A website for the upcoming BYU New Testament Commentary series has popped up. The short announcement on the main page promises “a multi-volume commentary on the New Testament along with a new rendition of the Greek New Testament texts,” which will “combine the best of ancient linguistic and historical scholarship with Latter-day Saint doctrinal perspectives.” A short post at the Interpreter claims that the first volume, covering Revelation, will be available this summer in e-book format. This promises a dramatic upgrade to the quality of LDS interaction with the New Testament. Here are a few issues (offering both opportunities and challenges) raised by the new series.
1. Better than the KJV? It sounds like the series will offer an English translation along with the commentary, which will likely require a comparison to the KJV text when there are significant deviations (as there must be). The authors will have to explain how the KJV text is incorrect or deficient and how the offered translation and/or commentary is an improvement. This will be very helpful for LDS readers, but the authors will have to maneuver around the official LDS endorsement of the KJV, most recently expressed in the August 1992 First Presidency Statement on the King James Version of the Bible as follows:
While other Bible versions may be easier to read than the King James Version, in doctrinal matters latter-day revelation supports the King James Version in preference to other English translations.
2. We really, really need a good LDS commentary on the New Testament. Talmage’s Jesus the Christ was for many years the primary LDS commentary on the gospels, but it relied on Victorian biblical scholarship that was outdated before the book was even published in 1915. Elder McConkie’s Messiah series is helpful for some readers, particularly those who treasure Elder McConkie’s views and opinions. It avoids reliance on outdated scholarship by largely avoiding reliance on any scholarship. Deseret Book’s 2006 Jesus Christ and the World of the New Testament, by Holzapfel, Huntsman, and Wayment, is surprisingly good for an illustrated volume that is sized for coffee-table display.
For Paul’s letters, Sidney Sperry’s Paul’s Life and Letters is a classic but is also rather dated (published by Bookcraft in 1955); Richard L. Anderson’s Understanding Paul (Deseret Book, 1983) is more recent. A very good reference is How the New Testament Came to Be (Deseret and the BYU Religious Studies Center, 2006), papers from the 35th annual Sperry Symposium, but as a collection of articles its coverage is selective.
So an up-to-date and comprehensive LDS commentary on the New Testament is sorely needed. This new BYU commentary series should eclipse every single one of the titles I have listed. For LDS readers, it could turn out to be the New Testament equivalent of the Joseph Smith Papers Project.
3. Defining the methodology and parameters of LDS bible scholarship. This will be a little tricky, but the success of the JSPP and the new direction of the Maxwell Institute are promising. Here’s the problem, nicely expressed in the First Presidency Statement from August 1992:
The most reliable way to measure the accuracy of any biblical passage is not by comparing different texts, but by comparison with the Book of Mormon and modern-day revelations.
There will sometimes be tension between a careful, informed reading of the New Testament text and “comparison with the Book of Mormon and modern-day revelations.” In a comprehensive commentary, you can’t just sidestep problematic passages as you might in a paper or a talk. I suspect the best compromise will be to give a full commentary based on the original text and context, supplemented by references to LDS scripture and perhaps relevant comments by LDS apostles, without dwelling too much on any divergence between the two. That would also probably be the most helpful approach for LDS readers.
We should get insight into all of these issues and more when the first volume is available this summer. In particular, how the commentary uses 1 Nephi 11-14 and D&C 77 in its discussion of Revelation will tell us a lot about the methodology and parameters question.