Return to About Mormons home
The New Testament
by Robert C. Patch
During the early centuries of the Christian era, the New Testament gospels were the principal written witness of Jesus as the Christ. No other collection of writings carried the insight, the power of teaching, and, consequently, the spiritual appeal to Christians. The New Testament also stands as the foundation of the restoration of the gospel in the latter days. It was while reading in the Epistle of James (1:5) that the youthful Joseph Smith was inspired to pray to the Lord about his confusion over religious matters, leading to his first vision (JSH 1:7-20). The New Testament is one of the standard works or canonized scriptures accepted by Latter-day Saints, who seek spiritual strength and enlightenment from its pages. Further, they accept the New Testament sketches as accurate portrayals of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ as well as the ministry of his apostles and their associates, that reveal much of the order and organization of the earliest New Testament Church. Moreover, the New Testament includes many of God's covenants and commandments given personally by Jesus and, after his ascension, through his apostles. Latter-day Saints also value the New Testament prophecies about the latter days.
The writings of the New Testament were likely all produced within the first Christian century of the Christian era. Even so, its collection of texts went through three centuries of changes, and acceptance or rejection, before it acquired its recognized and current form, first listed in the Easter letter of Athanasius in Egypt in A.D. 367. The third synod of Carthage (A.D. 397) canonized the books of the New Testament as represented in the letter of Athanasius because each writing had three qualifications: apostolic authority, support of a major Christian community, and an absence of false teachings.
The rise of so-called heresies in the second century demonstrated the loss of prophetic revelation and thus marked the need for Christians to turn back to the apostles for authoritative writings. One of the heretics, Marcion (c. A.D. 130), limited his early collection of scripture to one gospel, Luke, and to the letters of Paul, which he freely edited.
THE GOSPELS. For at least two reasons Latter-day Saints view the New Testament gospels as essentially accurate accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. First, many pre-Christian prophecies, especially in the Book of Mormon, detailed specific events in Jesus' life, including his mother's name, circumstances of his birth, his baptism, his selection of twelve apostles, the miracles he performed, his rejection and suffering, and his death and resurrection (e.g., 1 Ne. 11:13-36; Mosiah 3:5-11; see Jesus Christ: Ministry of Jesus Christ). Second, Joseph Smith's inspired work in the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible (JST) led him to add clarifying details to the setting and content of certain stories about Jesus and to view many of Jesus' parables and teachings as applicable to the latter days.
The Gospel of Matthew is characterized by two distinct features: frequent use of Old Testament references and six of Jesus' discourses (see Matthew, Gospel of). It is assumed that Matthew's frequent use of Old Testament references indicates both a Jewish audience and the view that Christianity was the fulfillment of prophetic Judaism.
Significantly for Latter-day Saints, portions of this gospel receive attention in extrabiblical scriptures. For instance, the Book of Mormon records that when the resurrected Jesus visited disciples in the Western Hemisphere (c. A.D. 34), he delivered a sermon almost identical to the Sermon on the Mount, underscoring the validity and universality of the sermon (3 Ne. 12-14; Matt. 5-7; see also Beatitudes). Additionally, Joseph Smith's work on the JST led him to make inspired revisions, the most frequently noted being those in the Sermon on the Mount and in Jesus' discourse about the fate of Jerusalem and his second coming (Matt. 24; see Joseph SmithMatthew).
While only modest attention has been given to Mark's gospel in LDS scholarly writings, Church members have traditionally found great value in studying its pages. Its portrayal of Jesus may be the most dynamic, and may ultimately go back to the eyewitness recollections of Peter, the chief apostle.
The Gospel of Luke, called by some scholars "the most beautiful book" in the world, holds special interest for Latter-day Saints for several reasons, including its narrative of the Christmas story, its seventeen parables not recorded elsewhere, its strong emphases on remission of sin and Jesus' sympathy for all people, its account of the call and mission of the seventy disciples, and the distinct prominence it gives to women.
