A Resource for Seminary Teachers (and Others)

Grant Hardy is a friend of the blog and Professor of History and Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Asheville. He is the author of Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide, among others.

I am teaching the New Testament in seminary this year and we’re almost through the first semester, which focuses on Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. It’s a rare opportunity for my students because it is the only time they will have a chance to read the four gospels in a church setting sequentially, one at a time. For the rest of their lives, in institute and Sunday school, the approach will always be one that combines and harmonizes the different accounts of Jesus’ life.

I follow the seminary manual fairly closely, so every day we discuss one or two chapters, concentrating on the stories and associated doctrinal principles. This morning, for instance, we talked about John 6, which recounts the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus’ sermon on the bread of life. The suggested principles (and there are always three for every lesson) were:

  • If we come to Jesus Christ, He will nourish us spiritually
  • If we internalize, or apply, the teachings and Atonement of Jesus Christ, we can receive eternal life.
  • A firm testimony of Jesus Christ will help us remain faithful during times when it may be difficult to follow the Savior or live His teachings.

There’s a lot of repetition, both in the stories from the three synoptic gospels and in the doctrinal principles, but it’s not a bad way to teach the New Testament, especially to high school students who are gaining basic scriptural literacy.

What’s missing, however, is any sense of the four gospels as distinct literary works, each having its own particular structure and point of view. This is important because the New Testament does not offer anything like direct access to the life of Christ; instead the gospels provide stories that have been retold and edited by different authors, for different audiences, some forty or more years after Jesus’ death. They are not modern-style biographies but rather religious tracts that were designed for religious purposes. And it’s the overall design that gets lost in day after day of stories and principles (and completely obliterated by the harmonizing Sunday school approach).

Recently I came across the Bible Project, a website that is producing whiteboard animation introductions for every book in the Bible. They are really, really good. The illustrations are first-rate and they do a terrific job of laying out, in just a few minutes, the main themes and basic structure of each of the four gospels (one 9 minute video for Mark, and two each for Matthew, Luke, and John). The introductions are informed by modern biblical scholarship—much more so than the seminary manual—but they take a conservative enough approach to authorship and dating that they can easily be used in Mormon contexts (and the angels don’t even have wings!).

The introduction to Mark, for instance, shows how that gospel can be divided into three parts— the Galilean ministry, the journey to Jerusalem, and the culmination in Jerusalem—and how even the disciples struggled to comprehend the nature of Jesus’ messiahship. For Matthew, they demonstrate how the five sections of teachings are reminiscent of the five books of Moses, and thus portray Jesus as the new law giver, the one who surpasses Moses. Over and over, the videos show the connections between what might otherwise seem to be random stories—comparisons of how different people respond to Jesus, or when conflicts begin to escalate, or where there are multiple examples of similar concerns. Equally important, they identify the major themes of each gospel, and demonstrate how the narratives explain and illustrate those truths. Each of the four gospels is presented as a carefully crafted whole, with deep spiritual meaning not just in the stories that are told, but in how they are told and in what order.

There’s nothing quite like this in the LDS seminary resources, and I have found these videos invaluable in helping my students review and understand each gospel as its own witness of the Savior. They’re easy to follow, yet they pack a tremendous amount of information and insight into just a few minutes. In fact, if you’ve got an hour to spare, you could watch all seven of the gospel videos—they’re really engaging—and in that short time you’ll get a better sense of the New Testament witness of Christ than you could gain in half a year of Gospel Doctrine classes.

Seriously, you should watch these videos. And if you teach seminary, you should share them with your students.

Matthew, chaps. 1-12

Matthew, chaps. 13-28

Mark

Luke, chaps. 1-9
Luke, chaps. 10-24
John, chaps. 1-12
John, chaps. 13-21

The home page for the Bible Project can be found here. The videos can all be downloaded for free.

Comments

  1. I love Grant’s comments, and recognize his approach of studying whole books, instead of verses, or the even smaller phrases, as a way to get additional insight not available in Sunday School or seminary. I was also amused by his use of the cliched redundancy “completely obliterated” and look forward to one day finding an incomplete obliteration

  2. Curtis,
    Thou shalt not mock one who has been spending early mornings with teenagers. Sainthood is acquired in such ways. ;-)

  3. Grant Hardy says:

    No, go ahead and mock imprecise writing! I stand corrected. (My seminary students are also happy to point out when I make mistakes.)

  4. I am incompletely obliterated by my 2-year-old almost every day. The obliteration is more thorough on some days than others, but never quite complete.

  5. I teach online seminary and will use this for sure. Thanks! Please share helps for Acts through Revelation!

  6. Grant, I am guessing from your writing that you are a New Testament scholar, or at least someone who teaches the subject at the university level. Your insight that each gospel was written (compiled) for a specific religious purpose (oral transmission of information to converts prior to baptism) in the decades and centuries after Jesus’ time on earth is crucial to this discussion. The way the church has moved to scriptural analysis has been to homogenize the texts, and especially with the Gospels, we lose the thread of what is supposed to have been transmitted. So, if you are to read the New Testament trying to understand who Mary of Magdala was, for example, you would find it hopeless if you took the LDS approach, because different Gospels have different accounts of her, her role and some even conflate her with others. I wish we could study the texts this way in church rather than by the approach now taken. We are losing here …

  7. Josiah Ensing says:

    I have watched many of the Bible Project videos this year, mostly the Old Testament ones. They’re really great. They are clear and concise, and interesting. They also point out times that authors allude to earlier biblical writings. I’ve read the Old Testament a few times before, but it’s been tricky for me to see the big picture, and see references and connections between books but these videos have really helped me to start to see the connections. It’s even affected the way I read the Book of Mormon; for example, I can see references/allusions to Noah’s flood in the story of the brother of Jared, and Isaiah’s writings about the scattering of Israel.

    Thanks for publicising this great resource, Grant.

  8. mikerharris says:

    I just subscribed to the Bible Project emails and watched some of their videos. As you say, they are first rate. They will bless my seminary students. Thank You.

  9. emilyhgeddes says:

    And I’m now working my way through all of The Bible Project’s “Read Scriptures” series. The visual representation of the structure of each book is incredibly valuable. I appreciate how the New Testament videos frequently mention links to the Old Testament and that the videos point out sections that are poems or prayers – which is not always obvious in the KJV. Thank you for sharing, Grant!

  10. Grant Hardy says:

    CTK – I’m hardly a New Testament scholar, but I read Greek and have taught the New Testament in university classes. You’re quite right, reading the gospels by trying to understand the message intended by their authors for particular (and different) audiences opens up the meaning in exciting and, at least for me, spiritually meaningful ways. What I like about these videos is their emphasis on the structure of the texts–the various parts and how they were put together–which is, not coincidentally, the way that I like to read the Book of Mormon as well.

    Josiah – Yes! The videos also highlight the literary interconnections that were intended by the authors. And your experience seems similar to mine–the more I learn about how to read scripture by watching the ways that biblical scholars approach the text, the more I see in the Book of Mormon.

    Emily – Those poems and prayers are great examples of the different sorts of materials that have been combined in the gospels, and it makes a difference when they are clearly identified, either in introductory videos or in the formatting on the page.

  11. As for the Gospels, I can’t recommend Julie Smith’s Search, Ponder and Pray highly enough. She raises many issues that provoke thought in her 4500 + questions. A little much for Seminary, but an excellent way to study the gospels as an adult UNBOUND by curriculum or correlated manuals. I think they call it working without a net. :)