Like other Mormons, I grew up learning about Martin Harris’s famous visit with Professor Charles Anthon as a pivotal moment in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. According to the traditional narrative (which is really a conflation of several distinct narratives, including Joseph Smith’s 1838 history read in the context of 2 Nephi chapter 27), Harris went to visit several scholars in the cities of the East for the purpose of authenticating Joseph Smith’s transcription and translation of characters taken from the plates of the Book of Mormon. After finding his way to Charles Anthon, a renowned scholar of languages, he was told that the characters and translation were accurate and given a certificate attesting to this. But when Anthon was told the miraculous circumstances surrounding the discovery of the plates, he took the certificate back and destroyed it, declaring that “there was no such thing now as ministering of angels.” After offering to translate the plates if they were brought to him, Harris replied that this was not possible and that part of the plates were sealed, to which Anthon responded, “I cannot read a sealed book,” thus unwittingly fulfilling the prophecy found in Isaiah 29/2 Nephi 27, which claims that the wise and the learned would not be given the task of translating the Book of Mormon, but rather that this unique mission would fall to a person humble and uneducated after the manner of the world.
As a religious narrative, the story about Harris’s visit with Professor Anthon is undeniably compelling. The exchange underscores the foolishness of human wisdom and shows God’s power to carry out his plan even when it would seem unfeasible from a limited mortal perspective. In addition, the fact that God could reveal to prophets long ago the substance of this meeting demonstrates his cosmic foreknowledge and overruling of history.
However, as I have examined the historical sources underlying this narrative, I have become aware that the reality of the event is likely to have been very different from how it has been remembered and presented. I have found problems with each of the basic elements that make up the story, including the role of scriptural prophecy foretelling the episode, the purported use of a transcription of Reformed Egyptian from the plates, and Joseph Smith’s authoritative 1838 retelling of the meeting with Anthon, all of which have led me to reevaluate my understanding of Smith’s role in the origin of the Book of Mormon and the establishment of the early Mormon movement. I will deal with each issue in a separate post under the headings, Fulfillment of Prophecy, Reformed Egyptian, and Evolution of a Story.
Fulfillment of Prophecy
The first problem is the least troublesome from a moral and religious standpoint, and it concerns the fact that a close examination of Isaiah 29 suggests that it was not at all written with a view to a future advent of the Book of Mormon and an associated visit of Martin Harris with Charles Anthon.
As generally recognized by biblical scholars, the various prophetic sayings contained in Isaiah 29 belong to a larger literary unit embracing chapters 28-33 that is compositionally interrelated and shaped by the particular historical and communicative context in which it arose. Although scholars differ in their assessment of what this historical context may have been, a brief description of the section’s literary structure and thematic content can nevertheless be outlined .
In these highly figurative passages, we find a counterpoint of threat and promise, where imminent death and destruction is pronounced upon an unnamed and politically-dominant Jerusalemite group while promises of deliverance and prosperity are addressed to another group of Judahites who have been oppressed by those in power and are viewed as the piously faithful (e.g., 28:1-4, 7-15, 17-29 vs. 28:5-6, 16). The historical context seems to be a deep rift within the community, so the prophetic author has constructed a pattern of alternating speeches of judgment and salvation as a way of distinguishing between the two groups and dramatizing their respective positions in the eyes of Yahweh. Through creative use of traditional prophetic language and forms, the author calls for immediate repentance and lays out his vision of a community restored to the traditional Israelite faith as he understood it.
Isaiah 29 is an integral part of this larger unit and evinces the same literary patterns and themes. The chapter begins with an oracle addressing Ariel (vv. 1-4), or the corrupted Jerusalem of the author’s day, as a city that will soon meet an appalling fate at the hands of Yahweh. In a terrifying reversal of expected norms, Yahweh vows that he will besiege his own city like David and reduce it to such an extent that she will become a ghost whispering from the dust, i.e. the underworld. Then suddenly in vv. 5-8 the metaphor changes and Ariel becomes a symbol of the righteous who dwell in Jerusalem. An oracle of salvation promises that Yahweh will defeat Ariel’s enemies, who are referred to as zarim (“outsiders”) and ʿariṣim (“tyrants”/“violent ones”). At first glance the content of the oracle would seem entirely conventional. Yahweh is cast in his traditional role as defender of the city from foreign invaders, who though powerful and strong in number, will be no match to the god of Israel. Yet on closer inspection we see that the language is highly stylized and metaphorical. The foreigners and tyrants are not actually foreign invaders, but are the same Judahite officials criticized throughout the rest of this section of Isaiah (note that the zarim are linked to Ariel by a possessive suffix and are therefore the zarim of Ariel). They are insiders portrayed as outsiders. In a creative reversal of the image we saw above, Yahweh is now protecting the city rather than besieging it and those whom he attacked are the attackers. The unjust rulers are provocatively identified with “the nations that fight against Ariel,” whom Yahweh will punish. Their power and ascendancy will be ephemeral, the author suggests, as dust/chaff in the wind or a dream/vision of the night.
