A friend of mine recently asked me to sketch out ten “provocative” axioms about the New Testament that Latter-day Saints might find surprising given the assumptions that they typically bring to the text. This exercise is by no means unique to the New Testament. Similar lists could be produced about the OT, other religions, LDS church history, etc. However, since this year we are studying the NT in Sunday School, it might be a useful time to reflect theologically on the significance of some of these axioms, and how these changes to our assumptions might help us to better understand ourselves and the writings we consider sacred. Thus, in no particular order, I present the following ten axioms:
1. Paul was not a Christian. He never uses the term “Christian” or “Christianity” in any of his letters. If not a Christian, then what was he? Well, he tells us repeatedly that he was a Jew. Given that Paul has been used in Christian theology to argue for Christian supremacy over Jews and Judaism, the fact that Paul was a Jew tends to throw a wrench into things.
2. There is no priesthood in the New Testament offices of the church. The priesthood is what you have if you work in the temple, a duty restricted to a certain set of priests. The LDS view of the priesthood is a product of the modern church.
3. Women are among the earliest Christian missionaries and are called “deacons” and even an “apostle” in one instance.
4. The “New Testament” as we know it is a third or fourth century document, with mostly first century texts. These are not the only first century texts. The particular combination that we have is rather late. All references to the “scriptures” in the New Testament refer only to the books that we think of as the Old Testament.
5. The Gospels represent competing narratives with different theological agendas which cannot be harmonized. Each would probably be a little horrified to know that we are reading the other versions alongside theirs!
6. For most of the NT writers, Jesus was not a God. Though I am still surprised by the theological investment that Mormons have in the “divinity” of Jesus, primarily because in my view our theology answers this question quite differently, it is even more surprising that the NT doesn’t really make this claim on the whole.
7. There is no “First Presidency” and the apostles don’t all present a unanimous front. Paul’s long-standing feud with Peter is evidence of the public disputes that they had. The rivalry among the “leadership” (which leadership of which competing church?) of the church was pretty fierce.
8. The version of Christianity that we have is only one of several competing versions from the first few decades. Paul is constantly fighting off rival missionaries who represent a diversity of views, from those advocating Judaism as a necessary step for Gentile converts, to those who perform miracles and display other charismatic gifts as evidence of their authority. Perhaps the only reason we have the Christianity that we have is that some people decided to save some writings and other people didn’t save theirs.
9. Jesus was not the only person ever to heal someone. Traveling healers (and healing retreats) were a common occurrence in both Judaism and Greco-Roman culture. Witnessing a healing miracle would not be grounds for thinking that Jesus was the Son of God or the Messiah. Probably everyone in the world at that time knew someone who had been healed miraculously.
10. None of the authors of the NT thought that they would be writing a book that would be read 2000 years later. They all expected the immanent return of Jesus. Their writings were meant to transcend space, not time.
These are not the only assumptions that it might be good to question. These are just the first 10 that I thought of this morning. I think that all of them provide a great deal of theological potential. If you have others, feel free to add them to the list!