Insights on the Nativity and the New Testament
A fascinating interview with Biblical scholar Dr. Thomas Wayment, PhD.
Chris: Greetings! Welcome to ForeverLDS. We'd like to thank our growing cadre of listeners and we encourage you to subscribe on our actual URL, ForeverLDS. Those who have visited us online may have noticed that we added a subtitle: celebrating the Church of Jesus Christ. I didn't add the last part of our official name as a church; first, because it didn't fit neatly under the podcast name; and second, because why not? Did you know the restored Church actually owns that name? I figured that's who we are, so why not? Soon we hope to carve out special goodies to those who subscribe directly at foreverlds.com. For now, we just deeply appreciate your support, and if you're a genuine true blue fan of ForeverLDS, oh, we’d be so moved and grateful if you would honor us with a donation. The donation link is right there on our URL, big as lights. This helps support the regularity, consistency, and quality of the podcast. Today I'm going to offer our listeners a special treat—actually, a special Christmas treat. Okay, enough of that. At least, I hope my listeners will consider it a treat. Maybe not, because I'd like to present some ideas regarding Christmas that some may not have heard before, ideas that some listeners may find shocking. Those who listen to ForeverLDS certainly know that my conviction in and my testimony of the restored gospel by now. I'm not encouraging folks to change their family Christmas celebrations and traditions in any way! [music plays] (That is the worst, cheesiest Christmas music. This is a serious topic. Sorry.) My personal belief is that knowledge is power, and a greater understanding of the New Testament and how it came to be, how it came about—ought to enhance our appreciation of the Nativity and Christmas. The point is that the concepts I'm about to present do not affect my faith in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or in the divinity of the Messiah, or in the reality of the Atonement in any way! My testimony is based upon a spiritual foundation, which, for many who overthink this stuff, that's too abstract; they don't know quite where to come at it if you give it that approach. But in essence I'm saying that I find additional knowledge or insight compelling. But other Saints may not have the same reaction, so I've enlisted the aid of BYU scholar Dr. Thomas Wayment, PhD, who specializes in New Testament studies and teaches classes on the New Testament, and possibly other erudite subjects of interest to Christians and specifically members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It's been awhile since I've interviewed a guest for this podcast; generally, I will consume different articles or viewpoints on a certain topic and then present my own philosophical or spiritual perspectives on said topic, but today I felt that the topic was uniquely sensitive in its nature to many members of the church and faith, so I wanted backup. Actually, today I'm the backup, and you're the expert, Dr. Wayment. Welcome to ForeverLDS.
Dr. Wayment: Well thanks for having me on.
Chris: Dr. Wayment, I’ve typed your name into the search bar of Amazon.com and you've been quite prolific in your career, and intimidatingly so! Either as an editor or as a co-writer or as the author of a great number of books. And I also noticed, it was only a week or two ago that you were a part of another podcast, which I didn't realize until I started researching for this, so I guess you feel like you're in pretty high demand lately.
Dr. Wayment: Ah, no, a lot of my recent exposure has been through a new translation of the New Testament that I've come out with, and so that's been causing some interest.
Chris: Well, yeah! It would! And we’ll talk about that here in a second. You're welcome to plug that—who published that book?
Dr. Wayment: It’s co-published by the RSC (Religious Studies Center) at Brigham Young University and Deseret Book and is available on Amazon and Deseret Book stores.
Chris: And this is just simply a new translation of the New Testament with a focus or sensitivity to Latter-day Saints.
Dr. Wayment: It is and I should say probably much more. It has all new extensive notes, which I think the reader will find very helpful—and deals with matters of history with the language. I offer alternate translations, I talk about when the text of the New Testament has corruption—meaning that the manuscripts we have aren’t precisely in agreement—and a whole host of other matters that I think Latter-day Saints, who are endeavoring to study the Bible at home—and privately now, more and more—would find very helpful in that setting.
Chris: I agree! So you can read the New Testament as if you're just reading it, but then are all your notes at the bottom of the page or…?
Dr. Wayment: They are! They’re at the bottom of each page, and typically each page is two-thirds to one-half text, and then a third to a half of notes, and it’s in modern language, so it's much more readable than the Bible that we typically use. I think most people find it very approachable.
Chris: What is your personal background?
Dr. Wayment: Personally, I trained very early on in Classics and then began a PhD in New Testament studies, and a lot of my work has been on the very beginning moments of Christianity, the beginning of writing of Christian documents, the formation of the first communities, and eventually into what we call papyrology, which is the study of the papyri that were written by the Christians in Egypt, so we have quite a number of those, and there are letters and documents and other things that Christians wrote. And we learn a whole host of things from those.
Chris: Did you ever want to be a fireman or an astronaut?
Dr. Wayment: I kind of was always here. I thought for a long time I wanted to be an archaeologist. Until I realized I don’t like digging; I like what comes out of the ground, so I like to see it after it's in a museum or somewhere else.
Chris: Well my first ambition was to be a dinosaur. Then I realized a little about the facts of life and changed that to being a paleontologist. But that took too much math and science, so I eventually just became a storyteller. But I thought, you know, you had something in common with me when I read that his research interests focus on Oxyrhynchus and I thought, that's got to be a type of velociraptor.
