Durham University
Programme and Module Handbook

Postgraduate Programme and Module Handbook 2020-2021 (archived)

Module THEO45560: Gospels and Canon (with additional texts)

Department: Theology and Religion

THEO45560: Gospels and Canon (with additional texts)

Type Open Level 4 Credits 60 Availability Available in 2020/21


  • • Undergraduate-level study of New Testament


  • • None

Excluded Combination of Modules

  • • None. N.b. the “additional texts” component of the expanded Gospel and Canon module will coincide with the third year undergraduate module THEO 3771: Competing Gospels: Jesus Inside and Outside the Canon


  • 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.
  • To develop confidence in the study and interpretation of gospel-related material from so-called “gnostic” circles, and to consider its relation to canonical literature.
  • To demonstrate the importance of working across conventional scholarly boundaries, and thinking critically about certain established scholarly categories and descriptive labels for texts.


  • Gospel texts did not come into the world with the labels “canonical” or “non-canonical” already attached. 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 literature will be studied from a variety of perspectives, from textual to canonical criticism and beyond. Topics to be covered will include:
  • defining the term “gospel”
  • the fourfold gospel and its hermeneutical implications
  • the canonical/non-canonical relationship and its hermeneutical significance
  • selected non-canonical gospels or gospel-like texts, in relation to the canonical four
  • ideological conflict in early gospel production and reception
  • early manuscript evidence: papyri, codices
  • patristic evidence relating to canon formation
  • influential non-canonical traditions relating to Jesus’ birth and death
  • the concept of “gnosticism” and its usefulness or otherwise
  • the reception of canonical gospel literature in struggles between “orthodoxy” and “heresy”

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 non-canonical literature, and with the interpretative issues it raises. In particular, students will have critically considered why certain Gospel texts, such as those from the so-called “gnostic” collection from Nag Hammadi, have been traditionally viewed as “heretical” subversions of the Christian message. Students will also have learned about the importance of physical evidence (manuscripts, codices, papyri) in our assessment of how both canonical and non-canonical literature was produced and utilised by early Christians.
Subject-specific Skills:
  • By the end of the module students’ existing skills in exegesis of gospel 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. They will have engaged with ongoing scholarly debates about gnosticism, orthodoxy and heresy, and the diversity of the early Christian landscape. They will have grasped that texts on both side of the canonical/non-canonical boundary respond well to careful and attentive reading.
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. They will have enriched their exegetical competency by reading and discussing canonical and non-canonical literature in conversation.

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. In the expectation that the seminars will be delivered partly or wholly online, each weekly session will be delivered in two 45 minute blocks with a 30 minute interval. Primary texts to be read in advance will be available on DUO. Each student will be required to give a brief 5 minute presentation at two or three seminars in the course of the module, posing a series of questions based on initial study of the relevant topics, and these will be circulated in advance and will form the basis for discussion. While some bibliographical suggestions will be provided, students will be expected to show initiative in finding additional material. 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. Seminars, whether in person or online, will include guided individual and group exegetical and discussion tasks with the key texts being studied.

Teaching Methods and Learning Hours

Activity Number Frequency Duration Total/Hours
Seminars 36 Twice Weekly 1.5 Hours 54
Preparation and Reading 546
Total 600

Summative Assessment

Component: Essay 1 Component Weighting: 50%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Essay 1 5000 words 100%
Component: Essay 2 Component Weighting: 50%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Essay 2 5000 words 100%

Formative Assessment:

Two essays of 5000 words.

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