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Beacon of hope: 'Plain, precious things'

BYU Sperry Symposium focuses on origin, reliability of sacred text

PROVO, Utah — For too long, Latter-day Saint scholars have not paid as much attention to examining the New Testament as they have to "their brilliant analysis and defense of the Nephite record and other aspects of this great latter-day work," said Elder Alexander B. Morrison.

"We have, I submit, been too content to leave biblical exegesis largely in the hands of others.... This must be remedied by Latter-day Saint scholars who combine intellectual rigor and spiritual strength."

Elder Morrison, an emeritus General Authority, offered the keynote address at the 35th annual Sidney B. Sperry Symposium, "How the New Testament Came to Be."

The annual symposium, held on BYU's Provo campus Oct. 27-28, followed the course of study for the gospel doctrine classes for 2007.

Organizers said the idea for the symposium stemmed from the worldwide questioning of the origin, early history and reliability of the New Testament. Popular books, the publication of alternate gospels and the continuing popularity of novels and motion pictures that deal with New Testament themes and question biblical claims have brought to the forefront many new ideas relating to New Testament studies, they said. During the symposium, Latter-day Saint researchers offered scholarly papers on the earliest evidence of the New Testament, primarily using manuscripts.

During his address, "Plain and Precious Things: The Writing of the New Testament," Elder Morrison expressed his own deep love for the New Testament.

"I first read it many years ago as a boy at my mother's knee and have loved it ever since. In good times and bad, it has been as a lamp unto my stumbling feet, a beacon of hope and love which lights my path, a standard against which I strive to measure all that I do....

"Above all else, from the New Testament I learn of the Wondrous Son of God, who died that I might live and Who rose triumphant from the tomb to bring resurrection to all and celestial joy to those who keep His commandments. He will return again, in power and glory, with healing in His wings, to set His people free."

Elder Morrison said study of the creation of the New Testament is seriously hampered by the passage of nearly two millennia of time, the complete lack of any original manuscripts, inadequate understanding of the realities of life in the ancient world and considerable evidence that the scriptures have undergone significant changes over the years.

The story of the life and teachings of Jesus and His Apostles is the most oft-told tale in human history, said Elder Morrison.

"It has had more influence on the thoughts of men and women than any other book, inspiring reverential awe and devotion in untold millions for two millennia."

The New Testament did not just appear one day in the form and content so familiar to us today, he said. "However, within a few years of Jesus' death and Resurrection, His followers began to write down their accounts of His life and teachings and to record or comment on them in their worship services."

Elder Morrison said the motives of those who wrote were many and varied. Many were motivated by pure love and reverence. Others wished to be certain that their views of what had happened, and what Jesus had taught, were clearly understood by all, he said.

In addition, there are problems deciding who wrote the various books of the New Testament, when they wrote them and what should be included in the orthodox canon of scripture. Those problems are made much more difficult because there are no original manuscripts. "They have been lost, without exception, and all we have are copies of copies of copies."

Changes in the text result from human error, carelessness or fatigue. Other changes were intentional and deliberate, he said.

"To Latter-day Saints, the Bible is much more than a 'human document,"' he declared. "We revere and respect it. We honor it. We recognize that it is not complete nor entirely accurate, but hopefully we never forget that latter-day revelation sustains, supports and verifies the biblical account of God's dealings with His children."

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(This article is taken or condensed from the 2006 Sidney B. Sperry Symposium. Full texts are available in How the New Testament Came To Be; The 35th Annual Brigham Young University Sidney B. Sperry Symposium; Deseret Book and BYU Religious Studies Center, 2006.)

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