Course Outline for Founders of Christianity (HUMA 2830; version A; 2015-2016)

General Information

  • Philip Harland (pharland – at – yorku – dot – ca), office hours (Vanier 248): Wednesdays 2:30-3:30 pm, or by appointment.  Class: Thursdays in Health, Nursing and Environmental Studies (HNE) 033

Course Description and Aims

This course explores the origins of movements devoted to Jesus (early Christianity) as reflected in literature of the first and early second centuries (including the New Testament). We will consider a range of worldviews and practices of groups devoted to Jesus, looking at the transformations which took place as an obscure Judean sect from Galilee made its way into the broader Mediterranean world. We will begin to understand how various devotees of Jesus lived their lives within the broader context of Judean, Greek, and Roman culture. Beginning with the earliest surviving sources, namely Paul’s letters, we will work our way chronologically (with some exceptions) through other early Christian documents, including the Gospels. The methods of history, the social sciences (sociology and anthropology), and literary and rhetorical analysis will further our understanding of key issues. Throughout, we will place our discussions of early Christianity within framework of the ancient Mediterranean world. 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 Textbooks

  • The Harper Collins Study Bible with the Apocryphal / Deuterocanonical Books (NRSV) (or other NRSV, RSV, NEB, or Jerusalem Bible with Apocrypha)
  • Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings.
  • Richard A. Horsley and John S. Hanson, Bandits, Prophets and Messiahs: Popular Movements in the Time of Jesus. Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 1999 [1985] (for Winter term).
  • Readings distributed and designated website materials on course website

Useful Online Resources

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

  • Academic integrity tutorial and test: All students must go through the tutorial and complete the test before the first assignment, achieving a 10/10 (100%) and submitting a hardcopy print-out of the results of their test. Assignment 1 will not be accepted without a completed academic integrity test attached (due week 5, Fall term)
  • Assignment 1 (paper: analysis of primary source [with academic integrity test]): 10% (due week 5, Fall term)
  • Assignment 2 (paper: analysis of primary source): 15% (due week 9, Fall term)
  • Assignment 3 (paper: book review of Horsley): 20% (due week 6, Winter term)
  • In-class test 1: 15% (week 11, Fall term)
  • In-class test 2: 20% (week 11, Winter term)
  • Presentation: 10%
  • Class attendance and ongoing participation: 10%
    • Total: 100%


 ***Important things to know***

  • Readings and participation: Participation and interaction is an important part of the process of learning. For this reason it is essential that you do the readings (especially the primary sources) before attending classes and tutorials for a particular week, coming prepared for discussion.
  • 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. The only exceptions to this standard will be in cases of serious crisis, which should be discussed with the instructor as soon as possible to determine an appropriate solution together. My aim is fairness both to you and to your fellow students.
  • Academic honesty and plagiarism policies: Absolutely no form of plagiarism will be tolerated. All cases will be prosecuted to the fullest. Students are responsible for reading the university policies concerning academic honesty at: There is further information on how to achieve academic integrity at:
  • Cell-phones, laptops, and other devices: All cell-phones and other hand-held devices must be completely turned off and remain unused during class and tutorial times. Laptops are permitted for note-taking only. Any other use of laptops (or other devices) for internet surfing or messaging is a distraction (both to you and to your fellow students) that will not be permitted.


Discussion outline

Unit 1: Orientation

Week 1 (Sept. 10): Early Jesus movements and the academic study of religion

  • Readings:  Ehrman, chs. 1, 2
  • Special topic for discussion: How do we study early Christianity academically?  What does a “Religious Studies” approach entail?  Where did the New Testament come from?

Week 2 (Sept 17): Early Christianity in its context, part 1

  • Readings: 2 Maccabees 4-10 (in the Apocrypha of the Bible); “Diversity in Second Temple Judaism: Josephus on the ‘Sects’ of Judaism” (link); Ehrman, chs. 3-4
  • Special topic for discussion: What sorts of relations were there between Judean and Hellenistic cultures? How diverse and/or united were Judeans of the second temple period? (Discussion of 2 Maccabees and Josephus passages)

Week 3 (Sept 24): Early Christianity in its context, part 2

  • Readings: “Early Christians through Greco-Roman Eyes – Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny the Younger” (link); Ehrman, chs. 3-4 (continued)
  • Special topic for discussion: How were early followers of Jesus viewed by other Greeks and Romans? (Discussion of Suetonius, Tacitus, Pliny)

*Assignment 1 question discussed (see description at end of outline)*

Unit 2: The First Generation (30-65 CE) – Paul and some contemporaries

Week 4 (Oct 1): Introduction to Paul – Sources and methods in studying Paul’s life and letters

