Feast upon the Word Blog

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NT Teaching Schedule: Paul

Posted by cherylem on July 15, 2007

This post will be brief and I may add more later, but I find myself cringing every time I think about teaching Paul as scheduled. That is, we’re to read some of Acts, then some of the Epistles, then more of Acts, then some of the Epistles, etc. I cannot understand why we are teaching this way. I bet there are people who have sat through these lessons numerous times and still don’t have a very good idea of the general overview of Acts OR the epistles. Does anyone else have difficulty with this? How do you handle it?

Also, Paul is brilliant and sometimes not easy – combine him with the old English of KJV, and you often get something completely indecipherable to the 21st century mind. How often do other teachers use other translations when teaching Paul?

Or . . . perhaps I could phrase this question more positively: How can we best teach Paul? What has worked for you in the past?

I realize that we won’t actually be teaching Paul for some weeks, so maybe this will not generate any comment now, but as we move into those lessons during this teaching cycle, I would find it helpful if we could share ideas on teaching Paul in the Sunday School class.

26 Responses to “NT Teaching Schedule: Paul”

  1. Robert C. said

    We’re finishing the Gospels in my ward next week, and I’ve already picked up some books on Paul at the library—we seem to be on the same page here! I’m much more interested in digging into Paul’s theology this year than I am in studying Acts, for various reasons. So I’m planning to write a series of introductory posts to Paul’s theology over the next several weeks which I hope will make it easier for our blog teachers to focus on Paul’s letters and theology more than the Acts narratives when we get to those lessons (actually, my motives are purely selfish b/c writing posts is the best way for me to learn things, but I try to convince myself others may benefit…). I think the narratives are usually focused on at the expense of the letters/theology because Paul’s theology is rather unfamiliar and daunting, which I think is very unfortunate, but something that is quite possible to rectify. I think the more interesting approach would be to focus primarily on Paul’s theology/letters, using Acts primarily to just give some historical background and setting for the more theologically-laden letters.

  2. cherylem said


    I look forward to your posts on Paul’s theology.

  3. The_Monk said

    My guess is that whoever created the lesson structure is trying for a synchronic arrangement of sorts. Not unrelated, I noticed that we’re not reading the letters in canonical order, but chronologically, kind of.

    When I taught Hon. Acts-Revelation at BYU a while back, I required my students to read the KJV and a 2nd translation of their choice from the following Bibles: NIV (Rel. Dept. pre-approved. We ordered 20 $5 paperback from cbd.com), mission bible, NRSV, NET or other by approval. They were informed that if they weren’t reading another version, they wouldn’t understand enough to get a C in the class, but they would need familiarity with KJV as well. Most went with the NIV. (Since they were also required both by assignment and on the final to know how to read the Greek alphabet and use Strong’s and lexicons from the library, I wasn’t terribly concerned about which translation they picked.)

    We went through Acts alone, then took a day to do an intro to Paul, then all his letters in assumed order of writing. For each letter, I distributed a brief intro of background, cultural setting, etc., largely drawn from Anderson’s Understanding Paul.

    Since GD isn’t Hon. NT, I don’t think most of what I did will transfer well (such as weeding out students the first day via the Greek alphabet and Greek library assignment.)

    I hope to be teaching Paul this Fall for Institute, and I’d love to post my Institute lessons, notes, etc. here. Matt has asked me for participation in the past, though mostly on the Wiki end, not the blog end.

    I have low expectations for GD, since few will have read the assignment, and those who have will have read it in the KJV.

  4. joespencer said

    Cheryl, I sympathize with you, but since I don’t teach SS right now, it hasn’t been a major concern for me. However, I often take up Paul with the priests I teach, and I have taught Paul in seminary often enough, so I suppose I have a few responses. But first, let me say also that I anticipate with much excitement Robert’s posts on Paul’s theology. I think we should be taking Paul far more seriously.

    First, as you mention, using other translations (and the GREEK!) is vital to studying/teaching Paul. I tend to find that Latter-day Saints are fine with a teacher consulting the “original” Greek or making reference to “most modern translations,” but they are uncomfortable with a teacher reading right out of the NIV (that’s their Bible, and it has quite obviously been corrupted!). So I tend to give them the Greek (even written in Greek letters on the board so that anyone can check up on me, and I try to break it into pieces with them, etc.), and then I sometimes lean on the authority of other translations secondarily: “That’s why [the meaning of that Greek word we’ve just discussed is why] most modern translations render this passage something like xyz.”

