Classes have now started at UNC, and I’m back in the classroom. Last year it was all remote teaching (NOT fun for anyone, though my classes were terrific); this year we are starting out live, and desperately hoping we will be able to continue that way.
For me, the most exciting part of the semester is that I”m teaching a course that I literally have not taught in 25 years. There’s lots of reasons for that — among other things, I ended up having to teach other things and other colleagues came into the department who could and wanted to teach it. But the course is more closely related to my research over these past 25 years than even my New Testament classes: this one deals with Christianity in the second and third centuries, and it is called “The Birth of Christianity.”
Here is the syllabus for it!
The Birth of Christianity
Instructor: Bart Ehrman
Teaching Assistants: Benjamin Sheppard and Thomas Waldrupe
Course Description and Objectives
For most of the past 1600 years, the Christian church has been the most important institution of western civilization, not just religiously, but also socially, culturally, politically, and economically. It has radically affected nearly every realm of human life: art, music, literature, and philosophy; social norms, personal ethics, and governmental policy. This is true for all of us in the west, not only those of us who identify as Christian. From the time Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire at the end of the fourth century, through the Middle Ages, into the Renaissance, the Reformation, and on to Modernity, no other institution has rivaled its influence.
Where did this religion come from? It is obviously an incredibly important question, if we want to understand our world.
In this class we will focus on the rise and development of the Christian faith from immediately after the New Testament up to when it became the official religion of the Roman empire, at the end of the fourth century. Most people know almost nothing about this formative period in the history of Christianity, and a good bit of “common knowledge” about early Christianity is simply modern myth.
You, however, will soon advance beyond such widespread ignorance and misunderstanding! By the end of the course, you will be well-versed in the historical realities by having reading ancient Christian sources themselves and becoming bona fide, budding authorities. At least that’s our goal.
This class does not presuppose any previous knowledge about early Christianity and does not assume you have any particular religious commitments, or none at all. It will not be taught from the perspective of faith, but also not from a perspective of disbelief. Our goal is to provide a solid historical overview that will prove helpful to everyone interested in the subject.
More specifically the objectives of this course are to help you:
- Become familiar with some of the most important Christian writings of the second and third centuries, including significant church fathers and apocryphal Gospels.
- Understand how Christians grew from a tiny group of twenty or so illiterate lower class peasants from a remote part of the empire to becoming the religion of the West.
- See why Christians were considered a bit weird and possibly dangerous by some (many? most?) “pagans”, leading to persecutions and martyrdoms (but how many?).
- Form an opinion on why the followers of Jesus – who was himself Jewish – eventually came to oppose Jews and their religion.
- Explain the significant diversity of early Christianity – that is, the startling differences among the intriguing “heresies” that arose. Have you ever heard of Gnosticism? You will.
- Understand how “orthodox” Christian leaders formulated important doctrinal beliefs (including the Trinity), established the canon of the New Testament (why these books?), and promoted ritual practices (such as baptism).
- See and appreciate the roles women played in the early years of the Christian religion.
- Explain how the Christian “triumph” over the other religions actually happened and how it forever changed the history of western civilization.
Bart D. Ehrman, After the New Testament: A Reader in Early Christianity 100-300 CE, 2nd edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015). This will be our primary text for the class. It is an anthology of ancient early Christian writings organized topically, with brief introductions to all the readings.
Bart D. Ehrman, The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018). This is a book written for a general audience that explains how and why the Christian church spread so far and wide and, against all odds, eventually took over the Roman world.
Additional Readings posted on Sakai.
Yes, indeed, you must grace us with your presence at all class meetings. We will occasionally pass around an attendance sheet to see if you are alive and well among us. Roll will regularly be taken during recitations. If you have a legitimate excuse for missing a recitation, please contact your teaching assistant.
Recitation sections will meet each week (as indicated in the class schedule, below) in order to discuss various aspects of the writings, history, or religion of early Christianity. To facilitate these discussions, you will be expected to prepare a two-page (no more!) position paper on each assigned topic. Written instructions for each paper are included on Sakai (under Resources).
These papers are not meant to be a “finished and polished product” ready for publication in the Harvard Theological Review. But we do want them well thought out and written.
Their main objective is to help you to consider the issues and reflect on the problems raised by the topic before we discuss it in class. For this reason, they will not be marked with a letter grade, but simply marked “S” (= Satisfactory) if you have done the assignment adequately and “U” (= Unsatisfactory) if you have not. Papers are to be submitted prior to the recitation itself under the Assignment section on the Sakai site for the class. Please note: papers not turned in on time will automatically be marked U, no questions asked.
Quizzes and Exam
There will not be a midterm exam in this class. Instead, throughout the semester, there will be four short quizzes taken in recitation. The quizzes will be short-answer, and based on the lectures and/or the reading.
We may also have occasional pop quizzes, just to keep life interesting, since otherwise we know how dull it can be.
There will also be a final exam, consisting of short identifications and essay questions; the final exam will be cumulative, covering everything in the course from Day One. The Final is scheduled by the Registrar’s office; ours is set in stone for Thursday Dec. 9 at (swallow hard) 8:00 a.m.
Attendance, participation, position papers: 30%; quizzes: 40% (so 10% for each quiz); 30% final exam.
My office hours are easy. I can usually talk right after class; if that doesn’t work, just zap me a note ([email protected]) and we’ll figure out a time. Your teaching assistant (Ben or Thomas) will indicate his office hours during your first recitation.
As to which person is best to see concerning the class…. If you want to talk about the content of the lectures, the structure of the class, or the inequities of the universe, any of us will do. If you want advice on studying for quizzes or the final exam, or writing papers, or if you want to express concerns about a grade, you should first approach your teaching assistant (since he will be doing the grading). If for some reason you want to go to the top, however, the boss will be happy to see you.