  • Readings: Galatians 1:13-2:14 and Acts 15; Philippians 3:1-16; 2 Corinthians 11:7-12:13; Ehrman, ch. 20; “Some Biographical Information about Paul” (link); “Situation and Response: Some questions to ask when reading each of Paul’s letters (A Guide)” (link)
  • Special topic for discussion: What do the two accounts of a meeting in Jerusalem reveal about sources for the study of Paul (the letters and Acts)? How do we approach using these writings as historical sources? What does the autobiographical material in Galatians reveal about Paul? (Discussion of Galatians 1:13-2:14 and Acts 15 in the Bible)

Week 5 (Oct. 8): 1 Thessalonians and the apocalyptic outlook

  • Readings:  1 Thessalonians; Rule of the Community (1QS), Columns I-IV (link; course password required); Ehrman, ch. 21; “Guilds and Associations in Macedonia” (link); “Debates about handwork and support among philosophers” (link)
  • Special topic for discussion: What ideas do we find in both the Dead Sea Scrolls (Rule of the Community) and in Paul’s letter?  What is the apocalyptic worldview of Paul? How does this worldview relate to Judean aspects of Paul’s identities? (Discussion of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11 and Dead Sea Scrolls passage)

*Assignment 1 (paper) due week 5 at the beginning of class [with academic integrity test attached]*

Week 6 (Oct 15): 1 Corinthians – Rocky relations with a divided community and Paul’s ethical instruction

  • Readings: 1 Corinthians; Ehrman, ch. 22;
  • Special topic for discussion: What views did Jesus devotees (and Judeans) have regarding food offered to the Greek and Roman deities (1 Corinthians 8-10; Acts 15:22-35; Didache 6)?  How does this relate to questions of how the Christian groups related to surrounding Greco-Roman society?
  • Presentations: James (Sunday); 2 Peter and Jude (Justin)

Week 7 (Oct. 22): 2 Corinthians, Philippians and Philemon: Christianity and societal conventions (patronage / benefaction, financial support, and slavery)

  • Readings: 2 Corinthians 10-12; Philippians; Philemon; “Paul and Slavery in the Greco-Roman World” (link); Ehrman, ch. 22
  • Special topic for discussion: What are Paul’s views and other early Christian views on slavery? What was slavery like in the Greco-Roman world? (Discussion of Philemon, 1 Corinthians 7:17-24, and “Paul and Slavery in the Greco-Roman World”)
  • Presentations: 1-3 John (Alyssa); Letters of Ignatius (Mariah)

*No classes Oct. 29 – Nov. 1 (Fall reading days)*

Week 8 (Nov 5): Galatians: Paul, the Judean Law, and “Judaizers”

  • Readings:  Galatians; Ehrman, ch. 22
  • Special topic for discussion: Who are Paul’s opponents, who is listening to them, and what is happening among the Galatian followers of Jesus? What are Paul’s views on “works of law” (circumcision) and the Law or Torah? (Discussion of Galatians 3:1-5:6)
  • Presentations: 1 Clement (Pamela); 2 Clement (Jag)

Week 9 (Nov 12): Romans: Judeans, Gentiles and “God’s people”

  • Readings: Romans; Ehrman, ch. 23, 24; “Judeans and Jesus-followers at Rome” (link)
  • Special topic for discussion: Who are the “weak” and the “strong” at Rome? What is going on and what does this tell us about the Christian community there? (Discussion of Romans 14:1-15:13)
  • Presentations: Shepherd of Hermas (Anna); Epistle to Diognetus (Semi/Sae)

*Assignment 2 (paper) due week 9 at the beginning of class*

Week 10 (Nov 19): Film on Paul and his communities, part 1

Week 11 (Nov 26):  Test 1 in class

Week 12 (Dec 3):  Film on Paul and his communities, part 2

  • Presentations: 2 Thessalonians (Stella); Gospel of Nicodemus (Celes)

(December break)



Unit 3: The Second Generation (65-100 CE) – The Gospels and Christian Perceptions of Jesus

Week 1 (Jan 7): Introduction to the Gospels: What are the “gospels” and how did they come about in the form we have them?

  • Readings: Coptic Gospel of Thomas (link), especially sections 9 (Mt 13:3-8, Mk 4:3-8, Lk 8:5-8), 20 (Mt 13:31-32, Mk 4:30-32, Lk 13:18-19), 35 (Mt 12:29, Mk 3:27, Lk 11:21-22), 65 (Mt 21:33-39, Mk 12:1-8, Lk 20:9-15), 107 (Mt 18:12-13, Lk 15:3-7); “The Synoptic Problem Website” (regarding source theories); Ehrman, chs. 5-6, 8
  • Special topic for discussion: What is the “synoptic problem” and what are some of the potential solutions?  How does the Gospel of Thomas shed light on the sayings in the synoptic gospels?

