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Religions of Late Antiquity

Late antiquity - covering broadly the post-classical period, and ranging within and beyond the Mediterranean world – was characterised by vigorous religious pluralism, itself varying from the sharing and coexistence of traditions to religious competition and even conflict. Scholarly study of the religions of the period has burgeoned in the last half-century, seen in the array of exciting work contextualizing and comparing religious texts, practices and cultures, from established fields of study from ‘patristics’ to ‘rabbinics’, to emerging fields such as ‘pagan monotheism’ and ‘ritual power’. Students taking this pathway in 2022-3 will take two dedicated modules: 'Books, Readers and Interpreters' in Michaelmas, and ‘Christians in late antique Alexandria’ in Lent.

Note on the pathway: Students accepted for the pathway ‘Religions of Late Antiquity’ who wish to focus on Christianity (the ‘Patristic’ route) are expected to take both modules of study and to offer a dissertation on a Patristic topic. They should have a demonstrable knowledge of at least one of the major ancient languages used by Christians of the time (Latin, Greek, Syriac), and be willing to do further language work as part of the MPhil. For the second, specifically ‘Patristic’ module (in 2023: ‘Christianity in Late Antique Alexandria’), participation is also subject to proven prior experience of the study of late antique Christianity. Students interested in participating in this module should consult the course co-ordinator in advance, who will determine whether their language and subject experience is sufficient.

Michaelmas Term 2022


Books, Readers and Interpreters

Course Coordinator: Dr Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe <>


This course is compulsory for those writing a dissertation in the field of Patristics.


Throughout Late Antiquity, scriptural texts were read out loud and expounded orally in a variety of contexts (e.g. in sermons in church to the baptised, in lectures to catechumens, and among private study circles in a domestic context). At the same time, a panoply of written treatises, letters, and poems with exegetical elements were composed, copied and circulated among Christian teachers and preachers. However, the lines between ‘oral’ and ‘written’ texts are more complex than this. Many kinds of written texts - from letters to commentaries - were composed through dictation to a scribe. Some texts that were apparently delivered ‘spontaneously’ in oral form, such as sermons preached off the cuff, in fact both drew on written notes and were transcribed by dedicated stenographers and subsequently edited and circulated as written texts. Scriptural texts were not only received and expounded within these clerical, ecclesiastical, and liturgical circles; traces of them can also be found in texts of ritual power (‘magic’) used in the performance of spells and charms for the purposes of healing and vengeance. The practices and material conditions of ‘book-making’ and written recitation and exposition critically informed all these developments. It has even been suggested that the spread of Christianity was linked to the early uptake of new forms of written media. Later on, textual practices were instrumental in establishing Christian thought as a field of learning and instruction, and in the organisation and transmission of knowledge. This module tackle issues of and reflexive relationships between oral and written speech; the importance of both the concept and material reality of scriptural and other books; and the impact of habits of reading and writing on the form and content of late antique Christian exegesis. The five sessions will concentrate on the following topics:


  1. Making books: papyri, scrolls, parchment, codex (Lefteratou, week 2)
  2. Interpreting scripture: commentaries on Paul (Lunn-Rockliffe, week 3)
  3. Expounding scripture: sermons and letters on Cain and Abel (Lunn-Rockliffe, week 4)
  4. Imagining scripture: Christian poems on Cain and Abel (Lunn-Rockliffe, week 5)
  5. Deploying scripture: scriptural historiolae in texts of ritual power (Lunn-Rockliffe, week 6)


For each session there will be a selection of primary texts to be read in translation alongside some secondary literature.


Possible essay topics

Candidates will write an essay under a title decided in consultation with supervisors, and approved by the course director and the degree committee.  Each essay must include close engagement with (at least) one primary source. Examples of the kinds of essay title envisaged for this module include the following:

1.  Discuss the importance of textual format and materiality for reading strategies and shaping arguments. [with reference to a test case]

2.  Analyse and discuss the exegesis of [a chosen biblical text] by [a chosen author] [in a particular genre, or a comparison across two genres].

4.  What is the argumentative [historical, theological, educational, polemical] purpose of [a particular selection of texts/excerpts or documentary collection]?


Further topics may include:

Literacy, orality, and memorization

Secondary orality

Materials and technologies of book production

Reading and writing in the classroom

Habits of composition and annotation, incl. stenography

Editing, copying and circulation of texts

The relationship between text, image and symbol

Instruments of scholarship in late antiquity from titles to tables.


Lent Term 2023


Christians in Late Antique Alexandria

Course Coordinator: Dr Anna Lefteratou,


This course is compulsory for those writing a dissertation in the field of Patristics.


Prerequisites: A reading knowledge of Greek and/or Latin.  Anyone interested in participating should consult the course coordinator, who will determine whether you have sufficient language experience.


In late antiquity, the city of Alexandria was, and had long been, a crucible of religious traditions.  It also developed into one of the most important centres of Christian social and cultural life, and theological reflection.  The emergence of Christianity as a leading social, cultural and intellectual force – in conversation and conflict with other religious and social groups, and intellectual traditions – between the late third and fifth centuries is the main focus of Classes in 2022-2023. Through the prism of the city and some of her major thinkers’ central themes in the history of late ancient Christianity may be studied in exemplary fashion. The five sessions will centre – not necessarily in this order – on the following topics:


1. The background: Hellenistic Alexandria as a place of dialogue and conflict [Lefteratou]

2. Origen, the Hebrew Bible, and Jewish scholarship in Alexandria [Lunn-Rockliffe]

3. Christian paideia in Alexandria: Origen (a) Origen’s ideal of Christian paideia, (b) the intelligibility of Origen’s concept of Christian paideia in light of his theological system, (c) scriptural exegesis as an ascetical practice in Origen’s Christian paideia [Pui Him Ip]

4. Women philosophers in Alexandria: Therapeutae, Sosipatra, Hypatia [Lefteratou]

5. Pagans and Christians in Alexandria: the destruction of the Serapeum and other Egyptian temples; religious syncretism [Lefteratou]


For each session there will be a selection of texts to be read in translation.


Possible essay topics


Candidates will write an essay in one of the general areas listed below.  Specific essay title must be decided in consultation with supervisors, and approved by the course director(s), and the degree committee.  Each essay must include close engagement with (at least) one primary source:


  • Orthodoxy and power;
  • Religious competition and violence;
  • Religious identity and conversion;
  • A topic in the Alexandrian theological/philosophical tradition;
  • Christian thought and the philosophical/classical tradition;
  • Genres of Christian literature – composition and circulation;
  • Reading, reception and refutation: the (textual and intellectual)

relationship between two major Alexandrian thinkers;

  • Institutional, social and cultural characteristics of the Alexandrian


  • Alexandria and its relationship to another major centre of Christianity

(e.g. Rome, Constantinople, Antioch) in the fourth and fifth centuries.