Michael A Williams
JSIS B 220
Modern scholarly methods of research and analysis in dealing with New Testament books and their interpretation. Genres of various books (gospel, epistle, sacred history, apocalypse); problems of the relationships among author, material, and intended audience; relationships between theme and image.
The New Testament (= NT) forms the second part of the Christian Bible, the "Scriptures" in which Christians see special testimony to divine revelation. Though “the NT” is usually referred to in the singular, as a unified document, it is actually a collection of what were originally individual writings composed by various early Christians over a period of many years. What is now a standardized collection took shape over many generations. There are a few other very early Christian writings that were not eventually included in what became the NT, some as old as certain of the NT texts. However, the contents of the New Testament include the oldest Christian writings any longer at our disposal, and as an eventually standardized collection, the NT became foundational literature for Christianity as a successful new religion. Some understanding of the origins and content of these texts is therefore fundamental for an understanding of the origins of Christianity--and for insights into its history over the last two millennia.
This course is concerned with understanding the NT writings in their original historical settings, long before they were collected into a "New Testament" as we know it. Students are introduced to modern scholarly methodologies and issues in research on the New Testament, and to aspects of the socio-cultural milieu within the New Testament literature originated. We will attempt to understand: some of the possible circumstances and purposes for the composition of individual writings; what can be known about the authors; key themes found in various writings, and the background for these; interrelationships among NT writings, and their significance; and in general, the relation between these writings and what can be known about the social history and culture of earliest Christian movements.
A word about the relevance of this kind of study for personal religious beliefs: In this course we will be trying to learn what it means to ask good historical questions about texts like those found within the NT, and what it means to understand such writings within the history of their religious tradition. The kinds of questions we will ask are those that anyone with an interest in the writings should be able to explore, whether or not one is a Christian, and whether or not one even considers oneself to be religious. The point of this course is neither to recruit people to the Christian tradition nor to turn them away from it. In any event, the tools we will be using in this course are not really capable of either "proving Christianity true" or "proving Christianity false." This does not mean that none of your present ideas about the history of ancient Christianity or the NT will be challenged. In fact, it is likely that some (perhaps even many) of them will be. A study of ancient documents like the NT writings is usually full of surprises, because the documents were composed so long ago, in a culture quite different from our own. But it is important that the student distinguish between changing one's mind about aspects of the history of a religious tradition, and changing one's mind about whether one is committed or not committed to that tradition. The two are not the same, nor does one necessarily follow from the other.
Student learning goals
A greater awareness of modern academic methods and approaches for the analysis of ancient religious texts such as the New Testament.
Ability to apply some of the scholarly methods introduced in the course for a better understanding of the New Testament as a religious classic, as you explore its contents, themes, history, social setting, etc.
Having used the New Testament as a case study: A more developed and informed understanding of the nature of religious symbols in general, and the dynamics in how communities of any age tend to adopt, employ, adapt, interpret, and re-interpret such symbols. Thus: acquire tools for a better understanding of one’s own world and the life of religious traditions within it.
More developed skills in critical thinking; ability to distinguish between plausible and implausible arguments.
General method of instruction
Four hours of lecture each week by the instructor, illustrated with PowerPoint. Questions are welcomed and some discussion is possible in the lecture sessions. The class breaks down into smaller sections for end-of-the-week section meetings led by graduate student TAs. These are normally devoted to discussion and exercises intended to amplify and/or reinforce material covered in the lectures and to prepare students for writing assignment and exams.
The course has no formal prerequisites. The course does include a quantity of new information and new concepts that many students often find challenging. The most important factors for success in this course tend to be: Good study habits (including a commitment to careful reading of the textbook and Study Guide); attentiveness in lectures; regular engagement in the section meetings, and a willingness to ask questions and participate in discussions.
Class assignments and grading
The usual assignment and grading structure involves: 1. Written exercises for the first six weeks of the course. Each is evaluated on a credit/no credit basis, with points accumulated by successful credit on each item. A point score calculated from total points on all such exercises is then 10% of course grade. 2. Midterm exam 30% of course grade. The Mid-term and final exams usually consist of about half multiple choice and half essay questions. The course study guide provides samples of questions to be on the exams 3. A brief essay assignment, of about 4-5 pages. The specific content of the assignment has varied from year to year. 20% of course grade. 4. Final exam. 40% of course grade.
See above under class assignments and grading