Title: Making Sense of the New Testament: Timely Insights and Timeless Messages
Authors: Richard Neitzel Holzapfel and Thomas A. Wayment
Publisher: Deseret Book
Genre: Bible Criticism/Interpretation
Pages: 582, includes bibliographical references and index
Deseret Book tends to publish books like this each year when the Sunday School focus switches to a new part of the LDS canon. I was previously impressed by Steven Harper’s Making Sense of the Doctrine and Covenants so I expected a lot from this new incarnation on the same theme for the NT. My excitement increased when I discovered the authors were Thomas Wayment and Richard Holzapfel. A few years ago these same authors (plus Eric Huntsman) helped produce the most excellent Jesus Christ and the World of the New Testament: An Illustrated Reference for Latter-day Saints. That book is probably the best book on the NT from an LDS perspective that Deseret Book has ever published. Unfortunately, this book feels like a step back from that volume.
Other authors have written books on the NT geared to “help Saints apply the scriptures to their lives by making the [New Testament] relevant and meaningful.” In contrast, the authors of this book want to focus “our Restoration perspective on the New Testament” by using different tools and resources to uncover interesting “historical, cultural, and linguistic insights” (4-5). This is a welcome approach and the book contains many insights which will undoubtedly be interesting and new to many Latter-day Saints. Nevertheless, I believe the negatives in the volume outweigh the positives. It reads like an extended commentary of vaguely-chronologically organized stories from the NT. At times it reads more like a terse rephrasing of the text without any interpretation or exploration (this increases toward the end of the book; by the time they get to the Revelation of St. John they seem to spend more time rephrasing than explaining). For Latter-day Saints who don’t wish to wade through this plodding review I can recommend an alternate book on the NT for LDS readers by the same authors (plus Eric Huntsman): Jesus Christ and the World of the New Testament: An Illustrated Reference for Latter-day Saints.
The authors use creative means to introduce Latter-day Saints to some potentially difficult aspects of New Testament scholarship. For instance, they compare some of the historical/didactic aspects of John’s gospel to the depiction of the editing of the Book of Mormon. “Like Mormon, when he edited the stories and sermons…and then interjected himself into the story (for example, Helaman 12:1), our author has likely pulled together some primary sources about the event recorded here, but has also taken an opportunity to make an observation about the significance of the story” (43). This helps prepare readers for alternate authorship possibilities, although they often side with the authorship as currently understood in the LDS KJV.
Their occasional soft debunkings are interesting, as when they discuss Golgotha: “The visual image of a ‘green hill’ is not based on the text. Rather, it is a notion popularized in a beautiful and reverential hymn written in the nineteenth century by Cecil Frances Alexander: the terrain surrounding the city of Jerusalem is in fact stony and hard” (247). Some readers may be surprised at the suggestion that the issue of celibacy in 1 Corinthians 7 may have been prompted by “assumptions regarding the marital status of Jesus or his disciples” (351), and when they remain silent about the identity of the bridegroom at the wedding at Cana in John 2 (35-37). In many cases the authors seem to uncritically use the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible to resolve contradictions, as when two differing accounts of the death of Judas in the NT are “harmonized” by the JST (241), implying that the harmonization fits best. In another instance, however, the authors distinguish Joseph Smith’s unusual use of Paul’s “terrestrial” and “celestial” bodies. Whereas Joseph Smith revealed new doctrinal insights using these verses, Paul only revealed “as much as he knew.” Rather than discussing post-mortal degrees of glory, he was distinguishing between earthly bodies (terrestrial) and glorious resurrected (celestial) bodies (365).
The authors make use of their knowledge of Greek to clarify some passages in interesting ways. The “many mansions” in Jesus’s Father’s house are better translated as “many rooms,” “(Greek, monai, or ‘rooms’), indicating close dwelling conditions and not separate dwellings” (215). They even occasionally, though not often enough for my taste, cite other Bible translations (RSV, NRSV, NIV, TNIV, and NJB, see 216).
