Respected LDS writers and scholars obviously anticipated this year’s church-wide study of the New Testament. Commentaries are unusually plentiful. They are fresh in subject matter, engaging, and largely focused upon the New Testament world – its culture, people of influence, the written records and their original sources or authors. It has been my experience that an examination of these things leads us into deeper comprehension of Jesus and the reach of His earthly ministry.
In January I reviewed five commentaries – some for individual study, others for family study – all useful aids for Gospel Doctrine and Sunday school teachers. To read more about these books, click here.
This month, I offer five new books for your perusal. The books highlighted in this review are informative and stimulating, but I would not classify them as easy reading. They are dense, rich with textual analysis, and scrupulous in their approach to the study of New Testament scripture.
Although these books may appeal to a more narrow audience, I hope something below will spark your quest to glean more from the recorded teachings of Christ. Perhaps you will come to better know the writers of the New Testament, as I did, by availing yourself to what these authors have to say.
Richard Neitzel Holzapfel and Thomas Wayment taught that New Testament writers “tried to capture in print the greatness and majesty of Jesus Christ. Some knew Him personally, and others knew Him through the Spirit and testimony of others.” The following books open the door for us, as readers, to thoroughly examine the testimonies of others, and in turn, strengthen our relationship with the Savior of all mankind.
This book is the most accessible of the five I will review. A disciplined explanation of the parables of Christ, it is genuinely instructive and insightful. Parry and Parry take each of Christ’s parables, dissect it, offer interpretation, then suggest ideas for personal application. They begin by quoting President Hunter – “There is nothing in all literature equal to the parables of Christ” (ix).
President Hunter continues:
Jesus’ parables are significant because they address both the unbelieving and the faithful at the same time … His parables are universal in their application – they reach across time, borders, and boundaries so that all people of all eras, regardless of their geographical locale, profit from their teachings. His parables are simple and profound at the same time … One need not be a Christian to appreciate the value of Jesus Christ’s parables; people of all faiths may benefit from them (ix).
Authors instruct the reader in the characteristics of Christ’s parables. These are traits that most, if not all, the parables possess. For example, Christ’s parables are based on commonplace events. They are very short stories and thus designed to hold one’s attention. They have a point of comparison. They feature symbolic elements and are often associated with Old Testament images. They teach gospel principles, conform to established truths and appeal to people of all ages of the world. They do not have geographical boundaries. They contain multiple levels of meaning and are intentionally open-ended. Jesus taught in “veiled meanings” to protect himself, to show mercy to the unbelievers, and to conceal truth from the spiritually unprepared.
Considering this parabolic mode, Parry and Parry write, “In the end, biblical commentators can reveal only limited levels of meaning to the reader. It is the individual’s responsibility to more fully grasp the parable’s meaning and to apply it. As in all gospel study, understanding the parables and their application depends on our level of personal spiritual preparedness” (xx).
Each chapter addresses one parable. For instance, Chapter 1 discusses The Sower and The Soils. A reading of the biblical text is provided, followed by commentary, and then ideas for personal application. Here is part of the commentary taken from Chapter 1:
Sowing in Palestine was typically done in the fall, often in October, which may have been when this parable was uttered. The farmer would carry his seeds in a bag and would scatter them by hand, flinging them in every direction. Because of this method of sowing, the seed would fall on all kinds of ground … All of this, of course, was used as a metaphor for life …The seed was the word of God, sent forth by Christ and carried by his servants while the soils represented the different state of the hearts of men (2).
The fact that Parry and Parry don’t expect readers to lazily accept their interpretations and move on is appreciated. They remind readers that parables are most valuable when applied personally after exertion and spiritual preparation. This book made me realize how powerful the parables really are – how divinely layered their meanings. Only a God could teach in such a widely applicable way. This is a fantastic book for both teacher and student.
This was the topic for the 2006 Sidney B. Sperry Symposium, held annually in honor of Sidney B. Sperry – revered Latter-day Saint scripture scholar. Each year this symposium seeks to examine an aspect of the Church’s religious and scriptural heritage. In this volume, authors explore the New Testament’s origin and ancient scriptural evidence on a variety of related topics.
Kent P. Jackson and Frank F. Judd Jr., who wrote the introduction, admit that the New Testament (unlike the Book of Mormon) presents us with many questions. “The New Testament’s early history is in large part unknown. We do not know, for example, when, and under what circumstances, many of the documents were written” (viii).
They explain that this book does not deal with the life of Christ or how to become better disciples (topics they believe are of the greatest worth). This book, instead, focuses on authors and manuscripts. “Topics include writing in the ancient world, the work of scribes, the authorship of New Testament books, the occasions for and dating of individual New Testament books, the earliest ancient manuscripts, New Testament textual criticism, the development of the New Testament canon, and contributions of Joseph Smith to our understanding of the New Treatment” (viii).
The first contributor is Alexander B. Morrison, “whose chapter poses questions and points out uncertainties while at the same time reaffirming the importance of faith and revelation” (ix). Morrison’s chapter begins the book, and subsequent chapters build on themes he introduces.
Below are three excerpts from some of my favorite chapters.
In his chapter titled “Plain and Precious Things”, Morrison writes about authorship of the four Gospels, “Whatever the reasons they were written, the four Gospels are, by no means, the unchanged and unadulterated words of biographers or stenographers who followed Jesus around and recorded His utterances verbatim. They probably began, in common with other ancient scriptures, as oral traditions – collections of reminiscences, stories, proverbs and anecdotes” (3).
