By Alexander L. Baugh

Professor of Church History and Doctrine, BYU

I was a late bloomer when it came to my pursuit of the study of history, and more particularly Mormon history. History was one of my least favorite classes in high school. It might have had something to do with my teachers, but nonetheless, I didn’t have much of an appetite for the subject at the time. However, while serving on my LDS mission in Virginia I began to feel the nudges that put me on the path toward the historical profession. During my mission I took the opportunity on preparation day to go to some of the historic places in or near Virginia—Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields, museums, the White House of the Confederacy, Monticello, and Kitty Hawk, to name a few. I learned a great deal and found myself wanting to know more. However, even after my mission, I was not yet converted to the study of history, although one of the first classes that I took at Utah State University after returning home was a Civil War class taught by Clyde Milner, a Yale graduate. Yet I remained content just to dabble in history from time to time while pursuing a degree in marriage and family studies.

I was well on my way toward completing my BS degree when I took a class at the LDS institute building from Kenneth W. Godfrey, Religion 341 (LDS Church History, 1805–1844). Godfrey had a definite flair for teaching the subject and he was well read. To supplement the class, he provided the students with a bibliography containing a number of historical articles published in BYU Studies, the Ensign, Journal of Mormon History, and the Improvement Era, which students could read before each class period. I soon found myself reading all of the articles he recommended on the reading list, and I even outlined the information that I learned. Godfrey’s class got me more and more excited about history in general, but more particularly early Mormon history. I subsequently enrolled in Religion 342 (LDS Church History, 1844–1877), followed by Religion 343 (LDS Church History, 1877–present). However, by the time I had finished taking these courses, I was well on my way toward completing my marriage and family degree; otherwise I might have switched my undergraduate major to history. Instead, I decided to remain in the field of family studies.

I graduated from Utah State in 1981 and moved on to teach in the LDS seminary program. While teaching at Viewmont Seminary in Bountiful, Utah, I learned that the BYU History Department was beginning an MA program in Western American history and I decided to look into the program. I met with Dr. James B. Allen, the department chair and the former assistant Church historian to Leonard Arrington. Professor Allen was reluctant to let me in the program, considering I was a non-history major had taken only a couple of undergraduate history courses. He informed me that before I could be admitted to the MA program I would be required to take several undergraduate classes, after which I would be evaluated. For the next year and a half, I took a number of courses, all with the hope that my performance would lead to my acceptance into the graduate history program. Things eventually worked out, and I was admitted. However, it was still four more years before I got my MA—two years to do the course work, and two years to write the thesis.

After defending my thesis I asked my thesis chair, Dr. Fred R. Gowans, if he felt that I had what it would take to get a PhD. He gave me some wonderful encouragement, and a year later I was admitted into BYU’s doctoral program in American history. It was a rough road, one much harder than I anticipated, but nine years later, at the age of thirty-nine, I received my doctorate. However, through my entire educational training, I felt that I was being led by a very kind and loving Heavenly Father and his Son, who made it all possible. I firmly believe that those who keep the commandments and strive to follow Christ’s example will receive the inspiration necessary to enable them to make the correct decisions that will help them be successful in the path of life that they pursue. President Ezra Taft Benson has written: “Men and women who turn their lives over to God will discover that He can make a lot more of their lives than they can. He will deepen their joys, expand their vision, quicken their mind, strengthen their muscles, lift their spirits, multiply their blessings, increase their opportunities, comfort their souls, raise up friends, and pour out peace” (“Jesus Christ–Gifts and Expectations,” Ensign,  December 1988, 4). Recognizing the power that is in Christ, the Apostle Paul taught the Philippians, “I can do all things through Christ who strengtheneth me” (Philippians 4:13).

I believe that Joseph Smith was called by God to bring about a restoration of the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ, so for me, the study of Mormon history has been a deeply moving spiritual experience. Furthermore, I consider the history that I teach, research, and write about to be a sacred trust, and in my pursuit of historical truth I have attempted to interpret the history of Mormonism “by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118) through what could simply be called “Restoration eyes.” And while I believe that non-believing historians have made wonderful contributions in the field of Mormon history, I am of the opinion that the best scholarship in Mormon history has been, and will continue to be produced by believing Latter-day Saint historians and writers—those on the “inside”—who understand the spiritual dimensions and workings of the Church and its leaders and members who possess the gift of the Holy Ghost, which enables them to tap into the higher source of knowledge and truth, the truth that God possesses.

