Robert L. Millet Blog Posts
Publications Director of BYU Religious Studies Center
POSTED BY: holzapfel
Those who are interested in the Doctrine and Covenants need to roll up their sleeves and begin to mine the treasure in the latest volume of The Joseph Smith Papers, released a little over a month ago on September 22, 2009. This stunning oversized volume, Manuscript Revelation Books (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2009), reproduces the original revelation manuscripts in actual size and color. The binding and design are excellent. The book is a treasure in itself, but the content is pure gold.
Robin Scott Jensen, Robert J. Woodford, and Steven C. Harper, my Religious Education colleague, edited this particular volume. The introductory essays alone are worth the hundred-dollar price tag.
This week, BYU Studies released its latest issue (48, no. 3), containing excellent essays by the editors and by Grant Underwood (BYU History Department) highlighting the discovery of the manuscript for ”A Book of Commandments and Revelation” (pp. 7–17), a review of the history of the manuscript through publication of the 1833 Book of Commandments and the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants (18–52), a discussion of the significance the manuscripts (53–66), and a review of how the manuscript can help us understand the “process by which Joseph Smith received, recorded, and published” his revelations (67–84). Added to these four outstanding essays is a response by the former archivist of the Community of Christ, Ron Romig (85–91).
Steve Harper notes, “The Book of Commandments and Revelations (BCR) will have an immense influence on the scholarly study of early Mormon revelations” (53). That is definitely true. His work, along with that of his coeditors, will provide current and future historians an opportunity to examine these important primary sources without traveling to Salt Lake City, Independence, or Provo. The publication’s impact on our understanding of Joseph Smith’s prophetic career cannot be fully appreciated now. However, BYU Studies has begun providing the kind of thoughtful consideration of the Book of Commandments and Revelation manuscript that will appear during the next few years and decades. If you own Manuscript Revelation Books, you need to get a copy of the latest BYU Studies—an important and valuable contribution to our understanding of The Joseph Smith Papers.
POSTED BY: holzapfel
Guest blog by Clyde Williams, professor of ancient scripture at BYU.
My recollections of general conference as a young boy take me back to the George Albert Smith Fieldhouse and long lines outside the Tabernacle on Temple Square for the priesthood session. I remember in April 1965 as the aging President David O. McKay attended one of his last priesthood sessions. After he gave a brief greeting and expressed appreciation for the priesthood brethren, all stood in the fieldhouse and the Tabernacle and sang “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet.” For me the feeling was electric. There came a powerful witness to my heart that he was the Lord’s prophet on earth.
Since those early days, the personal significance and importance of general conference has continued to grow for me. I remember when announcements were made of significant policies, procedures, or administrative changes such as the inclusion of what is now D&C 137 and 138, the new LDS edition of the Bible, the formation of the quorums of the Seventy, the subtitle for the Book of Mormon, the proclamation on the family, President Hinckley’s statements on body piercing and tattoos, and the stand against same-sex marriage.
How do we respond when reminders of principles and practices are given or new policies are announced? Our initial response can be telling or informative. When we are spiritually in tune, we can, like King Benjamin’s people, be blessed with “the manifestations of his Spirit” and thus “have great views of that which is to come” (Mosiah 5:3). We will sense a need for something to be said on an issue, and when it is said we find ourselves in harmony.
A passage struck me as being profound when applied to general conference:
Son of man, the children of thy people still are talking against [meaning near] thee by the walls and in the doors of the houses, and speak one to another, every one to his brother, saying, Come, I pray you, and hear what is the word that cometh forth from the Lord.
And they come unto thee as the people cometh, and they sit before thee as my people, and they hear thy words, but they will not do them: for with their mouth they shew much love, but their heart goeth after their covetousness.
And, lo, thou art unto them as a very lovely song of one that hath a pleasant voice, and can play well on an instrument: for they hear thy words, but they do them not. (Ezekiel 33:30–32)
Clearly, Ezekiel here describes a people who think highly of a living prophet but do not heed his words. It is like people speaking highly of President Thomas S. Monson and how good his talks are and yet, when it comes down to it, not following his counsel.
