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Teaching Christianity

Teaching Religion as an Agnostic

When I finally admitted to myself that I was an agnostic, I had already been teaching New Testament and the history of early Christianity for ten years or so, first at Rutgers in the mid 1980s and then at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill starting in 1988.   It comes as a surprise to some people when I tell them that my decision to leave the Christian faith made absolutely no difference at all, of any kind, in either what I taught or how I taught it.  I think people find that very strange indeed because they have a rather serious misconception about what it means to teach religious studies in a secular research university. Many people imagine that teaching religious studies is simply different from teaching anything else.  I think in part that is because they really haven’t given it much thought.  Religion, in this common view, is different from other fields of study and inquiry.  Political science, or history, or literature, or anthropology, or classics, or even philosophy – any of [...]

Spilling the Beans on my Beliefs on the Last Day of Class

About fifteen years ago or so I started doing something completely different on my last day of class in my New Testament course.  I have a lecture scheduled for then, of course, but the scheduled lecture rehashes material that is earlier covered in the class and that students can pick up easily from their reading – so it’s not one of the crucial class periods of the semester.  Sometimes that last class is not even that (depending on how the semester schedule works out) but is a kind of review session. But about two weeks before the end, I tell the students that I have an option for the last day, and I’ll let them vote on it. The option is to do the class as scheduled or, instead, to have a non-required class (no taking of attendance, no reason to come unless they want to) in which I explain what I myself really believe and why I believe it.   That is of some relevance to the class, of course, since the beliefs I’ll be [...]

Can Teaching Be Objective?

I have been discussing how I see the separation of church and state when it comes to teaching religious studies in a secular research university.  All of this has been a lead up to what I do on my final day of class in my course, Introduction to the New Testament.   On that last day, if students want, I tell them what I actually believe and why. I feel constantly torn between two different perspectives on teaching, which I call the Socratic and the Kierkegaardian models.   For Socrates (at least as reported by Plato) (which means that this may be Plato’s view, rather than Socrates’s) truth was truth, and the person who spoke the truth was irrelevant to the question of whether it was true or not.  What matters is whether one can establish through logic, reasoning, and evidence that claims are true or not.  The person delivering the claim has nothing to do with it.  Fools can speak the truth (sometimes) and savants can utter nonsense (often!). The 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard [...]

Teaching the Bible as a Historical Book

Ever since I first put foot in a university classroom as a professor of religious studies, I have been firmly committed to the constitutional separation of church and state.  I have never seen it to be my mission either to convert someone to a new religious point of view or to deconvert them from their old one.  My goals have been to teach about the history and literature of the New Testament from a non-confessional point of view and to make students think hard about whatever their views might be.  The goal is not religious but humanistic -- as is appropriate in a secular research university – namely, to help students learn how to think. There are few subjects that are more perfectly suited to the university's ultimate goal of training thinking human beings than religious studies, especially in the part of the world where I teach, the American South.   Nearly all of my students come into class with a life-long belief involving the material we cover in the syllabus.  Most of my students have [...]

2020-04-03T02:25:15-04:00April 28th, 2017|Public Forum, Teaching Christianity|

Teaching Religion in a Secular Environment

This little diversion of a thread was going to be a simply one-post on the talk I’ll be giving today to my undergraduate Introduction to the New Testament class, where I spill the beans about what I personally believe and why.  But it’s turned into a four-post mini-thread on my views of the separation of church and state. So far it’s been all background – how my twelve years of higher education were all done in Christian confessional contexts, not in secular schools, even though all of my teaching has been in research universities.  Go figure. As I indicated in my previous post, as a PhD student I tried to broaden my range significantly so it would not look like I could do nothing except for textual criticism, the study of the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament with the ultimate goal of figuring out what the biblical authors actually wrote.  My intention all along was to find a teaching position either in a divinity school/seminary (for the training of pastors) or in a Christian [...]

