Toward Becoming a Gospel Scholar
There are many kinds of good questions that compare, contrast, distinguish, or combine. Some questions ask for comparisons. How is the book of Alma different from the book of Mosiah? How is the purpose of the gospel of Luke different from that of the gospel of John? How do the three accounts of Alma's conversion in Mosiah 27, Alma 36, and Alma 38 differ from each other? Others ask for similarities. In what ways were Joseph Smith and the apostle Paul parallel prophets? How are Lehi's dream in 1 Nephi 8 and Nephi's vision in 1 Nephi 1114 the same?
Good questions usually ask and call for detailed descriptions and specific responses. What can we say, definitely and precisely, about the church in the days of Alma the Elder? What kind of church community was assumed by the New Testament epistle of James?
Good questions are interested not only in a static description of the way things "are," but also how things have "changed." Can we describe the continuum and transitions involved in moving from one stage to another? What challenges did Peter face in taking the early Christian Church from being a group of Jewish converts to becoming a Church for every nation, kindred, tongue, and people?
Good questions help people to see insights that they had not seen before. They offer explanations. They help people unpack the complexity of textual material. They make obscure materials clear.
They do these things by helping us to paint a more complete picture of the events described in the scriptures. Good questions help us focus on the significance of individual details previously overlooked; they help us see causal connections, how one thing led to another, or how events could have been otherwise. Good questions lead to explanations of strange oddities. For example, why would the Jews in Jerusalem think that Jesus was "a Samaritan"? (John 8:48) Is it significant that in Hebrew, the word for Samaritan and a word that means "to be a shepherd" are quite similar (see Hosea 12:12)? When Jesus then says, "I am the good shepherd," is this somehow related to the idea that Jesus was casting himself as the good Samaritan?
Of course, questions can be asked endlessly. Sometimes they become pointless and merely bothersome. Sometimes they are responding only to trendy concerns that happen to be of current interest because people are somehow "into" that particular issue. Other times, they will strike pay dirt in an eternal vein of lasting value.
In any event, a good question will be relevant to something important. It will be a live question, one that people would care about, would like to know an answer to, would be willing to spend time and resources to actually know about, and for which one would be willing to accept the outcome. When relevant needs arise, it is interesting to see how quickly certain questions move to the top of our interest list. Most people would be bored by a lecture explaining how to change a tire, until they are standing on the side of the freeway with a flat tire trying to solve an urgent problem. Newly called Church leaders suddenly take a much greater interest than they had before in understanding Jesus' New Testament teachings regarding leadership, finding in the Savior's instructions to his apostles in Matthew 17:20 an unparalleled collection of leadership principles, perhaps the earliest Christian handbook of instructions.
A gospel scholar asks sincerely, "Why am I truly interested in this question?" A gospel scholar is different from other scholars primarily because a gospel scholar has gospel scholar goals in mind, wanting to use research knowledge in teaching, guiding, counseling, protecting, persuading, gently entreating, and helping others in making correct choices. Knowing how to use the right scripture, at the right time, in the right way, is no simple task. It comes from thoughtful study and experience with application goals in mind.