Michael A Williams
JSIS C 412
Impact of Gnosticism on the development of Christianity and several other religious groups of that period. Readings dating from the first through the third centuries AD.
Certain forms of religious expression from the early centuries of Christianity were eventually condemned by “orthodox” Christian authorities as “heretical.” Among the earliest and most interesting of these were a variety of writers and movements who considered the creator God of biblical tradition to be a “lesser god,” inferior to a far more transcendent and sublime divine entity. Original writings from such movements are preserved among the works in the important "Nag Hammadi Library," a collection of writings (gospels, revelations, treatises, etc.) discovered in the later 1940's near the Egyptian village of Nag Hammadi, and we will give special attention to this collection and related sources from the period. These often contain interesting and sometimes rather elaborate mythologies about the origin of the world, the nature of the true God and the lesser god(s) of creation, the origin of evil, and the nature and destiny of humanity. At a time when there was still no fixed Christian Bible or uniform organization, such elaborate myths of origin and eschatology constituted some of the earliest attempts at a systematic articulation of Christian doctrine in relation to Jewish tradition and Greco-Roman philosophy. The Nag Hammadi collection includes other writings that do not necessarily—or at least so clearly—involve these mythologies but do exemplify interesting “alternative” Christian literatures claiming to convey “secret” revelation of one sort or another. Fundamental features of what eventually became Christian orthodoxy were shaped through controversy over such doctrines and literatures.
Student learning goals
Better understanding of religious themes, issues, diversity and controversies in period of Christian origins
Better understanding of dynamics of innovation in new religious movements
Enhancement of critical and analytical skills
Enhancement of written communication and skills in argumentation
General method of instruction
Lecture and discussion
The course has no formal prerequisites, and past experience indicates that good students, especially those with good writing skills and study/research habits, can succeed and sometimes excel in the course even if they have not had a previous course in religion. However, suggested background for those having had the opportunity prior to JSIS C 412 would be JSIS B 220, 322 or 408 (formally RELIG 220, 322 and 420). Many other Comparative Religion courses would also provide useful background and skills.
Class assignments and grading
Normally the assignments in this course are papers—no exams. In the last offering of the course, the assignments included two five-page essays and a 10-15 page research paper (for undergraduates; 20-25 pages for graduate students) on a topic chosen by the student in consultation with the instructor.
In the last offering of the course, the 5-page essays were each 25% of the final grade, and the research paper was 40%. Class participation was 10% of the final grade.