About Graduate Studies: A Blast from the Past

Two days ago someone asked me about doing graduate studies.  He had a master's degree and was wondering about whether to do a PhD.  I told him that if he could imagine doing something else with his life, he probably should do so.  Doing a PhD is just too painful.  It's long (in my field it typically takes about 6-8 years *after* doing a Masters; lots of students take longer), it's really hard, it's really painful, and there's no guarantee of a job when you 're finished.  If it's your passion, and you can't imagine doing anything else, you should do it (I told him).  But otherwise ... not so much. Looking back over old blog posts, I see that I talked about graduate studies almost exactly four years ago today.  Here is what I said then: ****************************************************************** I teach one undergraduate and one graduate course a semester. Teaching undergraduates is a passion of mine. I love doing it. These are nineteen year olds who are inquisitive, interested, and interesting. I enjoy lecturing to a [...]

What If the Mythicists Were Right: Mailbag November 6, 2016

QUESTION: It must be difficult going into these types of debates knowing that if Robert Price is actually right, your entire career would be pointless and irrelevant. I certainly don’t believe this, but it must have crossed your mind before?   RESPONSE: This question arose from the debate I had a couple of weeks ago with Robert Price, on whether Jesus existed.  Price argued, as you know, that there never was a historical man Jesus, but that the earliest “Christians” believed in a cosmic Christ, a mythical figure who lived above in the heavenly realm who was crucified by demons in outer space.  This is the Christ attested, for example, he claimed, in Paul.  But later Christians invented a historical figure Jesus out of this Christ, and the Gospels portray this fictitious figure that was simply made up.  Jesus of Nazareth never existed. And so this question is whether I really can’t entertain this view as an option since, if it were true, I wouldn’t have a career.  My career is based on the history [...]

Faith and History: A Blast From the Past

Here is a post that I made exactly four years ago today, on a topic of perennial interest: the relationship between theological belief and historical study: ******************************************************************* I received a number of responses to my post yesterday about faith and history – some on the blog itself and some via emails (I prefer questions/comments on the blog itself, by the way, as I can deal with them more efficiently. In case anyone should ask you which I prefer :) ).  Some of these comments were all heading in the same direction, and were made, I think, because (can you imagine it?) I was not as clear as I could be in what I was trying to say about the relationship of faith and history. In these responses my responders pointed out that it really is impossible to keep faith and history separate from one another, since in many instances the historical conclusions one draws may stand in conflict with theological beliefs. So something has to give, either the history or the theology. But that means that they [...]

Arguments, Evidence, and Changing Your Mind

In this series of posts on how I got interested in textual criticism, I’ve had a number of people indicate that they don’t see how the problems posed by our manuscripts did not absolutely destroy my evangelical faith.  By implication, I think, they are wondering why evangelicals broadly, to a person, don’t see these problems and realize that they don’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to their belief in the Bible. The logic these commenters are applying is one that I discuss in my book Misquoting Jesus.  If the evangelical belief is rooted in the sense that the Bible contains the very words that God inspired, and if a study of our manuscripts reveals that there are thousands – hundreds of thousands – of places where these words were changed, so that there are some places where we cannot know what the authors actually wrote, then isn’t that an insurmountable problem?  Why would God inspire the words of Scripture (that would take a mighty miracle!) if he did not make sure [...]

Learning to Teach at Moody

I will not be continuing this autobiographical thread (thread within a thread) for much longer (you may be glad to know), but I do want to get to the ultimate point (for the thread outside the thread), which is why by a couple of quirks/flukes I ended up better equipped to write books for general audiences than most of my colleagues in my PhD program.   The first has to do with what happened with me back in my days at Moody when I was learning tons about what was actually in the Bible (and the fundamentalist way of interpreting it all) (which, at the time, of course, I thought was the *only* correct way to interpret it). At Moody, every semester we were required to engage in some kind of formal ministry (“Practical Christian Experience”).  Everyone at Moody had to do one semester of “door-to-door evangelism,” where we were taken to one neighborhood or another somewhere in a suburb of Chicago, and literally knocked on doors to talk to people to try to convert them.  [...]

