R230 Religions of the Early Near and Middle East

Key information

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Module code
FHEQ Level
Department of Religions and Philosophies

Module overview

The module will explore the diversity and multiplicity of religious and cultural traditions that developed and coexisted in the Near and Middle East in antiquity and in the early Middle Ages. Ranging from ancient Mesopotamia to Parthian and Sasanian Babylonia, from biblical Israel to Hellenistic and Roman Palestine, from Roman-Byzantine Syria to Egypt, this region saw the emergence of religions such as Mesopotamian polytheism, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Mandaeism Judaism, Christianity, Islam. All of these traditions, which came down to us in a variety of languages and literatures, emerged in particular historical, political, and socio-economic contexts. They engaged with the variety of cultures that they encountered in their environments. The module will investigate the origins and development of each individual tradition by, at the same time, exploring cross-fertilisation and hybridity, competition and conflict. An introduction to the literary, epigraphic, and archaeological sources and to interdisciplinary methodologies will constitute the core component of the module. Since religion is an aspect of culture, the religious traditions need to be studied within the context of the region’s historical development, multi-cultural formations, and ethnic compositions. By introducing students to the ethnic and religious foundations of the Near Middle East, the module is indispensable for an understanding of modern and contemporary Near Middle Eastern societies and politics.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

On successful completion of this module a student will be able to:

  1. demonstrate familiarity with the major literary, epigraphic, and archaeological sources for studying religions in the Near and Middle East and with issues concerning their analysis and interpretation, including the ability to distinguish between different literary-historical layers of texts and different literary forms and genres and to analyse texts in translation
  2. apply a variety of methodological approaches such as philology and text-critical analysis, historiography, social-anthropological approaches, gender studies approaches, comparative religion in the study of religion in the Near and Middle East
  3. make methodologically informed comparisons of inter-religious themes, motifs, artistic expressions, and rituals and use and evaluate modern explanatory concepts such as eschatology, messianism, myth, and mysticism
  4. evaluate the historical origins and development of religions that originated in the Near and Middle East, such as Mesopotamian polytheism, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Mandaeism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and to account for the cross-fertilisation of religious and cultural traditions.
  5. demonstrate knowledge of the origins and historical development of Near Middle Eastern religious institutions (such as, e.g., temples, synagogues, churches, mosques) and clerical leadership structures.

Scope and syllabus

The module consists of the following components:

  • Ancient Mesopotamia
  • Zoroastrian Iran
  • Ancient Israel & Early Christianity
  • Christianity in the Near and Middle East
  • Early and Medieval Islam

Each component will explore the emergence and development of beliefs and/or practices in various historical contexts, such as social, political, religious and intellectual contexts. Topics may include, for example:

  • the emergence and development of early political theology
  • debates on the boundaries of religious and political authority
  • cross-disciplinary interactions among religio-intellectual traditions
  • history of prophetology and theological anthropology.

Method of assessment

Two essays (each 3,000 words) and one exam (3 hours).


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