“Luke and Mormonism” by Stephen H. Webb

Prof. Brown’s Commentary is, to put it bluntly, an astonishing achievement, indeed, one that I cannot do justice to in these brief remarks. It is a book that, if it finds the audience it deserves, would be beneficial for any and all Christians, regardless of their relationship to or understanding of Mormonism.

I learned a lot from it, and that learning took place on multiple levels. The book worked for me on a practical, exegetical, theological, hermeneutical, and dialogical level, and not in a sequential order but all at once, so on one page and sometimes in a single paragraph I had to try to occupy all of these levels simultaneously. On a practical level, this commentary is spiritually enriching and would be a helpful guide for any Christian seeking a closer walk with the one who is the subject of Luke’s testimony. Exegetically and theologically, the book abounds in creative, original, and fascinating readings of passages that have been subjected to so much commentary over the centuries that one might have despaired of ever finding something new.

Hermeneutically, I found myself in new territory with just enough familiar features to make me feel at home, so that I had to try to understand Prof. Brown’s theoretical commitments even as I wrestled with his understanding of the text. The book requires a hermeneutics of the hermeneutics, we could say.

Finally, I think that this commentary series opens up a new forum for dialogue among the various Christian traditions. So far, dialogue between non-Mormon and Mormon Christians has largely focused on what Mormons believe that is different from what more traditional Christians believe. Such discussions inevitably end up in the abstract realm of philosophy and theology. Now, we can dialogue about how Mormons read that might be different from how non-Mormons read the Bible. Reading scripture is a fundamental practice for Christians, one that we all share, and thinking about how Mormons read the Bible will go a long way, I suspect, toward making Mormon commitments to historical Christianity more clear and thus to eliminating some of the theological exoticism that non-Mormons often project onto the Saints. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that it is in exegeting scripture that Mormonism will prove its usefulness to the rest of Christianity.

The test of any commentary is how well it makes old words seem young again, and how it illuminates the obscure by drawing overlooked connections while deepening the historical reality from which those words emerge. On that score Prof. Brown’s book is a virtuoso performance.

His commentary is also what I would call a common sense reading of the text, though deeply informed by a lifetime of study of the ancient languages and history. For sociological reasons, it is very hard to find this kind of commentary in Catholic and Protestant circles these days. So much modern scholarship begins with doubt about the credibility of witnesses, dismissal of God’s direct involvement in history, and what is probably worst of all, an unearned sense of moral superiority over our forefathers. The result is a painfully speculative tendency to try to find the story beneath the story.

The Saints have a unique perspective to bring to the commentary table: their love of the King James, I suspect, makes them less susceptible to the quixotic belief that the authority of the Bible is dependent on access to its most original version; their confidence in the tangible and ongoing reality of God’s verbal communication as the primary form of divine revelation puts them in a good position to appreciate the inspired nature of scripture; and their experience of the living office of a prophet, who leads his people by his words, gives them a unique window onto the socio-cultural dynamics of a world that is alien to too many Christians today.

Most of all, their own expansive notion of scripture keeps them on their toes, so to speak, to read between the lines. And to put scripture in the larger context of their total theological worldview gives them a creativity that is lacking in fundamentalist versions of literalism. This is a new kind of literalism, a literalism of the spirit, not the letter.

Historically speaking, Brown demonstrates how Joseph’s renaming the Gospels “testimonies” does justice to their literary form and theological significance. That Luke knew Mary, the mother of Jesus, consulted with the Apostles and even visited Galilee before writing his Gospel is all given good evidence here. In fact, it is ironic, or perhaps paradoxical, or maybe just plain interesting, that Mormon scholars, taking Prof. Brown as representative, show more respect for the historical credibility of the Gospel witnesses than many of their non-Mormon peers. Brown, for example, provides the best brief analysis of the dating of Luke’s Gospel that I have read. This phenomenon is worth exploring in more detail, because it demonstrates, in a very practical manner, that Mormon scriptures add to the Gospel account of Jesus without subtracting from it or distorting it.

The theological portrait that emerges from Luke in this commentary is unique in how it holds together the human and the divine natures of Jesus, and not just in an abstract way. The humanity of the Jesus Brown gives us is refreshingly family-centered, and Jesus’ divinity is dramatically personal. Jesus is of a family first and foremost before he is a priest, prophet and king, to use the traditional language of Jesus’ three-fold office. At the same time, his personality is not solely the product of his earthly experiences. He comes to us as one who is for us and of us before he is even born.

