What Can You Assume People Know About Jesus?

Those of us who teach are aware (or should be aware!) of the relevance of prior knowledge to education. One of the things I wrestle with most is the fact that, in the same class, I may have students who have never read the Bible before ever, and some who read it regularly for devotional purposes. It is a challenge to make the class intelligible and interesting to both sorts of students and the range of others who find them in the class.

I thus found extremely useful the video Hemant Mehta shared recently, featuring one Jewish atheist’s account of the story of Jesus as she has been able to piece it together from “holiday specials and the trailer to The Passion of the Christ.”

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Thank you, Jamie Bernstein, for sharing this! I hope that others who teach classes like the one I teach on the historical figure of Jesus at Butler University will find this useful as they reflect on matters of prior knowledge and general cultural familiarity.

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  • http://anumma.com/ Anumma

    Whoever first gets the chance to say “gang of prostitutes” to a roomful of students, report back in this space.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_PJ6PZMYZVJL4CGQBUYBVMQSDPQ james Harrison

    A folklorist could assemble a pretty long compilation of jokes, stories, and routines that revolve around the theme of ignorance of what everybody knows or at least should know. Although the point of the example you provide is (I assume) to make fun of the failure of Christians to get their message out, the usual butt of such material is the ignorant person herself and the pleasure afforded by such bits is the feeling of superiority it gives to the listener.  Think of the umpteen newspaper stories about surveys that show that American kids can’t find France on a map or the collections of freshmen bloopers that endlessly circulate among teachers. The psychic gain involved in such humor is hardly mysterious, but I’m more interested in the underlying premise that everyone should know certain empirical facts even if it nobody bothers to communicate them, i.e. that commonplaces are innate ideas. Of course, if we think about the matter, we know they aren’t; but we act as if they were. And while one may get it that kids don’t know Bible stories if they haven’t heard them, it is less frequently recognized that the patterns of thought and feeling that underlie Christian religious teachings are also traditions rather than universal a priori features of every mind. There’s a secular version of this as well. It isn’t just that young people don’t know much history, for example. They also haven’t gotten the message that knowing history matters because that meta-message has not been conveyed. Reacting to a news story about how little college graduates know about the American Revolution, a student once told me “If you thought it was important for me to know that sort of thing, why didn’t you tell me it was?”

  • Anonymous

    James, I didn’t get that at all from the video, or any sense from the linked site that most folks were using it to boost their knowledge ego. I think it is pretty amazing that she had things like the first miracle at Cana in there and a good chunk of the Matthean Nativity story down. I laughed at her version. And I know far more about Jesus than she does. But it was mostly amusement because I recognized myself in her attempts: I’d do a darn site worse than her if asked to tell the story of the Ramayana, for example.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

    Thank you for the video of the hot Jewish woman.

  • eulogos(Susan Peterson)

    I wonder if after this, she was inspired to try to find out a little bit more.  She obviously isn’t a stupid girl, probably a college student.  It ought to occur to her that she should know more about the history of the culture she lives in.  I don’t think she knows much about Judaism either, or she wouldn’t have gotten King Solomon mixed up with Jesus!  She entirely missed the claim of Jesus to be God,  or how shocking this was to the Jews.  

    No one should be able to leave college in the west without a basic knowledge of Western cultural history, which includes some kind of knowledge of the Bible. 

    The Ramayana is from a different culture, not ours.  It wouldn’t be bad also to have a course giving the basics of non Western religions, but for goodness sakes, lets start first with our own history.   

    • http://twitter.com/UAJamie Jamie Bernstein

      Hi Susan,

      Actually, I’m no longer a student, but a recent graduate of the Master of Public Policy program at the University of Chicago, so I specialize mostly in analytical fields like statistics and economics. Clearly pretty far from anything that would require me to learn anything about the bible.

      As for the Soloman story, after being informed by basically everyone that saw the video that this story is from the Jew-half of the bible, I’ve remembered that I’m pretty sure I actually learned that a long time ago in Hebrew school. Still, a bible parable is a bible parable in my mind, and easy to mix up. 

