Jesus Christ Superstar

First Year Seminar

Spring 2012





Dr. William S. Abruzzi

10 Soc/Anth Bldg. 
Office: (484) 664-3437


Class Time:   

Wednesday:   7:00 - 9:30      (Soc/Anth 25)


Office Hours:

Tues/Wed/Thurs:   5:00 - 6:00 p.m.



Who was Jesus? Is there any direct evidence that he existed? Was he born in Bethlehem? Why do the various gospels repeatedly contradict one another regarding what he said and did and about the events surrounding his life? Why, for example, is there no description of Jesus' birth in the Gospel of Mark, but two completely contradictory versions in Matthew and Luke? Why did most people, including Jesus' own family, reject him in Mark and Matthew, but accept him in John? Why was Jesus crucified by a Roman official? Why did Jesus preach only among the Jews, and why were all of his apostles Jewish? Who was James and why did Paul refer to him as “the Lord’s brother”? Why wasn't the Gospel of Mary Magdalene included in the New Testament, and why was she called “The Apostle to the Apostles”? Why isn't Jesus mentioned in any historical source other than the New Testament? How many forms of Christianity existed during the first several centuries C.E.?



Course Description:

In the film, Jesus Christ Superstar, the chorus asks Jesus, “Do you think you're what they say you are?”  In other words, was the historical Jesus the same person that people over the centuries have claimed he was?  Many people have declared that Jesus was a divine being who came to earth to bring peace and salvation to humankind.  Others, however, maintain that he was a local Galilean mystic who failed in his mission and who died in despair on the cross after being rejected by his own people.  Several scholars have argued that Jesus was a strictly Jewish prophet, preaching only to the Jews.  Some scholars have even viewed Jesus as a militant revolutionary fighting Roman oppression of the Jews.  Several sources, ancient and modern, have even suggested that Jesus was intimately involved with Mary Magdalene, who has been called “The Apostle to the Apostles” because of her unique relationship with Jesus. This course will apply the principles and methods of critical analysis to evaluate which, if any, of the different views of Jesus best represents the historical person and his mission.

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Goals of the Seminar:

1.    Throughout the course, students will explore academic research related to the teachings and person of Jesus in order to introduce students to the distinction that exists between the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith and to the need to apply the same scholarly research methods to the historical and social context of Jesus as would be applied to any other historical individual if an accurate analysis of the person and teachings of Jesus is to be achieved.

2.    Through an examination of the diverse portrayals of the life and teachings of Jesus found within the four canonical gospels, as well as within the writings of Paul, students will explore how social and historical factors caused such diversity to arise. In this manner, students will gain an appreciation of the profound interplay that exists between religion and society and that has existed throughout history.

3.    By reading specific non-canonical gospels and other extra-biblical writings, students will explore the reasons why some documents were included in the Bible while others were not.  In the process, students will examine how social and political factors affected what ultimately became religious orthodoxy within the Christian tradition.

4.    By examining different scholarly interpretations of Jesus, the seminar will challenge students to critically examine not only how and why scholarly interpretations differ from public teachings about Jesus, but also why they differ from each other. Students will explore how competing scholarly interpretations of Jesus differ in terms of the specific methodologies and theoretical frameworks different scholars employ, as well as in the social factors that influence scholarly research.  The seminar will also explore why specific public teachings about Jesus persist largely unchanged despite the accumulation of considerable scholarly research that challenges that teaching.

5.    From the earliest days of filmmaking, the Jesus story has been a recurrent bestseller. Films have been a major vehicle through which the life of Jesus has been publicly portrayed. Most films, such as The Greatest Story Ever Told and King of Kings have presented a mainstream version of the Jesus story. Other films, most notably Andrew Lloyd Weber's Jesus Christ Superstar, Martin Scorcese's The Last Temptation of Christ, Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to Matthew and Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ have proved controversial in their portrayal of Jesus. A principal issue that will be explored in the seminar is the role that the media and other community events play in the public portrayal of Jesus. Students will view several films and film segments throughout the semester in order to examine the role of the media in either perpetuating or challenging the Jesus tradition. The films will be viewed in order to examine the techniques that specific filmmakers use to convey their message, the degree to which each film stands up to critical evaluation and the reason for the film's popularity and/or the controversy it sparks.


Required Texts:

1.     Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, Oxford University Press, 2007.

2.     Richard Horsley and John Hanson. Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements at the Time of Jesus. Trinity Press International, 1999.

3,     Stephenson Humphries-Brooks, Cinematic Savior: Hollywood's Making of the American Christ. Praeger, 2006.

