PhD in Christianity

There are two main tracks in Christianity: Ancient Christianity/Late Antiquity and History of Christianity (Medieval/Early Modern).

This program is designed to prepare students for professional work in research and teaching, focusing on the interdisciplinary study of early and late ancient Christianity within the context of the broader academic study of religion. The subfield encourages students to work across a range of disciplinary specializations—historical inquiry, philological and literary analysis, translation, art history, archaeology, material culture—and to place the study of ancient and late ancient Christianity within a broader cultural contexts of the ancient Mediterranean world.

Depending on their areas of interest and specialization, students may take courses outside the department and across the offerings of the university (in history, classics, art history, and other relevant departments) as well as courses at Jewish Theological Seminary of America or, after their first year, in the broader consortium that includes NYU, Princeton, Yale, and other nearby institutions. Students in the program often pursue independent reading courses with faculty members to fill out their coursework. Students in the program must document proficiency in the languages relevant to and necessary for their scholarship. Students can document proficiency either by examination or successful completion of advanced coursework in the language. Most admitted students have already achieved some level of proficiency in some of the necessary languages, and most continue language study during their early years in the program. The most relevant languages are generally Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic, Coptic, and Syriac. Reading proficiency in French and German (and sometimes Italian) are also required.

Students in the Ancient Christianity/Late Antiquity track join other students in the department in theoretical and thematic seminars that encourage students to focus on broad analytical frameworks that will deepen their work in their areas of specialization and enable them to be conversant with the wider theoretical and methodological discussions underway in the academic study of religion—including, but not limited to, social and cultural theory, literary theory, gender and sexuality studies, among others.

The First Field Exam

The student is expected to take their first field exam by the end of their third academic year. The exam is designed to enrich the student's knowledge of late antique religions in their broader social and political context.

For the first field exam, the student selects four areas of study that span a variety of sources, approaches, and historical periods. These areas should cover key ancient literary corpora like Bible, gnostic literature, a selection of major late ancient Christian writers or genres (e.g., martyrological texts, ascetical theory, hagiography), and the major scholarly questions and debates that surround them. Students can also tailor some of their preparation to their own interests: religious movements or phenomena (e.g., Greek and Roman religions; apocalypticism; asceticism); religious institutions; religious thought (theology, ethics, mysticism); literary forms and rhetoric; philosophical schools; political structures; major historical events or transformations (e.g., the process of the Christianization of the Roman Empire); social and economic relations (e.g., the family; slavery; patronage networks; literacy; poverty; taxation). Areas should remain relatively broad and should include theories and methods from other disciplines, such as sociology, anthropology, comparative literature, and gender theory.

In consultation with the advisor and two other faculty members, the student will refine the study areas and create bibliographies of both primary and secondary sources for each one. This final document of study areas and their bibliographies serves as the basis for the exam, which has two parts, the first oral, and the second written. Again in consultation with the advisor and with the examiners, the student develops one question for each of the four lists and writes four essays, each consisting of ten to twelve pages, to address the questions. The student has a week in which to write and to submit the essays. Approximately a week after submission, the second part of the exam, a two-hour oral meeting, is scheduled, when the examiners discuss the essays with the student and explore the ideas and claims in them.

If both written and oral presentations are deemed acceptable by the examiners, the student will be credited with a pass. If significant weaknesses emerge and the student does not pass the exam, the committee may elect either to allow the student to retake the exam or to ask the student to leave the program.

The Second Field Exam

The second field exam, which should be completed within at most six months of the first field exam, is intended to prepare the student for writing the dissertation. For the second field exam, the student prepares an approximately fifty-page essay dedicated to a review of scholarship on a well-defined subject that the student plans to address in the dissertation and an analysis of key primary sources related to that subject. The review of scholarship should not simply summarize the scholarship – though it should do that as well – but it should take a critical and creative perspective on it. In a one-hour oral exam with the advisor and the committee, to be scheduled as soon as possible after the student’s submission of the essay, the student should show mastery of both the scholarship and the primary sources related to their dissertation topic and should be able to discuss initial plans for dissertation writing and research. The exam may include testing of the student's facility in languages necessary to research the proposed dissertation topic.