      Additionally, even though I was confirmed in my synagogue, bible stories were always secondary. We learned them as myths, and the Soloman story was more of an aside to the “important” stories, like those of Moses. Since they were just myths in my mind anyways, I never really considered it all that important to pay attention to the details.

      As for knowing about the culture that I live in, I disagree that knowing the details of bible stories are the way to do that. I am actually intensely interested in Christian culture in the US, but I’m more interested in how that affects the way people think and act than the details of the beliefs or stories behind it. 

      Also, growing up as a Jew in America doesn’t exactly make learning about Christianity all that appealing to me. Ever since I was a child, I’ve always felt like Christianity was this big in-group that I wasn’t allowed to be in. Reactions from Christians toward myself have almost always been in terms that were either condescending or full of pity. If you had people telling you since you were a small child that no matter how good you were in your lifetime, you were going to go to hell because you didn’t accept Jesus, you wouldn’t want to learn very much about Jesus either. No Christians I knew were ever interested in learning about Judaism other than as a curiosity, so I never saw why I should return the favor.

      Sorry! I definitely don’t mean this to be quite so negative, but I do think it’s really very important to understand what Christianity can look or feel like to an outsider.


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  • Steve Reed

    I think it’s safe to assume that even long time Christians know little about Jesus besides what they’ve been told.  They do little exploring on their own, which is sad.

  • Steve Reed

    I think it’s safe to assume that even long time Christians know little about Jesus besides what they’ve been told.  They do little exploring on their own, which is sad.

  • eulogos(Susan Peterson)

    Steve, some do, and some don’t.  

    Jamie, thanks for taking the time to answer what I wrote.  

    It isn’t your fault, but I still maintain that no matter what your major,  there should have been general education requirements that included the basic aspects of Western Civilization, which includes the history of its thought and beliefs.   Columbia’s core curriculum attempts to do that.  I went to a college, St. John’s College in Annapolis, where the entire four years are devoted to that task.  http://www.sjca.edu/

    I think you should do something to remedy this,  but I think you should start with your own heritage.  Learn more about the “Jew part”  of the Bible.   I took a Bible class-extracurricular, besides the Scripture we all had to read during Sophomore seminar,  with a wonderful Jewish man named Simon Kaplan,  who gave me a tremendous respect for Judaism.  You say you studied the stories about Moses as “myths.”  Do you know what a myth is?  A myth is a truth which can best be expressed in a story.  But the story of Moses is not a “myth.”   One might consider the two creation stories in Genesis to be “creation myths”  but the stories of Abraham and Moses are much more like the oral history of a people, finally written down after years of being transmitted orally.  As you go on in the Bible it becomes more and more like history, with events which occurred in known historical times, with the exception, for instance, of Job,  which is more like an extended parable, I think.    But dip into it.   Whether you know it or not, it is part of who you are.  

    Sorry about the people who told you you were going to hell because you don’t believe in Jesus.  You can’t believe in someone you haven’t remotely met, and have only heard about in Christmas specials.  God is not like that, in any case.  

    I see that you are very present oriented.  But all sorts of things in the current world make no sense when cut off from their history.  If you can imagine noting that every July 4 people put out flags, have parades, and set off fireworks,  as a mere fact, but never finding out that this is a commemoration of the signing of our Declaration of Independence,  you can see how shallow would be your knowledge of that custom.  If you had read that Declaration and knew a bit of the history, your knowledge would be deeper.  If you had read John Locke and others about the contract theory of government,  it would be deeper still because you would understand something of the intellectual climate of the times.  
    I don’t think you would choose to stop at the level of observing that this people have a  custom of flags, parades and fireworks on July 4.   I think knowing a bit about the religious history of our culture, and the beliefs which formed it,  it some ways still positively and in some ways as a reaction,  is analogous to knowing  a bit of our own country’s history.  

    I hope something in this means something to you.  Also please forgive me for saying “college student”  because at 61 I have become somewhat less able to draw lines between different gradations of “young”.    

    Susan Peterson

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @twitter-58028621:disqus , thank you so much for taking the time to chime in. I know that my use of your video as an illustration of a pedagogical challenge for religion professors was presumably not your intended purpose, and so I’m glad that you not only didn’t mind, but joined in the conversation. Thank you so much!