The Authorship of Isaiah Revisited: A Response to Daniel Ellsworth

A few days after my recent post about the Isaiah that Nephi could not have known, Daniel T. Ellsworth’s article on the authorship of Isaiah from an LDS perspective was posted over at Mormon Interpreter. Although only four days apart, the timing was accidental and in a way fortuitous, neither of us knowing that we were going to be posting on the same topic. I wasn’t sure what to expect with Ellsworth’s piece, but I think that there are a few things that are worth briefly responding to here.

Once I was able to sit down and read through all of Ellsworth’s post, I was glad to find a more thorough and positive engagement with contemporary scholarship on the development of the Book of Isaiah than has been customary in the past from various FARMS and BYU approaches, as I explained in my previous post. Ellsworth thinks that, “despite some compelling textual reasons to question the critical scholarly consensus around the dating of the material comprising the book of Isaiah, I believe it would be a tremendous mistake for Latter-day Saints to simply discard scholarly approaches to the book of Isaiah out of a desire to defend the historicity of the Book of Mormon.” Laying aside the pretentiousness of claiming to know textual difficulties of Isaiah better than scholars who not only read the book primarily in Hebrew, but compare at length all of the manuscripts of Isaiah as part of their career, I was glad to see that Ellsworth is inviting other Latter-day Saints to think deeper about this scholarship and not simply write it off out of a desire to defend the Book of Mormon.

I was even more impressed that Ellsworth not only cares about, but has clearly spent time gathering literary parallels from secondary sources between the book of Isaiah and other Israelite literature that traditionally dates to about the same time or a little while after Isaiah. Ellsworth turns to important studies by serious scholars like Richard Schultz,[1] Marvin Sweeney,[2] and Joseph Blenkinsopp[3] in order to understand this literature and the reasons why scholars share the view that Isaiah is not a unified whole, and why the division of the text is much more complicated than the simple tripartite division of Isaiah 1-39, 40-55, and 56-66. This point was a major aspect of my previous post, showing that much of Isa. 1-5, 13-14, 24-27, and 34-39 were not written by Isaiah of Jerusalem, and that the rest of the chapters in that section of the book would not have had the form they currently do in any pre-exilic context.

For the most part Ellsworth’s article is exemplary for at least the tone and engagement that I would hope to see more of within Mormon studies on the issue of the authorship of Isaiah. Where Ellsworth falls short, though, is in his understanding of why scholars view many parts of Isaiah as being written by later authors and in his partial and carefully selected examples of parallels between Isaiah and other prophetic or scriptural texts.

Ellsworth focuses much of his post on connections between the book of Isaiah and Jeremiah and Micah in order to make an argument that all of these prophets were contemporaries so Jeremiah likely had Isaiah, or Isaiah and Micah shared common themes or Micah was dependent on Isaiah. These connections are wonderful to know about and are important to keep in mind but are only a small part of the larger literary problem of the book of Isaiah as a whole. For instance, as I noted in note 39 in my previous post, Deutero-Isaiah is dependent throughout its sixteen chapters on post-exilic writings. This alone would have been good enough reason for me as an editor of the journal to have Ellsworth make major revisions to his essay. To leave out these studies while focusing so much on connections between Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Micah is irresponsible at best and gives the audience the wrong impression. This is a major failing of Ellsworth’s essay.

The work of Benjamin Sommer[4] and Patricia Tull Willey,[5] among others, has more than solidified the observation that Deutero- and Trito-Isaiah is dependent on post-exilic writings. This is not because scholars and Mormons bring different assumptions to the table when exploring these issues, Mormon beliefs about the authorship of Isaiah are actually not different from other traditional assumptions on this topic. What is different is how open an individual student is to reevaluating assumptions in the light of new evidence. Not all believing Mormons who engage with scholarship on Isaiah continue to have the same assumptions as Ellsworth about the authorship of Isaiah afterward, and many who enter the field for a career understand that some of the basic arguments he makes throughout his post are much more nuanced than he assumes. Are these students no longer Mormons because they don’t share the same assumptions as he does?

