#20—Reading the New Testament Gospels with Julie M. Smith [MIPodcast]
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. Latter-day Saints put a heavy emphasis on scripture study. The Book of Mormon is probably the most popular LDS book of scripture among Mormons, but the New Testament can’t be too far behind. Still, sometimes it can be difficult to enjoy reading the scriptures with their archaic language and unfamiliar customs. Modern scholarship has come a long way in helping people understand the cultural and historical backgrounds to biblical accounts, but a lot of Latter-day Saints haven’t availed themselves of such assistance, and most Mormons don’t pursue higher education in biblical studies.
Julie M. Smith runs counter to this trend; she’s a Latter-day Saint with a master’s degree in biblical studies from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA. Her latest book focuses on the New Testament Gospels; it’s called Search, Ponder, and Pray: A Guide to the Gospels. Julie Smith joins us in this episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast to talk about this new book and the kind of suggestions it makes, especially to Mormons seeking to enrich their study of the Bible.
I’m Blair Hodges, host of the Maxwell Institute Podcast. If you have any questions or comments about the show, feel free to send them to me. The email address is email@example.com. Don’t forget to take a second to rate and review the show on iTunes and help us grow our audience.
BLAIR HODGES: Julie Smith, thanks for joining me today on the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
JULIE SMITH: Thanks for having me.
HODGES: You’re here to talk about your new book that was just published. It’s called Search, Ponder, and Pray: A Guide to the Gospels, from Kofford Books. It’s a book about the four New Testament Gospels. But it has an unusual beginning. In your preface you start off by talking about snorkeling. It’s an interesting way to start off the book. Talk about your snorkeling analogy and what it has to do with your book on the New Testament Gospels.
SMITH: So I was comparing the way we sometimes fall into reading the scriptures. It’s like we’re sitting on the back of a boat, we’re looking at this expanse of water; there’s no variation, there’s no interest. It just goes on forever and ever, wave after wave, it feels like there’s nothing new, nothing interesting. Nothing to focus on.
Then I compare that to diving into the water, and if you’re under the water there’s an entire world down there—fascinating things you can’t even imagine when you’re sitting on the boat. So what I tried to do with the book was to give readers tools for jumping in and looking around so they could be a little more entertained throughout the journey of scripture study, and get a little more out of it.
HODGES: The structure of the book is very question-driven. A lot of books on the Bible take the form of commentary. They describe a passage and then talk about different interpretations of it, or talk about what the Greek or the Hebrew behind the passage indicates, or put it in its historical context. You do some of those things, but more often than that you invite the reader to do those type of things. So I think you’re more inviting the reader to go snorkeling themselves, sort of teaching of them as a snorkeling instructor.
Was that a deliberate decision that you made up front about how to frame the book, more as a series of questions for the reader to consider more than points that you wanted to make?
SMITH: It is. The reason I did that, I think I say this in the introduction, is that I wanted to not tell people what to think, but tell them what to think about. I didn’t necessarily want to draw conclusions for them so much as introduce them to some ideas, hopefully new ideas, new insights, and then kind of let them do the heavy lifting themselves and see what conclusions they would draw for themselves.
HODGES: What interested me there is you talk about wanting to preserve the autonomy of the reader—that the reader needs to be able to make an informed decision or an informed investigation. So rather than being the judge that arbitrates for them—you know, this is the most likely conclusion that you should accept—you kind of say “here are the reasons people think this sort of thing, here’s some things that you might consider against that view, and you can kind of make up your mind.”
There’s kind of a sense that the reader can really wrestle with the text themselves. The question I had about that is about if that’s your approach, what about reading in a community? Because it seems that we’re also kind of constrained by the community in which we read. Do you agree with that?
SMITH: I think, sure, the community can constrain readings. We want a healthy tension there. We don’t want the community to completely close off new readings, but we also don’t want to be approaching those texts individualistically. My hope was actually that a question-based approach like this would be helpful in community because of the way that it can enliven discussions, even in a Sunday school setting where a question is proffered, and a question that doesn’t necessarily have one answer or an obvious answer, an answer we all already know, but rather a question with multiple possible answers.
From my own teaching experience I can say when I set up a question, put a question out there and say “alright, here’s three or four possibilities, what do y’all think”—I say y’all, because I’m in Texas [laughter]—you get a variety of responses. I think people then feel maybe a little more empowered than they might otherwise to offer ideas that are a little off the beaten path, may not agree with what the person before them just said. I think it can open up some freedom for a new kind of reading and community.
HODGES: I think the value of this book is in the questions it can offer. When people within the church are preparing to teach lessons they usually don’t bring in outside materials, we stick to the correlated manuals. What the value of your book brings then is just questions. So rather than bringing in some outside material, this book could give teachers a tool to think up better questions.
I wanted to talk here at the top of the episode, as well, about the distinction you draw between academic and devotional approaches to scripture. This is a distinction that I think you recognize isn’t a dichotomy.
Talk about the difference between academic approaches to the New Testament and devotional approaches to the New Testament.
SMITH: Sure. So since the rise in the twentieth century of academic study that has not necessarily been tied to a church or a denomination or a seminary in the larger world or faith tradition, New Testament study has gone in a different direction, and sometimes this has presented great challenges to believers. In other parts of the academic study it hasn’t challenged believers, and in some cases benefited them.
