Welcome to the course catalog for the Jesus Seminar on the Road program! Teams of Westar scholars are available to teach a wide variety of weekend courses in the categories listed below. The exact format and content of each program differs based on the expertise of the available faculty. Browse the course descriptions below and then let us know which program(s) you're interested in bringing to your community.
The Christian gospels see Jesus through the eyes of faith as the Messiah and divine savior. This means they tell us what early Christians believed, not who Jesus actually was. How can we discover the human Jesus before he became the object of belief? Fortunately the gospels do preserve some material about what Jesus really said and did. This seminar introduces the historical Jesus and what he means for Christianity today.
The “Kingdom of God” is the traditional translation of the Greek basileia tou theou. This phrase expresses the vision of the historical Jesus, but it is an indirect vision. It is ironically not about God but about the workings of God’s realm. How is this Kingdom of God different from the Kingdom of Rome? What did this phrase mean to Jesus and early Jesus followers? What relevance has this term to questions about Christianity?
Suggested Reading: Honest to Jesus Robert Funk (Polebridge/HarperSanFrancisco, 1996)
The Parables of Jesus
BIO 110 Level: Intermediate
Lost in the backwaters of moralistic and simplistic preaching, the parables of Jesus have emerged in modern scholarship as the creation of a great artist. They employ comic forms of irony, hyperbole, and tragedy that test our everyday perception of the world. This seminar explores what parables are really about and why we should question the interpretations of gospel writers. The result is full of surprising and challenging insights.
The Jesus of history has been portrayed in many forms: an apocalyptic prophet, an ancient physician of remarkable skill, a teacher of orthodox Judaism, and an enigmatic figure of wisdom. This seminar reviews the different “Jesuses” debated publicly and in scholarship. It will guide the audience through the work of the Jesus Seminar and indicate why the Seminar found Jesus as wisdom teacher the most compelling conclusion.
Suggested Reading: The Apocalyptic Jesus: A Debate Robert J. Miller, editor (Polebridge, 2001) Contributors: Dale C. Allison, Marcus J. Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Stephen J. Patterson
The Politics of the Real Jesus
BIO 210 Level: Advanced
How did the historical Jesus relate to the social and political issues of his time? What were his attitudes toward nature, the economy, war, and peace? What does Jesus have to do with justice and politics today? From the teaching of the historical Jesus it is possible to construct the traces of radical ethics and intentional politics. This seminar will review the teaching of Jesus and touch upon its politically charged edges.
After the crucifixion of Jesus, early Christians sought ways to console their grief and to bring meaning to Jesus’s life. Several experiments in theology resulted before resurrection became the Christian mainstay. Prior to fixing on the resurrection, there were other beliefs about the death and afterlife of Jesus? Why do such alternatives matter? This seminar investigates different ways early Christians talked about the death of Jesus.
Paul dominates early Christianity. He is the credited author of half the New Testament and a main character in the book of Acts. But many writings attributed to Paul did not come from his pen. Who then was the real Paul? Was he the great convert to Christianity, the first anti-feminist, the one who found the Torah too great a burden? All of these portraits hide Paul from our vision. This seminar is about finding the real Paul for today.
The Apostle Paul was a theologian but not a Christian one - Paul was Jewish. Nevertheless, Christians revere (and revile) him without understanding the world in which he lived. From his Jewish perspective, how did Paul see the world? What did he understand to be the main problem? How was Jesus a solution? Placing Paul back in context makes a world of difference and can change how Christianity understands itself.
So far as we can tell, Peter, Paul, and Mary were distinct but important leaders in the rise of Christianity. Paul was the Apostle to the Gentiles; Peter, a pillar of the Jerusalem Church; and Mary, a founder of a community that named their gospel after her. Each figure also had a controversial reputation: Paul was anti-woman; Peter, a hothead; and Mary, the Apostle to the Apostles.What is the real story behind these enigmatic figures?
What does the rediscovery of the historical Jesus and his vision of the domain of God mean for the heirs of the Christian tradition? Does this Jesus have any relevance for people who claim no allegiance to Christianity? The presenters offer their insights and engage participants in a discussion about the relationship of Christianity to contemporary politics, economics, and global power.
Did Judaism and Christianity “part ways” at some definite moment in history? No, says Westar’s Christianity Seminar in agreement with key Jewish scholars. The Torah, many different gospels, prophets, and other writings are best understood as a slapdash overlapping set of ideas, social experiments, and spiritual practices rather than as the foundational literature of two religions. Only in the 3rd–5th centuries CE do definitive differences enable the movements to develop into separate traditions. Join Westar scholars in an adventure through the messy but fascinating early years!
Postponing the Origins of Both Judaism and Christianity
HIST 033 Level: Beginner
No such thing as “orthodoxy” and “heresy” existed for at least the first 200 years of the movement that would someday become Christianity. The supposed master narrative of a Jesus-based orthodoxy beleaguered by malicious heresies is a fantasy of a later era. In fact, these early communities were wildly diverse, promoting a variety of social and poetic experiments. This program, led by scholars of Westar’s Christianity Seminar, presents the evidence for a revolutionary new story of the first two centuries of Jesus movements.
