Friday, August 29, 2014

The Miracles of Jesus by Eric Huntsman

This book is the third in a series (Good Tidings of Great Joy covers the stories of Jesus’ birth and God So Loved the World his death) by Eric D. Huntsman, who is an associate professor of ancient scripture at BYU.
As he did in the other two volumes, Huntsman deftly combines insights from the field of New Testament studies with devotional application. The paper is heavy, the artwork is gorgeous, and the layout is reader-friendly. You can gift this book to people who are not Mormon studies geeks and they will most likely actually read it.

What I most appreciated about this book is that Huntsman did not present the miracles as if they were just one magic trick after another. Instead, he positions Jesus’ miracles as symbolic efforts to, first, suggest Jesus’ relationship to a fallen world full of disease and suffering and, second, to uncloak Jesus’ full identity. These are important points that, I think, can often be lost in the “wow factor” of Jesus’ miracles.

While there is some close reading of the texts, the amount of material here meant that the summary-to-explication ratio was higher than in his other volumes. Still, Huntsman frequently engages the texts granularly, with special attention paid to the Greek text; that the book remains accessible to the non-geek is a testament to his talents. And while I suspect that some readers might have benefited from a glossary, I’m happy to see Deseret Book encourage its audience to reach a little.

I could grouse about some of Huntsman’s choices. For example, I don’t think that the best reading of the Transfiguration (see Mark 9:2-8) is as a miracle that Jesus performed (see Huntsman, pages 32-36); in Mark, the verb is passive (so: Jesus is transfigured [by someone else, presumably God]; he does not do the transfiguring). And Huntsman’s decision to group all of the healing miracles of women under one subheading (“Healing Women”) while treating the healings of men individually must have stemmed from a desire to emphasize the very important observation that Jesus’ interactions with women were culturally transgressive, but it is possible to read this grouping as overplaying the gender of those healed while flattening their individual (i.e., non-gender-related) circumstances. And his efforts to relate the miracles in chronological order are, I think, misdirected. (This is inside baseball stuff, but: since Mark is the earliest gospel and since ample evidence suggests that Mark was not written in chronological order, any effort to order the events of Jesus’ ministry is doomed by a lack of evidence.) But these are minor issues.

The strength of the book is in its clear explication of the miracles and brief theological and devotional conclusions. I was particularly touched by his discussion of Jesus as a model for grieving in the moments before Lazarus is raised: when Martha couches her grief in a doctrinal discussion, Jesus does the same. But when Mary meets Jesus with tears, Jesus cries as well (see page 117).

For an LDS writer, Huntsman shows an unusual level of sensitivity to the differences between the gospel accounts and this is definitely a welcome development in LDS biblical studies. At the same time, I am concerned at how the unsuspecting reader will respond to the idea that, for example, Matthew doubled the number of possessed men (compare Mark 5:1-20 with Matthew 8:28-34) and blind men (compare Mark 10:46-52 with Matthew 20:29-34) due to his penchant for doubling (perhaps to conform to the law of witnesses). These first encounters can be troubling (“If Matthew could invent a possessed man and a blind man, what else might he have invented?”). Historicity is addressed in terms of how historical criticism can undergird historicity in an appendix (which also does an admirable job of commenting on form and narrative criticism), but specific guidance in thinking through the discrepancies between the gospels might be helpful as well.

I love genre-bending books and category killers. I don’t know anyone else who writes this kind of thing–a coffee table book full of defensible scholarship. Huntsman’s approach of combining legitimate biblical studies with LDS devotional application is a healthy model for a sometimes-embattled field, not to mention a welcome read for both Mormon studies geeks and normal people.

The publisher provided me with a review copy of this book.

Cross-posted from Times and Seasons.

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