Dr. Wayment: It sounds like it, but it’s a little city in Egypt that strangely had one of the largest collections or findings of papyri in all the ancient world. It’s these fairly large trash heaps that contain hundreds of thousands of pieces of papyrus, and some of our oldest New Testament manuscripts come from that pile of junk and rubbish, and lots of other documents that are still being translated today. There’s probably approaching a million fragments; some estimates place it as low as five-hundred-thousand fragments, and some place it as high as a million, so there’s a lot to go here, and there’s a lot of Christian ones in that.
Chris: That’s how far from Cairo?
Dr. Wayment: It’s about a two-hour drive, roughly. I’ve never physically been to the site, so I’ve never had to ride a taxi or car out there, but I understand it’s about two hours south. And it’s in the middle of nowhere, it’s a very small, rural city. And I guess because it was overlooked it’s why we were so fortunate enough to find all these ancient documents there.
Chris: Are they still digging? Still coming up with stuff?
Dr. Wayment: They are still excavating, at times. Sometimes they excavate in the city itself, so the buildings have yet to really be uncovered. Most of the interest early on was in the trash heap. But there still needs to be a major excavation of the city and the houses and other buildings. There were a number of Christian churches there that await discovery. A lot of the stone was hauled off to build other buildings nearby, and so when it gets excavated we’re likely only looking at the foundation stones, and other things, the streets and that...
Chris: Yeah that's better than the situation we have in Mexico City, because the Catholic Church there, even though it's too dangerous to go into, sits right on top of Tenochtitlan. So even though they don't use the church as a site for worship, they consider the church itself also a historical site, so they’re not gonna tear that down, either. But they do have some tunneling underneath, and it's got to be pretty fragile work. And I know a lot of archaeologists face that challenge, because cities were generally built on top of cities!
Dr. Wayment: Absolutely.
Chris: So these papyri, are they located in one hall, one site, one location? Or are they just all over in a mile radius area?
Dr. Wayment: The discovery site is quite small, it’s in a single set of mounds that are literally right next to each other. The papyri that have come out now are all over the world. They are mostly housed at Oxford and in Florence, Italy, and then in American universities, a lot of other places have a few Oxyrhynchus papyri, so there are a lot of different places.
Chris: Wow, this is way off topic of what I wanted to talk about, it but it's still fascinating. So you're more likely to go to Oxford then you are to Egypt!
Dr. Wayment: Absolutely.
Chris: Well, what what compelled you from the beginning to seek an emphasis in the New Testament?
Dr. Wayment: You know, I suppose it’s both personal and intellectual. Personal, I’ve always had, since my early remembrances in language, in trying to understand the context, history, that produced any text, but particularly the New Testament. And in my early graduate work in working with classical texts, I found the history of the New Testament utterly fascinating. And papyrology brings you one more step, studying the papyri brings you one step closer to the authors themselves. In some cases we’re only talking fifty years between when the author wrote it and this copy that we’re looking at. That’s pretty [tight?]] considering the thousands of years that have passed in time. So I suppose there’s a bit of geekishness.
Chris: Yeah, I was going to say, were you studying Greek in junior high?
Dr. Wayment: I was in college, that was my first experience, but [I love that type of approach. 50:20]
Chris: I definitely had my geek nerdishness in high school, not doing the normal things that my fellow students were doing. Before we get into the subject of Christmas, and our traditions regarding the Nativity, in fact traditions that dominate the minds and hearts of most Christians in every denomination, let me back up and start by talking about how we met. Now, we were introduced by Mark Wright, who is also a professor at BYU in Mesoamerican studies; I was researching for my latest Tennis Shoes book, where I have a segment in that book which talks about the last week in the life of Christ, and I believe Dr. Wright introduced me to you, and we'd only spoken by email, but I was trying to get some facts regarding the birth of Christ and the death of Christ, and those two topics remain elusive to scholars to this day. In fact, I think you being one of them, would sit back and shrug and say, “We just don’t know!” We’ve got to have more discovered in order to have any new insights. It’s been exhaustively gone over and we just can’t quite nail down the exact date for Christ’s birth or death, or some of the other topics that are discussed in the New Testament. Would that be accurate?
Dr. Wayment: Yeah, I would agree. I think when we start putting calendar dates on birthdays and death-days, etc., using kind of modern thinking, I think we’re going just a little too far. I think if we could get the year, that would be impressive. But to get as far as saying x-day in x-year, we just don’t have that quality of information.
Chris: That was my goal; I wanted to try and present, in a fictional setting, at least some of the most accurate, up-to-date insights, and what I found, was that even Latter-day Saint scholars, such as yourself and Jeffrey Chadwick and John Tvedtnes and Lincoln Blumell—that was the name of the professor who helped you to review, I believe, some ideas that were presented by Dr. Chadwick.
Dr. Wayment: Yes, yes, Lincoln and I are good friends and we try to push back gently against some more assertive statements that we felt and continue to feel don’t have quite the probative value that Dr. Chadwick thinks they have.