What I tried to do in the book is to bridge the gap. To bring in some of the insights of academic biblical study that might be useful in better understanding the text. And then I suggest how the reader can make a bridge to the devotional use of the text. I don’t know that devotional readings have to be absolutely in lockstep with the academy, but I think if there’s too much distance there we can run the risk of creating problems that we’ve seen sometimes with Mormon history in terms of people who have a crisis of faith when they realize that their interpretations of Mormon history don’t align well with what we know happened historically. I’d hate to see the same kind of thing happen with the Bible. So I think we need to be aware of what’s going on in the academic world with biblical studies.
I’d like to emphasize, I feel like often they are presented as the only thing academic study does is present a challenge to believers, force them to reconsider their assumptions and abandon ideas that they’ve held and enjoyed and drawn strength from. That’s not always the case. Sometimes academic study can be incredibly faith-promoting. I think we should be aware of that as well and be ready to use those fruits of study in our own devotional readings.
HODGES: I assume that’s informed by your own training and experience. So you’re a member of the church, but you also have a master’s degree in biblical studies.
HODGES: Talk about your training for a moment. Where you received it, and just how that process went for you as a member of the church. Because it’s an unusual academic path for a Latter-day Saint to take.
SMITH: I did a master’s degree in biblical studies at the Graduate Theological Union, and this was the mid-90s so it’s been a while. I had an incredibly positive experience there. There was virtually no clash between my beliefs and what I encountered. I think that was largely because what I was studying was literary approaches to the scripture. So it may well have been the case that, for example, one of my professors may not have thought there was anything historical behind the story, but they were studying it and presenting it as a piece of literature, whereas I might think there was a bit more history behind that story, and a bit more devotional application.
But if you’re studying it as literature, using all these things we should all remember from high school English—if you’re looking for irony characterization, plot, word choice, all that sort of thing, at that point even people at opposite ends of the spectrum of belief can come together and have those kind of conversations. So it really was not a problem for me when I was there. I just found these literary approaches enormously helpful and interesting.
HODGES: I had a similar experience in school, especially with a class on Genesis, when we went through Robert Alter’s translation of Genesis. Alter also took more of a literary approach. The professor of the class did as well. I couldn’t tell from class discussions where he stood on issues of historicity or things like that, but I got so much out of that class that it ended up not mattering to me. So I had a similar experience.
Now, when you take that experience and try to bring it back to an LDS audience, most of whom haven’t had academic training in the Bible, what sort of factors did you take into consideration as you wrote a book that tried to build a bridge between those groups?
SMITH: You know, again because I largely focused on literary issues and because I kept it in a question format—which meant that I as an author did not need to talk positions that may have felt difficult or threatening or unusual or unorthodox to the audience—it didn’t feel terrible difficult.
Now, I will tell you one thing I did with this book. It’s sort of a minor aspect to it, but I did read some anti-Mormon literature along the lines of arguing with Mormons from the scriptures, or convincing Mormons from New Testament texts simply because I wanted the reader to be aware of how other people outside of our tradition would look at some of these texts and the challenges they might face. So I would read through these things, find the kinds of arguments they were making, and then present it to my readers along the lines of some people have used this text to argue that there is no marriage in the resurrection, how would you respond to that? To pose some of those questions. That’s a pretty minor aspect of the book, though.
For the most part I’m just trying to provide relevant background information, especially allusions to texts in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, that can help us understand the text a little bit better. Then looking at structures within the text, the New Testament texts themselves, that can sometimes be very, very revealing to the reader if we’re aware that they’re there.
HODGES: That’s Julie M. Smith, author of the book Search, Ponder, and Pray: A Guide to the Gospels from Greg Kofford Books. She joins me today via Skype from her home in Texas.
Let’s talk about scriptures about scriptures. This is something you raise in your introduction. You ground your understanding of what scripture is by looking at what the scriptures themselves say about scripture. So I was hoping you could offer some examples of what the scriptures say about scriptures, and how those scriptures have impacted you work.
SMITH: Sure. I think this is probably as good a place as any to start looking at what the scriptures have to say about scriptures, and seeing if there’s anything we can glean from that. So we looked at the eighth article of faith, we looked at some different texts in the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, looked at the really interesting experience in Second Kings with King Josiah and the prophetess Huldah, and their experience with the sacred text, looked at Joseph Smith’s experiences in Doctrine and Covenants 77 and 113 in terms of the kinds of questions he was asking about scriptures as a way to start and to try to ground our consideration in what the scriptures themselves are saying about how they may best be studied. So that was where I began the book.
HODGES: You also include quotes from Latter-day Saint general authorities as well. It seemed that not all of them lined up exactly, that there were different perspectives going on there. Was that a deliberate choice?
SMITH: Yes, it was. That’s one of the things I liked about this format of questions and answers is that I didn’t feel obligated to sort of tie everything up into a perfectly consistent little package. Because I think frankly in the fallen world we can never tie anything up into a nice little package. So I tried to represent a variety of viewpoints from church leaders and from scholars, to think about how we might approach the scriptures.
I will say one of my favorites in there is from a talk Elder Oaks gave where he basically compared commentaries to cookbooks, and he took the word “commentary” really broadly to refer to everything from an entire book that’s a commentary to a brief interpretation of a scripture story that you might find in a talk or a lesson. I think that cookbook analogy is just spot-on. I mean, cookbooks can be enormously helpful, but no one would imagine themselves a slave to a cookbook, feeling obligated to follow a cookbook exactly as written.