Another trap one can fall into is thinking general conference is like a buffet table. Commenting on this potential pitfall, Elder Neal A. Maxwell explained: “Our relationship to living prophets is not one in which their sayings are a smorgasbord from which we may take only that which pleases us. We are to partake of all that is placed before us, including the spinach, and to leave a clean plate!” (Things As They Really Are [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1978], 74).
In October conference in 1975, President Kimball was concluding the conference and spoke of the many uplifting and inspired talks that had been given. I was a bit stunned and sobered by what he said next: “While sitting here, I have made up my mind that when I go home from this conference this night there are many, many areas in my life that I can perfect. I have made a mental list of them, and I expect to go to work as soon as we get through with conference” (in Conference Report, October 1975, 164). Who among the Saints did not feel there were many things we needed to work on? I was moved to tears as I thought about this humble prophet who had given so much of his life and would yet give so much more as he sought to do the Lord’s will.
The seriousness with which President Kimball approached general conference was apparent. He also made it clear as he closed the conference that October afternoon how everyone else should view the conference proceedings:
Well, now, brothers and sisters, this is the gospel of Jesus Christ, and to all who are listening in, we have not been fooling. What we have said to you in these three days is truth, downright truth, and it has a definite bearing upon the salvation and exaltation of every soul that could listen and hear. (click to hear President Kimball’s statement)
As you listened to his voice, you can feel the earnest and affirming power by which these word were said. I believe they hold true for every general conference. I am truly grateful for the profound impact that general conference has had and continues to have in my life.
POSTED BY: holzapfel
Guest blog by David Rolph Seely, professor of ancient scripture at BYU.
The Day of Atonement—Yom Kippur in Hebrew—is the most solemn and holy day of the Israelite calendar. It falls on the tenth day of the seventh month, and this year (2009) it will begin at sundown on September 27. Ancient Israelites prepared themselves by refraining from work as on the Sabbath, repenting of their sins, and fasting. The purpose of this day is described in Leviticus: “For on that day shall the priest make an atonement for you, to cleanse you, that you may be clean from all your sins before the Lord” (Leviticus 16:30). The high priest performed a series of rituals, including washing himself, offering sacrifices, and taking blood into the Holy of Holies of the temple, where he sprinkled it on the mercy seat on the Ark of the Covenant. The power of the Lord to cleanse his people was dramatized when the high priest cast lots over two goats. One goat was designated as belonging to the Lord and was sacrificed by the high priest. The high priest took the other goat and transferred the sins of the people to this goat by laying his hands on its head. The second goat, called the “scapegoat” in English, was driven into the wilderness, symbolizing the cleansing of the people from the stain of ritual impurity and sin.
The book of Hebrews in the New Testament teaches the doctrine of the Atonement of Christ through the symbolism of the Day of Atonement. Christians believe that Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice to cleanse his people from their sins. Just as the high priest on the Day of Atonement, Jesus “by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us” (Hebrews 9:12). Because Latter-day Saints understand the Day of Atonement was part of the law of Moses fulfilled in Christ, we do not formally celebrate this occasion, but we do regularly take of the tokens of the sacrament as symbols of the power of the redemption of Christ to cleanse us from our sins and transgressions.
After the destruction of the temple in AD 70 the Jews were no longer able to offer sacrifice, and the celebration of Yom Kippur moved from the temple to the synagogue. Today Jews celebrate Yom Kippur as the culmination of the process of repentance that begins with Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the seventh month. For nine days Jews engage in personal retrospection and repentance, reaching out to those around them to confess their sins and ask forgiveness. On the tenth day, Yom Kippur, each individual solemnly presents him or herself before God in the synagogue in fasting and prayer seeking for divine forgiveness for their sins and shortcomings. In light of the absence of the temple, the Talmud prescribes the study and recitation of the biblical ritual described in Leviticus 16 on Yom Kippur. The meaning of Yom Kippur is eloquently expressed in Song of Songs Rabbah 6.11: “Just as a nut falls into some dirt you can take it up and wipe it and rinse it and wash it and it is restored to its former condition and is fit for eating, so however much Israel may be defiled with iniquities all the rest of the year, when the Day of Atonement comes it makes atonement for them, as it is written, ‘For on this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you.’”
