Reviewed by Kevin L. Barney
I well remember when the BYU Religious Studies Center published The Words of Joseph Smith.1
This was a landmark development in publishing as it relates
to Mormon studies. The Nauvoo discourses of the Prophet Joseph were portrayed
in this volume using modern documentary editing standards so as to re-create
as closely as possible the actual manuscript records of the discourses without
the kind of prettifying (and often misleading, whether or not intentionally)
editing that had been imposed on these sources in some previous publications.
When this book was first published, a reporter asked Hugh Nibley for his reaction,
and I well recall his trenchant one-word response: “Finally!” I
took it from this reaction that Nibley felt that there had long been a need
for such a resource and that Andrew Ehat and Lyndon Cook had done a good job
in preparing and making available that collection of texts.
I have adopted as my title for this review Nibley’s single-word response,
for it represents my own reaction to Jesus Christ and the World of the New Testament
(hereafter World): Finally! At last we have
a one-volume general introduction to the study of the New Testament that is
geared to Latter-day Saint students of scripture—a resource of high
quality and impeccable scholarship that an average Saint might crack open
and actually read. This is no small accomplishment. World fills a need that I have long
felt existed, and I despaired that such a book would ever actually appear.
The authors and Deseret Book are to be congratulated for filling such a long
unmet need so well. I give this volume my highest recommendation.
World succeeds for three fundamental reasons. First, it is graphically
rich. It is a large, beautiful book, suitable for display in the home, brimming
with images of vistas, maps, coins, artifacts, artwork, manuscripts,
inscriptions, photos, and more on almost every page. They say a picture is
worth a thousand words, and the extensive use of such illustrations adds great
value to this book. I believe we all appreciate being taught visually as well
as by the printed word. I have strong scholarly interests, which often means
that I read lengthy works of nothing but text, so I very much appreciated
the generous use of illustrations in World. They made distant history come alive.
Occasionally the images may seem of only tangential relevance to the actual study of the New Testament,
but I certainly support the authors’ commitment to keep the reader visually
engaged. The editors of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies made a similar commitment to
the importance of visual images when they changed from a strictly print format
to today’s visually rich format (modeled after such popular magazines as Biblical Archaeology
Review). As much as I loved the old print-only volumes of the Journal, the visual richness
of the newer style is an improvement that makes the scholarship more accessible to a wider array
of readers. The authors of >World obviously understand this concept
well and have applied it to excellent effect in their introduction to the
Second, this book is very readable. Part of this has to do with the
writing itself. The authors understand that not all of their readers will
be university-level students of scripture, so they have written in a clear
and straightforward manner; but they also credit the reader with basic intelligence
and do not skimp on necessary detail. I thought the tone and level of their
writing were just about perfect. Perhaps of equal importance was the decision
to make frequent use of sidebars to convey additional, more detailed information
on particular individuals, concepts, and issues. Further, the sidebars (with
various captions, such as “Detail,” “Portrait,” and “Legend”)
provide visual relief that makes reading easier, much as paragraph breaks
improve the readability of long prose texts. Trying to incorporate this more
detailed material directly into the text or omitting it altogether would have
been a mistake. Nevertheless, a detailed table of contents listing all of
these sidebars would have been helpful. As an appendix to this review, I have
endeavored to present such a listing, partly as a resource for readers of
the book, but mostly to give the reader of this review some indication of
the fascinating breadth of subjects the authors treat in this way.
Third, this book reflects strong contemporary scholarship. I recently
had lunch with a friend who told me it was his understanding that the authors,
in preparing to write this book, took older Mormon secondary literature and
noted items that needed clarification in light of more modern scripture scholarship.
The results of their study were used to help select topics to address. I do
not in fact know whether this was a part of their methodology, but if so,
the results are excellent. Past Latter-day Saint writers on the Bible have
tended to rely too much on prior Mormon secondary literature. Although there
is much of value in such sources, they are often dated and must be used with
care. A fresh approach is preferable, taking into account the findings of
the best contemporary non-Latter-day Saint scholarship but reading and
applying it through the lens of faith. Latter-day Saints have nothing to fear
from such scholarship, and those who neglect to consult it often miss out
on insights of great importance to the gospel generally and the restoration
specifically. The authors have modeled how to bring to bear strong scholarship
on topics of interest to Latter-day Saint students of the New Testament, a
lesson that may be profitably applied to other areas of scripture study as
I first learned of this book from a positive
review I read on the Mormon blogosphere that began as follows: “It looks
like a coffee table book but it reads like top-notch scholarship. Much to
my surprise, an LDS publisher has brought forth a book on the New Testament
that is well worth owning.”2 This observer, Julie Smith,
is a fine Latter-day Saint New Testament scholar in her own right, so I was certainly
predisposed by her favorable review to like this book, and I was delighted
to find when I actually read the book that my own opinion matched hers.
