From Pontius Pilate to Theodosius: The Advent of Christianity

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Course Information
Religious Studies
Art History
Terms offered: 
Language of instruction: 
Contact Hours: 


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From the time of the first persecution under the Emperor Nero (64 AD), Christianity gradually became a decisive force to contend within the Roman world and developed into a structured monotheistic religion that ultimately became the official religion of the Empire. At a time when the sheen and polish of Rome’s imperial splendors were in fact fading, the city of Rome became the center of this extraordinary transformation and ultimately the seat of the Chair of Peter. How did the Empire go from pagan to Christian? How did a minor sect of Judaism develop into the Rome-centered Catholic Church? How was orthodoxy established in light of the many differing cultural and theological tenets that distinguished and divided the early Christian communities? And what did Rome have to do with it? The course seeks to explore fundamental issues concerning the birth of a worldwide religion also within the context of the cultural, historical, social and political framework of the environment into which Christianity developed. In examining the particular context of this transformation it will be useful to understand events and conditions in the latter centuries of the Roman Empire; investigate the political climate in Rome on the eve of Constantine’s accession to power; determine the social tensions within the cities of the Empire; establish the import of political, financial and military instability in the III and IV centuries AD.

In order to understand how Christianity developed and set itself apart from the Judaism of its roots the course will study how the Jewish messianic cult that was Christianity had then to integrate the Greco-Roman worldview in order to realize Paul’s goal of converting Gentiles.  A radical translation occurred from a Semitic to a Greco-Roman context, and many of the religious practices and beliefs of the Greco-Roman world were integrated into Christianity. The course will make extensive use of field studies in an attempt to investigate Late Antique Rome and how the advent of Christianity gradually but significantly altered the urban landscape of the city; transformed the iconography of public and private art, yet at the same time maintaining astonishing elements of continuity in painting, sculpture and architecture.

Attendance policy: 

Attendance is mandatory for all IES classes, including field studies. If a student misses more than one class in this course, 2 percentage points will be deducted from the final grade for every additional absence. Any exams, tests, presentations, or other work missed due to student absences can only be rescheduled in cases of documented medical emergencies or family emergencies. IES will only consider extreme emergency cases and will strictly adhere to this policy. Do plan your semester accordingly. 

Learning outcomes: 

At the end of the term, students will be able to:

  • Outline the structure and history of the Roman Empire between the I and V centuries AD;
  • Identify the specific context of Roman rule in Palestine;
  • Trace the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire;
  • Assess the significance of the reigns of Constantine and Theodosius for the history of Christianity;
  • Determine how Christianity came to affect Roman values, traditions, art and architecture and how it assimilated important components of the Roman tradition.
  • Recognize how Christianity developed out of its Jewish context and was transformed in the Greco-Roman world, adopting foreign and pagan religious practices.
Method of presentation: 

Lectures, seminar discussion, field studies

Field study: 
  • Roman Forum - Arch of Constantine - Colosseum
  • Catacombs of San Callisto
  • Church of the Santi Quattro Coronati - Basilica di Santa Sabina
  • Niche dedicated to Saint Peter in the excavation site under Saint Peter's Cathedral
  • Church of San Clemente
  • Santo Stefano Rotondo
Required work and form of assessment: 
  • Class participation - 20%
  • Midterm Exam - 25%
  • Essay assignment - 25%
  • Final Exam - 30%


Session Content

Emperor and Empire
The Roman Empire in the I-III centuried AD


  • Goodman, The Roman World 44 BC-AD 180 (chs. 9-15).
  • Barrow, The Romans, pp. 163-174 (handout)

Roman Religion and the Imperial Cult
The structure of the Roman State religion. The Emperor and divine rulership. 


  • Goodman, The Roman World 44 BC-AD 180 (ch. 29)

Aspects of Roman Rule in the Provinces: Conquest, Pacification, and Romanization


  • Goodman, The Roman World 44 BC-AD 180 (chs 23, 28).

