128 – Reading Sacred Texts

Ken Koltun-Fromm
Gest 201
Office hours: Monday/Wednesday, 1-2 pm
610-896-1026 (office); 610-645-8324 (home)

Laurie Allen
Magill Library
Office hours: Friday, 2-4 pm

Fall, 2014
Monday/Wednesday 11:30-1pm
Gest 102


This class will focus on reading sacred texts in the Jewish and Christian traditions, and reading Jewish and Christian sources that read those sacred texts. The class will focus on four interrelated themes: sacrifice, creation, revelation, and redemption. We want to become fluent in close readings of texts that consider those themes, and how religious traditions read their sacred literature in light of those issues. We also want to look at how traditions visually depict key events and persons, and critically assess visual modes of textual interpretation. Finally, we want to ask whether it makes sense to distinguish primary from secondary literature with regard to reading sacred texts.

Class Preparation and Assignments

Preparing for Class:

As an intensive writing seminar, we will continually read when we write, and write when we read; the two activities are intimately related and mutually reinforcing. We will not sometimes read texts, and at other times write about them. So always think about writing when you read, and consider what it means to read your work when you write (what do your words and sentences sound like, or who is the ideal reader of your essay?). You should therefore come to class prepared to critically engage the readings for that day and to discuss style, grammar, structure, argument, turns of phrases, voice, and the writing process itself. Each of you will sign up to present a 5-10 minute critical introduction to the class readings. This will include a concise overview of the readings, and then a focused analysis of a particular section that raises critical issues you would like to discuss in class.

TEI Markup:

To encourage close reading, collaborative authorship, and the critical interrogation of interfaces, we will engage a series of projects that employ the TEI markup language. Supported and maintained by the Text Encoding Initiative consortium, TEI is a recommended standard for creating, editing, sharing, and analyzing texts in a digital format. Encoding with TEI requires (among other tasks) that author-editors make key decisions about which aspects of a text to mark up, and how to best describe those aspects using tags. We will implement a series of four short encoding projects, beginning with Genesis 22, in order to recognize the kinds of interpretive choices we all must make in reading texts. Attending closely to specific words within the text, we will use this marked language as the basis for writing assignments, and we will practice this form of textual, digital creation throughout the semester, all the while reflecting on interpretive choices by rendering texts in TEI.

The software we will use for this project is oXygen—the XML encoding software supported by Haverford’s Digital Scholarship team. oXygen simplifies the technical process of encoding so that we can focus on our theoretical and interpretive decisions rather than investing long hours to master XML language. Each of you should download the oXygen software to your computer (Windows or Mac) and then register the software key that I will email to each of you. This key will allow use of the oXygen software for one year. We will conclude this project with a final symposium in which we present our work, together with students from Jeremiah Mercurio’s seminar “The Future of the Book in the Digital Age,” to the broader community.

Laurie Allen’s website on TEI

You will receive one, cumulative grade for your TEI markup that covers your work in class and the final symposium. I will take into account the thoughtfulness of your analysis, your analytic concerns as expressed through TEI, and your reflective capacity of using the technology as a tool for close textual reading.

Writing Assignments:

You will write five draft papers and five revisions of those drafts (only the final revision paper is graded). A good source for how to use citations can be found here. The five paper topics are, in order assigned:

(1) Textual analysis paper (2-3 pages)

For your first paper you want to focus on a particular problem in Genesis 22 and attempt to analyze it, articulate the nature of it, offer an account of why it is a problem, and perhaps suggest ways to understand it. All this means you need to do a close reading of that text: you want to uncover the nuances of the word, sentence, or phrase without assuming its meaning, but instead derive its meaning (or various meanings) by analyzing it. You don’t want me to write on the margins: how do you know this? If I write that, it means you have made an unjustified assertion, one that is not supported by the text. A nuanced reading is one that does not treat a text as a proof-text but as a source or resource for critical analysis. Some things to consider as you draft your paper:

    • Your paper should be 2-3 double-spaced pages.
    • Your introduction should be short, to the point, and I should be able to read it and know what your paper is about.
    • Although you want to focus on a problem, you must translate that problem into an issue and a thesis.  Here are some examples:
      • Problem: how old is Isaac? Opening sentence: Genesis 22 does not acknowledge Isaac’s age, but whatever age readers imagine him to be significantly affects how they understand his role in the story.
      • Problem: does Abraham lie to his servants in Genesis 22? Opening sentence: Abraham’s obscure claim that both he and Isaac will return from worshipping God on the mountain suggests a number of possible meanings: this could be a lie, a prophesy that he, indeed, will receive Isaac back after the slaughter, or a wish.
  • Remember, this is a draft, so be bold and creative!
  • You are writing this paper, as in all subsequent papers, to me. I am your audience. You can assume I have the read the texts in question and understand the basic argumentative structure (so you need not summarize nor introduce a text).

