Course Description

This is an intellectual history course. That means that we’ll be using the tools of the historian to reach conclusions about the past: how ideas prevalent at one time changed as the result of the introduction of new ideas and of the events of the time. As historians, there are some questions which are beyond our domain: the resurrection would be a prime example as would many of the conclusions of theologians. We can, and will, pay attention to such matters of history as what people thought about the resurrection and we’ll spend considerable time investigating the various ideas about who Jesus was thought to be. Whether he was any of those things, we leave to other fora.

Much of the evidence we’ll use to reach conclusions is in our main texts: the Hebrew Bible (called parochially by Christians The Old Testament) and the New Testament. In studying those texts, we’ll want to know what their authors and redactors (editors) intended when they fashioned them. Only occasionally will we care that later interpreters thought they meant something else entirely. (The texts are, after all, scripture and, rather like the US Constitution, needed to be interpreted in ways which made them relevant to the circumstances encountered many centuries later. Those later interpretations are of course, important for many purposes but our attention will remain focussed mainly on the original meaning.)

We are enormously fortunate to have the advantage of 150 years of modern bible scholarship and the even greater good fortune to have an enormous quantity of related texts discovered during the 1940s at Nag Hammadi in Egypt and at Qumran near the Dead Sea. As a result of these discoveries and the very active scholarship of the past fifty years, we’re able to consider some very new conclusions about the history of the central ideas of Judaism and Christianity. Because many of these conclusions will likely be new to you, it’s important to keep an open mind and to accept or reject a conclusion based on its probable correctness according to the evidence for and against that conclusion.

I say probable correctness because we’re dealing in part with an era of prehistory (no written documents surviving because writing was just being invented) and even when dealing with events after 800 BCE we have the disadvantage that the surviving documents (e.g., the Hebrew Bible) were edited and transmitted by people with agendas different from the original authors. Because of the enormous effort involved in copying a text before the invention of printing, many texts which we know about because they were referred to in surviving texts were notcopied (typically because they contained disapproved minority views) and have therefore long ago turned to dust.

This means that our historical evidence is in almost every case remarkably thin — and the result is that most conclusions are at best merely highly plausible. We’ll often be in the position of weighing the relative plausibility of competing conclusions. And no one will have any firm basis for asserting that a particular conclusion must be correct. Perhaps the most recent example of this is the conjecture of Bart Ehrman in How Jesus Became Godthat it’s highly unlikely that Jesus was removed from the cross when he died. We’ll consider this in detail when we come to it but the point here is that we lack any direct evidence one way or the other. So we’re left to guess.


No prior knowledge is assumed by our course. Those with some background in the Bible will have less to learn but those with none should have no difficulty following the history we’ll be discussing if they are diligent about the assigned reading. An excellent (and pleasurable) way to gain a background in the Hebrew Bible would be to watch either (or both!) of the Yale or Harvard undergraduate courses in the subject both taught by outstanding teachers: Christine Hayes at Yale (2006) and Shaye Cohen at Harvard (2013).)


We’ll spend our first two weeks surveying the context for our history, learning about the events which shaped the nation of Israel (e.g., the exile to Babylon from 586 to 535 BCE) and about the content and transmission history of the Bible. Those to whom this is new should consider beginning to address the material well before class. Mastering the information in our two timelines would be a great start: an overview of the chronology of the Hebrew Bible and an outline of the major ideas we’ll be studying.

There are two books which provide much of the background information you’ll find helpful. The History of Israel (3rd edition) edited by Hershel Shanks is a superb review of, um, the history of Israel by a dozen scholars who are experts in their periods; it will give you a terrific overview of the context for the ideas we’ll be studying. [By far the cheapest way to obtain this book (other than the library) is from the Biblical Archeology Society bookstore ($22.95)]. Likewise, Bart Ehrman’s Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium [Amazon ($3.95/$16.28)] is an excellent survey for a popular audience of the scholarly work on Jesus in his historical context. Your reading for the course will be much more meaningful if you put both of these books on your summer reading list. I highly recommend them.


