Harvard 'Letters of Paul' Bible Class Peaks Interest of 22,000 Students From 180 Countries

A scene from a promotional video for Laura Nasrallah's online Harvard course on Paul's letters.
A scene from a promotional video for Laura Nasrallah's online Harvard course on Paul's letters. | (Photo: edX / YouTube Screenshot)

A Harvard University course on Paul's New Testament letters has received widespread national and international attention and drawn the interest of 22,000 students from 180 countries.

"Early Christianity: The Letters of Paul," opened online to students earlier this month through edX, a massive online open course (MOOC) platform that was founded by Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2012.

Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity and course instructor Laura Nasrallah said that she wanted to offer the class to delve into the reasons behind why many people are still influenced by Paul's epistles.

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"Why do the letters of Paul still matter today when they were written literally a millennia ago?" Nasrallah asked in a promotional video for the class. "They are part of a set of texts today that really define people's stances on moral issues. What about abortion? What about gay rights? What about women in leadership in religious communities? These letters that were penned centuries ago still have a power today."

According to the course description, the class will look at "the religious and political context into which they emerged," and answer, "How were [the letters] first interpreted? How and why do they make such an enormous impact in Christian communities and in politics today?"

Nasrallah seeks to give her students a sense of the ancient Mediterranean world and "to think about religious groups, power, poverty, health, and the lives of elites and slaves in the Roman Empire."

The class also has a modern day component and will study how Paul's words inform "issues such as love, law, and grace; and topics such as charismatic Christianity, homosexuality, and women's religious leadership."

Nasrallah told the Huffington Post that when the course opened earlier this month, she was overwhelmed by the amount of curiosity and interest in Paul.

"The day the course launched was astonishing—like drinking from a fire hose," Nasrallah wrote in an email. "The edX discussion threads couldn't handle the amount of people who were commenting, and crashed and slowed down. More people participated on Poetry Genius that day than ever before—the apostle Paul beat out Beyonce!"

Nasrallah grew up in Lebanon before her family fled to the United States in the middle of its religiously-charged civil war and ended up in Georgia, where she attended a Southern Baptist school.

"Being a child with those set of circumstances—that religion could be very dangerous and very powerful politically and that religion could be very powerful, personally led me to want to study the New Testament in particular the Bible in general," she said.

According to Nasrallah, there have been over 22,000 posts on the forum and 14,343 students have accessed course software. She has also been impressed with the caliber of discussion in the class.

She writes, "Religion in general and biblical studies in particular can lead to people feeling uncomfortable or upset at others' opinions. But I haven't found this in the 'Early Christianity: Letters of Paul' course module. For example, one 'conversation' I read was between a self-proclaimed atheist and someone who self-identified as a born-again Christian. . . and the discussion was thoughtful and respectful although they differed in interpretation!"

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