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Greek: 40 καὶ σώματα ἐπουράνια, καὶ σώματα ἐπίγεια· ἀλλὰ ἑτέρα μὲν ἡ τῶν ἐπουρανίων δόξα, ἑτέρα δὲ ἡ τῶν ἐπιγείων. 41 ἄλλη δόξα ἡλίου, καὶ ἄλλη δόξα σελήνης, καὶ ἄλλη δόξα ἀστέρων· ἀστὴρ γὰρ ἀστέρος διαφέρει ἐν δόξῃ. 42 οὕτως καὶ ἡ ἀνάστασις τῶν νεκρῶν. σπείρεται ἐν φθορᾷ, ἐγείρεται ἐν ἀφθαρσίᾳ·

My Translation: 40 And bodies heavenly, and bodies earthly; therefore is one the honor of heavens, and the other of earths. 41 Another is solar honor, and another is lunar honor, and another honor of stars; for star from star differs in honor. 42 And thus the resurrection of the dead. It is sown with ruin, it is raised with perfection.

KJV: 40 There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. 41 There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars: for one star differeth from another star in glory. 42 So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption.

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.

Yet Again In the Same Chapter

We've been looking at chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians for the past two posts. Today we hit the last of these three scripture mastery verses from 1 Corinthians.

It shouldn't surprise you after the past posts that we're still talking about the resurrection. In keeping with the context of the chapter, Paul began by asserting that because Jesus rose from the dead, so too all would rise before the Kingdom of God arrived. Paul explained why this would happen and why it was necessary. Then he began a short series of rhetorical questions to illustrate to his friends in Corinth that their beliefs and practices displayed an assumption that such a resurrection would occur.

What is a Resurrected Body Like?

In the context for these verses, Paul is responding to a question that seems to have been posed against his belief in a physical resurrection. “If there is a resurrection of the body,” someone seems to have challenged, “how does that happen, and what would it look like?”

Paul responds by comparing the body to a seed. The only way to get food from a seed is to bury it in the earth. To Paul, this is the same as “killing” the seed, but without doing this the seed will not grow and live. And the grain doesn't come out of the ground as grain, but in a different and more grand form than what it was before. To illustrate how it can be that the grain before and after sprouting are different, Paul explains how God has already made many different kinds of bodies: bodies of men, bodies of animals, bodies of fish, bodies of birds. Then Paul moves on from animal life to the other creations of God, which is where the scripture mastery verse begins.

In verses 40-41, Paul says that God has also created bodies in the heavens, and bodies on the earth, and each of these bodies are different in glory or reputation from each other. And even the sun, moon, and stars themselves differ in glory.

After Paul has finished describing the different types of creations and bodies that God has made (ranging all the way from humans, to fish, to the sun, moon, and stars), Paul returns back to what he was saying about the seed. In verses 42-44, Paul likens this process of a seed become a plant to the resurrection of the body:

42 And thus the resurrection of the dead. It is sown with ruin, it is raised with perfection. 43 It is sown with dishonor, it is raised with reputation; it is sown with weakness, it is raised with power; 44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body...

For Paul, the resurrected body is a “spiritual” body, which is as different from the “natural” body as a plant is from a seed. But he's already argued that God knows how to make many different kinds of bodies; a spiritual body is just another type of body that God can create. For the rest of the chapter, Paul relates how this resurrected body, this “spiritual” body, is far different from the natural body. The natural body was created in Eden of earthly dust, but the spiritual body is from heaven. The regular body of flesh and blood will not enter the kingdom of heaven but it will changed to a purer body that belongs in the kingdom. Finally at the end of the chapter, Paul praises God who has caused all of this to happen through raising Jesus.

What About The Three Heavens of Mormonism?

I'm sorry this post is so long, but it has to be because these scriptures, when removed from their context within the chapter, are very important to one of the most unique aspect of Mormon doctrine: the Three Degrees of Glory. (Yes, the idea that there are three heavens was around before Mormonism, such as in the writings of Emmanuel Swedenborg, with which Joseph Smith was familiar, but it is, as far as I am aware, the only Christian tradition that has this variated view of heaven into only three different areas).

Whereas Paul has been talking about the many different kinds of bodies that God has created, listing humans among other creations such as fish and the sun, Mormons generally view verses 40-41 out of their context to be talking about the various type of resurrected bodies that God has in store for humans. When Joseph was editing the Bible, verse 40 received the following changes:

There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial, and bodies telestial; but the glory of the celestial is, one; and the glory of the terrestrial is, another; and the telestial, another.

In Mormon thought, God has three different conditions or heavens awaiting humans after the final judgement: the Celestial Kingdom for God's people who merit it, the Terrestrial Kingdom for normal people, and the Telestial Kingdom for the bad people (there is an “outer darkness” as well for the absolute lowest of the low, but nobody knows for sure who goes there). Mormons believe that each kingdom actually requires a body prepared for these kingdoms, so that people with celestial bodies are those who go to the celestial kingdom, and so on with the other two types of kingdoms each with their associated body.

Is this a valid way of reading this verse? No, it's not.

Joseph's Linguistic Problems

The English word celestial is based on the Latin “caelestis”, meaning “heavenly”. The Greek from verse 40 is ἐπουράνια epouránia, which also means “heavenly”. If you take the epo off of the front (which is what makes it a word “concerning” something) you get the root uránia, which should be recognizable as the same root for the planet Uranus. And the English word terrestrial is based on the Latin “terrestris”, meaning “earthly” or “ground”. The Greek from verse 40 is ἐπίγεια epígeia, also meaning “of ground, of earth”. Taking off the epi prefix, hopefully you can recognize the word geia which usually in English gets turned into Gaea.

The word telestial, on the other hand, is a word that is unique to the scriptures of Joseph Smith. It has no known root, though some Mormons have speculated that it might be based off of the Greek word telos, meaning “end, finish, purpose” (it's a popular word for Plato/Socrates). Why two of the kingdoms would have English names based off of Latin roots, but the other would have a name based off of a Greek root is never explained. (Besides, to me the word “telestial” simply looks like a poor attempt at a word spelled halfway between “terrestrial” and “celestial”.)

Also never explained is why Joseph made these changes to these verses. In context, Paul has been listing the various types of bodies that God has created. He describes heavenly bodies as part of this list. He then continues to talk about how the new spiritual body is different from the old natural body. In the Greek he is not referring to different methods of resurrection. He is referring to how things in the heavens are so very different from things on the earth. This difference of kind is reflected in the difference of resurrected and mortal bodies. Bodies “telestial” doesn't make any sense within the Greek context of this verse.

Now of course Mormons believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet. The majority of their beliefs about the Three Degrees of Glory can be found in Section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants. Just because Joseph twisted 1 Corinthians 15:40 in such a way as to introduce “telestial” to the list of bodies in an attempt to describe the levels of Mormon salvation doesn't mean that Mormons have nowhere from which to obtain the teaching. Recovering the correct context and interpretation of these verses doesn't destroy the doctrine of the Degrees of Glory, but it does return a correct understanding to the writings of Paul for Latter-day Saints.

Why Do I Think This Is Part of Scripture Mastery?

This scripture was chosen so that LDS youth would have a biblical source to claim when discussing a very unique Mormon belief: that there are three heavens for humans to end up in. Unfortunately, this viewpoint is arrived at by removing these verses from their surrounding content as well as adding another word, telestial, to the verse that cannot be traced to any ancient language definitively that would also make sense in the Greek context. A Mormon trying to present these verses as support for their beliefs of the afterlife would make no progress in convincing anyone who is familiar with the chapter that it is describing three forms of resurrection and salvation. It is not a correct interpretation, it adds nothing to the argument that Paul is making (in fact, if the Mormon reading is allowed to stand it makes Paul's argument significantly more confusing at this point), and it should be dropped as one of multiple sources for the doctrine. Mormons can depend upon the other sources they already have for this belief beyond a misapplication of Paul's teachings on the resurrection in 1 Corinthians.

#Mormon #ScriptureMasteryNT #AcademicBiblical

Greek: Ἐπεὶ τί ποιήσουσιν οἱ βαπτιζόμενοι ὑπὲρ τῶν νεκρῶν; εἰ ὅλως νεκροὶ οὐκ ἐγείρονται, τί καὶ βαπτίζονται ὑπὲρ αὐτῶν;

My Translation: Otherwise what will they do, those who are baptized above the dead? If the dead are not raised up why do they baptize above them [some manuscripts “of the dead”]?

KJV: Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?