The Gospel of John was written that "ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ" (John 20:31). Besides presenting a series of Jesus' discourses not contained in the other gospels, John uses a series of "Messianic metaphors" to disclose Jesus' divine nature and his mission: Word; Lamb; Living Water; I am; Bread of Life; Living Bread; Light of the World; Good Shepherd; Resurrection; the Way, Truth and Life; and the True Vine. Many of these metaphors also appear in the Doctrine and Covenants, a latter-day scripture, where such language is expanded and applied to the restored Church. Further, Jesus' discussion of "other sheep," recorded only in John 10:14-16, was specifically referred to by the risen Jesus during his visit to disciples in the Western Hemisphere when he wanted to make a point about those to whom he was sent to minister (3 Ne. 15:12-24). During that same post-Resurrection visit, Jesus used several phrases and descriptionsparticularly of himself and his workthat are characteristic of John's gospel (e.g., 3 Ne. 11:10-11, 14, 27, 32-36).
THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES. From the narrative of the ascension of Jesus through the account of the ministry of Paul, the book of Acts relates the spiritual ministry of apostolic witnesses during the early years of Christianity. Latter-day Saints are interested that, in replacing Judas, one apostle was chosen to complete the Twelve and that Peter set the qualifications of apostles: They must know the ministry of Jesus, they must be ordained, and they must be witnesses of his resurrection (Acts 1:21-22). Latter-day apostles in the Church are also "special witnesses of the name of Christ in all the world" (D&C 107:23; cf. 27:12; 84:108). In addition, the book of Acts indicates the rich outpouring of the Holy Ghost in the early Church, both in the form of guiding revelation and in manifestations of the gifts of the spirit, characteristics that Latter-day Saints experience and value. Further, certain prophetic statements have particular meaning. For example, Latter-day Saints understand Paul's prophecy to the elders of Ephesus concerning mutinous problems within the early Church to be an inspired declaration about the impending apostasy (Acts 20:29-30). Moreover, they view Peter's prediction of Jesus' return from heaven at "the times of restitution of all things" as commencing with the latter-day restoration of the gospel (3:19-21). Further, the book of Acts has a good deal to say about the organization, doctrines, and character of the preaching of the early Christian church.
THE EPISTLES. Letters in the New Testament are traditionally divided into two groups, the writings of Paul and the general epistles.
The style of Paul's writings varies from the almost formal exposition in Romans to the charming persuasion in Philemon. In addition to teachings valued by other Christians, Latter-day Saints exhibit particular interest in certain doctrines, ecclesiastical offices, and practices noted in Paul's works. For instance, the place of the Gentiles in the history of salvation (Rom. 9-11) is also addressed in the Book of Mormon (e.g., 1 Ne. 13:20-14:7; 22:6-11; 2 Ne. 10:8-18; see Gentiles, Fulness of); joint-heirship with Christ (Rom. 8:16-17) is taught in modern revelation (D&C 84:35-38; see Heirs); adoption into the covenant people of God (Rom. 8:14-15) is taught in the Book of Mormon (e.g., 2 Ne. 30:2; see Law of Adoption); the value of spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12; cf. 1 Thes. 5:19-20) is emphasized in modern scripture (D&C 46); the importance of charity or love (1 Cor. 13) is underscored particularly by words of the prophet Mormon (Moro. 7:40-48); Paul's list of virtues to be sought (Philip. 4:8) is the base of Joseph Smith's thirteenth article of faith; the encroaching apostasy (Gal. 1:6-9) and disunity in the early church (1 Cor. 1:10-13), as well as Paul's prophecy about the inevitability of the apostasy (2 Thes. 2:1-4; cf. 1 Tim. 4:1-3), formed an important focus of the risen Jesus' words to Joseph Smith in the First Vision (JSH 1:18-19); the fulfillment of the Law of Moses in Christ (e.g., Gal. 3) is emphatically affirmed by the risen Jesus in the Book of Mormon (3 Ne. 15:3-10; cf. 9:19-20); and his literal physical resurrection, attended by many proofs (1 Cor. 15), is underlined and augmented by the appearances of the risen Jesus to disciples in the Western Hemisphere (c. A.D. 34; 3 Ne. 11-28) and in statements to Joseph Smith (cf. D&C 130:22). In matters of Church organization, Latter-day Saints find Paul's discussions of apostolic leadership (Gal. 1:18-19; 2:9-10) and his mention of priesthood offices such as apostles, prophets, Evangelists (Eph. 2:19-21; 4:11-13), and bishops and deacons (1 Tim. 3) to be significant for Church administration. In terms of practices or ordinances, Latter-day Saints value Paul's statements on the Sacrament (1 Cor. 10:14-21; 11:23-30; cf. 3 Ne. 18:28-29; Moro. 4-5), his mention of baptism for the dead (1 Cor. 15:29), and his instructions on the laying on of hands (1 Tim. 4:14; 5:22). These things exist in the LDS Church as a result of latter-day revelation, and the New Testament epistles attest to their presence in the early Church.
