Scholars Look at the New Testament Gospels
May 1985

“Scholars Look at the New Testament Gospels,” Ensign, May 1985, 105–6

Scholars Look at the New Testament Gospels

Texts, translations, and testimonies. These themes brought Bible scholars and students together February 22–23 for Brigham Young University’s symposium on the New Testament Gospels.

Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve encouraged LDS study of the Bible: “Occasionally, a few in the Church let the justified caveat about the Bible—‘as far as it is translated correctly’—diminish our exultation over the New Testament,” he said. “Inaccuracy as to some translating must not, however, diminish our appreciation for the powerful testimony and ample historicity of the New Testament.”

He expressed gratitude for its uniqueness. “It, and it alone, gives us so many events and useful chronologies of Jesus’ earthly ministry,” he said. “Only a narrow strip of land comprised the small stage on which Jesus’ life and mortal Messiahship were played out. But it was a drama which was to be an enormous benefit [to] billions upon billions. Jesus marked a holy way of life, and, by and through his atonement, brought to pass the immortality and the possibility of the eternal life of mankind!”

A major theme of the symposium was the authenticity of the New Testament text. C. Wilfred Griggs, director of Ancient Studies at BYU, indicated (in a paper read by his wife) that “the New Testament text is well established”—that it has an enviable position of reliability when compared with other ancient texts. For most literature of antiquity, he said, there are relatively few manuscript fragments upon which to base the text—only one for some, ten to fifty for most. The classical author Homer is an exception, with over 2,000 ancient manuscript copies available. But “the New Testament writings eclipse even Homer, with more than 8,000 manuscripts in various languages.” Although no ancient text is free from error, he said, and no two manuscripts of the same work agree in every detail, “no text is better attested in both quality and quantity of readings than the New Testament writings.”

Thomas W. Mackay, professor of Greek and Latin at BYU, agreed. “We have essentially what the four Gospel writers wrote,” he said, “and it has been transmitted basically intact. Most textual questions debated by scholars are just a matter of “fine tuning.” This theme continued as a panel of conference participants discussed the many variations in individual manuscripts.

Stan Larson, scripture researcher from the LDS Translation Department, examined “scribal scars” on the scriptures, using textual criticism to differentiate between copying errors and possible intentional variations. Catherine Thomas, lecturer in Ancient Scripture at BYU, examined the often-disputed last twelve verses in the Gospel of Mark. Using internal evidence (vocabulary, theme, and structure) and external evidence found on the manuscripts, she concluded that these verses are, indeed, authentic to Mark.

Randall Stewart, lecturer in classics at the University of Illinois, reviewed the importance of the second-century Bodmer Papyri of Luke and John, the earliest full copies of the Gospels in existence. “Although older texts aren’t necessarily the most correct,” he said, these two valuable papyri are important external evidences of the authenticity of the Gospels of Luke and John.

Stephen E. Robinson, associate professor of religion at Lycoming College, Pennsylvania, looked at apocryphal sayings of Jesus—dismissing many as obvious inventions, and warning against using them to substantiate points of doctrine. “Here and there,” he said, “amid a mass of worthless rubbish, we do find a jewel” that can withstand careful scrutiny and that has received tentative endorsement by some scholars.

Several symposium speakers referred to the accuracy of the King James Version. “One of its greatest strengths,” said J. Philip Schaelling, institute instructor at Edmonton, Alberta, “is that it is such a literal translation. Although in some cases it may be too literal for easy reading, we don’t have to depend on someone else’s interpretation—a problem with freer translations.” There are, however, some recent translations that may be helpful as study aids, he concluded, because they benefit from manuscripts not available earlier. However, “the vast majority of variants aren’t of great doctrinal significance.”

One recent Bible version spoken highly of by several during the symposium is the “New King James Version.” Special guest, Dr. Arthur L. Farstad, executive editor of the new version, explained the purposes and procedures behind its publication. While preserving the basic work of the original King James scholars, the editors updated archaic and obsolete words and modernized punctuation and format. Basic to their work were the traditional Hebrew and Greek texts. The goal, he said, was to help preserve the King James Version “for the next generation, which is beginning to lay it aside” due to its archaic language.

The LDS edition of the King James Version received special attention by Robert J. Matthews, dean of Religious Education at BYU. The Joseph Smith Translation “brought together in the LDS edition of the Bible the best of two worlds,” he said. “It combines some of the best source material available today from both secular scholarship and Latter-day revelation. It is not an either/or situation—we can have both. … The hand of the Lord and the Spirit of the Lord were present in the production of the 1979 edition of the Bible,” he declared.

Richard L. Anderson, director of Bible Studies at BYU, summarized some of the conclusions of previous speakers: The New Testament texts are in a superior position historically over any ancient history or author, and the King James Version is “incredibly close” to the original texts. He compared the writing of the Gospels to the preparation of family histories. “I’m trying to reconstruct the histories right now of my grandparents,” he said, “and I can talk to my mother, I can go and talk to other people who actually met them. … That’s the period that the Gospels were written in”—when accurate information and eyewitnesses were available.

The important question, however, said Brother Anderson, is whether or not the reading of the Gospels will increase our own spirituality. “This chain is only as good as its last link. ‘God so loved the world’ is the first link; Jesus teaching the gospel is the second link; the writing down of it, the transmission, and the translation are other links. But all of that is broken if the last link—our reading it and living it—is not there.”