One year my family and I experienced Yom Kippur in Jerusalem. There was complete silence in the streets throughout the day as all normal daily activities came to a complete stop. It was a vivid reminder of the need to take time, whether once a year, or once a week, to pause and inventory one’s standing with God and with each other, and to seek to find “at-one-ment” with the Lord through repentance and divine forgiveness.
POSTED BY: holzapfel
Guest blog by Jeffrey R. Chadwick, Jerusalem Center professor of Archaeology and Near Eastern studies, and associate professor of Church history and doctrine at BYU.
Rosh Hashannah is the annual festival holiday marking the Jewish New Year. The Hebrew term actually means “head of the year.” The festival falls on the first day of the first lunar month of the autumn season. In 2009, Rosh Hashannah will begin on Friday night, September 18, and will be celebrated all day Saturday, September 19. In many Jewish communities, a second day of Rosh Hashannah will be celebrated on Sunday, September 20.
One of the most festive of all Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashannah is one of the two High Holy Days in Judaism, the other being the solemn fasting day known as Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), which falls ten days afterward. The period between these two High Holy Days is known as “the Days of Awe,” a period when the Jewish faithful consider their trespasses, personal and national, reflect upon the need for repentance, and consider the future. It is significant that such a period is commenced with a festival as joyful and full of hope and anticipation for the future as Rosh Hashannah.
On Rosh Hashannah there are different ways to celebrate. Of course, many Jews will attend the special service for the new year held in their local synagogue. A significant act, stated as a command in Leviticus 23:24, is to blow the shofar (Hebrew for “ram’s horn,” translated “trumpet” in the King James Bible) on the festival day. Combinations of short, medium, and long blasts are blown on the shofar up to one hundred times during the day of Rosh Hashannah. Another practice is to enjoy fall fruits, such as pomegranates, grapes, and apples slices dipped in honey, and to give gifts of apples and honey to family and friends. Apples and honey have become an iconic symbol of Rosh Hashannah, recognized by Jews everywhere as an emblem of the festival.
Jews greet their families and friends and wish them Shannah Tovah (“a good year”) and Ktivah Vehatimah Tovah (“may you be inscribed and sealed for good”), referring to being well inscribed in the metaphoric books of life. The Talmud teaches that “three books are opened (in heaven) on Rosh Hashannah: the book of life of the wicked, the book of life of the righteous, and the book of life of those in between” (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashannah 16.b). This passage is interesting in light of New Testament references to the books from which we are judged (see Revelation 20:12) and resurrections to different glories (see John 5:28-29). The Talmud, in its own way, seems to be referring to three degrees of judgment and postmortal reward.
In the Jewish scripture called the Hebrew Bible (Christians call it the Old Testament), the day of this festival is noted as falling on the first day of “the seventh month” (Leviticus 23:24), and is not given a name. The commandment to observe the festival simply directs that day be regarded as a Sabbath and a holy convocation and instructs that the “blowing of trumpets” take place. In early Old Testament times before the Babylonian captivity, the festival was not regarded as the first day of the new year. So how did that designation come about?
While in Babylon, ancient Jews were exposed to an annual count that began with an autumnal new year, and it became expedient for them to adopt that cycle for their practical yearly reckoning. So counting the year from the first autumn month became something of a second, secular calendar for them. Though the biblical spring new year was not forgotten, over time the autumnal new year became more widely observed. And because that day fell on the same autumn day as the festival of trumpeting mentioned in Leviticus 23, the practice of calling it the “head of the year” (Rosh Hashannah) came into being—all before the time of Jesus. And one more interesting fact: it is quite likely that the “feast of the Jews” mentioned in John 5:1 was not Passover (as mentioned in some footnotes) but actually Rosh Hashannah!