Chris: Oh, I don’t think it was considered by him very gentle, but that’s just showing that scholars are as human as everybody else. In fact, this whole topic—as we’re sitting here saying What?—some Latter-day Saints are going What? We don’t—of course we know the day that Jesus Christ was born! It was April 6th! And it was 1 AD! Or 1 BC! But we really don’t. But we have had revealed to us in the last decade the concept that Doctrine and Covenants Section 20—the first verse has often been referred to, by general authorities and others, as being an authoritative statement regarding the fact that Jesus Christ was born on April 6th. I actually think that that date has a little more prominence than even suggesting that Jesus Christ was born in the year zero, or 1 BC. However, for many Latter-day Saints, this whole idea is, “What are you guys talking about? I didn't know there were any controversies regarding this topic,” and that's the whole point; that's what I want to discuss. So even your idea associated with your most recent book, A New Translation of the New Testament for Latter-day Saints [sic: The New Testament: A New Translation for Latter-day Saints]—huh? It’s like, “What do you think you’re doing?”
Dr. Wayment: Fair enough. On the dating, or on the statement of Doctrine and Covenants Section 20: It’s no surprise to the scholarly community, but perhaps to a wider community of Latter-day Saints, it may come as a surprise that the first verse, wherein the statement is made regarding April 6th—it was added to the revelation later, meaning that it is not part of the dictated revelation, per se, but is part of the contextualizing that was made later as it’s entered into the record books. What all that means in more simplified terms is, we don’t have the Lord saying “This is my birthday on April 6th,” we have him revealing a constitution or guidelines to the early church, and then those early recipients add a date to it to indicate when ti happeend. And they’re using standard dating language, which is used in other letters by oliver to indicate this happens on this day of the Lord. It’s the way they thought of their calendar, but it isn’t the revealed birthday per se.
Chris: When you say Oliver, you mean Oliver Cowdery.
Dr. Wayment: Yes.
Chris: I think that particular verse is attributed to John Witmer. But you know there's other perspectives. “Well what about the fact that in the History of the Church in 1833 Joseph Smith again brought up Passover or April 6th as a very important date? Or what about the fact that Elder Bednar was pretty authoritative in a statement that he made in 2014 in a General Conference that No, we’ve got to consider the sacredness of April 6th?” It’s a topic for a whole different podcast. What I want to focus on is, I think I speak for the majority of lay members of the Church of Jesus Christ, when I express the overall understanding that we're not supposed to study anything except the King James version! That's the version that's been emphasized by the church; it’s the version that we publish as a church, and if I were to guess how many members of the restored gospel during family scripture study at Christmastime who are reading anything other than the King James version of Luke chapter 2 would be pretty small! So you’d better just give us a background about your whole approach with regard to the King James version and why you felt we needed a new translation, or just a translation of the New Testament that was directed toward Latter-day Saints.
Dr. Wayment: Yeah, absolutely. First of all, backing up just a moment, I think, big picture, that Latter-day Saints have to embrace the idea that we’re a global community. And that increasingly, the English-speaking—and what I mean by English-speaking is native tongue English-speaking Latter-day Saints—are increasingly a minority, and we’re the only group within that that has the KJV as our primary text. Literally thousands of Latter-day Saints read the English of the Bible as a second language or a third language, and that KJV language for these second-language learners is incomprehensible. And we’ve seen and we know the church is working actively in this regard that they are using modern-language translations in French, German, and Spanish, and in other languages that will be forthcoming. In other words, Latter-day Saints sitting on the same pew, can have the experience where one Latter-day Saint has read and grown up on a Bible four hundred years ago, and another Latter-day Saint sitting just down the pew reads it primarily in a modern-language translation in Spanish, with different footnotes and different insights, and thinks of Jesus not speaking with Thee and thou, but speaking like you and me and I and much more recent language. And this translation on one level, is meant to lower that threshold, to help us literally expand scriptural literacy. The other thing that I come to it from that might be different for many people—I’ve taught religion at BYU for eighteen years, and I literally spend about half of my classroom time just talking about the English of the KJV and trying to help them—they don’t understand verbs that end in -est or -th. They have a hard time with strange, foreign vocabulary. And that’s unfortunate, because that vocabulary is keeping them from really fully embracing the word of God. To have access to what was said in a way that’s comprehensible to them. And they’re shocked to learn that Jesus spoke in a very, if you will, lower level language in his day. He didn’t have a highly elevated vocabulary, or type of speech; he spoke like an ordinary person, and we miss that in this KJV Bible. And I would push back gently against the idea that—commanded to—I do agree that the KJV is the Bible of the church, it’s the Bible we’ve thrown our resources into, and it’s a great Bible. And I don’t want to pit my product against that. I’d like for people to say, “Wow, I could read this in another language that’s not hostile to my faith, that helps me understand and see new things, ask different questions, and hopefully have a rewarding experience with reading the Bible again.”
Chris: That, I think, is the resistance that some Latter-day Saints have felt. I remember attending a class—I think it was in the ‘90s, one of the extra studies that you would do in a stake building over the summer—and the teacher pointed out specific verses in one of the other translations of the Bible that changed the standard meaning that we got from the King James version and was defending the King James version, because that’s more pure, that’s more loyal to our doctrinal understandings through restored revelation through Joseph Smith. He, at least, was very defensive of the fact that we still need to be using the King James version. But it sounds like more and more that idea is becoming passe. In fact I think it would be safe to say that you have the opinion that as far as reading the Bible, celebrating the Bible, understanding the Bible, a Spanish-speaking Latter-day Saint has the advantage when it comes to the Bible.
