- Our students are amazing. Our current RPE students organise regular socials, engage in student-led seminars and are always willing to help each other out.
- It is an innovative course. Drawing on internationally recognised staff expertise our course combines Biblical Studies, Theology and the latest research on human well-being.
- Outside trips. In conjunction with our RPE colleagues there are regular trips to places such as the Hindu Temple in Neasden and the Diwali festival in Leicester. A joint RPE/TRS module involves a five-day field trip to Cordoba in Spain.
- We have great lecturers. The course boasts three Professors (New Testament, Old Testament and Jewish Studies) and three internationally recognised experts in the field of Biblical Spirituality. Our staff give talks at schools and colleges, as well as international conferences, and some make regular media appearances.
- Employability. Our BA Hons degree is most attractive to employers, too. Current Unistats data show that 90% of students were working or in further study after completing our course. We want to you to graduate prepared for the future as well with a great degree, so we build careers planning into your studies. Assessment by presentation helps you develop excellent workplace skills, and you can also get volunteering and work experience through the Degreeplus programme.
- The importance of teaching, learning and research. We have an excellent research reputation and most of our lecturers have published at least one book. Our research informs our teaching and we are all passionate about our subject and keen to engage our students in the classroom. Interactive teaching and learning is the norm and debate is encouraged.
- Cheltenham is a great place to study. The town is the gateway to the Cotswolds and is neither too big nor too small. It has its own night-life, enjoyed by our students, but is also equidistant from Birmingham and Bristol.Cheltenham boasts no less than five annual festivals: Folk (February), Jazz (May), Science (June), Music (July) and Literature (October).
- Small class sizes. This provides the opportunity for detailed engagement with the subject and regular in-depth feedback on assignments.
- Outside speakers. We have a thriving seminar programme to which students are welcome, including seminars arranged by our Research Centre for the Bible and Spirituality. Our International Centre for Biblical Interpretation hosts an annual public lecture which attracts eminent speakers.
- Opportunity for further study. For those who catch the TRS bug we have a validated Masters in Theology (MTh) and a number of doctoral students.
Helen Bond is Senior Lecturer in New Testament at the University of Edinburgh and Director of the Centre for the Study of Christian Origins based there. Her latest book is a welcome addition to the excellent Guides for the Perplexed series published by Continuum. This series is aimed at upper level undergraduates and interested readers with no specialised knowledge of the subject matter. Bond succeeds admirably in distilling a wealth of scholarship into the book’s 200 pages. This reader was so captivated by the easy writing style that he read it from cover to cover in one sitting.
The book consists of thirteen chapters in two parts. The first part consists of background information in two chapters covering the ‘quests’ for the historical Jesus and the sources for him. The second part consists of a number of ‘snapshots’ exploring key elements from the life of Jesus: historical context; birth; Galilean origins; John the Baptist; Jesus’ message; Jesus as healer and exorcist; his family and supporters; the question as to whether Jesus encountered opposition in Galilee; Jerusalem; trial and execution; and resurrection.
Like many historical Jesus books, Bond begins with a summary of the various quests for the historical Jesus. She rightly recognises that the now conventional division into three quests with a long period of ‘no quest’ between the ‘first quest’ and the ‘new quest’ is problematic in that there are many overlaps and, in particular, the period of ‘no quest’ actually saw significant works on aspects of the historical Jesus from scholars such as Dodd, Manson and Jeremias and Jewish scholars including Montefiore, Klausner and Eisler. In this first chapter Bond spends some time highlighting the views of a number of significant contemporary scholars: Vermes, Sanders, Horsley, The Jesus Seminar, Crossan, Flusser, Meier, Wright, Dunn and Allison. She brilliantly summarises the work of each of these scholars leaving the non-specialist reader with just enough information to understand the position of each scholar examined. In the second chapter, Bond carefully dismisses the often overplayed significance of the Roman authors Tacitus and Suetonius, stating that they add no new information. After a brief mention of the third century b.sanh 43a from the Babylonian Talmud, she turns to the famous Testimonium Flavianum by the Jewish historian Josephus and accepts the prevailing view that this paragraph from the Antiquities of the Jews is authentic but has been subsequently reworked by Christian copyists. The majority of the Christian apocryphal gospels are then rightly dismissed as of no help in the quest for the historical Jesus but Bond does take seriously claims for both the Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Thomas but concludes that the Gospel of Peter is not early and is of no historical significance and judiciously concludes that Thomas ‘although possibly containing one or two older forms of Jesus’ sayings, is not to be regarded as a major source for the life of Jesus’ (p. 46). Finally, Bond turns to the biblical material (recognising that Q, if it existed, is now to be found scattered throughout Matthew and Luke). Paul is considered first as the earliest NT source but his main interest lies with Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection and there is very little about Jesus’ life contained in Paul’s letters. So the canonical gospels remain by far our main sources for the life of Jesus. Here Bond recognises them as biographical in genre, is prepared to accept some historical traditions in the narrative sections of John (particularly the trial narrative), but views the synoptic gospels as our primary source. Bond is sceptical of the methods of the ‘new questers’ in trying to strip away the outer layers of the gospels to arrive at a historical core. Instead she acknowledges that the broad contours of the Synoptic portrait of Jesus – his links to John the Baptist, proclamation of the kingdom of God, healing ministry and crucifixion – ‘seem to be historically grounded.’
