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Unit of study_

RLST2624: The Birth of Christianity

Semester 1, 2021 [Normal day] - Remote

This unit discusses the textual, archaeological and socio-cultural evidence for the origins of Christianity; with a particular purpose to analyse how cults centred on the charismatic figure of Jesus of Nazareth led to the construction of such a powerful religious tradition. Tensions within that emergent tradition will be considered, and especially its struggle towards self-identity with both Judaism and the Greco-Roman world.

Unit details and rules

Unit code RLST2624
Academic unit Studies in Religion
Credit points 6
12 credit points at 1000 level in Studies in Religion or 6 credit points at 1000 level in in Studies in Religion and 6 credit points at 1000 level in Ancient History
Assumed knowledge


Available to study abroad and exchange students


Teaching staff

Coordinator Iain Gardner,
Type Description Weight Due Length
Presentation Seminar presentation
20% Multiple weeks 1000 words
Outcomes assessed: LO1 LO4 LO3 LO2
Assignment Essay
40% Week 06
Due date: 15 Apr 2021 at 18:00
2000 words
Outcomes assessed: LO1 LO2 LO3 LO4
Assignment Take-home paper
40% Week 13
Due date: 03 Jun 2021 at 18:00
1500 words
Outcomes assessed: LO1 LO2 LO3 LO4

Assessment summary

Oral Presentation (20%)
You will be required to formally present to your examiner and classmates on a seminar topic to be selected by yourself in the week one lecture. Presentations are given during the seminar each week and referencing to both primary and secondary sources within the presentation is required. No written submission is required. You will receive a mark and feedback by email following your presentation.

Essay (40%)
The essay is 2000 words in length and should critically engage with both primary and secondary sources. Please answer one of the following questions:

1.) How important was the historical veracity of Jesus’ life and death to early Christian theologians?
2.) When can Christianity be said to have been born?
3.) What can archaeology and non-Christian sources contribute to the study of Christian origins?
4.) Would it be more helpful to talk about ‘Christianities’ rather than a single tradition termed ‘Christianity’ or ‘the early church’?
5.) How was orthodoxy defined and enforced by the early Church?

Take-home Paper (40%)
The take home paper will be released on the 20th of May — one week before they are due. It will consist of three questions requiring 500 word responses to each. Proper referencing is required.

Assessment criteria

The University awards common result grades, set out in the Coursework Policy 2014 (Schedule 1).

As a general guide, a High distinction indicates work of an exceptional standard, a Distinction a very high standard, a credit a good standard, and a pass an acceptable standard.

Result name

Mark range


High distinction

85 - 100



75 - 84



65 - 74



50 - 64



0 - 49

When you don’t meet the learning outcomes of the unit to a satisfactory standard.


For more information see

For more information see guide to grades.

Late submission

In accordance with University policy, these penalties apply when written work is submitted after 11:59pm on the due date:

  • Deduction of 5% of the maximum mark for each calendar day after the due date.
  • After ten calendar days late, a mark of zero will be awarded.

Academic integrity

The Current Student website  provides information on academic integrity and the resources available to all students. The University expects students and staff to act ethically and honestly and will treat all allegations of academic integrity breaches seriously.  

We use similarity detection software to detect potential instances of plagiarism or other forms of academic integrity breach. If such matches indicate evidence of plagiarism or other forms of academic integrity breaches, your teacher is required to report your work for further investigation.

You may only use artificial intelligence and writing assistance tools in assessment tasks if you are permitted to by your unit coordinator, and if you do use them, you must also acknowledge this in your work, either in a footnote or an acknowledgement section.

Studiosity is permitted for postgraduate units unless otherwise indicated by the unit coordinator. The use of this service must be acknowledged in your submission.

Simple extensions

If you encounter a problem submitting your work on time, you may be able to apply for an extension of five calendar days through a simple extension.  The application process will be different depending on the type of assessment and extensions cannot be granted for some assessment types like exams.

Special consideration

If exceptional circumstances mean you can’t complete an assessment, you need consideration for a longer period of time, or if you have essential commitments which impact your performance in an assessment, you may be eligible for special consideration or special arrangements.

Special consideration applications will not be affected by a simple extension application.

Using AI responsibly

Co-created with students, AI in Education includes lots of helpful examples of how students use generative AI tools to support their learning. It explains how generative AI works, the different tools available and how to use them responsibly and productively.

