REL 324

 History of Eastern Christianity I

From Constantine to the Fall of Constantinople

MW, 10:00-11:50

Professor: Dr. Stephen Shoemaker
Office:348 Susan Campbell Hall ;  Office Hours: MW  1:00-2:00 (or by appointment) Telephone: 346-4998; Email: sshoemak (at) uoregon (dot) edu

 Course Description and Objectives

This course covers the history of Eastern Christianity from the beginnings of the Christian Roman Empire under Constantine to the Fall of Constantinople in the 15th century.  The course will focus on the eastern Mediterranean but will also cover the history of Christianity in medieval Asia and Africa and the missionary expansion of Christianity to the Slavic lands.  Students will learn to appreciate the diversity and importance of the Eastern Christian tradition, and will write papers on various topics using primary texts to investigate an issue central to understanding Eastern Christianity.


Required Reading:

  • Timothy E. Gregory, A History of Byzantium, 2nd ed., Blackwell, ISBN 140518471X.
  • Dale T. Irvin & Scott W. Sunquist, History of the World Christian Movement, vol. 1, Earliest Christianity to 1453 (Orbis; ISBN: 1-57075-396-2) = HWCM
  • John Meyendorff, St. Gregory Palamas and Orthodox Spirituality, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, ISBN 0913836117.
  • John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology, 2nd ed., Fordham University Press, ISBN 0823209679

Optional (for various paper topics)

  • Gregory Palamas, The Triads, Paulist Press, ISBN 0-8091-2447-5.

In addition, numerous items are to be found on the internet, as indicated below.

There are two “handouts” that should be printed out and brought to class.  They are available as HTML and Word files.

Handout 1 (HTML) (Word)

Handout 2 (HTML) (Word)


Attendance at all class sessions is expected. Since class sessions will involve a fair amount of student discussion, students should read all the assignments carefully before coming to class. Assignments will generally involve about 100 pages of reading per week. This should require about five hours of reading per week outside of class. Completion of the writing assignments and preparation for examinations should require an additional thirty hours during the course of the term. Everyone should be prepared to contribute both ideas and questions to the class discussions. Assignments and grading are as follows:

A.  Two exams 2/13 & 10:15 Friday, March 24 (60%)

B.  Class attendance and participation (10%)

C.  One 5-6 page (double-spaced: approx. 1500 words) essays (30%), chosen from the following options.

  1. Due 2/6. Read the selected documents from the fifth-century Christological controversies by Cyril of Alexandria, Theodoret of Cyrrhus, and Leo of Rome and answer the following questions: “Why is the unity of personality in Christ important for Cyril’s theology? What relation does this unity have to his understanding of human salvation?   How does Cyril explain the suffering of Christ in relation to his humanity and divinity? Compare Cyril’s views on these issues with those of Theodoret. Is the Christology of Leo’s Tome closer to Cyril’s or Theodoret’s? Which of the three positions do you think offers the best explanation of the relation between Christ’s humanity and divinity and why?”
  2. Due 3/1. Read John of Damascus, On the Divine Images and answer the following questions: “What arguments does John of Damascus use to defend the veneration of images? How does he distinguish this practice from idolatry?  Do you find his arguments convincing?  Why or why not?”
  3. Due 3/8 Read The Monks of Kubla Khan and answer the following questions: “What does this text tell us about the “global” nature of Christianity in the middle ages?  In what ways are the Mongolian Christians similar to or different from the Christians that they encounter in the Near East and Western Europe? What is Christianity’s relationship with the secular authorities in the various places that the monks traveled?   When one of the Chinese monks visits the Pope and the various kings in Western Europe, what is the nature of their interaction: what are the two parties interested in about one another; what do they find unusual or different about each other; what do they find in common?”
  4. Due 3/15. Read Gregory Palamas, The Triads and answer the following questions: “How does Gregory explain Christian mystical experience? What is its relation to rational/philosophical knowledge?   What roles do the human body and the incarnation of Christ play?   How does Gregory’s distinction between the ‘energies’ and ‘essence’ of God fit into his defense of mysticism?  Do you find Gregory or Barlaam more convincing?”

