Jesus the Christ and the Question of Methodology

Jesus the Christ is, in my opinion, a pretty cool book. My question, however, is if it has anything to teach us about biblical scholarship.

Most of us know the story of how it was produced. The First Presidency requested the Brother Talmage write it, gave him a special room in the Temple to compose it, and had it published by the Church itself (not Deseret News Press). It is as close as you are going to get of an extended piece of “official� scholarship Jesus.

And I think that you can call it scholarship. Talmage consulted contemporary New Testament scholars, he used lots of polysyllables, and provided some really beautifully pedantic footnotes. So if we take Talmage as a model of how we should approach Biblical scholarship, there are a couple of potential lessons that we could take away:

Contemporary Biblical Scholarship is Wrong. This is because most of it disagrees with the sources that Talmage consulted. If we think that he provides an authoritative model as to the substance of scholarship we clearly need to reject all of the stuff that contradicts Farrarr.

Mormons Should Adopt Conservative Biblical Scholarship. Rather than looking to the substance of the scholarship that Talmage consulted, we look at its place along an ideological spectrum. Source criticism of the NT had going along it merry way in NT scholarship for a couple of generations when Talmage penned Jesus the Christ. On the other hand, Q and the rest of the characters in contemporary biblical scholarship were not yet firmly entrenched. Those on the conservative side doubted (or so I understand). Today, I take it, that no one really has a problem with Q. In short, we should aim slightly to the right of scholarly consensus.

Mormons Should Simply Use Good Biblical Scholarship. On this view, Jesus the Christ is important not because of how it engaged biblical scholarship but rather because it engaged biblical scholarship. The point is that we should be eager to use the research of non-Mormons to illuminate our knowledge of the scriptures.

To the extent that we want to ask ourselves about the possibility and content of “Mormon� biblical scholarship, however, working out the methodological significance (if any) of Talmage’s magnum opus seems like a place to start.

25 comments for “Jesus the Christ and the Question of Methodology

  1. The answer, of course, is that Mormons should strive to use biblical scholarship in ways that Nate Oman thinks are pretty cool.

    Also, note that your point 2 might be correct never mind the superior correctness of somewhat conservative biblical scholarship. Perhaps its just that, for a number of reasons, Mormons should not be the ones leading the attack on the popular understanding of the bible. (So maybe the audience would make a difference?)

  2. “The answer, of course, is that Mormons should strive to use biblical scholarship in ways that Nate Oman thinks are pretty cool.”

    Works for me, but are people going to do when they are not using Biblical hermeneutics to think about the bankruptcy code?

  3. This is a fascinating question and I am glad you posed it, so I hate to rain on the parade, however, I think the best conclusion is that we can draw no lessons about ‘correct’ Mormon herm. from _JTC_.

    I say this because of one important aspect: the ease with which scholarly theory can be used devotionally. I would be hard pressed to think of a work of source or form criticism that I could reasonably use as a Sunday School teacher as the basis for any sort of conclusion with devotional applications. Hence, it doesn’t surprise me that Talmage didn’t do anything with the critical scholarship of his day.

    On the other hand, the critical scholarship of our day (trendy right now: lit crit and feminist crit, but watch for rising hemlines next Fall!). I can and do regularly use the various flavors of lit crit and feminist crit to make devotional-style conclusions in Sunday School.

  4. this is a bit off-topic, oh well. I really enjoyed reading the book and the footnotes years ago. Recently my wife and I tried to read it together, aloud. It was painful. The sentences seemed ponderous, and the prose a little to flowery. My togue tired of the effort quickly and I felt that the meaning of the text could be conveyed with far fewer words.

  5. I suggest advocating moral heuristics as a guideline in analyzing scriptural hermeneutics. In fact, write that line on the chalk board at the start of Sunday School, and see how confused you can get the class by the end of the 50 minutes.

    Bonus points if you can also use epistemlogy and eschatology in close proximity often enough in your lesson that the class gets confused about those terms as well.

  6. My goodness — people are going to get me mixed up with Nate.


  7. I’ve always wanted to write a book called Joseph the Smith.

    Nevertheless, I think that it is imperative to adopt good bible scholarship, which excludes pretty much everything by McConkie. And (broadly speaking) the best bible scholarship by far comes from Jews, Catholics, and atheists. As I’ve said elsewhere, atheism and Mormonism are very close: Atheism believes that all religions are false, and Mormons believe that all religions are false but one.

    I think that from Talmage’s point of view, he based his book on the best sources of the time, and that he would not have a problem with these sources being superseded. For example, in The Articles of Faith, he refers to the 1881 Revised English Version (the most immediate successor to the KJV) as having several improvements over the KJV but not having won acceptance yet. (This is quite a different view than the one that Joshua Clark takes up in Why the King James Version; he argues that the the Textus Receptus Greek New Testament [and the Byzantine texts upon which it was based] that is used in the KJV is superior to the Westcott-Hort Greek New Testament [and the Alexandrian Texts upon which which it was based] that was used in the 1881 Revised English Version and subsequent Bibles.) I think that this indicates that Talmage saw the state of scholarship in an appropriately realistic fashion (as opposed to Clark’s view).

    Conservative Bible scholarship, on the other hand, is all too often dominated by Evangelicals and folks who are driven by an agenda that is at odds with Mormon doctrine. I just don’t see how much of it is useful. As far as things like Q and the question cross-sourcing and interdependent revisions in the gospels, these are mostly conceptual issues that don’t address doctrine. And such authorship theories have all trickled down from good bible scholarship in the first place.