HODGES: Perhaps more-so at the beginning, right? When you’re very first encountering a cookbook, you might stumble your way through, but as you cook and continue to cook, yeah, it gives you more flexibility as time goes on. There is going to be some stumbling first encounters with cookbooks, at least in my experience.
SMITH: Sure. I think that’s a great analogy for getting our minds around the fact that commentary can be very helpful, but if we’re going to say our scriptures are not inerrant, then we’re definitely going to say our commentaries are not inerrant. So you would need to just be really careful that we’re not giving any kind of commentary more weight than it deserves.
HODGES: In fact, I think a lot of people who write about scripture often emphasize the fact that there’s really no substitute for actually reading scripture itself. A lot of commentaries will say, you know, “this is a tool that assists you. However, just reading the scriptures themselves is really where the magic happens.”
In your introduction this quote that you’re referring to from Elder Oaks, part of it says “Latter-day Saints know that learned or authoritative commentaries can help us with scriptural interpretation, but we maintain they must be used with caution.” Do you get this sense that Latter-day Saints generally don’t spend much time in commentaries? Elder Oaks says they can be helpful, but they should be used with caution. How can they be helpful and what kind of precautions are necessary?
SMITH: Well, my sense is that Latter-day Saints don’t frequently read not-Latter-day Saint commentary, which I think is a loss for our community. There are so many others who have been studying the Bible from all different perspectives for centuries, and have so much to contribute to the dialogue about it. So, again, that’s one thing I’m doing with the book is trying to bring in some of those insights to Latter-day Saint readers.
On the other hand, my sense is that sometimes when Latter-day Saints read Latter-day Saint commentary, they treat it as if it were the last word. I think that may be equally unfortunate, if only because when we’re talking, for example, about symbolic scripture, there is no last word. Part of the point of a symbol is that it can work on multiple levels.
HODGES: And at different times and all of that.
SMITH: Sure. Absolutely. And can draw on different illusions, different references to the background that an audience might have understood. So there’s almost a split personality. If it’s not Latter-day Saint commentary maybe we’re not engaging it enough. If it does come from a Latter-day Saint source, maybe we take it a little too seriously and are not open to other interpretations. So I think those are both tendencies we might do better to avoid.
HODGES: What sort of resources have you found helpful? I think maybe one of the problems for Latter-day Saints is they might just not know what kind of books they’re looking for.
HODGES: So what have you found that’s been helpful?
SMITH: From a Latter-day Saint perspective, Eric Huntsman has done some really tremendous work on the New Testament where he really represents responsible non-Latter-day—he is a Latter-day Saint—but he brings in non-Latter-day Saint scholarship in a very responsible way, and then bridges the gap to devotional reading. So in terms of LDS authors, I would highly recommend his work.
For non-LDS authors, Ben Witherington is a great place to start. N.T. Wright is another excellent resource. Some people like Raymond Brown. If you’re a little more liberal in your interpretations you might appreciate what Marcus Borg has to say. So there are lots of authors, and I’m speaking specifically here of writings on the New Testament, who are outside of the Latter-day Saint tradition but I think have a lot to offer LDS readers in terms of their understanding of scriptures.
Then all the major commentary series, the Anchor Bible Series is one I could mention. Word Biblical is another.
HODGES: How about different translations? I know English-speaking Latter-day Saints officially use the King James Version. Have you found other translations that have been helpful in terms of helping you understand the text better or notice different things in the text?
SMITH: Absolutely. While no translation is perfect, I’ll often recommend that folks take a look at a modern English translation because then when they come back to the King James Version they can have a better grasp of what direction the text is going. Probably the two main ones that I would recommend would be the NIV or the NRSV, but another good option is the NET Bible. It primarily exists online. I think you can buy a print version, but its advantage is it has extensive notes, since it primarily exists online. So the benefit there is when they faced a tough decision in the translation they will explain to you in the notes precisely what the conflict was, what they decided, why, what the other options were. Obviously a print translation just doesn’t have the space to do that.
The other nice thing about the NET Bible is that there’s a button you can click that says “Parallel,” and it will pull up maybe eight or nine different translations so all in one place you can look at a variety of translations, get a feel for the text, get some commentary, and then as a Latter-day Saint returning to your study of the King James Version you can bring some of those thoughts or insights with you.
HODGES: Let’s talk about the problem of assumptions. When people do reach out, try a different translation, check out some commentaries, come back to the text and read, when we do that we still bring assumptions with us. Every reader comes to a book with preconceptions that can obscure the text. You address this. Here’s a quote from the book. You say, “Many people are unaware of the extent to which their knowledge of the scriptures contains traditions, suppositions, inferences, and other ideas that are not found in the scriptures.” What sort of things did you have in mind here?
SMITH: Sure. So, I hate to be the Grinch, but the Christmas stories. The stories of Jesus’s birth and infancy are just the worst for this, because we see so much artwork, we sing so many songs, we see so many visual representations, we see videos, we see kids act it out, and so we have this sense of what belongs to this story, but very few of these items are actually contained in the scripture. So I’m not saying you can’t have the nativity set in your house. I have nativity sets. However, we also need to be aware of what is in the text and what is actually not in the text.
One example of this I’ve used of this when teaching is we sing “We three kings of orient are.” We don’t know how many there were, there’s no indication that they were kings, and I guess “orient” is a vague enough term that it may cover the bases, but we don’t really know where they’re from. It’s probably Persia. But these are the kinds of assumptions that get embroidered onto stories over the years as they get told and retold. And again there’s nothing wrong with that in terms of our Christmas celebration, but if we want to closely study the stories of Jesus’s birth we’ll want to try to be conscious of what the text actually says versus what we’ve seen over and over again in other depictions of it.
