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From Jesus to Constantine: A History of Early Christianity

From Jesus to Constantine: A History of Early Christianity

Professor Bart D. Ehrman Ph.D., M.Div.
The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Course No.  6577
Course No.  6577
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

In a world where Christianity has been, in the words of Professor Bart D. Ehrman, "the most powerful religious, political, social, cultural, economic, and intellectual institution in the history of Western civilization," most of us have grown up believing we know the answers to these questions:

  • Were the early Christians really hunted down and martyred, with repeated persecutions for an illegal religion forcing them to hide in the catacombs of Rome?
  • Did the ancient Jews of Jesus' time always believe in a single, all-powerful God?
  • How did breaking away from their Jewish roots make Christians more vulnerable in the Roman world?
  • What were the origins of what we now consider the distinctively Christian liturgical practices of baptism and the Eucharist?
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In a world where Christianity has been, in the words of Professor Bart D. Ehrman, "the most powerful religious, political, social, cultural, economic, and intellectual institution in the history of Western civilization," most of us have grown up believing we know the answers to these questions:

  • Were the early Christians really hunted down and martyred, with repeated persecutions for an illegal religion forcing them to hide in the catacombs of Rome?
  • Did the ancient Jews of Jesus' time always believe in a single, all-powerful God?
  • How did breaking away from their Jewish roots make Christians more vulnerable in the Roman world?
  • What were the origins of what we now consider the distinctively Christian liturgical practices of baptism and the Eucharist?

But do we know the answers? As this course shows, the answers are, in fact, quite surprising.

See How Today's Christianity Emerged

The traditional form of Christianity we know today includes beliefs, practices, a canon of sacred scripture, and even its own stated history, but it emerged only after many years of transition and conflict—with Judaism and with what can now only be called the "lost Christianities."

That term, of course, is familiar to anyone who has taken Professor Ehrman's earlier course, Lost Christianities: Christian Scriptures and the Battles over Authentication.

And now Professor Ehrman, whose previous and popular efforts for The Teaching Company also include The Historical Jesus and The New Testament, has created a course that places those forgotten forms of the faith in an even broader context.

From the Religion of Jesus to a Religion about Jesus

These lectures take you back to Christianity's first three centuries to explain its transition from the religion of Jesus to a religion about Jesus.

It introduces you to lost Christianities and their sacred writings. And it shows how many of those writings were originally proscribed or destroyed, only to be rediscovered in modern times.

You also learn how a single group from among many won the struggle for dominance, which allowed it to:

  • Establish the beliefs central to the faith
  • Rewrite the history of Christianity's internal conflicts
  • Produce a canon of sacred texts—the New Testament—that supported its own views.

From 20 Followers … to Two Billion

These lectures offer a fresh and provocative perspective on what are perhaps the most intriguing questions of all:

How could a movement originally made up of perhaps only 20 low-class followers of a Jewish apocalyptic preacher crucified as an enemy of the state grow to include nearly four million adherents in only 300 years?

And how would it eventually become the largest religion in the world, with some two billion adherents?

To answer those questions, Professor Ehrman examines Christianity from several directions:

  • The faith's beginnings, starting with the historical Jesus and the other individuals and traditions that formed the foundation of the emerging religion
  • Jewish-Christian relations, including the rise of anti-Judaism within the Christian church and the emergence of Christianity as a religion different from and ultimately opposed to the Jewish religion from which it emerged
  • The way Paul and other Christians spread the new faith, including the message they proclaimed and their approaches to winning converts
  • Hostility to the Christian mission from those who were not persuaded to convert and who considered Christianity to be dangerous or antisocial, leading to the persecutions of the 2nd and 3rd centuries
  • Internal struggles within the faith, as Christians with divergent understandings sought to make their beliefs the ones that defined the one "true" faith
  • The factors that led to the formation of traditional Christianity we know today, with its canon of New Testament scriptures, set creeds, liturgical practices such as baptism and the Eucharist, and church hierarchy.

Christianity's Evolution from Judaism

In tracing the process by which Christianity evolved from its origins within Judaism to become something dramatically different, Professor Ehrman discusses how most Jews simply weren't willing to accept Jesus as the Messiah.

Professor Ehrman conveys the Jewish perspective on what the Messiah would be like. And you learn how much of it was based on Jesus' own teachings, which the early Christians were attempting to alter in trying to gain Jewish converts.

But he also explains how early Christianity, even though it was increasingly at odds with Judaism, also found a degree of legitimacy under its umbrella.

Professor Ehrman points out that this was a time when ancientness itself was essential for a faith seeking acceptance. So as Christianity separated from Judaism, it sought a means of asserting ancient roots in its own right.