Again, remember that the translations I provide are not meant to be more accurate, but are purposefully stretched nearly to their breaking point in meaning. Usually the KJV translation is fine and I'll tell you when it isn't. I provide these extreme, and admittedly somewhat incorrect, translations in order to give a sense of the range of meaning of the underlying words so that you can get a feel for the “flavor” of the words underlying the English text. So for instance, while I say “above the dead” here and that is technically valid, it is almost certainly not correct and the KJV “for” is the most likely intention.

Update May 2013

This scripture has been removed by the Church Educational System from the Scripture Mastery list. However, it had remained within this list for over two decades and as such is still familiar to many graduates of the LDS Church's Seminary program. So I'm keeping this exploration of it online, but it is no longer applicable to CES.

We're In the Same Chapter As Before

The context of this chapter has already been covered in the previous post. But in sum, Paul has been refreshing his Corinthian congregation on his ideas about Jesus's resurrection. The entirety of chapter 15 is about the resurrection. Previously, Paul indicated how Christ's resurrection leads to the resurrection of all those who belong to Christ before the Kingdom of God arrives at the end of the world.

After explaining this, Paul then moves onto why the resurrection of Jesus was necessary. In advance of the coming Kingdom, Jesus had been sent to begin the rule of the Kingdom upon the earth. Only when Jesus was the ruler of all things could the Kingdom arrive. The last obstacle of the present, evil world to be overcome was death, and when Jesus became the master of death, then the dead would rise and the kingdom would arrive.

At this point, Paul turns to asking his Corinthian friends a series of rhetorical questions. If this was not the case, then why are they baptized for the dead? What is the point of anything, if death remains in the world and the dead do not rise? We'll follow this line of questions with the next post, where Paul attempts to respond to the question of what this resurrection will be like (it seems that part of his attention here in chapter 15 was in response to some doubt by some Corinthians about whether the resurrection would occur).

Baptisms In Place of the Dead?

This verse in question is thus one of the rhetorical questions Paul asks in support of his position that a resurrection of the dead was about to take place. This verse has puzzled Christians for centuries. Martin Luther, for instance, believed that Paul was referring to a practice of the Christians to hold their baptisms over tombs as a reminder that Christ's sacrifice overcomes death. Other interpreters felt that Paul was referring to a practice of Christians being baptized before their death, and that Paul was saying that such a baptism, so close to the end of life, would have little effect upon a person unless their life would continue onwards long past that baptism after a resurrection of their body. Many note that Paul in Romans likens baptism to a symbolic representation of the death and resurrection of the Christian and of Christ, and as such he may be referring to baptism “for the dead” as a way of likening regular Christian baptism to death (and thus reinforcing why it would be meaningless to do so if there was no resurrection to follow, which for Paul is represented in baptism when the initiate arises out of the water). And still others feel that Paul was making reference to a practice of baptisms in proxy for deceased persons.

Joseph Smith revealed that God was allowing Mormons to practice proxy baptisms in 1840. In doing so, Smith referenced this verse as part of his explanation for the practice. Some Latter-day Saints will point to the presence of the practice in both the LDS Church and 1 Corinthians 15:29 without making mention of how Smith was aware of the scripture. When this connection is not mentioned, it can often appear that the biblical verse is acting as an independent witness to the validity of the modern Mormon practice. However, the LDS practice almost certainly grew out of Joseph's pondering of the scripture in question, and thus it is not independent from the 1840 revelation.

Distinctive, But Not Mormon

Also, it is important to note what is not said by Paul about the practice. There is no mention of Temples. There is no mention of who these dead are, whether they are the recently deceased members of the community or ancestors. There is no mention of the need for baptism for all humans (one of the driving factors for Mormons to baptize their ancestors is to provide them with an opportunity for baptism that was not available to them during their lives). Paul doesn't even mention who is participating in this practice. He is talking to the Corinthians, but he very purposefully uses the third-person plural “they” in discussing who is participating in the practice. We have no idea who he was referring to: the Corinthians or some other group? Why not say “why are you baptized for the dead” unless the Corinthians were not doing it? Some scholars through history have even speculated that Paul's vagueness about who is involved in this practice might be evidence of his personal disfavor of it, though this is certainly not a widespread idea among most scholars. The only thing that can be determined for sure is that Paul is only using this verse as an example for why Christians believe the resurrection will occur.

The word that matters in this verse is the word ὑπὲρ *hupér, *a preposition that carries a range of meanings beginning with “over/above” and extending to “standing in defense of, standing in place of, standing for, for” or even “concerning”. It is the source for the English prefix “hyper”, which usually means “above”. So while Mormons are correct that the meaning can be expressed as a proxy baptism (standing in place of), Luther's speculation also makes grammatical sense (baptized over the dead). The meaning, however, at the time of Paul most likely would be best translated as “for” or “in place of”.

Why Do I Think This Is Part of Scripture Mastery?

This scripture is given so that LDS youth have an example of a uniquely LDS practice that can be shown to have its origin in the Bible. Their interpretation of Paul referring to a practice of “baptism in behalf of the dead” is a valid and correct interpretation, though within the context of the chapter Paul is not making any statement about the validity or necessity of the practice. Instead, Paul is merely stating the existence of it as proof that Christians believe in a resurrection of the dead. Also, there are a number of other viewpoint on this scripture that are also grammatically valid that do not infer the existence of a historical practice of baptizing for the dead the way that modern Mormons do for their ancestors. But it does stand as an example of something uniquely Mormon that can be found within the Bible (because it seems that this scripture is the ultimate origin of the LDS practice, so it shouldn't be too surprising). In the next post we'll see another attempt at finding unique Mormon doctrine within the same chapter that fails completely once viewed within its context, but today this verse is accurate, useful, and a good choice of a verse for a Mormon to know about.

#Mormon #ScriptureMasteryNT #AcademicBiblical

Greek: 20 Νυνὶ δὲ Χριστὸς ἐγήγερται ἐκ νεκρῶν, ἀπαρχὴ τῶν κεκοιμημένων. 21 ἐπειδὴ γὰρ δι’ ἀνθρώπου θάνατος, καὶ δι’ ἀνθρώπου ἀνάστασις νεκρῶν· 22 ὥσπερ γὰρ ἐν τῷ Ἀδὰμ πάντες ἀποθνῄσκουσιν, οὕτως καὶ ἐν τῷ Χριστῷ πάντες ζῳοποιηθήσονται.

My Translation: 20 But now Christ rises out from the deads, [some manuscripts “he became”] the primal offering of the sleepers. 21 For because through a human death, likewise through a human resurrection of the dead. 22 For even as in Adam all perish, even so in Christ all will become alive.

KJV: 20 But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. 21 For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.

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.

Let's Spend Some Time In A Single Chapter

1 Corithians 15 is a rather meaty chapter. In it Paul attempts to re-summarize his main theological ideas to a group he had already taught once. So on the one hand, it's an interesting look into Paul's thought, but on the other hand it is not a complete view of his ideas. Paul relates how the root of his beliefs is centered in the resurrection of Jesus.

Paul the Apocalyptic

Paul was an apocalyptic Jew. We've talked about this theology before. Before becoming a Christian, Paul was a Pharisee, some of whom were also apparently apocalyptic in their viewpoint as well. For Paul, he says in chapter 15 that Jesus appeared to him, as well as a long list of other witnesses (this list doesn't exactly line up with the Gospels, it should be noted). For Paul, it seems that Jesus's resurrection was one of the main points of Paul's new theology. We can assume that as a Pharisee, Paul's main contention against the new Jewish sect of Christians was that they felt that Jesus was the Messiah. To regular Jews, this claim was bizarre: Jesus was executed as a criminal, according to Torah he was cursed because he was hung upon a tree, and nowhere in the Hebrew scriptures was there any indication that the Messiah would suffer and die (most of the areas usually viewed as prophecies of Jesus, such as Isaiah 53, were never viewed as prophecies of the Messiah before Jesus's death). To imply that Jesus was the Messiah, sent by God to Israel, was therefore an extreme mistake that some Jews, like Paul, felt needed to be actively corrected.

However, once Paul came to the conclusion that Jesus had risen from the dead, everything shifted. If Jesus had been raised from the dead, then he must have been the Messiah, and the Christians were right. But what was the purpose of Jesus's death in that case? From this point, Paul developed an extensive theology of Jesus's death and resurrection that was formed around Paul's apocalyptic beliefs. Part of those apocalyptic beliefs was that the coming Kingdom of God would also bring about the reversal of death. Jesus's rising from the tomb was the “first fruits” of this resurrection.

The term “first fruits” (or “primal offering” as I've rendered it) refers to the practice of sacrificing in the ancient world. The first fruits were the first produce sacrificed to the gods at the beginning of the harvest. The term implies a the first of many such offerings. For Paul, Jesus's rising is evidence of the Kingdom of God nearly arriving and that further resurrections should be expected. It's a little hard to view Paul's statement as referring to Jesus rising and then everyone else rising over two thousand years later. This term refers to a harvest and Jesus is simply the first to rise of everyone. The time is short.

