The BYU New Testament Commentary

On May 15, 2013, the BYU Religious Studies Center, BYU Studies, the Maxwell Institute and the Ancient Near Eastern Studies Program at BYU sponsored their first annual New Testament Conference as a companion project to the publication of a forthcoming BYU New Testament Commentary. This multivolume Commentary will be released over a period of years. The first volume on the Book of Revelation will be available within a few weeks. Each volume will contain a new LDS translation of the New Testament text along with accompanying Mormon commentary.  The conference began in a spirit of something extraordinary, perhaps (as one particpant stated) even inspired. Carole Mikita, a local KSL religion reporter, hosted the event in a spirit of excited anticipation.

The interpretive methodology in the conference and commentary is unapologetically Mormon, with all that that means, good and bad. This commentary and these conferences are partly reading the Greek text, quoting from a general authority here, and preaching one’s own sermon there. The interpretive methodology is less about the New Testament as a text, and wholeheartedly looking as Mormonism as reflected in the New Testament. But the methodology strikes me as premature— speaking before carefully listening, silencing the voice of the text and using it instead as a mirror to understand Mormonism. In some instances the approach worked well. I found myself interested in a Mormon reading of the Gospel of Luke by Kent Brown. He explored the strong role of women and the concept of “house,” meaning family, in Luke. He was bringing very interesting Mormon questions and listening carefully to the voice of the text. Eric Huntsman explored the understanding of miraculous signs in the Gospel of John as christological and soteriological symbols. At times these authors may have overstated their points. But these were the high marks of the conference.

There were many disappointments. For those who know the style of New Testament study at BYU, this conference and commentary will be familiar. When Michael Rhodes searches for the Pauline understanding of human nature, he does not open Rudolph Bultmann’s Theology of the New Testament. He rather quotes Bruce McConkie and King Benjamin. When he wants to know the significance of homosexuality in Pauline epistles, he quotes an address by Spencer Kimball at BYU in 1964 in which Elder Kimball called homosexuals “perverts.”

When Kaye Hanson addressed women’s issues at the conference, she  grappled with the fact that Paul calls Phoebe a deacon (Greek: diakonon) and a leader of many (prostatis). Dr. Hanson concludes that Phoebe must have been a Relief Society President in Paul’s time. I think she was serious! I short, this conference and commentary are an attempt to understand the New Testament in its broader Mormon context, in the context  of Mormon scriptures and revelations, Mormon culture, and above all the context of statements of General Authorities of the LDS Church. If that’s all we were up to, it would be fine. But we unfortunately have thrown out the New Testament and its best scholarship in the last 200 years while we are at it. The shallowness of the approach is evident.  It would be difficult to make the New Testament more petty, more cruel, or more Utah-provincial. David O. McKay would be embarrassed. John Widtsoe would hide his eyes.

We as Mormons can do better, we must do better than this. It should be no wonder that many of our best Mormon New Testament scholars are nowhere to be found in this endeavor. It would ruin their careers in academia. I have discussed Mormon New Testament scholarship with some of the best New Testament scholars of the world—-John Rousseau, John Meier, John Dominic Crossan, Robert Funk, Bruce Chilton, Roy Hoover and many others. They all seem quite interested in Mormonism. The idea of our open canon intrigues them. And the fact that we have a New Witness for Christ with texts that parallel the Bible is exciting to them. But we often produce incompetent New Testament scholarship. Both we  and they know it. They will not take us seriously as long as we produce such Mormon-centric readings intended primarily to augment Mormon power and interpretive privilege.

Comments

The BYU New Testament Commentary — 25 Comments

  1. Amen! Amen! It is a general bad habit to use “Mormon lenses” strictly to view the New Testament. The result is narrow mindedness, contextual and doctrinal blindness, and simply those that do so typically lose the full richness of the text as a whole; and therefore miss out.

  2. Were any of the conservative assertions of authorship given any attempt at scholastic defense? My understanding is that the project is going to assert Paul as the author of Hebrews, for example. Was this covered? Were any helpful clarifications made in the Q&A? I’m highly interested, and this looks to be such a frustrating confirmation of my doubts concerning this project.

  3. Not terribly shocked that neither Brown nor Hanson mentioned Junia. Didn’t think it particularly enlightening or edifying to hear 20 minutes of lengthy quotes from GAs about sexual morality (or to hear the audience gush about how they wanted it to go on). Based on the papers yesterday, the commentary seems to do more to restrict the presentation of the New Testament to LDS presuppositions than to expand LDS understanding of the form and function of the New Testament within its world.

  4. Very nice summary, Mark. I’m just waiting for some commentators to come and call you a rude butthead for the graphic that you used at the front of this post ;)

    When Kaye Hanson addressed women’s issues at the conference, she grappled with the fact that Paul calls Phoebe a deacon (Greek: diakonon) and a leader of many (prostatis). Dr. Hanson concludes that Phoebe must have been a Relief Society President in Paul’s time. I think she was serious!