Dr. Wayment: I would agree with that. I want to read you a statement—when you see it, it’s a little recent—this is Brigham Young, and I quote this in the introduction to my new translation; it’s just short here, but you’ll get a sense here that this is incumbent upon us to understand. So this is a Brigham Young quote:
“If the Bible be translated incorrectly, and there’s a scholar on the earth who professes to be a Christian, and he can translate it any better than King James’s translators did it, he is under obligation to do so, or the curse is upon him. If I understand it in Hebrew as some may profess to do, and I knew the Bible was not correctly translated, I should feel myself bound to the law of justice to the inhabitants of the earth to translate that which is incorrect and give it just as it was spoken anciently. Is that proper? Yes. I would be under obligation to do so.”
Dr. Wayment: And so, I feel part of that obligation. I don’t want to say I achieved it—that’s up to people who use it to determine that—but if you read it in Greek, which is what I do and focus on a lot in my studies—it’s a very different experience than reading it in the King James version. And somehow a translation has to lessen that. Lessen the burden, the difficulty of the Greek being easy to understand, and the language it’s portrayed in being much more difficult to understand.
Chris: That’s a valuable quote! But it should be not surprising to Latter-day Saints whatsoever, considering our article of faith that says, “We believe the Bible as far as it is translated correctly.” Which leaves us free from the get-go to be able to come up with better interpretations or better translations of the Bible. I think it’s tradition that we feel we have to cling to the King James version. We don’t have to! What you’re saying about the difficulty of the King James version for the average English-speaking Latter-day Saint, is important, because next year, for example, the church will focus upon the New Testament in Sunday School. And during that hour, the Saints will listen and soak it in and read many, many verses out loud and fully enjoy it... and then they will go home and during family scripture study they'll read the Book of Mormon. I mean, I'm not sure with the new pattern that's been established by President Nelson and the new family-centered program—if that might be altered a little bit—but I believe that's been the pattern since the days of Ezra Taft Benson (for English-speaking Latter Day Saints). It's also a practical thing—it’s hard enough holding the attention of our children with the unusual language of the Book of Mormon, and holding their attention with the difficult language of the New Testament—again, for English speakers—is even more challenging. For that reason, I’m really enthusiastic to see your translation that is specifically intended for Latter-day Saint readers. Does the church have any plans to provide the saints with an updated translation?
Dr. Wayment: To my knowledge, no. And I think you bring up a good point which I think you’re hinting at, that a Latter-day Saint will encounter the Book of Mormon using kind of its modified King James language and perhaps could encounter the Bible through my own translation or others in a very modern language, and might create some discrepancy. And if that’s kind of what you’re hinting at, I actually feel that same burden, and have always felt intrigued by the fact that Joseph uses a lightened KJV and makes it much more comprehensible by not subjecting its verb forms to KJV-isms.
Chris: Well that’s what you’ve mentioned to me as well, that there are available translations, even today, that make an effort to preserve the beauty and the language of the King James version, nevertheless give it a little more accurate translation.
Dr. Wayment: Yeah, I think readers will find a lot of familiarity in the new King James version, which preserves literally all the text of the KJV but tries to modernize the difficult or archaic grammar.
Chris: Do you, in your version, totally eliminate that approach, or do you make some preservation of the poetry?
Dr. Wayment: I do, yeah I want to be clear, I really didn’t lean on the King James version as a base text to start from. But there are echoes; the King James does a lot of things well and I’m not antagonistic to it, I don’t want to come across that way, but I really did try to allow the text to speak in its own voice; the King James is one set of clothing we’ve put on that voice, and I’ve tried to put another one on. One of the things the King James misses is poetry, and there’s a number of places in the New Testament which are written in verse or near-verse style, and those are recovered in mine, where the King James makes it appear as prose.
Chris: That’s fascinating, because that’s the excuse that many people have for wanting to stick with the King James version, and they don’t want to lose that. In fact, I think that in Latter-day Saint homes, it’s probably true that the verses most often recited are Luke chapter 2, and they’re recited at Christmas. I mean if you include all of the New Testament, you’d find that in the home, the New Testament is the four Gospels. That’s what’s read in the home. I doubt that many Latter-day Saints read anything beyond the New Testament, except for possibly personal scripture study and certainly students who are taking seminary or your classes. It’s just not taught in our homes; it’s taught in the walls of our church, but not in our homes perhaps the way that it should be.
Dr. Wayment: Yeah, and it might be hard for many listeners to hear, so before saying it please understand I say this with the utmost respect and care, but the King James Bible reaches a low point in the Book of Romans, and I think a lot of readers have confused that with the fact that Romans is hard to understand, it’s not very approachable, they missed a lot of messages there—like you said, we read the Gospels a lot. And I think in the new translation, mine or others, people can begin to appreciate, hey, Romans is very readable, very understandable, and kind of create this new love for a part of scripture that’s been overlooked.
