Grading on the Curve

POSTED BY: Millet

10/25/10


I was sitting in a Sunday School class once when the teacher began to address the issue of comparing ourselves to one another. He warned of the hazards of doing so and then added, “We should never compare ourselves or our situations in life to others. If you must compare yourself to someone, then compare yourself to Christ, for he is our Exemplar.” I reflected on that comment for quite a while that day and found myself thinking, “Oh, we should compare ourselves with Christ. Well, that certainly makes me feel better! From now on I will lay my deeds and my puny offerings next to his, and then I can really get (and stay) depressed.”

The fact is, comparing just doesn’t work. Period. We will either maintain a constant feeling of inadequacy or cultivate an inappropriate view of our own importance. Neither is healthy. Even some of Jesus’ chosen disciples were tempted to seek for positions of prominence, and the Master chastened them with the words, “Whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant” (Matthew 20:26–27; compare Mark 10:28–41). Jesus himself set the standard and abolished all forms of spiritual pecking orders when he, the greatest man to traverse earth’s paths, described his role as follows: “I am among you as he that serveth” (Luke 22:27).

Andy Stanley put this all into perspective when he asked: “When you die, do you get to go to heaven if your good deeds constitute 70 percent of your overall deeds? Or does 51 percent earn you a passing grade? . . . Or what if God’s holiness and perfection outweigh his mercy and he requires that 90 percent of our deeds be good? Or what if God grades on a curve and Mother Teresa skewed the cosmic curve, raising the bar for good deeds beyond what most of us are capable of?” (How Good Is Good Enough? 45–46.) 

While for Latter-day Saints, salvation is a family affair, coming unto Christ by covenant and carrying out the will of God is an individual undertaking. When it comes to standing at the bar of judgment, a summary of our lives (including our good deeds) will not be placed alongside anyone else’s. We are baptized one by one, confirmed one by one, ordained one by one, set apart one by one, and endowed one by one. And even though we kneel in the house of the Lord opposite the love of our life in the highest ordinance this side of heaven, the keeping of temple covenants and ultimately the matter of being conformed to the image of Christ is accomplished one soul at a time. We are all in this together. No one of us is exempt from the examinations of mortality or receives a bye in the game of life. We’re here to do the best we can. The quest for spirituality doesn’t entail our being xeroxed into the image of another human, but rather the quest to have God, through his Holy Spirit, make you and me into all that he desires us to be. Through the years and after the Holy Ghost has fashioned our hearts, after the Lord has educated our consciences, after the Spirit has matured our judgment and enhanced our wisdom, then “when [Christ] shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (Moroni 7:48; compare 1 John 3:1–2).


An Ancient World Rediscovered

POSTED BY: holzapfel

07/17/09


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.

Crouched Man

Image of man, left by hardened lava, is presevered with plaster, which is used to fill in the holes and spaces.

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).

book-cover_small-w-depthBeard’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.


“So We Went toward Rome”

POSTED BY: holzapfel

07/07/09


pozzuoliLuke 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 2728). 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.


“The Stones Would Immediately Cry Out”

POSTED BY: holzapfel

05/07/09


When Jesus came to Jerusalem on what would be his last visit, he walked from the Mount of Olives to the Holy City. As he did so, “the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen” (Luke 19:37). Luke adds, “And some of the Pharisees from among the multitude said unto him, Master, rebuke thy disciples. And [Jesus] answered and said unto them, I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out” (Luke 19:39–40).

Stones are everywhere in this rugged land. Not only do people see them everywhere; they walk on them and visit places made out of stone, such as the Garden Tomb or the rock-hewn tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; the bedrock where Abraham offered Isaac, now covered by the Dome of the Rock; the rock where Jesus prayed in Gethsemane (part of the altar in the Church of All Nations); and the massive Herodian retaining wall of the Temple Mount. I returned this past week from a visit to Jerusalem. Sometimes church bells, the call of the muezzin, and the Jewish Sabbath siren capture our attention—competing sounds floating through the air. But the real story is in the stones.

On my flight to Jerusalem, I read Simon Goldhill’s latest book, Jerusalem: City of Longing (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008). It helped me in my visit, providing some insights that allowed me to tie together a mass of information and years of experiences in Jerusalem. As I thought about the people I met (guides, tourists, cab drivers, and a host of other people), I realized how often most of us want to see the stories about Jerusalem as “black and white.” However, as Goldhill proves in this well-written narrative, “the city has to be viewed from multiple perspectives if it is to be appreciated” (viii), and the stories are “much more complicated and much more interesting than the stereotypes” (ix).