    Once these basics are established, I’ve found that the best approach to Paul in the classroom is to take him up in terms of his argument. If the class is led through the specific steps of Paul’s remarkably systematic logic, I’ve found that most members of the class are on new ground, and they tend to be quite interested because they see something they’ve never seen. Paul almost never writes anything without making some kind of argument, and so this seems to me to be something that can be done almost anywhere in Paul. What this means is that the class essentially works through a text together, rather than having a discussion or sharing insights together, but this I think is the only way to get to Paul himself.

    I’ve especially found success in allowing Paul to question our usual ways of thinking about the gospel. Because of the general LDS antipathy towards Paul, members of the Church are not usually very familiar with his themes and what they mean. If the language is made clear and the argument is worked through systematically, the class encounters Paul’s presuppositions and worldview, and this is usually quite at odds with the way we think as a people. I tend to move through or towards a series of aporiae for the class, making the tensions between Paul and our ordinary thinking quite obvious over and over again so that Paul remains a source of constant frustration, but now of our ideas rather than of our ability to read.

    One more word, I guess, is worth saying: I think it is so important to cover very little ground at a time with Paul. Paul’s arguments and the implications of his presuppositions are so profound and rich that an entire lesson can quite easily be eaten up in the course of exploring only ten or fifteen verses. Though there may be reason to avoid doing this all the time, it is worth working a few lessons that take up a smaller section quite deeply once in a while so that the intricacy and beauty of Paul’s theological thinking emerges for those who are unfamiliar with Paul.

    Anyway, a few thoughts.

  5. cherylem said

    Please post your Institute notes. Please. Also, is your introduction to Paul something you could post here easily?

    Thanks for the info re what you used at BYU.

    I have a limited library on Paul: Anderson’s book that you mentioned, also Sperry’s on Paul’s life and letters, Liberating Paul, by Neil Elliott, and an old book called The Origin of Paul’s Religion by J. Gresham Machen. I’m afraid I haven’t actually read any of these but I’ve read AT Anderson. So this study will be good for me.

    Also I have a set of tapes Gil Bailie did on Romans (Girardian) and my notes from a (great) Institute class taught by Mack Stirling about 10 years ago.

    Do you have anything else to recommend?

    I agree with doing a very little bit of Paul at a time. I agree with your assessment of how to use other translations, and I think using the Greek is fine but in my case I think it could come across as pretentious.

    However, I have prepared my class that we are going to do side-by-sides of various translations, so they are expecting it. I have done this already with some of the gospel lessons, so they have seen the difference this can make.

    Thanks for the comments. So much.

  6. brianj said

    Cheryl: Thanks so much for posting this! I really hope that I can get some help with Paul this year. I’ve studied his writings only superficially, I’ll admit, and I’m afraid of really letting my class down.

    On a related note, I’ve decided that if I ever get to teach the NT in Sunday School again, that I am going to ask for permission to change the reading schedule for the Gospels. I’d like to read each Gospel on it’s own; i.e. all the way through Matthew, then all the way through Mark, and so on. I think it would make a huge difference for everyone to read and study the overall arguments/themes/focus of each author.

    Robert: I eagerly await your series.

    Joe: That’s a useful way to discuss bringing in Greek (or Hebrew) translations. I struggle with how to present “original language information” from time to time, and I think your approach will help me reduce the frequency at which it is a problem. Mostly, I am afraid of coming across in a “you-don’t-really-understand-the-scriptures-because-you-didn’t-consult-Strong’s-like-I-did” manner. I also appreciate what you say about Paul making arguments; I will have to look for that as I prepare to teach.

  7. Jim F. said

    CherylEm: Though I miss teaching Sunday School, questions like yours make me glad not to be doing so. I think that the manual’s insistence on teaching everything as if we were reading a chronological history–or trying to write one ourselves based on a set of source texts–is a serious mistake. I think it is one reason that so few members really know the New Testament.

    I don’t have any great answers about how to teach the material, but I look forward to learning what others are doing.

    Brianj: I hope you are successful at getting permission to teach the New Testament in its order, but I doubt that you will be.

    Though, knowing Joe, I am sure that he pulls off well bringing Greek into class, but I think that few can do so without alienating many in the class. I think you are right to be cautious about appearing, as you say, “in a
    ‘you-don’t-really-understand-the-scriptures-because-you-didn’t-consult-Strong’s-like-I-did’ manner.” That is a genuine danger.

  8. douglashunter said

    For me its important to keep in mind that the intention of the lesson manuals (for better or for worse) is to address themes within the scripture. There really is nothing in the teacher’s manuals or the student’s manuals that suggests to me that SS is understood by the church as a place to engage in a reading of Paul’s theology, or a reading of the scriptures that utilizes the full context of any book in the scriptures. Perhaps the fuller context is assumed but I don’t know.

