Course Outline for Founders of Christianity (HUMA 2830; version B)

General Information

Instructor: Philip Harland, Click here to email me. Office hours (Vanier room 248): Thursdays 10:30-11:30am, or by appointment

Teaching Assistant:
Reuben Lee. Office hours: TBA
Classes and tutorials:

  • Lectures (Harland): Thursdays 8:30-10:20 in SLH B
  • Tutorial group 1 (Harland): Wednesday 10:30-12:30 in VC 118
  • Tutorial group 2 (Harland): Thursdays 12:30-2:20 in MC 109
  • Tutorial group 3 (Lee): Fridays 12:30-2:20 in MC 212

Course Description and Aims

This course explores the origins of Christianity by focussing on specific “founders”, figures, and traditions in the first and early second centuries. This year, we will focus attention on placing Jesus, Paul, and other authors within their social, cultural, and intellectual contexts in the Judean and Greco-Roman worlds. We begin with the figure of Jesus in relation to contemporary Judean culture before moving on to Paul, who played a key role in bringing one form of the Judean Jesus movements to non-Judeans (non-Jews) in the cities of the Roman empire. Then we turn to a variety of other authors and themes of importance to the development of the Jesus movements up to about 135 CE. The methods of history, the social sciences (sociology and anthropology), and literary and rhetorical analysis will further our understanding of key issues. Students will gain some control of both the content of early Christian texts and the environment in which Christianity was born, as well as an ability to analyze primary materials from an historical perspective.

As a “Foundations Course”, this course will also devote special attention to the development of students’ critical skills, including skills of argumentation, written presentation and verbal presentation. This element will be incorporated as naturally as possible and the tutorial sessions will provide an important framework for this aspect of the course.

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, 3rd edition, 2004.
  • Jonathan L. Reed, The HarperCollins Visual Guide to the New Testament. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.
  • Richard A. Horsley and John S. Hanson, Bandits, Prophets and Messiahs: Popular Movements in the Time of Jesus. Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 1999 [1985].
  • Readings distributed and designated website materials on course website

Useful Online Resources

Course Requirements and Evaluation

  • Assignment 1 (paper: academic book review of Horsley): 20% (due week 6, Fall term)
  • In-class test 1: 20% (in class week 9, Fall term)
  • Assignment 2 (paper: analysis of primary source): 25% (due week 6, Winter term)
  • In-class test 2: 20% (in class week 12, Winter term)
  • Class / tutorial attendance, participation, and presentation (see end of outline for description): 15%
  • Total: 100%

For further description of assignments, see the end of the course outline below.


***Important things to know***

Readings, participation, and presentation: 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. Opportunities for discussion will be regularly incorporated within class and tutorial times and your regular contributions will be reflected in your participation mark. Beyond your regular participation in tutorials, each of you will also have an opportunity to present and guide the discussion for part of one of the tutorial sessions (probably in teams of two for 15 minutes). The aim of the discussion leaders should be to share useful information and raise issues that will encourage debate concerning the topic of the week. This opportunity to lead will also contribute to your tutorial participation mark.

Penalties for lateness: All assignments are due at the beginning of class. To avoid giving some an unfair advantage over others, 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 me (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 (or preferably left elsewhere) 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 permitted. Violation may result in particular students not being permitted to use laptops in class. The purpose of this policy is to create an atmosphere that is conducive to learning and relatively free of distraction for everyone.


Discussion outline

Fall 2008


Week 1 (Sept. 4)

Christian Origins and the academic study of religion


  • Ehrman, chs. 1, 29

Tutorial (Sept 10-12): How do we approach the study of early Christianity within the academic study of religion? Where did the New Testament come from?

Week 2 (Sept 11)

The World of the Early Christians: Hellenistic, Roman, Judean / Israelite


Tutorial (Sept 17-19): What is the Synoptic Problem and how do we approach gospels as ancient sources for the study of Jesus of Nazareth?