Week 2 (Jan. 14): Mark’s portrait of Jesus

  • Readings: Gospel of Mark; Ehrman, ch. 7; “Mark’s story of Jesus: Suffering Son” (link)
  • Special topic for discussion: What does the John the Baptist material reveal about literary relations among the Gospels and processes of redaction?  How is John the Baptist important for the study of the historical Jesus? (Discussion of gospel parallels nos.13-17 and Horsley, pp. 175-181, regarding John the Baptist)
  • Presentations: Martyrdom of Polycarp (Jessica); Martyrs of Lyons (Patrick)

Week 3 (Jan. 21): Matthew’s portrait of Jesus

  • Readings: Gospel of Matthew; Ehrman, ch. 9; “Matthew’s story of Jesus: Davidic Messiah and New Moses” (link)
  • Special topic for discussion: How do the gospels portray the style and content of Jesus’ teaching?  (Discussion of Matthew 5-7 [“sermon on the mount”]; Matthew 22:1-10 // Luke 14:15-24 // Coptic Gospel of Thomas saying 64 (link); “Rabbinic Parables” (browse: link).
  • Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas (Jamar); Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho (Timothy)

Week 4 (Jan 28): Luke-Acts – Luke’s portrait of Jesus

  • Readings:  Luke; “Acts and Ancient History-Writing: Background on the speeches and the preface (Thucydides and Josephus)” (link); Ehrman, chs. 10-11
  • Special topic for discussion: How does Luke’s two volume work, including Acts, relate to ancient historiography? What importance was placed on prefaces and on speeches in ancient histories? How do the passages in Thucydides and Josephus help us understand Luke-Acts as history writing?  (Discussion of Luke 1; Acts, esp. Acts 1 and 7; passages from Thucydides and Josephus online readings)
  • Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah (John); Gospel of Philip (Francois)

Week 5 (Feb 4): John’s portrait of Jesus

  • Readings: John; Ehrman, ch. 12; “John’s story of Jesus: Jesus the Son and Revelation (Self-Expression) of the Father” (link)
  • Special topic for discussion: What are the background and significance of the introduction to John’s gospel? How should we understand the “Word” in this preface in relation to Judean notions of Wisdom personified and Hellenistic notions of the Logos? (Discussion John 1; Proverbs 8; Sirach 24 [in the Apocrypha in the Bible])
  • Presentations: Gospel of Nicodemus (Sal); Acts of Paul (Jane)

**Feb 5: Last date to drop year-long courses without receiving a grade**

Week 6 (Feb 11): The Historical Jesus

  • Readings: Passages from Josephus involving messiahs and prophets in Horsley and Hanson, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs (see page numbers below); Ehrman, chs. 15-17
  • Special topic for discussion: How do the various royal claimants and prophetic figures discussed by Josephus help to provide a context for the historical Jesus?  What recurring motifs do we find in the stories of these figures and of Jesus of Nazareth?  (Discussion of Messiahs and Prophets in Josephus as outlined below)

Kings / Messiahs: 1) Judas son of Ezekias, c. 4 BCE (Horsley, p. 112); 2) Simon, the servant of Herod, c. 4 BCE (pp. 112-113); 3) Athronges, the shepherd, c. 4 BCE (pp. 113-114); 4) Menahem, son of Judas the Galilean, 60s CE (p. 118); 5) Simon bar Giora, 60s CE (pp. 120-121).

Prophets: 1) The Samaritan, 30s CE (p. 163); 2) Theudas, 40s CE (p. 164); 3) The Egyptian, 50s CE (p. 168); 4) Jesus, son of Hananiah, 60s CE (pp. 173-174); 5) John the Baptist, 30s CE (pp. 175-177).

*Assignment 3 (paper) due week 6 at the beginning of class*

**Reading Week Feb. 13-19 – no classes**

Unit 4: The Second Generation and beyond

Week 7 (Feb 25): Hebrews’ portrait of Jesus

  • Readings: Hebrews; Ehrman, ch. 27
  • Special topic for discussion: How should we understand the developing relation between the Jesus movements and their Judean origins? How did certain authors around the turn of the second century view and interpret the temple, the torah and other aspects of Judean culture?
  • Presentations: Acts of Peter (Denny); Apocalypse of Peter (Christina)

Week 8 (March 3): 1 Peter, persecution, and relations between Jesus-followers and outsiders

  • Readings: 1 Peter; Ephesians 5:21-6:9; Colossians 3:18-4:1; Ehrman, ch. 28
  • Special topic for discussion: What was the ancient “household” and what was its significance for the development of early Christian social structures, leadership, and ideology? (Discussion of 1 Peter 2:11-3:7; Ephesians 5:21-6:9; Colossians 3:18-4:1).

