Latter-day Magazine On-line

Our Most Ancient Scripture

H. Clay Gorton

After Lehi and his family left Jerusalem, the Lord appeared to him in a dream and commanded him to send his sons back to obtain a written account that he identified as the record of the Jews and a genealogy of his forefathers. (1 Nephi 3:3) This record, known as the Brass Plates of Laban, was written in Egyptian hieroglyphs (Mosiah 1:2-4) and was in the possession of a man called Laban.

The record was undoubtedly a highly valued document as it was kept in Laban's treasury under lock and key. When the plates were taken from the treasury to meetings of the brethren of the church where they would be read by the Elders of the Jews they were very probably taken under guard. (1 Nephi 4:20-27)

When Lehi's sons returned to Jerusalem to recover the Brass Plates, they offered Laban all their father's wealth for the plates, which he refused. Lehi was a rich man, (1 Nephi 3:24,25) and when he left Jerusalem with his family at the command of the Lord, he took with him only those things necessary for the journey; and although he planned never to return, he made no disposition of his property and belongings, as he probably left in some haste. Nephi states that they have sought to take away the life of my father, insomuch that they have driven him out of the land. (1 Nephi 7:14) It was the riches which were left behind that the brother's offered Laban for the plates.

Nephi finally obtained the plates by impersonating Laban and having Laban's servant retrieve them from the treasury with the pretext of taking them to his brethren of the church. (1 Nephi 4:26)

What was written on the Brass Plates of Laban? The record included the five books of Moses, which gave an account of the creation of the world, and also of Adam and Eve, . . . and also a record of the Jews from the beginning, even down to the commencement of the reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah; and also the prophecies of the holy prophets, from the beginning, even down to the commencement of the reign of Zedekiah; and also many prophecies which have been spoken by the mouth of Jeremiah. (1 Nephi5:11-13) The prophecies of Lehi were also recorded on the Plates of Brass. (2 Nephi 4:2)

The record revealed that both Lehi and Laban were descendants of Joseph who was sold into Egypt. (1 Nephi 5:14,16) Nephi states that all things concerning the prophets of old were written on the plates. (1 Nephi 19:21) The plates also contained the prophecies of Joseph concerning the descendants of Lehi. (2 Nephi 4:1-3) Alma repeats that the brass plates contained the holy scriptures and the genealogy of their forefathers even from the beginning. (Alma 37:3) The brass plates also contained the words of four great prophets that are not mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures of today: Zenos, Zenock, Neum and Ezias. We are told that Zenos lived after the days of Abraham and died as a martyr. (Helaman 8:19) Zenos is the author of the allegory of the tame and wild olive trees that was related by Jacob, (Jacob 5) and comprises the longest chapter in the Book of Mormon.

Although Zenos in not mentioned in the extant Old Testament scriptures, it is possible that his writings were known to men at the beginning of the Christian era. Paul in Romans 11:17-24 speaks of the gentiles as branches of a wild olive tree that had been grafted into a good olive tree, which is the theme of the Zenos allegory in Jacob 5.

Nothing is mentioned in the Book of Mormon concerning the antiquity of the Brass Plates. We only know that they existed as an important and revered document at the time Lehi left Jerusalem 600 BC. If they were a recent document in Lehi's day, the Isaiah chapters in the Book of Mormon that were copied from them would yet be the most ancient biblical account in existence today. However, it is probable that they were an ancient document even in Lehi's time.

One could ask, why were the Brass Plates written in Egyptian hieroglyphs? Although there were undoubtedly translations by Israelite scribes from Hebrew into Egyptian before Lehi's time, it appears highly improbable that the voluminous text of the Brass Plates would have been so translated. In the first place, the Israelites did not hold the Egyptians, from whom they had escaped bondage, in high regard. Their own tongue was considered by many to be the language of God. Even today, orthodox Jews give the original language text of their scriptures a position of high esteem. So why did they have their scriptures, inscribed on metal plates to endure as a primary document across the ages of time, written in Egyptian? Of course, inscribing on metal plates was painstaking and tedious, and a shorthand method would be highly desirable. Jacob, the brother of Nephi, complained of the difficulty of engraving upon plates, and that they did so undoubtedly to save space and in order to prepare a permanent record. (Jacob 4:1-3) Was this, then, the reason for those who prepared the Brass Plates to have written in Egyptian? If so, it appears that it would have been an adequate reason.

