Dead Sea Scrolls

Continuing our occasional theme of Mormon scholarship, Summer 2004 saw the LDS Church-sponsored Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibition touring the UK, beginning in London on 1 May, travelling to Cardiff, Manchester and Glasgow, and ending in London at the beginning of September. It then moves over to mainland Europe where it will show in the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Geneva, Rome and Madrid, ending in Lisbon in May 2005. We saw it in Cardiff and found it interesting.

We had wondered why this apparently academic, LDS/FARMS/BYU sponsored exhibition was being shown in LDS Church buildings rather than on university campuses or in public buildings (Cardiff has an excellent university facility in the middle of the city). It soon became apparent, however, that this was a vehicle for promoting Mormonism.

The exhibition, which was disappointingly small, started with a short film explaining how and why FARMS and BYU got involved with Dead Sea Scrolls research. It seems that it took some years for the Mormon university to win the trust of those experts already involved in the field, who suspected that the Mormons would have their own agenda. Finally, the film tells visitors, the scholarship and character of BYU researchers won their trust, resulting in a healthy and fruitful collaboration. We wondered what they would have made of the exhibition.

The exhibition itself showed items and artefacts, mostly replicas, from the caves at Qumran, as well as from ancient times in the Middle East. There was a model of the settlement at Qumran, various jars, pots, lamps, etc. some genuinely ancient, as well as pictures and illustrations. The most interesting item was a full-size replica of the Isaiah Scroll, rolled out to full length in a glass case. But what made it more than just the exhibition it professed to be was the commentary that could be heard through headphones as the visitor walked around the exhibits. It was informative enough but made use of every opportunity to link the facts illustrated by what you were seeing with the claims and traditions of Mormonism. The exhibition ended with an account of a copper plate found at Qumran with writing on it, as well as other metal plates on which were recorded legal transactions. This led neatly to a replica and account of the fabled gold plates and, of course, there was the inevitable opportunity at the end to take home a copy of the Book of Mormon as well as sign a visitor’s book, where you could conveniently record your name and address. We were impressed by their working of totally unsubstantiated Mormon claims into an account of indisputable historical facts.

Themes

The commentary, while describing what you were looking at, followed certain themes, most clearly defined, although some more suggested than described. These were designed to draw parallels with, as well as lend authenticity to, Mormon claims. The links we identified were as follows:

Two Sticks: Much was made of the idea that scrolls were typically rolled up and stored on sticks, suggesting the link with Ezekiel 37 and the two sticks mentioned there, the stick of Judah and the stick of Joseph, seen by Mormons as the Bible and the Book of Mormon. We have already written on this subject and an article explaining these sticks can be found in this article.

BOM vindicated: It is well known that much of what was found at Qumran vindicates our Old Testament as it has come down to us. The booklet accompanying the exhibition recognises that many of the biblical manuscripts

“are very close to the text found in the Hebrew Bible (the Masoretic Text), which was composed by Jewish authorities centuries later, between AD 600 and the middle of the tenth century. This consistency is remarkable because these manuscript copies are at least a thousand years older than previously known biblical manuscripts and even predate the canonization (sic) of the Hebrew Bible” (emphasis added).

This is very interesting since the so-called Joseph Smith translation alters parts of the Old Testament. It would be a worthwhile exercise to make comparisons and see where changes are made compared with how history and archaeology vindicates the text we have.

What proved particularly puzzling was the way the Mormon Church seemed to feel that these discoveries vindicated the Book of Mormon. This claim was made in the audio commentary in nothing more than a few sentences, yet it is a profound and disturbing claim. The thinking seems to be something like this: the scrolls authenticate the Hebrew Bible as we have it today, the Book of Mormon contains large tracts of Isaiah taken, according to Mormon accounts, from the plates of Laban (1 Nephi 3), therefore the Scrolls vindicate the Book of Mormon. The problem is that this is simply begging the question.

There is every reason to believe that a direct parallel can be drawn between these ancient documents and the Bible of today, thus authenticating our modern translations. We have ancient, though not original, documents in our possession to facilitate such comparisons, not least the Scrolls themselves. There is no reason to believe that such a parallel can be drawn with the Book of Mormon for there are no ancient texts such as the plates of Laban, or the gold plates, or indeed any intermediate record, sacred or profane, in existence that independently corroborate Mormon claims. The Book of Mormon contains Old Testament passages that were, to all intents and purposes, simply lifted from the Bible by Joseph Smith and inserted into the Book of Mormon, translator’s errors and all!

