Great Figures of the New Testament

Course No. 6206
Professor Amy-Jill Levine, Ph.D.
Vanderbilt University
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Course No. 6206
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Course Overview

Improve your biblical literacy and re-encounter the New Testament as a great repository of literary genius. This is the promise of Professor Amy-Jill Levine's vivid portraits of the cast of characters in the New Testament. While most of the figures treated are real, historical people, at least two (the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan) are fictional protagonists in stories told by Jesus within Luke's Gospel.

Some figures are famous. Others, such as the Syro-Phoenician woman who must turn Jesus' own words back upon him to gain the healing of her daughter, are not so famous but deserve to be better remembered.

Christianity's Founding Generation

Our Great Figures include Jesus himself as well as:

  • A bullheaded fisherman from Galilee
  • A highly educated tentmaker from Tarsus
  • Several politically unaware magi, martyrs, Roman army officers, bad rulers, and the prophets who run afoul of them
  • One enigmatic betrayer
  • A number of strong and interesting women (including the unnamed Samaritan, a Canaanite mother, Martha the homeowner and her sister Mary, and a repentant sinner who anoints Jesus).

Representing the models of Old Testament piety are the elderly couple Elizabeth and Zechariah. The story of their son, John the Baptist, moves us immediately into the dangerous world of the 1st century, where messianic fervor was on the rise and popular prophets knew their lives were in danger.

You encounter Jesus' friends, the contemplative Mary and the vocal Martha, as well as their brother Lazarus.

You join conversations with:

  • Jesus' interlocutors: Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman
  • The centurion with a paralyzed son
  • The desperate Canaanite mother with a demon-possessed daughter.

You explore the stories of the Apostles Peter and Thomas, James and John, Mary Magdalene (who becomes known as the Apostle to the Apostles), and Judas Iscariot—from the times they spent with Jesus to their post-canonical fates.

From the early years of the church, you meet James, "the brother of the Lord," and Stephen, the first martyr.

You explore how much we really know about:

  • The centurions who represent Rome's military presence
  • Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect who orders Jesus crucified
  • The four generations of the Herodian royal family who appear in the pages of the New Testament.

As for Paul the Apostle, Professor Levine investigates both his presentation in Acts of the Apostles and what can be determined about him from his own letters.

How Jesus Was Perceived—Then and Later

Concerning Jesus, one lecture is devoted to how he might have been perceived by those who knew him personally.

Then Professor Levine concludes with the development of Christology: how the "anointed one" was understood as a participant in the work of creation, as a new Adam, a perfect sacrifice, a suffering servant, the second part of the Trinity, and even a lactating mother.

Unlike primarily historical introductions to the Bible, including The Teaching Company's The Old Testament and The New Testament, these lectures frequently raise issues of religious interest.

The point of this exploration is not to inculcate any theology, let alone any particular religious world-view. Rather, it seeks to read the ancient texts anew to discover what they really say and how they were interpreted by both the secular culture and the faithful church.

How Well Do You Really Know the Bible?

You may think you already know all the great stories of the Bible. But often they are misted over by centuries of common misperceptions frequently repeated.

To take the most well-known example, it is common today to regard the snake in the Garden of Eden as Satan and to see the disobedience of Adam and Eve as resulting in Original Sin. Yet the Genesis story mentions neither Satan nor sin.

Now, by taking a fresh look through the eyes of Professor Levine, you rediscover the Great Figures of the New Testament. You learn anew from the fascinating cast of characters in the greatest story ever told.

Writes Harold McFarland, Regional Editor at Midwest Book Review:

"In Great Figures of the New Testament Professor Amy-Jill Levine of the Vanderbilt University Divinity School does an excellent job of bringing several individuals to life. Not only does she discuss well-known individuals such as Pontius Pilate, James, and Philip but also important groups and individuals who are not specified by name such as the Centurions, the woman at the well, the shepherds, and others. Professor Levine deftly discusses details of the person from the perspectives of the Biblical stories, culture, literary criticism, how the church has viewed the person through history, and how artists and worshippers have viewed them. Probably one of the most fascinating aspects of the course is how she brings their personalities to life based on how they spoke, acted, or reacted within the confines of their culture.

