RSC: Will you tell us about your current projects?
Huntsman: Well, this year I have been finishing prior commitments. Richard Holzapfel and Thom Wayment have a volume coming out on the second half of the New Testament. I wrote two chapters and co-wrote another one. I wrote one on the impact of Gentile conversion—about the Greco-Roman social milieu and the impact on individuals as they became Christians. I talked about the impact socially and nationally. I also wrote a chapter on the Roman provinces outside of Judaea to understand how the Roman administrative structure affected travel by people such as the Apostle Paul. I also talked a little bit about the various colonies and cities and why Paul went some places but not others. There is also a co-authored piece with Cecilia Peek where we talk about the Imperial Cult in the Book of Revelation. I did the more historical part about the development of the Imperial Cult during the Hellenistic and the Roman Imperial periods. She wrote more on the rhetorical presentation of Rome as the beast.
I also have a piece coming out in next year's Sperry volume on the great antitheses: the six statements of the law of Moses that Jesus redefines in Matthew 5.
In the new journal that the Maxwell Institute is publishing, Studies in the Bible and Antiquity, I have a piece in the inaugural issue on blood and water in the Gospel of John. It is something I have worked on for a long time.
Next year is going to be my big year. I'm going to apply for leave and work on three projects. The first is my long-standing project on early Christian hymns in the New Testament that I have done all the research for but not yet written up. That is slated for winter and spring.
If I get leave for summer and fall, then I want to do a monograph on Easter. My friend Craig Jessop, formerly of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, told me he could tell I have a passion for the Passion. I just love the Passion narratives. I love Holy Week and Easter. I actually did an article for the Ensign last year on the Holy Week (click here for html and here for pdf). I've also had a long-standing online study for friends and family. It's about sixty-four pages on each event of the last week of the Savior's life. So I am in process with Deseret Book to come up with a little book that will be a mixed analysis and explication of the scriptural text with devotional reflections on each day of the Savior's life. The goal is to combine that with art as I did in the Ensign article.
Then I am hoping to do a volume on the writings of John. This wouldn't really be a verse-by-verse commentary but rather similar to Father Raymond Brown's posthumous Introduction to the Gospel of John. It would introduce Johannine studies and writings and then perhaps have a chapter talking about the Gospel of John and then several chapters talking about Johannine themes and images. So there would be a chapter on the discourses, the signs, and the "I am" sayings in order to give readers a sense of the text as a whole and how the different themes are developed. Then we might also have a chapter on the letters and on the Revelation. An introductory chapter for that section would introduce the basic issues of the Book of Revelation to give people some background before they begin reading it. Then we would look at particular themes.
Concerning the Book of Revelation, I want to do an alternate interpretation of the title Apokalypsis Iēsu Christu and look at that as not so much the revelation belonging to Christ—not the possessive genitive but rather the objective genitive—being the unveiling of Christ. Also I will look at how it is apocalyptic, in addition to the usual understanding of comforting the people. I am also interested in this idea as we know from the Apocalypse of Nephi (1 Nephi 11–14) of apocalypse being a heavily symbolic vision that unveils the role of Christ in history. I am interested in having a chapter on that, using Nephi as a template.
I am interested in the theme of angelic mediation in the Book of Revelation. I read a paper in Austin a couple of months ago—I was co-sponsored by a Mormon-affiliated group but also an interfaith council at the University of Texas at Austin—it was called "LDS Readings of the Book of Revelation," and I did something on angelic mediation. It was interesting because, when we read Mosiah 15, people always try to explain how Christ is the Father and the Son, and we jump on the idea of divine investiture of authority. It comes from a written statement by James E. Talmage endorsed by the First Presidency written back in the 1920s. And that idea, regardless of how appropriate it is in Mosiah 15, the idea of mediation is really important in the Book of Revelation. Here is the question: Why does God affect his judgment through angels? Why do angels speak for Christ? Why doesn't God just act for himself? Why doesn't Christ just speak directly as he does in the inaugural vision in the first chapter of the Revelation? There are fun passages toward the end of the Book of Revelation where an angel speaks the words of Christ and the seer, presumably John, thinks it is Christ and falls down and worships him. The angels say, "No, I'm just your fellow servant." What does that represent? And in the final one in 19:10 where it talks about the spirit of prophecy being the testimony of Jesus, it associates the angels and the fellow servants with those who have a testimony of Jesus. So one of the things I am building is this idea that those who have this testimony of Jesus, "prophets" in a broad sense, are in a way co-opted into the company of angels, who are agents for Christ, who is an agent for God.
