Why My Children Will Be Reading Jesus the Christ


It has become popular in some circles to disparage Jesus the Christ by James E. Talmage because it’s too simplistic when it comes to its gospel harmonization approach, and the scholarship is very out of date. These things may be true, but it still holds up in ways that matter. Synthesizing the devotional with the intellectual can be difficult, and I do feel like a lot of the material in the Latter-day Saint market lands either on the side of being purely devotional or primarily intellectual with a patina of devotion. This isn’t surprising, as the latter are written by people who have received training in being objective academic writers, and all of sudden they have to get into touch with their internal seminary teacher. Consequently, it feels like a lot of the more academic Latter-day Saint biblical commentary that gets published isn’t that different from standard biblical commentary, but with a few Book of Mormon references thrown in for good measure. (One relatively unknown gem of an exception I have enjoyed, at the risk of being syncopathic, is President Holland’s book on the Psalms). 

Of course there is a place for both of these genres. None of this is to say that I’m opposed to reading non-devotional scholarship like Bart Ehrman or Alter. We love them; we have their books at our house. Still, before my children deconstruct scriptures I want them to read them with commentary that breathes fire into their spiritual components, and not just put them to the side while they solve this or that puzzle about Markan priority. 

The fact is that if the intellectual puzzles was all there was to Jesus I would not care about educating my children about Him. (That indeed is the great paradox underlying much of non-believing scriptural scholarship; for their field to matter much they need the very beliefs that they are problematizing). Jesus the Christ draws on the golden age of devotional, believing biblical scholarship of people like Farrar. While some scholars today get testy when people inquire as to what they actually believe, Talmage’s beliefs are naturally interwoven throughout his writings, but he provides enough intellectual scaffolding to systematically organize his thoughts. There are some believing, more contemporary devotionalist intellectuals today like N.T. Wright and Pope Benedict, but for the most part they are no Ehrman in terms of readability. Of course, there may be some popular spiritual writer in another tradition that I am not aware of, but as far as our own faith there are few other resources that provide the same intellectual/devotional, 30,000 foot view on the life of the Savior as Talmage’s work. Not intellectual/devotional in the sense that they run side by side, but are rather interwoven with each other. 

18 comments for “Why My Children Will Be Reading Jesus the Christ

  1. The stories in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are wonderful reading, and Talmadge wrote a great book to help re-tell the stories. I would encourage anyone to read the book.

  2. Most criticisms of JTC have soyjack energy. Sure there are problems with harmonization, but there are also problems with the historical-critical approach that claims objectivity and produces a chaotic mess of contradictory analyses. JTC is great.

  3. When speaking of the end of time when Christ will finally come, He almost ponders aloud to Himself as to the condition of belief that will exist then, even among the disciples themselves. In Luke 18:8, He says, “However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?”

    We’ve noticed that scholars in the Church sometimes get so focused on what the other Ph.D.’s might think of them that they surrender their trust in Him. Thus their writings “have a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.”

    The day of miracles has not ceased, but faith is required to experience and recognize them. For example, many of our most trusted scholars have all but abandoned the Book of Abraham when the miracle is right in front of their eyes if they will but look!

  4. This is fine, and you can do whatever you want. But why does this merit a post? Is this some sort of weird virtue signal for anti-intellectual Mormon readership? This comes off as embarrassing to me. Your dismissal of NT scholars is laughable and your grasp of the field is childish. Again, you can do what you please. But how about you don’t disparage professionals. Do you enjoy it when others take unprovoked potshots at your specialty? Chill, my man. You have zero standing to say anything about what we do. You literally don’t have the training to assess it, let alone produce it. As I said, you sound childish. At any rate, I don’t hold it against you, you just should keep these kind of sentiments to yourself. Like most of the things most of us think most of the time, keep it to yourself. Pipe down. You like JTC? Great! We manage to publish and participate in our field and raise our kids and contribute in our wards and hold callings and simultaneously think JTC is useless and even harmful.

  5. Anon radiates soyjack energy like I’ve never even seen before. I couldn’t write better satire.

    Lighten up, Francis. Anybody literate has standing to say things about what you do, or else you aren’t doing your job.

  6. “Chill, my man. You have zero standing to say anything about what we do.”

    I appreciate much of the biblical scholarship that’s been done–especially in recent decades. Even so, the regular Joe Latter-day Saint (like myself) might have a thing or two to say about that scholarship when its portrayal of the Savior bears little resemblance to the Redeemer who has revealed himself to his people.

