By Rachel Muir
Earlier this month, nine George Washington undergraduates walked in the footsteps of the apostle Paul, the early Christian leader credited with writing significant portions of the New Testament.
They also spent a day exploring the Acropolis, the collection of buildings that has come to represent Western civilization over the past two millennia, and another day wandering the ruins of Ephesus, once one of the largest and most sophisticated cities in the world.
The students were part of a study abroad class that spent more than two weeks in Greece and western Turkey, exploring ancient sites, tracing the paths of early Christians and examining the pagan religions that predate Christianity.
The three-credit class, Early Christianity in its Pagan Context, was offered for the first time this summer and was open to undergraduates across the university.
“The course focused on ancient culture, especially the religion, of the Greco-Roman world in which Christianity took root,” says Paul Duff, associate dean for undergraduate studies at the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. Dr. Duff co-led the class with Katherine Keller, Columbian College assistant dean of undergraduate studies.
The students read Greek dramas, classical and religious texts, and to a large extent, the more than a dozen sites visited were their classrooms.
The course began in Athens with an in-depth tour of the Acropolis, which perches on a stony outcrop above the city. The visit was a highlight for many students. “Standing at the symbol of the Western world was amazing,” says Stephen Yashinski, a Columbian College sophomore majoring in political science.
The class itinerary also included Delphi, the extensive and elaborate site dedicated to the worship of the god Apollo; Corinth, where the apostle Paul lived and famously wrote letters to; and Istanbul.
Exploring the city of Istanbul with its historic sites and merging of cultures both in ancient and modern times was an incredible experience, says Ashley Reese, a Columbian College sophomore majoring in journalism and dance. “It’s a place where all three Western religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, converge and, as a result, there are an amazing range of people and cultures represented.”
Places associated with the life and writings of the apostle Paul and other early Christians were a particular focus for the class.
“Paul is important for Christians because his letters are included in the New Testament and his ideas greatly influenced the way that the religion evolved,” says Dr. Duff, a professor of religion.
But, he says, Paul is also an influential figure in the larger context of Western culture. “He promoted a kind of inclusivism that abolished distinctions between men and women, Jews and pagans, and slaves and freepersons. Paul’s thinking profoundly influenced later thinkers like Augustine and Martin Luther.”
Dr. Keller, an associate professor of theatre and dance, introduced students in the course to the central role drama played in classical Greek religion.
“By studying the dramas of ancient Greece, students were able to see both parallels and continuity with the other religions of the Hellenistic world and especially with the emergence of Christianity,” she says.
Dr. Keller says being able to experience ancient sites firsthand greatly enhanced students’ learning—a sentiment echoed by the undergraduates who participated.
“I came into the course knowing only the basics of ancient culture and its relationship to early Christianity,” says Ms. Reese, who says that a lifelong fascination with religion and love of travel prompted her to apply for the course. “At the end of the trip, I left with not only a wealth of historical knowledge but also a practical firsthand understanding of how other cultures work.”
“It was a great trip,” says Mr. Yashinski. “I would recommend it to any student interested in ancient religion, history or culture.”