I’m going to try something different for awhile: do a series of posts on the New Testament, but not with any particular reference to the order or content in the LDS Come Follow Me New Testament manual for LDS adult Sunday School, this year’s course of study. I’ll highlight my own scholarly sources as I go along, but of course some of the discussion will cover the LDS view or treatment of the particular book or topic. LDS read the same Bible as other Christians, but take a rather different view of it. It takes a long time to really grasp how different the Mormon Bible is (and by “the Mormon Bible” I mean the Mormon view of the Bible, how Mormons read the Bible, how LDS leaders want LDS to read the Bible, how the Bible is covered in the LDS curriculum and in LDS Seminary, etc.). I expect readers, of course, to chime in with their own thoughts, maybe expanding on my points or possibly presenting a different or contrary view.

I’m going to use Marcus Borg’s Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written (HarperOne, 2012) as sort of a guide for the order of discussion. Yes, the order the books were written really matters if you are trying to understand who wrote it and who it was written to and how that helps a reader interpret the content of the book. So Borg’s book is a great place to start, and the first “book” is 1 Thessalonians, written about 50 AD. That’s 15 or 20 years after Jesus preached in Galilee. (Aside: the image for this post is a view of the modern Greek city of Thessaloniki.)

It’s All Greek to Me

Here’s the first puzzling thing about the New Testament. Around 30 AD, Jesus of Nazareth wandered through the Jewish villages of Galilee, accompanied by a few peasant-disciples and teaching a reformed version of Judaism in Aramaic to those village folk who would listen. A dozen years later, Paul and others were travelling through the cities of the Eastern Mediterranean, teaching what increasingly became a religion about Jesus (rather than the stuff Jesus taught) and doing it in Greek. So a reformed Judaism preached to villagers in Galilee in Aramaic quickly became an emerging Christianity preached to urban Gentiles (non-Jews) in Greek in the cities of the Roman Empire and beyond. Paul’s authentic letters are firmly in the urban Greek-speaking column.

It wasn’t just a language shift, of course. It was a, to a certain extent, also a worldview shift, with the Jewish concepts preached in Gallilee using Aramaic terminology passing through the prism of Greek culture and Greek philosophy and Greek religion before being written down (in Greek) as the books of the New Testament as we have them. If some archeologist ever digs up a text from the 30s or 40s in Aramaic written down by an early Jewish Christian that reliably recorded some of the words of Jesus in Aramaic — well, a lot of books on Jesus and the early Christian Church would have to be rewritten.

Paul’s Letter to the Thessalonians

Paul didn’t just dictate a letter to his converts back in Thessalonica. He used the accepted format of Greek letters, which follows a standard format of Sender, Addressee, Greeting and Blessing, Thanksgiving, Body, and Closing. Just another imprint of the Greek context on some New Testament documents. Most of the letter is just pastoral encouragement to the newly converted Gentiles in Thessalonica, probably only a couple of dozen of them, plus a few comments on questions they had sent back to Paul via Timothy, one of Paul’s young colleagues.

Personally, I don’t read this book (or others) asking myself, “What does the inerrant and God-inspired text of Paul’s letter tell me about what to believe and how to act?” I ask myself, “What does Paul’s letter show about what Paul believed and what early Christians believed?” And since this is the earliest document in the New Testament, this is the earliest window, so to speak, into the early Church. A Mormon way to put this might be that the letter is the conversation we have between an early Christian leader and his congregation, sort of like the First Presidency letters you hear read over the pulpit from time to time. And as most early Christians were illiterate, Paul’s letters were read out loud to the recipients in Thessalonica and elsewhere, as Paul explicitly directs in 5:26.

A Few Highlights

These are highlights from 1 Thess from my perspective, which as noted is “What does Paul’s letter show about what Paul and early Christians believed?” If you or someone else wants to take the additional step and add “… therefore, that’s what I should believe,” that’s a different approach and will probably make you focus on different concepts and passages. Any quotes are from the NRSV text Borg uses in the book.

  • 1:2-3 — “… remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Right up front, in his very first letter, Paul is using the faith, hope, and charity formula. See also 5:8.
  • 1:2-5 — References to God/Father, Jesus Christ/Lord, and the Holy Spirit. As used by Paul here and throughout the letter, that sounds like two rather different beings and an emanation to me. You have to work real hard to read the Christian Trinity (one substance, three persons) into New Testament texts.
  • “The Gospel” — to a Mormon, that term implies the whole assembly (or at least the essential parts) of Mormon doctrine, church organization, priesthood offices and ordinances, and various commandments. It’s not entirely clear what Paul or his readers understood by the term, but it was certainly a much simpler formulation of “the gospel.” In the letter it’s called “our message of the gospel” (1:5) and “the gospel of God” (2:2, 8) and “the gospel of Christ” (3:2). Those phrases may have different references; they may not be using the term gospel (or good news) in the same way.
  • the wrath that is coming” (1:10) — Paul shared the apocalyptic view of John the Baptist and Jesus, although it was not the central idea in his preaching and letters. See “Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming” (1:10) and the whole “caught up in the clouds together” and “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” discussion from 4:13 to 5:11. Here’s the key point: Paul thought this Second Coming would happen within a few short years. “For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who died.” (4:15) That didn’t happen. Paul was wrong. The only question is whether Paul was wrong simply on the timing (off by a few thousand years) or on the whole event.

Mormon Views

Early Mormon doctrine of “the Godhead” (the strange Mormon term for the Trinitarian God), as reflected in the Lectures on Faith, matches my reading of Paul in this letter: two beings and an emanation. Later Mormon doctrine reified and personified the Holy Spirit into the Holy Ghost, a separate person with a body, albeit a spirit body. I sure like the term “Holy Spirit” better than “Holy Ghost.”

Early Mormon doctrine embraced apocalypticism to a much greater degree than current LDS teaching. Even food storage, the practical Mormon response to “the wrath that is coming,” has faded away from most discussions. At least until recently. The Nelson/Oaks presidency may be putting more emphasis on the Second Coming and all the D&C passages that give various details about what might or might not happen. At least the “someday we’ll all go back to Missouri” idea seems to have been permanently discarded.

The Come Follow Me discussion of 1 Thessalonians doesn’t happen until the middle of October. The lesson lumps 1 Thess and 2 Thess together in the lesson, although (following Borg’s analysis and timeline) 2 Thess was written fifty years later, in the early second century, by someone who was not Paul. The concerns of 2 Thess (delay in the Second Coming and freeloaders in the church) were rather different than the concerns of 1 Thess, although the writer of 2 Thess tried hard to imitate the structure and language of 1 Thess.


So what do you think? Which of the following describes your view?

  • I don’t like this approach. Go back to your usual discussion of books, football, and gripes about various Mormon things.
  • I like discussing the New Testament and find it fairly authoritative for my Christian thinking and belief.
  • I like discussing the New Testament but only as an interesting historical and doctrinal inquiry.
  • I like discussing the New Testament and found the following book very helpful …


Marcus J. Borg, The Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written, HarperOne, 2012.