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My Recitation Debates

Before I talk about the debate I had with myself in front of my class this week, on the topic Resolved: The New Testament Book of Acts is Historically Reliable, I need to do some considerable stage-setting.  First, in this post, let me explain how the class is set up (including the debates the students themselves do), to make sense of what I was trying to accomplish in my staged split-personality (affirmative and negative).

So the class is an Introduction to the New Testament, which presupposes no background or knowledge about the field.  It is, of course, historically oriented, rather than confessionally, religiously, theologically, or devotionally.   Students learn the Jewish and Greco-Roman background to the New Testament, and they study the Gospels, the historical Jesus, the letters of Paul, and the other writings of the New Testament from the historical-critical perspective.

Twice a week students hear me give a lecture (most recently three of the classes involved lectures on the historical Jesus: problems with our sources; methods scholars have developed for dealing with these problems; the Jewish milieus (especially apocalypticism); and then lectures on the words, on the activities, and on the events leading up to the death of Jesus).   Once a week students meet in a “recitation” section with a small group of others.  So the class as a whole is about 140 students.  Recitation sections are groups of 15-20 students that meet (required!) with a graduate student Teaching Assistant in which they discuss an assigned topic.

The recitations are absolutely key to the class and crucial.   In order to prepare for the topic of the week, students are required to write a two-page position paper on a set, controversial topic.   This is both to help them improve their writing skills and, even more important, to prepare for the discussion, so that when they come together to talk about the topic, they actually have both information at their disposal and opinions about it.  Otherwise, many of them would not prepare, and the discussion would simply be a matter of pooling their ignorance.  This way they have mastered some material and have some views about it.

Here I can mention just a couple of examples…

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Weekly Readers’ Mailbag: March 12, 2016
The Value (or Not) of Debates



  1. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 11, 2016

    These students are indeed “blessed” to take such a course. I would have loved to have taken such a course during my college days.

  2. Avatar
    Wilusa  March 11, 2016

    OT, re “debates”…but I received your book yesterday, and I’m finding it a wonderful read. I have a couple of questions…

    I just read the estimate that 97 percent of the people in Palestine in Jesus’s day were illiterate. Do you know whether that’s an estimate based on the whole population (including children), or only on adults?

    And something that hasn’t been mentioned yet (I’m on, I think, page 80), that I’ve begun wondering about: Did they have, in those days, the equivalent of our “urban legends” – with tales being told repeatedly, and different “celebrities’ ” names being plugged into them?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 12, 2016

      Hmm… good question. I *think* it means anyone who is of the age to read. (Today when we say that 99% of Americans have basic literacy, we aren’t counting new borns, I think); And yes, they did have many (even more!) so-called urban legends!

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  March 12, 2016

        Why I was thinking about percentages of population… A few days ago, a local newscast said only 25 percent of the people in my city are married. They were indicating it seems like a good city for young singles to meet others (there are in fact lots of university students). But I found myself wondering whether the percentage of married people was so low because they were using the population figure, not just adults.

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  March 12, 2016

        I think one of the urban legends is that 97% of the people in “Palestine” were illiterate. It makes me think of current climate change enthusiasts who claim that 97% of scientists agree that the planet is now in the throes of global warming. I’m sure that at least a plurality of NT scholars believe Jesus was illiterate, let alone his followers. I’m not a scholar (by any stretch of the imagination), but I think there are valid reasons to believe he was literate, and you’re probably aware of the few, that fabled few, who agree me. Of course no-one has yet come up with a letter to Mary signed, “Your loving Son, Jesus Christ,” so, to the extent that literacy includes the ability to write as well as read, I don’t think there is any evidence that Jesus could write.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 14, 2016

          I don’t think that’s a legend (let alone an “urban” legend); there are solid grounds for thinking it (it’s not just a matter of uninformed opinion). The fullest study is Catherine Hezser, Literacy in Roman Palestine.

  3. Avatar
    Stephen  March 11, 2016

    Prof Ehrman

    Based on comments in your previous post I take it the debate with Bob Price is on. I have mixed emotions. In ninety minutes how could such a fraught subject be dealt with in anything but a superficial way? On the other hand I am disturbed how the mythicist idea has unreflectively swept through the so-called “skeptical” community. It has almost become the default position with little understanding of the historical issues involved. I hope you can do some good here.

    But the format. Is it to be tandem mini-lectures? How about having a conversation? After brief opening statements why not spend the bulk of the time asking and responding to each other’s questions? Then include an audience Q&A if you must.

    My two prutahs.


    • Bart
      Bart  March 12, 2016

      Yes, it’s still on. I’m not sure of the exact format: we’ve talked about making it more of an informal conversational event (which I would much prefer) to an in-your-face-combatetive-point-counterpoint kind of thing.

      • Avatar
        Pattycake1974  March 13, 2016

        My husband is being so kind as to indulge me with tickets to both the Smithsonian and Price debate in exchange for my attendance to football and hockey games. I’m a little disappointed the two of you won’t be fighting to the death.

