The “Key Idea” for “The Hebrew Scriptures”

A couple of days ago, I shared my current “course description” for my fall 2021 class, “The Hebrew Scriptures”. Another addition to the syllabus is the “Key Idea” or what I’ve called “The Enduring Understanding” in past versions. In short, it’s the one thing I hope my students can articulate and upon which they could expound, to some degree, if I ran into them in ten or twenty years. Here’s my current draft.

This matches the three ways I invite my students to read these texts: as historians; a literary critics; as philosophers. I don’t limit them to these approaches though I do hope that they’ll push my students to engage the Bible in a new way—a way that’s different from the liturgical usage with which they’re probably familiar.

Course Description: “The Hebrew Scriptures”

If things remain the same, this fall semester I’ll teach two blocks of The Hebrew Scriptures and three of Religion in Global Context. I’ve begun doing a little bit of prep work (don’t worry, I’m taking my summer break seriously by getting lots of rest and working on other writing projects) which includes putting together my syllabi. Each syllabus for each class includes a “course description”. Each year, I rework the description as more experience helps me develop a more precise focus. For those who are interested, here is the current draft for The Hebrew Scriptures:


“The Hebrew Scriptures is an examination of the corpus of ancient literature known as the ‘Tanakh’ to Jews and the ‘Old Testament‘ to Christians. Students are taught methods of reading that are appropriate for an academic setting yet sensitive to the place of these collections within living communities. This means approaching these texts from the perspective taken by historians, literary critics, and philosophers—to name a few disciplines—while asking what these texts have meant and mean. The aim is to develop ‘biblical literacy’ so that students can become familiar with and accustomed to interpreting texts that have been influential on a global scale. Similarly, the course functions to put these ancient texts in dialogue with modern concerns (e.g. metaphysical claims; ethical and moral thinking; ethnic and religious identity; imperialism and empire-building; human sexuality).” 

Song of the Day Playlists (Spring 2021)

Almost every day of class, I open with a “Song of the Day” that I hope connects thematically with what I’m about to teach (even if sometimes only very, very loosely). Then at the end of the semester I create a Spotify playlist to share with my students. Here are those playlists for the Spring 2021 semester:

Digital resources for studying the Bible and archaeology

A YouTube page, a YouTube series, and a podcast have all emerged recently dealing with topics related to the Bible and archaeology. For those interested:

  • Dr. Robert Cargill, Associate Professor of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Iowa has a YouTube page, XKV8R, where he’s already discussed topics such as The Shapira Strips and the Tel Dan Inscription.
  • Dr. Andrew Henry, creator of the famous Religion For Breakfast YouTube page, has been working on a series in partnership with Patheos titled “Excavating the History of the Bible”. He’s covered several topics already including the origins of the Israelites, the identities of the Canaanites and Philistines, and personalities like King Ahab, King Josiah, and King Herod.
  • The podcasting collective known as OnScript has released a spin-off podcast called OnScript: Biblical World. Their first episode looked at King Hezekiah and his reforms.

Parenting, the Bible, and Faith-Transitions

My experience as a Religious Studies Instructor who teaches high schoolers, and conversations I’ve had with friends who are rethinking how they may or may not teach the Bible to their own children, led me to ponder whether some parts of the Bible are more appropriate for others depending on the age of a child. See “Rating the Bible”. Now I see Jared Byas of “The Bible for Normal People” fame has released a podcast episode titled “Parenting in a Faith Transition” with his wife, Sarah Byas, where they discuss this topic, so I thought I’d share but also document so that I remember it as I continue to think on this topic.

Rating the Bible

I teach the Bible in a high school setting. It’s a college preparatory school. It’s not a Sunday School. But it’s a high school, so even if I’m trying to give them a near-college experience, there are many ways that I have to teach that remain age-appropriate.

For example, if I show a film, some R-rated films are never going to be acceptable. Other R-rated films are acceptable with parent permission. PG-13 and below are fine.

So, what of the Bible then? There have been years where I’ve avoid the Song of Songs and years when I’ve taught it. When I’ve taught it, it was the equivalent to blurring out the sensitive parts in a picture. I tell them it’s about romance and sexuality. Like many translators of the Bible into English, I choose to soften the language. But is Song of Songs best left alone when teaching adolescents or left only to certain teachers—kind of like sex ed isn’t a topic taught by all teachers?

What about graphic violence? Children hear the story of the Great Flood (a.k.a. “Noah’s Flood”) at a very young age…but the Creator literally drowns almost all of humanity. This is worse than genocide. Do smiling giraffes on a boat really soften the narrative? Should children learn about that story at all?

Should there be a form of trigger warnings? I feel that it’s important to discussed King David’s abuse/rape of Bathsheba to understand the full depiction of the man in the Bible but that’s a tough topic to cover. On the other hand, I don’t want students becoming young adults and thinking the Bible is a squeaky clean book. I’ve heard too many young Christians dismiss the Quran because of content that’s in their own Holy Book but due to biblical illiteracy among the faithful their prejudice goes unchecked.