The student should plan to write and complete their dissertation prospectus concurrent with or immediately after the second field exam so that exams and prospectus are both completed by the middle of the fourth year. The prospectus should be approved at the latest by the end of the fourth year.

Students should be in close consultation with faculty in the fields of their specialization (e.g., Judaism or Christianity) in working out the details of their particular programs.

Students who concentrate in the History of Christianity are expected: a) to acquire a competent knowledge of a broad range of Christian history (from the 3rd Century CE to the Early Modern Era), and (b) to acquire a more detailed grasp of a special area within that history. The Two Field Examinations are to be designed in such wise as to enable the individual student to demonstrate that he or she has met these expectations.

The study of the religious ideas of the eras will be conducted within an ongoing analysis of the larger socio-political contexts of the times. Many resources for the illumination of historical context exist within Columbia (especially the departments of Classics, History, Art History, and Slavic Studies) and neighboring institutions such as Barnard, Union Theological Seminary, and Jewish Theological Seminary.

Students are expected to confer closely with their faculty advisor(s) about the content of their individual field examinations. The subjects of examination, when they have been agreed upon, should be set out in writing and accompanied by student-generated bibliographies that define the scope of the student's responsibility in each of the areas of examination. Advisors will notify the department of their approval of such proposals and retain copies of the written agreement. Students are expected to complete courses in more than one historical period, and are urged to consult course listings in other relevant departments for offerings which might be of particular interest.

Language Requirements

All students must pass examinations in French and German and whatever additional languages are required for specialized work in the ultimate area of concentration. Latin is required for all students in Medieval Christianity, and Greek is necessary for those specializing in the Patristic/Byzantine era. It is also desirable that candidates specializing in the early period begin to work in at least one other ancient language [such as Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopic or Syriac] at an early stage in the program. Students should satisfy these requirements during the period of course-work, before completion of the first field exam. Classes in Syriac, Coptic, and Greek are offered in Columbia and neighboring institutions on a regular basis.

The First Field Examination

The first field examination is designed to test mastery of survey knowledge over the whole field from the 3rd century to the Early Modern Era (but see note 3 below).

  1. It is normally composed of three two-hour examinations, the writing of which may occupy a period of not more than two weeks. (These may be a mixed diet of closed or open book examinations – as determined by consultation with the advisor).
  2. All examinations shall be read by at least two members of the faculty.
  3. The interests of the student will be consulted in determining the focus of these exams. Two of the three shall normally be concerned with a survey of Christian History across periods and regions (specifically (a) Patristic/Byzantine, (b) Latin Medieval, (c) Early Modern European). With the consent of the advisor, a student will also select one of these periods to form the sole subject of the third two-hour segment of the exam, reflecting a more specific topic within the ‘ primary focus area’ of each candidate.
  4. When all segments of the exam have been completed, an oral exam relating to the content of the written papers shall be scheduled to take place not later than the end of the semester in which the exam was written. The oral exam shall be conducted by the faculty readers of the written papers and shall last approximately one hour. Its focus will be to consider the overall grasp of the field demonstrated in the written papers, and to explore areas that could be profitably developed. If the written and oral presentations are deemed acceptable by the examiners, the candidate will be awarded a PASS. If significant weaknesses emerge the candidate may be asked to supplement those parts of the Field examination.

The Second Field Examination

  1. The Second Field Exam will entirely be concerned with the ‘primary focus area’ of the student's chosen concentration, and might best be designed to cover the general area of specialization within which the student proposes to write a dissertation.
  2. The scope and subject matter of this examination must be arranged between the student and his or her advisor. It should be narrowly enough defined so that the student may be held responsible not only for accepted general knowledge, but also for questions regarding the present state of research and discussion in the field. Work undertaken in the second field exam will have a relevance directed towards the dissertation, though will not form part of it.
  3. The examination shall take the form either of a three-hour written exam, or a research paper on a topic specified by the advisor, to be followed (within the same week in this case) by a one-hour oral exam conducted by the reader of the written paper. If the examination takes the form of a written paper it ought to be completed within a period of no more than six weeks from the approval of the topic. If both exam/paper and oral presentation are deemed acceptable by the examiner, the student will be credited with a pass. If significant weaknesses emerge, the student may be asked to rewrite, or add to those parts of the exam.