Course: REL244
Instructor: Vidas
F 2018

Description of Course Goals and Curriculum

This history of religion course studies the origins and developments of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in antiquity. Students learn to examine these traditions and transformations critically through recognition of patterns among the traditions, identification of ways in which they shaped one another, and analysis of the social and political factors that informed these developments.

The course is set unequivocally in the past; there are very few (if any) links drawn to the present. It is structured chronologically and is divided into three units which trace the beginning and evolution of Judaism, the developments of Christianity, and the historical foundation of Islam. Time is spent analyzing and contextualizing each tradition individually, and students will be able to recognize what makes these traditions distinct. But, even though the course is in sequential order, it is a fundamentally comparative course. As such, the lectures and precepts build upon each other, just as the traditions do. In order to holistically understand 2nd century developments of Christianity, it is important to understand the Jewish practices and beliefs which preceded and shaped it. More generally, it is necessary for students to situate the key figures, events, and themes of the respective traditions so that they are equipped to examine and compare them.

Learning From Classroom Instruction

In lectures, the historical material is presented in a sequential timeline, often situating the primary source(s) in their context. Situating the figures, events, themes, and primary sources in the proper place within the development of each tradition is vital, as these will certainly be tested on the final exam. Professor Vidas also uses lecture to make connections between/among traditions that aren’t spelled out by the primary sources. Sometimes the secondary sources will draw links between the traditions, but oftentimes not. Vidas’s lectures will often illustrate similarities and differences in the theological themes, political circumstances, and social factors of the respective traditions. It is important to note these connections (whether divergent or convergent) and how the traditions are interrelated.

Precept follows the historical timeline of the rest of the course, but its main purpose seems to be developing students’ abilities as historians. Generally, precept began with a brief Q&A with the professor regarding our weekly topic and readings. Then, Professor Vidas would give students an assignment and guide them through a particular passage in the primary source, helping students gain familiarity with the methodology of historians. Students would either work in groups or come together at the end in order to discuss the task. Historical (and literary) criticism and reasoning were emphasized, and this methodology can be difficult for students to grasp. In order to prepare for these types of tasks, it is important for students to practice reading and thinking like an historian, which means turning history into a series of question rather than a series of answers.

Learning For and From Assignments

Grading is divided into 4 components: (1) Class participation, (2) Midterm paper, (3) Final paper, and (4) Final exam.

The midterm paper asks students to find a passage in which an ancient author interprets an earlier text (e.g., a 1st century writer cites a text from the 6th century BCE) and explain both the interpreting and interpreted texts and the connection between them. The only source you may use in this assignment is the Oxford Bible, in its entirety. Hence, it is useful to make notes throughout the semester of passages that stick out as contentious or intriguing. If one is struggling to decide on a topic, Professor Vidas is easily accessible and willing to help. Without the use of outside sources, this puts pressure on students to employ the methods and approaches that are used in this class (especially those taught in precept). Students must showcase their historical and literary criticism abilities through engagement with primary sources. For this assignment, it is helpful to consider the original context of the earlier passage, the context of the interpreter, and how the “present” interpretation differs from how the passage was originally used. Additionally, it will help the writer to consider the assumptions and/or motives that inform the interpretation.

The “short” final paper (5-7 pages) asks students to choose one of two themes that are prominent throughout each of the traditions. Articles, subdivided by tradition, are provided for each theme, and students must make use of them (and, optionally, any sources assigned in the class) in order to make a claim about how these themes are reflected in two of the three religious traditions from the course. Since it is a requirement to use the assigned articles, one’s choice of topic is somewhat limited. Professor Vidas understands this and is generous in offering assistance in finding a focused topic. When reading the articles, takes notes on how the material relates to the other tradition(s). Perhaps the material can be related to phenomena discussed elsewhere in the course. Look for common themes, motifs, and interpretations. If the articles present two interpretations of the same topic, then surely there is an open line of investigation.

