Understanding the New Testament

Course No. 6006
Professor David Brakke, Ph.D., M.Div.
The Ohio State University
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Course No. 6006
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What Will You Learn?

  • Discover the context for how and why the New Testament came to be.
  • Study the Pauline epistles, and see why and to whom he was writing.
  • Find out what we know about the authors of the gospels-and Jesus of Nazareth.
  • Reflect on the diversity and unity within Christianity.

Course Overview

The New Testament is a fascinating book—the canonical root of Christian history and theology. Yet the book is also a paradox, because this single “book” is comprised of 27 different books by more than a dozen authors, each of whom has a different perspective and is responding to a different set of historical circumstances. How do you reconcile this diversity of voices into a single, unified belief system? And should you even try?

For historians, the diversity of authors is not a challenge to be reckoned with, but rather an exciting opportunity. In the New Testament, we have 27 primary sources that offer a doorway to the captivating history of the early Christian communities. In these books, you can discover how:

  • Christian practices developed;
  • Conflicts of belief were debated and addressed;
  • The institution of the Church evolved; and
  • A man named Jesus of Nazareth was transformed into the Messiah.

Join Professor David Brakke, an award-winning Professor of History at The Ohio State University, for Understanding the New Testament. In these 24 eye-opening lectures, he takes you behind the scenes to study not only the text of the New Testament, but also the authors and the world in which it was created. You will explore Jewish lives under Roman occupation, reflect on the apocalyptic mood of the first and second centuries A.D., and witness the early Christians’ evangelism beyond the Jewish communities.

Moving through the New Testament chronologically, starting with Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, Professor Brakke identifies the evidence for when each book was written, along with context that helps explain why each was authored. He also points out discrepancies in the narrative and helps identify the “why” behind the differing accounts.

You might think that a rigorous historical analysis would take away the mystery and magic of the New Testament, but as Professor Brakke ably demonstrates, a deep investigation shows just how extraordinary the New Testament really is. You will gain insight into issues that remain vital for Christianity today, from the tension between faith and works for salvation, to Christian relations with the government, to the role of women in the congregation. In Understanding the New Testament, you will witness the birth of a faith that continues to shape our world.

The Epistles of Paul: All about Audience

Beyond Jesus himself, the most important figure in the New Testament is the apostle Paul, who evangelized in the middle of the first century A.D. More than a dozen letters in the New Testament are ascribed to him (though he likely didn’t write all of them himself), and these letters collectively present a survey of early Christian theology, including:

  • The primacy of faith over works for salvation;
  • The relationship between Christianity and governing laws;
  • The nature of imprisonment and slavery; and
  • What it means to be a pastor or teacher.

In addition to presenting the content of Paul’s letters, Professor Brakke gives you the historical context around why they were written, and who they were written for. For example, as an apostle, Paul roamed the region, setting up one congregation after another. His letter to the Galatians serves as a rebuke to one of his congregations after he left. He believed the Galatians had backslid when some new preachers came to town, and he wrote the Galatians to reinforce his key message of faith as the means for salvation.

Throughout your investigation, you’ll also consider questions of authorship. While 13 books in the New Testament are ascribed to Paul, most historians agree several letters—such as 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus—were not written by Paul himself. Why were some of these letters possibly forged? And what does that tell us about the development of Christianity? What does it mean for our understanding of the New Testament?

The Gospel according to Whom?

The gospels are, of course, the heart of the New Testament, telling the story of Jesus of Nazareth, his life, death, and resurrection. As theological documents, they are rich with moral instructions and inspirational stories. As historical documents, they offer a tantalizing window into one of the most exciting periods in human history, in which one poor prophet in a scruffy backwater created a revolution that completely up-ended the old religious order.

By analyzing the four gospels as historical documents, you will run into a number of challenging questions, including:

  • Who wrote the gospels anyway?
  • When and why were they written?
  • Are they accurate accounts of the historical Jesus?
  • How do they tell a similar or, more interestingly, different story?
  • What do historians make of the discrepancies?

To help answer these questions, Professor Brakke offers plentiful explications of the texts. For instance, you will reflect on the story of the feeding of 5,000 as presented in Mark versus Matthew—and the theological agenda motivating each writer. You’ll also survey the grand historical narrative told in Luke and the Book of Acts, and see how the author was consciously creating a story with a point of view on the history.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke are known as the “synoptic gospels” and are quite similar. The Gospel of John, however, is an anomaly worth taking a closer look at. As you delve into this spiritual gospel, with its poetry and philosophy, you also must take into account its troubling portrayal of the Jews—and what that might mean for Christian history.