Learn Christianity's Argument for Its Ancient Roots

Christianity argued its ancient roots by retaining the Jewish scriptures and arguing that it was, in fact, the fulfillment of what those scriptures had promised.

Throughout these lectures, Professor Ehrman challenges old misconceptions and offers fresh perspectives on aspects of Christianity and its roots that many of us might have thought we already understood. For example:

  • The five common myths about early Christianity, including that it was illegal in the early empire and that Christians were pursued and persecuted: It was not declared illegal until the middle of the 3rd century, and was tolerated in most places, just as other religions were.
  • The belief that early Judaism was exclusively monotheistic: Although Judaism was unusual in the Roman world in that Jews insisted on worshipping only one god, you learn that there is good evidence that at different periods in history, Jews—like others in those pagan times—believed in the existence of multiple gods.
  • The development of the New Testament canon was as a way to both differentiate Christians from Jews and also create a body of text substantiating their views.
  • The roots of baptism and the Eucharist are in Jewish liturgical traditions and rumors about the alleged licentiousness of the baptism ceremony led apologists such as Justin Martyr and Tertullian to write publicly about those heretofore secret practices.
  • Wild charges of child sacrifices, cannibalism, and licentiousness were often made against Christians, and the persecutions that did occur.
  • Walter Bauer's research revealed that many forms of Christianity deemed heretical were, in fact, the earliest forms that could found in most places.
  • The movement by church scholars of the early 16th century to once again create from surviving Greek texts a New Testament in the original Greek, and how forgery often reared its head.

These lectures are an engaging experience that will increase your understanding of Christianity today. They offer you a scholar's perspective on the origins of what Professor Ehrman describes as the most important institution in Western civilization.

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24 Lectures
  • 1
    The Birth of Christianity
    This lecture introduces some issues essential to understanding how Christianity began, grew away from its Jewish roots, and ultimately became the most important religion of our civilization. x
  • 2
    The Religious World of Early Christianity
    This lecture introduces the pagan, polytheistic religions that dominated the early world and the most important Roman religion for the birth of Christianity: Judaism, the religion of Jesus and his followers. x
  • 3
    The Historical Jesus
    In the first of three lectures on the "birth" of Christianity, Professor Ehrman examines the life of Jesus of Nazareth, as referred to both outside the New Testament and within the Gospels themselves. x
  • 4
    Oral and Written Traditions about Jesus
    This lecture looks at how four anonymous authors who lived decades after Jesus recorded traditions that had been circulating orally over the intervening years, and examines the extent to which those traditions had been modified in the retelling. x
  • 5
    The Apostle Paul
    Based on a visionary experience of the resurrected Jesus, a Jewish Pharisee converts to Christianity and begins an intense missionary experience to win over non-Jews to faith in Jesus. x
  • 6
    The Beginning of Jewish-Christian Relations
    In the first of three lectures dealing with the relationship of Jews and Christians in the ancient world, we consider how Christianity started as a sect within Judaism, yet quickly became a religion separate from Judaism. x
  • 7
    The Anti-Jewish Use of the Old Testament
    How could most early Christians, who held on to the Jewish Scriptures as revelations from God, claim these Scriptures for their own when they did not follow many of the laws set forth in them? This lecture considers two key figures in the early Christian-Jewish debates. x
  • 8
    The Rise of Christian Anti-Judaism
    This lecture explores the social and historical situations that led to the rejection of Judaism by many Christians in the centuries after Christ. x
  • 9
    The Early Christian Mission
    This is the first of two lectures specifically exploring how Christianity became, in only 300 years, a world religion that commanded the attention and, eventually, respect of the Roman society and government. x
  • 10
    The Christianization of the Roman Empire
    In this lecture, we will move into the periods of the Christian mission after Paul to see how far and how quickly the religion spread, the reasons for its success, and its ultimate reach to the upper echelons of the Roman government. x
  • 11
    The Early Persecutions of the State
    In the first of four lectures dealing with persecution and martyrdom in the early church, Professor Ehrman examines some graphic early accounts and considers why these persecutions took place and the Christian reaction to them. x
  • 12
    The Causes of Christian Persecution
    This lecture provides a historical sketch of the course of persecution from the 1st to 3rd centuries, asking what motivated the two most common kinds of violence against Christians: grassroots persecutions and those ordered by the state. x
  • 13
    Christian Reactions to Persecution
    Many early Christians recanted their faith in the face of persecution, but many others stayed faithful to what they believed. x
  • 14
    The Early Christian Apologists
    This lecture examines the strategies of an elite group of Christian intellectuals who defended Christianity against the charges of atheism and immorality commonly leveled against them, focusing on the work of one of the most interesting of them, Athenagoras. x
  • 15
    The Diversity of Early Christian Communities
    This is the first of four lectures that will consider the wide-ranging theological diversity of early Christianity and the internal conflicts that emerged as Christians tried to determine once and for all the "right" beliefs and practices. x
  • 16
    Christianities of the Second Century
    Many groups of Christians in the 2nd century claimed to have the only true understanding of the faith, including three that are the focus of this lecture: Ebionites, Marcionites, and Gnostics. x
  • 17
    The Role of Pseudepigrapha
    This lecture considers several of the supporting—and usually forged—"sacred texts" possessed by the various groups of Christians arguing for their own version of the faith. x
  • 18
    The Victory of the Proto-Orthodox
    This lecture examines how the conflicts were waged between "heretical" forms of Christianity and the proto-orthodox Christians who eventually established themselves as dominant. x
  • 19
    The New Testament Canon
    This is the first of five lectures devoted to the question of how traditional Christianity—with its canon of Scripture, creeds, liturgy, and church offices—emerged out of the conflicts of the 2nd and 3rd centuries. x
  • 20
    The Development of Church Offices
    This lecture considers the movement from the charismatic organization of the early churches founded by Paul to the official church hierarchy in place by the end of the 4th century, with its elders, deacons, priests, and bishops. x
  • 21
    The Rise of Christian Liturgy
    This is an in-depth look at how Christian liturgical practices arose, particularly those that became virtually universal throughout the church: baptism and the Eucharist. x
  • 22
    The Beginnings of Normative Theology
    This lecture considers the development of a normative theology among the proto-orthodox, who insisted that believing the "right" things was essential for salvation and who took care, therefore, to formulate correct doctrine and differentiate it from false doctrine. x
  • 23
    The Doctrine of the Trinity
    This lecture considers the most distinctive theological development of early Christianity, the doctrine of the Trinity: God exists in three entities—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—who are equal and distinct but make up one God. x
  • 24
    Christianity and the Conquest of Empire
    This concluding lecture considers the character of Christianity at the beginning of the 4th century and its enormous consequences for the history of Western civilization. x