HODGES: Right. So close reading can sometimes challenge those assumptions we bring to the text. I think what you invite the reader to do is to keep some of those assumptions back in the boat when they dive into the water with the snorkel gear and see what they find. That can be difficult.
Have you ever had an experience where maybe you’ve learned something or noticed something new in the text that seemed to contradict something you thought you had to believe as a Latter-day Saint? Latter-day Saint belief gives some latitude on what we can think about scriptures, but have you encountered something new from your studies that made you reevaluate something that you previously thought needed to be believed?
SMITH: I’ll give you an example that’s fairly recent. I’ve been thinking about the nature of Jesus, particularly in the Gospel of Mark in terms of how he is portrayed, and thinking about what it means to think of a mortal, thinking about the relationship between his mortality and how we might think about omniscience or omnipotence or perfection related to a mortal being, and reevaluating a little bit based on how I think some of the stories in Mark depict Jesus. He’s really mortal. He’s really, really mortal. He definitely has that mortal nature in Mark.
It’s in some ways a marvelous thing to realize that he is still our Savior despite the fact that, for example, it takes him two tries to heal a blind man, or that in Mark 5—and this is the story where Jesus casts out the demons and they go in the swine and the swine are drowned—the way Mark writes it he does it really subtly, but Jesus says, “Come out of him,” and they don’t right away. It looks like the assumption there is Jesus thought there was one demon, and it’s not until he realizes that there’s more than one that they come out.
These things are maybe a little different than a traditional Mormon reading where we assume Jesus knows absolutely everything, does everything right the first time, he’s omniscient, omnipotent. I don’t know that that’s Mark portrayal of him. I think in some ways, though, this is a marvelous way to portray the Savior. I’m really glad it’s one of our four portraits, because I think it provides us—as very limited and very fallen mortals—maybe a better guide, a better example of how to deal with those imperfect bits of our mortal nature than if Jesus had been presented as getting everything right on the first try, always knowing exactly what to do perfectly.
So this is something I’m still working through, but I find Mark’s portrait very, very compelling. It’s something to think about. It’s maybe a little different than how we normally talk about it.
HODGES: It’s also interesting to take those types of observations and compare them to restoration scripture. What came to mind is I believe it’s section 93 of the Doctrine and Covenants where Christ is said to advance from grace to grace—
SMITH: Yeah, this is an interesting thought, grace to grace, portrayal of him as growing, and the example it provides to us. And we’re very comfortable with the idea that Jesus didn’t need baptism, but did that as an example to us. I don’t know that we’ve often applied that same thought to other stories, and thought “here is a mortal Savior providing us with an example of what happens if you don’t get it right on the first try,” and showing us how to negotiate those sorts of situations from his own life. I think there may be a similarity there that’s worth thinking about.
HODGES: There are differences with depictions of the crucifixion as well. Talk about those for a moment, about what the Gospel writers do with the account of Christ being crucified.
SMITH: Sure. So there’s lots and lots of differences. One that stands out, if you compare the stories, is that in Matthew, Mark, and Luke you have the Last Supper, which means that Jesus and his disciples are consuming the Passover lamb, and then Jesus is crucified the next day. In John, however, Jesus is crucified at the moment when the Passover lamb is being killed. This is a reading that is a challenge to some people because despite many, many efforts over the years there’s just no way to chronologically reconcile these two stories.
I think what it does is it points us to the fact—which we should be aware of, very aware of—that chronology is just simply not the primary concern of the Gospel writers. Instead their primary concern is to teach us who Jesus is. So from Matthew, Mark, and Luke you get the picture of the Last Supper and all the resonances between that and the Passover, and John takes it in a different direction by emphasizing an idea we see elsewhere in John that Jesus is the lamb of God. So these are both beautiful depictions of the Savior, but they’re just not chronologically reconcilable.
HODGES: Some people might be troubled by that and think that maybe the records aren’t reliable, right? If you have different witnesses that give—these are contradictory accounts. It’s not just, like you said, it’s not just a difference of perspective there; they’re actually stating that the actual event occurred at a different time. How would you respond to someone who said, you know, “why should I, knowing that there are these types of discrepancies, why should I take these stories so seriously?”
SMITH: I think you should take them more seriously. I think the problem is we come from it with this very modern mindset that historical details, chronology, are the most important facet of a text because that’s the kind of thing we expect in the modern world. But we just simply have no right to inflict our modern preoccupations on ancient authors who had different concerns. We know since ancient times, there’s ancient evidence saying that Mark did not write his Gospel in order. We need to be aware of the fact that the primary concern of the Gospel writers was painting a theological portrait.
So it’s no more appropriate to try to reconcile or get upset when they don’t reconcile, then if I were to have two different jigsaw puzzles and I tried to combine them and got frustrated that all the pieces won’t fit together. That’s not how jigsaw puzzles work. They’re in separate boxes for a reason. They’ve got different pictures. I think the Gospels are the same way, that they are trying to teach us something far, far more important than the hour and date on the clock when the crucifixion happened. Who really cares about the hour and date on a clock when it happened? The point is, what did it mean? And they do a stellar job teaching us different aspects of what the crucifixion means, and they do that by putting chronology in the back seat.