    As far as what Mormon Bible scholarship should look like, all I can say is what I think would be advantageous. I’d like to see a scholarship that approaches the New Testament as a book that was compiled by Jerome (who, from a Mormon perspective had no authority whatever) by choosing the writings that were the least controversial from the political perspective of the late 4th century. And even some of those were problematic for a long period of time. For example, the “Revelation of John� (which was almost certainly written by Cerinthus): outside of Alexandria, few churches accepted it as scripture until the 7th century.

  8. Julie writes: ” I think the best conclusion is that we can draw no lessons about ‘correct’ Mormon herm. from _JTC_. I say this because of one important aspect: the ease with which scholarly theory can be used devotionally.”

    Ummm…Julie haven’t you just used JTC as a spring board for talking about Mormon approaches to scholarship, namely that its Mormon use is dictated by the contexts in which Mormon’s use scripture. This would suggest that methodologically we — like Talmage — focus approaches that are devotionally useful.

    An analogy might be the interpretive strategies that Jewish scholars developed to meet their largely jurisprudential needs. In other words, methodology follows ecclesiastical concerns rather than vice versa.

    It seems to me that you have offered a very subtle way of using JTC as a spring board for thinking about the possibility of “Mormon” biblical scholarship.

  9. I’ll take Nate’s last option.

    David King Landrith: nice post.

    I too happen to think that Mormonism and atheism are close, but for a different (less funny) reason. Traditional Christians believe that God is somehow outside of nature, prior to it, whatever, while Mormon theology has God being in some sense inside of nature, and subject to its laws. Mormons see God working within eternal laws “bigger” than him; in this, he has more in common with aliens in possession of really excellent technology than he does with the traditional Christian God.

  10. I don’t think you’ll find a lot of support for Q in the halls of the BYU Religion Dept., although for the life of me I can’t understand why. Positing its existence makes excellent sense, and it doesn’t hurt anything.

    I favor Nate’s option 3.

    When Mormon curriculum writers limit themselves to only the most conservative Protestant commentaries, they are really missing a lot of cool stuff, because Mormon theology is not conservative, but radical. If you read the more liberal stuff, you’ll find lots of fascinating nuggets that will never appear in an evangelical commentary.

    (By the way, I could never understand why people think Talmage is so difficult to read. I read the book as a 19-year old missionary, and it wasn’t hard at all.)

  11. Kevin:

    I enjoyed Talmage as a missionary, but I found that many of my fellows had problems with the vocabulary and the concept of endnotes and footnotes (as we had the Talmage double as a standard book to bring with us).

    The same was true of Nibley (who, in the mid 70s, had fewer books in print).

  12. “he has more in common with aliens in possession of really excellent technology than he does with the traditional Christian God”

    Waall, I reckon not.

  13. Nate–

    Well now I feel like an idiot. You’re right. I was thinking that _JTC_ didn’t obligate us to a specific approach, but you are right that it would encourage us to use any methodology that is devotionally useful.

    BTW, the Dec. 04 Religious Educator has an article on Q. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet. But when I was flipping through and saw that little chart with all of the arrows and the Gospels, I did a double take.

  14. JTC was a great book. I learned the word “nomenclature” from it when I was ten years old.

    Impressed my teachers – they didn’t know what it meant.

  15. I’m interested in knowing more about some of the influences and source materials on JTC. I did some web searching once to find out about connections between JTC and Farrarr, but I couldn’t find anything. Where can I learn more about this?

  16. I’m glad to hear there is some openness to Q in the Religion Dept.

    I based my comments on peer review comments of a BYU Religion Professor (who is a friend of mine, actually) on my forthcoming book, Footnotes to the NT for LDS, which should be out in the summer of 2006 from Covenant (knock on wood, fingers crossed). His comment was that Q was generally frowned upon among his colleagues. So I had to write an explanation of why we sometimes (only very occasionally) referred to Q in our notes and why that is not a bad thing.

    Apparently my friend doesn’t speak for everyone in religious education at the Y, which is heartening to me.

  17. So why exactly does the religion department frown on Q? Would they also frown on the assertion that Matthew used Mark to write his Gospel?

    I can understand that one might think that for most of their pedagogical purposes (and let’s face it CES is best thought of as a youth ministry not an academic program) it is not horribly useful, but I don’t see what it would be religiously suspect per se…

  18. Yeah, Nate, the ones I know are very conservative and tend to support Matthean priority over Marcan priority. But I share your puzzlement as to what the harm is.

  19. Kevin and Nate: I believe that the religion dept. at the Y is a lot more conservative (and sometimes just ignorant of biblical scholarship) than we like to think. Recently I understand that the litmus test is not Q, but whether one accepts that Paul wrote Hebrews. I can’t think of any good reason to believe that he did, except Joseph Smith seems to have assumed it. Those of us who have written using both liberal and moderate biblical scholarship (and Dan Peterson and Stephen Ricks have both done so though they are not in the religion dept.) know that many feel that using such scholarship is somehow to place the gospel in question. Perhaps the very way-of-being of biblical scholarship is what troubles them most since when we seek answers via scholarship it seems that we are duty bound to leave open the conclusion as to what we may find and conclude — otherwise, it is not scholarship but devotional writing. That seems to be the dividing line. It is the very open-ended nature of the scholarly approach that questions the text rather than solely seeing how it throws light on what one already believes. I just don’t know how to do research and scholarly work without the honest question in mind and openness to the possibility that I may find something that changes my mind, surprises me or upsets the apple-cart of my preconceived beliefs.

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