Reading Nephi Reading Isaiah: Reading 2 Nephi 26-27 (Book Review)
Posted by BrianJ on February 18, 2012
Spencer, Joseph M. and Jenny Webb, eds. Reading Nephi Reading Isaiah: Reading 2 Nephi 26-27. Salem, OR: Salt Press, 2011.
ISBN: 978-0-9839636-1-5. Pages: 160. Retail: $19.95.
“This series of books is based on a novel idea: that Mormons do theology.” So begins the Series Introduction to the Mormon Theology Seminar published by Salt Press. “[Theology] speculates,” it continues, “it experiments…tests new angles…[and] reads old texts in careful and creative ways.”
I’m not sure how many readers will agree with that definition of theology—I have never considered myself a practitioner or even student of theology—but that is not really my concern here. Rather, in this review I will answer how well the authors of “Reading Nephi” deliver on their promise to “display…theology as a Mormon ideal.”
My first question of the book was who is its intended audience? Was it written to me or to people very unlike me? Some of the authors are, I believe, experienced theologians whereas others are not even academics—though, all have advanced training and/or experience in philosophy, literature, textual analysis, etc. So, could the average Mormon who enjoys studying the scriptures pick up and enjoy this book?
The short answer: Probably not. Some of the writing is, simply put, too technical to appeal to a reader who has little experience reading theology. This is not, in other words, a “Rough Stone Rolling for the Book of Mormon”—a rigorous scholarly volume that is nonetheless accessible by the masses.
Now, before anyone takes that as a negative critique, consider that not all audiences want a volume that is written for the masses. Some readers want technical analysis, unrestrained philosophy, daring—some might even call them irreverent—hypotheses, and so on. These readers will be pleased and excited by this volume and, I expect, the entire series.
First, kudos for including a Summary Report. Second, I was skeptical of several statements made in the Summary Report. As just one of many examples: the idea that Nephi did not “attempt to elucidate Isaiah’s original intent [but instead] to recontextualiz[e] and appropriat[e] the language and imagery of Isaiah 29 in order to explain his own visions.” Couldn’t Nephi’s writings, however mistaken as far as understanding Isaiah, simply be an accurate and genuine reflection of Nephi’s misunderstanding?
I won’t catalog my skepticism here, but suffice it to say, I marked up every page of my copy of the Summary Report with doubts, concerns, and questions—nearly all of which, I am happy to report, were satisfactorily addressed in the fleshed-out essays.
My only real lingering doubt—and I point this out only for those who might be expecting critical readings—is exemplified by one word found at the beginning of the Summary Report: “To make sense of Nephi’s use of Isaiah…it is important to assume that Nephi, as a careful, conscientious author, [did so] with purpose and precision.” Purposely? Sure. Precisely? Maybe—so prove it to me; I don’t like assumptions. The essays afford the scripture authors perhaps too much insight and foresight, as though the prophets always comprehended just what they were doing including the full depth and nuance of their writing. What of the supposed “weakness in writing” from which they suffered?
I should emphasize, however, that this assumption does not, in the end, negatively impact any of the essays. The authors’ conclusions are based on their findings and not this assumption. Moreover, the editors point out that the project intended to demonstrate charity in its theology. Whether theirs is a charitable reading, or a generous one, is thus a debate for another forum.
Joseph Spencer – Nephi, Isaiah, and Europe
I’ve never found Joe easy to read, and this is no exception. I’ve also never found Isaiah easy to read, but I still enjoy reading him and find it rewarding. Thankfully—in Joe’s case anyway—there are always a few sentences in each paragraph that make everything clear. If I have one criticism then, it is that I could not make sense of any of the figures in this essay. That’s okay because the figures are not meant to convey new information but rather to simplify the information in the essay text, but the text itself is already clear enough.
Joe explores Nephi’s use of Isaiah to probe the future relationship between Jews and Gentiles, essentially asking why Nephi singled out Isaiah from all the other prophets. Several reasons stand out, from Isaiah’s focus on remnant theology, to his “emphasis on the written word.” By highlighting these similarities between Isaiah and Nephi, Joe shows not only why Nephi was drawn to Isaiah, but also distills and identifies the major concerns behind, if not all of Nephi’s writings, then certainly all of 2 Nephi.
Heather Hardy and Grant Hardy – How Nephi Shapes His Readers’ Perceptions of Isaiah
If you’re looking for a totally unique approach to the Book of Mormon, the Hardys provide it: compare Nephi’s take on Isaiah to Mozart’s take on “Ah! vous dirai-je, Maman”—what most listeners would recognize as the tune for “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Mozart’s “Twelve Variations” is not merely an adaptation or cover of the original French folk song, it is these plus an expansion and elaboration. For example—and the authors include this in one of several very helpful figures and tables—note that Nephi expands Isaiah 29 but keeps “all the key phrases…in the order in which they originally appeared.” This is not Nephi quoting Isaiah, this is Nephi riffing off Isaiah!
The most important aspect of the Hardys’ approach is not so much what they reveal about the meaning of Nephi’s writings, but rather how Nephi’s variations change the reader’s understanding of the meaning of Isaiah’s writings—which in turn yields a much deeper understanding of Nephi’s writings than if we just studied them directly.