Gaye Strathearn’s chapter on “Matthew as an Editor” provides a smart look at the gospel of Matthew. “Modern readers can learn much from this Gospel by examining what Matthew chose to include and how he chose to write it. This concept is not unfamiliar to Latter-day Saints. The Book of Mormon shows clear evidence that both Mormon and Moroni actively edited the texts that they had before them and inserted their voices into them … Elder Gene R. Cook has taught that readers can gain significant insights when they look for editorial phrases such as, and thus we see’, that alert the reader to the reason why the editor included particular passages. As we approach Matthew’s Gospel from this editorial perspective we should note that while it is true that, as one of the Apostles, Matthew would have been present at many of the events during Jesus’ ministry, it is also clear that he used a number of oral and written sources to compile his Gospel. In many respects, Matthew was in a similar position to that of Mormon and Moroni, collecting and editing material in order to create a specific message about Jesus Christ for his audience. Part of that message, however, can be lost to the reader if he or she is not aware of the editorial nuances of the text” (141-142).
Considering Joseph Smith and the New Testament, Robert J. Matthews offers this comparison of Joseph to the Lord’s early Apostles. “The established order of the Lord’s church and kingdom is that men do not appoint themselves but must be called of God by revelation, and they speak as moved by the Holy Ghost. Further, the nature of the heavenly plan is that it can be understood only through the aid of the Holy Ghost, and the ordinances of salvation can be administered only by the authority of the holy priesthood. New Testament Apostles and prophets had the necessary qualifications and were ‘insiders.’ Joseph Smith had the same qualifications from the same Lord Jesus and he was at least of the same stature as they. As such, he had an edge in relating to the New Testament writers, especially since he had been visited by some of them. He was an insider.'” (305-306).
Some of the other topics addressed during the symposium consider first-century sources on the life of Jesus, the bread of life discourse as dialogue, implications for the Pauline epistles, Paul’s use of Old Testament scripture, authorship of the Epistle to the Hebrews, and an approach to studying New Testament apocrypha. These essays are nitty-gritty, analytical, and at least for me – slow reading. But for an earnest student of ancient scripture, it is a discerning, even enjoyable collection.
The following three books construct a meticulous treatise on the life of Christ. Several years ago, I reviewed the first of these volumes, From the Last Supper through the Resurrection. Surprisingly, the series was not published in chronological order. Volume 3 was published first, followed by Volume 1, then Volume 2. To read a comprehensive review of Volume 3, click here.
I highly recommend these books for several reasons. First, Holzapfel and Wayment have made great effort to produce a work of scholarly discussion that includes a variety of well-known authors on a multitude of topics. In many cases, areas of intense debate are discussed with an attempt to accurately present both sides of the argument. Light shed from Restoration knowledge is also included – thus providing readers with an informed, yet illuminated perspective. Thus, Holzapfel and Wayment successfully encourage readers to consider new ways of examining Christ’s ministry and gain a more complete view of events as they actually transpired.
Second, the editor’s have sought to expose LDS readers to Christian terminology used by the general Christian population. This is brilliant and necessary if we are to create more meaningful dialogue between Latter-day Saints and the rest of the Christian world. Holzapfel and Wayment remind us of what President Spencer W. Kimball once suggested, “We must speak with the language of scholarship and faith” if we are ever to achieve the goals the Lord has set before us.
Third, this series has been considered one of the most ambitious projects on the life of the Savior, and I agree. Holzapfel and Wayment describe it as a “result of our passionate interest in the greatest of all lives.” Each volume allows the reader an intimate journey into the life of Christ. Their hope is to help readers not only realize the value of walking mentally where Jesus walked but also, to realize the importance of “walking as Jesus walked.”
The Life and Teachings of Jesus Christ (Volume 1)
From Bethlehem through the Sermon on the Mount
By Richard Neitzel Holzapfel and Thomas A. Wayment
When was Jesus born? What was His childhood like? How did His ministry begin? And what is the significance of the Sermon on the Mount? Holzapfel and Wayment answer these questions in Volume 1. New explanations provide readers with an enhanced understanding of the birth, life and ministry of Jesus Christ. The authors hope readers will begin a “sacred journey” here “along the dusty paths and roads, through the valleys and wilderness, into the villages and towns of first-century Jewish Palestine – a land made holy by the presence of God’s own Son” (xiv).
This volume is intended to help readers understand how influential Christ’s teachings really are. “Unlike the period of Jesus’ birth, which tells us who Jesus was, and the period of His arrest, trial, crucifixion, and Resurrection, which tells us what He did – the Atonement – the mortal ministry is where we learn what type of teacher Jesus was, how He interacted with His own family, how the disciples cam to understand Him, and other important insights into how Jesus lived” (1).
Topics include how the disciples became Apostles, the experiences of Peter, James, and John on the Mount of Transfiguration, the arrest, imprisonment, and death of John the Baptist and its ramifications for the ministry of Jesus, the parables of Jesus and how they fit into the context of his ministry, the Bread of Life Discourse, and how opinions about Jesus changed over time.
Again, this series is exceptionally wonderful for personal study, but would also be a tremendous aid for any New Testament teacher.