Religion & Philosophy at Lyon College

Ethics of the Historical Jesus
MWF 10:00-10:50
Paul Custodio Bube, Ph.D.
Fall, 2001
Office Hours: Alphin Hall 221
MWF: 8:30 a.m.-9:30 a.m. and 11:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m.
TTh: 9:30 a.m.-11:00 a.m.
or by appointment
Phone: 698-4351

Required Texts:

The Five Gospels edited by Funk, Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar

The Acts of Jesus edited by Funk and the Jesus Seminar

Recommended: An additional translation of the gospels, such as the HarperCollins Study Bible, New Revised Standard Version

Purpose of the Course:

WWJD? "What Would Jesus Do?" was a question posed in a novel by preacher named Charles Sheldon back in the 1890’s, a time noted in the history of biblical studies as the height of the "quest of the historical Jesus." The question, "what would Jesus do?" has made a comeback in recent years, especially among young people in the United States. Interestingly, the quest of the historical Jesus has also made a comeback, although it is doubtful whether many of those Christians who sport a "WWJD" bumper sticker have read much of the modern historical quest. This course is an attempt to ask the WWJD—WWJS or "what would Jesus say?"—questions in light of modern historical scholarship about Jesus of Nazareth.. Although answers to these question seem obvious to many Christians, we will discover that it is not as easy to answer as one might think. Indeed, merely comparing several of the most popular movies about Jesus made in recent times indicates that there are a variety of views about what Jesus said and did; and a quick tour of the vast variety of Christian churches in America should remind us that Christians have not answered the questions unanimously.

As 20th century people living in America, we have different tools for answering this question than Christians from the first century. Some of our tools may be better, some may be worse. For example, on the one hand, we have the benefit of the written gospels and hundreds of years of archeological and historical research to help us; on the other hand, we do not have living eyewitnesses around to ask our questions. These advantages and disadvantages will become apparent as we embark upon our quest.

To give clarity to our explorations, this course makes a careful distinction between the quest of the historical Jesus and the quest of the Christ of faith. As we will see, Christianity has always been primarily concerned with the Christ of faith, providing us today with a vast wealth of resources for this aspect of the quest. However, the quest for the historical Jesus is a relatively new concern in scholarship and has been quite controversial among lay Christians and scholars alike. Some Christians prefer to avoid controversial topics for fear that they disturb people’s faith. Others, myself included, believe that controversy is both unavoidable and provides a means to clarify and thereby strengthen faith. In some ways, it is like working out physically—it may involve some discomfort, even pain, but the final result is that we are healthier and stronger.

We will raise many difficult questions; some questions we may like, some we may not. But the ultimate purpose of this course is to see how these questions help us draw together faith and reason in ways that can deepen and enrich each other. Keep in mind, there are often differences of opinions about interpretation of the biblical texts and about the historical Jesus. Although we will focus primarily on a particular perspective, I hope that we would all respect each other’s perspectives where they differ. Even if I question a student’s views, I respect those views. We should all be open to having our perspectives questioned and challenged—that is not a lack of respect for differing views, but a means of trying to better understand others and, when done honestly, a way to pursue Truth.

As we begin this course, let me suggest a prayer, "For the Spirit of Truth," to guide all of us:

From the cowardice that dares not face new truth,
From the laziness that is contented with half truth,
From the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth,
Good Lord, deliver me. United Methodist Hymnal #597

Course Objectives:

Upon successful completion of this course students should be able to:

bulletapply critical thinking skills to the reading of biblical texts by learning to discriminate among the historical, literary, and theological dimensions of selected biblical passages
bulletanalyze biblical texts using historical-critical methodologies used by the Jesus Seminar and other modern scholars
bulletcritically evaluate the findings of the Jesus Seminar and present an original position on the ethics of the historical Jesus

Attendance Requirements:

Students are expected to attend all classes and to be on time. It is a historical fact that students who attend classes do better on examinations, etc., than those who do not. Students must turn in all essays and e-mail journals, take all exams, and must complete a group project for the course. Failure to turn in an essay, take an exam, or complete the project will result in an "F" for the course.

