Religious Studies 535: Varieties of Early Christianity

Robert Kraft (, University of Pennsylvania, Spring 2004
227 Logan Hall; tel. 215 898-5827
Instructor's home page and old class home page


Aims of the Course:

The main objective of this course is to become acquainted with the development of the various threads that together came to be known as "Christianity" during the formative period prior to the official recognition and consolidation as a religious option under Constantine (ca 325 CE). There will be a strong emphasis on "methodological selfconsciousness" in a historical framework -- that is, how do we know what we think we know about the period and its participants? Familiarity with the surviving literature and other historical artifacts from the period will be basic to the investigation, as well as an attempt to understand these materials from the perspectives of the people who originally produced them.


In addition to regular class attendance and participation, including attention to email communications, students taking the course for credit will
(1) submit a research paper (about 15 old-style pages) on an approved topic (choice of topic by mid-term, completed paper or full draft by the final exam period);
(2) participate in the class project (updated electronic edition of sections of Harnack's Mission and Expansion book) or present an in-class review (also to be submitted in writing) of an approved modern publication; and
(3) sit for a one-on-one comprehensive oral "exit interview" with the instructor (about half an hour in length) after the research paper has been evaluated and returned and all other required work is finished.

NOTE: supplementation and/or revision and resubmission of problematic work is encouraged (no penalty) when appropriate. Preliminary drafts may be submitted for comment. Electronic submission ("text only," not attachments) is also acceptable.

Survey Oriented Primary/Secondary Ancient Sources:

[NOTE: as representatives of their respective periods, they are"primary" sources, but in what they report they are "secondary"]

Collections of Ancient Primary Sources:

(see also the larger collections in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Ancient Christian Writers, and similar series; online see especially the Early Christian Writings page, the Fathers of the Church site, and the Additional Texts -- also the Tertullian site)

Modern Secondary Surveys and Syntheses (recommended as examples):

Anthologies of Secondary Treatments (recommended for guidance):

Overview of the Sources and their Geographical Distribution

The Spread of Early Christianity (see especially Bauer, Orthodoxy; Harnack, Mission 2) -- see also Maps (also here)

Classification of Extant Sources (Primary, Secondary)

Selected Problems Confronting Early Christianity

What Happens When the Expected End Fails to Arrive? [see week 9]
How is Authority Constituted, Recognized, Enforced, Transmitted? [see week 10]
Belief and Conduct in Christian Communities [see week 11 and week 12]
Relationships to Surrounding Societies [see week 13]

Synthesis: Types of Varieties of Early Christianity (see week 14)

Focus Questions, by the week = class meeting

1. Getting Oriented to the Sources

Identify four different COLLECTIONS of early Christian Literature and be able to give at least one in-depth example from each.

[Suggestion: look at tables of contents of Primary Source Collections]

2. Getting Oriented to the Participants

Identify four different sub-GROUPS within early Christianity and be able to describe in some detail at least one representative of each sub-group.

[Suggestion: work from tables of contents of Secondary Syntheses, with help from Secondary Anthologies as necessary]

3. Getting Oriented to the Significant Events

Identify four different key EVENTS that helped shape the development of early Christianity and conjecture how that development might have been affected if each event had not occurred.

[Suggestion: look for turning points suggested by the organization of the Secondary Syntheses]

4. Getting Oriented to the ONLOOKERS and OPPONENTS

Identify four types of non-Christian contemporaries in the early period (up to about 200 CE) and describe each position vis-a-vis Christianity. Do the same for four specific individuals.

[Suggestion: pay special attention to "backgrounds" treatments in the Secondary Syntheses (e.g. on Greco-Roman and on Jewish aspects), and follow up in the Secondary Anthologies; e.g. familiarize yourself with
the philosophical schools and religious options, as well as such sources as:
Pliny the Elder (see also),
Philo (Hypothetica, on Human Freedom and on the Contemplative Life),
Josephus (selection on Honi, on Palestinian Jewish groups [see also]) ,
Pliny the Younger (to Trajan on the Christian problem [Latin text]),
Galen the physician (see quotations on Christians and Jews),
Lucian of Samosata (on Alexander of Abonoteichos and Peregrinus),
Philostratus on Apollonius of Tyana (also here)]

5. Concepts of
"Messiah/Christ" in Relation to Joshua/Jesus

Identify four different models of "messianic" expectation present in the pre-Christian world and show how each did or did not become associated with Jesus/Joshua.

