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.

I 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.

#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.

#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!