Chris: That’s exciting! For me! I’ll plug your book!
Dr. Wayment: I hope it increases more love for the Bible text! That’s my real hope.
Chris: Well, I’ve had teachers like you at BYU, who have gone over all the verses, and tried to tease out the true meanings, but we forget most of that when we’re sitting with our children and trying to read the text to them, and trying to remember, What is it that the professor explained about this particular verse? So, it is going to be far more helpful to have a more accurate translation. Especially considering that the Spanish and the Germans and other Latter-day Saints around the world have such a superior translation of the Bible. For a long time it’s been a tradition among Latter-day Saints to focus upon the harmonization of the four Gospels as they’re provided, rather than to focus upon the fact that there really are contradictions between different verses, different stories, episodes in the life of Christ. But you discussed that tradition of harmonization of trying really hard to make gyrations and contortions to say that both versions are totally accurate, that that really is a tradition that ended over a century ago, among scholars at least.
Dr. Wayment: Yes. I would agree with that. I think for the Latter-day Saints, one parallel that tends to work intellectually, is to attend Conference, in April or October, and to come out and create a harmony of what was said. All of the talks were spoken in harmony with one another, but they had different messages, and they had different voices. And to take all of those voices and collapse them into one would be irresponsible on many levels, to overlook what Pres. Nelson said, or Elder Eyring, or Elder Uchtdorf, or Elder Holland, so they only said one thing. I think Elder Holland or others would say, Well, I had a very specific message I wanted delivered. When we make it one, Luke and Matthew and Mark and John lose their individuality, their voice, to the story, and they become the story itself, and that’s problematic in my mind.
Chris: Well there are definitive contradictions, where they tell a story in a different way. That’s accurate, right?
Dr. Wayment: That’s absolutely right.
Chris: What are the differences that you see between the Nativity accounts in Luke and Matthew?
Dr. Wayment: I think the really big ones that create some historical challenges, which you’ve alluded to a couple of times, are primarily whether Mary and Joseph are in Nazareth and travel to Bethlehem, or whether they exist and live already in Bethlehem and then relocate to Nazareth after they come back from Egypt. The wise men and the shepherds are a fairly substantial difference; they might not be contradictory, I suppose could think of them all as happening, and that’s probably what all Latter-day Saints do. And I think the location of the birth, whether it was in a family member’s home as Luke seems to be suggesting, or at least in the manger of a family member’s home, or Matthew in Joseph and Mary’s home in Bethlehem, which is a very different feel to the story.
Chris: We have contradictions right away in the Book of Luke, not only between the Gospel writers, but between other sources in history. And one is even the dating of the first verse of Luke chapter 2, where it says, “And it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.” Immediately a problem is presented—trying to make that gel with history. Is that right?
Dr. Wayment: It is. Cyrenius, from the sources that we have, is governor roughly ten to eleven years after Jesus is born. So it can only be a very loose connection. But you’re right to see that as a historical problem in the story.
Chris: So just so we’re clear before we get into this a little more: it is generally agreed by most scholars that the idea that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were written by the names that are ascribed to each of those Gospels, is in doubt. I mean, it’s not as certain as we would like it to be.
Dr Wayment: Yes, I think most scholars today would say that’s a point we cannot prove or demonstrate from existing fact. The scholarship isn’t hostile to those names, as much as it’s a point we’re not able to confirm from other means. We simply have to accept the tradition, or we have to acknowledge that we have no other proof or evidence.
Chris: Now you’ve stated that all of these accounts are written thirty to sixty years after the time that Jesus Christ was crucified. And if that’s the case, then which of these accounts—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—would be the most authoritative? Possibly the ones that were written by the names that were named at the top of the Gospel?
Dr. Wayment: Yeah, I would like to differentiate a little between authority and the historic person. I think the likelihood that Mark—someone named Mark—wrote the Gospel According to Mark and Luke wrote Luke are highly likely. It seems hard to understand why they would choose a person’s name like Mark or Luke, who’s almost unknown in the New Testament, and make them the author of this Gospel, unless there’s something to that tradition. However, I would like to then say that Matthew and John almost universally seem to be more authoritative in the early church. However, the issue of whether Matthew the apostle wrote that, and John, is harder to prove by far than Mark or Luke, because you can see why somebody would put John’s name to it, to give it authority, but it’s harder to understand why they would give Mark’s name to it.
Chris: Well, I can see why they would give John’s name to it, simply because he’s the one who has that unusual reference to himself as the apostle whom Jesus loved, and that’s continually how he’s referred to. But why would an apostle want to make that reference to themselves?
Dr. Wayment: I think the Gospel of John, speaking specifically about that, is very interested in the disciple who witnessed the things that are being retold. And John, we often don’t talk about John like we do with Luke 1-5, but John is consistently has the beloved disciple present for a number of those scenes, and then in John 21, there’s someone else who testifies that the beloved disciple is the source of that text—not that he wrote it, but that he is connected to the traditions of that text. So I think whoever puts this together, whether John himself, or people who knew these stories that he told and taught, I think they’re saying, We want to make clear, this is an individual who walked with Jesus from the moment of the baptism of John until the very end.
