Consider the daunting task facing teachers of the Bible: helping modern students understand how an ancient text speaks to the world today. Perkins students come from a range of Christian backgrounds. Some of them are fundamentalists, others are agnostic and many are somewhere in the middle. They enter Perkins from the wider world, where some dismiss the Bible as entirely irrelevant and others insist each word must be honored as literal truth. We asked Perkins’ Bible scholars to reflect on the challenges and joys of teaching theology students; here are excerpts from their responses.
Q. What led you to devote your career to studying and teaching the Bible?
John R. (Jack) Levison, W. J. A. Power Professor of Old Testament Interpretation and Biblical Hebrew: My very first week at Wheaton College, I was in Greek professor Gerald Hawthorne’s class. He walked in, put down his briefcase, and wrote Philippians 4:13 in Greek on the board. Most of the students knew that verse as, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Jerry said, “I don’t like that translation, because it’s not true. You can’t do chemistry through Christ who strengthens you. The translation I like is Today’s English Version: ‘I can face all things through the One who gives me power.’” He posed a problem, raised a question and pricked our curiosity. I was hooked. I was gone. I was all in.
Susanne Scholz, Professor of Old Testament: I grew up with the Grimm’s fairy tales as a child in West Germany, not with the Bible. I had a great religion teacher in my Gymnasium (last three years of 13 years of schooling) who hooked me to study theology at the university level. Then I had some great Bible professors, went on an archaeological dig, spent a year at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and did feminist exegesis with Dr. Phyllis Trible, a pioneering scholar in the United States. How can you not devote your life to a text of such magnificent, profound and enduring influence in society and in the world?
Sze-kar Wan, Professor of New Testament: I was born in China and lived in Hong Kong. I knew some English when I came to this country as a 15-year-old, but I could hardly understand what the teacher was saying, so I majored in math. I shied away from anything that required me to write or read, because I couldn’t write my way out of a paper bag. In college I became more dedicated to Christianity. I had the idea – which I think now is rather naïve – that if I could really understand the “real” meaning of the biblical text, I could find out what Christianity was all about. It’s not as simple as that. In seminary, I realized that the Bible allowed me to be creative. I could find new meaning.
Roy L. Heller, Professor of Old Testament and Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor: I was brought up in a Pentecostal household where the Bible was regularly quoted, discussed and considered. I’ve always been interested in religion. A couple of my undergraduate professors convinced me that I should probably consider graduate school; when the time came to settle on a major, it seemed like religion would play to my strengths. Studying the Bible was, almost, the self-evident choice.
Jaime Clark-Soles, Professor of New Testament and Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor: As a freshman in college, we discussed Matthew 28:19 in history class. Most translations say, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” That sounds like an imperative – as in, your job is targeting people for evangelism. Instead the professor read the passage as: “As you are going, make disciples.” It’s a big difference. Instead of going to Africa to save people, your job is to go to work today and witness to the gospel. That struck me because, as a Russian Studies major and a military brat who had lived in Italy, I already understood that language really matters. If I wanted to gain a fuller understanding of the Bible, I needed to read it in the original language.
Abraham Smith, Professor of New Testament: My earliest reflections and work in biblical studies were essentially motivated by a mission: to rescue Paul from the dustbins of pragmatic irrelevancy. He suffered from multiple charges: social accommodation on questions about gender and slavery; theological inconsistency; and perhaps no small measure of dense writing. After all, someone closer to his own time once said of his letters: “there are some things in them hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16, NRSV). Little wonder it is, then, that this otherwise towering figure has also been described as an enigma, perhaps even a “protean” figure (as Amos Jones once did in Paul’s Message of Freedom: What Does It Mean to the Black Church?).
Q. What is it like teaching theology students? What’s most gratifying, what’s most challenging?
Smith: The most gratifying aspect of teaching Christian Scriptures is the moment when the fog lifts, new vistas open and teacher and student alike see afresh a text come alive because it finally connects emotionally to a class’ lived experiences. The most challenging and yet informative aspect is the moment when teacher and student alike learn to see how our interpretations may have had a genesis not in the actual reading of a text but in certain assumptions we brought with us to the reading of a text.
Wan: Most students come in with a lot of preconceived notions about the Bible, particularly their favorite hobby horses, their favorite texts. They have a hard time letting go, even when their interpretation really doesn’t accord with the historical possibilities of meanings. That is a challenge, but also fun. I can almost always predict what sort of interpretation students will have about a certain text. I try to turn it around as a way of teaching them, surprising them, destabilizing the old understanding.
Clark-Soles: I enjoy meeting students where they are. Some didn’t grow up in church; others have been in church since birth. I like to say this early on in class: “My job is making what is strange familiar and what is familiar strange.” For those students who feel intimidated, I take care to help them see how they already have the skills and aptitude for engaging the text. It’s not as mysterious or as strange as they may think. For those who grew up in church, and do know the text, I try to get them to look again and bring a whole set of different questions to the text. For example, where are all the women in the Prodigal Son story? Not in order to be shock jock-y, but to get enough distance to be able to see the text anew. To me the text itself is revelatory and is a locus for encountering the risen Christ. I hope to create space for students who so desire to have such an encounter and to inspire them to go out from Perkins and create such spaces for others in whatever way God calls them to.
