The MOOC Jesus in Scripture and Tradition is starting on June 1, taught by Notre Dame professors Gary Anderson and John C. Cavadini, and offered on the edX platform. BestCerts asked Prof. Gary Anderson, Hesburgh Professor of Catholic Theology the following questions via email, which he graciously answered.
BestCerts: Who is this MOOC targeted towards? What background knowledge is assumed?
Prof. Anderson: No background is assumed. Anyone interested in the subject matter is invited to participate!
BestCerts: Will the course be useful for non-believers who want to learn more about Jesus?
Prof. Anderson: Yes, the course does not presume belief.
BestCerts: What kinds of insight can believers who have perhaps read the Bible for many years, draw from learning about these topics?
Prof. Anderson: The course will try to show how the two Testaments of the Christian Bible are related to one another and how the thinking of the Church about the person of Jesus follows naturally from the issues that are raised in the Bible. There is much to be learned!
“The course does not presume belief.”
BestCerts: How much will the course get into the details of biblical scholarship?
Prof. Anderson: Almost all of the non-biblical readings are from leading Biblical scholars from North America and Israel. Though the course is not an introduction to historical-critical method, the results of that sort of work will inform what happens in the course.
BestCerts: What are some of the biggest things biblical scholars debate regarding Jesus? Are there any new trends?
Prof. Anderson: One of the major issues of concern is the relationship of the Jesus of history to what is often called “the Christ of Faith.” This course shows the continuity between the two. In this course we have an extended interview with Prof. John Meier, the leading scholar on the subject of the Historical Jesus. See his multi-volume series – A Marginal Jew published by Doubleday/Yale in the prestigious Anchor Bible series. We also have an extended interview with Jon Levenson, a Jewish biblical scholar from Harvard University. His work has shown the way in which Jewish traditions shaped the presentation of Jesus in the Gospels.
BestCerts: What biographies or books about Jesus would you recommend, especially for the lay reader?
BestCerts: What do you think of Reza Aslan’s recent book ‘Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth‘?
Prof. Anderson: As was pointed out recently in the Jewish Review of Books, Reza Aslan is not a biblical scholar and does not control the material he claims to interpret. The thesis that he propounds in this book is an old one that has long been disproven. Though this book has found no traction among scholars (across the full spectrum of belief) it has found an audience in the popular press. But this says more about contemporary culture than it does about the past.
BestCerts: How much of the tradition about Jesus after the new testament to modern times be covered?
Prof. Anderson: We will cover a good bit of material from the early church and we spend a long time on a French monastic community in North Africa that formed the basis for the French film: Of Gods and Men.
BestCerts: Will the emphasis on tradition follow both Protestant and Catholic traditions?
Prof. Anderson: The course is more about the development of Jesus in the early church – long before any division of the church into its present tri-partite form: Protestant, Orthodox, Roman Catholic. The course adopts a broadly Catholic perspective which has many points of resonance with other Christian approaches that emphasize growth in the Church’s understanding of her own faith and the correlate development of doctrine. This approach, for example, on the relation between Scripture and Tradition, offers a unique theological access to the historical developments we are highlighting, and so invites the hearer to think both theologically and historically at the same time.
“The course is more about the development of Jesus in the early church – long before any division of the church into its present tri-partite form: Protestant, Orthodox, Roman Catholic.”
BestCerts: Has Pope Francis made any proclamations or expressed any specific viewpoints on the life of Jesus?
Prof. Anderson: Pope Francis has not said anything out of the ordinary about the identity of Jesus. He has accented the importance of Jesus’ concern for the poor. We do address this issue in the course.
BestCerts: What do you hope that students will have learned after taking this course?
Prof. Anderson: “Thanks to the assistance of the Holy Spirit, the understanding of both the realities and the words of the heritage of faith is able to grow in the life of the Church” (CCC 94). And, as Gregory the Great said, the sacred Scriptures “grow with the one who reads them” (Homily in Ezekiel 1.7, 8, cited at CCC 94). We hope that students who take this course will develop a sense of how the Church has read the two-part Bible (OT and NT) and the Scriptures “grow with the one who reads them.”
The Person of Jesus is presented and proclaimed in the Bible as a mystery of God’s revelation, indeed the supreme mystery. We hope that students in this course will have a sense of how this is true, and how the understanding of this mystery has grown in the hearts of believers over time as the Church continues to grapple with and give shape to the way we think about Jesus.
Oftentimes, the subject of Jesus is treated in a purely historical manner – sifting through the various texts from the New Testament and its immediate environment in an effort to nail down what can be said with 100% confidence about the historical person. Though we will grapple with historical questions, our course will center more on the mystery of Jesus’ identity that emerges from the biblical proclamation and continues to grow in the way the Christian tradition has read the Bible. By “mystery” we mean an identity that can never be fully fathomed by finite human beings because it expresses God’s unfathomably loving purpose in creating and redeeming humankind. It requires constant study, reflection, and meditation in order to appreciate.
This course will introduce the student to what that process looks like rather than providing the student with a full and final definition of who Jesus was and is. For “it is in particular ‘theological research which deepens knowledge of revealed truth’” (CCC 94, citing Gaudium et Spes 62,7).
BestCerts: Why do you think that the figure of Jesus has been so compelling for people to study through the generations, including by those from other religious traditions and atheists?
Prof. Anderson: Jesus is a compelling figure at many, many levels. Most importantly because of the movement he founded and the saints who were formed by that movement (St. Francis and Mother Teresa may be two of the most important). But many individuals—Gandhi for example—have been deeply moved by the moral and spiritual teaching as recorded in the Gospels.
If you are interested in studying this further, you can enroll in Jesus in Scripture and Tradition, which starts June 1.