Looking at Scripture Mastery – Luke 24:36-39
Greek: 36 Ταῦτα δὲ αὐτῶν λαλούντων αὐτὸς ἔστη ἐν μέσῳ αὐτῶν. 37 πτοηθέντες δὲ καὶ ἔμφοβοι γενόμενοι ἐδόκουν πνεῦμα θεωρεῖν. 38 καὶ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς· τί τεταραγμένοι ἐστέ, καὶ διατί διαλογισμοὶ ἀναβαίνουσιν ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ ὑμῶν; 39 ἴδετε τὰς χεῖράς μου καὶ τοὺς πόδας μου, ὅτι ἐγώ εἰμι αὐτός· ψηλαφήσατέ με καὶ ἴδετε, ὅτι πνεῦμα σάρκας καὶ ὀστέα οὐκ ἔχει καθὼς ἐμὲ θεωρεῖτε ἔχοντα.
My Translation: 36 Now they themselves talking, he stood in the middle of them [some manuscripts add “and he said, “Peace to y'all'”]. 37 But they were terrified and became afraid, seeming to see a spirit. 38 And he said to them, “Y'all are troubled? And why do thoughts rise up in the heart of y'all? 39 Y'all look at my hands and my feet, for I am myself; y'all handle me and look, for a spirit doesn't have fleshes and bones even as y'all see I have.”
KJV: 36 And as they thus spake, Jesus himself stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. 37 But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they had seen a spirit. 38 And he said unto them, Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts? 39 Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.
My translations are purposefully stretched and should not be viewed as more accurate than the KJV translation unless I say so in the post. I'm trying to show the range lying between the original Greek text and the English.
Usually my process on these posts is to step back in time, in my head, to my own days in Seminary about fifteen years ago. Of course, this can't take into account any change in LDS culture or doctrine since then (and some LDS doctrines and cultural assumptions have shifted dramatically in the past twenty years), but it tends to provide a good starting off point for what I want to talk about.
However, in this case I remember distinctly being taught that this set of verses was Important (with a capital “I”) because it taught something that other Christians didn't believe. My hazy memory seemed to pull up a sense that other Christians didn't believe in the resurrection of the body, or that perhaps they felt that Jesus himself wasn't resurrected but was a spirit. However, in the intervening years I've made it my business to learn the general Christian viewpoints (mostly the main Protestant viewpoints) on the Godhead; I've made it my business to try and understand the theological underpinnings of basic Trinitarian doctrine. And I can't think of many Christians who actually deny the resurrection of the body (though most simply view it as an odd side doctrine of Christianity without much importance), and I can't think of any Christians who deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus as described in some of the Gospels. I must have been mistaken.
So I asked my wife, who did not grow up in Utah, what she remembers about this scripture from her Seminary days. “Hmm,” she said, thinking back, “I seem to remember being told that this scripture specifically refutes the idea that Jesus doesn't have a body. But that can't be right, can it? Because I don't think most Christians have any idea whether or not Jesus kept his body after he was resurrected and I think even less care about the idea.”
So, on the basis of a memory of Seminary from both Utah and Colorado during the late 90s, I'm going to assume that this idea was common in CES at the time: Luke's depiction of Christ's physical resurrection was important to Mormons in context of the beliefs of other Christians.
Turning to other sources, it seems that this idea may have its genesis with Elder LeGrand Richard's book A Marvelous Work and a Wonder which was in the missionary library before and while I was on my mission (but has since been dropped from the recommended books for all missionaries). Elder Richards uses this verse to combat an idea he feels is found in traditional Christianity, namely that God is “everywhere and nowhere, without body, parts, or passions.” Of course, this is a conception of God believed by *some, *but nowhere near all, Christians towards God the Father, and not Jesus. I think the only reason that Elder Richards felt that this verse was a correct refutation of this idea of God being without a body is because Elder Richards also seems to think that a Trinitarian viewpoint of God and Jesus has them being the same person, which it does not. Believing that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are merely three expression of a single being is actually a Christian heresy called Modalism or Sabelleanism. The Trinity occupies a mentally difficult place between the heresy of Modalism and the heresy of polytheism, walking the knife's edge between the two. Many Christians feel a deep sense of holy mystery about how the nature of God is both expressed in three persons perfectly united in one Godhood. This sense of holy mystery is not absent from Mormonism; I've found its best example is applied towards the exact mechanics of how Christ's Atonement, localized to a specific few hours in time and a single spot in space, can have an impact that is universal in both time and space. Mormons don't just accept that as a mystery: they feel a deep sense of profundity at how it's incomprehensible to them. There are few things that bother me more than hearing Mormons mocking the mystery of Trinity and mere minutes later expressing their wonder and amazement at how the Atonement surpasses understanding.
So I think it's a fundamental misunderstanding of traditional Christian theology and Trinitarianism that makes Elder Richards feel that this verse is well-suited to be used against such beliefs. After all, if the Father and the Son are the same being, then how can God be without “body, parts, or passions” and yet Christ obviously has a body here in this verse? Q.E.D., right?
But that's all in the past: part of my childhood. Perhaps we've moved on from this sort of thinking, right? Let's see what the current manuals have to say on this subject.
The “current” Institute manual (which is woefully out of date in its biblical scholarship, its quotations of old LDS general authorities, and its social applications) is actually, somewhat surprisingly, rather silent on this particular section, preferring instead to focus on issues of the authority and priesthood of the apostles through what are apparently “meaningful silences” in the text by the authors in this story of Jesus appearing to them after his resurrection.
The Seminary materials, on the other hand, focus much more on how students should learn about the doctrine of resurrection in general from this passage and its context (yay for context! Student are actually encouraged to read further after this scripture to see that Luke's resurrected Jesus eats and drinks food). Of course, other scriptures on this subject are also brought up which might muddy the waters and imply more about this verse than what it says on its own. But I am glad to report that the official manuals only use these scriptures to further discussion of resurrection and what resurrected bodies “are like”.
