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Instructor Class Description

Time Schedule:

Michael A Williams
RELIG 426
Seattle Campus

Gnosticism and Early Christianity

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.

Class description

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

General method of instruction

Lecture and discussion.

Recommended preparation

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 the opportunity to take it prior to RELIG 426 would be RELIG 220, 322 or 420. Many other RELIG courses would also provide useful background.

Class assignments and grading

The assignments in this course are papers--no exams. The specifics for the assignments vary from year to year. 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 for graduate students) on a topic chosen by the student in consultation with the instructor. Subject to modification in next offering.

In the last offering of the course, the 5-page essays were each 25% of the final grade, and the research paper was 40%, and class participation was 10%.

Subject to modification in next offering.


The information above is intended to be helpful in choosing courses. Because the instructor may further develop his/her plans for this course, its characteristics are subject to change without notice. In most cases, the official course syllabus will be distributed on the first day of class.
Additional Information
Last Update by Michael A Williams
Date: 12/13/2011