This is, therefore, a faulty syllogism along the lines of:

“Nobody is perfect; I am a nobody; therefore I am perfect.”

In a similar fashion the Mormons claim:

“The scrolls validate the Bible; the Book of Mormon contains parts of the Bible; therefore the scrolls vindicate the Book of Mormon.”

Doctrine and Covenants: The Community Rules governing life at Qumran were commented upon, parallels being drawn with the Mormon Doctrine and Covenants. A sort of “they had a book of Doctrine and Covenants too!” approach. The fact that any community, from the desert fathers of the early church through the “Methodists” of 18th century England, to the monastery on Caldy Island off the coast of West Wales today, also have Community rules doesn’t come under consideration.

Washings and anointings: Ritual purity was an important element of life at Qumran with people ritually washing and immersing themselves. Parallels here with the controversial ritual “washings and anointings” carried out in the Mormon temple in preparation for receiving temple endowments. Given the washing ceremonies of Muslims, for instance, before prayer, perhaps the scrolls can be said to vindicate Islam in this respect.

General Authorities: It seems the community had twelve elders and three priests leading it. Of course, the first presidency and 12 apostles of the Mormon Church were brought immediately to mind. However, the traditional British jury has traditionally comprised “twelve good men and true”, and an appeal from that court is usually heard by a judge sitting with two other judges, a panel of three, the parallel surely, then, vindicating the claims of British Israelism.

The BOM Problem

In their book The Changing World of Mormonism p.373, Jerald and Sandra Tanner quote Mormon apologist Dr Sidney B. Sperry of Brigham Young University on the significance, or otherwise, of the Dead Sea Scrolls to Mormon scholarship and theology:

“After reading the Scrolls very carefully
, I come to the conclusion that there is not a line in them that suggests that their writers knew the Gospel as understood by Latter-day saints. In fact, there are a few passages that seem to prove the contrary…” (Progress in Archaeology, pp 52-54)

Dr Gleason L. Archer is quoted as saying:

“…even though the two copies of Isaiah discovered in Qumran Cave 1 near the Dead Sea in 1947 were a thousand years earlier than the oldest dated manuscript previously known (AD 980), they proved to be word for word identical with our standard Hebrew Bible in more than 95 per cent of the text. The 5 per cent of variation consisted chiefly of obvious slips of the pen and variations in spelling”. (A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, p.19)

Many will be aware that Isaiah is quoted extensively in the Book of Mormon. The claim has always been that the text found in the Book of Mormon is superior to that found in the Bible since it came from an earlier and more reliable source, The Book of Laban (1 Nephi 3). Having compared the texts of the Isaiah Scroll and the BOM in some detail, Dr Sperry declared:

“This tedious task has revealed that the scroll seldom agrees with the departures of the Book of Mormon text from that of the conventional Masoretic text of Isaiah and consequently the Authorized Version…The Isaiah scroll is of relatively little use to Latter-day saints as showing the antiquity of the text of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon.” (ibid)

Isaiah 29 – A Challenge

Joseph Smith made significant changes in the opening verses of Isaiah 29, changes which are obviously endorsed by the Mormon Church since they are included in the JST appendix in the official King James Bible issued by them. I want to show how Smith’s changes to the text completely change the meaning of the chapter and the message of the prophet. Here are the first four verses, with the changes highlighted:

(1) Woe to Ariel, to Ariel, the city where David dwelt! Add ye year to year; let them kill sacrifices.

(2)Yet I will distress Ariel, and there shall be heaviness and sorrow; for thus hath the Lord said unto me, It shall be unto Ariel;

(3) That I the Lord will camp against her round about, and will lay siege against her with a mount, and I will raise forts against her.

(4) And she shall be brought down, and shall speak out of the ground, and her speech shall be low out of the dust; and her voice shall be as of one that hath a familiar spirit, out of the ground, and her speech shall whisper out of the dust.

The important change is found in verse 2 where our Bible reads:

“Yet I will distress Ariel, and there shall be a heaviness and sorrow: and it shall be unto me as Ariel.”