The Bible as a Mixed Family of Texts, Not a Canon
HIST 035 Level: Beginner
The Jesus-related texts of the first two centuries were imaginative, experimental, and practical stories, poems, songs, and meditations—not a system of rules and beliefs for a new religion. This JSOR examines what happens when one interacts with an unofficial version of Christian beginnings, including not only the disparate gospels from what eventually became the official canon (the “New Testament”) but also many recent discoveries expanding this family of texts.
Women and the Birth of Christianity
HIST 130 Level: Intermediate
For centuries the Christian church insisted that its leaders be male. Most of Christian history is dominated by stories about male leaders. Yet, recent scholarship has uncovered a very different story of women and Christian origins. This seminar examines the leading role of women in the rise of Christianity and the formation of several Christian beliefs. Did Jesus and his first followers actually attempt to establish an egalitarian society?
Ancient Searches for Belonging and the Encounter with Violence
HIST 131 Level: Intermediate
Gospels and other literature about Jesus from the first two centuries CE didn’t set out to become primary religious texts, even though that’s what they ultimately became. So why were they written? This program, based on the first four years of Westar’s Christianity Seminar research, presents these texts as ideas, social practices, and social experiments that brought people together in the face of the violence of the Roman Empire.
Before Religion, A Story of Survival in Violent Times
New Findings from Westar’s Christianity Seminar
HIST 132 Level: Intermediate
This “crash course” from Westar’s Christianity Seminar introduces a revolutionary new understanding the first two centuries of Christianity. If the aim of these early communities wasn’t to start new religion, they can be viewed instead as diverse responses to Roman violence and the experiences of living with huge population movements throughout the Mediterranean. The Seminar also rejects popular claims that an early “orthodox” church fought off both heresies and other religions, especially Judaism.
**This course is a single, condensed version of courses HIST 032, 033, and 232**
Prostitutes, Virgins & Androgynes
HIST 133 Level: Intermediate
Speculation about sex and gender in the Bible is ubiquitous in popular culture. Consider the firestorm of debate that resulted from the Jesus’ Wife fragment (2014), the South African film Son of Man (2006), and Dan Brown’s bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code (2003). Ironically, ancient evidence presents a still more diverse range of possibilities. What were those possibilities, and what can they mean for today?
In 1945 a new gospel was discovered that would alter the way scholars look at gospels, the origins of Christianity, even Jesus himself. The new gospel was identified as the previously known but never found Gospel of Thomas. This Seminar introduces the Gospel of Thomas, examines its vision of Jesus, and asks how Thomas challenges our understanding of the historical Jesus and the story of Christian beginnings.
How a Massive Immigration Crisis Birthed Early Jesus Literature
HIST 232 Level: Advanced
What if the New Testament and related texts weren’t written to start a new religion but to address massive dislocations of populations within the Roman Empire? Inspired by 21st-century diaspora studies, scholars from Westar’s Christianity Seminar will revisit this literature as a new Exodus experiment based on Israel’s famous exodus from Egypt. What new interpretations of popular “Christian” texts result from this approach?
From the Sands of Egypt
ARCH 040 Level: Beginner
The story of the Nag Hammadi Library is one of the most compelling sagas in the annals of archaeology. This Seminar tells the story of how these ancient treasures that were lost, rediscovered, and finally found the light of day, revolutionizing the way scholars understand the origins of Christianity. In turn, the reopened question of Christian origins promises to have a great impact on the church today.
One enduring question in biblical scholarship is how did early Christian communities fit into the broader context of the social and political practices of ancient Rome? A key way to answer this question is through archaeology. Ancient ruins and iconography fill out a story only partially visible in a text. This seminar shows how archaeology contributes to understanding Christian beginnings in the economic and social structures of antiquity.
Suggested Resource: Revelations Elaine Pagels (Westar Institute DVD, 2013)
Paul and Archaeology
ARCH 140 Level: Intermediate
Paul and other early Christians formed small groups in grand Greek and Roman cities like Ephesus, Thessaloniki and Corinth. Through archaeology we can explore what the social, philosophical and religious environment was like in these Aegean cities. This seminar reviews selections from Paul’s letters as they might have been experienced in the the context of these cities.
The most misunderstood problem in Christianity is how traditions became texts and texts became scripture. For the first Christians there was no such thing as the New Testament. In place, there was a Greek version of the Hebrew Bible and several experimental writings on Jesus, the church, beliefs, and community practices. This seminar looks at the diversity of Christian “scriptures” before the New Testament.
Rituals, values, and social formations among early Christians were largely generated at festive meals. The study of extended meal practices allows the historian to focus attention on the place of women, slaves, and ethnic minorities in antiquity. Women’s mourning rituals also add a crucial element to emerging oral tradition about the empty tomb. This seminar discusses the formation of Christianity around ancient ritual practices.
The quest for the historical Jesus has been part of Christianity since its birth. However, it was not until the nineteenth century that the quest became a serious theological challenge. Does the historical Jesus change Christian belief and practice? Does the historical method similarly challenge and change other world religions outside Christianity? What does the historical Jesus portend for the future of religion as a whole?