After we get our bearings, we’ll turn to the fascinating story of the development of monotheism, the proud achievement of the Israelites during the first millennium BCE and the distinguishing feature of the three “Abrahamic” religions. We start by trying to get our heads around polytheism, a worldview so different from our own — and yet familiar from Greek and Roman mythology — that only a careful and thoughtful analysis can succeed. We’ll read a classic description of mythopoetic thought (Henri Frankfort) and look closely at Book One of the Iliad as a case study. The key idea is that, in a pre-literate culture, those modes of linear thought which we take for granted are simply unavailable. We then turn to the idea that each god had his or her favorites — each political unit, each town, even each family had particular gods whose worship would bring support for the group’s endeavors. Likewise Israel, whose patriarchs were said to have entered into a solemn covenant with Yahweh: the community would follow his commandments as revealed to its greatest prophet Moses and Yahweh would in turn ensure that Israel triumphed over its enemies (and their respective gods) and otherwise prospered (scholarly term: monolatry). Finally, a faction within Israel took the final step and asserted that Yahweh was the only God, a universal God whom the other nations would eventually come to worship as the Israelites provided proof of His efficacy. It took some time before this Yahweh-only faction prevailed, but when it did following the Exile a final major redaction of the stories the Israelites had collected about themselves occurred and the Torah and the Deuteronomistic History became the central scripture of an emerging Judaism.


This massive change had an important consequence: whereas before any bad things which occurred to Israel could be attributed to another god who had temporarily bested Yahweh, now both good and bad occurrences were Yahweh’s doing. The fact that both good and bad things happened was subsumed under what became the traditional biblical understanding promulgated by the prophets: Yahweh rewarded the righteous (who followed his commandments) and punished the wicked (who did not). Because this formula did not always fit the facts, an accommodation was reached which shifted the just desert by one or more generations, eventually reaching the fourth generation. But in the end, this understanding simply broke down as emotionally unsatisfying. At the beginning of the second century BCE, the Greek Selucid kings began a Hellenization campaign which ended in a raid on the Temple treasury and a prohibition of Jewish observance such as circumcision and the Sabbath. For the first time, observant Jews were willing to die rather than violate the commandments and martyrdom was born. For many Jews, the traditional rubric seemed so unsatisfactory that they looked for a new explanation and found it in a worldview common in Persia. Zoroaster had taught that the universe was the stage for a never-ending battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. Jews knew that Yahweh was the force for good and furthermore that He would ultimately triumph but the idea that there was a temporarily ascendant antagonistic force which confounded the traditional formula had too much explanatory power to ignore. The result was Jewish apocalypticism, a worldview which personified the force of evil with a name formerly used for one of Yahweh’s divine council (see Job), Satan, and imagined an end of the current state of affairs in a cosmic battle which would permanently destroy evil and usher in a new kingdom over which Yahweh would reign forever. One outcome of that battle would be the final expression of divine justice: those who had died would be resurrected so that they could be given their proper reward of everlasting happiness or hellfire. We see the first hints of apocalypticism in the book of Daniel, the last canonical book (written in the 160s BCE), but made much more explicit in later Jewish writings. Although the apocalyptic worldview was held by a minority of Jews at the turn of the millennium, it was the view of John the Baptist, his acolyte Jesus of Nazareth, and the apostle Paul.


We’ll look briefly at the long-running debate about what we can know about the historical Jesus so that we can appreciate how different the set of beliefs which prevailed as Christianity were from the concerns of Jesus’s (and Paul’s) ministries. The most fascinating development, and the one most central to Christian theology, concerned who Jesus was thought to be (scholarly term: Christology). We are lucky to have a very skillful popularization of that history in Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God, both scholarly in its care with the details and accessible in its explanations. We’ll see that there were literally dozens of competing ideas of Jesus’s role and that all but one of them was labelled heretical by the winners who emerged at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. It was a long journey from the messianic expectations of the Jewish apocalypticists, through the remarkable morph to the suffering servant, and finally on to the eventual incarnation described in the Gospel of John.


To wrap things up, we’ll turn to the longest lasting (and perhaps most unfortunate) development within early Christianity: the neo-Platonic view of the body as corrupt and the soul as immortal.


It’s a wide-ranging series of topics but, once digested, you’ll come away with a new appreciation for the intellectual history on which our Western Civilization was founded (not to put too fine a point on it).