The World's Biggest Ever Bible Course

September 1, 2014
HDS’s first online class brings writings of Paul to thousands around the world
HDS’s first online class brings writings of Paul to thousands around the world.

When HDS Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity Laura Nasrallah created the School's first massive open online course (MOOC) for the edX platform, she didn't think much about how many people would register. When she did, her expectations were low. The digital platform attracted thousands to science and technology courses, but the humanities hadn't garnered much interest.

She was in for a surprise.

Nasrallah's "Early Christianity: The Letters of Paul" drew more than 32,000 participants from 169 countries, shattering the notion that a humanities course could not succeed online. She attributes the popularity of the class, dubbed "the world's biggest ever Bible course," by the online journal, to the powerful influence that Paul's thought still has on global culture, laws, and morality.

"In Protestant Christianity, the force of Paul as apostle and saint is still felt," she says. "And more broadly, if we look at political debates in the U.S., we see Paul's letters, particularly Romans, being used in debates over capital punishment, sexuality, and the role of women in religious leadership. Paul's letters have been really popular recently, even among atheists, to talk about ideas of universalism and ideas of love."

"Early Christianity: The Letters of Paul," which ran for five weeks last January and February, was a simplified version of part of an HDS course that Nasrallah offers to undergraduate, master's, and doctoral students. She and her small teaching staff assigned readings and multimedia content to edX students, provided interpretations of passages from Paul's writings—as well as from the ancient Jewish historian Josephus, and the Greek philosopher Aristotle—and guided discussions via the course's online forums. Although there were no formal assessments or grades, the staff worked overtime to give feedback on essays and to answer questions.

Nasrallah says that one of her goals was to allow students to do what the communities that first received Paul's letters did: engage in a democratic debate about the meanings that the writings generate.

"We tried to create a pedagogical space where all students were producing as well as receiving knowledge," she says, "and where all students were gaining tools to adjudicate knowledge. The edX platform gave us access to a breadth of age differences and of geographical differences that made for an incredibly rich conversation."

"The Letters of Paul" focused on the burgeoning religious communities of the Mediterranean during the first centuries of the Common Era. At HDS, Nasrallah often takes small groups of students to these places in Greece and Turkey to supplement the classroom experience. Through the use of multimedia, the edX platform enabled her to send thousands of course participants on a virtual trip to the world of St. Paul.

"We developed online tools with maps and photographs that allowed students to explore the Mediterranean world on their own," she says. "They could 'visit' the cities of Paul and see the ways in which theological ideas—whether those were Jewish or Greco-Roman—were active in the ancient world."

One of the great things about the edX experience for Nasrallah was her work with a team of doctoral students who traveled with her to Greece and Turkey to create photographs and videos, and then, back in Cambridge, helped to create labels and timelines for the course. Their thoughtful comments on the course materials, on the process of teaching online, and on pedagogy and the purpose of teaching religion allowed for a rich face-to-face teaching and learning process back at Harvard, which radiated out to the online students. Many expressed thanks to the larger teaching staff, whether in online posts or in real mail that the team received after the course was finished.

While edX allows Harvard faculty to bring knowledge to new students in distant places, it also has an impact back on campus. Nasrallah was able to try out new ideas and pedagogy on a large group and get feedback on what worked and what didn't. This fall, she'll bring what she learned back to the courses she teaches at HDS.

"For the online course, I went to Princeton University, where my colleague and an HDS graduate, Professor AnneMarie Luijendijk, showed us papyrus letters in Princeton's collection," she says. "It demonstrated the way that people materially wrote and sent letters in the ancient world, which helps us think more precisely about how the communities would have received the writings of Paul. That's on video and I will assign it to my Harvard students back on campus, along with an interview I did with the scholar John Stendahl that helps students think about Paul as a Jew writing in the context of Judaism in the ancient world."

At the same time, Nasrallah admits that there is one important drawback to MOOCs.

"You really can't replicate the pleasure of interacting with people face to face in one of the large online forums, no matter how much you want to, no matter how much you try," she says. "My teaching staff and I did end up feeling that we knew individual students, and in talking about their answers and writing, feeling that we got to know some of their intellectual tendencies. But it's different from the kind of joy and immediacy of communicating with people face to face."

Nasrallah looks forward to exploring the letters of Paul face to face with others at Harvard this fall. Even so, she'll be thinking about the thousands of people around the world inspired by her edX course to do the same.

"One of my online students posted, 'Well, when is there going to be a follow-up? When can we study together again?'" she says. "Another answered by saying, 'We are the follow-up. We can now do our own work in interpreting the letters of Paul.'"