Top 10 Ways to Fail a Bible Paper

While I was grading papers a couple of weeks ago, I thought it would be funny to write a few tweets with common student mistakes. This turned into a “top ten list” of things I have consistently read over my 23 years of grading Bible papers. I posted the Top Ten list using over a couple of days. (By the way, follow me @Plong42.)  The tweets were very popular, most were re-tweeted and there was a fair amount of sympathy among other Bible teachers. I thought I would post the list with a little clarification.

FailI want to make a few clarifications. There is no one student in mind for any of the Top Ten. Sadly, these are the types of things that regularly turn up in undergraduate Bible papers, from freshmen to seniors. Most of my students are very bright and write excellent papers. Occasionally even the best students slip one of these dingers into an otherwise good paper.

Perhaps I should have titled the list, “things to avoid when writing a Bible paper” since I am not sure anyone has failed for including something on this list (although for three or more of these in a single paper, I might just have to fail you!) For my present and future students: avoid these mistakes!

#10 – “My youth pastor told me that. . .” I have always been impressed with the influence that a Junior High Youth Pastor has on their students. Students really remember things they taught four or five years in the past, often clinging to that reaching tenaciously.

#9 – Pauline Lit Paper, only quote Jesus.  The opposite could also happen, although I have had more non-Jesus papers that quote the Gospels than Gospels papers full of Pauline theology. This is an understandable mistake for some students who are raised in churches that preach the Gospels far more than the Pauline letters. It is very hard to bracket out Jesus when reading Paul, but in order to hear Paul’s voice, that has to be done.

morpheus-HS Lie#8 – Any of these words: Satin, Pilot, Angles.  This is a bi-product of using Microsoft Word to write papers. These are spelled correctly, but they are the wrong word. If I had a nickel for every paper that mentioned the “Angle of the Lord” or Satin tempting Eve in the Garden, I could retire to my own private island. I could have added “Cane and Able” to this list. My all-time favorite is spelling mistake: “Matthew wrote to the Jews, Luke wrote the Genitals.”

#7 – Referring to scholars by their first name: “As Tom says in Challenge of Jesus. I get this one often, and it perplexes me when the first name is very common. I can understand this when citing Gary Schnittjer, author of The Torah Story (I cannot spell his last name right either!)

#6 – “As biblical Scholar J. Vernon McGee says….” I got some grief for this one when I posted it since McGee is still in print and respected. My point here is that McGee was a preacher, not a biblical scholar. If I have assigned a research paper, McGee is not really an appropriate source. I would include quite a few popular writers here as well: MacArthur, the “Be” Series from Warren Wiersbe, Rick Warren, Chuck Swindoll, etc.  These are all good writers and popular, but not really the sort of scholarly material I am looking for. I am also bothered by Matthew Henry, mostly because students cite a reprint of the shorter commentary on the whole Bible, without any awareness at all that died in 1714!

#5 – Comparing Jesus and Spiderman. Or Doctor Who, or Star Wars, or any other popular hero. Part of the problem here is that the student is trying to curry favor by name-checking something they know I like. These are analogies that might work if you are teaching or preaching, but they do not work as well in a research paper for a biblical studies class.

calvin-essay-writing#4 – 1000 word paper, 500 word block quote. I just ignore block quotes when judging the completeness of a paper; I want 1000 of your words. The classic example of this was from one of my first college classes. Page one of the paper was the entire parable of the Prodigal Son in quotes, page two was a slight retelling of the same story, with nothing else said about it.  I am not a fan of long block quotes; if they must be used, the student needs to interact with the quote. Introducing a block quote with “N. T. Wright says it best….” then pasting 500 words is not going to put me in a good mood.

#3 – “In The Message translation it says….” This problem is more serious because the Message is not a translation, but a devotional interpretation of the Bible from a single individual. I happen to enjoy reading Eugene Peterson, and I find his paraphrase refreshing and often it accurately catches the gist of a passage. But it is not a translation and should not be cited as Scripture. While this rarely happens in a Bible paper in my classes, I am equally annoyed by changing translations in order to find one that says what you want it to say. Yes, I am looking at you, Rick Warren.

#2 – “ defines justification as….” This is the most serious problem on this list. Online dictionaries are usually out of print, so the definitions do not necessarily reflect current usage. The real problem is that the meaning of the English word “justification” is not really what Paul had in mind, since he was writing in Greek 2000 years before existed. Biblical words must be defined using appropriate Greek and Hebrew lexicons, not modern dictionaries. By “appropriate” I am disqualifying Modern Greek resources (Google Translate, for example) and Strong’s numbers.

