“The Most Daring Blasphemy”: Getting Students to Think Critically About Extra-Canonical Texts

by Sarah Rollens in

Last semester, I taught a second-year course on Early Christian Gospels. Many students at Rhodes College get a fairly robust introduction to the Bible in their first year (more on that momentarily), so my aim was to go well beyond the traditional canonical accounts. I structured the course to explicitly cut across canonical divisions; instead of “canonical” and “non-canonical,” we explored “infancy accounts,” “collections of teachings attributed to Jesus,” and “passion narratives.” In addition to the New Oxford Annotated Bible, our other textbook was Bart Ehrman and Zlatko Pleše’s Apocryphal Gospels.

Since Christian Origins is my area of specialization, it would be easy to let this class get out of hand and assume that my students are all just like me: dying to dig infinitely deep into the most pressing questions about early gospels that scholars are debating today. That is most certainly not the case. Rhodes College has a unique curriculum, which ensures that many students enroll in classes like mine. All students are required to take a three-semester sequence that focuses either on biblical literature or collection of important literature in the humanities. The first two semesters are fixed 101-102 sequences, but the third semester can be fulfilled by a variety of humanities courses—in the religious studies department, any second-year course whose content deals with the Bible. What this means is that many of my students are (understandably) just there for their third course in this sequence. While I can assume that all students have had basic exposure to biblical texts, I can’t necessarily presume that I’ll be teaching a class full of majors or students who want to continue on to graduate school.

This means that doing a traditional research paper could be disastrous. Not only was the course comprised of a diverse range of students, but also my goal was to use the course to foster skills of careful reading and critical thinking that could be transferrable to other texts or data that my students will encounter in their lives. So my aims were to read texts with students and think about for whom they were/are meaningful, how that meaning was/is accomplished, and why some people would reject them as sources of meaning.

In particular, as we were reading extra-canonical gospels, I would always encourage my students to identify features or ideas that someone might take issue with and might provide cause for such a text to be excluded from the New Testament canon. This kind of exercise is especially worthwhile since we have church fathers’ writings that often tell us the very reasons that texts were approved or rejected—and often in shrill and audacious language.

So I decided to capitalize on the church fathers’ writings as specific sites to explore perspectives on different gospels, and I developed a final project that allowed my students to be creative with this enterprise. Here are the initial instructions for this project from my syllabus:

It’s not an extensive amount of writing, but it does force them to frame a focused analysis from at least two opposing perspectives. Since the majority of my students were completely unfamiliar with the writings of these theologians, I had to take some time to introduce them to some of the church fathers’ writings. As many know, reading these guys is not easy, and so I primed them for their final project in stages. I had already decided to build in a series of writing workshop into the course, so I used out last one to help them figure out how to assess these polemical writings. As with all my writing workshops, I give students a handout for future reference:

Then we got down to work assessing some of these writings. As this screen grab of some slides shows, we assessed what these writings look like when the commentator likes someone they are writing about versus when they don’t like someone. We focused in particular on identifying overtly polemical and praiseworthy language:

After working through these two examples together, I turned them loose on a passage in which Irenaeus lambastes Marcion, a selection of which is below:

These were their instructions:

These exercises set them up to write in the guise of church fathers for their final project. As we approached this assignment, I gave them a handout to expand the instructions on the syllabus and provide tips for how to approach such a writing task:

This assignment turned out to be remarkably successful. The students really seemed to enjoy adopting a different voice to carry out their analyses, and I think, in some ways, it was somewhat liberating for them. Moreover, all the critical thoughts about these texts came straight from their own brains, and they didn’t have to worry about tackling an extensive array of biblical scholarship for their research.

In addition, this assignment seemed to attune them quickly to rhetorical postures that writers adopt. Church fathers, as I argued, are ALWAYS polemical. They’re never just reporting their thoughts and ideas about Christianity—they are always promoting a specific brand of correct Christianity. And they’re doing it from a particular social location: often as educated, elite males who are extremely self-assured in their own views and dismissive of differing viewpoints (I encouraged my students to “channel their inner alpha male” as they were writing). The payoff, I hope, is that my students will recognize that such ideological influences exist in and affect a variety of forms of discourse—usually more subtle than these fellows but always present in some form or another.

One first-year student stopped by my office at the end of the semester to say how much he enjoyed doing this assignment because it gave him the opportunity to interject his creative voice into an analytical writing task. (Incidentally, his was one of the many papers that made me laugh as I was reading it.) In the way that he’d been asked to carry out analyses in other classes, he felt that he’d been forced to be too “bland” in his writing. This confirmed for me that the assignment is a keeper: it’s different, it’s fun, and it has enough flexibility built into it to play to students’ individual strengths, while still cultivating the critical reading, thinking, and analytical skills that should be required at the college level.

Dr. Sarah E. Rollens is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Rhodes College.

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