University classes started this past week, and as so many have said, this will be a school year like no other. I will be teaching both of my classes remotely, a PhD seminar on Early Christian Apocrypha, which I will be discussing in a later post, and my undergraduate course, Jesus in Scholarship and Film. I’ve taught this latter course on and off for years now, and it is absolutely one of my favorites. The basic idea behind it is to see how Jesus is portrayed in different ways in different venues: ancient Gospels (the four canonical Gospels and seven from outside the New Testament), modern scholarship on the historical Jesus (i.e., attempts to see what he really said and did), and film, from the earliest silents up to recently.
One of the goals is to learn how each book/film portrays Jesus differently. There is not “one” Jesus out there that everyone agrees on.
Teaching remotely is a huge challenge. But I have a terrific group of students. It is a First Year Seminar; these are specially designed for students in their beginning year of college. The classes are to be more hands-on; urging more creativity; doing a bit more writing; teaching a larger range of skills in relation to other classes. I have taken advantage of the crisis to redesign how I do the course, and am very excited about it — especially having met my students, who are really interested and interesting. There are about 16 students in the class (these are meant to be seminar style, not big lecture courses).
I wish you could join us! But alas. Still, in case you’re interested in seeing what we’re doing in there, here’s the syllabus:
Jesus in Scholarship and Film
First-Year Seminar, Reli 070
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.
In this class we will examine a number of the ancient and modern views of Jesus. For the ancient period we will read and discuss a range of early Christian Gospels, the four that made it into the New Testament and a number of others that did not; for the modern period we will look at portrayals of Jesus on film. At every point we will be interested in seeing how Jesus came to be represented differently by different people living in different circumstances and with different ultimate concerns. Then, near the end of the course, we will engage in a historical analysis to see what, if anything, we can say about what really happened in the life of Jesus, what he really said and did.
At the outset I should stress that it is not one of the goals of the class either to convert you to a particular religious point of view or to provide ammunition for your assault on the religious views of others (e.g., a pestiferous roommate). It will not, therefore, be taught from a confessional perspective.
All students will be required to understand the points of view advanced in the readings and in the lectures, along with the evidence and/or logic that makes them compelling to others. You will not be required, though, to accept these points of view for yourself. A major part of the class will be devoted to helping you think on your own and to understand why you find particular perspectives persuasive or unpersuasive — even the perspectives of your professor. In particular, all students are urged to approach the issues we address with honesty, openness, and a healthy dose of good humor.
By the end of this course you should be able to:
- Summarize the contents, emphases, and distinctive features of each of the four canonical and seven noncanonical Gospels we will be studying.
- Explain the difficulties posed by our ancient sources for knowing what Jesus really said and did and evaluate the criteria scholars have used to reconstruct the details of his life and death.
- Summarize the approach, perspective, and thematic interests of the various films about Jesus we examine, and evaluate their distinctive features.
- Read, write, speak, reason, and think better than before you took the class!
- Generally impress your family, friends, and everyone you know with the astounding breadth and depth of your knowledge about Jesus’ portrayal in ancient Gospels, modern scholarship, and films from the century past.
Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 7th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.
Idem and Zlatko Pleše, The Other Gospels: Accounts of Jesus from Outside the New Testament. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Barnes Tatum, Jesus at the Movies: A Guide to the First Hundred Years. 3rd edition. Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 2012.
Course Features and Requirements:
Attendance: Yes indeed, I am expecting you to join us for each and every class. This is desideratum #1! Please contact me if you have a legitimate excuse for not gracing us with your presence.
Discussions. We’ll be having discussions roughly all the time. Once a week we will be discussing your position paper (see below); in other class periods we will focus on a discussion topic assigned in advance to give you a chance to ruminate deeply ahead of time. I will be encouraging you to participate actively in these discussions, both so you can improve your oral abilities in public contexts (for which you will thank me eternally, or at least later in life) and so the rest of us can benefit from your insights. Do not be afraid to say what you think. I want to know, and if anyone dares to disagree with you … hey, why do you want to be surrounded by sycophants?