The book begins with a forty-three-page introduction divided into
three parts: first a lucid introduction to the New Testament itself, and then
surveys of both the Jewish world and the Greek and Roman worlds at the time
of Jesus. To the novice some of this material may seem rather far afield from
the New Testament, but it provides an essential context and background for
understanding the New Testament. Skimping on this context would have been
a mistake, one that our authors fortunately do not make.
I was heartened by the authors’ approach to the Joseph Smith Translation
(pp. 14-15), which was appropriately nuanced and made no claim that
all JST variants reflect restorations of original text, an assumption I have found to be
frustratingly common among Latter-day Saints. The authors allude to ongoing research into the textual
nature of the JST, an effort I applaud. My own (very preliminary) study3
suggested that there are indeed more possible parallels with
ancient texts than previously realized and that some of these may indeed parallel
the original text, but we cannot simply assume as much, for other parallels
may involve nonoriginal variants. This all requires study and argument in
each specific case and cannot be handled with global assumptions across the
board. As with all good textual study, this project needs to be eclectic in
its approach, and I get the impression from the authors’ brief description
that those undertaking this study understand that.
I had to smile at the explanations (p. 31) of
such terms as barbarians, from the Greek barbaros (onomatopoetic
for the Greeks’ perception of the unintelligible speech of foreigners: ba-ba-bar),
and pagans, a word originating as a description of the more religiously conservative
country dwellers, or pagani (the pagi being
countryside districts whose inhabitants tended to hold more closely to the
old religions of Greece and Rome), in contrast to the more sophisticated city
dwellers, or urbani. I first learned about these things as a young
student at Brigham Young University, and for me it was this type of knowledge
that began to make the text come alive.
Some of the correctives to common misunderstandings
broached in this introductory section include an explanation of Herod’s role
as a client-king (and how he astutely managed to protect Jewish interests
vis-Ã -vis Rome), historical problems with the census of Luke 2:1, the relative
benevolence of Rome toward other peoples and their religions, and the need
for a critical eye when using ancient historians such as Josephus.
Like Caesar’s Gaul, the bulk of the book is divided into three parts:
“The World of Jesus’ Ministry” (focused on the Gospels), “The
World of the Apostles’ Early Ministry” (focused on Acts and Paul’s letters),
and “The World of the Apostles’ Later Ministry” (focused on the
general letters, the book of Revelation, and the world immediately following
the New Testament).
Along the way are numerous traps, which our authors carefully avoided.
A few random illustrations: The Gospels were composed in Greek and not translated
from Aramaic (even if the latter position is a popular speculation) (p. 53).
The Aramaic word Abba is best represented as meaning Father, not
Daddy, contra a popular folk etymology that gets wide circulation.4
The “inn” of Luke 2 (katalyma) may have been the guest room of
a house as opposed to any sort of a public inn,5 and 1 BC
is too late for the birth year of Jesus (p. 68). In the expression “an
high mountain apart,” found in the King James Version of Matthew 17:1,
the word apart is an archaic idiom meaning privately and has nothing to do with
a lack of proximity to other mountains (p. 73). The Syriac version of a New Testament text
should not be equated with an original Aramaic version (p. 89). The saying about a camel going through
the eye of a needle has nothing to do with a city gate or a rope (p. 92).
The short ending of Mark was most likely intentional (p. 103). Jesus was not
born on Christmas day (p. 112). Wine in the New Testament does not mean unfermented
grape juice (p. 124). Mary had other children after Jesus (p. 165). We have
no way to be sure whether Paul was married (p. 243). Textual variants make
it likely that at least some scribes perceived the number 666 as Hebrew-based
gematria for Caesar Nero; whether that was the author’s original intention
is a separate question (p. 288).
I found precious little to disagree with in this book, and even when
I did disagree, it was more a matter of what I perceived to be a slightly
misplaced emphasis than out-and-out disagreement. Here I will mention two
examples. First is the discussion of the authorship of Hebrews (pp. 254-57).
While the authors give a fine overview of the evidence, to my taste they seemed
to try too hard to keep off the table the option that Paul was in
no sense the author of Hebrews. Since in my view that is in fact the most likely conclusion,
I would have liked to see the authors gently prepare the reader for such a possibility. It is
fine to discuss the broader ancient conception of authorship inherent in the
auctor (Latin for “author,” deriving from auctoritas “authority”)
of a work, but I would have liked to see the authors go a little bit further with the possibilities
here than they did.
