Hospitality of Abraham; Abraham and Isaac, Italian Mosaic, 6th cent.

REL 102: World Religions: Religions of Near Eastern Origin 


MWF, 11:00-11:50



Professor: Stephen Shoemaker 
Telephone: 346-4998
sshoemak (at) uoregon (dot) edu

Office: 813 PLC
Office Hours: F 1-3

(or by appointment)



 Course Description and Objectives | Textbook | Assignments
 Expectations and Regulations | Grading Scale

Internet Resources of General Use: If you have a general question about a particular person, concept, etc., you might try these resources first to find an answer. 

Schedule of Assignments




Course Description and Objectives


This course is designed to provide students with a basic working knowledge of the various religious traditions of Near Eastern origin.  Although we will devote considerable attention to the three numerically largest Western traditions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, we will also discuss, however briefly, various other related traditions that are also deserving of our attention, including several religious traditions that have now become extinct.  Students will read numerous primary texts from each of these traditions, which will be discussed in smaller groups.  Finally, students will write a reflective essay requiring them to process and synthesize several key concepts from these religious traditions.




  • Willard G. Oxtoby, World Religions: Western Traditions, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2011 (ISBN 978-0-19-542717-2)

Numerous other items are to be found on the internet, as indicated below.  

Internet Resources of General Use

Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia This is a good online source for general information on a variety of topics: brief explanations of many people, places, etc. 

An excellent collection of links can be found at the Religious Worlds website.  They are broken down according to the following traditions covered in this class:  Zoroastrian | Jewish | Christian | Islamic 

Another excellent collection of links on all kinds of religions can be found on Ehud ben-Zvi's teaching web page.

Judaism 101: A good basic introduction.

Digital Librarian: Judaism: A major collection of web links.

Shamash: Judaism and Jewish Resources: Another major collection of web resources

Avesta -- Zoroastrian Archives: Zoroastrian sacred writings in English with other links and resources

Christian Beliefs: A Summary overview, with some references to present debates.

Links to "official" Websites of more than 100 Christian denominations and other religious groups.

Islamic Studies: A site maintained by Prof. Alan Godlas of the University of Georgia, intended for teachers and students in a class like ours.  Has basic information on a number of topics and also covers Judaism and Christianity to some extent.



Attendance at all class sessions is expected.  Students should read all the assignments carefully before coming to class, in order to better understand the lectures and to participate in the class with questions and comments.  Assignments and grading are as follows:


A.  Three exams (60%): 1/28; 2/18; 3/11 


B.  Class attendance and participation (15%) 


C.     A final essay 5-6 pages double-spaced (approx 1500 words), due in class on 3/7 and addressing one of the following three questions (25%):


  1. The three largest Western religious traditions are often collectively known as the 'monotheistic' traditions.  As we have seen in class, however, many of the religious traditions of Western antiquity were polytheistic in nature.  The Christian tradition developed in a matrix that included both monotheistic and polytheistic traditions, and although it is generally regarded as a monotheistic tradition, many of its opponents (and even some of its faithful) have seen the doctrine of the Trinity as an expression of polytheism.  Read the following documents and discuss the Christian understanding of God in relation to the categories of monotheism and polytheism.  In what sense is the Christian view of God monotheistic, polytheistic, or both?  Does it seem to fit one category more than another, or is it a tertium quid--something quite different from both categories?  Reflect on the arguments presented in the two primary texts and identify their strengths and weakness: which arguments do you find especially persuasive and why?

  1. Mysticism is a theme common to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, although in each of these traditions it has taken historically diverse forms.  Read the selections from the following two mystical writers and answer the following questions.  In class we have defined mysticism as a direct, personal experience of the divine.  To what extent do each of these texts comport with this definition?  Are there aspects that are potentially problematic?  If so, is there a way that you might redefine "mysticism" to better include these texts?  What sort of similarities and differences do you find in these texts?  Do you think that the comparison of these texts supports the theory proposed by many (including mystics especially) that mysticism and mystical experience are the same across different religious traditions?

  1. Read the following works from the Jewish, Islamic, and Ancient Near Eastern traditions, all of which treat common themes about the origins of the universe and the early history of humanity.  What sort of similarities and differences do you find in these texts?  How can one best explain these relationships from an historical perspective?  What are the significances of both the similarities and the differences?  Why are some parts very similar and other parts altered by the different traditions?  What can these relationships tell us about the history of the Near Eastern religious traditions in general?

