Origins of Christianity, part 2 – Jesus Adherents as Minorities in the Diaspora (HUMA 3422; Winter 2020)

General Information: Philip Harland (pharland-at-yorku-dot-ca).  Meetings: Thursdays 4-7pm (DB 0013).  Office hour in Vanier 248: Thursdays 2:30-3:30 or by appointment.

Course Description and Aims: This course explores Christian origins through writings produced after the first generation of the movement (after the death of Paul around 64 CE). Ranging across a variety of types of literature (in and beyond the New Testament), including gospels, we will explore the ways in which Jesus adherents expressed their self-understandings and navigated experiences of living as minorities within local communities under Roman imperial rule in a diaspora context.   In the process, we will consider the diversity of groups and focus on how diverse followers of Jesus expressed their relationship to varied dimensions of both Israelite or Judean and Greco-Roman culture.  Students will gain some control of both the content of early texts and the environment in which the Jesus movements were born, as well as an ability to analyze primary materials from an historical perspective.  We will also seek to develop students’ critical skills, including skills of argumentation, written presentation and verbal presentation.

Required Readings

  • Bible in a modern translation: e.g. NRSV, RSV, NEB, Jerusalem Bible (not King James)
  • Maia Kotrosits, Rethinking Early Christian Identity: Affect, Violence, and Belonging (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015).  (Available in York University bookstore).
  • Linked items under “readings” in the course outline below (please print all pdfs, read and study them, and bring them to class for discussion)

Course Requirements and Evaluation (see end of syllabus for full assignment descriptions)

  • Class attendance, participation: 15%
  • Quizzes – Beginning of class surprise quizzes on weekly readings: 10%
  • Academic integrity tutorial and test: link. Students must print out and hand in perfect test results before or with the first assignment (due week 5)
  • Assignment 1 (paper: Analysis of scholarly argument in regard to 1 Peter): 20% (due week 6, Winter term)
  • Assignment 2 (paper: Analysis of primary source): 25% (due week 9, due week 12, Winter term)
  • In-class final test: 30% (week 11, Winter term)
    • Total: 100%


 ***Important things to know***

  • Readings and participation: Read and study materials BEFORE class meetings.
  • Penalties for lateness: All assignments are due at the beginning of class. Late submissions will be penalized by one full grade (e.g. from a B to a C) and a further grade for each additional day beyond the due date.
  • Academic honesty and plagiarism policies: Absolutely no form of plagiarism will be tolerated. Study our policies at: link and link.
  • Cell-phones, laptops, and other devices: All cell-phones and other hand-held devices must be completely turned off and remain unused during class. Laptops are permitted for note-taking only.


Discussion outline

Week 1 (Jan 9): Groups of Jesus adherents as off-shoots of Israelite or Judean culture and as minorities in the Mediterranean diaspora

  • Readings: Epistle to Diognetos, especially chapter 5 (link); Butler, “Defining Diaspora, Refining a Discourse” (link) — distributed in class

Week 2 (Jan 16): Problematizing “Christian identity” – Ignatius’ letters

  • Readings: Ignatius, Selected Letters to the Magnesians, Romans, Philadelphians and Smyrneans (link); Letter of Pliny the governor to Trajan the emperor, ca. 110 CE (link); Kotrosits, introduction and chapters 1 and 2

Week 3 (Jan 23): Jesus adherents in diaspora – 1 Peter

  • Readings: 1 Peter (in Bible); Letter of Pliny the governor to Trajan the emperor, ca. 110 CE (link); Elliott, “1 Peter, Its Situation and Strategy: A Discussion with David Balch” (link); Balch, “Hellenization / Acculturation in 1 Peter” (link)

Week 4 (Jan 30): From Jerusalem to Rome – Acts of the Apostles, part 1

  • Readings: Acts of the Apostles, chapters 1-3, 8-9, 13-28 (in Bible); Kotrosits, chapter 3

