I used to have a ritual headache every Sunday I didn’t have to work. I used to think it was due to hunger based on weird church hours that cut into lunch. Or possibly a lack of caffeine since I don’t buy Cokes (or anything else for that matter) on Sunday. But I think I’ve resigned myself to blaming Sunday School and Elders Quorum and the amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to make it through them. I’m even more convinced of this hypothesis since I haven’t had a headache ever since I was called to ward finance clerk and get to skip out on at least one of them. Most of the time, it isn’t the teacher’s fault (I personally like my Gospel Doctrine teacher a lot). The comments, however, are another story. When they are not self-serving and utterly shaming, they are often devoid of any historical or cultural context regarding the text. And this is why I wish more people could have attended Julie M. Smith’s April presentation at the Miller Eccles Study Group here in Texas. Her book Search, Ponder, and Pray: A Guide to the Gospels is an amazing and thought-provoking commentary (at least, I think that’s what you’d call it); one that I wish every Gospel Doctrine teacher had on their bookshelf. In her presentation, she listed six tips for more fulfilling scripture study:
- Read the Gospels separately.
- Pay attention to literary structure.
- Pay attention to women’s stories.
- Look for Old Testament allusions.
- Beware of traditions.
- Use other translations.
Let’s take a look at each one:
1. Read the Gospels separately
I’m sure many remember the first time they heard Cleon Skousen’s “The Meaning of the Atonement.” If they were anything like me–a brand-spanking new missionary who had never done any serious personal study of the gospel and who knew his Book of Mormon stories largely due to the Living Scriptures videos growing up–they likely ate it up as the “real” meaning of the Atonement. The theory is incredibly flawed, but largely due to its choice of scriptural hermeneutics. “One of the things that you learn in studying the scriptures,” Skousen says matter-of-factly, “is to get all of the authorities who talked about the same incident – take all of the details that each of them have – and then piece them together so that you’ve got the whole picture.” This is a common approach, but a largely unjustifiable (or at the very least incomplete) one. This assumes that each authority is even attempting the same description and message. As Ben Spackman pointed out to me, we use the terms salvation (military), redemption (kinship), and atonement (priestly) interchangeably, yet they have very different meanings and contexts in the Hebrew Bible. While it is true that an understanding of these various messages can provide a richer view of what we call the Atonement, this only occurs when we understand them on their own terms. Trying to understand, say, a military victory and deliverance (salvation) through the language and concepts of priestly sacrifice (atonement) is likely to create more confusion than clarity.
Julie stressed that this is also true of the Gospels. Each author portrays Jesus in a distinct fashion with a particular emphasis: Mark stresses Jesus’ suffering and the way of discipleship. Matthew tries to demonstrate Jesus as the Davidic king via the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. Luke sought to shake the wealthy out of complacency by emphasizing Jesus’ mission to the poor and oppressed. John’s cosmic theology focuses on Jesus’ role as the Logos working wondrous “signs.” If Mormons are interested in truly “likening” the scriptures, understanding them would be key. King College’s Richard Burridge has argued that the Gospels fit the category of Greco-Roman “lives” or ancient biographies. Unlike modern biographies, ancient bios did not cover a person’s whole life, but focused mainly on their public debut. Ancestry, family, city, and birth may have a brief mention (recall Mark and John have no birth narrative at all). Many times, the events are arranged topically rather than chronologically. Finally, the subject’s death is covered in great detail, revealing his true character in his final moments. Most important, however, is that ancient bios were not written solely for information or entertainment. The subjects were seen as heroes, models for our lives. A Greco-Roman biography was an invitation to imitate. This means, in the case of Jesus, both what he says and what he does are important. By muddling the messages of the separate Gospels through an attempt to harmonize the accounts, we may very well miss what was said and done as well as why.