    The word is a living thing and therefore cannot be thoroughly understood without the charismatic elements of the spirit. This is where Talmage’s offering excels. Though he may not have gotten all of his historical ducks in a perfect row–he fearlessly educates the reader from the believing perspective of a modern prophet. And that perspective conveys much more truth about who the man Jesus was (and is) than the most erudite historical treatise on the New Testament can ever hope to–as useful as it may be.

  7. On my mission in Nicaragua in the mid 90s we contacted a pastor of a church who loved Jesus the Christ by Talmage. He gave us this whole analogy about taking a long car trip with a broken old car or a new car. He had no interest in Mormonism but had based his sermons on Jesus the Christ for a decade.

    Part of the history for Jesus the Christ was the leadership of the church having a coherent Christian doctrine after the Adam god doctrine from Brigham Young and moving towards the jehovah = Christ doctrine that Mormonism today is familiar with but was not the standard teaching of the church till this point.

    I loved it as a missionary and in my youth but think the historical Jesus and better scholarship of other New Testament theologians is more inspiring to me now. But part of that is that my faith has also evolved and changed and so learning about Jesus in a more comprehensive and historical context from non Mormon standpoint I’d actually fascinating where Talmage doesn’t.

    My kids are all teenagers or getting to be adults and they will read whatever they want but I doubt they will be interested in Talmage. Ehrmann probably would be more interesting to them.

  8. Talmage’s “Jesus the Christ” is simply a very lengthy church talk with scholarship derived from 19th century authors. Talmage’s vocabulary makes it at times inaccessible to the average English-speaking Latter-day Saint. There are a variety of doctrinal and historical problems in the text. We could compare it to Christus statue that stood so many years on Temple Square. It is emblematic of LDS faith in Jesus Christ, but how many of us really envision Jesus in such a fashion? Does Talmage’s work really prepare our children for the vicissitudes of Christian life in the 21st century?

  9. Well, I was unfamiliar with a term used a couple of times in this thread; viz., soyjack. I looked it up and now I know.

  10. The OP seems sensible.

    One of the blessings of my childhood was to have parents who kept books. The Mormon shelves had a lot of stuff. Issues of the Ensign were laid next to issues of Dialogue. There were devotional writings by general authorities, biographies of Mormon leaders, and compilations of work by church presidents. There was Mormon scholarship by Sidney Sperry, Hugh Nibley, and Fawn Brodie. There was Mormon fake scholarship by Cleon Skousen and other such authors whose names I have forgotten. There was serious fiction by Maurine Whipple, Virginia Sorensen, and Samuel Taylor. There was not-serious fiction by Jack Weyland. There was a lot more, but you get the picture. The collection covered a pretty wide turf for the time.

    It mattered to me that those volumes were obviously well read. I could read anything from those shelves and ask my parents about it, because they had read it too. They liked talking to me about what I read.

    It would have been nice for me to have some non-LDS books of biblical scholarship, but popular treatments of that material were perhaps harder to come by in those days. At any rate, reading all of this Mormon material—as well as the literature and history from other shelves in our home—prepared me for other things. It was positively good to read all of it. It didn’t hurt me to read Skousen’s trash. Reading things like that helped me, eventually, to recognize it as trash. The sooner you can discern the serious shortcomings in a writer like Bruce R. McConkie, the better off you’ll be. Reading the bad stuff with the good is a crucial part of education.

    Jesus the Christ is badly dated. Nobody has written an updated, contemporary version of Jesus the Christ. It’s probably not possible to do that, since newer scholarship has discredited such a thing as a project for our time. What was honest and credible in Talmage’s day is no longer so. But I think Stephen C. is right to hear genuine devotion in Talmage’s voice, and that devotion still has value. It’s good to hear voices like Talmage and to know that this is part of our heritage. I think it would be pretty wonderful to grow up reading Talmage along with N. T. Wright and Bart Ehrman.

    There is now more Mormon material of serious quality being published than ever before. Much of it is scholarly, much of it is devotional, and much of it is both scholarly and devotional. If I disagree with the OP, it is about the richness of spiritual commitment in much of what is being published now. You don’t have to go all the way back to Talmage to read true devotion from scholars. I say: Read all of it, or at least as much of it as you reasonably can. Read the new and the old, the good and the bad. And if you’re a child, read it as soon as you’re able to start taking it in.

  11. I’m still laughing to myself at how risible this post is. Choosing to be ignorant and filled with warm fuzzies because you prefer to be ignorant and warm and fuzzy is why the church is hovering around 20-25% activity rates. And then passing it on to your kids. Whoosh!! The Santa Clausing of religion. I’m cringing for you.

