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Photo Credit: Eran Menashri

It’s time for Mormons to talk about Jesus

A lot has happened in religious scholarship over the past 100 years, but the LDS Church doesn’t officially talk about it (yet).

More than a decade ago, I decided to read the Old Testament the whole way through in a summer.

When I told a friend (a well-read and active Mormon) about my goal, her response surprised me. She said, “Yeah, maybe I should read it the whole way through too.” But then she quickly changed her mind, saying, “Actually, to be honest, I don’t think I ever will. There are too many other books on my list.”

There are too many other books on my list.

At the time, I thought, “Of course you should read it the whole way through. It’s one of the few books on Earth directly inspired by God. There are few books more important to read before you die.”

And then I read it the whole way through and realized she may have had a point.

If you’ve studied the Old Testament in detail, you know it’s a mixed bag. It contains some beautiful moments, such as the story of David weeping over the death of Absalom or the story of Ruth’s commitment to Naomi. But it also contains an abundance of horrors, many which are directly attributed to God.

In the story of Judges 19–21, for instance, the Israelites say that God tells them to unrelentingly pursue a civil war to the point that they kill every woman, child, and animal in all of Benjamin.

Equally horrific, the narrator in Numbers chapter 16 claims that God burns alive 250 rebellious priests, and when the people complain that burning humans alive is a cruel thing to do, God kills 14,700 of them with the plague.

There are so many more examples. In fact, altogether, the death count attributed to God in the Old Testament is nearly three million people.

After reading the Old Testament cover to cover, I was struck by how much the text feels like a product of its time, written long ago by tribal men who couldn’t make sense of a brutal world — a world with drought, earthquakes, and floods — and who therefore attributed the brutality to an angry God.

As the writer Michael Ash says, “The scriptures relate the stories of God’s people, but not everything these people did was instructed by God — even though they may have thought it was at the time.”

Importantly, this doesn’t mean that the entire Old Testament isn’t “true” (a statement that is too vague and sweeping for a book containing dozens of different authors, ancient wisdom, glimpses of history, lengthy poetry, and folklore). However, it does mean that we have to read the Old Testament in the context of the time it was written and recognize that the text consists of a mix of bloody history and brutal folklore, a mix of historical fact and literary metaphor. We have to take a measured approach instead of viewing the text as the infallible word of God or as a work of complete falsehood.

We have to remember that the book was written by people who had their own points of view and their own lessons to teach.

But what about the stories of Jesus? What can we say about them?

Several years ago, I had a Sunday School teacher who recommended a series of books to me about recent New Testament scholarship. He also taught this content openly in his Sunday School class, which consistently brought some of my most spiritually profound moments that year.

I quickly discovered that while I’d studied the New Testament my whole life, I knew very little about the historical Jesus. I also discovered that this information about Jesus has been known for many decades even though it hasn’t yet made its way into most Mormon Sunday School lessons.

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MLK was initially troubled by religious scholarship, but eventually used his knowledge to help others. Photo: Creative Commons

For instance, Martin Luther King Jr. learned about these topics when he got his PhD in theology, and at first these topics troubled him. He said, “My college training, especially the first two years, brought many doubts into my mind. It was then that the shackles of fundamentalism were removed from my body. More and more I could see a gap between what I had learned in Sunday school and what I was learning in college. … This conflict continued until I studied a course in Bible in which I came to see that behind the legends and myths of the Book were many profound truths which one could not escape.”

King held onto these profound truths to fight for greater justice and love.

In a similar vein, I’ve found the information about the historical Jesus to ultimately be more inspiring than devastating, more motivating than aggravating. I believe it can help all people better unite around goodness.

Before we dive into details, I should say that in some sense the scholarship on the historical Jesus shouldn’t be controversial within Mormonism since Mormons “believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly” — a statement that indicates Mormons already believe that parts of the Bible aren’t completely accurate.

But which sections aren’t accurate? Is there even one verse in the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible that we can say for sure doesn’t belong?

Fortunately, we can answer those questions today.

To date, historians have collected more than 20,000 complete or fragmented ancient biblical manuscripts written in a multiplicity of languages. By studying a range of characteristics (including the materials the manuscripts were written on and the way the text was written), scholars have pinned down which centuries these manuscripts were written in.