Unit 1: Jesus of Nazareth in historical and cultural context

Week 3 (Sept 18)

Introduction to the historical Jesus, part 1: The nature and limits of our sources


  • John the Baptist material (Gospel parallels nos. 13-17 [handout] and Horsley, pp. 175-181) (for tutorial)

Tutorial (Sept 24-26): Jesus’ Baptism – What does the John the Baptist material reveal about literary relations among the Gospels and processes of redaction? What relevance do these pericopae (passages) have for the study of the historical Jesus and why? (Discussion of gospel parallels nos.13-17 – handout; also read relevant sections of Horsley, pp. 175-181)

Week 4 (Sept 25)

Introduction to the historical Jesus, part 2: Some scholarly portraits of the historical Jesus

Our approach: Jesus among (and in the eyes of) his contemporaries


  • Gospel of Mark
  • Ehrman, ch. 16


Week 5 (Oct. 2)
Jesus in context: Social, economic, and cultural life in Judea and Galilee


Readings for tutorial (Oct 15-17):

  • Reed, ch. 5
  • Mark 13:1-16:8 and Gospel synopsis, no. 347

Tutorial (Oct 15-17): Jesus’ Death – How is the death of Jesus depicted in different gospels, canonical and extra-canonical (similarities and differences)? What relevance may this have for the study of the historical Jesus? Historically speaking, why was Jesus killed? (Discussion of Mark 13:1-16:8 and synopsis, no. 347).

Week 6 (Oct. 16)

*Assignment 1 due week 6 at the beginning of class*

Jesus among contemporary educated or elite groups (Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, Qumran community): Jesus as teacher, interpreter of scripture, and leader

Tutorial (Oct 22-24): How do the gospels of Mark and Matthew portray the Pharisees? How does Josephus portray them? What biases are evident? Is it possible to use such materials for reconstructing the historical Jesus or the historical Pharisees? If so, how?

Week 7 (Oct 23)

Jesus among contemporary popular leaders, part 1: Jesus as healer, exorcist, or miracle-worker


  • Luke 11:14-26 // Matthew 12:22-45 // Mark 3:22-26
  • Mark 4:35-6:56
  • The seven “signs” in the Gospel of John (2:1-12; 4:43-54 5:1-15; 6:1-15; 6:16-24; 9:1-12; 11:1-44; also 20:30-31)
  • Passages in Josephus and Acts involving Judean miracle-workers: Antiquities 14.19 (on Onias or Honi the Circle-drawer); Antiquities 8.42-49 (Solomon, Eleazar, and exorcism); Acts 13:4-12; 19-13-20 (Judean “magicians”)
  • Rabbinic materials relating to Hanina ben Dosa of Galilee and Honi the Circle drawer: (item numbers 111-119)
  • Ehrman, ch. 14

Tutorial (Oct 29-31): Thoroughly study the passages from Josephus in Horsley’s Bandits, Prophets and Messiahs (esp. pp. 112-114; 163-174), especially the story of Jesus son of Hananiah (ben Ananias). How can we use Josephus as a source of information for popular movements in the time of Jesus? What commonalities and differences are there among the different popular leaders? Generally speaking, what do they do and what happens to them? What light does this shed on Jesus of Nazareth?

Week 8 (Oct 30)

Jesus among contemporary popular leaders, part 2: Jesus as prophet and messiah (or, false-prophet and “King of the Judeans”)

  • Gospel of Luke, especially the arrest, trial, and execution of Jesus
  • Passages from Josephus in Horsley, Bandits, Prophets and Messiahs: pp. 112-114 (on Judas, Simon), 118 (on Menahem), 120-121 (on Simon Bar Giora), 163-164 (on the Samaritan, Theudas), 168 (on the Egyptian), 173-174 (on Jesus son of Hananiah).

Week 9 (Nov 6)

*In-class test week 9*
Unit 2: The Gospels as Early Christian Portraits of Jesus

(Special Guest Lecturer for November: Reuben Lee)

Week 9 tutorials


Tutorials (Nov 12-14): What type of writing are the gospels? (The Gospels as stories and biographies of Jesus)

Week 10 (Nov 13)

Gospel of Mark


Tutorial (Nov 19-21): How does the author of Mark portray Jesus? What roles do secrecy and misunderstanding play in this portrayal?

Week 11 (Nov 20)

Gospel of Matthew


Tutorial (Nov 26-28): How does Matthew portray Jesus? How does this relate to the (diaspora) Judean context of the community behind this gospel?

Week 12 (Nov 27)

Gospel of John


  • John
  • Ehrman, ch. 10

(December break)


Winter 2009

Unit 3: Paul in historical and cultural context

Tutorials (Jan 7-9): The historical Jesus and the Gospel portraits in retrospect.

