REL 226 (WCH): The New Testament

The New Testament is a collection of first-century Mediterranean notes between people interested in the burgeoning Jesus movement. Translated, edited, and collated, these writings have since become a touchstone in the cultural heritage of the West. We will attempt to situate New Testament texts in light of the artifacts and social drama of the period in order to understand the character of early Christianity. Using techniques from biblical studies, we’ll come to a greater appreciation for the history and politics that made Christianity–and these writings– appealing. And we will begin to discover how these writings became scripture.

Saint Peter and Saint Paul, by El Greco, c. 16th century. Hermitage Museum (Russia).
Saint Peter and Saint Paul, by El Greco, c. 16th century. Hermitage Museum (Russia).

Core Textbooks:

Adam L. Porter, Introducing the Bible: An Active Learning Approach (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2004). 
A workbook to help you carefully read and savor New Testament writings.

Jonathan L. Reed, The HarperCollins Visual Guide to the New Testament: What Archaeology Reveals about the First Christians (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2007).
An introduction to the material culture of which New Testament writings are a part.
David Lynwood Smith, Into the World of the New Testament: Greco-Roman and Jewish Texts and Contexts (New York: Bloomsbury, 2017).
A great text for thinking through the cultural landscape out of which the texts in the New Testament emerged.

Key Topics:

Archaeology and the Bible

The Spread of Hellenism

The Rise of the Roman Empire

Second Temple Judaism

The Politics of the Gospels

The Sociology of Pauline Literature

Sex, Gender, and Health in the Early Roman Period

Apocalyptic States of Mind

Reading the New Testament in Contemporary Life

Student Scholarship:

Spring 2018

In its final offering at Elizabethtown College, students used an interactive notebook to work through our textbook, in-class activities, exam review, and independent study.

Students examined portraits of Jesus in the various texts, comparing themes, descriptions, and interpretive work.

For the final essay, students were tasked with tracking a biblical allusion in contemporary life and comparing its use and appearance to its first century development. Other students participated in an “unessay” or research project to demonstrate their skills.

Pre-med student Emily Sechrist ’21 studied Hellenistic, Early Roman, and Second Temple healing practices and developed diagnostic reports of ailments found in the gospels. As part of this project, she created anatomical votives.

Spring 2016

Students looked at the New Testament as a text whose content appears to change as it is reconstructed in new contexts. For St. Patrick’s Day, we hosted Michael Geaney for a lecture on the Book of Kells.

For the final exam, Dr. Jennifer Grace Bird joined us for a discussion of her book, Permission Granted: Taking the Bible Seriously (Westminster John Knox, 2016).


The class also read some of her Huffington Post commentary on the role of the Bible in public life. Each student wrote there own blog posts on how the New Testament continues to impact the cultural heritage of the West and discussed biblical interpretation with Dr. Bird.

Photo by Jessica Johnson

Spring 2015


Elizabethtown College is an institution with roots in the Church of the Brethren, a historic peace church known for holding “no creed but the New Testament.” This identity ran counter what students noticed as the palpable violence contained in early Christian literature. In recognizing the differences in norms and concerns between the present day and the first century, students inquired about the extent to which interpretations had changed over two millennia and across an ocean. As a point of comparison, students compared the role of the New Testament in the Church of the Brethren’s pacifist gestures.

Archivist Rachel Grove Rohrbaugh introduced students to the Elizabethtown College Peace Pamphlet Collection, part of the Earl H. and Anita F. Hess Archives and Special Collections.”With materials dating from 1775 to the 1970s, the pamphlets highlight the Biblical basis of peace, alternatives to war, the experiences of conscientious objectors, and other topics on non-violence.” Students analyzed pamphlets from 20th century conflicts, paying special attention to the New Testament’s place in advocating for peace. Having also studied the passages in their first-century context, students also considered similarities and differences in interpretations.


During the final exam period, the class shared their findings with local current Brethren scholars, pastors, and laity. We gathered at the Bucher Meetinghouse in the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies. The exchange led to an increased understanding of how Brethren perceive the New Testament as a story to be lived into.

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