Book Review: Jesus Christ and the World of the New TestamentBook Cover

It looks like a coffee table book but it reads like top-notch scholarship.
Much to my surprise, an LDS publisher has brought forth a book on the New Testament that is well worth owning.

Almost every page contains luscious, colorful photos of historical artifacts, ancient texts, geographic formations, and paintings. There are images of the earliest known text for almost every NT book and with superb detail–you can see the individual strands of papyrus as well as the variations of the ink. The layout is extraordinary: what, in other hands, could have been a dusty textbook becomes an appealing presentation with many useful sidebars. But far more important than the form is the content: this is one of the only books that brings mainstream New Testament scholarship to an LDS audience, which is no easy feat.

After an introduction (which, on the one hand, contains much good information but, on the other hand, may feel to the uniniated like drinking from a fire hose), the book follows the canonical order of the New Testament with many extra sections on topics ranging from Jewish burial customs to what Jesus looked like. Even for a reader with a good background in the New Testament, there are all sorts on interesting tidbits: I had never realized that the paragraph marks in the KJV ended at Acts 20. But I was most pleased with their frequent and frank debunking of common interpretive errors that some Saints make, such as treating Josephus as an unbiased source or the Mishnah as completely applicable to Jesus’ day. They are also unafraid to disagree with other LDS scholars–and even leaders–on interpretive matters; they maintain that it is highly unlikely that the Garden Tomb was Jesus’ tomb. They frankly discuss the fact that Mark’s Gospel originally ended at 16:8, that there is no way to reconcile John’s dating of the Last Supper with the Synoptics, and that the story of the woman taken in adultery is not original to John’s Gospel.

They also do an acceptable job attending to feminist issues in the interpretation of the NT–they even get bonus points for noting that the person who translated Jesus’ words from Aramaic to Greek was not necessarily male (p52). They also present some intriguing insights into texts involving women. For example, in John’s Gospel, women are witnesses to the three major events in Jesus’ life (the miracle at Cana, the crucifixion, and the resurrection) and, at all three, are called “woman” which serves to make “the reference more broadly applicable to all women” (p137).

It is truly a difficult thing to juggle the scholarly (lack of) consensus, traditional (mis)interpretations, and uniquely LDS viewpoints without dropping a ball or losing one’s mind. In general, they did a fine job. But the fact that they sometimes mention the difference between historical tradition, scholarly tradition, LDS tradition, and the authors’ interpretations actually makes it worse when they don’t. So it feels like a lacuna in the text when they note that priesthood keys were given on the Mount of Transfiguration without mentioning that any non-LDS scholar would find absolutely no support for this statement.

For a text that covers an amazing breadth of topics, errors were few and far between. They do seem to have confused red-letter editions of the Bible with the color-coding system of the Jesus Seminar (see page 87), an error that I find (please forgive me) delightful. Later, they propose that “most conservative specialists accept Pauline authorship� (p235) of all the epistles—including Hebrews. This is simply not true. (This issue doesn’t even pose problems for that most conservative group of conservatives, the inerrantists, since there is no internal attestation of Pauline authorship—but there is internal evidence that the writer was converted in a manner very different from Paul.)

At one point, they dismiss “speculation” that Phebe was a priesthood holder just because the word diakonos is applied to her (p206)–a somewhat tenuous position since they have previously held that the word is sometimes used “in a technical sense” (p10) for a priesthood office. And then in a later reference to Phebe, they state that diakonos implies that she “held a recognized ecclesiastical positionâ€? (p251).[1] If I were interested in redaction criticism, I might find evidence of multiple authors here, especially since the same paragraph later notes that Prisca and her husband worked together “seemingly equallyâ€? while the text previously noted that the fact the Prisca’s name is usually mentioned before her husband’s indicates that she was more prominent than he was (p228).

The only section of the work with serious problems was on “the lost gospels.” That text states that “a growing number of scholars are advocating that we replace the New Testament Gospels with some recently discovered texts from antiquityâ€? (p310). This seems a stretch—especially since they name the discovery of the Gospel of Judas as one of the events “fuelingâ€? this movement. I don’t know of any non-crack pot who has suggested that a canonical gospel be replaced by the Gospel of Judas; perhaps it would have been more accurate to say that some scholars question whether the gospels in the canon deserve a status any different from the apocryphal gospels. The inexplicable hostility of this section comes through in other ways as well: Why say that the Gospel of Philip was “forgedâ€? (p311) under his name when the very same process—when it applies to the Epistle to the Hebrews—is described as “translat[ing] it or rework[ing] itâ€? (p256)?