One of Paul's biggest innovations for Christianity was his establishment of Adam and the expulsion from Eden as one of the reasons for Jesus's death. Remember that as an apocalyptic, Paul felt that the current world was ruled by the powers of darkness and sin. But how did the world that God created arrive at such a position where it was under the sway of evil? For Paul, the blame lay at the first disobedience of humans in the Hebrew creation myth. Ever since then, the world has been corrupted, but now that Jesus was risen from the dead the coming Kingdom is arriving to resolve the problems. For Paul, Christ is resurrected first, then all who are Christ's and then the end of the world occurs.

I hope I don't need to do any more summarizing to show what this verse means within its context. Paul is re-explaining his views to those who have heard them before. He explains the significance of Jesus's resurrection in terms of his apocalyptic view of the fallen world, which he blames upon Adam. The rest of the chapter (which leads to the next scripture mastery verse and the next post) is Paul waxing on about how this rapidly approaching resurrection will occur.

Why Do I Think This Is Part of Scripture Mastery?

I think this verse was chosen because the Latter-day Saints make a big deal among themselves that all humans will be resurrected. While some other Christian faiths feel that only the righteous will be resurrected, a physical resurrection of the body is part of Christian orthodoxy. It is viewed as a curiosity of Christian doctrine, however. The Mormon focus on this scripture, while oddly emphasized within the theology, is completely in line with the scripture's context and their interpretation of it is an interpretation shared by the majority of Christian orthodoxy.

#Mormon #ScriptureMasteryNT #AcademicBiblical

Greek: πειρασμὸς ὑμᾶς οὐκ εἴληφεν εἰ μὴ ἀνθρώπινος· πιστὸς δὲ ὁ θεός, ὃς οὐκ ἐάσει ὑμᾶς πειρασθῆναι ὑπὲρ ὃ δύνασθε, ἀλλὰ ποιήσει σὺν τῷ πειρασμῷ καὶ τὴν ἔκβασιν τοῦ δύνασθαι ὑπενεγκεῖν.

My Translation: No temptation has claimed you that wasn't of humanity, but God is faithful, who will not let y'all be tempted beyond what y'all are capable, yet he will make, with the temptation, an exit that you may be capable to endurance.

KJV: There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.

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.

Update May 2013

This scripture has been removed by the Church Educational System from the Scripture Mastery list. However, it had remained within this list for over two decades and as such is still familiar to many graduates of the LDS Church's Seminary program. So I'm keeping this exploration of it online, but it is no longer applicable to CES.

The Letters to Corinth

Mormons really like the letters to the Corinthians. These are letters written in answers to questions that Paul's congregation in Corinth had. The second letter shows some evidence of possibly having been originally two different letters that were inexpertly edited together long after they were written.

Because the letters are in answer to unknown questions from the Christians at Corinth, the letters sometimes seem to skip from one subject to another. For the scripture mastery verse in question, Paul is discussing evil behavior and what the correct behavior of a Christian should be.

At the end of Chapter 9, Paul has been talking about how his followers should retain humility even in the face of how they have already achieved victory through Christ. Beginning Chapter 10, Paul warns of how Israel, who were also God's chosen people just as the Corinthians are now God's chosen people by joining the new covenantal people of Christ, still incurred God's wrath through their evil actions. Paul warns that even though Israel was God's chosen, through their disobedience many of them were killed.

So too, says Paul, should Christians living at the end of the world stand firm and not fall into evil ways. Then comes the verse in question.

With this previous context as given, perhaps we can see that Paul is not talking about temptation in some little sense. He's just finished talking about the history of Israel in the wilderness under Moses. When Paul says that no temptation has taken you except what is common to humanity, he means that we're all subject to the same things that afflicted ancient Israel. And so we're all still subject to God's judgement even after becoming his people.

After the verse in question, Paul says that because of what he's been talking about (Israel's disobedience) that the Christians at Corinth should live their lives carefully. Paul's theology says that joining the covenant community of Christ destroys the ability of sin and death to capture the believer in Christ. For this reason, sin and death no longer have a hold on the believers. But Paul, while acknowledging that his followers are free from the effects of sin, they should be careful in their actions all the same.

Let's go back to the verse and look a bit more closely at it. Paul feels that the temptations his followers have to deal with are common to humanity, but that God will provide a way for them to endure it. Note that this verse is not talking about “giving in to sin” or about salvation and the effect of works upon it. It just says that the Corinthians will experience human temptations and that God will give them a way out by providing them with the strength to endure the temptations.

For Mormons, salvation is not fully dependent upon belonging to the covenantal people (the Church). Salvation must still be received through living a virtuous life and through avoiding sin, an idea very difficult to pull out of Paul's writings. Mormons usually approach this verse with the assumption that since God wants us to achieve salvation and exaltation, and since this is predicated on our faithfulness, then God will never allow us to be tempted in a way that we can't handle. In other words, God has made it so that it is possible to live a life without sin (the result of not enduring temptation), which should give us hope to someday be able to do so.

A Common, But Horrible, LDS Reading

An odd interpretation of this verse that is extremely common among Latter-day Saints, however, is one that replaces the word “temptation” with “challenge”. You'll often hear Mormons approaching challenging situations of grief or pain with the statement that God will “not give us more than we can handle”. That idea comes from this verse, and yet it is not at all what this verse is saying. And history shows that of course people can experience challenges in their lives that are many times greater than what they can handle. People's bodies, emotions, and sanity can all break under the weight of what this world can throw at them. In a world of war, bloodshed, and holocausts, people break. Assuming that God somehow provides a way for humans to not break when this happens can lead to some very wrong-headed and uncharitable opinions on how people deal, or don't deal, with grief and pain. What should we think of someone who is reacting badly to the death of a family member if we think they God is supposed to help them through it? Should we think they are rejecting God's help?

In fact, there's a troubling cultural aspect of Mormon funerals that often revolves around this interpretation of this scripture. Mormons are fond of mentioning that because they believe that their families will be reunited after death and that families are eternal (a belief commonly found among many faiths) their funerals are merely bittersweet, temporary farewells. Whereas others may wail and bemoan their loss, Latter-day Saints know better and while they are sad, they are hopeful as well! Unfortunately, this has developed to such an extent that most Mormons do not know how to deal with the psychological need of grief, worried that by expressing too much of their sorrow they'll be letting down their community. And sometimes those communities can be too strong in enforcing this sense of hopeful sadness and will let those who are expressing too much sadness that they need to rely on God more. If you're too affected by pain and grief, the problem is yourself! Your testimony is not strong enough to carry you through these challenges. God has promise we won't be given more than we can handle!

Thankfully, as more and more Mormons become open to the benefits of psychological counseling, this idea that Mormons cannot admit defeat in the face of overwhelming pain and grief is slowly starting to show cracks. Time will hopefully tear down this mistaken assumption that God will always help people through the challenges of life. This scripture merely promises that God will help his people through their common temptations, which is not at all the same thing.

Why Do I Think This Is Part of Scripture Mastery?

I think this scripture was chosen in order to provide youth with a hopeful approach to the LDS conception of sin and repentance. I think it was chosen to give LDS youth the impression that even when they are tempted by sin, God is aware of them and is trying to help them. However, this scripture, as used by the Mormons, also tends to set up a bad situation when temptations are yielded to. Since such sins could have been avoided, then the individual is only to blame for giving in. In the face of addictions, of war, of accidents, and the myriad of other pains of life, this viewpoint can be tragically self-flagellatory for some people. There are better scriptures to give the impression that God is aware of us and wants the best for us. This scripture, if misapplied (and there's precious little given against such a misapplication) can result in individuals constantly beating themselves and their self-image up for being human and making mistakes.

#Mormon #ScriptureMasteryNT #AcademicBiblical

Greek: οὐ γὰρ ἐπαισχύνομαι τὸ εὐαγγέλιον, δύναμις γὰρ θεοῦ ἐστιν εἰς σωτηρίαν παντὶ τῷ πιστεύοντι, Ἰουδαίῳ τε πρῶτον καὶ Ἕλληνι.

My Translation: For I am not ashamed of the good news [some manuscripts “of Christ”], for it is the power of God toward deliverance to all those trusting, first to the Jew and to the Greek.

KJV: For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.

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.

Update May 2013

This scripture has been removed by the Church Educational System from the Scripture Mastery list. However, it had remained within this list for over two decades and as such is still familiar to many graduates of the LDS Church's Seminary program. So I'm keeping this exploration of it online, but it is no longer applicable to CES.

Paul! We've reached the letters of Paul! I'm so happy!