Ellsworth claims, as many before him have, that a part of discarding Isaianic authorship of Isa. 40-66, and some other specific sections of Isa. 1-39, requires that one does not believe in predictive prophecy. On the contrary, you have to read predictive prophecy into the text of Deutero-Isaiah to view it as authored by Isaiah of Jerusalem. This has already been discussed heavily in the literature, at least as far back as S. R. Driver’s An Introduction to the Literature of the Old Testament:

“In the present prophecy there is no prediction of exile: the exile is not announced as something still future; it is presupposed, and only the release from it is predicted. By analogy, therefore, the author will have lived in the situation which he thus presupposes, and to which he continually alludes.”[6]

Ellsworth, and unfortunately many others since scholars were responding to this argument over 120 years ago, unfortunately misunderstands the scholarly position on this issue. It is not that Mormonism provides a new context for understanding predictive prophecy, but rather the struggle for any reader to correctly understand whether or not a text is predicting this or that about the future. Scholars do not deny the possibility that the author of Deutero-Isaiah was writing, in some respects, before the fall of the Babylonian empire and that this author predicted salvation for the exiled Israelites and a return to their land coupled with a rebuilding of the temple. Rather, that is at the very center of most composition theories. Many scholars have argued that the failed aspects of Deutero-Isaiah’s predictions (and there were successful parts of the predictions as well!) brought on the responses now found in Isa. 56-66.[7] You have to ignore a very large amount of research in order to sustain the idea that scholars simply date texts late because they don’t accept predictive prophecy. A similar mistake would be to attach too much “predictive prophetic” weight to Doctrine and Covenants 130:14-17, where Joseph Smith could be read as saying that Jesus’ second coming would happen around late 1890, Smith’s 85th birthday. It may or may not be clear to some readers today that wasn’t the intention, but there were still people who expected the second coming in 1890.[8] There are more balanced approaches one can take to predictive prophecy than to simply state that as a difference between Mormons and scholars.

Another point Ellsworth makes throughout his post is that a prophet’s viewpoint can change after a decades long prophetic career, but he never gives any examples of this, ancient or modern. It seems to be a tacit assumption that Isaiah is a good example of this, but hopefully that is not the case because of obvious circular reasoning that would need to be involved in that argument. In any case Ellsworth does not explain his reasons for this view other than stating them.

Ellsworth also suggests something unique that Mormons bring extra resources for: that texts change and are revised at a significant level over several years. This is not something unique to Mormonism, and the ideas that were core to solidifying this perspective within Mormonism were widespread in early 19th century American Protestantism. Bibles signified to their readers that the italics in the King James Version were supplied because the words were not found in the Hebrew or Greek manuscripts, leading to assumptions that the italics signified scribal or copying mistakes. Major mistakes in poor quality printing at the beginning of the American republic also led to many people being cautious about which printings to buy and who to buy from. You didn’t want to get a copy of a Bible with a lot of mistakes and somehow be led astray. Those concepts are the historical backdrop to the eighth article of the Mormon faith, and Mormonism has not continued to heavily contribute to those scholarly explorations or help advance them in many significant ways.

All of these points are important, but after reading Ellsworth’s essay I was left with a little bit of hope for potential future studies in Mormon apologetic circles on issues of biblical authorship. At least, until I read the comments. Ellsworth’s essay made a few people slightly angry, but most of all they brought out some of Ellsworth’s true feelings about academic inquiry into the authorship of Isaiah. For Ellsworth, “The reason critical scholars have to believe in multiple authorship is, they operate with a completely different set of assumptions that necessitate the invention of multiple authors. I have no reason to believe that the Isaiah material in the BoM is post-exilic.” He has no reason, after engaging with Blenkinsopp, Sweeney, J. J. M. Roberts, or any of the others he found no reason whatsoever to see how much of Isaiah was written during or after the Babylonian exile.

