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.

Maimonides and a new Torah Scroll Controversy

My ears perked up when I heard the news that Mauro Perani, professor of Hebrew at the University of Bologna, has found what he believes is the world’s oldest complete Torah scroll. Perani was updating the University library’s Hebrew manuscript catalogue in February, when he realized the scroll had been wrongly dated by the last cataloguer in 1889.

The 1889 cataloguer, a Jew named Leonello Modona, had described the letters in the scroll as “an Italian script, rather clumsy-looking, in which certain letters, as well as the usual crowns and strokes show uncommon and strange appendices.” Perani, however, recognized an elegant script whose square letters were of the oriental Babylonian tradition.

Photo: Alma Mater Studiorum Universita’ Di Bologna

The scroll doesn’t follow the rabbinical rules established by Maimonides in the late 12th century that standardized how the Pentateuch should be copied. It contains many features and markings that would be forbidden under those rules. Its script and other graphic notations are far older than the 17th century date that it had been assigned.

Two separate carbon-dating tests — performed by the University of Salento in Italy and the Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign — confirmed that the scroll dates from 1155-1225 CE.
Giovanni Garbini, a leading expert on ancient Semitic languages, said the discovery doesn’t change much about what the world knows about Hebrew manuscripts.

“It’s an example of an ancient scroll, but from the point of view of knowledge, it doesn’t change anything,” he said in a telephone interview.

But Stephen Pfann, acting president of the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem and an expert in ancient Jewish manuscripts, said if accurately dated, the scroll is a rare and important find. “We don’t have anything much from that period,” Pfann said.

I’ll admit that I’m not qualified or knowledgeable in this field, but I’d love to hear some of our Biblical scholars expound on Pfann and Garbini’s disagreement. I was surprised to read Garbini’s opinion that this discovery doesn’t change much. When an older scroll or manuscript is found, there are often changes to our understanding of scriptural passages. For example, just yesterday, June 2, 2013, Ha’aretz reported that a new interpretation of Genesis 9:22-24 has come to light due to a high resolution photograph of a fragment from the Dead Sea Scrolls. Though the Dead Sea Scrolls date from an earlier period of time than the Bologna Scroll, there is not a complete Torah among them. For many passages, the newly discovered scroll is going to contain the oldest version of them which is now known.
Here are some of the questions that come to my mind:

Photo: Alma Mater Studiorum Universita’ Di Bologna

What is the extent of the existing collection of Torah scrolls from before the time of Maimonides?

What specific things were forbidden by Maimonides that were included in the Bologna scroll?

What were the reasons for the Maimonides strictures?

Have the graphic features, markings and script required by Maimonides made any difference in context or meaning?

Thoughts? Enlighten us!

Israel’s Past Without the Bible

It may come as a surprise to some that there are texts from ancient Israel, Judah, and its environs that are not found in the Bible. There are also a number of texts from (especially) ancient Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia that make reference to Biblical persons, places, and events. Such epigraphic texts are important for many reasons. I want to discuss some aspects of why these texts are important in what follows, and to give some basic information with respect to some of the more prominent epigraphic discoveries that date to the period before Judah’s fall in 586/7 B.C.E. This latter task will be spread out over several posts, and I will proceed in roughly chronological order in my presentation of the material. Continue reading “Israel’s Past Without the Bible”

Ten Tidbits About the Ten Commandments

1. Although commonly referred to as the “Ten Commandments,” in the Hebrew Bible itself they are not so called; rather, they are referred to as the “ten words/sayings” (Exod 34:28; Deut 4:13; 10:4). Thus a better designation perhaps is that derived from the ancient Greek translation of the Bible, known as the Septuagint (LXX), from the 3rd or 2ndcentury B.C.E: the “Decalogue.”  The word “Decalogue” comes into English via French and Old Latin from the Greek, deka meaning “ten,” and logos (pl. logoi), meaning “word, saying.” There are at least two versions of the Decalogue in the Hebrew Bible: Exod 20:2–17 and Deut 5:6–21. Continue reading “Ten Tidbits About the Ten Commandments”

LDS Correlated Lessons and the Hermeneutical model “PaRDeS”

I deeply respect the Jewish approach to the study of the scriptures. It is said that simply stating an opinion about Torah without any background or training in how to critically think about the text is Torah discussion but is not necessarily Torah study. To encourage critical thinking, rabbis from at least the third century C.E. established a simple four-level system known as PaRDeS. Each consonant in this acronym stands for a Hebrew word, and put together they mystically form the word “orchard” (פָּרְדֵּס), or paradise.

