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Sacred study

Restored gospel offers priceless resources for New Testament readers

Like other scholars of the Old and New Testaments, Latter-day Saints who engage in academic research of the Bible seek to come to understand its context, history, meaning, and application to the lives of believers. In doing so — if they are to do it right — they must seek out the best possible professional training, use the best of the academic tools, examine the best available ancient evidence, be aware of the best of current scholarship, and ask the same hard questions that others ask.

But for Latter-day Saint scholars, all of that is not enough, even if done extremely well. Unlike their academic colleagues, Latter-day Saints have both additional evidence and additional questions, and their work is not done until that evidence is examined and those questions are asked. The evidence is the flood of new information made available by the restoration of the gospel through the Prophet Joseph Smith. The questions are those that inevitably flow as a result of the bright light that the Restoration shines on everything important — including the Bible and our understanding of it.

Is there a Latter-day Saint scholarship of the Bible? I believe that there is, and must be, a Latter-day Saint Bible scholarship, and I believe that in fundamental ways, it must be different from the scholarship of others. The restored gospel gives Latter-day Saints evidence not available to anyone else, evidence that answers many questions over which students of the Bible have struggled for many years, in some cases for centuries. Latter-day Saint Bible scholarship embraces revealed sources and uses them at every stage in the process of understanding and interpreting the words of scripture.

Drawing from the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith's Translation of the Bible, and the Prophet's teachings and writings, Latter-day Saints read the Bible differently from how others read it.

Given those additional resources, we are going to see things in the Bible not visible to our friends and colleagues not of our faith.

In using modern revelation in their scholarship, Latter-day Saints are simply using all the sources available to them, which is a necessary scholarly practice. The restored gospel does not give Latter-day Saint scholars an excuse to be smug, lazy, or uninformed. Latter-day Saint scholars, like others, need to challenge unproven assumptions, question unfounded traditions, and demand evidence for historical and interpretive claims. Where the Restoration provides answers, we must rely on those answers and use them in our continuing quest for truth.

Some matters are important and their answers necessary, whereas some are not. For example, the New Testament teaches the Resurrection of Jesus in several passages (see Matthew 28; Mark 16; Luke 24; John 20; 1 Corinthians 15:3-14). The Resurrection is confirmed in modern revelation as well, explicitly and repeatedly (see Helaman 14:15-17; 3 Nephi 11; Doctrine and Covenants 138:27; Moses 7:62). With those evidences, the historicity of the Resurrection must be viewed as a truth that is non-negotiable, and Latter-day Saints cannot reject it in good conscience.

In contrast, and I select this only as an example, neither the New Testament nor modern scripture identifies Mark as the author of the second Gospel. No scriptural passage says Mark wrote Mark, the earliest existing New Testament manuscripts do not bear his name, and the earliest existing written sources that attribute the authorship to him do not come until long after his time. Based on circumstantial evidence and the available tradition, I personally believe that Mark was the author of Mark. But I do not know of any way in which the restored gospel has anything at stake in whether he did or did not. Thus it seems that this matter — unlike the issue of Jesus' resurrection — is fair game for continued exploration, interpretation, and examination of evidence.

When we ask Restoration questions as we study the history of the text of the New Testament, we gain a perspective that is not possible otherwise. Joseph Smith wrote: "Many important points, touching the salvation of man, had been taken from the Bible, or lost before it was compiled." He said further: "We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly" (Article of Faith 8), or, concisely, "as it ought to be, as it came from the pen of the original writers."

The Prophet Joseph Smith endorsed both the New Testament's apostolic origin and its content. In his sermons and writing, he quoted or made reference to over 300 New Testament passages, attesting to the fact that he ascribed real authority to them. We have no record of any authorship issues being brought to his attention, nor of him questioning the traditional authorship attributions. It appears that he simply took for granted the authorship designations printed in his Bible.

Latter-day Saint Bible scholars have a mission different from that of their peers in that they both embrace and use in their research the information obtained through modern revelation. They recognize that the New Testament is not only interesting and influential, but it is also important. Thus they understand that although professional training and hard work are necessary requisites for true scholarship, a greater goal is true discipleship.

Their research, therefore, is not merely a work of avocation or profession but, indeed, of worship and consecration. And unlike many of their peers who set the agenda for religious discourse in their denominations, Latter-day Saint Bible scholars hold allegiance to the Church as an institution and welcome the continuing guidance of those whom the Lord has called to preside in it.

Kent P. Jackson is a professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University

(This article is taken or condensed from the 2006 Sidney B. Sperry Symposium. Full texts are available in How the New Testament Came To Be; The 35th Annual Brigham Young University Sidney B. Sperry Symposium; Deseret Book and BYU Religious Studies Center, 2006.)