Some time ago, I was discussing with one of my colleagues in Religious Education about the incredible amount of historical scholarship and literature that has been produced about the Latter-day Saints. To this he said something quite profound. “Yes, much has been done,” he remarked. “And yet, with all that has been done, what has been written is only a prelude. There is so much more to do.” Truly there is “much more to do,” much more to research, much more to write about. And the best in Mormon history is yet to be written. And I believe it will be written by scholars who see through the lens of faith the ever-unfolding history of the Latter-day Saints.


The Harbinger of Salvation

POSTED BY: Millet

03/18/11


Peace is what it’s all about in the gospel sense. Although most members of the Church know what peace is, I believe peace has not yet been given its day in court; maybe we have not fully appreciated as a people what a remarkable “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22) and what a transcendent manifestation of the new birth peace is! Peace is a priceless gift in a world that is at war with itself. Disciples look to him who is the Prince of Peace for their succor and their support. They know that peace is not only a cherished commodity in the here and now but also a harbinger of glorious things yet to be. Peace is a sure and solid sign from God that the heavens are pleased. In referring to a previous occasion when the spirit of testimony had been given, the Savior asked Oliver Cowdery, “Did I not speak peace to your mind . . . What greater witness can you have than from God?” (D&C 6:23).

Sin and neglect of duty result in disunity of the soul, inner strife, and confusion. On the other hand repentance, forgiveness, and rebirth bring quiet and rest and peace. While sin results in disorder, the Holy Spirit is an organizing principle that brings order and congruence. The world and the worldly cannot bring peace. They cannot settle the soul. “Peace, peace to him that is far off, and to him that is near, saith the Lord; and I will heal him. But the wicked are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt. There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked” (Isaiah 57:19–20).

Hope in Christ, which is a natural result of our saving faith in Christ, comes through spiritual reawakening. We sense our place in the royal family and are warmed by the sweet family association. And what is our indication that we are on course? How do we know we are in the gospel harness? “Hereby know we that we dwell in him, and he in us, because he hath given us of his Spirit” (1 John 4:13; emphasis added). The presence of God’s Spirit is the attestation, the divine assurance that we are headed in the right direction. It is God’s seal, his anointing, his unction (see 1 John 2:20) to us that our lives are in order. John Stott, a beloved Christian writer, has observed, “A seal is a mark of ownership . . . and God’s seal, by which he brands us as belonging forever to him, is the Holy Spirit himself. The Holy Spirit is the identity tag of the Christian” (Authentic Christianity, 81).

We need not be possessed of an unholy or intemperate zeal in order to be saved; we need only be constant and dependable. God is the other party with us in the gospel covenant. He is the controlling partner. He lets us know, through the influence of the Spirit, that the gospel covenant is still intact and the supernal promises are sure. The Savior invites us to learn the timeless and comforting lesson that “he who doeth the works of righteousness shall receive his reward, even peace in this world, and eternal life in the world to come” (D&C 59:23). Peace. Hope. Assurance. These things come to us by virtue of the atoning blood of Jesus Christ and as a natural result of our new creation. They serve as an anchor to the soul, a solid and steady reminder of who we are and Whose we are.


A Sane and Balanced Life

POSTED BY: Millet

03/10/11


God does not expect us to work ourselves into spiritual, emotional, or physical exhaustion, nor does he desire that the members of the Church be truer than true. There is little virtue in excess, even in gospel excess. In fact, as we exceed the bounds of propriety and go beyond the established mark, we open ourselves to deception and ultimately to destruction. Imbalance leads to instability. If Satan cannot cause us to lie or steal or smoke or be immoral, it just may be that he will cause our strength—our zeal for goodness and righteousness—to become our weakness. He will encourage excess, for surely any virtue, when taken to the extreme, becomes a vice.

