Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Next Year's Course

Great Figures of the New Testament

by Amy-Jill Levine (Biography)
View printable version of this page >

The following materials are provided to enhance your learning experience. Click the links below for free information including a professor-authored course summary, recommended web links, and a condensed bibliography.

Course Summary - Professor's written description of the course.
Professor Recommended Links
Condensed Bibliography - Prepared by the professor for this course.

Course Summary

The great figures of the earliest years of the church have been remembered in various ways, depending on the needs and interests of the evangelists and their communities, because stories of Jesus and the people surrounding him—both those who followed him and those who did not—took shape in a combination of historical memory, pastoral concern, and aesthetic taste. What one Gospel chose to highlight, another ignores; what one canonical text mentions in passing, later tradition substantially develops. Such ongoing fascination with the great figures and the increasing desire to know more about them testify to the vitality of the Christian imagination.

Both the portraits of these figures in the pages of the New Testament and their reframings throughout church history are today increasingly unfamiliar. There was a time when artists and teachers, as well as clergy and worshipers, could presume on the part of all their friends and neighbors a general cultural familiarity with the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son; students of art knew why a skull was often depicted at the foot of Jesus’ cross; and newspaper columnists recognized that the Immaculate Conception was not the same thing as the Virgin Birth. To fail to recognize these terms and images makes us all culturally poorer, let alone theologically more ignorant.

The Teaching Company’s The New Testament emphasizes the Bible’s historical context and the critical methods through which the texts have been interpreted; Great Figures of the New Testament, on the other hand, takes a closer look at specific characters: who they are, what they do, and how they have been assessed across the centuries by historians and artists, theologians at their desks, and worshipers in the pew.

The figures encountered encompass the range of the great figures from the nascent church: There are shepherds and kings, friends and enemies, evangelists and martyrs, a prodigal son and a good Samaritan. Each lecture begins by retelling in brief the story of the figure at hand.

Representing the models of Old Testament piety are the elderly couple Elizabeth and Zechariah; their son, John the Baptist, moves us immediately into the dangerous world of the first century, where messianic fervor was on the rise and popular prophets knew their lives were in danger. We find a virgin, betrothed to a man named Joseph, who receives an annunciation from an angel, bears a child through the power of the Holy Spirit, and faces a parent’s greatest tragedy as she watches the death of her son. We encounter Jesus’ friends: the contemplative Mary and the vocal Martha, as well as their brother Lazarus. We join the conversations with Jesus’ interlocutors: Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman, the centurion with a paralyzed son and the desperate Canaanite mother with a demon-possessed daughter, the Pharisees and the Sadducees. We explore the stories of the Apostles—Peter and Thomas, James and John, Mary Magdalene (who becomes known as the Apostle to the Apostles), and Judas Iscariot—from the times they spent with Jesus to their post-canonical fates.

From the early years of the church, we find James, "the brother of the Lord," Stephen the first martyr, and Philip the evangelist of Samaria. Recognizing not only their memorable roles in the canon but also their parts in establishing a historical context, we ask what we can know of the centurions who represent Rome’s military presence; Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect who orders Jesus crucified; and the four generations of the Herodian royal family who appear in the pages of the New Testament.

For Paul the Apostle, we investigate both his presentation in Acts of the Apostles and what can be determined about him from his own letters. For Jesus, we take one lecture to speak of how he might have been perceived by those who knew him personally, then we conclude with the development of Christology, that is, how the "anointed one" was understood as a participant in the work of creation, as a new Adam, a perfect sacrifice, a suffering servant, the second part of the Trinity, and even a lactating mother.

Unlike primarily historical introductions to the Bible, including The Teaching Company’s The Old Testament and The New Testament, these lectures, along with those in the companion series Great Figures of the Old Testament, frequently raise issues of religious interest. The point of this exploration is not to inculcate any theology, let alone any particular religious worldview. Rather, it seeks to read the ancient texts anew to discover what they say and how they were interpreted by both the secular culture and the faithful church.

Return To Top

Professor Recommended Links

Return To Top

Condensed Bibliography

These selected titles from the reading list are now available on Click on a title for more information and/or to order the title.

Meier, John. A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus

Balanced study of Jesus within his Hellenistic and Jewish cultural contexts, with commentary on the various other "great figures" who came into contact with him.

Brown, Raymond E.. An Introduction to New Testament Christology

Accessible treatment of how the diverse New Testament writings understood the role of the Christ.

Green, Joel, ed.. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels

Articles written with an evangelical perspective.

Achtemeier, Paul J.. HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, rev. ed.

A project undertaken in partnership with the Society of Biblical Literature.

Freedman, David Noel, ed.. The Anchor Bible Dictionary

Detailed articles on characters, locations, themes, and archaeological sites; seen by many today as the standard in the field of biblical studies.

Elliott, J. K., ed.. The Apocryphal New Testament: A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in an English Translation

A compendium of the major non-canonical Gospels and Epistles, the Acts of individual Apostles, and additional stories of the lives of Jesus and Mary.

Layton, Bentley. The Gnostic Scriptures: A New Translation with Annotations

Translations and commentaries on the major Nag Hammadi texts, along with a helpful introduction to Gnosticism.

Meyers, Carol, Toni Craven, and Ross S. Kraemer. Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament

The only compendium in which anonymous characters often lacking their own dictionary entries (such as Philip’s daughters, the Syro-Phoenician woman, the woman at the well, and Pilate’s wife) receive distinct treatment.