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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive University Religion Departments and Teaching about the Bible in Public High Schools: A Report from Florida


THE FLORIDA STATEUNIVERSITY (FSU) ReligionDepartment became involved in theissue of teaching about the Bible in publicschools in the Winter of 2000, when theFlorida Department of Education asked usto review the guidelines for two coursesthat were part of the state curriculum: BibleHistory: Old Testament and Bible History:New Testament. There have been approvedBible courses in the Florida public schoolsfor many years, but their constitutionalityhad been recently challenged by two events:a bitterly divisive battle in Lee County overthe appropriate Bible curriculum to beadopted, and a report from the People forthe American Way, The Good Book TaughtWrong: "Bible History" Classes in Florida'sPublic Schools. This report claimed therewere significant constitutional problemswith the Bible courses in all the school districtsin which they were being taught.

The Lee County BibleCurriculum

In March, 1996, the Lee County SchoolBoard (Ft. Myers) authorized the teachingof a two-semester Bible history sequence,Bible History: Old Testament, and BibleHistory: New Testament. Both courses werelisted in the state curriculum as social studieselective courses. Since the state providedonly brief general guidelines and specificcurriculum decisions were left to localschool boards, a 15 member "BibleCurriculum Committee" was formed todevelop a curriculum to be submitted to avote of the five member School Board.

After a year and a half of contentious committeemeetings focusing on both legal andcontent issues, the school board voted 3-2in August, 1997, to adopt a Bible History I(Old Testament) curriculum. A BibleHistory II (New Testament) curriculumwas adopted by the same margin inOctober. The first course was scheduled tobegin in January, 1998, and the second inMarch. Opponents of the two courses,among whom were the ACLU and thePeople for the American Way, then suedthe school board in Federal District Court,seeking a preliminary injunction to keepthe courses from being taught. Amongthose supporting the school board were theconservative American Center for Law andJustice, and the National Council on BibleCurriculum in Public Schools.

The judged ruled in January that the OldTestament course could be offered, butshould be monitored closely (even taped)by the plaintiffs to insure that it be "taughtin a permissibly objective manner" and notas a "veiled attempt to promoteChristianity in the guise of teaching history."1 She granted the injunction against theteaching of the New Testament course,which, against the advice of the schoolboard's attorney, was based entirely on thecurriculum of the National Council onBible Curriculum in Public Schools. Theboard agreed to settle the case by adoptinga curriculum for both courses based on anintroductory college-level textbook.2 Theschool district required those planning toteach the course to take an intensive coursegiven by Mitchell Reddish, of StetsonUniversity —one of the authors of thetextbook.

People for theAmerican Way:"The Good BookTaught Wrong"

The request to review the guidelines for theBible History courses came to our departmentchair, John Kelsay, from the FloridaDepartment of Education in January,2000, shortly after the People for theAmerican Way released a 60 page reportseverely critical of the way Bible Historycourses were being taught throughout thestate.

The report, entitled The Good Book TaughtWrong: "Bible History" Classes in FloridaPublic Schools,3 was based on instructionalmaterials obtained under the Florida PublicRecords Act from 14 of the 15 school districtsthat had taught one or both of theBible History courses during the academicyears 1996-97, 1997-98, and 1998-1999.The request included, "lesson plans, exams,reading lists and assignments, as well asidentification of all books, videos and similarinstructional materials, and everythingelse given to or shown to students"4

The report argued that, "the courses areframed and taught from Christian perspectives";"the Bible is used as a history textbook";"students are assumed to beChristian and the Bible is taught accordingly";"the Bible is used to promote Christianfaith formation and religious values andlessons"; and "Sunday school and other religioustraining exercises are used to indoctrinatestudents in Bible content"5

Highlighted in the report and in the presscoverage of its release were such exam questionsas, "If you had a Jewish friend whowanted to know if Jesus might be theexpectant [sic] Messiah, which book [of theGospels] would you give him?" and, "Whyis it hard for a non-Christian to understandthings about God?"6 Perhaps the item thatreceived the most public attention was aquestion and answer from a lesson plan onJohn 8: "Who, according to Jesus, is thefather of the Jews? The devil."7