[Suggestions: consider such passages as
GJohn 4.1-42,
GMk 12 and parallels in GMt 21-22 and GLk 20,
Paul/Rom 1.1-4,
Hebrews 6-7,
"GHebrews" Coptic fragment,
Ascension of Isaiah 11,
GLk 7.1-35 and parallels in GMt 11;
see also Kraft, Joshua-Messiah article]

6. Joshua/Jesus as Revealer

Identify four different ways in which Joshua/Jesus is depicted as a "revealer" of special "knowledge" and/or material to his disciples (pay attention to chronological [i.e. at what point in his career, broadly speaking] and geographical/physical issues [where, in what forms] as well as to audience and content).

[Suggestions: compare the approaches in such sources as
Paul (Gal 1.16, 2 Cor 12),
GThomas (and "Q"),
Revelation 1-3,
Epistle of the Apostles (see 2 Pet 1.16-18),
Dialogue of the Savior (NHL),
Sophia of Jesus Christ (NHL),
Clement of Alexandria --]

7. Joshua/Jesus as Representative/Intermediator/Model

This way of viewing things builds, to a large extent, on how God's representative "messiah" (above #5) and/or "revealer" (above #6) is depicted, with a focus on what that agent does on behalf of the dependent followers; identify four different ways in which Joshua/Jesus is depicted as an "intermediary" between humans and the divine (pay attention to what is at stake in his filling such a role) and/or four different functions attributed to Joshua/Jesus in this context.

[Suggestions: explore such passages as
Paul/1 Cor 15(end time victor),
Paul/Rom 5-8(victor over sin),
Paul/Gal 2("in me"), 3(curse);
?Paul/Phlp 2.1-13("mind");
"Paul"/1 Tim 1.12-2.7,
"Paul"/2 Tim 2.8-13,
"Paul"/Tit 2.11-14;
1 Pet 1;
1 Jn 1.5-2.17;
Heb 1-2(pioneer), 5, 7.20-8.13, 12.1-11;
GJn 1.1-18(logos), 6.35-65(nourishment), 17(model?), 19(kingdom);
Rev (lamb);
ApcrJn start (NH -- and other materials mentioned above under #6);
1 Clem 36;
Barn 8(scapegoat);
2 Clem 3-4; Irenaeus (on substitution and ransom to devil)]

8. Joshua/Jesus as Possesor of Special Powers (Miracle/Magic)

Identify four distinguishable types of extraordinary actions performed by Joshua/Jesus on his surrounding world (or four types of mastery, in relation to the perceived source of the problem, attributed to Jesus -- over nature, over sickness, over satan/demons, over human opposition, over death, over sin, over historical circumstance, etc.) and name four other such "miracle workers" from the same period, including two that are not his own followers and two that are.

[Suggestions: compare various relevant stories in the synoptic gospels and in GJohn, look for claims regarding any "competitors"; note similar activities by early Christians (e.g. in canonical and apocryphal Acts accounts),check encyclopedia articles on (ancient) magic, miracle, healing, etc.]

9. Institutionalizing/Domesticating the Apocalyptic Impetus

Explore the use and meanings in early Christian writings of such terms as "kingdom of God/Heavens," "parousia," "second coming" or "return" of Christ, "last days/times," "antichrist" and related imagery, "day of the Lord" (or "of judgment"), and the like.

[Suggestions: use a concordance for NT and Apostolic Fathers;
look at Paul/1 Cor 7, 15;
?Paul/1 Thess 5;
GMk 8.34-9.1 (and parallels);
"Paul"/1 Tim 4;
2 Pet 3; Heb 1;
Rev 22;
Didache 16;
2 Clem 17;
Diognetus 5]


Identify four instances in which apparent frustration of apocalyptic hopes led to the modification of existing ideas/practices or the development of new ideas/practices in early Christian circles.

[Suggestions: explore the implications of the synoptic "transfiguration" accounts (compare 2 Pet 1),
Paul/1 Cor 15 (resurrection past),
?Paul/1 Thess 4-5 (end anticipation),
1 Jn (antichrist),
2 Pet (delay of end);
consider how early Christians related "kingdom of God" to human institutions or to citizenship ideals]

10. Patterns of Authority and Structure
[23 March: Lameiro (Pagels, Gnostic Gospels), Soares (Eisenman, Dead Sea Scrolls)]

Identify four different existing institutions in the early Christian period that influenced Christian language and perceptions about authority, directly or indirectly; and/or describe four different patterns in which early Christian groups organized themselves with reference to authority structures.

