The New Testament Uncanned

This Spring Term, Dr. Lawrence Wills (Ethelbert Talbot Professor of Biblical Studies at EDS) is teaching an introductory course on the New Testament. Below, he talks about what it like to teach, and learn, at EDS.

Teaching “Introduction to the New Testament” at EDS

“Introduction to the New Testament” is taught in every seminary and religion department in the country, and so it may seem like a “canned” course. But it isn’t. It is taught differently wherever it is taught, and my task is to decide what to focus on and how to compress complex historical questions into understandable outlines: How can the Gospels be so different? How “Jewish” was Jesus? Did Paul write all those letters attributed to him? For me, it is a challenge, yet quite a blast, to try to encapsulate important theories in a few minutes.

At EDS we feel it is important not just to perceive the texts, but also to learn how they came about, what social forces are reflected in them, and how followers of Jesus fit into the larger Jewish, Greek, and Roman worlds.

To know what “alternative interpretations” may be live options today, it helps to know that alternative interpretations were in fact discussed in the first century. It is not “just the facts, please,” because that is not really possible, and it would not contribute to a first-rate theological education.New Testament Class

The New Testament via Simulcast

We’ve had a lot of experience at EDS with simulcast courses (courses with 10–20 students in the classroom and five–10 students attending in real time over the Internet). The online students’ faces are projected onto the big screen at the front of the room like the Brady Bunch. The class is run pretty much like other classes, except that discussions include online students.

In survey courses such as this, there is a deep conversation on the main themes that continues from meeting to meeting. There is a lot of history, a lot of data, and lot of discussion of the issues raised.

Students meeting online are used to the “etiquette” involved: they indicate when they have a question or response, and wait to be called on. The back-and-forth between classroom and online students works quite well, and everyone is energized by having classmates participate from across the country.

Journeying to the First Century

I know that students will not remember all the facts and data that we talk about in class, but I also know that it is in the data that we see the world and develop an understanding of it.

So, we look at different texts. We look at slides of archaeological sites. We investigate race, class, gender, ability, and ethnic identity, as they would have been understood at the time.

Students have to take a journey to the first century, but ultimately it is not each piece of data that is important. It’s the way that any journey changes you.

This article has been condensed and edited from an interview conducted with Lawrence Wills. Pictured above is Dr. Wills and students from his Introduction to the New Testament course.