I have said a few things about my Introduction to the New Testament course in my other posting. Here I’ll elaborate a bit. For the course there are two main textbooks. One, naturally, is the New Testament itself. The students read most of the New Testament (not all of it, I’m sorry to say) over the course of the semester, and they are expected to get to know it very well indeed. For the Final exam they need to be able to explain the themes and major ideas found in each of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament. The other textbook is a scholarly introduction to the New Testament. In my class we use the textbook that I myself wrote: The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings.
I have to admit that I have some qualms about using my own textbook for my course. But the reality is that I wrote it precisely because I wanted to use it. It is now in its fifth edition (I revise it in a new edition every four years). One of the reasons so many other professors like using it is that it approaches the New Testament from a strictly historical point of view, rather than from a theological or confessional perspective. When I was first writing the book in the early 1990s, I was not sure anyone would even want a book like that, since hardly any such things existed (even though there were tons of textbooks available for the course). But it turns out my fears were misplaced. It was exactly the kind of book that people were looking for. (Lucky me!) Even a number of teachers who prefer to approach the New Testament theologically have liked the book – in part because they do not need to argue theology with the author of the textbook. I do the history, and they can do the theology. Other teachers themselves prefer a strictly historical approach, and so like to use the book.
The way I set up my class is not at all unusual. We start by studying the context of the New Testament: The Greco-Roman world. This gets short shrift in the class, since time is so short and we need to move on to the New Testament. But students at least get an introduction to some of the important historical events (the Rise of Rome; the Hellenization of the Mediterranean), important figures (Alexander the Great, Octavius), religious features (characteristics of ancient pagan religions), and cultural aspects (the Greek language and culture) of the New Testament environment. Within that broader context we talk about the distinctive features of Judaism, including the Hebrew Bible (Christian Old Testament) and characteristics of Jewish religion and religiosity at the time of Jesus.
Eventually – it doesn’t take long – we get to the New Testament itself, and we consider each book of the New Testament separately. A number of my colleagues at other schools like to start their study of the New Testament with the writings of Paul, on the logic that he was the first of our New Testament writers to write. That is, his letters were produced before the Gospels, and if you start with the Gospels, you are not really treating the books in historical (chronological) fashion. I’m completely sympathetic with that idea, but I’ve never done it that way (and don’t organize my book that way). The problem I have is that it is impossible, for me, to start with Paul without the students knowing something about Jesus. And students can’t know anything about Jesus without first studying the Gospels. So I start with the Gospels, even though they were written after Paul’s letters.
One of the hardest things I have to teach the students is that the Gospels are each different from one another. They all are about Jesus – and three of them (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) tell many of the same stories about Jesus. But when looked at in detail, they are very, very different from one another, often in significant ways. Students tend to blend them all together, so that if they read something in John, they assume it is saying the same thing as what they read earlier in Mark, or if they read a story in Matthew they supply information for it from Luke. Etc. I think that is the wrong way to read the Gospels, and the way I get students to see the problem with this common way of reading is by getting them to see all the discrepancies in the Gospels
The reason I work to get the students to see that there are discrepancies and contradictions among the Gospels is not so they can come away from the class and say: “HA!! The New Testament is full of contradictions!” As it turns out, that is true, it is. But that’s not the point. The point is that since there are so many discrepancies, it means that each of the accounts of Jesus has to be read, interpreted, and understood on its own. Mark’s version is at odds in many ways with Luke’s; Matthew’s is at odds with John. Each has its own version and its own message and its own understanding of Jesus. Students who fail to grasp that basic and fundamental fact can never really understand the New Testament.
To get the students to see this, I have them do a number of exercises. For example, I have them compare and contrast in very minute detail what each of the Gospels says about the resurrection of Jesus. The reality is that the accounts can’t be reconciled. The same with the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke (the only two Gospels that tell the stories). The same with the crucifixion narratives. The same with … well, the same with lots and lots of the stories.
If the Gospels do not agree on these stories, there are two important implications: (a) literarily, it means that each story has to be read for its message, its point, its take on Jesus and his significance. Because each of the Gospels has its own story to tell; (b) historically, if they are all at odds, they cannot all be historically accurate – any more than two “eyewitnesses” to a murder who tell stories at odds with each other cannot both be right (at the points where they flat out contradict each other).
And so we move from seeing that each of the Gospels has to be understood on its own terms to try to understand the essential message of each of the Gospels. And we look at a couple of the Gospels that did not make it into the New Testament (the Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Thomas).
Once we do that – all of this takes a number of weeks — we move on to talk about what we can know about the historical Jesus, given the fact that our sources for knowing about him are historically problematic. I’ll talk about that aspect of the course in my next posting.