Format of Essay:  In answering the questions, first of all, briefly summarize the contents of the text(s) regarding the questions asked: what do the texts say?  Then, take a clear position in response to the texts and defend it: imagine that your reader believes the opposite and that you are trying to persuade him or her.  Your assignment for this paper is to write from a perspective outside of the traditions in question.  Do not make the mistake of giving a spiritual autobiography or a narrative of how this text relates to your own personal spiritual life and faith.

Do not make the mistake of just dismissing the ideas of a text because you have different religious beliefs: if you disagree, give convincing reasons why.  In all instances, strive for an impersonal and objective tone: you need to represent the contents of the text(s) fairly and accurately and give thoughtful reasons for your response.  Your goal for this assignment is to approach and consider these religious traditions as objects of study from the outside, NOT from the perspective of an insider, legitimate as this perspective is in other contexts. Even if one is a believer in a particular tradition, the purpose of taking this class is to learn how to see and study the same phenomena from a perspective outside of the tradition.

In general, it is good to avoid using “I,” “me,” “my,” “we,” “our,” “you”, “your” (except in quotations of course); you should give your opinions, but write them using the third person.  Also, while you should cite examples from the texts, be sure to explain and contextualize any quotations made, and be sure that your own voice is not lost in a sea of quotations. All quotations must be identified as such, and references to the text should be given parenthetically either as a page number or section number, as appropriate.  Take care to write correctly and well: you will be graded for grammar and style as well as content.  Finally, please number your pages.  For extra help and advice on writing your paper, the University Teaching and Learning Center in the basement of PLC is an invaluable resource.

Learning Outcomes

Students who successfully complete this course should be able to:

  • describe the history of medieval eastern Christianity from the fourth through the fifteenth centuries and understand its complexity and relation to the broader social, cultural, and political elements of this period that shaped it
  • analyze primary texts critically and discuss their significance for understanding Christianity in the medieval world
  • evaluate the role of cultural exchange and religious dialogue within Christianity, as well as in relation to other religious traditions
  • demonstrate the ability to write a formal academic paper on a topic related to the history of medieval eastern Christianity.

Expectations and Regulations

1. Preparation: You are expected to come to class having completed the reading assignments for that session. You should be prepared to discuss and ask questions about the assignments. Note also that some material from the readings that is not covered in class may be included on the examinations.

2. Participation and Class Attendance: You should come to class prepared to ask questions and to discuss the readings for that session. Regular class attendance is required, and attendance will be taken. If you expect to miss class doe to illness, observance of religious holy days, or other extenuating circumstances, please notify the instructor in advance after class or by email.

3. Late Papers: Unless an extension has been arranged in advance, late papers will be marked down one full letter grade for each day after the due date. Late papers will not be accepted more than three days after the due date.

4. Make-up or Early Exams: will be allowed only in truly exceptional circumstances, in the case of unforeseeable events beyond the student’s control.

5. Cell phones may not be used in class. If I see you using a cell phone, it will affect your final grade.

6. Plagiarism or Cheating: Students caught plagiarizing or cheating on any assignment will be reported to the Student Conduct Coordinator in the Office of the Dean of Students. Students who are aware of cheating or plagiarism are encouraged to inform the instructor. If you are uncertain as to what constitutes plagiarism (or other forms of academic dishonesty), please consult this helpful guide from the UO library concerning plagiarism, as well as the UO’s Policy on Academic Dishonesty.

All students are subject to the regulations stipulated in the UO Student Conduct Code This code represents a compilation of important regulations, policies, and procedures pertaining to student life. It is intended to inform students of their rights and responsibilities during their association with this institution, and to provide general guidance for enforcing those regulations and policies essential to the educational and research missions of the University.