Ellsworth claims in the comments section that, “I don’t see any reason to believe that any of the BoM Isaiah material is post-exilic. I can’t take the critical scholarly view at face value, because I reject the assumptions that require late dating of that material. If those Isaiah passages were written in late Biblical Hebrew or had some other compelling reason for late dating, I might chalk their BoM presence up to some brilliant midrash on the part of Joseph Smith, or some similar explanation.” This is where the ability to study the text in Hebrew would have come in handy for Ellsworth. As David Bokovoy has noted,

“Unlike what we find in the first half of the book of Isaiah, Aramaic has heavily influenced the language in Isaiah 40-66. Not only does this fact provide compelling proof that the material in 40-66 was written by other authors, it shows that these authors were living in a time when Jews were speaking Aramaic. Aramaic became the international language used by the Assyrians to govern their empire in the eighth century. But Jews living in Jerusalem during the time of the historical Isaiah spoke Hebrew. This explains why Hezekiah’s envoy pleaded with the Assyrians to make terms in Aramaic so that the people listening would not understand what was said (2 Kings 18). It also explains why we do not see any Aramaic influence in the material connected with the historical Isaiah.”[9]

Not only did Aramaic influence the language of the author of many of the passages in Isaiah identified as post-exilic, we also have examples of post-exilic Hebrew all throughout the chapters as well. Bokovoy goes on again to provide a quick example of post-exilic Hebrew, but refers his readers to Shalom Paul’s commentary on Isaiah 40-66 and to the more extensive examples of post-exilic Hebrew he has listed there.[10] The issue is, in my view, an overconfidence based on limited engagement and experience with the in-depth and thorough conversations that are not only currently going on in scholarly circles but that have been going on for several hundred years. I think the more appropriate approach, which seems like it was almost made a part of Ellsworth’s essay, comes from Grant Hardy on the very question of Deutero-Isaiah:

“A more promising avenue for the faithful, it seems, is to acknowledge that we probably know less about what constitutes an “inspired translation” than we do about ancient Israel.”[11]

And by this Hardy does not mean that we cannot know anything about ancient Israel, or that the “(always tentative) results of scholarship” mean that scholars have not made any discoveries that will stand the test of time. On the contrary, the achievements of scholars should be recognized for what they are. When scholars can agree with one another, when it is their job to find places to disagree with current and past paradigms, and maybe even create new ones, this is not only significant but also something that laypeople can think more about and engage with. This means that there is a vast literature that is ready to be studied and is just waiting to be read.


[1] Richard L. Schultz, Search for Quotation: Verbal Parallels in the Prophets (JSOTSup 180; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999).

[2] Marvin A. Sweeney, Isaiah 1-39: With an Introduction to Prophetic Literature (The Forms of the Old Testament Literature, XVI; Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996); and Marvin A. Sweeney, Isaiah 40-66 (The Forms of Old Testament Literature; Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016).

[3] Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 1-39: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (The Anchor Yale Bible, 19; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000); and Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 40-55: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (The Anchor Bible, 19a; New York: Doubleday, 2002); and Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 56-66: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (The Anchor Bible Bible, 19b; New York: Doubleday, 2003).

[4] Benjamin D. Sommer, A Prophet Reads Scripture: Allusion in Isaiah 40-66 (Contraversions: Jews and Other Differences; Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998).

[5] Patricia Tull Willey, Remember the Former Things: The Recollection of Previous Texts in Second Isaiah (SBL Dissertation Series, 161; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997).

[6] S. R. Driver, An Introduction to the Literature of the Old Testament (International Theological Library; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1898), 237; also quoted in H. G. M. Williamson, The Book Called Isaiah: Deutero-Isaiah’s Role in Composition and Redaction (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), 3.