“Gospel hobbies” lead to imbalance. To instability. To distraction. To misperception. They are dangerous and should be avoided as we would any other sin. President Joseph F. Smith said: “We frequently look about us and see people who incline to extremes, who are fanatical. We may be sure that this class of people do not understand the gospel. They have forgotten, if they ever knew, that it is very unwise to take a fragment of truth and treat it as if it were the whole thing” (Gospel Doctrine, 122). To ride a gospel hobby is to participate in and perpetuate fanaticism.  On another occasion, President Smith taught, “Brethren and sisters, don’t have hobbies. Hobbies are dangerous in the Church of Christ. They are dangerous because they give undue prominence to certain principles or ideas to the detriment and dwarfing of others just as important, just as binding, just as saving as the favored doctrines or commandments.

“Hobbies give to those who encourage them a false aspect of the gospel of the Redeemer; they distort and place out of harmony its principles and teachings. The point of view is unnatural. Every principle and practice revealed from God is essential to man’s salvation, and to place any one of them unduly in front, hiding and dimming all others is unwise and dangerous; it jeopardizes our salvation, for it darkens our minds and beclouds our understandings. . . .

“We have noticed this difficulty: that Saints with hobbies are prone to judge and condemn their brethren and sisters who are not so zealous in the one particular direction of their pet theory as they are. . . . There is another phase of this difficulty—the man with a hobby is apt to assume an ‘I am holier than thou’ position, to feel puffed up and conceited, and to look with distrust, if with no severer feeling, on his brethren and sisters who do not so perfectly live that one particular law” (Gospel Doctrine, 116–17).

True excellence in gospel living—compliance with the established laws and ordinances in a quiet and consistent and patient manner—results in humility, in greater reliance upon God, and a broadening love and acceptance of one’s fellowman. What we do in the name of goodness ought to bring us closer to those we love and serve, ought to turn our hearts toward people, rather than causing us to turn our nose up in judgmental scorn and rejection. The greatest man to walk the earth, the only fully perfect human being, looked with tenderness and compassion upon those whose ways and actions were less than perfect. 

We have been counseled to stay in the mainstream of the Church, to see to it that our obedience and faithfulness reflect sane and balanced living. While we are to be true, we need not be truer than true. While we are not to partake of the vices of the world, we are to live in it. While we are to “be valiant in the testimony of Jesus” (D&C 76:79), we are not to be excessive in our zeal. We will arrive safely at the end of our gospel journey through steady and dedicated discipleship—loving and trusting the Lord, keeping his commandments, and serving his children—not through righteousness crusades or spiritual marathons. True conversion manifests itself in settled simplicity.


Only the Blind See

POSTED BY: Millet

10/18/10


The gospel of Jesus Christ is the grand news, the glad tidings that through our exercise of faith in Jesus Christ and his Atonement, coupled with our repentance that flows therefrom, we may be forgiven of our sins and justified or made right with God. Our standing before the Almighty has thereby changed from a position of divine wrath to one of heavenly favor and acceptance; we have traveled the path from death to life (see Romans 5:9–10). “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). Or, as Peter taught, “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time: casting all your care upon him: for he careth for you” (1 Peter 5:6–7; emphasis added). Surely it is the case that we can cast our burdens upon the Lord because he cares for us—that is, because he loves us. But I sense that more is intended by Peter in this passage. We can give away to Him who is the Balm of Gilead our worries, our anxieties, our frettings, our awful anticipations, for he will care for us, that is, will do the caring for us. It is as though Peter had counseled us: “Quit worrying. Don’t be so anxious. Stop wringing your hands. Let Jesus take the burden while you take the peace.”  This is what C. S. Lewis meant when he pointed out that “f you have really handed yourself over to Him, it must follow that you are trying to obey Him. But trying in a new way, a less worried way” (Mere Christianity, 130–31; emphasis added). 

Following his healing of a blind man, Jesus spoke plainly to the self-righteous Pharisees: “For judgment I am come into this world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind.” What an odd statement! And yet it goes to the heart of that which we have been discussing—our need to acknowledge our need. Those who have accepted Christ and his saving gospel come to see things as they really are. They once were blind, but now they see. Those who choose to remain in their smug state of self-assurance, assuming they see everything clearly, these are they that continue to walk in darkness. Thus Jesus concluded, “If ye were blind”—that is, if you would acknowledge and confess your blindness, your need for new eyes to see who I am and what I offer to the world—“ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth” (John 9: 41).