"Professor Levine includes some analysis of literary types such as noting the parallel between Jesus' father Joseph going to Egypt and Joseph, Jacob's son going to Egypt. This opens up even more interesting aspects in the lives of the figures.

"Some of the many figures discussed include Elizabeth and Zechariah, John the Baptist, Joseph, Mary and Martha, Lazarus, the Samaritan woman, Pharisees and Sadducees, Thomas, James, John, Judas Iscariot, Stephen, Philip, Paul, and Jesus.

"This is a great piece of work and sure to enlighten anyone wishing to gain a more thorough understanding of these great figures. As usual with The Teaching Company products, this is a very highly recommended purchase."

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    The New Testament
    Why choose the particular Great Figures discussed in these lectures? What do you most need to know about their historical settings? What tools can best help you as a student to grasp the depth of these characters and the richness of their stories? x
  • 2
    John the Baptist
    Why did John baptize? What precisely was his relation to Jesus? Why exactly did Herod have John killed? By comparing Gospel accounts to the writings of the 1st-century Jewish historian Josephus, you will have an excellent opportunity to explore how students of the New Testament address questions of history. x
  • 3
    The Virgin Mary
    Unwed mother or mother goddess? Queen of Heaven who bore her child in a stable? Revered in Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Islam, yet sometimes eyed warily in Protestant thought, Mary the mother of Jesus continues to inspire intense devotion, provoke controversy, and stimulate theological reflection. x
  • 4
    Joseph, Magi, and Shepherds
    Staples of "the" Christmas story, even though they do not appear together in any one Gospel, these figures naturally raise the question of what the Gospel writers—and later interpreters—are trying to emphasize in their particular renderings of Jesus' birth. x
  • 5
    Peter
    How did a headstrong Galilean fisherman become "the prince of the apostles" and, so Catholic tradition holds, the first pope? Untangle the whole astounding, inspirational, and often-confusing story. x
  • 6
    John and James, the Sons of Zebedee
    Fishermen like Peter, these brothers join Jesus in a new life as "fishers of people." While the Gospels (the fourth of which John is said to have written) show them often misunderstanding their master and his mission, in the end their faithfulness is beyond question. x
  • 7
    Martha, Mary, and Lazarus
    These siblings are beloved friends of Jesus. Mary and Martha appear briefly in Luke's Gospel, and all three figure importantly in John's. Historically, what role did they probably play in Jesus' movement, and culturally, how have their stories been retold through the centuries? x
  • 8
    "Doubting" Thomas
    While "Doubting Thomas" is a familiar phrase, the complex story of this apostle whose name means simply "Twin" is less so. Why are three major extracanonical early Christian works—including a gospel and an infancy narrative—associated with him? x
  • 9
    The Gentile Mother
    Find out why the story of this woman (Mark and Matthew identify her ethnicity differently) who pleads with Jesus to exorcise her child is one of the most problematic miracle narratives in all the Gospels. x
  • 10
    The Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son
    The protagonists of these famous parables (they appear only in Luke) may be so familiar to us that we've lost a sense of just how unsettling the stories would have been to Jesus' audience or Luke's readers. x
