What I Learned about the Bible from Undergrads

What I Learned about the Bible from Undergrads May 15, 2013

Today I’ll finish grading the final exams of the students who took “Introduction to the New Testament” this Spring at St. Cloud State University. It was my first foray into undergraduate teaching, and I heartily thank all of you readers who gave me advice about teaching undergrads. The most-given piece of advice was, “Own the Classroom.” I can’t say that I did that. Although I didn’t allow the students to call me by my first name, I cannot help but run a fairly informal classroom — you may have heard, but I’ve got a thing against hierarchy.

It seems that one of my dear students has entered me at RateMyProfessors.com, and my first rating is, um, positive:

Ahhh, shucks. Thanks.

St. Cloud State is a blue-collar school. I do not say that as an insult, but instead as a compliment.  Unlike where I went to college, the SCSU students didn’t put on airs. They were honest, funny, and unintimidated. They weren’t all into the class — one student sat in the back and read a novel most class sessions; others unsurrepticiously checked their phones every five minutes. But most of them were quite engaged in the course.

We used the ur-text for undergrad New Testament courses at state universities: Bart Ehrman’s The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. About that text, I say, Meh. Ehrman is thorough, to be sure. In fact, the text contains far more information than any undergrad course could get through in a 14-week semester. I’d be shocked to hear from another professor that they assign the entire book. It’s also too expensive, at about $65 (and not available on Amazon), which is all part of the price-fixing of textbooks that is another post for another day.

On the Gospels, Ehrman is good. Same goes for Acts. Same goes for the 7 undisputed Pauline letters. But once we got into the deutero-Pauline books and the pseudopigriphal books, Ehrman’s skepticism starts to seep through, and it occasionally overwhelms his “neutrality.” For example, Ehrman repeatedly refers to pseudopigripha as “forgery,” and he adamantly argues that it was not a common practice in the ancient world. I can say that through three years of seminary and seven years of doctoral work, I never had a professor call the pseudopigriphal books forgeries.

So, to help the students relativize Ehrman’s authority, toward the end of the semester I showed them Ehrman’s super-awkward appearances on the Colbert Report in 2006 and 2009. Honestly, that was one of my favorite moments in class, because the conversation that ensued was how we need to interpret not just the Bible, but also the textbook that’s telling us about the Bible.

A couple of the students were avowed atheists (one contributed to this post), one is seminary-bound, and others were various degrees of Christian. What I loved about the class is that they were all respectful of one another. They were, for the most part, curious students. None got defensive — none felt that they had to defend the Bible, or apologize for God, in the face of evidence that the Fourth Gospel was written at the end of the first century, or that Paul likely didn’t write Ephesians, or that Hebrews and James both have messages that contradict Paul.

I also realized, again, that I still have lots to learn about the New Testament. I’m glad that this course forced me to dust off my study of it — indeed, to do some new study, since the NT wasn’t part of my doctoral program.

I know that lots of you readers teach. What did you learn from your students this year?

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  • Carl Gregg

    Not to be a Ehrman fanboy, but to be fair regarding your comment that “through three years of seminary and seven years of doctoral work, I never had a professor call the pseudopigriphal books forgeries” it is significant to note that Ehrman is breaking new ground on precisely that issue in his 600+ page, Oxford UP tome “Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics,” published in late 2012 (http://amzn.to/12B42P0). There’s also a 300-page, popularized version through HarperOne (http://amzn.to/V7ahov).

  • I only fell asleep once, for an extended period of time, but it wasn’t because of your teaching, it was due to the whole college binge drinking thing.

    My least favorite part of the class was the amount of times I rolled my eyes while listening to a certain student chime in with pointless questions and comments–you should have clarified participation in class only gets you points if your participation adds something to the conversation.

    I’m sure the girl behind me learned a lot as well, mostly about shirtless cowboys and unrealistic sex. Anyway, good times–I enjoyed class.

    • Joel, it was great having you in class. You’re a crack-up.

  • tanyam

    I’m not sure I understand what is super-awkward about Ehrman’s appearance on Colbert — or why it may be revelatory? Maybe I’m reading too much into that paragraph. — What is the connection between his appearances and the need to interpret the interpreter? Would love to know more about that, and about what made that a great class.

    What I thought I saw was a reserved person who is, yes, playing the straight man while Colbert does Colbert’s thing — which would certainly unnerve me, if I was only asked to recount what I’d had for lunch.

  • Since Ehrman’s text gets a “meh”, what are some recommendations on a non-“meh” NT survey text?

    • David

      I like to use the Bible. The New Oxford Annotated Bible has excellent introductory articles on method and the history of interpretation, and good introductions to the individual books with decent notes. Why have them read someone else’s interpretation?

      • I assign Ehrman. “Meh” may have been too strong. It’s clearly the best text out there.

        I assign the HarperCollins Study Bible, just so Oxford doesn’t get all the students’ money.

        • David

          I don’t assign Ehrman. Too pricey, and if they are going to read something (which is a big if) might as well read the primary text!

        • Ben

          If you had to choose another NT introduction, what would it be?

        • Carl Gregg

          When I’ve taught as an adjunct, I’ve assigned the New Interpreter’s Study Bible. It’s worth considering.

  • Rob Davis

    Next time you should record your lectures…

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