Jesus in Scholarship and Film

Jesus in Scholarship and Film September 7, 2020

 Editor’s Note:  If word had gotten around when I was in college, that a professor like Bart Ehrman was teaching a course on Jesus, I might have taken it.  Instead, I avoided any religion electives to dodge what I wrongly assumed would be Sunday school for college kids. The concept of religion as a subject for academic study was unknown to me then. Fast forwarding to 2020, Bart wisely chose to start his classes remotely before The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill closed down in-person classes shortly after they started, due to a totally predictable COVID-19 outbreak on campus.

 Bart’s pandemic references and humorous asides are as interesting as his teaching plan, excerpted below, from a recent post on his blog.  It is reposted here with permission. /Linda LaScola, Editor


By Bart Ehrman

University classes started this past week (in August), and as so many have said, this will be a school year like no other.  I will be teaching both of my classes remotely, a PhD seminar on Early Christian Apocrypha, which I will be discussing in a later post, and my undergraduate course, Jesus in Scholarship and Film.  I’ve taught this latter course on and off for years now, and it is absolutely one of my favorites. The basic idea behind it is to see how Jesus is portrayed in different ways in different venues: ancient Gospels (the four canonical Gospels and seven from outside the New Testament), modern scholarship on the historical Jesus (i.e., attempts to see what he really said and did), and film, from the earliest silents up to recently.

One of the goals is to learn how each book/film portrays Jesus differently.  There is not “one” Jesus out there that everyone agrees on.

Teaching remotely is a huge challenge.  But I have a terrific group of students.  It is a First Year Seminar; these are specially designed for students in their beginning year of college.  The classes are to be more hands-on; urging more creativity; doing a bit more writing; teaching a larger range of skills in relation to other classes.  I have taken advantage of the crisis to redesign how I do the course, and am very excited about it — especially having met my students, who are really interested and interesting.  There are about 16 students in the class (these are meant to be seminar style, not big lecture courses).

I wish you could join us!  But alas.  Still, in case you’re interested in seeing what we’re doing in there, here’s the syllabus:


Jesus in Scholarship and Film   First-Year Seminar, Reli 070   Spring 2020

 Prof. Bart D. Ehrman

Course Description:

 Jesus of Nazareth left an indelible mark on Western Civilization.  The religion that was founded in his name ‑‑ beginning as the faith of a mere handful of his Jewish followers ‑‑ within three centuries had become a major religion in the Mediterranean.  By the end of the fourth century, it was the official religion of the Roman Empire.  Ever since, the Christian church has been a major political, socio‑economic, and cultural force.  Ultimately, it is a church rooted in a belief in Jesus.

How did Jesus’ followers, after his death, understand who he was?  It continues to be a relevant question, as fundamentalist preachers, committed believers, marginalized cult leaders, agnostic historians, outspoken neo-atheists ‑‑ just about everyone in our society ‑‑ seems to have an opinion.  And the wide‑ranging views that you can find today, even among people who call themselves Christian (e.g., a TV evangelist, a Greek Orthodox priest, a Mormon missionary, and an Appalachian snake-handler), have their clear counterparts among the ancient Christians, whose variety of opinion is mind‑boggling.

In this class we will examine a number of the ancient and modern views of Jesus.  For the ancient period we will read and discuss a range of early Christian Gospels, the four that made it into the New Testament and a number of others that did not; for the modern period we will look at portrayals of Jesus on film.  At every point we will be interested in seeing how Jesus came to be represented differently by different people living in different circumstances and with different ultimate concerns.  Then, near the end of the course, we will engage in a historical analysis to see what, if anything, we can say about what really happened in the life of Jesus, what he really said and did.

At the outset I should stress that it is not one of the goals of the class either to convert you to a particular religious point of view or to provide ammunition for your assault on the religious views of others (e.g., a pestiferous roommate).  It will not, therefore, be taught from a confessional perspective.

All students will be required to understand the points of view advanced in the readings and in the lectures, along with the evidence and/or logic that makes them compelling to others.  You will not be required, though, to accept these points of view for yourself.  A major part of the class will be devoted to helping you think on your own and to understand why you find particular perspectives persuasive or unpersuasive — even the perspectives of your professor.  In particular, all students are urged to approach the issues we address with honesty, openness, and a healthy dose of good humor.

Course Objectives:

           By the end of this course you should be able to:

  1. Summarize the contents, emphases, and distinctive features of each of the four canonical and seven noncanonical Gospels we will be studying.
  2. Explain the difficulties posed by our ancient sources for knowing what Jesus really said and did and evaluate the criteria scholars have used to reconstruct the details of his life and death.
  3. Summarize the approach, perspective, and thematic interests of the various films about Jesus we examine, and evaluate their distinctive features.
  4. Read, write, speak, reason, and thinkbetter than before you took the class!
  5. Generally impress your family, friends, and everyone you know with the astounding breadth and depth of your knowledge about Jesus’ portrayal in ancient Gospels, modern scholarship, and films from the century past.


Bart D. Ehrman,  The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 7th ed.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.

Idem and Zlatko Pleše, The Other Gospels: Accounts of Jesus from Outside the New Testament.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Barnes Tatum, Jesus at the Movies: A Guide to the First Hundred Years. 3rd edition.  Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 2012.

