(Valdemir Mota de Menezes studing with Nasrallah)
My name is Laura Nasrallah.
And I'm a professor of New Testament in Early Christianity at Harvard.
Today I want to tell you a bit about why I love to study and to teach the
letters of Paul and why I think you may find this class meaningful and
This is a course module about the letters of the apostle Paul.
It's part of a semester-long academic course that I teach at Harvard.
It should provide some historical context for understanding the letters.
And we'll think together about practical aspects of letter writing in
the ancient world and what these can teach us about communication in
Together we'll ask what's a canon?
And how did the letters of Paul come to be in the Christian testament?
At the end, we'll investigate 1st Corinthians as a kind of case study,
seeing how investigating the text within its ancient context helps us to
understand more and better about the social, the economic, the political,
and the theological in the Roman world.
Some of you may have never read the letters of Paul
before, and that's great.
Some of you may be deeply familiar with them as objects of prayer,
devotion and church-based Bible study, and that too is great.
This is a course about Paul that serves both groups, because it's a
We'll spend a lot of our time focusing on the letters of Paul as documents of
These letters were written in the mid-1st century CE in the area of
modern-day Greece and Turkey at a time when the power and reach of the Roman
Empire was growing.
Many of those who first received the text were probably not literate.
And they didn't so much read them as heard them read out loud in assembly,
a very different experience than we often have reading alone or quietly,
sitting in front of a hardcover book or a computer or an iPad.
Paul's letters are historical documents that help us to understand
daily life in the Roman Empire; Judaism, among other religions in the
first century; and the emergence of something that wasn't yet called
You should come out of the course module with an understanding of how
these texts fit into ancient history.
And since I'm particularly interested in archaeology, much of this course
will draw from statues, monumental buildings, inscription, small finds to
learn more about life in the ancient world.
The letters of Paul are ancients texts about the long-dead, but they're also
They're part of the Christian Bible.
They're considered key texts of Western culture.
They're a source for philosophical speculation and political movements
towards universalism among Christians and non-Christians.
The letters of Paul are used daily among Christians around the world,
read weekly, or even more often in church services and debated in
relation to ethical, social, political, and theological concerns.
In this course module, we'll have time to touch upon the rich importance of
these letters today.
And you'll gain some tools for thinking about your own interpretation
of these letters.
I've been researching, writing, and teaching on this topic for a while
now, but I'm only one of many such researchers and writers.
This course gives us a time and virtual place to drop into a longer
and larger stream of conversation.
My intention for this free and open access HarvardX version of a part of
my course is for us to join a conversation that's been ongoing for
centuries, a debate scholars engage around the world today, a conversation
that perhaps you've already taken part in or you're participating in
elsewhere, or perhaps you're entering for the first time.
My hope is that you'll join in conversation with others virtually,
that you'll use this course module in book club-type settings, or in church
communities or alone.
That is, I expect you all will end up doing far more interesting and
innovative things in the context of this course module than I can imagine
at this point.
The class is introductory.
No question is too basic.
That's not to say that the materials are always easy, but there are no
advanced requirements, just an expectation that you'll enjoy studying
this material, and that you'll be willing to enter into a greater larger
community of collegial, critical, and academic
investigation of these texts--
a great host of witnesses, if you will.
What kind of students might take this course?
In case you're still concerned about how you might fit into the course or
what sort of experience you could or couldn't bring to it, let me talk a
bit about what kind of students I've had in this course in my classrooms at
Harvard and elsewhere, and what kind of students you may be.
I've had in my classroom undergraduates and graduate students.
Some are Christians, evangelicals or UCC or Episcopalian.
Some are Jews.
Some are Muslims.
Some are atheists.
Some are Lutherans and love Paul.
Some are in training to be in Christian ministry-- some hoping to
work in NGOs, some studying law or government, some heading to med school
or campus ministry.
All that's to say, everyone and anyone is welcome.
