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 Jesusâ€™ 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 authorsâ€™ interpretations actually makes it worse when they donâ€™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 â€œmost conservative specialists accept Pauline authorshipâ€? (p235) of all the epistlesâ€”including Hebrews. This is simply not true. (This issue doesnâ€™t even pose problems for that most conservative group of conservatives, the inerrantists, since there is no internal attestation of Pauline authorshipâ€”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 â€œheld a recognized ecclesiastical positionâ€? (p251). 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 â€œseemingly equallyâ€? while the text previously noted that the fact the Priscaâ€™s name is usually mentioned before her husbandâ€™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 â€œa growing number of scholars are advocating that we replace the New Testament Gospels with some recently discovered texts from antiquityâ€? (p310). This seems a stretchâ€”especially since they name the discovery of the Gospel of Judas as one of the events â€œfuelingâ€? this movement. I donâ€™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 â€œforgedâ€? (p311) under his name when the very same processâ€”when it applies to the Epistle to the Hebrewsâ€”is described as â€œtranslat[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 jobâ€”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.
 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.