Paul was a 1st Century convert to the Jesus movement. He relates in his own letters, and it is later recorded in what might be two fictionalized retellings in Acts, how he began his association with the movement by persecuting them. Paul appears to be from the city of Tarsus, and was a unique convert to the movement who left as much of an imprint upon it, if not more, than the historical Jesus around whom the movement began. Paul was possibly a Roman citizen (which, if true, would be where his Latin name, Paulus, comes from), was well-educated, and was a Pharisee before something caused him to believe that Jesus of Nazareth has risen from the dead and was indeed the promised Messiah for Israel. Through Paul's theological explorations of the meaning of Jesus's death and resurrection, Christianity was transformed and universalized into a new system of belief and worship that quickly spread across the Roman world.

Of course, the transition from Paul's unique theology to the eventual development of orthodox Christianity was not direct or instantaneous. We've been looking at scriptures from the four gospels, all of which were written after the complicated letters of Paul were composed, and from the first Gospel, Mark, to Matthew and Luke, and ultimately to John, the writings and viewpoints of Paul are largely absent from the writers' perspectives, though some of Luke's account of Paul's life in Acts seems to line up slightly with Paul's theological focus (though Luke's history of Paul's life does not line up very much at all with Paul's own summarization of his conversion as given in Galatians and seems to have been fictionalized).

However, while Paul was obviously not influential among the various groups of Christians where and when the Gospels were being written, the influence of his writings continued to grow through the decades, influencing later writers to quote him and still other writers to imitate him and pretend to be him in later letter-writing endeavors (which we'll talk about when we get to the scripture mastery verses from 2 Thessalonians, which ironically warn Christians against letters that seem to come from Paul or other authorities and yet 2 Thessalonians itself seems to be one of these false-Paul letters).

Paul's Letter to the Romans

Moving on from Paul as an author, let's zero in a bit more onto the epistle in question: Romans. Of the letters we're confident that Paul actually wrote, Romans is the most organized, complicated, and well-thought out. The context of the letter is that Paul is preparing a trip to Rome, where he has never been before, and he is writing a letter outlining his theological view of Jesus to send to friends of his there in advance of his arrival (this letter was sent with one of those friends, Phoebe, an early female deacon from one of Paul's congregations). We have no historical indication of how the letter or Phoebe were received, though traditions preserved in Acts seem to indicate that Paul spent considerable time in Rome after arriving, possibly under house arrest by Roman authorities.

Why would Paul send a letter like this? It seems that Paul had considerable trouble with other Christians not agreeing with his particular viewpoint on the Jewish Law and the relationship of Jesus and other Christians to it. Paul also had to deal with issues of authority. While he called himself at times an Apostle he was a convert to the movement long after the death of the historical Jesus and there is no record anywhere in the New Testament of any official election or ordination for Paul as Apostle (such as was given to Matthias in Acts 1 when he was elected by lottery to replace Judas Iscariot in the Twelve; the author of Luke-Acts says that they sought out a person who had been a disciple from the beginning and who was a witness to the resurrected Jesus with the rest of the disciples at the end of Luke, both qualifications that Paul would fail against). In other letters, Paul makes reference to some of his theological opponents claiming more authority than himself, even going so far as to refer to his opponents mockingly as “super-Apostles”. Much of Paul's personal history, given in Galatians, is given to express how Paul's ideas and teachings did not come from things he learned through other Christians (implying that Paul instead got them through revelation).

While Galatians is also a dense theological work detailing Paul's beliefs about the Law of Moses and God's covenant people of Israel and God establishing a new covenant through Jesus, that letter seems to have been written in the heat of a furious passion after Paul learned that a previous congregation of his had been partially turned against him and his teachings by later Christian missionaries. Romans, on the other hand, seems to be Paul testing the waters ahead of his arrival, in a way saying “Here's who I am, here's what I teach, and here's why I think it's right. And by the way, I'm planning on coming through, will that be okay?” So in Romans, Paul sets about illustrating his theology carefully.

I think that the biggest shame of all about this scripture mastery verse is that it's the only scripture mastery verse from the entirety of Romans. As you can tell by everything I've already said, I think that even if you don't believe in Christianity, you should read Romans slowly and carefully (along with Galatians and the other genuine Pauline epistles) because 1) Paul was a very complex and complicated writer, and 2) Paul's writings matter when it comes to understanding what Christianity eventually developed into. Far more than the Gospels. Christianity was a movement started by Jesus, but through Paul it became a religion about Jesus.

The Context for the Verse

So how does this verse measure up against this call to understand Paul's theology? While it's not a total miss, it's pretty weak sauce indeed.

This verse is part of Paul's introduction to the letter, where Paul is transitioning from saying “Hi” to the beginning of his argument about how the death of Jesus the Messiah brings about a new covenants with God that brings salvation.

He starts off by saying he's not “ashamed” of the good news of Jesus. What is there to be ashamed of? At this period of time, quite a bit. Remember that when Paul is writing there are no gospels or any other writings we're currently aware of. There were many oral traditions floating throughout the Greek-speaking world in a giant game of telephone, but apart from a hypothetical collection of the sayings of Jesus that may have been assembled at this time (called “Q”), nobody had yet attempted to sit down and write down a history of Jesus making use of all of the stories Christians were telling each other about Jesus through word of mouth. And aspects of the stories were influenced by the more difficult aspects of the historical Jesus: things Christians almost certainly wished they could avoid:

  • Just like many other failed messiahs Jesus had been executed by the Roman authorities, probably for the crime of sedition and setting himself up as “King of the Jews”.
  • Jesus had begun his ministry by being baptized under the authority of John the Baptist, the leader of a different group of Jews that only partially decided to follow Jesus after their leader was killed.
  • Jesus was obviously from Nazareth but most Jews expected the promised messiah to be born in Bethlehem.
  • Christians were still confused and fractious amongst themselves as to how Jewish or non-Jewish they were supposed to be.
  • Jesus preached an apocalyptic message of the coming Kingdom of God, but that Kingdom had failed to show up after his death.
  • Some of Jesus's prophecies simply had not occurred. Some converts who had been promised that they would not “taste of death” before the Kingdom of God arrived had started to die. Jesus's prophecy that the Jewish Temple would be destroyed had not occurred (but it actually would happen a few years after Paul's probable death when the Temple was burned during the Roman occupation of Jerusalem in 70 CE).
  • There were other figures of the ancient Mediterranean, both Jewish and Gentile, where parts of their life stories seemed to match up uncomfortably well with the various stories commonly shared among early Christians about the life and miracles of Jesus. One of these figures, the pagan philosopher Apollonius of Tyre, who admittedly lived after Paul died, had a life story that so closely matched up with that of Jesus that followers of Jesus and followers of Apollonius each accused the others of having ripped off their leader's true history. However, apart from Apollonius, during the time of Paul there were other stories of gods and heroes, though none of them match up quite as neatly in all their details, but it's possible that these similarities were similar enough to cause confusion and doubt as to their truth in Jesus's life.

In short, there was a lot for early Christians to be ashamed about. Christianity did not begin as a clearly-defined movement distinct from anything else, but as a messy conglomeration of Jews who believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah sent to Israel even though he'd been executed and had never achieved any greatness as the Jewish prophecies foretold of the Messiah.

Mormons can easily identify with this statement of “not being ashamed of the Gospel of Christ”. They also have a similar list of embarrassments about their faith, a list which is actually longer than most average Mormons might consider. Just do a Google search for “Joseph Smith Polyandry”, “Book of Abraham Facsimiles”, “Council of Fifty”, “Seer Stones and the Book of Mormon”, “Horses in the Book of Mormon”, or many other similar issues and you'll see much that LDS youth have which they might choose to “not be ashamed of”. I'm not saying that they should be ashamed of those things, any more than early Christians should have been ashamed that their Lord had been executed as a criminal; I am simply saying that it should not be surprising if some of them are ashamed of these things. Paul's declaration that he is not ashamed is an apologetic declaration of strength, because he knows there are many things that he could be ashamed of, but he chooses not to be. Why? Let's read further.

“For it is the power of God unto the delivering of all who believe, first to the Jew and to the Greek.” Paul's shamelessness comes because he believes that the good news of Christ is what God uses to deliver everyone who believes, both Jew and Gentile. Now, if most Seminary students are taught this verse the way I was taught it, the emphasis would be on the not ashamed part. I was told that I should be proud of my Mormon faith and heritage, and stand boldly in the face of ridicule and mockery. I was not told to do so because my religion brought about salvation, but rather to do so because my Church was the Only True and Living Church Upon the Whole Earth. I suppose from a certain point of view it could be argued that this is essentially the same thing: ie, if I belong to the One True Church, then I also belong to the only Church through which salvation is possible. But for Paul, the power of God to salvation is the good news of Christ to those who believe. Belief is a very important concept to Paul, no matter how much it gets trivialized by some LDS youth teachers (I know that the idea that Paul's central message was about the saving power of faith in Christ was trivialized for myself when growing up). This verse is a small example of that, but there are many more direct verses within Romans and other epistles to support this viewpoint. The entire letter, when read as a whole, is about how Jesus's death provides a real path to salvation for all people as opposed to the previous covenant God established with his chosen people of Israel through the Torah.

