HIS500—Christianity and Judaism in Greco-Roman Antiquity
View outline (PDF) Instructor(s): Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
“To be sure, we need history. But we need it in a manner different from the way in which the spoilt idler in the garden of knowledge uses it, no matter how elegantly he may look down on our coarse and graceless needs and distresses. That is, we need it for life and for action….”
Friedrich Nietzsche, “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life”
This course introduces students to the disciplines of history through a consideration of emerging traditions of Christianity and Judaism in the first six centuries of the Common Era. Judaism and Christianity are taken up together not as an attempt to elide either tradition, to seek lowest common denominators, or an irreducible ahistorical essence, but to help students study twin monotheistic traditions that emerged and often intertwined with and mutually influenced one another within the historical and social worlds of the Roman Empire. Its chief aim is to invite students to experience the joy and rewards of historical study through a living encounter with a seminal period of Jewish and Christian tradition.
The course aims for an increasing sophistication in understanding the multiple practices of history as a discipline. It seeks history in the service of life that seeks to address the past as a resource for considering the complexities of modern society, and how amidst those complexities we project ourselves into the past. Accordingly it seeks to accomplish two things. First and foremost, it will furnish students with a working knowledge of the chief historical, cultural, philosophical, theological and political events, ideas, and figures in the construction of Jewish and Christian tradition in the period. Specific attention will be given to historical formulations concerning creed, code, cultus, and community – beliefs, ethical practices, ritual, and religious self-definition. Here special attention will be given to the sources, social processes, uses of history, and political and cultural developments that facilitated the emergence of self- defined normative Christian and Jewish traditions. It will give students knowledge and skills to name and discuss key social, historical, theological, and political influences in this period.
The course will invite students to consider ways in which early Judaism and Christianity were internally fluid and diverse, as well as exteriorly intertwined, and the various influences and developments that contributed to their self-definition. They will develop the ability to recognize and identify ways in which what we today name early Christianity and early Judaism represent socially constructed traditions that bear the marks of their social and cultural environments. Varying forms of religious life and spiritual and theological devotion will be considered as students encounter the faith and commitments of a variety of thinkers of Christian and Jewish traditions. Throughout emphasis will be placed on engagement of primary texts in order to teach students how to read historical sources and where to find them.
Through a short essay oriented chiefly around primary sources students will demonstrate an elementary historical competency in a methodologically disciplined and critically informed consideration of a topic of interest from the period. A final exam will assess ability to identify a series of primary texts and their significance in the period under consideration.
Second the course will develop the student’s ability to use history as a means of thinking critically about the past and the contemporary practices of history. It will introduce students to representative approaches to and resources for the scholarly study of the period. To name only a few these will range from more traditional empirically based modes of enquiry to narrative, feminist, post-structuralist, post-colonial, and history of culture methods. This will enable students identify their working assumptions in the practices of historical study and in their understanding of what constitutes history more generally. In a written exercise students will identify their “working history,” its assumptions, and their chief warrants for their understanding of history.