Concerning the general epistles, that of James stands out in the LDS view because of its influence on the young Joseph Smith. In addition to the passage that led him to pray for divine guidance (James 1:5), Latter-day Saints value both the teaching that the quality of one's faith in Christ is mirrored in one's daily actions (James 2:14-26; see Faith; Grace) and the practice of blessing the sick (James 5:14-15). From the writings of Peter, perhaps the most frequently cited are those that speak of Jesus' mission among departed spirits while his body lay in the tomb (1 Pet. 3:18-20; 4:6), an important subject in latter-day revelation (D&C 138; see Salvation of the Dead). In addition, passages that discuss the transfiguration (2 Pet. 1:17-18) and the inspired means whereby prophecy is to be interpreted (2 Pet. 1:19-21) hold interest for Latter-day Saints. Because they are led by apostles and believe that an apostasy occurred from the early Christian church, Latter-day Saints have been drawn to the components of the apostolic witness in John's letters (1 Jn. 1:1) and to indications that a serious apostasy was already under way in the early Church (1 Jn. 4:1-3; 3 Jn. 1:9-10).
BOOK OF REVELATION. Besides naming the apostle John as the author of this work (1 Ne. 14:18-28), latter-day scripture has focused both on issues mentioned in the book of Revelation (D&C 77) and on additional material written by John (D&C 7; see John, Revelations of). Latter-day Saint interest has focused on matters that have to do with the latter days (cf. TPJS, pp. 287-94), including the discussions of the eventual demise of evil and the millennial reign of Christ and his righteous followers (Rev. 19-20), the anticipation of the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21), and the vision of "another angel [flying] in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth" (Rev. 14:6). This latter passage has usually been interpreted as referring to the angel Moroni, who visited Joseph Smith in 1823 and revealed to him the burial place of the gold plates. Moreover, Latter-day Saints understand the warning against adding to or taking away from the book (Rev. 22:18-19) as applying specifically to the book of Revelation rather than to an expanding canon of scripture that they value (cf. Deut. 4:2; 12:32; 2 Ne. 29:3-14).
(See Basic Beliefs home page; Scriptural Writings home page; The Holy Bible home page)
Anderson, Richard L. Understanding Paul. Salt Lake City, 1983.
Bruce, Frederick Fyvie. New Testament History. Garden City, N.Y., 1972.
Conybeare, W. J., and John S. Howson. The Life and Epistles of St. Paul. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1968 (reprint).
Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, 2 vols. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1950 (reprint).
Jackson, Kent P., and Robert L. Millet, eds. Studies in Scripture, Vol. 5. Salt Lake City, 1986.
McConkie, Bruce R. Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3 vols. Salt Lake City, 1965-1973.
McConkie, Bruce R. The Promised Messiah: The First Coming of Christ. Salt Lake City, 1978.McConkie, Bruce R. The Mortal Messiah: From Bethlehem to Calvary, 4 vols. Salt Lake City, 1979-1981.
Millet, Robert L., ed. Studies in Scripture, Vol. 6. Salt Lake City, 1987.
Sperry, Sidney B. Paul's Life and Letters. Salt Lake City, 1955.
Talmage, James E. JC. Salt Lake City, 1915.
Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 3, The New Testament
Copyright © 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company
All About Mormons