Second is the discussion of John the Baptist on the Mount of Transfiguration
(pp. 73-74). The authors quote JST Mark 9:3 as follows: “And there
appeared unto them Elias with Moses, or in other words, John the Baptist and
Moses.” This text clearly portrays John the Baptist as being on the mount
in lieu of and not in addition to Elijah. But on the next page,
without explanation, the authors represent John the Baptist being on the mount
in addition to both Moses and Elijah. (I certainly agree with their impulse
not to kick Elijah off the mount, which I believe is ultimately the right
call.) The authors appear to be following the conclusory opinion of the Latter-day
Saint Bible Dictionary: “The curious wording of Joseph Smith Translation
Mark 9:3 does not imply that the Elias of the Transfiguration was John the
Baptist, but that in addition to Elijah the prophet, John the Baptist was
present” (s.v. “Elias”). Now, I think that there is a way to
get to where the authors wish to go—to place John the Baptist on the
mount without simultaneously kicking Elijah off—but it is not by simply
misreading the JST emendation as the Bible Dictionary appears to do. Rather,
it is by comparing the episode on the mount with the visionary experience
of Doctrine and Covenants 110, which appears to be directly parallel with
the Mount of Transfiguration. In that passage, both Moses and Elijah appear,
as well as another unidentified “Elias.” I have speculatively argued
that this Elias may have been John the Baptist, based largely on the parallel
with the Mount of Transfiguration.6 But this material is all rather
too difficult and speculative for an introductory text such as World.
Julie Smith, in the course of her otherwise very favorable review,
mentioned four errors or issues with the book that I would like to comment
on. First: “They do seem to have confused red-letter editions of the
Bible with the color-coding system of the Jesus Seminar (see page 87), an
error that I find (please forgive me) delightful.”7
I am not sure that they actually confused the color coding; I think, rather, that they simply
made a little too much of what is intended by the colored font of a red-letter
edition, which is simply trying to highlight for the reader the text that
is spoken by Jesus as portrayed in the given translation, as opposed to making some sort
of affirmative conclusion about the original form of such sayings. The red-letter edition simply
reflects a harmless and possibly helpful editorial device, and nothing more.
Second: “Later, they propose that ‘most conservative specialists
accept Pauline authorship’ (p235) of all the epistles—including Hebrews.
This is simply not true. (This issue doesn’t even pose problems for that most
conservative group of conservatives, the inerrantists, since there is no internal
attestation of Pauline authorship—but there is internal evidence that the
writer was converted in a manner very different from Paul.)”8
Actually, I do not think the authors intended to include Hebrews in this assertion. They
write: “Generally, however, most Latter-day Saint and conservative specialists accept Pauline
authorship of these epistles” (p. 235). I would read the antecedent to
“these epistles” as being the six epistles immediately spoken of
(Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus), and
not inclusive of Hebrews, which had been mentioned earlier in the paragraph
(although the intended scope of the antecedent is somewhat ambiguous). If
we remove Hebrews from consideration, then I do not think the statement is
off base. My lodestar for good, conservative Christian scholarship on the
New Testament is the Dallas Theological Seminary—what some participants
on the B-Greek list (online mailing list for those interested in biblical
Greek) dismissively allude to as “those fundamentalists down in Dallas”—and
while their material is open to the possibility of other authors for these
letters, it does tend to push for Pauline authorship.
Third, Smith observes that
at one point, they dismiss “speculation” that Phebe was a priesthood
holder just because the word diakonos is applied to her (p206)—a somewhat
tenuous position since they have previously held that the word is sometimes used “in the technical
sense” (p10) for a priesthood office. And then in a later reference to
Phebe, they state that diakonos implies that she “held a recognized
ecclesiastical position” (p251).9 If I were
interested in redaction criticism, I might find evidence of multiple authors here, especially since
the same paragraph later notes that Prisca and her husband worked together
“seemingly equally” while the text previously noted that the fact
Prisca’s name is usually mentioned before her husband’s indicates that she
was more prominent than he was (p228).
I agree with Smith that the application of the nontechnical meaning
of diakonos to Phebe in the first instance
seems to be based more on presentist assumption than on any particular analysis
of the text. On the other hand, the book appropriately discloses that both
nontechnical and technical meanings of the word in any given instance are
possible and need to be evaluated, and the authors do seem to portray a more
technical understanding of the term in the later passage Smith references.