[7] For example, see Konrad Schmid, The Old Testament: A Literary History (Tranls. Linda M. Maloney; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 167-169.

[8] Adding to this were several other statements from Joseph Smith that the second coming could potentially happen around 1890 or so. See Joseph Fielding Smith, Jr., ed., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1938), 238.

[9] (Last accessed 9/23/2017).

[10] Shalom M. Paul, Isaiah 40-66: A Commentary (The Eerdmans Critical Commentary; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012), especially pp. 43-44.

[11] Grant Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 69.

Duane Boyce and the Interpreter: A Step in the Wrong Direction

Do prophets make mistakes? When prophets speak do they always speak the word of God? These are important questions facing Latter-day Saints who encounter examples of prophetic error in Mormon history, policy, and scripture.

In recent years, these challenging theological questions have been addressed by LDS scholars, several of whom have hoped to present a way for Latter-day Saints to accept the implications of critical historical and scriptural analysis while still retaining belief in the authority of Mormon prophets. These efforts have led to a variety of significant scholarly essays and books that have drawn considerable attention in the emerging field of Mormon Studies. Continue reading “Duane Boyce and the Interpreter: A Step in the Wrong Direction”

Tips for the future LDS grad school applicant

It’s grad school application season and students are anxious over GRE, letters of rec, personal statements, GPA etc. It’s a stressful time, we at FPR have been there. We sympathize. Many of us are now on the other side of the portfolio, whether for MA or PhD programs. I don’t speak for us all, but let me say a few things that might be generally true.

If you are LDS and are serious about doing graduate work in Religious Studies (broadly conceived), the Ancient Near East, Hebrew Bible, New Testament, Early Christian Lit., Late Antique, Patristics, etc., please know that admissions committees have and will continue to be concerned about whether you will be ready to handle their programs. Their concern is not just about your intellectual aptitude, but about the nature of your religious commitments. And it’s not really even so much about your religious commitments as your orientation to the world outside of you and whether you are capable of engaging your area of study dispassionately while honoring multiple points of view. If you are or have been interested in or involved in LDS apologetics, and if you have an online trail of this you are making your chances for admission slimmer than they need be. Look, there are lots and lots of LDS people in graduate programs in these fields and so you know that being LDS or being a BYU grad is not something that is hurting people in most circumstances. That being said, overly partisan or strident public expressions defending X historical point or attacking Y practical point or engaging Dr. Z can become an issue for admissions committees regardless of whether a candidate is religious or non-religious. Grad programs are communities and communities are people, people from all sorts of backgrounds.

I am not talking about liking the latest LDS meme on Facebook or (re)posting an inspirational quote from the last General Conference (depending on the circumstances, you may want to limit this as well). I am talking about blogging and publishing papers that are specifically apologetic. Let me give some examples and assess them for you, ballpark assessment of course. I will gear this towards BYU undergrads since numerically they are the largest group of LDS people to matriculate to graduate school annually.

1.You publish a paper in Studia Antiqua, a student run journal at BYU that sometimes trends apologetic or at least a little tone deaf to audiences beyond the LDS world: mild risk. I would avoid it, but it is pretty harmless.

2. You work as a research assistant with a Religious Education faculty member who only publishes in Deseret Book or equivalent venues and who is willing to grant you co-authorship or is willing to include your name in a prominent way in publications or presentations: strong risk. Avoid this.

3. You work as a RA with a RelEd faculty member who largely publishes in peer reviewed venues outside of the LDS world and is willing to name you as co-author or significant contributor: little or no risk. DO THIS.

4. You start a personal blog to defend the faith. Sometimes you end up belittling or attacking those outside your faith or those within your faith whose views differ from yours or whose place on the LDS spectrum is polar from yours: Serious risk, DO NOT DO THIS.

