When Jesus Came To Harvard

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In this urgently relevant, wholly enlightening discussion of modern moral decisions, the Harvard theology professor Harvey Cox considers the significance of Jesus and his teachings today. As he did in his undergraduate class Jesus and the Moral Life—a course that grew so popular that the lectures were held in a theater often used for rock concerts—Cox examines contemporary dilemmas in the light of lessons gleaned from the Gospels. Invigorating and incisive, this book encourages an intellectual approach to faith and inspires a clear way of thinking about moral choices for all of us.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"[Makes] religious teachings relevant to people of all faiths and of no faith at all, in the daunting context of today's world."—Boston Sunday Globe

"A persuasive nudge to broaden our understanding of morality . . . Rich, intriguing, and provocative." The San Francisco Chronicle

[Cox] weighs in on the contemporary Jesus boom with his usual sagacity and wit, finding America's latest and greatest obsession alive and well among Christians and Buddhists, believers and un-believers, and even in the secular citadel of Harvard."—Stephen Prothero, author of American Jesus

"Stimulating."—Boston Sunday Globe

"Elegantly organized . . . Cox pulls off a near miracle as he gathers disparate scholarly and religious views of Jesus, while demonstrating respectful, deep knowledge of Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist traditions, and various Christian teachings." The Seattle Times

"Want to know what Jesus would do? Harvey Cox's book When Jesus Came to Harvard might help." The Chicago Tribune

"An acute observer of faith and culture . . . He covers a dazzling array of subjects . . . Cox's exuberant probing of the Gospels is wise and humane." The San Francisco Chronicle

"Cox is intelligent and provocative, but also kind and reverent . . . [presenting] a postmodern Christian's vision of Jesus which just might inspire readers thirsting in the secular city." Raleigh News & Observer

"Provacative . . . erudite yet accessible." Hartford Courant

"Weaving together movie themes, politics, poetry, and Eastern philosophy, Cox makes a powerful argument." Library Journal

"Compelling . . . much-needed insight into a world where life is still difficult and Jesus still counts."—Peter J. Gomes

"Full of existential wisdom, sparkling and unexpected religious insights, and life-affirming humor and hope . . . Christian, Jewish, and indeed every kind of reader will be enlightened and fascinated."—Rabbi Irving Greenberg

"A chance to sneak into the back row and catch a few snippets of a master at work." Christian Science Monitor

"Thought-provoking and soul-stirring . . . one of the best books of the year." Spirituality & Health Magazine

Publishers Weekly
Ever since his groundbreaking study of religion and society (The Secular City) more than 40 years ago, Cox has devoted his work to a fascinating array of topics: Pentecostalism, interreligious dialogue, liberation theology and Eastern religions. Now, after more than 20 years of teaching a course on Jesus and the moral life to Harvard undergraduates, he shares his experience. He admits honestly that he initially failed to see the value of such a course in a pluralistic religious university setting. Once he began to teach it, however, students filled the lecture hall, and small discussion groups crackled with open and hard-hitting questions about the relationship of Jesus and morality. With sparkling prose, Cox organizes the book around the New Testament stories told by and about Jesus to demonstrate the ways that each can be used to inform moral choices. For example, one of his students made the connection between the Lukan stories about Mary's choice to give birth to Jesus and the ethical decisions that Harvard female undergraduates confronted in advertisements that offered them cash for their fertile eggs. Above all, Jesus emerges as an elusive figure whose actions and words are, according to Cox, harder than ever to pin down. (Dec. 3) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In the early 1980s, Harvard was stewing over the fact that more and more of its graduates were ethically deviant and many of its undergraduates were ethically ignorant. To address this issue, the faculty decided to introduce a required undergraduate course in moral reasoning. Faculty colleague Cox (The Secular City) was invited to teach one of the courses, using Jesus of Nazareth as the lynchpin. This book comprises Cox's memoirs on teaching the course to packed classes of believers and nonbelievers for 20 years. Here Cox argues that Jesus of Nazareth "still has a powerful, even imperative, moral significance for our times." Such significance, he maintains, is not primarily in the faith titles for Jesus, such as Lord, Savior, or Son of God: it is in his role as rabbi, whose own stories, as well as the stories told about him, engage people's religious imagination and force them to take moral responsibility for themselves. Weaving together movie themes, politics, poetry, and Eastern philosophy, Cox makes a powerful argument. Most significantly, he textures his memoirs with issues that his students brought to his classes. Recommended for academic libraries and for public libraries with strong religion and philosophy circulation.-David I. Fulton, Coll. of St. Elizabeth, Morristown, NJ Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780618710546
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 8/1/2006
  • Edition description: None
  • Pages: 354
  • Sales rank: 787,041
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.79 (d)

Meet the Author

HARVEY COX is the author of the groundbreaking The Secular City and many other books, including The Seduction of the Spirit, which was nominated for the National Book Award. A professor of theology at Harvard Divinity School, he lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

He Was Then, We Are Now

Twenty centuries—sixty generations—have passed since Jesus of Nazareth lived. The people who met or heard him then numbered only in the hundreds, or a few thousand at most. The Romans did not consider him significant enough to record his execution in their annals. He wrote no books. No monuments were erected in his memory. Yet today countless people believe that he has an important moral significance, not just for his time, but for ours as well. Still, they are often perplexed and frustrated about just what that significance is.
Many experts, from TV evangelists to university researchers, claim in self-assured tones to speak authoritatively about Jesus. But they have so many different and conflicting interpretations of him, they cannot all be right.

One way I tried to close the then/now gap was to introduce the students to a number of recent figures for whom Jesus was the principal inspiration. We studied Gandhi, who never became a Christian but tried to base his life on the Sermon on the Mount. We read about Martin Luther King, who found in Jesus the model for his own nonviolence and a racially inclusive community. We talked about Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, who tried her best to follow Jesus’ pattern of poverty and simplicity.
I told the class about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor whose determination to follow Jesus in Nazi Germany led him to join the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler and who was hanged by the Gestapo just hours before the Americans arrived at his concentration camp in Flossenburg. Many students chose to write their term papers on one of these twentieth-century disciples of Jesus. In a world full of celebrity idols with oversize clay feet, they seemed to be looking for credible moral heroes.
Jesus obviously provided a powerful example of someone who took the side of the dispossessed, spoke truth to power, and was willing to pay the price of his convictions.

But there was still something missing.
Even the most thoughtful students had a hard time finding in Jesus’ life and teaching much concrete guidance in making the day-to-day decisions they faced.
One day a candid junior who was active in the local Lutheran church asked me a simple question: "Why does nearly everyone we study in this course end up getting crucified, shot, or hanged?” He was referring to Jesus, Gandhi, King, and Bonhoeffer. But he was not being flip. He told me he had no ambition to get rich or famous, and that he was genuinely inspired by Jesus’ concern for the outcast people of his day. But, he said, he did want to find a satisfying job someday, get married, raise a family, and be a good citizen of his community and of the world. Naturally, he wanted to do the right thing. But he did not feel up to confronting the Roman legions.

Sometimes the most devout students told me they prayed to Jesus for guidance about their choices, and I believe they did. But when they looked to him as a living example of how to make moral decisions, they were often puzzled. The Sermon on the Mount seemed compelling to them, and I am sure many would have at least tried to "turn the other cheek,” and even to love their enemies. But were they really supposed to take Jesus’ admonition literally, sell everything they had, and give it to the homeless people in Harvard Square? Did I seriously expect them to "take no thought for the morrow,” as Jesus taught, when I had assigned term papers and scheduled a final exam? In short, they found Jesus powerfully attractive, but it was hard to make a moral connection with him.

It was not just the Christians who found Jesus both appealing and puzzling. The Jewish students who knew their own religion recognized him as a fellow Jew in the tradition of the prophets, like Isaiah and Jeremiah. Buddhists immediately saw him as a bodhisattva, one who chooses to forgo entering nirvana so he can help all sentient creatures to do so as well. Muslims also considered him one of the prophets and frequently reminded me that he receives a prominent role in the Qur’an. They all considered him a virtually incomparable model of courage and self-sacrifice. But as a guide to thinking through today’s issues, he seemed somehow unavailable. A middleaged visiting scholar from India, a Hindu economist who audited the course, once told me he found Jesus extraordinarily admirable and could well understand why Gandhi had followed his example.
Like the mahatma, he said, he also had a picture of Jesus on the wall of his room. Buut, he added, the life of Jesus had ended at the age of thirty-three. He had never entered what the Hindus call the "householder” stage of life, nor the ascetic or "sunyasi” phase, which comes with advanced years. How could one follow him into one’s fifties and sixties and beyond? Sinceeeee I myself was entering that last phase I knew immediately what he was saying.
Still, I saw little point in telling him that the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had once speculated about the same question and had suggested that if Jesus had not died so young, he might eventually have outgrown his youthful exuberance, calmed down, and become a different kind of person. Who knows? Still, it is hard to imagine Jesus collecting Social Security or playing shuffleboard in Fort Lauderdale.