Chris: I think that’s a more natural conclusion. The reason that he is reverencing John in the text is because he knows John, and John is the source of all the information that he’s reporting. Or perhaps John wrote the first draft of it and then he decided to put in there or embellish in some way—I mean, the whole concept that some of these scriptures might have been embellished, that’s something that Latter-day Saints might have a difficult time getting their head around, and that’s the area I want to be careful with in a discussion like this. There’s no reason to feel any less celebratory, or treat these scriptures, treat these New Testament letters and Gospels, as any less sacred if we ascribe the authorship to someone besides Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.
Dr. Wayment: I would completely agree, and even using a word like “embellish” gives a certain tone to what they’re doing, and I’m hesitant to, if you will, weaponize information like that. I think what a Latter-day Saint comes to, this question, has to realize that if John, perhaps, or whoever wrote the Gospel of John, tells the story to the best of their ability, and some of that information and inspiration that they’re receiving was based on accounts that are a bit more legendary than historical, I don’t think it diminishes the witness at all. Many Latter-day Saints probably know the story that there are roughly three reports of Joseph Smith walking on water. I don’t know—I doubt he walked on water. But the reality is, legendary accounts often show up among people of faith, and it’s not to manipulate, it’s not to deceive, it’s not to embellish; I don’t think intent is what they’re after, I think this is a really sincerely believing person, who is willing to believe anything about Jesus, about what he did, what he could do, and I don’t think he treated Jesus as an academic subject, saying “Oh, that’s myth, that’s history, that’s myth.” I think they’re going to share everything they felt and believed.
Chris: I think that’s a fair correction. The one thing that you cannot avoid when reading the four Gospels is the feeling of testimony that each of these individuals had about the Savior, their commitment to the gospel. In spite of their humanness, at the same time! And another verse in the Book of Luke—in fact the whole idea of Mary and Joseph riding on a donkey all the way from Nazareth to Bethlehem, there are contradictions between that whole concept and the way that Romans even conducted taxing. Is that correct?
Dr. Wayment: It is. And in fact, we have tax receipts from the same period, and we don’t believe they would be forced to travel that distance. You can have a representative to be taxed for you, you can appear in your local city, pay your taxes and then have you register them in the city of your origin. And so Luke’s forcing them to go up because of their taxation seems a bit ahistorical. We have to admit that our records for Galilee are slim compared to other places in the Roman empire. So maybe there were differences, but in Egypt that would have been a bit strange, where we have lots of records for these taxations.
Chris: Why did Luke feel the need—how did it come about that Luke told the story in that way?
Dr. Wayment: I personally—and this is absolutely my personal view—Luke knows that Jesus is from Nazareth, and he knows the baby is born in Bethlehem, as matthew is very clear as well; they agree on that point—somehow he has to get them from here to there. He has to have them traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem. And you’ll notice he doesn’t put a lot of emphasis on the means of how they got there. He’s looking for reasons why they go there, and comes up with, well, the taxation might be the compelling force. I think even one step removed—and again, this is my personal view—I see Luke trying to tell the story that this is a family engaged in understanding the Bible as it relates to them—and I think he’s hinting at Bethlehem as the prophesied birth. I think if you have Luke here, and asking him, I think he would say that they had to fulfill prophecy. And that becomes a testimony of Luke. Did he get some of the historical facts wrong? Possibly, but the reality is he’s still bearing witness; this is the baby that fulfilled Micah’s prophecy. And that becomes important.
Chris: It fulfills the Micah prophecy just as accurately to say that Joseph and Mary were already residing in Jerusalem, and Bethlehem is only five or six miles away. I mean it’s very close, and that may have been where Mary and Joseph’s relatives actually lived. N fact, most likely Mary’s. ANd they wouldn’t have had to travel far to pay taxes in order to be able to do that, inf act that may have actually been residents of Bethlehem. As we’ve discussed among Latter-day Saints many times, you can live in Bethlehem and call yourself a resident of Jerusalem, because it’s just a suburb, it’s just a small suburb. Or of Bethany, all of this is one big city at that particular period of time. But like Cache Valley, where I live, if you live in Providence, or you live in Hyrum, you definitely say you don’t live in Logan, even if that’s where you do all your shopping. So, that’s just a cultural thing that’s probably been passed down. But it does bring an interesting angle to the traditional story of Mary and Joseph finding no room in the inn. Explain that to me, because you mentioned that we’re talking about a potential relative’s guest room. Why did the King James translators translate that word as “inn”?
Dr. Wayment: I’m very intrigued by the King James reasoning—I wish I could, over the last years, come up with a reason why they ddi. The very, or sorry the noun itself, refers to an attached room, a guest room, a guest house even, and as I have mentioned in other places, the idea that this is a hotel is contradicted by the fact that Luke uses the same word to describe the room of the Last Supper. Which again is a room, rented from someone they appeared to know. And I think what Luke is saying, if we didn’t have the KJV history in front of us, this is exactly what he’s saying: they went to somebody they knew, probably a family member’s home, and there wasn’t a room in the house for them, and they were made to sleep in the stable. And in a 1st-century home, what that likely means is they are sleeping on the first floor of a family member’s home, where the animals were kept. And often in the Bethlehem region, the home itself is above the animals, and it may—and this is a little tricky to say this with any type of force—it may hint that there was some hostility there in the family, [with] Joseph and Mary, this family who are dealing with a baby that was conceived prior to their marriage, there was some hostility toward them: Hey, you go sleep in the manger, we’ll sleep upstairs.