In this introduction to the letters of the apostle Paul, I try to create a
level playing field, so that the person who doesn't know how to look up
Romans 8:28, and the person who memorized that text when she was five
can virtually sit alongside each other and learn together.
Teaching this course is a joy and a complicated thing too, because some of
you may have strong opinions about Paul.
For some, Paul might be an old friend, articulating your own hopes about
grace and redemption, modeling for you struggles about how to be an ethical
human in the world.
For others, Paul might be an enemy, the devolution of Christianity from
Actually that's the way Thomas Jefferson characterized him.
Some of you come to this course because Paul and his letters are an
entirely unknown or neutral topic.
For some, they're great or famous texts of Western culture.
For some, the letters of Paul are a source for knowledge about ancient
religion and philosophy in earliest Christianity.
For some, these letters are evidence regarding Judaism in the diaspora in
the first century.
For some, they're source text for current philosophical work on
equality, especially as this is discussed among European philosophers.
For some of you, this is sacred text scripture, the word of God.
Or you may feel that you fall into several of these categories.
It'll be important to recognize throughout this course module that
those who take the course alongside you may disagree with you.
I encourage you to discover what is intellectually productive about that
It's important to recognize that you may find some of the readings
troubling or uncomfortable, surprising or exciting.
This is all a part of learning.
Throughout, we'll find ways to speak respectfully and thoughtfully to each
other about our agreements and disagreements.
My pedagogical approach, that is, how I teach the course is as collaborative
and democratic as it can be in this venue.
I don't think that learning should only be about a consumer model, in
which a student passively receives what the teacher
Rather students learn and students too produce knowledge.
I'm grateful to be in a job in which I'm required to learn and write and
think all the time.
Whether in colleges or at computers, in cafes or at home, we can all be
part of a creative process of studying interpretation.
You'll add your knowledge, the questions and insights that emerge
from your life experience and your critical engagement with that life
experience and with other scholars' interpretations to the larger
I also don't think that learning should be about a Socratic model.
In Socrates' dialogues written in Plato's pen, Socrates manages to draw
out truth and to best his philosophical opponents by asking hard
questions that continually reveal how inept his dialogue partners are.
The dialogues sometimes humiliate his discussion partners.
I'm never for humiliation, even if I'm all for humility, because the texts we
study together are difficult, and because our knowledge of the ancient
world, given the gaps in our data from antiquity, is never complete.
We have to be humble because we're sketching earnest but imperfect maps.
Map is not territory, as the saying goes.
The work of historiography, of the writing, of history is to lay out a
range of well-considered possibilities, rather than to say,
this is what really happened.
Of course, we can do better or worse in our history writing and in our
interpretation of the letters of Paul.
Our task together is to collect more data from antiquity, and to hone our
interpretations in relation to a study of a broad range of others'
So we'll bring our experiences and our humility to the course hopefully.
That's not to say that experience and humility are all that's needed.
We'll also learn a good deal about the history of the Roman world, so that we
have more and better data to bring to our work of
interpreting Paul's letters.
This course is in part about cultivating a love of the creative,
imaginative, detective work of history writing.
What are the goals of this course?
What will we do together?
The course has four large goals.
The first is to investigate Paul's letters as a key record of struggle
and debate over social, political, ethical, and theological issues.
That is, we'll look at the letters as a rich resource from which we can
reconstruct the struggles of those earliest communities following Christ.
We'll learn about their debates, their interactions with their neighbors,
their struggles over what to eat, their debates over who were really
kinfolk, about race and ethnicity, about work and politics and slavery,
about love and grace and the end of the world.
Our second aim is to learn about the Roman Empire, in which the Pauline
correspondence was penned, and the second century world in which people
wrote about or even as Paul.
Paul wrote and traveled in and at the time of the Roman Empire.
His letters address issues regarding power and who's really in
charge of the world.
