NT Intro

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.


  1. Oh Kevin, how I would love to take your class! I will be teaching the teenagers. I will bring the calendar I gave my family of Carl Bloch’s depictions of the Savior, and we’ll discuss each scene. (That actually fits EXACTLY into the manual’s instructions.) Sorely tempted to show a scene from Pastor Cecil Murray’s _The Color of the Cross_ in which Jesus is portrayed as a black Jew, but I won’t–not tomorrow, anyway. I really enjoyed most of the film, however, and was profoundly moved by portions of it. (It was a Christmas gift from my daughter.)

  2. The church should hire you to help rewrite the manuals. I teach the 14-15 year olds, and I won’t give them so much meat, but your posts have been better than anything I’ve found on the internet to supplement my lessons. I thought it couldn’t get much better than your Christ’s birthday post but sheesh…thanks so much.

  3. Fine material, Kevin. Keep this up and you’ll be the BCC nominee for Mormon of the Year 2011.

  4. Looks like I’ll need to revise my lesson for tomorrow and add in some of these great tidbits…

    Thanks, Kevin.

  5. Wow, really great synopsis. I especially enjoyed your rundown on what we get from the JST. I’m always amazed how much we are benefited from Joseph Smith.

  6. A couple of months ago I started to feel a bit of anxiety over this year’s Sunday School material. The last time it was the NT’s turn for consideration I was a newbie in a NT related grad program and during my first Sunday in the ward the 3rd year law student who was teaching Hebrews said, “I know that some people question whether Paul wrote Hebrews. But trust me, Paul wrote it. OK, who wants to read verses 1-5?” Gulp. I know that 3L’s are pretty seasoned by the beginning of their third year and that they are qualified to speak authoritatively upon nearly any topic, but that seemed a rather bold move (unlike this kid, Kevin Barney, I am certain, really was qualified to talk about NT stuff by his 3rd year).

    The anticipation and dread that fills those who are or are trying to be specialists in NT/OT/Mormon history and related fields are pretty intense in the weeks leading up to the new year. Luckily for me this angst has been nullified by a recent calling to teach in Primary. That’s like a tender mercy, isn’t it?

  7. Aaron Brown says:

    Kevin, thanks for facilitating my laziness by essentially doing my Gospel Doctrine preparation for me. Thanks in advance, also, by helping me come off looking much more studied on this subject than I am.


    1. Can you say a bit more about the popular notion that the JST was “never finished”? I assumed that was correct; saying that we didn’t trust the RLDS Church is not incompatible with also saying that Joseph never completed the work. Can you say definitively that this popular notion isn’t true? Where does this notion come from?

    2. Have you ever met much resistance with your treatment of the JST? As you say, most LDS make pretty naive assumptions about what the JST is. Do you typically get much pushback by those who are emotionally or intellectually invested in the traditional view?


  8. I’m in the midst of my library science grad studies and we had a discussion last quarter about how early Christians are to be thanked for the origin of the modern book via codices. So great. Loved the post Kevin!

  9. Good stuff Kevin. I’m teaching a similar class tomorrow.

  10. It is my sense that while JS technically finished the translation, he skimmed vast portions to edit and dug in deeply in a few sections. Would you a agree, Kev?

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    oudenos, tender mercies indeed!

    Aaron, excellent questions! My responses:

    1. From July 1833, the Prophet no longer spoke of translating the Bible, but of publishing it, which he wanted to do “as soon as possible.” Lack of funds is what kept it from being published. Later, when the Saints were in the west, they not only didn’t have the manuscripts, they didn’t know much about the project in general, and the idea arose that the ms. was never finished and was not meant to be published during his lifetime, and idea that is refuted by the Prophet’s own words. Although the translation work had been done, there would have needed to be work on the manuscript before sending it to press, so as to provide consistent spelling and punctuation, for instance. Further editing would have been beneficial. But the process of going through the Bible and coming up with the desired revisions was finished by July 1833. (This information is set forth in more detail on pp. 7-8 of the critical edition of the JST mss. published by Faulring, Jackson and Matthews, Joseph Smith’s New Translation of the Bible: Original Manuscripts.

    2. Most academically oriented Mormons have had no problems with my treatment of the JST. My perception is that my type of approach was very common among BYU profs outside of Religious Studies. It’s also supported by Maxwell Institute types, and privately at least by some of the religion profs at BYU.

    That being said, some of the more conservative profs in Religious Education think I’m Satan himself for what I’ve written on the JST. In fact, I am now memorialized for all eternity on p. 10, note 32 of the aforementioned critical edition, to the sentence “Some have dismissed the JST because its changes are not verified in ancient manuscripts.” This is frustrating, because they say such a position is flawed in part because the JST doesn’t claim that all its changes restore original text. That’s my whole point! It’s as if they never even read my article.