Final Exam for New Testament Class (2016)

Let’s see how you do on my Final Exam!   Yesterday I gave the final for my Introduction to the New Testament class.   Here it is.   My sense is that as for every course, unless you actually take it, even if you know a good bit about the subject matter, it would be very hard to do well on the final, since, well, the final is geared specifically to the course.   But some of this is more or less “common knowledge” for those well versed in the field. The exam had three sections that were equally weighted: the first is a string of identifications, the second and third were essays.   I allowed some choice in what to answer to provide some flexibility.   Students had three hours to complete the exam.  Some students finished in an hour and a half, a few stayed till the very end. So … how would you do?   ****************************************************************************** Reli 104 New Testament  Bart D. Ehrman Spring 2016   Final Exam   IDENTIFICATIONS Define ten of the following terms in fifty [...]

2017-11-13T21:00:38-05:00May 3rd, 2016|Public Forum, Teaching Christianity|

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; [...]

2020-04-03T03:47:38-04:00March 11th, 2016|Public Forum, Teaching Christianity|

The Value (or Not) of Debates

As most readers of the blog know, I do a good number of public debates, almost always (I’m trying to think if there is an exception!) with conservative evangelical Christians or fundamentalists who think that my views are dangerous to the good Christians of their communities and to all those non-Christians they very much want to convert.   My view all along has been that my historical views are not a threat to Christian faith, but only to a particular (and particularly narrow) understanding of that faith.   But most of my debate partners can’t see things that way.  For them, their views are Christianity, and any other kind of Christianity is not actually Christianity. I usually look forward to these debates in advance, but I have to say that almost every time I’m actually having one, I start jotting notes to myself, asking “Why Am I Doing This?” or “Why Do I Do This To Myself?”   I often find the debates very frustrating. I imagine my debate partners do as well.  They just can’t understand why [...]

2020-04-03T03:47:46-04:00March 10th, 2016|Bart's Debates, Public Forum, Teaching Christianity|

Textual Criticism Syllabus

This semester I am teaching my PhD seminar in precisely the topic I've been discussing for the past number of weeks, New Testament textual criticism.  Here, for your reading pleasure, is the syllabus for the class.     Reli 809: New Testament Textual Criticism   Instructor:  Bart D. Ehrman    University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill    Fall 2015   Course Description This class focuses on one of the foundational disciplines of biblical studies.  New Testament textual criticism has experienced a significant resurgence over the past twenty years or so, as scholars have begun, again, to recognize its importance for exegesis, theology, and the history of Christianity, and have realized, contrary to general perception, how much of real significance is yet to be done in the field. Your work for this seminar will assume sundry forms.  A substantial portion of it will be devoted to the study of a significant textual problem, on which you will write a term paper.  The basic task, of course, is to establish the earliest form of the text.  But [...]

2020-05-11T13:03:09-04:00August 29th, 2015|New Testament Manuscripts, Teaching Christianity|

My Final Exam for NT

So, classes are officially over here at UNC, and we are in the Final Exam period.  Today I gave my final for the Introduction to the New Testament class.   As some of you may recall, back in January 2014 I posted on the blog the pop quiz I give the first day of class for this course.  It is here, in case you're interested:   When I give this quiz on the first day, I tell the students that even if they bomb it (which most of them do), it's nothing compared to what they're going to be learning in the class over the course of the semester.   Looking at the Final Exam in comparison with this introductory pop quiz pretty much shows it.   Anyway, comparisons or not, I thought you might be interested in the exam, to see how you would do.   And so I give it below in its entirety For the i.d.s, anything they've read or heard during the semester is fair game.  I don't give them [...]

2017-12-09T08:25:40-05:00May 1st, 2015|Teaching Christianity|

False Rumors (or lies?) About My Teaching

QUESTION: In my talks with my family I have referenced your work, and my family typically rolls their eyes and tells me that they hold no respect for your work. When pressed on why I have gotten different answers most of them I can dismiss easily but lately they have been sticking to a new story and it goes like this. “I have a friend from church who has a son and he as a faience who took one of Dr. Ehrman’s classes at UNC. The first day of class he walked in and asked if there were any Christians in the room. He then told them that if they were still Christians by the end of the course that they are idiots and would probably fail. “ So first off please let me know if you have ever said anything like this before and if so why or was it in jest?   RESPONSE: I find this comment about me (from the person’s family) to be deeply disturbing and really offensive.  It’s not their [...]