Format of Essay:  In answering the questions, first of all, briefly summarize the contents of the text(s) regarding the questions asked: what do the texts say?  Then, take a clear position in response to the texts and defend it: imagine that your reader believes the opposite and that you are trying to persuade him or her.  Your assignment for this paper is to write from a perspective outside of the traditions in question.  Do not make the mistake of giving a spiritual autobiography or a narrative of how this text relates to your own personal spiritual life and faith.  Do not make the mistake of just dismissing the ideas of a text because you have different religious beliefs: if you disagree, give convincing reasons why.  In all instances, strive for an impersonal and objective tone: you need to represent the contents of the text(s) fairly and accurately and give thoughtful reasons for your response.  Your goal for this assignment is to approach and consider these religious traditions as objects of study from the outside, NOT from the perspective of an insider, legitimate as this perspective is in other contexts.  Even if one is a believer in a particular tradition, the purpose of taking this class is to learn how to see and study the same phenomena from a perspective outside of the tradition.  In general, it is good to avoid using "I," "me," "my," "we," "our," "you", "your" (except in quotations of course); you should give your opinions, but write them using the third person.  Also, while you should cite examples from the texts, be sure to explain and contextualize any quotations made, and be sure that your own voice is not lost in a sea of quotations. All quotations must be identified as such, and references to the text should be given parenthetically either as a page number or section number, as appropriate.  Take care to write correctly and well: you will be graded for grammar and style as well as content.  Finally, please number your pages.  For extra help and advice on writing your paper, the University Teaching and Learning Service in the basement of PLC is an invaluable resource.


Expectations and Regulations

1.  Preparation:  You are expected to come to class having completed the reading assignments for that session.  You should be prepared to discuss and ask questions about the assignments in your discussion group.  Note also that some material from the readings that is not covered in class may be included on the examinations. 

2.  Participation and Class Attendance: You should come to class prepared to ask questions and to discuss the readings for that session.  Regular class attendance is required, and attendance will be taken.  If you expect to miss class doe to illness, observance of religious holy days, or other extenuating circumstances, please notify the instructor in advance at sshoemak (at) uoregon (dot) edu.

3.  Late Papers: Unless an extension has been arranged in advance, late papers will be marked down one full letter grade for each day after the due date.  Late papers will not be accepted more than three days after the due date. 

4.  Make-up or Early Exams: will be allowed only in truly exceptional circumstances, in the case of unforeseeable events beyond the studentís control and must be approved by the instructor in advance.  

5.  Plagiarism or Cheating: Students caught plagiarizing or cheating on any assignment will be reported to the Student Conduct Coordinator in the Office of the Dean of Students.  Students who are aware of cheating or plagiarism are encouraged to inform the instructor.  If you are uncertain as to what constitutes plagiarism (or other forms of academic dishonesty), please consult this helpful guide from the UO library concerning plagiarism, as well as the UO's Policy on Academic Dishonesty.  

6.  Completion of Assignments:  Completion of all required assignments is necessary to pass and receive credit for the course.  Incompletes will be granted only at the discretion of the instructor and only in case of circumstances beyond the student's control. 

7.  Special Needs: Students with special needs requiring academic accommodations should 1) register with and provide documentation to Disability Services; 2) bring a letter to the instructor from the SSD indicating that you need academic accommodations, and we will arrange to meet them.  This should be done during the first week of class. 

Grading Scale







Course Outline


Week 1


1/3 Introduction 


1/5 Religion in the Ancient Near East

Read: Oxtoby, 30-45

Gilgamesh Flood Story

The Ludlul BÍl Nimeqi (I Will Praise the Lord of Wisdom)

Enuma Elish

Egyptian Creation Story

Judgment of the Dead (according to Egyptian Book of the Dead)


1/7 Judaism: Origins to Exile

Read: Oxtoby, 68-86; Kessler, 39-55; Online readings (Blackboard)


Week 2


1/10 Judaism: Exile and the Second Temple Period

Read: Oxtoby, 86-98; Kessler, 56-66; Online readings (Blackboard)


1/12 Judaism: Rabbinic Judaism

Read: Oxtoby, 98-113; Kessler, 66-69; Online readings (Blackboard)


1/14 Judaism: Medieval Judaism

Read: Oxtoby, 113-127; Kessler, 69-77; Online readings (Blackboard)


Week 3


1/17 NO CLASS: Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday


1/19 Judaism: Practice

Read: Oxtoby, 127-141; Kessler, 77-88; Online readings (Blackboard)