    When my article on the JST first appeared in Dialogue, I got exactly zero feedback on it. It was only when an edited version was published in an anthology by Signature that it started to hit the fan. My sin was not my specific argument, but allowing it to be published by Signature.

    I describe my experience a little bit at note 54 of my “Isaiah Interwoven” article here:


  12. Kevin Barney says:

    No. 10 J., sure, that’s true. If he had gone over it again in 1843 I’m sure he’d come up with all sorts of different changes. He just had no intention of revisiting the project.

  13. There are some 16th century musical settings of the Lord’s Prayer (generally meant for use in Evensong) that set the text “let us not be led into temptation.” I’ve always thought that was interesting, since none of the versions of the BCP have that text as far as I know.

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    woodboy, that’s really interesting! Thanks for letting us know.

  15. Natalie B. says:

    I really hope that you keep posting these notes. They’re wonderful.

  16. Very intriguing discussion. I too hope to read more of your thoughts throughout the year.
    …and Aaron, I’ll be curious to see how you pull all this together tomorrow. :)
    Reading the lesson material, I was actually a little bit frustrated that we don’t get to just dive right in, but spend a week on intro instead. Reading this post made me a little more excited about perhaps getting a bit of a history lesson first. I’ve never gotten to sit through NT in Gospel Doctrine in my adult life. I’ve always had callings that had me elsewhere during that hour. The last really meaty study of the NT that I did was in Stephen Robinson’s class at BYU and I sadly have forgotten most of the great stuff he taught us.

  17. Kevin,

    I was recently re-hired as our ward Gospel Doctrine teacher, so I’ll be reading and enjoying (and pillaging) these posts.

    Thanks now and in the future.

  18. Will you mention to the class that the change to “Testimonies” was only made for Matthew and John, and that it is a mistake in our Bible that all four have been changed to “Testimony of…?”

  19. Natalie B. says:

    In these parts of the Internet, we often criticize those who read the scriptures in a way that “cherry picks” certain parts and ignores others. But thinking about the process of canonization, well, it’s an exercise in cherry picking some texts and messages over others. I think it would be interesting to compare the books picked with those that weren’t. Were there any key distinguishing features? What messages were selected for?

  20. Nice, Kevin. I really appreciate your lesson notes here.

  21. Kevin Barney says:

    Larrin, good question. I’ll play it by ear whether to go into more detail on the mistake re: Mark and Luke you mention.

    Natalie B., in general the criteria for canonicity seem to have included either apostolic or prominent Christian origin, the prominence of the Church associated with the text, and whether the content of the text seemed to agree with proto-orthodox thought (IE minimal Gnostic influences). This process was manipulated to an extent by ascribing pseudonymous works to apostles or other early luminaries. This can be tough to talk about in GD, because we tend to make very traditional assumptions about the authorship of these books.

  22. My GD class today was centered around a very good discussion about how we perceive the difference in tone between the OT and the NT (the former being all fire and brimstone and the latter being all love your neighbour), and then transitioned to class members sharing their favourite passages and/or themes from the NT. I don’t think there was really any discussion about what the NT is and how it was compiled.

    It may be a bit tangential, but since I’ve got your ear (or eyes, as the case may be), Kevin, do you know why the stories of the Maccabees were not included in the canon of the OT? Also, did the other apostles just not write much, or was it that their writings were lost? It seems like the apostolic writings are all Paul with Peter and John thrown in at the end, and Jude and James tossed in for good measure.

  23. Kevin Barney says:

    Alex, the OT Hebrew canon generally did not include works composed in Greek from what we think of as the intertestamental period. (But those books were included in the LXX, so they found their way into the Orthodox and Catholic canons.) Some think that Daniel was originally composed in Aramaic, but that the beginning and end were translated into Hebrew in a (successful) effort to get the book into the canon.

    Apart from some pseudepigraphal texts, I don’t think we have any indication that the other Apostles wrote very much, and some of their ministries appear to have been pretty short-lived in any event.

  24. Great stuff, Kevin. Such a welcome supplement to my own study and participation in lessons.

  25. Thank you for this Kevin.

  26. Great article, Kevin. I’ll definitely link it at my blog, where I’m now working on the NT Gospel Doctrine lessons.

    I really love the Internet, which provides us with many ideas, and allowing us to learn things that one could not easily do before without spending huge chunks of money on every book that came out on the subjects (or have access to a major library, such as the OI-UChicago one that I imagine you use, Kevin).

    It is time for members to learn the true doctrines, and then separate out all the various teachings that may or may not be correct. And such discussions as these are beginning to wear away the old guard’s walls.

  27. I am looking for a history of the gospels. Something that discusses when various episodes of Jesus’ life first appear in the manuscripts, etc. Any recommended books or blog posts?

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