Sunday, May 22, 2016

Isaiah and the Meaning of “Translation”

Here are a  few additional thoughts related to my previous post about Isaiah in the Book of Mormon.

My testimony of the Book of Mormon does not depend on scholars being incorrect about the authorship of Isaiah. If it turns out that Isaiah 48-54 wasn’t actually on the gold plates and Joseph felt inspired to add that material to the text of the Book of Mormon, I’m fine with that.

This kind of an approach  may not sit well with some Mormons, because we tend to assume that Joseph had very little influence on the textual form that the Book of Mormon took. But is this assumption necessary?


I have faith that the Book of Mormon is an inspired translation of an ancient record, but I’m a little wary about putting too many constraints on what an inspired “translation” could involve. For example, the Book of Abraham is identified as “A Translation of some ancient Records that have fallen into our hands from the catacombs of Egypt.” For a long time I assumed that meant the Book of Abraham must be a literal rendering of the papyri that were in Joseph Smith’s possession. However, now the church has indicated that the translation of the Book of Abraham might be something different. In its recent essay about the Book of Abraham, the church said:

Joseph’s study of the papyri may have led to a revelation about key events and teachings in the life of Abraham, much as he had earlier received a revelation about the life of Moses while studying the Bible. This view assumes a broader definition of the words translator and translation. According to this view, Joseph’s translation was not a literal rendering of the papyri as a conventional translation would be. Rather, the physical artifacts provided an occasion for meditation, reflection, and revelation. They catalyzed a process whereby God gave to Joseph Smith a revelation about the life of Abraham, even if that revelation did not directly correlate to the characters on the papyri.

I recognize that this statement is about the Book of Abraham, not the Book of Mormon. But my point is simply that learning about the Book of Abraham has made me reluctant to put too many limitations on what the word “translation” can mean as it relates to Joseph’s work.

I’m certainly open to the possibility that scholars might be wrong about the post-exilic authorship of Isaiah 40–66. But I’m also open to the possibility that my preconceived assumptions about what constitutes an inspired “translation” might be incorrect.

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