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Great Figures of the New Testament

Examine your favorite figures from the New Testament in this course that combines history, literary criticism, and religious studies to better understand key individuals from the world's most influential book.
Great Figures of the New Testament is rated 4.3 out of 5 by 75.
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Rated 1 out of 5 by from Good Grief! Levine frequently lets us in on terms used in divinity school. For example, in Lecture 1 (=L1) she tells us why Jews call the Old Testament “Tanach”; how pseudepigraphy confuses author attribution; etc. She also rightly criticizes Great Course author Bart Ehrman's use of non-canonical materials: "Their historical value is debatable”. From L1 it is mostly downhill. A few examples follow. In L2 she states “the scene of Zechariah’s attempt to explain to the crowd outside the Temple” after Zechariah questioned his wife's annunciation by an angel and was made mute “is intended to be humorous”. Really? An otherworldly being suddenly appears inside the Holy Temple to Zechariah solemnly offering incense. When he questions how that message could be fulfilled, he is struck completely mute? This bizarre attempt to weaken the scene as humorous is a Straw Man Logical Argument. Levine then wastes time surmising (then immediately correcting herself) that John the Baptist was somehow connected to the Qumran community because of his ideas about a faith, rather than biological, family. This argument compares “Apples and oranges": one might also wrongly conjecture that the early “brotherhood” of Christians was connected to the "brotherhood" of Spartans at Thermopylae as both were under attack? Later in L2, Levine states that “royal Princesses did not dance before men at parties” nor did they ask for men’s heads. Since John the Baptist lost his head, reality would suggest that the scene occurred, driven by Herod's wife Herodias. Levine’s argument (the assumption that Herodias could not manipulate court protocol) puts Levine’s conclusion into its premise, i.e.: she “Begs the Question". L3 regarding Mary begins as an Ad Hominem character assassination: "The Spirit’s 'overshadowing' need not indicate a virginal conception.” She initially skips over Matthew 1:20 and 1:24,25 that contradict her. Yet L4 admits: “Joseph is told in a dream that the child Mary carries is conceived by the 'Holy Spirit' - completing a Self-Contradiction Logical Error. Back in L3 she next proposes (without evidence) that Mary needed to see Elizabeth to support her unwed pregnancy. For most of us, a supernatural pregnancy and angelic visitation more likely suggested an elder's counsel. L5 glosses over the theological debate regarding Peter as the rock on which Christ would build his church (Matt 16:18). She asks if this means Peter as an “individual, Peter's faith…a representative…a symbol,” etc. Rather than get into Byzantine period Ecumenical Council elite argumentation, she might have considered Peter’s own description of all Christ’s followers. It equates all Christians with rocks on which Christ would build his church: " also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2:5) In L6, she first proposes that John and James “may have been educated and literate"…and then immediately contradicts herself with the facts: “Peter and John…were unschooled"(Acts 4:13). Her L6 argument that some hold that Mary Magdalene was androgynous is so lightly defended as to be worthless. This is followed by a brief dissertation on “legendary development”: talking about people reading things into the New Testament that aren’t there…like this author does. In L7, she quotes John 11:40: "Did I not tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?" Her picayune “zinger” is: "this statement has not been previously noted." Since every word Christ spoke was not recorded, one might ask, “So what?" Yet John 11:4 says that Lazarus’ resurrection was (“for God's glory SO THAT GOD'S SON MAY BE GLORIFIED through it”) and John 11:25 “…whoever lives by believing in me WILL NEVER DIE” – with death of the body (not the soul) necessary to see a larger version of the Triune God's glory. COMMENT: I have not space to continue. Although L1 states: "Academic biblical study is designed neither to destroy faith nor…proselytize", I agree with Reviewer “avoirdupois” who wrote that Levine "…has a slightly snide presentation style, seeming to delight in put-downs, sarcastic remarks.”
Date published: 2023-03-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Covers both the Significant and the Obscure I learned a lot about prominent N.T. figures like Paul and Mary. But also about less discussed figures such as The Samaritan Woman and The Magi. Understandably, not every character is dealt with with equal directness. Since for some individuals not much personal information is available, some of the lectures are more sociological in nature. The Professor's delivery stayed on topic and kept my attention throughout. Those who have listened to any of Prof. Ehrman's courses may find the present course interesting in that it a provides a slightly different perspective on a number of personalities and issues than his.
Date published: 2022-11-27
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Misleading and a Little Biased Despite course title several lectures involve obscure Biblical figures (e.g. the Samaritan Woman). Subtle but persistent attempts to cast Biblical stories as "motifs", even when Christ was a figure in the story, implying stories were fabrications with Old Testament roots. True or not, the lecturer claims she does not promote or debunk, which is not borne out by the lectures themselves.
Date published: 2022-08-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great lecture I did this course as an audio lecture while commuting. It is relatively easy to follow even when driving. She is organized, interesting, and informative. This course made me more aware of the great personalities of the New Testament which play an important role in understanding Western civilization.
Date published: 2022-08-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting information on Biblical characters I feel that the professor does a very good job of explaining the nuances and historical situations surrounding the new testament. She also has a very professional and easy to follow method of delivering the material. I do recommend this course to anyone that would like additional information on the characters of the new testament.
Date published: 2022-03-01
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Disappointing The professor conducts this lecture series from a position of doubt. I think that should be clarified in the description.
Date published: 2022-02-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Amazing teacher Living in Nashville, I take any opportunity to hear Amy-Jill Levine. So I was excited to find that I could get 24 lectures on DVD. A close friend in my condo building and I have tried to stay in during the quarantine, so we have gone every Friday to pick up lunch, then returned to eat and watch two lectures on my TV. She is so knowledgeable about her subject but so free of proselytism that her audience would be hard-pressed to decide what her own beliefs are. And her humor keeps the heavy ideas from sinking her audience's comprehension. Both my friend and I have been studying the Bible since childhood (Southern Baptist, now United Methodist, we're in our 80's), but we agree that we've learned a lot about the stories we thought we knew.
Date published: 2020-08-03
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
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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. Perhaps the best part of this compelling lecture series on the New Testament's most colorful characters is that you will gain a feeling for why these individuals remain dynamic