Now, from my post-Mormon perspective, I'm glad that it appears that the scripture is no longer seen as useful in defending Mormon beliefs. Frankly, this scripture is actually rather useless in upholding any of the rather distinct doctrines of Mormonism, either those doctrines about resurrection or about an embodied God. Mormon believe that resurrection is *forever, *and that it is impossible for a resurrected person to “put off” their body. Except when some of them make exceptions against this permanence in the 19th Century and beyond in trying to account for Brigham Young's bizarre conception of Adam as the re-embodiment of God the Father. These ideas of physical bodies being “taken up” and “put aside” continue to pop up in hushed conversation and private gatherings as part of the “meat” of the Gospel and some of the “deep doctrines” that “everyone” knows about (I speak from experience, having heard some of this from multiple individuals as various times). Frankly, I think most Christians feel that Jesus, being God, cannot and should not be viewed as limited in any of his power and actions and that if Jesus wishes to have a body, then he can have a body, and if he wishes to put that body aside for a while, then he can do so. Because HE'S GOD, right?
And it's even more bizarre that this scripture, about the resurrected Jesus, would have anything to do with the nature of God the Father. Mormons believe that the Father is embodied just as the Son is embodied (though they have just as much confusion and lack of interest in the Holy Ghost as many Christians do), and while this doctrine provides much religious angst between some Mormons and some Christians, the nature of the Father is not illuminated in any way, shape, or form by this verse. Luke's Jesus never says, “Oh, and by the way, my body looks like my father's. Just FYI.” John's Jesus may make such statements, but John's Gospel is, as they say, a horse of an entirely different color.
Moving on to another issue, Jesus's statement that “a spirit” doesn't have flesh and bone should be analyzed. From a Mormon point of view, this statement has sometimes gained a particular importance in light of things said by Brigham Young and other 19th Century leaders. Supposedly, it's noteworthy that Luke doesn't have Jesus say that he doesn't have “flesh and blood”, because resurrected bodies don't have blood. Well, let me here and now state: I sincerely doubt that Luke would have made such a nuanced theological statement in the middle of his passion narrative, and that's assuming that the historical Luke is even the actual author of the Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles (which has numerous reasons to be unlikely; the same author wrote both books, but it's doubtful that his name, or even possibly her name, was “Luke”). Also, the words in question are literally “fleshes” and “bones”. Flesh in this context means the squishy, meaty, bloody stuff that a body is made of. Blood is very much included in the sense of the word. Basically, the verse is stating quite clearly just how very physical the body of Jesus is: it has bones and squishy stuff. It doesn't just look physical, it is physical. The lack of mentioning blood isn't an oversight, but rather just a perfectly valid way of saying that Jesus's body is make of flesh and bone (and, by negation, a spirit is not made of such things).
For some Christians who feel that the Bible must be viewed as an inerrant whole (including Mormons, who tend to be inerrantists except where the Bible is either obviously wrong or where it conflicts with LDS theology), the use by Luke of “flesh and bone” instead of “flesh and blood” helps resolve a number of issues found outside of Luke's gospel. In Matthew 16:17, a previous scripture mastery scripture for instance, Jesus says that Simon was told that Jesus is the Christ by Jesus's Father and not by flesh and blood. And Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:50 says that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of god.” All of which would imply that God, and all in the kingdom of God, are without flesh and blood. But Christians in general believe in the resurrection of the body, and Mormons particularly believe that physical resurrection is permanent and that even God the Father has a resurrected body (except when they don't, as we've said). So the resolution is that resurrected bodies do not have blood. This is an explanation found outside of Mormonism, too (though it is relatively uncommon).
My solution? Paul is not the author of Luke-Acts, and the author of Luke-Acts is not the author of Matthew, and it took centuries for a coherent and consistent theology to develop among the followers of Jesus. I think using Luke's account to imply some sort of scientific theory of the bloodless state of resurrected bodies is more than a little bizarre, and makes about as much sense as explaining how Leia told Luke she remembered her mother's face being sad in Return of the Jedi, when her mother died during childbirth in Revenge of the Sith, though an appeal to the Star Wars trilogy of books written by Timothy Zahn. Are they all about Star Wars? Yes, but you're just going to have problems if you view all of them as being consistent with themselves and each other, even though they're all “official” Lucasfilm stories because while the authors might have been aware of each other they weren't working together. The biblical Luke's statement here simply has a particular dramatic flair that isn't found in other similar works, but to assume that his statement must be read in concert with other, separate writers is unfair to both Luke and those other writers.
Why Do I Think This Is Part of Scripture Mastery?
I think this verse's presence in the Scripture Mastery list is a relic of history that has been left behind officially (although I have no idea if it's been left behind in practice by most Seminary and Institute teachers and wouldn't be surprised to see if it's still very much alive in a continuing oral tradition). I think that from the perspective of the 2010's seminary program, this particular verse has lost its purpose. I would not be surprised in the least to see it dropped from any future re-assembling of “Scripture Mastery” lists that might be proposed. When the current Scripture Mastery list was first created, somebody felt, based on ideas popular at the time among Church leaders such as LeGrand Richards, that this was a great scripture to use against the general strawman conception of Trinitarianism and against the idea of God the Father being a spirit. In the intervening years, this usage has become increasingly obvious as a mistaken interpretation of both the scripture itself and of general Christian views, and so focus has instead focused on the physicality of Jesus's resurrection to try and impress upon LDS youth how the doctrine of resurrection is a physical one (though I doubt most LDS youth would know that physical resurrection is believed in by Christians but is usually just viewed as a curiosity and not of much attention).