Smith clearly didn’t understand what the words of the verse were telling him, “Ariel…shall be unto me as Ariel”? He, therefore, changed it to something that “made sense” to him by making the thought in verse 2, “I will distress Ariel…” end with the word “sorrow”. The part that “didn’t make sense” then becomes a new thought that attaches itself to verse 3, the change of thought introduced by the interpolated words “for thus hath the Lord said unto me”, in this way:

For thus hath the Lord said unto me, it shall be unto Ariel; That I the Lord will camp against her round about…”

To the untutored eye this may, indeed, seem to make more sense and perhaps some reading this would agree. But when you understand what the prophet was saying in his own language the meaning of the text as it is in our Bibles, and confirmed by the Scrolls, becomes clear.

Wrong Continent

The Mormon explanation of these verses is that they are a coded reference to coming events in America. Ariel, the city of Jerusalem, is to be virtually destroyed some time in the future (“Add ye year to year, let them kill sacrifices”, or as the NIV puts it, “let your cycle of festivals go on. Yet I will besiege Ariel”). Then, claims the Mormon apostle LeGrand Richards, “[Isaiah] seems to be carried away in a vision to witness a similar destruction of the cities of Joseph, ‘and it shall be unto me as Ariel'”. (A Marvellous Work and a Wonder.p.67-69)

Isaiah, then, is seeing in vision the destruction of Jerusalem and a similar destruction of Book of Mormon cities, the cities of Joseph. It cannot be Jerusalem spoken of here, it is reasoned, because the plight of whoever is being besieged is being compared with the plight of Jerusalem.

These people will be brought low and would speak out of the ground. Their speech would be “low out of the dust”. LeGrand Richards reasons “The only way a dead people could speak ‘out of the ground’…would be by the written word, and this the people did through the Book of Mormon. “Truly it has a familiar spirit, for it contains the words of the prophets of the God of Israel.”

A True Prophet Speaks

Ariel certainly is Jerusalem and her destruction is foreshadowed in this vision. At this point in their history, God’s people had turned to an alliance with Egypt to protect themselves from Assyrian forces. In this they felt secure but God warned them, through the prophet, that their dependence on political alliances instead of on Jehovah would bring about their destruction. Assyria would be the downfall of Jerusalem. In their arrogance they refused to believe Isaiah, and were judged for holding their cycles of festivals and offering their sacrifices, having a semblance of religion, but ignoring God’s mouthpiece.

And it shall be unto me as Ariel (v.2)

What shall be as Ariel? Jerusalem shall be as Ariel. Jerusalem shall be as Jerusalem? It makes no sense! Yes it does. Bible writers frequently used plays on words, puns, double meanings, to emphasise a point. The Hebrew word for Ariel sounds like the Hebrew for altar hearth.

She [Jerusalem] shall be to me like an altar hearth (NIV)

Jerusalem, after the fighting and the bloodshed of siege warfare, shall be turned into a virtual “altar hearth”. No reference here to Joseph’s cities in the Book of Mormon. This is exclusively Jerusalem’s fate being prophesied. Her people will be brought low to beg for mercy with their faces in the dust. This is a gruesome picture of defeat at the hands of a brutal enemy.

…and thy voice shall be, as of one that hath a familiar spirit, out of the grund, and thy speech shall whisper out of the dust (v.4)

This is a most unfortunate misuse of scripture. In Isaiah 8:19 Jehovah expressly forbids his people to “seek unto them that have familiar spirits”. These are mediums and spiritualists. Tragically, in their crisis, Judah had turned not only to political alliances for safety but to mediums. They boasted that they had made a bargain, or covenant, with death and that “when the overflowing scourge shall pass through, it shall not come upon us” (Isaiah 28:15). This bargain was a form of necromancy, or consultation with the dead. God made it clear that there would be no protection for them in such bargains “our covenant with death shall be annulled and your agreement with hell shall not stand; when the overflowing scourge shall pass through, then ye shall be trodden down by it” (Isaiah 28:18). Judah expected to escape death but would, herself, speak as from the realm of the dead “out of the dust”.

The text is now clear and should read as it has always read:

“Yet I will distress Ariel, and there shall be a heaviness and sorrow; and it [Jerusalem] shall be unto me as Arie
l [an altar hearth]. And I will camp against thee round about, and will lay siege against thee with a mount and I will raise forts against thee.”

People sometimes misuse Revelation 22:18-19 but I think it might correctly apply here.

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