With 2007 upon us, members of the Church worldwide are commencing a study of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ found within the pages of the New Testament.  How thrilling to anticipate a year of concentrated reflection upon the Lord’s ways and words. 

In a verse-by-verse commentary on the New Testament, Andrew C. Skinner reminds us of St. Augustine’s feelings about Christ when Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”  Skinner observes, “When I am not immersed in studying the Savior’s life and ministry I feel restless, like I am not quite doing the things that matter most” (Ogden and Skinner, Verse by Verse the Four Gospels, p. vii).

And so within our reach this year is the opportunity to feel, apply, embrace, and place within us those things that matter most – the timeless teachings of the Master himself.

Below are several study guides that will assist you in your quest to glean more from the New Testament.  Most will be helpful to Gospel Doctrine and Sunday School Teachers.  Some are designed to help families study the New Testament together.  Others are for the serious scriptural student who wants to know more, dig deeper, and find new light while reading and pondering.

LDS gospel scholars have outdone themselves this year with an unusually large number of doctrinal commentaries, including books on the political and cultural climate of the New Testament, a disciplined study of the parables of the Savior, a book on how the New Testament came to be, and another on the 500 years lost between the Old and New Testament.

As a result, we will run a follow-up article in February to review several other books, not included in this review, to enhance your study experience.

The New Testament for Latter-day Saint Families by Thomas R. Valletta

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families546546This crisp, hardbound book is an illustrated King James Version of the New Testament.  It was designed especially for families with young readers and is meant to help children read, understand, and think about the scriptures in exciting new ways.  It includes special study helps for children, maps, diagrams, and photographs of actual places.

Words that might be hard to understand are color-coded in blue and defined in simpler terms at the bottom of the page.  When appropriate, cross-references and quotes from general authorities are also cited, and at the back of the book you will find a glossary and pronunciation guide.

Each book of the New Testament begins with an introductory paragraph that provides an overview of the book, its author, context, and purpose.  Additionally, each chapter begins with a paragraph that offers suggestions regarding important things to look for while reading.

This is one of four hardbound books Valletta and his staff of editors have created to make a study of the entire standard works family-friendly.  I actually used Valetta’s Old Testament for LDS Families to supplement my daily personal study during 2006, even though I can’t technically classify myself as a “young reader.”  Despite some simplicity, the introductory paragraphs, maps, and quotes from modern-day prophets made my study much more full.  We will be using the New Testament version this year to complement our family study.  I can highly recommend Valletta’s New Testament for LDS Families if you are attempting family scripture study of the New Testament.  You can’t go wrong with this one!

Scripture Study for Latter-day Saint Families – The New Testament by Dennis H. Leavitt and Richard O. Christensen

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Sounds similar to the book above, right?  Well, here are the differences.  Leavitt and Christensen have created this book purely as a study guide.  It is not a version of the New Testament like Valletta’s.  It does not include illustrations or the actual text of the New Testament.  It is softbound and obviously cheaper, and is meant to be used as a resource for families. 

The authors have written, “Do not feel obligated to use every lesson.  Think of the book as a buffet of scripture-teaching ideas from which you may pick and choose as part of your daily scripture diet.  Simply review the material for the chapter or verses you are studying and, with the aid of the spirit, select those teaching ideas you feel will be most helpful to your family” (2).

While thumbing through the book and reading some of the lessons, I immediately thought it would be great for Family Home Evenings or a more lively scripture study.This isn’t the “crawl out of bed, read a few verses together with minimal discussion then get the kids off to school” book.  It could be watered down to accomplish that purpose, but because the lessons are fun, new, and loaded with great ideas that require some preparation, families would be better served by utilizing it during a designated study time or Family Home Evening.

Here is one example from the lesson on Matthew 3 – when Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist.  “Come to scripture study dressed in shorts, a towel (wrapped around your waist), and bare feet saying, Prepare ye the way of the Lord.’ Also bring a container of honey and a picture of grasshoppers placed on a plate.  Ask your family to scan Matthew 3:1-6 and find answers to the following questions:  Who am I?  Why do you think I am dressed this way?  How do you like my diet?  What is my mission?” (7). 

Not all lessons require an affinity for acting – this is just one example.  There are object lessons, games to play, supplemental stories, and a variety of activities.  Basically, this book is your key to making scriptures study fun, adventurous, and memorable.  It may even provide your family with some good laughs.  I say, use this study help and enjoy!