Following these allusive oracles, the author directly addresses his opponents in v. 9. In a string of repeated imperatives, he mockingly urges them to be stupefied, blind, and confused as if they were drunk. As many scholars have noted, the language is strongly evocative of Isaiah 6:9-10 and seems to have been constructed rhetorically to underscore the depth of the rulers’ insensibility and waywardness. Hans Wildberger explains, “The accusation in v. 9 is cast in the form of an ironic imperative: they are simply to keep on staggering around in their delusion; there is no escaping of this destiny. They will have to go farther down this path, right to the bitter end” . The continuation of the saying in v. 10 further discloses that the people’s delusion is not simply self-imposed, but is a judgment from Yahweh. In a statement that could have only been received by the author’s opponents as particularly offensive, he claims that Yahweh himself has caused the people’s blindness, suggesting that the deity knew that they would not give heed to his revelatory guidance: “For the Lord has poured out upon you a spirit of deep sleep, he has closed your eyes and covered your heads”.
The next passage in vv. 11-12 follows the same train of thought, though here the author creatively shifts his discourse from prophetic saying to prose commentary. Expanding upon the theme that the rulers of Jerusalem have closed themselves off from authentic revelation, the author continues with a direct address in second plural form that compares the hazut (a technical term for cultic revelation, typically translated as “vision”) available to these obtuse religious practitioners to a sealed scroll that some do not even take the trouble to open and others do not have the ability to understand (“If it is given to those who can read… they say, ‘We cannot, for it is sealed.’ And if it is given to those who cannot read, saying ‘Read this,’ they say, ‘We cannot read’”). The depiction is derisive and cartoon-like, implying that even though the politically-dominant group possesses texts it believes to be religiously authoritative, in the eyes of author, they do not have real prophetic hazut. Rather their access to prophecy seems to be solely of a textual nature, as suggested by the modification of hazut by hakol “the vision of everything”.
The rest of the chapter provides further articulation of the same basic themes of judgment and salvation we have already noted. An oracle in vv. 13-14 explains that because the theological and scriptural tradition of the author’s antagonists is actually a product of human learning and skill rather than a reflection of the true worship of God that the Lord will do something shocking and amazing (“a marvelous work and a wonder”). That something “shocking and amazing” is that he will surprisingly turn against those who claim to be his devotees and manifest himself to those who actually stand in his favor and grace.
Vv. 15-16 continue with a new woe saying that describes the same group as doing their utmost to plan and carry out their agenda in secret in spite of Yahweh’s will. According to the author, their actions are known and cannot be hidden from God. Then suddenly an oracle of salvation in vv 17-21 shifts the focus again and asks rhetorically “will not Lebanon in a very little while be turned into a fertile land, and the fertile land be as common as scrubland?” Like the other oracles of salvation, this oracle anticipates a future day when God will right present injustice and miraculously reverse the apparently entrenched positions of the status quo. Using a carefully constructed figure of speech, the author refers to the people of Israel as the mountain-forest of Lebanon, which had earlier been decimated by Yahweh (cf. Isa 10:16-19, 33-34) but would very soon become fruitful again (the Hebrew, haloʾ ʿod meʿaṭ mizʿar, traditionally translated “in a very little while,” is emphatic on this point).
