Category Archives: Teaching the History of Religion

“Diversity in Early Christianity” and “Founders of Christianity” course outlines now up

As September quickly approaches, I have now prepared and uploaded two course outlines for this year. One course is my second year introduction to early Christian literature, Founders of Christianity. The other is a fourth year seminar on Diversity in Early Christianity (I-II CE). In both cases, I am trying to integrate the internet more fully into the course (in the form of readings, previous blog posts, and other such things). Let me know what you think by posting a comment.

In the seminar, the first term focuses on mapping out the range of Christian groups in Asia Minor in the first century or so. The second term focuses on groups of the second century as reflected in the Apocrypha and gnostic literature, including Ebionites, Marcionites, and the various groups often called “gnostic”. Some of my blog postings this year will therefore hearken back to my earlier series on Christian Apocrypha and “gnosticism”. This Fall, my colleague Tony C-B here at York U. is teaching a specialized one-term course on the New Testament Apocrypha which approaches things in a more genre focused way.

Using the internet for courses

I may be somewhat behind the times, but this past Fall term was the first time I more extensively made use of my website in connection with courses. I thought I’d post some of my thoughts on this process here.

Since I had begun the website itself in 2003 (, I had my course outlines (syllabi) online (on my courses page). When I started the blog in 2005, I began to make use of my blog entries to expand upon materials from the courses I was teaching (including having a “series” related to each course: NT series, Christian Apocrypha series, Medieval Christianity and Reformations series, etc.). My aim there was to help students out on key issues while also writing in a way that would (hopefully) be exciting, or at least of interest, to others including my general readership as well (a course like The History of Satan made this a possible task).

This past term I have now added my “discussion notes” (namely what used to be overheads), handouts I have put together, and some additional readings (when in the public domain), all in connection with my “Founders of Christianity” course here at York (so far we’ve dealt with Paul and deutero-Pauline literature). I have developed the course notes in a way that now includes links to specific online materials within the notes themselves, as well as general links to other websites on the issue of the week (as I work through the course). You can see this whole set up and browse around to see what I’ve done by going to my courses page. I will be continuing this into the Winter term of this course and also taking a similar approach with my course beginning in January on “Visions of the End: Early Jewish and Christian Apocalypticism.”

Overall, I have found this to be quite successful. I was hesitant about posting my course notes on the web because I feared this might give some students the impression that they didn’t need to show up at class. Since I don’t like my students to fail miserably (or even to fail at all) I gave repeated warnings about the need to attend class if they wanted to pass. Whether those warnings have worked, only time will tell, but it seems like there is a normal turn-out for class discussions and the usual number of people have generally done well on the test and assignments.

I think this new set-up was of some help to the students, particularly in preparing for their end-of-term test. The fact that suddenly in December my website exceeded its bandwidth, with a resulting overload and temporary shut-down suggests that the students were going back to the discussion notes and to the blog entries to help them get the broader picture and remind themselves of what we had learned.

I have also found the more integrated use of the web useful in my own course preparations (with the pay-off in time savings coming in future years). Although I have a reputation of being quite organized, there are many times when I simply cannot find my lecture notes for this or that lecture, or when I cannot locate some ancient text that I had photocopied to use in class. Now I find such texts online and create a link within my discussion notes. So everything is right there on the web for me to use in the class itself regardless of what else happens, and the students too can check them out after class (assuming some level of motivation). So when I’m talking about Josephus’ portrayal of first century Judea leading up to the revolt, I can quickly click on a link to the passage that deals with Pilate and the standards, or when I’m talking about Pliny the Younger’s dealings with followers of Jesus in Pontus, I can quickly show and read them a portion of his correspondence. The pay-off in terms of time saved will come later, of course, and there is a danger of dead links that will need to be sifted out each year. But, overall, I think this is going to be good for both my students and myself. Perhaps I’ll have another update on progress at the end of the Winter term.

Breaking news: Early Christians had no New Testament (NT 2.1)

In teaching early Christianity in a university setting, there are a number of assumptions and views that need to be corrected or dismantled in order to clear the way for students to make better sense of these ancient documents. Something that does not often occur to students and which needs to be highlighted again and again is that Christians of the first three centuries (and even beyond) did not have a New Testament! You heard me.

They did have what they considered scriptures, namely the Jewish writings known as the Law and the Prophets, but the process that led to the collection of writings or canon we now know as the “New Testament” was a long one. (Obviously the notion of the Jewish scriptures being the “Old Testament” would have to await the existence of the “New” one). See Mark Goodacre’s list of links to online resources relating to canon for further discussions. In fact, the earliest evidence we have of any church body establishing a list of authoritative Christian books that coincides exactly with the 27 books now in the New Testament was in 393 CE. Even that emerged out of a local meeting of church authorities in North Africa rather than some “universal” decision that was implemented in some way.

The process that led to the collection of writings that were considered authoritative as scripture, namely the canon, was a long one which I will not detail here, except to note that early on Christians were collecting and using Christian writings of various sorts. Sometimes one community used the same writings as another community, but seldom did everyone agree which ones should be considered “scripture”, if they considered this issue at all. In some cases writings accepted by one community could be utterly rejected as “heretical” by another, as was the case with many “gnostic” writings. The process of choosing the writings that were considered canon and excluding certain other documents was, in some ways, the triumph of one Christian view over another. To provide another example, in the mid-second century Marcion of Sinope had clear ideas of what he would include in an authoritative collection, including the Gospel of Luke and certain letters of Paul, but he did so in a way that tried to excise any passages that seemed to equate the Jewish God with the God who sent Jesus (he thought there were two gods involved).

Others disagreed with Marcion, although some began to agree that it was worthwhile thinking about defining which writings were authoritative. One early list of writings that has survived, known as the Muratorian canon (perhaps from around 200 CE), happens to largely coincide with the books that were later included in the New Testament. But other Christians at this time would make a different list nonetheless, and even the Muratorian canon mentions an Apocalypse of Peter (perhaps the same one available here) which some held to be authoritative but which did not ultimately make it into the New Testament. And the issue of including or excluding the Apocalypse of John, also known as Revelation, continued to be hotly debated into the fourth century, for instance.

Rather than get further into the long and complicated history behind the formation of the canon of scripture, here I wanted to briefly mention one important implication of the non-existence of the New Testament in the first centuries. In particular, the lack of any established, authoritative collection of writings and the variations in the writings used by different Christian groups reflected and further facilitated the continuation of variety or diversity among early Christians. And when there were differences of opinion regarding belief or practice among these diverse Christian groups, there was no set of early Christian writings that everyone could agree was the measure (the meaning of the word “canon” is “measure” or “rule”) or authority to settle disputes regarding what belief or practice was right or wrong.

This means that the modern student of early Christianity should not assume that the views expressed in any one writing are somehow representative of all early Christian views. It also means that we should refrain from solving the dilemnas encountered in studying one early Christian writing by turning to another by a different author, as though they are all the same. Finally, we should consider the writings in the New Testament within the broader context of early Christian literature that did not make it in, and give each its due.

For more on the diversity of early Christianity, see my series on the Christian Apocrypha and “Gnosticism”. For more on the development of the canon, see the resources mentioned on NTGateway.