Bond’s method in the second part of the book, where she presents a series of snapshots, is to accept that, whilst recognising that the gospel writers creatively worked with their traditions, ‘in general, the Gospels are a broad indicator of the types of things Jesus’ earliest followers remembered him doing and saying’ (p. 54). The Jesus who emerges from this series of snapshots is a Galilean apocalyptic prophet who proclaimed a message of the coming kingdom of God and began as a follower of John the Baptist but started an independent ministry after John’s imprisonment. He was the son of Joseph and Mary (no virginal conception), born and raised in Nazareth. Jesus was also a healer and exorcist but his so-called nature miracles are probably post-Easter inventions to highlight Jesus’ divinity. Jesus finished his ministry in Jerusalem where his actions in the Temple prophetically symbolised its forthcoming destruction and this was what led to Jesus’ arrest by the chief priests and his subsequent trial. Jesus was then handed over to Pilate probably as a matter of political expediency. Pilate had Jesus crucified as a political agitator. The final chapter of the book deals with the question of Jesus’ resurrection. This is a bold move for a book on the historical Jesus but Bond, correctly in my view, insists that an account of the resurrection must be given to pay sufficient attention to the effects it had on Jesus’ earliest followers even if the resurrection itself is not open to historical investigation. Bond, in the previous chapter, argues that Jesus would have had a dishonourable burial in a poor man’s trench grave and here she suggests that female followers of Jesus probably did return to that grave and found it disturbed and empty. An empty grave on its own, however, does not necessitate resurrection; this event had to be accompanied by visions of a resurrected Jesus and Bond suggests that it is virtually beyond dispute that the earliest followers believed Jesus had appeared to them alive again. She makes no historical claims about the resurrection itself but argues that such visionary experiences could only be possible in a highly charged apocalyptic context where the imminent end of the world was expected.
This is a fine, excellently researched book which time and again carefully steers a middle course between extremes in historical Jesus scholarship. Along the way, for example, Bond considers the impact Jesus had on women and, whilst acknowledging that Jesus did attract women followers, rightly states that Jesus said nothing about gender equality and it is an anachronism to regard him as a contemporary feminist. Finally, she recognises that Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God had political and social implications but there is nothing in the book to suggest that Jesus’ message was explicitly anti-imperial. This is a point that Bond specifically draws attention to in a subsequent web post on ten things she learned about Jesus whilst writing this book.
This is the book to read for an accessible introduction to historical Jesus research. I wholeheartedly commend it.