    I find this disapointing to be sure, but as teachers in the Church I think its important to understand as best we can the structure and intention of the lesson both globaly and the level of each individual lesson.

    I think Jim is right that many members (myself included) don’t know or understand the NT very well, but at the same time it stands to reasion that really learning the NT is not one of the goals of the SS lessons.

    I know this is all a bit odd for me to be saying. So let me put it in a more positive way, from an analysis of the lesson materials, what are the goals of the lessons that deal with Paul?

  9. nhilton said

    Thanks for all who will hold my hand, via this blog, as I stretch to teach the rest of the NT in GD. I am extremely AFRAID! The Gospels were cake comparred to the rest, I think. It is a sad thing that I, a life-long member of the church, feels so aprehensive about approaching the rest of the NT books. Obviously Jim’s #7 proves true in my life, at least. I will be eagerly reading what you all have to offer.

    For what it’s worth…I have yet to determine…I’ve enrolled in the BYU Ind. Study 2nd half of the NT Rel. Course to help me as I study the remainder of the NT. (I need the credit, too. :) ) I did the 1st half in a flash. It was so easy. I don’t think I’ll find the 2nd half nearly so digestable.

  10. Robert C. said

    douglas #8, what’s the difference between a thematic approach and a theological approach? The connotation in my mind seems to be more about the level of rigour, or perhaps in the sense of systematic theology (with grand narrative connotations), which isn’t what I meant by systematic at least. I’m not articulating this question very well, but I’ve been wondering for a while about different ways to approach scripture, and it seems to me that a theological approach and a thematic approach are quite similar to each other.

    Part of my question stems from the fact that the introductory books on Paul’s theology I check out tend to talk in terms of themes: God, Christology, the law, righteousness, etc. The authors are typically very good about adding many caveats to the dangers of looking at these themes out of the context of each individual letter, but I think this is a reasonable way to take a first stab at introducing “Paul’s theology.” (From my very limited understanding of Paul’s letters, however, it seems another reasonable approach might be to start with Romans since it seems to be a letter that presumes less understanding on the part of the hearers/readers….)

  11. douglashunter said


    I don’t disagree with you. What I am getting at is that when I look at the titles of the lessons and the questions contained there in I do not necessairly think that the themes forgrounded in the lessons are the same themes that are forgrounded in Paul’s texts. For example there is no lesson on justice and law as found in Romans, granted there is brief mention of being justified, but Justice is a pretty important theme in Romans that is not addressed in the lessons.

    I take this (along with many other examples) to mean that the themes are generated by the folks who write the lessons and then they find scriptures that they feel are a good match for that theme, rather than asking what are the important themes in such and such a scripture. It a question of priorities.

  12. Robert C. said

    Thanks for clarifying, douglas, that makes sense, and I largely agree. Though, as a bit of nit-picking, Paul’s view on the law is taken up quite directly in the lesson on Galatians. Also, the word “justice” never shows up in the KJV, but uses the term “righteousness” instead (which comes from the same Greek root, dike, as the words “just” and “justification”). So when the lesson talks about righteous acts and justification in the lesson on Romans, I think it is actually being more true to the text than an abstract theological discussion of justice would entail. (Despite my more-tendentious-sounding-than-intended point here, I really do agree that the manuals often wrest the text in trying to make a thematically-tidy lesson….)

  13. brianj said

    douglas, #8: you make a good case for the manuals. I worry sometimes that I am taking my class outside of the Church community when I don’t follow the manuals. I’m not totally settled on the issue in my mind and heart (contrary to how I may have sounded in #6)

  14. cherylem said

    I did notice that there is a place to leave feedback regarding the manual here

    I do not defend the manuals. I have sat through too many classes that were manual based and horrible.

  15. brianj said

    Cheryl: First, nice job with the hyperlink!

    Second, lessons that do not follow the manual are often much, much less edifying than ones that follow the manuals too closely. For that reason, I defend the manuals (even though I rarely use them myself). The key is that I think the manuals help to take someone with almost no teaching experience and give them something they can work with and they also keep some teachers “on topic” that would otherwise stray to, say, politically-motivated discussions. Also, a lot of teachers would be completely lost/overwhelmed without the manuals. I equate it to this: if I were called as the ward organist, I would hope the bishop would provide me with an mp3 player loaded with pre-recorded organ music; it wouldn’t be as good as live music from a competent organist, but it’d be way better than what I’d play on my own.