4.     Elaine Pagels. The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Vintage, 1989.

5.     Geza Vermez, Who's Who in the Age of Jesus. Penguin, 2006.



Reference Sources:

1.     Bible Gateway

2.     Bible Review

3.     Bart D. Ehrman, The Historical Jesus.  The Teaching Company(R)

4.     Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament.  The Teaching Company.  (R)

5.     Luke Timothy Johnson, Jesus and the Gospels. The Teaching Company.  (R)

6.     Isaac Asimov, Asimov's Guide to the Bible, NY: Doubleday.  (R)




The following procedures will be used to arrive at a student's final grade:


1.    Weekly essays

2.    Final Paper

3.    Class presentation

3.    Class participation 







Research Paper:


1.    Each student must undertake a research paper that examines a topic related to the study of Jesus and the development of Christianity. The research paper should be approximately 10 pages long.  The paper is due on the last day of class (May 2nd).




Grading Policy:

1.     ALL assignments and examinations MUST be completed or taken at the time scheduled. Make-up tests will only be given in the event of an emergency and will receive 10-point reduction in grade for each day they are late (i.e., a score of 80 on a make-up test or paper will be recorded as a 70, 60 50, etc). The grade on any exam not taken or assignment not completed will be zero. Similarly, incomplete course grades (I) will be reduced by 10 points when they are completed.


2.     Attendance will not be taken, but absence from class is NOT an acceptable excuse for a student's failure to complete an assignment or examination. It is the student's responsibility to obtain the necessary information on days that he or she misses class. In addition, a student who regularly misses class cannot expect special consideration in the event of poor grades. Furthermore, 20% of a student’s grade in the course is based on participation, which includes both attendance and participation in class discussions. Everyone in the class begins with a "C" (73) for participation, and an individual's grade increases or decreases depending on the quality of their participation. While I don’t grade down for a single class missed, I do expect students to attend all classes, and excessive absences result in a reduced grade for participation. (Obviously, if a student is not in class, participation for that day is zero.) I also assign a higher participation grade for those students who come to class prepared to contribute positively to class discussions or who discuss issues with me through email. Conversely, I assign a lower grade for those students who come to class unprepared, who do not participate in class discussions or whose classroom behavior is either inappropriate or disruptive. 


3.     All written assignments MUST be typed. Handwritten materials will NOT be accepted.


4   Although the primary concern is with the quality of the ideas and analysis presented, essays  and other written assignments will also be evaluated in terms of their adherence to accepted writing standards. They must be typed clearly and legibly. They must also be organized, grammatically correct and free from spelling errors. Papers must, therefore, be carefully proof read before they are submitted. A sloppy and poorly written paper will not receive as high a grade as a comparable paper which is neat and clearly written, which expresses a coherent theme, and which contains few spelling and grammatical errors. Having an idea that you cannot express clearly and concisely is little better than not having the idea at all.  Developing good writing skills is, thus, very important.


5.     In the final analysis, responsibility for completing all course requirements rests with the student. If the student has any doubt on any matter regarding the course, he or she should contact the instructor BEFORE the problem becomes insurmountable. One of the benefits of the small size of the Muhlenberg Campus is the potential that exist for easy faculty-student contact.


6.     Plagiarism constitutes a violation of the Academic Behavior Code and will be dealt with VERY STRICTLY. Depending on the nature of the plagiarism, a student could receive a failing grade for the course; be referred to the Dean's Office for judicial review; and have a "VF" (violation of Academic Behavior Code) grade entered on their transcripts.  If a student is in doubt about a specific situation, it is his or her responsibility to consult the instructor or some other appropriate person (such as a librarian or writing tutor) for clarification.



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The Religious Divide in America


"America is one of the most religious countries in the industrialised world. Over 80% of Americans claim to believe in God, compared with 62% of the French and 52% of Swedes. About two-thirds of Americans claim membership of a church, 40% go to church once a week, and 43% describe themselves as born-again Christians. Three times as many people believe in the Virgin birth as in evolution.  . . .  But America is also one of the most secular countries in the world. The constitution guarantees a rigorous separation of church and state, and secular groups are assiduous in using the courts to enforce that separation. (On February 25th, the Supreme Court ruled that states could withhold scholarships from students studying divinity.) Public schools recoil from even the mildest religious imagery. More than 29m Americans say that they have “no religion”, a number that exceeds all but two religious denominations, Roman Catholics and Baptists. For the most part, the people who run America's media industries in New York and Hollywood are aggressively secular, combining intellectual hostility to Middle America's religious fundamentalists with a generous measure of cultural disdain."

--The Economist (February 28-04)





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Thinking Critically

Faith can move mountains, but not furniture.