However, there may have been yet a more fundamental reason why they were written in Egyptian. Moses, who wrote the first volumes of scripture that were preserved by the Israelites, was an Egyptian. Egyptian was his native language. When he was called by the Lord to lead Israel out of Egypt, he demurred, saying, I am not eloquent . . . but am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue. (Exodus 4.10) Some have interpreted this scripture to mean that Moses had a speech impediment, yet this in not so. Stephen, recounting the early history of the children of Israel before the Sanhedrin states, Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and in deeds. (Acts 7:22) In all probability Moses, in the Exodus account, was confessing his limited acquaintance with the Hebrew tongue. Although his Hebrew mother was employed as his nurse, Moses was raised in the house of the Pharaoh and held high offices in Pharaoh's court until he fled from Egypt for killing an Egyptian who was abusing two Israelites.

Moses may well have written the Pentateuch on metal plates in the Egyptian language both to minimize the engraving process and because of the ease of writing in his native language. Were this to have been the case, the prophets who followed him would have had to learn Egyptian in order to read the sacred record. With that ability, and their deference for Moses, the succeeding prophets who added their contributions to the scriptures, might have felt impelled to follow the literary course charted by Moses. Indeed, Nephi and his successors may well have been following tradition as much as conserving space as they too learned Egyptian in order to read and inscribe their sacred documents. (Mosiah 1:2-4)

Thus it is possible that the Brass Plates were indeed an early document even in Lehi's time and a prime source of the Old Testament as we know it today. Certainly they pre-date the most ancient scriptures available to us today.

The brass plates were retained with the other sacred records written by Nephi and succeeding prophets, and were handed down from one prophet to another from Nephi to Mormon. Nephi was particularly impressed with the scriptures contained in the brass plates. He records that they were of great worth unto us, insomuch that we could preserve the commandments of the Lord unto our children. (1 Nephi 5:21) He read them to his brothers, that they might know concerning the doings of the Lord in other lands, among people of old; (1 Nephi 19:22) and, more importantly, in order to add another witness to his own testimony of the Redeemer to convince his unbelieving older brothers of the divinity of the Redeemer, he read to them that which was written by the prophet Isaiah. (1 Nephi 19:23) So impressed was Nephi with the writings of Isaiah, particularly because of the powerful prophecies of the coming of the Messiah as the Savior and Redeemer of mankind, that he copied seventeen of the Isaiah chapters into his own record, the Small Plates of Nephi.

Mormon made his abridgement of the Nephite history from the secular plates. In fact, he was not aware of the existence of the smaller plates until he had concluded abridging the record from the larger plates up to the reign of King Benjamin. At this juncture, as he was searching among the records in his possession, he discovered the smaller plates of Nephi that contained the transcription of the Isaiah chapters. Mormon made no abridgement of these plates, but as they were choice unto him he inserted them intact into his abridged account. (Words of Mormon 1:6; Mormon 1:6) As Joseph Smith began to translate the plates delivered to him by the angel Moroni, he translated the account from Nephi to Mosiah from Mormon's abridgement, not from the smaller plates containing the account of the ministry and the Isaiah transcriptions.

The translated pages of the first part of Mormon s abridgment, down to the Book of Mosiah, and comprising 116 handwritten pages, were taken by Martin Harris, who was acting as scribe for the prophet, to show to specific members of his family. Harris, however, violated his trust and as a consequence the transcript was stolen and fell into the hands of a group of men who planned to alter the text in order to discredit the prophet by alleging that the altered record and the anticipated retranslation would not agree with one another.

The Lord warned the prophet of this evil design and instructed him to translate instead the record on the smaller plates, which covered the same period, and which contained the seventeen chapters of Isaiah. Thus, the Isaiah account found in First Nephi and Second Nephi is the result of a direct copy of the Egyptian characters made by Nephi from the Brass Plates of Laban, which copy was translated into English by the prophet, Joseph Smith. Isaiah 53, found in Mosiah 14, was inscribed from the Brass Plates onto the Large Plates of Nephi by the Prophet Mosiah, and was copied by Mormon in his abridgement.

Joseph Smith s translation of the ancient record was made by the gift and power of God. Thus, we have in the seventeen chapters of Isaiah in First and Second Nephi a record which was copied by Nephi directly from the Brass Plates of Laban, and that very copy, some 2430 years later, was correctly translated from the original Egyptian into English!