Field Study: Roman Forus, Palatine, Imperial Fora


  • Claridge, Rome: An Oxford Archaeological Guide, pp. 61ff.

Roman Rule in Palestine
Roman rule in Palestine from Augustus to Hadiran: Religion and politics in Judea.


  • Goodman, The Roman World 44BC-AD 180 (ch 26)
  • Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, Book II and Book VI., War of the Jews

Judaism, Messianism and Christianity
Using the Qum’ran documents, we will place Jesus into the context of 1st century messianic movements.  The message of Christianity. The early Christian church in Jerusalem.


  • Goodman, The Roman World 44 BC- AD 180 (ch. 30).
  • Martinez/Watson, The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated: The Qumran texts in Englishpp. XXVI-XLIV
  • “The Commentary on Habakkuk” (pp.197-202)
  • “Acts of the Apostles” in the Oxford Annotated Bible

Early Christian Communities
The spread of Christianity to the Greco-Roman world: the preaching of Paul and the first communities in Rome.


  • Goodman, The Roman World 44 BC- AD 180 (ch. 31).
  • Ehrman, After the New Testament,
  • “Justin: Dialogue with Trypho” (pp. 18-24),
  • “Letter of Ignatius to the Romans (pp. 28-30),
  •  “Justin: First Apology” (pp. 57-65),
  • “Athenagoras: Plea Regarding the Christians” (pp. 65-71),
  • “The Didache” (pp. 346-347).
  • Paul’s “Letter to the Romans” in The Oxford Annotated Bible (handout).

The relationship between early Christian communities and the Roman structure of government.


  • Tacitus, Annals, Passages 15.37 – 15.44 (handout).
  • “Letter of Gaius Plinius to the Emperor Trajan” (handout).
  • Ehrman, After the New Testament
  • “The Martyrdom of Polycarp” (pp. 30-35),
  • “The Letter of the Churches of Vienne and Lyons” (pp. 35-41),
  • “The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas” (pp.42-50),
  • Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, pp.48-67 (handout).

Film Viewing: “The Inquiry”

Midterm Exam


Field Study: Tomb of Saint Peter and Basilica 


Field Study: Colosseum and Arch of Constantine


  • Claridge, Rome: An Oxford Archaeological Guide, pp. 268-292 (on Reserve).

From the Revolution of Constantine to the Apotheosis under Theodosius
How the politics of a fading Empire determined the acceptance and the final triumph of Christianity.


  • Krautheimer, Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture (chs. 2 and 7; pp.127-130).
  •  “The Edict of Milan”, (handout)
  • “The Edict of Toleration”, (handout)
  • Eusebius, “Priviledges”, (handout)
  • Theodosius, Antipagan Legislation (handout)

Field Study: Catacombs of San Callisto


  • Fiocchi-Nicolai-Bisconti-Mazzoleni, The Christian Catacombs of Rome: History, DecorationInscriptions, pp.9-60 (handout).

Film Viewing: “Agora”


The Beginnings of Christian Art and Architecture in Rome
Early Christian iconography in Roman catacombs, sarcophagi and paintings.


  • Krautheimer, Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture (ch. 1).
  • Fiocchi-Nicolai-Bisconti-Mazzoleni, The Christian Catacombs of Rome. History, Decoration, Inscriptions (ch. II).  

Field study: Basilica di Santa Sabina

12 Final Exam


Required readings: 


  • Ehrman, After the New Testament: a Reader in Early Christianity
  • Goodman, The Roman World 44 BC- AD 14.


  • Brown, Peter, The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity
  • Claridge, Amanda, Rome : An Oxford Archaeological Guide
  • Fiocchi-Nicolai-Bisconti-Mazzoleni, The Christian Catacombs of Rome: History, Decoration, Inscriptions
  • Krautheimer, Richard, Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture
  • Lewis & Reinhold, Roman Civilization
  • Martinez/Watson, The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated: The Qumran texts in English,
  • Oxford Annotated Bible
  • Pagels, Elaine, The Gnostic Gospels
  • Pliny, Letters
  • Tacitus, Annals
  • Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them

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