An interesting point made at school the other day has inspired me to rise, if only temporarily, from my end-of-school paper writing hell. The point of discussion was the alarming number of LDS people who do not read the Bible, especially the NT, with any regularity. We are a very Book of Mormon centered Church, in practice anyway, right now. At first blush this may not seem like a bad thing but upon closer inspection it can easily be seen that this approach is flawed.
I can imagine that this comes in some part as a response to Pres. Benson’s challenge to the members to read the Book of Mormon more often. I’m under the impression that it was largely ignored and under-utilized at the time and the Church needed a shot in the arm, so to speak, in order to return to faithfully studying it. This, I believe, was true, divinely inspired, and uplifting. However, perhaps the pendulum has swung too far.
It is unfair to speak of one’s personal experience in one’s ward SS classes as being demonstrative of how things are in the entire Church and so I will not claim that just because the teachers and students in my ward appear to be woefully unlearned in the NT that this is the case everywhere. I’m sure somewhere there are wards that don’t have this problem, that the teachers and students are reasonably familiar with the NT, its texts, history, and historical background. But I don’t think I’m out of line to suggest that those places represent the norm.
So why is it that we, as a Church in general, don’t have a greater culture of studying and learning the New Testament? I don’t think I need to waffle on about the virtues of this, I would hope that at least some of them are self evident. Is it because Pres. Benson moved the Church towards the BoM and we, like the obedient members we try to be, were overly obedient and sacrificed the study of the rest of our holy texts for this one? I suspect this is part of the problem.
I have a feeling that all of this focus on the Book of Mormon has made us a bit lazy. And I blame it on Nephi (the first). Much as I desperately love the man, and I really do, he’s my favorite BoM prophet, he instituted a policy of “Plain is best.” Most passages of the Book of Mormon are as basic and straightforward as they can possibly be. All because Nephi, as much as he loved his Isaiah, “delighted in plainness.” And everyone after him followed, especially our two great editing buddies, the tag-team duo of Mormon and Moroni. Even where the doctrines are substantive and require great pondering to understand, the Book of Mormon simply does not contain some of the challenges, and I’ll add benefits and pleasures, that the New Testament has. These lie primarily in the realm of historical context.
Every event of the New Testament (and much of the Old) occurred in a known, limited geographical area. They occurred in a relatively well-known culture and time. Study of the New Testament is greatly enhanced by our knowledge of the world in which it was written and its events took place. Any serious student of the NT <i>must</i> learn something about the geography and history of the Holy Land in order to better understand the text. The past and contemporaneous histories of the Greeks, Romans, Syrians, Egyptians, and various Asian provinces can add a dimension of clarity and meaning to what we read that their importance is staggering. Anyone attempting to read the NT in a relative historical contextual vacuum is at such a disadvantage that they are certain to misunderstand some of the most important and poignant points being made.
In other words, really studying the New Testament takes work. It is not plain for the most part though it is equally precious. I believe that in the Church that we’ve spent so much time reading the Book of Mormon that we’ve become ignorant of the importance of historical context. This is because most of the Book of Mormon takes place in a historical vacuum.
The majority of 1 Nephi constitutes the only semblance of a place where a historical background exists. We’ve recognized this in the Church at some level for some time. This is why FARMS has spent so much time and energy trying to retrace the path that Lehi and his party took to reach the coast from which they set sail for the promised land. <i>Those events occur within a known historical context which can be studied readily outside of the Book of Mormon.</i> If you don’t think that that context adds anything to our understanding of 1 Nephi then you’ve clearly never read Nibley’s Lehi in the Desert. Just try it, you will be astounded at what stands out to you about that text after you’ve read it.
The rest of the BoM doesn’t have this context. We don’t even know where they lived. The majority of members, from my experience, believe that the geographical setting of the BoM is the whole of North and South America. Those who have studied the internal evidence believe that it was in fact a much smaller area (after all the Nephites judge how large their land is in terms of how many days it takes to walk across it). And while the majority opinion rests with somewhere in southern Mexico and Guatemala, we have absolutely no evidence, zero, to back up this theory. And this is only problem number one.
Problem number two is that we have very little textual and archaeological evidence for any culture, anywhere, at any time in all of N. and S. America. Even if we knew the exact location and were able to say with certainty that the Lamanites and Nephites interacted with other culture group X, almost nothing would be known about that outside culture, although it would be better still than the vacuum we are left with right now. This is even assuming that the Lamanites and Nephites interacted with any other cultures besides their own, a theory that I am fond of but which not everyone is convinced of.
And so, when we read the Book of Mormon there is almost no burden on us to study a historical context associated with the text. What the text tells us about it’s context is all we have to go on for the most part. This makes studying it in depth somewhat easier, but it also robs us of a chance to understand the text better. No text happens in a vacuum and having even a glimpse of the background in which it is situated can dramatically reveal important aspects of the text that can never be appreciated without it. It also makes us lazy.
Most Mormons, again, from my limited experience, approach reading the NT the way they approach the BoM: read it from front to back over and over and God will tell you everything from it that you need to learn as long as you are diligent and repeat the process ad nauseum. This is so faulty on so many levels that it boggles me about where to begin. Instead I’ll stick to the present subject.
I’ll give just a couple of really basic examples of how having some knowledge of the historical background can be helpful when reading the NT. Let’s say that you are reading along in Acts 16 and you see that Paul and his companion Silas get thrown into prison while preaching in Philippi and beaten. Then Paul announces that he is a Roman citizen and that he is not going to be treated this way any further (it’s ironic because at this point they are being released from jail and Paul is refusing to come out) and that he demands the chief magistrates of the city come and fetch them out. Sounds a bit weird if you don’t have some context to clarify things.
For starters, had Paul (and perhaps Silas too) not been Roman citizens (in the country of Macedonia no less) the magistrates would have done nothing wrong in jailing, beating, and releasing the men with a stern warning. Indeed, it would have been exceptionally common. But Paul, being a Roman citizen, a thing which would have been somewhat uncommon in a place like Philippi, has rights that non-citizens do not, including the right to a trial headed by a Roman official and not just some run of the mill, locally raised, non-citizen magistrates. In fact, the magistrates not only had no right to beat Paul and Silas, they had no right to even put them on trial. Paul, now having been unlawfully beaten, is within his rights to report these men to the Romans. Should he have done so the men faced death for their mistake. Now can you see how “they feared” is a dramatic understatement when the text relates how the leaders reacted to Paul’s news?
I think actually that I’ll just leave it at that one example for now, I’ve prattled on long enough. I’m willing to bet that the BoM is filled with events which we would understand vastly differently from the way we do now if we only had some historical context in which to examine it. And to this I’ll add the plea: when you read the NT for your SS lessons this year, don’t do it in a self imposed vacuum. Get a good book. There are literally hundreds of them, many by Church authors, the best ones being by our Catholic and Protestant brothers and sisters. By way of high recommendation I’d suggest that if you need to brush up on your NT context, get just this one book: Jesus Christ in the World of the New Testament, and follow along in it with whatever lesson you are doing. It will open your eyes to so much in the New Testament you just might become a Jesus freak and a Paul freak. Just like me.