During the years I was teaching the course many people hoped that the widely heralded "Jesus seminar” and the search for the "historical Jesus” might produce an answer to the mystery of who he really was. Now, they thought, at last they could know the true Jesus, shorn of all those confusing myths and legends. But they were quickly disappointed, the more so since the project appeared at first to be such a promising one. There are, however, understandable reasons for both its waxing and its waning. The "Jesus seminar” began with an intriguing question: What can we say about Jesus if we restrict ourselves solely to currently accepted methods of historical research? What profile of him emerges if we scrape away the many layers of myth that have encrusted his figure over the centuries?
What happens if we treat the New Testament Gospels no dif- ferently from other contemporary ancient sources, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas? What is added when we turn to the archaeology of ancient Palestine; what can anthropology teach us about the structure of colonized peasant societies like the one Jesus lived in? It sounded like an exciting enterprise that might yield a morally relevant Jesus, at least for those who wanted to emulate him. For a few years this quest for the historical Jesus captured much of the class’s, and the public’s, attention.

There is little doubt that the notoriety many weekly newsmagazines and TV shows lavished on the project helped make it more widely known. The media had previously suspected that featuring stories about Jesus was a guaranteed way to win readers and viewers, and they were right. Even after two thousand years, Jesus of Nazareth remains an enormously fascinating figure and continues to be an integral part of the collective human psyche in large parts of the world. This is true whether or not one is a Christian or even conventionally religious. Atheists and agnostics have written appreciative books on Jesus. Nearly everyone believes he ought to have some moral significance, but much confusion and conflict remains about just what it should be, and about what "following Jesus” in this or that situation would actually mean.
Much of this disagreement has arisen from the radically different portraits of him that interpreters have made over the years: the gentle carpenter, the fiery prophet, the divine lover, the miraculous healer, and the pale mystic.
In recent years Jesus has even appeared as a rock singer in Jesus Christ Superstar, a circus clown in Godspell, the husband of Mary Magdalene in The Da Vinci Code, and a helpless victim beaten to a bloody pulp in The Passion of the Christ. But many people wondered still, who was he really? Now, with the scientific historians of the Jesus seminar eagerly at work, perhaps this question would at last be answered. No wonder the public was fascinated.

In addition, we live in an era of spins and cover stories, of doctored accounts and "now it can be told” journalism. People often discount official versions of anything and suspect they are being deceived or duped. Consequently, when ordinary people learned, not from the pulpit but from the local kiosk, that the biblical Gospels were written many years after the events they describe, that they were pieced together from earlier sources, and that they were edited for particular audiences, they wanted to find out "the inside story.” Now the Jesus seminar’s quest for the historical Jesus, which hit its stride during the early 1990s, was there with the answers. It assured the public that thanks to carbon dating, computer databases, and a strictly scientific approach to the question, at last we could know who the "real Jesus” was. Naturally the public curiosity was kindled.
At a time when historical revisionists were overturning previously sacred versions of everything from the legends of Jesse James to the Vietnam War, the public’s fascination with the search for the "Jesus of history” was understandable. Besides, it sold lots of magazines.
So why did the disappointment set in so quickly?

It soon became obvious that the historians carrying on the quest were coming to a bewildering set of contradictory conclusions about who Jesus really was. Some depicted him as a wandering sage, others as a charismatic preacher, and still others as a religiously inspired social revolutionary. Their disagreement baffled and annoyed those who believed the search was a genuinely scientific undertaking, the religious equivalent of the genome project, and that it would produce a clear and final answer. But it turned out that the answer to the question, "Who was this Jesus, really?” was as hard to answer as it had ever been. Why had such a mountainous scholarly effort produced such a molehill of results?

