Since the very first rumblings I heard of the planned exhaustive BYU New Testament Commentary Series, I was both extremely excited, and a little nervous. Part of the excitement was due to the notice that part of the commentary would include a brand new translation of the texts, alongside a greek text, and the KJV.
Mark Thomas recently reviewed a conference held by the BYUNTC, the discussion of which fostered some mixed feelings and disappointment concerning the direction the project appeared to be headed.
Even with these reports, I saw this as an important opportunity to introduce members to an updated and more accurate version of the text in a venue considered trusted and ‘safe’. Even if the exhaustive commentary turned out to be highly problematic, at least the new translation (or ‘Rendition’ as it is officially termed for what I understand are semantic reasons due to the loaded nature of the term ‘translation’ in LDS parlance and theology) – especially if it is eventually published separate from the massive commentary - could potentially serve as an important bridge to increase understanding and enjoyment of reading the New Testament among more otherwise traditional KJV-only members. Especially if selections from the Rendition are found to be promoted by being cited in forthcoming General Conference Addresses.
Finally, a preliminary version of the first volume was finally released electronically for use through Deseret Book’s Bookshelf application . The volume is “The Revelation of John the Apostle”, by Richard D Draper and Michael D. Rhodes.
Having perused the introductory material and translation and commentary for the early chapters of the Revelation ** , I wanted to express my first impressions and thoughts for those others that have an interest in this project. For context, I give these thoughts as an active and believing LDS member who might be considered an informed non-scholar. I look forward to those with specialties in the related fields to give their additional perspectives, thoughts and views.
The introductory material preceding the commentary proper is massive, and accomplishes many things. In addition to giving discussions of historical and authorial context (while a discussion of disagreements are presented, as one can tell by the title, this commentary takes the traditional view of attributing the authorship to John the Apostle) and traditional interpretive perspectives concerning the types of prophecy found in the book, we also find overviews of the history of the place of the Book of Revelation in general Latter-day Saint thought, and shows how while it rhetorically has a significant place and meaning, how little of it is actually used and referenced by Saints. The purpose and reasons for the commentary are set forth, which I found to be exciting at first read. “This study,” reads the Preface, “is not a compendium of statements about the book of Revelation nor is it a study of the last days. It is a complete examination of every verse in Revelation within its historical setting.”
Yet, we are then told that “Of all our sources, however, none trump the information that has come from the Restoration.” Indeed, it also attempts to “bring together everything relevant to the book of Revelation that can be found in Mormon tradition.”
I am sympathetic to this position, but its execution in the material from the volume I have reviewed appears more problematic than I had hoped. At times, a selection of LDS traditions surrounding a passage are indeed presented, as they should be. But I noticed times when a passage of modern LDS scripture or modern doctrinal concept is expressed as interpretively authoritative or preferred, with a single authoritative interpretation of the selected quote being presented, and the discussion is then considered resolved. Even non-scriptural texts, such as ideas from the Lectures on Faith, curiously “trump” other concepts without much discussion.
For example, the exploration of the very first verse of the Revelation, which is rendered as follows:
“A revelation of Jesus Christ that God gave him to show his servants events that must soon take place; and he made it known and authenticated it by sending his angel to his servant John,” (Revelation 1:1, BYU Rendition)
Part of the discussion valuably explores the ambiguity of the giver and receiver of the revelation in this text, displaying that is could just as properly indicate a revelation given to Jesus, later confirmed to John, or, perhaps, that it is a revelation about Jesus, given directly to John. The ambiguity they chose to leave in the Rendition, which I was very grateful to see.
However, in the commentary, in addition to weighing a perspective from the Joseph Smith Translation, the idea of Jesus receiving a revelation was rejected as a bit absurd, with the reasoning that “since Jesus shares the mind of God, he would not need a special revelation to know the future.” The footnote to this assertion takes you to a book exploring the 1835 Lectures on Faith, which famously assert the then-understood nature of the Godhead, with the the Father being a personage of spirit, the Son being a personage of tabernacle, and the Holy Spirit being their shared mind – a doctrinal concept which was substantially revised and superseded in both scripture and mainline LDS thought.