While recognizing the appropriateness ofteaching about the Bible from a non-sectarianperspective, especially as a work of literatureand in the context of comparativereligion classes, the report recommendedthe removal of both Bible History coursesfrom the state-approved course list.8

Developing NewGuidelines

Citing state statutes that permit school districtsto offer courses dealing with the"objective study of the Bible and religion,"9the General Counsel for the Department ofEducation asked the FSU ReligionDepartment to review and make suggestionsregarding "the title, subject area andsubstantive content" of the 1992 statecourse descriptions that serve as the guidelinesfor the courses developed by individualschool districts.

The task was assigned to my colleagueShannon Burkes and me, the two membersof the department who have the primaryresponsibility for teaching our introductoryBible courses. Robert Spivey, a formerReligion Department chair, Dean of Artsand Sciences, and Executive Director of theAmerican Academy of Religion, who hadrecently returned to the FSU administration,joined us. He brought his expertise asthe co-author of a widely used NewTestament textbook, and as a former directorof a national project for teaching aboutreligion in the public schools, which wasdeveloped at FSU in the early '70s.

At our first of several meetings with representativesfrom the Department ofEducation, there was general agreementthat the 1992 curriculum frameworksneeded revision. The guidelines for thetwo courses were brief and general, consistingof a single-sentence coursedescription and short lists of contentsand "intended outcomes." The primaryemphasis on "understanding the Bible asa historical document" demanded moretraining than the teachers were likely tohave. To the extent that this was interpretedas evaluating the historicity of thebiblical accounts ("archaeological evidenceand Biblical studies" is listedamong the short list of topics for bothcourses), it introduced one of the mostcomplex and debated aspects of contemporarybiblical scholarship: one whichcould easily lead to attempts to prove ordisprove particular religious claims.

We quickly agreed that emphasizing literaryrather than historical issues made the mostsense for high school teachers and students.Such a suggestion was also made in thereport of the People for the American Way,and in The Bible and Public Schools: A FirstAmendment Guide, a pamphlet publishedby the National Bible Association and theFirst Amendment Center and endorsed bya wide range of organizations from a varietyof perspectives(including Council onIslamic Education, Anti-DefamationLeague, National Association ofEvangelicals, the Christian Legal Society,the People for the American WayFoundation).10 What neither of these documentspoints out, however, is that a focuson literary analysis also has the advantage ofreflecting the most recent developments incontemporary biblical scholarship.

While recommending a focus on literaryanalysis, we did not believe that biblical literaturecould or should be taught in isolationfrom history. Questions of date andauthorship of the documents, the appearanceof historical events described in somany biblical narratives and assumed in somuch biblical poetry, and the history of theinterpretation of the text, beginning withthe history of the text, canon, and translations,are all topics that cannot be avoidedby even mildly curious and casual readers.

The guidelines we developed, therefore,while clearly emphasizing literary questions,also include historical issues surroundingthe understanding of the literature. Theyquite definitely and intentionally do notinclude evaluation of the historicity of specificevents, however.11

In order to signal the move from a morehistorical to a more literary approach, werecommended that the subject area bemoved from social studies to humanities.While language arts would also have been apossible area for the Bible courses, wethought that placing them in the humanitiesarea would suggest the interdisciplinarynature of such a course, which would bringin material and approaches from historyand the fine arts as well as literature.

The name of the courses was controversial,as "Old Testament" and "New Testament"were clearly Christian categories. "HebrewBible," or "Hebrew Scripture" was not preciseeither, since that would not include theApocrypha/Deuterocanonical Books. Oursuggestion that courses be designated BibleI: Literature of Ancient Israel, and Bible II:Literature of Early Christianity, was evidentlyseen as too clumsy or pedantic, so theDepartment of Education decided to usesimply Introduction to the Bible I, andIntroduction to the Bible II.