HODGES: I really like that puzzle analogy, because I think one of the main assumptions I know I used to bring to the Gospels was the idea that they represented a sort of unified portrait of Jesus Christ. Of course we have James Talmage’s book Jesus the Christ, which itself is an extended effort at harmonizing the different Gospel accounts in a chronological fashion, so perhaps speak more about the tendency we Latter-day Saints have to harmonize the Gospels.
You ask the question in your chapter on the Gospel of John why are there four Gospels instead of just one. And that’s a question you give the reader. Now I’m interested here to hear about your own answer to that question.
SMITH: Sure. So I take canonicity seriously. I think there’s inspiration in what is in the canon or not in the canon in that sense. So I don’t think it’s an accident that there are four records of Jesus’s life in the canon. That’s kind of weird when you think about it, right? Why don’t we just have one record of his life? The reason we have four is because they are not meant to provide identical portraits of Jesus.
If I can, I’m borrowing this analogy from someone else, if you gave the same script and the same actors to four different directors, they would give you four very different movies. In this case the script isn’t identical in the sense that Jesus ministers for years, and each Gospel gives us about two hours of his ministry if you were to read one of the Gospels out loud. Mark’s a little shorter, more like an hour and a half, an hour and fifteen, but you’ve got two hours of material from years and years of ministering. So in that sense it’s not the same script, because they have to be so very, very selective in the material they select for presentation. We are getting four different perspectives for a reason. I think there’s something very important and very beautiful about this canonized diversity.
I think one thing we might take from it is increased charity to people who view the gospel or the life of Christ very differently from the way we might, or find it important to emphasize different facets of Jesus’s life and ministry and gospel than we might. So I think there’s a call to charity there. A call to recognize that there’s not one true way to tell Jesus’s story. There’s different aspects that are equally canonical, equally important, equally inspired, and that we need to take that seriously. It reminds me of the famous Joseph Smith quote about how as mortals we are living in this sort of a day of crooked, broken, imperfect language—I think that’s the quote, maybe scattered and imperfect language. So those are the limitations of any text and our four Gospel authors try to break out of that prison in four different ways as they depict the life of Christ, and they each do it differently and beautifully, but they do it differently.
HODGES: I’ve seen a lot of value in bringing that up with members of the church and just observing that this is how the church works as well. We have multiple church leaders.
SMITH: Right. And one way that I’ve presented this to classes is we all love the distinct voice of a President Uchtdorf versus a President Oaks versus a President Monson versus a President Packer, where if I took names off of their conference talks and handed them to you, you could probably tell who was who because of their distinctive voices. I think the Gospel writers give us the same gift of different perspectives on the gospel, and so when we harmonize it would be sort of just as sad as listening to conference talks that had all the aviation analogies and stories about widows ripped out of them. We would miss those distinct voices.
HODGES: So let’s talk about some of them then. We have four Gospel writers. Just picking one at random, how about Luke? So what about Luke is kind of more distinctive? What stands out compared to the other Gospel authors?
SMITH: So I like to say that Luke is the Gospel that President Monson would have written if he were tasked with writing a Gospel, because it is wall-to-wall widows and orphans. I don’t say that flippantly. Luke shows this incredible concern for the forgotten, for people on the margins of society, people who have no claim to a social or political or economic power, the kind of people you forget about. It really does read like an early day President Monson, in terms of that incredible concern in Jesus’s ministry and stories about people on the margins of society, literally widows and orphans.
HODGES: So how about Matthew? What stands out there?
SMITH: So I think Matthew is very concerned to show Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophets. So Matthew is the one who makes frequent reference to which scriptures from the Old Testament are fulfilled in Jesus’s ministry. There’s also some scholars, and there’s not universal agreement on this, but who see Matthew as presenting a structure to the text that shows us a new five books of Moses, the five books of Jesus if you will, where narrative and discourse are patterned very closely so that it’s as if it’s a new five books of Moses. So again, emphasizing the links between Jesus and Moses in particular, Jesus as fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, and just basically a strong Jewish reading in the sense of showing Jesus as the fulfillment of the Jewish scriptures. That seems to be Matthew’s key concern in telling Jesus’s story.
HODGES: These two also have a nice example of some of the differences between the gospels. Matthew and Luke, because these are the two who have the accounts of Jesus’s birth, and these are the two that have genealogies of Jesus. Those genealogies don’t really match up.
SMITH: No they don’t. And I think it’s just good to be aware of the fact that that’s not something we need to panic about, as modern Mormons we think of the genealogy as very much a factual, literally historically true document, but the genealogies that are given in scripture in Matthew and Luke are really not reconcilable, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not true in the sense that the focus is providing more of a picture of who Jesus is.
Part of what I think is so interesting about that is the way that Matthew mentions women in the genealogy, which is not unprecedented, but it is unusual, and not only is that unusual but the women he mentions are unusual. I think it’s a good example of how sometimes when we read we come to Matthew we see this list of names, we import our modern assumption that a genealogy is just a boring list of meaningless facts and we pretty much skip it. But that is not Matthew’s genealogy. Matthew uses the genealogy to say “this is who Jesus is,” and so then the names of the women are like flashing neon lights because they’re so unexpected, trying to teach us something about who Jesus is.
So there’s an awful lot to chew on in that genealogy. So to spend time tussling over what’s factual and how to reconcile Matthew and Luke really feels to me like missing the boat on the point they’re trying to make with those genealogies.
HODGES: So Matthew—I can think of three of the women. There’s Tamar, Bathsheba, and Rahab.
