In 2013, shortly after I had retired and decided to pursue a second career in writing, I was searching the web for courses to help me in honing my writing skills. I came across a catalog of free online courses offered by Yale University. Among the list was a series of twenty-four Old Testament lectures developed by Christine Hayes, a professor at Yale Divinity School. The lectures correspond with the twenty-four books common to all Jewish and Christian bibles and are available online in transcript form, as well as by audio and on tape. Although the course had nothing to do with improving my writing, I became fascinated with it and spent two weeks reading and viewing all twenty-four lectures.
Hayes points out that the collection of twenty-four books not only represents a variety of genres–e.g., law, history, wisdom, poetry, prophesy, apocalyptic literature–but also contains the disparate voices of authors seeking to explain the unique covenant relationship of the ancient Israelites to Yahweh their god, a relationship which developed over centuries of time. The course allows students to view the text through the lens of critical biblical methods of study which considers context and meaning against the backdrop of historical and cultural setting in the ancient Near East.
It is a fascinating series of lectures, and when I completed the course, I began the companion course, New Testament History and Literature taught by Dale B. Martin, Woolsey Professor of Religious Studies at Yale. This course was equally engaging. Martin explains that there are many good reasons to study the New Testament, not the least of which is that Christians consider it to be holy scripture. However, the method of study in this course takes the “historical-critical” approach, which “anchors the meaning of text in its original context: what the original authors intended or the original readers likely understood.”
After an explanation of the canonization of the New Testament, the process by which early church leaders determined which texts were divinely inspired and thus worthy to be considered holy scripture, Martin conducts a brief history lesson, explaining the place of Judaism in the Greco-Roman world. He concludes that hellenization was critical to the birth and growth of Christianity because it united the Mediterranean world; that Judaism was an extremely varied ethnic and religious reality, with Christianity developing as just one more way of “being Jewish”; that the ancient Jews were never truly independent, but were in varying degrees subservient to the great powers during Hellenistic times–Egypt, Syria, and Rome; and finally, despite their subservience, they “owned an ideology that supported imperial pretensions.”
In subsequent chapters, Martin covers the New Testament books, as well as several non-biblical writings such as the Acts of Paul and Thecla. For each book, he explains the theology of the writer and the context in which the book was written, emphasizing the variety of interpretations of Christianity that existed among early Christian groups.
I’ve read and studied parts of the Bible all of my life; however, I have never gone through it in its entirety in a systematic or structured way. Even though I was required to take both an Old and New Testament survey course when I was at Furman many years ago, I was not much of a scholar at that point in my life and can remember very little of what was covered in those courses.
Thus, I’ve developed a giant play list of scripture passages, stored up in the I-tunes section of my brain. Like familiar old songs, they pop into my mind at random moments, as if someone had pushed the shuffle button before playing the list. Recalling the passages brings great joy and comfort, enriching my life and forming the bedrock of my belief system. Still, I’ve often felt the need for a process for organizing all of those random passages and viewing them in the broader historical biblical context. These free online courses from Yale offered an entree into that process, and I gained a tremendous benefit from working through them.
Only recently, I discovered that the lecture materials from both courses had been converted into book format. It was then that I decided to purchase the books to use as a refresher course, as it seems nowadays I read twice as much as I used to and forget more than half of what I read.
This time around I decided to read each book of the Bible as it is presented in the chapter. I neglected to do that last time because the lectures were so interesting, I was eager to get on to the next one. So far, I have read (sometimes skimmed) all of the books in the Old Testament. Now, I’m working through the books of the New Testament, many of which I have read previously.
I recommend these Yale free online courses and the books that accompany them to anyone who wants to explore and sharpen his/her understanding of the Bible. Whether it’s for the purpose of spiritual growth, or simply to familiarize oneself with one of the most influential pieces of literature and best selling books of all time, I think you’ll find the effort well worth your time.