Announcement ofNew Guidelines

Tom Gallagher, the then Commissionerof Education, announced the newguidelines at a press conference onMarch, 16, 2000. Pointing to a largechart listing the concerns and thespecific response by the Department ofEducation (e.g. "taught as history"/"teachas humanities"), he stated, "By law, schooldistricts have the right to teach the objectivestudy of the Bible. The Departmenthas taken steps to ensure that right." Thelast of the four major concerns listed was"lack of teacher training," to which theresponse was the creation of a "TechnicalAssistance Summer Institute."

Summer Institutes

Clearly, the greatest problem associatedwith teaching about the Bible in the publicschools is the lack of teachers trained inthe academic study of the Bible. The planto provide summer institutes is at best astop-gap measure, while specific standardsare being established which must includeat least some work in Bible at the Collegelevel. While we suggested that the firstsummer be spent planning a full-scaleinstitute for the next summer, theDepartment of Education wanted someteacher training in both legal and contentissues to be offered during the summer of2000. The FSU Religion Department,Department of Educational Leadership,and Center for Professional Development,together with the Florida Department ofEducation offered a two-day "TechnicalAssistance Workshop" for 30 teachers andadministrators in July.

July 13-14, 2000

The first day of the institute was taken upwith an overview of the teaching of Biblein Florida. A panel of administrators discussedissues connected with the implementationof Bible courses. A panel oflegal experts was organized by JosephBeckham, chair of the FSU Departmentof Educational Leadership and the coauthorof A Legal Guide for FloridaTeachers.12 The panel on legal issuesincluded a lengthy discussion of the LeeCounty case, presented by Keith Martin,the lawyer for the School Board, who duringthe law suit found himself in theuncomfortable position of defending theactions of the Board that had rejected hisadvice on a number of key issues.

Shannon Burkes and I led an informaldiscussion with the teachers on theevening of the first day, and spent theentire second day presenting as muchmaterial as we could. For the evening session,we planned to moderate a discussionin which the teachers would exchangeinformation about what had and had notworked in the classroom. This would alsogive us an opportunity to learn about theirown training, interests, and needs.

It quickly became apparent that a numberof the teachers were hesitant to talk freelyabout their experiences in the classroombecause they believed that they had beenunfairly maligned by the report from thePeople for the American Way, and not supportedby the state Department ofEducation. They felt that they had workedhard to develop a non-sectarian course, thatthe report gave them no credit for this, andunfairly used a few egregious examples topaint all of them as religious bigots.

One teacher — one of the very few aboutwhom the report said anything positive —was particularly incensed. She felt she hadspent an inordinate amount of time developingan academically responsible Bibleelective course (including attending seminarsand lecture tours sponsored by theBiblical Archaeology Society), and wasrewarded with finding herself criticized inthe report and harassed by reporters.

She had a point. The report cites herattempt to distinguish two aspects of BibleHistory as "the history that happened duringBible times" and "the history of howwe got the Bible," and then suggests thatthe first aspect "appears to contravene theschool district's guideline that 'the Biblewill not be referred to as a factual document.'"She is also criticized for a testquestion asking for identification of theman who, "actually led the Jewish peopleinto the Promised Land." The objectionwas evidently on the grounds that thisassumes the historical accuracy of the text.Similarly, course materials that containsuch "Sunday school type tasks" as askingstudents to list the 27 books of the NewTestament in correct order are cited.13 Thisis part of a general criticism that runsthroughout the report, that any "exercisesthat emphasize rote memorization ratherthan critical thinking or analysis skills" areindicative of a Sunday school approachand are therefore inappropriate.14

While the report sometimes does go toofar in pressing its case, it should not beforgotten that the People for the AmericanWay Foundation has played an invaluablerole in carefully monitoring for inappropriateand unconstitutional materials andpractices, and supplying the legal resourcesto prevent abuses. The interpretation ofthe data in the report should not, ofcourse, be accepted uncritically. At thesame time, without the report, it is notclear how long it would have taken beforethe state of Florida recognized the problemswith the way Bible History classeswere being taught.

As soon as the teachers and administratorsrealized that we were there to help themrather than gather evidence against them,they opened up considerably. Throughoutthe second day, they remained interestedand excited by the discussion of the methodsof contemporary Biblical studies andtheir application to specific texts.

