In some ways a New Testament class feels harder to make secular than an Old Testament class, and I’ve noticed people are much more willing to sign up for the Old Testament class. I think this has to do with the idea that more people view stories of Moses, Noah, David, etc, as stories, and absolutely any story about Jesus in inherently theological. (Or maybe I’m over thinking this and people just think they need to take the Old Testament class before they take the New Testament class.)
Anything I could say about Jesus is in some ways a theological statement about him. Was Jesus a man? A god? A prophet? A teacher? Did he even walk the earth? If he wasn’t a god, how do we take all those statements about him being the son of God? What do we do with statements about his resurrection? Will a secular class about him be inherently anti-Christian? These are all thoughts I’ve pondered as I work on preparing for the class.
I’m going to be starting the class by looking at some of the theological beliefs available at the time Jesus lived. To be honest, it is harder to find out about those beliefs than one would think. We know that there were different groups like the Essenes, the Sadducees, and the Pharisees but there’s actually only a bit written about what they believed and there are limitations to that information because of the agendas of those writing about them. Still, I’ve gathered what information I can from very reputable sources. We’ll also look at some of the Hellenistic ideas of the time.
Looking at the events and arguments of Jesus’ day provides a lens to start looking at the writings about Jesus. If a person believes, as I do, that the Bible was written by people and not divinely revealed, then we can assume that the Bible was written in response to the issues of its day. We can start asking “how might a first century Palestinian hear this?” We can look at the arguments that the gospel writers wrote not in terms of modern theological debates but in terms of the ancient debates.
This is comparable, in some ways, to learning to note when television shows are making jokes or points about particular politicians or political events of the time the show was being made. Sometimes seen within the context of the first century debates a story means one thing, but taken out of context it will mean something different. We’ll try to acknowledge (briefly) multiple possible meanings.
From this perspective of trying to understand the debates of the time, we can start to look at terminology such as “Son of God” and “Son of Man.” What did those mean, in their context? How do the miracle stories about Jesus compare to the miracle stories about the ancient Greeks and Romans, and what point might the authors have been trying to make to their contemporaries?
These are huge, huge questions and I can’t provide The Answer. I can provide theories, explaining some of the strengths and weaknesses of those theories. I can provide tools for the students to try to analyze the text and think about its meaning on their own too.
Is this class a religious class? Is it anti-religious? I don’t think it is either of those. I’m not saying that Jesus is God and I’m not saying Jesus isn’t God. I’m saying let’s try to understand the different possibilities for what someone two thousand years ago might have believed about Jesus. It isn’t necessarily the same as what churches today say about Jesus.
I am trying to approach the topic from an academic view point. What does this mean? First, it means I’m putting a lot of care into the resources I turn to in preparing the class. I’m looking at how the different authors shape their arguments. Is it a faith-based argument or is it based on looking at what the text actually says in as much of the context as we can know given the limits of the records? How do the authors justify their arguments? Where do they get their information?
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