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.
Westar Institute is a non-profit, public benefit research and educational organization dedicated to fostering and communicating the results of cutting-edge scholarship on the history and evolution of the Christian tradition.
The Christian gospel writers see Jesus through the eyes of faith as the Anointed and divine savior. This means the gospels tell us what early Christians believed about Jesus but not what Jesus really said and did. How can we discover the human Jesus before he was the object of belief? This seminar introduces the quest for the historical Jesus and discusses what the results of the quest can mean 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 expression. It is not about God directly but about the workings of God. How are the workings of this "kingdom of God" different from the kingdom of Rome? What did this phrase mean to Jesus and early Jesus followers?
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 really the great convert to Christianity and the first anti- feminist? This seminar is about finding the real Paul and his real vision.
What happens when you take the Historical Jesus to Church? Can it be done? And what will the neighbors think? This seminar examines questions about who the real Jesus was and what it means when a Church community takes Jesus seriously.
Taking the Historical Mary to Church
Much attention has been given to the historical Jesus of Nazareth, but what about the historical Mary of Magdala? In the rise of Christianity, some held that Mary was the person closest to Jesus and that she was a true Apostle. The Gospel of Mary rejects the suffering of Jesus in favor of wisdom and inner light. What can we know about the historical Mary and communities which revered her as a prophet and emissary of the kingdom of God?
Wisdom and the Historical Jesus
Jesus lived as a 1st Century Jewish peasant in the Roman world. The voice of Jesus arises from impoverished and desperate circumstances, yet it was the remarkable voice of a visionary. In parables and aphorisms, the wisdom of Jesus is heard. This seminar seeks to understand the context of the historical Jesus and to hear his teaching.
The Parables of Jesus
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 forms of irony, hyperbole, and tragedy that test our everyday perception of the world. This seminar explores what parables are about and asks why we should question the interpretations of the 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 in Jesus the voice of a wisdom teacher.
The Apocalyptic Jesus: A Debate Robert J. Miller, editor (Polebridge, 2001) Contributors: Dale C. Allison, Marcus J. Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Stephen J. Patterson
Paul in Two Worlds
The Apostle Paul may have been a theologian, but he was not a Christian. 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? This seminar shows how placing Paul back in context can make a world of difference.
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 eariest Christians talked about the death of Jesus.
So far as we know, Peter, Paul, and Mary were distinct but important leaders in the rise of Christianity. Paul was the Apostle to the nations; 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?
Two non-canonical gospels are reshaping the way scholars understand Jesus and the early years of the movement he started nearly 2000 years ago in Galilee: the Q gospel and the Gospel of Thomas. Both are “wisdom” gospels in which Jesus appears in the role of sage and prophet. Is this ancient wisdom relevant to anyone living in the modern world?
Paul in Context and in Conflict
The historical Paul is as intriguing a figure as the historical Jesus, but unlike Jesus, Paul wrote letters. The authentic letters of Paul make it possible to talk about what Paul believed and to discover his vision of a radically transformed world. Paul resists Roman imperial theology, he identifies Jesus with the dispossessed among the nations, and he insists on the practice of equality within the communities of Christ. But what becomes of the real Paul when he became the subject of conflict in the Church?
THE BIRTH OF CHRISTIANITY
Jesus in The First and Twenty-First Centuries
What does the rediscovery of the historical Jesus and his vision of the empire of God mean for the heirs of the Christian tradition? Does this Jesus have any relevance for people who claim no allegiance to Christianity? This seminar focuses on the ancient teaching of Jesus and the modern relationship of Christianity to politics, economics, and global power.
Christianity today was only one form of a faith that traced its origins to Jesus of Nazareth. Using a Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, diverse Christians slowly added new writings (new testaments) to their collection of texts. However, by the fourth century only certain texts were "orthodox" and other writings considered "heretical" were lost. This seminar asks how the recovery of lost Christianities affects the church today.
From Heresy to New History
The split between “orthodoxy” and “heresy” did not exist for the first 200 years of the movement that would become Christianity. The traditional story about a Jesus-based orthodoxy beleaguered by malicious heretics is a fantasy of later generations. Early Jesus communities were wildly diverse. This seminar presents the evidence for a revolutionary new story of the first two centuries of the Jesus movement.
