Thoughts on the first week of New Testament study

Sermon on the MountI’m looking forward to studying and teaching the New Testament this year in Gospel Doctrine. (And thanks Kevin and RJH for helping me with my lesson this week.) I’ve taught the other books a couple times, but never the New Testament, so I’m not as familiar with it as I should be. This year is my chance to figure out some stuff I’ve had on the back burner for a long time. I plan on spending this year learning and reading and talking about Christ, and letting his words sink in and challenge me to rethink things.

Because the teachings of Christ are a lot more difficult and radical than we give them credit for. There’s friction in his words, and there are calls to action. The same guy who said “My yoke is easy” also told a certain ruler to give away everything and follow him. I don’t imagine it was any easier for the fishermen to leave their nets than it would be for us to leave ours.

And his teachings in the Sermon on the Mount are not easy. They’re simple to understand, but insanely difficult to put into practice, and they provide an insanely high bar by which to measure ourselves. Really, I read it and just think how terribly far away I am from actual Christian living.

Meekness, for instance, would probably feel unnatural and maybe even wrong. Bless them that curse you. Turn the other cheek. You can’t serve God and mammon. Stop worrying about your clothes and your treasures on earth. We say all this stuff, and we know these lines, but are we acting on them? Have we considered what it would mean to do so? Arcade Fire sings “Never trust a millionaire quoting the Sermon on the Mount,” and I wonder if Jesus nods and thinks “Yes, that’s a smart policy.”

Christ’s life raises a bunch of questions: Am I doing enough for the poor? Am I helping (or even willing to associate with) society’s outcasts? What about the difficult people in my ward? Do I forgive everybody? Should I? Should I be a pacifist? Do I care about money too much? Am I worshipping God by the spirit of the law, or just the letter? What’s the difference in modern LDS life?

His words are hard. And what’s more, they tend to require not just sacrifice, but reprioritization. From what I can tell, a big part of his ministry involved convincing people that the things they value aren’t so important, and the things that are most important are often overlooked. In my own priorities, I wonder if I’m that different from the audience he was speaking to in the flesh.

The level of faith required to live the way he taught us to live seems dishearteningly enormous. But there are two beautiful things about Jesus that bring me comfort:

  1. The guy who said all that hard stuff is the guy who made the Atonement real so I won’t be damned to hell.
  2. The values Jesus taught were as foreign in his time as they are in mine, and there’s something universal and true about that. If our own human nature recoils at some of the stuff Jesus might ask of us, that’s just evidence that human nature hasn’t changed all that much. He was killed for saying what he said—the darkness didn’t comprehend the light. So if his words challenge us too, well, they should. That’s how we begin to chase away the darkness in ourselves.

Here’s to a new year with the New Testament.

Comments

  1. Love this, Kyle–and solidarity, as I’ll be teaching the NT this year, too.

  2. A very true and moving reflection to ponder as we embark on the study of the New Testament this year. I am very glad to know that you and Jason and others whom I know and trust are teaching Gospel Doctrine this year.

  3. “a big part of his ministry involved convincing people that the things they value aren’t so important, and the things that are most important are often overlooked. In my own priorities, I wonder if I’m that different from the audience he was speaking to in the flesh.”

    Indeed. Is it I? Almost certainly.

    Lots of good bloggernacle writing on the NT this year- Julie at Times&Seasons and Mogget at The Scribe (at least temporarily) as well.

  4. Yeah, that Mogget post was great, Ben (as was yours).

  5. I think I may print this out and read it every morning…..

  6. After a bad year with church, I’ve been thinking a lot about trying to approach Mormonism this year through the core doctrines of Christ and the atonement, in an attempt to try to step back and see the bigger picture. I’d like to supplement my NT study with some external reference materials, and another translation besides the King James. Do you (or anyone else) have some suggestions?

  7. Nothing beats the New Testament for pondering paradoxical truths. Buddhist sayings are a close second, but the parable format gives us a lot to chew on. I’m looking forward to it and to great comments from the GD teachers in the ‘nacle.

  8. Michelle, I did a 3-part on other books to read and translations to use. Recommended NT Resources , three posts near the top. The comments are useful too. NT Wright might be particularly useful for you.

