Find our what our students think about the course:
Hebrew offered the perfect way to get the mandatory language paper to coincide with the mandatory Scripture paper – I did Old Testament. Also, I already had some Classical Greek before I got to Cambridge and so wanted to try something different.
Both teachers were lively, humorous, patient and experienced. That’s particularly important, since you see them three times a week – more than any other paper. Also, the classes tend to be small, meaning that there is more opportunity to work through individual points of confusion. The classes have to move quickly, and so it is really important that you consolidate what’s covered in your own time.
For students, like me, who have studied languages before, Hebrew is an extremely rewarding language to study for a year – or more! I’ve kept it up in my second year.
I began studying New Testament Greek with no prior experience of ancient languages, but after a year I can honestly say that it has been an invaluable undertaking. During my first week of Greek, I found learning the alphabet challenging and it seemed impossible that I would ever be able to read the texts. However, the classes we worked in and the guidance and encouragement I was given by teachers enabled me to progress in understanding grammar and vocabulary.
I really enjoyed the set texts and the exam format as it allowed us to study some passages in depth, while also developing the skill of being able to translate an unseen passage and understand its meaning.
The Sanskrit paper is usually taught in a small class, as it is only a few who choose to study it as their scriptural language! This is a good thing, however, as it means close attention from the teacher. First year focuses on the study of Sanskrit grammar, of which there is a lot. Homework exercises after each class, as well as supervisions, ensures that the various rules and anomalies stick in your head.
Once basic grammar has been grasped, you move on to the study of texts, mainly excerpts from the Bhagavad Gita and Mahabharata, as well as short stories from the Hitopadesa. It is really exciting to be able to transliterate and translate these texts from the original script, with the aid of your supervisor! The end of year examination then tests your knowledge of these translations and the grammar featured within them. Overall, studying such an unusual language is a highly rewarding experience.
I really enjoyed Arabic; at first I was always a bit apprehensive about studying another language (I’d done French till AS level, but knew that a language at Cambridge would be an entirely different thing!) but it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable aspects of my course!
Having always had both a personal and academic interest in the Middle East and Islamic culture, choosing to study Arabic has proven to be an excellent platform from which to better understand and engage with classical texts and appreciate the complexity of sacred narratives as they were first conveyed and passed on. For me, having the opportunity to study Arabic also provided a welcome break from the often monotonous routine of reading and writing weekly essays!
The Old Testament paper, focusing on David, really challenged the way I think about different passages of the Bible and how we interpret them. I particularly enjoyed considering the theological message about God’s character and action in the world, though I also found new aspects interesting, such as studying archaeology. The lectures for this course were clear and helpful, and I found the last four classes especially enjoyable and thought-provoking as our own involvement in discussion was encouraged. The exam required me to recognise the literary, theological and historical aspects of the texts, and the supervision essays were helpful for approaching unseen questions.
Christianity and the Transformation of Culture, the church history paper, was the most content-heavy course. Anyone who did history at A-Level will be familiar with what’s on offer, even if they have no background knowledge about the English Reformation. It’s about how a religious culture in its entirety – not just ‘religion’, but politics, society, art – is radically re-oriented in a matter of decades. It therefore helps if you have some grip in advance on the main theological differences between Catholics and Protestants.
The lectures and seminars for this course were excellent. I took away something valuable each time. Not only that, but this paper succeeds in bridging the gap between ‘theology’ and ‘religious studies’, since you not only examine 16th English culture ‘from the outside’ (R.S.), but also look into what theologians, clergy and politicians were saying about the transformation of their own society (theology).
I came to Cambridge with a particular interest in dogmatic and systematic theology, so I chose the introductory course to Christian doctrine as a way to bring some of my own interests into the course.
I think it’s an effective introduction to the broader tradition of Christian theology. All mainstream confessions are represented – Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, Anglican. While this eclecticism makes the paper seem quite fragmented – the variety is appealing. No other paper covers two millennia of reflection on a one single question: this paper does.
And, if you are already familiar with the basic questions of Christian theology there is always the possibility to incorporate your own reading into your essays, and supervisors encourage creativity.
If you’re interested in history, sociology, literature, anthropology and just a bit of everything – this paper is definitely for you!
At the risk of sounding clichéd, it took me into territories I had never explored before – and had never really associated with the study of theology. Topics like Colonialism, the influence of the Media, the role of women and the rise of religious fundamentalism are as topical as they are engaging.
For me, the paper really opened my eyes to the subtle nuances in the ways religious identities are conceived and practiced, and I genuinely believe that approaching religion from these diverse angles has made me much more open-minded and inquisitive when considering issues I formerly took to be fairly straight-forward!
After the foundational elements of the first year, you have a very wide choice of papers to choose from in your second and third years.
As well as studying languages at a more advanced level you experience a wide variety of topics including Judaism in the Greek and Roman periods, the Letters of Paul, World Christianities, Religious Themes in Literature, Introduction to Islam, Philosophy of Religion, Life and Thought of Religious Hinduism and Buddhism, the Johannine Tradition, Old Testament: Creation and Covenant, New Testament Christology, Theologies of Hope, Self and Salvation in Indian and Western Thought, The Rise of Pentecostalism, Contemporary Study of Religion, Jewish Law, Islamic Philosophy, Metaphysics, Theology, Science and Creatures, and Topics in Christian Ethics.