Lecture Titles

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Bart D. Ehrman
Ph.D., M.Div. Bart D. Ehrman
The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Dr. Bart D. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He completed his undergraduate work at Wheaton College and earned his M.Div. and Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary.

Professor Ehrman has written or edited 27 books, including four best sellers on The New York Times list: Misquoting Jesus: The Story behind Who Changed the Bible and Why; God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer; Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know about Them);and Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are. Professor Ehrman also served as president of the Society of Biblical Literature, Southeastern Region; book review editor of the Journal of Biblical Literature; editor of the Scholars’ Press monograph series The New Testament in the Greek Fathers;and coeditor-in-chief for the journal Vigiliae Christianae.

Professor Ehrman received the John William Pope Center Spirit of Inquiry Award, the UNC Students’ Undergraduate Teaching Award, the Phillip and Ruth Hettleman Prize for Artistic and Scholarly Achievement by Young Faculty, and the Bowman and Gordon Gray Professorship (awarded for excellence in undergraduate teaching).

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Reviews

Rated 4.1 out of 5 by 62 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Christian conquest of the West The rise of Christianity was obviously of pivotal importance to the course of Western culture and history. Prior to the rise of Christianity, most of the Roman Empire was populated by Polytheists (Pagans) – believing in many gods, and highly acceptive of others who believe in gods (be they singular or plural). The only exception were, obviously, the Jews. The Jews of Jesus’ time were Monotheists though in their history, we are told, they had been at times less monotheistic than one might think. In any case, the Jewish people had no ideas of expanding their faith in the missionary sense – they kept to themselves. The fascinating question, therefore, is how it came about that from within Judaism originated a new religion that quite quickly came to view the Jews as their foes, targeted Pagans for conversion, and ultimately grew enough so as to convince a Roman Emperor (and eventually his empire) to take on the Christian faith and in so doing - change history forever. This is my sixth title on Christianity given by the TGC – the fourth given by Professor Ehrman. All the previous ones were primarily focused on early Christianity (primarily first century CE), on the theological aspects and on the historical Jesus. This course had a different focus: one could call it the history and spread of the Christian faith in the first to fourth centuries CE. It sets out to describe the process by which it eventually came to be that by the sixth century CE, most of Europe was Christian. Professor Ehrman starts, quite naturally, from the beginning – the birth of Christianity, HISTORICAL JESUS (lectures 1-4). We are told that Jesus probably did not have ideas of creating a new world religion at all. He was a devout apocalyptic Jew and did not think of creating a faith that would come to disobey the rules of Torah, to target Pagans for conversion or even to diverge from Judaism. He certainly did not see the Jews as the enemies of his faith. All of these new perspectives were introduced by Paul. Paul had previously also been a Pharisaic Jew but at some stage, became a whole hearted believer in Jesus. It was Paul that in many ways “invented” the Christian faith as we know it today. He was the one who declared that it is not necessary to obey the laws of Judaism in order to become a Christian. He was the first to run intense missionary campaigns, primarily in Asia Minor and in Greece. He was the one to decide that one should practice Christianity through faith alone, and not through works as was customary in Pharisaic Judaism. It was Paul’s faith that “put Christianity on the map”, and it was Paul’s teachings that created the anti-Jewish Christian sentiment that would continue for Millennia to come. All of this is discussed in lectures 5-9. It was during Paul’s time that we see the first major interactions between the new faith and the Roman Empire. The first Christian persecutions by the Romans were instigated by Emperor Nero, with the Christians serving as scapegoats to draw attention away from the fact that it was Nero’s men who torched Rome in 64 CE. Many were martyred, and it was during these persecutions that both Peter and Paul were executed in Rome. Professor Ehrman tells us that the Romans of the first to third century CE had a really hard time figuring out those weird Christians. The Romans were Pagans and so had no problems with other