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Emory University

The Bible's Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future

Emory University via Coursera


With its walls razed to ground by Babylon’s armies, Jerusalem joined a long line of ancient vanquished cities—from Ur and Nineveh and Persepolis to Babylon itself. While some recovered from the destruction, others did not. But none responded to political catastrophe by fashioning the kind of elaborate and enduring monument to their own downfall that we find in the Bible. Most conquered populations viewed their subjugation as a source of shame. They consigned it to oblivion, opting instead to extol the golden ages of the past. The biblical authors in contrast reacted to loss by composing extensive writings that acknowledge collective failure, reflect deeply upon its causes, and discover thereby a ground for collective hope.

Working through colorful biblical and ancient Near Eastern texts, and drawing on an array of comparative examples, the course illustrates the thoroughgoing manner with which biblical authors responded to defeat by advancing a demotic agenda that places the community at the center. The aim of the biblical authors was to create a nation, and they sought to realize this goal via a shared text, which includes stories and songs, wisdom and laws. This corpus of writings belongs, without a doubt, to humanity’s greatest achievements. Whereas the great civilizations of the Near East invested their energies and resources into monuments of stone that could be destroyed by invading armies, the biblical authors left a literary legacy that has been intensively studied until the present day. More important, these authors’ visionary response to defeat brought to light a radical new wisdom: the notion that a people is greater than the state which governs it, and that a community can survive collapse when all of its members can claim a piece of the pie and therefore have a reason to take an active part in its collective life.


  • The Riddle That Has Yet to be Solved
    • Our larger goal is to understand why the Bible was written. So first we need to take a step back and form a larger view of the world in which the kingdoms of Israel and Judah emerged. This module sets the stage for all that follows. Upon completion of this module, learners will be able to: 1) Describe how Israel's geographical location, situated between two great civilizational centers, had a decisive impact on history, 2) Identify why Egypt was interested in Canaan (the land of the Bible), 3) Describe the context in which the oldest references to Israel and places in the land of Israel appear, and 4) Analyze how the withdrawal of Egyptian influence from Canaan made it possible for territorial states (such as Israel and Judah) to emerge in the first millennium BCE.
  • The Rise and Fall
    • In the last module, we studied the activity of the great cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia in the Levant. These major groups played a key role in forming the backdrop for the rise of Israel and Judah. After Egyptian and Mesopotamian rulers withdrew from the area, they left breathing room for smaller groups—such as Israel and Judah—to grow and extend their own power. In this module, we will explore the more modest cultures of Israel and Judah, from the rise and fall of their respective kingdoms. Upon completion of this module, learners will be able to: 1) Differentiate between the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and describe the circumstances that led to the rise of both, 2) Identify key figures and causes in the downfall of Israel and Judah, respectively, and 3) Analyze how the biblical authors take creative liberties in their portrayal of historical events pertaining to Israel and Judah.
  • The Making of the Bible as a Response to Defeat
    • In this module, we dive into the question of why the biblical authors created the Bible. We begin by looking at various depictions of how Judahites were living after the fall of Judah. These depictions provide us with insight into what the biblical authors were facing after the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests. We then turn our attention to the biblical writings as we deconstruct and reconstruct the text in order to discover what drives the biblical project. By engaging the text critically, we begin to see how the biblical authors creatively combined sources to create a pan-Israelite history. Upon completion of this module, learners will be able to: 1) Differentiate between extrabiblical and biblical depictions of Judahite communities living in various locations after the fall of Judah, 2) Identify distinct traditions or sources within the biblical text and distinguish between core narratives and supplements or links, and 3) Compare and contrast the dominant theories concerned with the composition of the Bible.
  • Reinventing the Hero
    • In this module, we will begin by exploring a clue that adds further support to the general thesis of this course (i.e., that the Bible is a project of peoplehood in response to the defeat of the state). That clue is the absence of martyrdom and glorious death in the biblical narratives. We will see how the biblical authors reshape their history as they fashion narratives and law codes that promote “name-making” through procreation rather than heroic death. Through values that we take for granted today, the authors work to ensure the preservation of their people under conditions of foreign rule. Upon completion of this module, learners will be able to: 1) Identify narrative texts and law codes that relate to procreation, heroic death, and the expanded roles for both men and women, 2) Differentiate between the ideals of heroism found in the Bible and those found in non-biblical text, and 3) Understand that these values emerge out of pragmatic concerns related to corporate survival and the formation of a new kind of political community.
  • A Wise and Discerning People
    • As in most ancient societies, knowledge and education are reserved for elites. (The situation is not so different today.) This week we will see how the biblical authors depart radically from this principle. The Bible can be understood, Dr. Wright will suggest, as an educational curriculum for the nation. It fosters a broad national consciousness and mobilizes a people after the defeat of the state.Closely related to the Bible’s educational ideals, we will learn how the biblical authors promote a principle of “open access.” They make divine knowledge, rules, regulations publicly available so that the people as a whole can hold in check the power of their leaders. Upon completion of this module, learners will be able to: 1) Identify the distinctive qualities of biblical prophetic and priestly literature, 2) Explain how the Bible may be understood as an educational curriculum for the people as a whole, and 3) Compare the Bible to other pedagogical reforms.
  • Beyond Morality: The Bible as Political Model
    • This week, to wrap up our course, we turn back to the question of why with which we began. Why did the Bible originate in ancient Israel and Judah? We will begin by synthesizing what we’ve learned so far in order to bring it to bear on this fundamental question. Thereafter we will examine the most fascinating means by which the biblical authors reshape Israel’s identity. These means include matters that relate to theology, the covenant, and covenantal ethics. We will conclude the course by raising the question of what role the Bible may have to play in our futures. Upon completion of this module, learners will be able to: 1) Answer the question of why the Bible emerged in Israel and Judah rather than in other societies of the ancient Near East, 2) Identify the distinct theological means by which the biblical authors reshape the identity of Israel in their grand project of peoplehood, 3) Discuss the future possibilities of "biblical" projects and of the Bible itself.