In that eschatological day the author’s adversaries would miraculously hear and understand “the words of a scroll” and no longer suffer from their obdurate blindness. Their former ignorance and impiety would give way to new insight and devotion, resulting in spiritual reconciliation and cosmic social harmony (vv. 18-21). The identity of the mysterious scroll that causes this change is left unspecified, but several factors suggest that it performs a symbolic function in the context of the oracle. The first is the highly evocative language used by the author to describe the religious and spiritual transformation that occurs after hearing the scroll. In miraculous fashion, the “deaf” hear while the “blind” regain their sight. Furthermore, the act of listening to the “words of the scroll” is portrayed as a change of state equivalent to awakening out of a deathly and underworld-like darkness. Second, in the broader context the deaf’s miraculous ability to hear the scroll is implicitly a reversal of their former unwillingness to read and understand the sealed document of vv. 11-12. This intertextual connection between oracles suggests a certain kind of rhetorical playfulness at work in the references to sacred scrolls. Third, the formulation “words of a scroll” is curious, since it appears to have been intended to call attention to the textual nature of the revelation at hand, in contrast to the typically oral word of prophecy. In addition, the absence of any specification of the identity of the document is significant and suggests that the author did not understand it to simply correspond to any document already known to his audience. Rather, the scroll seems to represent the correct teachings of Yahweh in textual form, or in other words, the authoritative prophetic tradition to which the author belongs or even this section of Isaiah. Fourth, as was mentioned earlier, the group at odds with the prophetic author are implied to have had their own canon of sacred writings, a textual tradition that seems to have been a source of friction in the community. If so, then his hope that they would one day listen to a text containing the correct teachings of Yahweh would seem to be a way to neutralize their claims. Just as they have sacralized traditions that they believe provide access to the actual will of Yahweh, the author behind this oracle can point to an alternative textual tradition consonant with his beliefs and practices.
From this brief analysis, we can conclude that 1) the passage in vv. 11-12 about a sealed document is clearly about the ability to read and not whether someone is “learned” or not; 2) the sealed document and scroll mentioned in v. 11 and v. 18 have reference to textual entities that can best be understood in the immediate rhetorical and ideological context of the passage; and 3) the future eschatological reversal promised in v. 17-21 when some people would hear the words of a scroll was expected to arrive very soon from the perspective of the author and not in the distant future.
By way of contrast, the interpretation of Isaiah 29 found in various early narrative accounts of Martin Harris’ interaction with learned scholars is discernibly eisegetical (i.e. reading into the text) and dependent on the King James translation. The original intent of the passage is misunderstood, so that vague references to scrolls (translated in the KJV as “a book that is sealed” in v. 11 and “the book” in v. 18) are thought to have contemporary modern application. Furthermore, a mocking allusion to the spiritual obtuseness of an ancient group of Jerusalemite officials is reinterpreted as a set of monologues about a future extra-biblical book of scripture given by two modern historic individuals.
Of course, the fact that Joseph Smith seems to have read himself and the meeting with Anthon into the biblical narrative need not imply anything about his sincerity or the validity of his claims about the Book of Mormon. Smith could have had authentic spiritual experiences that led him to discover events from his own life in Isaiah 29, even if his was an interpretation imposed on the text at variance with its original purpose and meaning. The difficulty with this approach, however, is that the Book of Mormon implies that Smith’s interpretation of prophetic history reflects the original intent of the Isaianic author, since 2 Nephi 27 elaborates on Isaiah 29 precisely in the creative eisegetical mode of the emerging Mormon prophet. Here the meaning of Isaiah’s mysterious prophecies is explicated in detail, and the whole of it is seen as bearing directly on future events connected with the advent of the Book of Mormon and a new dispensation of Christian restoration and renewal.
The clear implication of this is that 2 Nephi 27 was a product of Joseph Smith’s creative theological interests and did not originate as an ancient Nephite text. Because it bears no relation to the original meaning and purpose of Isaiah 29, depends on the KJV translation for its conceptual understanding, and in particular reflects knowledge of the 1828 confrontation between Martin Harris and Charles Anthon, this would seem to require that the text was composed at some point after this event. Exactly when Joseph Smith developed his presentist interpretation of Isaiah 29 is unclear, he may actually have come to see the chapter as a roadmap for a new religious dispensation fairly early, ie. prior to Harris’ visit with Anthon (see below). Whatever the case, at some point he came to interpret various elements within it as having reference to his work of bringing forth a new book of American scripture, and then went further by inserting this interpretation of the Bible into his construction of the Book of Mormon.
 For some summaries of the section, cf. Marvin Sweeney, Isaiah 1-39, 353-358; Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 1-39, 380-384; Otto Kaiser, Isaiah 13-39, 234-236.
 Hans Wildberger, Isaiah 28-39, 81.