Chris: Well that, to me, is an interesting aspect of the story. That aspect of the story brings a whole new level of understanding. But it also brings a humanness to the whole event, which to me, testifies more of its truthfulness. And that’s the fact that the person who is writing Luke is interviewing people who may be descendants of the Savior, or who may have been eyewitnesses in some way of this birth of Jesus Christ, and remembering some of the events that may have surrounded that, they’re reluctant to admit that Joseph and Mary were put out of the house because of some bias and some prejudice against the fact that, “Well, it’s obvious that Mary is already with child, and she was so before you two were officially married! So we’re gonna put you in the stable.” And the idea that that kind of bias and prejudice happens in families that are trying to be very loyal and faithful to their religion today, and it could well have happened in the first century BC as well. Now we come to the JST: they translate the word “inn” as plural. Was that an error of Joseph Smith?
Dr. Wayment: That’s a really challenging one, and I’ve thought a lot about it, and I can only give you my opinion. Very briefly: in the Joseph Smith translation, his scribes are copying out the Bible entirely, and then Joseph would go back and make changes to the text in this part of the Bible. So, he has in front of him a piece of paper where a scribe has written out LUke 2, and as he writes and corrects that, he makes adjustments and those become the JST. And in the case of this particular one, we know that his scribes made dozens and dozens and dozens of copying errors, and we don’t know whether to say those are JST changes, or simply scribal errors. And since he never published that part, it’s really hard to know whether he said “Yes, i wanted the plural,” or John Witmer wrote out “inn” inadvertently as a scribe. So I think we ought to be careful placing too much emphasis on the multiplying of the number of guest rooms; I think it is possible, and it is textually possible, that this is simply a copying remnant from the JST process.
Chris: I like that opinion. That makes more sense; it was never published, it was never canonized, this particular section of the JST. However, it is found in the notes at the bottom in our current edition in the Bible; it’s found at the bottom as something of interest, something to ponder, that there may have been more than one hotel. And then we go back to the fact that in the Greek, the whole word doesn’t even mean “inn, hotel,” it means guest room. So, that emphasizes to me the need to try and give us as accurate a translation of the New Testament that is enjoyed by those members of the church who are in other countries and speak different languages. Now I want to emphasize one of my favorite verses in all the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, none of them would have been witnesses to the birth of the Savior. There may have been eyewitnesses that begin to report their own experience, starting with the ministry of John the Baptist, and into the ministry of the Savior. But if we go back thirty, thirty-four years prior, nobody would have thought that the birth of the Savior was an important event at that particular time, except for Mary, and possibly for Joseph. And so, Luke chapter 2 verse 19 is a special moment, where Luke actually emphasizes, “But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.” In other words, Mary didn’t talk about these things. And for some of us, that’s frustrating because we don’t have any record of the life of the Savior during his childhood, or really any consistent reports—these are based on probably a lot of relatives, a lot of people who knew the Savior all his life, getting together, possibly disagreeing with each other, and Luke doing the best that he can in order to try and stitch together the events surrounding the birth of the Savior. The idea that Mary took all these things and pondered them in her heart to me is a hint that Mary didn’t talk about them. She felt they were sacred. And she may have never given her personal account of what occurred; either she didn’t feel that was her particular gift or she just felt that was what the Lord wanted her to do. And it’s kind of a beautiful moment in the New Testament. Now, we don’t really have time to get into Matthew, and the wise men—well, maybe that can be a last insight from you. Why do you think the episode of the wise men, really the episode of Herod, and the massacre of the infants that occurred in Bethlehem—such an important historical event, such a tragedy, and yet it’s not reported in any other Gospel, and it’s not reported in Luke, who’s talking about the same events surrounding the Nativity.
Dr. Wayment: Yeah, and so this is a great kind of moment to consider, and part of it comes from me as a scholar, and part comes from me as a believer, so this moment—I think you have a clear case of something hard to digest. And that is, Matthew is telling the story of Herod and the death of the infants with a sense of irony and condemnation. This confirms my own sense of belief here, where Matthew is trying to point out a story where people travel dozens, hundreds, even thousands of miles, to worship a baby that will save the world, and all the while, he’s born under the nose of a man named the King of the Jews, who is literally right next door to where Jesus is born, and he has no idea and has to go ask people, Where is this going to happen? And then he responds aggressively by reaching out and trying to kill these babies. And what I think Matthew is saying, is the Jews at the time, those Jewish individuals who are asked, missed the birth of the Savior of the world, who was prophesied in their own text. I think it’s condemning, I think it’s strong, and heavy-handed. And when you shift into historical mode, the city of Bethlehem and the surrounding regions are very, very small at the time of Jesus. And scholars have been quick to point out that it may not reach the historical record for reasons a lot of modern people don’t understand—is that there were very few children in that city. It’s a very small, small city, we’re talking some scholars estimate two, three, four, five babies, which is why Herod may have thought he could get Jesus in such an attack. I don’t want to minimize the deaths of anyone, but historical sources don’t tend to notice such small action, such numerically small action, and so Luke might have passed it over and Luke might not have found it palatable to tell stuch a story condemning Jesus’s compatriots; he might have felt that isn’t the tone he wants to tell in telling the story of Jesus. And as you noted in your personal comments, you find a sense of sacredness in Luke, where Mary is holding back and [feeling?] truth, and Matthew’s has a tone of frustration because they missed it. And for that, he is going to take them to task for that.