SMITH: Right. Tamar, Rahab, Bathsheba, and then Ruth. You could count Mary as a fifth if you wanted to.
HODGES: So what stands out about those? I mean, it’s kind of a scandalous thing to include.
SMITH: So these are not the matriarchs. He could have mentioned, you know, if he just wanted to give a shout-out to the ladies he could have mentioned Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. But these stories all have some sort of sexual irregularity connection to foreignness, connection to sin in them. These are really tough stories.
If I am remembering correctly, the story of Tamar, the institute manual called it “sordid.” So this is not a story you want to see coming into a flannel board in your primary any time soon. These are tough stories. So why? If you could avoid this topic really easily by not mentioning, right? You could totally leave this out. Why does Matthew call attention to them by way of introducing Jesus? It’s an incredibly provocative way to introduce these women, but again you see Matthew locating Jesus in this scriptural context. So I think it’s really powerful and it gives the audience an awful lot to think about by way of introduction to Jesus.
HODGES: And there are different things you can take away from that. For example, there’s the idea that they weren’t Israelites. So there’s this idea that within Jesus’s history, or what helped bring Jesus into the world included people beyond the house of Israel. That kind of foreshadows the extension of the gospel to the Gentiles, so that’s kind of one thing. What other types of takeaways might Matthew have intended readers to get from including those stories?
SMITH: So some possibilities—and these may not apply to all the women who are mentioned—but one is the sexual irregularities of the women’s stories may sort of warm the audience up to the idea of a virgin birth by showing that these sort of unorthodox things, something similar has happened historically. Another one is that in almost all the stories there’s a reference to greater righteousness. At the end of the Tamar story, Judah finally says “well yeah, she was more righteous than I was.”
HODGES: She’s the one who disguised herself as a prostitute, right?
SMITH: Yeah. Which sounds really bad. She was legally entitled!
HODGES: Her father-in-law was basically cheating her out of posterity and so she—
SMITH: Right. It is duplicitous, but she is legally entitled. Boaz describes Ruth as a virtuous woman, so there may be hints here of the greater righteousness that Jesus will preach in the Sermon on the Mount. Another possibility is because each woman’s story shows a need to circumvent the Law of Moses, they may illustrate the shortcomings of the Law of Moses that Jesus has come to rectify. Another one that I find really intriguing is that each of these women act as intercessors. Tamar forces Judah’s line to continue. Rahab brings her house into the house of Israel from outside. Ruth brings the Moabites into David’s line. Bathsheba brings her son to the throne. So you get this idea of an intercessor.
On kind of the flip side of that is that the man in each of these women’s stories should have acted to save Israel, or to perpetuate the line, but he fails to act appropriately and so the woman has to step up. Then kind of going along with that idea that women do violate social norms, maybe violate the Law of Moses, but they do so with a divine purpose. So that’s a possibility. There’s also lots of other possibilities that maybe there’s not one pattern that applies to all of them, but different reasons for each one.
I’ll tell you the one that I find most compelling is that Matthew doesn’t actually mention Bathsheba by name.
HODGES: Yeah, “the wife of Uriah.”
SMITH: Yeah. Which to me is fascinating because Uriah to me is one of the great unsung heroes of scripture, right? He does everything right in the face of all of David’s horror, but the result of Uriah’s right choices is that he dies without posterity. So to me for Matthew to in effect put Uriah, who dies without children, into the genealogy of Jesus as if he were Jesus’s forefather, says something really profound. I would hope that would be a message that would help us think beyond biological lines in terms of what people who don’t have a choice to have children, who end up facing circumstances that are not what they would have chosen, who end up enduring various kinds of suffering in this life, how they can be understood as ancestors and what a crucial role they play in the working out of God’s plan.
So I love the hat tip to Uriah in the genealogy, even though there’s no sense in which he’s literally an ancestor of Jesus.
HODGES: The other thing is—and you discuss this particularly in one of the appendixes—is the idea of intertextuality. Basically you stay within one particular Gospel. You mentioned the idea of these women being included to kind signal the Sermon on the Mount. This is Matthew’s genealogy and it just so happens that Matthew is the one who includes that more systematic account of the Sermon on the Mount.
So if you pay attention to that genealogy just within the context of Matthew, there’s a parallel within that text that helps flesh out that idea that Matthew included those women to kind of call attention to that. So that’s one example of intertextuality. Do you have some others that have come to you as you’ve been writing the book that you were particularly impressed with? Instances of inter- or intratextuality.
SMITH: So I think this is enormously important in Mark, if we’re talking about… Well, actually both intra- and intertextuality. In terms of intra-, Mark frequently sandwiches stories, to use a technical term [laughter], where basically he has one story interrupted, introduces a second story, and then goes back to the first story so that first story becomes sort of a sandwich, and then the other story is the meat, and the first and last story is split up to be the two slices of bread. Mark does this to encourage the audience to compare the stories, and to read them in light of each other. There’s almost a dozen of these sandwiches in Mark. I think it’s enormously important to recognize them because they can put a real different spin on both stories when you read them together. So that would be an example of intratextuality.
In terms of intertextuality, again, really I think all the Gospels, but Mark is maybe a good example of drawing on these stories from the Hebrew Bible, from the Old Testament, and sometimes tweaking them, sometimes just showing how Jesus illustrates or fulfills expectations or reenacts stories from the Hebrew Bible, and this is an area where I think academic biblical studies does not necessarily present a challenge to the faithful believer, even the really traditional and conservative one, but instead gives them all sorts of marvelous material to work with in terms of getting more out of their study of scriptures, when we can say “hey look, Mark is modeling this story on this Old Testament text, and when you read them together you get a lot more out of both of the stories.”