Week 5 (Feb 6): From Jerusalem to Rome – Acts of the Apostles, part 2

  • Readings:  Same as previous week with a focus on the Judean-ness of the Jesus movement

Week 6 (Feb 13): Diaspora or colonial experience in Platonic philosophical terms – Secret Revelation (or: Book) of John

  • Readings: Secret Book according to John (link); Kotrosits, chapter 4

*Assignment 1 with print-out of academic integrity quiz due week 6 at the beginning of class*

**Feb 15-21 – Reading week*

Week 7 (Feb 27): Responses to Roman imperialism and the destruction of the temple – John’s Apocalypse

  • Readings: John’s Apocalypse / Revelation, 1-3, 12-21 (in Bible);  Harland, “Imperial Cults, Persecution, and the Apocalypse of John” (link)

Week 8 (March 5): “The Judeans” and synagogues in the Gospel of John

  • Readings: Gospel of John (in Bible); Kotrosits, chapter 5

Week 9 (March 12): Diaspora violence and trauma in the Gospel of Truth

  • Readings: Gospel of Truth (link); Kotrosits, chapters 6-7 and conclusion

*Assignment 2 due in class* (now due week 12)

Week 10 (March 19):  NEW – Displacement in the Book of Hebrews and the portrayal of Jesus as high priest

  • Lecture in the form of two podcast episodes (about 30 or so minutes each):
    • Podcast 2.10: Hebrews’ Portrait of Jesus – Highpriest Melchizedek, part 1 (link)
    • Podcast 2.11: Hebrews’ Portrait of Jesus – Highpriest Melchizedek, part 2 (link)
  • Readings: Hebrews (in Bible); Granerød, “Melchizedek in Hebrews 7” (link); Kotrosits, chapter 5 (look at it again)
  • Note: Students who wish to have a replacement assignment for missed or failed quizzes may do a one page historical analysis of Hebrews portrait of Jesus as Melchizedek (pass or fail, submitted as email attachment ON THE SAME DAY AS THE COURSE)

Fisher Rare Book LIbrary (cancelled due to corona and no face to face meetings.  See new alternative reading above)

Week 11 (March 26): Test distributed by email at 4pm on Thursday and returned to prof by 6:30 pm the same day as an email attachment

Week 12 (April 2): Documentary – Apocalypse! (link)

  • Link to documentary
  • Note: Students who wish to have a replacement assignment for missed or failed quizzes may do a one page response to the film (pass or fail), dealing with the historical legacies of John’s Revelation / Apocalypse (submitted as an email attachment ON THE SAME DAY AS A COURSE).

*Assignment 2 due by email attachment by Friday April 3*



Assignment 1 (Analysis of scholarly arguments; 6 pages double-spaced, 12 point font)

  • Step 1: Read and thoroughly study First Peter, paying special attention to how the recipients are described and how the author uses the discourse of diaspora (in the New Testament).  Carefully analyze the scholarly arguments regarding First Peter (and the situation of the people it addresses) as found in Kotrosits “historical queerness” chapter (as required in week 2), Elliott’s article and Balch’s article (as required in week 3). 
  • Step 2: Write an essay in which you explain the differing positions of these three scholars regarding the recipients of First Peter, taking sides in the debate on how to interpret and explain First Peter and the situation of the people it addresses.

Assignment 2 (Analysis of an ancient source; 6 pages double-spaced, 12 point font)

  • Step 1:  Thoroughly study John’s Apocalypse (also known as Revelation in the New Testament).  For some background but not to become overly dependent on others, read Kotrosit’s chapter 7 (Returning to Rome) and Harland’s article (from week 6).
  • Step 2: Write an essay in which you carefully analyze this ancient source (John’s Apocalypse) from an historical perspective, explaining how we can understand important elements of the work as a response to Roman imperialism in a Judean or Israelite diaspora context.  Particularly pertinent will be chapters 1-3 and 12-22.

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