  • p’shat — “plain”
  • remez — “hints”
  • d’rash/midrash — “inquire”
  • sod — “secret”

The p’shat level of exegesis seeks to explain the “plain,” simple, or obvious meaning of the text.  This is the type of scripture study that we see so often in our Sunday School classes. Even LDS Seminary and Institute manuals are filled with this level of study. Of course, the p’shat meaning of a text is quite important. It is the keystone of scriptural understanding, and takes into account the customary meanings of the words, literary style, historical and cultural setting, and context. In Lesson 20 of our current Sunday School manual, the teacher is advised: Continue reading “LDS Correlated Lessons and the Hermeneutical model “PaRDeS””

On Biblical Scripture

The Problem

What makes Biblical Scripture, Scripture for LDS Christians?*

Historically one prominent model for the authority of Biblical Scripture in Christian history (including for some Latter-day Saint thinkers) is the Prophetic-Inspiration Model: the person who writes the text is divinely inspired by God to write the very words that are recorded.  This model entails that the human being is a puppet of sorts for the divine will, a tool that can be used for the divine purpose, namely composing Sacred Scripture.  In this view, any text so authored is worthy of the category Scripture because, in the end, its wording is really determined by God (even while still partaking in human language).  This model therefore equates the words of the prophet figure with Revelation. However, although the prophet figure ultimately cannot be held responsible for the final text, the fact that it is composed, even if only instrumentally, by a prominent religious leader otherwise considered to have been commissioned of God, gives credence to the view that the text’s authority rests in the divine. Continue reading “On Biblical Scripture”

Ten Tidbits About Prophets and Prophecy in the Old Testament

1. The biblical, or so-called “canonical,” prophets–those whom we tend to consider the prophets–in many instances (e.g., Amos, Isaiah, Micah, and Hosea) are not called prophets (Hebrew nabi’) in the superscriptions to their books, or elsewhere, and indeed probably would have rejected this label for themselves. For instance, in a third person biographical narrative about Amos, he rejects the Bethel priest Amaziah’s suggestion that he is a nabi’ (See Amos 7:10-17; cf. Hosea 9:7; Micah 3). This is because… Continue reading “Ten Tidbits About Prophets and Prophecy in the Old Testament”

1 Enoch in Jude’s “Bible”: Issues of Canonicity and Scriptural Inspiration

Jude 1:5-7 (NRSV):  Now I desire to remind you, though you are fully informed, that the Lord, who once for all saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterwards destroyed those who did not believe. And the angels who did not keep their own position, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains in deepest darkness for the judgement of the great day. Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.

In the passage quoted above the author of Jude draws on past examples to show that God punishes sinners in order to demonstrate that God will eventually condemn his own contemporary opponents too: v.5 relies on Exodus and Numbers concerning Israelite rebellion and punishment in the wilderness; v.6 draws on 1 Enoch 6-16 about the “angels” who left their appointed sphere and who were thus condemned (cf. Gen. 6:1-4); and v.7 speaks of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah found in Genesis.[1] Continue reading “1 Enoch in Jude’s “Bible”: Issues of Canonicity and Scriptural Inspiration”

Scriptural Authority, Normativity, and Hermeneutics: Women and the Priesthood

Introduction [1]

The Bible often privileges men as normative for what it means to be human, frequently considers women as inferior to men, and presents God in overwhelmingly male terms. For the contemporary believer who is committed to the full equality of men and women the problem is not simply one of reconciling isolated patriarchal, sexist, or misogynistic biblical passages with an egalitarian or feminist perspective, but the revelatory nature of the biblical text itself.  “How can a text that contains so much that is damaging to women function authoritatively in the Christian community as normative of faith and life?” (36). A theology of Scripture that takes this problem seriously must reject the traditional understanding of Scripture as divinely revealed in verbal form to its ancient authors lest the pervasive androcentrism, patriarchalism, and sexism of the biblical text be understood as divinely revealed.  1) What then does it mean for Scripture to be the “Word of God”? 2) How can the Bible function authoritatively for the Church? 3) And is the Bible materially normative for modern faith and practice? Continue reading “Scriptural Authority, Normativity, and Hermeneutics: Women and the Priesthood”