But these are minor issues; I was surprised by their general success at covering such a vast amount of material in such an accurate and user-friendly format. While this review has, for the sake of brevity, used terms that might be foreign to the non-specialist, the text itself did an excellent job of presenting the material in such a way that the average Gospel Doctrine attendee will feel entirely confident when they reach the discussion of the apocalypse’s eschatology or a pericope concerned with christology because–wonder of wonders–they actually define these (and many other) terms in the beginning of the book. I sincerely hope that, in engaging some technical information, I haven’t scared anyone off–this book is entirely accessible to any literate adult in the Church.

A book like this requires a jaunt through land mines since there are very few factual or interpretative statements about the NT that scholars do not challenge. These authors did a fine job—this is by far the best LDS book on the New Testament. While they may have taken a few positions different from the general scholarly consensus, they have made great strides in presenting that consensus to an LDS audience in a fairly non-threatening, easy-to-read, and aesthetically pleasing manner.

[1] I imagine that they would explain this by noting the difference between ‘an ecclesiastical position’ and ‘a priesthood office’ and I have no problem with this as long as they acknowledge that it is eisigesis and not exegesis.

33 comments for “Book Review: Jesus Christ and the World of the New TestamentBook Cover

  1. Julie, I’m surprised that your review doesn’t give us the authors’ names. An oversight I assume. They are Richard Holzapfel and Eric Huntsman, both excellent, trained New Testament scholars.

  2. (1) Sounds like a good book; I’ll keep an eye out for it

    (2) Can I request a follow up post about these Phebe issues that you mention? It sounds like there’s more to this iceberg.

  3. Julie, thank you for this review—my husband consistently refers to notes from Eric Huntsman’s NT class and I’m glad to find he has a book out.

  4. Julie–
    Thanks for the review–can’t wait to read it! This is a little off topic, but I’m wondering what you (and those authors) make of the murder of Zacharias. Since Joseph Smiththe father of John the Baptist was killed, but other NT scholarship I’ve read suggests that when Jesus mentions the martyrs from Abel to Zacharias, he’s doing an A-Z from Genesis to 2 Chronicles in the Torah. Thoughts?

  5. Julie:
    Didn’t Holzapfel also rescently work on a Jesus Christ Multi Book Set fro Deseret book?(Sorry I can’t recall the name of the books, just that my wife bought them for her father.) Have you read those? Would you consider this book a better piece from the same authors than that? I’ve read neither but would be interested in what differentiates the two, if you’ve read both.

    Also, I love these reviews! Thank you!

  6. Jim F., an oversight indeed–thanks for calling my attention to it. The authors are Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, Eric D. Huntsman and Thomas A. Wayment and the book is published by Deseret.

    Kaimi, I’ll post more on Phebe later.

    Anita, I’ll need to look into that–I’ve never given it much thought, but it is an interesting question.

    MW*, I think you are referring to The Life and Teachings of Jesus Christ series. I haven’t read it, but would be interested to hear from others who have.

  7. Julie:
    I’ll see if I can bum it from my Father-in-Law. He gave it high praise, saying it is the new “Jesus the Christ” with modern scholarship.

  8. What reasons are given for it being ‘highly unlikely’ that the Garden Tomb is Jesus’ tomb? Just curious.

  9. The Life and Teachings of Jesus Christ series, edited by Holzapfel and Wayment, are a collection of articles by LDS scholars that appears to be in the same scholarly vein as this book. Perhaps this book is a distilation of the scholarship from the 3 volume series. Soon after reading Bart Ehrman’s _Misquoting Jesus_, I read Jeff Needle’s reviews of the Life and Teachings series, and determined that they would be necessary sources for teaching the New Testament next year, assuming I am still the Gospel Doctrine teacher. I am amazed and impressed that Deseret Book is publishing these volumes. Up to know I have used the Studies in the Scriptures volumes, which seemed to go halfway toward applying modern techniques of scholarship to interpreting the scriptures, this series seems to go much farther in that direction. Here are links to Jeff’s excellent reviews:

  10. While Holzapfel et al, should be credited with bringing together a fine domain of material, one mustn’t forget to credit the actual agency and designers of the book—Stephen Hales Creative, in Provo, and A.J. Rich, who served as the principal designer—with creating a rather laudable piece of information design. I was the senior designer at SHC for nearly seven years but left just as this project was getting underway. Stephen, A.J., and the others did a great job on, as Julie put it, turning a “dusty textbook [into] an appealing presentation with many useful sidebars.”