Jesus Christ and the World of the New Testament by Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, Eric D. Huntsman, and Thomas A. Wayment

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This beautiful, detailed, and exceptionally instructive book stands apart as my favorite New Testament study help this year.  Reading it has been a journey of its own – a breathtaking walk in the world of the New Testament, as the title appropriately implies.  It has been over 10 years since I studied with BYU in the Holy Land.  To “return” there in this way and learn even more about the people, history, and languages of the Middle East was extremely renewing for me.

The book is nice enough to decorate a living room table, but far too compelling to be left there unopened!  It is a comprehensive, authoritative visual reference guide to New Testament culture, language, history, and teachings.

Because the modern world of the Holy Land, along with its ancient underworld of the New Testament, is vastly different from our own, understanding that world can help us place the life and teachings of Jesus in context.

  The authors write, “Jesus Christ lived in a society in many ways different from our own – where certain long traditions existed and where societal norms shaped the ways his audience saw the world around them … Attempting to immerse ourselves in the Savior’s world as much as possible may provide additional insight as we become familiar with the manner of writing and know more about the history and culture of the authors and original audiences” (1).

Holzapfel, Huntsman, and Wayment are expertly trained in biblical languages, history, customs, geography, archaeology, and ancient scripture.  Their combined scholarship provides essential background and tools to help students of the New Testament understand the scriptures more fully.

The book begins by describing the Jewish, Greek, and Roman worlds of first century A.D., connecting the New and Old Testaments by discussing events that intervened between the two divisions of the Bible.  Subsequent chapters address questions of authorship, composition dates, and audiences of the books of the New Testament. 

Included is a discussion of how each author sought to share his testimony of Christ and teach His basic doctrines.  Inset boxes provide “portraits” about key figures, allowing scripture to come to life through the personalities of its characters.  Legend boxes are also provided to give readers information about people, places, and events that formed a second layer of tradition around the world of Jesus.

Although the book addresses more than 300 topics, it also answers questions for which evidence has only recently been discovered.  Ancient myths, controversial legends, and “lost” scripture, including rare images of the Gospel of Judas, are included.

This is a detailed written narrative, augmented by original artwork, photographs of artifacts, maps, timelines, and stunning photography of the Holy Land.

The opening chapter provides a crash course on ancient scripture terms used, such as apocrypha, tetragrammation, targums, eschatology, and synoptic.  If any of this is piquing your interest, you should know, those are the more familiar terms.  The sheer amount of information offered is extremely impressive.

Jesus Christ and the World of the New Testament brings the New Testament to life.  It helps readers understand the origins of the books of the New Testament, how Christ’s teachings were preserved, how different cultures influenced the gospel record, and how the role of women and family added value to daily life and New Testament events.  It also depicts cultural clashes, religious conflicts, and political quarrels that shaped the world of Christ and influenced our modern world.

The three coauthors remind their readers that “learning about the New Testament is second only to learning from the New Testament” (1).  With this clarity of purpose restated, they encourage New Testament students to “seek learning by study as well as by faith” (DC 88:118) and to “become acquainted with all good books … languages, tongues, and people” (DC 90:15). 

Verse By Verse – The Four Gospels and Verse By Verse – Acts Through Revelation by D. Kelly Ogden and Andrew C. Skinner

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Ogden and Skinner offer excellent advice in the introductory section of their first book regarding how to get the most out of one’s scripture study, while using a companion volume such as theirs.  They remind us first and foremost, “to study the scriptures – the Lord’s words,” then “use this supplementary text as a tool to … understand the primary source of knowledge and inspiration” (7).  

They encourage the use of all senses during study, reading aloud sometimes, keeping a pen handy, recording impressions, beginning study with prayer, not letting repetition bother us, seeking additional knowledge in the temple, and trying to avoid schedules and time quotas that may restrict our study, and in turn, inhibit the Spirit.

The authors have divided their New Testament commentary into two books. The first focuses on the four Gospels and what they can tell us about the life and teachings of Christ that is pertinent to us today.  The second book focuses on Acts through Revelation.  Format for each book is generally the same.  Events, topics, happenings are addressed in harmony.  For instance, if you want to read about the Sermon on the Mount you will find a discussion of those verses not only from Matthew 5, but also from Luke 6 and 3 Nephi. 

Their commentary is insightful and personal, sometimes with personal accounts from journals or other observations made while studying in the Holy Land.  Cross-references are plentiful and complimented by quotes and teachings from modern day prophets.  Illumination from the Joseph Smith Translation is also included while chapters are enhanced with photographs, charts, and diagrams.

