Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Teaching Notes: Reading the New Testament Historically

Term began at Duke yesterday and I had my first class, New Testament, at lunchtime. This is the fourth time I have taught this course at Duke. Initially I was slated to do it every semester, which seemed a bad idea to me, not least because it would be rather monotonous for me. We adjusted it to once a year, each Fall, giving me a chance to teach Jesus and Paul each year too, rather than rotating them on a year by year basis, as EPS used to do. So I increased the cap on the class this time to 70, one of the benefits of which is that you get given one of the nice new rooms in Westbrook, which belongs to the Divinity School. (Smaller classes go in Gray Building, where we in the Department of Religion are based). At Duke, undergraduate classes get 150 minutes a week, and one can take them either all at once, in 2 x 75 minute sessions, or in 3 x 50 minute sessions. For my New Testament class, I have gone for 3 x 50 minutes this time, which is ideal for a class like this. And I greatly prefer these bite-sized chunks.

In the first session yesterday, I talked about reading the New Testament historically, and adopting a critical approach. I think it's really important to spend some time at the outset talking about this, and asking students what they expect to get from the course, and what their hopes and concerns are. One of the key issues here is that for many of the students, this is their first Religion course, and they may be coming into it expecting a confessional or a devotional approach; they may be surprised by what they find so it is good to clear the ground at the outset. I explain that we will be adopting an historical approach, and that this involves analysing the text in the same way that an historian would analyse any ancient text: in this context, it is the object of study and not the subject of inspiration. I like to explain too that critical study of the text is also about being self critical, i.e. to be willing to have one’s own presuppositions and biases questioned.

1 comment:

CS Sweatman said...

The final comment of this post is, for me, the most germane. Such an approach was used in nearly all of the classes I took under Tom Thatcher, and it is because of such an approach that I am more confident in what I know.

In fact, I learned more by having "what I always thought I knew" to be positively brought under critical investigation. At times, what I knew was solidified by the deeper critiques; at other times, I saw that I had no good (or even Biblical) reasons for holding the "older" views.

Once I learned, from Tom, that there is much more to be gained by examining such things than by ignoring them; I found that there is an intellectual growth to be experienced (and enjoyed), which is wonderfully beneficial to one's academic career. If anything, it throws into stark relief the need to remain objective.

I say this as one who has merely begun this growth process, but also as one who is immensely grateful for teachers like you (and Tom) who encourage students like me to take part in such an exercise.

-carl sweatman