Two years 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 while grading Bible papers. I just did these as tweets over a couple of days (and yes, you should follow me on twitter, @Plong42). Several people encouraged me to collect the tweets as a blog post, which I did. To my surprise, the “Top 10 Ways to Fail a Bible Paper” had the highest single day traffic on Reading Acts ever.
It has been two years so I thought I would create a second list of common mistakes when writing a Bible paper. First, I need to make a few clarifications. First, there is no one student in mind for any of the Top Ten. 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 backslide and make me question my ability to teach.
Second, I do want this list to have some positive influence on people writing papers for a Bible class. Too many students think a collect Bible class is just like Sunday School. All they need to do is say Jesus and the Bible a few times, share some feelings (maybe cry a little) and they deserve an A. But that is not at all what I am looking for and a paper for a Bible class ought to have the same academic quality as any other class. My guess is people who make these kids of mistakes are not passing an English or History either.
Here is my 2015 version of “The Top Ten Ways to Fail a Bible Paper.”
10. Using Jeremiah 29:11, unless you know what Jeremiah 29:11 is talking about. In fact, if you are writing a Gospels paper or a paper on Galatians, there is probably no reason for Jeremiah 29:11 to come up.
9. Refer to every character in the Bible as holy and righteous. Other than Jesus, most are not even close. I seriously get papers referring to Abraham or David as a “good Christian.”
8. Cite a Mormon Theology website (unless you are at a Mormon School). This has happened more than once, and occasionally I get a reference to the Christadelphian commentary. First, do not do biblical research by googling your topic. Second, if you break that rule, at least think critically about the content. Who wrote the website? What is their theological emphasis?
7. A related topic is using extremely older and dated material. If you use an online Matthew Henry commentary as if it was an example of contemporary scholarship, you are not doing “research.” Matthew Henry was a great scholar, but he died in 1714. Not really cutting edge. By citing Matthew Henry (or John Gill, Darby’s Notes, Clarke’s Commentary, etc.) you are only telling your professor you used biblehub.com as your main resource and probably do not know how to find the library on campus. The reason these books are available online for free is that they are out of copyright, which means they are at least 75 years old.
6. Quote a verse, follow it with “Wow, that is a pretty crazy concept.” I get papers with this breathy moment of worship and nothing else. No substance, no connection to the topic. If you quote a passage of Scripture (and you really should in a Bible Paper), please keep it brief and use the text to support some point you are trying to make. I sometimes get papers which have pasted text from web-based Bibles, without any format changes. I get footnotes, changes in color, etc. If you are going to be lazy enough to paste in a chunk of the Bible and only say “wow, Jesus is really cool” at least change the font to match the rest of your paper!
5. “Many scholars say…” Name one, for example. Just one would make me happy. Usually students who say this mean “I think this is what people would say if I did a little research…”
4. “I have the kindle edition of textbook and I couldn’t figure out how to get accurate page numbers from the app.” That is the problem trying to save money with a kindle. It is not a book so you cannot cite it properly. Usually a used textbook is cheaper than the kindle book, so unless you have an allergy to paper, man-up and buy the book. If the paper is a formal research paper, use the library copy of the book to cite it correctly.
3. Using a sermon you heard two weeks ago as the main source for your paper. I do think some pastors have good idea and I applaud a student to not only pays attention to a good teaching pastor but is moved to interact with that sermon in a paper, but a sermon cannot be the main source for your paper. When this is done right, the reference to the sermon appears in an introduction in order to raise the question or in a conclusion, making a final pastoral insight into the text.
2. Stringing together a page full of quotes with no interaction with the material. On the one hand, I am happy the student is using good resources and is citing them, but 750 words directly cited in a 1000 word paper is not good research. Students need to learn how to summarize and cite, but also how to interact with the material quoted. A paper ought to comment on the citation, disagree with the material, use the material to illustrate something in the text. Nothing makes me more angry that a 100 word block quote concluded with “and I agree.”
1. Learn to use an apostrophe. There is a huge difference between “God’s love” and “Gods love.” Unless you are writing a paper on the Canaanite pantheon, you are going to want to use a comma.
So there is my Top Ten, or Twenty if you combine both lists. What have I missed? Any other glaring mistakes other professors notice as they finish up their grading this semester?