Chris: That is interesting, that each of the Gospel writers had a different motive. Many of them were probably aware of other Gospels, but they had a motive to try and tell the story from their own perspective, with specific ideas in their minds, points they wanted to emphasize. When you offer up a scholarly perspective, with regard to some of these events, it’s jarring to some Latter-day Saints. And I’ve listened to some Latter-day Saints express frustration or anger or sometimes rejection of the whole concept of scholarship, of trying to tease out more meaning as a result of understanding them in a scholarly or historical or archaeological setting. And there has been, I think, a need to understand some kind of a balance between scholarship and faith. What do you feel that the role of scholarship should be in the minds of the average Latter-day Saint?
Dr. Wayment: That’s a great question, and I want to answer into a space that is probably uncomfortable for a moment for many people. And again, I hope people accept the fact that I’m not trying to be confrontational, but I think we’ve all heard, even outside of church, where people bear witness to the way things are. And that might be in a church setting but it might also be in a general setting. And their own experiences have led them to have certain opinions that we reject, and we’re willing to say, we’re willing to be charitable in those moments, to say, I see it a little differently. I feel that my own experiences have generated different types of responses in me. And I’ve heard that in Sunday settings, and I never stand up and aggressively assert, I think I would have said it this way, I would have done it this way. And I think when we come to scholarly discourse, I think sometimes we lack a little bit of charity in saying that the scholarly discourse can only do so much. Scholarship is not trying to say that faith is wrong, and scholarship is a new faith. And I know people simplify it in that way. Scholarship says we have X number of available data points from history. What can we prove from that? What interesting insights does this bring to the story? Do they confirm faith? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. But more often than not, I think we can approach scholarship as a partner, and say that scholarship does this much, and when scholarship confronts our faith, I think we’re okay to say, Well, I see the scholarly position, I’m aware of it, and in this case it’s not congruent with my faith. And at other times I think it’s okay to say that it encouraged my faith! I’ve found great strength in scholarship from points that have buttressed faith and other times I’ve said, I agree, that seems to say something different. As you noted in the Gospel stories of the birth, there are differences. And if they’re weaponized, then we want to say, Well because they are different, Matthew got it wrong! Or we say, Luke got it wrong! Those become strong statements of value. I would prefer the scholar to say, Well, right now this is what we know. And it seems to say one of them has a different view of the historical record, and didn’t maybe get it quite as historically accurate. But it doesn’t take away from their witness, and I think the same can be applied today in scholarship. Let’s be a little more charitable and say, Well they have something to say, and contribute to this conversation.
Chris: I appreciate the insight. Those who listen to this podcast are fully aware that I base my own testimony upon spiritual witnesses that I received, and I find the scholarship fascinating. I embrace and soak in the insight that that provides for me, and it has never caused me to question my faith. There are points in which I will accept or embrace what I’m being taught, sometimes when I will question it or reject it, and other times where i’m simply agnostic toward it, where I figure we’ll just get the answers in the end. ANd for Latter-day Saints to accept scholarship with that kind of a balance I think is a healthy thing. Dr. Wayment, I’ve so appreciated your time, I’ve appreciated your insight.
Dr. Wayment: Thanks, Chris, for having me on today. It’s been great and I hope to conclude just in the thought that we’re in this together; it’s a challenging experience at times, but patience in all things I think would draw us together well.
Chris: I agree. Again we’d like to thank Dr. Wayment for being a part of ForeverLDS. And we’d like to thank our listeners! I hope we’ll be able to provide more interviews for you in the future. I especially like interviewing LDS artists, celebrities, or scholars that I’ve personally known for years. However, in the next episode of FroeverLDS, I’ve seriously been contemplating whether I ought to read for you heretofore unpublished segments of my soon-to-be-completed (please, I pray, soon-to-be-completed!) next novel in the Tennis Shoes Adventure Series, Thorns of Glory. No promises! But I might, might read Chapter 1. Which finally reveals an important bit about what happens to Apollus and Megan, who, at the end of the last volume, found themselves stranded on a cliff in the middle of nowhere, and at the mercy of flying pterodactyl-like dinosaurs. Maybe. If you’re good. If you say your prayers. If you—better not shout, better not cry, all of that stuff. Okay? Stay tuned. Two weeks. Thank you, sincerely, for being with us today. And, if you don’t feel as close to Christ today as you did yesterday—who moved? I suspect it was you. And I hope you move back. Please, come back! We love our listeners. This is Chris Heimerdinger, and this is ForeverLDS.