The Missing Bible
Common knowledge asserts that the Bible holds 66 Books, 39 in the Christian Old Testament and 27 in the New. Yet different Christian denominations have different Bibles and different numbers of books. Then there is the missing Bible! Inside the Bible is the Q Sayings Gospel. Outside the Bible are missing gospels, treatises, and letters. This seminar explores all the missing parts both in and outside the Bible, asking if things missing make for something new?
Re-Framing Christian Scriptures
The Gospel of Philip, Gospel of Mary (Magdalene), Gospel of Truth, Thunder: Perfect Mind, Acts of Thecla, Letter of Peter to Philip, the Secret Revelation of John and many other newly recovered documents reshape how we explain Christian beginnings. This seminar introduces the diverse set of Christian scriptures that have changed our understanding.
Second Thoughts About Christian Beginnings
How Christianity arose is a more complicated question than ever before imagined. New texts recently come to light expose a complex web of spiritual and social identities among earliest Christians. Recent sociological and anthropological analyses also fill out the picture of life in the ancient Roman empire. This seminar introduces diverse texts and unique experiences in the setting of the ancient Roman world.
Politics, Jesus, and Early Christ Communities
The Jesus of history resisted the political and social realities of his day. Early Christians did the same. Neither one was necessarily successful in their aims, but what do we know about their attitudes toward the economy, immigrants, and war? How did Jesus and emerging Christ communities express concern for justice and peace? Looking at the world today, what would they say about American politics?
The Bible, the Birth of Christianity, and Gender
Contemporary debates about gender often appeal to early Christianity and "biblical ideals." But what did people in biblical times really think about gender roles? As it turns out, the Bible offers a variety of opinions, and the early church inherited a range of ideas and customs from both Judaism and Greek society. What might these insights mean for our struggles today?
Women and the Birth of Christianity
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 about 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 seek to establish a truly egalitarian society?
The last 150 years have witnessed a wide range of exciting new discoveries of early Christian literature such as The Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Mary (of Magdala), Thunder: Perfect Mind, and many others. This Seminar will introduce some of these important new documents from early Christianity. It will review ancient Christian trajectories and show how the old standard division between orthodoxy and heresy is truly mistaken.
The Fifth Gospel
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.
In the modern world, memory is related to accuracy. A good memory means an accurate memory. In the ancient world, memory is related more freely to storytelling. A good memory was a good performance of a story. Herodotus, the Greek historian, was poor when it came to accuracy but great when it came to performing story. How well did the emerging Christian gospel writer's do? When it came to the death and resurrection of Jesus, what did remembering Jesus mean to them?
From the Sands of Egypt
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 lost treasures found the light of day and revolutionized the way scholars understand the origins of Christianity. In addition, this seminar examines how new questions about Christian origins can have an impact today.
How did early Christian communities fit into the broader context of the social and political practices of ancient Rome? Archaeology opens a doorway to the answer. Ancient ruins and iconography fill out a story that is only partially visible in a text. This seminar shows how archaeology contributes to understanding the birth of Christianity.
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 environments were like in these Aegean cities. This seminar reviews selections from Paul’s letters as theymight have been experienced in the context of these cities.
For the earliest 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, beliefs, and community practices. This seminar looks at the diversity of Christian "scriptures" before the New Testament came to be.
Rituals, values, and social formations among the earliest Christians were largely generated at festive meals. The study of extended meal practices allows historians to focus 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 how Christian beliefs arose in 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?
The Historical Jesus was surprisingly "secular" in his language. His vision about the kingdom of God addressed this world not heaven. In the nineteenth century, a secular understanding of Jesus inspired efforts to free society from the power of religious authorities. In our time, a new struggle involves refocusing religion on our real lives here and now. How does the secular language of the 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 cover such artifacts with a theological veneer. But the veneer is wiped away, what does archaeology really have to say? What archaeological evidence is genuinely 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 discuss how Paul understood social relations, including same-sex relationships. Addressing such issues stemming from Jesus and Paul may change 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 really say? What authority should the Bible have in relation to human sexuality? This seminar examines the relevant biblical passages in their historical and social contexts. It asks how the Bible can be used (or not used) in contemporary debates about homosexuality and marriage.
