Footnotes to the Gospels
October 1974

“Footnotes to the Gospels,” Ensign, Oct. 1974, 52

Footnotes to the Gospels

The Prophet Joseph Smith said that “we believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly.” Since the 1611 A.D. publication of the King James version, many documents of biblical books have been found. Occasionally, these texts or newly discovered background information shed different meanings on selected passages or words than the language provided by the King James translation.

The Church is fortunate in having Brigham Young University scholars who have specialized in comparing the various texts and languages. The Ensign has invited Brothers Brown, Griggs, and Mackay to share background data where such information might be stimulating and informative for readers of the New Testament. (Since it doesn’t deal with Christ’s birth, Mark’s account is not included.)


chapters 1 and 2

Matt. 1:18–24—the prophecy of the Savior’s birth

Matthew’s treatment of the events surrounding the birth of the Lord is unique in that he continually focuses his attention on Joseph and, like Joseph of old, he received divine communication in the form of dreams. It is Matthew who notes that these divine instructions came directly to Joseph (instead of through Mary). Thus, the angel informs Joseph that he is to name the child Jesus, “for he shall save his people from their sins.” (See Alma 11:34, 36–37; Hel. 5:10–11.) Matthew then quotes the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) version of Isaiah 7:14, [Isa. 7:14] adding the explanation of the title Immanuel from Isaiah 8:8, 10. [Isa. 8:8, 10] This is the first of numerous scriptural citations that Matthew will make as he demonstrates that Jesus is the promised Messiah, the rightful King, the Holy One of Israel.

Matt. 2:1—“there came wise men from the east”

In this context, it seems that, like Simeon, Anna, and the shepherds, these wise men were righteous followers of truth endeavoring to live in accordance with the statutes of God, as did Zachariah and Elizabeth. There is no indication whatsoever as to the number or national origin of the magi, but it is important to note that many Jews remained behind at Babylon after the end of the captivity. Also, from time to time, religious groups fled to the eastern deserts to escape the wrath of leaders and proponents of rabbinical or orthodox Judaism in Palestine.

Matt. 2:2—“his star in the east”

It does not seem to have been widely recognized for its import, yet there was visible in America a new star. (See 3 Ne. 1:21; Hel. 14:5.)

Matt. 2:3—“he was troubled”

The Greek in this text means to be “extremely upset, thoroughly frightened.”

Matt. 2:6—“that shall rule my people”

The Greek means to tend, protect, and nurture, as a shepherd tends his flock. This part of the quotation comes from 2 Samuel 5:2 and 1 Chronicles 11:2 [2 Sam. 5:2; 1 Chr. 11:2], and it refers to the fact that Israel’s true king would be like a shepherd. (Ezek. 34.)


chapter 1

Luke 1:1—“many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration”

Other accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings, known to Luke, must already have been written and were being used by Christians. We can infer from Luke’s introduction (Luke 1:1–4) that among these other accounts were some which had begun to modify the true understanding of Jesus’ mission by making him simply a great teacher or a miracle worker. These tendencies can be seen in the later apocryphal gospels in which the emphasis shifted from the notion of salvation coming through Jesus’ suffering and resurrection either to the idea that it comes through an understanding of his teachings or that redemption is a product of Jesus’ power to perform miracles and do awesome works.

Luke 1:3—“Theophilus”

It is difficult to know whether a specific person is being addressed here (see also Acts 1:1). The name Theophilus means “friend of God” and consequently could refer to any person who seeks after divine truth. However, the honorific description, “most Excellent,” is also used in Acts 23:26 of the Roman-appointed Felix, procurator of Judea. (See Acts 24:3; Acts 26:25.) Many scholars conclude, therefore, that Luke is dedicating his work to a high-ranking Roman official who is at least marginally interested in the Christian religion.

Luke 1:5—“the course of Abia”

See 2 Chronicles 24:10; [2 Chr. 24:10] there were 24 “courses” or families of priests, all descendants of Aaron, who took their turns officiating at the temple. According to Ezra 2:36–39, only four “courses” of priests initially returned to Jerusalem from the Babylonian exile.