Week 9 (March 10): John’s Apocalypse / Review for test

  • Readings: Revelation (aka John’s Apocalypse), especially chapters 12-19; Ehrman, ch. 30; “Outline of John’s Apocalypse” (link)
  • Special topic for discussion: What were early Christian views and practices with regard to the Roman imperial power and the emperor? What role did worship of the emperor(s) play in the development of Christ groups? (Discussion of Rev 13, 17-18; 1 Peter 2:11-17; Romans 13)

Week 10 (March 17): Film – Apocalypse!

Week 11 (March 24): *Test 2 in class*

Week 12 (March 31): Film and discussion: Gospel of Judas

  • Readings: The Gospel of Judas (link to translation [click on “Entire English Text”]; link to National Geographic Society website)



Presentation: This 15 minute presentation will involve introducing an early Christian writing (chosen from the list below) to the other students in the tutorial. For that presentation, presenters will discuss various introductory issues, including issues of authorship, date, and genre (what type of writing it is). Going beyond this, presenters will explain some aspects of the historical relevance of the writing, engaging with one or two key historical topics discussed by scholars who study that writing. Student presenters are responsible for finding and studying the writing itself (often available in translation online) and for finding and discussing at least two scholarly books or articles that deal with the writing (through the York University library system or its online journal systems). Students must speak to me to confirm that the chosen sources are adequate.  The list of writings to choose for this particular presentation include:

  • From the New Testament: James, 2 Peter, Jude, 2 Thessalonians, 1-3 John
  • From the “Fathers” and martyrdom accounts: Letters of Ignatius, 1 Clement, 2 Clement, Shepherd of Hermas, Epistle to Diognetus, Martyrdom of Polycarp, Martyrs of Lyons, Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas, Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho
  • From the Apocrypha and Nag Hammadi collection: Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah, Gospel of Philip, Protevangelium of James, Gospel of Nicodemus, Acts of Paul, Acts of Peter, Ascension of Isaiah, Apocalypse of Peter

Assignment 1 (analysis of primary source): Jesus-followers Through Roman Eyes (3 pages double-spaced = 750 words)

  • Step 1: Re-read and thoroughly study Pliny the Younger’s correspondence with emperor Trajan regarding the “Christians” (Christianae) brought before Pliny as a Roman governor of Bithynia. For some background, read Bart Ehrman’s discussion of Greco-Roman religion (pp. 34-46), his discussion of persecution (pp. 454-459), and his discussion of Jesus-followers as “atheists” (pp. 468-469).
  • Step 2: Write an essay in which you imagine that you are Pliny the Younger and describe (to another Roman or Greek) your perceptions of these “Christians”. Be attentive to what things these people do, but also to what they do not do. Be sure to indicate why you (as a Roman) hold these views.

Assignment 2 (analysis of primary source): Economics in Paul’s relations with groups of Christ devotees (6 pp. double-spaced = 1500 words)

  • Step 1: Thoroughly study passages in Paul’s letters to Thessalonica, Corinth, and Philippi that pertain to his views and practices with respect to how he financially supports his activities (including 1 Thessalonians 2:9-12; 1 Corinthians 4:8-13 and chapter 9; 2 Corinthians chapters 10-13; Philippians 2:25-30 and 4:10-20). Also study passages from the Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus and the philosopher Cicero found under “Debates on handwork” here:
  • Step 2: Write an essay addressing the following questions: When it comes to financially supporting Paul’s teaching activities, does Paul engage in the same practices with every community or does his practice vary? Why does he engage in these practices? What do these practices relating to support tell us about his relationships with particular groups? In the process of explaining Paul’s approach, address issues such as manual labour and the acceptance or rejection of benefaction or patronage (“gifts”). Also position Paul in relation to views and practices among other teachers and philosophers in the Greco-Roman world. Note: Although you may refer to the collection for Jerusalem, this is not to be the focus of the paper.

Assignment 3 (academic book review): Review of Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs (5 pp. double-spaced = 1250 words)

  • Step 1: To familiarize yourself with the genre of the academic book review, read at least five book reviews that interest you in Review of Biblical Literature online at:
  • Step 2: With a focus on the arguments and main points, read Horsley’s, Bandits, Prophets and Messiahs.
  • Step 3: Write an academic book review of the book (in the form of an essay), which entails:
  • Explaining the main argument (or point) of the book and how the author builds up this argument in sub-arguments throughout the chapters.
  • Discussing the author’s methods (or approach) and use of evidence to support his points.
  • Providing a critical assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the book. Does the author achieve what he set out to do? Is the argument convincing or not, and in what ways? What theoretical assumptions and/or value judgments influence the author’s reconstruction of history? Be sure to provide concrete examples (citing page numbers in parentheses) of the problems or strengths you discuss.

The review paper should have a clear thesis statement (concerning your evaluation of the book) which is supported throughout the paragraphs. The paper should be clearly written and structured with no spelling or grammatical errors. Be succinct and do not exceed the prescribed length.

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