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.  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 how followers of Jesus expressed their relationship to varied dimensions of both Israelite 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).
  • 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, question generation: 15%
  • Quizzes – Beginning of class surprize quizzes on weekly readings: 20%
  • 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 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: 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: and
  • 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.


Discussion outline

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

  • Readings: Distributed in class

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

  • Readings: Ignatius, Selected Letters to the Ephesians, Magnesians, Romans, Philadelphians and Smyrnaians (link); Kotrosits, introduction and chapters 1 and 2

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

  • Readings: 1 Peter (in Bible); 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

  • Readings: Acts of the Apostles (in Bible); Kotrosits, chapter 3

Week 5 (Feb 6): Colonial experience in Platonic philosophical terms – Secret Revelation (or: Book) of John

  • Readings: Secret Book of John (link); Isaiah 40-55 (in Bible); Kotrosits, chapter 4

Assignment 1 (paper) with academic integrity quiz due week 5 at the beginning of class*

Week 6 (Feb 13): Responses to Roman imperialism – John’s Apocalypse

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

**Feb 15-21 – Reading week*

Week 7 (Feb 27): Displacement in the Book of Hebrews

  • Readings: Hebrews (in Bible); Kotrosits, chapter 5

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

  • Readings: Gospel of John (in Bible); Frey, “The Diaspora-Jewish Background of the
    Fourth Gospel”, omitting pages 170-175 on the history-of-religions background (link)

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

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

Week 10 (March 19): Fisher Rare Book LIbrary (4:30-6:30pm)

Week 11 (March 26): Test in class

Week 12 (April 2): Documentary – Apocalypse!



Assignment 1 (analysis of primary source):??? (5 pages double-spaced)

  • Step 1: Read and thoroughly study ???.
  • Step 2: Write an essay in which you ??.

Assignment 3 (academic book review): Academic book review (5 pages double-spaced)

  • Step 1: To familiarize yourself with the genre of the academic book review, read at least five book reviews that interest you in Journal of Biblical Literature or Classical Review through the library system
  • 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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