Introducing the New Testament, 2nd Edition

A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey

Materials available for professors by request only


4. Jesus


This chapter should enable the student to

  • distinguish between the earthly and exalted figures of Jesus and describe how both are significant for New Testament writings.
  • summarize key aspects of the ministry of Jesus, including his message concerning the kingdom of God, the style and typical content of his teaching, and his role as a miracle worker.
  • become aware of how Jesus is portrayed differently by various biblical authors and of why the recognition of such distinctions is important for New Testament studies.
  • identify the basic goals of historical Jesus studies and recognize how these relate to the field of New Testament studies.
  • describe how the New Testament treats Jesus theologically as a figure of continuing significance for Christian faith.

Pedagogical Suggestions

1. Imagining Jesus Today

This exercise asks students to think about what Jesus would “look like” today (text pp. 74–78). Have students work in small groups of two to four. Using Powell’s presentation of Jesus, each group (or team) should imagine and construct a contemporary situation for Jesus that parallels the social and historical analysis in chapter 4. What does Jesus wear? How does he talk? Where does he live and travel? What does he do? What geographical place would he be living in (urban, rural, uptown, downtown)? Whom does he visit? Who are his friends, family, and enemies? What kinds of things does he preach? What contemporary issues might he address? This is not meant to be a “what would Jesus do” exercise but rather a sociopolitical application or translation of Jesus into “our” terms. Students are not interpreting the primary biblical texts yet. Instead, they are engaging Powell’s secondary analysis and drawing parallels. With whom does Jesus debate? What institutions does he critique? To whom do his words most appeal? What conflicts arise in social, religious, and political circles?


Much of the work of New Testament study involves historical analysis of the past. One way to better understand the past is to practice “translating” ancient social relationships, assumptions, events, concepts, and ideas into today’s terms. By imagining and constructing social parallels between Jesus’s world and today’s world, students will have a better grasp of specific aspects of the ancient social world, and, hopefully, a new way of looking at their own world.

2. Who Is This Jesus?

Another way to approach the question of “who is Jesus” and to ask students to wrestle with their preconceived notions about him is to give them specific texts from each of the four Gospels, a sheet of paper, and crayons. Ask them to draw the person described in their passage as best they can. Such texts might include Luke 4; John 1:1–5; Matthew 5:1–5; Mark 7:24–30 (Syrophoenician woman). In small groups, or as a class, discuss the differences between the portrayals on paper—why students chose the colors, themes, positioning, etc., that they did. Then ask them to think about why the authors of these passages chose to describe Jesus the way they did.


Students today are very visual, and this exercise offers a visual, kinesthetic alternative to traditional classroom learning. Additionally, students have to make interpretive decisions and put these on paper in colors and lines. This means distinguishing between what the author says in a specific text and what the student has gathered from amorphous sources in culture or in religious training. After doing this exercise, students should be surprised to encounter a Jesus in the text that is probably quite different from the Jesus they have heard about elsewhere. This dissonance allows the text to resist our preconceived ideas. Further resistance will come as the students discuss their different visual interpretations and discover that they have read the text a bit differently, depending on their focus and the experiences or teachings they come to the exercise with.

3. Four Biblical Portraits of Jesus

To further examine the ways in which Jesus is presented, have students draw or compare four portraits of Jesus: in Matthew’s transfiguration, Hebrews, Paul, and Revelation. Are the authors describing the “exalted Jesus” or the “earthly Jesus”? Why? How do the portraits differ? Do they convey similar themes or views?


This exercise continues the visual, kinesthetic learning/analysis of written passages and utilizes the skills of comparison and contrast. Now, not only is there a difference between the image in students’ minds and the text, or between students’ visual interpretations of a single text, but students also see that there is a difference in the canonical portrayals of Jesus.

Discussion Prompts

  1. What does Powell mean by “the earthly Jesus” and the “exalted Jesus”? What does Powell mean by the “historical Jesus” (text p. 81)?
  2. What do students think of when they hear the word “kingdom”? How do we talk about power and authorities in society today? According to Powell, what is Jesus talking about when he speaks in the Gospels of “the kingdom (reign) of God” (text pp. 75–77)? If we applied Jesus’s definition of the kingdom of God to US society today, what language and metaphors would we use (i.e., “God’s White House,” God establishing a nation, God’s constitution, a pledge of allegiance to God)? How do our contemporary language and metaphors change our understanding of what Jesus was saying and doing?
  3. After reading chapter 3 and understanding the methodologies described there, ask students to discuss Powell’s approach and methods used in chapter 4. How does he employ historical methodology? Social analysis? Literary analysis, etc.?
  4. In the discipline of New Testament study, what can be known about Jesus? Ask students to think about what sources might be available and how someone would go about testing the sources. How is a theological approach different from a historical investigation? How might a theological approach incorporate historical evidence about Jesus? What are the limits of historical investigation or historical knowledge?
  5. For the brave, open a discussion on what is “true” (you might want to limit the discussion to lowercase “true” rather than attempt a discussion of “Truth”) by comparing historical knowing with faith’s knowing. What is the role of scientific methodology? What is the role of experience in knowing? Do material “facts” constitute the only form of knowing? What about emotional knowing, or knowing through relationships? How are these kinds of knowing different? Do they overlap?