While an opportunity could have been taken to explore or acknowledge the usefulness of the idea using Restoration scripture with a parallel of the Book of Mormon example of Lehi having received a primary vision, which was taught to Nephi, but then re-experienced and “made known and authenticated” and expanded by an Angel to Nephi, instead, what is generally seen as a superseded doctrinal concept from a de-canonized work is used to shut down the explanation, without consideration of the idea of a mortal Christ learning aspects of his divine mission by revelatory experience, which was then taught to (and re-experienced by) a disciple.
This passage is also used as an opportunity to tie the concept of the angel ‘authenticating’ the vision to a clearly preferred interpretation invoking the modern LDS Temple narrative. “With these words, John signaled his reader that the vision was authentic and came from God via a true messenger, who gave John the necessary sign which validated the message.” And in the Conclusion and Summary, “The Lord, therefore, assured John and his readers that the vision was pure by sending an angel who gave to John a correct sign or token which verified both.”
To be clear, I do not find the existence of connection and exploration of the uniquely LDS concepts connected with the text to be incorrect, wrong, or even problematic. I recognize and fully acknowledge that it is an important part of the project, gives it purpose and meaning, and in fact, including them is, or can be, a very important part of helping Latter-day Saints find many roads of relevance and resonance to these texts, and exploring our rich history seeking to find meaning from them.
What frustrated me personally was the way in by which, in practice, certain doctrinal ideas tended to “trump” other options seemingly only by virtue of them being more in line with the author’s preferred school of conservative Mormon thought.
I do believe it is helpful to go into this particular work knowing what to expect, and what purpose it might be intended to fulfill. I went into this not knowing fully what this was going to be, or its full purposes or intended audience. For this reason, it’s likely I had some expectations that were not realistic, and therefore, it’s not surprising they were not met. However, if the purpose is simply to present a substantial contribution to moving forward LDS members’ familiarity with important (and most unheard in Mormon circles) aspects of the history, traditions, arguments, and usage and language of the Book of Revelation, then its value is great, and is to be recommended.
I know some have hope or expectation – as I did – that this volume might serve as a contribution to the outside world of Biblical Scholarship, to be engaged with and to further widen discussion of the concepts within. The devotional and seeming uncritical way certain modern doctrinal interpretations “trump” and give the appearance of discrediting some available historical and otherwise convincing views, will not be conducive to this volume making any significant impact in outside scholastic circles. This is only to be seen as a failure if this was a hope and intent of the production of this volume.
As a combination educational and devotional tool for the wider LDS Community, however, I see this project’s development as an important contribution, and one that should be applauded by those who wish to see, at the very least, a wider understanding of at least some of the concepts and problems expressed by the wider Biblical community that otherwise may have no other way of being “safely” expressed from within. While the answers and issues may not be addressed or resolved how all might ideally like them to be, the fact that issues are being expressed and acknowledged from a substantial work by a Church-run institution is in and of itself, at least for me, a major gain.
I very much look forward to exploring the rest of the volume, and certainly additional volumes in the Series as they are completed. I am interested to see how other authors and editors handle some of the areas I found problematic in Draper and Rhodes’ initial volume.
I am not at this point sure whether this particular volume will have its place as setting the foundation for a new era of LDS approaches to Biblical texts, or, as more of a transitional tool, will simply be a well-produced capstone to the Old Way of Doing Things, containing some generous and even tantalizing hints of what to expect from the Next Generation.
Make no mistake – the very existence of this series is important, and as further volumes are produced, they will hopefully become an extraordinarily helpful reference work for Mormon students of scripture. I do look forward to setting the eventual hardbound reference editions of these next to my set of Brant Gardner’s excellent and massive Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon published by Greg Kofford Books, as well as nearby my growing stacks of the incredibly important (and gorgeous) volumes of the Joseph Smith Papers. While each are very different projects serving very different purposes, I see each as strong indications that a marriage of serious and honest scholastic and faithful study of each of our scriptural texts and traditions is, and still can be, headed in very good and important directions from many fronts.
** NOTE: This post has been slightly revised as I have continued to explore the volume. Please see comments below for further thoughts and examples as I continue to take in the initial volume.