[Suggestions: consider models from Political, Economic, Religious, Social, Intellectual (academic), and Aesthetic spheres -- note the useful mnemnotic acronym PERSIA;
for some specific passages, see
Paul/1 Cor 12,
?Paul/1 Thess 4-5,
?Paul/Eph 4-6 (Col 3.18-4.6),
Heb 8.1-10.25,
GJn 18.33-38, 3 Jn,
Acts 1-5,
1 Clem 40-43,
Ignatius, Smyrnaens 8-9 (and in general),
Did 11-15,
Hermas Parables/Similes 9 (browse)]

11. Patterns of Liturgy/Cult
[30 March; Tolentino (Thiering, Dead Sea Scrolls), Wayland (Harnack 2.7, Christian self-identification)]

Identify four different early Christian community practices or ritual developments, and be prepared to discuss the background of at least one of them.

Paul, 1 Corinthians 5, 8-11,
Paul, Romans 6.1-11,
Didache (entire -- see also its relationship to Barnabas),
Hebrews 3.13 and 10.25 & Barnabas 4.10 (avoid isolation),
Pliny to Trajan (what Christians actually do),
1 John 1.9 (confession?) and passim, on (not) sinning ,
James 5.13-20,
Justin, Apology 61-67,
Gospel of Philip [Nag Hammadi] 64-71,
synoptic sending out of the 12 (GMark 6.7ff and parallels) and/or the 70 (GLuke 10),
GMatthew 28 "great commission"]

12. Patterns of Study, Connectedness, Rationalization
[6 April: Copp (Jesus), Gatzogiannis (NT Canon), Griffiths (G.Thomas)]

Early Christians imitated, adapted and created various approaches and arguments in defense and/or explanation of their positions. What patterns and principles of interpretation and presentation are recognizable in the following examples:
Paul, Romans 9-11 (what about Judaism, finally?)
GMatthew 1-2 (fulfilment texts), 5.17-48 ("fences" around the laws)
Revelation/Apocalypse 13 (compare 4 Ezra [2 Esdras] 11-12) (Jewish apocalyptic traditions)
1 Clement 7-12 (heros of the Jewish tradition as models)
Barnabas 7-8 (Jewish liturgy typology), 9-10 ("real" circumcision), 18-20 ("Two Ways" ethic)
Didache 3 ("fences" around the laws)
Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 1-7 (searching for "truth")
Origin of the World [Nag Hammadi] (start) (cosmogeny through philosophical mythology)

[Suggestions: Be alert to patterns that might suggest educational influences, "school type" activities, philosophizing commonplaces, scriptural associations/allusions, and the like]

13. Patterns of Social Involvement and/or Withdrawal
[13 April: Shin (Harnack 1.1-3), Tolley (Harnack 4), Beardsley (Cullman, Baptism), El-Badawi (BarDaisan & Early Syrian Christianity)]

In what ways, and for what reasons, did early Christians attempt to distance themselves from the world in which they found themselves and in what ways did they acknowledge and affirm it? Pay attention to attitudes regarding social contacts and meetings, citizenship, military service, attendance at theater and/or the games and banquets (note accusations of misanthropy, atheism, secret orgies, and the like).

Paul, Galatians 5-6.10 (eschatological mysticism and ethical admonition)
Paul, 1 Corinthians 7 (marriage advice in the last days)
Paul, Romans 13 (don't rock the boat -- obey the civic authorities, pay taxes)
"Paul," 1 Timothy 4-6 (too much of too little is too bad -- practice community order)
Hebrews 13 (show hospitality, live orderly and restrained)
1 Peter 1-4 ("Haustafel" ethics, in and out of the community; see also "Paul's" Colossians-Ephesians)
1 John 4-5 (avoid deception, overcome the world)
Revelation/Apocalypse 22.6-21 (the time is at hand -- how to act)
Didache (a handbook of basic ethics, liturgy, end time expectation)
Justin (accusations) (Christian atheism, cannibalism, sexual excesses, etc.)
2 Clement 5-7 (exhortations in the shadow of the end)
Diognetus 5-6 (Christianity within the ordinary world)
see also Marcion (following the God of love, not the God of justice),
Tertullian (and Montanism) (radical living awaiting the radical end),
"encratism" (Tatian) (avoid anything beyond the bare necessities)]

14. Synthetic Overview
[20 April: Kelly (King), Paik (Bauer's Impact), Metz, Kulp (Harnack on Gnostics)]

Reconstruct four different types of Christianity in the early period and show how each has its own identity/personality in relation to the others, and to the extra-Christian worlds. Try to choose varieties sufficiently different from each other that they probably would have argued (or did argue) strongly (or at least loudly) against each other.

[Suggestion: review all the relevant materials and imagine how each position would relate to the others.]

Special Topics: Gnosis and Gnosticism (Spring 2005)


Markschies, Christoph. Gnosis: an Introduction (T&T Clark 2003) [translated from the German] -- see the review by Michael A. Williams (2004, RBL).