Thorny Issues for a Fledgling Religion

One key message Professor Brakke returns to throughout this course is the New Testament’s diversity—of authorship, of theological intent, and of literary form. Whereas the gospels present an account of Jesus’s life and the epistles offer a theological message, the Book of Revelation offers a prophetic vision of the end of days.

To understand this book—and the entire era of early Christianity—Professor Brakke takes you back to the Old Testament and God’s covenants with Abraham, Moses, and David. According to the scripture, the descendants of Abraham should have inherited freedom in Israel, a condition that was not true at the turn of the common era. The Romans controlled Palestine and many Jews were living in diaspora as a result of the Babylonian Captivity.

Perhaps out of a sense that things were not as they should be, the era was fraught with a mood of “apocalyptic eschatology”—a feeling that the end of days were near and that God would be sending a messiah. Hence, preachers like John the Baptist were promoting salvation through baptism.

As you will see, this sense of imminent doom pervaded the time of the historical Jesus, a time arguably right for a figure like Jesus Christ. In A.D. 70, the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, beginning a new religious era for Jews and Christians. This is the historical context during which the New Testament was written and codified, and through the gospels, letters, and revelations, you can see a fledgling church in formation—unified in spite of (or because of) the era’s diversity.

This tension between unity and diversity brings us back to the beginning. How do you build a unified church, with one path to salvation, in a world of different peoples, classes, and perspectives? This paradox continues to make the 27 books of the New Testament endlessly fascinating. Through Professor Brakke’s investigations, Understanding the New Testament will open your eyes to the many complexities of this book—and point the way toward a lifetime of further study.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    The Paradox of the New Testament
    The New Testament is comprised of 27 books by more than a dozen authors, yet it is also presented as a single, unified text. How do you resolve the paradox of one book versus many? In this opening lecture, see how historians view the New Testament and why they are excited by its diversity of voices. x
  • 2
    The Jewish Origins of Christian Faith
    Before delving into the New Testament, you first must look at ancient Judaism for context about the birth of Christianity. Here, explore key stories and themes of the Old Testament-including God's covenants with Abraham, Moses, and David, as well as Jewish eschatology-to understand the world of Jesus of Nazareth. x
  • 3
    1 Thessalonians and Paul's Ministry
    The New Testament includes many types of narrative, among them gospels, epistles, and revelations. In this first lecture on Paul's epistles, you will reflect on the chronologically earliest book of the New Testament. Examine the structure of a Pauline letter, and find out what his mission of evangelism was all about. x
  • 4
    The Salvation of Gentiles in Galatians
    Continue your study of Paul's epistles with a detailed look at his letter to the Galatians. In it, he offers a scathing rebuke to a congregation he believes has backslid after his departure. Find out why he believed it was so important to establish faith in Jesus as the one and only quality that gets you into heaven. x
  • 5
    Romans on God, Faith, and Israel
    Paul's letter to the Romans is his theological masterpiece. Because he had never been to Rome, he wrote this letter to introduce himself and his teachings to lay the groundwork for his arrival. Unpack the key message of his theology-namely, that one is made righteous solely through faith in Jesus Christ. x
  • 6
    Community Conflicts in 1-2 Corinthians
    In this first of two lectures about Paul's letters to the Corinthians, you will consider one tension inherent to Christian congregations. In Paul's theology, everyone is equal in the eyes of the Lord, yet Corinth was a prosperous and diverse city. How did Paul reconcile economic, intellectual, and educational diversity with religious unity? x
  • 7
    Worship and Leaders in Paul's Congregations
    The two letters to the Corinthians give us great insight into Paul's theology, but they also provide interesting historical evidence for how early Christian congregations operated. How did believers worship? Who were the church leaders? What were the roles for men and women? Find out what the letters tell us about the community. x
  • 8
    Paul's Theology on Slavery and Christ
    Although Paul's letters to Philemon and to the Philippians are very different, they have two important things in common. Paul wrote them both from prison, and they each concern slavery. Gain insight into Paul's views around imprisonment, as well as his ideas about Christ's humanity and divinity. x
  • 9
    Adapting Paul's Teachings to New Situations
    Not all of Paul's letters were composed by the apostle himself. The three Deutero-Pauline" letters (2 Thessalonians, Colossians, and Ephesians) likely date to the years after Paul's death. In content, they seek to reassure readers that a series of events must occur before the end times arrive and that faith in Christ is all that is necessary for salvation in the present." x
  • 10
    Jesus as the Suffering Son of Man in Mark
    Shift your attention from Paul's epistles to the gospels, starting with the Gospel According to Mark. After reviewing what historians know about the author and the book's composition, Professor Brakke surveys the time of Jesus' ministry and death and explicates the key themes of Mark's gospel. x
  • 11
