Interview: Joe Spencer answers questions about Isaiah in the Book of Mormon

7 June 2011

Isaiah's call in the temple

... that Isaiah.

In a previous post, I summarized an article by Joseph Spencer entitled “Prolegomena to Any Future Study of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon” (I recommend reading that summary before reading any further in this interview). Recently, I had the chance to email back and forth with Joe and ask him some questions I still had after reading his article, and he gave me permission to post our exchange as an interview. My words are in bold, his are in plain text, and quotes from his article are in blue.

Hi, Joe. I loved your article and have read it twice. In an effort to make sure I was understanding it, I tried summarizing it in a blog post. Would you mind gauging how well I understood it? (Perhaps you might start by telling me whether I constructed the chart accurately.)

Thanks for your interest (in the Book of Mormon first, in my article second), and thanks for writing up your thoughts at such length. I think you’ve read me quite well. Whatever quibbles I might have will hopefully be addressed in what follows.

1. Nephi

On page 60, you said, “For reasons I will not review here, it is best to understand 2 Nephi 31–33 as a supplement to the ‘more sacred things.'”

Have you outlined your reasons elsewhere? Where can I read them? (I would have included 2 Ne. 31–33 in Nephi’s “more sacred things” because I would have seen it as the third witness from Nephi, which he promises in his outline in 2 Ne. 11:2–3.)

First, let me note that the piece from the Claremont journal is a kind of summary of my shortly forthcoming book, An Other Testament: On Typology, which should appear in the next two or three months from Salt Press. Any arguments I skim over in the article are worked out in detail in the book.

That said, I’m happy to provide a bit of explanation here. And it’s rather simple: the last verses of 2 Nephi 30 make a rather clear stop, and 2 Nephi 31 opens with a redirection of things. Thus, I see 2 Nephi 25–30 as the third witness outlined in 2 Nephi 11:2–3. (I work through all of this in great detail in my book.)

2. Abinadi

Noah’s priests claim to fulfill Isaiah

On page 65, you said, “According to an argument that cannot be presented in any detail here, the text presents the Nephi establishment as having claimed that with the return to the land of Nephi … the eschaton projected by (Second) Isaiah had already been experienced, such that history, and with it the normativity of the Mosaic Law itself, had come to an irreversible end.”

Has this argument been presented in greater detail elsewhere? Where?

Again: in my forthcoming book. I say a good deal more about this than I do about your first question. Indeed, this is one of the cruxes of my book.

I found this a very compelling interpretation of Zeniff’s colony’s ideology (or at least, Noah’s priests’). I’m fascinated by studying which passages of scripture apostate groups favor and how they misuse them. I’m making a chart of such passages for the Nehors, the Zoramites, and the Amlicites.

Interesting interests. 🙂

6. On page 65–66, you said, “As Abinadi’s speech helps to make clear, the reader is meant to understand that Noah’s regime, by tying their ideological self-justification to a likening of Second Isaiah, believed itself to be following out the project outlined by Nephi in the small plates.”

What passages in Abinadi’s speech make this clear? (I think it’s a compelling idea, by the way.) I’d always thought the priests brought up Isaiah because they were accusing Abinadi of not “publishing peace,” as a true prophet should, since he was foretelling destruction and war and suffering. What words from Abinadi imply that Noah’s priests were claiming to fulfill Isaiah?

So, I think you’re right that “publishing peace” was a part of things. But what of the other three verses the priests put forth to Abinadi? Actually, the argument for this ideological slant on Isaiah is a bit complex (it takes me half of one of the chapters of my book to make it!). Clues appear in crucial ways in Mosiah 9–10 (there are clear echoes of 1 Nephi 1, etc.), and other clues in Mosiah 11 make other connections with the small plates (equating Abinadi with Jacob in interesting ways), and then there are many indications in just the initial confrontation between Abinadi and the priests. The full argument is best laid out in my book.

Abinadi’s teachings

7. On page 66, you said, “At the very moment in the story when Abinadi uproots the interpretive methodology associated with Nephi, the narrator leaves off direct quotation of Abinadi in order to draw a connection between the story of Abinadi and the narrative of Exodus 32–34—the story of Moses’ breaking the stone tables.”

Where in Mosiah does the narrator allude to Ex. 32–34? I couldn’t find the passage.