This would be a thematic book. It would have an introductory chapter on John and then three strong chapters introducing the Gospels, the Letters, and the Book of Revelation. And then after each "introductory chapter" to each respective section there would be several thematic chapters which I think will give people a different way of looking at things. Much of the work for the Gospel portion is already done—I have an article on the Bread of Life, and I have this piece on bread and water in the Gospel of John coming out. So I have already done the legwork on some of those. I'll have to adjust it a little for the audience, making sure to balance scholarship with a devotional approach, writing for an educated but non-professional audience.
RSC: What would you say is your greatest contribution to the LDS audience so far?
Huntsman: I think it's in terms of approach. I believe the way to approach an LDS audience is to assume that they are smart, that they can learn, and that they are thoughtful. Some people trifle with balancing the scholarly and devotional, but I always presume to approach both. Now, that has handicapped me because it makes it difficult to write for a non-LDS audience because I can't write about the Gospel of John in the New Testament without bringing in Restoration insights and scripture. But on the other hand, as you can see by the footnotes in any of my works, I almost always have more footnotes to scholarly sources than LDS sources. I figure that our people are already familiar with the LDS sources, so what can we glean from scholarship that will bring added insights?
My approach to writing for an LDS audience is to stretch them. And my editors help with not being too verbose or using jargon, but I think if you are excited about your material, then it is obvious in your teaching. It is easy to demonstrate through teaching that you are excited about something, but writing is a different forum and venue and medium. Sometime that is hard to convey but my love of bringing in scholarly insights into LDS explications of the text actually portrays my thrill of working with the text and finding new things about it. I love to tell my students all the time, "The reason studying the scriptures never gets boring is because we don't know it all." When we think we know a text is when it becomes stale and we stop learning from it. Students will sometimes ask me, "What is the answer to such-and-such?" And I'll say, "I don't know! Isn't that great?" If we don't know, then we are stretched to keep looking. What is wonderful with scriptural literature is because it has analogical density—it exists on so many different levels—it can mean different things at different times in different contexts.
In terms of particular works, having the chance to work with Drs. Holzapfel and Wayment, who were clearly the senior partners on the project of Jesus Christ and the World of the New Testament, has been tremendous, even though the book has been derided in some corners as a coffee table book or not scholarly enough—
RSC: But it is the appearance alone that makes it look like a coffee table book.
Huntsman: And that was the genius of it. We really need to credit Dr. Holzapfel for that. Of course, the companion volume has been published, Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament. The idea of visually engaging readers makes them look at some texts that they might otherwise pass over. The format and idea of discrete chapters that you can read separately—you don't need to read it cover to cover—with sidebar articles, little blurbs that interest people that are often times associated with an image—it was genius, a wonderful idea. And then to bring in Dr. Wayment's scholarship on that was, again, genius. I think I was brought in mostly for my historical background, although they did give me a chance to take a stab at John and Luke and Hebrews and Revelation. So one of the reasons why I think that is one of my greatest contributions, even though it was a co-authored work and more encyclopedic, is simply because it seemed to have reached such a big LDS audience. It exposed a broader LDS audience to historical and literary contexts and a little bit of scholarship that they didn't know before.
In terms of things that I have done independently is this forthcoming piece of blood and water imagery in the Gospel of John. It was indeed a work of the heart. Students often ask me why I love the Gospel of John so much. There are all kinds of answers that I could give in terms of it being the most symbolic text, its high Christology, or the literary artistry, but when I often tell students that I love the Gospel of John because it portrays the Jesus whom I know and worship. That doesn't mean that there aren't times that I, like most people, love the Lucan Jesus. That's the primary Jesus—the "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so"—the compassionate, loving, kind Jesus of Luke. But the majesty of the Johannine Jesus—that's the Book of Mormon Jesus—the Eternal God manifesting himself to all people as he says in 3 Nephi 11: "I am the God of Israel, and the God of the whole earth" (v. 14). To be able to help people, including myself, appreciate the majesty and the work of Jesus in new ways, with a text that seems so familiar, has made my sacrifice of leaving Classics absolutely worth it. I loved Roman history, I miss teaching Latin, I still get a chance to teach a little Greek here and there, but sometimes you have to sacrifice to do something better.
