Inspired by…Bringing historical methodology into GCSE teaching of Christian beliefs – Thomas Breakwell

In my teaching of AQA GCSE RS Christian beliefs I have found one aspect perplexing, namely the paradoxical role of scripture. On the one hand, the new GCSE Religious Studies places a greater emphasis on every RE teacher’s favourite buzz words, ‘sources of wisdom and authority’ and yet pupils spend very little, if any time at all, actually engaging with scripture in any meaningful way. Instead, engagement with biblical scholarship seems to begin and end with cutting a few quotes from the synoptic gospels or John or the letters of Paul and simply pasting them in an exam answer without any engagement with the history, audience or purpose of the biblical texts.

The result is that I often find pupils asking me fantastic questions such as ‘who is Mark?’, ‘who was Luke writing for?, ‘what is a gospel?’, ‘what was life like at the time of Paul?’, ‘did Jesus actually exist?’. These are all excellent questions, and questions that pupils should be asking, and yet I felt that these questions were often ill-served by the current GCSE specification.

In response, this academic year, I did something different. I taught a lesson that was completely removed from the specification. The aim of this lesson was for pupils to gain a greater understanding of the historical Jesus and importantly how New Testament scholars use historical methods to ascertain if events contained in the gospel narratives can be considered to be historical. The lesson went something like this:

I started by briefly explaining to pupils the audiences and purposes of each of the synoptic gospels and John. The aim of this being that my pupils would begin to appreciate that the gospel texts they have been studying where written by authors to particular audiences and therefore these texts, like any other text, have a purpose and sit within a historical and social context.

Following this, I Introduced to pupils three main criterion which are often used by scholars in the study of the historical Jesus: the criterion of dissimilarity, criterion of embarrassment and the criterion of multiple attestation. The criterion of dissimilarity is simply a method that considers if the events in Jesus’ life (for example his baptism) are distinct from the teaching of 1st century Judaism or the early church. If they are, it reasons that it is more likely to be historical. The criterion of embarrassment considers if the event in Jesus’ life would have been considered embarrassing for the early church. If it would have been embarrassing for the early church it seems unlikely they would just make it up! Finally, and most importantly, the criterion of multiple attestation which focuses on if the event in Jesus’ life occurs in multiple different Christian and non-Christian sources. If an event in Jesus’ life such as the crucifixion is referenced in both Christian and non-Christian sources, such as the writings of Josephus, then it is more likely to be historical.

After my explanation, my pupils got to work. As a class, pupils read the baptism of Jesus (along with some information about baptism in first century Palestine). Then using the three criteria, I modelled step by step how each criterion could be applied to the baptism of Jesus. The benefit of modelling the first example as a whole class allowed me to reiterate what I expected my class to do and address any questions or misconceptions they had.

After scaffolding and modelling the first example, it was now time for my pupils to practice on their own with pupils applying the same criteria to several of the miracles of Jesus such as the exorcism of the blind and mute man and the raising of Jairus’ daughter. I found that my higher attaining pupils went one step further and even considered the limitations of using the criterion of embarrassment, multiple attestation and dissimilarity to study the miracles of Jesus. To end, we discussed as a class their views on if the events ascribed to Jesus in the gospels are historical and if such a question matters for Christians today.

Overall, I think my off-specification adventure helped some of my pupils to begin to think a little bit more deeply about biblical texts and historical methodology. I hope this blog provides a little bit of inspiration to go a bit beyond the specification and get your GCSE classes to delve a little deeper into the rich world of the texts they are reading. Not only would engagement with historical methodology enhance our teaching of Christianity, but other worldviews might also benefit from an appropriate form of this approach.

Thomas Breakwell teaches Religious Studies at King Edward VI Camp Hill School for Boys, Birmingham.



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