Our colleague Dave Webster’s latest book Dispirited (Winchester/Washington: Zero Books, 2012) argues, among other things, that the form of spirituality promoted by MBS advocates tends to be individualistic and fosters disengagement from the socio-political sphere. Webster is in good company as this is also argued by, amongst others, Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler & Steven M. Tipton, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985); Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991); Charles Taylor, Varieties of Religion Today (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002); and Adam Possamai, Religion and Popular Culture: A Hyper-Real Testament (Brussels: P.I.E. Peter Lang, 2007). However, within the sociology of religion, this remains a contested area with a number of sociologists arguing for “engaged spirituality” rather than the “spiritual individualism” advocated by the above scholars. A recent study by Seil Oh and Natalia Sarkisian, “Spiritual Individualism or Engaged Spirituality? Social Implications of Holistic Spirituality among Mind-Body-Spirit Practitioners”, Sociology of Religion 73.3 (2012), 299-322 seeks to provide much needed empirical research in this area. This study consists of a sample size of 350 holistic practitioners in the Boston metropolitan area who had been engaged in MBS practices on a regular basis for at least one month. The authors classify MBS practices into three main types: physical fitness, therapeutic (with an emphasis on healing) and cult (emphasising esoteric spirituality), and selected one example of each: Yoga, Dahn Yoga and Healing, and Art of Living respectively. Participants were asked to fill in a questionnaire which consisted of seven questions concerning interpersonal engagement, two questions on communal involvement and two questions on political engagement. Further questions sought to distinguish (a) spirituality-related varaibles, (b) religion-related variables and (c) socio-demographic characteristics. 35% of respondents practised Yoga, 44% Dahn Yoga and 21% Art of Living. Utilisng a variety of statistical methods the authors found the following:
- There was a significant positive relationship between spirituality and altruism for those practising Yoga and Art of Living but not for those practising Dahn Yoga.
- This similarly applied to involvement in voluntary associations and engagement in individual political activity such as signing petitions.
- Collective political activity increases initially but then decreases as the level of spirituality increases. So MBS pratctitioners with “moderate” levels of holistic spirituality are more likely to engage in collective political action than those with either “high” or “low” levels of spirituality.
Broadly speaking then this study provides some empirical evidence in support of the “social engagement” position. However, by providing a more nuanced typology of MBS, the study also provides evidence that “therapeutic orientation is associated with individualism, even though other types of holistic spirituality do not limit social engagement” (p. 317). The authors readily acknowledge that the study is limited and more research is required. In particular, future research should focus on comparing “social engagement of MBS practitioners to that of religious individuals within the Judeo-Christian tradition who are not involved in such practices as well as to social engagement of those who are neither religious nor involved in MBS” (p. 317).
Dr. Hilary Weeks, Course Leader in English at the University of Gloucestershire, gave the latest seminar in our Bible and Spirituality series (31 October 2012): ‘Storied Mysteries’, Victorian Spiritualities: Isaac Williams, The Cathedral (1837-38) and Tractarian Poetics. ‘Mystery’ gives the clue to the topic: how do we know anything about the nature of the universe, and how express it in life and worship? The C19 Oxford Movement, which featured John Keble, and for a time Henry Newman, had a distinctive approach to such questions, and Isaac Williams made an individual contribution to it. In The Cathedral, a work consisting of 119 poems, Williams offered a poetic treatment of the cathedral building, designed to articulate a Tractarian view of reality. In it, poem and building are intertwined, so that the poem becomes a ‘textual representation of external form and space’. Key concepts in this conception were a) analogy, concerning ‘the manifestation of God’s will in the visible world’, or the making visible of things unseen (after Romans 1.20), so that nature is known by grace (Bishop Butler’s Analogy of Religion, 1736); and b) reserve, which demands restraint of both emotion and expression in religion, in the belief that God too had shown such restraint in his self-disclosure to the world. The cathedral building is a text that expresses divine truth by such means as allegory and typology, which can unlock the relations between natural and spiritual worlds. The cathedral can thus teach the enquirer mysterious things. The Middle Aisle, standing symbolically for Holy Scripture, becomes a guide, at whose hand ‘ethereal doors/Fly open, answering to the wondrous key’. The reader may be reminded of the biblical ‘celestial guides’ of apocalyptic literature, such as Daniel and 1 Enoch, who conduct the reader through the mysteries of heaven. Yet poetry, including biblical poetry (such as Hosea), can express a more complex relationship between natural world and heavenly reality. For HW, Williams ultimately disappoints, because The Cathedral turns out to be a puzzle that church members could solve if they chose to do so. She regrets particularly that Williams does not take up Ruskin’s metaphor of the quarry, by which he enables the stones (The Stones of Venice) to take on ever new meanings. In Williams, the meaning is all given in advance. For HW, the potential of Tractarian poetry is better represented by Keble, with his deep appreciation of Wordsworth. For myself I found this meditation on the relationship between poetry, Scripture and the symbolic possibilities of a building made for worship, highly stimulating for reflection on the project of biblical spirituality: to think about and practice forms of biblical engagement in which the unknown may become known, while the ‘knower’ remains open to new avenues of faith and understanding.