Jenny Webb – Slumbering Voices: Death and Textuality in Second Nephi
Webb asks the single most important question for 2 Nephi 26-27: why, after praising and quoting Isaiah at length in earlier chapters, doesn’t Nephi “alert us to Isaiah’s authorship” here? She succinctly answers that question in a paragraph that brings together the unusual pairing of death and textuality from the title, simplifies Nephi’s complex use of Isaiah, and builds a framework on which to hang the findings of the whole seminar:
In a text that thematically addresses the physical death of a people and the later material resurrection of the voice via the text brought forth literally out of a hole in the ground, we observe Nephi’s own voiding (a type of death) and reappropriation (i.e., resurrection) of Isaiah’s words….
Throughout my reading of the book, I found myself coming back to Webb’s explanations whenever I felt I was “getting lost.” For this reason, had I been the editor I would have placed her essay first in the book, and suggest that the reader begin there. If I had to voice one criticism it would be that the final paragraph—which is not a conclusion to her thesis but rather an answer to a related question she throws in at the end—came across as devotional or motivational and was not well supported. This one very minor flaw should not detract from an otherwise excellent essay.
Julie A. P. Frederick – Seals, Symbols, and Sacred Texts: Sealing and the Book of Mormon
Frederick’s essay corrected a great misconception that I held regarding the Book of Mormon: the sealed portion—and the phrase “seal up” found in the text—refer mostly to a band of metal wrapped around a large section of the gold plates. Not so, argues Frederick, because the Book of Mormon is “both a sealed book and a sealed revelation.” Frederick explores several possible meanings of the word “seal,” its Hebrew origin, the sealing of Jaredite records, etc., and how and why the Book of Mormon was sealed—then sealed again—at all. I would not call this essay an analysis of 2 Nephi 26-27 directly, but if it is a tangent, it is welcome one.
George Handley – On the Moral Risks of Reading Scripture
It took five pages before I could see why Handley would see 2 Nephi 26-27 as a source to discuss “the polarized divide today between the ever-popular secular theories of culture and the often entrenched and defensive positions within religious cultures.” Both camps are often guilty of approaching scripture with so much bias and assumption that the scriptures aren’t really read so much as wrested: one side leaves it up to the reader to “produce all meaning” while the other side, wary of contaminating the sacred word, “assume[s] that it is merely and always the text that produces meaning, never the reader.” In both cases, there is no risk for the reader because the scriptures can never really tell him/her anything about him/herself .
Handley argues that Nephi employs an alternative approach that resembles the concept of “mutuality” described by Richard Niebuhr. If you’ve made it this far in this review, you can already see how Nephi’s faithful use combined with reuse of Isaiah straddles the divide between the two camps, but—and importantly—also makes Nephi responsible for the meaning he extracts from the brass plates. This was of viewing Nephi’s “re-authorship process” is helpful in its own right, but it also neatly addresses the concern of fellow author Jenny Webb that Nephi stole and/or wrested Isaiah’s words. One implication of Handley’s paper would likely offend many, but I like it: “what makes the gospel true is its relevance to human narratives”; i.e., the gospel is not inherently true, it is true (only) because it is useful.
Kimberly M. Berkey – Works of Darkness: Secret Combinations and the Covenant Displacement in the Book of Mormon
“Covenant displacement” is a term Berkey coins to refer to the “temporal gap” between the promise of blessings and their actual fulfillment. (I don’t know why “covenant postponement/delay” wasn’t used instead, as I find this much more intuitive.) My biggest surprise upon reading this paper was how I had largely overlooked the Book of Mormon’s focus (and re-focus, as Berkey shows in the case of Mormon editing the Book of Helaman) on secret combinations—which is key, she argues, to understanding why Nephi seizes upon Isaiah (who was also focused on secret combination). Of course I had always seen the Gadianton robbers as a major part of the story, but Berkey shows that they may in fact be the story of the Book of Mormon. In addition to her quality paper, Berkey provides some real gems in the form of extensive, detailed tables showing the parallels between the various texts: the books of Nephi, Mormon, and Helaman.
One unsettled question after reading is based on this statement: “Mormon and Moroni…seem to have been profoundly influenced by 2 Nephi 26-27.” What evidence is there that later Book of Mormon authors ever read these particular writings of Nephi (as opposed to focusing on his large plates)?
The appendices include the complete text of 2 Nephi 26-27, comparison to Isaiah 29, cross references of key words, etc. Pretty handy if you find yourself reading the book far from where you keep your scriptures. They include, without analysis or explanation, the changes proposed by Royal Skousen’s critical text project. To my eyes, the changes for these chapters are trivial, so I can only guess that the authors decided to use that text for all future seminars and thus do so here for consistency.
As I have already commented on the high quality of scholarship, I here want to comment only 0n the production quality. The book is paperback and is professionally bound and type-set. The cover looks smart, clean, and interesting. None of which matters if you choose to download the free PDF file. But what does matter is that there are virtually no typographical or other errors in the text. I tried to keep track as I read and recall finding one typo, one misplaced table, one incorrect reference, and one word repetition. In other words, there are probably many times more errors in this review than in the 160 pages of the book!
One more thing: the editors/authors chose to use footnotes instead of endnotes. For this alone they have a place in heaven, I am sure. Hooray for footnotes; death to endnotes!
Conclusion and Recommendation
I hope that it is obvious that I thoroughly enjoyed this book. My only regret is that I was unable to have the authors present so that I could discuss their ideas—even challenge them, in some cases—further. While some of the essays appear to be written with a “philosopher” in mind as the reader, that should not prevent any interested persons from adding this to their reading and scripture study—and for any “fan”of Mormon theology this series is a must. Will the series deliver “theology as the Mormon ideal,” as the editors say in the introduction? The quality of this first installment tells me “yes.”
Purchase for $12.95 from Amazon.com or download free from Salt Press.
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