The focus on family is not surprising, given that Mormons are well known for putting family at the center of their religious practices, but Prof. Brown’s commentary is the first, as far as I know, to show how fruitful it is to put family at the center of the reading of the Gospels. Luke’s Jesus, in Brown’s hands, is not the solitary hero, sadly misunderstood, of much modern biblical theology, nor is he a downtrodden man who is born into solidarity with the poor and dispossessed. This is a Jesus who is from a stable, loving and quite traditional family, who is well educated (knowing four languages, Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek and Spoken Egyptian), who rises early in the morning to worship and work, and who is a lover of conversation, indeed, a consummate talker who always has an appropriate story on hand to deal with any situation. The result is that details of the Gospel come alive in new ways, like the easily overlooked mention that Peter and his wife have been taking care of Peter’s mother-in-law (4:38-39).

I might add that Jesus, in Brown’s portrait, also looks a little bit like Joseph Smith himself in that he is constantly trying to honor the love he found in his own family by expanding the family of God. This is a Jesus who indeed would go to great lengths to reach those who live beyond the boundaries of the geography of the Second Temple.

It might seem that Jesus as a man of the family is hard to reconcile with the Word or Logos pre-existent from eternity, but Brown is faithful to Luke’s claim that Jesus was born as “the Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (2:11). Indeed, because Mormonism has a vivid and realistic understanding of Jesus’ pre-mortal existence, Brown is able to do justice to the astonishing idea that he came to us fully himself, not just fully divine in an abstract way. He comes to earth with a personality, we could say, that is already fully developed, and with power that is obviously otherworldly.

Brown also shows how the Joseph Smith Translation emphasizes Jesus’ pre-existence by clarifying how Jesus, as a boy, was a teacher in the Temple, not just a learner. So where did he get all of that wisdom? Too many Christians, I suspect, think of Jesus as a human body with a divine mind, so that his knowledge and wisdom are just his ability to access God’s thoughts during his earthly life. Such a view denigrates Jesus’ divinity and turns his earthly wisdom into a kind of mind-reading trick. Brown helps us to see that Luke thought that Jesus, the whole Jesus, in all of his singular personhood, was united with God before his incarnation, so that his wisdom is, plausibly, the product of his pre-mortal experiences.

Catholics especially will welcome Brown’s demonstration that Jesus was not anti-institutional, since the synagogue, as he says, “forms the launch pad for his own church organization.” Indeed, it is incredibly refreshing to have a commentary that recognizes how Jesus’ ministry not only establishes lasting patterns of authority for the church but also upholds a hierarchical understanding of that authority. I also found Prof. Brown’s analysis of the keys to divine power original and revealing, opening my eyes to the implicit reference to the keys in 4:25 (where Jesus observes that in the days of Elias the heavens were shut up for three years). Moreover, I have never read a commentary on the Gospels that does a better job of explaining that the delay in Jesus’ second coming, rather than being an unexpected problem that plagued the early church, was instead announced by Jesus himself.

I want to comment on two other topics, both of which open up enormous avenues of dialogue between Mormons and Catholics. The first is the sweating of blood at the Mount of Olives, which is an astonishing scene in Luke that does not receive any serious theological reflection outside of Mormonism today. It is clearly the pivotal moment in his assumption of our sin, with his bloody sweat and his need for an angel to give him strength. I suspect that it is the content of this troubling passage that has led so many scholars to go to great lengths to argue it out of the canon. It is too graphic, too real, and portrays Jesus as too ignoble, too frail and weak. I welcome the Mormon confirmation that this event actually happened as Luke portrays it. In fact, I would like to devote a future research project to the similarities in Catholic and Mormon traditions to the topic of Christ’s blood. Christ’s blood was a central organizing topic in medieval Christianity, and the scene of his bloody sweat was not neglected in devotionals and art. There were, for example, devotional practices dedicated to Christ’s seven bleedings, with the garden scene being the first. Medieval theologians and laity alike thought the blood of Jesus was the price of our salvation, which led some to defend the exsanguination of Christ, the idea that he shed his blood up to and including the very last drop. And then there was the debate between the Dominicans and the Franciscans concerning whether Christ’s blood was joined to his body during the Triduum Mortis, and, in the midst of discussions about the divine status of Christ’s blood, arguments about whether the glorified body needed blood. The bloodless resurrected body had a longer afterlife in theology than one might suppose, being resurrected by a Lutheran named Bengel in the eighteenth century, who even argued that Christ’s head appears white in Revelation 1:14 because it is drained of blood. All of this might be interesting background for Joseph’s teaching that blood is supplanted by spirit in the resurrection.