2017-12-09T11:07:11-05:00February 9th, 2015|Reader’s Questions, Teaching Christianity|

Whom Do We Admit into our Graduate Program?

So, now finally to get to the question I was asked, which led me into a discussion of what our graduate program entails.    Here was the original question QUESTION: Can you write something about the background of your PhD students, how you selected them, what makes a prospective doctoral candidate stand out against the pack, whether there is a huge academic gulf between knowledge and argumentative skills of your undergraduates and research students. RESPONSE:   Like all good graduate programs, ours is very difficult to get into.   In a typical year, we will have maybe 30-35 students apply to study the New Testament/Early Christianity.   We can normally admit only one, or maybe two.  So competition is very stiff. All of the students who apply have undergraduate degrees, usually from good schools.  A lot of them already have masters degrees.   Most of them (the applicants) have lots of background in the field and one or more ancient languages. I tell prospective students that we look for a range of things in our applicants, all of them obvious [...]

2020-04-03T14:10:05-04:00January 19th, 2015|Reader’s Questions, Teaching Christianity|

New Testament Programs and Ancient Med.

Teaching graduate students in the field of Ancient Mediterranean Religions – even if one’s subfield is the New Testament and early Christianity – can be very different from teaching the same field in a divinity school, as I began to indicate last time.  At least it is very different from the field as it was taught at Princeton Theological Seminary, where I went.   New Testament faculty there principally taught courses on exegesis – that is the interpretation of Scripture.  These courses did have a strong historical component to them.   But the only real concerns were the books of the New Testament, their interpretation, and the history that they both presuppose and illuminate. At UNC, I have never taught an exegesis course.  Now it’s true, my students in New Testament (most of them actually are working outside the New Testament, as I’ll explain in a moment) do need to learn the science and art of exegesis.   But there’s only one of me, and I can teach only one seminar a semester, and I don’t have time [...]

2020-04-03T14:10:17-04:00January 16th, 2015|Teaching Christianity|

Ancient Mediterranean Religions?!?

Being trained in a PhD program in a seminary or divinity school is very different from being trained in a secular research university.   I know this full well, because my PhD was from Princeton Theological Seminary, but my graduate teaching has all been at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I sometimes find it amusing that some of my critics attack my credentials for interpreting the New Testament because – they say – I was principally trained to be a textual critic, that is, not as an exegete  (one who interprets texts), but as one who uses philological analyses in order to study Greek manuscripts so as to reconstruct the oldest form of a text.  Those are two very different disciplines.  And the objection to my extensive discussion of biblical interpretation is that I wasn’t trained to do that kind of thing. That is so wrong.   In my PhD program at Princeton Seminary, I never once THE REST OF THIS POST IS FOR MEMBERS ONLY.  If you don't belong yet, YOU DON'T KNOW [...]

2020-04-03T14:10:26-04:00January 14th, 2015|Teaching Christianity|

Departments of Religious Studies

In my previous post I began to address the question of what we look for when students apply to enter into our PhD program.   To make sense of what I have to say about that, I need to give yet more background into what our program *is*.   In my previous post I started discussing how programs of religious studies in secular colleges and universities began to appear after WWII. My department has always claimed to be the first full-fledged Department of Religious Studies in any state university in the country.  I’m not sure that’s true – I’ve heard that Virginia and one or two other schools make the same claim.  Maybe someone on the blog knows for sure.   What is certain is that our department started in 1946. There had been talk of starting a “School of Religion” at UNC in the 1920s.   I don’t know what that would have looked like – possibly a professional school training people in religion?  I’m not sure.   The plans didn’t go anywhere, since they were knocked off the [...]

2020-04-03T14:10:37-04:00January 13th, 2015|Teaching Christianity|
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