You also have the choice of studying for a dissertation. Here, two students share their experiences of undertaking independent study.
My dissertation focused on the motifs of divine presence and absence in one of the most unorthodox psalms in the Hebrew Bible – Psalm 88. In addition to a close exegetical reading of the psalm itself, my study branched out into the wider theological issues surrounding divine presence and activity in the world as portrayed in the Hebrew Bible.
Ever since I started Tripos, I knew I wanted to write a dissertation, but the topic itself took time to crystallise into something concrete and tangible. By the final year of Tripos, I had accumulated a long list of avenues I had not had a chance to explore because I was so busy writing the next supervision essay – and then the next, and the next.
Over the summer before the final year, I did a fair amount of wider reading and research that helped me clarify my interests. I chose my supervisor before I came up with the exact topic, and she suggested some reading to stimulate my thoughts and give me a broad overview of certain contemporary discussions which were of interest to me. Using these recommendations and my own interests and ideas as a springboard, I began to shape my topic. Even if you already have a topic you want to study in depth, you may have to refine it further to make it narrow and specific – in other words, it has to be practically feasible.
In my experience, one of the most exciting things about writing a dissertation is working with your supervisor. I had an excellent supervisor who helped me sharpen not only my arguments, but also my research skills: After all, as well as some theological sparkle, a dissertation requires planning, discipline, commitment, and motivation. If I got stuck in my research, she expertly diagnosed the situation and helpfully pointed me in the right direction. In short, although a dissertation, at its heart, is an independent study project, you can expect advice and guidance, both theological and practical, from your supervisor, who wants you to succeed, and you are certainly not left wandering about in the dark.
You do, however, have to be prepared for a lot of independent study. I enjoyed the research stage immensely, as I got to pursue my own interests and formulate my own arguments – I found the creative freedom of a dissertation exhilarating rather than intimidating. As you work on your dissertation, you essentially become a specialist in a particular area, however small it may be, and this is an extremely rewarding experience. After the thrill of the research stage comes the final leg of the journey: the writing-up stage. I enjoy writing, so it did not prove to be a hard slog, but it was certainly a long trek that required a lot of discipline, especially as it was mostly over the Easter vacation. I left footnotes and bibliography until the very end – a big mistake! On the bright side, after you submit at the beginning of the Easter term, you are done and do not have as many exams to worry about.
During your third year, all Theology students are offered the opportunity to write a dissertation of up to 10,000 words, in place of a piece of coursework or exam paper. The choice of topic is at the writer’s discretion, and can cover any aspect of theology or religious studies. I was immediately attracted to the idea of researching and writing an original piece of work that covered themes not necessarily addressed by the Tripos.
The teaching for a dissertation is slightly different to that of an exam or coursework module. The supervisor guides rather than governs the process, suggesting rather than directing the direction your work might take. Writing a dissertation allows the writer real agency throughout the process but with all the benefits of the guiding hand of an expert in the subject.
In terms of timescale, a brief proposal is submitted in Michaelmas with the final title of the dissertation finalized mid-way through the Lent Term. This in itself allows for an evolution of thoughts and ideas. In planning and researching a dissertation, there is no prescribed reading list. As a result, source material is entirely fashioned by both writer and supervisor. In this way a multitude of resources can be used in research, and the fact that the student is not limited to academic texts is one of the dissertation’s prime advantages. In writing my dissertation, I made use of novels, newspapers, archival material and photography. This gives every dissertation an aspect of originality, and makes the process especially rewarding.
After choosing to write an essay within the broad field of Church History, I focused my research on the religious landscape of Victorian Britain. My supervisor encouraged me to ground my research in a local area, with the result that I chose to study an area of Victorian Shoreditch, East London, once known as the Old Nichol. My thesis explored the impact of Christian activity on the people of this notorious slum, and the extent to which Victorian perceptions of religion and irreligion held true here. This period was one of huge social and political change, and a time of both huge activity and self-doubt on the part of all Christian denominations. The ‘Old Nichol’ proved a microcosm of these themes; the intersection of theology, sociology and historiography, examined through the life of this small place, was fascinating.
I found the process of writing this thesis a hugely rewarding exercise, and one which marked a refreshing change from exam-orientated Tripos modules. The project did require a great deal of planning and research, but I had an excellent supervisor to nudge me in the right direction and offer invaluable advice when needed. This was an evolutionary process, with the end result little resembling what I initially envisaged; I very much enjoyed the process of crafting a narrative and a set of ideas which transformed and gained impetus throughout the year.
I found researching and writing a dissertation a rewarding and stimulating part of my final year, and one I would highly recommend. It provides a unique opportunity in Part IIB to explore specific interests, producing an original piece of work and researching a subject in a way normally reserved for students at a higher level.