    What a disgrace.

    When I was 17 or 18, I was arguing with an LDS friend who was one year older than me about women’s roles in the church. I brought up Phoebe (or maybe it was Junia, but I think it was Phoebe) to him. He read the text and listened to my arguments about the Greek, then concluded that Phoebe was probably just the equivalent of a 1st century Relief Society president.

    It’s amazing to me that a PhD at BYU can’t come up with a more erudite response to the subject than that of a teenage boy.

  5. I was told a week or two ago by someone leading the project that it was going to be a “Mormon” NT Commentary, but he didn’t go into detail about what that would entail. Three years ago I saw draft pages from one proposed volume that seemed to sum that up pretty well.

  6. Amen! Like you, I’m an “amateur” religious studies geek — majored in it at a secular university and still read scholarly books on the side for fun. The New Testament is my favorite religious topic to study. When I teach Gospel Doctrine I draw heavily from what I learned in school and the past ~100 years of broad academic study. To see so much of that ignored in this project is deeply embarrassing.

  7. It occurs to me that the source of theis regetible discontinuity is similar to what prompted the critic of evangelical antimormon scholarship in Mosser and Owen’s “Mormon Scholarship, Apologetics, and Evangelical Neglect: Losing the Battle and Not Knowing It?” (http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/insights/?vol=19&num=6&id=68, http://www.cometozarahemla.org/others/mosser-owen.html#_1_12). specificly the comunities of mainstream and Morman biblical scholorship just aren’t interacting, except in very restricted contexts(Dr. Barkers Temple Studies Group for example). I think this is largly because in the begining we had to build our own institutions to get enything published at all we became stuck in the narow gheto our our own comunity.

    Aditionaly because of the way the church constructs doctrine. We reference the scrptures but more as jumping off points rather than mathimatical postulates in theological proofs. Because authority comes form calling and not credential speakers at all levels don’t need to build the same kind of logic chains from text to teaching as a Protistant pastor.
    The other problem is simple numbers. Sturgeon’s LAw (“90% of EVERYTHING is crap”) works against us, as you could probably gather al the mormon biblical scholars in on room still. Bad Biblicla scholars from other denominations have a lot of competition.

    So what is the answer? We obviously have people who are interacting with the curent state of general scholership why aren’t we providing a stronger criteac? Publishing our own papers? Getting in on the project?

  8. David:
    An anonymous, current faculty member (he asked me not to use his name) on the BYU religion faculty stated that he was told by his superiors that there are 3 things he cannot teach in BYU religion classes if he wants to keep his job. One of those is to state that Hebrews might have been written by someone other than Paul. But that is just one department. At the conference, John Welch stated that the New Testament is “an accurate portrayal of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ” and his apostles and associates. When I asked John Welch about who they believe wrote Hebrews, he stated that there are similarities between Romans and Hebrews but didn’t know what that meant. So he was non committal.

    Also at the conference, John Hall (who gave a paper on 1 John as apocalyptic text) believes that the Gospel of John, the First Epistle of John and the Book of Revelation were all written by the same John, presumable the apostle. All of the speakers seemed to assume that each NT Book was written by its supposed author. The only exception was a comment by Eric Huntsman. Eric is the author of the Commentary on the Gospel of John. He referred to John as the “purported author of the gospel.” I couldn’t reach him to ask his thoughts, so I asked John Welch. John assured me that Eric believes that John the apostle wrote the gospel of John.

  9. Joseph,
    So you want more serious Mormon scriptural scholarship? Here are my suggestions.

    1-For a decade Dialogue had a regularly featured article in each of its publications on scriptural studies. We need to ask the current editor to reinstate that.

    2-Starting in December 2013, Sunstone started a new Christ Conference, They plan on holding it each December. This is a great venue, as is the annual Sunstone Symposium in Salt Lake.

    3-If you have an article, ask to place it here at WWE—this is a great venue.

    4-Send me something. I want to hear from you. We are all in the search for truth and what better place to start than with sacred texts?

  10. How crass, are LDS no longer allowed to throw their hat into the ring of interpretation and elucidation by the light of their own doctrine? I think not, just as well-founded a right as anyone, unless you are trying so hard to be ‘open-minded’ and enlightened to the point that your prejudice becomes quite palpable.

  11. Thank you Rex. I am proud of Mormonism. I am proud that the Book of Mormon calls in 1 Nephi for the gathering of all truths in the latter days—a prophet from very nation and a book of scripture from every people. I am proud of this Mormon call for truth gathering. All lovers of truth are welcome in the Mormonism I know. I am proud of John Widtsoe for publishing his belief on scripture. I am proud of David Wright and his love of Mormonism. I am proud of David O McKay and the twin virtues of his Mormonism–tolerance and freedom of speech.

