Before I talk about the debate I had with myself in front of my class this week, on the topic Resolved: The New Testament Book of Acts is Historically Reliable, I need to do some considerable stage-setting. First, in this post, let me explain how the class is set up (including the debates the students themselves do), to make sense of what I was trying to accomplish in my staged split-personality (affirmative and negative).
So the class is an Introduction to the New Testament, which presupposes no background or knowledge about the field. It is, of course, historically oriented, rather than confessionally, religiously, theologically, or devotionally. Students learn the Jewish and Greco-Roman background to the New Testament, and they study the Gospels, the historical Jesus, the letters of Paul, and the other writings of the New Testament from the historical-critical perspective.
Twice a week students hear me give a lecture (most recently three of the classes involved lectures on the historical Jesus: problems with our sources; methods scholars have developed for dealing with these problems; the Jewish milieus (especially apocalypticism); and then lectures on the words, on the activities, and on the events leading up to the death of Jesus). Once a week students meet in a “recitation” section with a small group of others. So the class as a whole is about 140 students. Recitation sections are groups of 15-20 students that meet (required!) with a graduate student Teaching Assistant in which they discuss an assigned topic.
The recitations are absolutely key to the class and crucial. In order to prepare for the topic of the week, students are required to write a two-page position paper on a set, controversial topic. This is both to help them improve their writing skills and, even more important, to prepare for the discussion, so that when they come together to talk about the topic, they actually have both information at their disposal and opinions about it. Otherwise, many of them would not prepare, and the discussion would simply be a matter of pooling their ignorance. This way they have mastered some material and have some views about it.
Here I can mention just a couple of examples…
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