Since Covid disrupted normal church, I haven’t followed adult LDS Sunday School much. Our local ward streamed it for about a year, then it stopped. Class meets only every other week. But of the four courses, New Testament is the most enjoyable, so let’s talk about it. The “new and improved” Come Follow Me manuals give teacher and students even less to work with than previous years, so what you get in your class is largely dependent on what the teacher brings to the lesson and possibly some good comments. I’ll take a quick look at the first five lessons then give a few comments on Mark, the earliest of the four gospels.
They Don’t Number the Lessons
I find this rather annoying. They are referenced only by date. Whatever.
Dec. 26 to Jan. 1: We Are Responsible for Our Own Learning. It’s almost like they are saying right up front, “don’t expect to learn anything from this manual, so go find better resources on your own and read them.” How about Marcus J. Borg’s Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written (HarperCollins, 2012). (Elisa mentioned this book in a comment to my post two weeks ago.) You get the full text of the New Testament (NRSV) plus short introductions to each book by Borg, as well as a few short chapters highlighting the chronological order of the books and what that means for content of the book.
The starting point of any clear understanding of any Bible book is to consider who wrote it, when it was written, and who it was written to. Not just the traditional claims or what the book itself might claim, but what critical study of the text reveals about who *really* wrote it and when it was *actually* written. The kind of serious discussion not found in LDS manuals. The kind of stuff the manual tells you that *you* are responsible to go learn on your own. If you think the Book of Matthew was written by Matthew, one of the Twelve, you are going to read it as something like a contemporaneous record of events and actual words spoken by Jesus (this is how the LDS manual treats Matthew and the other gospels). If you think Matthew was written in the 80s by a Greek-speaking Christian, based on material that circulated as oral stories for decades before some of it took written form, you are going to read it differently.
Jan. 2 to 8: Matthew 1, Luke 1 // Jan. 9 to 15, Matthew 2, Luke 2. These chapters cover what are termed the infancy narratives. You might have read Luke’s version with the family at Christmas. Here’s the thing. Mark, the earliest gospel, has no infancy narrative. Not a thing; it starts with the adult ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Furthermore, the accounts given in Matthew and Luke tell quite different stories. These stories were written at least fifty years after the events recounted. It’s likely any person who was an eyewitness to any of those events was no longer living. Bottom line: these are not reliable narratives.
Not a word of serious discussion about this in the manual, which takes everything at face value and ignores any problems raised by the texts (see prior paragraph and any serious book on the New Testament). And of course the lesson attributes the Book of Matthew to Matthew the disciple and the Book of Luke to Luke the colleague of Paul the Apostle. It includes this questionable statement about Luke: “He recorded eyewitness accounts of events in the Savior’s life.”
Jan. 23 to 29: Matthew 3, Mark 1, Luke 3. I’ll skip the John 1 lesson and stick with the synoptic gospels. At least this lesson makes an accurate and helpful statement: “Mark’s Gospel was likely written before the other three.” But no discussion of when it was written (most scholars put it around 70) or what Markan priority means for reading Matthew and Luke.
Now I don’t expect LDS adult Sunday School to use an “Introduction to the New Testament” text from a university course as the manual. But material in the LDS manual should be informed, to some extent, by that scholarship. There ought to be, you know, some relevant and informative material in a lesson manual. Sadly, Come Follow Me is no improvement over prior manuals on this score, which is disappointing. I’m sure you’re aware that many LDS teachers largely ignore the manual and just teach the material in the scriptural chapters for that lesson. Good for them, but it’s unfair to make the teachers do all the work that the curriculum committee and manual writers should be doing! They collect millions and millions from the membership — and in return produce largely worthless manuals.
Here are a few observations from Mark 1 that get things started for further discussion of the Gospels:
- It was written in Greek, as were Matthew and Luke. Which means the authors were Greek speakers. That alone almost certainly means Matthew didn’t write Matthew, as the first Galilean disciples were almost certainly illiterate and may not have even spoken Greek.
- John the Baptist material. He is such a charismatic figure. He baptized Jesus, which suggests Jesus was a follower of John for at least a short period. This creates problems for the gospels, which don’t want to paint John as a greater figure than Jesus. Mark 1:14 notes that Jesus began his public teaching only after John was arrested. One wonders how differently events would have turned out had John not been arrested.
- Mark is a *narrative* and this matters. Mark presents the ministry of Jesus in three acts: activity and teaching in Galilee; the journey to Jerusalem; activity and teaching in Jerusalem, including death, burial, and an empty tomb story (no post-resurrection appearances). There were other sources that were collections of sayings, but Mark isn’t a collection of vignettes and sayings sort of thrown together. It is a highly structured narrative. Matthew and Luke both adopt Mark’s three-act narrative structure, but edit the material they take over from Mark, plus add their own new material, from Q and other sources.
- They each had a somewhat different story they wanted to tell about Jesus, and they structured their narrative and selected and edited their material to tell that particular story. What story did Mark want to tell? Matthew? Luke? You can’t really understand Mark or Matthew or Luke unless you ask those questions. The harmonization approach taken by the LDS manual sidesteps or simply ignores that whole line of inquiry.
- One unique aspect of Mark’s narrative is “the Messianic Secret.” While the gospel itself presents Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God, Jesus does not *announce* himself as such and prohibits others from making such an announcement. In Mark 1:21-28, “a man with an unclean spirit” says to Jesus, “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Jesus replies, “Be silent.” There are other examples later in Mark. This surprising feature of Mark’s narrative has prompted a lot of scholarly reflection. As noted, the LDS manual harmonizes the four gospels in its presentation, which tends to minimize or simply ignore any unique features of a particular author and gospel.
I hope to do a similar post about once a month. The LDS manual spends six months on just the gospels, so there should be plenty of opportunities to discuss other features of the gospels. As for this post, here are some items to discuss.
- Have you attended any recent adult LDS Sunday School classes? Is it better with Come Follow Me?
- What do you think of the new Come Follow Me manuals, in particular for how it is used (or not used) in Sunday School lessons and teaching?
- Do you have a favorite gospel? Mine is Mark.