RSC: Why did you transfer from Classics to Religious Education?
Huntsman: My career is coming around full circle. I originally got into Greek because I took a Greek and the New Testament class that Dr. C. Wilfred Griggs taught in the fall of '84. At the time I was a chemistry pre-med major, and I came back my sophomore year for a single semester before my mission and had a head-on collision with calculus—it suddenly became apparent that I was not going to be able to complete a chemistry major—I would never be a medical doctor, and so I was, in a way, bereft and didn't know what to do. I was looking at the honors catalog; I had stacked that sophomore semester with all of my GE's because I didn't know what I was going to major in so I thought that I might as well get American heritage and biology and physical science out of the way. But I needed something to keep me alive. I found a Pearl of Great Price class taught by Dr. Hugh W. Nibley and signed up for that, and Dr. Griggs was teaching this Greek New Testament class. It was five credits of Greek, two credits of New Testament. And he taught us enough elementary Greek that we could work through the Gospel of John. That's how far back my interest in John goes! It was fun, but I was leaving on my mission the next January, so I talked to him about the possibility of majoring in Greek. When I came back from my mission, I decided to major in Greek and Latin, and I fell in love with Classics—the language, the culture, the history.
It seemed natural to go into ancient history in graduate school. I came back working in Classics from 1994 to 2003. I had passed my third year review and was a year into the next phase when I had a call from Dr. Holzapfel wanting me to write a chapter in the first book that he and Dr. Wayment did, The Life and Teachings of Jesus Christ, Vol. 3, From the Last Supper through the Resurrection: The Savior's Final Hours. They wanted me to do a chapter on the Roman trial of Jesus. Now, I found out only after the fact that the reason Dr. Holzapfel even knew about me was because of a man named George D. Durrant. Brother Durrant taught at Brigham Young University in Church History and Doctrine. He was my first interview as a thirty-year-old scared-to-death LDS bishop. He walked into my office for an interview for his fifth mission. It was sort of an intimidating experience. But he and I bonded in that interview, and a year and a half later when he came back from his mission, I called him as my young men president. I knew he had been a BYU stake president, he had been president of the MTC. I knew that he would be called to something quickly unless we did something, and the stake president's son was in my priests quorum, so I thought that if we snagged him for young men president the stake president would leave him alone because he would be so stoked that Brother Durrant was his son's young men president.
Brother Durrant always used to say to me, "Bishop, you ought to be teaching religion." He was still here in the department, so he told Dr. Holzapfel about me. Well, Dr. Holzapfel took me out to lunch and asked if I would do this project and Dr. Peek did a chapter in the same volume. You see, it wasn't a fait accompli—you write a chapter on Jesus and you change departments. For example, Dr. Peek had a similar experience and chose to remain in Classics.
In preparation for my chapter, I read The Death of the Messiah, all 1,308 pages, cover to cover. Of course, I already knew the Roman legal and historical material, but I just fell in love with the scholarship of Father Raymond Brown. And I know that people have mixed feelings about him personally, particularly about the end of his career and whether or not he was still a believer. But at the time, he was a wonderful model to me of what I felt was believing scholarship—he was a scholar but he was also an ordained Roman Catholic priest. He questioned the text and assumptions. I found a devotional set of books, homilies, he had written for Christmas, Advent, and Easter. It was very intriguing to me. So I fell in love with New Testament scholarship preparing for this article. But I was still conceiving that this chapter of Jesus before the Romans or the Roman trial of Jesus would be pretty much a historical piece because that's what I was trained to do.
