First Impressions: BYU New Testament Commentary Series, “The Revelation of John the Apostle”

johnapostle

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.

Comments

First Impressions: BYU New Testament Commentary Series, “The Revelation of John the Apostle” — 24 Comments

  1. The front matter of the electronic version doesn’t contain much information, but invites input or questions to be sent to BYU Studies. Because of this, I am not sure if this will be published as an imprint of BYU Studies, or something else. I haven’t seen any indications anywhere else, either. Anyone have any information on this?

  2. Many thanks for the thorough review! I too had high hopes that this could contribute to the broader academic world and am disappointed by what you describe. I guess it’s an improvement that the book at least mentions that there is some dispute over authorship.

  3. Pingback: The Heresies of Father Brown and the Future of LDS Scriptural Studies

  4. @David – I was just told by one of the series editors that it is being published by BYU Studies and distributed by Deseret Book. We didn’t discuss specifically the imprint, but given this, I expect it is BYU Studies.

  5. Thanks, Carl!

    I am still making my way through the book. My thoughts above still stand, although I would say I am increasingly frustrated by the tone of what I perceive as authoritative doctrinal ‘preaching’ that occurs, mainly in the Summary sections following the discussion of a periscope. McConkie’s Doctrinal New Testament Commentary seems to be a key definitive interpretational lens. I found the commentaries on the Seven Seals a particularly disappointing section when looking for wider and more nuanced study. The Traditional LDS 7 Dispensation historical overview model (Adam, Enoch,Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Joseph) is given as the assumed and only meaning to be taken from D&C 77:7’s “Thousand Years” without comment or justification. It just…is. I find the commentary suffers some of the same key issues as I felt did the Behold The Lamb of God BYU DVD series. Traditional assumptions from a particular stream of interpretative thought passed off without comment or justification.

  6. I haven’t been able to purchase and read it yet (as you say, DB appears to have pulled it), so I don’t have any thoughts of my own about the specific content. But I know the authors well enough to expect that the content, including its (apparently) declarative rhetorical stance and familiar doctrinal defaults, is in fact considered and deliberate. DB’s ad copy says this commentary examines Revelation “though the lens of the LDS doctrine and Mormon experience,” so a certain correlation with McConkie’s DNTC is probably unsurprising.

    In contemporary biblical studies there is a movement among conservative Christian interpreters called “the theological interpretation of Scripture” (TIS). TIS may be more hermeneutically self-aware, in general, than what we find in the correlated Mormon tradition from DNTC to (it seems) this commentary, but both explicitly reject the general philosophical hermeneutics though which we read non-scriptural texts. I’d like to see more self-reflection from LDS authors about their interpretive method, and maybe that’s part of your own disappointment. Otherwise I have no problem with theological hermeneutics, and it sounds like you don’t either.

    I think any series that wants to become a standard will tend towards conservatism, and when that series is a BYU commentary on the NT, the conservative pull is especially strong. The pull in this case, of course, is theological and institutional. As you point out, the regrettable use of the term “rendition” (talk about problematic semantics; cf. “waterboarding”) for “translation” is an explicit result of institutional negotiation. I have no reason to suspect the authors’ theology is at any point so consciously negotiated, but any lack of academic hedging or other-handing may reveal certain institutional and cultural expectations about the character of Mormon theological discourse.

    As I say, I don’t expect otherwise. But as a BYU publisher (at the Maxwell Institute), I’m very interested in reader response to this and future volumes. If readers expect differently, the writing will change. And if you want something more experimental, watch out for a forthcoming Salt Press/Maxwell Institute collection of essays on Revelation 21-22.

