Introducing the New Testament

A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey

Cover Art

Discussion Prompts

  1. Sometimes a good opening discussion question about the Gospels can simply be: “What did you learn about Jesus’ life that you hadn’t heard before?”
  2. In Matthew 10, Jesus summons the disciples and sends them out on a mission. He gives them directions and warnings. How might these directions and warnings function for three different audiences: (1) the historical Jesus and his disciples, (2) the narrative Jesus and his disciples (taking into consideration the trials and conflict that lie ahead and the ways Jesus has been ministering and teaching to this point in the Gospel), and (3) as the author’s directions and warnings to the Jewish Christians in the mid 80s? How might one imagine each of these three, and what evidence is there from the text to support the three scenarios?
  3. Read through chapters 18–19 and 23. What kind of a community does this Gospel imagine for the first Christian churches? On the basis of what authority is the Jewish Christian community now founded?
  4. When students have read two or more Gospels, ask them to draw the Jesus presented in each. What are the key symbols associated with Jesus in each Gospel?

Pedagogical Suggestions

Redaction Criticism (How Matthew Shapes Mark’s Material)

1. The Powell textbook names two methods of determining Matthew’s unique perspective on Jesus’ life and ministry. The first is to look at the material in Matthew that is unique to this Gospel (text box 5.1). The second is to look at the ways in which the author “edits” or shapes material he adopts from Mark. This exercise introduces students to the second method of biblical interpretation called “redaction criticism.” By comparing similar passages in Mark and Matthew, assuming that Matthew used the Mark text, one can see how the author of Matthew shapes material to convey a unique message about Jesus.

Have students work in small groups. Give each group of not more than 3–4 students one passage from Mark and the similar passage from Matthew. For example:

  • Jesus’ baptism: Mark 1:9–11 and Matthew 3:13–17
  • Jesus’ temptation: Mark 1:12–13 and Matthew 4:1–11
  • Peter’s confession: Mark 8:22–33 and Matthew 16:13–28
  • Blind men: Mark 8:22–26; 10:46–52, and Matthew 9:27–34; 20:29–34
  • Purpose of parables: Mark 4:10–12 and Matthew 13:1–23
  • Jesus’ death on the cross: Mark 15:33–41 and Matthew 27:45–56

Ask students to observe four things:

What additions does Matthew make to the Mark passage?
What does Matthew leave out?
Do you notice any change in tone, perspective, or emphasis?
What kinds of “corrections” does Matthew make to the way Mark tells the story?

When each group has had time to work through the four questions, and to list their observations, bring the class back together. You can have the groups report their observations orally, write their observations on the board, or simply lead a class discussion yourself that randomly solicits the groups’ observations. Write the observations on the board and then have the students identify patterns in the ways Matthew shapes the Markan material.

Rationale

Students may not often think to ask how we get the theories, information, and analyses that we teach. It is often helpful to invite them to think about how one gathers and forms the knowledge of the New Testament they are learning. Basically, there are two sources: archeological and literary. These sources of knowledge have developed into distinct fields with quite specific methodologies. In this exercise, students can practice one methodology that scholars apply to the New Testament in order to write textbooks. In other words, even in the Humanities we have lab work! In New Testament “lab work,” we employ literary tools, rhetorical analysis, hypothetical source theories, and models of oral and written textual transmission; these are our microscopes, periodic tables, and Bunsen burners. The dual concepts of observation and hypothesis are fundamental to any scientific work, including New Testament study. This exercise invites students to try biblical lab work.

Creating an Argument Paper from Redaction Observations

2. To take the redaction exercise a bit further and to help students develop the skills of writing an argument paper, ask students to write a sentence that states one of the patterns they have seen in their collective observations. For example, “Matthew doubles the number of people in the Mark healings.” The statement should be specific and contain some detail of the pattern. From one of these statements, you can help students shape a “thesis” by asking what effect this pattern has on the reader or on the narrative. For example, “Matthew doubles the number of people in Mark’s healing stories in order to show Jesus’ divine power.” At this point, the students can return to their groups armed with the observations on the board and a statement about a pattern or a thesis (statement + effect) for an argument. Their task now, in their groups, is to outline an argument paper using the thesis, the observations, and citing specific textual points as supporting evidence.

Consider using this exercise in class with Matthew and then assign a short argument paper or argument outline when you assign Luke.

