This course surveys the major books and ideas of the Hebrew Bible (also called the Old Testament) examining the historical context in which the texts emerged and were redacted. A major subtext of the course is the distinction between how the Bible was read by ancient interpreters (whose interpretations became the basis for many iconic literary and artistic works of Western Civilization) and how it is approached by modern bible scholarship. James Kugel, former Harvard professor and author of the course’s textbook, contends that these ways of reading the Bible are mutually exclusive. Professor Cohen respectfully disagrees.
The course syllabus is your primary roadmap; it contains general information about the course and lists the topics covered and assigned readings for each of the 25 lectures. Video recordings of each lecture can be viewed alongside Prof Cohen's lecture notes. A series of timelines is available to illustrate aspects of the course which unfold over time: the Overview timeline shows the major eras of Israelite history and the Ideas-Basic timeline illustrates the succession of major ideas.
The About tab contains a link to suggestions about how to view the course.
adjust the notes
Students enrolled in the course were required to purchase the Jewish Study Bible (JSB) [either edition; about $32] and the text, James Kugel’s How to Read the Bible [about $15]. Use of the JSB (rather than another worthy translation such as the New Revised Standard Version) confers three large benefits: first, the translation is first-rate and dares to ignore longstanding traditions (such as in the first verse of Genesis); second, at 2000 pages, there is room for extensive annotations which are textual (full sentences) rather than cryptic abbreviations; and third, the introductions and survey essays are uniformly superb. The lectures assume the background and explanatory material provided by Kugel in his text. You will find that the text is a very valuable component of the course and a delight to read.
As Prof Cohen emphasizes in the syllabus, the biblical texts must be read s-l-o-w-l-y and in conjunction with their annotations. You will miss more than half of the value of the course if you fail to do the reading before viewing a lecture.
Each lecture is accompanied by lecture notes which provide an overview and summary of the main points. The ideal strategy would be to read the assigned biblical texts, the assigned portion of Kugel, and the lecture notes before viewing the lecture. In addition to being displayed below the lecture videos, the lecture notes are available as two documents, each with half the notes (Lectures 1-12 [37 pages] and Lectures 13-25 [41 pages]), and as individual documents for each lecture (typically 3 pages). [The acronym MBS in the lecture notes stands for “modern bible scholars or scholarship;” and ANE stands for “ancient near east.”]
Shaye J.D. Cohen is Littauer Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University. He is the author of From the Maccabees to the Mishnah (1987; second edition 2006), which is widely used as a textbook. His other publications include, aside from numerous articles, Josephus in Galilee and Rome: his Vita and Development as a Historian (1979), The Beginnings of Jewishness (1999), Why Aren't Jewish Women Circumcised: Gender and Covenant in Judaism (2005, winner of a National Jewish Book Award), and The Significance of Yavneh and other Essays in Jewish Hellenism (2011). He has lectured widely and has appeared on Frontline, Nova, and the History Channel. He and his wife Miriam are the parents of four children.
Prof. Cohen introduces himself in two video segments, one from the 2011 recording of his other GenEd course, The Hebrew Scriptures in Judaism and Christianity, and one associated with this course, to be found here.
About the Lecture Recordings.
The lecture recordings were made during class meetings in the fall of 2013 in the Tsai Auditorium of the Center for Government and International Studies by the course producer, Beardsley (“B”) Ruml, with the assistance of Anthony Liu who operated the second camera. The Canon S95 and S120 point-and-shoot cameras captured the video at standard definition and at 720p while the audio was captured by a Sennheiser wireless lavalier and Tascam DR40 recorder. Postproduction was done in Final Cut Pro by the producer who added the subtitles. Beyond the kind approval by Dean Michael Smith to post the course on the Harvard iTunesU channel, no assistance or support from Harvard University was sought or received.
What you may do with this course (copyright and license).
Under longstanding Harvard policy, Prof Cohen claims copyright in the materials of the course and has generously licensed them for use by anyone for any non-commercial purpose requiring only that he be credited as the author and that any derivative works be licensed under a similar Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license (see the Creative Commons website).
Beyond this Course.
Substantial encouragement for the production of this course came from the favorable reception of Prof Cohen’s other General Education course, The Hebrew Scriptures in Judaism and Christianity, previously posted on Harvard’s iTunesU channel. The production of that course was encouraged by the posting on Open Yale Courses of Prof Christine Hayes’s excellent Introduction to the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible).
About the Timelines.
Emailing Prof Cohen.
Prof Cohen enjoys hearing from people who have found the course useful or enjoyable, particularly if your circumstances are unusual or you suggest a way the presentation of the course could be improved. As you can imagine, it's not possible for him to reply to all messages received but rest assured that he reads each one. Do refrain from observations which are not constructive no matter how accurate!
The email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org
Emailing B Ruml, the producer.
I would love to hear from anyone who has suggestions for how the presentation of the course could be improved and from professors who would like to use the program which draws the timelines in their own courses. Especially welcome are descriptions of errors made in editing and the like. Please begin your subject line with the notation "[CB39]" so your message goes to the correct place.
The email address is: email@example.com