  7. Carl,

    Thank you for those thoughts. I think you nailed what it is that is the center of my disappointment. It was furthered even more this this morning when reading the sections on the Dragon, the Woman and Child, when it was stated by means of interpretation that a key part of the Church being in the Wilderness was to protect the Chosen Literal Bloodline that would eventually restore the Church, tied into the Premortal Spirit Nation of Israel. Then, to make sure everyone really gets this, there is a whole “Excursus on the Doctrine of Election in the Flesh” where this goes into even more detail, citing Orson F Whitney’s view of Deut 32:7-8 as the foundational reasoning for this meaning:

    ” Explaining this idea, Elder Orson F. Whitney stated:
    There was a House of Israel in heaven before there was a Hebrew Nation on earth. Else what does Moses mean when he tells how the Most High, in “the days of old,” in “the years of many generations,” “separated the sons of Adam” and “set the bounds of the people according to the number of the children of Israel?” [Deut. 32:7–8]. He must have had in mind, not a temporal Israel, unborn at the early period indicated, but a spirit Israel, according to whose numbers, known in heaven before they had taken bodies on earth, the boundaries of “the people” were determined.2″

    Again, I think while I expected to see all of these traditional schools of conservative views and perspectives presented as part of an LDS commentary, I feel that I expected them to be presented more critically, with contrasting views also presented, as well as noting some potentially problematic issues with some issues. The Church seems to have been moving in a direction where they have been trying to divide between speculative assertions by GAs, and authoritative revealed doctrine. The way this material is presented seems to take things back a decade or so in what I see as the Church’s interpretive approach.

    In the latest Maxwell Institute podcast, for example, Terryl and Fiona Givens presented a fascinating and beautiful (and very Mormon) perspective on the Church in the Wilderness sections of the Book of Revelation that differed from Whitney’s and McConkie’s lineage-centric mindset. Seeing such types of thoughts included (very much part of the Mormon Experience), would have been a highlight, and would have added greatly to the value of this volume for me.

    That said, I very much look forward to the Salt Press/MI volume on Revelation. I have been very impressed with all of the Salt Press volumes I have read (all currently available, methinks).

    Thanks for the thoughts.

  8. On another note, the discussion of the historical problems trying to decipher the meaning of the number 666 in Revelation 13:18 is, I think, quite good.

  9. Yes, the volume is back up on DB’s Bookshelf. The Greek displays, but on my iPad, at least, it mixes two different fonts, and the Hebrew is broken in places. This version is called the “Initial version,” which I’m guessing is something less than a first edition. (A beta-version book?) I’ll agree with that. I read for about two hours and was surprised at the number of errata. Yes, all publications have typos. I let plenty through myself, of course. But for a work this important–that I just paid $20 for!–it does not seem proofed to BYU Studies’ typical (very high) standard. Yet.

    Anyway, this is non-substantial and does not reflect on the authors. They’ve asked that substantial concerns be addressed to them and the editors directly, and I respect that. I also know that expectations are very high and they are leaning into a stiff wind. They deserve honest feedback, but also a certain bellwether allowance.

    I was interested to see what Richard and Mike would say about their interpretive approach to the text, and in a few places they touch on it. Speaking of the theological ground of apocalyptic literature, they say, “The elements chosen here are accepted by a wide range of conservative Christian scholars, meet our own observations, and conform to LDS theology.” In another place they say this is “a complete examination of every verse in Revelation within its historical setting.” I would say that those are inherently “ideals in tension,” but the tension is not much felt. That’s a plus or minus, depending on your expectations, but I never did think I would be their target reader. David, you just might be, so I take your response to the book more seriously than my own.

    I’ll be most interested to hear public responses to their “rendition,” which in key respects runs squarely against the grain of contemporary Bible translation.

  10. Carl,

    I note that on Deseret’s page, it says Bookshelf users should view it in Times New Roman font. That’s great, except that my Android Devices (Nexus 7, Droid DNA) I use for Bookshelf don’t have Times New Roman. Many of the Hebrew and Greek characters are still broken. Looks fine when viewed on desktop through the Web Viewer, but not on my android devices. Makes me wonder if Android devices were checked.

  11. Woah.

    KJV 14:4 – “These are they which were not defiled with women; for they are virgins…”

    BYU Rendition 14:4 – “These are they who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are morally clean…”

    Translation Notes: “The Greek parthenoi, literally “male virgins” is translated in the Rendition as “morally clean” for two reasons: first, because the English word “virgin” applies exclusively to females, and second, to counter the idea that this verse commends celibacy.”