Luke 1:15—“shall drink neither wine nor strong drink”

This resembles the Nazarite vow that a person took to show he had dedicated himself to God. (Num. 6:1–21.) The persons whom Paul took to the temple were under a similar vow. (Acts 21:23–26.) Samuel lived according to part of the regulations of the Nazarite vow (1 Sam. 1:11), and Samson was to have been a Nazarite from birth (Judg. 13:5, 7).

Luke 1:19—“stand in the presence of God … sent to speak … and to shew”

Gabriel bears a message from the divine council whose proceedings many of the prophets were permitted to see and hear. (Isa. 6:1, 8; 1 Ne. 1:8; Jer. 23:18, 21–22; Ps. 82.) The translated word “secret” in Amos 3:7 means that which has been decided in council. The notion of a divine council, of course, recalls the preexistent council. (Abr. 3:22–23, 27.)

Luke 1:32—“God shall give unto him the throne of … David”

The royal or kingly aspect of the Messiah, mentioned here by Gabriel, fulfills a host of Old Testament prophecies. (Isa. 9:6–7; Isa. 11:1–9; Micah 5:2–5; Zech. 14:9; Hag. 2:23.) Jesus’ royal status appears, for example, in such elements as his entry into Jerusalem (Luke 19:36–38; Zech. 9:9) and, ironically, the crown of thorns he was forced to wear. Herod’s attempt to kill the infant Jesus should be viewed as the start of a contest between kings and between kingdoms, the usurper versus the rightful heir. (Matt. 2:1–16.) Herod’s attempt also recalls Pharaoh’s attempt to kill all the young Israelite boys, which would have included Moses, had he not been spared (Ex. 1:22–25.)

Luke 1:65—“these sayings were noised abroad”

Literally, “these things”; Luke indicates here the source for the story he has been narrating concerning the birth of John and its circumstances: it came from those who knew John and his parents, dwellers in “the hill country of Judea.” (Luke 1:65.)

Luke 1:69—“horn of salvation”

The “horn” is a metaphor commonly employed in the Old Testament for strength (see 1 Sam. 2:10; Ps. 92:10; Jer. 48:25; Dan. 7:7; Micah 4:13). As indicated in Psalm 18:2, [Ps. 18:2] “horn of salvation” means something like “a mighty Savior.”

Luke 1:78—“the day-spring”

The Greek word can connote both the rising of the sun and the easterly direction. Malachi calls the one who comes to heal “the Sun of righteousness” (Mal. 4:2), and the ancients commonly employed the East as a symbol for light that not only lightens the eyes but also enlightens the mind. The same Greek word is translated “day star” and “morning star” in 1 Peter 1:19 [1 Pet. 1:9] and in Revelation 2:28 [Rev. 2:28] and 22:16. [Rev. 22:16] In the last passage Jesus is identified as this “morning star.”


chapter 2

Luke 2:1—“decree”

Mention of this decree poses one of the most difficult historical problems in the New Testament. No decree of general, taxation in this period is known from any contemporary Roman or Jewish source. Josephus, the Jewish historian who was born within six years of Jesus’ death, does record that an enrollment for the purpose of taxation was conducted in the province of Syria in A.D. 6 or 7 when Cyrenius was governor. (Jewish War LL. 8.1; VII. 8.1.) Jesus would already have been a young lad by this time. One solution does present itself. Tertullian, an early Christian author who was converted to the Church about 193 A.D., places the “decree” under Saturninus who was governor of Syria from 9–6 B.C. (Against Marcion IV. 19). This would fit, since King Herod, who had the children killed in the region around Bethlehem, himself died in 4 B.C., just a couple of years following Saturninus’ term of office.

Luke 2:11—“Christ the Lord”

Translating this back into Hebrew or Aramaic, we have “the Messiah Jehovah.”