    What I am not proud of is the self appointed apostles of war who care not for the humble search for truth, but only the accumulation of their own personal power. Amen to the scholarship of that man, Mormon or not. I care not for the woman who will stop at nothing to intimidate and threaten and silence and bully other scholars in the church. I am not proud of those who relish the solace of their own violence and call it Mormon scholarship. They do not represent my Mormonism.

  12. Rex, it is not a matter of LDS scholars honing their insights through an LDS perspective. Mark doesn’t seem at all opposed to that. The issue here is that we are witnessing an upsurge in Mormoninsing the texts, rather than letting their own world unfold. In other words, LDS scholars are forcing their own particular view of Mormon culture where it doesn’t fit. I looked at some of the distortions ensuing from forcing our view of eternal marriage onto ancient Jewish texts here: http://calba-savua.blogspot.com/2011/04/did-saadia-gaon-maimonides-believe-in.html

  13. BTW, here is Draper’s methodology from his “Seven Seals.” I would suspect that he follows more or less the same in the new book.

    “In order to fulfill the need for a clear analysis of Revelation, I have done four things: translated the document paying close attention to variations found in the different preserved manuscripts, including the Joseph Smith Translation; studied the most important Jewish and Christian apocalypses, drawing out what I could from them; consulted the studies of scholars both within and without the Church; and most importantly, pulled together those insights gained from the Standard Works and the teachings of the modern prophets.

    Further, I have not ignored the historical setting in which the work was composed. To do so would have impoverished the study as it would that of any literature. Though a person may enjoy Shakespeare without a knowledge of Elizabethan England, understanding and appreciation are greatly increased when he has at least some of that knowledge. The same holds true for Revelation, and for that matter, the New Testament as a whole.

    Even so, not all the questions concerning John’s vision are answered in this book, nor are they answerable. For this reason some may find this study disappointing. The plain fact is that there are portions of Revelation that cannot be fully understood at present. It will take either time or further revelation to make them clear. I have not ignored these difficult areas. Various theories have been presented so that the reader can be aware of the arguments and problems. Often no solution is proposed.

    The reader needs to be aware of three additional points. First, this book brings together only the material from the scriptures and the prophetic teachings, both ancient and modern, that clarify John’s message. Therefore, this book is neither a compendium of statements about nor a study of the last days. Further, it is not a complete commentary carefully examining each verse of John’s vision. It is an analysis of the message of the book of Revelation, overall and chapter by chapter. Second, many biblical quotes will differ from those in the King James Version (hereafter noted as KJV). In most cases I am using my own translation (hereafter noted as AT), and less frequently, the Joseph Smith Translation (hereafter noted as JST) in order to make a passage clearer.”

  14. Allan,

    Thanks for that additioon. At the conference, the methodologies of each author varied widely. Some (Kent Brown) stayed very close to the text, itself. Others inlcuded many many interpretive tools, setting and approaches all at once, even relying on late Latin texts and complex patristic views of scripture as definitive. I frankly do not know why. Partristic views are interesting, but quite foreign to Mormonism and the original authorial intent. Another approach was given by Dr Hall who explictly defended a later historical setting to influence his apocalyptic reading of 1 John, since the events (according to him) would only be fulffiled at a much later historical time frame. The text got lost in some of these complex methods.

    Many papers quoted Mormon revelations and scripture and General Authorities. It believe this method of involving a broad Restoration context for intrepretation is perfectly legitimate as long as original authorial intent is allowed its own voice. It will be interesting to see how they smooth over these different approaches when they put the volumes together.

  15. Are we going to be told what corrections Huntsman has been offering to the OP over on Facebook?

  16. Mark Thomas wrote: “An anonymous, current faculty member (he asked me not to use his name) on the BYU religion faculty stated that he was told by his superiors that there are 3 things he cannot teach in BYU religion classes if he wants to keep his job. One of those is to state that Hebrews might have been written by someone other than Paul.”

    If that’s true, it would be surprising to me, and not just because it’s obvious with only a cursory reading that Hebrews wasn’t written by the same person who wrote the Pauline epistles. Even the Bible Dictionary included in the quad and the Gospel Doctrine teacher’s manual acknowledge that Paul may not be the author.

  17. Mark, Let me get this straight – Mormonism tells us that the Bible is not reliable enough to stand on its own – that it’s the inspired word of God, but with human errors. In response to these beliefs about the Bible, we proceed to ignore most all of the relevant scholarship of today – relating to authorship and history etc.?! Instead, we’re producing an approach to the Bible that is much closer to the fundamentalist/KJV-as-only-inspired-version crowd – with a decided Mormon flavor?! What the hell is going on here? I know I’m late to this thread, but I would love to hear any thoughts you have on *why* this is happening- or continuing to happen. I can actually understand the fundy views of the BoM, but the Bible should be fair game for even the most theologically conservative Mormon right? WOW. I’m just blown away by this. I’m a Mormon, but I did not attend BYU and this stuff just shocks me. As an amateur fan of biblical studies, this account you give is def. a gut punch. Really disappointing. Thanks for the post.

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