Here now are the other position paper assignments for “The Birth of Christianity.”  See which of them you’d like to take on in your spare time!


Recitation Six:  Perpetua and Felicitas

Read carefully the account of the Martyrdom of Perpectua and Felicitas (ANT 47-55), several times, until you can remember the significant incidents in good detail. For the recitation, you should think about ALL of the following issues.  For your position paper you are to discuss just ONE of them, whichever one you find most intriguing.

  • From an outsider’s perspective it may seem very strange, unsettling, and perplexing that such a brilliant, insightful, apparently wealthy, young mother would be so eager to leave this world through a violent death. How can you explain it, from Perpetua’s own perspective? Is this world really such a terrible place (for her)?
  • Discuss Perpetua’s treatment of her father. Do you see him as a sympathetic figure?  Does she seem rude and uncaring to him?  How do you explain that?
  • Choose either the vision of Perpetua in ch. 4 or ch. 10 and write your paper on it. Describe what happens in the vision and then interpret some of its more puzzling features
    • For example, in ch. 4: why are the weapons attached to the ladder? What is that meant to teach?  Who is the dragon and what is its role and her response to it?  Who is the shepherd?  What is the significance of the milk?
    • In ch. 10, who is this Egyptian and why is he an Egyptian? Who was the giant man and what does he mean by what he says?  What is the fight meant to signify?  What does it mean that Perpetua became a man?  Huh?  And what do you make of the entire episode?
  • Discuss Perpetua’s vision of her brother Dinocrates (ch. 7). Where is he initially?  Could he be in hell?  How can her prayer possibly help him if he’s dead already?  Does the author think that living saints can change the fate of the dead?  Does he get “saved” in the end?  If so, why is he in the same place instead of, say, up in heaven?  What is this entire passage teaching about the afterlife?
  • Why does the author provide such a graphic description of the deaths of the martyrs at the end? Discuss the key events of the final chapters 18-21.  What strikes you as the most interesting and important points?  Do you think the account is historically plausible?  What is it trying to teach its readers?


Recitation Seven: The Epistle of Barnabas

Read the extracts of the Epistle of Barnabas in ANT 114-23, carefully, twice.  Summarize the author’s views of Jews, Judaism, and the Jewish Bible, providing verse references in support (e.g., “The author appears to think that Judaism is….” 12:7).   In particular, what does he think is the problem with Judaism and with the Jews’ understanding of their Scriptures?  Why does he think his views are superior to theirs?  What to you think of his own interpretations of the Scriptures, as described for example in chapters 7, 9, or 10 (choose examples that strike you as most interesting).  Do these interpretations seem plausible?  Are they superior to a more literal reading?  Why or why not?

At the end of the day, do you think it would be appropriate to say that this book is anti-Jewish?  Anti-semitic?


Recitation Eight:  The Greek Apocalypse of Peter

         This is the oldest Christian account we have of the torments of hell, described in remarkably graphic terms (there is nothing like this in the New Testament).   Read the account carefully several times.  For your paper, focus on the descriptions of the punishments of sinners and deal with questions such as the following.

What kinds of sins/sinners are punished?  (See if you can categorize them.)  Are there any surprises there – any sins that you would not expect to lead to such harsh outcomes?  Who escapes the punishments, and why?  Are there close relationships between some of the sins and their punishments?  That is, do the punishments fit the crime?  Always?  Sometimes?

At the end of your paper, provide an evaluation of this portrayal of God’s justice.  Is it right for people to have to suffer torture for all eternity for sins they committed for a few years?  If God does require this, is he still a God of love?  Why can’t there be repentance later, once people realize the mistakes they’ve made?  In your opinion, is this fair?

Finally, what do you think this book is trying to teach?  And whom is it trying to teach it?


Recitation Nine:  The Coptic (Gnostic) Apocalypse of Peter

Read the Apocalypse (or “Revelation”) of Peter from the Nag Hammadi Library as found in the Resources section of Sakai.   Notice how in the opening paragraphs the author seems to attack “orthodox” Christians as ignorant and misguided.

For your paper you are to focus on the highly unusual description, by Peter himself, of what he saw at the crucifixion of Jesus.  What strikes you as the most unusual features of this description?  How many Jesuses are there (look carefully!).  How can there be more than one?  Who/what is the one on the cross?  Who/what is the one above the cross?  Why is he laughing?   Who is the one then who comes to try to explain it all to Peter?