Perhaps my favorite part of the book is found at the end of the discussion about Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane as depicted by Luke:
“Interestingly, the Gospels do not emphasize the weight of sin in the garden or the weight of fallen humanity bearing down on Jesus. They do not name the angel who appeared in Gethsemane or give his presence any cosmic significance. Rather, they teach of a more personal struggle filled with anguishing decisions” (230).
The book lacks a quality scholarly apparatus. A few in-text references are given, all but one (298) refer to LDS General Authorities (135, 225). Several places cry out for a footnote or reference (“One study demonstrates that the Father is the subject of less than .02 percent of Mark’s Gospel,” 126-127; “It has been observed that this statement is one of the best-documented sayings of Jesus,” 184, etc.). I assume Deseret Book prefers the footnote-less style to reach a broad range of readers, but it seems to me there are better ways to make a book accessible, by including endnotes rather than footnotes for instance. Besides, what’s wrong with a book that requires readers to reach a little further? This becomes more problematic in considering that the book has a few pretty questionable interpretations and a few puzzling errors. I have divided the negatives into three categories which I’ll discuss in turn: Redaction, Likening, and Editing.
I’m not a New Testament or biblical scholar, but I’ve read enough enjoyable books on the subject to get a feel for the sort of approach I most enjoy. A close reading of the NT reveals interesting seams, gaps and contradictions which, under close scrutiny, can reveal fascinating insights. The contradicting genealogies of Jesus given by Matthew and Luke respectively provide the authors with a great “pressing textual difficulty”right out of the gate (10). Matthew’s seems more “stylized,” and geared to establish royalty and to contrast the prestigious ancestors with the humble circumstances of Jesus’s birth. Luke, they note, seems more literal, attempting to trace Jesus’s line through Joseph back to Adam, “the father of all mankind, including Gentiles” (11). Implications these differences might hold for the overall accuracy of the accounts are not addressed, however, and in many cases such implications are unfortunately overlooked (see for example 94, 116, 97, 118).
When Latter-day Saints encounter such discrepancies they might fall back on the Article of Faith which states that the Bible should be believed “as far as it is translated correctly.” The authors try to account for variants in the texts (discrepancies among NT manuscripts, etc.) without damning those who may have caused such variants; indeed: “Only a few of the variants that survive can be ascribed to malicious scribal intent” (10). But which ones and on what grounds? The authors are clearly familiar with various criteria employed by many NT scholars in weighing the accuracy or meaning of the text (such as evidence of borrowing, 116, embarrassment, 207, emphasis on issues of interest to later Christians, 137, oral tradition, 159, etc.) but they do not give the reader a sustained explanation of how to best discern or handle variants or discrepancies in a sustained way. They more often tell what to see rather than show how to look; they do not teach readers to read.
In terms of the authorship of various Pauline epistles, the authors are quite conservative. Their presumptions are evident in the prose, my responses in brackets:
“Many scholars have questioned the authenticity of these three epistles [1, 2 Timothy; Titus], and indeed Paul does discuss matters in them that are not dealt with in his previous epistles ["his previous" already assumes Paul wrote them]. As with many academic theories [!] there is no way to either prove or disprove the authenticity of the epistles [this statement assumes that in matters of textual criticism "proof" is the key. I believe responsible approaches to the text aren't after "proof." Instead, scholars seek to build a case based on specific evidence and plausibility. Such writers would attempt to provide stated criteria and include a bit of epistemic humility in their conclusions, building a most plausible case.]. Following the tradition of the Church [which Church?] from earliest times, there is no compelling reason to dismiss these epistles as forgeries [are there "plausible" reasons?], while at the same time it is wise to recognize that they do address matters that are not found in the other Pauline letters” (427).
Here the authors miss another opportunity to teach us how to approach different views of the text. What reasons are given for disputing Pauline authorship? Why are they rejected? What are the methods and presuppositions which lead to such conclusions?