Lectures. Stay awake, take notes. A portion of most of our class meetings will be devoted to lecture. The lectures will aim at being informative and scintillating with attempts at anecdotal wit thrown in, gratis, en route. Please work to take complete notes and to study your notes afterward. I’d suggest reading them over carefully that very night (really!), and regularly after that, so you actually learn the information. You will thank yourself for doing so on the Day of Judgment. Or rather, the days of judgment, when we have quizzes.
Quizzes. You will not be taking either a midterm or a final exam in this class. No thanks necessary. BUT I will be giving quizzes throughout the term, on set dates (see schedule below). These will be based on both the assigned readings and the lectures. The more you prepare, the better you will do. Want to do well? Prepare! (Please note: even though we will not be having a final exam, we will be meeting during the period assigned to the final. But it is to watch the most unusual, artistic, and brilliant (imho) Jesus movie of all time. You’ll have to make your own popcorn.
Position Papers. Once a week you will be asked to prepare a two-page (no less; no more!) “position paper” on each assigned topic. I have included written instructions for each paper on Sakai (under Resources). These are not research papers and are not meant to be be a “finished and polished product,” ready for publication in the Harvard Theological Review. But I do want them to be well thought out and well written.
Their main objective is to compel you to consider the issues and reflect on the problems raised by the topic before we discuss it in class. For this reason, these Position Papers will not be graded per se. I will simply mark them as “S” (= Satisfactory) if you have done the assignment adequately and “U” (= Unsatisfactory) if you have not.
Please note: papers not turned in on time will automatically be marked U, no questions asked. Your papers are to be submitted NO LATER than the beginning of the class period for which they are due (even if for some reason you cannot attend that day). To submit your paper, email it to me as an attachment in a Word file: firstname.lastname@example.org. The subject line should simply say Position Paper X (where X is the number paper it is, as in the schedule below).
Films: Now here is a class highlight! We will be watching some Jesus films in class (a couple in full, others via clips), and you will have other film assignments from outside of class. The ultimate goal of these viewings is to see and evaluate how Jesus is portrayed and to compare and contrast this portrayal with others you encounter during the term. There will be some reading connected with the films.
Term Paper: On the last day of class (Nov. 17) you are to turn in a five-page, double-spaced paper in which you discuss the relevance of a passage from one of the New Testament Gospels for one of the pressing social-cultural issues of our times. For your paper you are to choose one of the following texts, and one of the following issues. You are to do research on both the text and the issue.
For the text you will need to become intimately familiar with the Gospel within which it is found and read scholarship on what the passage itself probably meant in its original context, based on books and articles I provide in class. For the issue you are to delve into modern discussions as they can be found in a variety of online and printed sources that you yourself track down.
Further instructions will be given out in class. The following are the options I have chosen. If you have a different one you much prefer to pursue, talk to me about it and we can decide.
- Jesus’ Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matt. 25:31-46)
- Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)
- Mary and Martha with Jesus (Luke 10:38-42)
- The Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31)
- The Rich Young Ruler (Mark 10:17-31)
- Black Lives Matter
- The Me Too Movement
- Transgender Rights
- American Policies on Immigration
- Twenty-first Century Capitalism
Your Own Gospel: Your final writing assignment will be due on the date of the final exam. The assignment is to write your own Gospel. The Gospel is to be 5-6 pages in length. It is to be a work of imaginative historical fiction. Imagine that you are a figure (any figure, actual or imagined) involved with Jesus during his lifetime, and tell an account of what you’ve seen him say and do from your own (fictionalized, historical) perspective. Further instructions will be given out in class.
Class participation (including position papers): 25%; Quizzes: 35% each of them 5% of the total grade (seven quizzes; you will be taking eight and I will drop your lowest score); Gospel assignment 20%; Term Paper: 20%;
My office hours will be whenever you want to talk. Zap me a note and we’ll set up a time. Since the class will be taught remotely, so too with “office hours”; as a rule I prefer Zoom, but on that particular point, at least, I’m easy.
