Free Online Course: The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future, with Jacob L. Wright

Want to get a free class and learn about the Bible? Here you have another chance, from our good friends from Coursera:

Emory University

The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future

How and why was the Bible written? This course synthesizes fascinating recent research in biblical studies and presents a powerful new thesis: The Bible’s primary purpose is not religious but political. Facing catastrophic defeat, the biblical authors created a new form of community. Their achievements bear directly on modern questions of politics, economics, and theology.


About the Course

With its walls razed to ground by Babylon’s armies, Jerusalem joined a long line of ancient vanquished cities—from Ur and Nineveh and Persepolis to Babylon itself. While some recovered from the destruction, others did not.  But none responded to political catastrophe by fashioning the kind of elaborate and enduring monument to their own downfall that we find in the Bible. Most conquered populations viewed their subjugation as a source of shame. They consigned it to oblivion, opting instead to extol the golden ages of the past.  The biblical authors in contrast reacted to loss by composing extensive writings that acknowledge collective failure, reflect deeply upon its causes, and discover thereby a ground for collective hope.

Working through colorful biblical and ancient Near Eastern texts, and drawing on an array of comparative examples, the course illustrates the thoroughgoing manner with which biblical authors responded to defeat by advancing a demotic agenda that places the community at the center. The aim of the biblical authors was to create a nation, and they sought to realize this goal via a shared text, which includes stories and songs, wisdom and laws. This corpus of writings belongs, without a doubt, to humanity’s greatest achievements. Whereas the great civilizations of the Near East invested their energies and resources into monuments of stone that could be destroyed by invading armies, the biblical authors left a literary legacy that has been intensively studied until the present day. More important, these authors’ visionary response to defeat brought to light a radical new wisdom:  the notion that a people is greater than the state which governs it, and that a community can survive collapse when all of its members can claim a piece of the pie and therefore have a reason to take an active part in its collective life.

The objectives of the course are to show:
—how the Bible emerged from large-scale corporate crisis and rupture;
—that in our present state of uncertainty and instability we have much to learn from the various strategies the biblical authors adopted to create an enduring “people of the book”;
—that one doesn’t have to believe in God or accept the historicity of the Bible in order to appreciate its profound political messages;
—that the Bible offers modern societies a model for creating communities around a shared collection of texts, songs, and laws;
—and that the Bible itself has a major role to play in our futures.

Course Syllabus

Week 1: The Riddle That Has Yet To Be Solved
The Bible’s Purpose
Books in Ancient Religions
Between “Church and State”
Theologies of the Bible
A Shared Text
The Bible as a “Pedagogical Program of Peoplehood”

Week 2: The Rise and Fall
Israel’s Place in the World of the Ancient Near East
The Emergence of Two Competing Kingdoms
Military Triumphs
The Onslaught of Imperial Powers
Defeat and Deportation
Conditions of Conquest

Week 3: The Making of the Bible as a Response to Defeat
Diaspora and Divided Communities
Creating a Shared Past and Common Ancestors
The Pentateuch and Historical Narratives
One People with Multiple Law Codes
Creating a Collection of National Songs and Laments
Reinterpreting Prophecies
Comparative Cases: English and German History

Week 4: Reinventing the Hero
Martial Valor, Masculinity, and Martyrdom
Long Life versus Glorified Heroic Death
The New Role of the Family
From Battles to Building
Comparatives Cases: From the Crow Nation to Jane Austen

Week 5: A Wise and Discerning People  
The Role of Education
National Education Programs: From 19th Century Germany to the Dalai Lama
From Deuteronomy to Ezra-Nehemiah
Freedom of Information and Open Access
Making Priestly Knowledge Public
The Attempts of the State to Control Prophets
Divine Knowledge for the People, Not Solely the King
The Reason Why Biblical Writings Survived Catastrophes

Week 6: Covenant and Kinship
The Rise of Empires
One God
A New “Political-Theology”
Covenantal Ethics of Peoplehood
The Power of Law
Protecting the Individual and Defending Difference
Caring for the Land

Week 7: The Bible’s Future
The Bible’s Pedagogical and Political Purpose
The Bible’s Radical Theology
The Bible as an Attempt to Unify Rival Communities
The Bible’s Impact on Political Identities Throughout the World
The Bible’s Role in the Public Sphere and in Secular Society
The Bible as a Model for New Forms of Community

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