With the coming of 2023, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints begin their new course of study: the New Testament. And with its turn to the New Testament, the Latter-day Saint community will have the opportunity to engage with a unique and remarkable book of scripture.
This comes after a year spent in the Hebrew Bible. Because of the vast scope of its subject matter, Hebrew Bible texts move from person to person (e.g., Noah, to Abraham, to Saul, to David), society to society (e.g. pre-flood groups, Israel in Egypt, the tribal formations of early Israel in Canaan, to the United Davidic Kingdom, to life in exile, to the post-exilic restoration), and situation to situation (e.g., the creation of the Earth, the flood, the theophany on Mt. Sinai, development of a kingdom, and invasions and their aftermath). Certainly, there are commonalities that tie all of these together—covenant, worship, communal care, and monotheism, for example—but the Hebrew Bible is a wonderfully diverse collection of various literary genres that explores thousands of years of history. It is a collection of stories of individual people and whole societies in diverse situations, coming to know and developing a relationship with God. The New Testament is very different from the Hebrew Bible in this way since it is comprised of only four basic genres (the gospels, the acts, letters, and one apocalypse), contains writing that all occurred primarily within the first century CE, is set in a geographically small setting, and focuses on a subset of an already small religious minority. And, most remarkably, all this book’s texts orbit around a single and singular figure: Jesus.
Yet I think the Hebrew Bible and New Testament are similar in at least one important regard we don’t always appreciate. Different New Testament authors—while leaning on Hebrew Bible ideas, notions, experiences, teachings, and lessons—had to grapple with the newness that Jesus’s advent introduced. They had to wrestle with how Jesus connected to the past and led into the future. They had to figure out what it meant to be “Christian” in specific times and places and how that was different from the Rabbinical Judaism that was the backdrop to Jesus’s ministry. And each of the writers came up with slightly different perspectives on these difficult questions.
It is in this way the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible are alike: rather than a single perspective, we get many viewpoints. That is to say, both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament are multivocal. In the New Testament’s gospels, in the acts, in the letters, and in the apocalypse, we get slightly different approaches to, and views on, Jesus and what His teachings, life, and death meant for his initial adherents, for the church that would eventually grow and spread, and for the world. Like the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament offers multiple perspectives and comes at the subject matter from multiple angles. Far from being a weakness, the New Testament’s different approaches to Jesus, I believe, provide modern believers with another important source of strength and hope.
In the ancient church, there were at least a few attempts to “smooth out” the story of Jesus. The idea was to take the multiple accounts, perspectives, and ideas of and about Jesus and then present them as a single, uninterrupted (and internally consistent) narrative. Tatian, a pupil of the second-century church father Justin Martyr, created perhaps the most famous of these gospel harmonies. It was called the “Diatessaron.” Eventually, however, this approach was rejected by most Christian churches precisely because they found value in the differences among the gospel accounts. The multivocality of the gospels created increased opportunities for insight and understanding. But how can this be?
Consider the variations among the gospels. Though Mark, Matthew, and Luke are all very similar (hence being called “synoptic”), they are all a little bit different. They contain different material, are organized differently, and offer unique views on Jesus. Where Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew fulfills various Hebrew Bible teachings, is expressly linked to Moses and Elijah (the prototypical Hebrew Bible lawgiver and prophet), and undertakes the same journey as the Israelites (into and out of Egypt), the Jesus we meet in Luke is primarily concerned with healing the lame, helping the poor, and reaching out to those on the margins of society. And both of these views of Jesus are distinct from the Jesus presented in the Gospel of John, which goes to great lengths to establish Jesus’s divinity and his role as the “lamb of God” (see John 1:36 and John 19:14-42). Each of the gospels then tells a different story of Jesus from a different perspective and with a different point of emphasis. None of the gospel narratives is “more correct” than the other; rather, they each offer unique and irreplaceable insight. Each teaches us something unique and remarkable about Jesus, and they can stand side-by-side (even when the stories don’t line up exactly). This is a strength of the New Testament.
Similarly, consider the variations among the letters. In the earliest of the letters (likely 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, and 1 & 2 Corinthians), we see a burgeoning group of believers struggling to find their footing in a largely secular setting, trying to figure out how gentiles and Jews should interact in this new faith community, and sorting out the implications of the resurrection and Jesus’s promised return. But by the end of the first century CE (and maybe into the second century CE), we encounter the Pastorals (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus), Ephesians, and 1 & 2 Peter; these letters are concerned with struggles that come with setting up a church structure and how to be part of society while maintaining Christian identity, and how to maintain faith in a Messiah whose coming may not, after all, be imminent. Again, these letters offer different explanations from different perspectives and with different points of emphasis. Rather than trying to figure out which letter is more important or more authoritative than the other, these letters give us insight into a given time, place, and situation and how Jesus’s teaching might apply. Each teaches us something unique and remarkable about Jesus, and they can stand side-by-side (even when they appear to teach different things). And again, this is a great strength of the New Testament.