7. Completion of Assignments: Completion of all required assignments (2 Exams, 1 Paper) is necessary to pass and receive credit for the course. Incompletes will be granted only at the discretion of the instructor and only in case of circumstances beyond the student’s control.

8. Appropriate accommodations will be provided for students with documented disabilities. If you have a documented disability and require accommodation, arrange to meet with the course instructor within the first week of the term. The documentation of your disability must come in writing from the Accessible Education Center in the Office of Academic Advising and Student Services. Disabilities may include (but are not limited to) neurological impairment, orthopedic impairment, traumatic brain injury, visual impairment, chronic medical conditions, emotional/psychological disabilities, hearing impairment, and learning disabilities. For more information on Accessible Education Center, please see

9. Mandatory Reporting: UO employees, including faculty, staff, and GTFs, are mandatory reporters of child abuse and prohibited discrimination. This statement is to advise you that that your disclosure of information about child abuse or prohibited discrimination to a UO employee may trigger the UO employee’s duty to report that information to the designated authorities. Please refer to the following links for detailed information about mandatory reporting:

Grading Scale

A: Excellent. Assignment is without errors in both technical matters and content, with distinction. Shows high degree of fluency with content and technical skill, with evidence of creativity and originality. A grade of A+ is rare, and indicates work that demonstrates rare mastery, originality, and polish.
B: Good. Assignment is technically sound and accurate in content. Shows all-round solid grasp of methods and subject matter.
C: Satisfactory. Errors in technical matters and/or content that are limited in scope. Shows essentially sound grasp of subject matter and methods.
D: Inferior. Significant flaws in technical matters and/or content that are wide-ranging. Shows weak grasp of subject matter and/or methods.


Course Outline

Week 1

1/9 Introduction

Handout 1 (HTML) (Word)


  • Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, ch. 2 (Canvas)

1/11 Constantine & The Christian Roman Empire


Week 2

1/16 NO CLASS: Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday

1/18 The Cappadocian Fathers


  • Gregory, 84-100
  • Morwenna Ludlow, “The Cappadocians,” The First Christian Theologians (Canvas)
  • Gregory of Nyssa, Catachetical Oration 5-32 (Canvas)

Week 3

1/23 Forging an Imperial Orthodoxy: Controversies over the Person of Christ


1/25 Asceticism & Monasticism


Week 4

1/30 Justinian & the Early Byzantine Church


2/1 Christianity in East Syria & Persia


Week 5

2/6 Heraclius, Monothelitism, & Maximus the Confessor


  • Gregory, 160-76
  • HWCM, 257-9; 354-60
  • Meyendorff, Gregory Palamas, 35-43
  • Janet P. Williams, “Maximus the Confessor” The First Christian Theologians (Canvas)
  • Maximus the Confessor, Letter 2, “On Love” (Canvas)

First Paper Due

2/8 Eastern Christianity and Islam


Week 6

2/13 Exam 1

2/15 Medieval “Heresies”: Iconoclasm & Dualism

Handout 2 (HTML) (Word)


Week 7

2/20 Monks and Scholars in the Middle Byzantine Renaissance


  • Gregory, 246-88
  • Meyendorff, Gregory Palamas, 44-69
  • Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology, 54-64, 72-5
  • Theodore the Studite, Two Letters from Exile

2/22 Christianity in South and East Asia


Week 8

2/27 Christianity East & West: Great Schism & Crusades


3/1 Hesychasm & Gregory Palamas


Second Paper Due

Week 9

3/6 Christianity in the Balkans: Byzantines and Bogomils


3/10 The Fall of Constantinople & Christianity at the End of the Byzantine Empire


Third Paper Due

Week 10

3/13 Early Russian Church


3/15 Moscow as the Third Rome


Fourth Paper Due

10:15 Friday, March 24: Exam 2

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