  4. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  March 11, 2016

    You have a very thorough teaching method. After the debates are all over, do some of your students gain an understanding of the differences between a weaker and stronger argument?

  5. Avatar
    Judith  March 11, 2016

    Just read this and had a light-bulb moment.

    This is a way of enabling us bloggers to become more effective at sharing with our family and friends all we are learning here.


    • Avatar
      Judith  March 12, 2016

      To explain the earlier comment, using “the other side’s” points to get yes answers flowing provides the opportunity to make an opposing point while they are still open to accepting what you are saying. (You have enabled them to listen because you were expressing what they believed.) Lawyers use this technique.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 12, 2016

      More effective is always good!

  6. Avatar
    john76  March 11, 2016

    I like the idea of laying out the deficiencies of the position that you are defending.

  7. Avatar
    BrianUlrich  March 11, 2016

    Off topic – what’s the earliest source that puts Peter in Rome?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 12, 2016

      It depends on whether 1 Clement (ca. 95 CE) *implies* he was in Rome or not; it doesn’t say, but it knows of his martrydom and it is from Rome. If not that, then the Acts of Peter in the second century.

  8. Epicurus13
    Epicurus13  March 11, 2016

    Dr Ehrman, I’m curious if any of your students are members of the blog ? The other thing I’m curious about is how often you have students come in with a fundamentalist world view and leave without one or a faith crisis ?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 12, 2016

      I don’t *think* any of them are on the blog; and rarely does anyone stop being a fundamentalist because of the class, but often it gets them to thinking and some time later they shift their views.

  9. ronaldus67
    ronaldus67  March 11, 2016

    Very creative approach Bart! Wish I could join one of your classes or speaking engagements in the future. Must be a lot of fun! However, it’s a long distance rowing from the Netherlands 🙂

  10. Avatar
    DeanMorrison  March 11, 2016

    That’s a fantastic pedagogical approach Bart. As an atheist and scientist with absolutely no interest in the Bible before I stumbled across you, that sounds not only very educational, but a lot of fun!

    If I was younger and had the money. I’d love to fly across the Atlantic to study under you, just for the hell of it.

    Shame your Presidential candidates aren’t required to go through the same process, and given a topic like climate change to get their teeth into!

    In your previous post you questioned the real value of the debates you engage in with conservative Christians. Trust me there are many people in the wider world who watch them on-line, and who find them not only very informative, but hugely entertaining. I’ve watched or listened to every one available many times over. Every one, save perhaps the one with the sophist and immoral William Lane Craig is hugely enjoyable, and to be honest it’s hard not to have some sympathy with some of your highly educated but always struggling opponents.

    But then Christians do have a bit of a tradition of happily throwing themselves in front of a lion, with sadly inevitable consequences.

    Any chance of you posting one of your self-debates for the readership of your blog, I think I’m not the only one who would love that!

    • Bart
      Bart  March 12, 2016

      Hadn’t thought of that! Never recorded one. Maybe next year!

  11. Avatar
    willow  March 11, 2016

    How much time is allowed each team to state their case/rebuttals, Bart? Or is there a time limit? As it seems this could become quite involved, can the debates occur over the course of several classes/hours?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 12, 2016

      Yup, first speeches are five-minutes in length; rebuttals are three-minutes. Strictly timed.

  12. Avatar
    Rogers  March 12, 2016

    What you described, Bart, sounds a lot like We The People that both my sons participated in during highschool. Their highschool regularly wins the state competition and goes on to represent our state at the national competition in Washington DC.

    Was a great deal of intense work being involved (plus the fund raising they had to do to go to national competition) in that program, but both sons look back on it as one of the top highlights of their highschool years.

    No doubt your students look back to your course in similar vein.

    (We all need these kind of skills if we’re to be about the business of conducting a participatory form of government – alas, a paltry few percentage of the population gets such an educational experience.)

  13. Avatar
    amyschiwitz  March 13, 2016

    Yale films whole semesters of their professors lecturing (including a course on New Testament!) and uploads them to youtube. Just search youtube for “YaleCourses.” If only someone would talk UNC into doing this!!

  14. Avatar
    Como  March 14, 2016

    Do you post any of your students debates on YouTube? It would be great to see what a real college level debate looks like compared to the farcical one depicted in the movie God’s Not Dead.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 15, 2016

      No, I”m afraid we don’t tape these!

      • Avatar
        Rogers  March 20, 2016

        Bart, your long time friend and collegue, Dale Martin – his New Testament/Christianity Yale lectures on YouTube are quite the treasure. My wife and I very much enjoyed viewing all of these. Those lectures are a few years old now but I think they’re still being impactful. I posted about them in the Christianity subredit and it was the highest up voted item I ever posted there (in the hundreds). Occasionally I see other people have discovered them and posted about them too.

        I sincerely hope Dale continues to receive accolades for his Yale lectures.

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