  11. I must second (third? Fourth?) this book. It really is good stuff. I was so impressed upon a quick glance at it in the bookstore over the summer that I went directly to Wayment’s office (who happened to be teaching my freshman brother), and thanked him for finally pushing some non-fluff through Deseret Book. Yes, it has a lot of pictures. But there is content, actual honest-to-God content! Perhaps a new wind is blowing at DB.

  12. Re #9: This is what they say: it wasn’t a ‘new’ tomb; it dates from 7th c BCE–its features do not match 1 c CE practices.

    Re #10: thank you Andrew.

    Re #11: thank you very much for that information.

  13. Julie,
    Thanks for the review! I am pleased to see LDS scholars being able to publish a book like this. However, I am concered about some of the errors that you mention. Each one seems pretty glaring. Not knowing these authors, can anyone say anything about their graduate training and qualifications?

    Also, Julie, can you add anything about which non-LDS scholars exercize the most influence on the book?

  14. It’s nice to see that LDS stuff dealing with non-LDS scriptures are improving. Maybe one can hope that the CES manuals get updated to this level of quality?

  15. TrailerTrash, please don’t overemphasize the errors. The breadth that one has to cover in the book like this (Jewish studies, knowledge of Greece, Rome, etc., at least five languages, NT studies in all their many varieties, knowledge of early Christianity, history of interpretation, etc., etc.) makes it impossible that any three people on earth could have written a book like this without errors.

    Because they don’t footnote the book and have only the briefest bibliography, I can’t name specific non-LDS authors. My general sense is that they incorporate the mainstream-but-conservative consensus. They seem particularly conservative in favoring early dating of the texts and somewhat on the liberal side in accepting alterations to the texts.

    “Maybe one can hope that the CES manuals get updated to this level of quality?”

    Clark, if it weren’t 40$, this book itself would make a superb CES manual.

  16. “The breadth that one has to cover in the book like this (Jewish studies, knowledge of Greece, Rome, etc., at least five languages, NT studies in all their many varieties, knowledge of early Christianity, history of interpretation, etc., etc.) makes it impossible that any three people on earth could have written a book like this without errors.”

    Well, I can name any number of Intros to the NT that don’t make these particular errors. But, I grant you that this is a huge undertaking and certainly a step in the right direction! Thanks again for the excellent review!

  17. Anita #5, see my footnote to Matthew 23:35, note # 1335, here:

    In short, I think your latter option is the correct conclusion.

    I seem to recall that there are problems with the attribution of the quote from TPJS on this subject to Joseph Smith. I believe this is dealt with in _Apocryphal Writings and the Latter-day Saints_, published by the BYU Religious Studies Center.

  18. to the three major events in Jesus’ life (the miracle at Cana, the crucifixion, and the resurrection)

    Wouldn’t Gethsemane take higher importance than the miracle at Cana? Or are you including it with the crucifixion?

  19. el_godofredo,

    I’m not entirely sure how the authors would parse that, but I assume that they would fold it in with the crucixion.

  20. “Not knowing these authors, can anyone say anything about their graduate training and qualifications?”

    R. Holzapfel — PhD at Cal State Irvine (not certain of his degree, but his scholarship ranges far and wide)
    T. Wayment — Phd in New Testament at Claremont Graduate University
    E. Huntsman — PhD in Ancient History from University of Pennsylvania (was in Classics dept. before moving to Religious Ed.)

    I don’t know Huntsman’s work well enough to comment, but the other two do top notch work — and they still have lots of years ahead of them. Good news.

  21. Thanks, Julie, for yet another great review. One more question — how do these authors deal with the cleansing of the temple? Do they follow Talmage and claim two cleansings, even though no more than one occurs in any given gospel? Or do they allow that John may not be an absolutely chronological narrative?

  22. Took a number of classes from Huntsman years ago. Excellent teacher, very open minded, and in my opinion an excellent scholar.

  23. I don’t know Huntsman personally, but I’ve heard nothing but good things about him. And since he started in classics, he *must* be good!

  24. John Bryan,

    Because they treat each gospel separately, the issue doesn’t come up as far as I remember. They do allow at a few points that the gospels are not absolutely chronological.

  25. I associate with Dr. Huntsman and have taken many classes from him, both religious and otherwise. He is a great scholar! He teaches NT (both in English and in Greek). His linguistic training is superb and is probably the best Koine Greek scholar at BYU. He has articles in all 3 of the Life and Teachings of Jesus Christ volumes, and they are all very good. Hopefully this will only be the beginning of his contributions to LDS-NT scholarship.

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