(2) Textual analysis with secondary source paper (4 pages)

For your second paper I would like you to engage your close reading of texts with a broader audience of readers and interpreters. You may NOT use the close reading accomplished in your first paper; you must choose another text for your close reading. In this paper, you want to engage secondary sources in creating a more robust account of your textual reading. So this paper builds upon the first assignment and asks you to now offer a close reading of texts in the context of other readers of that text. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Your paper should be roughly four double-spaced pages.
  • You do not want to simply offer a close reading and then add secondary sources. Instead, you want to weave those sources into your reading such that you can engage those sources, and in so doing augment your own voice in relation to those other voices.
  • You should limit those secondary works to no more than three sources, but they may include Midrash, rabbinic commentary (Rashi), New Testament commentary, works read in class or discovered in the library, and images.
  • You want to consider how to integrate these secondary sources and how to position your own voice alongside them. Do these sources inform your own reading? Do they offer additional support for your textual interpretation, or do they suggest poorer readings? Why take these sources into account? What do these sources help you accomplish?
  • You do not want to set up these secondary sources as “straw men” that you then chop down. It is important to offer charitable readings of these sources, and then suggest how they miss or confirm something, or raise important issues that you want to address.

(3) Midrash or Letter (4-5 pages)

For this third paper I would like you to focus on voice: the position you take vis-a-vis your audience and your argument. By mimicking the style of either Jewish Midrash or New Testament letter, you must withdraw a bit from academic prose and consider the style, character, and audience of Midrashim or letters to religious communities. Here are a few things to consider as you craft this essay:

  • Have serious fun with this. You have a chance to adopt a stance and voice of another time and within a very different context than Haverford College. But this is serious play: you want to draft an essay that, in the case of Midrash, seeks to offer a background story or interpretation to better understand a particular phrase or word, or in the case of a New Testament letter, attempts to explain issues of early Christianity to a burgeoning but young religious community. There is a lot at stake in both kinds of writing, but you should allow yourself ample play and imagination.
  • You want to follow the models we have discussed in class (Midrashim on Exodus and Genesis; Paul’s letter to the Romans), but you do not want to slavishly copy them. I should be able to recognize them as Midrashim or New Testament letters, but I should also be able to hear your own voice in and through these essays.
  • Because you are mimicking a style, you must pay particular attention to your phrasing. The Midrashim and Paul’s letter to the Romans are not what I would call wordy; they are very economical in their word choice.  So you should focus on this economic style as well.
  • Whether you choose to write a Midrash or a letter, you can also include your own analysis of that Midrash or letter as part of your 4-5 page paper. You should write that analysis as you would any close reading of a text (what provokes this Midrash? What is the textual problem that this Midrash seeks to address? How does the Midrash read the text, or what are the religious assumptions of this Midrash? What are the concerns of the letter? How does the author imagine his/her audience? What is at stake?). This kind of analysis is not a requirement but a suggestion.
  • You need not write in the vocabulary of the Midrash or Paul’s letter. Focusing on style does not necessarily mean appropriating the specific language of first century Rome. You can do this if you wish; but you can also write a thoroughly modern letter that still mirrors the style of Midrash or Paul’s letter. Again, I need to recognize your essay as a Midrash or religious letter.

(4) Thematic or comparative paper (5-6 pages)

For this paper, your focus should be on developing a broader thesis about a particular text, a group of texts, or an issue discussed in class. You must still use your skills of textual analysis to support your claim, but the focus is less on how to read the text, and more on how to develop a cohesive and persuasive argument about it. So you want to focus on your argument and the best way to support it. You may, for example, argue that sin in Paul’s letter to the Romans is a physical property that adheres to things, and you support that view through a reading of Paul’s letter. Or you may compare Paul’s understanding of sin with Barth’s discussion of it in his commentary on Romans.

(5) Textual analysis, secondary source, and thematic paper (6-7 pages)

For this last paper, you are to cultivate all the tools and methods you have employed in the previous papers and put them to use here. So this should be a textual analysis paper (first paper) that places your own voice (third paper) among secondary sources (second paper) in the service of a larger, thematic argument (fourth paper). You want to think of this fifth paper as the product of all the work you have accomplished over the course of the semester, and you want this to represent your best work.  You can use one of your previous papers as the basis to build this last paper, or you can choose a completely new topic.  If you have focused your work on one central idea or problem, you may continue that focus by producing a really polished, well-constructed essay.