Professor John Cottingham, of Heythrop College and Reading University, was the latest speaker in the ongoing Bible and Spirituality series, sponsored by Bible Society. His title was: Spirituality, Self-Discovery and Moral Change, a version of which is forthcoming in C.C.H. Cook (ed.) Spirituality, Theology and Mental Health (London: SCM Press). The burden of the argument was that the practices associated with religion and spirituality have an actual impact on the values and moral lives of the practitioners. He began with the claim that religion has in common with both philosophy and psychoanalysis the shared goal of the integration of the person. Central to this claim was his insistence, in contrast to the impressions of secular critics of religion, that religious belief is not primarily cognitive, but that it is marked by the ‘primacy of praxis’. Far from being a ‘hypothesis’ (as in Dawkins’ ‘God-hypothesis’), it is a ‘focused and morally oriented reflection’ rooted in regular practice. The effect of such religious praxis, in the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic spiritual legacy on modern society, was underestimated in much contemporary discourse.
The ‘praxis’ of religion was exemplified by the use of Psalms in Christian traditions such as the Benedictine, involving what he called a ‘polyvalence’ in the kind of apprehension that such praxis entailed, that is, a fusion of the intellectual and pre-rational, the moral and the aesthetic, the communal and the physical. The processes of spiritual praxis, indeed, could even ‘bracket’ (though not delete) the doctrinal content of religion. Religion shares with psychotherapy the requirement of self-surrender. In psychotherapy, this is entailed in the notion of the unconscious, the rejection of narcissistic fantasy and autonomy, and the readiness to be seen as we are, before a benevolent other (or Other). Moral growth and maturity can take place in such contexts.
For me, the argument was extremely helpful in highlighting the specifically religious claims about the nature of knowledge. If God is knowable, it is because it is in the nature of human beings to know God, in a way that involves all their faculties, as well as corporate memory and ‘forms of life’. I liked too the answer given to a question whether there was such a thing as a ‘stable self’, a question prompted by (post)modern notions of the self, and perhaps by JC’s own use of psychoanalysis. His answer was to think of the individual as ‘an enduring subject of change’, this being indispensable to any account of human growth.
Prof. John Cottingham (Reading University)
‘Spirituality, Self-Discovery, and Moral Change’
Special lecture: School of Humanities: Bible and Spirituality Research Centre
Wednesday 17 October 2012
John Cottingham is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, University of Reading.
Professorial Research Fellow, Heythrop College, University of London.
Editor of Ratio, the International Journal of Analytic Philosophy.
He has written books on early modern philosophy (especially Descartes), philosophy of religion, and moral philosophy. Themes include: the moral life; spirituality and the good life; spirituality and transcendence; human nature and ultimate value. Click here for a recent paper: Human nature and the Transcendent.pdf
This question, of course, arises in the context of the current debate over the authenticity of a purportedly fourth-century papyrus fragment in Coptic which has Jesus saying “my wife …” The existence of this fragment, which is being called The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, was announced by Professor Karen L. King of Harvard Divinity School here with an accompanying draft of her article cautiously advocating authenticity available here. Since then the biblioblog world has been buzzing with a number of scholars casting serious doubt on the fragment’s authenticity. For a summary of the latest information see here and here.
Of course, as Karen King made very clear in her original article, even if the fragment were authentic this does not prove anything about the marital status of the historical Jesus. All we can infer is that some fourth-century Christians (and if the original composition was as early as the second half of the second century, as King suggests, some second-century Christians) claimed that Jesus was married “in the context of intra-Christian controversies over sexuality, marriage, and discipleship “ (King). But does it matter if Jesus had a wife? In some ecclesial traditions it matters a great deal. For example, the celibate, male status of Jesus is crucial for the Roman Catholic argument for a male, celibate priesthood. In my view, whether or not the fragment proves authentic, I seriously doubt that the historical Jesus was married. If he were there would surely be some trace of this in our earliest Christian records? Admittedly this is an argument from silence but it is a pretty eloquent silence! However, the more significant question concerns whether the historical Jesus was somehow immune from the messiness of human sexual desire. If we think this of Jesus then we are in the company of one of the earliest Christian heresies – Docetism! So, if an early and well-documented tradition that Jesus had a wife were ever to be discovered, it would therefore not matter at all to the central claim of Christians about the incarnation. Having a wife would simply be one further aspect of Jesus’ full humanity.