Having worked myself on a long New Testament book with two other authors,
I think such differences of perspective are a good thing and are actually
a strength of this volume.10
The only section of the work with serious problems was on “the lost gospels.”
That text states that “a growing number of scholars are advocating that
we replace the New Testament Gospels with some recently discovered texts from
antiquity” (p310). This seems a stretch—especially since they name
the discovery of the Gospel of Judas as one of the events “fueling”
this movement. I don’t know of any non-crackpot who has suggested that a canonical
gospel be replaced by the Gospel of Judas; perhaps it would have been more
accurate to say that some scholars question whether the gospels in the canon
deserve a status any different from the apocryphal gospels. The inexplicable
hostility of this section comes through in other ways as well: Why say that
the Gospel of Philip was “forged” (p311) under his name when the
very same process—when it applies to the Epistle to the Hebrews—is
described as “translat[ing] it or rework[ing] it” (p256).
I suspect that the introductory sentence to this section was influenced
by the overhyped Gospel of Judas, which was much in the news at the time the
authors were finishing this book, and perhaps had more to do with the media
than with responsible scholars. As Smith is quick to urge, and I of course
agree, these kinds of issues are very minor in the context of the book as
a whole. As a reviewer I feel an obligation to point them out, but ultimately
they are trifles.
I also have reviewed two volumes of presentations derived from Sperry symposia,
Sperry Symposium Classics11 and
How the New Testament Came to Be.12 I would analogize
my overarching reaction to these three recent books on the New Testament to
the linguistic degrees of an adjective. Classics is the
positive: good. Came to Be is the comparative: better.
And World is the superlative: best.
In conclusion, this book is simply a stunning achievement in Mormon
publishing, and every Latter-day Saint with an interest in the New Testament,
which should indeed be every Latter-day Saint, should purchase and read this book.
1. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., The Words
of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the
Prophet Joseph (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1980).
2. Julie M. Smith, “Book Review: Jesus Christ
and the World of the New Testament,” Times and Seasons, http://www.timesandseasons.org/?p=3501
(accessed 29 November 2007).
3. “The Joseph Smith Translation and Ancient
Texts of the Bible,” Dialogue 19/3 (1986): 85-102.
I wrote this article long before the publication of the critical text of the
Joseph Smith Translation (Scott H. Faulring, Kent P. Jackson, Robert J. Matthews,
eds., Joseph Smith’s New Translation of the Bible: Original Manuscripts
[Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 2004]), and I made no attempt at a systematic
approach to the variants, simply picking some of the low-hanging fruit. The study that the authors allude
to should rectify these limitations in my own early work.
4. See Kevin L. Barney, “Who’s Your Daddy?”
By Common Consent, http://www.bycommonconsent.com/2007/02/whos-your-daddy (accessed 30 November 2007).
5. On page 109 the authors note that the JST renders a plural
inns, thus interpreting the concept as one involving public accommodations.
6. See Kevin L. Barney, “Who was the Elias of D&C
110?” By Common Consent http://www.bycommonconsent.com/2006/03/who-was-the-elias-of-dc-110
(accessed 16 June 2007).
7. Smith, “Book Review: Jesus Christ and the World
of the New Testament.”
8. Smith, “Book Review: Jesus Christ and the World
of the New Testament.”
9. At this point
Smith gives the following footnote: “I imagine that they would explain
this by noting the difference between ‘an ecclesiastical position’ and ‘a
priesthood office’ and I have no problem with this as long as they acknowledge
that it is eisegesis and not exegesis.”
10. As I wrote in the preface to Footnotes to the
New Testament for Latter-day Saints (privately published and available
in various formats at http://feastupontheword.org/Site:NTFootnotes), 1:iv:
“The reader may also note occasional differences in positions taken by
the different contributors [Kevin L. Barney, John H. Jenkins, and John A.
Tvedtnes]. To one unaccustomed to the ways of scholarship, this may seem unusual,
but it is really quite normal. Even faithful, committed Latter-day Saint scholars
sometimes disagree about this or that detail, and the contributors to this
volume are no exception.”
11. Frank F. Judd Jr. and Gaye Strathearn, eds., Sperry
Symposium Classics: The New Testament (Provo, UT: BYU Religious
Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2006).
12. Kent P. Jackson and Frank F. Judd Jr., eds., How
the New Testament Came to Be: The 35th Annual Brigham Young University Sidney
B. Sperry Symposium (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center; Salt
Lake City: Deseret Book, 2006).