All students need to be familiar with and abide by the Honor Code, which covers issues such as plagiarism, falsification, unauthorized assistance or collaboration, cheating, and other grievous acts of academic dishonesty. Violations of the Honor Code will be taken with incredible seriousness.
Reasonable Accommodations Policy:
If you have a disability that may prevent you from fully demonstrating your abilities, you should contact Accessibility Services as soon as possible to discuss accommodations, and talk to me about at the beginning of term; I will do everything in my power to help out.
Title IX Resources
Any student who is impacted by discrimination, harassment, interpersonal (relationship) violence, sexual violence, sexual exploitation, or stalking is encouraged to seek resources on campus or in the community. Please contact the Director of Title IX Compliance (Adrienne Allison – Adrienne.email@example.com), Report and Response Coordinators in the Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office (firstname.lastname@example.org), Counseling and Psychological Services (confidential), or the Gender Violence Services Coordinators (email@example.com; confidential) to discuss your specific needs. Additional resources are available at safe.unc.edu.
CLASS AND READING SCHEDULE
Aug. 11 Introductions and Faux Pop Quiz: (I.e., not graded)
- Introduction to the Gospels
- Reading Assignment: NTHI (= The New Testament: A Historical Introduction), Introduction and ch. 1
- Jesus and the Gospels: The Basics
- Discussion Topic. Studying Religion: The Difference between a Religious Community and an Institution of Higher Education
18 The Roman World of Jesus and the Gospels
- Reading Assignment: NTHI, ch. 3
- Lecture: Religion Now and Then
- Position Paper #1: Jesus and the Other Sons of God
20 The Jewish World of Jesus and the Gospels
- Reading Assignment: NTHI, chs. 4
- Lecture: What Is a Jew?
- Discussion Topic: Why Does It Matter that Jesus was a Jew?
25 Where Did the Gospels Come From?
- QUIZ: Pagan and Jewish Religions
- Reading Assignment: NTHI, ch. 5
- Lecture: The Study of Memory and the Historical Jesus
- Position Paper #2: Your Eyewitness Testimony
27 The Gospel of Mark
- Reading Assignment: NTHI, ch. 6; Mark 1-8
- Lecture: Do We have the Original Gospel of Mark? Part 1
- Discussion Topic: Who Knows About Jesus? And What Do They Know?
Sept. 1 The Gospel of Mark
- Reading Assignment: NTHI, ch. 2; Mark 9-16
- Lecture: Do We Have the Original Gospel of Mark? Part 2
- Position Paper #3: Jesus according to Mark
3 The Gospel of Mark and “Intolerance”
- Reading Assignment: JatM (= Jesus at the Movies), pp. 1-33.
- Film Assignment: Watch “Jesus Christ Movie Star”
- Lecture: Mark: What’s Missing?
8 The Synoptic Problem
- Reading Assignment: NTHI, ch. 7
- QUIZ: The Gospel of Mark
- Lecture: Did Q exist?
- Discussion Topic: Who Cares about the Synoptic Problem??
10 Are the Gospels Relevant? Modeling the Approach
- Lecture: Cherry-Picking the Bible
- Position Paper #4: Plucking Grain on the Sabbath
15 The Gospel of Matthew
- Reading Assignment: NTHI, ch. 8; Matthew 1-14; JatM pp. 35-47.
- Lecture: The Jewishness of Matthew
- Film Assignment: Watch “Intolerance” (1916)
- Discussion Topic: Do Followers of Jesus Need to Keep the Jewish Law?
17 The Gospel of Matthew
- Reading Assignment: NTHI, ch. 8; Matthew 15-28
- Lecture: Anti-Judaism in Early Christianity
- Position Paper #5: Is Matthew’s Gospel Anti-Jewish?