2. Pay attention to literary structure
Sunday School lessons generally chop up chapters that are meant to be read together. To take it even further, the chapters themselves break up passages and stories that are meant to be read within context of each other. A great example provided by Julie was the two miracles of the loaves and fishes in Mark. As she explained (both at Miller Eccles and elsewhere),
The first thing we notice in comparing the miracles is that the first takes place on Jewish turf and the second in Gentile land. This sets the pattern for the comparison: I think it makes sense to see the first as a thoroughly Jewish event and the second as a miracle for the Gentiles. In the first story, Jesus has compassion on the crowd because they are as sheep without a shepherd, which is an allusion to the well-established Old Testament motif of shepherd as symbols for Israel’s religious leadership. The people are sitting by ranks of 50s and 100s, or according to the pattern for the organization of Israel (cf. Exodus 18:21, Deuteronomy 1:15, and 1 Kings 18:4). The number twelve–which symbolizes Israel in general or its priesthood in particular–is repeated and the Hebrew word for ‘basket’ is used. In the second story, the number seven (a symbol for universality) is repeated, the Greek word for ‘basket’ is used, and the people are not organized according to the pattern of Israel.
But the most interesting element is what occurs between the two miracles: the encounter with the Syrophoenician woman. After enduring the harsh insult from Jesus in 7:27 (“…for it is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it unto the dogs”), the Greek woman basically outwits Jesus with her response, “Yes, Lord: yet the dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs.” Julie concludes, “I believe there is a relationship between her crumbs and the multiplied loaves. In this story, the woman expresses her belief that while, yes, the children (JST adds ‘of the kingdom’) have first right at the table, the Gentiles can claim the ‘leftovers.’ And as we know from the first feeding story, there are plenty of leftovers! This story serves as a bridge–and a theological justification–from a ministry limited to Jews to one that re-creates that same ministry in the Gentile realm.” This message would have likely been understood by its ancient audience, especially if Mark’s Gospel was performed rather than studiously read by average disciples.
3. Pay attention to women’s stories
A recent post at Keepapitchinin bemoans the lack of active female participants in the telling of Mormon history, ending with the rather sad graph below. The “calculations show that, should the present trend continue, we can expect to see a Church history featuring roughly equal numbers of male and female participants in the year 2189.”
Julie’s 2013 article ““She Hath Wrought a Good Work”: The Anointing of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel” is the only serious tackling of Mark 14’s unnamed woman I have ever read. And it demonstrates the importance of doing for the scriptures what the blogger above advocates for Church history: telling women’s stories. In this specific case, Jesus said that the anointing the woman had performed “shall be spoken of for a memorial of her” (Mark 14:9). Yet, as Julie noted, no one–not even most scholarly commentaries–talks about it. Yet, in this woman’s actions, we see a profound and prophetic display that not only foretells Jesus’ death, but depicts him as the royal and priestly Messiah. While some may see the focus on women’s stories as a feminist reading of scripture, it could more simply be seen as accurate history. For example, Julie sees Jesus’ parables as an “incredibly merciful…teaching style” because “it accommodates the realities of the audience.” She explains,
Remember that this is a society with a 2-3% literary rate and no mass media. Most people are going to hear the parable once (either as Jesus spoke, or from hearing one of the gospels read) but that’s probably it. How can you teach under such circumstances in a way that maximizes your audience’s ability to retain what they have heard, recall it later, and appreciate it as they (hopefully) mature spiritually? It’s a nearly insurmountable task. You can’t give a talk with a list of five abstract theological points and think people are just going to remember them twenty years later. But if you tell a story about sewing a new patch on old clothes, someone just might recall that when she picks up her needle a decade later. (And, incidentally, since sewing was women’s work, Jesus is using the world of women as the location of his teaching in that instance–acknowledging the realities of their lives and requiring the men in the audience to put themselves into the women’s, er, sandals.)
This fully fleshed-out reading of the scriptures can help us develop a more mature theology and discipleship.