Course Features and Requirements:

Attendance:  Yes indeed, I am expecting you to join us for each and every class.  This is desideratum #1!  Please contact me if you have a legitimate excuse for not gracing us with your presence.

Discussions.  We’ll be having discussions roughly all the time.  Once a week we will be discussing your position paper (see below); in other class periods we will focus on a discussion topic assigned in advance to give you a chance to ruminate deeply ahead of time.  I will be encouraging you to participate actively in these discussions, both so you can improve your oral abilities in public contexts (for which you will thank me eternally, or at least later in life) and so the rest of us can benefit from your insights.  Do not be afraid to say what you think.  I want to know, and if anyone dares to disagree with you  … hey, why do you want to be surrounded by sycophants?

Lectures.  Stay awake, take notes.   A portion of most of our class meetings will be devoted to lecture.  The lectures will aim at being informative and scintillating with attempts at anecdotal wit thrown in, gratis, en route.  Please work to take complete notes and to study your notes afterward.  I’d suggest reading them over carefully that very night (really!), and regularly after that, so you actually learn the information.  You will thank yourself for doing so on the Day of Judgment.  Or rather, the days of judgment, when we have quizzes.

Quizzes.  You will not be taking either a midterm or a final exam in this class.  No thanks necessary.  BUT I will be giving quizzes throughout the term, on set dates (see schedule below).  These will be based on both the assigned readings and the lectures.  The more you prepare, the better you will do.  Want to do well?  Prepare!  (Please note: even though we will not be having a final exam, we will be meeting during the period assigned to the final.  But it is to watch the most unusual, artistic, and brilliant (imho) Jesus movie of all time.   You’ll have to make your own popcorn.

Position Papers.   Once a week you will be asked to prepare a two-page (no less; no more!) “position paper” on each assigned topic.  I have included written instructions for each paper on Sakai (under Resources).  These are not research papers and are not meant to be a “finished and polished product,” ready for publication in the Harvard Theological Review.  But I do want them to be well thought out and well written.

Their main objective is to compel you to consider the issues and reflect on the problems raised by the topic before we discuss it in class.  For this reason, these Position Papers will not be graded per se.  I will simply mark them as “S” (= Satisfactory) if you have done the assignment adequately and “U” (= Unsatisfactory) if you have not.

Please note: papers not turned in on time will automatically be marked U, no questions asked.  Your papers are to be submitted NO LATER than the beginning of the class period for which they are due (even if for some reason you cannot attend that day).  To submit your paper, email it to me as an attachment in a Word file. ….

 Films:  Now here is a class highlight! We will be watching some Jesus films in class (a couple in full, others via clips), and you will have other film assignments from outside of class.  The ultimate goal of these viewings is to see and evaluate how Jesus is portrayed and to compare and contrast this portrayal with others you encounter during the term. There will be some reading connected with the films.

Term Paper:  On the last day of class (Nov. 17) you are to turn in a five-page, double-spaced paper in which you discuss the relevance of a passage from one of the New Testament Gospels for one of the pressing social-cultural issues of our times.   For your paper you are to choose one of the following texts, and one of the following issues.  You are to do research on both the text and the issue.

For the text you will need to become intimately familiar with the Gospel within which it is found and read scholarship on what the passage itself probably meant in its original context, based on books and articles I provide in class.   For the issue you are to delve into modern discussions as they can be found in a variety of online and printed sources that you yourself track down.

Further instructions will be given out in class.  The following are the options I have chosen.  If you have a different one you much prefer to pursue, talk to me about it and we can decide.



  • Black Lives Matter
  • The Me Too Movement
  • Transgender Rights
  • American Policies on Immigration
  • Twenty-first Century Capitalism

Your Own Gospel:  Your final writing assignment will be due on the date of the final exam.  The assignment is to write your own Gospel.  The Gospel is to be 5-6 pages in length.  It is to be a work of imaginative historical fiction.  Imagine that you are a figure (any figure, actual or imagined) involved with Jesus during his lifetime, and tell an account of what you’ve seen him say and do from your own (fictionalized, historical) perspective.  Further instructions will be given out in class.   ….

[See the original post to read more about grading, office hours, honor code, reading and writing assignments, etc.]

**Editor’s Questions** Would you have been interesting in taking such a course as an undergraduate?  Why/Why not?  If you took religion courses in college, how did they compare to this one?


Bio: Bart D. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He came to UNC in 1988, after four years of teaching at Rutgers University. At UNC he has served as both the Director of Graduate Studies and the Chair of the Department of Religious Studies.

A graduate of Wheaton College (Illinois), Bart received both his Masters of Divinity and Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary, where his 1985 doctoral dissertation was awarded magna cum laude. Since then he has published extensively in the fields of New Testament and Early Christianity, having written or edited twenty-six books, numerous scholarly articles, and dozens of book reviews. For more detail, read here.  Bart is also an original member of The Clergy Project.  He has given The Rational Doubt Blog permission to repost public blogs from The Bart Ehrman Blog

>>>>> Photo Credits: By See individual images, Public Domain, ; By Dennis Ludlow – Sharkshock – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, ; By Dan Sears – Dan Sears UNC-Chapel Hill, CC BY 4.0,

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