Scholz: Most students come to my Hebrew Bible class hoping either for what I call a personalized, privatized, sentimentalized (PPS) Bible study (i.e., how can I be a better Christian?) or they expect historical explanations about what the texts meant way back then, in ancient Israel. Most do not expect to be challenged in their theological, political, cultural and hermeneutical assumptions when they study the Hebrew Bible at a Christian-affiliated theology school. Most do not expect to study the Bible in conversation with contemporary religion and politics. But then we read the story of Sarah, Abraham and Hagar to learn more about sexual violence in the world. And we study the 19th-century debate on slavery to get a sense of Christian arguments for and against the so-called Curse of Ham (Gen. 9:20-27). It is hard work to teach people about their relentless preference to read the Bible either as a book about personal piety or as a history book about a largely fictional past. Most of my pedagogical efforts consist in exposing the hermeneutical habit of differentiating between the biblical past and the now as a hermeneutical “fallacy” because readers, grounded in their social locations, create biblical meanings, even when those very readers claim to be uninvolved participants in the meaning-making process. The authors are dead. Long live the readers of the Bible!
Levison: Most challenging is wooing people who have been hurt by the use of the Bible back to loving the Bible as Scripture. What I find gratifying is how hungry students seem to be. I was a little worried they would only be interested in pushing their own political agenda. They don’t. They’re willing to engage other students about biblical texts. The text gives students a base for civil disagreement and discourse. We’re not Fox News and MSNBC. In a world of uncommon divisions, the Bible gives us something in common. I teach a required Old Testament course with 35 students, and they have had lively, honest and intelligent discussions. That’s thrilling.
Heller: The gratification is seeing people actively engage the text with their imaginations, their questions, their wonderings … and to see how the text positively affects them. The challenge is precisely what it always has been: to cajole people into seeing the familiar stories and poems of the Bible in new ways.
Q. In your years of teaching, have you noticed any changes in students’ views and understanding of the Bible?
Smith: Today’s students do not necessarily bring a biblical-content literacy with them to the classroom. I spend more time helping students to catch the tone and tenor of individual writings. On the other hand, the absence of that literacy may actually allow some students not to study the material with larger, unchecked assumptions and thus to see the texts apart from received traditions that otherwise could dilute the power and promise of the texts.
Wan: I think the text is a way for us to have a conversation about what truth is. The Bible is not a kind of computer manual that you can simply open up and find the ‘truth’ in there. Truth is a continual conversation between what we are experiencing, what questions we are asking today, what our concerns are, what our understanding of justice and reality is. When we are armed with all those questions and ask the text those questions, I think it is in that give-and-take that we understand what truth is. It’s not so much a method as an event. It’s a conversation rather than a discovery of something static.
Heller: In the years I’ve been teaching, I think students have become more aware of the literary nature of the biblical text. They understand that the Bible is composed of texts that have been composed and edited and re-edited over centuries and that the real power of the text is found in the ways that those types of literatures are encountered by real people now, who are living in real circumstances now. Students are clearer about both the complexity and the beauty of the text. (Or at least they are once they leave my class, God willing!) I also think that students now are much more aware of and attuned to the ways in which biblical interpretations have real-world and ethical ramifications. Interpretations aren’t just “out there” unconnected with real people and real situations. I attribute this widening of students’ perspectives to the internet and social media.
Q. Let’s talk a little about technology. The internet gives Bible readers a lot of information instantly. Good or bad?
Wan: If anything, that gives them a false sense of security. Technology tends to reinforce what you already believe. No one says, this is not possible historically. Instead, technology tends to give people tools to reinforce old ideas, and then it’s more difficult to shake them out of their old understanding of a certain text.
Levison: You can’t properly track down a word in the original language on the internet. If anything, people tend to come up with more bizarre explanations of difficult sayings. But I don’t find students at Perkins to be indiscriminate.
Q. In teaching Bible, are there key words or phrases in the original languages that you find lead to the biggest “aha’s” for students and laity?
Wan: One example is Matthew 8:24, the “calming of the storm” passage. Matthew got that story from Mark, but where Mark has a storm, Matthew has an earthquake. Yet almost every translation will translate Matthew’s “earthquake” as “windstorm.” Why would Matthew use an earthquake, and why would we translate it as windstorm? The punchline is that Matthew redacts Mark. He takes out some stuff, he changes some stuff. That sparks a lot
Levison: Another example is Proverbs 31, which opens with, “A good wife, who can find?” In the Hebrew, “good wife” is actually “woman of valor,” and the word “valor” is used for a warrior. She’s not the woman who gets up early to cook; she’s actually the businesswoman who gets up, hunts the prey and makes a meal from that. Nearly all the words in Proverbs 31 that were used to describe what we think of as a submissive wife are actually words of wealth, war, independent business. All of Proverbs 31 should be
re-interpreted. It’s one “aha” after another.
Smith: Sometimes, students and teachers alike experience an “aha” moment when we finally figure out how to capture the distinctive essence of a book compared to another one. That might take some time and deep study, but the reward is rich. As Toni Morrison would say, “If you surrender to the wind, you can ride it.” The results of my own surrender to the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) is as follows. We capture the essence of each Synoptic Gospel as that Gospel speaks about Jesus’ disciples. For example, each Gospel paints a picture of a key problem that the disciples had by repeating a key word more often in one Gospel than in the others. Thus, for Mark, the primary focus is on the disciples’ desires (or what they want). For Matthew, the primary focus is on that to which the disciples offer their devotion (or what they treasure). In Luke, the primary focus is on the disciples’ deeds (or what they do).
Heller: I regularly sprinkle my lectures with Hebrew words and phrases to show how English translations aren’t (usually) right or wrong … they are trying to convey a “semantic field,” a spectrum of concepts that may not be summed up with one English word. So different English translations have to use different words. The English word “love” can mean many different things. (“I love donuts!” “I love the Bible!” “I love my spouse!” “I love traveling!”) All Hebrew words are like the English word “love.” They ALL have a range of possible shades of meaning. This is why reading the Bible in the original languages is so incredible. Instead of limiting the meaning of the text, the original languages blow the lid off our desire to define and constrict meaning. It literally becomes a word/Word that has no end!