  12. Anon, it’s super weird to argue that you, an anonymous Internet rando, has standing to write about a topic while Stephen does not. If you really are an accomplished scholar – I have my doubts, but please, prove me wrong – then you’ve got an interested audience right in front of you who would be interested in what you think. Why are you wasting time telling other people to shut up, when you could be suggesting authors whose straddle of devotion and scholarship for an LDS audience is better than Talmage’s? Step out into the light and be an educator rather than a gatekeeper.

  13. You can have your doubts, JG. Stephen can have his silly post. You want devotion tips and I’m not going to give you that, as though devotion were some sort of measurable widget. And you don’t even want devotion. What you and the OP seek is apologetic for your assumptions and your idiosyncratic sacred vessels. Some of us find peer reviewed scholarship produced for the sake of knowledge rather than ideology to be devotion. As for me, I take zero pleasure or comfort in reading presumed conclusions or unquestionable authority. And I will say it again: it is embarrassing for Stephen to talk like he knows anything about NT scholarship and then to take a dismissive position toward it. But as I also intimated: the OP is less a substantive argument than a dog whistle to anti-intellectual Mormons. Stephen’s post history, almost invariably, is a campaign against anything that doesn’t stroke his religious ego.

    But I will give you a tip nonetheless, a somewhat oldie but goodie: Dale Martin’s The Corinthian Body (Yale UP). The author just passed away. A loss to the field.

  14. Anon: You remind me of some of the ghosts in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. I watched all of Dale Martin’s excellent Introduction to the New Testament Yale lectures on Youtube. By all appearances he appears to be an erudite scholar, but a devotional scholar he is not (he could have been a devotee of Xenu for all I could tell). If you don’t believe that there is a place for an NT Wright, Rowan Williams, or Pope Benedict, people who do synthesize the devotional with the intellectual, then that’s a bigger issue (I just hope you aren’t teaching at BYU). Again, the thing that gives the biblical exegesis Rubik’s cube meaning is the “worlds without end” behind it somewhere. If you’ve lost that and the Rubik’s cube is all you’re left with, well then I guess some people have their idiosyncratic hobbies.

    SadLaughing: So you’re saying that if the Church moves away from its truth claims that will increase attendance? I never understood that argument. “we all know it’s a fraud, but we’d like you to get your ministering visits in this month…” There are, incidentally, a number of denominations that have Dale Martin types at their pulpits–they’re not doing so great at paying their bills.

    Loursat: Of course the issue is so much to read so little time, and the competitors to children’s attention make it harder for them to schlodge through Giant Joshua. Still trying to figure that one out….

    JI: I had to look it up as well, lol.

  15. You’re a real piece of work, anon. You get all huffy about Stephen’s post because it might tangentially touch on your supposed academic field, and yet you have no problem with making far-fetched speculations about declining religiosity and activity rates – which isn’t your academic field, but is a field that Stephen has published in.

    See how silly it is to tell other people to stick to their lane? It’s not something you’re willing and able to do yourself.

    And since when did the question of what popular works of religious history are best for devotional use get to be your lane, anyway? Assuming it’s not all made up, you’ve got a PhD and some publications on some aspect of early Christianity. Great, that’s wonderful – but the literature you know is going to be nearly inaccessible and almost entirely useless for the purposes he’s talking about.

  16. JG, that’s fair and I can see what I did when you put it like that. I will step back. It’s too easy to slip past the boundaries of one’s expertise! Let me reiterate my basic criticism of the OP from a legitimate position: Stephen dismisses NT scholarship in favor of demonstrably outdated and misleading feelgoods because scholarship doesn’t deliver the feelgoods that make his life easier; he also keeps chiming the bell for anti-intellectual Mormons to come and have a meal of pablum.

  17. Well, to me the difference between Talmage and Ehrman is that, even with the limitations of his scholarly sources, Talmage was intellectually honest and (mostly) consistent, whereas Ehrman I consider one of the most intellectually dishonest and inconsistent scholars I have ever had the displeasure to read. He is, however, quite accessible, so I can see why people might like him.

    Alter, on the other hand, is intellectually honest and consistent as well, so even though he clearly is not a believer, his work is useful. His Hebrew Bible translation is absolutely amazing.

  18. Stephen, I was thinking as I read your post of Frederick W. Farrar’s Life of Christ, and then you mentioned him. It made me happy! I love both Jesus the Christ and Life of Christ for the devotion, passion and intensity both men gave their subjects. I give the edge to Farrar, though- his book reads like poetry! Would that all religious scholars and devotees could express both the beauty and the substance of their research!

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