HODGES: That’s Julie M. Smith. She’s author of the book Search, Ponder, and Pray: A Guide to the Gospels, recently published by Greg Kofford books in their “Contemporary Studies in Scripture” series. We’ll take a brief break. We’ll be right back
HODGES: Julie M. Smith joins us today on the Maxwell Institute Podcast. She just published her book, Search, Ponder, and Pray: A Guide to the Gospels just in time for Latter-day Saint Sunday school New Testament year. I wanted to talk about one of the appendixes in particular. This is an appendix I believe actually originally appeared in one of the Maxwell Institute journals, Studies in the Bible and Antiquity.
Julie, your book is mostly questions, but the appendix kind of models the kind of reading you’re trying to teach. It focuses on Mark chapter fourteen, the story of Jesus’s anointing by an unnamed woman. You said that this story holds a special place in your heart, but you didn’t really expand on that. I wonder if you would expand on that here, why that story means so much to you.
SMITH: Well, this story has had the unique distinction of being virtually ignored by both traditional and progressive scholars until very, very recently. Just to give you an example of that, one of the main feminist theologians is Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and she has a book called In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. Now that line, “in memory of her,” comes from this story in Mark. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t really explore the story. I’m speculating here, but my sense is that this story may make even feminist interpreters feel like there’s not much to be seen because the woman is silent in it. That’s unfortunate. I think historically the story suffered an enormous amount of neglect because “obviously if there’s a woman in there as a main actor, nothing important can be happening here, so let’s move along.” I’ve seen the lack of attention to the story replicated in feminist circles sometimes, again because the woman is silent.
I think this is the single most important story in the Gospel of Mark, and it’s because it teaches who Jesus is, and this woman understands who he is at a point in the gospel when even Peter still does not understand that. The woman conveys that understanding, not by speaking—which in Mark is important, you know. In Mark the demons can properly name Jesus, but no one is suggesting that the demons are sort of model disciples just because they know the correct titles to use. So Mark has carefully inculcated in the reader a suspicion of spoken titles, a suspicion that gets even worse in chapter eight when Peter says, “You are the Christ,” but then rebukes Jesus and Peter says, “Get behind me, Satan.” So obviously knowing that title was not enough for Peter to really understand what’s going on.
HODGES: That’s kind of what Mark does, right? Like throughout Mark’s Gospel, most people are just sort of clueless about Jesus.
SMITH: Clueless. Right. And then this woman is the one shining exception. She comes and with the anointing she makes clear that she understands that Jesus will die, she understands that he is a king, and then I think there’s also priestly implications of it as well.
HODGES: How does she indicate that? How do you know she understands? She doesn’t speak, so—
SMITH: She doesn’t speak, but she anoints him with this ointment. She anoints his head, and that is basically the coronation ritual for a king. So she is anointing him as a king. When Jesus speaks, he says she’s come before him to anoint my body to the burying. So he points out that she understands that he’s about to die, something that his disciples don’t yet understand. Then there’s also anointing of priests under the Law of Moses, so I think there’s a priestly element there as well. So she is able to balance these notions of Jesus suffering, dying, yes, but also being a glorious king. That’s not a balance anyone else in the Gospel of Mark is able to understand.
So I think this is important. I think probably the key line in the whole story is one that I think we ignore to our detriment. Jesus says, “Wherever the gospel is preached, this that she has done will be told in memory of her.” I mean, that’s kind of a big deal. Throughout the whole world, anywhere the gospel is preached this story should be told. Well, why should it be told? It’s because it’s really important in understanding what Jesus’s identity is, and she manifests all of that through her act.
HODGES: There’s also an interesting connection with this story in the Joseph Smith Translation. You talk about this in your recent article as well. Expand on that, how the Joseph Smith Translation for Mark, I believe it’s verse 8, handles this story.
SMITH: Yeah, so this is super interesting. I have to tell you, I struggled with this for years because I’m studying the story, there’s a Joseph Smith Translation, but it doesn’t look like it does anything. And what I mean by that is it doesn’t correct false doctrine, it doesn’t add information, it doesn’t harmonize to any of the other Gospels, it doesn’t clarify something. So I’m looking at this and I’m just thinking what on earth is going on here? Why on earth would he have done a translation here?
Then I realize that it creates a chiasmic structure that is not in the King James Version. That’s interesting for historical reasons, or maybe apologetic reasons, but my concern is always mainly literary reasons. What the chiasmus does is it makes the central phrase “to anoint my body to the burying,” and so that’s really significant. I think we sometimes fall into the mindset of those who raise the objection to the anointing. We’re all concerned about “hey, this was really expensive,” and it’s easy to feel distracted. Jesus’s words draw it back to saying “look, the focus of this passage is the anointing. The focus isn’t the objection.”
The other thing that’s really interesting is two of the parallel lines are the Joseph Smith Translation is “in generations to come,” and parallels that to “throughout the whole world.” So there’s a really neat parallel there of time and pace, which I think is really cool. Also, the central part of the chiasmus is surrounded by Jesus saying “verily,” and that is something of a key word in Mark. Jesus says verily when he’s saying, “hey guys, this is really important.” So it adds another layer of emphasis to his words. So I think that is just a really, really interesting Joseph Smith Translation because it doesn’t do what we normally see them doing. Instead it reflects ancient writing styles, but more importantly, really emphasizes the importance of her act and its importance.
