The Paper Plates of Laban

Bind up the testimony, seal the teaching among my disciples. I will wait for Yahweh, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him. (Isaiah 8:16-17)

This cryptic command reveals the earliest stage of the textual history of the Book of Isaiah. The author had disciples, with whom he deposited his teachings for the future, and continued in silence, waiting for Yahweh. Isaiah became a prophet emeritus. It appears that this verse inspired Waiting for Godot, the 1949 play by Samuel Beckett. Here Beckett turns the verse into an existentialist metaphor. There is a tone of both resignation and distant hope in waiting for God.

In both Daniel 12:4 and Isaiah 8, the prophets are told to “seal” their teachings for the future.[1] In these two instances, seal ( חָתַם) probably refers to hiding, or safe securing of their teachings.[2] But what did Isaiah seal? What was the medium of his teaching that he left with his followers?  In the early nineteenth century, biblical commentaries discussed the nature of the writing materials that Isaiah used to preserve his message for followers. Among the more prominent theories was that Isaiah wrote his message on brass tablets or brass plates of some sort. (See Protestant commentaries by Lowth, Clarke, and Scott.) Early Mormons shared this view. (See EMS vol. 1 no. 8, 116)

No metal plates from the eighth century BCE containing words of Isaiah have ever been discovered. Thus, the Book of Mormon and the Brass Plates of Laban were precisely what the audience of the Book of Mormon would have expected—the word of God on metal plates to Restore what was lost. The Book of Mormon relates the story of Lehi, a contemporary of Jeremiah, who leaves Jerusalem for America with a set of Brass Plates, containing prophetic writings, including a version of our current Book of Isaiah.

I argue here that the records that serve as the source of the text of Isaiah in early Mormon scriptures were not Gold Plates or Brass Plates, but rather Paper Plates—texts that served as sources of prophetic creativity in Joseph Smith’s rereading of Isaiah. I say “rereading” because neither these Paper Plates nor Joseph Smith’s prophetic midrash contain an original text nor the authorial intent of Isaiah. The Paper Plates from which the early Mormon text of Isaiah was drawn were the King James version of the Bible, the Septuagint in English (LXX), the Isaiah Targum, and nineteenth century biblical commentaries. Early Mormonism used these Paper Plates as part of Mormon midrash, as a new modern rereading of Isaiah for a modern audience. This prophetic midrash changed the text and thus interpreted it in new creative ways for its audience at the end of the world. This rereading can be described as Christocentric, apocalyptic, and Restorationist. Above all, it was an excellent marketing strategy for a populist religion against learned professors of religion.

The Isaiah texts in the Book of Mormon and the Joseph Smith “Translation” of the Bible (JSR) are prophetic products of the 19th century. All agree that the Isaiah text in the Book of Mormon and JSR are a modified version of the KJV. So, when Joseph Smith was translating the Book of Mormon and preparing the JSR, his primary text for retrieving Isaiah was the KJV. This is not in serious dispute among mainstream Mormons and non-Mormons.

In addition, I have so far located three clear instances where the text of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon follows the Septuagint (LXX, a second to third century BCE koine Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible), and one instance where they follow the Isaiah Targum in Aramaic (circa 50 BCE).

Let us summarize the issues around the most familiar example of a text from the LXX version in the Book of Mormon and JSR: their rendition of Isaiah 2:16. The following lines from the LXX are added to the Book of Mormon and JSR of this verse: “and upon all the ships of the sea.”: This is an English translation of the first line of verse 16 in LXX. The Book of Mormon and JSR place it in the first line in addition to the same line from the MT and KJV. Hence, we have three lines instead of two in this verse. A number of Mormon authors consider this evidence of the antiquity of the Isaiah text in the Book of Mormon. But the addition interrupts the pattern of two-lined poetry in the surrounding verses. LXX and Targum provide invaluable insights into early Hebrew texts. But more often than not, they are interpretive paraphrases. The LXX phrase added to the Book of Mormon Isaiah text in Isaiah 2 is a loose translation, and in this case, it is a mistranslation of the underlying Hebrew text. It is tacked on in the Book of Mormon along with the same phrase from the KJV. Again, the same line appears twice in the Mormon texts of this verse. David Wright has located 6 commentaries available in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries discussing the wording of this passage from LXX that could have served as the source for this reading by Smith.

This is typical. All of the instances of the Isaiah text in the Book of Mormon and JSR that are relying on the Targum and LXX are relying on an original paraphrase or outright mistranslation of the underlying Hebrew. Hence, the Isaiah text that Mormon scripture relies on, is a version of Isaiah that can be no earlier than about 50 BCE—the date of the Targum. English selections of LXX and the Targum can be found in the early nineteenth century commentaries, which is the most probable source for the Mormon Isaiah textual variants, along with other creative rereadings of verses by Joseph Smith.

I also have two instances, below, that demonstrate that JSR relied upon wording of Isaiah from nineteenth-century Biblical commentaries. Again, this demonstrates that the Mormon texts and interpretations of Isaiah do not represent its original authorial intent. Mormon readings of Isaiah are rather prophetic midrash—a prophetic rereading for modern audiences. Here are the two examples,

1-Isaiah 43:13,

Yea, before the day was I am he;

and there is none that can deliver out of my hand:

I will work, and who shall let it?

John Gill comments on the phrase “who shall let it?” to mean “none will be able to hinder it.”[3] The Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible changes the phrase “who shall let it?” to “who can hinder it?” In other words, he uses the same rewording as Gill’s commentary. Gill’s wording is one of several possible ways of wording the Hebrew text.