These seventeen chapters of Isaiah are, therefore, the prime scriptural account, and the oldest biblical document of which we have record. Any differences between the Book of Mormon Isaiah and other versions of Isaiah represent alterations to the Book of Mormon original by scribes and translators. That there would be alterations is attested to in the scriptures specifically in the great vision of the tree of life that was shown to Nephi and which forms the central theme of First Nephi. In this vision Nephi was told by the angel of the Lord that when the book was originally written it contained the fullness of the gospel of the Lord, but that there would be many plain and precious things taken away from the book. (1 Nephi 13:26, 28, 29, 32, 33)

As Joseph Smith translated the Isaiah chapters he undoubtedly used the King James Bible as the basis for his terminology. The wording of the Book of Mormon Isaiah and the King James Isaiah is for the most part identical, so much so that the differences that do exist take on particular significance. For Joseph Smith to have varied from the King James text in transcribing the Isaiah chapters there must have been specific reasons for doing so. Many of the differences are stylistic in nature, wherein the translator's choice of words reflects only a manner of speaking and does not alter the meaning conveyed in the King James text. An example would be in Isaiah 48:8, where the King James Version has added the word "and" and deleted the word "that."

However, at least 115 of the changes are substantive in nature, wherein the meaning of the text is substantially altered. The angel told Nephi that many of the covenants recorded in the ancient scriptures would be removed. (1 Nephi 13:26) In this regard, it is significant that nowhere in the Old Testament is the baptismal covenant mentioned. We know that Adam was baptized (Moses 6:52), and was commanded to teach these things freely to his children. (Moses 6:50) Although Moses original record was explicit in teaching the doctrine of baptism, yet in today's Genesis it does not appear. The Brass Plates verify that the original Isaiah also referred to the ordinance of baptism, as we read in First Nephi 20:1 where the waters of Judah are identified as the waters of baptism. However, that, too, as one of the plain and precious parts, has been removed.

It must be remembered, however, that the angel stated to Nephi that the truthfulness of the scriptures of the Gentiles, or the Bible, shall be established by the scriptures in the Book of Mormon, which shall make known the plain and precious things which have been taken away from them. (1 Nephi 13:40) In spite of the corruption of the original scriptures, the angel in Nephi's vision announced that nevertheless, they contain the covenants of the Lord, which he hath made unto the house of Israel; wherefore, they are of great worth unto the Gentiles. (1 Nephi 13:23)

A rather subtle but convincing evidence of the primacy of the Book of Mormon Isaiah is a comparison of the first 12 verses of 1 Nephi 20 and Isaiah 48. The Brass Plates rendition is an artfully contrived chiasmus, which is a work of literary beauty and symmetry. The chiasmus is comprised of six pairs of parallel elements symmetrically arranged around the central theme of the passage expressed in verse 4. The repetition of each of the elements confirms the meaning and intent of the element, establishing the validity of the concepts expressed.

In the King James rendition the text has been so altered as to destroy much of the chiastic content. It could be compared to the ruins of an ancient castle enough of the structure remains to confirm that a functional, operational castle once existed, but no one would suggest that the ruins were the original, and that the beautiful structure from which it deteriorated was in reality a copy.

First Nephi 20:1-12 is reproduced below in chiastic form. with the parallel elements italicized. The nature of the relationships between each of the six parallel elements is then identified.