The writing assignment process for the five papers maintains an identical structure. You will turn in a draft essay on Wednesday, followed by small-group tutorials on Friday. The final essay will be due the Friday following tutorials. I will post online 15 minute individual meeting time slots during the week after the tutorial so that we can individually discuss your paper revisions. Only the meetings after the first paper draft are mandatory; after that first paper you may sign up at your own discretion. Allowing a full week to rethink and revise papers should indicate just how important the process of revision is for this seminar. The structure looks like this:

  • Wednesday – draft due
  • Friday – one hour tutorials
  • Following week: individual meetings
  • Friday – final draft due


Although we will meet twice weekly on Mondays and Wednesdays, I hope to set up tutorials on the Friday immediately following your draft paper due date. The class will be divided into three groups, with each group meeting for one hour for tutorial meetings. You will read each other’s draft essays and come to tutorial prepared to offer constructive comments on each essay. I may ask you to focus your comments and our discussion on specific features of the essay (for example, on the use of transitions, or the introductory paragraph, or voice). These tutorials are critical features of the revision process where we hear from and react to peer review.

  1. Tutorial Group #1 (11-12): Marilee, Marco, Justin, Nic
  2. Tutorial Group #2 (12-1): Julia, Matthew, Jenna, Ethan
  3. Tutorial Group #3 (1-2): Kelly, Allie, Margaret

The use of technology in the classroom:

You must bring all readings to class and be prepared to read, cite, and engage those texts in the seminar. Some of you may prefer to bring in computers or other technologies to access these readings (instead of printing them out as a hard copy), and you may want to use computers in the classroom for TEI markup. For those who wish to use computers or other devices in the classroom, you may not use those devices for anything other than reading texts, taking notes, or TEI markup. When we step into the seminar room, we become a community of intellectual learners, and that community requires commitment and attention. If computers or other technical devices interfere with that learning process then I will no longer allow those devices in the classroom. This means that if your use of a computer or similar device prevents you or any of your peers from fully engaging the class, then you will be required to remove that device from the classroom. You may not use a cell phone for communication in the classroom; these devices must be turned off or left outside the room. The basic premise is this: when technology enables intellectual commitment to the seminar, then we should use it; when it undermines that commitment, we should leave it alone. Please come and see me if you have concerns about using technology in the classroom.


Haverford College is committed to supporting the learning process for all students. Please contact me as soon as possible if you are having difficulties in the course. There are also many resources on campus available to you as a student, including the Office of Academic Resources (https://www.haverford.edu/oar/) and the Office of Disabilities Services (https://www.haverford.edu/ods/). If you think you may need accommodations because of a disability, please contact Gabriela Moats, Coordinator of Accommodations, Office of Disabilities Services at hc-ods@haverford.edu. If you have already been approved to receive academic accommodations and would like to request accommodations in this course because of a disability, please meet with me privately at the beginning of the semester (within the first two weeks if possible) with your verification letter.


I hope that your work improves as the semester progresses, and so your final grade for the course will reflect that trajectory. I do not evaluate each task with percentage accuracy (your final work is not worth, say, 30% of your grade, for example). Instead I examine all your work as a piece, and provide a grade that I hope fairly expresses the work and attention rendered to the class assignments, your peers in class, and your class participation. This process also allows me to take into account improvement during the course of the semester. I have posted a Grading Rubric for Papers as a reference guide as you write your own papers. All requests for extensions must be first vetted by your academic dean. If your academic dean believes your request is reasonable, s/he will then pass that request onto me for my consideration. Facing too much work is not an excuse for an extension.

Your graded assignments include:

  • Five revised papers (the drafts are not graded)
  • Clear indications that you have read and reflected upon class assignments
  • Class participation
  • Your work for TEI markup (including symposium)
  • Involvement and commitment to tutorials and the process of revision

Texts for Purchase

  • NRSV – The Holy Bible
  • Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism

Material on Moodle

  • Midrash Rabbah (482-503) and Rashi (93-97) on Genesis 22
  • Jon Levenson, Inheriting Abraham, 66-112
  • Bart Ehrman, The New Testament, “Paul the Apostle,” 291-307
  • Bart Ehrman, The New Testament, “The Letter to the Romans,” 356-368
  • Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 8-20
  • Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 115-139
  • Richard Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible?, 15-32
  • Midrash Rabbah (1, 6-8, 54-62, 148-152) on Genesis 1-3
  • Joseph Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 3-40
  • Midrash Rabbah (333-338, 476-484, 493-498) on Exodus 20, 32-34
  • Jan Assmann, Moses the Egyptian, 1-22, 144-167
  • Yosef Yerushalmi, Freud’s Moses, 81-100
  • Bart Ehrman, The New Testament, 69-73 92-99
  • Bart Ehrman, The New Testament, “Jesus, the Jewish Messiah,” 101-119
  • Donald Senior, What are they saying about Matthew?,  7-20, 62-87
  • The Shema and the Lord’s Prayer
  • Martin Luther, Small Catechism, 5-6
  • Mordecai Kaplan, Judaism as a Civilization, 182-183
  • Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Power of Prayer,” 1-13
  • David Hartman, “Prayer and Religious Consciousness,” 105-125
  • Michael Walzer, Exodus and Revolution, 3-17, 133-149
  • Reuen Firestone, Journeys in Holy Lands, 105-128


  • Week 1
  • 9/3 (W)
    • Introduction to Course
    • Discussion of plagiarism and citation (to be continued)
    • How to set up a quote
  • 9/5 (F)
                        • TEI workshop with Laurie Allen (11:30-1) in Hires Video Room, Magill LIbrary
  • Week 3
  • 9/15 (M)
    • Visit from Writing Center
    • Levenson, Inheriting Abraham, 66-112
    • Visit to Library with James Gulick (12:15-1)
  • 9/17 (W)
    • Presentation of TEI markup (Genesis 22)
    • Draft of textual analysis paper due (2-3 pages)
  • 9/19 (F)
    • Tutorials
  • Week 5
  • 9/29 (M)
    • Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 8-20
  • 10/1 (W)
    • Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 115-139
    • Draft of textual analysis with secondary source paper due (4 pages)
  • 10/3 (F)
    • Tutorials
  • Week 6
  • 10/6 (M)
  • 10/8 (W)
    • Midrash Rabbah (1, 6-8, 54-62, 148-152) on Genesis 1-3
    • Presentation of TEI markup (Genesis 1:26-27 in groups)
  • 10/10 (F)
    • Textual analysis with secondary source paper due (4 pages)
  • Week 7: Fall Break
  • Week 8
  • 10/20 (M)
    • Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 3-40
  • 10/22 (W)
    • Group meeting with Jeremiah Mercurio’s class
  • Week 9
  • 10/27 (M)
  • 10/29 (W)
    • Exodus 20 (Ten Commandments), 32-34 (Golden Calf)
    • Midrash Rabbah (333-338, 476-484, 493-498) on Exodus 20, 32-34
    • Discuss “What is a text?” and notions of the sacred
    • Draft of Midrash or Letter due (4-5 pages)
  • 10/31 (F)
    • Tutorials
  • Week 10
  • 11/3 (M)
    • Freud, Moses and Monotheism, 66-130
  • 11/5 (W)
    • Freud, Moses and Monotheism, 131-176
  • 11/7 (F)
    • Midrash or Letter due (4-5 pages)
  • Week 11
  • 11/10 (M)
    • Assmann, Moses the Egyptian, 1-22, 144-167
  • 11/12 (W)
    • Yerushalmi, Freud’s Moses, 81-100
    • Draft of thematic or comparative paper due (5-6 pages)
  • 11/14 (F)
      • Tutorials
  • Week 12
  • 11/17 (M)
    • Walzer, Exodus and Revolution, 3-17, 133-149
    • Discuss Symposium projects
  • 11/19 (W)
    • Research assignment: find other readings of Exodus narrative and present them in class
  • 11/21 (F)
    • Thematic or comparative paper due (5-6 pages)
  • Week 13
  • 11/24 (M)
    • No Class (AAR Meeting)
    • Turn in one page description of Symposium project on Moodle
  • 11/26 (W)
    • The Gospel of Matthew (text comparison: Online Parallel Bible, The Unbound Bible)
    • Ehrman, The New Testament, “Jesus, the Jewish Messiah,” 69-73, 92-99, 101-119
  • Thanksgiving Break
  • Week 14
  • 12/1 (M)
    • Group meeting with Jeremiah Mercurio’s class to discuss symposium
  • 12/3 (W)
    • Firestone, Journeys in Holy Lands, 105-128
    • Draft of textual analysis, secondary source, and thematic paper (6-7 pages)
  • 12/5 (F)
    • Tutorials
  • Week 15
  • 12/8 (M)
    • Final Symposium on TEI markup (Philips Wing, Magill Library)
  • 12/10 (W)
    • Final Symposium on TEI markup (Philips Wing, Magill Library)
  • 12/12 (F)
    • Textual analysis, secondary source, and thematic paper due (6-7 pages)