#1 – “For many thousands of years people have debated….” This is by far the most common silly way to start a paper. To state in the opening sentence of a paper that people have been debating Paul’s view of justification for many thousands of years is untrue since Paul wrote only two thousand years ago, and that for most of that period people did not debate the topic. Maybe “for the last few centuries” or “since the mid-twentieth century,” but not since the dawn of creation.

That is my top ten, I am sure there are more that could be added to the list. Some of these are serious, some of these are just silly.  Please add to the list in the comments, I would love to hear your experiences!

22 thoughts on “Top 10 Ways to Fail a Bible Paper

  1. I find these hard to believe! How sad. But I must say I accidentally did #7 myself once. The author’s first name sounded like a last name to me, and I called him by that in the paper thinking it was his last name. When the grader noted this, I was mortified…


  2. This is absolutely wonderful. I’m so grateful for your teaching and mentoring in my life! It’s refreshing to know these and be able to relate to some of these frustrations. I’d like to quickly “AMEN” numbers 9 and 3 (RICK!)


  3. I’m interested to know why you include Strong’s numbers, or do you mean just the online version. I was under the impression that Strong’s Concordance snd supporting dictionaries was an excellent resource for studying the original intent of the modern translation.


    • Hello Duncan, I mean no disrespect to the massive service Strong did the church in his Exhaustive concordance (which amazes me since it was all done by hand, before computers!) Two reasons for my comment: First, the system of numbers creates the impression that translation is like decoding a secret message. That tends to be true for a beginning Greek or Hebrew student, but there is more to translating a language than “this Greek word means this.” Syntax and idiomatic expressions are sometimes very difficult to render accurately in a target language, it takes some familiarity with Greek or Hebrew to make proper sense of participles in Greek or the Infinitive Absolute in Hebrew, to use just two examples.

      Second, the Dictionary that is normally available for free keyed to Strong’s numbers is only a glossary, a short definition of a word that does not take into account the wide range of usage of a word in both the Greek NT, the Greek OT (LXX), other Greek writings before and after the first century, etc. Strong was a genius and the glosses are good, but they are not a word study in and of themselves.

      IF the Strong’s number leads you to a more in-depth lexicon or word study, they it is a valuable thing. For example, you can use the Strong’s number to get a gloss, but then look that number up in the Theological Wordbook of the OT, or the New International Dictionary of OT Theology and Exegesis, etc. My comments above were aimed at the lazier student (pastor, teacher!) who does not diligently pursue a word study beyond the free, online dictionary.

      A third issue with Strong’s dictionaries is that a great deal has happened in the study of Greek languages since Strong published those books. The book was first published in 1890, since then scholars have discovered a huge number of manuscripts both in Hebrew for the OT (The Dead Sea Scrolls, for example) and Greek for the NT (the Oxyrynchus Papyri, for example). This does not even include that massive number of inscriptions in Greek have been published and are constantly adding to our storehouse of knowledge on the meaning of Greek words.

      So yes, they are accurate and helpful, but the Strong’s numbers ought to be the first step in studying the meaning of a particular word.


      • Hi Phillip,

        thanks heaps for taking the time to give a very detailed reply, and no probs, I hadn’t assumed disrespect, I was just surprised and was interested in your reasoning.

        Strong’s has really helped me to open up the Word and create a picture to bring a depth to the writer’s word’s that English, especially KJV can’t.

        And yes, I do use the book rather than online. Some of the online versions I have found treat Strong’s “different renderings” as definitions, which clearly they are not.

        As an aside, re the Old Testament and Hebrew, I wonder if you are familiar with Shane Willard’s How to read the Bible like a Hebrew. In short, each Hebrew word is made up of three letters, each letter with its corresponding picture and literal and symbolic meaning. Has totally changed the way I study the OT.

        Thanks again for your post and your comments.
        Dunc 🙂


    • Arthur Pink is not bad, but there are a couple of issues which make him less that the best choice. First, he an older Reformed writer, very Calvinist/Puritan. That theology comes across in his writings frequently, even his work on biblical topics (the Gleanings books, for example). Second, he has to be considered as a theologian first. Not that he is incapable of writing a commentary, but his commentaries are more or less theological observations drawn from the text. There are better commentaries for a Bible paper, but if you were writing a paper on a Calvinist theme, he would not be a terrible choice.

      I think that the reason some students use Pink is that he is available online; it is easy to read (or, cut and paste) A.W.Pink. Going to a library and using recent, quality resources is sometimes not an option.


  4. Just because men like J. Vernon Magee are understandable doesn’t mean they are not Bible scholars. After 36 years of pastoring and holding two degrees from southern Baptist instiutions I see this statement–though tongue in cheek, i’m sure–as more scholastic arrogance.


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