1 Nephi, Chapter 20
6a] 1 Hearken and hear this, O house of Jacob, who are called by the name of Israel, and are come forth out of the waters of Judah, or out of the waters of baptism,
5a] 1 . . . who swear by the name of the Lord, and make mention of the God of Israel, yet they swear not in truth nor in righteousness.
4a] 2 Nevertheless, they call themselves of the holy city, but they do not stay themselves upon the God of Israel, who is the Lord of Hosts; yea, the Lord of Hosts is his name.
3aA] 3 Behold, I have declared the former things from the beginning;
3aB] . .  . and they went forth out of my mouth,
2a] 3 . . . and I showed them. I did show them suddenly.
1] 4 And I did it because I knew that thou art obstinate, and thy neck is an iron sinew, and thy brow brass;
2b] 5 And I have even from the beginning declared to thee; before it came to pass I showed them thee; and I showed them for fear lest thou shouldst say--mine idol hath done them, and my graven image, and my molten image hath commanded them.
3bA] 6 Thou hast seen and heard all this; and will ye not declare them? And that I have showed thee new things from this time, even hidden things, and thou didst not know them. 
7 They are created now, and not from the beginning,
3bB] even before the day when thou heardest them not they were declared unto thee, lest thou shouldst say--Behold I knew them.
4b] 8 Yea, and thou heardest not; yea, thou knewest not; yea, from that time thine ear was not opened; for I knew that thou wouldst deal very treacherously, and wast called a transgressor from the womb
9 Nevertheless, for my name s sake will I defer mine anger, and for my praise will I refrain from thee, that I cut thee not off.
10 For, behold, I have refined thee, I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction.
5b] 11 For mine own sake, yea, for mine own sake will I do this, for I will not suffer my name to be polluted, and I will not give my glory unto another.
6b] 12 Hearken unto me, O Jacob, and Israel my called, for I am he; I am the first, and I am also the last.

Chiastic Relationships

6a]/6b] Parallel concepts
5a]/5b] Cause to Consequence
4a]/4b] General to Specific
3aA]/3bA] Past to Future
3aB]/3bB] General to Specific
2a]/2b] General to Specific
1] Central Theme

Examining Isaiah 48:1-12 one finds that only elements 5 and 6 retain chiastic significance. In the 4th elements the statement and stay themselves upon the God of Israel (v. 2) is the parallel of for I knew that thou wouldest deal very treacherously, and was called a transgressor from the womb (v. 8). These are contradictory rather than complementary terms, and thus lose the significance of the general-to-specific parallelism shown in the Book of Mormon 4a but they do not stay themselves upon the God of Israel, 4b for I knew that thou wouldst deal very treacherously, and wast called a transgressor from the womb. The King James version is therefore obviously spurious. The third elements of this chiasmus are comprised of a two-element series, designated as A and B. In the King James version, in the elements 3A, the plural former things declared from the beginning (v. 3) are juxtaposed against the singular will not ye declare it (v. 6). The singular it cannot be identified with the plural things, and thus this parallelism loses it s significance. In the 3B elements of the King James version, the past tense they went forth out of my mouth (v. 3) cannot be identified with they are created now (v. 8), again losing the chiastic significance expressed in the Book of Mormon.

The parallelism and I showed them comprises the second elements in the Book of Mormon version. In the King-James Isaiah the concept of showing is omitted from the second element of the pair, again violating the chiastic sense. It is obvious from the foregoing that the King James Isaiah is an altered transcription of the original text, thus clearly establishing the Book of Mormon Isaiah as the prime document.

A detailed comparison of the significant differences between the Book of Mormon and Bible Isaiahs reveals a consistent theme to the nature of the changes. The changes do not represent random variations or discrepancies that might be attributed to inadvertent mistakes in copying the text, but rather are directed alterations designed to convey a specific doctrinal position. Israel, from the time of the Exodus to the time of the Advent, struggled and often failed to maintain the righteousness demanded by the Lord. The writings of the Old Testament prophets are mainly directed to calling apostate Israel to repentance. As the prophets writings were copied and translated, they were written by scribes with the understanding of their times. The King-James variations from the Book of Mormon text reflect the understanding and interpretation of the society of which the translators and scribes were a part. It becomes obvious from a study of the variant texts of the King James Isaiah as compared to the Book of Mormon original that those who wrote the versions available today made a conscious effort to justify Israel in its recreant behavior either by minimizing the judgements of God against Israel or by deflecting accusations of disobedience from the House of Israel to people in general.

The obvious counterpoint to this type of change is forcefully brought to mind in reviewing Isaiah 11. Isaiah 11 speaks of the earthly advent of the Messiah, the conditions of the millennium, and of the eventual gathering of Israel. Nowhere in the chapter is mention made of the judgements of God against Israel for its unbelieving and disobedient behavior. Significantly, of the seventeen Isaiah chapters recorded in First and Second Nephi, this is the only chapter in which there are no differences between the Book of Mormon and King James texts.

The directionality and consistency of the subtle differences between the translation made by Joseph Smith and the Biblical versions of Isaiah clearly demonstrate the Divine direction given to the Prophet in producing a pristine text which obviously shows itself to be the original.

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