More Ways to Fail a Bible Paper

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.

Jeremiah 29_11 Context9. 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 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.

Verse Wow6. 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.
Apostrophe 22. 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?

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!