Wasted Metal: Why is there so much Isaiah in the Book of Mormon?

The following analysis is probably not original to me, but I’ll share it anyway because I haven’t heard anyone else say it yet. If you know of a similar analysis, please share in the comments.

Among the many topics it discusses, the Book of Mormon covers these two points:

  1. Writing on metal plates is hard
  2. Great are the words of Isaiah

Now, there’s nothing wrong with either of these (the first is an obvious fact, and the second is a popular viewpoint with some merit to it) but these points actually come into conflict within the Book of Mormon, in a manner that calls into question the Book’s authenticity.

First, let’s consider the business of writing on metal plates. This is not an easy task, and as you might expect, the writers in the Book of Mormon write frankly about the troubles involved. Jacob mentions how hard the actual engraving on metal is (but also mentions the advantage that plates have over less durable writing surfaces) and Moroni appears to talk about it, too. Jarom mentions that the plates themselves are small, as do several other writers, including Amaleki and Moroni; this is separate from the difficulty of engraving, but still a real problem with metal plates, because you have to get the right kind of metal, and you have to get enough of it, and you have to pound it into sheets, before you can engrave anything. To alleviate the space problem, the writers employed a special compact writing system that they call “reformed Egyptian”, which saves space at the cost of clarity (it’s debatable whether this reformed Egyptian exists at all, but for the time being, we can acknowledge that giving up writing quality to save space is the sort of exchange that any writer might make if they had to do all their writing on metal). The message is clear, consistent, and realistic: writing on plates sucks.

Then there’s the business of Isaiah. According to this source, there are 20 complete chapters of Isaiah that are included in the Book of Mormon, with minimal alterations and no abbreviations. The text itself explains why: Nephi chooses Isaiah to persuade his brothers to believe in Christ, Jacob reminds us that Isaiah had a special message for all of the house of Israel (including the Nephites), Abinadi quotes a chapter to chastise some wicked priests, and Jesus himself is quoted as saying that “great are the words of Isaiah”. Everyone values Isaiah as a mighty prophet, revealing Israel’s future and persuading all to come unto Christ.

But why did they go to the lengths of quoting entire chapters of Isaiah?

No sensible person can dispute that it’s hard writing on plates; it takes more time, more effort, and more precious material than nearly every other method of recording data. In the face of such difficulties, you take every measure possible to reduce the amount of writing you have to do, including getting rid of all redundancy. And here, the conflict arises, because all the writers of the Book of Mormon had to know that they would be adding redundancy by quoting Isaiah. Nephi, and all his contemporaries and descendants, had access to the brass plates, which included the writings of Isaiah. When Jesus arrived, he commanded the people to search the words of Isaiah, confirming that the people still had them. Mormon and Moroni might be excused for including some Isaiah, in case people in the future no longer possessed the prophet’s writings, but Moroni claimed to have seen our day by the power of God; didn’t he see that we would have the complete works of Isaiah, so that he and his father wouldn’t have to transcribe any of it? Remember: the Book of Mormon gives us no new writings of Isaiah, nor even an improved translation of existing writings. So why did the writers waste their time, stress their hands, and squander their metal on preserving something already well-preserved?

If we take the Book of Mormon at its word, we can only conclude that the writers were very, very stupid. But there is an alternative explanation: the writers of the Book of Mormon were not writing on plates.

I previously linked to an analysis that disputes the existence of “reformed Egyptian” (all the Egyptian writing systems we know of are less compact than Hebrew), but the analysis also discusses other characteristics of the Book of Mormon that are inconsistent with writing on plates. There are very many repetitions that do not seem to add any information or clarity. Consider Alma 21:19, that ends with “serve him, or be his servant“. Did those four words tell us anything new? Or consider 3 Nephi 11:37-38: it is not an exaggeration to say that those two verses have the exact same message, so why bother writing both? Then there are incredibly wordy passages (the critic takes one passage of 423 words and reduces it to 79; judge for yourself if any information is lost). Anyone engraving on metal would have to be very stupid and very stubborn to subject themselves to such useless effort. But someone writing on parchment, or dictating, would not have the same difficulty. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that the text in the Book of Mormon was never written on metal plates.

There is good reason to suspect that the Book of Mormon is a 19th-century document. There is also good reason to suspect that Joseph Smith was capable of writing it. These reasons become more compelling when we see that the Book’s official origin story is virtually impossible; we would have to accept that multiple generations of prophets of God were utter morons who wore out their hands and used up their gold for nothing. Rejecting the Book’s declared origin may lead you to frightening conclusions, but for the sake of honesty, you have to face them. To quote P. C. Hodgell: “That which can be destroyed by the truth should be.” You owe yourself nothing less.