Amy-Jill Levine

The study of the Bible is a simply marvelous endeavor, and each time it's approached, students will see new things. I'm continuing to see new things.


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 earned her B.A. with high honors in English and Religion at Smith College, where she graduated magna cum laude. She went on to earn her M.A. and Ph.D. in Religion from Duke University. Professor Levine's numerous books, articles, and essays address such topics as Second-Temple Judaism, Christian origins, Jewish-Christian relations, and biblical women. She has served on the editorial boards of the Journal of Biblical Literature and the Catholic Biblical Quarterly and has held office in the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, and the Association for Jewish Studies. A widely sought-after speaker and favorite at the Chautauqua Institution, she has given hundreds of talks on biblical topics to both academic and nonacademic audiences, including church, synagogue, and community groups throughout the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Her awards include grants from the Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Council of Learned Societies.

By This Professor

The Old Testament
The New Testament

01: 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?

33 min
John the Baptist

02: 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.

31 min
The Virgin Mary

03: 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.

31 min
Joseph, Magi, and Shepherds

04: 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.

31 min

05: 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.

31 min
John and James, the Sons of Zebedee

06: 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.

31 min
Martha, Mary, and Lazarus

07: 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?

31 min

08: "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?

31 min
The Gentile Mother

09: 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.

31 min
The Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son

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.

31 min
The Samaritan Woman

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.

31 min
Mary Magdalene

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.

30 min
Pharisees and Sadducees

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?

31 min
The Herodians

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?

31 min
Judas Iscariot

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.

30 min
Pontius Pilate

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.

30 min

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?

31 min

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?

31 min

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.

31 min
The Centurions

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."

31 min
Paul, the Hero of Acts

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.

30 min
Paul, the Epistolary Evangelist

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.

31 min
Jesus of Nazareth

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.

31 min
The Christ of Faith

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).

31 min