The shining face. We tend to note—with Mormon—that Abinadi’s shining face alludes to Moses, and that this is significant because Abinadi is in the middle of quoting the Ten Commandments when it happens. But we have not paid enough attention to the fact that Moses face shines in the course of a very specific event in Exodus: it shines precisely when he comes back down from Sinai with a new, lower Law, after having broken the first, higher Law. I’m suggesting—and I work through this also in more detail in my book—that the connection with Exodus 32–34 is of crucial interpretive significance: Abinadi’s handling of Isaiah, etc., is to Nephi’s as the Law of Moses is the Abrahamic Covenant.

Ah, now I gotcha. Interesting interpretation! This lower-law/higher-law thing makes sense, especially considering the subtle between-the-lines hints in Jacob and Omni that the Nephites had forgotten, neglected, or apostatized from the message of the small plates.

Sidney Sperry, somewhere in his Book of Mormon Compendium, suggests that there are some direct indications of an apostasy, I’m thinking in Mormon 5 (?). I’d have to revisit the argument.

It almost seems like Nephi’s spiritual writings were lost the the generations after him, and then sharply brought back to the foreground when the Savior came.

I think that’s right, though things are complex. For instance, it is clear that Alma the Younger knew the small plates well (he quotes 1 Nephi 1:8 directly and at length in Alma 36, for example), but it also seems clear that he does not think most of his audiences are prepared for the small plates material (Alma 7 plays an interesting role in showing Alma getting close to revealing, when his crowd is prepared, something of the small plates). It seems almost as if there was a deliberate effort on the prophets’ part not to let the small plates circulate widely.

An example just occurred to me. In Alma 43 when Alma the Younger prophesies to Helaman that the Nephites will be destroyed, then tells Helaman to keep it secret. Well, the small plates contained that same prophecy (minus the specific time frame); if the Nephite nation was familiar with the small plates, wouldn’t they already have been aware of that prophecy?

On page 58, you said, “Alma … goes on to found a baptismal tradition distinct from Nephi’s, and in direct fidelity to Abinadi’s teachings.”

Are you saying Nephi emphasized baptism for remission of sins, while Abinadi emphasized baptism for entering a covenant community? (I find that an intriguing pattern.)

That, I think, is probably a good interpretation of the situation. Or rather, I think it’s a good starting point for trying to think about the situation. I suspect that things are quite difficult once we get into the texts. Was Alma even aware of the Nephi tradition? Was he consciously setting up a rival tradition, perhaps because he believed that the Nephi tradition had fallen into apostasy with Noah’s regime? Was Alma’s baptism simply a distinct gesture? I wonder.

If so, it almost seems the opposite of their interpretations of Isaiah. Nephi interpreted Isaiah to be talking about the gathering of the Israelite community; Abinadi, about atonement for sin. Why the switch?

This is a really nice point. I wish I had thought of it myself. 🙂 But actually, I think I’d be more inclined to de-emphasize remission of sins in talking about Nephi’s account. He seems less interested in remission of sins specifically than he does in the reception of the Holy Ghost in imitation of the Messiah. But there is more to think about with this switch you’ve identified—that’s for sure.

Also, how is Alma’s baptism related to Abinadi’s teachings about the Father and the Son? How does a baptismal tradition flow out of Mosiah 15:1–5? (That last one might be a big question, too much to expect you to cover in an email.)

That’s a big question, indeed—and one I also have. I’m not sure exactly what the relationship is between Godhead theology and baptismal tradition. I draw the connection from Christ’s words in 3 Nephi, not from anything in the Book of Mosiah. It is clearly reflected in 2 Nephi 31–32, but it isn’t so easy to detect in Mosiah 11–18. I wonder, though, what closer reading might be able to uncover here. Unfortunately, we as a people have only just begun to read the Book of Mormon with any degree of seriousness.

Acting on Abinadi’s teachings

8. On page 67, you said, “The text clearly places the launching of this new ecclesiastical tradition in direct fidelity to Abinadi’s speech.”

I think I know what you mean here, but I want to be sure. Do you mean, by forming churches distinct from the overall community (a distinction that King Benjamin did not make)? What in Abinadi’s speech would have led Alma to do this? That is, what in Abinadi’s speech implies that baptism is about entering a community, as opposed to remission of sin?

Again, I’d reframe the last way of putting this, or at least open it onto other possibilities. But as for the overarching question here, yes, that’s the kind of thing I’m after. Mosiah 25–29 is the story of the conflict between the Abinadite church and the Benjaminite kingdom (regarding which see John Sorenson’s article on Nephite religion between 200 BC and 1 AD), a conflict that unfolds amiably but with great complexity. That such a conflict unfolds at all is indicative of the implicit distinction introduced by Alma’s ecclesiastical tradition: it is now to be divorced from the state, and this seems to have been first staged by Abinadi’s intervention against the state religion in Nephi.