    Jesus as the New Moses in Matthew
    The unknown Christian who wrote the gospel now called Matthew presents a different theological portrait of Jesus and his ministry than Mark. Whereas Jesus in Mark is a mysterious figure, Matthew emphasizes Jesus' divinity. In this lecture, compare the two gospels and what scholars believe about their composition. x
  • 12
    The Church in the Gospel of Matthew
    Continue your study of the Gospel of Matthew, which gives us the only mention of the word church" in all of the four gospels. Consider Matthew's interest in forming and leading the church, and reflect on the conflict, in Matthew, between the Jesus who teaches Jewish law and the Jesus who critiques Jewish leaders." x
  • 13
    Luke and Acts on God's History of Salvation
    The Gospel of Luke is the first book in a two-volume work, the second being the book of Acts. Luke presents himself as a historian, so consider the two-volume Luke-Acts as a historical work. Who were Luke's sources? What story does he want to tell? How and why does his story unfold? x
  • 14
    Luke's Inclusive Message
    The grand narrative in the books Luke through Acts spans 60 years and presents a unified narrative of early Christian history. In this second lecture on Luke, look at the people and parables presented in his history-particularly the women, both named and anonymous, he writes about. Encounter a truly expansive, inclusive vision for Christianity. x
  • 15
    The Apostles and Church in Luke and Acts
    Because Luke was writing as a historian, probably between the years A.D. 90 and A.D. 120, he didn't merely re-create the past. Rather, Luke has a perspective on the history he tells. Unpack his vision of early Christian history and consider what message he is sending to his readers. Compare that message to the earlier Gospel according to Mark."" x
  • 16
    Jesus as the Divine Word in John
    The Gospel according to John" is an anomaly, set apart from the other three "Synoptic Gospels." Although the basic story of Jesus remains the same, running from the ministry of John the Baptist to the death and resurrection of Jesus, John's gospel contains more philosophy and has been called a more "spiritual" gospel." x
  • 17
    Jesus and the Jews in the Gospel of John
    In addition to its spiritual philosophy, the Gospel of John also contains troubling rhetoric around Jews and Judaism. Investigate the reasons behind John's depiction of the Jews and why it is so negative. See why John's portrayal of Jesus has made this gospel both an object of theological controversy and a source of deep spirituality. x
  • 18
    The Community of John after the Gospel
    What happened when an early Christian community began to fall apart? Disagreements over theology, challenges to church leadership, or disintegration of the group altogether were common, and the letters of John tackle these problems head-on. Delve into early efforts to unify a fractured church. x
  • 19
    In Search of the Historical Jesus
    The Historical Jesus" refers to the man named Jesus of Nazareth as opposed to the Christ we find in the gospels-a challenge for historians given that the gospels are our primary sources. Trace the development of biblical scholarship and research after the Renaissance and Enlightenment, when scholars began to think critically about the man named Jesus." x
  • 20
    Interpreting Abraham in Hebrews and James
    You might think of Abraham as belonging to the Old Testament, but he plays a mighty role in the writings of the New Testament. In the book of Hebrews, Abraham appears as a model of faith, whereas, in James he is an object of controversy over how people are saved-by faith alone or by faith and works. x
  • 21
    Churches in Crisis in 1-2 Peter and Jude
    Along with James and the three letters of John, 1-2 Peter and Jude are known as the catholic" or general epistles because they are addressed to multiple congregations, or Christians, in general. See what these most recent books of the New Testament tell us about a mature and growing religious movement." x
  • 22
    New Leaders in the Pastoral Epistles
    Paul's first and second letters to Timothy and the letter to Titus form a special group of epistles because they were written not to congregations but to church pastors, offering advice for how individual leaders ought to conduct themselves and guide their congregations. Together, they help us explore the development of an independent, organized religion. x
  • 23
    Revelation: Envisioning God's Reality
    The book of Revelation presents a complex; symbolic; and, at times, even bizarre vision of the present day and the future. In this lecture, Professor Brakke outlines why the Romans persecuted the Christians before turning to the content of Christ's revelation to John. Dive into this fascinating, challenging book. x
  • 24
    The Quest for Unity in the New Testament
    In this final lecture, revisit the paradox between the New Testament's diversity and unity, a single text comprised of 27 different books. See how theologians and scholars over the years have tackled this paradox. Examples include the Christian leaders Irenaeus, Origen, and Martin Luther, as well as modern historical researchers. x

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Your professor

David Brakke

About Your Professor

David Brakke, Ph.D., M.Div.
The Ohio State University
Professor David Brakke is the Joe R. Engle Chair in the History of Christianity and Professor of History at The Ohio State University. He received his B.A. in English from the University of Virginia, his M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Yale University. He taught for 19 years in the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University. Professor Brakke has published...
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