It was Jacob, son of Lehi, who wrote that those who are “puffed up because of their learning, and their wisdom, and their riches—yea, they are they whom he [the Holy One of Israel] despiseth; and save they shall cast these things away, and consider themselves fools before God, and come down in the depths of humility, he will not open unto them” (2 Nephi 9:42; compare 1 Corinthians 3:18; 4:10; 8:2). On the other hand, “the poor in spirit,” those who consider themselves spiritually bankrupt without heavenly assistance and divine favor, those who come unto Christ and accept his sacred offering, inherit the kingdom of heaven (see Matthew 5:3; 3 Nephi 12:3).

Let’s be wise and honest: We cannot make it on our own. We cannot pull ourselves up by our own spiritual bootstraps. We are not bright enough or powerful enough to bring to pass the mighty change necessary to see and enter the kingdom of God. We cannot perform our own eye surgery. We cannot pry our way through the gates of the heavenly Jerusalem. We cannot make ourselves happy or bring about our own fulfillment. But we can “seek this Jesus of whom the prophets and apostles have written, that the grace of God the Father, and also the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost, which beareth record of them, may be and abide in [us] forever” (Ether 12:41). Then all these things will be added unto us (see Matthew 6:33). That’s the promise, and I affirm that it’s true.


In Whom Do We Trust?

POSTED BY: holzapfel

10/05/10


A few years ago, a colleague and I sat at lunch with two prominent theologians. This was not our first visit together because we had met two years earlier and had had a sweet and delightful discussion of Jesus Christ, the centrality of his Atonement, the lifting and liberating powers of his grace, and how our discipleship is and should be lived out day by day. In that initial meeting there was no defensiveness, no pretense, no effort to put the other down or prove him wrong. Instead, there was that simple exchange of views, an acknowledgment of our differences, and a spirit of rejoicing in those central features of the doctrine of Christ about which we were in complete agreement—a sobering spirit of gratitude for the incomparable blessings that flow from the life and death and transforming power of the Redeemer.

Now, two years later, we picked up where we had left off, almost as if no time had passed at all. Many things were said, diagrams were drawn on napkins, and a free flow of ideas took place. Toward the end of our meeting, one of our friends turned to me and said: “Okay Bob, here’s the one thing I would like to ask in order to determine what you really believe.” He continued: “You are standing before the judgment bar of the Almighty, and God turns to you and asks, ‘Robert Millet, what right do you have to enter heaven? Why should I let you in?’” It was not the kind of question I had anticipated. (I had assumed he would be asking something more theoretical. This question was poignant, practical, penetrating, and personal.) For about thirty seconds, I tried my best to envision such a scene, searched my soul, and sought to be as clear and candid as possible. Before I indicate exactly what I said, I want to take us forward twenty-four hours in time.

The next day I spoke to a large group of Latter-day Saint single adults from throughout New England who had gathered for a conference at MIT in Boston. My topic was “Hope in Christ.” Two-thirds of the way through my address, I felt it would be appropriate to share our experience from the day before. I posed to the young people the same question that had been posed to me. There was a noticeable silence in the room, an evidence of quiet contemplation upon a singularly significant question. I allowed them to think about it for a minute or so and then walked up to one of the young women on the front row and said: “Let’s talk about how we would respond. Perhaps I could say the following to God: ‘Well, I should go to heaven because I was baptized into the Church, served a full-time mission, married in the temple, attend worship services regularly, read my scriptures daily, pray in the morning and at night. . .’” At that point the young woman cut me off with these words: “Wait. . . . Wait. . . . I don’t feel right about your answer. It sounds like you’re reading God your résumé.”

Several hands then went up. One young man blurted out: “How did you answer the question? Tell us what you said!” I thought back upon the previous day, recalled to mind many of the feelings that swirled in my heart at the time, and told the single adults how I had answered. I looked my friend in the eye and replied: I would say to God: I claim the right to enter heaven because of my complete trust in and reliance upon the merits and mercy and grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.” My questioner stared at me for about ten seconds, smiled gently, and said: “Bob, that’s the correct answer to the question.”