June 12-15, 2001

The second summer institute, for whichCorrine Patton (University of St.Thomas), and I were the primary instructors,featured only a half day of discussionof legal issues, including a case studyapproach led by Joseph Beckham. Threefull days and evenings were devoted toissues connected with the content of thecourses. As in the first summer program,our goal was not simply to present materialthe teachers could take directly into theclassroom, but to provide background thatwould give them a deeper understandingof the methods and results of historical/literarycriticism of the Bible. While the firstinstitute drew administrators and teachers,the second had almost entirely teachers.Five teachers and one administrator whoattended the first session participated inthe second as well.

With more time we were able to expandour treatment of canon, text, and translationby including exercises comparing theendings of Mark, and different translationsof several Psalms. Our surveys of AncientNear Eastern, Jewish, and Graeco-Romanliterature could also devote more time tolooking at primary texts.

As was the case with the first summer'sprogram, we decided to focus on a limitednumber of Biblical texts in order to illustratethe variety of methods that can beused in approaching the material. In summer2000, Shannon Burkes had discussedliterary approaches to the David narratives.In summer 2001, Corrine Pattonused the Abraham cycle to illustrate narrativeapproaches and social history. One ofthe liveliest sessions—which we did notpredict —was the group exercise she ledfocusing on identifying prophetic forms inAmos. Not only did the teachers seem toenjoy learning about the importance oftaking into account literary forms andgenres in understanding biblical poetry,they also thought the exercise would workwell in their own classrooms. The last sectionwas devoted to the Hebrew Biblefocused on Genesis 1-3, and provided anopportunity to look at a number of traditionalreligious and modern academicapproaches to a text.

While I spent part of the last day suggestingsome ways of approaching Paul,almost all of the discussion of NewTestament texts was devoted to theSynoptic Gospels. We spent half a day ona literary analysis of the Gospel of Mark,with some discussion of how an understandingof the first-century context, especiallypersecution and apocalypticism,could contribute to a fuller appreciation ofthe literary structure and religious themesof the text. During the last session, Iworked through the Synoptic Problemwith them, stressing both the importanceof careful observation and collection ofdata, and the fact that the same data havebeen used since antiquity to support anumber of different hypotheses. I alsoemphasized that, for the students, themain purpose of careful comparison ofpassages from the Synoptic Gospels is notto gain an understanding of the Synopticproblem, but to highlight the distinctiveliterary techniques and religious themes ofeach gospel.

When the Department of Education firstraised the topic of the summer institutes, Ihad significant doubts. I was concernedthat they would prove to be a superficialsubstitute for the sort of minimal trainingthat should be required of anyone teachingBible in the public schools. Reflectingon the past two summer institutes, however,I have a much more positive view ofwhat they can accomplish. Nothing, ofcourse, can substitute for a series ofsemester-long advanced undergraduateand graduate courses. A few of the teachersdid have that sort of training. Whilemost did not, they still were able to learnin a few intense days, much more aboutthe methods and substantive issues than Iwould have thought possible. A numberof factors could explain this. We wereworking with a self-selected group whohad made the decision to attend the institutebecause they recognized what theycould gain from interaction with biblicalscholars. They were highly motivated tolearn as much as possible, both to satisfytheir intellectual curiosity and to acquirethe analytical skills and information tobring to the classroom.

While I am confident that most of theteachers who attended the institute wantedto teach the Bible courses because oftheir importance to them personally, all ofthem appeared genuinely concerned toteach in a non-sectarian, academicallyrespectable, and fully constitutional way.In the discussions of legal issues, theywanted as many specific guidelines as possible,and consistently wanted to err in thedirection of caution. As a whole, the twogroups were very impressive. The instituteshave been among the most satisfyingteaching experiences I have had in my 26years teaching New Testament at FSU.

I have no way of knowing how typical theparticipants in the institutes were of thoseteaching the Bible courses. The reportfrom the People for the American Wayprovides substantial evidence that therewere many less sensitive and less competentteachers. Perhaps if the institutes continueand are required by the state, at leastfor those who have not done college-levelwork in the area, I will get a more representativesample and be in a better positionto evaluate whether this experimentcan work.

