Why are the 2,000-year-old letters of the Apostle Paul still of intense interest today?
A Harvard University online course,
Early Christianity: The Letters of Paul, has attracted 22,000 students from 180 countries.
The course professor told The Huffington Post,
“The day the course launched was astonishing—like drinking from a fire hose. The edX discussion threads couldn’t handle the amount of people who were commenting, and crashed and slowed down. More people participated on Poetry Genius that day than ever before—the Apostle Paul beat out Beyoncé!”
(Poetry Genius is the interactive online discussion forum edX uses for students and instructor to communicate about course topics.)
The Letters of Paul course opened online in January through edX, a Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) platform founded by Harvard and M.I.T. in 2012. EdX offers interactive online classes from many of the world’s best universities in biology, business, chemistry, computer science, economics, finance, electronics, engineering, food and nutrition, history, humanities, law, literature, mathematics, medicine, music, philosophy, physics, science, and statistics. Enrollment is free.
“Letters of Paul” Course
The course explores the context of Paul’s Epistles in the Roman Empire as well as the significance and impact of these documents today.
The Letters of Paul course instructor is Laura Nasrallah, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School. Nasrallah does not have a Biblically sound view of the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. In response to the Massachusetts Bible Society‘s question,
“How much of what is recorded in the Bible actually happened as it is written?”
The idea that the Bible is both true and that some things in it didn’t actually happen can be jarring and disturbing. As a student and scholar of the New Testament, I of course conclude that many things did not happen as biblical texts record them. … While I know and teach that a man named Jesus lived in the first century and that we can know something of his first-century context in Judea and the Galilee, the gospels for example can’t tell us what “actually happened.” … I know and I teach that Paul was an actual man, travelling the Mediterranean in the first century, but just because he characterizes the Corinthian community as schismatic does not mean that this “actually happened.”
(For Nasrallah’s complete answer, see the bottom of the page Is the Bible True?)
It is important to be aware of the instructor’s bias against the historical accuracy of the Bible, if one takes the course.
The course incorporates the latest in technology and learning aids. Video lectures go from the Harvard campus to the Mediterranean of Paul’s time, including Pauline sites like Athens, Corinth, and Ephesus. An interactive timeline and map will use Harvard and Princeton collections as well as pictures Nasrallah and her students have taken in the past at archaeological sites in Greece and Turkey. Students will use an online discussion forum to annotate and discuss Paul’s letters.
Here is information from the course description:
The letters of Paul are the earliest texts in the Christian scriptures, written by a Jew at a time when the word “Christian” hadn’t yet been coined. What is the religious and political context into which they emerged? How were they first interpreted? How and why do they make such an enormous impact in Christian communities and in politics today?
Archaeological materials and ancient writings will help you to enter the ancient Mediterranean world and to think about religious groups, power, poverty, health, and the lives of elites and slaves in the Roman Empire. We’ll explore how immediately controversial these letters were, and how these letters are used today to debate relations between Christians and Jews; issues such as love, law, and grace; and topics such as charismatic Christianity, homosexuality, and women’s religious leadership.
Here is Prof. Nasrallah’s 2:29 YouTube video promoting the course.
Paul’s Letters: Why Do They Matter?
Why are Paul’s letters still of such great interest today, almost 2,000 years after he wrote them?
Paul’s letters explain the significance of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth and give moral instructions for life. They are “founding documents” of the Christian faith.
Paul’s letters are important in the Creation-Evolution controversies raging today. Paul based his explanation of the Gospel in his letters and in his preaching/teaching on God the Creator (Romans 1:16-25; Colossians 1:13-23; Acts 17:22-31).
Paul’s letters deal with the most important issues of life:
Where did mankind come from?
Why are we here?
What is our purpose in life?
What happens after death?
Paul’s answers in his letters have helped millions for two thousand years.
Biblical Christians accept Paul’s New Testament Epistles as the authoritative Word of God. As such, Paul’s letters define Christian morality and have influenced societies and cultures for two millenia. Today’s culture wars in America are over issues like homosexuality that are settled in Paul’s letters.
I think the primary value of the Letters of Paul course will be learning more about the historical context of Paul’s epistles. This is valuable in properly understanding them. However, based on the theologically liberal reputation of Harvard Divinity School and the instructor’s own bias reflected in her words quoted above, I feel sure that the course will not treat Paul’s letters as the authoritative Word of God.
Nevertheless, the intensive examination of Paul’s letters in this Harvard course will bear fruit, even if they are only studied as historical documents. The Word of God does not return empty (Isaiah 55:8-11). I believe the Holy Spirit will use the course to deepen the faith of many and call some to a regenerating knowledge of Jesus Christ.
Soli Deo Gloria.
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©William T. Pelletier, Ph.D.
“contending earnestly for the faith”
“destroying speculations against the knowledge of God”
(Jude 1:3; 2 Cor 10:4)
Wednesday March 12, 2014 A.D.
For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)