Here is what they’ve found:

What this means is that we don’t have any of the original New Testament manuscripts. We also don’t have the copies of the originals. In fact, as biblical scholar Bart Ehrman notes, “We don’t even have copies of the copies of the copies of the originals.” All we have are copies that, in most cases, were transcribed hundreds of years after the originals were written. And scholars have located 200,000 to 400,000 differences among all the various copies.

Because of all these differences, we don’t know for sure which single manuscript is the most accurate. However, we do know one thing for sure: It isn’t the KJV. Although the language in the KJV is beautiful, it’s based on subpar twelfth century manuscripts and therefore contains a range of transcription errors and verses that were added by early scribes.

For instance, 1 John 5:7 didn’t exist in the earliest manuscripts. Mormons might be glad to know that this verse was added later since it seems to support the concept of the Trinity:

For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.

Here’s another example, from the story of Jesus healing people at the pool of Bethesda, found in John 5:3–4:

In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.

Everything in italics — all the stuff about the angel seasonally troubling the waters — surfaced only in later manuscripts. Someone likely thought it should be added, and other copyists agreed or didn’t know better. Then it made its way through the medieval manuscripts into the KJV.

There are so many more examples. Let’s look at just one more here.

The KJV includes Mark 16:9–20 even though the earliest and most reliable manuscripts don’t have those verses. They were added later. Originally, the book of Mark ended at 16:8. In that version, the final verses tell of Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome visiting the tomb and seeing an angel who tells them that Jesus has risen from the grave.

6. And he said unto them, “Be not afraid. Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen! He is not here. Behold the place where they laid Him.

7. But go your way. Tell His disciples and Peter that He goeth before you into Galilee. There shall ye see Him, as He said unto you.”

8. And they went out quickly and fled from the sepulcher, for they trembled and were amazed; neither said they any thing to any man, for they were afraid.

That’s hardly a satisfying ending, is it? The three women all run away and don’t tell anyone what the angel said. It’s certainly not solid proof that Jesus was resurrected, which was the main contention in early Christianity. So someone came in later and added Mark 16:9–20, which says that other people saw the risen Jesus and that Jesus told his followers to do missionary work and essentially start a church. That ending was much more satisfying to believers, and it ended up being the one that made it into the mainstream manuscripts going forward.

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At some level, whenever we open the Bible we’re reading work influenced and interpreted by scholars. Photo Credit: Tamara Menzi

Here’s the point: Certain verses were added to later manuscripts. Contemporary biblical scholars agree on this front so universally that when you look at modern translations of the Bible (including those used widely by evangelical Christians), the added verses have footnotes openly acknowledging that the verses were late additions.

“But that’s just what the scholars say,” someone might assert. “Why should we trust them?”

We have to recognize that when it comes to reading the Bible, in all cases we’re trusting scholars. The people who translated the KJV were scholars; the people who analyze biblical passages today are scholars. The difference is that contemporary scholars have far greater access to manuscripts and metadata than scholars during the reign of King James did.

In other words, during the 400 years since the KJV was completed, we’ve uncovered more manuscripts and learned more about language and history. Our understanding is still flawed, but it’s better than it was back then. Why not trust today’s scholarship more? We don’t trust medical science from the 1600s. We should be similarly wary of other scholarly efforts from that era.

We have to recognize that when it comes to reading the Bible, in all cases we’re trusting scholars. The people who translated the KJV were scholars; the people who analyze biblical passages today are scholars. The difference is that contemporary scholars have far greater access to manuscripts and metadata than scholars during the reign of King James did.

To really understand how the New Testament came to be, we must travel back much further than the 1600s. We must understand how the Gospels themselves were compiled.

First, we must note that we have no record of anything written by Jesus or anything written about him while he was alive. The earliest writings we have about Jesus were written roughly 20 years after his death by someone who never met him: Paul of Tarsus.

Second, the Gospels were written to prove that Jesus was the Messiah, the person who would liberate the Jews. During this era, several people — including Simon of Perea, Athronges, and Judas of Galilee — tried to liberate the Jews and were swiftly executed by the Romans. The Gospels, to a degree, were written to establish that the other messiahs weren’t legitimate and that Jesus was the one and only true Messiah.

Third, the Gospels were based on the oral traditions of Jesus’s earliest followers. These early followers were almost certainly illiterate since they were part of the peasant class. It wasn’t until Christianity gained a number of educated converts that the traditions were written down. The first Gospel chronologically is named after Mark and was written roughly thirty years after Jesus’s death, while the last Gospel, named after John, was written roughly 70 years after Jesus’s death.