This part of the Book of Mormon has always fascinated me. After arriving in Zarahemla, Alma establishes local churches … in a kingdom already ruled by a prophet. It seems redundant to us today, but it was clearly an innovation. I’d like to learn more about what exactly Alma was doing differently that hadn’t been done before. My guess is that it was in part made necessary by the merging of the Nephites with the Mulekites. For the first time, the Nephite kings found themselves ruling a people that were not all on the same page about religion. How can you punish someone for idolatry if he doesn’t believe there’s a One God to be offended by it, and has made no covenant with Him to worship only Him? It seems to have taken two or three generations (Mosiah I, Benjamin, Mosiah II) to fully realize that an innovation was needed. To me, these difficulties seem to be the reason they jumped at Alma’s offer to form a church separate from government.

Interesting thoughts, but I’d like to throw a wrench or two into the machine. Alma the Elder organizes his church in the wilderness between the lands of Nephi and Zarahemla, not in Zarahemla itself, and he undertakes the organization with explicit words of criticism regarding monarchical states. It seems to me that the organization of the church had less to do with the Mulekites than it had to do with machinations against Noah. (And indeed, the best way of reading the first chapters of Mosiah, it seems to me, is to see in them the description of Benjamin’s religious unification of the Nephites and Mulekites.) What is really striking, then, is the fact that the church doesn’t simply dissolve when Alma’s people come to Zarahemla. Why does Mosiah allow it, a non-statist (or even anti-statist) ecclesiastical institution, to continue to exist? Those last five chapters of Mosiah are crucial.

5. On page 58, you said, “The Nephites had seen the two traditions as being essentially irreconcilable.”

Do you see Nephi’s and Abinadi’s words as essentially irreconcilable? Or only the later interpretation by various Nephites in the two interpretive camps? I ask in part because in note 9, you say that previous attempts reconciled them “only through rather tortured hermeneutical acrobatics.” Do you see a genuine conflict between the two prophets?

I actually don’t see them as essentially irreconcilable. I’m much more inclined to see the real rivalry as residing in the interpretations of later Nephites. In my book, I make clear that I see both Abinadi and Nephi has having been guided by the Lord, and I make some guesses about what the Lord seems to have been doing in introducing the Abinadite tradition. There are some interesting things going on in Mosiah 13 that deserve close attention.

That’s good to have clarified; that’s how I see it, too.

As for “previous attempts,” I do think that there has been a tendency among readers of the Book of Mormon (usually with a doctrinal emphasis) to force the text in unfortunate directions, rather than to deal rather plainly with the sense of the text.

I agree. I had sensed this for a long time (since junior high, actually), but I’d never been able to articulate it until I read this fantastic article by Louis Midgley: “Prophetic Messages or Dogmatic Theology? Commenting on the Book of Mormon: A Review Essay.” Have you read it? If not, I think you’d like his main point—that we should ask what the book itself talks about, and stop trying to look for passages that can act as a springboard into discussions about topics we want to talk about, like, e.g., premortal life or eternal marriage.

I’ve not read this piece in particular, though I’ve read many of Lou Midgley’s articles. I’ll be interested to take a look at it.

I do think Nephi and Abinadi can be reconciled, but perhaps only after we have really grappled with the essential problems of reconciliation. The difficulty has to be made clear enough that a solution will be worth anything.

That’s a good way of putting it.

3. Jesus Christ

Debating about the baptismal prayer

On page 57, you said, “The debate over ritual performance appears to have been rooted in the debate … over whether the individual should be baptized in the name of Christ alone, or whether she should be baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”

What Book of Mormon passages led you to this conclusion? I can see how maybe 2 Ne. 31:18, 21 might be interpreted to mean Nephi was in favor of the latter; is that what you were getting at? What passage would indicate that Abinadi was in favor of “name of Christ alone” for baptism?

Actually, I’m drawing here from 3 Nephi 11:23–27. Let me quote that passage with a few inserted remarks, etc., to see if I can make the argument clear:

23Ye shall go down and stand in the water, and in my name [in, it would seem, the singular: in the name of Christ] shall ye baptize them. 24And now behold, these are the words which ye shall say, calling them by name, saying: 25Having authority given me of Jesus Christ, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost [now there are three names mentioned, though Christ had just said to baptize in His name]. Amen. 26And then shall ye immerse them in the water, and come forth again out of the water. 27And after this manner shall ye baptize in my name [again there is mention only of Christ’s name, though He has just described using three names]; for behold [and here we will finally get the explanation of this one/three business], verily I say unto you, that the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost are one.