Instead of producing a chronological storyline, the author provides a look at different places (most associated with rock or stone) connected to pivotal points in the story of Jerusalem. As he tells his story, Goldhill provides some of the “competing narratives” (Jewish, Muslim, and Christian—Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant) providing their own black-and-white versions of the events (282). He adroitly concludes, “The tensions between the three Abrahamic religions [Judaism, Christianity, and Islam] are intently aimed at the holy places, their possession, their guardianship, their symbolic value” (47). In a very real sense, guardianship of each site allows each group to share its own validating narrative.

Goldhill concludes, “Jerusalem has a strange relation to stone” (224). He notes that even “the archaeologists try to make [them] speak” (225). Nevertheless, he acknowledges that there is “the inevitable disappointment of the lost, the fragmentary, the unknowable and shattered past” when relying upon archaeology (225).

Not everyone will agree with the sites and stories Goldhill decided to include, but readers will discover that he “tried to tell this story in as simple and as neutral a way as possible” (281). Whether you have visited Jerusalem in the past, plan to visit Jerusalem in the future, or are only interested in Jerusalem, this book is worth a visit—providing a nuanced approach to a complex city. He concludes, “To be in Jerusalem is always to wander in a city of longing, as one seeks to find one’s own place in the layers of history, imagination, belief, desire, and conflict that make Jerusalem what it is” (332).


­Did Jesus Sweat Blood?

POSTED BY: holzapfel

02/12/09


Click to enlarge

In a recent blog, I outlined the story of the earliest New Testament manuscripts. Because no original text (autograph) has survived the ravages of time, scholars are attempting to reconstruct the texts through examining more than 5,700 Greek manuscripts (not copies of the original autographs and not even copies of copies of the originals). I also highlighted the fact that some material found in the King James Version (1611) came from manuscripts dating from a very late period (the best available at the time). Since 1611, much earlier copies of the New Testament manuscripts have been discovered, shedding important light on the transmission of the text, including insights on the corruption of the text (deletions and additions).

Regarding a famous passage in Luke 22, Bart D. Ehrman, author of The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), argues that scribes added the detail that the Savior’s “sweat was as it were great drops of blood” (Luke 22:44). Ehrman states, “This image of Jesus ‘sweating blood’ . . . can be found in only one passage of the New Testament, Luke 22:43-44, and this passage is not present in our oldest and best manuscripts of the Gospel of Luke.” He continues, “It appears, in fact, to have been added to Luke’s account by scribes who wanted to emphasize Jesus’ full humanity and great human suffering. For these scribes, Jesus was not merely a divine being who could rise above the trials and tribulations of this life: he was human in every way and suffered the kind of agony any of us might suffer if we knew that we were soon to be subjected to a humiliating and excruciating death by crucifixion. While this appears to have been the scribes’ view of the suffering Jesus, it is not Luke’s” (491). Ehrman and other scholars speculate that this verse was introduced into the New Testament around the fifth century AD.

Latter-day Saints, like many other conservative New Testament readers, continue to accept Luke’s poignant account of the suffering in Gethsemane and have been unwilling to delete this material from their readings of Jesus’ last twenty-four hours. Additionally, Restoration scriptures confirm Luke’s account, providing them additional reasons to hold on to this story (see Mosiah 3:7; Doctrine and Covenants 19:18).

Recently, a bright, articulate New Testament scholar has raised questions about Ehrman’s claim. Thomas A. Wayment, my BYU colleague, published a groundbreaking study in one of the world’s premier journals on the New Testament regarding a third-century papyrus fragment (P69). He argues, “The fragment was subject to subsequent scribal correction in at least two instances” (“A New Transcription of P. Oxy. 2383 (P69),” Novum Testamentum 50 [2008], 351). He discovered through multispectral imaging (a technology developed by NASA and first applied to ancient manuscripts by BYU) that a third-century scribe copying from another manuscript began writing the account of Jesus’ suffering as in Luke 22 but then corrected himself. This implies that the account of Jesus’ suffering was well known as early as the third century. As a result of Wayment’s careful work, we now must reevaluate the proposal that a later fifth-century scribe added these verses for theological reasons.

This article is significant. First, it signals a new day in Latter-day Saint scholarship. With well-trained Mormon New Testament scholars like Wayment, we can now completely engage in wider scholarly dialogue about the New Testament. Second, this article highlights the importance of multispectral imaging technology in New Testament studies. Finally, it raises a serious question about dogmatic assertions by some scholars about how the original text of the New Testament read. Of course, ongoing discoveries and studies of Greek New Testament manuscripts and fragments may yield more insights into the story of Jesus in Gethsemane.