The chronology looks like this:

  • Mark: 60–70 AD
  • Matthew: 70–80 AD
  • Luke: 70–80 AD
  • John: 90–100 AD

Several other Gospels were also written around the same era, including the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Judas, but only four — the four we have today — were deemed legitimate by an early Catholic pope.

What’s more, during the approximately 40 years between Mark and John, many things changed about the story of Jesus (some of which are directly contradictory). In certain cases we have to look at what the original manuscripts said because later manuscripts were altered to bring uniformity to the narratives.

The general trend is that the narratives get more and more grand as time goes on. Mark’s Gospel is pretty straightforward and brief. Matthew and Luke used Mark as their source material (along with another source that is now lost) and made the story a little grander and more miraculous. Most miraculous of all is the Gospel of John, which (unlike Mark) refers to Jesus as God.

Some people might not want to accept the discrepancies in the texts because it means the truth is far more complicated than they once supposed. It requires figuring out which verses are legitimate, which is potentially a lot of work.

Plus, it opens up a rabbit hole.

If you accept that even one verse isn’t legitimate, then you accept the possibility that other verses aren’t legitimate either. Where does it end?

More Than Literal Meaning

The only way forward is to keep in mind that the Gospels weren’t meant to be pure historical documents and so finding the exact truth about what happened isn’t what is most critical. In reality, each Gospel writer had an agenda and therefore each Gospel contains large portions that are metaphorical rather than factual.

In other words, just as Jesus taught with parables, so did the writers of the Gospels. As biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan puts it, “Parables by Jesus became parables about Jesus.”

Biblical scholar Marcus Borg adds that these parables have a “more than literal meaning” that can change our lives in powerful ways, completely independent of factual validity — the same way beautiful poetry can change lives.

To illustrate, take the first stanza of Emily Dickinson’s poem “Because I could not stop for Death”:

Because I could not stop for Death —
He kindly stopped for me —
The Carriage held but just Ourselves —
And Immortality.

By personifying death and immortality and putting them both in a carriage, Dickinson makes them less terrifying and incomprehensible — perhaps helping us calm the existential anxiety they bring.

It’s true that death is not really a stagecoach driver and immortality can’t fit in a carriage. But that doesn’t mean the poem itself is “false.” The poem has a more than literal meaning. It functions in the realm of beauty instead of the realm of fact.

It’s the same with many verses of the Gospels. The writers readily mixed history and poetry to illustrate their points, which continually got grander and grander as time went on.

Let’s look at three instances of this more than literal meaning and how we can still find meaning in the text even if we give credence to the work of biblical scholars.

In the ancient world, when people wanted to tell a story about someone they believed was larger than life, they invented a birth narrative that involved the gods. For instance, Caesar Augustus (the emperor of Rome during the early life of Jesus) was said to have been conceived when Apollo impregnated Augustus’s mother, Atia, as she slept. Then Atia’s husband dreamed that the sun would rise from her womb, a dream that several other people claimed to have had as well.

Visions, dreams, and the Son of God. We can see these same themes in the Gospels, themes that were meant to convey the more than literal meaning that Jesus was someone particularly gifted — just as it had meant for Augustus. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The people saw within Jesus such a uniqueness of quality and spirit that to explain him in terms of ordinary background was to them quite inadequate. For his early followers this spiritual uniqueness could only be accounted for in terms of biological uniqueness. They were not unscientific in their approach because they had no knowledge of the scientific. They could only express themselves in terms of the pre-scientific thought patterns of their day.”

Several additional signs suggest that the Nativity story is metaphor. To start, none of the earliest Christian writings mention anything about the virgin birth. Even Mark doesn’t mention anything about it. It isn’t until Matthew and Luke (around 40 years after the death of Jesus) that we get the first narratives about the virgin birth, and these narratives differ widely.

To persuade the Jews to believe that Jesus was born of God, Matthew echoes a scripture from Isaiah about a young woman conceiving a child. The original Hebrew verse in Isaiah referred to a young woman, but Matthew incorrectly pulled from a mistranslated Greek version of the text that interpreted the word as “virgin.”

