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Jesus Position Papers

Several readers have asked me about the weekly papers that I assign for my undergraduate seminar on “Jesus in Scholarship and Film.” I call these “position” papers because the students are required to stake out a position on a controversial topic. There are no (absolutely) right or wrong answers. The point of the papers is to get the students to think about a topic before we have a discussion about it in class, so that when we do talk about it, we’re not simply pooling our ignorance.. For that reason I don’t actually grade the papers, at least in any regular way. Instead. if the student has clearly thought about the question, answered it clearly, and shown that they have invested some time reflecting on it, I give the paper an S (= Satisfactory); if they have not, I mark it a U (= unsatisfactory). All the papers are to be two pages, double-spaced.

Here are the instructions for this term’s papers. (The students write other papers as well: they are writing a book review of Reza Aslan’s Zealot and are writing their own Gospel)


Position Paper One (September 9). The Gospel according to Mark: Who is Jesus?

Pretend that you know nothing about Jesus, that you’ve never heard any stories about him and have never read anything about him. Now, in your complete ignorance, read the Gospel of Mark 1-10; 14-16.

Read the Gospel now a second time, and jot down the different views of Jesus that the author gives. What does he call Jesus? Who does he understand him to be? How does he characterize him?

As you are reading, consider also: what do people in the Gospel think about Jesus? Who thinks what about him? Does anyone understand who he is? Who?

In your paper you should indicate how Mark understands Jesus and how the characters in the Gospel understand him. How do you explain the differences? I.e., why is it that no one seems to understand Jesus? Or do they?


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Bill O’Reilly’s Jesus
Jesus at the Movies: Infancy Narratives



  1. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 1, 2013

    Wow! What a special and terrific class. Your students are lucky indeed.

  2. Avatar
    SJB  October 2, 2013

    Say your students are writing their own gospels? Hmmm…you don’t suppose that’s how the original gospels of the first and second centuries got written do you? Some sort of Proto-Jesus Seminar? You have to figure the authors of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John got a “S” big time huh?

  3. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 2, 2013

    1. The assignments seem to get more difficult as the course progresses. I assume you planned it that way.
    2. These questions and answers would make a good book or Teaching Company series.
    3. I wonder if your students would give you permission to post some of the better papers.
    4. I know you like to debate both sides of issues and have your students do the same.. I would love to see you write some posts supporting a liberal Christianity that would be more than the advocacy of humanism or ethical guidelines since many religions advocate ethical guidelines. It is Jesus not ethical guidelines that makes Christianity unique. How would you go about making such an argument?

  4. Avatar
    Wilusa  October 2, 2013

    Fascinating. Creating this list of assignments obviously required a lot of thought on your part. I’m wondering: Do you use the same list every year? And if so, are you noticing any shifts in how students, as a whole, think over the years? Becoming more doubting of Scripture, or more inclined to trust it?

    About movies…when I was a child, it was my understanding that Jesus could never be portrayed in a movie, except for something like a brief glimpse of his back, or his hands. As in “Ben Hur.” Worse: children were being so indoctrinated with patriotism that I thought that same reverential treatment had to be accorded Abraham Lincoln!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 3, 2013

      I use different questions for each of my different classes. As to Jesus’ portrayed in movies: not it goes way back. But there was a law in England against showing him on stage. Not sure about film.

  5. Avatar
    toddfrederick  October 2, 2013

    That is a very fine way to teach a class and to prompt critical thinking on the part of your students.

    I have a wild idea for this blog…I think you should give us assignments like that from time to time and to respond on a specific date in another blog comment section, perhaps a week later…many of us don’t have the academic pressure to do critical thinking and just blather on and on (I speak for myself in that regard !!). I would love to do something like that.

  6. cheito
    cheito  October 2, 2013

    Interesting. I’m going to save these Dr Ehrman and give ’em a shot on my own. Thank you.

  7. Avatar
    dhakony  October 6, 2013

    Not that I’m ready to fork over distance learning tuition to UNC… Is there a particular rendition of the Bible you use for these assignments? King James or other?

    Have you ever assigned students to come to the class debate session with different biblical renditions in mind?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 6, 2013

      I let my students use a range of translations (but not the KJV or the NewKJV or Living Bible or other paraphrases). What I tell them I *prefer* is the NRSV, especially in a study edition such as the HarperCollins Study Bible.

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