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Study of World Religions MPhil Pathway

Study of World Religions MPhil Pathway

Michaelmas Term 2019

Law for the Gentiles?: Universalism and ritual purity in Judaism, Christianity and Islam

Course Coordinator: Dr Daniel Weiss

Is the Hebrew Bible truly the particularist, tribal heritage of Israel, which is then universalized by Christianity or Islam?  This paper will explore universalist approaches to humanity and to ritual purity first sketched in the Pentateuch and in the prophetic literature, and trace its development in the New Testament, the rabbinic corpus, and in the Qur’an.  We will study the question of which laws each of the three major Abrahamic traditions presented as incumbent on all of humankind, assessing the degree to which the universalist tendencies of these three traditions were intertwined and developed in dialogue with each other, and how their similar yet distinct notions of “laws for the gentiles” may present a new opening for a comparative understanding of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Among the topics and questions that the seminars will explore are:

In what ways do the Pentateuchal laws incumbent on ‘the resident’ (ha-ger) prefigure later “Abrahamic” views of universal salvation and universal law?

How do competing dynamics within the New Testament with regard to ‘law for the gentiles’ (eg in the Letters of Paul and in the Book of Acts) relate back to Pentateuchal specifications?

Does rabbinic literature’s conceptualization of ‘ger’ as proselyte mark a major departure from the biblical notion of ‘ger’ as resident?

How do the rabbinic concept of the ‘sons of Noah’ (bnei noach) relate to the notion of a ‘universal’ covenant?

How do Qur’anic presentations of Islamic purity law relate to Biblical, Jewish and Christian views of ‘laws for the gentiles’?

How does the Decree of the Apostles relate to rabbinic notions of the ‘Noahide Laws’ and to Islamic law?

Seminar Topics

1. The Hebrew Bible

2. New Testament

3. Classical Rabbinic Literature

4 The Qur’an

Module Objectives

The aim of the module is, firstly, to enable students to develop their skills of textual analysis and of hermeneutic of scriptural and legal reception in early Christian, rabbinic, and Qur’anic traditions.  Secondly, the module aims to provide M.Phil. students with tools for comparative cross-traditional textual and conceptual analysis.  Thirdly, the module seeks to enable students to draw connections between analysis of concrete legal topics (in this case, that of ritual purity) and broader conceptual-theological themes (eg, universalism and humanity) within the three scriptural traditions under consideration.  In addition, in terms of comparative historical content, students should develop a clear sense of the importance and development of ‘ritual law for gentiles’ in Early Christianity, rabbinic Judaism and Islam.


All texts will be presented in translation as well as in the original languages, primarily Hebrew, Greek, and Arabic.  There are no specific language prerequisites, but students are encouraged to prepare and engage texts in original languages that they know.

Mode of Assessment

Assessment for the module will take the form of a submitted 5,000-word essay.  Each student will choose a topic for the essay in consultation with the coordinators of the M.Phil. module.

Sample Essay Questions

How do two (or all three) of the three traditions studied in the module deal with and reinterpret the heritage of the Hebrew Bible?

What is the relationship between purity laws for Jews and non-Jews in the Hebrew Bible in two (or all three) of the traditions studies in the module?

What role does the discourse about Jewish ethnicity play in two (or all three) of the three traditions studied in the module?

What is the historical impact of Paul’s letters on Christian discourse concerning the “Noahide laws”?

How do the Noahide laws develop from Tannaitic to Amoraic Judaism?

How can we understand the shift towards treating blood as a factor of impurity, for gentitles, within the Hebrew Bible?

How is our understanding of the concept of ‘universalism’ affected by examining the conceptuality of purity laws for gentiles within two (or all three) of the three traditions studied in the module?

Essay titles must be agreed with the course coordinators, and subsequently by the Degree Committee.

Lent Term 2020

The Varieties of Hindu Devotional Experience

Course Coordinator: Dr Ankur Barua

The module explores some distinctive forms of Hindu devotional love (bhakti) of God from historical, sociological, and theological perspectives.  For several Hindu traditions, these forms are central to their conceptualizations of liberation (moksa) in, through, and beyond the empirical structures of the everyday world.

Teaching provision: 4 x 1.5 hour classes

Aims: The module aims to highlight the textual foundations of bhakti in some classical scriptures and commentaries; its socio-historical locations across South Asia; and its theological ritual and experiential structures within the wider matrices of Hindu religious existence.

Objectives: The module objectives are to learn to appreciate some of the distinctive philosophical, theological, and experiential flavours of bhakti, and also explore their ongoing receptions, reformulations, and retellings in conditions of modernity.  By focusing on a set of themes relating to bhakti, students will be able to understand how it is interrelated with a range of other concepts of practices in constellations of Hindu religiosity.

Seminar topics:

Seminar 1: Looking for Bhakti in the Scriptural Sources

Seminar 2: The Knowledge of the Self and the Love of God

Seminar 3: Configuring Bhakti as Subaltern Protest

Seminar 4: Western Receptions of Bhakti – ISCKON and Swaminarayan

Assessment: The module is assessed through a 5,000 word essay.

Sample Questions:

1.    Is bhakti a Vedic concept or an extra-Vedic import into later developments of Hinduism?

2.    How might one characterise the flavours of bhakti in the Bhagavad-gītā and the Bhāgavata-purāna?

3.    Can a follower of an Advaita Vedānta lineage participate in devotional modes of worship (bhakti) of a personal deity?

4.    Can lovers of God (bhaktas) be characterised as mystics?

5.    Is the Hindu God passible?

6.    Can medieval bhakti be seen as a textual resource for generating subaltern resistance?

7.    Sketch the contours of a theodicy constructed with concepts relating to devotional love (bhakti).

8.    What is the significance of the doctrine of avatāra in worlds of Hindu devotion?

9.    How is bhakti expressed in the poetic theologies of the medieval Hindu holy individuals (sant)?

10.  Is the bhakti of the ISKCON movement true to the scriptural sources?