Matthew also traces Jesus’s lineage to King David, who was a messiah in the Jewish community. He then positions Jesus as the new Moses by channeling the first part of Exodus. In Matthew, Herod slaughters male infants just as Pharaoh did. Also, in parallel with Moses and to echo a verse in Hosea (“out of Egypt I called my son”), Mary, Joseph, and Jesus wander from Egypt to Israel early in Matthew’s text. It’s an echo of former Jewish heroes, and it meets the community’s expectations of what was required to be a messiah.

Almost everything differs in Luke. To start, Luke’s genealogy doesn’t match the one Matthew outlines. In addition, unlike Matthew, Luke contains stories about the birth of John the Baptist, the announcement to Mary, traveling to Bethlehem, the stable, the shepherds, and the singing angels. In Luke’s version, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus don’t go to Egypt. Instead, they go straight from Jerusalem back to Nazareth.

Because of the differences and contradictions, the use of archetypal birth-story themes, and the fact that the earliest texts mention nothing about the Nativity, mainstream biblical scholars overwhelmingly agree that the birth stories told in Matthew and Luke are metaphorical rather than historical. In fact, the scholar E. P. Saunders said that when it comes to stories about Jesus, “the clearest cases of invention are in the birth narratives.”

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The nativity carries metaphors from other traditions—metaphors we’re generally not aware of today.

The first time I learned this, I didn’t want to accept it. Celebrating the Nativity at Christmas is tied to many of my more spiritually profound experiences, and I didn’t like the idea that those experiences were tied to a metaphor. However, over time I realized that spiritual experiences based on metaphor are still legitimate spiritual experiences. The feelings of generosity and love that those experiences produce are real, and that’s what matters.

The narrative of a baby born to heal all wounds is powerful, and I still feel at peace when I sing hymns about it even if the Nativity story is metaphorical.

There is power in stories with a more than literal meaning.

The idea that Jesus bled from every pore in the Garden of Gethsemane powerfully illustrates his inner torment. The only problem is that it isn’t found anywhere in the Gospels.

Mark and Matthew mention nothing about physical pain, nothing about blood in the garden. In these narratives, Jesus experiences spiritual anguish and prays in Gethsemane for God to remove the cup from him. After his prayer he tells his disciples, “Behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.”

In other words, according to Mark and Matthew, Jesus prayed that God might prevent the betrayal and crucifixion. No one reading Mark or Matthew alone would have any reason to think that Jesus bled from every pore and atoned for everyone’s sins in the garden.

In John, there’s no mention at all of a prayer in Gethsemane. Jesus and his followers go to the garden and are immediately betrayed by Judas. That’s all that happens in the garden according to John.

The only mention of blood in Gethsemane is found in Luke 22:43–44: “And there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.”

First, it’s important to note that the verse isn’t saying that Jesus was bleeding. It’s saying that Jesus was sweating profusely. “As it were” means “like” — a simile. Sweat dripped in drops like blood from an open wound. No literal blood.

Second, Luke 22:43–44 wasn’t included in the earliest and most reliable manuscripts, indicating that it was likely added later to emphasize Jesus’s anguish. This, combined with the fact that the only mention of blood appears in Luke, makes these verses far less reliable than other New Testament verses.

Third, if Jesus had bled from every pore, his clothes and body would have been covered in blood. A terrifying sight. And yet no one in any of the narratives makes note of this. The disciples don’t notice it, the Roman soldiers don’t notice it, Judas doesn’t notice it when he betrays Jesus with a kiss, Pilate doesn’t notice it, and so on. In every narrative, no one mentions that Jesus’s clothes are soaked in blood.

In other words, since blood in the garden is mentioned only in an unreliable verse in Luke and only then in a simile, it’s unlikely that the Gospel writers had any notion that Jesus bled from every pore. Instead this idea surfaced later, though it’s hard to pin down when it surfaced. One thing is certain: John Gill, an English Baptist pastor, published an exposition of the Bible in 1763 where he recounted reports of people sweating blood through their pores and said he figured that must have been what Jesus experienced. The gravitas and authority of Gill’s enormous work likely influenced other religious thinkers who followed him — including Joseph Smith, who shared the belief about God bleeding from every pore.

In sum, what happened in Gethsemane was embellished over time. In the earliest texts, Jesus prayed that he wouldn’t be betrayed and crucified, while in some interpretations after the late 1700s, Jesus bled from every pore. The latter interpretation is at odds with the earlier texts.