  9. Michelle, I really love Ben S’s blog (linked to from his comment above) and Jim F’s posts on Feast Upon the Word blog, http://feastupontheword.org/Site:SS_lessons. I use them all the time in my lesson prep.

    I’m sure others will be able to recommend good New Testament companions.

  10. Michelle, I use the Revised English Bible, and have for years, as a good, honest translation of a “dynamic equivalence” type (“thought for thought”). It has decent footnotes, not great, but it will frequently note where different ancient manuscripts have different readings. It’s been my companion to the LDS edition of the KJV for a long time now during the Bible years in Gospel Doctrine.

    For someone as perfectionist as I, the question of “which Bible” is a tough one. “A Bible, a Bible! We already have hundreds of Bibles!” is probably what the U&T would have come up with had Joseph translated the BoM today. I wanted a decent study Bible, i.e. one with some commentary, in a “formal equivalence” (“word for word”) version as a companion to the REB for this year’s NT study and after much investigation and dithering, finally bought the “New Interpreter’s Study Bible” in the New Revised Standard Version. It’s on the way from Amazon and I have high hopes.

    I would be very interested to hear others’ opinions on available English translations and their relative merits!

  11. If you want to get your mind around how truly revolutionary Christ’s teachings are, read “Jesus of Nazareth: What He Wanted, Who He Was,” by the German theologian Gerhard Lohfink. It is revelatory.

  12. I recently read the Lohfink book and much enjoyed it. He is German, and the Book I read was an English translation. The key thing for me is that Jesus’s ministry was for and to individuals, for the saving of individual souls one at a time. His was not a political or an economic ministry, but a ministry to individuals for the sanctification of individuals. No doubt, society is better because of these individuals.

  13. Michelle, I love the REB too, but its better for Old Testament rather than New. I highly recommend the list Ben S gives at T&S, along with the threads you see there. I don’t know about the New Interpreter’s Study Bible. Nearly all of these types of Bibles include the NRSV, I think the HarperCollins is good for both Old and New since the commentators are from the Society Of Biblical Literature. The Jewish Annotated New Testament has been interesting, but, since its Jewish, I’ve noticed some specific Messianic areas of Christ that are simply passed over in the notes, (the evil spirits calling him Son of God and Holy One of God are specific examples). I would also recommend a couple of short books from Margaret Barker called “On Earth As It Is In Heaven” and “The Risen Lord”. What I liked best about Risen Lord was her footnoting (far more extensive than in her other work), which strengthened her arguments and engaged with the arguments of others. OEAIIH (Not to be confused with Sam Brown’s book) contains four comments about the temple in the New Testament and it well worth taking a look at. It will spur some thought in ways you haven’t had before, although Margaret’s work is a bit on the fringe of regular scholarship and other contributors have less of an opinion of her than I do.

  14. Kyle M and Michelle. I forgot to mention that saved to the Desktop of every computer I own is Kevin Barney’s New Testament with footnotes. Its at the same site that Kyle M mentioned. Its the KJV version, but with great and extensive footnoting. Can’t recommend it highly enough (and its free–although I probably owe someone a donation by now for having used it so much over the years).

  15. Kyle, thanks for your comments and recommendations. I had typed my comment and left it on my desktop, only to hit “enter” much later – and then see your preceding comment pointing me to Ben’s posts. Which I of course devoured. (I value Ben’s commentary, possibly because I find that we think a lot alike. That should frighten him.)

    Michelle, I concur with Terry’s comment about the OT of the REB being better than the NT, although both are good. The REB is the only way I was able to get through the entire OT, and it was still hard slogging in some places. ;)

    One of the things I’ve found most interesting in this quest to find good Bibles has been a passage from Anglican bishop and noted scholar N.T. Wright about the NIV, probably the most popular evangelical Protestant translation in the US today. (Ben quotes him in NT Resources Part I). The pith of the quote, to me, was this: “I do know that if a church only, or mainly, relies on the NIV it will, quite simply, never understand what Paul was talking about.” Ouch! I work for a Lutheran fraternal insurance company, and most of the people who participate in our weekly Bible study, not all of whom are Lutherans, use the NIV. I think I will refrain from pointing that out, but will continue to bring alternate translations into play for comparison purposes. :)

  16. Re New Testament translations: In my personal readings, I use the not-so-well-known New Jerusalem Bible (a Catholic translation) mostly because I like its writing style. I think most Mormons trying a modern-English translation for the first time would probably appreciate the well-established New Revised Standard Version the most; it has a tenuous connection with the KJV, so it tends to feel both familiar and modern. I like it a lot, and it’s my No 2.