- The Gospel of Matthew
- QUIZ: The Gospel of Matthew
- Reading Assigment: JatM, pp. 109-23
- In Class Film: Passolini’s Gospel According to Saint Matthew (clips)
- Discussion topic: Can a Committed Atheist Teach Us Anything about the Bible?
24 The Gospel of Luke
- Reading Assignment: NTHI, ch. 9; Luke 1-11
- Lecture: Luke Among the Gospels
- Position Paper #6: Redactional Study: Jesus’ Rejection in Nazareth in Mark and Luke
29 The Gospel of Luke
- Reading Assignment: NTHI, ch. 9; Luke 12-24
- Lecture: Genre Criticism, Redaction Criticism, and Comparative Criticism of Luke
- Position Paper #7: Jesus’ and His Coming Death in Mark and Luke
Oct. 1 The Gospel of Luke
- QUIZ: Gospel of Luke
- Lecture: Luke’s Social Gospel
- Discussion Topic. Modern Relevance: The Lure of Wealth (Luke 12:13-34)
6 The Infancy Narratives
- Position Paper #8: Comparative Analysis of the Infancy narratives
- Reading Assignment: JatM, ppp 63-78
- In Class Film: Clips of Infancy Narratives
8 The Gospel of John
- Reading Assignment: NTHI, ch. 10; John 1-11; JatM, pp. 143-56
- Film assignment: Zeffirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth” (The Infancy Narrative)
- Lecture Topic: How Different Is John from the Others?
Oct. 13 The Gospel of John
- Reading Assignment: NTHI, ch. 10; John 12-21
- Position Paper #9: Jesus’ Miracles and Teachings in John
- Lecture Topic: Jesus’ Identity and Mission in John
- The Gospel of John
- Lecture: The Christologies of John
- Reading Assignment: John 1; JatM 93-108
- In-Class Film: Clips of Crucifixion Narratives
20 The Proto-Gospel of James and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas
- QUIZ: The Gospel of John
- Reading Assignment: TOG (= The Other Gospels) Preface (pp., xi-xiii) and pp. 3-36.
- Lecture: The “Other” Gospels
- Position Paper #10: What Happened Before? The Infancy Gospels
22 The Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Nicodemus
- Lecture: Alternative Christianities (Gnosticism:)
- Reading Assignment: TOG, pp, 191-200; 231-66.
- Discussion Topic: What Happened between Jesus’ Death and Resurrection?
27 The Gospel of Thomas
- Lecture: Who Killed Jesus?
- Reading Assignment: TOG pp. 155-79.
- Position Paper #11: Is the Gospel of Thomas Gnostic?
29 The Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Judas
- Reading Assignment: TOG pp. 201-13, 313-21; JatM pp. 110-25
- Discussion Topic: Alternative Christian Luminaries
- In-Class Film. Jesus Christ Superstar Part 1
Nov. 3 The Historical Jesus: Problems and Methods
- Quiz: Non-Canonical Gospels
- Reading Assignment: NTHI, ch. 13 and Excursus 4
- Position Paper #12: Peculiarities in the Gospel of Peter
- In-Class Film. Jesus Christ Superstar Part 2
5 The Historical Jesus: Teachings
- Quiz: Jesus Films
- Reading Assignment: NTHI, ch. 14 and Photo Essay 2
- Lecture: The Apocalyptic Mission of Jesus
- In-Class Film. Jesus Christ Superstar Part 3
10 The Historical Jesus: Activities
- Reading Assignment, NTHI, ch. 15
- Position Paper #13: Film Review
- Lecture: Jesus’ Activities and Controversies
12 The Historical Jesus: Death
- Quiz: The Historical Jesus.
- Reading Assignment, NTHI, ch. 16
- Lecture: Why Was Jesus Executed?
- Discussion Topic: How Does Jesus Matter?
17 Wrapping it All Up
- Reading Assignment: JatM, pp. 157-74
- Discussion Topic: The Portrayals of Jesus
- In-Class Film: Life of Brian
FINAL EXAM PERIOD: Jesus of Montreal. Reading Assignment, JatM pp. 207-22