WK Topic Learning activity Learning outcomes
Week 01 Introduction to the unit Lecture (1 hr)  
What do we mean by: ‘the birth of Christianity’? Seminar (1 hr)  
Week 02 The historical and cultural background in Judaism Lecture (1 hr)  
Qumran and Christian origins Seminar (1 hr)  
Orientation to the unit Tutorial (1 hr)  
Week 03 The historical and cultural background in the Graeco-Roman world Lecture (1 hr)  
The Hellenistic cults of Isis / Serapis and Mithras Seminar (1 hr)  
Apuleius The Golden Ass Tutorial (1 hr)  
Week 04 The nature of the textual sources for earliest Christianity Lecture (1 hr)  
Literary genres in the Graeco-Roman and Jewish contexts Seminar (1 hr)  
Luke chs. 1-2; The Acts of Thomas Tutorial (1 hr)  
Week 05 What do we know about Jewish-Christianity? Lecture (1 hr)  
‘The quest for the historical Jesus’ Seminar (1 hr)  
Mark chs. 14-16; The Gospel of Judas. Tutorial (1 hr)  
Week 06 Justin Martyr and the early apologetic movement Lecture (1 hr)  
Hellenistic philosophy and its influence Seminar (1 hr)  
Extracts on Philosophy and Theology Tutorial (1 hr)  
Week 07 Irenaeus and the idea of ‘heresy’ Lecture (1 hr)  
Gnostic Gospels (the ‘Nag Hammadi Library’) Seminar (1 hr)  
The Secret Book of John Tutorial (1 hr)  
Week 08 Origen and the construction of an orthodox tradition Lecture (1 hr)  
Early Christian readings of scripture Seminar (1 hr)  
Origen: On First Principles Tutorial (1 hr)  
Week 09 Mani and an ‘alternative’ Christianity Lecture (1 hr)  
Women in early Christianity Seminar (1 hr)  
Extracts on Mani and Manichaeism Tutorial (1 hr)  
Week 10 Rituals in early Christianity Lecture (1 hr)  
Eusebius of Caesarea and Christian historiography Seminar (1 hr)  
Athanasius: The Life of Antony Tutorial (1 hr)  
Week 11 Classical Christian thought: God and the Trinity Lecture (1 hr)  
Athanasius and Arius Seminar (1 hr)  
The Creeds of Nicaea, Constantinople and Chalcedon Tutorial (1 hr)  
Week 12 Classical Christian thought: human nature and moral action Lecture (1 hr)  
Augustine and Pelagius Seminar (1 hr)  
Augustine: Confessions Tutorial (1 hr)  
Week 13 Classical Christian thought: time, the universe and the afterlife Lecture (1 hr)  
Cyril of Alexandria and Nestorius Seminar (1 hr)  
Conclusion to the unit Tutorial (1 hr)  

Attendance and class requirements

  • Attendance: According to Faculty Board Resolutions, students in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences are expected to attend 90% of their classes. If you attend less than 50% of classes, regardless of the reasons, you may be referred to the Examiner’s Board. The Examiner’s Board will decide whether you should pass or fail the unit of study if your attendance falls below this threshold.
  • Lecture recording: Most lectures (in recording-equipped venues) will be recorded and may be made available to students on Canvas. However, you should not rely on lecture recording to substitute your classroom learning experience.
  • Preparation: Students should commit to spend approximately three hours’ preparation time (reading, studying, homework, essays, etc.) for every hour of scheduled instruction.

Study commitment

Typically, there is a minimum expectation of 1.5-2 hours of student effort per week per credit point for units of study offered over a full semester. For a 6 credit point unit, this equates to roughly 120-150 hours of student effort in total.

Required readings

Reading Requirements
Students are required to read the weekly set readings (detailed below) for the Tutorials. These will form the basis for discussion in tutorials, and it is essential that everyone is prepared and contributes. This is an online resource accessed via the link on the Canvas site.

NB Students are expected to read more widely around the topic, not simply for their Seminar Presentations and Essays, but to follow the development of topics from week-to-week. An introductory bibliography is appended below (after the set readings), but there is a vast amount of other material that could be consulted.

Set Readings:
Week 3: Lucius Apuleius, The Golden Ass, tr. R. Graves, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth 1950: 226-242.

Week 4: Gospel of Luke, tr. The Jerusalem Bible, Darton, Longman and Todd, London 1968: 70-73.
Acts of Thomas, tr. New Testament Apocrypha vol. II rev. ed., ed. W. Schneemelcher, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville 2003:339-345.

Week 5: Gospel of Mark, tr. The Jerusalem Bible, Darton, Longman and Todd, London 1968: 64-69.

Gospel of Judas,

Week 6: Extracts on Philosophy and Theology in The Christian Theology Reader, 2nd edition, ed. A. E. McGrath, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford 2001: 4-12.

