The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Study of Core Texts and Ideas

The Bible and Its Interpreters

Guidelines and Resources for Instructors

This course aims to provide students with an understanding of major figures, stories, and ideas in the Bible, as well as an acquaintance with some of the different ways these texts have been interpreted by profound and influential interpreters through history. The exploration of enduring questions and themes enables students to develop a better understanding of the world around them as well as a better understanding of themselves. This course, proposed by Professor of Religious Studies Michael White to meet the needs of the Certificate Program in Core Texts and Ideas, is a shared endeavor between the Thomas Jefferson Center—the Great Books program at UT—and the Department of Religious Studies. The Jefferson Center is home to the course and has made it part of the Jefferson Scholars Program. As such, it is important that all sections of it be based on readings from major primary sources and built around one or a few fundamental and enduring questions. For more information on the common goals and features of all Core Texts and Ideas (CTI) courses, please see the general guidelines under “Teaching for CTI.” It is likewise important that all sections of the course meet the scholarly standards of the Department of Religious Studies, which emphasize the historical setting of texts, the role of the interpreter, and humility regarding the critical evaluation of truth claims. We need multiple sections of The Bible and Its Interpreters every semester and welcome proposals to teach it from a variety of perspectives. Proposals should be directed both to Jefferson Center Co-Directors and to the Chair of the Religious Studies Department. All graduate students and postdoctoral fellows proposing to teach The Bible and Its Interpreters beginning in fall 2018 should follow the guidelines below.


This course should be based almost entirely on core texts. While we do not have a definitive list of core texts, we define them as works that are distinguished by their depth of insight or creative originality, that reward the closest study, and that have had a substantial and enduring influence on subsequent thought or history. Core texts offer sustained, thought-provoking reflections on the meaning of human life. This definition does not, of course, by itself generate a list of core texts; rather, it serves as a starting-point for conversations about the texts that faculty in the Program in Core Texts and Ideas believe deserve to be included in CTI courses.

Each iteration of the course should have approximately the same balance of readings: 50% from the Bible, 40% or more from major interpreters, and up to 10% from other interpreters who help fill out the faculty member’s goals and theme. Readings from the Bible should include substantial selections from both the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and the New Testament. In particular, each section should include the stories of creation and Adam and Eve in Genesis 1-3; readings that will acquaint students with the figures of Abraham, Moses, and David; substantial portions of a least one of the gospels; and selected writings of Paul. The time spent on some of these may be brief and on others much more extensive, and instructors may choose to devote considerable time to other figures or themes in the Bible, such as law, prophecy, wisdom, or stories of women.

Readings from major interpreters of the Bible should come from different traditions and eras, including the ancient, medieval, reformation, and modern periods. Though interpreters chosen differ from section to section, typical examples are early church fathers, rabbinic writings, Augustine, the Quran, Maimonides, Dante, Julian of Norwich, Theresa of Avila, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther, Milton, Pascal, Spinoza, Thomas Jefferson, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Kierkegaard. While the majority  of interpretive readings (at least 40% of the total readings) should be from sources widely recognized as core texts, instructors are also welcome to extend the reach of the course to include authors who are not as well known but whom the instructor believes deserve to be. The last approximately 10% of course readings may include relevant or illuminating secondary scholarship, less influential interpreters that underscore a particular theme, and sources that highlight diversity of thought towards the Bible. These “readings” need not be limited to literary texts, but may also include Biblical portrayals in film, art, and music.

Essential questions (contributed by Martha Newman)

In this course we want students to think about ways of portraying human nature, the divine being or beings, and the relation between them; good and evil; our relation to the natural world; our understandings of gender, sexuality and the family; our sense of justice, mercy, and altruism; how we form communities and identify their boundaries; how religious and political communities should be governed; and what we owe to our fellow citizens and fellow human beings.

Each iteration of the course should also devote some attention to the question of the kind of book the Bible is and to the question of what the best strategies are for reading it. Readings should be selected with a view to illustrating not only different answers to substantive questions about humanity and divinity, but different approaches to interpretation.

Pedagogical approach

This is a challenging course to teach. This course is not intended to be taught solely as an introductory class in biblical studies, the Bible, Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, or New Testament. One way to organize the materials is thematically. This requires first choosing one or a few really fundamental and enduring questions to build the course around—questions that are not just important to us in the 21st century but that were central, animating questions of concern to the Biblical authors and the major interpretive texts of the Jewish, Christian, and/or Islamic traditions that began in ancient and early medieval times. Instructors should then select biblical passages that will illuminate their key questions in different ways while introducing the essential stories and figures of the Bible.

Alternatively, the course may be structured around a book such as Genesis or a figure such as Abraham, out of which the instructor draws a few key themes and around which biblical readings are organized. Then they will need to select a variety of interpreters who wrote at different times within different traditions, placing each text in historical context while reading it as carefully and respectfully as possible on its own terms, and bringing the texts into a dialogue that will help students appreciate different ways of reading the Bible and different perspectives on the course’s central question or questions.

Thus, under both approaches, students should be pushed to grapple with multiple perspectives and to engage in critical questioning, while also striving to give each text the most careful and sympathetic reading possible.

Finally, the course needs to bring a diverse group of students into respectful conversation with one another. Some students may have no prior knowledge of the Bible and others may have extensive acquaintance with it (not all of whom will necessarily be familiar with the same “Bible”). Some may hold the Bible to be the word of God while others consider it a purely human project; some may see it as a tool of oppression and others as a source of liberation. Thus, a necessary goal of the course is to cultivate skills of scholarly responsibility, careful reading, logical reasoning, and respectful discussion.

Written Assignments

Since the course carries the writing flag, students should be writing often and receiving regular feedback on their written assignments. Guidelines for writing flag courses may be found here. Students should be given a variety of different kinds of writing assignments, such as short reading responses, close interpretations of short passages of texts, essays that compare two or more authors’ treatments of particular Biblical stories or themes, and essay-based exams. Instructors who wish to assign a major final paper are encouraged to structure the assignment in such a way as to retain the focus on primary sources. Students should revise at least one essay over the duration of the course, either by choosing a short paper to revise and expand or by submitting a draft and subsequent revision of a major paper. Final exams are encouraged, to ensure that students keep up with the reading and take time at the end to pull together the main threads of this wide-ranging course.

Reflections on the challenges of teaching religion in the public university, ending with seven goals for the Bible and Its Interpreters course, by Lorraine Pangle:

Sample syllabi: