When Jesus Came to Harvard Summary

Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

In the 1980’s, the Harvard College faculty introduced a moral reasoning curriculum into its undergraduate program in response to a perceived increase in professional corruption and unethical behavior (even among Harvard graduates) and a belief that a focus on facts in education had diminished the importance of values and morality. Harvey Cox, a professor at the Harvard Divinity School and the author of The Secular City: Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspective (1965), was asked to teach a course on Jesus in the new curriculum. He reluctantly agreed, despite wondering whether morality was something that could be taught in an academic environment and believing that moral reasoning did not necessarily lead to moral actions. In addition, any college class would include more than just believing Christians. How would they respond to Jesus as a moral exemplar? However, Cox accepted the challenge, teaching the course for two decades, with considerable personal fulfillment. When Jesus Came to Harvard is his account of that experience.

One of the challenges Cox faced with his varied Harvard students was making Jesus, who lived two millennia ago in a preindustrial rural environment, relevant to the moral quandaries of the late twentieth century, a much different world. Also, what could a morality linked to Christian theology offer to Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, or atheists? Cox, from a Baptist background, did not interpret the Bible as always being literally true.

Cox did not believe that the quest for the historical Jesus was ultimately satisfactory as it left Jesus only as a product of the early Roman Empire in the province of Judea, a Palestinian Jew and a rabbi who preached about the imminent coming of God, attracted a following among the underclass in Galilee, inflamed the religious and political authorities, and was arrested and subsequently crucified, the usual Roman method of executing troublemakers. His followers, believing he rose from the dead, became the earliest Christians, initially forming a sect within Judaism. Jesus’ life as re-created by historians did not answer the question of...

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When Jesus Came to Harvard Bibliography (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Campbell, Colleen Carroll. “Jesus Christ Superfluous.” Review of When Jesus Came to Harvard. First Things 152 (April, 2005). Campbell criticizes Cox for stressing the importance of Jesus as a moral teacher over Jesus’ divinity as the Son of God.

Gula, Richard M. “Rabbinical Thinking.” America 192 (January 2, 2005): 24. Gula argues that Cox succeeds better at introducing Jesus through the biblical stories than connecting Jesus to present-day moral choices.

Heinegg, Peter. Cross Currents 55 (Spring, 2005): 138. Finds Cox’s work as thoughtful and relaxed rather than being rigorously analytical.

Lawton, Kim. “Interview with Harvey Cox.” Religion and Ethics. Episode 935, April 28, 2006. In this Public Broadcasting System program, the author and Cox discuss the Pentecostals and other similar movements.