REL 321

The History of Christianity I

Ancient Christianities

MW, 2:00-3:50

Professor: Dr. Stephen Shoemaker
Office: 348 Susan Campbell Hall;  Office Hours: MW 4:00-5:00 (or by appointment);  Telephone: 346-4998; Email: sshoemak (at) uoregon (dot) edu

Course Description and Objectives

This course is designed to introduce various aspects of Christianity during the first seven centuries of its existence. Although this course focuses to a certain extent on the development of what would later become “orthodox” Christianity within the bounds of the Roman Empire, this is not to the exclusion of rival forms of early Christianity. Considerable attention will also be given to the spread of Christianity along the fringes and outside the borders of the Roman Empire.   We will concentrate especially on the historical diversity of the early Christian tradition, in an effort to understand better its contemporary complexity.  In the course of the term, students will read and write reflective essays on several primary sources, each selected to represent the historical and confessional diversity of Christian traditions, as well as to present certain basic problems from the history of Christianity.  We will conclude in the middle of the seventh century, a period often considered “the end of antiquity,” and while this periodization is not unproblematic, the Arab conquests of the eastern Mediterranean that would follow indeed mark a significant historical change.


  • Joseph H. Lynch, Early Christianity: A Brief History (Oxford; ISBN: 0195138039) = Lynch
  • 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

Optional (for specific paper assignment – see below)

  • Elizabeth A. Clark, St. Augustine on Marriage and Sexuality (Catholic University of America Press; 081320867X)

Several other items are to be found on the internet, as indicated below.

There are two “handouts” that should be printed out and brought to class:

Handout 1

Handout 2

Readings from the New Testament may also be done from an NRSV, RSV, REB, NAB, or Jerusalem version – do not use Living Bible, Bible in Today’s English, NIV, KJV, etc.  If you have questions about another version, please ask the instructor.

Assignments and Estimated Workload

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 10/25 and 14:45 Thursday, December 7 (50%)

B.  Class attendance and participation (20%)

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

  1. Due 10/18. Read the The Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel according to Luke and answer the following questions: “What is similar about these two gospels, and what is different?   Are they more different than similar?   What things are similar and different in their depiction of Jesus?   How do they represent similar and/or different understandings of the Christian faith? What, in your view, is the significance of the relationship between these two early gospels for understanding the early history of Christian traditions?
  2. Due 11/8.  Read Origen’s On First Principles, Book IV and answer the following questions: “How does Origen believe the Scriptures are to be interpreted?  What reasons does he give for adopting this approach?  Do you think that this is an appropriate way to interpret the Scriptures?  What are its strengths and its shortcomings?  What do you think about the fact that this was the dominant method of reading the Scriptures in both the early and medieval periods?”
  3. Due 11/15.  Read Athanasius’ Life of Antony (you may scroll down past the introduction to where it says “Athanasius: LIFE OF ANTONY”) and answer the following questions: “In what ways is Antony’s life a fulfillment of the Christian ideal reflected in the life and teachings of Jesus and his apostles?  In what ways might it seem to fall short of this?  To what extent do the demons confronted by Antony represent an internal struggle within himself?  To what extent do the demons seem ‘real’?  What sorts of strategies does Antony adopt to overcome these demons?  What sort of miraculous powers are attributed to Antony?  What is their source?  Why does he have them?”
  4. Due 11/27. Read Clark, St. Augustine on Marriage and Sexuality, 42-105 together with 1 Corinthians 7,and answer the following questions: “What is Augustine’s view of Christian marriage, and how is it related to celibacy (continence/virginity)?  What the good things does he find in each?  What is Augustine’s view of human sexuality?  What is the purpose of marriage?  What do you think of his understandings of marriage, virginity, and sexuality, and how do they compare to Paul’s view?  How does he reconcile his views with the the Hebrew Bible’s (the Old Testament) view of marriage?”

Format of Essays:

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 Christian tradition 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 ancient Christianity from its beginnings until the beginning of the seventh century 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 ancient 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 ancient 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

9/25 Introduction


  • HWCM, 1-21 (optional)
  • Lynch, 13-36 (optional)

Handout 1

9/27 The Beginnings of Christianity


  • HWCM, 22-44
  • Lynch, 1-9, 37-50
  • The Gospel according to Mark, 13-16.8 (web)
  • The Gospel according to Matthew, 5-7 (web)
  • The Gospel according to John, 1 (web)
  • The Epistle of Paul to the Galatians 1-5 (web)

Week 2

10/2 Formation of the Early Christian Community(s)


  • HWCM, 47-56
  • Lynch, 13-36
  • Didache (selections; web)
  • Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Magnesians (web) & Letter to the Trallians (web)

10/4 Orthodoxy and Heresy


  • HWCM, 57-65; 86-91; 115-26
  • Lynch, 53-75
  • Gospel of Thomas (web)
  • The Reality of the Rulers (Hypostasis of the Archons) (web)
  • (Note: You will likely find this last item extremely difficult.  Don’t get bogged down in trying to understand every detail of it – just read through it and appreciate how different it is)

Week 3

10/9 Christianity and the Roman Empire


  • HWCM, 66-85
  • Lynch, 79-89
  • Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Romans (web)
  • Letters of Pliny and Trajan (web)
  • Justin Martyr, Second Apology (web)

10/11 Tertullian, Montanism, and Early Christology


  • HWCM 129-47
  • Lynch, 75-8, 91-7
  • Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 5.16-5.20 (web)
  • Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrneans (web)

Week 4

10/16 Origen of Alexandria


  • HWCM 99-114; 147-52
  • Lynch, 97-104
  • Origen, On First Principles, bk 1.4-7 (web)

10/18 Imperial Persecution, the Conversion of Constantine, and the Problem of the “Lapsed” (First Paper Due)


  • Lynch, 123-34, 144-58
  • HWCM 155-72
  • A Certificate of Having Sacrificed to the Gods (web)

Week 5

10/23 Arius, the Council Nicea, and the Doctrine of the Trinity


Handout 2

10/25 Midterm

Week 6

10/30 The Councils of Constantinople and the End of Arianism


  • HWCM 179-91
  • Lynch, 170-89
  • Niceno-Constantinopolitan-Creed (web)
  • Basil of Caesarea, Letter 52 (web)
  • Correspondence of Nestorius and Cyril of Alexandria & Cyril’s 12 Anathemas (web)

11/1 Monasticism, Saints, and Relics


Week 7

11/6 Women in Early Christianity: Apostles(?), Ascetics, and Patrons


  • HWCM, 220-36
  • “The Roles for Women” in Early Christianity (web)
  • Acts of Paul and Thecla (web)

11/8 Augustine of Hippo (Second Paper Due)


Week 8

11/13 The Virgin Mary and the Council of Ephesus 


  • HWCM, 187-91
  • Lynch, 170-6;
  • Correspondence of Nestorius and Cyril of Alexandria and Cyril’s 12 Anathemas (web)

11/15  The Council of Chalcedon (Third Paper Due)


  • HWCM 191-208
  • The Tome of Leo (web)
  • The Chalcedonian Definition (web)

Week 9

11/20 No Class – Instructor attending AAR/SBL conference

11/22 No Class –Instructor attending AAR/SBL conference

Week 10

11/27 After Chalcedon: Christianity in the Early Byzantine Empire (Fourth Paper Due)


  • HWCM 214-19; 240-54
  • Lynch, 223-39
  • The Life of Peter the Iberian (web)
  • Emperor Justinian, Dialogue with Paul of Nisibis (web)

11/29 The “Fall of Rome” and the Rise of the Papacy


FINAL EXAM: 14:45 Thursday, December 7

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