Course Description

Since the advent of the academic study of religions, early Christianity has had a complex and productive relationship with various theoretical models emerging out of the Euro-American university, theories that attempt to re-imagine the meaning of human social endeavors. One the one hand, religious theorists of all stripes, from Max Weber to Michel Foucault, have felt the need and desire to elucidate their theories within and around early Christian texts and histories. On the other hand, early Christian studies as a field (which emerged into the academy in the 1960s) has been drawn to all manner of theoretical models, from classical sociology to queer theory.


This seminar will explore this curious interrelationship between theory and early Christian studies. What makes early Christianity so compelling—and so available—to theory? Why do scholars of early Christianity so often turn to theories developed in modern contexts to illuminate ancient histories? What does this cross-fascination tell us about the tangled roots of Theory, and the potential rootlessness of religious histories?


This course presupposes no specific work in critical theory or early Christianity, although either and both would obviously be useful. Instead, we will spend the week of class (online through Sakai, and during the seminar meeting itself) discussing the assigned texts, figuring out what they are saying, and (ideally) how and why they are saying it. Along the way we will learn about some of the main theories of religion and culture that have predominated in the academy, and ways of studying early Christian history.


The main goal of this course, however, is to learn how to read between academic lines: how do scholars produce knowledge about religion, history, and culture? What role does critical theory play in deciphering human knowledge, and what are its limits (chronological or cultural)?


Course Materials

The following books have been ordered for this class:


Jonathan Culler, Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 1997)

Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (HarperOne, 1996)

Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (Routledge, 2002)

E.R. Dodds, Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety (repr. Cambridge, 1990)

Virginia Burrus, The Sex Lives of Saints: An Erotics of Ancient Hagiography (Philadelphia, 2004)


In addition, there are many readings found through Sakai and online; both sets of additional reading can be accessed directly from the course website.


The readings for each day comprise mainly academic writings dealing with aspects of New Testament and Early Christian Studies that employ some form of critical theory. Usually these academic writings are paired with primary sources (i.e., writings from the early Christian period, in translation) and theoretical works. In preparing your readings for online postings and class, you should be striving to figure out:

  • What are these authors’ main arguments? What kinds of arguments are they (e.g., historical, theological, political, etc.)?

  • What kinds sources are they using?

  • What theories are they using? How explicit are they in their use of critical theories? Could they make the same argument without this theoretical appartus?

  • What other theories might they have used with this material? Why do you think they chose to work with this particular theory? (These questions will become more relevant as we progress through the semester.)


Course Requirements

1. Attendance and participation: 25%. Since this course meets once a week, regular participation is absolutely necessary and required. Participation has three components:

a. Attendance. Missed classes and repeated tardiness will affect your participation grade.


b. Online participation. Every student is required to post at least once a week to Sakai. This posting may be in the form of a question (or an answer to someone else’s question); an insight into the reading (see, for example, the four questions listed above under “Course Materials”); a connection between different readings for the week; a comparison with other weeks’ readings; and so forth. All postings should be complete by Monday morning. (Do not post from your cell phone on the way to class.)


c. In-class participation. In addition, you must actively participate (out loud) in class. During seminars, we will conduct close, cooperative readings of the day’s assignments: be ready with questions, comments, concerns. You may not have understood the readings: we will take time in class to go over the readings, figure them out, and decode their arguments.

2. Backround presentation: 25%. Every student must volunteer to present one background topic during the semester (topics are listed each week in the syllabus). Depending on class size and preference, there may be more than one presentation per class. The background presentation should summarize the topic (usually related to the theoretical materials being read that week) clearly and concisely (using whatever materials the presenter feels are relevant). Ideally, the presenter will relate the background material directly to the week’s readings. Presenters are encouraged to prepare a handout (an outline, bibliography, chart, etc.) for the class (the professor can copy it for you before class time).  


3. Midterm essay: 20%. In early March, a take-home essay assignment will be distributed that will be due upon return from spring break.


4. Final paper: 30%. By no later than spring break, students should begin researching a final paper (10-20 pages) that will be due during finals week. The paper can engage any aspect of the relationship between contemporary theory and early Christian studies, including:

  • A survey of how a particular theoretical model (Marxism, sociology, queer theory, etc.) has been used in early Christian studies;

  • An analysis of an early Christian document, event, or figure from an explicitly theoretical perspective (e.g., a Weberian reading of Constantine; a Foucaultian analysis of martyrdom; a postcolonial interpretation of a saint’s life; etc.);

  • A long review of a theoretically-oriented early Christian studies book;

  • Any other analytic study that engages the nexus of theory and early Christianity.

Suggested topics and materials will be posted on the course website.


All students are required to meet with the professor to discuss final paper topics. If you have not made an appointment by the end of March, expect a barrage of emails until you do.


The final day of class will be set aside for paper workshopping: everyone must post some part of their paper—an introduction, outline, fragments, something—to the Sakai by the Friday before class. We will then discuss the themes, topics, and difficulties as a group, and provide helpful criticisms and suggestions.


Specific format instructions for the final papers will be distributed in class and posted on the course website.


Scripps College's policy on academic honesty (just for kicks): "Cheating and/or plagiarism seriously violate the principles of academic integrity that Scripps College expects its students to uphold. Academic dishonesty is not tolerated at Scripps and may result in suspension or expulsion from the College. (See the current Guide to Student Life, pp. 90-93.)" Students from other colleges should be familiar with their home institution’s policies on academic honesty (and will be held strictly to them).




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