Obviously a person’s good works are necessary in the sense that they indicate what we are becoming through the powers of the gospel of Jesus Christ; they manifest who and what we are. But I also know there will never be enough good deeds on my part—prayers, hymns, charitable acts, financial contributions, or thousands of hours of Church service—to save myself. The work of salvation requires the work of a God. Unaided man is and will forevermore be lost, fallen, and unsaved. It is only in the strength of the Lord that we are able to face life’s challenges, handle life’s dilemmas, engage life’s contradictions, endure life’s trials, and eventually defeat life’s inevitable foe—death.


Seek Learning

POSTED BY: holzapfel

07/13/09


between-the-lines-mcconkie-depth_smallLatter-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.


What Are the Odds?

POSTED BY: holzapfel

04/16/09


Several years ago, a former student wrote me to express his concerns about our doctrinal teaching that the Church of Jesus Christ was the “only true and living church” (see Doctrine and Covenants 1:30). He had come to believe that such a position was arrogant and prideful. Additionally, he questioned the idea that he could have been so fortunate to be in the right church when so many others were not. He thought this was so statistically unlikely that it was illogical to believe it.

Certainly I recognize that, like all nationalities, ethnicities, genders, and any other formal or informal groups, the Church of Jesus Christ contains both good and bad members?some who attempt to live close to the ideals of the gospel and others who do not. However, I have come to categorically reject broad generalizations about any group?whether they be about Muslims, Buddhists, agnostics, or the politically liberal or conservative. In my study and experience, I have found that no denomination, group, family, or nation can be so easily defined by such stereotypes.

In the years since this exchange, I have often thought about my former student’s notion that it is illogical for a person to believe that he had been born into the one true Church, because it is statistically improbable that he would have been one of the lucky few, given the billions of people who have lived and will live upon the earth. Consider the logic of his approach. As I told students in a world history class I teach, “No ancient monarch or ruler lived as well as you do?you have clean water, abundant food sources (both in terms of quality, diversity, and quantity), dental and medical services, educational, recreational, and entertainment choices, and finally economic and political freedoms beyond anything that people living in the past could have even imagine.” If my former student were right, it would be illogical to accept that we could be so favored to live in an age of opulence, convenience, and comfort enjoyed by only a tiny fraction of the earth’s inhabitants.

I have reflected often on the idea that believing that we belong to the one true church would necessarily make a person arrogant and proud. Certainly there are plenty of privileged people who are arrogant and proud because of their good fortune. But there are many, many others living in modern pluralistic, democratic, and prosperous societies who instead feel that their many blessings place great social responsibilities on their shoulders. They feel duty-bound to devote their time, resources, and energy to helping others less fortunate. And that is precisely the answer to my former student. There are some, perhaps many, in the Church who are indeed arrogant and proud, but there are many others who understand that the privileges of membership also require us to devote everything we have to helping others obtain the same advantages that we enjoy. Where much is given, much is required.

I do not know why I was born in the West in a time of such unprecedented opportunities with all the miraculous inventions, life-saving technical and medical advances, and expanded freedoms and liberties that are available. But I do know that we are now living a lifestyle that most in earth’s history could not imagine. Such knowledge has humbled me and compelled to me be sensitive to the larger world by learning about the challenges people face and to do something about it by helping, supporting, and donating to other worthy causes that help people have food, shelter, clothing, medical attention, and educational opportunities—beyond contributing to the Church’s humanitarian fund.

What are the odds of being so blessed? I don’t know, but I realize that I have an opportunity to do something with what I have been given.


Good Friday

POSTED BY: holzapfel

04/10/09


Harry Anderson, "The Crucifixion"

This week’s blog was written by guest writer Eric D. Huntsman, associate professor of ancient scripture.