    When I’m preparing my lessons, I invariably use the NET Bible found online at Bible.org. I’m kind of the nerdy language/grammar type, and the NET Bible does an excellent job in the footnotes of giving alternative translations, explaining why a passage was translated a particular way, and pointing to significant differences in manuscripts. If you like learning about Greek and Hebrew verb tenses, this is the translation for you.

    My least favorite translation that I own is the NIV, mentioned by others earlier. It has a bit more theological bias showing than some other translations, and it’s written at about a fifth-grade level. Ugh. But it’s extremely popular. Its successor, the TNIV, isn’t quite so bad, but in the quest to avoid sexist language (which I support), it overuses the plural “they,” which I detest.

  17. Make that the singular “they.”

  18. Eric, why would you praise a translation that tries to avoid sexist language? Why isn’t better for a translation to strive for accuracy rather than pandering to contemporary notions of political correctness? If the original authors were, in fact, sexist, why attempt to disguise it?

  19. New Iconoclast: If you’re having trouble with the OT, then try the Alter Translation or the Schocken Bible. For more on these, see comments and my review of Everett Fox, The Early Prophets at T&S.. Ben S likes Alter, but of Fox & Alter, I preview Fox, for reasons I indicated in a comment earlier on this site just a few days ago. The example I used in that comment is also one in which the REB merely describes the “mercy seat” in Ex. 25:17 as “cover” rather than as “propitiation”. Either option works, but the note should refer to the missing version. Fox gets it right. Alter ignores it (as does the Jewish Study Bible).

  20. This article is why I love this site. My denomination has nothing like this. Great thoughts!

  21. Thanks Tom, I appreciate it.

  22. Terry, thanks for the advice and the pointers. It’s subtle things like the cover/the mercy seat thing which I really want to know, and in lieu of spending a decade learning Hebrew (and then having to decide which ancient Hebrew manuscript is best), tapping our collective wisdom and experience is a great way to seek out of the best books and get us all edified together. :)

    I meant the OT was hard slogging because of all those interminable priestly rules in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and all of the genealogy and real estate transactions in later books. Those would be hard slogging in any translation, but if I have to slog hardly, I want some accuracy. Thanks!

  23. New iconoclast, I used to have the same problem, but then I started reading with the thesis that, if there was so much emphasis on these things, then there must be a purpose I was missing. A major portion of Exodus is the simple description of the sanctuary (temple, tabernacle, etc.). Leviticus is an entire book dedicated to the descriptions (however incomplete) of the cultic practice (not said in a perjorative sense) and then the issue of who gets what land. Since then, my major scripture study has been in these areas. Ben S. has provided a post listing some good books to start in his Benjamin the Scribe and Times and Seasons; but I found Jacob Milgrom’s “Leviticus” (the one volume Continental Commentary–not the 3 volume Anchor Bible). Scott Hahn’s Kinship and Covenant. Hahn’s bibliography and notes started me on many threads that helped include the reasoning behind the inclusion of all the “real estate” transactions. His various descriptions of biblical covenants were eye openers for me. Naturally, there are many others, but those are good foundations upon which to build an even better understanding.

    After reading these books, I caught fire to focus on the priestly rules (especially the differences between Leviticus and Deuteronomy) and the issues of covenant and temple. The so-called “Deuteronomist History” tells a lot about the slant of various books of the Bible, especially its antagonism against the Kings. Notice how most of them are the most evil humans ever to walk the planet? Margaret Barker (for all the weaknesses some find in her books) has identified in simple terms how the Deuteronomists affected the scriptures all the way down to Jesus’ time. Frankly, her explanation goes a long way for me in describing Laman and Lemuel in the Book of Mormon as well as the priests of wicked King Noah. See, it just keeps going on and on . . . .
    Enjoy.