RSC Blog Posts
POSTED BY: Millet
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.
POSTED BY: holzapfel
Latter-day Saints are fond of quoting a phrase from modern revelation, “Seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:118). From the beginning of the Restoration in the 1820s, a common theme of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s religious quest was to seek knowledge, light, and understanding. When he went into a grove of trees near his home to pray in the spring of 1820, Joseph Smith was impelled by his trust in the biblical promise found in James 1:5 that he could find wisdom if he sought it. This prayer resulted in the First Vision, in which Joseph saw the Father and the Son—beginning a spiritual sunrise unexpected by men and women of Joseph’s own day, but anticipated by prophets and apostles of old (see Acts 3:20–21).
Gospel truths continued to roll forth through the young prophet as he personally sought wisdom from God. Interestingly, Joseph Smith not only prayed for such wisdom but also studied the word of God and the languages of the biblical world (for example, Hebrew and Egyptian), practicing the command to “seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” His example in this two-part effort set a pattern for Latter-day Saints that continues to challenge us today.
Recently, there has been an explosion of self-help books for “dummies” or books to make something easy. With less time in a busy world, we often look for a quick fix to our problems, even when it comes to scripture study. However, when applied to the scriptures these efforts, even though popular and well meaning, may not necessarily raise one’s understanding of the topic. My colleague Robert J. Millet opined sometime ago that we need the scriptures to be understandable, not easy. I do not believe that he was playing a semantic game but that he was identifying an important difference between the two approaches.
Fortunately, Joseph Fielding McConkie, professor emeritus of ancient scripture at BYU, helps us in making the scriptures more understandable with his latest book, Between the Lines: Unlocking Scripture with Timeless Principles (Honeoye Falls, NY: Digital Legend, 2009).
What I like most about this book is that it forced me to think about how we read and study the scriptures. Sometimes in order to focus our thoughts, it is important to consider how and why we do a routine thing such as studying the scriptures. McConkie is not interested in “procedures,” such as what color of pencils one use to mark the scriptures or whether one should mark the scriptures at all. His goal is to enhance our study by providing “timeless principles that facilitate sound scriptural understanding” (viii).
The book contains more than just ideas about scripture understanding. There are also concrete suggestions. For example, the author suggests that we take advantage of “various study Bibles” (29). He enjoys “the help of an Archaeological Study Bible, The Jewish Study Bible, The Catholic Study Bible, and a variety of Protestant study Bibles” (29) and even provides a brief list of such study Bibles in the section “Sources” (165–66).
There are some light-hearted moments scattered throughout the book as the author has some fun pointing out rather common practices that we have engaged in through the years that may in fact have diverted us from understanding the scriptures. It may be healthy to laugh at ourselves from time to time, especially when we consider that we all have likely endured our “fair share of scripture abuse” (viii). I recommend this book to all who want to improve the quality of their scripture study and teaching.
POSTED BY: holzapfel
Luke prepared a two-part work known as the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts nearly two thousand years ago, but the stories are as still as fresh and exciting as any modern story. He may be at his best in the last two chapters of Acts, which contain one of the finest first-century sea travel narratives to have survived from the past (see Acts 27–28). Paul had been languishing in prison for two years at the Roman provincial capital of Judea when Luke begins this well-known part of the story: “And when it was determined that we should sail into Italy, they delivered Paul and certain other prisoners unto one named Julius, a centurion of Augustus’ band” (Acts 27:1).
Luke provides a dramatic account of a storm, a warning, and then a shipwreck. Paul, who has been pictured as tireless missionary out to save the world, does in fact save the crew, soldiers, and prisoners. They find safety on an island, most likely modern Malta, and after three months, board a grain ship from Alexandria, Egypt, headed for Rome.
Luke continues, “And landing at Syracuse [in modern Sicily], we tarried there three days. And from thence we fetched a compass, and came to Rhegium [modern Reggio Calabria, Italy]: and after one day the south wind blew, and we came the next day to Puteoli [modern Pozzuoli, just north of Naples]” (Acts 28:12–13).
I have been retracing Paul’s journeys during the last fifteen years. This has been not only a professional project (I teach New Testament) but also a personal quest—Paul has had a hold on me for some time. This past Sunday, I was finally able to visit one site that has been on my agenda for a very long time—Pozzuoli. With an old missionary companion, Steve Smoot, leading the way, we made our way to this quite small Italian seaside town.
Pozzuoli has been in the news lately. Only last week archaeologists unearthed a marble head of the Roman emperor Titus, who destroyed Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70 (click here).
At this point, Luke transitions from the sea travel narrative to the land travel narrative with six emotionally laden words: “and so we went toward Rome” (Acts 28:14). Of course, Rome was the final destination of the journey, but more importantly, the climax of his story in Acts—Paul will announce the “good news” in Rome, the heart of the empire itself.
The best part of visiting historical sites is that from that day forward I will feel something different as I teach a particular story. Like Luke, I will be able to provide a word picture to my students. In this case, I will visualize the blue Mediterranean Sea, the shoreline crowded with boats, nets, and birds, and the surrounding hilltop horizon at Pozzuoli. In my mind’s eye, I will picture Paul climbing the bluffs that separate the village from the plain above to begin his journey toward Rome. I will recall the heat and humidity and the smell of the seawater and the fish. My students will travel with me as we travel with Luke and Paul to Pozzuoli while reading the account of a journey to Rome.