If you checked out my syllabus for my undergraduate course this semester, you will have noticed that every week each student is to write a two-page “position paper” on an assigned topic, something of intrigue that, for this class, will involve texts and issues they have probably never addressed or even heard of, even though if they were raised as church-going Christians. I certainly hadn’t when I was their age….
Here are the instructions I give for the papers; you obviously couldn’t do the papers without reading the assignments, but you can get an idea here what they would be studying. (The abbreviation ANT is for their textbook, the reader I edited called After the New Testament: A Reader in Early Christianity 100-300 CE).
INSTRUCTIONS FOR POSITION PAPERS
Welcome to instructions for your weekly bit of recitation fun: the position papers! For basic instructions, otherwise known as absolute sine qua non (purpose, length, grading, etc.), see the syllabus. But do remember: these are to be two-pages, double-spaced, and turned in before the recitation itself.
Recitation One: Getting Started
Blessed are the neophytes! For this your first position paper you have just one assignment. List the three most important questions that you would like to have answered in this course. These should be things that you are most curious about with respect to the early Christianity.
There are no dumb or wrong questions to ask here. We’re simply interested in knowing what you’re interested in. And we’re interested in you too knowing what you’re interested in! The only way to have your curiosity satisfied is to know what your curiosity is. If you’re lucky it will get curiouser and curiouser.
NOTE: for this paper we don’t need you to write two pages! Just list your three questions. But think about it and come up with some things you really would like to know something about.
Recitation Two: Jesus and the Other “Divine Men”
Your first task for this position paper is to read the following selections (found on Sakai under Resources; there are 2 pdfs) taken from David Cartlidge and David Dungan, Documents for the Study of the Gospels, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994). These passages are all drawn from ancient sources that relate the words, deeds, and experiences attributed to persons who were thought to be divine by some people living in the Greco-Roman world. [these are passages that describe miraculous births to women impregnated by gods; and miracle workers who can heal the sick or control the weather or cast out demons; and people who were taken up to heaven at the end of their lives, etc.]
Now read the Gospel according to Luke, chaps. 1-2; 4-5; 7-8; 21-24.
For your paper, you are to list three specific ways in which Jesus as portrayed in Luke is similar to other people who were thought to be divine. (Give exact chapter and verse references when referring to passages in Luke.) Are there ways in which Jesus appears to be different from other divine men? How do you explain these similarities and differences?
Recitation Three: A Pagan, a Jew, and a Christian Walk into a Bar….
Pretend it is 200 CE and you are in a wine shop in Antioch, sitting next to a table where three people are in an intense conversation. You gather pretty quickly that one of them is like you, a follower of traditional religions (worships Zeus, Athena, Apollo, his own family gods, and so on….), another is a very devout Jew, and the other is one of those new-fangled Christians.
They are arguing about religion. Both the pagan and the Jew think the Christian is nuts, and they tell him why, in turn (so the pagan has some reasons, and the Jew has some reasons). The Christian then responds to them both to argue that in fact his religion is superior to either of theirs.
For your paper, reconstruct their conversation.
Recitation Four: Incentives for Conversions. Miracle Stories in Christian Legend
There is a reading assignment for this recitation (don’t worry – it’s terrifically good fun). But before getting to it, first do a bit of quiet thinking. Lots of pagans over the years abandoned their religious traditions and practices in order to become Christian – millions of them over time. In your opinion, based on what you know so far: what led them to do so? Something must have led them to forsake what they and all their families and communities had always thought and done to join the church. But what would that have been?
In your position paper, take a few sentences to sketch out what you think.
THEN, read the selections from the “Apocryphal Acts” in the Resources section of Sakai. The Apocryphal Acts are legendary accounts of the missionary activities of the apostles of Jesus after his death. The episodes you are reading for this recitation focus show how the apostles converted people. The stories themselves are clearly legendary. But what do they *claim* convinced people to start worshiping the God of Jesus, and him alone, rather than the traditional gods? It’s clearly miracles. [These are selections from the Acts of John and the Acts of Peter]
Is that plausible? Could Christian miracle-working abilities have converted the pagan masses? But these are legends! Right?
Still, think about it for a bit. Why would believing that Jesus’ followers could do spectacular miracles lead someone to convert?
In your paper, summarize a few of the accounts and then explain the logic this missionary strategy: Do miracles and people will convert. And then ask – could this really have been the reason? And if so – here’s the REALLY interesting question: would the followers of Jesus really have to have done miracles for people to be convinced? What about historians who don’t believe in miracles? How could they possibly think this would be the reason people would convert, if miracles don’t actually happen? Can you think of a way?
Recitation Five: The Martyrdom of Polycarp
Read the Martyrdom of Polycarp carefully (ANT 34-39). This is a fascinating account with numerous points of interest. Dig into it as deeply as you can and see what most intrigues you about it, We want your paper to show you’ve thought hard about the text.
For your paper you should pick two or three interesting features of the the Martyrdom and discuss them. Some of the options (there are others!): Who is portrayed as the “guilty party” who really wanted Polycarp killed? Why? What wrong had he done? Why was Polycarp willing or even eager to be martyred? Couldn’t he have gotten off the hook pretty easily? Why didn’t he do so? And why does his refusal to do so seem so infuriating to the proconsul? Is the proconsul really the bad guy here? Why is he himself trying to get Polycarp off the hook? What is being emphasized in the description of Polycarp’s actual death? What miracles were involved, and are they believable? And what do you make of the way his followers treated his remains?
There are other issues you could address. Pick ones that you find most intriguing and spend your paper discussing them.
Whatever you choose, END your paper by explaining what the author of this account was trying to achieve. Was he simply providing an “objective” account of what really happened for the sake of the record? Or was his account meant to teach his readers something important about themselves and their own lives? If so, what?
I’ll set out the instructions for the other assigned papers in a later post.