All students must be familiar with and abide by the Honor Code, which covers issues such as plagiarism, falsification, unauthorized assistance or collaboration, cheating, and other grievous acts of academic dishonesty. Violations of the Honor Code will be taken with incredible seriousness.
Reasonable Accommodations Policy
If you have a disability that may prevent fully demonstrating your abilities, you should contact Accessibility Services as soon as possible to discuss accommodations. We will do everything we can to help out on our end.
Title IX Resources
Any student who is impacted by discrimination, harassment, interpersonal (relationship) violence, sexual violence, sexual exploitation, or stalking is encouraged to seek resources on campus or in the community. Please contact the Director of Title IX Compliance (Adrienne Allison – [email protected]), Report and Response Coordinators in the Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office ([email protected]), Counseling and Psychological Services (confidential), or the Gender Violence Services Coordinators ([email protected]; confidential) to discuss your specific needs. Additional resources are available at safe.unc.edu.
Covid’s Ongoing Nasty Presence
I have been instructed by university powers-that-be to include the following statement in the syllabus. I fully agree with it and will do as it instructs (even if I would have worded it a bit differently)
“This semester, while we are in the midst of a global pandemic, all enrolled students are required to wear a mask covering your mouth and nose at all times in our classroom. This requirement is to protect our educational community — your classmates and me – as we learn together. If you choose not to wear a mask, or wear it improperly, I will ask you to leave immediately, and I will submit a report to the Office of Student Conduct. At that point you will be disenrolled from this course for the protection of our educational community. Students who have an authorized accommodation from Accessibility Resources and Service have an exception. For additional information, see Carolina Together.”
Class Schedule and Assignments
August 18 Introduction to the Class. And Pop Quiz!
20 Recitation One. Getting Started!
23 The Pagan World of Early Christianity
Assignment: Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction, ch. 3 “The Greco-Roman World of Early Christian Traditions” (on Sakai)
25 The Jewish World of Early Christianity
Assignment: Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction, ch. 4 “The Jewish World of Jesus and His Followers” (on Sakai)
27 Recitation Two. Jesus and the Other Divine Men.
30 The Birth of Christianity: A Bird’s Eye View
Assignment: ANT ( = After the New Testament), “General Introduction,” pp. 1-7.
Sept. 1 The Beginning: The Life and Teachings of Jesus
Assignment: Bart Ehrman, The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction, ch. 21, “The Historical Jesus” (on Sakai)
3 Recitation Three. A Pagan, a Jew, and a Christian Walk Into a Bar…
Quiz 1: Paganism, Judaism, and Christianity
6 NO CLASS (Labor Day. Don’t labor)
8 The Spread of Christianity: How Did It Succeed So Spectacularly?
Assignment: ToC (= Triumph of Christianity), ch. 4 “Reasons of the Christian Success”
10 Recitation Four. Incentives for Conversions. Miracle Stories in Christian Legend
13 The Early Persecutions: First and Second Century Opposition to Christians
Assignment: ANT, ch. 3 (pp. 26-55)
15 Later Persecutions: Third and Fourth Century Opposition to Christians
Assignment: ToC, ch. 71 (pp. 178-206)
17 Recitation Five. The Martyrdom of Polycarp
20 The Conversion of Constantine
Assignment: ToC, ch. 1 (pp. 13-39)
22 Christian Apologies.
Assignment: ANT, ch. 4 (pp. 56-87; 92-98); ToC ch. 7b (pp. 206-16)
24 Recitation Six. Perpetua and Felicitas
27 The Rise of Christian Anti-Judaism: The Testament
Assignment: ANT, ch. 5a (pp. 111-32)
29 Christian Anti-Judaism in Later Centuries
Assignment: ANT, ch. 5b (133-47)
Oct. 1 Recitation Seven. The Letter of Barnabas
Quiz 2! Christianity in the Roman Empire
4 Heresy and Orthodoxy: An Overview
Assignment: Bart Ehrman The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, pp. 3-16 (on Sakai)
6 Jewish Christianity
Assignment: ANT, pp. 148-61 (“Jewish Christian Gospels”)
8 Recitation Eight. The Apocalypse of Peter (Greek)
Assignment: Entries on Marcion in XXX TBD
Assignment: ANT, pp. 162-74; 189-95. (“Secret Book of John,” “Gospel of Truth,” “Treatise on the Resurrection”)
15 Recitation Nine. The Apocalypse of Peter (Coptic)
18 Infancy Gospels
Assignment: ANT, pp. 267-82.
20 The Gospel of Thomas
Assignment: ANT, pp. 283-92
22 Recitation Ten. The Gospel of Mary
25 The Heresiologists
Assignment: ANT, pp. 224-59
27 How We Got the New Testament Canon
Assignment: ANT, pp. 365-72
29 Recitation Eleven. The Canon List of Eusebius
Quiz 3: Other Christianities and Gospels
Nov. 1 The Development of Church Offices
Assignment: ANT, pp. 429-54a
3 Women in Early Christianity
Assignment: ANT, pp. 475-504
5 Recitation Twelve. Thecla
8 Liturgical Practices
Assignment: ANT, pp. 457-74
10 Ethics and the Rise of Asceticism
Assignment: ANT, pp. 505-28
12 Recitation Thirteen. ASK THOMAS
15 Christological Controversies
Assignment: ANT, pp. 529-44
17 The Trinity
Assignment: ANT, pp. 548-555
19 Recitation Fourteen. Who Cares?
Quiz 4: Christian Practices and Theologies
22-26 NO CLASS (Thanksgiving)
29 The Christian Roman Empire
Assignment: ToC, ch. 9 and Afterword
Dec. 1 Summing it all up