Throughout the semester, Professor Vidas updates a list of terms, themes, figures, events, and texts that correspond to the weekly progression of the course. This list is drawn from all aspects of the course (readings, lectures, precepts). The purpose of the final exam is to assess a student’s general familiarity with this material. As such, the exam is very straightforward. Students are asked to write a short definition of roughly 30 terms and note their relevance to the course material. This is a history course; as such, historical context is key. It will not help you to discuss how a term is relevant to the world today. The list (and the course itself) is in chronological order, which helps when situating terms within their context. Maintain a historical timeline that documents the major themes, events, and figures. When defining figures, note their position, characteristics, and why they’re significant to their respective tradition(s). When discussing a text or event, be mindful of its date, its themes, and the role it played in religion of antiquity. For these descriptions, lecture notes and secondary sources are most useful, as they tend to provide the necessary context and explanation in the most succinct manner.

Readings are split between primary sources written during or around our time of focus and secondary sources which analyze, interpret, or evaluate our topic of focus. Primary sources are useful for deducing the social and political contexts as well as the practices and beliefs of the traditions. Additionally, the primary sources most used in this course – the Bible and the Qur’an – are must-reads; they are two of the most impactful books in the history of the world. Often the secondary source takes a focused approach, such as an analysis of an individual Jewish primary source, or a description of early Islamic communities. It is important to take note of the greater themes of each source and how they fit within the greater context of religious development in antiquity. Make use of the readings to update the final exam preparation list that Professor Vidas provides. As stated before, learning to read and think like an historian is important in enhancing what one gleans from the readings. Asking questions about sourcing (Who wrote this? From what point of view? What was their intent?), contextualization (What do we know about the social/political/religious context of this text?), and corroboration (Do other contemporary texts tell the same story?) is a good step in the right direction.

External Resources

I utilized Biblical Hebrew and Greek interlinear translations in order to gain a better comprehension of some of the primary sources. Can be useful, but for the scope of this course is generally unnecessary.

I made use of various Biblical commentaries and encyclopedias to augment my understanding of certain passages and themes. Provided some interesting insight, but largely unnecessary for this course.

Office hours with Professor Vidas were very useful. He is an expert with regard to the content, methodology, and writing associated with the class. For any aspect of the course I would recommend seeing him: understanding the content or the study of history/religion more generally, strategies for learning, or tips on writing. He is a tremendous resource. He provides excellent feedback on assignments and is serious about training students to be the best writers they can be.

I did not make use of any other external resources, but I would encourage students to check out resources on history as a discipline and how to read and write like an historian:

What Students Should Know About This Course For Purposes Of Course Selection

REL 244 is a smaller, lecture-based course that does not assume any prior knowledge of history or religion as disciplines, or of the religious traditions from which the class takes its name. This class is largely straightforward: Professor Vidas presents the traditions in chronological order and analyzes their origins and developments both independently and in relation to one another. Students will explore the patterns, developments, and social/political contexts of each of the traditions, and they will discover the ways in which the traditions have shaped one another.

The course spans many centuries, and as such, it relies heavily on primary and secondary source readings to gain a general orientation to the topics (approximately 100-150 pages per week). Assignments are sparse: there is a final exam, and there are two written assignments in which students must demonstrate their understanding of the methods and strategies used by historians. Precepts largely focus on orienting students with these methods and strategies. Lectures are vital: they are filled with information that situates the primary sources within their context, augments the students’ understanding of the secondary sources, and draws thematic connections between/among the traditions.

This is a history of religion class. Theological themes arise, but usually only for the sake of identifying historical trends or transformations. One can gain insight into some of the ancient beliefs and practices of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but connections to modern religion are rarely, if ever, drawn. Through this historical approach, students will develop the tools necessary for critical examination of history and religion, and they will be better equipped to read and write like an historian. If one’s independent work in the humanities or social sciences explores anything in the past, this course and the analytical framework developed within it can be applicable.

REL 244 helps students gain a better understanding of the beginnings and developments of three religions which have dramatically shaped the world. Personally, the course spurred a newfound appreciation for these traditions and the ancient world in general. In addition to reading some of the most influential texts of humankind, I gained a more comprehensive understanding of history as a discipline and of how to critically examine the ancient world. I learned an extraordinary amount about the Mediterranean world of late antiquity, its three main religions (and numerous smaller traditions), and their impactful interactions and developments.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: Their Emergence in Antiquity

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