Durham University
Programme and Module Handbook

Postgraduate Programme and Module Handbook 2012-2013 (archived)

Module THEO42630: Gospels and Canon

Department: Theology and Religion

THEO42630: Gospels and Canon

Type Open Level 4 Credits 30 Availability Available in 2012/13 Module Cap None.
Tied to


  • Undergraduate-level study of New Testament, including Greek up to Level 2 or equivalent.


  • None

Excluded Combination of Modules

  • None


  • To develop skills in the close study of sometimes fragmentary non-canonical texts, and in the construction and testing of appropriate hypotheses.
  • To show how the understanding of familiar canonical material can be transformed as it is set within a wider context.
  • To show the interrelatedness of historical, hermeneutical, and theological issues, and to provide the resources to address them.


  • Early Christian gospel literature includes not only the four New Testament gospels but a wide range of other texts or text-fragments, some only recently discovered. This module will consider the significance of the “canonical/noncanonical” divide from historical, hermeneutical, and theological perspectives, and will start from the premise that the divide was imposed retrospectively on a previously undifferentiated body of literature. Potential topics and issues to be covered in the seminars include:
  • the construction of the canonical/noncanonical divide and its enduring legacy;
  • orality and textuality in earliest Christianity;
  • synoptic origins, including assessment of the “Q” hypothesis;
  • comparison between the Gospels of John and Thomas;
  • the usefulness or otherwise of the concepts of “gnosticism” and “heresy”;
  • selected noncanonical texts or excerpts, studied where possible in Greek;
  • the special case of the so-called “Secret Gospel of Mark”;
  • early papyrus evidence for gospel literature;
  • textual evidence for the formation of the fourfold canonical collection and the (partial) rejection of other gospels;
  • the theological and hermeneutical significance of the fourfold gospel, with special reference to Irenaeus and Origen;
  • the wider concept of “canonicity” and its function within a given social context;
  • the modern reception of newly-discovered gospel literature

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • By the end of the module students will have acquired a good grasp of a range of textual and theoretical issues. They will have learned that the formation of the four gospel collection was not historically inevitable – and that it is more interesting and significant in consequence. They will have familiarized themselves with a range of initially unfamiliar noncanonical literature, and with the interpretative issues it raises.
Subject-specific Skills:
  • By the end of the module students’ existing skills in exegesis of Greek texts and in textual criticism will have been enhanced. They will also have developed a critical awareness of key paradigms within which research in this area is conventionally practised, and an ability to see some possible alternatives.
Key Skills:
  • By the end of the module students will have learned to practise a more critical reading of primary texts. They will have acquired an ability to identify, summarize, and assess key positions in scholarly literature, and to make creative use of online resources. They will have enhanced their presentational and communication skills in the seminar context and in written work. They will have learned to discriminate between evidence-based arguments and those that are simply an expression of personal preference.

Modes of Teaching, Learning and Assessment and how these contribute to the learning outcomes of the module

  • The learning outcomes specified above will be achieved primarily through students’ active participation in weekly seminars. Each student will be required to give a 10-15 minute presentation at two or three seminars in the course of the module. These presentations will draw on secondary literature available in the library or online, as well as on independent study of primary texts. While bibliographies will be provided, students will also be expected to show initiative in finding additional material. Presenters will prepare a single-page outline for distribution to the class, and will respond to questions and comments arising out of their presentations. They will thereby learn both by independent research and by communicating, clarifying, and defending the results of that research. The experience of these presentations will assist them to present an argument in greater depth in formative and summative essays, where material already researched for presentations may be reused.

Teaching Methods and Learning Hours

Activity Number Frequency Duration Total/Hours
Seminars 18 weekly 1.5 27
Preparation and Reading 273
Total 300

Summative Assessment

Component: Essay Component Weighting: 100%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Essay 5000 words 100%

Formative Assessment:

5000 word formative essay

Attendance at all activities marked with this symbol will be monitored. Students who fail to attend these activities, or to complete the summative or formative assessment specified above, will be subject to the procedures defined in the University's General Regulation V, and may be required to leave the University