In a previous post I discussed what it’s like to teach undergraduates at a research university. Now I discuss teaching PhD seminars. Again, these posts are from some years ago; some details are different now, but the essence is, not eternal, but at least, till now, pretty much the same.
In addition to my undergraduate classes, I teach one PhD seminar each semester. We have a small but terrific graduate program in the Department of Religious Studies. Students admitted each year are the cream of the crop. Most of them come to us already with both an undergraduate and master’s degree, and we admit students (maybe 7-10 a year) in a range of fields: Islamic studies, Religion in the Americas, Asian Religions, Religion and Culture, Medieval and Early Modern Studies, and Ancient Mediterranean Religions.
My area is Ancient Mediterranean Religions, which comprises religions of the Ancient Near East, Hebrew Bible, Graeco-Roman Religions (i.e., “pagan” religions), ancient Judaism, and early Christianity (which includes the New Testament). We have probably 35 or so applicants a year who want to study early Christianity with me and my brilliant colleague Zlatko Plese (who specializes in Hellenistic and Roman philosophy, Gnosticism, Coptic, and lots of other things). Normally we can admit one or maybe two of these students. So, as with all good graduate programs, competition to get in is fierce.
To be admitted students have to have substantial background in the field already, (normally) two of the ancient languages (Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Coptic, or Syriac, usually), and hopefully one of the modern research languages (German or French). They will pick up other languages while in the program.
My PhD seminars are all in the field of New Testament and early Christianity, and they cover a range of topics. This past semester my seminar has been on New Testament Textual Criticism, which is the study of the surviving manuscripts of the New Testament (Greek, but also those in other ancient languages) with a view to (a) seeing if we can reconstruct what the authors of the New Testament originally wrote (since we don’t have any of their original writings, but only copies made, in most cases centuries later, all of which have mistakes in them) and (b) determining how and why the text was altered over the years in the course of its transmission.
This is one of the most specialized and technical areas of study in the entire field of New Testament scholarship. As it turns out, with the exception of very conservative evangelical theological seminaries (such as Dallas Theological Seminary), the program at UNC is the only PhD granting institution in North America where a student can study textual criticism with a publishing scholar in the field. If someone doesn’t want to study with me (many don’t!) they need either go to an evangelical seminary or study overseas, for example at University of Birmingham in England or in Münster, Germany.
In my class students learn to read ancient manuscripts (i.e., hand-written copies; the students can already read Greek, but learning how to master handwriting is not easy at first) and how to compare manuscripts carefully against one another (called collating). They learn the history of the discipline of textual criticism; the canons of criticism and methods used to establish the oldest surviving form of the text; and a large range of technical aspects of the discipline. It’s a demanding and rigorous course, which students tend to appreciate having taken when it is over, even if they don’t look forward to its famous rigors in advance.
I teach a range of other seminars as well, alternating them so that students can get a number of them in during the two or three years in which they are required to take seminars before preparing for their PhD exams (which often require a year of preparation) and then writing their dissertations (which typically take two or more years to complete). Over the years, these have included the following:
- The Use of Literary Forgery in the Early Christian Tradition. Here we explore the existence, motivation, and intentions of writings that were written by unknown Christian authors who were falsely (and knowingly) claiming to be a famous Christian leader (such as Peter, Paul, or John). We look at instances of such “forgeries” (and we consider whether this is too loaded a term or not) (it is not) starting with some of the writings of the New Testament and moving into Christian writings of the second, third, and fourth centuries.
- The Apostolic Fathers. In this seminar we read the ten authors known as the Apostolic Fathers who produced such books as the letters of Ignatius, the Didache, the letter of Barnabas, and the Martyrdom of Polycarp. These authors were writing for the most part in the early second century, after the New Testament. All of them wrote in Greek, and their books provide interesting and important insights into the development of Christianity in the early years of the movement.
- Early Christian Apocrypha. For this course we read and analyze a number of the books that did not come to be included in the New Testament, but that are of the same genres of books that did – non-canonical Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Apocalypses, most of which are pseudepigraphic (i.e. forgeries in the names of the apostles – such as the Gospel of Peter, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the letter of Paul to the Laodiceans, the Apocalypse of Peter, etc.)
- The Rise of Anti-Judaism. Here we study the relationship and tensions between early Christianity and Judaism from the New Testament period up to the time of Constantine, focusing attention on how Christianity eventually separated itself off from its Jewish matrix and in the process of so-doing became (sometimes virulently) anti-Jewish.
- Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity. In this seminar we study the various forms of Christianity in the second and third centuries, focusing on certain known groups such as Sethian Gnostics, Valentinians, Marcionites, and Ebionites, and on certain theological tendencies such as adoptionism (the view that Jesus was “adopted” to be the son of God, but was not himself divine) and Docetism (the view that Jesus was so much divine that he was not actually human, but only appeared to be).
- “Gateway” to New Testament Studies. This course is designed for beginning graduate students in early Christianity and for graduate students in other fields of study in the department. It is meant to cover the major historical and critical issues in the study of the new Testament, and the history of the discipline starting with the Enlightenment, with a pedagogical component – meaning that part of the course is set up to teach these students how they themselves might teach an undergraduate survey course in the field.
These graduate seminars tend to be small – say 5-8 students on average. We are lucky at UNC that Duke University is nearby. My UNC students take PhD seminars at Duke with the outstanding faculty there in New Testament and early Christianity, and the Duke students take seminars with me, providing a kind of richness to the program that many other graduate degrees around the country simply cannot match.
All of my seminars involve extensive reading in the subjects, hard-core research, sustained weekly discussions (the seminars meet once a week for three hours), and, usually, a final research paper, normally 15-18 pages in length. It is not unusual for advanced students to re-work a paper after a seminar is over and publish it in an academic journal. The seminars, then, are training grounds, as we prepare scholar-teachers who will be the next generation of research professors in the field.