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Study of World Religions MPhil Pathway

Michaelmas Term 2020

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 2021

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?  

Atheism and Abrahamic Religions: Philosophical and Anthropological Approaches

Course Coordinator: Esra Ozyurek and Daniel Weiss


Atheism is an important but sometimes neglected topic in the study of religion. This module suggests that theism and atheism in the modern context can be understood in a symbiotic relationship with one another. It explores the idea that studying the philosophical and intellectual arguments made by (or about) atheists, including popular ones, alongside studying the social experiences of atheists can enable a deeper academic understanding of the phenomenon as a whole. Throughout the module, our aim will be to look at philosophical texts with an anthropological perspective and the anthropological texts with philosophical questions in mind.

            This module will start by critically discussing a number of modern popular books written by atheists promoting atheism, originally from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions. Reading these texts, we will outline the popular arguments made in favour of atheism, such as the question of evil, freedom, and tension between science and religion. Along with these texts, we will also look at popular writers who have sought to refute these arguments in a direct form, enabling students to assess elements of truth-claims and competing argumentation.  We will also examine scholarly assessments of the debate as a whole.  We will also try to contextualize atheism in its social, cultural, historical, political, and religious contexts, and we will discuss the kind of relationship atheism has to existing religious traditions. We will ask whether atheism can be understood as independent of ‘religion,’ and if not, in what ways it is dependent on ‘religion.’ The following two sessions will try to understand atheism from the perspective of lived experience, looking at elements of practice and ritual, and exploring whether atheists can be considered a (religious?) community.


Module Aims


1) To better understand the concepts, themes, arguments, and problems surrounding modern atheism, with a focus on European and American contexts.

2)  To assess what can be learned about the phenomenon of belief in (the Christian/Jewish/Muslim) God through consideration of its denial.

3) To better contextualize different forms or ideas of atheism in their social, political, historical, and religious contexts; in particular, to assess whether ‘atheism’ looks different depending on whether it is considered within Christian, Jewish, or Islamic contexts.

4) To consider how engagement with social-scientific approaches to atheism can inform philosophical analysis of atheism, and vice-versa.


Seminar Topics


Varieties of popular atheism                        

Relations between modern atheism and religious traditions

Practice and ritual

Community and identity


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


1) Discuss the proposal that atheism is parasitic on religion.

2) Is atheism itself a viewpoint rather than a denial?

3) Are there multiple atheisms?

4) Discuss whether atheism is a form of modern religion.

5) Has the ‘New Atheism’ impacted the self-conception of different religious traditions?

6) Discuss the proposal that atheism is Protestant.


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


Diversity and Development in Mahāyāna Buddhism

Course Coordinator: Dr Chris Jones


The Mahāyāna or ‘Great Vehicle’ represents a second wave of innovation in Indian Buddhist thought, practice and literary composition. Mahāyāna literature explores ways in which aspiring Buddhas – or bodhisattvas – can not only end their bondage to transmigration, but in such a fashion that they arrive at the superlatively knowledge, supremely powerful status of a Buddha.  This module will explore Mahāyāna Buddhism as reflected by Indian texts produced in roughly the first five hundred years of the Common Era, through which we witness the evolution of the Mahāyāna and the variety of its literary and doctrinal expressions.


Beginning shortly before the turn of the Common Era, the early life of the Mahāyāna tradition is a source of ongoing scholarly debate.  In the first instance a bodhisattva was imagined to have accepted a burden too great for most beings: his/her path required insights beyond anything known to earlier Buddhist practice, and benefitted from some encounter with a Buddha who could impart knowledge about them.  The Buddha of our world, Śākyamuni, was himself reimagined: elevated from the paragon of teachers to a transcendent locus of liberating knowledge and influence.  In some sources, the perfect awakening realized by a Buddha was made not only attainable but immanent to all sentient beings.  Some corners of the Mahāyāna expanded the parameters of Buddhist teaching to include all manner of worldly rites and practices that were eschewed by the wider Buddhist tradition, while early examples of tantric Buddhism promoted ritual technologies that make awakening a goal that can be realized – albeit transiently – in this very lifetime.


It is strongly recommended that student taking this module attend the B16 Buddhism lectures that will be held in Michaelmas Term.


Objectives: This module invites students to engage with the diversity of  Mahāyāna Buddhist literature produced in the first five centuries of the Common Era.  Over the course of four seminars, students will use translations of Indian Buddhist sources – supported by relevant scholarship – to familiarize themselves with themes that develop in Indian Buddhism, and with continue to influence Buddhist cultures across the world today.  The module will consider the historical development of Mahāyāna Buddhism, its influences from within and beyond the wider world of Buddhist teaching and practice, and the ways in which Buddhist innovators sought to expand the horizons of their tradition.


Example Seminars


1) Beginning on the Great Way.

Attending to relatively early sources for the Mahāyāna, and their descriptions of the career undertaken by a bodhisattva.  Texts considered may include the  and .

2) Entering the Pure Land.

Attending to Indian descriptions of how to encounter Buddhas active in other worlds, or ‘Pure Lands’, and of the status of these parallel worlds.  Texts considered may include forms of the Sukhāvatīvyūha and Pratyutpannasamādhisūtra.

3) Liberation Reconfigured.

Attending to the maturation of the Mahāyāna, including ‘docetic’ accounts of the Buddha(s) and the universalization of the path of the bodhisattva.  Texts considered may include the ‘Lotus’ and sutras.

4) Gods, Rites and Power.

Attending to the expansion of the Mahāyāna to include, or even culminate in, modes or ritual and the evocation of powerful supermundane beings.  Texts considered may include  and .


Sample Essay Titles

Essay titles must be agreed with the course coordinator and subsequently by the degree committee.  The following constitute only suggested titles:


What insights can Buddhist texts give us into the origins of the Mahāyāna tradition?


How consistent is the perfection of insight literature (prajñāpāramitā) with mainstream Buddhist discussion about transmigration and escape from it?


What, where and why are there Pure Lands?


In what ways did Mahāyānist authors attempt to legitimize scriptural and doctrinal innovations?


What are the doctrinal repercussions of the claim that anyone can become a Buddha?


Does a Buddhist account of the self (ātman) go beyond that which is acceptable for a Buddhist text to promote?

How far can tantric Buddhism still be called Buddhist?