Cameron C. Afzal

Associate Dean of the College

BA, Grinnell College. MA, McGill University. MDiv, Yale University. PhD, Columbia University. Active member of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion, as well as the Catholic Biblical Association; has written on the Apocalypse of John and has taught broadly in the fields of New Testament and Early Christianity, Judaism in the Second Temple Period, the Hebrew Bible, and Late Antique Christian Mysticism. SLC, 1992–

Course Information

Previous courses

Christianity and the Roman Empire


Roman culture has traditionally been studied for its capacity to absorb and transform the ideas and beliefs of others, most notably those of the Greeks. This course seeks to examine the interaction between traditional Greco-Roman religious belief or ideology and various religious movements within Judaism from late Hellenistic and Roman times. Judaism of this period was itself complex and diverse, including breakaway groups such as the Essenes, as well as the messianic movement that eventually produced Christianity. The course will consider such developments against the background of Hellenistic Greek and Roman imperial religion and ruler glorification, eventually focusing on the transition of Christianity from its initial setting into an evermore significant component of Greco-Roman culture that diverged increasingly from its Hellenistic Jewish origins. The course will then examine the imperialization of Christianity in the fourth century under Constantine and his successors, concluding with the emergence of the Church as the heir of imperial institutions in the fifth and sixth centuries. Though focusing extensively on historical and religious texts, the course will also examine the evidence of artistic monuments.


First-Year Studies: The Emergence of Christianity

There is, perhaps, no one who has not heard the name of a seemingly obscure carpenter’s son executed by the Romans around 33 CE. Why? The religion we call Christianity has shaped the Western world for at least 1,500 years. In this course, we will study the origins of this tradition. As we study the origins of this movement, we will also explore Judaism in the strange and fertile Second Temple period (515 BCE-70 CE). We will encounter the learned societies of holy men like the Pharisees and the Qumran sectarians, as well as the freedom fighters/terrorists called the Zealots. Our main source will be the New Testament of the Christian Bible, although this will be supplemented by other primary materials. Excerpts from the Dead Sea Scrolls, rabbinic literature, and Hellenistic texts from this period provide the cultural backdrop in which Christianity has its roots. We will learn about the spread of the new movement of “Christians,” as it was called by its detractors in Antioch. How did this movement, which began among the Jews of the Eastern Mediterranean, come to be wholly associated with Gentiles by the end of the second century? Who became Christian? Why were they hated so much by the greater Greco-Roman society? What did they believe? How did they behave? What are the origins of “Christian anti-Semitism”? What kind of social world, with its senses of hierarchy and gender relations, did these people envision for themselves?


Readings in the Hebrew Bible: Genesis


The Book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible has remained as the mythological foundation of Western culture. Genesis has informed Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theology. If that weren’t enough, Genesis contains a great and memorable cycle of stories from Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, just to name a few. These stories permeate our literature, our art, indeed our sense of identity. The narrative itself is the beginning of a greater epic of liberation, including the rest of “the five books of Moses.” What is this book? How was it written? Who wrote it, and for whom? Who preserved it? How do we read it so that its ancient perspective, its social and historical context, is not lost? In order to recover this ancient context, we will also read contemporary writings such as The Babylonian Creation story, as well as the Epic of Gilgamesh.


Readings in the Hebrew Bible: The Wisdom Tradition


The question of theodicy is most acute in times of social and political crisis. Theodicy refers to the problem of evil in the context of a religion at whose foundation is a monotheistic belief in God. In the Bible, the Book of Deuteronomy promises Israel that adherence to the Torah will lead to a good life. This belief system was severely challenged by the loss of Israel in the Babylonian invasion of 587BCE. The destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians and the subsequent exile of the Israelites engendered a rich and complex body of literature. Jewish scribes wrote books of wisdom intended to guide Israel into the uncharted waters that their God had presumably taken them. To this end, we will read books like Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and Ben-Sira with a view to understanding how these works addressed theological issues of their day.


The Hebrew Bible


The Hebrew Bible stands at the foundation of Western culture. Its stories permeate our literature, our art—indeed, our sense of identity. Its ideas inform our laws, have given birth to our revolutions and social movements, and have thereby made most of our social institutions possible (as well as the movements to remove them). What is this book? How was it written? Who wrote it? Who preserved it for us? Why has all or part of this body of literature been considered holy to the practitioners of Judaism and Christianity? Four thousand years ago, various groups from small tribe-wandering nomads would get together and tell stories. These stories were not preserved on stone tombs but in the hearts and memories of the people to whom they belonged. We will read this collection of traditions in a book called Genesis and compare these stories with other texts (written in mud and stone) such as The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Babylonian Creation Epic, which were contemporary with biblical traditions. We will read the great biblical epic of liberation, Exodus, and the oracles of the great Hebrew Prophets of Israel—those reformers, judges, priests, mystics, and poets to whom modern culture owes its grasp of justice. We will trace the social intellectual and political history of the people formed by these traditions until the Roman age.