When Augustus defended the Roman Empire from civil war, people called him the Son of God and the Savior of the World. They even said that he brought with him the good news, the euaggelia in the Greek (which is the same root word for gospel in modern English). A governor in Ephesus even went so far as to say that Augustus “restored order when everything was disintegrating and falling into chaos and gave a new look to the whole world, a world which would have met destruction with the utmost pleasure if Caesar had not been born as a common blessing to all.”

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Augustus was said to be the literal Son of God—far superior to mere mortals. His admirers thought it was impossible for someone so great to not be born of the gods.

Again, we see these same themes surface in the Gospels, even though the phrase “Son of God” was originally meant metaphorically. As Marcus Borg relates, “Son of God began as a relational metaphor. Within Judaism by the time of Jesus, it had a number of meanings. In the Hebrew Bible, it could be used to refer to the king on the day of his coronation: ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you’ (Ps. 2.7). It could also be used to refer to Israel as a whole: ‘When Israel was a child, I loved him and out of Egypt I called my son’ (Hos. 11.1). According to Jewish traditions near the time of Jesus, this metaphor could be used to refer to other Jewish persons.”

Borg goes on to say, “What all of these have in common — the king, Israel, a Spirit person — is a relationship of intimacy with God. Thus to call Jesus Son of God was to speak of an intimacy of relationship between Jesus and God.”

And yet as time went on, the Gospels made the status of Jesus grander and grander. For instance, Jesus speaks of God as his father three times in Mark and more than one hundred times in John. From the time of his death to the Nicene Creed in 325 AD, Jesus went from being thought of as someone who had a powerful connection to God to being God himself. As Marcus Borg puts it, “Metaphor became doctrine.”

Why does any of this matter?

Because there are many verses that end up being divisive if we take them literally.

For me, learning about the nuances of the New Testament has been a beautiful discovery. It has freed me up to the possibility that I don’t have to blindly accept everything in the Gospels as, well, the gospel truth.

With this knowledge comes the freedom to not internalize the New Testament’s cruelest and most divisive sentiments. I don’t have to divide the world into sheep and goats, where I am a sheep and the people who don’t share my beliefs are goats. I don’t have to harbor anxiety that I might never be forgiven in this world nor in the world to come for denying the Holy Ghost, a sin so vague that millions of Christians have worried at some point whether they’ve committed it — or have thought that someone they didn’t approve of had committed it (again, leading to divisiveness).

I also don’t have to subscribe to the view that the world is about to end and that God is waiting to set a certain class of human beings on fire. There are people in literally every single generation since the time of Jesus (including the generation of Jesus) who adamantly preached that they were part of the last generation on earth, and in a vast number of cases these people brought about horrible fruits. In recent decades, I can think of Jim Jones, Marshall Applewhite, Warren Jeffs — all men who gathered tight-knit communities together by speaking incessantly about the end of the world and who then brutalized their followers. The whole notion of the Apocalypse promotes a terrible “us versus them” mentality. It either fills people with the anxiety that they’re sinners and will be burned forever or it makes people proud when viewing the lives of those who aren’t part of their in-groups. A belief in the Apocalypse is simply antithetical to a generous worldview. It is not the good news.

And then there are the 2,000 pigs Jesus is said to have sent to their deaths, the fig tree he kills, and all of the passages where he portrayed as mean-spirited and (if I dare say it) un-Christlike. He says, “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell” and “He that believeth not shall be damned.”

Every time I have gone on a self-righteous tirade, thinking I’m justified because I’m reprimanding evildoers just as Jesus did, I have felt guilt and regret.

By contrast, I have never regretted following the most generous impulses of the New Testament, many of which are found in the Sermon on the Mount:

“Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”

“For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? … And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others?”

“Judge not, that you be not judged.”

“Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”

“Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

“Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.”

There are so many more.

In conclusion, it’s clear that the Bible contains verses that are products of their time as well as many verses that are far ahead of their time — verses we still haven’t internalized over 2,000 years later. The Bible also contains many verses that have more than literal meaning and are powerful on the level of beauty even if they are not literal.

The Bible can divide us, or it can bring us together and fill us with love for one another.

I hope we choose the latter.

If you liked this piece, clicking the clappy hands will help other people discover it. Also, note that this piece contains excerpts from When Mormons Doubt: A Way to Save Relationships and Live a Quality Life. Thanks for reading!

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