Robert L. Millet Blog Posts
Publications Director of BYU Religious Studies Center
POSTED BY: holzapfel
This past month Andrew Lawler published an essay on the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Smithsonian magazine (“Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?” [January 2010]: 40–47). The media likes controversy, and Lawler highlights it in this interesting essay.
Since the first discoveries in 1947, the Dead Sea Scrolls have captured the imagination of the public, including Latter-day Saints. The importance of these textual discoveries on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea can hardly be overestimated. They open an important window onto the past, particularly for the period when the paucity of sources made it frustrating for scholars attempting to reconstruct the Jewish world during the intertestamental period. They also illuminate the world of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth, although it is doubtful that either of them spent time at the site where the scrolls were copied.
In the end, some 800 manuscripts were found in eleven caves near the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. Among them were the oldest copies of the Old Testament, except for the book of Esther. Additionally, numerous unknown texts were discovered at the site, increasing our appreciation for the complex and interesting world of Second Temple Judaism. Most of the manuscripts are written with square Hebrew characters (Aramaic or Assyrian script), but a few manuscripts exhibit what scholars call the Paleo-Hebrew script. The dating of the manuscript range from as early as 300 BC until just before the Romans destroyed the site in AD 68.
From the very beginning, many scholars believed those who collected, copied, and hid the massive library were the Essenes, a first-century Jewish sect known only, until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, by what other people had written about them. Scholars never unanimously accepted the identification, although a majority has done so reasoning that it as the best explanation for the documents and the site.
In the latest installment of the debate, some consensus has been reached. There is almost universal agreement that many of the scrolls found at the Dead Sea were not produced at the Dead Sea site. One of the current theories, highlighted in Lawler’s article, is that Jews fleeing the advancing Roman army during the Jewish War gathered at Qumran, a fort, and brought with them the writings they felt were sacred and important. This proposal suggest that “the scrolls reflect not just the views of a single dissident group [Essenes] . . . but a wider tapestry of Jewish thought” (p. 44).
If anyone ever wanted to get inside the world of academia to see how scholars deal with controversial topics, this essay will surprise and depress you as it highlights the intrigues of one such debate. In the end, the debate concerning who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls will continue to attract attention, but it will most likely never be resolved, leading us to consider the possibilities.
POSTED BY: holzapfel
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).
POSTED BY: holzapfel
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.
POSTED BY: holzapfel
The most recent National Geographic (December 2008) arrived this past week with a cover story announcing the “Real King Herod.” During the Christmas season, we often reflect on Herod because of the story preserved in Matthew: “Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men” (Matthew 2:16).
While I found the article insightful, I challenge a few claims. Although the National Geographic author argues that Herod was “almost certainly innocent of this crime” (40), there is significant evidence that Herod, like other Hellenistic kings and the Roman emperors themselves, killed anyone thought to be a threat to the political stability of the kingdom. Matthew’s account is a firsthand, early Jewish source for some of the events in the first century, recorded well before Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, began writing the story of the First Jewish War against the Romans (AD 66—70). Matthew’s story highlights Herod’s motives and tactics that accord with other primary sources, so historians should certainly be cautious about rejecting him while reconstructing the life of Herod.
Nevertheless, this article does provide some important insights to Herod’s reign beyond the few incidents noted in the New Testament. First, it brings to a much larger public the details of the discovery of Herod’s tomb earlier this year. Ehud Netzer, a prominent Israeli archeologist, had been looking for Herod’s tomb for thirty years before its monumental discovery. Second, this interesting article reveals, through word-pictures and reconstructed drawings of some of Herod’s most significant construction projects, that Herod was a master builder. His greatest achievement for his nation and for Judaism was the reconstruction and expansion of the temple, later known as Herod’s Temple, in Jerusalem.
This article helps us picture the world of Jesus as we become familiar with the people and places he visited. Shortly after Christ was born, Joseph and his mother Mary presented him to the Lord, according the Torah commandment, in the temple at Jerusalem (see Luke 2:22-40). There, a godly man and woman found him in the temple built by Herod and identified him as the long-promised Messiah. Herod the Great ruled Judea and adjacent territories as a client-king of the Roman Empire—the world that witnessed the birth of God’s Son, a world that has nearly vanished away. Only through the efforts of archaeologists and scholars like Ehud Netzer has that world become partially visible again. The recent discovery of Herod’s tomb southeast of Jerusalem adds another tile into the reconstructed mosaic of the world of the New Testament.