Many ancient Christian texts discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, were written at the same time as the more familiar texts of the New Testament but were excluded from it. As scholarship makes these ancient texts increasingly accessible to the public, they are inspiring new art, music, spiritual practices and more. This seminar introduces the Gospel of Mary and Thunder: Perfect Mind both in their ancient context and creative, modern expressions.
The Bible and Gender Politics
This seminar will focus on women, gender, and religion in the ancient and modern worlds. Were women in the Jesus movement similar to 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.
What if the New Testament and related texts were not written to start a new religion but to address population dislocation, violence, and loss within the Roman empire? What if this literature expressed diverse elements of protest and liberation? What new interpretations of popular "Christianity" would result? This seminar explores forms of protest in earliest Christianity and relates these forms to American culture today.
The God of Jesus
Virtually all scholars agree that the "kingdom of God" (basileia tou theou) was the theme of Jesus' teaching. Yet Jesus relays this vision only indirectly through parables. How does the parabolic imagery of Jesus translate into questions about God for the Twenty-first Century? Did Jesus speak “God-language,” and if he did, how does his language challenge theology today?
The first century saw a creative explosion of new, experimental faith communities. Christianity was born in a context of diversity. Today there remains a passionate longing for community and for new experiments in community formation. This seminar introduces the first and twenty-first century landscape, looking for parallels and differences. It asks, how can the historical Jesus inspire communities today?
The Genesis story of creation is often used 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?
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 America’s culture wars, conservatives claim the high moral ground based on the "true" Christian story. But is this claim legitimate? The Bible reflects pre-modern understanding of the world. It does not address contemporary questions about evolution or the cosmos. What is "real" Christianity when considering 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 and Aristotle by Christianity has been abandoned in our postmodern world. The pressing question now is, has God a future? If so, how might the church relevantly speak about God in our time?
The historical Jesus as an iconoclast who subverted and transformed everyday life in the ancient Roman empire. 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 elements of that religion still hold a relation to the historical Jesus?
The Protestant Reformation began with a controversial debate Martin Luther proposed in the 95 Theses. The legend is that Luther posted his Theses on the Wittenberg Cathedral door on October 31, 1517, and that this date marks the beginning of the Reformation. But Luther also proved something else. He proved that authority could be questioned, the Church could be changed, and truth could be understood historically. These are the legacies of the Reformation that remain important today.
Religion Without God
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. For many communities in the 21st Century the concept of God stopped making sense and God effectively died. Does there remain value to religion without God? How might religion without God be conceived and celebrated?
In the history of Christianity, questions about God often represented questions about how the world works. The solution to the question was given through revelation, doctrine, and the witness of the Bible. Since the modern era, these solutions have faltered to the point of being dysfunctional. This however does not cancel but changes the question about God. It makes the question new. What do we mean by God today and has God a continuing value for humanity?
Christian thought and political actions once rested on a three-tiered universe. God above; humans on earth; and spirits in the underworld. That universe has been replaced with string theory, quantum leaps, and relativity. We need new language about God consistent with our universe and relevant for our politics. Can process theology help this discussion? Can we reconsider the longstanding debate of God and politics?
Reviving Christian Humanism
Christian beliefs have always held forms of humanism. The source of that "humanism" lies in the heritage of ancient wisdom communities who focused life practices. Christian wisdom also influenced the rise of modern humanism: a commitment to human knowledge based on experience. This seminar explores ancient and modern forms of humanism that influence Christianity today and support new understandings of spirituality.
Taking Jesus Seriously: Building on the Wisdom Tradition
Biblical scholars and theologians are traditionally in different camps. Biblical scholars care about texts and contexts; theologians care about ideas and the history of ideas. The Westar Institute has forced a marriage between the Bible and theology. The changing understanding of the historical Jesus and the God of Jesus in turn changes the foundations of theology and the future of God.
Westar Institute fosters collaborative, cumulative research in religious studies and communicates the results of the scholarship to a broad, non-specialist public.