Course Outline: Interpreting the New Testament, part 1 – Paul and His Communities (HUMA 3421; Fall 2017)

General Information

  • Philip Harland (pharland-at-yorku-dot-ca), office hour (Vanier 248): Fridays 10:30, or by appointment.
  • Fridays 11:30-2:20 (DB 0009)

Course Description and Aims

This course explores the earliest surviving writings produced by followers of Jesus, placing these writings by Paul within the sociohistorical context of the Roman empire.  In the process, 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 Greco-Roman world.  We will begin to understand how Paul and various devotees of Jesus with whom he interacted lived their lives within the broader context of Judean, Greek, and Roman culture.  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 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)
  • Linked “readings” in the course outline below (please print all pdfs, read and study them, and bring them to class for discussion)
  • Dennis Ronald MacDonald, The Legend and the Apostle: The Battle for Paul in Story and Canon (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983).

Useful Online Resources

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

  • Class attendance and ongoing participation: 15%
  • Quizzes – Beginning of class surprize quizzes on weekly readings: 20%
  • York University academic integrity tutorial and quiz (due week 4, Fall term).  All students must read the tutorial website (link) and complete the academic integrity quiz (link) 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 submitted beforehand.
  • Assignment 1 (paper: analysis of primary source): 15% (due week 5, Fall term)
  • Assignment 2 (paper: book review): 20% (due week 9, Fall term)
  • In-class final test: 30% (week 11, Fall term)
    • 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, tweeting, 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 8): Early Jesus movements and the academic study of religion

  • Readings: reading materials distributed in class
  • Special topic for discussion: How do we study early Christianity academically?  What does a “Religious Studies” approach entail?  Where did Paul’s writings and the New Testament come from?

Week 2 (Sept 15): Paul and his communities in context, part 1

  • Readings: “Diversity in Second Temple Judean Culture: Josephus on the Judean Philosophies” (link); “Early Jesus-followers through Greco-Roman Eyes: Tacitus, Pliny, and Others” (link); Robert L. Wilken, “The Christians As The Romans (and Greeks) Saw Them,” pages 100–125 (link; course password required)
  • Special topics for discussion: How diverse and/or united were Judeans of the second temple period? (discussion of Josephus passages); How were early followers of Jesus viewed by other Greeks and Romans? (discussion of Suetonius, Tacitus, Pliny, plus article by Wilken)

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

Week 3 (Sept 22): Paul and his communities in context, part 2: Who is Paul and how do we approach the sources?

  • Readings: Philippians 3:1-16; 2 Corinthians 11:5-12:13; Galatians 1:6-2:14 (in Bible); “Some Biographical Information about Paul” (link); “Situation and Response: Some questions to ask when reading each of Paul’s letters (A Guide)” (link); Ehrman, “Paul the Apostle,” pages 260-275 (link; course password required)
  • Special topic for discussion: What does the autobiographical material in Galatians reveal about Paul? (discussion of Philippians 3:1-16; 2 Corinthians 11:5-12:13; Galatians 1:6-2:14 in the Bible)

Week 4 (Sept 29): An apocalyptic outlook: 1 Thessalonians

  • Readings:  1 Thessalonians (in Bible); The Community Rule (1QS), Columns I-IV, from the Dead Sea Scrolls (link; course password required); “Guilds and Associations in Macedonia” (link); “Debates about handwork and support among philosophers” (link); Barclay, “Thessalonica and Corinth,” JSNT 47 (1992), pages 49-56 (link; course password required)
  • Special topic for discussion:  What is the apocalyptic worldview as seen in the Rule of the Dead Sea Scroll community and in Paul’s letters? 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)

*Academic integrity assignment due*

Week 5 (Oct 6): Rocky relations with a divided community: 1 Corinthians

  • Readings: 1 Corinthians (in Bible); Acts 15:22-35 (in Bible); Didache 6; Barclay, “Thessalonica and Corinth,” JSNT 47 (1992), pages 56-73 (link; course password required)
  • Special topic for discussion: What views did Jesus devotees (and Judeans) have regarding food offered to Greek and Roman deities (1 Corinthians 8-10; Acts 15:22-35; Didache 6)?  What does this issue tell us about the relationship between Jesus followers and surrounding Greco-Roman society?

*Assignment 1 (paper) due week 5 at the beginning of class*

Week 6 (Oct 13): Perspectives on ancient slavery: Philemon and 1 Corinthians 7

  • Readings: Philemon; 1 Corinthians 7 (in Bible); “Paul and Slavery in the Greco-Roman World” (link); Byron, “Paul and the Background of Slavery,” Currents in Biblical Research 3 (2004), pages 116-121 and 124-136 (link; library login required).
  • Special topic for discussion: What was slavery like in the Greco-Roman world? What are Paul’s views and other early Christian views on slavery? (discussion of Philemon, 1 Corinthians 7:17-24, and “Paul and Slavery in the Greco-Roman World” info)

Week 7  (Oct 20): Paul, the Judean Law, and “Judaizers”: Galatians

  • Readings: Galatians (in Bible); Bassler, “Paul and the Jewish  Law,” in Navigating Paul, pages 11-21 (link; course password required).
  • 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)

*October 26-29 Reading days: no classes*

Week 8 (Nov 3): Judeans, Gentiles and “God’s people”: Romans

  • Readings: Romans (in Bible); “Judeans and Jesus-followers at Rome” (link); Esler, “The Weak and the Strong,” pages 339-356 (link; course password required)
  • 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)

Week 9 (Nov 10): Legacies of Paul – Acts of Paul and Thecla

  • Readings: Acts of Paul and Thecla (link; course password required); MacDonald, The Legend and the Apostle, pages 13-53.
  • Special topic for discussion: How is Thecla portrayed and what might this tell us about the people who made use of this story?

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

Week 10 (Nov 17): Film on Paul and his communities

Week 11 (Nov 24): Test 1 in class

Week 12 (Dec 1): Legacies of Paul – The Pastoral Epistles

  • Final quiz
  • Readings: Pastoral Epistles (1-2 Timothy and Titus in Bible); MacDonald, The Legend and the Apostle, pages 54-89
  • Special topic for discussion: How would you compare the perspectives of the Pastoral Epistles (who present themselves as written by Paul) and the Acts of Paul and Thecla (telling a story about Paul?  What does this tell us about how different people interpreted and used the image of Paul after his death?



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.  Also read Wilken’s article for background.
  • 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 3 (academic book review): Review of MacDonald’s The Legend and the Apostle (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:  (password will be explained in class)
  • Step 2: With a focus on the arguments and main points, read the book carefully.
  • 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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