4. Look for Old Testament allusions
The New Testament is full of allusions to the Hebrew Bible, which ancient audiences would have recognized. However, given that Latter-day Saints hardly finish Isaiah, I’m willing to bet we often miss these allusions and therefore the full meaning of the passages. An excellent example used by Julie was Mark 4 and the calming of the storm. The telling appears to be influenced by the story of Jonah: (1) Takes place in a boat, (2) features a great storm on the waters, (3) the main character is asleep, (4) the other passengers fear for their lives, (5) the main character’s act stops the storm, and (6) the other passengers respond with awe. Original hearers of the story would have recognized the similarities of the two narratives early on and likely expected Jesus as a prophet to get it right (whereas Jonah got it wrong by running from God and his responsibilities). However, the story’s conclusion was even more surprising: Jesus Himself stills the storm by commanding it. The disciples’ question, “What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” allows the audience to reflect as well. It was God who calmed the storm in the time of Jonah’s faltering and it is God who now calms the storm among His disciples’ fear and doubts.
5. Beware of traditions
Mormons tend to assume certain traditions or teachings are scriptural when they are not. Perhaps even worse, they assume traditional readings are the correct ones. One tradition that continually taints our interpretation of scripture revolves around Jesus’ statement, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Matt. 19:24). The “eye of a needle” is usually described as a narrow gate in the city wall of Jerusalem. “It was very difficult,” explains Kevin Barney, “for a camel to pass through this gate. I have heard variations on this explanation; according to one, the camel would have to be unburdened before it could pass through, while according to another, the camel could only pass through on its knees (!). People are very fond of this explanation, but there is one small problem with it: there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that there was such a gate. As Hugh Nibley puts it in his own inimitable way, this gate idea was “invented by an obliging nineteenth-century minister for the comfort of his well-heeled congregation.” See CWHN9:168. This is one of those notions Nibley calls a “para-scripture”: a tale that is widely but wrongly circulated among the Saints as scriptural.” Even the Ensign debunked this idea:
Unfortunately, there are problems with this beautiful explanation. One is that the camel’s anatomy does not permit it to crawl on its knees. More serious, however, is the fact that there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever of the use of such small inset gates in the time of Christ. One may see them today in Jerusalem and Damascus, where the local tour guides will call them by the term “eye of the needle,” but there are no such gates dating prior to the twelfth century A.D. Moreover, the guides have taken the term “eye of the needle” from modern commentators of the Matthew passage and not from an authentic ancient tradition.
The NET Bible commentary concludes, “The eye of a needle refers to a sewing needle. (The gate in Jerusalem known as “The Needle’s Eye” was built during the middle ages and was not in existence in Jesus’ day.) Jesus was saying rhetorically that it is impossible for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom, unless God (v. 26) intervenes.”
6. Use other translations
While Mormons are virtually married to the KJV, Julie suggests that we consult other translations. The poetic and flowery language of the KJV may be beautiful, but it often fails to convey the meaning or tone of the text. The example Julie used was Mark 1:25: “And Jesus rebuked [the spirit], saying, Hold thy peace, and come out of him” (KJV). While recognizing the elegance and sophistication of “Hold thy peace,” Julie explained that this does not convey the rough, slang form of Greek used by the author. Other translations use “Silence!” or “Be quiet!” while adding phrases like:
- “…said Jesus sternly” (NIV).
- “Jesus cut him short…” (NLT).
- “Jesus shut him up…” (MSG).
- “Jesus said to him sharply…” (BBE).
Or, to use Julie’s translation, Jesus told the evil spirit to “Shut up!”
For her, the chosen language demonstrates that Jesus often spoke and acted like the rest of us.
Julie’s presentation is just one more example of why we should be excited for her forthcoming BYU commentary on Mark (or pretty much anything she writes). I hope to someday see her influence trickling into my Sunday School class.
1. See Richard Burridge, “Gospels,” in The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies, ed. J.W. Rogerson, Judith M. Lieu (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).