REL 102

World Religions II

Religions of Near Eastern Origin

MWF, 3:00-3:50

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 is designed to provide students with a basic working knowledge of the various religious traditions of Near Eastern origin.  Although we will devote considerable attention to the three numerically largest Western traditions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, we will also discuss, however briefly, various other related traditions that are also deserving of our attention, including several religious traditions that have now become extinct.  Students will read numerous primary texts from each of these traditions, which will be discussed in smaller groups.  Finally, students will write a reflective essay requiring them to process and synthesize several key concepts from these religious traditions.


  • Willard G. Oxtoby, World Religions: Western Traditions, 4th ed., Oxford University Press, 2014 (ISBN 978-0-19-900287-0)
  • Gary E. Kessler, Western Ways of Being Religious. MCG CREATE  (custom; ISBN 9781121652712).

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

PowerPoint slides


Assignments and Estimated Workload

Attendance at all class sessions is expected. Students should read all the assignments carefully before coming to class, in order to better understand the lectures and to participate in discussion groups with questions and comments. Assignments will generally involve about 80 pages of reading per week. This should require about four 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.  Three exams (60%)

B.  Class attendance and participation (15%)

C. A final essay 5-6 pages double-spaced (approx 1500 words), due in class on 3/13 and addressing one of the following three questions (25%):

1. The three largest Western religious traditions are often collectively known as the ‘monotheistic’ traditions.  As we have seen in class, however, many of the religious traditions of Western antiquity were polytheistic in nature.  The Christian tradition developed in a matrix that included both monotheistic and polytheistic traditions, and although it is generally regarded as a monotheistic tradition, many of its opponents (and even some of its faithful) have seen the doctrine of the Trinity as an expression of polytheism.  Read the following documents and discuss the Christian understanding of God in relation to the categories of monotheism and polytheism.  In what sense is the Christian view of God monotheistic, polytheistic, or both?  Does it seem to fit one category more than another, or is it a tertium quid–something quite different from both categories?  Reflect on the arguments presented in the two primary texts and identify their strengths and weakness: which arguments do you find especially persuasive and why?

2. Mysticism is a theme common to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, although in each of these traditions it has taken historically diverse forms.  Read the selections from the following two mystical writers and answer the following questions.  In class we have defined mysticism as a direct, personal experience of the divine.  To what extent do each of these texts comport with this definition?  Are there aspects that are potentially problematic?  If so, is there a way that you might redefine “mysticism” to better include these texts?  What sort of similarities and differences do you find in these texts?  Do you think that the comparison of these texts supports the theory proposed by many (including mystics especially) that mysticism and mystical experience are the same across different religious traditions?

3. Read the following works from the Jewish, Islamic, and Ancient Near Eastern traditions, all of which treat common themes about the origins of the universe and the early history of humanity.  What sort of similarities and differences do you find in these texts?  How can one best explain these relationships from an historical perspective?  What are the significances of both the similarities and the differences?  Why are some parts very similar and other parts altered by the different traditions?  What can these relationships tell us about the history of the Near Eastern religious traditions in general?

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 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 basic history and beliefs  of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam  and understand their diversity and relation to the broader social, cultural, and political elements shaped their beliefs and practices
  • analyze primary texts critically and discuss their significance for understanding religious culture
  • evaluate the role of cultural exchange and religious dialogue within different religions
  • demonstrate the ability to write a formal academic paper on a topic related to the religious traditions covered in this class.

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 in your discussion group.  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 at sshoemak (at) uoregon (dot) edu.

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 and must be approved by the instructor in advance.

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 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


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

(PowerPoint slides)

Week 1

1/9 Introduction

1/11 Religion in the Ancient Near East


1/13 Judaism: Origins to Exile

Read: Oxtoby, 76-91; Kessler, 39-55

Week 2

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

1/18: Judaism: Exile and the Second Temple Period

Read: Oxtoby, 91-99; Kessler, 56-66

1/20: Judaism: Rabbinic Judaism

Read: Oxtoby, 99-109; Kessler, 66-69

Week 3

1/23: Judaism: Medieval Judaism

Read: Oxtoby, 113-116; Kessler, 69-77

1/25 Judaism: Practice

Read: Oxtoby, 116-126; Kessler, 77-88

1/27 Judaism: Judaism and the Modern World

Read: Oxtoby, 126-142; Kessler, 88-97

Week 4

1/30 The Zoroastrian Tradition: Classical Zoroastrianism


2/1 The Zoroastrian Tradition: Zoroastrianism in the Modern World


2/3 Exam 1: Study Guide; Timeline (MS Excel)

Week 5

2/6 Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean: Greco-Roman Religions


2/8 Christianity: Christian Origins

Read: Oxtoby, 150-163; Kessler, 99-124

2/10 Christianity: Imperial Christianity

Read: Oxtoby, 163-178; Kessler, 124-31

Week 6

2/13 Christianity: The Middle Ages

Read: Oxtoby, 178-190; Kessler, 131-36

2/15 Christianity: The Western Reformations

Read: Oxtoby, 190-98; Kessler, 136-43

2/17 Christianity: The Enlightenment and Pietism


Week 7

2/20 Christianity: Christianity and Modernity

Read: Oxtoby, 206-12; Kessler, 143-50

2/22 Christianity: The Diversity of Modern Christianity

Read: Oxtoby, 212-21; Kessler, 150-67

2/24 Jews, Christians, and the Beginnings of Islam

Special lecture: Fred Donner, University of Chicago

Read: Fred Donner, Muhammad and the Believers, 50-89  (Canvas)

Week 8

2/27 Exam 2: Study Guide; Study Guide 2 (MS Word); Timeline (MS Excel)

3/1 The Manichaean Tradition / Islam: Muhammad and Islamic Origins


3/3 Islam: Muhammad and Islamic Origins: New Perspectives


Week 9

3/6 Islam: The Age of the Caliphs

Read: Oxtoby, 244-56; Kessler, 188-91

3/8 Islam: Shi’i and Sunni

Read: Oxtoby, 256- 60; Kessler, 191-97

3/10 Islam: Islamic Theology and Mysticism

Read: Oxtoby, 260-78; Kessler, 197-207

Week 10

3/13 Islam and the Modern World

Read :Oxtoby, 278-92; Kessler, 207-26

***Paper due in class 3/13***

3/15 Mandeans, Yezidis, and Baha’i


3/17 Exam 3

Study Guide; Study Guide 2 (MS Word); Timeline (MS Excel); Vocabulary (MS Word)

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