Rationale

Writing clear argument papers (organizing observations and evidence in support of a thesis statement) is a critical skill in any field: law, criminal justice, English, homiletics, physics, philosophy. In biblical studies, or textual study, the steps are few and concrete. Walking students through the steps by having the class write an argument paper together demonstrates how to proceed through the steps and what questions to ask at each point. Students can then try constructing an argument on their own and develop more advanced questions and rhetorical forms for their arguments.

Jesus and Torah in Matthew

3. The author of Matthew is a Jewish scholar, or at least is quite knowledgeable of Jewish scriptures. He not only cites scripture to show how Jesus “fulfills” Torah, the prophets, and writings, he also shapes Jesus’ story along the narrative lines of prominent scriptural figures such as Moses. Two related exercises show students how Matthew adapts the narrative framework from Exodus to present Jesus as a new and better Moses.

Have students read Exodus 1–4 and then sketch (with stick figures and arrows, crayons, or word pictures) Moses’ story from birth to leading God’s people out of Egypt. This will include, for example, being hidden by his mother, rescued from the river to Pharaoh’s house, his return to the Israelites’ ghetto, the flight away from Egypt, his encounter with God in the burning bush and eventual return to Egypt for confrontation with Pharaoh, as well as the killing of Israelite boys and Egyptian firstborn, the slave conditions of the Israelite people, and confrontation with Pharaoh. Next, have students reread Matthew 1–2 and create a similar sketch (with stick figures and arrows, crayons, or word pictures) of Jesus’ parents as they moved and responded to God’s messages to them and of Jesus’ birth and surrounding circumstances. Use a map of Egypt and Palestine to facilitate the exercise.

Now, with both event maps before them, ask the students what they see. There will be parallels, similarities, and differences between the two stories. Matthew does not “invent” Jesus’ birth story but shapes the birth events with pointed parallels to the Moses narrative. Why? What effect does this have on the first-century Jewish-Christian reader? How does using the Exodus framework of Moses’ birth and leadership help Jewish Christians understand who Jesus was?

Rationale

Through this exercise, students can see the ways in which first-century authors sought to explain and describe Jesus in ways that made sense within Jewish tradition and in response to other Jews who did not follow Jesus. Students unfamiliar with the Old Testament writings can, through a few selected activities, have a sense of the ways Christian writings participate in first-century Jewish interpretation of Jewish scriptures. This exercise also invites students to practice their reading analysis and compare/contrast skills.

The Sermon on the Mount

4. A second exercise can follow on #2 above or be used independently. This exercise looks at Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (chs. 5–7), where Matthew sets Jesus in relation to Torah, the Jewish law, and Moses, the lawgiver. Jesus upholds the law and intensifies the law. Lead the class in a discussion of the passage using the following questions:

  • What is the setting of this passage? (5:1–2)
  • To whom is Jesus speaking (the disciples and Matthew’s community in the 80s)? What is he asking of them? How should they act?
  • Focus on 5:17–20. How is Jesus relating to the Jewish law here?
  • Move to vv. 21–48. What repetition do students notice as they read or skim these verses? What specific laws (commandments) does Jesus quote (“you have heard it said . . .”)? If students are not familiar with the Ten Commandments, have them turn to Exodus 20 to compare Jesus’ words.
  • Having established Jesus’ relationship to the law, what is the point Matthew makes regarding Jesus’ teaching in chapter 6?
  • Finally, draw attention to 7:28–29 as compared with 5:1. Where did the audience change? Why?

Rationale

This exercise invites an intensive, close examination of a specific passage (the Sermon on the Mount) and a further examination of the ways in which Matthew uses Moses as a key figure with whom to compare and contrast Jesus.

Wise Men from the East Followed the Star

5. Show the introductory clip (Jesus’ birth) from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Begin a discussion with this question: what Gospel is Monty Python drawing on to present Jesus’ birth? If students have read Mark, John, and Luke, have them compare the beginnings of the four Gospels.

Rationale

Church tradition and popular culture have conflated the three Gospel narratives of Jesus’ “beginnings.” It is helpful for students to realize that as similar as Matthew and Luke are, the two Gospels have very different ways of shaping Jesus’ birth narrative—for important thematic and theological reasons. The Gospel of John is most different, for equally thematic and theological reasons. Seeing a version of the story can help students recognize the popular nativity and begin to deconstruct its origins.


Assets