Christianity tends to be defined as a system of beliefs. The beliefs themselves supposedly originated in the first and second centuries, but this assumption does great injustice to the actual focus of early literature on trust and confidence in the face of the Roman Empire’s often arbitrary violence. This JSOR puts the Greek pistis in its context and defuses a strange translation that transformed it into belief.
The Secular Gospel of Jesus
ETH 150 Level: Intermediate
The historical Jesus was surprisingly secular. His “kingdom of God” addressed the present, not the future - the here and not a distant heaven. In the nineteenth century this Jesus inspired efforts to free secular society from the power of religious authorities. In the twenty-first century a new struggle involves religion addressing our real lives here and now. How does the secular gospel of Jesus inform the religious quest today?
Do the Dead Sea Scrolls, James Ossuary, Da Vinci Code, Bible Code, and Jesus family tomb destroy or vindicate the proverbial pillars of Christianity? Some journalists and scholars have coated the silent artifacts with a theological veneer. When the veneer is wiped away, what does archaeology have to say on its own?. What genuine archaeological evidence is pertinent to the historical Jesus and Christian origins?
Did Jesus practice gender equality? Is Paul the source of our sexual hang-ups? This seminar asks how the historical Jesus handled the issues of gender and sexuality with reference to the social hierarchy of first-century Palestine. It will also discusses how Paul understood social relations, including same-sex relationships. Addressing such issues stemming from Jesus and Paul may change Christian attitudes toward sexuality.
Opponents of same-sex marriage argue that the Bible condemns homosexuality and mandates “one man, one woman” as “God’s plan.” But what does the Bible actually say? What authority should it really have? This seminar examines the relevant biblical passages in their historical and social contexts. It asks how should the Bible can be used (or not used) in the contemporary debate on moral issues.
This seminar will focus on women and religion, both ancient and modern. Were women in the Jesus movement similar or different from those in other ancient religious communities? Why does gender continue to be so prominent in religious disputes about knowledge, purity, and authority? Looking at a range of ancient and modern texts, we discover what people really need to know about the Bible and gender politics.
Virtually all scholars agree that the “kingdom of God” (basileia tou theou) was the theme of Jesus' teaching. But how does this apparent God-centered language translate into the Twenty-first Century? Is it possible that understanding Jesus in context changes the traditional understanding about his vision? Does Jesus speak “God-language,” and if so, in what way does his language challenge theology today?
Faith Communities in the First and Twenty-first Centuries
THE 061 Level: Beginner
The first century saw a creative explosion of new, experimental faith communities. Many were early Christian, many were not. Christianity was born in the context of wide diversity. Today too there is a passionate longing for community and many bold new experiments in community formation. This Seminar introduces the first and twenty-first century landscape, looking for parallels and differences for inspiration.
The Genesis story of creation has long been taken to privilege the human species, but this assumption is not consistent with contemporary ecology and its emphasis on the inter-connection of all life. This seminar asks if the teaching of the historical Jesus can have relevance for issues arising from ecology. Was Jesus an eco-theologian? What directives are available in the life of Jesus for facing ecology and ethics today?
This primer on the ongoing work of Westar’s Seminar on God and the Human Future takes on the challenges and risks of reimagining the meaning of God for today. Rather than settling on one orthodox depiction of God, the Seminar is exploring the various ways God is being actively reimagined by current philosophers and theologians. What they share in common is a post-theistic sensibility that takes leave from the traditional all-powerful and all-knowing God. The workshop makes the case for the continuing relevance, viability, and excitement of contemporary discussions about God.
The Christ of traditional Christian creeds has become incredible, a mythical relic of the ancient world. If the Church is to survive, it must develop new rituals and symbols consistent with the world as experienced on an everyday basis. Yet, what shall Christianity do with “Christ”? This Seminar explores ways in which the historical Jesus can help stimulate discussion about the future of the faith.
In the America's culture wars, neo-conservatives claim the high moral ground on the basis of the “true” Christian story. But is such ground really there? The Bible reflects pre-modern, metaphysical assumptions about the world. It does not address contemporary religious views of humankind and the cosmos. What is “real” Christianity in light of modern understandings of naturalism, evolution, and biological death?
Beginning with classical Christianity and its core symbolism, this seminar will indicate how the God who was adopted from Plato by Christianity was abandoned in the late Middle Ages. The abandonment of the classical God led to the postmodern world of today. The pressing question now is has God a future in the postmodern world? If so, how might the church relevantly speak of God in this new time?
Jesus' vision of a divine domain subverted and transformed everyday life in the first century. It incorporated insights from the great sages of his time, but the church imprisoned the iconoclast in an iconic creed. Centuries later, creedal Christianity died in the arms of Copernicus, Newton, Darwin, and Einstein. A new scientific story about life now demands a new religion. What are the elements of that religion?
Over the course of the 17th through 19th centuries, the term God effectively stopped working as an explanation for the origins of things, the history of languages, and the nature of the cosmos. By the twentieth century, the concept of God stopped making sense; God effectively had died. Does there remain value to religion without God? How might religion without God be conceived and celebrated?