Could we learn something important from this in our day? It’s fair to say that sometimes we might feel uncomfortable with other people’s perspectives on Jesus. For instance, conservative-leaning believers might struggle with the way progressive-leaning believers focus on Jesus’s social ethics. Alternatively, progressive-leaning believers might struggle with conservative-leaning believers’ emphasis on the authority and transcendence of Jesus’s teachings. Rather than seeing these unique perspectives about Jesus’s life as each offering something valuable that can stand side-by-side, we are sometimes inclined to see a different view of Jesus’s life and ministry as a position that needs to be refuted or a threat that needs to be addressed.
There is also often an impulse in our own modern time to “get to the facts” of Jesus’s life, teachings, and death; a concern with what “really” happened when it comes to scriptural accounts of Jesus and the early church. Too often, we twist ourselves in knots trying to explain away, or even worse, simply ignore, the different stories of Jesus or differences among the New Testament’s other texts. We seem to think that these differences among the various New Testament writings present a challenge that must be overcome—that we must uncover the single reality before we can move forward in faith.
Over and against these impulses, I think the New Testament suggests that no single voice or narrative is sufficient to capture the story of Jesus and how Jesus’s teachings play out in the lives of those who accept His divine mission. In fact, the New Testament seems to suggest that Jesus’s work invites a chorus of voices as individuals, families, and communities grapple with the newness of Jesus’s advent, wrestle with how Jesus’s teachings connect to the past and lead into the future, and figure out what it meant to be Christian in specific times and places. In meaningful ways, this same reality is manifest in our modern church experiences. Members in general leadership positions for the Church come from different walks of life and have different experiences. Yet as they each contribute their own perspective on Jesus and the ways in which His mission has made a difference in their lives, they each offer something unique and powerful that adds to the chorus. And at a more local level, in the various lessons, talks, and discussions about Jesus and His mission that are part of our weekly worship services, we are exposed to a variety of voices and life experiences. Not only does this variety introduce new perspectives that we may have never considered, but it often feels as if in the variety, we can also find just what we need in a given moment of life, as if a specific message was “just for us.” Like the New Testament, these modern examples demonstrate that being of “one Lord, one faith, [and] one baptism” does not require that we all be the same.
Of course, there are some differences in perspectives that depart from both truth and faithfulness—and which no longer add strength to the body of Christ but instead contribute to confusion and division. This is as evident in the New Testament text as it is among faith communities today. For instance, any notion that Jesus’s ministry and teaching support violent extremism or racism, or other forms of oppression should be aggressively rooted out. It would be a mistake to pretend all differences in perspective are simple strengths.
What would happen if we were to approach the different views on Jesus and what His teachings, life, and death mean for us with more curiosity? What if we were to see these multiple perspectives on Jesus’s rich gospel—each from a different angle—as an asset to our faith community? What if we saw these contrasts as offering increased opportunities for insight and understanding as we are offered different explanations from different perspectives and with different points of emphasis? For me, it is the reality of, and differences among, these multiple voices in the New Testament text that I find my greatest sources of strength. And perhaps this could remind us, among other things, of the strength we could find in examining similar contrasts in our day with charity and good faith.
This year, as Latter-day Saint members move into their study of the New Testament, let’s relish this opportunity to pay attention to and find strength in these multiple voices. There are at least a few simple ways that this can be done, all of which are fully consistent with the Come, Follow Me materials.
- Read each of the four gospels in their entirety from beginning to end. If possible, read each gospel in one sitting. Look for what makes each gospel unique. Consider: what does this gospel teach about Jesus? How is this different from what the other gospels teach?
- Read the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles together. Scholars believe that they were originally part of a single unit (i.e., Acts picks up where Luke ends, and they were intended to be together). Consider: why would Luke and Acts have been put together? How do Luke and Acts work together to teach something unique about Jesus and His teachings?
- Read the Gospel of John, the three epistles of John, and the Book of Revelation together. Consider: what is unique about the Johannine approach to Jesus’s life, death, and impact? How is the Johannine approach carried across these three different genres of writing?
- Compare the early Pauline epistles (e.g., 1 Thessalonians and 1 & 2 Corinthians) to the later Pauline epistles (e.g., Romans). Consider: how has Paul’s understanding of, and teachings about, Jesus matured? Where is Paul’s approach the same, and where has it grown?
- Compare the concerns of the early Pauline epistles with the Pastorals and 1 & 2 Peter. Consider: what types of issues is Paul addressing in his early letters, compared with the questions taken up in the Pastorals and 1 & 2 Peter? What do these differences suggest about the concerns of those to whom the letters are addressed, and how does each author seek to address those concerns? What is unique about each text?
I offer these ideas as a starting point. How each individual will choose to study the New Testament is up to that individual. But in any instance, I believe there is strength to be found in embracing the many different ways Jesus is presented in the New Testament. Indeed, I believe the New Testament implicitly reflects the reality that each of us comes to Jesus in our own way and through our own wonderfully unique and personal relationship with Jesus. Just as each of us understands Jesus in a special and individual way, we also have something to add to the chorus of Christian voices. In the body of Christ, we need everyone—and in so many ways, there is, potentially, great strength to be found in these differences if we’re looking for it.