1/21 Judaism: Judaism and the Modern World

Read: Oxtoby, 141-157; Kessler, 88-97; Online readings (Blackboard)


Week 4



1/24 The Zoroastrian Tradition: Classical Zoroastrianism

Read: Online readings (Blackboard)

Gatha of the Choice

Zoroastrian Dualist Cosmogony

A Zoroastrian Sacrifice to the Sun

The Crossing of the Cinvat Bridge and the Roads to Heaven and Hell


1/26 The Zoroastrian Tradition: Zoroastrianism in the Modern World

Read: Online readings (Blackboard)

The Towers of Silence

The Kusti ritual

The Zoroastrian Fire Temple at Baku (Azerbaijan)


1/28 Exam 1: Study Guide; Timeline (MS Excel)


Week 5


1/31 Christianity: Christian Origins

Read: Oxtoby, 166-181; Kessler, 99-124; Online readings (Blackboard)


2/2 Christianity: Imperial Christianity

Read: Oxtoby, 181-193; Kessler, 124-31; Online readings (Blackboard)


2/4 Christianity: The Middle Ages

Read: Oxtoby, 192-209; Kessler, 131-36; Online readings (Blackboard)


Week 6


2/7 Christianity: The Western Reformations

Read: Oxtoby, 209-17; Kessler, 136-43; Online readings (Blackboard)


2/9 Christianity: The Enlightenment and Pietism

Read: Oxtoby, 217-40

John Locke, On the Reasonableness of Christianity (selections)

Thomas Paine, Of the Religion of Deism Compared with the Christian Religion

Philip Jacob Spener, Pia Desideria (selections)


2/11 Christianity: Christianity and Modernity

Read: Oxtoby, 240-260; Kessler, 143-67; Online readings (Blackboard)


Week 7


2/14 Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean: Greco-Roman Religions

Read: Oxtoby, 45-60

To Earth, Mother of All Homeric Hymn xxx

Hesiod, Works and Days, (ll.109-201)

Accounts of Hellenic Religious Beliefs

Accounts of Personal Religion

Isis, Queen of Heaven


2/16 NO CLASS: Instructor away giving lecture


2/18 Exam 2: Study Guide; Study Guide 2 (MS Word); Timeline (MS Excel)


Week 8


2/21 The Manichaean Tradition / Islam: Muhammad and Islamic Origins

Read: Oxtoby, 268-81; Kessler, 181-88; Online readings (Blackboard)

Manichaeism -

A Manichaean Psalm (summary of the Manichaean creation myth)

We Would Fulfil- Mani's Hymn to Jesus, the King

The Praise of Jesus the Life-giver

The Opening Words of the Living Gospel


2/23 Islam: Muhammad and Islamic Origins: New Perspectives

Qur'an sura 18

Peter von Sivers, "The Islamic Origins Debate Goes Public" (Blackboard)

Toby Lester, "What is the Koran," Atlantic Monthly, Jan. 1999

Scholars Are Quietly Offering New Theories of the Koran, New York Times, Mar. 2, 2002

The Lost Archive, Wall Street Journal, Jan. 12, 2008.


2/25 Islam: The Age of the Caliphs

Read: Oxtoby, 297-305; Kessler, 188-91; Online readings (Blackboard)


Week 9


2/28 Islam: Shi'i and Sunni 

Read: Oxtoby, 281-5; Kessler, 191-97; Online readings (Blackboard)


3/2 Islam: Islamic Theology and Mysticism

Read: Oxtoby, 285-91; Kessler, 197-207; Online readings (Blackboard)


3/4 Islam: Global Spread and Practice

Read: Oxtoby, 291-297; Kessler, 207-13; Online readings (Blackboard)


Week 10


3/7 Islam and the Modern World

Read: Oxtoby, 305-317; Kessler, 213-26; Online readings (Blackboard)


***Paper due in class 3/7***


3/9 Mandeans, Yezidis, and Baha'i

Read: Oxtoby, 399-401

The Mandaeans

Three Mandaean Hymns: The Messenger of Light; The Soul`s Deliverance; Instruction of Adam by an Uthra

Yazidis (a summary of beliefs)

The Yezidi Black Book

Basic Teachings of BahŠ'u'llŠh (follow links)


3/11 Exam 3 Study Guide; Study Guide 2 (MS Word); Timeline (MS Excel); Vocabulary (MS Word)