So Shannah Tova to all!
POSTED BY: holzapfel
This month’s National Geographic magazine features a fascinating article by Peter Miller (“Before New York: Rediscovering the Wilderness of 1609,” 122–37). The article opens a window to the past—when the first European settlers began to explore and settle the island of Manhattan. Robert Clark provides stunning photographs, and Markley Boyer and Philip Staub add important illustrations to re-create the natural landscape of Manhattan before it changed forever. Certainly native peoples left their footprints on the land as they interacted with the flora and fauna, but European settlement impacted the land in profound ways.
On my next visit to the Big Apple, I am tucking this article in my bag so I can pull it out as I walk around the city to see beyond the concrete and asphalt to a world that once existed in the same geographical location. I am going to visualize New York before Henry Hudson arrived in 1609, looking for hints of that time and place.
The settling of much of New York State was a pivotal time in U.S. history. It witnessed the creation of a new nation (1776–87), the religious revivals known as the Second Great Awakening (1816–26), and the restoration of the Church of Jesus Christ (1820–30).
This past weekend I invited a small group from BYU to visit New York State to envision a specific point in early Church history: the spring morning in 1820 when Joseph Smith saw the Father and the Son in the Sacred Grove. Along with Kent P. Jackson, associate dean of Religious Education, and Brent Nordgren, production manager for the Religious Studies Center, I invited Larry C. Porter, professor emeritus of Church history; Donald L. Enders, senior curator of historic sites; and Robert F. Parrot, Sacred Grove manager, to discuss the history and meaning of the Sacred Grove. During our two-day trip, we visualized that important spring morning when Joseph Smith walked from his family’s log home to a place in the nearby woods to pray. Unlike New York City, the Sacred Grove is closer to the condition it was in when Joseph Smith knelt to pray. The story of the efforts to preserve the grove will be told in a future article for the Religious Educator based on the interviews conducted this past weekend.
Although we do not know the exact spot where Joseph knelt to pray, the woodlands near the Smith home remind us of the event and allow us to connect to the past. Visitors to the grove walk where young Joseph Smith worked and prayed. Such explorations help us place diaries, letters, and histories of the past into their real-world context, allowing us to appreciate the story more fully.
Photo of Sacred Grove by Brent Nordgren
POSTED BY: holzapfel
The Smithsonian magazine featured an interesting article by Barbara Kreiger on King Herod this past month (see “Finding Herod’s Tomb,” [August 2009]: 36–43). Last year, Ehud Netzer, a famous Israeli archeologist, announced that he had found Herod’s tomb (see RSC blog posting for December 12, 2008)—a startling news report that caught the attention of scholars and the popular media.
Archeologists have been looking for this tomb for a very long time. In this latest update of its discovery, Kreiger provides a wonderful word-picture of the Herodium (the fortress-palace of Herod in the Judean wilderness some seven miles south of Jerusalem) and some stunning photographs, including one of the reconstructed royal sarcophagus Netzer found (see p. 39)
In addition to telling an engaging story, the article provides a view of the original mausoleum reconstructed by Netzer himself (pp. 41–42). He estimates that it was a seven-story building located about halfway up the artificial mountain Herod built for his largest palace-fortress. So dominant was the site in antiquity, that the inhabitants of Jerusalem could see it. This is simply amazing!