HODGES: Speaking of the Joseph Smith Translation, you have an interesting view of it. I think a common assumption is just the idea that Joseph restored something that was there in the ancient texts that has since been lost. You expand on that and talk about the Joseph Smith Translation as encompassing more than that. Maybe you can unpack that a little bit.
SMITH: Sure. This is not uniquely my idea. I think every Latter-day Saint scholar who has looked closely at the Joseph Smith Translation has concluded that there may be instances where it restores ancient text, whether that would be the exception and not the rule. So different scholars will categorize the material differently, but they’ll usually indicate that maybe some of it was Joseph Smith’s inspired commentary, some of it was material that was never recorded but that may have been recorded, maybe some is to harmonize the text.
I will tell you that for another project I’m working on, I’ve been looking more closely at the Joseph Smith Translation of Mark, and I think there are a few aspects that still deserve some discussion of the Joseph Smith Translation that are not getting nearly enough air time. One is the extent to which the vast majority of Joseph Smith Translations in Mark simply modernize the language of the text. So for example, replacing the word “saith” with the word “said.” Or replacing a pronoun, the antecedent for which is fairly clear, but replacing it with a noun to make it perfectly clear. Or changing a construction that’s confusing to one that’s simpler to read. So this impulse of modernizing, simplifying, clarifying, I think is interesting.
There’s a few others as well that I think might take us a little far field because that’s not something I go into too much in the book. But I do find that often Latter-day Saint readers assume that all of the Joseph Smith Translations are in the footnote of their bible, and that’s not the case. There are a lot more that were not included. So being aware of those and studying those can shed more light on the scripture study experience.
HODGES: I don’t think you outright say it, but it seems you also suggest that the way Joseph Smith engaged with scriptures can also be a model for how people engage with their scriptures as well. Rather than Joseph just receiving inspiration as a bolt out of the blue, Joseph is engaging with the text. He’s noticing things. He’s noticing patterns, and he’s injecting ideas. Do you think that’s a model for Latter-day Saints to use as they go? Or are you more thinking in terms of what Joseph Smith wrote? “This is what it says, this is the reading, and that’s it.”
SMITH: Oh no, no. I think we definitely don’t want to view the Joseph Smith Translation as this sort of perfect, flawless, final product. For anyone who’s in that mindset or who wants a little more of a glimpse of this, there was a great article, I’m pretty sure it’s BYU Studies, it’s Kent P. Jackson. What he does is he looks at two passages that Joseph Smith actually translated twice because he picked up a translation session a few verses back from where he had ended. So he ends up translating some of it twice, and they’re not identical, but they’re similar. I think when you work through those translations, the two, it can give you a sense of what he was doing, which is not perfect. He’s definitely studying it out in his mind, trying to find a solution.
Another example of this—and this is from a recent Maxwell Institute publication—Heather Hardy did a really interesting article called “Saving Christianity.” The focus of it is different, but what she says at one point is there’s a potential problem with a prophesy of Jesus’s that some people think is unfulfilled, and the Joseph Smith Translation fixes it, but the Book of Mormon in her reading actually offers a far better solution. Her argument in the article, if I’m recalling this correctly, is in the Joseph Smith Translation he correctly perceives the problem, he offers a solution, but it may not have been the best solution. It was a solution, but it may not have been the best. The better solution may have actually been in the Book of Mormon and he may not have realized it.
So I think that’s another possibly really intriguing example for thinking about the kind of work Joseph Smith did and how we should be evaluating it as we study.
HODGES: So the project you mentioned that’s on Mark, I believe that’s for the BYU New Testament Commentary. Right?
SMITH: Right. I’m writing the volume on the Gospel of Mark and so I’ll probably have an appendix that treats all of the Joseph Smith Translations to Mark. So that was what I was working on and referring to.
HODGES: Okay, so you’re going through all the Joseph Smith Translation elements for that, for the book of Mark.
SMITH: Right. Right.
HODGES: What publication are you using for that?
SMITH: I’m using Thomas Wayment’s volume that shows that in parallel columns.
HODGES: So I just wanted to ask before we conclude here about one other project that you’ve been working on, and that’s a book that’s slated to appear here a little bit later this year for the Maxwell Institute. Do you want to talk a little bit about the volume on Revelation?
SMITH: Sure. So the Mormon Theology Seminar is great fun. They take a slightly different approach in that instead of just having a conference and having a call for papers, they gather together maybe a half dozen or so leaders, maybe six to eight months in advance, who then work together collaboratively to study the text. The text is usually a chapter or less. So you don’t have a cold conference. You have people getting together who have been working closely on the material before they engage.
So a few years ago we did one of those on the last two chapters of the book of Revelation, and so the Maxwell Institute will be publishing the volume that resulted from that collaborative work and conference soon. So that was a fun volume to work on. I think the papers there were really worthwhile. So that should be coming out this year I believe.
HODGES: Good. People that are interested in that can keep an eye on the Maxwell Institute blog, Facebook, or Twitter, and we’ll announce when that book is coming out. That book is edited by Julie M. Smith and today we talked about her book Search, Ponder, and Pray: A Guide to the Gospels. It was recently published by Greg Kofford books in their “Contemporary Studies and Scripture” series. Thanks a lot for spending time with me today, Julie.
SMITH: Thanks so much for having me.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)