Week 7: The Secret Book of John, in The Nag Hammadi Scriptures, (The International Edition), ed. M. Meyer, HarperOne, New York 2007: 103-132.

Week 8: Origen, On First Principles, tr. G.W. Butterworth, SPCK, London 1936: 1-17.

Week 9: Extracts on Mani and Manichaeism in Manichaean Texts from the Roman Empire, ed. I. Gardner and S.N.C. Lieu, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2004: 176-196.

Week 10: Athanasius, The Life of Antony, tr. R.C. Gregg, SPCK, London, 1980: 29-43.

Week 11: Creeds of Nicaea, Constantinople and Chalcedon in Creeds, Councils and Controversie, ed. J. Stevenson, SPCK, London 1966: 334-338.

Week 12: Augustine, Confessions, tr. H. Chadwick, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1992: 24-35.


The following is just a sample of the vast amount of material available, other works will be referred to in class.

Barnes, T.D. (1993), Athanasius and Constantius: theology and politics in the Constantinian empire. (Cambridge, Mass.).
Bauer, W., (1971), Orthodoxy and heresy in earliest Christianity. (Philadelphia).
Bockmuehl, M. (ed.) (2001), The Cambridge companion to Jesus. (Cambridge).
Boys-Stones, G. R., (2001), Post-Hellenistic philosophy: a study of its development from the Stoics to Origen. (Oxford).
Broek, R. van den., (1996), Studies in Gnosticism and Alexandrian Christianity. (Leiden / New York).
Brown, P. (1969), Augustine of Hippo: a biography. (London).
Chadwick, H., (1966), Early Christian thought and the classical tradition: studies in Justin, Clement, and Origen. (Oxford).
Crossan, J.D. (1992), The historical Jesus: the life of a Mediterranean Jewish peasant. (San Francisco).
Dillon, J.M., (1996), The Middle Platonists, 80 B.C. to A.D. 220. (Ithaca, NY).
Donfried, K.P. and Richardson, P., (eds.), (1998) Judaism and Christianity in first-century Rome. (Grand Rapids, Mich.).
Drake, H. A. (2000), Constantine and the bishops: the politics of intolerance (Baltimore).
Dzielska, M. (1986), Apollonius of Tyana in legend and history. (Rome).
Ehrman, B.D., (2004), The New Testament : a historical introduction to the early Christian writings. (2nd ed.; New York).
_____ ,(1999), After the New Testament : a reader in early Christianity. (New York).
_____  (2004), The New Testament and other early Christian writings: a reader. ( New York).
Ferguson, E. (1993), Backgrounds of early Christianity. (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids, Mich.).
Frend, W. H. C. (1998), Archaeology and history in the study of early Christianity. (London).
_____ , (1996), The archaeology of early Christianity: a history. (Minneapolis).
_____ , (1984), The rise of Christianity. (Philadelphia).
Goodman, M., and Price, S., (1999), Apologetics in the Roman Empire: pagans, Jews, and Christians. (Oxford).
Grant, R.M. (1997), Irenaeus of Lyons. (London).
Hanson, R. P. C., (1988), The search for the Christian doctrine of God: the Arian controversy 318-381. (Edinburgh).
Horsley, G. H. R. (1981-1989), New documents illustrating early Christianity, vols. 1-5 (North Ryde).
Judge, E. A. (1960), The social pattern of the Christian groups in the first century: some prolegomena to the study of New Testament ideas of social obligation. (London).
Klauck, H.-K. (2000), The religious context of early Christianity: a guide to Graeco-Roman religions. (Edinburgh).
Lieu, J., North, J. and Rajak, T., (eds.), (1992), The Jews among pagans and Christians in the Roman Empire. (London).
Lieu, J. (1996), Image and reality: the Jews in the world of the Christians in the second century (Edinburgh)
Lim T.H. et al. (eds.), (2000), The Dead Sea scrolls in their historical context. (Edinburgh).
Llewelyn, S.R., (1992-1998), New documents illustrating early Christianity, vols. 6-8 (North Ryde).
Luttikhuizen, G. (2012), The Diversity of earliest Christianity, (The Netherlands)
Martínez, F.G. (ed.), (1996), The Dead Sea scrolls translated: the Qumran texts in English. (2nd ed.; Leiden / New York).
Meeks, W.A. (1983), The first urban Christians: the social world of the Apostle Paul (New Haven).
Meier, J. P., (1991), A marginal Jew: rethinking the historical Jesus. (2 vols.; New York).
Origen, (1980), Contra Celsum, trans. H. Chadwick. (Cambridge).
Osborn, E.F., (1973), Justin Martyr. (Tübingen).
Pearson, B.A., (2007), Ancient Gnosticism, (Minneapolis).
Pohlsander, H.A., (1996), The Emperor Constantine. (London).
Rees, B. R. (1988), Pelagius, a reluctant heretic. (Woodbridge, Suffolk).
Rousseau, P. (2002), The early Christian centuries (London).
Runia, D.T., (1990), Exegesis and philosophy: studies on Philo of Alexandria. (Aldershot).
_____, (1995), Philo and the church fathers: a collection of papers. (Leiden / New York).
Sanders, E.P., (1980-82), Jewish and Christian self-definition. (London).
Schiffman, L.H. (1998) Texts and traditions: a source reader for the study of Second Temple and rabbinic Judaism. (Hoboken, NJ).
Schneemelcher, W. (ed.), (1991-92), New Testament Apocrypha. (Cambridge).
Smith, M., (1974), The secret Gospel: the discovery and interpretation of the secret Gospel according to Mark. (London).
Stead, C., (2000), Doctrine and philosophy in early Christianity: Arius, Athanasius, Augustine. (Aldershot).
Stegemann, H. (1998), The library of Qumran, on the Essenes, Qumran, John the Baptist, and Jesus. (Grand Rapids, Mich.).
Stevenson, J. (ed.), (1989), Creeds, councils, and controversies: documents illustrating the history of the church, AD 337-461. (London)
_____, (1987) A new Eusebius; documents illustrative of the history of the church to A.D. 337. (London).
Takács, S.A. (1995), Isis and Sarapis in the Roman world (Leiden / New York).
Thiede, C.P., (2000), The Dead Sea scrolls and the Jewish origins of Christianity. (Oxford).
Trigg, J.W., (1998), Origen. (London).
Valantasis, R. (1997), The Gospel of Thomas. (London).
Vermes, G., (1995), The Dead Sea scrolls in English. (4th ed.; Sheffield).
_____, (2012), Christian beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea. (London).
Wagner, W.H., (1994), After the apostles: Christianity in the second century. (Minneapolis).
Widdicombe, P. (1994), The fatherhood of God from Origen to Athanasius. (Oxford).

