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By Jacob L. Wright

A new phenomenon is changing the face of education, making first-rate courses from the world’s best universities available to all, wherever they live. The phenomenon is often subsumed under the umbrella term “Massive Open Online Course” (MOOC). Emory University professor Jacob L. Wright will be teaching the free seven-week Coursera course “The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future” beginning May 26.

Question: Discovered in the caves above Qumran, the Dead Sea Scrolls have provided scholars with important information about the Bible in the first century. How was the Bible formed, and why did a text from a defeated people blossom into the Bible?

Last fall I was selected to teach one of Coursera’s first course offerings on religion—and its very first on the Hebrew Bible as a whole. Entitled “The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future,” the course will expose students, whether they’re beginners or experts, to an abundance of new research on the history of Israel and on the formation of the Bible. But this is no typical introductory course. My objective is not simply to present various theories for the origins of Israel and the Bible, beginning with Genesis and continuing through various parts of the canon. Instead, my lectures focus on the most basic—and I think most important—question that students often ask, yet instructors rarely address: Why? Why do we have a Bible from ancient Israel and Judah? Could something like it have existed among the Philistines, the Moabites, the Assyrians, the Babylonians or the Persians? If so, why haven’t they been transmitted throughout the ages and been translated into thousands of languages, as the Hebrew Scriptures have been? And why would such a sophisticated corpus of literature as the Bible have its origins in a remote region of the world (the southern Levantine hill country), rather than at the centers of ancient civilization (Mesopotamia and Egypt)? After all, these civilization centers boasted technological supremacy and military superiority. They were the ones who invented writing and easily conquered the population that produced the Bible. Finally, why has the Bible had such a huge impact on world history, shaping the identities of a very wide array of societies across the globe?

The course takes on this paramount question of the Bible’s raison d’être: its why and wherefore. The first two weeks of the class treat the history and archaeology of ancient Israel, and the subsequent weeks examine how the Biblical authors tell their history and interpret their past.  In the free eBook Exploring Genesis: The Bible’s Ancient Traditions in Context, discover the cultural contexts for many of Israel’s latest traditions. Explore Mesopotamian creation myths, Joseph’s relationship with Egyptian temple practices and three different takes on the location of Ur of the Chaldeans, the birthplace of Abraham.  I’m not going to reveal the way I answer the why-question. In order to find out how I think about it, you’ll have to enroll in the course. But I will give you a clue as to where I’m headed. (And two follow-up pieces exclusively on Bible History Daily will offer you a glimpse of some of the course’s content.)The Bible emerged in response to disaster and devastation. If it were not for cataclysmic loss—if the kingdoms of Israel and Judah had continued to flourish—there would be no Bible. I’m not claiming that many of the Bible’s sources did not already exist long before the Babylonians razed Jerusalem to the ground. But there is a significant gap between the original contours of these sources and the shape they are given by the Biblical authors.

According to the Book of Daniel, Babylonian king Belshazzar ordered the gold and silver vessels from the Temple to be brought to his famous feast, where Daniel interpreted the writing on the wall. The authors of the Hebrew Bible fashioned an elaborate and enduring monument to this conquest.

With its walls razed to the ground by Babylon’s armies, Jerusalem joined a long line of ancient vanquished cities—from Ur and Nineveh and Persepolis to Babylon itself. While some recovered from the destruction, others did not. But none responded to political catastrophe by fashioning the kind of elaborate and enduring monument to their own downfall that we find in the Bible. Most conquered populations viewed their subjugation as a source of shame. They consigned it to oblivion, opting instead to extol the golden ages of the past. The Biblical authors in contrast reacted to loss by composing extensive writings that acknowledge collective failure, reflect deeply upon its causes and discover thereby a ground for collective hope.For subjugated populations, the destructive force of armies posed the most fundamental question: Who are we? In response to this question, the Biblical architects of Israel’s national identity did not look to their kings to define their destiny. Instead, they gathered the fragments of their diverse pasts and wove from them a single narrative that told the story of one nation. The resulting tapestry we know as the Hebrew Bible.

The DVD Bible Stories: How Narratives Work and What They Reveal is a fascinating look at some of the most famous stories of the Hebrew Bible. Professor Ziony Zevit’s engaging lectures examine the art of storytelling and will have you reading the Exodus, the Ten Commandments, the Book of Ruth and so much more in a whole new way. Defeat may have destroyed a state, but thanks to the vision of the Biblical authors, it recreated a people. The Biblical project is truly remarkable. Nowhere else in the ancient world do we witness such an elaborate effort first to portray the history of one’s own defeat and then to use this history as a means of envisioning a new political order. This course takes students through the bold moves, as well as the intricate steps, with which the Bible achieves its goals.The efforts of the Biblical authors were not in vain. The “people of the book” they conceived has endured for more than two-and-a-half tumultuous millennia. But the impact of these creative labors extends far beyond the community for whom it was written. Either directly or indirectly, the Bible informs the way many populations of the world today imagine themselves as peoples. Thus we as Americans, despite significant social and ethnic diversity, have long claimed to be one united nation, and our self-understanding borrows explicitly from the legacy that the Biblical authors inherited from ancient Israel.

The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future

A new phenomenon is changing the public face of university education, making first-rate courses from the world’s best universities available to all, wherever they live. The phenomenon is often subsumed under the umbrella term “Massive Open Online Course” (MOOC). One of the leaders in the new realm of MOOC courses is Coursera, which reaches millions of students of all ages across the globe. Last fall Dr. Jacob Wright was selected to teach for Coursera one of its first courses on religion—and its very first on the Hebrew Bible as a whole. Titled “The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future,” the course is offered through the prestigious Emory University, which is world-renowned for its graduate programs in Biblical Studies (the largest in the USA). In keeping with its hope-filled perspective, the Bible lays out a road map to a brighter future in which corporate concerns and the common good determine daily practices and public policies: transparency and open access to information; division of powers; written law codes; environmental sustainability; universal education; justice for the orphan, widow and alien; protection of the one from the many; long life rather than heroic martyrdom; and many other enduring “covenantal” values that grow out of a sense of fraternity and a consciousness of being one people. Many of these moral principles have been deeply absorbed into our identities. In my course I reveal how they were decisively shaped by societal collapse. If I am right, they demand our renewed attention in this time of global instability and great uncertainty about our future.This new course on the Bible is free, and enrollment is open to everyone.

Beginning May 26, it runs for seven weeks—a fitting duration for a course on the Bible. You can take it for credit and a diploma, or you can just watch the lectures at leisure and take the quizzes for fun, without anyone knowing how well you did—or didn’t do.

Jacob L. Wright is associate professor of Hebrew Bible at the Candler School of Theology of Emory University. He is author of Rebuilding Identity: The Nehemiah Memoir and Its Earliest Readers (De Gruyter) and two related works on the Bible’s most celebrated ruler:King David’s Reign Revisited (Aldina/Apple iBooks) and David, King of Israel, and Caleb in Biblical Memory (Cambridge University Press). He is currently at work on an exciting new book on the Bible to be published by Simon & Schuster—Atria.

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