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THEO 627
Jesus: The Continuing Historical Quest

Richard S. Ascough

Associate Professor of New Testament and Greek

Queen's Theological College

229 Theological Hall
Kingston, ON
Canada, K7L 3N6

(613) 533-6000 x78066



Fall 2009

8:30 -11:20

Theological Hall 203

Course Description

This course provides an introduction the methods and conclusions used in the modern quest to understand the historical facts of Jesus life. We will look closely at selected ancient and secondary sources and evaluate their utility in constructing an understanding of the historical Jesus. Particular attention will be given to understanding the historical Jesus in his first-century socio-cultural context.

Prerequisite/Co-requisite(s): THEO 516 The New Testament or an equivalent course.

Orientation Materials

All of the course readings are from articles online or distributed in class.

You will need to bring a Bible to class. Almost any version will do, although the New Revised Standard Version or the Revised Standard Version are recommended for study purposes. Do not use the King James Version or the Living Bible (or any other paraphrase). See my guide to English Versions of the Bible (http://post.queensu.ca/~rsa/English_Versions.htm).

Objectives – what you can expect from me in this course

Expose students to the complexity of social construction and theological reflection embedded in the study of the historical Jesus

Development of students’ analytical abilities in reading biblical and other ancient texts

Advancement of students’ facility in constructing ancient socio-political contexts.

Engagement with various learning styles through content input, interactive tasks, and graded assignments.

Outputs - what I will expect from you in this course (and will measure)

Students will come to every class prepared to discuss the assigned reading material, particularly the ancient texts, and will participate fully in assigned learning tasks.

Students will demonstrate an ability to engage critically and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of evidence for the ‘historical Jesus.’

Students will evaluate the relative strengths and weaknesses of the literary and archaeological sources used to construct a particular picture of the historical Jesus.

Students will submit assigned work in a timely manner, in accordance with the course policies.

Outcomes – what I hope you will develop through this course (but can’t measure)

Comprehend how scholars use evidence to compose their understanding of Jesus.

Be familiar with the nature of the sources for Jesus and his context.

Understand the complexity of the evidentiary basis of historical biography.

Outline of Class Discussion Topics


September 17

How goes the search for Jesus?

Reading for week 1: Russell Morton, “Quest of the Historical Jesus,” in Encyclopedia of the Historical Jesus, ed. Craig A. Evans (London: Routledge, 2008) 472-79

M. Eugene Boring, “The ‘Third Quest’ and the Apostolic Faith,” Interpretation 50/4 (1996) 341-54.

The above 2 articles are available in the Theology office on the second floor of Theological Hall.

Optional review: Bart Ehrman, chapter called “The Historical Jesus” in A Brief Introduction to the New Testament OR The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings

September 24 How does one write a biography in the 1st century (and can they be trusted)?
October 1 Was there an actual Jesus?
October 8 How did Jesus become God?
October 15 Why does Jesus matter?
October 22 The Unknown Jesus
October 29 Can we learn anything from the non-canonical Gospels?
November 5 Who do scholars say Jesus is? (Book Review due)
November 12 Why so many portraits of Jesus?
November 19 What was Jesus social context?
November 26 What did Jesus proclaim (and why did it get him killed)?
December 3 What did Jesus do (and why did it get him killed)?

Student Assessment – what you will be required to do to pass the course

TASK I (30% of the final grade): Class Participation.

In this course we will create a collaborative learning environment. Regular weekly participation is required and learners are expected to come prepared to engage in the learning tasks, having read carefully the assigned readings. As a collaborative learning group we will work with one another to understand specific Pauline passages. Various types of learning formats will be used, including lectures, small and large group discussions, and individual projects. Only documented excuses for medical reasons (your own or a direct relative) or extreme weather conditions will be accepted as excuses without penalty.

TASK II (20% of the final grade): Book Review.

Write a book review of a recent non-fiction book on the historical Jesus as if it were to be published in a newspaper or news magazine. Your implied audience is someone familiar with the basics of the gospel stories, perhaps goes to church on a (semi-)regular basis, is interested in religious matters, and is a regular reader of newspapers and magazines (the average education level is an undergraduate degree). Your review should be no more than 900 words and should emphasize the strengths and weaknesses of the book, giving particular attention to the methods of interpretation employed throughout. You should also note who will be most interested in reading the book. On Nov. 5 you will give a five (5) minute presentation of your review book (anything beyond 5 minutes will be detrimental to your grade) and provide a one page (doubled-sided) copy of your review to each of the other students in the class. Your book must be chosen (on a first-come, first-claimed basis) from a list provided by the instructor (note: not all of the books are available in the Queen’s library). For a guide to writing book reviews see my “Guide to Writing Book Reviews” (http://post.queensu.ca/~rsa/Book_Reviews.htm). Due November 5, 2009, no exceptions, no extensions. Since you will be giving a short oral presentation to the class on this day, so do not be absent! Failure to be present that day will reduce your Book Review grade by 10% of the 20% allocated.

TASK III (50% of the final grade): Choose one of two options for written assignments.