Essays on Alternative Perspectives:

Students are encouraged to look at alternative perspectives to understanding Jesus, especially Jesus’ ethics. Some books that provide alternative perspectives include: writings by John Howard Yoder, Richard Hays. N.T. Wright, Luke Timothy Johnson, among others. I will make a list of scholars that I know of that are worth looking into. You are welcome to negotiate other names with me for this assignment. Between Oct. 19-24, students will have an opportunity to share what they have learned about these alternative views and how they are similar to or different from those we will find among the Jesus Seminarians. Students can make these presentations in pairs or individually. After the presentations, each student will turn in an essay of 5-6 pages, discussing what they covered in the presentation (due Oct. 26). (That essay must be done individually in keeping with the Honor Pledge.)  Click here for suggested books.

The essay should consist of a summary of the main conclusions and arguments presented in the materials read by the scholar chosen by the student as well as a thoughtful discussion of how those conclusions and arguments relate to the views of the Jesus Seminar. Papers should be at least 5-6 pages long, typed (or word-processed), double-spaced with 1 inch margins. I recommend that you follow the MLA style sheet for references, etc. However, any widely accepted style is fine, e.g., APA, Chicago Manual of Style, etc.

Group Project:

The last week of class students will have an opportunity to present their findings about the ethics of the historical Jesus. This presentation could be in the form of an academic paper that could presented at a professional meeting; it could be in the form of an annotated web-site; or some other format so long as it is approved by the professor. Students are encouraged to work in groups of 2-4 on this project. This is where the students become the scholars. In fact, I want to encourage students to put together a presentation that can be submitted to a professional organization such as the SBL/AAR/ASSR/ASOR Southwest Regional Meeting to be held March 9-10 in Irving Texas (check for specific information). Students who submit a proposal (by October 6, 2001) for the student section will receive an extra 5 points (on 100 point scale) on their presentation; students whose proposals are accepted will receive an extra 10 points (on 100 point scale) on their presentation.

E-mail Journal: Students will need to keep an e-mail journal throughout the course, writing at least 2-3 paragraphs every week (15 total) discussing the material covered – what it means, how it relates to our understanding of ourselves today, asking questions about concepts that are not clear from class discussions, and communicating with the professor about other assignments. Students will be graded down if e-mail journals are not turned in regularly.

Exam #1 15%
Exam #2 15%
Essay 20%
Group Project/Paper 25%
E-mail Journal 10%
Final Exam 15%


Assignment Schedule

Introduction to the course, basics to background of study of the Bible and the gospels

Aug. 29-Sept. 7

Read Matthew, Mark, Luke & John in a translation other than the Jesus Seminar’s

History of the Historical Quest

Sept. 10-14

Read pp. 1-38 of the Five Gospels; pp. 1-40 of The Acts of Jesus (some of this material overlaps)

For a useful web site that has the five gospels in parallel form see the site created by Dr. John Marshall of the University of Toronto:



What is Ethics? (handouts & class discussion)
Sept. 19-21


Methods and Results of the Jesus Seminar

Sept. 24-Oct. 1

Read the Gospel of Mark in The Five Gospels and The Acts of Jesus

[Sept. 26 – Service Day – no classes]


Oct. 3-8

Read the Gospel of Matthew in The Five Gospels and The Acts of Jesus


Oct. 10-17

Read the Gospel of Luke in The Five Gospels and The Acts of Jesus


Oct. 11-12 – Fall Break


Oct. 19-24

Read the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Thomas in The Five Gospels and The Acts of Jesus


Oct. 26 – Students work on their presentations


Oct. 29-Nov. 2

Student Presentations on alternative views of Jesus’ ethics



Drawing Our Own Conclusions


Nov. 5-Nov. 14

Examining the database of the Jesus Seminar – we will be working as groups to determine what in the database relates to Jesus’ ethics


Nov. 16-19 – Dr. Bube will be out of town at a professional meeting; students should continue working in their groups on their presentations.


Nov. 21-23

Thanksgiving Recess


Nov. 26-30

Wrap-up database work


Dec. 3-7

Group Projects/Papers



Final Exam

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