The Beginning of Jewishness


Course Objective

Students who have taken this course
- can locate the (contested) origins of Judaism and Christianity as
religious systems;
- have insight into the plurality of Judaism in the Second Temple Period
and Roman antiquity;
- understand the ancient Near East and Mediterranean as a cultural
continuum, with Jewish Palestine as a locus of cultural transfer;
- have learned to analyze a variety of ancient texts (in translation) as
sources of historical, political and cultural information;
- are able to critically assess the academic literature on the topic.

Course Content

Did Judaism start with Abraham, Moses or King David, with the Maccabees,
with Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkay and Rabbi Akiva, or with the Emperor
Constantine? How Jewish, Greek, or Roman were the roots of Christianity?
In this course, we will try to answer these questions with the help of a
broad range of historical testimonies, ranging from Bible and Talmud to
Jewish folklore, mysticism, Hellenistic prose and the writings of Jewish
‘traitor’ Flavius Josephus. How did their authors present Judaism? How
did they reconcile its Semitic roots with current Mediterranean mores?
And how did they negotiate the continuous presence of empire and pagan
culture? This course is designed to help students develop strategies to
tackle these questions with the help of the relevant —often opaque,
biased and dogmatic— primary and secondary sources.

Teaching Methods

Seminar, 3 hours per week.
This course will have the format of a seminar, which means that active
participation of students is essential. The instructor will give
feedback and additional information by means of lectures, but a
considerable part of the course will be done in collaboration with the
students. Students will introduce the readings of the respective week
and write a brief report about the readings. They also prepare
discussions in class in oral presentations about a specific topic and
write a brief academic paper on a topic related to the course.

Method of Assessment

Assignments every week (reports about readings), oral presentation and
short paper.


Scholarly literature will be available either in the form of a reader or
in electronic format. Students have to pay for copyrights.

Target Audience

Admitted to an MA-programme in Humanities

Custom Course Registration

This module is taught at the UvA by prof. dr. J.W. van Henten (UvA) en prof. dr. I.E. Zwiep (UvA) (UvA subject code 172418726Y). Module registration with a UvaNetID at the UvA is required. Please note that course registration periods at the UvA and VU differ. For a ‘step-by-step guide to course and exam registration’ and the ‘dates for course and exam registration’ please consult the ‘course and exam registration’-page via the ‘A-Z list’ of your MA programme on

Recommended background knowledge

Knowledge of Biblical Hebrew and/or Greek is recommended but not
required. Recommended: S.J.D. Cohen, The Beginnings of Jewishness
(Berkeley etc.: 1999); recent translations of relevant primary sources,
e.g. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha I-II (ed. J. H. Charlesworth;
London: 1983-85); G. Vermes, The Dead Sea Scrolls in English (London:
1997); L.H. Feldman a.o., Josephus in Ten Volumes (Cambridge, MA; 1981);
I. Epstein a.o., The Babylonian Talmud (18 vols; London: 1961).

General Information

Course Code L_AAMAOHS036
Credits 6 EC
Period P4
Course Level 400
Language of Tuition English
Faculty Faculty of Humanities
Course Coordinator J.W. van Henten
Teaching Staff J.W. van Henten

Practical Information

You need to register for this course yourself

Teaching Methods Seminar
Target audiences

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