We'll discuss how communities to which Paul wrote lived in the midst of
various forms of power, including Roman imperial power, especially as
this was manifest in the veneration of the emperors on the one hand, and
depictions of imperial piety on the other.
Here we see an image of Augustus or Octavian, the first emperor veiled, it
was found in the city of Corinth, to which Paul addressed
more than one letter.
Octavian is veiled, because he's engaged in a religious act.
If his hand were still intact, it would have held a patera or shallow
bowl from which he would have poured a libation of wine.
Paul writes as a Jew, bringing the message of Christ in Greek.
The word is Messiah in Hebrew.
Paul does so in a culture already full of God's philosophical debate and
In Corinth, again, for example, there was a sanctuary to the
healing goddess Asklepios.
People slept in such sanctuaries and dreamed of the god, and often had
encounters as well with surgeons and doctors.
At Corinth, supplicants left in honor of the god votives, large and small,
objects depicting the body parts that the god had healed.
So too we find at Pergamon in modern-day Turkey an inscription to
Asklepios, a depiction of an ear.
But this ear probably doesn't indicate an ear injury, but rather a personal
and present god who hears, as we can see from the inscription, to
Aesklepios, the savior, Favia Secunda in accordance with a dream.
Paul lives as a Jewish missionary among other religious missionaries in
the ancient world.
He's part of a Jewish diaspora in antiquity.
Many of the texts in the New Testament were produced in this Jewish diaspora
around the Roman Empire.
And after Paul wrote, Jews and Christians alike had to cope with the
political reality of the destruction of the Jewish temple by the Roman
Empire in 70 CE.
The Arch of Titus in Rome publicly celebrates that occasion.
It was dedicated in honor of Titus, the son of the Roman emperor
Vespasian, who was the general in charge of the burning of the temple.
This arch depicts the temple goods, including the Ark of the Covenant and
a menorah, being paraded through the streets of Rome with Jewish captives,
a well-known Roman practice after Rome had conquered other peoples.
The Roman triumph inspired pathos, feelings of empathy, feelings of pride
for having conquered a great people with great traditions.
Pathos and fear.
And the display of objects to inspire such feelings of triumph, empathy and
fear didn't end with the pompe or celebratory parade.
In Rome, itself, a collection of sacred objects was displayed in the
so-called Temple of Peace founded by Vespasian, a site that blurs our lines
between museum, temple, and spoils of the victor.
We'll study the time of Paul and his correspondence, but we'll also study
the time after Paul, those who considered themselves to be his truest
interpreters, who authorized themselves by writing in his name in
the second century.
The third goal is for you to come to your own understanding of what the
Pauline correspondence reveals about first century debate
over several key issues.
Issues, for example, of how to define time in history, issues about women's
leadership, about Universalism, about race and ethnicity.
And our hope is that we come together to take responsibility for our
interpretations of Paul's letters.
And the final course objective is this-- to engage ancient texts with
This disciplined intimacy involves learning and practicing close reading,
as well as placing texts within their social, political,
and cultural context.
It involves understanding the ancient texts as stranger, as produced in a
world quite different from that of the 21st century.
But we'll also come to see the texts as quite intimate--
its themes of poverty and wealth, of love and grace and gratitude, of
worship, its debates over ethics, sexual practices, food
and religious practices.
These themes and debates may remind us of our own time and situations.
I study the letters of Paul because I think they're remarkable.
They're letters largely from the eastern part of the Mediterranean
Basin, written to small numbers of people about particular problems, joys
and situations that face them in the first century CE.
Nonetheless, they became a great text of Western history.
They're letters that often address those who were poor, slaves, women,
those waiting for the end of the world, yet they became part of a cycle
of elite transmission of literature.
They're letters written by a Jew in Christ, at the moment in time just
before the Roman Empire destroys the temple in Jerusalem.
They take up so very few pages among the literary text of the world.
Yet, they're classics.
They're transformative, and they're thought-provoking.