Just a few days before it was due, I was pulling an all-nighter, and I started feeling like it wasn't right and feeling huge writer's block. So I just stopped and started reading the scriptures and flipping through the Book of Mormon—trying to do something completely different. Well, every passage I opened up to in Nephi and Jacob was about Jesus and suffering and scourging and dying and resurrecting. And I used Book of Mormon scriptures to frame my discussion of the Passion. The impression I had was that anything that was important enough to be prophesied about in the Book of Mormon must be vital for our understanding of the Atonement. As a community, we tend to focus heavily on Gethsemane and skip over all the suffering and we mention the death on the cross, but of course we believe in a living Jesus and not a dead Jesus so we skip and jump all the way to the Garden Tomb. As I read through these Book of Mormon passages, I couldn't escape the fact that Book of Mormon prophets in fact did not talk much about Gethsemane at all except Mosiah 3, but they talked about Him being rejected and scourged and spit upon. I realized that those aspects of his maltreatment were somehow vital to our understanding of the Atonement. So I went back and rewrote the piece. It was still pretty heavy on political and legal history, but it had a devotional element that I hadn't anticipated. I remember when I turned that in I thought that this is what I want to do. My dissertation and all my conference papers had always been on the Empress Livia, August's wife. I actually have a paper coming out on the Empress Livia in Ancient Society, so I haven't completely dropped all of that. But it was not as fulfilling as writing about the Savior and being able to use my historical linguistic skills that I had worked hard to develop in terms of explicating the scriptures.
That project planted the seed. I thought about teaching as a transfer or adjunct faculty teaching Book of Mormon or New Testament once a year or so. With that in mind, I visited with Dr. Andrew C. Skinner, the Dean at the time, and expressed to him that I love Classics but that I really have this bug and want to do more of this. It was something I really wanted to do, but I knew if I spent too much time publishing in religion, that would take away from my publishing in Classics and wouldn't count toward my reviews and my promotions. That was a big motivation. I didn't know how difficult it was to get into Religious Education, but my superiors were surprisingly supportive. I am grateful to my superiors in Religious Education that they would take a chance on me because, while I had a great Classics background, I had no Church Educational System or Church instruction training. It was a great leap of faith for them to see if I could teach historically but also have an element of devotion. And I do try to have a mix.
RSC: That is one thing that I enjoy about your teaching style: your ability to state the facts and present well-researched historical data but, at the same time, share your testimony with your classes.
Huntsman: One of the things I have learned is that I work with great faculty. I have learned not to fall into the dichotomy between scholars and teachers because I think good scholars should be great teachers and teachers need to be scholars. I also recognize that some of my colleagues on the professional track have devoted themselves to teaching huge sections and large numbers, and I have to respect what they do and how they do it. There are people who are much better than I at preparing young men for missions. There are people much better than I at teaching freshman Book of Mormon. I teach a pretty good honors Freshman Academy Book of Mormon, but my approach reaches a fairly narrow segment. I have colleagues who teach much better than I, and I respect them for that, and they have been very respectful to me for my "hybrid" approach.
I have had students go on to graduate school who I hear are critical of those of us here in Religious Education, wondering why aren't we doing more in scholarly journals, and I just smile. It is a legitimate calling to try to expand the understanding and appreciation of our co-religionists of the scriptures. For those of us who elect to write for a LDS audience, particularly when we are trying to expand the horizon a bit, I think we are in a legitimate endeavor. Another thing that I often say is that I have no delusions of revolutionizing LDS scholarship, but I do hope to pave the way for my students to do the things that I am not equipped to do and don't have time to do. So when I see my students go on to places like Duke and Chicago and these other places and do well, whether they come back to BYU or go to another institution not affiliated with the Church, I expect great things. We have given them a foundation of scholarship and a great dose of testimony, and I hope that they will go on to make up the difference. We are all standing on the shoulders of giants, people like the venerable Sidney B. Sperry, Richard L. Anderson, S. Kent Brown, C. Wilfred Griggs, Thom Wayment, and others. Each generation builds. Like a parent—you don't begrudge your children if they are more successful or wealthy. That's what you want and rejoice in. I love to be able to mentor my students and to watch them progress, in a way like a doktorvater. I love the idea that my students are going out and doing great things.
RSC: Thank you for your time and your testimony-filled teaching. You are indeed a great example for good to all those who have taken a class from you.