When I lived in Jerusalem (1997–98) some 250,000 people visited the Herodium each year. We took our BYU students there each semester. I felt like I was walking up the hill myself as I read this article. Kreiger not only captures the lay of the land in her well-written essay, but also captures the tension that permeates the air today: “I see Arab villages and Israeli settlements in three directions” (p. 39). The conflict between Arab villagers and Israeli settlers has virtually stopped all tourism to the site today. “But to the east,” she continues, “cultivation abruptly stops as the desert exerts its authority, plummeting out of sight to the Dead Sea, then rising again as the mountains of Jordan” (p. 39). The conflict between wilderness and civilization is as real as the conflict between to people who claim ownership of the land. Standing at the Herodium and viewing the scene only heightens one’s awe at what Herod did here when he built his fortress-palace and then built his mausoleum.
In the end, no matter what one thinks of Herod, one must surely admit that Herod was one of the greatest builders in antiquity. His tomb and his fortress-place in the Judean desert demonstrate that fact. The work of Ehud Netzer provides us another window into the world of the first century—a world dominated by kingdoms and rulers who had a different vision than that of Jesus of Nazareth.
POSTED BY: holzapfel
Guest blog by Brent L. Top, professor of Church history and doctrine at BYU.
A miracle occurs every August in Provo. I have seen it with my own eyes. In fact, I have been not only an observer but also a participant. The miracle is Campus Education Week. Brigham Young University is transformed almost overnight. For one week each year, classrooms usually filled with young adults are suddenly filled with gray-haired grandmas and grandpas, worn-out moms thrilled to have time for themselves, excited teenagers looking to meet new friends, and dads with wallets full of cash and cards to ensure that everyone has a good time. RVs fill the parking lots, and area hotels are full of families having a vacation, attending classes, concerts, plays, and activities. The class offerings vary as much as the age-groups, body shapes, and circumstances in life. For every student—whether a wide-eyed fourteen-year-old who has never been on a college campus before or a ninety-year-old who has never missed an Education Week (and usually doesn’t even stop for lunch)—there is something that can enlarge the intellect, strengthen the spirit, and comfort the soul.
This miracle is a reflection of Latter-day Saints’ deep commitment to continuing education—a commitment founded on the revelations of the Restoration and teachings of latter-day prophets. Continuing education has both temporal and spiritual benefits—benefits that enrich our lives on earth and bless us throughout all eternity. We are commanded to “seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom” (D&C 88:118) and to seek learning “in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God” (D&C 88:78). In addition, we are to learn “of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and perplexities of the nations . . . ; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms” (D&C 88:79). Our continuing education should be as much a spiritual quest as it is an intellectual or vocational one. The Lord has taught us that learning will prepare us in all things to magnify our foreordained callings (see D&C 88:80) and will rise with us in the resurrection and be to our advantage in the eternal worlds (see D&C 130:18—19).
In light of these scriptures, it is no wonder that education—formal as well as informal—plays such an important role in the lives of faithful Latter-day Saints. Our faith should propel us forward in the quest for truth and knowledge of God. “When all is said and done, we are all students,” President Gordon B. Hinckley taught. “If the day comes when we quit learning, look out. We will just atrophy and die.”
There is great potential within each of to go on learning. Regardless of our age, unless there be serious illness, we can read, study drink in the writings of wonderful men and women. . . .
We must go on growing. We must continually learn. It is a divinely given mandate that we go on adding to our knowledge.
We have access to institute classes, extension courses, education weeks, and many other opportunities where, as we study and match our minds with others, we will discover a tremendous reservoir of capacity within ourselves. (Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1997], 302–3.)
Over the past twenty years, I have been one of many teachers at Campus Education Week. It is always a privilege to participate because I always gain more than I give. It makes me want to be better. My faith in the Lord and love for the gospel are always strengthened as I witness the August miracle—thousands and thousands of Saints from every part of the world who literally “enter to learn” and then “go forth to serve” as better husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, grandparents, sons and daughters, and fellow servants in God’s kingdom. Because their lives have been enriched, they are better able to serve those around them for weeks and years to come. That is indeed a miracle.
POSTED BY: holzapfel
I am finishing co-directing the BYU summer study abroad program in Rome this weekend before moving on to Athens for the final week and half of the summer term.
