Cameron C. Afzal

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–

Undergraduate Courses 2019-2020

Religion

Introduction to Ancient Greek Religion and Society

Open , Seminar—Spring

Few people dispute the enormous impact that the Ancient Greeks have had on Western Culture—and even on the modern world in general. This seminar will introduce the interested student to this culture mainly through reading salient primary texts in English translation. Our interest will range broadly. Along with some background reading, we will be discussing mythology (Hesiod), epic hymns and poetry (Homer), history (Herodotus), politics, religion, and philosophy. By the end of the seminar, students should have a basic understanding of the cultural contribution of the Ancient Greeks, as well as a basic timeline of their history through the Hellenistic age.

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Readings in the Hebrew Bible: The Wisdom Tradition

Open , Seminar—Fall

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 whose foundation is the monotheistic belief in a good and benevolent God. The Bible, in 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 the land of Israel in the Babylonian invasion of 587 BCE. 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 uncharted waters that their God had presumably taken them. To this end, we will read books like Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Ben-Sira with a view to understanding how those works addressed theological issues of their day.

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The Emergence of Christianity

Open , Seminar—Year

There is perhaps no one who has not heard of the name of a seemingly obscure carpenter's son executed by the Romans around 33 CE. Why? The religion we call Christianity 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 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 fighter/terrorists called the Zealots. Our main source will be the New Testament of the Christian Bible, though these will be supplemented by other primary materials. Excerpts from the Dead Sea Scrolls and rabbinic literature, as well as other 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?

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Previous Courses

Readings in the Hebrew Bible: Genesis and Exodus

Open , Seminar—Fall

The Book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible has remained at the mythological foundation of Western culture. Genesis has informed Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theology. If that weren’t enough, the book contains a great and memorable cycle of stories from Adam and Eve and Noah and the Flood to the stories of 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 Exodus and the rest of “the five books of Moses.” What are these books? How were they written? Who wrote them, and for whom? Who preserved them? How do we read them so that their ancient perspective, their 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.

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Readings in Early Christianity: The Johannine Community

Intermediate/Advanced , Seminar—Fall

The Fourth Gospel of the Christian New Testament and the epistles associated with its authors, 1-3 John, have been particularly significant for the development of Christian thought. In this course, we will study The Gospel of John closely, engaging in the hermeneutical arts with an eye to the development of Christian theology, as well as uncovering the history and growth of the early Christian community responsible for its unique prose and views regarding Jesus of Nazareth and the role of Christian discipleship. We will immerse ourselves in the Hellenistic world, especially as it relates to Mediterranean Judaism. In doing so, we will examine the roots of Christian anti-Semitism and the development of Gnosticism and Christian docetism.

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Readings in Christian Mysticism: Late Antiquity

Intermediate/Advanced , Seminar—Year

Permission of the instructor is required.

This course will focus on the intersection of Jewish theology and Greco-Roman philosophy in the early Christian texts commonly seen to contain "mystical elements." We will define these elements as texts that have to do with the desire on the part of the reader to "know," experience, or "be with" God and with the author's attempt to properly demarcate the boundaries within which these desires can be fulfilled. Christian mysticism is perhaps best thought of as erotic theology—theology that involves the desire for God. Recognizing this, we must also acknowledge that inherent to this theology is a profound paradox. What is desired must be conceived. It must be held in the grasp of one's understanding in order to be attained. While this is fine for an orange, or even wealth and power, it is much more problematic when the object of desire is God, the creator of the universe. Theologians in the early church developed a language of desire and specific sets of practices involving one's lifestyle and prayer in order to resolve this paradox and fulfill their desire. They began to ponder this paradox with a synthesis of a biblical theology of divine revelation (i.e., the revelation of God as preserved in the biblical canon, symbolized in both the revelation of YHWH on Mt. Sinai and in the incarnation of the Divine Logos as Jesus of Nazareth) and Platonic expression of a desire for the ultimate good, truth, or beauty. In order to better grasp these ideas, we will read parts of the Hebrew Bible, the Gospels, and contemplate the anthropology of desire set forth by Plato in the Symposium and the Phaedrus. Educated in the Hellenistic world, the early church fathers took these ideas for granted and attempted to find common ground with their Christian inheritance. We will study the phenomenon of Gnostic Christianity, an early attempt at synthesis of biblical material and Greek philosophy. We will then move on to encounter the great early Christian writers—such as Origen and Athanasius of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, Psuedo-Dionysius, and Ambrose of Milan—and conclude our study with a lengthy look at what, for Western culture, is the seminal work of Augustine of Hippo.

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First-Year Studies: The Hebrew Bible

Open , FYS—Year

The Hebrew Bible stands at the foundation of Western culture. Its stories permeate our literature, our art...indeed, our sense of identity. The Hebrew Bible's 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 the 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 biblical epic of liberation, Exodus; the historical books that weave theology into a history of a nation; 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 from the Late Bronze until the Roman age.

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