5. You are asked by FAIR or Interpreter to author or co-author papers, write book reviews, or otherwise attach your name to something these organizations do: Serious risk, DO NOT DO THIS. Do not do this no matter how flattering, how exciting, how faith re-affirming, how methodologically sound you feel it to be. These are big red flags to grad school admission committees. They are even red flags to graduate programs at BYU from what I hear from colleagues there. Again, it is not your religious commitments, it is your orientation to the world of ideas, religion more generally, and other people that are of concern to committee members.

6. You are asked by LDS or BYU professors who are local celebrities and long-time names in apologetics to work with them on their latest project on something that only deals with LDS matters or to rebut the latest faith-attacking thing from whatever source: Serious risk. DO NOT DO THIS unless you really, really need the job.

Listen, friends, we know that you want to help your faith community, we know that these various opportunities and venues are incredibly enticing (and let’s be honest, flattering), but if you are applying or will be applying to grad school, you simply must watch out for number one. You are number one. Not the big name apologist, not the security of your faith community (it will be just fine!), not anyone else but you.

Here are some criteria to help you assess whether something is to your benefit this application season.

1. Has the person you are working with/for on their latest apologetic project published in a peer reviewed venue or presented on something outside of LDS matters in the last year? If not, beware.

2. Does the person you are working with/for have connections to the broader academy, who can vouch for your abilities and help you gain admission? If not, beware. If this person only does things in the local, LDS scene, they cannot really assist you in the bigger world of the academy.

3. Does the person you working with/for have your best professional interest at heart? Does s/he/they offer you direct criticism to your ideas, assumptions, writing? Do they make you interact with the major trends of scholarship in your field? If not, beware.

4. Will this person treat you like a traitor if you go to grad school and decide that apologetics or a largely LDS focus is not best for you? If yes, beware.

5. Does this person badmouth the academy at large? Does this person have more grudges than relationships and friendships in the academy at large? If yes, beware.

6. Does this person have a proven track record of mentoring/helping students into grad programs? If not, beware.

Please be cautious and discerning, friends. We want to see you succeed. We want you as colleagues and conversation partners trained at great programs. We have been where you are and we speak with some collective wisdom, uncomfortable though it might seem to you right now.

Hamblin’s Misreading

I should begin by noting that if anyone wants to intelligently comment on the latest issue of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, please read it first. It’s available here (I hope the MI will make the article under discussion available free some time soon).

Bill Hamblin has posted a critique of an article by B. Park, which has generated quite a bit of discussion on Dan Peterson’s blog. I’m going to respond to Hamblin here on FPR because Hamblin has refused to post my comments on his blog in the past (and this comment is long enough to merit its own thread). I do not know if Hamblin will actually respond to this post. He has not responded to other efforts in the past (see here, for instance). However, I am taking the time to respond to Hamblin primarily for the reason that Hamblin is misreading Park, and (more importantly) I fear that other people trust Hamblin as a good interpreter in this instance. I hope this post will be useful for those people.

As a preliminary comment, Park’s article is a book review (he reviews David Holland’s Sacred Borders: Continuing Revelation and Canonical Restraint in Early America and Eran Shalev’s American Zion: The Old Testament as a Political Text from the Revolution to the Civil War). A book review usually summarizes the argument(s) of the book, situates those arguments in a field of research, and evaluates the argument. Continue reading “Hamblin’s Misreading”

On Feeling Betrayed by the Church

This is for all those who say things like “I can’t understand how [polygamy] is such a stunning revelation for any long-time members” or “the only way not to be introduced to polygamy as a member is to not pay any attention” or “People are going to need to be responsible for their own study and stop asking ‘why didn’t the Church teach me these things’.” Let me help you understand not how members of the Church might be “stunned,” but whyContinue reading “On Feeling Betrayed by the Church”

