Realia and the Teacher’s Toolbox in the Postmodern New Testament Classroom

by Richard Newton in

Active learning has trickled up from K-12 to higher education, yet academia primarily operates under a learning receptacle model. Many professors assume you can simply pour knowledge into students.

To enhance classroom interaction in my Introduction to the New Testament, I’ve begun incorporating a K-12 technique called “the teacher’s toolbox.” The idea is to integrate realia that challenges students to engage those key abstract concepts they might otherwise gloss. Think of it as a starter kit for hands-on “sticky learning.”

The appendix to Jonathan Reed’s The HarperCollins Visual Guide to the New Testament gave me some ideas on how I might approach this. His book is premised on teaching the New Testament by privileging material culture. It introduces students to the basics of pottery reading, numismatics, and epigraphy. To make these areas of research more tangible, I started filling my toolbox with related realia. Below are some activities that I’ve found successful.

Pottery Reading

Students are surprised to learn that archaeologists almost never find an object intact. To help this idea sink in, I purchased a set of replica Herodian lamps and smashed them with a trowel. When students came into class, they found a tray of shards and were told that they had to put the pieces back together into a single artifact.(Because I reuse the shards, glue is prohibited.  This does not seem to be a problem as long as you keep most of the pieces around 3-6cm in diameter. That way students can cup the assemblage together in their hands.). Students finished by comparing their re-creation to an unbroken lamp. After loosely holding their re-creations, students were better equipped to discuss the difficulty of reconstructing antique identities.

The class had little trouble following a meta-comparison between their misshaped lamps and (mis)interpretations of the Pharisees in the popular imagination. They noticed that both built upon presumed bases. In the case of the lamp, students had located diagnostic pieces like flat bottoms and contoured rims. Similarly our understanding of social groups relies on tentative connections we make between various primary source materials that illuminate distinguishing features. Just as their lamps were hardly seamless (or even matching), I pointed out that our historiographic work has more than a few rough edges. This led to a stronger grasp of how scholars put histories together and a caution to do so judiciously.


When I was an undergraduate, my Bible professors passed coins around the class expecting to dazzle us with these pieces of antiquity. But I can’t recall anyone truly being stimulated by the gesture. Maybe it’s because of the foreign script or because today’s coins are going by the wayside, but coinage doesn’t pay off as much as we often think.

Political intrigue, however, is something our students know and love. I like to juxtapose coin reproductions with relevant texts to highlight the element of propaganda. To sell this activity, I asked students to pull out their own cash to interrogate the message imprinted therein. The class was quick to point out inscriptions such as “In God We Trust” and pictures of dead leaders. I encouraged them to slow down and ask why Americans wouldn’t simply inscribe the coin’s value. The conversation turned to an examination of how currency is not only about exchanging money, but also reinforcing cultural values. It is a discourse that steeps the present day in a crafted tradition—in this case, an alignment of the founding fathers narrative and the Christian nation mythos. To spur the students’ thinking, I give them a few moments to search for more information on this and similar discourses.

I then explained how following the money can reveal some of the processes ancient leaders used to make names for themselves. Reed’s book highlights how many of the images on Alexander the Great’s coinage reflects his political rise (e.g. Macedonian style-helmet, elephants from the Punjab). Similarly, as we move through the timeline of Hellenistic and Roman Judea, we compared the region’s numismatic variety to consider the message local leaders were sending to their constituents, suzerains, and colonizers.

I began by projecting an image of the coin and passing it around the room. Students worked in groups to guess its provenance. Some tried to transliterate the ruler’s inscription. Others focused on imagery. A few shuffled through their textbook, Bibles, and notes in search of answers. We then crowdsourced the gleanings, drawing connections between the coin and the history they had studied thus far. The activity provided an opportunity for students to gain a richer appreciation of the socio-politics in the texts before them.


As I bring students into the scholarly process, I am amazed how classroom debates mirror those in the guild. This is most apparent in our unit on Pauline literature. The class quickly divides into the motivation (let alone, plausibility) behind pseudepigraphy.  Some think we’re looking at lying, others a school of thought, and a few, wholly authentic writings from a prolific author. The question is not one we can solve in a single term, but it is one students can explore by writing their own (Deutero)Pauline literature.

Student’s (Deutero)Pauline Letter on Sabbath Observance

Student’s (Deutero)Pauline Letter on Sabbath Observance

I pulled out pseudo-papyrus (i.e. wrinkled brown packing paper) from my toolbox and asked them to take up any issue that they had read about in the corpus (e.g. circumcision, table fellowship, authority of other teachers, etc.). They were to write their own view as Paul might as a way of surfacing their own understanding of Paul’s signature literary traits.

After seven to ten minutes, I had students exchange their epistles with a partner. The pairs discussed what made the letters Pauline. Were there certain literary conventions used? Did the author insist his name was Paul? What sorts of commonplaces were referenced?  Was the stance consistent with the rest of the corpus? We then came back together to devise a corporate list of Pauline features. As each person discovered elements lacking in their own epistles, authenticity became a question not only of resonance but also preponderance. This established a firmer foundation from which we could converse about what literary diversity might represent in the Pauline tradition.


I don’t use realia in every class session, but it is a handy reminder that texts are a means to understanding an ancient context filled with people every bit as complicated as we are. The teacher’s toolbox can help students access the “reality” behind these texts and embrace the messiness of historical reconstruction.



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