Clearly, the Bible will continue to be taughtin public schools and must continue to bemonitored carefully by organizations such asthe People for the American Way. The GoodBook Taught Wrong, with all of its faults,should be read by everyone dealing with thetopic. The Bible and the Public Schools: AFirst Amendment Guide provides a wonderfullyclear starting point for any discussionof why and how a Bible course should betaught in the public schools.

What has been missing in the current discussion,however, is the participation ofbiblical scholars. Though not alwaysfamiliar with the special problems associatedwith high school introduction toBible courses, we have for many yearsbeen thinking about how to introducenon-sectarian analysis of the Bible to studentsfrom a variety of backgrounds inpublic educational institutions. For thoseactually engaged in teaching about theBible in public institutions, programmaticstatements and legal advice about how theBible should or should not be taught areof limited value. The immediate questionsare not how to teach about the Bible ingeneral, but how to present specific topicsin an interesting and appropriate way. It ishere that biblical scholars are uniquelyqualified, both by their academic trainingand by their teaching experience, to contributeto the discussion.

The following concluding reflections onseveral key questions addressed in bothThe Bible in Public Schools: A FirstAmendment Guide and The Good BookTaught Wrong are meant to serve as examplesof how the perspective of those whospend their careers teaching Bible in collegesand universities might be helpful tothose thinking about the best way to teachthe Bible in public schools.

Which Bible?

Among the most prominent problemsidentified in the content of public schoolBible courses are questions of canon,translations, and use of the term, "OldTestament." Properly handled, however,these can be among the least controversialtopics in the course. Unlike questions ofdate, authorship, historical reconstruction,theological emphases, and literary analysis,they can be addressed using a straightforwarddescriptive approach that can be easilyaccessible to high school students.

A survey of the most important documentsin the history of canon formation,and a description and comparison of thecanons of contemporary communities,should be presented in the first unit ofany Bible class. In addition, selections ofliterature not considered canonical by Jewsand Protestants should be read either inconnection with the discussion of canonor, perhaps better, discussed along withworks of similar genre later in the course.

Although it might, at first glance, seem toinvolve overly complicated and religiouslycontroversial questions, many aspects oftextual criticism can be easily and appropriatelytreated in high school. Looking atpictures of ancient and medievalmanuscripts, comparing major textualvariants such as the endings of Mark, andlearning about the Dead Sea Scrolls can beinteresting class projects, for which thereare abundant and inexpensive video andWeb resources.

The question of which translation to useneed not be as controversial as most ofthose writing on this subject seem tothink. Comparison of a variety of translationsis an obvious and essential class project,simplified considerably by Webresources. As long as students have discussedquestions of canon and text, haveunderstood the fact that the content andorder of the books differ among variouscommunities, and have compared thesame selections from different translations,there need not be a great problem if oneparticular translation is used by most students.After all, it is differences in translationphilosophy (e.g. "dynamic equivalence"versus "formal equivalence" translations),rather than in theology thataccount for all but a very few of the differencesamong modern translations.

The Bible and Public Schools: A FirstAmendment Guide suggests that, "a biblicalsource book that includes key texts of eachof the major Bibles or an anthology of varioustranslations" might be better thanadopting one particular Bible.15 While sucha book would be a valuable resource, theselection process, in effect, creates anothercanon. Perhaps more significantly, it alsolimits the possibility of the sort of wideranging comparison among texts from differentparts of the Bible that is essential forany literary or historiographic analysis.

It is easier to recognize the problem withthe use of the term "Old Testament," thanit is to come up with a convenient alternative.";Hebrew Bible," "Jewish Scriptures,"and "Tanakh" are all problematic in thatthey exclude the Apocrypha, orDeuterocanonical books. The importantpoint is to explain the issue and introducethe terms used by the different communities,rather than to insist that only oneterm be used.

Whose Interpretation?