Taught by

Jacob Wright


4.9 rating, based on 35 Class Central reviews

4.7 rating at Coursera based on 275 ratings

Start your review of The Bible's Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future

  • awgonnerman
    This was the best MOOC I've taken so far. Dr. Wright clearly put a lot of effort into preparing his lectures as well as additional interviews with scholars. Aside from the required reading he also provided a wealth of extra content to enrich the lea…
  • Taking the course broadened my vision for how to deal with the Biblical material, freed me from slavish adherence to and rebellion against the text, and got me to think about a lot of things. I wouldn't recommend this course to people wanting to v…
  • Anonymous
    I was very impressed with the depth of the subject offered, but equally impressed by the user-friendly way in which it was delivered. It says something about the importance if having a knowledgable figure leading the course, albeit in a modern ‘chalk and talk’ way — too often in education we are given pap when it is food for the heart, mind and soul that is needed. i am only sorry that,mdue to circumstances, I was not able to get to listen to all the lectures.

    I would like to thank everyone involved for a very stimulating,minformative and challenging course.

    Again, thanks!
  • Anonymous
    Useful and interesting class, help us to understand whyen and how bible was build, and and why it became the most important 'book' in the world.

    I am not a believer, and I always asked myself why most sucessful and powerful civilizations, like Egypt or Babylon, or Roman, or several others, even Greece with eternal and marvelous literary and philosophical 'books' couldnt produce such an important and influent odyssey..... How can a people with an history of defeats create such a work?
  • Anonymous
    Compelling, interesting and thought provoking in a truly awesome way, I really enjoyed this course. I watched all of the lectures, completed the pop quizzes and delved into the reading list ( although to be fair it will take me all of this year to finish those sources that most interested me). Professor Wright and Emory University should be congratulated for making this course available.