During his conference talk of April 5, 2009, President Uchtdorf referred to Sunday morning as Palm Sunday. Looking forward to Easter, he encouraged members of the Church to focus their minds more fully on the great atoning sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ. President Uchtdorf said, “It is fitting that during the week from Palm Sunday to Easter morning we turn our thoughts to Jesus Christ, the source of light, life, and love. The multitudes in Jerusalem may have seen Him as a great king who would give them freedom from political oppression. But in reality He gave us much more than that. He gave us His gospel, a pearl beyond price, the grand key of knowledge that, once understood and applied, unlocks a life of happiness, peace, and fulfillment.” In his talk, Elder Holland also pointed to the events of the Savior’s last week: “As we approach this holy week—Passover Thursday with its Paschal Lamb, atoning Friday with its cross, Resurrection Sunday with its empty tomb—may we declare ourselves to be more fully disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Today is Good Friday, observed by much of the Christian world as a day of great solemnity and holiness. As a young boy, aware of the day because of my many Roman Catholic and high-church Protestant friends and neighbors, I thought the term “Good Friday” was an oxymoron. What was so good about the day Jesus died? Only as I became more mature in the gospel did I come to understand that Jesus’ death was holy, a sacred act sealing the atoning journey that had begun the night before when he took upon himself our sins and our sorrows and then, as a sacrificial victim, carried that burden to the altar—in this case a cross—where he paid the ultimate price. Later I came to understand another, linguistic nuance. Many see the use of “good” in Good Friday to be an archaic use as in “good-bye.” Here it may be a synonym for “God,” in which case it is “God’s Friday,” that day of cosmic significance when the Father reconciled the world to himself: “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him. For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement” (Romans 5:8–12).

As a Latter-day Saint, so much of what Good Friday commemorate once seemed uncomfortable to me. “We worship a living Christ, not a dead Christ,” was the common refrain I grew up hearing. It was easier to acknowledge that Jesus somehow took upon himself the burden of our sins and sorrows in Gethsemane and then move as quickly as possible through all the unpleasantness of the trial, abuse, and crucifixion to the joy of Easter morning. The cross was particularly unfamiliar, if not uncomfortable, to me. The Church does not rely heavily upon images in our churches and temples, although other kinds of symbolism abound. Not understanding the theological details of the mass being a “real sacrifice” in the Roman Catholic tradition, I did not grasp why the crucifix carried such weight to my friends. Not bothering to ask my Protestant friends what the cross meant to them, until adulthood I was oblivious to the fact that to them the cross was not just a symbol of his death for us, it was also, to them, a symbol of his resurrection because the cross was empty!

Further study, however, has brought a new awareness of the scriptural and symbolic richness of the imagery of Jesus’ death on the cross. Here it is not the cross itself, whether it was an upright pole or simple scaffolding upon which the victim’s crossbeam was tied or nailed. Nor is it the religious iconography of a Latin or Greek cross. Instead, for me, the significance of the crucifixion lies in the image of Christ “being lifted up,” the cross itself as a tree, and in the lasting marks or tokens of his sacrifice that it left.

Three times in the Gospel of John, Jesus says that he must be lifted up as part of his returning to the Father and his drawing of all men to himself (see John 3:14, 8:28, 12:32–33), and the last time he makes it clear that this was a reference to how he would die. Crucifixion was a humiliating but above all a very public form of execution, but what seems to be significant here is that Jesus’ sacrifice is there for all, in every age and place, to see. John 3:14 directly connects it with the raising of the brazen serpent upon a pole in the wilderness (see Numbers 21:9), an image that Book of Mormon authors recognized and expanded (see 2 Nephi 25:20; Alma 33:19; Helaman 8:14–16). Therefore the crucifixion illustrates that Jesus’ salvific death provides healing and life to all who will simply look to him.

But perhaps the strongest endorsement of “lifting up” imagery came from Jesus himself, who told the Nephites: “My Father sent me that I might be lifted up upon the cross; and after that I had been lifted up upon the cross, that I might draw all men unto me, that as I have been lifted up by men even so should men be lifted up by the Father, to stand before me, to be judged of their works, whether they be good or whether they be evil—And for this cause have I been lifted up; therefore, according to the power of the Father I will draw all men unto me, that they may be judged according to their works” (3 Nephi 27:14–15).