It has been a hot and humid month as Dr. Gary Hatch and I have tried to keep a day ahead of the forty students who joined us. We have seen a lot of Rome and of Italy during the month.
However, Rome has been our base of operation, and during the term, we lived in several different apartments located around Vatican City, the smallest independent nation on earth. Two student apartments, in fact, have direct views of St. Peter’s Basilica from their bedroom windows.
Of course, like other travelers and tourists, we visited the Vatican museums, the Vatican gardens, the Scavi (the first-century necropolis under St. Peter’s Basilica), and inside the church itself. The students also attended a papal audience the very first week. On other occasions St. Peter’s magnificent square was a meeting place for the group before we headed off to some other location in the city. Nevertheless, it seems as though we were in the shadow of St. Peter’s every day no matter where we were in the city.
Even for non-Catholics, St. Peter’s is a must place to visit in Rome. Michelangelo’s Pieta is located in the church, and his dome looms over the skyline of Rome itself, beckoning people to gather at this remarkable site.
According a long-held tradition, Peter was crucified in Nero’s Circus and buried nearby sometime between AD 64 and 66. At some fairly early date, maybe by the middle of the second century AD, Christians marked a tomb they believed contained the bones of Peter. Later, Constantine erected a church on the site in the fourth century. Eventually, Pope Julius II began the construction of a new church, the current basilica, on the site in 1505. Beginning in 1939, the Vatican sponsored several archeological investigations under the Basilica where they found the remnants of the first church building and some first-century tombs.
Today, visitors to the Scavi are shown a specific tomb Catholics believe is that of St. Peter, directly under the current high altar covered by Bernini’s canopy directly under Michelangelo’s magnificent dome. Although most likely not the tomb of the fisherman from Galilee, there is something remarkable about visiting a site that has been the focus of pilgrimages for nearly two thousand years. And while we may never know exactly what happened to Peter (where, how, and when he died), there is something that makes us think about him in the shadow of the basilica named after him in this amazing city on the Tiber River.
POSTED BY: holzapfel
Guest blog by Reid L. Neilson, assistant professor of Church history and doctrine at BYU.
Pioneer Day typically invokes images of handcarts and wagons on the westward trail to Utah. Such a myopic view of our Church’s history, however, obscures the pioneering efforts of Latter-day Saints around the world. Thankfully, historian Andrew Jenson did all he could to expand the historical awareness of Church members—something we all should remember during this holiday time.
While working for the Church’s Historical Department in Salt Lake City, Jenson was sent by the First Presidency to tour the Church’s mission field outside North America. The intrepid Dane departed from Salt Lake City on May 11, 1895, and did not return to the City of the Saints until June 4, 1897. Over the course of his twenty-five-month solo circumnavigation of the world, Jenson passed through the following islands, nations, and lands (in chronological order): the Hawaiian Islands, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, New Zealand, Cook Islands, Society Islands, Tuamotu Islands, Australia, Ceylon, Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Italy, France, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Prussia, Hannover, Saxony, Bavaria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, England, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. He traveled 53,820 miles by a variety of steamships and small boats on water; his land conveyances included railroads, carriages, jinrikishas, horses, donkeys, and camels. Jenson became the first Latter-day Saint to visit all the existing non–North American LDS missions after the Mormon evangelization of the Pacific Basin frontier commencing in the 1840s.
Jenson preached the importance of record keeping in his many sermons and general conference addresses. “If it had not been for the writers . . . who belonged to the original Church, what would the doings of Christ mean to us?” Jenson challenged the Latter-day Saints on one occasion. “And if somebody had not recorded them and other beautiful sayings of Christ and his apostles, what would we have known of the ministry of Christ and of his apostles? We would merely have had some vague ideas handed down by tradition that would lead astray more than lead aright.” In other words, if not for the writers and historians of past dispensations, there would be no sacred history in the form of Hebrew and Christian scripture. The same would hold true in this dispensation, he often taught, if church members failed to keep contemporary ecclesiastical and personal histories. This spiritual sense of destiny, coupled with an unmatched work ethic and passion for history, shaped Jenson’s life and work. One merely needs to search the Church History Library catalog for works by Jenson to get a glimpse of his labors.