Overall, the speed and scope of the book virtually require the authors to quickly slice through some of the most hotly contested issues in New Testament higher criticism including the relationship between Jesus and the Law of Moses, the foreknowledge of God and biblical prophecy, the acceptability of chronologizing or harmonizing the NT, Jesus’s views on end times, the meaning of “the Rock” (Peter, revelation?), early Church structure and priesthood governance, women in the church, Sabbath laws and healing, the identity of the beloved disciple, the identity of author of Rev. and the epistles attributed to John, the apostasy, and many other topics.
Latter-day Saints can justifiably read the Bible through an LDS lens. I’ve argued elsewhere that care should be taken when quoting proof-texts from the Bible to authenticate current Latter-day Saint doctrines. While believers can reasonably liken scriptures unto themselves (as per 1 Nephi 19:23), I believe it is also important to understand texts in their own context, which is not always the same as what LDS today believe. At times the authors of the book slip into LDS terminology which might give the impression that the early Church was more “Mormon” than was likely the case. The apostle Peter is referred to as the “president” of the Church, for instance (275). The early Church is said to have practiced the “law of consecration” (76, 280), priesthood “offices” like the Seventy are described (140), words like “excommunication,” “sacrament meeting,” “the word of wisdom,” “Zion,” and “family unit” are used in reference to early parallels (37, 98, 350, 399-400, 405). Rather than reading current practices back onto the NT text, Latter-day Saints might profit more from discovering some of the interesting and culturally-bound distinctions. Overall, I believe Latter-day Saints would do well to become better acquainted with how fellow Christians use the Bible.
Structurally, the book lists stories from the New Testament in a vague chronological order. The authors do not openly attempt to harmonize or give an exact chronology of the NT, but the order of the book implies a chronology. This is problematic in light of current views that the Gospels are not intended as a chronological account. (Nor are the epistles in chronological order, which the authors do make explicit.) An “Index of Stories in the Gospels” is provided. It lists the order of the stories as discussed in the text in chart form and includes the relevant NT passages. The chart lacks page numbers, however, making it difficult to quickly locate isolated stories, or to work from the NT back to the book. (Similarly, one section instructs readers to “See Matthew 9:27-31 for commentary,” but provides no page number (176).
There are a few editing issues where it seems an extended discussion was excised, leaving vestigial remnants. Consider this cryptic excerpt from a section titled “The Rich Young Ruler”:
“[Following Jesus's exchange with the rich young ruler] Jesus remarks to his disciples, “For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25). Contextually, from the disciples’ reaction, it appears that they found the statement shocking and not easily understood because they knew of no such gate in the city wall…If salvation were as difficult (or seemingly impossible) to achieve as the act of literally pressing a camel through the eye of a needle, is salvation even possible?” (169).
The authors appear to be trying to debunk the idea that Jesus was referring to a gate in the wall of Jerusalem where camels would have to unload their cargo in order to pass through; something I recall hearing in various Sunday School lessons or perhaps in seminary. But here the idea of a gate appears from nowhere and then goes nowhere. “No such gate” hangs in the breeze.
Smaller editing problems crop up every now and then: “The puzzle that confronts anyone who is interested in dealing with composition issues is challenging. Unless the original letter(s) is found we will most likely never be unable to answer these questions with any kind of certainty” (emphasis added, 369).
In short: there was probably more I disliked than liked in the book, although I recognize that many matters of interpretation are quite subjective. But that is precisely why my biggest complaint about the book is that it offers no clear way for readers to understand how its particular conclusions were reached, nor does it contain any discussion on how to personally become a more discerning reader of the NT text.
Suffice it to say that I very strongly recommend their earlier book, Jesus Christ and the World of the New Testament: An Illustrated Reference for Latter-day Saints, and their Old Testament volume on the same theme, instead of this one, which seems like a missed opportunity. Two steps forward, one step back. (We still end up ahead!)