith and to the course of Jewish and Christian history up to his time. (citations omitted)
Wright notes that interpreting Isaiah by applying the text to one’s own time (what he sees Joseph Smith doing) “is not unique in the larger context of Jewish and Christian traditions.” That’s also what Nephi recommended in 1 Nephi 19: “For I did liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be fore our profit and learning.” Coincidentally, that approach was used in a number of DSS commentaries on other books in the Hebrew Bible (most famously Habakkuk). New Testament authors as well regularly cite Old Testament passages and apply them to the life of Jesus or events in the early Christian church.
Elsewhere, Wright contrasts two different approaches he calls traditionalist and historical critical, which more or less correspond to the two approaches noted above. Both have their place. While facts and context are helpful for a Gospel Doctrine teacher to share with a class on Sunday, the historical critical approach standing alone is as unsuited for a Sunday School class as is a devotional or traditionalist approach for a college course or seminar. Likewise, at times you may read Isaiah with your study bible in one hand and a scholarly commentary in the other, but at other times you read for personal profit and learning, applying the text to your own life and how to live it better.