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.