If the Bible were to receive film ratings for chapters, what rating would each chapter receive. Filmratings.com gives basic explanations of how films are judged. Here’s a visual from their webpage:

If you go to pp. 6-7 of their “Classification and Ratings Rule” you’ll see how they determine what label to give and what content should be mentioned in the warning box.

If we were to rate Genesis 1, what rating would it receive? What about Revelation 12?

Common Sense Media has their own rating system for movies that helps parents decide based on criteria such as:

  1. “What age is the movie aimed at?”
  2. Quality
  3. Educational value
  4. Messages and role models
  5. Violence, sex, and language
  6. Consumerism
  7. Drinking, drugs, and smoking
  8. User reviews

Would “user reviews” be how people have experienced the Bible? I don’t jest here. For some, the Bible is extremely live-giving. For others, frankly, it’s been used to traumatize them and they’re best off if they spend some time away from a book that has been weaponized against them.

For kicks, it would be fun to rate the Bible using a rating system created by conservative Christians, such as movieguide. If I just gave you the plot of the Samson narrative, where would it rate using this scale?

Does a literary narration of Samson’s violence and sexual exploits differ from a visual presentation? Would you read a story from the Bible that you wouldn’t show if it were depicted as a movie, cartoon, anime, etc.? I find this line of inquiry to be pretty fascinating and I wonder how this relates to how publishers package the Bible for teens.

The Origins of Satan

Satan has received a lot of attention on this blog:

So, unsurprisingly, I’ve got to share Andrew Mark Henry’s new “Religion for Breakfast” video, “The Origins of Satan”:

Recently read: Junior and Schipper’s “Black Samson”

Nyasha Junior and Jeremy Schipper, Black Samson: The Untold Story of an American Icon (Oxford: OUP, 2020). (Amazon; Bookshop)

As I’ve aged, reception history/reception studies of the Bible have become more and more interesting to me. As much as I can enjoy a good socio-historical study of the Apostle Paul and his epistles (e.g. Barclay’s “Paul and the Gift” or Barber, et al., “Paul, A New Covenant Jew”), one has to wonder how much more can really be said about Paul from a historicist perspective (or Jesus, or, closer to home, John the Baptist). People are interested in the Bible primarily because of what it means to us now and what it has meant to people in the recent past, not because of what it meant to the earliest audiences (even studies about the Bible and its meaning to earliest audiences are attempting to answer contemporary questions about the Bible by connecting them to ancient ones). Judaism, Christianity, and Islam aren’t inherently more interesting than Zoroastrianism or Mandaeanism but there are more scholars of the former than the latter because of the influence of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam upon the majority of the modern world in contrast to the (direct) influence of Zoroastrianism or Mandaeanism.

A recent example of an excellent study of the Bible’s reception is Nyasha Junior and Jeremy Schipper’s Black Samson: The Untold Story of an American Icon. This book traces the depiction of Samson as a Black man throughout the history of the United States. As you read it becomes apparent that this theme of “Black Samson” is everywhere. I had no idea.

Junior and Schipper begin with early American commentary on how this nation is a “Temple of Liberty”. From a variety of angles, people began to connect how Samson was placed in the Philistine temple of Dagon only to bring it down upon the Philistines with how slavery (as represented by Black Samson) could be what pulls down the Temple of Liberty if not addressed. This imagery was used by abolitionists and defenders of slavery alike, though with very different intentions (see Chapter 1, “Black Samson in the Temple of Liberty”).

Chapter 2, “Black Samson of Brandywine,” traces the mythology around a enslaved man named Samson who is depicted as having fought against the British in the Battle of Brandywine. Chapter 3, “Samson and the Making of American Martyrs” shows how people who died, often having fought for the abolitionist cause, were remembered as a type of Samson: this ranges from John Brown (who is now the focus of Showtimes’ limited series “The Good Lord Bird”), to Frederick Douglass, to Nate Turner, and others. Chapter 4, “Black Sampson and Labor Movements” traces the theme’s relation to labor movements, popular song, and discusses the tension between African Americans and labor movements that often sought to exclude African Americans or saw them as undermining their cause.

Chapter 5, “The Samson Complex,” may have been the most fascinating to me. It focuses upon how “African American intellectuals and activists” who sometimes “claimed that the younger activists had a ‘Samson complex’ that would ultimately result in nothing but self-destruction” (p. 68). In this chapter we encounter Malcom X, Elijah Muhammad, Dr. King, and others who were involved in the Civil Rights Movement and debated the best way to go about fighting for their rights.

Chapter 6, “But Some of Us are Strong Believers in the Samson Myth,” examines how Samson-imagery finds its way into discussions around “the intersection of race and gender” (p. 93). Chapter 7, “Visual Representations of Black Samson” is self-explanatory and discussed the one example of Black Samson that might be familiar to many: Samson as depicted in The Bible television miniseries produced by The History Channel. I show this series to my students and they have noticed that Samson is depicted as a Black man while most of the other figures are white.

This book is exemplary. It shows the power of the Bible as part of culture making. Also, it shows how diverse interpretation of the Bible can be. For those interested in reception history or the intersection of the Bible and American culture, the Bible and race, the Bible and gender, the Bible and art and film, etc., this is a must read.