This impatient dismissal of the historical Jesus project was not entirely fair. Despite widespread discrepancies among the researchers, some things were not contested. All agreed that Jesus really had existed, and that he was a first-century Palestinian Jew living under the heel of a Roman occupation that—like many such occupations before and since—had split its captive people into feuding sects and warring factions. They also agreed that he was a rabbi who taught the imminent coming of the kingdom of God, and gained a following as a teacher and a healer in Galilee, especially among the landless and destitute, but that he aroused the ire of the nervous ruling religious circles and the tense Roman authorities. When he and some of his followers arrived in Jerusalem for the Passover holidays he caused a stir in the Temple, was arrested, interrogated, and executed by crucifixion, a form of death by torture reserved by the Romans for those suspected of subverting their imperial rule. But after his death, his followers insisted that he had appeared to them alive, and they continued to spread his message even in the face of harsh persecution.

Beyond this tiny historical capsule of raw data there is an ocean of additional material about Jesus that does not pass muster with scientific historians. Much of it is in the Bible itself. But there are also teachings and sayings attributed to Jesus and stories about him in the sources called the apocryphal Gospels that the early Christians chose not to include in the New Testament. There are also numerous legends about Jesus—for example, that he journeyed to India or Tibet or Japan during the "silent years” between his twelfth birthday and the three years preceding his early death, a period the Gospels simply skip over. But there is no historical evidence whatever for any of these intriguing travelogues.
The sum of the matter is that although we do know something about the "historical Jesus,” meaning the bare facts that can be uncovered by contemporary historical research, this method does not yield very much, and probably never will. Even carbon dating and archaeology have their limits.
Still, the search for the historical Jesus had not really failed. It had done much of what it set out to do.
It had simply not lived up to its inflated advance billings or the exaggerated expectations of its audience.

This is not, however, the main reason why the celebrated quest for the historical Jesus frustrated so many people. It was disappointing not because it produced so little, but because what little it produced seemed so irrelevant. It not only uncovered Jesus as a historical figure, it also left him as one.
Paradoxically, this subverts what the same scholars believe was the central message of the historical Jesus. They all agree that Jesus insisted his hearers respond to the presence of God in the "here and now.” The best that historical reconstruction can do, however, is to leave Jesus in the "there and then.” He is still the robed, bearded figure of the Sunday school books and the Jesus movies—romantic, tragic, heroic—but no closer to us than Socrates or Julius Caesar. He is fascinating but inaccessible, living in a strange world very different from ours, grappling with issues unlike those we confront.

Despite the failure of the quest for the historical Jesus to satisfy the unrealistic expectations it engendered, some people continue to hope that eventually historical research—one more frayed old scroll dug out of one more cave—will clarify who Jesus really was.
Others still think that asking, "What would Jesus do in this situation?” will resolve any dilemma. The problem with the first hope is that, except for the barest essentials, historians will always disagree about Jesus, and a whole cave full of scrolls will not tell us for sure who he "really was.” Consequently, when we read their differing accounts of his life or see a film or TV show about him, we often feel we are catching a fleeting glimpse of an elusive, distant figure on the other side of a wide abyss. The problem with simply asking what Jesus would do is that we grapple with many choices today that Jesus never had to face, so trying to speculate on what he would do when faced with a controversial modern dilemma is anyone’s guess.
The students in the course knew this all too well. They recognized that Jesus never had to endure a series of exhausting job interviews, cope with an unintended pregnancy, or (as far as we know) weigh the consequences of breaking up with a girlfriend. Looking ahead in their own lives, they knew Jesus never had to worry about a fifteen-year-old son he suspected might be taking drugs, or decide how to tell his parents about a sweetheart they would surely not approve of, or agonize over whether to place his failing mother Mary in a retirement community, or consent to disconnecting his father Joseph’s life-support system if the cancer had spread to all his organs.
On issues like humanitarian military intervention, reproductive cloning, or doctor-assisted suicide, students could find no clear answers in his life and teaching—or else they found a range of con- flicting ones. Try as they would, they continued to see Jesus on the other side of a wide chasm. He was still then, and they were clearly now.

