Emory on Coursera: The Bible's prehistory, purpose and political future

By Elaine Justice | May 8, 2014

Jacob Wright, associate professor of Hebrew Bible at Emory's Candler School of Theology, is offering an expert glimpse into the enduring relevance of the Bible through Coursera, an Emory partner for MOOCs (massive open online courses).

Wright's course, "The Bible's Prehistory, Purpose and Political Future," examines how and why the Bible was written by drawing on archeological research and comparative texts. The course demonstrates how these ancient texts bear directly on modern questions of politics, economics and theology.

"The Bible's impact on world history is without a doubt immeasurable," says Wright, "but why was it written? Was it merely to serve as scripture for a religious community? If that's the case, why didn't other religious communities create something like it? And why did this magnificent corpus of literature originate in such a remote place rather than at the centers of civilization?"

Wright's course is conceived for everyone, from Bible experts to those who have never read it.

Jacob Wright

Jacob Wright, associate professor of Hebrew Bible, with artifacts at Los Angeles County Museum of Art. His new course on the Bible examines its enduring legacy. Photo by Ray M. Jones III.

"We can't afford to ignore the Bible as one of the world's greatest success stories," he says. "Very few other artifacts from the ancient world are still with us today, and almost none have its enduring influence and significance."

Why is that? Wright says the Bible's endurance rests upon its notion that people have an identity that is separate from states and borders.

"The Bible presents Israel as a people long before it established a centralized kingdom," says Wright. "The biblical authors articulated, in a form that is truly unprecedented, the idea that peoplehood is not contingent upon political sovereignty. Throughout history Israel became a model for what it means to be a people.""

When their kingdoms were conquered, their Temple destroyed, and their population exiled, they managed to reinvent themselves, he says.

The success story related by biblical authors provides insights that need to be shared today, Wright says. "The Bible has been misunderstood in many ways. Many people think you have to accept all its theology in order to appreciate its message,” he explains.

While religion plays a big role in the Bible, "it's not solely about religion," he says. "It's also about how to lay a foundation for society that has true longevity, that can surmount catastrophes, and that can survive to see another day. After all, perseverance is worth much more than an ephemeral triumph."

Wright's course is one of several Emory is offering on Coursera in coming weeks.