As for the specifics of Paul's teachings about how faith in Jesus is of primal important in his role as God's Messiah and in God's plan for his creation will be better explored when we look at James 2:17-18, so we'll wait until then.

Why Do I Think This Is Part of Scripture Mastery?

I think the main purpose of this scripture is to encourage LDS youth to not be ashamed of the mockery and ridicule they might experience for membership in the LDS Church. I think the rest of Paul's message about the efficacy of salvation to those who believe, first Jew and then Greek (basically saying all humans), tends to get lost when taught to most LDS youth. I would love to be proven wrong about this, of course. Frankly, though, I think it's a shame that from the entire Epistle to the Romans, this is the only verse that ends up in the Scripture Mastery list. Paul's writings are very influential throughout the rest of Christianity, and Romans is where he expresses his ideas about salvation by faith in Christ clearest. Because LDS soteriology (a fancy way of saying their ideas about salvation) is so focused on what an individual must do instead of what an individual must believe (though beliefs are important for Mormons as long as those beliefs impel certain actions) I shouldn't be so surprised that Romans gets such a short shrift in the Scripture Mastery list. In a possible future list I'd hope that Romans is better represented.

#Mormon #ScriptureMasteryNT #AcademicBiblical

Greek: 55 ὑπάρχων δὲ πλήρης πνεύματος ἁγίου ἀτενίσας εἰς τὸν οὐρανὸν εἶδεν δόξαν θεοῦ καὶ Ἰησοῦν ἑστῶτα ἐκ δεξιῶν τοῦ θεοῦ, 56 καὶ εἶπεν, ἰδοὺ θεωρῶ τοὺς οὐρανοὺς διηνοιγμένους καὶ τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐκ δεξιῶν ἑστῶτα τοῦ θεοῦ.

My Translation: 55 But being filled with the Holy Spirit, he looked earnestly into the sky, he saw the glory of God and Jesus set by the right side of God, 56 and he said, “Look! I see the heavens drawn apart [some manuscripts “opened wide”] and the son of man set by the right side of God.”

KJV: 55 But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing > on the right hand of God, 56 And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.

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.

Update May 2013

This scripture has been removed by the Church Educational System from the Scripture Mastery list. However, it had remained within this list for over two decades and as such is still familiar to many graduates of the LDS Church's Seminary program. So I'm keeping this exploration of it online, but it is no longer applicable to CES.

A Quick Note

It's a lot of fun to write these posts, but I want to do even better. So I'm slowing down the pace in order to give each individual post some time to hopefully spread through the Internet. A new Scripture Mastery post should appear every Monday and every Thursday. I'm asking anyone who has been enjoying this series to please comment, share/post links, ask questions, post rebuttals, and what have you. I'm relatively confident in what I'm doing, but I've already been able to find and fix some problems in previous posts due to people getting involved. Share you experiences in Seminary or Sunday School about these scriptures. Ask questions about other areas and scriptures (I can only really answer translation questions about the New Testament personally, though I feel rather confident in my knowledge of the “Old Testament”, better called the Hebrew Bible, too). And if you're enjoying this, please just drop a quick note to say so. Just a quick “Thanks” or “Cool beans” really makes my day. Thanks! Now onto the post!

The Context: Stephen's Martyrdom in Acts

We're back to an author we've seen before! The book of Acts is unique in the New Testament: it is the only sequel. The author of Acts is the same person as the author of the Gospel of Luke. Luke is often the favorite evangelist of people to read: he likes to focus on people and stories instead of on dense sermons and dialogs. And here in Acts it is no different. The verses in question are not part of a sermon delivered on the nature of God, but are in fact the last words of a long, emotional exposition on Jewish history, delivered by the movement's (apparently) first martyr (not counting Jesus).

In the Book of Acts, the main character is no longer Jesus, who has ascended into heaven, but is rather the Holy Spirit, who is the main mover and motivator of the many stories. The entire book is about how the good news of Jesus the Messiah's death spreads from a small group of followers in Jerusalem and Galilee to many cities in Greece and Asia minor (modern-day Turkey). It's split up into two parts, the first is the story of Peter and how the “way” (Luke's name for the movement that seems to be the original Christian term for their diverse movement) endured through the initial growing pains of being led by human beings into new areas of the world both physically and theologically (though there's some good evidence that Luke is cleaning up the complexities of the real history he's covering and simplifying the story considerably), and the second is how the conversion of a bitter enemy, Saul of Tarsus, leads the movement to the Gentiles and eventually to the whole world. The verses in question comes from the first part of the work. Peter and the other apostles have elected seven men to help them administer the needs to the young movement so that they can be free to preach as missionaries. However, these seven men quickly become preachers and missionaries themselves, so it's unclear to me how well this plan was thought out.

The martyr is Stephen (a Greek name, perhaps a glimpse of an early Gentile convert to the movement before the traditional start as related by Luke where Peter is given a vision of unclean animals he is told to eat), who has just finished telling the Jewish leaders how wicked they are and how they are following a pattern of wickedness throughout their history that has led up to their crucifying Jesus even though he fits into this pattern of their history as well and that they are murderers and lawbreakers because of it. (The sermons that Luke gives to his main characters in much of Acts are really quite inflammatory texts, so it's little wonder that the speakers keep having trouble with their audience.) He then proclaims that he sees Jesus in vision with God, and the crowd are so incensed that they decide to stone Stephen to death on the spot.

Jewish leaders did not have the authority to kill Judeans without Roman approval. This is usually given in Sunday School as the explanation for why Pilate, the Roman procurator of Judea, was involved in the sentencing and execution of Jesus (and indeed that was probably why the Romans were involved, but if so, we've lost record of what Jesus's crime against Rome actually was). But here in this story we have the Jews killing someone without any apparent legal problems. Perhaps one of the executions, of Jesus and of Stephen, didn't occur as written, then? Perhaps in the case of Stephen's death this story of the leaders of the Jews executing Stephen for blasphemy is based on early traditions of Christ followers being beaten up and killed by vigilante mobs or other, less authoritative groups than the Sanhedrin of the Jews. Perhaps Luke wants to express the violent trouble that early Jesus followers were having and so he takes the historical martyr Stephen and turns his story into an somewhat mythologized, exemplary tale of early Christian martyrdom and persecution that many unnamed people faced. There's no way to know, of course. It's all supposition, but Luke is not what we in the 21st Century would consider a “historian,” but is more of a propagandist. He's using history as a tool to express his message.

Also note that we are given a glimpse into the last, inner moments of Stephen. We aren't just told what he said he saw before the crowd decides to kill him, we are told what he saw before he died. Of course, it's the exact same thing that he said he saw, but Luke as narrator gives us a view of Stephen's vision that nobody else could have seen. Since the author of Luke-Acts, whoever he (or possibly she) was, never claims to divine revelation as one of their sources, we can assume that this vision of Stephen's has some artistic perspective applied to it (and even if the historical Luke who is traditionally viewed as author wrote it, he was an ancient doctor and convert to the movement and not an apostle or other source with divine authority, just a historian). Did Stephen really say what he thought he saw at the end of his sermon? Were his words accurately conveyed through the intervening decades between his death and the writing of Acts? Who kept the tradition alive all of those years, and how much did the story grow or change during that time? And above all, how strongly should we view Stephen's vision as we have it in Acts 7 as a statement of doctrinal importance?

LDS Views

But anyways, enough of the context and questions (though I could literally go on for a thousand more words about the book of Acts, which is without a doubt one of my favorite New Testament works as even the author can't scrub out the messiness of humanity evident in the small group of Jesus followers he is chronicling). Why was this scripture chosen by CES for LDS youth to study and memorize to help them throughout the rest of their lives? Well, on the surface, this appears to be a scripture that fully supports the idea of the now-risen Jesus as a divine figure. Stephen proclaims to the Jews around him that his spiritual leader, the executed Rabbi Jesus, is now set next to God himself. Stephen is proclaiming the power and authority of Jesus in the coming Kingdom of God, which, more than anything it seems, incenses Luke's villains who then agree to kill him. So it seems to be a scripture supporting Jesus as God's divine messenger, and would thus be a perfectly appropriate scripture in Christian and LDS theology, except that we've already covered other scriptures that would say as much and there are other more-famous New Testament scriptures that are not part of the scripture mastery list that also say as much.

