How Dangerous Hermeneutics Can Inform False Teachers

by J. Alan Branch August 25, 2022

One sign of a false prophet is when a religious leader invents novel and fanciful interpretations of Scripture, interpretations completely divorced from the original context. Religious charlatans usually engage in such hermeneutical gymnastics in order to bolster their own power. An example of such scripture-twisting is seen in LDS Church’s slanted take on Isaiah 29:11 – 12, a passage they improperly handle in an attempt to bolster the authenticity of both Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. 

To understand why the LDS Church is wrong about Isaiah 29:11 – 12, we first must examine what the passage does mean. In a discussion about theological and ethical error, Isaiah stresses that sin leads to spiritual dullness. When sin takes control, it deadens our ability to think correctly about God and how we should live.  Sin cauterizes the conscience and disables it from working properly. Subsequently, it becomes unusually difficult to understand God’s word or what God would have us to do. That’s the point of Isaiah 29:11 – 12:

The entire vision will be to you like the words of a sealed book, which when they give it to the one who is literate, saying, “Please read this,” he will say, “I cannot, for it is sealed.” Then the book will be given to the one who is illiterate, saying, “Please read this.” And he will say, “I cannot read.”

Because sin dulls the conscience, Isaiah 29:11 – 12 describes a sort of self-inflicted spiritual illiteracy that ensues. People are given God’s word, but they can’t understand it because sin has negatively affected the intellect. In Isaiah 6:9 – 10, God had already warned Isaiah of such a response to his preaching. Isaiah 29:11 – 12 gives forceful and cautionary advice that sin inhibits our ability to think rightly about God and ethics. 

The Book of Mormon is a work of fiction invented from Joseph Smith’s furtive imagination. Smith claimed the Book of Mormon was translated from golden plates buried in upstate New York, an ancient record of a Jewish-Christian civilization which once thrived in the Western Hemisphere prior to European contact. To make his story sound more exotic, Smith claimed the account on the golden plates was written in “reformed Egyptian.” When the Book of Mormon was completed, Smith conveniently claimed to have returned the golden plates to an angelic being. 

A rational question is, “What is reformed Egyptian?” Martin Harris, one of Smith’s scribes and a financial backer, asked the same thing. Though Harris was one of the “three witnesses” to the Book of Mormon, Smith never actually showed Harris the ancient writing he was purportedly translating. Usually, Smith translated by placing a “seer stone” in a hat and then burying his face in the hat and repeating out loud to an amanuensis what God was supposedly telling him. 

Harris was eager for proof Smith was a true prophet, so he asked Smith to reproduce the “reformed Egyptian.” One is left to wonder why Harris could be a witness to the Book of Mormon, and yet not be allowed to look upon the pages. Nonetheless, Smith scribbled out some “reformed Egyptian” characters on a piece of paper. In February 1828, Harris took the sheet of paper containing Smith’s reproduction of the mysterious alphabet to Charles Anthon, a professor of classical literature at Columbia University.  Harris, for some reason, left the meeting thinking to himself, “Joseph Smith is a true prophet!” Meanwhile, Charles Anthon spent the rest of his life saying, “I claimed no such thing!” When Anthon recounted the meeting, he said he tried to warn Harris that he was being tricked by Smith.   

But Martin Harris claimed Anthon’s initial response to the list of characters from Smith was positive, with Harris insisting that Charles Anthon wrote out a brief note affirming the authenticity of the characters and their translation. But, according to Harris, when Anthon asked where Smith got the plates and was told they came from an angel, Anthon ripped up his endorsement and then purportedly told Harris something to the effect, “Bring me the plates and I’ll translate them myself.” Harris responded he could not bring them because they were “sealed.” To which Anthon rejoined, “I cannot read a sealed book.”

What do gullible Martin Harris, the deceptive Joseph Smith, and the frustrated Professor Anthon have to do with Isaiah 29:11 – 12? Joseph Smith seized on Anthon’s purported comment about being unable to read a “sealed” book, and using some fast and loose word association, claimed the entire event was a fulfillment of Isaiah 29:11 – 12, and LDS interpreters to this day insist this prophecy was fulfilled in the Harris / Anthon incident. The claim is that Anthon is the “literate” or educated person in Isaiah 29:11 who can’t read a sealed book. In other words, Anthon couldn’t understand the characters Smith had scrawled out. Then, LDS teachers claim Joseph Smith is the “illiterate” or uneducated person mentioned in Isaiah 29:12 to whom the book is given and who is apparently blessed by God. 

Isaiah 29:11 – 12 cannot mean what the LDS church claims. The point of these verses is not that the literate man cannot read the book while the illiterate man can read it. The point of Isaiah 29:11 – 12 is that no one can read what Isaiah is discussing! No matter to whom you take the book, it is unreadable. Like men running around with a book they could not read, Israel would have God’s words but not understand them. Why? Because their own sin had blunted their ability to grasp the meaning. 

The Community of Christ, a smaller LDS group, owns a sheet of paper they think contains copies of the characters Joseph Smith gave to Martin Harris. Now known as the “Anthon Manuscript,” the artifact was passed down to the Community of Christ by David Whitmer, another witness to the Book of Mormon and a very important person in the early history of the LDS Church. Though some scholars think the Anthon Manuscript may not be the exact document Harris took to Anthon, by any standard, it contains several lines of nonsense; the characters Smith scrawled out are so fanciful that calling them gibberish would be a complement. There is no such thing as reformed Egyptian. It is just one more part of Joseph Smith’s religious scam.  

False teachers abuse God’s word to build their own kingdom, not Christ’s church. A sure sign of trouble is when a preacher abandons careful handling of the text and fails to determine what a passage meant to the original audience. A time-tested rule of biblical interpretation is this: The text can’t mean now what it didn’t mean then. Isaiah 29:11 – 12 was not referring to nonsense like “reformed Egyptian” when Isaiah wrote it and it’s not referring to Joseph Smith today.