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Back To School! My Jesus Syllabus

Back to School. I am the only one I know who actually liked the (Rodney Dangerfield) movie….

Anyway, school starts for me on Monday. I’m teaching two seminars (they meet for three hours each, once a week). My undergraduate course is for first-year students only, and deals with how Jesus is portrayed in ancient Gospels, in modern scholarship, and in film.

Here, for your reading pleasure, is the syllabus.


Jesus in Scholarship and Film

First Year Seminar, Reli 070

Fall 2013

Prof. Bart D. Ehrman


Jesus of Nazareth left an indelible mark on Western Civilization. The religion that was founded in his name ‑‑ beginning as the faith of a mere handful of his Jewish followers ‑‑ within three centuries had become a major religion in the Mediterranean. By the end of the fourth century, it was the official religion of the Roman Empire. Ever since, the Christian church has been a major political, socio‑economic, and cultural force. Ultimately, it is a church rooted in a belief in Jesus.

How did Jesus’ followers, after his death, understand who he was? It continues to be a relevant question, as fundamentalist preachers, committed believers, marginalized cult leaders, agnostic historians, outspoken neo-atheists ‑‑ just about everyone in our society ‑‑ seems to have an opinion. And the wide‑ranging views that you can find today, even among people who call themselves Christian (e.g., a TV evangelist, a Greek Orthodox priest, a Mormon missionary, and an Appalachian snake-handler), have their clear counterparts among the ancient Christians, whose variety of opinion is mind‑boggling.

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My Pop Quiz For First-Year Students
Who Cares?



  1. Avatar
    dikelmm  August 24, 2013

    You wrote in your syllabus: The religion that was founded in his name ‑‑ beginning as the faith of a mere handful of his Jewish followers ‑‑ within three centuries had become a major religion in the Mediterranean. By the end of the fourth century, it was the official religion of the Roman Empire. If, as you (and I) believe, Jesus was not the Son Of God as described in John, did not perform miracles and whose apocalyptic pronouncements did not come to pass – how did this new religion spread so fast, become so strong, and continue to influence Western civilization? Maybe this question is not as precisely put as possible, but I think you understand what I am asking.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 25, 2013

      Yes, it’s a great question. I’ll be writing a book on it eventually. One thing I’ll say here is that it doesn’t require a *miracle* for a religion to spread quickly and far. Unless you want to think that all the great religions of the world started miraculously! There are clear historical reasons for Christianity’s success — but it’s a very long story. It *will* take a book! For some other answers, see the books by Robin Lane Fox (Pagans and Christians) and Ramsey MacMullen (Christianizing hte Roman Empire), or far more problematically but more popularly, Rodney Stark (The Rise of Christianity).

  2. Avatar
    dallaswolf  August 24, 2013

    Tab Hunter is my sappy pick!

  3. Avatar
    toejam  August 25, 2013

    The assessment is to write your own gospel? That sounds like fun! Maybe that’s what the gospels really are – school level assignments from the ancient world?! Maybe that explains the synoptic problem! Ah, it all makes sense now!!

  4. Avatar
    Elisabeth Strout  August 25, 2013

    Wish I could audit that course!!!

  5. Avatar
    timber84  August 25, 2013

    I remember watching the miniseries Jesus of Nazareth when I was a kid. One thing I noticed in the different Jesus films I watched is Jesus is usually fair-skinned, has a beard, has blue eyes, and is thin. All the actors cast for the role have a similar look. I assume there are no physical descriptions of what the historical Jesus looked like in any of the gospels (canonical or non-canonical)?

  6. Jonathan_So
    Jonathan_So  August 25, 2013

    what, no Life of Brian in the films section? Then again you really need some background that is possibly beyond first-year students scope to appreciate some aspects of that film (Jewish rebel groups, Latin grammar jokes, prophets being not uncommon.)

    Looks like a fun course! I will admit some envy towards the students lucky enough to have the opportunity. 🙂

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 25, 2013

      We do watch the opening scenes of Life of Brian in the “Infancy Gospels” bit — up through the “stoning” scene (one of my favorites). Some time watch the infancy narrative in Ben Hur, and then right after wards the one in Life of Brian. It’s pretty clear what its model was.

      • Avatar
        dikelmm  August 26, 2013

        You should lead the class in a rendition of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” including the whistling.

  7. Avatar
    bamurray  August 25, 2013

    1. So does this mean that you WILL be reading “Zealot”? Please let us know what you think!
    2. You are STARTING with a pop quiz? (Maybe an assessment of what they know coming in?)
    3. Looks like a heavy reading load. I like it!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 25, 2013

      Yup, I always like to start with a quiz, so I can see how much they know and so *they* can see how much they know. 🙂

  8. gmatthews
    gmatthews  August 25, 2013

    So are we to now presume that after being asked about it a kajillion times that you’ll have read Reza Aslan’s book by Dec. 2? I’ve only skimmed through it, but I have found the number of times you’ve been asked about it a bit humorous.

  9. Avatar
    DMiller5842  August 25, 2013

    Makes me wish I was in your freshman class.

  10. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  August 25, 2013

    Gosh, I’d like to take that course! Guess I’m ‘stuck’ with the Great Courses as well 😀

  11. Avatar
    hwl  August 25, 2013

    Do you consider Reza Aslan to be a recognised scholar of early Christianity? Larry Hurtado described the thesis circulating in lay circles, that Jesus was a military revolutionary, as a “zombie” idea (from what I gather, a key conclusion of Aslan’s 2013 book) which had been debunked over and over again by scholarship in the past century.

  12. Avatar
    Rosekeister  August 25, 2013

    Does the University of North Carolina film yours and others lectures? Can they be viewed anywhere, maybe as an online course?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 25, 2013

      No, I’m afraid not. But you can get some of my courses on DVD (or CD) from The Teaching Company (also called The Great Courses). I’ve done seven for them, and will be doing an eighth this fall.

    • Brad Billips
      Brad Billips  August 26, 2013

      Dale B Martin has some video courses on the NT at Yale University. You can find them on ITunes. Twenty-six in all. Pretty good. This is Dr. Ehrman’s friend.

  13. Avatar
    hwl  August 25, 2013

    Do you still get evangelical students who take your courses with the primary intention of debunking the views of “Bart Ehrman – the radical biblical critic”?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 26, 2013

      Well, they certainly take my courses! I think some of them take them so they can debunk what I say to other students, but they never try to debunk my views to me!

      • Avatar
        hwl  August 26, 2013

        At least this gets them thinking for themselves. Maybe they will end up taking the path you took yourself, “The Road Less Travelled”.

  14. Avatar
    bobnaumann  August 25, 2013

    Wow! What a fun course! Wish I could sit in.

  15. Avatar
    TayoAnn  August 26, 2013

    I am so coveting my neighbor’s Jesus class. Will you please tell us more about the Gospel According to You assignment? No rush, of course. But I am interested in how you will grade such an assignment, whether you’ve assigned it before and if so, what you’ve received. It sounds like a lot of fun to complete.

  16. Avatar
    Scott F  August 26, 2013

    You need to drag Mark Goodacre in to discuss Jesus films. It is quite the hobby for him. I especially love the way he uses film to address the possibility of Luke’s dependence on Matthew.

  17. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  August 28, 2013

    As I am sure you know, for many years, Reynolds Price had his Duke students write their own Gospel.

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