The Bible in Public Schools: A FirstAmendment Guide sensibly suggests that,"[b]ecause there are many ways to interpretthe Bible —religious and secular—public school teachers should expose studentsto a variety of interpretations"Implementing the suggestion, however,can be problematic. As the document goeson to say, this is especially fraught if teachers,after allowing "students to encounterthe text directly ... draw on the resourcesof different religious and secular interpretativetraditions for understanding it."16

Most public school teachers and, in fact,many biblical scholars, are not adequatelyprepared to explain how various religioustraditions might interpret a biblical text.Generalizing about "Jewish" or "Catholic"interpretations of particular passages, forexample, could easily lead to a distortedimpression and encourage students toattack or defend an interpretation basedon religious commitments. I found particularlyhelpful the suggestion my colleagueCorrine Patton made during last summer'sinstitute. She proposed that instead ofreferring to Catholic, Orthodox,Protestant, or Jewish interpretations,teachers should introduce the history ofthe biblical interpretation by using specificexamples and attributing them to specificindividuals or texts. A comparative religionclass seems to be a much better placefor an extensive discussion of how differenttraditions might interpret the Bible,since the interpretation can be placedwithin the context of particular communities'beliefs, practices and institutions.

Literary and HistoricalApproaches

While historical background, history ofinterpretation and the role the Bible hasplayed in Western culture should be discussedat some point, surely the main goalof a Bible course should be to read thetext closely and carefully. For this, literaryanalysis offers the best approach.Discussions of plot, characterization,generic conventions, and so on, can providea critical distance that allows studentsfrom a number of different religious ornon-religious perspectives to read the texttogether. The introduction of some historicalcontext, however, is particularly helpfulin encouraging students to imaginehow ancient Israelites or early Christiansmight have read the text. Such a contextualreading also offers the possibility of acritical distance that does not demand orprivilege specific religious commitments.Asking what a particular New Testamenttext might have meant to first-centuryChristians is one way of providing equalinterpretive access to Christian and non-Christian students alike.

While discussion of the historicity of particularevents might easily be avoided byfocusing on literary structures and therange of meanings the text might have hadfor particular communities, at some pointquestions of date, authorship, and sourcesare bound to arise. Here it is important toprovide students with a range of opinionsand some sense of the evidence on whichthey are based. Dogmatic assertionsshould be avoided, not only because theymight offend the religious sensibilities ofsome students, but also because the evidencefor most of these questions is hardlyconclusive, and the tools for evaluating theevidence are not easily accessible to highschool students or their teachers.

1 Gibson v. Lee County School Board, 1 F. Supp. 2d1434 (M.D. Fla. 1998).

2 Beasley, James R., Clyde E. Fant, E. Earl Joiner,Donald W. Musser, and Mitchell G. Reddish. AnIntroduction to the Bible. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1991).

3 Schaeffer, Judith E., and Elliot M. Mincberg. TheGood Book Taught Wrong: ‘Bible History’ Classes inFlorida's Public Schools. (Washington: People for theAmerican Way Foundation, January 2000). Also

4 Schaeffer and Mincberg, The Good Book, 4.

5 Ibid., 4-11.

6 Ibid., 8.

7 Ibid., 9

8 Ibid., 12-13.

9 233.0612, F.S. and 233.062, F.S.

10 The Bible and Public Schools: A First AmendmentGuide (Nashville: First Amendment Center, 1999).For online text and related information about thedocument, see

11 The complete course descriptions and guidelinesare available at (Introduction to theBible I), and (Introduction to theBible II).

12 This volume includes the chapter, "ReligiousNeutrality and Free Exercise of Religion."

13 Schaeffer and Mincberg, The Good Book, 31-32.

14 Ibid., 1; cf. 11-12. Another area where the reportseems problematic is in its criticism of the use ofbooks published by presses with some religious connection,including not just Paulist, Zondervan,Hendrickson, and Eerdmans, but HarperSanFrancisco,whose Web site states that it publishes, “Inspiredbooks for mind, body and soul” (57).

15 The Bible and Public Schools, 6.

16 Ibid.

Previously published in Religious Studies News: AAR Edition and used by permission. © American Academy of Religion 2002

Citation: David Levenson, " University Religion Departments and Teaching about the Bible in Public High Schools: A Report from Florida," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Nov 2003]. Online:


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