I suspect that what motivated this explanation is a Nephite debate about whether baptism is to be performed only in the name of Christ (which is correct, it seems) or in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost (also correct, it seems). Since both of these are actually correct, Christ provides an explanation of how they are to be reconciled.

Those comments from the Savior indeed make sense as a way of explaining how both modes of baptism are in fact true. What I find interesting is that this exact same debate is still going on today in the Christian world. On my mission to El Salvador (1997–99), I was asked literally dozens of times by people we talked to on the street whether we baptized in the name of Jesus Christ or of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. It was almost a “test” question of our orthodoxy, to see whether we were worth investigating further. There were some people who held to one view, and some to the other. The answer I gave, which I luckily heard from an MTC speaker, was “both.” And then we used the same line of reasoning you point out in the Savior’s explanation. I find it interesting that that is still an active and unresolved debate in some Christian circles.

Very interesting. No such debate plagued us on the Spanish-speaking streets of California between 1999 and 2001, but, then, we met few folks from El Salvador. I’m not familiar enough with debates of this nature to know how widespread it is in current Christianity. Very interesting.

As for where Abinadi fell into this debate, things are a bit murkier. I think it is likely that Abinadi’s discussion of the nature of God would easily have been used to justify the one position rather than the other, since Abinadi says nothing of the Holy Ghost (though there is talk in him and in Alma regarding the Spirit) and since Abinadi arguably says nothing about a separable Father (he seems to use the imagery of fatherhood in Mosiah 15 to speak about Christ in His dual capacity, not to speak of the Father Himself).

I think … 🙂

I agree. My Book of Mormon teacher, Todd Parker, emphasized that when discussing Mosiah 15:1–7; he seems to be referring to Jesus Christ when he says “Father.”

I think that is the only reading that makes any sense of Abinadi’s discourse. His emphasis is clearly on the dual nature of Christ.

Resolving the debate

9. On page 67, you said, “Christ is portrayed in Third Nephi as interpreting those verses in a fashion entirely distinct from Abinadi.”

Do you think Christ was “siding” with Nephi, in preference to Abinadi? Or was he harmonizing the two somehow?

Given the way I interpret what Abinadi himself was doing, I’d be nervous about saying that Christ was taking sides. I think Christ harmonizes them to some extent, but without equating them; rather, He seems to place them in a kind of hierarchical relation to each other. I draw all the consequences of my interpretation in this regard in my book. In a nutshell, I argue that the Book of Mormon presents us with two distinct ways of making sense of scripture, and that one seems to be “higher” than the other.

Intriguing. I understand that much more clearly now. Not saying one is inspired and the other not, but neither saying that Nephi and Abinadi were teaching the same thing. Kind of like Peter versus Moses. Interesting.

Yeah. Something like that.

Further Reading

As a side note, had you read Garold Davis’s article, the one I mention in my summary of your article? His description of the pattern prepared me to recognize the importance of the solution your article offers. He’s written some great stuff. He wrote an Ensign article in 1998 on Jacob’s use of Isaiah in 2 Ne. 6–10 that totally opened my eyes to see how Isaiah is used in the Book of Mormon. I used it once in a gospel doctrine class on that passage, and my BYU student ward members were riveted. It was fun to watch 30 people begin to understand Isaiah and how Jacob was using him.

I have read Davis’s piece (I discuss it a bit in my book), and I think it’s quite nicely done. I’m not aware, though, of other material he’s put together. I’d be interested to read other things from him.

By the way, let me shamelessly plug a second forthcoming book for which I am one of the editors: Reading Nephi Reading Isaiah. It’s a collection of six essays on how Isaiah is used in the Book of Mormon creatively. It has essays from myself, Grant and Heather Hardy, George Handley, Jenny Webb, Kim Berkey, and Julie Frederick (this last is, incidentally, Todd Parker’s daughter). You may find it interesting.

Thanks again for your thorough explanations of the areas I didn’t fully understand. Good luck with your book!

Other Posts You Might Like…

New Testament Reading Charts

New Testament Reading Charts

In the New Testament section of the Study Aids page, you'll find two newly created reading charts. The StoryGuide...

Old Testament Reading Charts

Old Testament Reading Charts

I've created a new study aids page where you can browse my printables and visual aids organized by scripture volume or...


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Subscribe to My Newsletter

Get notified of my recent blog posts and handouts.