Here are some of the things I hope will come out of our class discussion this Sunday as we introduce the New Testament. (For those offended by my sense of liberality in how I use (or not) the manual, this is in essence my elaboration of item 1 under “Additional Teaching Ideas” for Lesson No. 1.)
Many years ago there was a series of commercials on TV for a new book, called simply enough “The Book.” I remember Tom Landry, coach of the Dallas Cowboys, was one of the celebrities shilling for this new item, which gives you some indication of how long ago this was. The commercials were coy about just what this volume was, but of course it was a new translation of the Bible. (I haven’t seen hide nor hair of this particular translation since; it had a very short shelf life.) It’s common for us to think of the Bible as “The Book” par excellence, since the way we bind it today in codex fashion it just looks like a big ol’ book. But there’s a basic misapprehension at work here. I realize that biblia might look like a feminine singular, but in reality it’s a neuter plural, from GR ta biblia “the books.” Therefore, it’s not correct to think of the Bible as a single book; it is rather a collection of books, an anthology. And it is an organized collection of books, making it in effect a religious library.
The main division in this library is between the Old and New Testaments. “New Testament” as a collective term for the early Christian writings was a coinage of Tertullian in the third century, Novum Testamentum, making the prior Israelite writings Vetus Testamentum, the “Old Testament.” “Testament” is not an ideal word for this purpose. This is supposed to be a translation of GR hE kainE diathEkE “the New Covenant,” an expression that occurs a half-dozen times in the NT, based on Jeremiah 31. But a testament is properly a will, not a covenant. The Fathers seemed to have thought of Jesus’ words at the last supper (which include this phrase) as a sort of end of life declaration or a will of sorts. So perhaps this designation is not ideal, but at this late date we’re pretty much stuck with it.
How is the NT organized? Not chronologically. First we have four books called “Gospels.” Gospel derives from OE God-spell, “good news,” which is a translation of GR euangellion. (The o in OE God-spell was originally a long vowel, but over time was shortened due to persistent mistaken assumptions that that element is related in some way to the word God.) Euangellion similarly means “good news/message/announcement/proclamation.” The eu– is an adverb “good, well” (look in an English dictionary and all the words beginning with eu– are GR-derived, such as euthanasia “good death,” eugenics “good genes” or euphonious “good sound”). The –angelion element means a message, just as angelos means “messenger.” In classical GR, a euangelion was a reward given to a messenger for good news (pity the messenger bringing bad news, which gives rise to our saying “don’t shoot the messenger”), but in NT usage this is the good news itself, that Jesus is come in the flesh, the Christ, who has atoned for the sins of the world and the third day rose again.
There is only one Gospel, that of Jesus Christ. Originally, these books didn’t bear titles at all. Eventually, however, they bore titles like “According to Matthew,” “According to Mark,” etc., the idea being that the one Gospel was being expressed by four different interpreters. So the Gospel began to be called the “fourfold Gospel,” and from there each of these books singly began to be called a “Gospel.” These are not really histories or biographies; the JST helpfully suggests that we think of these books as “Testimonies,” which is essentially what they are, testimonies that Jesus is the Christ.
The first three Gospels are called Synoptic (“seeing together”) because they share a great deal of common organization and verbiage and are closely related. John was written later and is a more independent book.
After the Gospels comes Acts, a history book focused on the ministries of Peter and then Paul. It is the second half of Luke, and so you’ll often see references to “Luke-Acts.”
Then come the 21 letters, organized as follows: letters of Paul to the churches, longest to shortest; letters of Paul to individuals, also longest to shortest; Hebrews (placed last due to persistent uncertainty as to whether Paul was actually the author); and then the catholic [“universal”] epistles
This is followed by the Revelation (or Apocalypse) of John. Note that the title is singular, not plural. My nephew just got a tattoo on his right arm that reads “Revelations 16”; I wish he had talked to me before putting that extraneous s at the end of the name of the book!
None of the NT was actually written by Jesus. The earliest writings are some of Paul’s letters, dating to about 20 years after Jesus’ death. The writings of the NT were completed in a space of less than a hundred years, unlike the OT which spans many hundreds, even thousands of years of history. The earliest Christians expected Jesus to return quickly, so there was not a lot of pressure to make a record of the Savior’s words and works, but as time passed and as witnesses began to die, the need for such a literature became more apparent.
Churches slowly collected these writings over time. A church might have a couple of letters of Paul and perhaps a Gospel, but traveling missionaries would copy and circulate these documents such that these collections grew over time (rather like the Mormon underground in the pre-internet days).