"Web of Religion"

William Blake




Occam's Razor




"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

--Carl Sagan



Saint. Elvis the Divine





1.   Ehrman, The New Testament, Chapter 1.

2.   The Jesus Movement.

3.    Harris, The Secret of the Prince of Peace

4.   Zindler, Did Jesus Even Exist?  

5.   Zeitlin, The Christ Passage in Josephus.

6.   Vermes, Who's Who in the Age of Jesus:  Jesus of Nazareth, Mary, Joseph, James the Brother of the Lord, Jesus Son of Ananius, Honi, Hanina Ben Dosa, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John the Apostle.

7.   Ehrman, The Historical Jesus  [R]

Lecture 1:   "The Many Faces of Jesus"

Lecture 2:   "One Remarkable Life"


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8.   Sagan, The Fine Art of Baloney Detection.

9.   Feder, "Epistemology: How We Know What We Know." [R]

10.   Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln, “Scholarship and Public Understanding” [R]

11.   Owen, "Preslianity: Religious Devotion to Elvis Presley in America." [R]

12.   Horwitz, "Dying for Dixie." [R]

13.   Abruzzi, The Myth of Chief Seattle


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14.   Ehrman, The New Testament,  Chapters 4, 13, 14, 15, 22 & 28.

15.   Ehrman, The Historical Jesus  [R]

Lecture 4:   "Fact and Fiction in the Gospels"

Lecture 5:   "The Birth of the Gospels"

16.   Ehrman, The New Testament (audio):   [R]

Lecture 10:  "The Historical Jesus: Sources and Problems."

Lecture 11:  "The Historical Jesus: Solutions and Methods."

17.   Abruzzi, Geneology, Politics and History in the Bible.

18.   Funk, Hoover, and The Jesus Seminar, Introduction, The Five Gospels.   [R]

19.   Wilkinson, Jesus the Talking Head

20.  Vermes, Who's Who in the Age of Jesus: Peter, Pontius Pilate, Mary Magdalene, Paul of Tarsus, Judas Iscariot.


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21.   Humphries-Brooks, Cinematic Savior, "Introduction" & Chapter 1.


Film:   King of Kings  (1927)



* Hill's Criteria of Causality



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"A concern with knowing the world, rather than advocating a view of the world because it confirms some political, ideological, or religious project, has always been fundamental to scientific philosophy." 

  --Lawrence Kuznar, Reclaiming a Scientific Anthropology (1997)



"The aim of scientific research is to formulate explanatory theories which are: (1) predictive (or retrodictive), (2) testable (or falsifiable), (3) parsimonious, (4) of broad scope, and (5) integratable or cumulative within a coherent and expanding corpus of theories."


--Marvin Harris (1994)









On the Life of Jesus

"We do not have enough material to write a respectable obituary."

--M.S. Enslin,
The Prophet of Nazareth





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Judean Society and Politics at the Time of Jesus

Atheism is a non-Prophet Organization.









The Myth of Masada









1.   Ehrman, The New Testament, Chapters 2 & 3.

2.   Asimov, Asimov's Guide to the Bible: New Testament, Maccabees 1 & 2. 

3.   Vermes, "The Age of Jesus in Its Wider Context," plus Herod, Judas the Galilean, Eleazar Son of Jairus, Herod the Great, Mariamme I, John of Gischalla, Josephus, Menahem, Simon Son of Giora & Theudas.

4.   Ehrman, The Historical Jesus:

Lecture 12:   "Jesus in His Context"

Lecture 13:   "Jesus and Roman Rule"



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5.   Horsley and Hanson, Bandits, Prophets and Messiahs.


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6.   Humphries-Brooks, Cinematic Savior, Chapter 2.



Film:    King of Kings  (1961)



MAP: Palestine under the Maccabees


MAP: Land of Israel in the 1st Century CE








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The Canonical Writings

If you are born again, do you have two belly buttons?










Bible Maps



1.   Ehrman, The New Testament, Chapters 4-10.

2.   Ehrman, The New Testament (audio):

Lecture 5:    "Mark"

Lecture 6:    "Matthew"

Lecture 7:    "Luke"

Lecture 8:    "John"

3.   New Testament: Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John; Acts of the Apostles; and Epistles of Paul,  Bible Gateway

4.   Vermes, Mark, Matthew, Luke, John the Apostle, John the Baptist, Peter, Paul, Pilate & Quirinius.

5.   Asimov, Asimov's Guide to the Bible: New Testament, Chapters 1-4.  [R]



MAP: Palestine in the 1st Century



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6.   Brandon, "Suffered Under Pontius Pilate: The Problem of the Roman Execution of Jesus." in Jesus and the Zealots.  [R]

7.   W.R. Wilson, "The Trial." in Jesus: A Life [R]

8.   A.N. Wilson, “The Execution of Jesus.”  [R]

9.   Fox, "Jesus on Trial." in The Unauthorized Version[R]

10.   Ehrman, The Historical Jesus.  [R]

Lecture 20:    "The Last Days of Jesus"

Lecture 22:    "The Death and Resurrection of Jesus"

11.   The Gospel of Peter



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12.  Humphries-Brooks, Cinematic Savior, Chapters 3 & 5.



