First, there was the recent publication of Thomas A. Wayment’s The New Testament: A Translation for Latter-day Saints. Now we get another gem, Julie M. Smith’s The Gospel According to Mark, the fourth volume in the BYU New Testament Commentary series. These are the best tools for serious Mormon personal study of the New Testament that have ever been produced. Let’s talk about the 961-page Mark commentary (which, by the way, costs only $30 at the BYU Studies site).
Julie Smith, the author, delivered a presentation at a one-day conference at BYU focused on the New Testament that was held on Saturday Jan. 26. She examined the use of the Greek term hodos (“the way”) which can refer literally to a road or path but became a technical term referring to the very early Church (what some scholars call “the Jesus movement”). In some translations the term is even capitalized when used to refer to the early Church. Here is Acts 9:1-2 from the Wayment translation:
But Saul was still breathing out threats … and went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the Damascus synagogues so that if he found any who were of the Way, men or women, he would bring them to Jerusalem as prisoners.
Where this awareness of the term really gets interesting is when it is used in a verse that has an evident literal meaning but also speaks to the Christian use of the term and would resonate in that way with early Christians. Here is Matthew 5:25 in Wayment:
Agree quickly with your accuser while you are in the way with him ….
And right at the beginning of Mark, in verse 3 of chapter 1, we read in the new translation (termed “a rendition”) that is included with the Mark commentary:
The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
I’m throwing in these details just to emphasize that there really is a lot to be learned by any LDS reader from these excellent study tools, no matter how many times one has read KJV Mark or any other book in the New Testament. Let me throw in just a few of my own observations about Mark to suggest why the Mark commentary is an especially worthwhile investment of $30 of your cash and a few hours of your time if you are a serious student of the Bible. Or even just a casual reader.
- As the first gospel written, around 65 or 70 CE, Mark is the closest in time to the events recounted in the text and arguably therefore the most reliable in a historical sense. And we all ought to care about the historical sense.
- Mark is something of a control text for Matthew and Luke, whose authors both borrowed a lot of material from Mark but also often expanded or modified what they borrowed. Evidence suggests the modifications were made to make points Matthew and Luke wanted emphasized or to make their portrayal of Jesus closer to the picture they were trying to paint.
- Being very familiar with Mark also highlights additional material in Matthew (like the Sermon on the Mount) and Luke (like the parable of the Prodigal Son). Where did Matthew and Luke get material not in Mark? The infancy narratives and the post-resurrection stories in particular deserve some consideration, given how different the two sets of infancy narratives and post-resurrection appearances are in the two books.
- Matthew and Luke borrowed not just material but also the narrative structure of Mark: the Galilean ministry, the journey to Jerusalem, and then the event-filled week in Jerusalem. They liked Mark, they just wanted a revised and expanded version of Mark. Had independent copies of the text of Mark not survived, the Book of Mark would have merged or disappeared into Matthew and Luke the same way the Q material (of which we do not have independent texts) was merged into Matthew and Luke.
- John, on the other hand, presents a very different narrative structure for the story of Jesus, with a much longer time frame of several years, not one year, and several trips to Jerusalem, not just one final journey. The author of John, writing several decades after Mark, was likely familiar with the synoptics, but did not adopt Mark’s structure. This, too, merits some reflection.
Obviously, the Mark commentary and the entire BYU New Testament commentary series stand out as a real step forward for LDS biblical scholarship. Too often mainstream Mormons focus on the Book of Mormon for scripture reading and sort of relegate the “as far as it is translated correctly” Bible to second-tier status. Impenetrable KJV prose and vocabulary no doubt add to this tendency. The Wayment NT translation and these commentary volumes are a real opportunity to put at least the New Testament right up front where it should be.
At the same time, one has to wonder why so little of this LDS Bible scholarship (not secular or Catholic or Protestant scholarship, but LDS scholarship) makes it into the LDS curriculum. We finally got a new curriculum for LDS adult Sunday School, but … well, be careful what you ask for. We really need a GA or two to quite explicitly suggest in Conference that more modern Bible translations are helpful for personal study. We really need a GA or two to quote from and reference in Conference these new Bible tools produced by LDS scholars. If you happen to be related to a GA (they seem to listen to their relatives more than any of the rest of us) please make this suggestion!