RELN 312: Exploring the New Testament
Prerequisites: Three hours of religious studies
Credit Hours: (3)
This course examines the New Testament using the tools of contemporary scholarship. Through a study of the history of the early Church and of the varied stories presented by the different authors of the New Testament, students will learn to see the formative Christian tradition in all its variety. Students who have previously taken RELN 200 may not receive credit for RELN 312.
Detailed Description of Course
Given the unique nature of many students' prior involvement with this set of texts, this course begins by distinguishing the academic study of the New Testament from the devotional study to which they may be accustomed. The teacher particularly emphasizes the occasional nature of each of the documents: all the writings of this collection were written under differing conditions and with differing agendas. Each document must therefore maintain its own integrity, and be studied without harmonizing the documents together. For example, although the Christian imagination has constructed a Christmas story in which both Magi and shepherds come to the baby Jesus in the manger, in fact the Magi appear only in Matthew and the shepherds only in Luke. The manger itself appears only in Luke. Each of these elements has a symbolic or narrative value which is lost when harmonized with elements from other gospels and then treated as objective history.
In addition, in this course the teacher pays particular attention to the cultural context from which the texts arose and the social history underlying each of the New Testament texts. Thus, important topics examined in the New Testament include recovering why peasants responded to the message of Jesus, recovering the female voice in the New Testament, and how the New Testament presents family, slavery, and poverty. In an effort to recover the cultural context of each of the New Testament texts, particular attention is paid to the setting from which each text arose, including the contours of the Christian community in Corinth and living conditions in cities like Antioch and Rome.
Finally, the New Testament is partly viewed in relationship with the Old Testament, between
which there is a certain continuity in themes and ideas. In this regard, the New Testament
appropriation of Old Testament concepts like covenant, messiah, Day of the Lord, and son of
man are analyzed and compared.
Part I: Gospels
In this unit students read from the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) with an eye to
distinguishing each text’s unique theological and literary contours. The historical questions
which arise from the incompatible stories (if Matthew says x and Mark says y, then can we
recover what Jesus really said and did?) will be briefly introduced and the methodological tools
used by contemporary scholarship to pursue these questions will be demonstrated. Particular
attention is given to the problems related to the recovery of the historical Jesus. The social and cultural context of each of the synoptics is examined in detail. Finally students read and discuss the Gospel of John, attending to its own particular historical context, story, and theology.
Part II: Acts
Together with its prequel, the Gospel of Luke, Acts takes up fully one third of the New
Testament. Much of our information about the development of the early Church must be gleaned from this narrative. Luckily, the writer of Luke-Acts was concerned with the development of the early Jesus movement, and therefore preserved much material available nowhere else. Along with the narrative and theology of this text, particular attention is paid to the figure of Paul, in order to distinguish this portrait from that which we receive from Paul's own letters.
Part III: Paul
This unit distinguishes between what are presumed to be the authentic letters of Paul and the pseudonymous letters, those written by his disciples. The evidence for making this distinction is briefly discussed, showing the theological and institutional development which has occurred between the authentic and the pseudonymous letters. Having made these distinctions, the method of mirror-reading is employed to reconstruct the particular situations/crises behind each of Paul's letters and analyze Paul's response in terms of its rhetoric and theology. The point which will be emphasized throughout is that Paul was not a systematic theologian, constructing a grand system in some kind of ivory tower isolation, but rather an occasional letter-writer, responding to the problems of the churches he founded in a creative and passionate manner.
Part IV: Hebrews, James, I Peter, Revelation
The remaining time is spent reading selectively from the remaining texts of the New Testament, pursuing the sociological and theological crises which developed in the late New Testament period, and the creative attempts made to answer these problems. The method will be that used up to this point.
Detailed Description of Conduct of Course
The academic study of the New Testament, which functions as the primary scripture for
Christianity, many times ignites conflict so this course necessarily requires that instructor and
students engage in discussion and argument. Brief lectures may be used to present the critical issues and focusing the subjects for detailed discussion. Formal and informal writing
assignments will assist preparation for and participation in the class sessions. Whether or not a
formal research paper is assigned in the class, students will be expected to employ basic research skills, including the use of computer technology, to investigate and gather information on various topics germane to the study of New Testament. Among the teaching activities students can expect in this course are the following:
• Brief lecture by instructor
• Student led and instructor led discussion, in large or small groups
• In-class formal or informal debates
• Informal in-class and out-of-class writing assignments, particularly ones geared to the day's reading
• Written and oral analyses of texts
• Written summaries/evaluations of out-of-class events
• Individual and collaborative research activities involving library and Internet searches
• Individual and group oral presentations
• Attendance and subsequent discussion of artistic presentations which arise from the literature of the New Testament
Goals and Objectives of the Course
Upon successful completion of this course, students should be able to demonstrate:
• An understanding of first century Christian history, with a particular emphasis upon social history and recovering lost voices in the text.
• The ability to analyze the Jewish background of the New Testament.
• The ability to clearly outline the plots/theologies of the different gospels.
• A sympathetic understanding of Paul's opponents, and a knowledge of the different problems facing Paul's different churches.
• A familiarity with the theological issues of the whole New Testament, e.g., the incorporation of Gentiles into the covenant people of God, the delay of the return of Jesus, the nature and mission of Jesus.
• The capacity to critically read, write, and think through the close reading and analysis of the texts.
• An awareness of the New Testament as a constant reference point in Western literature, music, art, and philosophy.
Student progress will be measured in a variety of ways:
• Graded and ungraded homework assignments may be used to measure the student's ability to read texts carefully, both the sections from the New Testament and the supplementary material from the textbook, to identify underlying values and assumptions, to articulate central issues, to analyze and construct reasonable arguments, and to employ thoughtfully basic research methods.
• Journals may be used to measure the development of self-reflection and progress in critical and creative thinking about the ideas, issues, and texts of the course.
• Class discussions, debates, and small group discussion may be used to measure the student's reasoning and oral communication skills as well as the student's ability to work with others in a shared process of inquiry.
• Individual and group oral presentations may be used to measure the student's understanding of particular philosophical positions or issues as well as the student's ability to present reasonable and persuasive arguments.
• Quizzes and objective tests may be used to measure the student's fundamental knowledge of the course material and the student's ability to read carefully and think clearly.
• Essay exams may be used to measure the student's understanding of the nature of the New Testament and the methods used for its interpretation, knowledge of the course material, ability to enter into the interpretative enterprise, and ability to think and to write clearly.
• Research reports may be used to measure the student's ability to define a problem and to employ appropriate research methods and technologies in order to bring some resolution to the issues involved.
• Term papers may be used to increase and to measure the student's understanding of specific books or interlinked portions of the New Testament, as well as to measure the student's ability to develop a sustained and reasonable argument, to think and write clearly, and to demonstrate an
appreciation of the cultural significance of the New Testament.
Other Course Information
Review and Approval