How could you use this narrative to explain the Gnostic understanding of the body and the soul, the nature of Christ, and the way of salvation?  And what would the Gnostic author have objected to in the views of “orthodox” Christians who had different views?


Recitation Ten: The Gospel of Mary

         Read the Gospel of Mary (ANT 301-05), carefully, several times.  This reading is not an excerpt but is the entire Gospel as it has survived (it is found in only one manuscript that is missing chs. 1-6 and 11-15).   Try to explain Mary’s vision in light of what you know about the Gnostic myths.

For your paper you can discuss EITHER of the two following issues:

  • Give a detailed assessment of the myth that Mary relates to the disciples in chs. 10, 15-17. Can you infer what the first two “authorities” were?   What actually are all these authorities?  Why does the soul want to escape them?  How does it do so?  What is this myth trying to teach about the nature of human existence and how one should live one’s life?
  • Discuss the relationship of Mary to the male disciples in the text. What are the tensions between them?  Why is there conflict?  What is the text trying to teach about Mary and women in general?  What is its point about gendered relations?  What do you make of it’s portrayal of the male disciples?  Is it possible to see this text as an early Christian feminist manifesto?  Why or why not?


Recitation Eleven: The Muratorian Canon List o f and the Canon of Eusebius

         Read the Muratorian Canon list in ANT 367-68 and the canon of Eusebius, found in ANT 371-72).

The first part of your paper is to summarize factual information about the lists.  When was each one constructed?  Which books does each of them accept as bona fide Scripture?  How do they categorize books they do not accept?  In particular, what are the different categories that Eusebius uses for his list?  That is, what does he mean by “Recognized Books,” “Disputed Books,” and “Spurious Books”?  Why does he consider some books “Heretical”?   Are there any surprises for you in either list, about what was included and what was not?

In the second part of your paper, try to summarize the criteria each author appears to use in order to decide whether a book belonged in Scripture or not.  What was the deciding factor or factors?



Recitation Twelve: The Acts of Thecla


This is one of the most famous legendary accounts from outside the New Testament.  Read it several times and think hard about it.  For your paper you are to summarize the narrative in half a page and then discuss one of the following issues:

  • What is this narrative’s understanding of sex and sexuality in relation to the Christian message? Where do you see this understanding expressed most clearly in the text?  How does this view relate to the basic question of what it means to be Christian (for this text).
  • In what ways does this account present the woman Thecla as the model Christian? In what ways does the account promote the importance of women before God and in the Christian movement?  In which ways does it show the difficulties women had in playing a significant role in the church and its mission?
  • Some readers think that Paul comes off very badly in this account in relationship to Thecla. Which parts of the narrative would support this reading?  Are their counterarguments to be made to it?  What is your opinion of the matter?
  • Do you see Thecla’s passion for Paul as displaced sexual attraction? Is this some kind of spiritualized passion that is to replace physical intimacy?  What do you make of those passages that seem to have strong erotic overtones?


Recitation Thirteen:  Who Cares? 

You’re talking to someone about religion and, as sometimes happens, she turns on the steam.  “Look,” she says, “Christianity has done enormous harm to the world.  Before it came on the scene, Roman religions were highly tolerant of one another and none of them arrogantly insisted it was right and the others wrong.  It is because of Christianity (and other exclusivist religions that came in its wake, such as Islam) that we ended up with religious wars and grotesque religiousviolence, the imposition of one group’s social and ethical values on others, sometimes leading – still in our day — to horrible psychological damage, persecution, physical punishment, and even execution.

“Even more, Christianity introduced the awful teaching that God is going to send everyone who objects to this message to hell to be tormented for all eternity.  The church wielded this power of punishment over everyone, and once it had power it became fabulously rich, dominant, and violent, leading to anti-semitism, the hatred of other peace-loving religions, and the almost complete oppression of women.  It’s support of rigorous asceticism has deprived billions of people from the simple joys of life.   Christianity has been used to justify slavery, bigotry, capitalist greed, oppression, and hatred of “the Other.”

She concludes:  “The triumph of Christianity over the other religions of the ancient world is one of the greatest disasters civilization has ever seen.”

How do you respond?