  • 11
    The Samaritan Woman
    Having learned who the Samaritans are, you are now ready to meet the extraordinary and unnamed Samaritan woman who meets Jesus at a well (John 4) and has an amazing conversation with him about "living water," proper worship, her own marital history, and the identity of the Messiah. x
  • 12
    Mary Magdalene
    Present at the cross in all four Gospels and the sole consistent witness to the empty tomb, this Mary appears before Good Friday in only one Gospel, Luke's. Yet, from the Gospel accounts to present-day Hollywood, she has enjoyed an exceptionally rich career in Christianity and culture. x
  • 13
    Pharisees and Sadducees
    Who were the Pharisees and the Sadducees? What did they believe and practice, and why do the Gospels polemicize against them? x
  • 14
    The Herodians
    Like the Pharisees and Sadducees, the Herodian royal family—Herod the Great, Herod Antipas, Herod Agrippa I, and Herod Agrippa II—gets "bad press" in the New Testament. What does the extra-biblical historical record add? x
  • 15
    Judas Iscariot
    Betrayer, dupe, victim, revolutionary, or even friend of Jesus who took on the necessary dirty work of arranging his arrest—with this range of possible identities, it is no wonder that Judas has captured the imagination of interpreters for two millennia. x
  • 16
    Pontius Pilate
    By tracing the character of this Roman governor through the Gospels, the writings of Josephus and Philo, and later Christian theologians, we gain a valuable view on how early Christians saw their relation to both the Roman state and to the Synagogue. x
  • 17
    James
    Was James—the apparent successor to Peter as head of the Church at Jerusalem—called "the Brother of the Lord" because he actually was a sibling of Jesus? Did James write the epistle that bears his name? x
  • 18
    Stephen
    How does the story of this first follower of Jesus to be martyred open for us a window on the practices, beliefs, difficulties, and achievements of the early Jewish followers of Jesus? x
  • 19
    Philip
    In Acts, Luke offers us a number of colorful, intriguing vignettes about Philip that offer important clues about the growth of the early legends that scholars call the New Testament Apocrypha. x
  • 20
    The Centurions
    By examining stories in the Gospels and Acts about three centurions—prestigious Roman army officers—we can trace tantalizing clues about how the early Christians viewed life under the pax Romana. x
  • 21
    Paul, the Hero of Acts
    In this talk, you meet Paul as he is known through the companion volume to the Gospel of Luke, the Acts of the Apostles, where Paul first appears at the martyrdom of Stephen. x
  • 22
    Paul, the Epistolary Evangelist
    This second lecture on Paul considers what can be known about him from the letters that are attributed to him in the New Testament, weighs his authorship and views, and sketches his massive theological influence. x
  • 23
    Jesus of Nazareth
    This talk on "the Jesus of history" will first help you sort out major post-Enlightenment approaches such as source, form, and redaction criticism, and then help you weigh more recent scholarly reconstructions of who Jesus was, what he did, and what he taught. x
  • 24
    The Christ of Faith
    In the New Testament and later theological writings, knowing Jesus means more than knowing what he said and did prior to his crucifixion. In this final lecture, therefore, you examine various accounts of "the Christ of faith" as he appears in the New Testament and beyond. In the end, you are reminded of what else can, and should, be studied, again and again (cf. John 21:25). x