So it seems that for Mormons, again, this scripture says so much more. Mormons in Seminary and Institute usually interpret Stephen's proclamation literally: Stephen actually saw Jesus standing on the right side of God. In other words, Stephen saw two people: Jesus and God, and they were next to each other. Jesus is even identified as standing on the right-hand side of God. So Stephen saw two people, just like Joseph Smith claimed to see in (one of the accounts of) his First Vision. And God must have been visible, and not some mysterious spirit, because Stephen saw him enough to know that it was God and that Jesus was standing next to him. Ergo, this is a vision that confirms the rather non-traditional LDS idea of an embodied God the Father and speaks against the (again, completely mistaken) idea of the Trinity being a Modalist God. This popular narrative that the LDS viewpoint helps illuminate aspects of the Bible that have confused regular Christians for millennia arises yet again (I'd love to talk about this rather arrogant viewpoint when it comes to the baptism of Jesus, where it usually reaches it's most appalling mockery, and will perhaps do some once I am finished with this Scripture Mastery series). Because obviously, if more Christians just read their Bible they'd see this stuff, right? (The same could be said of hyper-patriotic American Mormons reading their Book of Mormon, though, to be fair. If they read it closer they'd see that it's not nearly the pro-American, pro-Democracy work they often purport it to be.)

Other Perspectives

So what are we to make of the common LDS perspective? Is it valid? Yes, it is valid. From a literal perspective, much (though not all) of this view holds. Of course, this scripture says nothing about whether the Father (or even the Son) has a body, and as we've discussed before, the usual Mormon idea of the Christian Trinity is actually heretical itself, and is called Modalism and while many average Christians might subconsciously adhere to it or even teach it, it was denounced as a heresy even before the Arian controversy in the 4th Century. But you can validly read it as a statement of Stephen seeing two individuals next to each other in vision.

But should this scripture be taken literally? I'd argue against it. First of all, the questions surrounding the context bother me. If there is a doctrinal point to be made, there are better places to make it than from the mouth of a person who is about to die and be thus unable to further explain the importance of what he has seen, and there are better people to relate it than an anonymous historian who enjoys creating sermons and speeches for his characters to say some thirty to forty years after the fact. So off the bat, I already have serious doubts about the importance that the author meant to place behind this statement.

Secondly, the less-literal interpretation is just as valid. Stephen has finished a long exploration of Jewish history, covering how God has given his people laws and prophets to guide them and how the people often reject them. He then accuses the people of having broken the Torah by killing God's latest messenger of Jesus, and finishes by proclaiming that Jesus is a messenger of God because he sees him in vision with God. The vision as described could mean that Jesus is standing on the right-hand side of God literally, or it could be that Jesus is set (also a valid interpretation of the verb) in a position of authority in relation to God. Jesus is God's “right-hand man,” in other words.

“To sit at the 'right hand' of the king was an honor (see 1 Kgs 2:19). In Ugaritic myth* the artisan god Kothar-and Khasis is described as sitting at the right hand of the storm god Baal. See G. R. Driver, Canaanite Myths and Legends, 61-62.” (Net Bible, Psalm 110:1, Footnote 4)
*Corpus des tablettes en cunéiformes alphabetiques 4 v. 108-10

So it could be less a statement of their separateness and more a statement that Jesus is indeed who Stephen said he was: a divine messenger approved of and sent by God. And, in the context of Stephen's sermon on Jewish history leading up to the wrongful death of Jesus, it seems that this is the emotional climx where Stephen gets to say that Jesus's position in God's plan is supreme. In context, it seems to be a very odd place to put any sort of statement on the nature of God, and appears to be merely a statement on the authority of Jesus. Saying that God is embodied would have bothered 1st Century Jews far less than saying that the radical preacher that had been executed a few years before was God's messenger and that they are thus murderers and sinners against God. Which implication would have led to Stephen's death? That the executed Jesus was now in a position of authority.

Why Do I Think This Is Part of Scripture Mastery?

To me, it seems we've already covered the authority and position of Jesus enough in previous scriptures as given (“Jesus Christ, whom [God] has sent”). Thus, I see little reason to pluck this relatively innocuous verse from its obscurity in Acts and elevate it to the status of one of only 25 scriptures to memorize from the New Testament. There are so many other things that could have been pulled from Acts, but this one made the cut. I think the biggest reason is again because it is viewed as an anti-Trinitarian scripture (which it is not; it is at most an anti-Modalist scripture). It adds very little else to an understanding of Jesus in LDS theology apart from this stance. Again, I would not be surprised to see this scripture dropped from any future reformulation of the Scripture Mastery list. It is used to argue against an incorrect conception of what the debate over Mormon-Christian theology is about.

#Mormon #ScriptureMasteryNT #AcademicBiblical

Greek: αὕτη δέ ἐστιν ἡ αἰώνιος ζωή, ἵνα γινώσκωσιν σὲ τὸν μόνον ἀληθινὸν θεὸν καὶ ὃν ἀπέστειλας Ἰησοῦν Χριστόν.

My Translation: But everlasting life is this, that they all might come to know you, the one true god, and that you sent Jesus Christ.

KJV: And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.

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.

A Quick Note”

It's a lot of fun to write these posts, but I want to do even better. So I'm slowing down the pace in order to give each individual post some time to hopefully spread through the Internet. A new Scripture Mastery post should appear every Monday and every Thursday. I'm asking anyone who has been enjoying this series to please comment, share/post links, ask questions, post rebuttals, and what have you. I'm relatively confident in what I'm doing, but I've already been able to find and fix some problems in previous posts due to people getting involved. Share your experiences in Seminary or Sunday School about these scriptures. Ask questions about other areas and scriptures (I can only really answer translation questions about the New Testament personally, though I feel rather confident in my knowledge of the “Old Testament”, better called the Hebrew Bible, too). And if you're enjoying this but don't really want to do anything grand, please just drop a quick note to say so. Just a quick “Thanks” or “Cool beans” really makes my day. Thanks! Now onto the post!

The Death of Jesus in John's Gospel

This is a popular one throughout Christianity. It's from John 17, which is a long prayer given by Jesus to God at the Last Supper, sometimes called the “Intercessory Prayer”. One reason it's popular is that this prayer occupies the place of the Garden of Gethsemane in Matthew, Mark, and especially Luke. Whereas in those gospels Jesus is portrayed as suffering in prayer, as in Mark, or perhaps a little ambivalent such as asking God to “remove the cup” before his upcoming death in Luke, in John Jesus is fully in command of the situation, and this prayer to God is a plea not to remove the cup but rather for God to honor and uplift Jesus's disciples. In John's gospel, Jesus does not approach his death with apprehension; in fact, for John, the death of Jesus is not portrayed as a possibly-unexpected event, but is the climax of the book with John working in symbolism of a emperor's coronation into the narrative. For John, the death of Jesus is the crowning achievement of Jesus's work and the event that heralds the full arrival of the kingdom of God upon the world (John's gospel, while still containing some apocalyptic elements, seems to have been written long enough after the death of Jesus for much of the apocalyptic warnings of the coming kingdom of God to be replaced with the spiritual arrival of the kingdom as the gospel of Jesus being accepted and spread by his followers; this tends to happen when people who feel that they were promised they'd live to see the coming kingdom of God begin to die and you need an explanation). (See my post about the differences of the Gospels if you want to know more about these four very different and non-coordinating works.)

Jesus Sent By God

One of the main reasons for the inclusion of this verse, I feel, is the honorable and correct use of it as a pro-Christ verse. This is a verse that is central to Christian and Mormon theology: God sent Jesus Christ, and that eternal life is wrapped up in developing a relationship with God and Christ. So much is wrapped up in this concept for both Mormons and Christians, so I approve of its inclusion for this reason. But I'd argue that there's another less honorable and pretty much incorrect reason for this verse to be included in a list of the most important scriptures from the New Testament for LDS youth, and it has to do with Jesus's statement that life eternal is to know, or understand God. In other words, it's commonly assumed that having a correct understanding of the nature of God is part of attaining eternal life, which for Mormons means living the same kind of life as God the Father: life as a god.