I found the books to be extremely comprehensive, useful, and easy to read.  Here is a taste of what you will find.

The four Gospels, or the good news written by the four authors, are testimonies, not histories, or biographies.  There is no substitute for these records written by the Savior’s contemporaries.  Three of the four (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are often called Synoptic Gospels, because they are written from the same point of view – with parallel accounts … of teachings, parables, miracles, and events in Jesus’ life.  John’s testimony, on the other hand, is less concerned with reporting the stories and experiences (for example, there are no parables in John) than in recording the deep doctrines of the Savior” (27).

And from the preface of their second book of commentary:

The books of Acts through Revelation … are invaluable in helping us to understand Deity and doctrine as they really are, not as the councils of the early Christian church misunderstood and misinterpreted them to be.  For example, the letters of the apostle Paul unequivocally and repeatedly affirm that God the Father ad Jesus Christ are separate and distinct beings.  These sacred texts of the second half of the New Testament help build our faith in God the Father and his literal son in the flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah. They corroborate other key doctrines of the Restoration revealed anew under Joseph Smith’s prophetic leadership, including the sweeping power of the atonement of Jesus Christ (vii).

These two books will be especially helpful to Sunday school teachers and serious scriptural students.  Ogden and Skinner have spent more than two decades walking where Jesus walked and teaching where Jesus taught.  Their insights are unique and born of a lifelong study of ancient scripture, its culture, languages and geography.

The Lost 500 Years by S. Kent Brown and Richard Neitzel Holzapfel

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dsfdsfdsfWhat happened between the Old and New Testaments?  This is the question authors Brown and Holzapfel effectively answer in their updated, expanded and illustrated edition of an earlier work, titled, Between the Testaments: From Malachi to Matthew.  Brown and Holzapfel have been two of the most prolific writers of doctrinal commentary during the past few years.  Both are extremely well respected and well known for their research and scholarship. 

The Lost 500 Years blends both Old and New Testament into one continuous story – from Genesis to Revelation, instead of two stories separated by chasms of history, culture and religious belief. 

From the preface we read:

Even the most casual reader of the Bible senses vast differences in tone, texture, and doctrines between the Old and New Testaments.  After reading Malachi and then turning to Matthew’s Gospel, we sense that more than unspoiled time has passed lazily between the end of the Old Testament period and the beginning of the New Testament.  The nearly five centuries that separate the two parts of the Bible represent far more than a mere chronological divide. They also represent a hefty cultural gap (xi).

Brown and Holzapfel’s book serves as a helpful backlight for New Testament study. Their intent is to “open a window onto events that unfolded from the time that members of the covenant people returned from their Babylonian exile, not long before the end of the Old Testament age, to the period when Jews lived under Roman dominion at the beginning of the first century A.D., coinciding with the beginning of the New Testament era” (xi). They do so with legitimate conclusions and applauded restraint, considering the lack of sources available from that time period.

They lean heavily upon the now-famous Dead Sea Scrolls, the lesser-known Apocyrpha (originally printed between the Old and New Testaments in many Protestant Bibles), the Pseudepigrapha (a modern collection of ancient texts generally dating from about 250 B.C. to A.D. 200) and their last, most important source, Josephus.  The authors define Flavius Josephus as the “most important author for reconstructing events of the intertestamental era” (xix).

In an attempt to make the book user-friendly, the authors purposefully wrote each chapter to stand on its own, allowing readers to choose specific topics of interest or read it from cover to cover.  This makes it easy to reference and remarkably helpful for both teacher and student. 

The book discusses history and major events that took place during those “lost” five centuries, sacred writings from that time that have since been discovered, and the formation of various religious groups like the Scribes, Pharisees, Saducees, and Essenes..  A final section titled “Spiritual Light” sets the stage for the birth of Christ and the realization of Messianic hope held in the hearts of those who remained faithful.

As seen with most New Testament study helps this year, the book implements maps, charts, and photographs of places, artifacts, and manuscripts.  To read more about The Lost 500 Years, published last week on Meridian, click here.

Be sure to watch for a second review in February of other New Testament study helps.  Until then, may your journey to better know the Savior be filled with light and knowledge as you immerse yourself in “the things that matter most.”  For when we do, we are promised “God shall give unto [us] knowledge by the Holy Spirit, yea, by the unspeakable gift of the Holy Ghost” (DC 121:26).