Option A: Learning Task Write-ups – 2 papers, 7-8 pages maximum for each, 1.5-spaced During the course we will be engaging in a number of learning tasks that analyze a critical issue or exegete a passage from a Gospel. You may choose any two of these and write up a report that addresses at least the following issues:

  • Name the core issue(s) and or problem(s) involved.
  • Identify are the major stakeholders in the case and what they have to gain/lose.
  • Present the alternative interpretations of the data or solutions to the problem.
  • Determine the criteria by which you will choose a particular interpretation or solution.
  • Select the preferred interpretation or solution.
  • List 2 or 3 resources (beyond those on the syllabus) that would be useful to look at as a next step (the ATLA database, available through the Queen’s library website is an invaluable tool for this).

Your write-up should be presented in such a way as to highlight the preferred interpretation/solution (as a thesis statement), with the other data presented as supporting that data. For example,

  • Thesis statement.
  • Core issue(s) and major stakeholders.
  • Alternative interpretations/solutions.
  • Your preferred interpretation/solution.
  • Arguments in favour of your interpretation/solution.
  • Concluding summary (restatement of the thesis).
  • Works Cited and Further Resources.

You may choose to, but need not, use an essay format. Alternative formats such as memos or letters will be accepted. Point form will not be accepted – I expect you to use proper grammar in the write-up. These assignments are due at the beginning of class one week after the class in which the learning task was undertaken. No assignments will be accepted after that time and date. It is highly recommended, but not required, that you begin working on the assignment before it is discussed in class.

Option B: Research Essay – 14-16 pages, 1.5-spaced. Write a paper on a historical or methodological issue arising from the study of the historical Jesus. Although you are not required to inform the instructor of your topic you are welcome (and encouraged) to do so. You should consult (and reference) at least six scholarly works on your topic (e.g., books, articles, essays, or commentaries). To find these resources you can use the American Theological Library Association (ATLA) database, available through the Queen’s Library web page (the librarians will assist you in learning how to use this tool). This assignment is not a sermon, but an academic paper and should be written in accordance with academic style, including proper footnoting style. See my online Course Resources page (http://post.queensu.ca/~rsa/resources.htm) for guides to writing research papers and formatting footnotes. Due Monday, December 14, 2009. The paper can be submitted in the main office of QTC, where it will be dated and placed in my mailbox.

Course Policies

Due Dates: All assignments are due at the beginning of class on the stated day. There will be an automatic grace period of one week in which late assignments will be accepted without penalty. No assignments will be accepted after that date unless negotiated before the initial due date and supported by documentary evidence to support the request (e.g., a medical note or a funeral notice).

Course Completion: Students wishing to negotiate a course grade of "Incomplete" (IN) must submit a request in writing (using the proper QTC form) before the end of classes (i.e., before the examination) and must provide documentary evidence to support the request (as per the “disability policy,” below). Failure to do so will result in the submission of a final grade based on work completed by the end of the course.

Grading: For an indication of how I grade written assignments see my “Assignment Evaluation Criteria” (http://post.queensu.ca/~rsa/evaltion.htm). For an indication for how I grade class participation see my “Grading Criteria for Class Participation” (http://post.queensu.ca/%7Ersa/participation.htm). Other help can be found on my Course Resources page (http://post.queensu.ca/~rsa/resources.htm).

General Statement on Academic Integrity: Students are expected to abide by the values and practice of Academic Integrity. Departures from Academic Integrity are serious academic offences and may result in a range of penalties. Students are advised to acquaint themselves with Queen's University's Policy on Academic Integrity (www.queensu.ca/secretariat/senate/policies/AcadInteg.html).

Disability Policy: If you have a physical, psychological, or learning disability and might require accommodations in this course, please contact immediately Queen's Health Counseling and Disability Services (HCDS), located in the LaSalle Building, 146 Stuart Street (613-533-6467), in order to receive documentation identifying needs requiring accommodation by the instructor.

Books for Review

Akenson, Donald Harman. Saint Saul: A Skeleton Key to the Historical Jesus. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Allison, Dale C., Jr. Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998.

Chilton, Bruce. Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography. New York: Doubleday, 2000.

Crossan, John Dominic. Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. New York: Harper San Francisco, 1994.

Ehrman, Bart D. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Fiorenza, Elisabeth Schüssler. Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet: Critical Issues in Feminist Christology. New York: Crossroad, 1994.

Fredriksen, Paula. From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images of Jesus. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1988.

Funk, Robert W. Honest to Jesus: Jesus for a New Millenium. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1996.

Kaylor, R. David. Jesus the Prophet: His Vision of the Kingdom on Earth. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994.

Levine, Amy-Jill. The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2007.

Lüdemann, Gerd. The Resurrection of Christ: A Historical Inquiry. Amherst: Prometheus, 2004.

McClymond, Michael J. Familiar Stranger: An Introduction to Jesus of Nazareth. Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2004.

Meier, John P. A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, vol. 1, The Roots of the Problem and the Person. Anchor Bible Reference Library. New York: Doubleday, 1991.

Sanders, E. P. The Historical Figure of Jesus. London: Penguin, 1993.

Tatum, W. Barnes. In Quest of Jesus. Nashville: Abingdon, 1999.

Vermes, Geza. The Changing Faces of Jesus. London: Penguin, 2000.