An Apologetics of Care

When people leave the church over intellectual issues, I believe that part of what this means is that people leave the church because of the feelings associated with confronting these issues. In other words, when a LDS learns that Joseph Smith engaged in polyandry, for instance, it usually occurs in a context that induces fear and loneliness, which eventually leads to frustration and anger. Such a person may not be literally alone when he or she discovers Joseph’s polyandry (although he may be; finding the information online, for instance), but he or she likely feels alone in the sense of not knowing anyone with whom he can relate. Hiding such loneliness can give way to not only frustration, but also detachment from fellow LDSs as one seeks to render oneself invulnerable to the pain associated with loneliness. After a while, frustration enables anger, and the distance one has created between oneself and other LDSs via detachment makes “flight” (rather than “fight”) the easiest response to a difficult situation. In other words, some people leave the church because of frustration, fear, and anger.  Continue reading “An Apologetics of Care”

Wheat and Tares Apologetics: A Case Study

In a previous post I provided a general description of one kind of apologetics that, in my opinion, is not fit for an academic institution or even for discussions aiming to debate ideas or intellectual positions. In this post I would like to revisit the notion of Wheat and Tares Apologetics by looking at a specific case: Bill Hamblins’ (BH) exchange with David Bokovoy (DB).

My thesis is quite simple: Wheat and tares apologetics is not an appropriate form of discourse for intellectual debate because its primary purpose is to delegitimate some person or group as a reliable source of Mormonism (in this case) over and above engaging their ideas. In other words, wheat and tares apologetics is focused first and foremost on boundary maintenance—on establishing the authority of the apologist as a gatekeeper or protector of orthodoxy while dismantling the authority of those who disagree with the apologist. It is more an exercise in reframing the good guys and bad guys than an exercise in debating the merits and demerits of a position. It serves to poison the metaphorical well so that the intended audience does not trust some person again.

On that note, BH is a practitioner of wheat and tares apologetics.

Continue reading “Wheat and Tares Apologetics: A Case Study”

Bill Hamblin on the Documentary Hypothesis

Bill Hamblin has done a great service in providing a detailed outsider’s critique, repeating some of the frequent objections to the Documentary Hypothesis that gives us a chance to discuss and hopefully to reach greater clarity on the issue. Since Hamblin has shut down and deleted comments for anyone whose names don’t seem real enough to him, and (more important) since his 20-part attempted takedown of the Documentary Hypothesis (the theory that the first 5 books of the OT are the result of the combination of 4 independent documents) is too unwieldy to treat all at once on his blog, I thought I could summarize the points here and treat it as a whole while providing an open forum where all of Jupiter’s children who behave themselves are welcome to participate—even, and especially, Bill Hamblin (if that is even his real name).

I will also reiterate here my invitation to host a roundtable looking at specific texts so that we are not just sending volleys of assertions about what the theory is and isn’t or does or doesn’t claim. Of course, anyone remotely interested in this topic should consult first Joel Baden’s excellent and eminently readable The Composition of the Pentateuch: Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis (Yale 2012), which does both of these things, giving an overview of the method and then walking the reader through specific texts to illustrate it. One can see similar ideas treated here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

First off, I think there have been some misunderstandings about what the DH is, which have led to some of Bill’s attacks, and I will try to clear those up. Even with these clarified I imagine Bill and I will still disagree, but it might get us closer to a conversation about key issues instead of red herrings. Below I try to summarize Bill’s posts in a couple of sentences and then react to each claim. There are so far 20 posts, so this will be an inordinately long treatment to digest in one sitting. For those sane ones of you who don’t want to wade through each post and reaction, I will summarize my critique here (for details on any one of these, see the individual treatments below the general summary):

Continue reading “Bill Hamblin on the Documentary Hypothesis”

FAIR and “These Are Our Sisters”

We’ve written quite a bit about apologetics in the past couple of years. Some of it has been quite critical, and some of it constructive.

FAIR is one of the prominent LDS apologetic organizations, and it has occassionally been the object of our criticism. The recent post on FAIR’s blog, “These Are Our Sisters,” however, deserves further attention; and a whole lot of praise.