  12. -.- The English word “virgin” decidedly does not apply exclusively to males. And why should we “counter” the rather obvious endorsement of celibacy? Simply because we don’t like it?

  13. I think Christopher’s right. I’m pretty sure Steve Carell was “The 40 Year-Old Virgin,” and Hollywood is never wrong about these things. Another objection might be that, at least in common LDS discourse, “morally clean” does not mean “a virgin.” You can be a virgin and not be morally clean, and you can be morally clean and not be a virgin. Gk. parthenoi, as they say, here means “men who have never had sexual intercourse,” i.e., male virgins. That’s what it means and all it means. I don’t think “morally clean” means that.

    Speaking of morally clean, I just tried reading the KJV version (as a typical hetero male) through the semantics explained in their reason one and spat Diet Coke all over my desk. Wait, am I oversharing?

    Anyway, some of us could pick at any translation all day long, just because we love to pick at translations. Especially Bible translations. For me it’s probably some kind of natural outcome of (or payback for) all those dead language seminars that were mostly, it seemed, about critiquing my translations. So I’m signing off the thread. But my opinion on Bible translations, especially those representing an institution, is they are one thing that should only be produced by a committee. The pitfalls are endless. Navigating them requires the massed wisdom of the community they serve.

  14. FYI – if you bought the volume before it was taken down on Deseret Bookshelf, you need to archive it and re-download it to get the updated version. Hold your finger on the icon of the cover of the book for a few seconds, and you’ll be prompted with an option to archive. Then go to your archived items from the Current / Archive menu option and do the same thing as you did to Archive, only select “Unarchive” to re-download the new version. Sorry for the inconvenience.

  15. I have a different e-version (preliminary galley). The book itself will be WAY better than what Deseret Book is selling. It will be double-columned and close to 500 pages. I go back and forth with this book. Its great for the LDS audience. The explanations of traditional biblical commentary material is excellent for most Latter Day Saints (who are not used to sophisticated presentations. Put Greek or Hebrew on a page and they turn it off.) I do agree that there should be at least some of the LDS statements treated more critically (or at least stated as a point of view, not the definitive answer). My LARGER concern is that all the contributors are BYU Professors. Don’t tell me that there aren’t other faithful professionals out there who couldn’t do as good or better. Check out the list of contributors on the website.

  16. PS. BYU says they’re still tweaking the book prior to the hardcover release (which is still undated). I’ve found several typos in it myself, so it must be a preliminary version. I suspect the website announced it for early Summer and the Deseret e-book release was a good compromise (since the e-version can be updated cheaply once a final copy is approved).

  17. Terry:

    Thanks for the insights. They also just replaced the stand-by cover with an attractive designed cover. I’ve replaced the image in my post with what I take to be the final cover. It’s quite attractive.

    While it’s likely the tweakings will only be of the grammatical, formatting, and correcting of typos, I would hope that some thought might go into some tweaking of the presentation of the rhetoric as it pertains to doctrinal assertions, although that would likely necessitate far more revision than is feasible.

    This is an ambitious project, and I would very much like it to succeed. I do believe the ‘preaching’ tone and lack of nuance and critical presentation of traditional assertions are substantial weakness to the volume, and will turn off many – perhaps even to to the entire series. Which would likely be unfair.

    What is most likely is that this series will act like the Anchor Bible series for Mormons, and remain current by having eventual new and fully revised editions released after several years’ time, while still keeping a continuity with the series as a whole. This is likely the best approach, and would serve as a fascinating historical record documenting LDS approaches to the Bible.

    Criticisms aside, I will be purchasing the hardcover edition when it is released, and truly wish the project luck as it moves forward.

  18. Thanks for this, I missed it when it appeared. I too would like a bit more of a critical stance, and less (apparent) reliance on McConkie, but my expectations are more in line with those of Carl and David, instead of the (wo)man in the pew. (I straddle the academic/non-specialist divide, as a failed PhD…)