These students were not alone. Similar questions stalk anyone who lives in a society without a widely accepted moral frame of reference.
Many thoughtful people now insist that we should "put values back into education.” They may be right. But if we do, whose values shall we teach? Which morality: that of the American Civil Liberties Union, or that of the Christian Coalition? In a Jewish Yeshiva, an Evangelical Christian college, or an Islamic Qur’an school these questions answer themselves. But even then, one has to ask how students and adults who learn these religion-based codes will fare in a wider, pluralistic world in which tensions between different religions and value systems often contribute to the discord.

Students do not live on another planet.
As they struggled to converse about moral decisions, I heard echoes of the same goodwill and the same confusion one might detect in conversations overheard in restaurants, at family gatherings, on TV panels, at the pizza shack, and at the neighborhood bar. All of us, whether adolescents or adults, are up against the same predicament. We are trying to "do the right thing” in an age in which the old road maps don’t persuade everyone, and sometimes don’t even persuade us. But what is the "right thing,” and is Jesus any help in discerning it?

I think the people who believe Jesus has an important moral relevance for the twenty-first century are right, despite the wide historical ravine that separates his time from ours. But I also believe we have tried to discover that relevance mostly in the wrong way. Little by little I have become convinced that there are two key components to bridging the chasm between him and us, and that the two are closely linked.

The first is to remember that even before acquiring the rich array of titles Christian history has assigned to him—Lord, Master, Savior, Lamb of God, and many others—Jesus was a rabbi. He taught and applied Torah, the Jewish law, albeit in an unprecedented historical situation and with an original twist. He never delivered an easy answer to a hard question but, in time-honored rabbinical fash- ion, asked another question or told one of his unforgettable stories.
He would not allow people to escape the responsibility of making their own decisions. Instead he enlisted them in a way of thinking that would nurture and extend their moral insight. This is exactly what the best rabbis have always done, and still do.

The second key to spanning the gap between Jesus and ourselves is to recognize that while he passed on the moral tradition of his own people in the light of novel demands, he did so by relying more on narrative and example than on precept and principle. He realized that the missing dimension in nearly all moral reflection is imagination. Of course we need reasoning to lead a moral life, but we need—even more—the capacity to intuit what is important and what is not, to envision alternative possibilities, and to see beyond what sometimes appears to be an impasse.
We need to appreciate not just how other people see things but how they feel about them, and to do this our most potent resource is still the human imagination, awakened by compelling narratives.

It is not impossible to bridge the gap between Jesus and ourselves.
The secret lies in recovering the link between the rabbinic storyteller on the one hand, and our own human imaginations on the other. Taken together, these two elements can still make him our contemporary and jog the slumbering moral consciousness of our times.

Copyright © 2004 by Harvey Cox.
Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
1 He Was Then, We Are Now 14
2 Rabbi Jesus on the Scene 23
3 A World Full of Stories 32
I Stories they Told About Him
4 The Ballad of the Begats 49
5 Picking Just the Right Woman 57
6 Exiles from Eden 66
7 The Gurus and the Usual Suspects 75
8 Riffing on Simeon 85
9 Beat the Devil 93
10 The Campaign Begins 106
II Stories He Told
11 Jesus Retells His People's Story 117
12 Salt and Lamps 128
13 The Rabbi Teaches Torah 138
14 Parables and Zen Slaps 154
15 The Crooked CEO and the Spoiled Brat 161
16 Why the Crowds Came 169
17 The Armageddon Syndrome 185
III More Stories They Told About Him
18 The Transfiguration and the Prophet's Night Journey 201
19 Bridge Burning and Street Theater 211
20 Trial and Retrial 220
21 Dead Man Walking 228
22 Reason, Emotion, and Torture 237
23 It Had to Be Done 245
24 A World Without God? 259
25 The Easter Story 267
26 The Laughter of the Universe 286
Postscript 295
Notes 305
Acknowledgments 317
Index 321
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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 13, 2009

    A bridge from ancient scripture to modern life

    This is an excellent book for anyone who wonders how or why Christian faith could be relevant to an educated and scientifically literate individual today. Recognizing the changes in experience and symbolism that occur over several millennia, Cox effectively translates Biblical scriptures into current experience by revealing the context embedded in the stories of the Old and New Testaments. Underscoring the bridge between Jewish and Christian traditions, he succeeds in strengthening the bridge between ancient scripture and modern life. Like a good classic, this book offers new pearls with each successive reading.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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