people worshipping other gods. Their relationship with their gods was very different from ours today: they did not think that gods have a moral stance on human issues, or that they care if humans believe in them. The Pagans believed that the gods were solely concerned in being worshipped, and if they were not worshipped properly they could potentially become angry - that’s when bad things happen. Thus, if some group refuses to sacrifice to the gods, they are putting the whole community at risk. Furthermore, why couldn’t those Christians sacrifice to the Pagan gods and then go and worship their own god?! They just couldn’t figure it out, and so the Christians became prime targets for religious persecutions. For the most part, these persecutions were sporadic and usually not carried out with great fervor. It was only in the second half of the third century that Empire wide persecutions were carried out, the worst of them by Emperor Diocletian. Eventually, the Christians had to find ways to explain their beliefs to the Pagans in a convincing manner. These works came to be called the Apologies, written by the famous Apologists. Professor Ehrman tells us that it was during these times that the Christian doctrine became more set, and the Christian theology was given extremely deep consideration (lectures 10-14). The rest of the course is given over to describing the diversity of the early Christian faith, the formation of the Christian Canon, the development of the Church hierarchy, and finally the Christian conquest of the Roman Empire. Professor Ehrman is always focused on the historical aspects of Christian studies. In this course, the material is less contentious than in some of his other titles that I have heard, such as “how did Jesus become God”, since we are dealing primarily with historical events that tend to challenge less those who approach the subject from a perspective of faith. His presentation of this course was fascinating and entertaining. My main interest so far in the TGC has been to learn history. I started out chronologically from ancient history and worked my way up all the way to the end of the Roman Empire (40 courses so far). I found this course to be of huge value in giving a profound presentation of the Christian conquest of the Western culture. August 25, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Absolutely Outstanding - For Everyone This course has my highest recommendation for everyone, regardless of your religious orientation, who has any interest whatsoever in religion or, indeed, in Western civilization. The extraordinarily disparate evaluations it has received are readily explained by the varying perspectives and expectations of the reviewers. If you are looking for a faith-based, theologically oriented experience, you can do no better than the excellent courses by Professors Luke Timothy Johnson and Father Joseph Koterski. Similarly, for a non-religiously oriented, historian's perspective, this - as is true of all of Prof. Ehrman's courses - is outstanding in every way. Prof. Ehrman is deeply knowledgable, articulate, organized, and persuasive in this review and analysis of the first four centuries, give or take a bit, of Christianity. The story is a fascinating one, revealing step by step, and in all of its often unrecognized complexity, the development of a world-historical religion from its beginnings with the teachings of an obscure Palestinian peasant, and the transformation and evangelization of those teachings by the remarkable efforts of his apostles. Regardless of your faith orientation, it is also surely worth understanding the exceptional diversity of early Christian beliefs, and the process through which modern orthodoxy developed and triumphed. I regard Prof. Ehrman as one of the finest TC profs, and encourage everyone with an interest in these areas to consider all of his courses. Do not be put off by the negative reviews, which, I believe, are truly a reflection of the beliefs and expectations of the reviewers (which are certainly legitimate), and in no way of the quality of the course. And, of course, if you do take the course, please add your voice to this choir. May 30, 2011
Rated 5 out of 5 by Great Purchase A real eye-opener about Christianity. A great course by Prof. Bart D. Ehrman, as are all his courses. Would recommend this course to any person wishing to explore the roots of Christianity without any dogmatic preconceptions. November 15, 2014
Rated 2 out of 5 by Not Very Interesting to Me Though the topic is potentially interesting the way it is presented it falls flat. I found that the instructor spent most of the time reading from materials written in the early Christianity period. Periodically, he would add a little insight but not frequently enough to make the course interesting to me. October 7, 2014
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