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
  • Suggested readings
  • 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 4.3 out of 5 by 66.
Rated 2 out of 5 by from I received this about 10 days ago, but the first disc was faulty so I am returning the series as when I watched another disc, I realized that this course is in the "behind the podium" format where the professor (who is excellent) never moves from the podium and there are no graphics accompanying the lectures, probably because this course dates from 2002, when the courses were very classroom restricted.
Date published: 2020-07-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Jewish scholar's interpretation of NT-delightful I highly recommend Levine's course on the Great Figures of the NT -- suitable for pastors and lay people alike. Love her ability to make the stories come alive as literature. And her linking of the New Testament stories to stories of the Hebrew Bible has been an eye-opener for me. I also love that she brings the perspective of a Jewish scholar to New Testament texts -- adds to the integrity of her interpretations because she doesn't have a Christian agenda. Yet she exudes a delight for these Christian stories and an appreciation for the power of their message. Simply a joy to watch Levine in action as a scholar, presenter and human being.
Date published: 2020-06-16
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Disappointing So disappointed. After finishing this course, it is apparent to anyone that Dr. Levine is a brilliant scholar, but unfortunately she is also a very poor lecturer for a course of this nature. I felt her the way she taught was directed at college students who are majoring in biblical studies and have a fairly solid background on the subject, not the general population. In all honesty, my brain could not process all the information she threw at me at the speed she spoke. I felt Dr. Levine was trying to cram in as much information as she could in each lecture.I expected this course to give me both a historical as well as a biblical perspective of each of the figures lectured on in the series. But in each lecture, there was a significant amount of 'superfluous' information thrown in as well. Does it really matter where someone's name came from and how many other people also had this name, both in the New Testament as well as the Old Testament? There were constant comparisons between how the figure/situation discussed was similar to figures/situations in the Old Testament. This series could have been great if 1.) Dr.Levine talked significantly slower and 2.) gave the pertinent information about each topic in relation to the New Testament and not 'cloud' the issues with scenes/figures from the Old Testament, some of which I had never heard of. It is obvious that Dr. Levine is an accomplished scholar. This could have been a phenomenal course had she focused more directly on the subject at hand and not gone off on too many rapid fire tangents that distracted us from the main subjects of the lecture.
Date published: 2020-05-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Figures of the New Testament A good presentation of the Figures of the New Testament. Dr Laverne does a great presentation.
Date published: 2020-01-20
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
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