Luke 2:21—“Jesus”

The naming of the child fulfills Gabriel’s instruction to Mary. (Luke 1:31.) The name of Jesus comes from the Hebrew root which means “salvation,” and it is related to other Old Testament names derived from this root such as Isaiah, Hosea, Joshua; and Oshea. (Num. 13:16.)

Luke 2:26“Lord’s Christ”

The Aramaic behind this would be “Jehovah’s Messiah.” How is this possible? Is not Jehovah the Messiah (Luke 2:11)? The thing one must realize is that Israelites, or the scribes who copied the scriptures in later times, did not rigidly distinguish between names for Deity. The names Jehovah and Elohim could be used in the same breath and still refer to the same God in the mind of both speaker and hearer. Compare the incident of Moses at the burning bush, in which the term for angel as well as the names Jehovah and Elohim are all used for the person who converses with Moses. (Ex. 3:2–6.)

Luke 2:30—“salvation”

In Aramaic, this is a play on the name Jesus.

Luke 2:40—“the child grew”

The textual structure of Luke’s summary of Jesus’ youth recalls what was said of the young boy Samuel. (1 Sam. 2:26.) This is no idle borrowing, since Samuel was known as one of the two greatest intercessors with the Lord in Israel’s behalf. (Jer. 15:1.) Luke thus brings his readers to the point at which he can introduce the greatest Intercessor of all.

Luke 2:49—“about my Father’s business”

Although this phrase is very difficult to translate from the Greek, this rendition is not improbable. It may also bear the sense of location: “in my Father’s place”—that is, the temple.


chapter 1

John 1:1—“In the beginning”

John chooses to begin his Gospel in a different manner than the other Gospel writers. In Mark, “the beginning of the gospel” occurs with the appearance of John the Baptist in the wilderness. (Mark 1:1–4.) In Matthew, the “beginning” of the gospel story comes at the betrothal of Mary to Joseph. (Matt. 1:18.) In Luke, the “beginning” starts with the story of the birth of John the Baptist. (Luke 1:5–6.) By opening his gospel with the opening words of Genesis, John stresses the “beginning” to have taken place even before the creation of the earth.

John 1:1—“the Word was God”

The absence of the definite article “the” in the Greek text indicates that the Word is a God, but not the only person for whom this is true. This statement sets the tone for John’s entire testimony in his gospel: the words and acts of Jesus are those of God.

John 1:3—“that was made”

Depending on how the Greek text is punctuated, the ending of verse 3 and opening of verse 4 can be translated as they appear in the King James version, or as follows: “and without him was not any thing made; that which was made by him was life.”

John 1:14—“dwelt among us”

Literally, “tented among us” or “pitched his tent among us.” This recalls the time when God dwelt in Zion, the City of Enoch (Moses 7:16), and the exodus when Jehovah “tabernacled” among the wandering Israelites. Compare Peter’s response in the presence of heavenly messengers on the Mount of Transfiguration. (Matt. 17:4; Mark 9:5; Luke 9:33.)

John 1:19—“the Jews”

This language is to designate the “authorities,” especially in Jerusalem, who came to oppose Jesus. Interestingly, Nephi makes use of this designation in a similar way. (1 Ne. 1:19–20; 1 Ne. 2:13.)

John 1:20—“I am not”

John the Baptist’s statements about himself (John 1:21, 23, 27) may be compared to the “I am” affirmations by Jesus. (John 8:12, 18, 23–24, 28, 58.)

John 1:42—“Cephas”

Cephas is the Aramaic word for stone and is roughly equivalent to the Greek word petros, i.e., Peter. The translated word “stone” in this verse is petros.

  • Dr. S. Kent Brown is an assistant professor of ancient scriptures at Brigham Young University and serves as president of BYU 37th Branch, BYU Sixth Stake.

  • Dr. C. Wilfred Griggs is an assistant professor of ancient scriptures at Brigham Young University and serves as high councilor in BYU Fourth Stake.

  • Thomas W. Mackay, assistant professor of Latin and Greek, is president of BYU 66th Branch.