“Why do the Book of Mormon selections from Isaiah sometimes parallel the King James Version and not the Dead Sea Scrolls text?” Ensign, Mar. 1980, 40
Robert J. Matthews, chairman, Department of Ancient Scripture, Brigham Young University First, we should remember that the Isaiah passages in the Book of Mormon come from the brass plates of Laban, which were compiled at least as early as 600 B.C., some four hundred years before the Dead Sea Scrolls were written. The Isaiah source for the King James Version was written much later.
With that in mind, let me suggest two reasons why the Isaiah passages in the Book of Mormon are more like those in the King James Version than those in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The first reason is that part of the Dead Sea Scrolls are of questionable authenticity. Some scholars have thought the scrolls would be more reliable than the King James Version because the scrolls’ text is older—recorded more closely in time to the events depicted.
But this is not unfailingly the case. For example, the St. Mark’s Isaiah scroll of the Dead Sea collection dates from about 200 B.C., but differs considerably from parallel accounts in the Greek Septuagint, also of second century B.C. vintage.
We learn from the Book of Mormon (1 Ne. 13–14) and the eighth Article of Faith that the Bible has been deliberately altered by men. The variant texts of both the Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scrolls confirm that fact and tell us that the alteration was in process at least by 200 B.C. The St. Mark’s Isaiah scroll, particularly, is regarded by some scholars as a text written by amateur scribes, and containing many errors. The quality of the penmanship and the number of on-page corrections also tend to put this scroll in a less than reliable position.
Thus, textual preferences cannot be determined simply by dating. Even though the Dead Sea Scrolls may be older than the King James sources, they are not necessarily more accurate.
A second reason why the Book of Mormon Isaiah passages differ from similar passages in the Dead Sea Scrolls is that the translation of the Book of Mormon may not always reflect a minute and highly detailed analysis of every word on the gold plates. It is evident that Joseph Smith was closely allied to the text of the King James Version, and it is possible that he used it in the translation of passages that parallel the Book of Mormon, particularly when Isaiah is concerned. That doesn’t mean that he copied it from the Bible, but that he might have relied upon the language of the King James Version as a vehicle to express the general sense of what was on the gold plates.
Basically then, I would emphasize that the Book of Mormon, as an independent witness, tells us that the Dead Sea Scrolls text of Isaiah is not as good as some scholars think it is, and also that the text of the King James Version is not as bad as some of them think it is—remembering that we are dealing with details and matters of tense, punctuation, and the like.
In 1961 a master’s thesis at BYU compared the St. Mark’s Scroll of Isaiah, the Book of Mormon portions of Isaiah, the King James Version, and Joseph Smith’s Inspired Translation. The author, a member of the RLDS Church, concluded that the differences were too slight and of not sufficient frequency and regularity to form an interpretive pattern. (See Wayne Ham, A Textual Comparison of the Isaiah Passages in the Book of Mormon with the Same Passages in the St. Mark’s Isaiah Scroll of the Dead Sea Community.)