Learning outcomes are what students know, understand and are able to do on completion of a unit of study. They are aligned with the University's graduate qualities and are assessed as part of the curriculum.

At the completion of this unit, you should be able to:

  • LO1. critically assess the primary source material and other data available for an understanding of early Christianity
  • LO2. identify the theoretical and doctrinal stances held by secondary writers about early Christianity
  • LO3. understand the principal historical trajectories taken by early Christianity to the 5th century CE
  • LO4. analyse the influence of various religious, philosophical and cultural contexts upon the origin and development of early Christianity.

Graduate qualities

The graduate qualities are the qualities and skills that all University of Sydney graduates must demonstrate on successful completion of an award course. As a future Sydney graduate, the set of qualities have been designed to equip you for the contemporary world.

GQ1 Depth of disciplinary expertise

Deep disciplinary expertise is the ability to integrate and rigorously apply knowledge, understanding and skills of a recognised discipline defined by scholarly activity, as well as familiarity with evolving practice of the discipline.

GQ2 Critical thinking and problem solving

Critical thinking and problem solving are the questioning of ideas, evidence and assumptions in order to propose and evaluate hypotheses or alternative arguments before formulating a conclusion or a solution to an identified problem.

GQ3 Oral and written communication

Effective communication, in both oral and written form, is the clear exchange of meaning in a manner that is appropriate to audience and context.

GQ4 Information and digital literacy

Information and digital literacy is the ability to locate, interpret, evaluate, manage, adapt, integrate, create and convey information using appropriate resources, tools and strategies.

GQ5 Inventiveness

Generating novel ideas and solutions.

GQ6 Cultural competence

Cultural Competence is the ability to actively, ethically, respectfully, and successfully engage across and between cultures. In the Australian context, this includes and celebrates Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, knowledge systems, and a mature understanding of contemporary issues.

GQ7 Interdisciplinary effectiveness

Interdisciplinary effectiveness is the integration and synthesis of multiple viewpoints and practices, working effectively across disciplinary boundaries.

GQ8 Integrated professional, ethical, and personal identity

An integrated professional, ethical and personal identity is understanding the interaction between one’s personal and professional selves in an ethical context.

GQ9 Influence

Engaging others in a process, idea or vision.

Outcome map

Learning outcomes Graduate qualities

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