The Only True God

One interesting aspect of this verse is the phrase ton mónon alāthinón theón, the only true god. Monon should be recognizable to English speakers in the numerical prefix “mono”: monorail, monocle, monogram, monotheism, etc. It means “one”, “single”, “only”. This is a verse that seems to have been used during the debates of the Nicene Council of 325 CE, part of the Arian heresy that divided much of the Christian movements during the early Fourth Century. To try and simply summarize what was actually a very complex debate, the Arians felt that only God the Father was an eternal God, and that Jesus, while still divine and unique, was a being created by the Father in the distant past before the creation of the world. In explanation of their viewpoint, the Arians pointed out that the terms “Father” and “Son” were without meaning if applied to multiple beings who had always existed alongside each other and who were equal in all power and glory. Countered by the proto-orthodox viewpoint (which only later developed into the strong Trinitarianism, but was an idea around long before Nicea and wasn't invented there, merely promoted as correct) that this resulted in a worldview of three gods, which was polythesim and was soundly denounced many times in the Bible (such as in the 10 commandments), the Arians responded by using this verse to imply that while Jesus was a god, he was not a True God. Jesus himself in this verse acknowledges that the Father is the only “true” God. Thus, they argued, the commandments for only worshiping God the Father alone were still upheld, because there was only one “true” God in the universe. Jesus was a different kind of god because he had been created by the one “true” God. Needless to say, the nuance in such a view didn't last in Christian thought, but Arianism itself held out for hundreds of years after the Nicene Council as one of the most popular strands of Christianity in the world.

The Modalist Heresy

Mormons have a viewpoint that is similar to the Arians, but it should not be confused as being the same viewpoint (and for those familiar with the homoiousios/homoousios debate of Nicea, go ahead and laugh). Mormons began in a period of American history where many traditional aspects of Christianity were being examined, doubted, and experimented with. One aspect of traditional Christianity that many original converts had trouble with was Trinitarianism. The basic idea of Trinitarianism is that God is composed of three beings: the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Now, as to whether God is a title for all three, an aspect of the three that arises through their mutual love and unity, or whatever, is a subject of much debate and thought. The basic idea is simply that there is one God and three persons. Unfortunately, it is rather easy for many Christians to unwittingly slip into another heretical belief when trying to understand how a singular God is composed of three persons: modalism. Modalism is the belief that there is only one God who appears to be three different people at different times and in different places. To over-simplify, it's the belief that God has a “Father” mask that he wears when he needs to be the Father, a “Son” mask that he wears when he needs to be the Son, and a “Holy Ghost” mask for when the Holy Ghost is working in the world, but it's the same person behind all three masks. Most Mormons are surprised to find that this view is a heresy, because it tends to be the viewpoint we are taught growing up in the Church of what “other Christians” believe. Modalist thought can be found throughout Christian history, but it is always regarded by Christian theologians as heretical and is corrected when found. That doesn't mean that it doesn't continue pop up all over the place even in congregations nowadays, and it was commonly said to be an issue for many early seekers in America's Second Great Awakening. Even Thomas Paine, the writer of the revolutionary tract Common Sense, discussed the oddity of the Trinity in his Age of Reason. It's bound to happen when people continue to use analogies to try and explain the mystery of the Trinity such as “It's like water: it can be solid, liquid, or gas but it's all water,” or “It's like an egg: you have the shell, the whites, and the yolk, but it's only an egg when all three are united together.”

Mormons and Their “Trinitarian” Straw Men

I still have more research to do on this point, so from here on out it's my own supposition (though I'm rather confident in this hypothesis), but I think it can be shown that the great divide between Mormons as non-Trinitarians and other Christians as Trinitarians has its roots in Mormon rhetoric and not in anti- Mormon rhetoric. In other words, I think Mormons started self-identifying as non-Trinitarians decades before other Christians even cared about the issue. I would argue that issues that are related to that divide, such as Mormons believing in an embodied God or in human deification and theosis, can and occasionally do live side by side with traditional Trinitarian thought. I think that eventually as Christians in general turned against Mormonism during the 19th Century it was originally because of polygamy and the strong control exerted upon members by Church leadership. Eventually, some Christians heard that Mormons also identified themselves as anti-Trinitarianists and so came to agree that this was an issue, and today the argument that Mormons cannot be Christians because of the Council of Nicea has been ongoing for so long that everyone on both sides of the divide has forgotten who first started saying it and everyone simply believes it is true because it's been said for so long by both sides. However, I'm still doing my own research into what the earliest Mormon narratives on Nicea and the Trinity were and when and if they changed.

Anyways, all of this is a very long way of saying that I think this scripture is present because it's one of the main anti-Modalist scriptures (the Arians in particular loved to use anti-Modalism scriptures and arguments because it helped force their opponents into the uncomfortable position of possibly having to argue against Arian ideas using heretical terms and ideas from earlier Modalist thinkers). Jesus is talking to God and mentions himself as being separate. Mormons (incorrectly) assume that this scripture is thus speaking against Trinitarianism. For Mormons, this rejection of Trinitarianism is, oddly, one of the most important differences between Mormonism and Christianity. In the First Vision account, where God and Jesus visit Joseph Smith as a young boy to start him on the road to becoming a prophet, Mormons routinely will point out that Joseph saw two “personages” in the grove where was praying and not one. But remember, this is because they've been perpetuating the idea of a modalist Trinity for so long that today it is simply an accepted point among Mormons that Christians are Modalists. However, this isn't true, and unfortunately the elevation of this scripture to be included in a list of the most important scriptures for LDS youth almost certainly involves this scripture being used to combat this false view of what other Christians “believe”.

Why Do I Think This Is Part of Scripture Mastery?

For two reasons, one good and one bad. The first, good reason is because it is a scripture that speaks to one of the central doctrines of Christian and Mormon theology: God sent Jesus Christ. However, the second bad reason focuses on the idea that life eternal is to “know God”: for most Mormons this knowledge includes a true understanding of the nature of God as “non-Trinitarian,” placed against a straw-man conception of “orthodox Christianity” that is actually heretical for traditional Christians.

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These are the posts I've made as part of my Scripture Mastery in Context project for the Christian New Testament. The project is an attempt to study the 25 scriptures the LDS Church Educational System expects high school students to memorize from the New Testament.

Update May 2013

The Church Educational System revised the lists of Scripture Mastery recently and this new list removed a number of the old scriptures, altered the extent of a couple, and added a number of new selections.  The following list has been revised with the new scriptures.  I'll be writing posts for those as I can, but this was quite the unexpected change and I don't have much prepared yet about it.

Series Description Posts

Scripture Mastery Posts

* Number of verses altered from 2 Timothy 3:16-17 ** Number of verses altered from Revelation 20:12-13

Old Pre-2013 Scripture Mastery Selections

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Greek: Ἐὰν ἀγαπᾶτέ με, τὰς ἐντολὰς τὰς ἐμὰς τηρήσετε·

My Translation: If y'all love me, y'all will observe my commandments.

KJV: If ye love me, keep my commandments.

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.

When I mentioned that the Jesus of John's gospel likes to talk, I'm not kidding! John 14 begins a discourse from Jesus to his disciples that lasts for several chapters without any real interruption. The context is the famous Last Supper, mentioned in all four gospels and also in the genuine letters of Paul. Jesus is here giving his last sermon to his disciples, preparing them for his death and (in the Gospel of John, at least) for how his death will bring the Kingdom of God fully to them. The broader context is difficult to summarize; I'd recommend that you go and read John 14 for yourself. The best I can say is that Jesus is talking about his commandments and about love.

Frankly, I'm going to commit a huge blasphemy here and say that I don't really find this scripture to be engaging at all. I'm dreading this write-up because of the boredom this verse inspires to me. I'm wanting to talk about how it is emblematic of the Mormon doctrine of the importance of works, but frankly I think the case for this to be made is weak. Jesus is here making a command that his disciples show their love of Jesus by following what he had told them to do. He is not saying that they must do so or else they will not enter the kingdom of God. He is not saying they must do so or suffer wrath. He's saying that their love of him should lead to their doing what he said to do. A little later, in verse 21, he indicates that the way to show love for Jesus is by keeping his commandments. They're not two things that lead from one to another, they're equivalent things. So does this really have much to do with salvation by either grace or by works? Not really, I'd argue, without reading a lot into the text.

A better question here would be, “What are the commandments of Jesus?” The typical LDS answer (indeed, the answer of most biblical inerrantists as well) would be that anywhere in the Bible where Jesus says to do something, then that is one of his commandments. Is this the case?

John's Jesus is remarkably ambivalent about the Jewish law (unlike Matthew's Jesus, with whom we've spent the most time so far). If we look through this chapters-long discourse, the answer becomes clear when we look at the next chapter (remember that there are no real chapter divisions in John's original work; this is all the same thing). John 15:10-14 says,

If you obey my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commandments and remain in his love. I have told you these things so that my joy may be in you, and your joy maybe complete. My commandment is this—-to love one another just as I have love you. No one has greater love than this—-that one lays down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.

And just a bit later in verse 17:

This I command you – to love one another.

