Early Christian Studies: Desert Christians and the Literature of Early Monasticism

Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

Course Description

  • Course Name

    Early Christian Studies: Desert Christians and the Literature of Early Monasticism

  • Host University

    Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

  • Location

    Amsterdam, The Netherlands

  • Area of Study

    Literature, Religion

  • Language Level

    Taught In English

  • Course Level Recommendations


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    Hours & Credits

  • ECTS Credits

  • Recommended U.S. Semester Credits
  • Recommended U.S. Quarter Units
  • Overview

    Knowledge of a broad range of early Christian texts, such as hagiographical writings, histories, sayings & anecdotes, and tractates. The ability to situate these texts in their proper contexts both in a historical and a literary sense. For students who have a knowledge of classical Greek and/or Latin: the ability to translate the original sources of the texts discussed and the ability to analyze these. For students with no knowledge of classical languages: the ability to read the appropriate texts in translation with a view to analyzing these.

    Apart from the ability to gain knowledge as described above and the ability to apply this knowledge, additional objectives are: the ability to communicate acquired knowledge in the context of the seminar, to ask critical questions, and to participate actively in discussions.

    Title: Desert Christians & the Literature of Early Monasticism.

    During this course, the book Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism by William Harmless (2004) will be studied. After an introduction into fourth and fifth century Egypt, the most significant sources of desert Christianity will be addressed. We will start by reading narrative texts about desert saints such as Antony and Pachomius. Then, we will listen to the voice of the desert fathers (and a few mothers) as mediated by collections of sayings (the so-called Apophthegmata Patrum). Next, we will reflect on the genre of ‘history’ (historia). Finally, we will consider texts produced by theologians such as Evagrius of Pontus and John Cassian. The latter was an important figure in the history of western monasticism: he functioned as a link between East and West, translating the predominantly Greek sources of the desert traditions into the Latin of the western church. By reading both primary sources and secondary literature, students will gain insight into an important movement within early Christianity, namely asceticism/monasticism. The handbook includes many useful appendices that reflect current scholarly research and debate.

    In the context of this course, the dimension of internationalisation will be emphasized in two ways: 1) the course will be taught in English and welcomes students from abroad, 2) attention is paid to the international context of Early Christian Studies. During this course the instructor will also focus explicitly on doing research in the field of ancient asceticism & monasticism.


    Presentation (30% of grade); written or oral examination (depending on group size; 70% of grade)

    Basic knowledge of (early) Christianity and the Bible is useful, but not necessary for this course

    Students of Classics, History, Theology, Religion. Students interested in Early Christian Greek & Latin, Early Christianity, late antiquity.

    Attendance is compulsory (80%).

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