  16. Jim F. said

    brianj’s analogy is a good one. Given the number of wards and branches in which the Sunday School teacher is, in fact, overwhelmed, the manual is necessary. However, I don’t think that the way that the manual is organized–thematically, as Douglas points out–is the best way to teach scripture.

    Nevertheless, when I teach, I teach the material assigned.

  17. cherylem said

    Thanks. I finally got it (re the hyperlink).

    I am listening to what everyone is saying regarding the manuals. Jim, I also teach the assigned material from the scriptures and I follow the schedule.

    And I actually do read the manual lesson every time, usually several times. It is the first thing I print out and one of the last things I read before teaching.

    Perhaps, having found the feedback link given in #14, the most positive thing to do would be to give feedback. And soldier on with Paul . . .

  18. douglashunter said

    Robert #12 thanks for the corrective. I have to admit that I’ve fallen into the habbit of reading dike root words as justice, since its my understanding that this is the better translation. And now its become my assumption. oops.

    Brian #13, I have to say that I really do not like the manuals but I see it as my job to teach what the Church wants me to teach so I put a sincere effort into understanding the intent, structure and spirit of the lessons. If I didn’t then I would be all over the map. Perhaps we have this in common? Having written all this I admit that I wonder why SS isn’t a place to really learn scripture? I often leave SS feeling a sense of loss, thinking “we just spent an hour with profound and beautiful scripture and that’s all we discussed?”

  19. BrianJ said

    cheryl, #17, and douglas, #18: I feel I should clarify my comments. I used to do as Cheryl describes in 17, reading the manual first and last in my lesson prep, writing down the “theme” of the lesson and the manual’s stated purpose at the top of my lesson notes, etc. As I have gotten much busier lately, however, I’ve had to drop various things from my lesson prep, and studying the manual is one of them. I still follow the reading schedule, but I haven’t looked at the manual’s outline or questions in several months (this is what I meant by “I don’t follow the manuals,” #13).

    That being said, I don’t think that I am breaking any “rules of manual usage,” based on the instructions in the front of the manual itself. So when Douglas writes, “my job to teach what the Church wants me to teach so I put a sincere effort into understanding the intent, structure and spirit of the lessons”, I’m not quite sure that what is in the manuals necessarily is what the Church wants us to teach.

    If I didn’t follow the reading schedule, I wouldn’t be “all over the map,” but rather I would spend four months in Matthew chapter 1 alone.

    (Sorry, I’m realizing we sort of had this discussion before on this blog, and I’m rehashing that and getting away from Cheryl’s topic—it’s just that teaching Paul is where this issue will be most relevant for me.)

  20. Robert C. said

    Hear, hear, BrianJ—I say the manual was made for man, and not man for the manual!

  21. Jim F. said

    Robert C (#12), though the KJV does say “righteousness” and there are good reasons to take dike that way in a 1st c. Jewish context, I still like “justice” better as a translation. I think it gets at the heart of what constitutes righteousness, namely giving to each person, including God, what is due that person, namely love.

  22. robf said

    BTW, how are y’all going to approach the apostleship of Paul? Do we really consider him an apostle like Peter, James, and John? Or is he more of a missionary type like Amulek or perhaps the Sons of Mosiah? Do we believe that he was literally ordained an apostle in our modern sense of the priesthood office?

  23. Robert C. said

    Jim F. #21: In, say, a Sunday school environment, I worry that people a lot of pre-conceived notions about justice—though it’s probably better to change/challenge such ideas about justice than to simply use the term righteousness like the KJV. Also, to my ears, justice has more legal/forensic connotations than righteousness, which I think are indeed important to preserve from the Greek, so I think a strong case can be made for justice as a better translation (which also has the benefit of making ties to Levinas’s OT-based view of justice more obvious, right?).

    robf, even if I were teaching adults, I’d be inclined to not bring the issue up, and to shrug my shoulders if someone asked. (I do think the disagreement he has with Peter that we read about in Gal 2:11 is pretty interesting, though I don’t know if or how it helps answer your question….)

  24. robf said

    I guess I bring up the question of Paul’s authority in order to wonder about how authoritatively we should be taking Paul’s letters–which were written in very specific times to very specific audiences. I haven’t ever read an LDS “what do we do about Paul?” question, so I suppose I’m bringing it up here to see who may already have addressed it and how they have done so. Would it make a difference if we saw Paul as just a very influential missionary, rather than an ordained apostle holding priesthood keys?

  25. Robert C. said

    robf, check out this discussion.

  26. robf said

    Thanks for the link. I have to admit that while I’ve read the NT before, I’ve never spent much time thinking about Paul or looking closely at his message. So this is new ground for me.

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