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