Early Christianity Initiative Launched

Last March the FARMS Board of Trustees approved an effort to consolidate a number of research projects and to launch new ones, all of which deal with various aspects of the early formative period of Christianity. Known as the Early Christianity Initiative (ECI), this effort will enable scholars to coordinate work on texts of the New Testament, related ancient texts, and the history of early Christianity.

Under the auspices of a new committee of the FARMS board and coordinated by the FARMS Research Department, the initiative will involve many scholars, including the following who are principal investigators of a number of ongoing projects: John F. Hall, BYU professor of classical studies and ancient history; William J. Hamblin, BYU professor of history; Noel B. Reynolds, professor of political science and associate academic vice president at BYU; and John W. Welch, Robert K. Thomas Professor of Law at BYU. Volunteer managerial assistance will be given by Ed Lunt of Holladay, Utah.

The initiative will coordinate projects in the following four broad areas:

FARMS New Testament Manuscripts on CD

Utilizing the technology and expertise developed by BYU’s Center for the Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts (CPART), scholars and other specialists will digitally image and enhance early manuscripts of the New Testament in order to create a readable electronic database. More than 100 papyri of parts of the New Testament are known to exist, all of them likely written before A.D. 325. Like the Dead Sea Scrolls Electronic Reference Library on CD, developed by CPART and released last year through E. J. Brill Publishers, the FARMS New Testament Manuscripts Database will facilitate scholarly examination and textual study of these rare and fragile manuscripts.

New Testament Text and Commentary Series

A series of publications, focusing on the words and cultural backgrounds of the New Testament, will include translations, analysis, and commentary on many of the books in the New Testament, relying on, among other sources, the original manuscripts included in FARMS’s New Testament Manuscripts Database. Works will feature a side-by-side presentation of the original Greek text and an English translation, as well as commentary on the surviving manuscripts and their variants, technical notes, and a glossary of Greek words and phrases, all from an LDS perspective.

The series will compare each text with other parts of the New Testament and with other early Christian literature. Readers will be particularly interested in further insights drawn from the Joseph Smith Translation of the New Testament and other significant parallels found in LDS scripture.

Other Early Christian Texts

Research and study are also proceeding on a series of publications dealing with many key documents from the early Christian church. For many years some LDS scholars have made mention of these texts but have stopped short of examining them in regard to where, why, and by whom they were written. These texts include the Didache (an early Christian “handbook of instructions”), the Odes of Solomon (hymns), the Gospel of Thomas (lost sayings attributed to Jesus), the Hymn of the Pearl (an early Christian parallel to the plan of salvation), the letters of Ignatius (bishop of Antioch around A.D. 100), and the early Christian creeds (which reveal changes made in the Christian church over time). Works in this series and in the FARMS New Testament Text and Commentary series will be included among titles published under the auspices of FARMS’s Ancient Texts and Mormon Studies project.

Critical Study and Analysis of Changes within Early Christianity

This effort brings together the work of several LDS scholars who are in the process of identifying and documenting many changes that occurred in the early period of the Christian church. In order to understand how these organizational, doctrinal, and ceremonial changes came about, scholars are concentrating on religious, cultural, political, philosophical, and literary forces at work in the Medi-terranean world from the time of Jesus to the fall of the Roman Empire.

“As Christians, Latter-day Saints have a vested interest in understanding the New Testament and the world of the apostles and disciples who followed Jesus Christ,” John Welch says. “Indeed, the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ through the Prophet Joseph Smith affords Latter-day Saints a uniquely powerful vantage point from which to analyze and appreciate the fortunes of early Christianity. This new initiative brings the experience and perspective of scholarship on the scriptures that FARMS has supported for the past 20 years to bear on ancient studies of the dispensation of the meridian of time.”

The ECI is part of FARMS’s ongoing effort to research and study the backgrounds of ancient scripture. It is a logical and natural extension of CPART’s efforts to electronically preserve ancient religious texts as a means of furthering serious study of this material. It is anticipated that the ECI will shed much needed light on a significant, exciting area of study that promises to yield many valuable insights for LDS students of the scriptures.