I have argued elsewhere that global LDS history is Church history. Latter-day Saints need to realize that much of our most interesting history has occurred abroad. We must remember that the “restoration” of the gospel occurs every time a new country is dedicated by apostolic authority for proselyting. In other words, the original New York restoration of 1830 was in many ways replicated in Great Britain in 1837, Japan in 1901, Brazil in 1935, Ghana in 1970, Russia in 1989, and Mongolia in 1992. Mormon historians need to refocus their scholarly gaze from Palmyra, Kirtland, Nauvoo, and Salt Lake City to Tokyo, Santiago, Warsaw, Johannesburg, and Nairobi. These international cities and their histories will become increasingly important to our sacred history. These non–North American stories need to be told with greater frequency and with better skill. In this sense Jenson was a man ahead of his times. In the final years of the nineteenth century, the yeoman workhorse of the Church Historian’s Office had the foresight and willingness to dedicate two years of his life to documenting the global Church and its membership. As Louis Reinwand points out, “Jenson played a vital role in keeping alive the ideal of a universal Church. He was the first to insist that Mormon history include Germans, Britons, Scandinavians, Tongans, Tahitians, and other national and cultural groups, and that Latter-day Saint history should be written in various languages for the benefit of those to whom English was not the native tongue” (“Andrew Jenson, Latter-day Saint Historian,” BYU Studies 14, no. 1 [Autumn 1973]: 44).
POSTED BY: holzapfel
The BYU Religious Studies Center promotes research and publication through grants and publication venues. One aspect of the RSC’s mission is to help reconstruct the world of the scriptures and the Restoration to provide helpful context.
Currently, I am codirecting a BYU Study Abroad program in Rome and Athens for the summer with Gary Hatch, associate dean of General Education and Honors. Forty students have joined us on this adventure, and it is an adventure—it is hot, humid, and sometimes difficult to get everyone to a particular museum or archaeological site via a congested and confusing bus, subway, and train system.
As one can imagine, we spend a significant amount of time walking through ancient Rome. In some places we may have even walked in the footsteps of Peter and Paul. This coming week we take a journey further afield—to ancient Pompeii, near modern Naples, Italy.
I have made my way to Pompeii on numerous occasions since my first visit with a group of high school students from York, Maine, in 1972. With each successive visit, I go away more melancholy than the first, so I am not really looking forward to this visit. I am haunted by the images of death in the city, especially by plaster casts ingeniously made of the bodies of the people who died there so many years ago. Nevertheless, I have been preparing for the visit with our students by reading a new book on Pompeii by Mary Beard, The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008).
Beard’s book reminds me that the past is much more complex than we sometimes imagine. This is an important book for anyone dreaming of going to Pompeii or anyone wanting to understand the complexity of history. First, the author tells us Pompeii is more than a city “simply frozen in midflow” (9). Chapter after chapter, the author tells us, “Everything is not as it may at first seem” (13). There was destruction before the famous eruption in AD 79 (she argues against the August 25 date), and there was looting almost immediately after the tragedy. Then in 1943, Allied bombs did even more destruction—it is a very complicated story indeed! Nevertheless, Beard notes, “It is true that the city offers us more vivid glimpses of real people and their real lives than almost anywhere else in the Roman world” (15). However, “the bigger picture and many of the more basic questions about the town remain very murky indeed” (16).
Beard provides word pictures that help us see beyond the modern reconstruction of the city and our Hollywood imagination of what it may have been like, to a nuanced and complex story that is, in reality, what life is like. Next time you read the second part of the New Testament, consider filling in the cultural and historical gaps in the story found in Acts. It will reveal an interesting and complex world, providing context to the writings of Paul, Luke, Peter, and others.« Newer Posts — Older Posts »