    I have been a student of the bible for decades and found this course to be faith affirming for me. It is intellectually liberating to understand under what circumstances the bible was created and how masterfully the bible is crafted. Thank you for helping me separate the myth from the wisdom.
  • Anonymous
    I really enjoyed this MOOC. The coursework, while a little demanding at the start, is well-structured and well- paced. Doctor Jacob L Wright is a very fine teacher and evokes enthusiasm in his students. He had a clear presence in the forums and on social media during the MOOC. Most of all he brought an air of civility and grace that had a very positive influence.
  • Wolfgang Kirschstein
    This course provides a fresh non-divinity approach to the Bible. Dr Wright is a whirlwind of a teacher. Recommended also for non-believers who want to get acquainted with one of the most influential books of the world.
  • Profile image for Dawn Gibson
    Dawn Gibson
    This was the most well organized, pleasantly formatted, and enjoyable MOOC I have experienced. Not too easy, not too hard, but just right.
  • Anonymous
    Interesting subject matter delivered in easily managed chunks by a very supportive lecturer
  • Gerald Agyei Nsebere
    Taking The Bible's prehistory, purpose and political furture I guess, would be a very impacting and informative course to study. This is because it would open my mind about the history of Israel as a nation and the people itself. How they lived, the God they served, their celebrations, etc. It would also teach me to know the purpose of the Bible, The expectations of the readers, etc. It would also hopefully give me a projection of what the future may be or what may happen.
  • Susan Love
    This class was Fabulous! Prof Jacob L. Wright is brilliant, he was able to serve us the meat of the subject, yet keep it accessible for those of us accustomed to soft foods. At no time did I feel as though these ideas and concepts were out of reach for me, and that is due to his genius as a teacher. If there were other courses taught by Jacob I would be all in.

    Five stars, Ten diamonds!
  • Anonymous
    My first MOOC, and it set the bar for all future courses I will take. Challenging, inspirational, controversial, thought provoking..the class was this and more.

    Prof Wright is amazing in his ability to make students want to know more about the "world's best selling book".

    Thank you Emory U, Coursera, and Prof Wright for making this amazing class available for free!
  • Anonymous
    Great class with great interaction and investment to the topic. Regardless of your religious views, you will find yourself digging and digging and digging into the Bible more and more because of Prof Wright's depth and knowledge of the topic. The greatest class I have seen online in Biblical prehistory. This class is a must take for all walks of life.
  • Laura Zielke
    This was my first MOOC, and I loved it! The lectures were amazing, as were the supplemental interviews with world-reknowned scholars. The free access to articles from scholarly journals was an unexpected bonus. The coursework stretched me to think outside the box and see things from a new point of view. Excellent class. Highly recommend it!
  • Estrelita Soliano Grosse
    It's an excellent start on a journey with no end. What I found most beneficial is that it made me want to know more. There is no real termination date, the course sets you off to look at so many angles.

    As it was my first MOOC, I'm glad I chose the right one. I must add that Professor Jacob L. Wright is an excellent choice to lead the way.
  • Profile image for Carmen Grande Pinilla
    Carmen Grande Pinilla
    It's a highly stimulating course, very well paced and explained, and which opened to me a new, amazing way of looking at the Bible, in no way less profound than those I was used to because of the explanation involved.
    Unfortunately, I was not able to finish it at the moment, but I intend to resume it as soon as possible.
  • Anonymous
    I can't say enough good things about this class. The lectures are excellent, informative and interesting. The discussion groups and Facebook pages are so helpful. It has been a lot of fun. There is plenty of extra material to keep the fun going for many months. The professor, Jacob L. Wright is the best.
  • Jackie Warden
    This is a course that really works. The best MOOC I have ever taken. All aspects first class. Absolutely first rate tutor, excellent material well presented - all working well together with no tech problems. A fantastic example of MOOC at its very best. I wish I could take it again.
  • Anonymous
    It is a fantastic course, I recommend this course. Have been a student of the Bible for years, but this course sheds new light and make you look at things differently. Also, Dr. Wright is a very interesting scholar and provides a wonderful reading list.
  • Anonymous
    Five stars. Fabulous class. Before taking it I had no appreciation or interest in the Bible, considering it barbaric theistic propaganda. Now I'm reading it. Good job and thank you Dr, Wright.

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