The second is Jesus’ descent into hell and Brown’s placement of it at the center of Jesus’ ministry. Hans Urs von Balthasar is the first theologian to make that descent central to his own theology as well as to Jesus’ earthly ministry. In his book Mysterium Paschale, von Balthasar puts the emphasis of Holy Saturday on the suffering of Christ. For von Balthasar, Christ suffers a physical death on the cross and a spiritual death in hell. By depicting Holy Saturday as the furthest reach of Christ’s suffering on behalf of sinners, von Balthasar makes it the climax of the cross. The cross thus casts its shadow over Jesus’ death, so that even while his body is in repose his soul suffers inconceivable torment.

Critics of von Balthasar often point out that in traditional interpretations of this event, Christ descends to the forecourt of hell, the so-called “limbo of the fathers,” where he saves the righteous of the Old Testament, rather than to hell itself. In my own criticisms of von Balthasar, I have argued that 1 Peter 3:19 clarifies the descent by telling us that Jesus preached to the spirits in prison. My experience with prison ministry has led me to see the descent in a decidedly more positive light than von Balthasar, indeed, to see it in the light of the resurrection, rather than the darkness of the cross.

Preaching to the prisoners in hell was the culmination of Jesus’ ministry, I have argued, not the prolongation of his crucifixion. Jesus, after all, was condemned as a criminal and died between two criminals. It is even likely that he was imprisoned, although the Bible says nothing about this. Where else would he have been between the arrest on the evening of Holy Thursday and the trials that began on the morning of Good Friday? Luke, anyway, seems to indicate a gap between his mocking and the Sanhedrin trial the next morning (Luke 22:65-66). At some point that night, and maybe again after he was sentenced to death, he might have been put in a holding cell. Such cells were often little more than holes in the ground, dark and silent. He would have prayed to his father, but nobody but a drunken guard would have been there to hear him. Perhaps this is where he was truly silenced, and perhaps that is why the Bible passes over this episode in silence. If Jesus took on the sins of the world and suffered the ultimate judgment of guilt and defeat, then I am convinced that he found camaraderie and understanding among the prisoners in hell. His descent was the first step toward his resurrection and our rehabilitation.

In any case, after his death he visited the ultimate prison of hell itself. Having accepted God’s judgment on all of humankind, I have argued that Jesus would have felt right at home in hell, and the prisoners would have been glad to welcome him. The sharing of the good news is a joyful event, especially in a place where its message is most needed.

Prof. Brown helps me to see that my interpretation of the descent needs to be taken another step. Preaching is central to Jesus’ mission, and authorizing others to preach is how Jesus established his church. Imagine my joy in discovering, after I worked on von Balthasar’s theology of Christ’s descent into hell, the Mormon understanding of spirit prisons and the idea that Jesus indeed preached in hell, but he did more than that. He organized the righteous to preach in his absence. This is an astounding claim that has no precedence, as far as I know, in traditional theology, and yet it makes absolute theological and exegetical sense. To me, it means that even in hell the church is active in carrying out God’s plan. The Catholic Church believes that salvation comes through the Church, and thus it makes sense that Jesus would not have left the spirits in prison without access to the church. The Mormon explication of the descent thus gives me a new delight in the passage from Matt. 16:18, where Jesus says he will build his church and not even the gates of hell will prevail against it.

One thought on ““Luke and Mormonism” by Stephen H. Webb

  1. Mark E. Baxter

    This is a great article that I will be sharing with others. As a layman with limited time, I simply can’t keep up with all the latest theological developments so an article like this opens up new perspectives. For example, I love the contrasting between Webb and von Balthasar over the descent of the Christ into spirit prison. That this descent might be looked at as a spiritual death to accompany the physical death had never occurred to me. And Professor Webb’s response was likewise illuminating. Thanks and I just bought the kindle version of the book. Can’t wait for the written.


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