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  • 168-page printed course guidebook
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  • Questions to consider
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Your professor

Amy-Jill Levine

About Your Professor

Amy-Jill Levine, Ph.D.
Vanderbilt University
Dr. Amy-Jill Levine is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies, E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies, and Professor of Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School and the College of Arts and Sciences. She is also Affiliated Professor at the Woolf Institute, Centre for the Study of Jewish-Christian Relations, at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom. Dr. Levine...
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Reviews

Great Figures of the New Testament is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 62.
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Of Value, but with Limits First, I want to say I like Amy-Jill Levine. I think she's very knowledgeable and brings a lot of value to any course she teaches. I learned a lot about the main figures in the New Testament. And so will most students, especially those with limited or intermediate knowledge of the Bible. I count off for two reasons. One, I'm not a fan of the encyclopedic approach, that is, each figure, one after the other. I suspect the knowledge I will retain over time will be reasonably limited because of learning in this manner. I rather wish she would have focused on the narrative and emphasized the main contribution during its course of all these players. There were some who deserved more than one session. It's true Paul got two, but spending as much time on the Centurions and the Herodians as on John the Baptist or Peter seemed out of balance. The other problem for me was the tendency which I suspect she shows in the classroom of leaving so many items open for question. Please understand: I have no problem with a professor making clear that there is uncertainty to certain matters. Rather, I simply wish Levine had taught her best sense of a resolution more often. This course has value, but it also has limitations.
Date published: 2019-11-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Professor I haven't started "Great Figures of the New Testament" yet, but I know Professor Amy Jill Lavinne always presents lectures that will be difficult to be outdone.
Date published: 2019-09-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Figures of the New Testament I bought this for a Study I will teach at my church this Fall. I previewed several sessions and I look forward leading it.
Date published: 2019-06-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I've completed the course, and my New Testament knowledge has greatly increased as a result. The professor has some excellent insights and is very intelligent and knowledgeable on the New Testament. She's not the most entertaining speaker, so I found it easier to read the transcript.
Date published: 2019-05-07
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good Course, but Lacks a Center This is the second course I have taken from Professor Levine, the other being “The Old Testament”. I gave that course five stars across the board, as I was unable to rate anything six stars. As much as I appreciated the organization of that earlier course, I was somewhat disappointed in this one. Perhaps the very goal of the course, centering on New Testament personalities is not well suited to a cohesive whole, or perhaps it may be my learning style, but I could never quite get a valid transition from one lecture to another (some exceptions of course, as in the back to back lectures on Judas Iscariot and Pontius Pilate). Plus in some cases I just not buy into the premise of the lecture itself, the one on “The Centurions” being a prime example. But so much about what I felt lacking. There is plenty to love and to learn from in this course. I gained new insight in the relationship of John the Baptist and Jesus for example. In almost every lecture my (mostly) rather casual understanding of most of the persons she covers was really enhanced as Dr. Levine really fleshes out what I thought were often cardboard characters into living, breathing people. For example both “The Gentile Mother” and “The Samaritan Woman” were figures (and only that) that I had never considered as real people. Whether they were or not, Professor Levine brings both to life with vivid portrayals. Most lectures cover one figure in 30 minutes, and occasionally a lecture covers more than one figure. Mary, Martha and Lazarus share one lecture for example. Both Paul and Jesus get two, with the last, summing-up lecture appropriately one on Jesus. And for me, this lecture was the highlight of the course, clearly demonstrating why he was important, regardless of one's faith or lack thereof. Now many reviewers have disliked Professor Levine’s presentation style, some even commenting the she seems snide of is dismissive of either their (the reviewer’s) faith or the passages she cites. I fall into the camp of loving her delivery, albeit at a rapid pace and her sense of humor. And all one has to do is listen to her comment on Martha, “I love Martha” to understand how much she loves her subject matter. Her following commentary as to why, gave me a warm insight to both Martha and Amy-Jill Levine.
Date published: 2019-03-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Pacted with numerous opinons and insight I land squarely with those who gave this course 5-stars. If you want a single interpretation of the Bible and the people in it; this is NOT your course. I've studied world religions in college and this is the kind of course that causes students to consider a variety of interpretations; just what you want to do in an academic setting. There is a difference between 'teaching religion' and 'teaching about religions'. Professor Levine teaches about religions and does it very well. I've taken another of her courses in CD format. I did this one in DVD. She comes across much better in the DVD. She does speak fast and you may want to 'back-space' a lot. Which makes it difficult if listening in the car. However, this class is packed with information, potential alternate interpretations, and issues to ponder. I suggest you have a copy of a Bible next to you and be prepared to 'stop the tape' and review the passages she mentions.
Date published: 2018-02-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I lead a class of 20 mostly retired folks at my church, meeting Thursday, noon-1:30. Each year we select a curriculum we would like to study. In May of last year we chose Amy Jill Levine's program, because we had previously studied two of hers. We are loving the curriculum and have many students wanting to lead a lesson, along with 3 of of Ministerial class. Great learning and discussions abound!
Date published: 2018-01-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Informative, enjoyable I have greatly enjoyed these lectures and have learned so much. When I bought this course, I was afraid it would consist of some fluffy biographies. To the contrary: these lectures are serious studies of some of the most fascinating New Testament figures and provide another perspective from which to understand this complex and confusing set of writings,
Date published: 2017-08-19
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