Week 1 (Jan 8)

Introduction to Paul, the diaspora Judean, and his letters


Tutorial (Jan 14-16): 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 2 (Jan. 15)

Paul and near contemporary Judean groups: The Dead Sea Sect and apocalyptic thinkers


Tutorial (Jan 21-23): What is the apocalyptic worldview of Paul? How does this worldview relate to Paul’s Jewishness? (Discussion of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11 and Dead Sea Scrolls passage)

Week 3 (Jan. 22)

Paul and contemporary Judean groups: Pharisees, Gentiles and the Torah


Tutorial (Jan 28-30): 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)

Week 4 (Jan. 29)

Paul and contemporary Greco-Roman philosophers: Modes of instruction, moral exhortation, and lifestyle choices


Tutorial (Feb 4-6): In what ways do Paul’s moral exhortations (ethics) and modes of instruction reflect the broader context of contemporary Greco-Roman philosophers?

Feb 6 – Last date to drop courses without receiving a grade**

Week 5 (Feb 5)

Paul and Greco-Roman rhetoricians


Tutorial (week of Feb 11-13): What type of rhetoric and techniques of argumentation does Paul use to convince his audience? How does this relate to political rhetoric among contemporaries such as Dio Chrysostom? What are the three main types of Greco-Roman rhetoric?

Week 6 (Feb 12)

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

Paul and the institutions of Greco-Roman society: Slavery and benefaction


NO CLASSES OR TUTORIALS FEB 18-20 (Reading week)

Tutorial (Feb 25-27): What role did issues of financial support, benefaction, and patronage play in Paul’s relations with communities at Philippi, Corinth, and elsewhere? How did Paul financially support his activities and how does this compare to contemporary philosophers and others?

Unit 3: Other Founders, Traditions, and Contexts

Week 7 (Feb. 26)

FILM: Apocalypse! (PBS Frontline documentary)


  • Revelation (Apocalypse) of John
  • Reed, ch. 7

Tutorial (March 4-6): FILM: The Last Revolt

Week 8 (March 5)

The Apocalypse of John: The Romans and the destruction of the Judean temple


Tutorial (March 11-13): What were early Christian views and practices with regard to the Roman imperial power and the emperor?
(Discussion of Rev 13, 17-18; 1 Peter 2:11-17; Romans 13)

Week 9 (March 12)

1 Peter and Polycarp: Persecution and Martyrdom


Tutorial (March 18-20): What does Pliny the Younger’s correspondence with emperor Trajan on Christians reveal about the nature of persecution? How does this evidence relate to our other evidence regarding attitudes towards and treatment of followers of Jesus?

Week 10 (March 19)

Didache (The Teaching of the Twelve Disciples) and Ignatius: Developments in leadership and organization


Tutorials (March 25-26): Film and discussion (TBA)

Week 11 (March 26)

Apocryphal Writings: The Infancy Gospel of Thomas


Tutorials (April 1-3): Discussion of founders of Christianity in retrospect

Week 12 (April 2)

*Test 2 in class week 12*

Assignment descriptions

Presentation in tutorial

Each student will have the opportunity to make a 15 minute presentation in a tutorial meeting (most likely as a team of two students). The purpose of this is to help you develop your oral and presentation skills and to provide other students with an opportunity to learn about some other early Christian writings that are not fully covered in the lectures.

The presentation will involve introducing an early Christian writing (chosen from the list below) to the other students in the tutorial. 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). The requirements will be explained more fully in tutorials.

The list of writings to choose from are:

  • From the New Testament: Colossians, The Book of Hebrews, James, 2 Peter
  • From the Apostolic Fathers: 1 Clement, 2 Clement, Shepherd of Hermas, Epistle to Diognetus.
  • From the Apocrypha and Nag Hammadi collection: Gospel of Philip, Gospel of Judas, Protevangelium of James, The Gospel of Nicodemus, Acts of Paul, Acts of Peter, Ascension of Isaiah, Apocalypse of Peter

Assignment 1: Academic Book Review paper

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 (5 pages double-spaced, no longer), which entails:

  • Outlining 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.

Assignment 2: Analysis of Primary Source (TBA; 6 pages double-spaced, no longer)

Leave a comment or correction

Your email address will not be published.