Film:    The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)





MAP: Roman Empire











The Greatest Action Story Ever Told

A Slightly Different Version

of the Original Story



Top 10 Odd Religious Relics






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Christianity following the Death of Jesus

Christianity has Pagan DNA.





How Pilate Became a Saint

The Acts of Pilate


The Holy Prepuce



1.   Ehrman, New Testament, Chapters 9, 11 & 12.

2.   Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels

The Gospel of Thomas

The Gospel of Mary

The Gospel of Phillip

3.   Infancy Gospel of Thomas

4.   The Protevangelium of James


5.   The Gospel Of Judas

a.  Text:

b.  National Geographic web page:

c.  Christian Critique of Gospel of Judas Scholarship:

d.  Catholic Register Critique of Gospel of Judas:

6.   The History of Joseph the Carpenter

7.   Vermes, Mary, Mary Magdalene, Paul, James the Brother of the Lord, Symeon Son of Clopas.

8.   Ehrman, The New Testament:

Lecture 9:    "Non-Canonical Gospels"

Lecture 13:  "Acts of the Apostles"

Lecture 18:  "Paul, Jesus and James"

9.   Ehrman, The Historical Jesus:

Lecture 7:     "The Coptic Gospel of Jesus

Lecture 11:   "Early Life of Jesus"

Lecture 19:   "The Controversies of Jesus"



MAP: Expansion of Christianity


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10.   Eisenman, James: The Brother of Jesus. Chapter 1.  [R]


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11.   Humphries-Brooks, Cinematic Savior, Chapters 4, 6, 7, 8 & "Conclusion".


Films:     Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)










The Brother of Jesus



James: The Brother of Jesus








Jesus on the Beach













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Jesus the Apocalyptic Jewish Prophet












1.   Ehrman, The New Testament, Chapter. 15.


Gifts for the Irreverent


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Jesus and Mary Magdalene




Mary Magdalene










Mary Magdalene, Lazarus and Martha

in Southern France









1.   Baigent, Lincoln and Leigh, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, Parts 1 & 3.

2.   Jansen, The Making of the Magdalen.

3.   Ehrman, Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene, Part Three. [R]



Film:    Jesus, Mary and DaVinci (2003)


The Nag Hammadi Library




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Magdalene Laundries



Over a period of 150 years, an estimated 30,000 women were imprisoned by the Catholic Church and forced to work without pay.


















Magdalene and the Bethany Saints in Southern France
















Relief of Roman soldiers putting the two Mary's (along with Martha and Lazareth) to sea on a rudderless boat in Palestine.



St. Maries de la Mer Church where the remains of the two Mary's are believed to reside.




 The Mary Magdalene Reliquary (top left) is located in a crypt (top middle) beneath the Basilica to Mary Magdalene in Saint Maximin de Provence, France (top right) where Mary Magdalene is purportedly buried.  The reliquary contains what  many believe is Mary Magdalene's skull (above left).  According to local beliefs, Mary Magdalene left Palestine in a boat (above center) with Mary (the mother of James and Joses) and Mary (the mother of James and John) and landed at what is today known as Sts. Marie de la Mer, a small village on the Mediterranean southwest of St. Maximin.  According to local tradition, the two Marys remained in Sts. Marie de la Mer, where a church was built in their honor (above right) while Mary Magdalene left the village and lived naked (with just her long hair covering her body) as a hermit for 33 years in a cave at Baume, about ten miles southeast of St. Maximin (below left)).   Each year in late May, thousands of Gypsies converge on Sts. Marie de la Mer to celebrate the landing of the three Maries (and Sarah their slave girl ) in southern France. While living at St. Baume, Mary Magdalene was, according to the legend, raised by angels to heaven seven times each day "to hear the music of Paradise." (below middle).  Today, a small chapel marks the spot where Mary's daily levitation is believed to have occurred (below right)




Chapel in the Cave at St. Baume where Mary Magdalene is believed to have lived for 33 years as a hermit following the death of Jesus.









Chapel on the cliff above the Cave at St. Baume where Mary Magdalene is believed to have been carried to heaven by angels.



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