Eventually choices had to be made as to which of these writings should be accepted as authoritative, and which not. This is the (very slow) process of canonization (canon originally referred to a reed used as a measuring instrument). Although an approximation of our current canon existed by the end of the second century, the first list that precisely recited our canon of 27 books was in a letter from Athanasius from A.D. 367. The canon was not determined by church councils (except for much later formal declarations like the 16th century council of Trent); it was more a matter of popular usage and cream rising to the top. We simply accepted the already established canon, and have no complaints about the list. (In contrast, Luther placed four of the books at the end of his German NT as antilegomena, dsputed works he believed should not be in the canon: Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation.)
Throughout the year we’ll encounter the JST. This project was started shortly after publication of the BoM, and took from June 1830 to July 1833, Sidney Ridgon being the principal scribe. (Emma carried the mss. sewn into her dress as she walked across Missouri towards Quincy.) The common notion that Joseph never finished it is incorrect. It was not accepted through most of our history because we didn’t control the mss. and we didn’t trust the RLDS, who published a first edition in 1867 (the most recent edition is 1944). In the middle of the 20th century, Robert J. Matthews was given access to the mss. and was able to demonstrate that the RLDS had been responsible in their publications. This led to a rehabilitation of the JST in the LDS Church, and extracts were published in our 1979 Bible. (These are extracts only, not the complete text.)
In church classrooms, typically the JST is quoted with the intention of solving problems and putting an end to discussion. The common assumption is that it represents in toto an English representation of a textual restoration of the original text. But this assumption is not correct; there are all sorts of different things going on in the JST. Rather than stopping discussion, citing the JST emendation should spur additional discussion. Some of the types of changes we’ll see in the JST are illustrated by the following examples:
1. Restorations of Original Text. Although not all JST emendations restore the original text, some do. A good example is Mt. 5:22:
But I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.
The italicized “without a cause” represent the GR adverb eikE, “rashly, thoughtlessly, unjustly” and is omitted by both the JST and 3 Nephi. Although the textual attestation of eikE is rather strong, it is widely believed not to be original, having been added by scribes in an effort to soften such a morally stark precept that allows no anger at all.
2. Parallels to Non-Original Ancient Variants. Revelation 2:22 reads as follows:
Behold, I will cast her into a bed, and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent of their deeds.
In lieu of “a bed,” the JST reads “hell.” There is ancient textual evidence for the following readings: prison, a furnace, illness, sorrow.
The problem is that being tossed into a bed doesn’t sound like such a bad punishment. I’m guessing some of our mothers with young children would love to be cast into a bed; maybe then they could get a nap. So the JST and a number of ancient scribes posited worse fates.
In fact, however, being cast into a bed here is a Semitic idiom for a bed of illness, and it really is a punishment. Joseph’s impulse here parallels what the ancient scribes did in trying to make sense of the passage.
3. Alternate Translation without Positing a Change in Text. In Luke 11:4, the Lord’s Prayer includes the words “lead us not into temptation,” which the JST modifies to “let us not be lead unto temptation.” Marcion and several of the Church Fathers did something similar to Joseph here in order to avoid the implication that God compels people into temptation, which was not intended. This is simply a different way of translating the same underlying text. Indeed, the translator’s handbook on Luke published by the United Bible Society recommends just such a translation strategy.
4. Historical Corrections. 2 Chr. 22:2 reads as follows:
Forty and two years old was Ahaziah when he began to reign, and he reigned one year in Jerusalem.
The JST has “Two and twenty years.”
The Masoretic Text reads 42, which is probably the original reading here, but given that his father died at age 40 it is historically untenable. The JST follows the 2 Kings 8:26 parallel to read 22. (The LXX there reads 20, which is probably the source of 42. Scribes didn’t like to leave anything on the cutting room floor if they could avoid it. Faced with these two traditions, they simply added them together, 22 + 20 = 42.)
5. Harmonization of Contradictions. Did Jesus perform water baptisms? John 3:22 says yes, but John 4:2 says no: “Jesus himself baptized not, but his disciples.” The JST harmonizes the contradiction with “though he himself baptized not so many as his disciples.”
6. Midrashic Commentary. In modern times if you want to comment on a biblical passage, you write a commentary on it independent of the passage itself. But the ancient Jewish approach was to embed the commentary directly into the text. We see this in the targumin, the pesharim, and the genre of “rewritten Bible” attested among the DSS. This is probably the most common type of change we find in the JST.
For example, in Mt. 4 when Jesus is tempted the text has the devil taking Jesus places. The JST reworks all of these passage to have the Spirit move him about. The point of this is to make a commentary, to the effect that the devil does not have power to physically move the Son of Man around, an issue that simply wasn’t a concern to the original writer.