I think it's very difficult to argue that the commandments referred to in this scripture mastery verse are anything more than directly linked with the explicit commands that Jesus gives to his disciples in the next chapter: that they love each other enough to die for each other. Sure, we can find many more commandments of Jesus in the other gospels, but the gospels were not written to be read together. They are not friendly sources towards each other. Each gospel is a unique piece of literature that attempts to stand alone in their depiction of who Jesus was and what his message was. To honestly discern what the author of the gospel was referring to beyond the command to love one another would best require going through the gospel of John from the beginning up to chapter 14 and try and decide what commandments he gives. If you'll go ahead and do that, you'll find a very different Jesus with a very different focus than the one we've been looking at in Matthew.

Why Do I Think This Is Part of Scripture Mastery?

I think this verse was chosen to try and impress upon LDS youth the importance of keeping the commandments taught to them by Church leaders. Since they hope that their students love Jesus, this is Jesus telling them, from an LDS point of view, that this love should be expressed through such things as avoiding coffee, tea, and alcohol, keeping chaste, being honest with others, paying tithing, and preparing for missions and temple rituals. However, I'd argue that this interpretation relies upon approaching the New Testament as a coherent whole where all of the books within it are designed to complement each other. The truth is not so nice and simple, and if we read the statement from John within the context of the Gospel of John, the commandments in question seem to be related to loving Jesus and loving each other. I cannot get behind the first interpretation as it creates a situation ripe for abuse by Church leaders, both local and at the top, who might exercise “unrighteous dominion”. The second interpretation is one that I whole-heartily can get behind. The world needs more love between humans.

#Mormon #ScriptureMasteryNT #AcademicBiblical

Greek: καὶ ἄλλα πρόβατα ἔχω, ἃ οὐκ ἔστιν ἐκ τῆς αὐλῆς ταύτης· κἀκεῖνα δεῖ με ἀγαγεῖν, καὶ τῆς φωνῆς μου ἀκούσουσιν, καὶ γενήσεται μία ποίμνη, εἷς ποιμήν.

My Translation: And other sheep I have, which are not of this court; I should lead them too, and they will hear my voice, and one flock will happen, one shepherd.

KJV: And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.

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.

Update May 2013

This scripture has been removed by the Church Educational System from the Scripture Mastery list. However, it had remained within this list for over two decades and as such is still familiar to many graduates of the LDS Church's Seminary program. So I'm keeping this exploration of it online, but it is no longer applicable to CES.

Let's discuss the general non-Mormon view on this scripture first, and then we'll get to how this scripture is usually applied in the LDS Church.

This verse is in the context of a much longer discourse by Jesus about how he is the good shepherd willing to die for the sheep. Don't forget this context because it's important to how everyone else reads this verse.

In verse 10 onwards, Jesus explains what he means by the term “good shepherd.” He's not a hired hand, who would run away when danger appears and would leave the sheep to be destroyed. No, he's a good shepherd, who is willing to die in defense of his sheep. And Jesus says that God knows that Jesus dies for his sheep. And Jesus has other sheep, not of this enclosure, and he plans to bring them into the enclosure and have one herd. And the Father loves Jesus because he will die for the sheep, and Jesus is fully in command of the circumstances of his death. He has the power to die, and the power to take death back.

So, with that context surrounding the verse, it shouldn't surprise you that most people, believers and non-believers alike, feel that the author is describing how Jesus's death is for both the Jews as well as the Gentiles. The rest of the context in the sermon is describing how Jesus's willingness and ability to die for his sheep is what sets him apart from a hired hand as a good shepherd.

In Matthew's Gospel (which, I cannot stress this enough, is written from a Jewish perspective for what appears to be a Jewish group of Jesus followers), Jesus tells a Syrophonecian woman that he was sent only to the “lost sheep of Israel”; Jesus also himself avoids and tells his followers to avoid Samaria during his ministry. However, in John's Gospel, one of the first declarations by Jesus about being the Messiah is made to a Samaritan woman, and Jesus does not seem to share the same concerns. Also, while Matthew was written while there was still much uncertainty about the place and role of Greek believers, John was written a few decades later when the balance between Jewish Christians and Greek Christians was beginning to swing decisively in favor of Greek Christians having the greater numbers. So from this perspective it makes sense that the author of John would choose to mention that Jesus's mission to die for his sheep also extends to more sheep than just his original Jewish followers. Certainly by the time John was written it would have been obvious that the Christian message was seeing much more success in the world outside of Judea than within it.

The unique Mormon interpretation, on the other hand, is demanded by the Book of Mormon. In the Book of Mormon narrative, a group of Israelites have been led by God to the Americas. After Jesus's death and resurrection, he descends to the civilization of these Israelites and spends a few chapters in 3 Nephi talking to them and setting up an ecclesiastical organization among them before leaving. It's the theological climax of the book, featuring John's Jesus giving quotations from Matthew's gospel, and setting up his Church according to patterns recorded by Paul. Which is totally fine if you feel that the New Testament is a coherent whole (as most Mormons do). However, if you view the New Testament as a group of disparate works that do not make any attempt for agreement with each other, the appearance and behavior of Jesus in 3 Nephi is immensely troubling. (I've written more about the differences between the four New Testament gospels here.)

Anyways, the anachronisms and New Testament jumble are not the main point here. As part of his American discourses in the Book of Mormon, Jesus reveals to the people gathered around him, in 3 Nephi 15:16-24 that they are the “lost sheep” referred to in John 10:16. From 3 Nephi 15:21-24:

21 And verily I say unto you, that ye are they of whom I said: Other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd. 22 And they understood me not, for they supposed it had been the Gentiles; for they understood not that the Gentiles should be converted through their preaching. 23 And they understood me not that I said they shall hear my voice; and they understood me not that the Gentiles should not at any time hear my voice—-that I should not manifest myself unto them save it were by the Holy Ghost. 24 But behold, ye have both heard my voice, and seen me; and ye are my sheep, and ye are numbered among those whom the Father hath given me.

Jesus even acknowledges that many of his followers thought he was referring to the Gentiles, but he then alludes to Matthew's declaration (Matthew 15:24) that Jesus was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel (which in the Book of Mormon allusion becomes a reference to the lost tribes of Israel, referring to the lost remnants of the northern kingdom of Israel, destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 BCE). Because Jesus wasn't allowed to preach to non-Jews, then how could the Gentiles have “heard his voice”? The Book of Mormon demands that Mormons view the phrase “and they shall hear my voice” as a literal pronouncement about people hearing the actual voice of Jesus.

But Mormons do so by basically downplaying the second phrase: “them also I should bring, there shall be one flock, one shepherd.” In what way did Jesus bring the American civilizations (or, as the Book of Mormon implies, other lost pockets of Israelites worldwide) into a single flock (ποίμνη poímnā) with his Jewish followers in the fold (αὐλή aulā) of Jerusalem? The only way to keep this is to jump from a literal interpretation to a spiritual interpretation in the same sentence: they're brought into the same flock because they now all have the same gospel from Jesus's voice. So the interpretation says that in the midst of a long segment where Jesus, a Jewish itinerant rabbi, compares himself to a shepherd and his followers to sheep—-all of which I think everyone agrees should be read symbolically and not literally—-Jesus chooses to throw out a cryptic clue to his Judean followers about far-distant cousins living elsewhere in the world, followed by yet more symbolic language about bringing them together somehow. And the only reason for this interpretation seems to be because of a statement made in a fully separate gospel, Matthew, about Jesus not going to the Gentiles, a statement invalidated by other events in the gospel of John.

Obviously, I feel that the identification of the “other sheep” as Gentiles is completely correct, but that is because I feel that the Book of Mormon is a 19th Century creation. I do not feel that I am limited or forced in my perspective by what it has to say, and I'd even encourage believing Mormons to adopt a viewpoint of a 19th Century Book of Mormon to deal with issues like this. The narrators of the Book of Mormons apologize more than once for errors that may be in the book, so perhaps Mormons should adopt this verse in 3 Nephi as one of those errors. However, without a more flexible interpretation Mormons will continue to confuse other Christians when they point to John 10:16 as though it is biblical evidence for the Book of Mormon. It isn't.

Why Do I Think This Is Part of Scripture Mastery?

This scripture is kept because it is quoted by Jesus in 3 Nephi as biblical evidence for the existence of Book of Mormon peoples. However, this quotation introduces unnecessary complexity and really only stands as a valid interpretation after the Book of Mormon is already accepted as divine scripture. Without the interpretation provided by the Book of Mormon it is a scripture where Jesus prophesies how his gospel will go forth to the Gentiles (which, considering that the gospel of John was written nearly a century after the historical Jesus probably died and many Greeks were already believing in him as a divine figure, isn't really that impressive of a prophecy), and is a statement of how Jesus's death has meaning to both Jews and Gentiles together. John's main message is that Jesus died for the sins of the entire world, and this scripture stands fully in line with his main perspective and purpose.

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