December: Preparing for the Annual Sunday School Curriculum Reboot

OT manual coverIn the Church, December means different things to different people. If you’re three, you will soon be exiled from that zone of energetic irreverence known as Nursery to your first real class, Sunbeams. If you’re a bishop, holiday cheer is tempered by the month-long grind of tithing settlement. But one change we all look forward to every year is the annual Sunday School curriculum reboot. The anticipation is palpable.

Yes, even this year, with the Old Testament waiting in the wings. Any course of study gets old after twelve months. Universities run on quick 10-week quarters or endless 16-week semesters. Gospel Doctrine is like a 52-week BYU religion class. We’re ready for a change. December is your month to prepare.

And prepare you must. The LDS Bible offers an archaic English translation based on scholarship and original manuscripts five centuries behind the times. Moreover, the narrative is cut up into little snippets (enumerated verses), poetry and prose are made indistinguishable, and chapter headings and footnotes often do their best to Mormonize the text rather than bring the reader into the world of the Old Testament. To get what you deserve from your personal study and Sunday School attendance, you need a supplement or two. If you’re on a tight budget, you can put the titles on your Christmas wish list. If you’re devious, you can kill two birds with one stone by just buying the book you want as a gift for your spouse (hint: kick in three bucks for a really nice card if you try this at home).

Obviously, the book of choice for the average LDS reader is the just-published Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament (Deseret Book, 2009), by Holzapfel, Pike, and Seely. This beautifully illustrated book passed my single-criterion test for LDS books on the Old Testament (it gave an informed rather than dissimulating discussion of the authorship of Isaiah). A little pricey at $45, but as an imposing ornament on your coffee table it will impress any visitor. Kept near the door, it is also handy for repelling burglars or pesky vendors. A classic and affordable LDS alternative is Sidney Sperry’s The Spirit of the Old Testament, now available in a paperback reprint edition at Deseret Book.

Non-LDS scholars, of course, offer dozens of alternative translations and hundreds of books on the Old Testament directed to general readers. For a translation, I’m planning on buying Robert Alter’s The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary. For a supplementary text, I’ve got my eye on Walter Brueggemann’s An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination. I’ve sampled large chunks of both of these texts and was quite pleased. In fairness to the KJV, I’ll note that Alter thinks it is superior to most (all?) modern translations, but I’ll save that discussion for another post.

Three cheers for the four-year curriculum cycle in Sunday School. Keep that thought in mind as you head into the opening chapters of Gospel Principles in your other weekly class.

18 comments for “December: Preparing for the Annual Sunday School Curriculum Reboot

  1. 48 40 minute sessions amounts to 24 lecture hours coupled with, perhaps, 24 hours of reading. That’s an 8-week 3-credit course load. And given there’s no writing to do along with that reading, the study part of it all isn’t much either.

  2. Thanks for this post.

    Just a note that there is great stuff online that you don’t have to pay a dime for. The most accessible is this:

    Which is its own Bible translation with excellent explanatory footnotes. And if you click on a verse number it will take you to a page with about a half dozen different translations.

  3. it gave an informed rather than dissimulating discussion of the authorship of Isaiah

    So, what did it say? Just a mention of Second and Third Isaiah, or serious debate? A detailed description of the King Hezekiah thesis? Give some insight to those of us too cheap to buy the book.

  4. I am a fan of The Jewish Study Bible for the Old Testament. You get an interesting translation, some notes from a few centuries of a rabbis, and no attempts to Mormonize it. Do that yourself. It is a huge thing (1200+ pages) and in fall 2008 Amazon had it on sale for $16. Maybe again. Watch closely.

  5. For an excellent introduction to Old Testament scholarship, I recommend Michael Coogan’s _The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures_ (Oxford, 2005). It is meant to be used as a textbook in university classes, but it is still a good read.

  6. But for an LDS perspective on the biblical scholarship discussed in Coogan’s text, I definitely second (or third, or fourth) the recommendation for _Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament_. I am definitely a fan of this and its predecessor on the New Testament.

  7. I guess I’m not seeing how Mormonizing the text, for a Mormon Sunday School class, is a bad thing. It’s probably the whole point of the class, even. Perhaps we could prefer materials that Mormonize the text in light of current historical and textual research, and with understanding and sympathy for the original context?

  8. Thanks so much! I will definitely be giving myself the Jehovah book.
    I recall a BYU professor talking about foreign students who were in his Book of Mormon class at BYU who did not come from any of the religious traditions in which the Old Testament was studied. He said they had a difficult time making heads or tails of the Book of Mormon, and the questions they had were all answerable from the Old Testament. Both the New Testament, the Book of Mormon and the D&C assume familiarity with the Old Testament and its narratives.

