Here I continue to discuss some of the things professors in the humanities do in research universities — in part.  I’m telling this from just my own perspective, but I’d say that most of what I say could be said by nearly anyone in a similar position.  This is how I explained this aspect of it before.


In addition to my regular teaching, I often get asked to direct Independent studies – where an undergraduate student will pursue a research project of his or her own choosing, something that normally is not taught in a regular class that we offer – and senior honors theses. I rarely am able to do an Independent Study, I’m sorry to say, as I have so many other demands on my time. But some of my colleagues are able to do several a year. I do occasionally direct honors theses, though, especially when a student looks especially promising as someone who may be able to go on and do graduate work in the field.

The honors thesis is done by a graduating senior who has a certain (rather high) GPA who wants to have some experience doing original research on any topic of his or her choosing. I direct ones, of course, that have to do with the New Testament or the history of Christianity during the first three centuries. The thesis takes two semesters to complete, and students often begin to do the research for the project starting in the summer before their senior year. The thesis is usually about 50-60 pages in length, and is usually (when I direct them) divided into three chapters, an introduction, and a conclusion.

One of the hardest things for students at that stage in their careers to do is to pick a topic that is of sufficient significance to warrant a thesis yet narrow enough to cover adequately in the amount of space provided. It’s not easy, at all, picking the right topic. This past year I directed two honors theses.

The first was done by a woman who has decided not to go on for graduate work at this point. But she had an intriguing and rather complex topic – although at first sight it may appear deceptively straightforward. Her topic/issue was this: in the Hebrew Bible, the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb in connection with the Passover Feast, as described in the book of Exodus and later discussed in other texts, was not portrayed or understood to be an atoning sacrifice. That is to say, the lamb that was killed (for this occasion) was not sacrificed for the sake of the sins of the one doing the sacrifice (or for anyone else). But in the New Testament, when Paul and the author of the Gospel of John describe Jesus’ death as the death of the “Passover” lamb, they seem to assume that in fact his death – as the Passover sacrifice – was indeed for the sake of atonement. This student’s question: how or why did they come to that view? If the Passover sacrifice was not seen as atoning in Judaism, why did Jewish authors of the New Testament portray Jesus’ death precisely as an atoning Passover sacrifice?

It’s a great question! The project

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required her to study the different kinds of sacrifice described in the Torah, the purpose and function of each, the traditions about Passover in Exodus and elsewhere in the Old Testament, and the discussions of Jesus’ death in Paul and John. The issue comes to clear expression in both authors –as Paul speaks of Christ as the Passover “sacrificed for us” (which assumes some kind of atoning significance) and John speaks of Jesus as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (even though the Passover lamb had nothing to do with sins). This is one of those instances where a student picked a topic that was narrow but extraordinarily complex. I directed the thesis, and it was examined by a colleague and me (in other words the student had to undergo an oral defense after she had written the thesis), and we awarded it honors.

The other student was one of the brightest undergraduates I have taught at UNC in my 23 years here; he will be going to Yale next year to begin work on a Master’s degree in Religious Studies, with a focus on New Testament. He has long been interested in early Christian apologetics, where Christian authors “defend” (the root meaning of “apologia”) the faith against the charges of their cultured detractors – especially pagans (i.e., non-Christians, non-Jews, who are polytheists).

In the second and third Christian centuries Christians were constantly under attack by pagans, including pagan intellectuals who charged this new religion with all sorts of things – for being anti-social and immoral, rooted in a ridiculous idea (the salvation of the world through the crucifixion of a criminal), founded on an obscure nobody (a rural teacher no one had heard of who got on the wrong side of the law), and accepted by a bunch of uneducated yokels. Pagan critics of Christianity had a lot of other things to say about this group of upstarts as well, none of it good.

Eventually, starting in the mid-second-century, some Christian converts came from the well-educated classes and began to write reasoned defenses of the faith, called “apologies.” Some of the most famous authors include Justin (Martyr) of Rome, Tertullian of Carthage, and Origen of Alexandria.

Some scholars have suspected that some of the books of the New Testament, already in the first century, had apologetic concerns, that they were written in part to defend Christianity from charges leveled against it. This would include the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts, two books written by the same person (we call him Luke, although we do not know actually who he was; traditionally it has been thought that he was a Gentile physician who accompanied Paul on his journeys, but scholars have long had reasons to suspect that that is not correct).

This student decided to write a thesis arguing that two of the themes of Luke-Acts did indeed have apologetic functions. First, this author wanted to show that Jesus himself was not an uneducated bumpkin: in Luke’s account, he is portrayed as a highly literate teacher of the Jewish Law (among the Gospels – this is surprising to most people — only in Luke do we find a passage indicating that Jesus could actually read). Second, he wanted to explain that even though his followers were uneducated, the power of God nonetheless was at work through them. This latter motif, found especially in the early chapters of Acts, does not deny the pagan charge that Christians were lower class illiterates; it takes the charge and tries to turn it to theological advantage: the success of Christianity was not because of the brilliance of its early expositors but just the contrary – it cannot be at all explained except on the grounds that it was because of the intervention of God. Or so Acts maintains.

This was a very interesting thesis and again was examined by a colleague and myself. We awarded it high honors.

Directing theses like these is very different from directing the work of PhD students. PhD students already have the requisite ancient languages (Greek, Hebrew, usually also Latin or Coptic or Syriac) and can do research in one or more modern languages (to see what scholars writing in German, say, or French have to say). Undergraduates are rarely at this level, although the second student I mentioned can read introductory level Greek. The research, then, is done almost entirely in English, and in most instances it is the student’s first exposure to real, heavy hitting scholarship. Most students – even if they have had a large number of classes in the field of Religious Studies — have no idea how complex, intricate, and difficult real scholarship is in the field, as this in most instances is their first exposure to it.

But it’s a great experience for them to get a taste of it, and I have never yet had a student tell me they regretted taking on a thesis. I have, however, had a large number of students (maybe half of them?) who have started a thesis and decided that they simply didn’t have the drive or wherewithal to finish it. In such cases we simply turn the thesis into an Independent Study and let the student see for him or herself that research in the field is not at all what they want to do with their lives.