Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Teaching Paul

As the sole teacher of New Testament in the Department of Religion at Duke, it falls to me to alternate each semester between teaching the Historical Jesus and Paul. I don't know whether the choice of Jesus and Paul goes back to Ed Sanders, who came to Duke in 1990 and retired last year, or whether it predates him, but it is an arrangment I am very happy with. The way we have worked out my own undergraduate teaching load for the present is that I take Introduction to New Testament once each year, in either Fall or Spring, and I take Paul each Fall and Jesus each Spring. Having taught my first course on the Historical Jesus last semester, it's time now to teach my first course on the Life and Letters of Paul. The first class is next Monday, and I'm looking forward to it.

I taught Paul for a decade in Birmingham, but in a rather different set up. When I arrived at Birmingham in 1995, I was appointed as the teaching relief for Frances Young, who had just been promoted to Dean of the Faculty of Arts (I had the dubious honour of being known as the "Dean's relief"). She had run a course known as "New Testament Theology", which was essentially, a bit like the course of the same name I had taken as an undergraduate in Oxford, all about Paul and John, i.e. everything that didn't fit into the Synoptic Gospels course. Perhaps Hebrews might get thrown in there too, and maybe even 1 Peter, James and Revelation, but it was largely a space for reflecting on Paul -- and John. As the years went on, and as David Parker and I did more team-teaching, New Testament Theology morphed more and more into a course about Paul. From time to time we would integrate other parts of the NT into the course, usually because we felt bad about the sole focus on Paul, but really Paul was the star.

One of the things that differs hugely between my experience at Birmingham and my experience now at Duke -- and I have no idea if this is a standard difference between the UK and the USA or not -- is that here everything is done in self-contained semesters. You begin the course at the beginning of the semester, get a mid-term half-way through, then get examined at the end, you get your grade and you move on to completely fresh courses the next semester. In Birmingham, on the other hand, we had single modules and double modules, but I tended to teach all double modules -- and the doubles were year-long. So you'd begin your study of Paul (say) in the September and run right through to the following May before you'd finished. What this means to me in the new context is that there will be an intensity to our study of Paul that I have not experienced before. One Duke semester is far longer than one Birmingham term (especially as there are three Birmingham terms vs. two Duke semesters), but nevertheless, we have fourteen weeks to get on top of the life and letters of Paul.

Another big difference between Duke and Birmingham, and here I think there is a difference between the UK and the USA more generally, is that there is much more of a text book culture here. Students want to buy one or two books that will see them through the course. It's pretty unnerving to someone who is not familiar with this set up, and you can rebel against it and make adjustments all you like, but the student expectations are that they will buy two or three books and will devour them. As y'all who teach NT will know, recommending text books is not easy, and no doubt lots of you, like me, don't really approve of the text book culture. But what I tend to do is to recommend a couple of books as essential and to work from there to the rest. It puts students' minds at rest to feel they've at least got some starting points.

The two I am recommending this semester for Paul are both little books, and to this extent it may be a risky strategy. But both are, in very different ways, ideal to students beginning their study of Paul. The first is pictured at the top of this post, David Horrell's Introduction to the Study of Paul in its second edition. I think this book is a cracker. In fact it may be a bit too good -- it presents in nice, natty little sections just what you really need to know about all those key topics, the law, the future of Israel and so on. Unlike the other introductions, this one is an introduction to the study of Paul, so it will tell you about Bultmann and Sanders and Hooker and Dodd and the rest, and not just about Paul and Jesus.

But I want my students also to get a taste first hand for the ground-breaking, exciting (relatively) recent scholarship on Paul too and for that, I am recommending E. P. Sanders, Paul: A Very Short Introduction. It's one of the great services to scholarship that Sanders wrote short, undergraduate friendly books on both Jesus and Paul. Both are superb, and if they don't give an undergraduate a passion for studying either figure, they are probably beyond hope. Incidentally, the "very short introduction" is identical to the earlier Past Masters Paul -- it was a master stroke of re-packaging and re-marketing that saw it being issued under a completely new title.

These are just a handful of initial reflections ahead of the new semester next week, and I look forward to following up with further thoughts as I teach the course.


Michael Pahl said...

Good comments, Mark. I can appreciate the differences you describe between the UK and North America (Canada's semester system is much the same as in the US). Your comments on the "textbook culture" really hit home for me also. I've often wondered if something is wrong with me, since most of my colleagues don't seem to have the same problem I do in choosing textbooks for courses! And I've also solved one of those problems with the same textbook: my Pauline Epistles I students will read Horrell's great little book as part of their required reading.

Rick Sumner said...

Following Sanders teaching a class on Paul must be quite the honor.

Mark Goodacre said...

Rick -- yes -- an honour and a heck of a challenge. However, Ed Sanders did not do any undergraduate teaching for the last two years before his retirement last year, so in fact I am following some very able people from outside the regular faculty.

Michael -- thanks for those comments. I have tried another thing too, which is to use 90% on-line resources, so that there is not the demand on students buying text books and at the same time they get a good variety of texts in their "essential" reading.

Matt Page said...

FWIW, Loughborough (in the UK) also teaches in self contained semesters, and I was under the impression several other UK universities do it as well.

Thanks for the Paul recommendations by the way. I've read the Sanders one which, as you say, should defintely get your students enthusiastic about the subject. Not heard of the other one though. I might have to try and track it down.


Whit said...

Thanks for the info on Horrell's book. I had not heard of it.