    As for “Mormonizing” the Old Testament: One of the things that makes Mormonism attractive for me is the concept that God’s work has continuity, that his gospel is essentially the same in every dispensation. It is certainly worthwhile understanding how Orthodox Jews interpret Isaiah 53, but reading into it a Christian and even Mormon interpretation is legitimate, even if Isaiah didn’t grasp all of the details in the way we do with the perspective of the New Testament and Book of Mormon.

    The Gospels depict Jewish people who anticipated a Messiah who would fulfill specific prophecies, and it seems reasonable to me that those Jews, like Saul, who accepted that interpetation of the Old Testament, parted company with the Jews who did not.

    The Jews we know today are heirs of the latter group, while the Jews who saw a different import in the Old Testament prophecies of Messiah became Christians, and accepted a brotherhood with Gentile converts. As I understand it, Methodist scholar Margaret Barker has argued in her books that a Judaism that anticipated a coming Son of God, fulfilled by Jesus of Nazareth, was the foundation of the Jews who became Christians.

  9. Thanks, Dave. But, why “three cheers for the four-year curriculum cycle in Sunday School”? As a foil to the Gospel Principles curriculum? I hate to be another whiner, but the four-year curriculum is really just one year repeated four times; it’s all the same lessons, but culled from a different source.

    No one seriously thinks there will be any real instruction on the Old Testament during the next year, do they? Or maybe it’s just past my bed time and I’m cranky.

    OK, sorry for all that. I do thank you for the list of supplementary sources.

  10. Hunter, I understand the view that it’s just the same set of lessons presented using different texts. I think that observation applies with more force to the Priesthood/Relief Society lessons than to Sunday School. Teachers and students often bring discussion around to specific passages and ideas in the scriptural chapters covered that week whether part of the Sunday School lesson material or not. So I think the four-year cycle for Sunday School is a significant improvement over what came before.

  11. OK, Dave. Thanks for that perspective. I will try to be part of improving the improvement, rather than just a whiner in the corner.

  12. Re: “Mormonizing”

    The problem is one of credibility. Sometimes the Mormonizing cooks the books so far that the original meaning or idea is lost and then you have no idea how reliable the rest of the material is–what has been cooked and what hasn’t. It isn’t just a problem with modern Mormons, Matthew, for example, in the New Testament, sometimes distorts Messianic prophecies into places they really weren’t intended to go. It’s nice to know what the Jews thought it meant. It is fine to Mormonize, but it is also valuable to know when it is being done. At least in private study, it is good to know what was there originally (as best that term can be used) and how it has been bent. There’s lots of interesting material in the supplementary material that may not best be used for teaching Gospel Doctrine. The agenda for Sunday School class time and private scripture study are different.

  13. I study the Tanakh at various web services, which offer stuff like Rashi commentary et cetera. I study Judaism seriously (once, years ago, I was seriously becoming a Jew). I think it is very interesting to know what Orthodox Jews at various times have thought of the text. The Talmud is a treasure trove!

    I don’t expect everyone to be at the same level of interest.

    Gospel Doctrine is meant for people, whose interest is at the level of figuring out the difference between Jacob and Israel (if any!?). And that’s where most people are at. Holzapfel have done a good job of bringing the Near East closer to a lay student. Grateful for that.

    Raymond has a good angle, if you ask me… that’s what’s my major discovery; when you peel off the cultural layers, you see the core of the Messiah/Christ figure saving the children of God from death and sin. The gospel’s core message has always been essentially the same.

  14. #12- I agree, its really important to note that we do not study the OT or any other book of scripture in Sunday School. We use these texts to repeat stories about Mormon doctrine. This is a real shame when it comes to the OT. I am convinced that if we want to understand Christianity then we need to understand the OT as a Hebrew book and take the Hebrew tradition seriously on its own terms. We tend to view Judaism as a failed proto-Christianity which ends up meaning that we don’t take much from it or understand it in a meaningful way.

    Dave- I like Brueggemann’s book very much, but it needed to be longer. His list of publications on the OT is very long. I also am going to read Old Testament Theology: An Introduction. and The Prophetic Imagination among others. Also I think Levinas’s Talmudic Readings is a good bet too.

  15. Oh, I am so glad to be rid of the D&C/CH year. Talk about cram-forcing scripture to fit the needs of a pre-determined lesson sequence! Heaven forbid we actually study the scriptures themselves. Ugh. I’m so glad to be teaching OT again.


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