2- Another example of JSR responding to commentaries can be found in Isaiah 35:8 

And a highway shall be there, and a way,

and it shall be called, The way of holiness;

the unclean shall not pass over it;

Thomas Scott comments on this verse 8: “the knowledge of the truth and will of God, when made very plain and clear to any people, is like casting up an highway through a country that was before impassable.”[4] On this same verse, John Gill states the highway is a way that is “cast up, raised, and elevated: this is to be understood principally of Christ.”

The Hebrew noun in this verse simply means highway. The noun is related to a Hebrew verb that means to build or to raise up. Blenkinsopp notes that the parallel wording for the highway of the second exodus in Isaiah refers to at least two sets of highway images: clearing a highway, removing obstacles from the path, making one able to follow the prophetic way; and, second, a passage way for a new age after captivity.[5] Therefore, this highway image in Isaiah 35:8 does not necessarily imply increase in elevation. Scott and Gill and other conservative commentators down to the present stretch that verbal relationship between raising up higher and building a highway to make a theological point that overreads the Hebrew text.

In verse 8 after the mention of a highway in the desert, Joseph Smith’s Rendition adds a new interpretive phrase, “for a way shall be cast up,” thus overreading the Hebrew, following Gill and Scott. This notion finds no support in the Targum, LXX, the Vulgate, and the Great Isaiah Scroll in the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is a nineteenth century notion, but not one that can be derived from the Isaiah text. So, early Mormonism is not only conscious of early nineteenth century biblical understandings, it even uses the same words as commentaries to interpret Isaiah. Hence, there seems to be a subtle dialogue between early nineteenth century commentaries and Mormon scripture.

Colby Townsend claimed that the Brass Plates were actually the KJV. I would expand and modify Townsend’s claim. The evidence of the Isaiah texts in the Book of Mormon and JSR suggest that Brass Plates are actually a combination of the KJV, a nineteenth century version of the LXX, the Isaiah Targum and nineteenth century biblical commentaries. The Brass Plates are actually nineteenth-century Paper Plates.

(Mark Thomas is presently working on a book entitled The Mormon Annotated Isaiah: A Mormon Midrash, to be published in 2019.)

[1] There are multipole notions of sealing scriptures in the Book of Mormon and early Mormonism. Space does not allow us the luxury of treating that topic here.

[2] In 1 Kings 21:1-16 the word is narrower in meaning. It refers to closing and “locking” a letter with a seal from a signet ring.

[3] Gill, John, An Exposition of the Old Testament (6 vols.; Philadelphia: William W. Woodward, 1817-1819). John Gill (23 November 1697 – 14 October 1771) was a commentator familiar to early Mormon writers. Gill consults and quotes sources throughout Christian history, Josephus, early Church fathers, classical sources, medieval rabbis (Jarchi, Kimchi, Aben Ezra, Lyra, Ben Melech, among others), targumim, and various biblical texts including the LXX.

[4] Scott, Thomas, The Holy Bible, containing the Old and New Testaments: with Original Notes, Practical Observation, and Copious Marginal References, vol. 3 (4th American ed., 2nd London ed.; New York: Dodge & Sayre, 1815). Thomas Scott (1747–1821) was an Anglican priest with evangelical sympathies. His Commentary on the Whole Bible was written in London. This work remained popular for years and was published in the United States far more than any other biblical commentary in the first half of the nineteenth century. Early Mormons were familiar with his commentary.

[5] Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 1-39: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (The Anchor Yale Bible, vol. 19; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 454-457; Isaiah 56-66: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Anchor Bible Commentary, vol. 19B; New York: Doubleday, 2003), 166-173.


The Paper Plates of Laban — 6 Comments

  1. Thanks, Mark. Always good to get into the nuances and details. This usually exposes our naive reading of scripture.

  2. JPV,
    Great question. My apologies for the late response. I have been out of touch for the last two weeks. Give me a few days and I will give you my take of Zenos allegory.

  3. JPV,
    Here is my take on Zenos allegory in Jacob 5 of the Book of Mormon. The obvious sources of the allegory are Isaiah 5 (song of the vineyard) and Romans 11 (the parable of the olive tree). Zenos combines them. Zenos gives us a mixed allegory —–a vineyard that contains olive trees. Grapes and olives were primary agricultural products in the Bible and ancient Israel. This is typical of the Book of Mormon—combining biblical agricultural images into a new mosaic—a new apocalyptic allegory. Zenos quotes from Isaiah 5: “What could have been done more to my vineyard that I have not done in it?” Yet Zenos changes “to my vineyard” in Isaiah 5 to “for my vineyard,” as does New Yorker, Albert Barnes’commentary on Isaiah 5.

    In fact the origin of grafting in Israel is not certain. It may have begun as early as the time of Isaiah or later. There is no mention of grafting in the Hebrew Bible, and no word meaning “to graft” in Hebrew (contra Gileadi). But the Jewish prophet Zenos refers to grafting. On this basis alone, Paul is likely the source of Zenos grafting language.

    So the message of Zenos’ parable seems out of place in 8th century Israel. Zenos allegory is quite clearly intended for a latter-day reader. It speak directly to them and interprets the Bible for them. It serves as an exhortation to the latter day reader: “And blessed art thou [speaking to the latter-day reader] . . . because ye have been diligent in laboring with me in my vineyard . . .] So here we have a mosaic of biblical images interpreting various parts of the Bible in a mosaic of passages turned into an apocalyptic exhortation. It is a nineteenth century biblical midrash with a biblical mosaic of passages. That is a short and dirty application of my thesis to Zenos’ allegory.

  4. I thought nephi was sent back to get labans papers as they were called by Joseph Smith Sr Interview with Fayette lapham?