Recognizing that crucifixion was tantamount to “being hanged on a tree” adds another level of symbolism. Under the law of Moses, cursed was anyone who was hanged on a tree (see Deuteronomy 21:22–23), perhaps explaining one of the reasons why Jesus’ opponents were anxious to have the Romans crucify him. While it is not completely clear what rights of capital punishment the Jewish authorities might have had (the prohibition against putting any man to death in John 18:31 might have referred to Jewish law, since they could not execute on Passover), having the Romans kill Jesus did more than shift blame. Jewish execution for blasphemy would have been stoning, whereas Roman execution for treason or rebellion was crucifixion. The high priest had asked Jesus the night before, “Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” (Mark 14:61), and nothing could have proved that Jesus was just the opposite, cursed of God, than having him hanged on a tree. Nevertheless, this “cursing” was part of the Savior’s descending below all things. Indeed, Paul wrote, “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree” (Galatians 3:13).

What was amazing, however, was that the cross, the Tree of Cursing, became, in effect, a Tree of Life to us. After Jesus expired, a soldier pierced his side with a spear, “and forthwith came there out blood and water” (John 19:24). Hearkening back to Jesus’ discussion of living water with the Samaritan woman in John 4 or his discourse on the life-giving Spirit in John 7 in which rivers of living water flow out of him, this sign suggests that Jesus’ death brought forth life. Indeed, in medieval iconography there developed the image of the “verdant cross,” or green cross, which was often portrayed as sprouting leaves and fruit.

Finally, crucifixion left lasting tokens of the Lord’s saving act, marks that were used to impart a sure witness that he was the Lord and God of those whom he saved. Although the experience of Thomas after the Resurrection does suggest that we should be believing before we receive such assurance (see John 19:24–29), Jesus’ display of the marks in his hands, feet, and side took on almost ritual significance when he appeared to the Nephites at the temple in Bountiful: “Arise and come forth unto me, that ye may thrust your hands into my side, and also that ye may feel the prints of the nails in my hands and in my feet, that ye may know that I am the God of Israel, and the God of the whole earth, and have been slain for the sins of the world” (3 Nephi 11:14).

For these reasons, as I read, review, and ponder the Savior’s last acts on this day, I am no longer skittish of imagery that was once foreign to me. Instead, I rejoice in what Jesus did for me and see it as a necessary precursor not just to Easter morning but to the great gift of eternal life, the precious fruit of the tree, which “is the greatest of all the gifts of God” (1 Nephi 15:26; see also D&C 14:7).


New Testament Manuscripts

POSTED BY: holzapfel

02/05/09


The New Testament is an amazing collection of many types of documents, including letters, ancient biographies, sermons, and historical narratives. New Testament studies have helped us reconstruct the world of Jesus and his disciples by providing historical, cultural, and linguistic insights. Additionally, textual studies have helped us appreciate the complex and interesting story of the New Testament’s transmission from antiquity to the present.

Today no original New Testament manuscripts, or autographs, appear to have survived. In other words, we cannot visit a museum or library to see the original book of Matthew or the original letter Paul wrote to the Romans. In fact, the earliest New Testament manuscripts that have survived the ravages of time are not even copies of the originals or even copies of copies.

The oldest known New Testament text is a rather small papyrus manuscript fragment (see image) with John 18:37-38 on one side (recto) and John 18:31-33 on the other (verso). Its small size belies its major importance. Produced around AD 125, it suggests an earlier dating of the Gospel of John than traditionally assigned (many scholars assume that John’s Gospel was written in the AD 90s). Additionally, the manuscript was discovered in Egypt, suggesting a rather quick dispersion of the Gospel.

The earliest complete copies of an individual New Testament book date from around AD 200. During the following decades and centuries, scribes continued to make copies of the New Testament—some 5,700 manuscripts in Greek from the early second century to the sixteenth century still exist.

It is not surprising that these manuscripts contain numerous differences because they were copied by hand over the years. In fact, there are some 30,000 variant readings. Most of these variant readings are not theologically significant and likely were a result of human errors—unintentional changes made to the text during the processing of copying them. However, there are rather significant changes that were most likely intentional. These changes were made for a variety of reasons, including (1) to promote theological views, (2) to correct errors a scribe believed was in the text, (3) to harmonize the text to match what was recorded in another passage, and (4) to clarify certain passages that might be confusing or misunderstood.

The King James Version (KJV) of 1 John 5:7 preserves a significant change: “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. The KJV translators used the best manuscripts available to them at the time. Since 1611, new discoveries have produce older manuscripts that scholars believe gets us much closer to the original text. This particular verse, which supports a Trinitarian interpretation of the Godhead, is not found in the earliest manuscripts of 1 John, suggesting that a scribe added it for theological purposes.

How we understand the New Testament depends on which variant reading we accept as being closest to the original. In this case, some scholars argue that the New Testament does not explicitly teach the doctrine of the Trinity because this single and most important reference is not found in any Greek manuscript—manuscripts that cover more than one thousand years of New Testament transmission. Because it does not appear before the fourteenth century, some recent modern translations and versions of the Bible do not include this verse.

Today we live in an amazing time when work on the New Testament produces great insights and allows us to get closer to the texts as originally prepared in the first century.


Joseph Smith: A Modern Witness of Jesus Christ

POSTED BY: holzapfel

12/22/08


During December, our thoughts may turn to a wintry day in a small farmhouse in Vermont where Joseph Smith Jr. drew his first breath in 1805. Or we may ponder a hot, muggy Thursday afternoon in June 1844 when the Prophet drew his final breath.

 

During his lifetime, Joseph Smith was many things—a dutiful son, a loving father, a kind neighbor, a visionary community leader. In addition, he was a prophet of God.

 

From the beginning, prophets have had specific duties.  Noah built an ark. Moses led the children of Israel out of bondage. Joshua let the Israelites into the promised land. Lehi and Jeremiah warned the inhabitants of Jerusalem about an impending exile. Peter and Paul took the gospel to the nations of the earth. No matter what specific assignments they have, all prophets stand as witnesses of the Lord.

 

Joseph Smith was no different. He received numerous assignments from the Lord. Nevertheless, his greatest and most important role as a prophet was to be a modern witness for Jesus Christ. In 1820, Joseph Smith recorded, “It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound. When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!” (Joseph Smith—History 1:17).

 

In 1832, Joseph and Sidney Rigdon testified, “For we saw him, even on the right hand of God; and we heard the voice bearing record that he is the Only Begotten of the Father” (Doctrine and Covenants 76:23).

 

In 1836, Joseph and Oliver Cowdery testified, “We saw the Lord standing upon the breastwork of the pulpit, before us; and under his feet was a paved work of pure gold, in color like amber. His eyes were as a flame of fire; the hair of his head was white like the pure snow; his countenance shone above the brightness of the sun; and his voice was as the sound of the rushing of great waters, even the voice of Jehovah” (Doctrine and Covenants 110:2-3).

 

Joseph Smith’s prophetic ministry can easily be divided into two separate but related duties.

 

First, the Prophet was called to testify of Jesus as Savior and Redeemer. He did this primarily through bringing forth the Book of Mormon and establishing the Church of Jesus Christ. The Book of Mormon and the Church focus on the Atonement of Christ, repentance, salvation, and eternal life. This first assignment saw its culmination in the restoration of the first principles and ordinances of the gospel, which allow us to enter the celestial kingdom. This is called the “fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

 

Second, the Prophet was called to testify of Jesus as the “maker and finisher of our faith.” He did this primarily through the revelations he received, beginning in 1832, regarding exaltation and eternal lives (see Doctrine and Covenants 76, 84, 88, and 93). This last assignment saw its culmination in the temple, in which Latter-day Saints receive the ordinances of the Church of the Firstborn that allow them to come unto the presence of Elohim.

 

All the blessings and promises we announce to the inhabitants of the earth come through and by Jesus Christ—God’s own son. Certainly, it is all “good news.” Without Jesus Christ, we have nothing. Joseph Smith said on May 12, 1844, just a few weeks before he was murdered, “The Savior has the words of eternal life—nothing else can profit us” (Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., Words of Joseph Smith [Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1980], 365).

 

As we listen to Joseph’s witness of Jesus Christ, we hear the voice of Jesus because “Jesus anointed that Prophet and Seer” (William W. Phelps, “Praise to the Man,” Hymns [Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985), no. 27).