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Historical Jesus

Historical Jesus

Professor Bart D. Ehrman Ph.D., M.Div.
The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Course No.  643
Course No.  643
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

Who was Jesus of Nazareth? What was he like? For more than 2,000 years, people and groups of varying convictions have pondered these questions and done their best to answer them. The significance of the subject is apparent. From the late Roman Empire all the way to our own time, no continuously existing institution or belief system has wielded as much influence as Christianity, no figure as much as Jesus.

Worshiped around the globe by more than a billion people today, he is undoubtedly the single most important figure in the story of Western civilization and one of the most significant in world history altogether.

A Wide Range of Opinion, Even among Scholars
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Who was Jesus of Nazareth? What was he like? For more than 2,000 years, people and groups of varying convictions have pondered these questions and done their best to answer them. The significance of the subject is apparent. From the late Roman Empire all the way to our own time, no continuously existing institution or belief system has wielded as much influence as Christianity, no figure as much as Jesus.

Worshiped around the globe by more than a billion people today, he is undoubtedly the single most important figure in the story of Western civilization and one of the most significant in world history altogether.

A Wide Range of Opinion, Even among Scholars

Everyone who has even the faintest knowledge of Jesus has an opinion about him, says Professor Bart D. Ehrman, and these opinions vary widely.

Those differences are visible not only among laypeople but even among professional scholars who have devoted their lives to the task of reconstructing what the historical Jesus was probably like and what he most likely said and did.

In this course, you learn what the best historical evidence seems to indicate as you listen to lectures developed with no intention of affirming or denying any particular theological beliefs.

Professor Ehrman—who created this course as a companion to his 24-lecture Teaching Company course on The New Testament—approaches the question from a purely historical perspective. He explains why it has proven so difficult to know about this "Jesus of history." And he reveals the kinds of conclusions modern scholars have drawn about him.

The Principal Sources of Knowledge about Jesus

You open the course with a discussion of the four New Testament Gospels, which everyone agrees are our principal sources of knowledge about Jesus.

You learn that these books are not written as dispassionate histories for impartial observers and that their authors do not claim to have been eyewitnesses to the events they narrate.

Instead, they are writing several decades later, telling stories that they have heard—stories that have been in circulation for decades among the followers of Jesus.

The first step, then, is to determine what kinds of books the Gospels are and to ascertain how reliable their information about Jesus is.

The question will be: Apart from their value as religious documents of faith, what do the Gospels tell historians?

The Challenges Scholars Face

As you soon learn, the Gospels pose considerable challenges to scholars who want to know about the words and deeds of Jesus.

You begin exploring some of these difficulties by asking what sorts of documents the Gospels are:

  • Who wrote them, and why?
  • How do they present themselves?
  • Who was their intended audience?
  • What is their relationship to each other, to the rest of the New Testament, and to other early Christian writings?
  • What is their status as historical narratives?

To help answer these questions, join Professor Ehrman in a careful consideration of other relevant sources. These include the many writings—some unearthed only recently—that did not make it into the New Testament, but which nonetheless claim to relate the life and teachings of Jesus.

Learn about the "Lost Gospel of Q"

Among these is the much-discussed "lost Gospel of Q." You learn why scholars believe such a text existed and what they think might be in it.

Address how much documentary evidence about Jesus can be found in ancient Jewish and Roman sources, what those references tell us, and even how historians approach such sources to begin with once they have them in hand.

Professor Ehrman addresses questions including:

  • What are the criteria scholars use to sift and compare sources?
  • How do they actually dig behind the surface of stories about Jesus to ascertain what he himself was most probably like?
  • What is the reasoning supporting each of these methods of testing evidence?
Reconstructing Jesus' Life and Deeds

Once you've absorbed this introduction to the sources and the ways in which they are handled, Professor Ehrman moves ahead to consider the historical context of Jesus' life. The assumption here is that historical understanding, to whatever extent possible, must begin by seeking to situate Jesus in the context of his own times.

After surveying the political, social, and cultural history of 1st-century Palestine, you proceed to the second major part of the course, a scholarly reconstruction of Jesus' words and deeds in light of the best available historical methods and evidence.

In reconstructing those words and deeds, Professor Ehrman addresses several questions:

  • Why do the earliest sources at our disposal, including the Gospel of Mark, portray Jesus as a Jewish apocalypticist who anticipated that God was soon going to overthrow the forces of evil and establish his good kingdom here on Earth?
  • How close is this portrayal to life?
  • Did Jesus proclaim a coming kingdom?
  • How are his references to the coming of the Son of Man to be understood in light of the best historical analysis and evidence we can muster?
A Fateful Passover
  • How do Jesus' ethical teachings, his own activities, and the events of his final days fit into this analysis?
  • Why did Jesus go to Jerusalem at Passover and what did he plan to do once he got there?
  • What was the situation he found?
  • What were the intentions of those he met there, including the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate, the Temple hierarchy, and the other Jewish authorities?

Historical scholarship has something to teach about all of these questions, and the answers will help to further your understanding of the Jesus of history.

Professor Ehrman closes by considering how Jesus' followers began to speak and eventually write about him in light of their belief that God had raised him from the dead.

Here the focus shifts from the religion of Jesus to the religion aboutJesus, or in other words, from the search for the historical Jesus to the study of early Christianity.

That is a natural place at which to conclude this course, which forms an excellent accompaniment to Professor Ehrman's two-part lecture series on The New Testament and other Teaching Company courses on religion.

View Less
24 Lectures
  • 1
    The Many Faces of Jesus
    Jesus is undoubtedly the most significant figure in the history of Western civilization. Yet even scholars who have devoted their lives to studying the ancient sources about him come to widely varying conclusions. Working from a strictly historical perspective that neither presupposes nor disallows any particular beliefs, what can we learn about what Jesus most likely said and did? x
  • 2
    One Remarkable Life
    To begin the study of the historical Jesus, it may be best to start by examining the world within which the Christian religion was born. That was a world largely populated by "pagans," i.e., people who, unlike the Jews and then later the Christians, believe not in one but in many gods. x
  • 3
    Scholars Look at the Gospels
    Scholars have approached the Gospels in a number of ways. The monumental work of D. F. Strauss, a German writing in the 1830s, argues that the Gospels are best understood as containing history-like stories that intend to convey truth but did not occur as they were narrated. Why do most scholars today—who do not subscribe to Strauss's precise notion—still find his general approach highly illuminating? x
  • 4
    Fact and Fiction in the Gospels
    Scholars question the historical accuracy of some gospel accounts not out of hostility toward Christianity—many are committed Christians—but because of historical evidence. What is this evidence, and how do historians assess it? x
  • 5
    The Birth of the Gospels
    The Gospels—which do not claim to be eyewitness accounts—appear to date from 35–65 years after the events that they narrate. Thus for a generation accounts of Jesus were passed on by word of mouth. Is it possible for us to move "behind" the written accounts to learn more about this original oral tradition, and perhaps even about Jesus himself as a historical person? x
  • 6
    Some of the Other Gospels
    In addition to the New Testament, other written sources about Jesus have come down to us from antiquity. What are these other, noncanonical Gospels like? Who wrote them, and when? What sources did they use? How much can they tell us about what Jesus himself actually said and did? x
  • 7
    The Coptic Gospel of Thomas
    This book, unearthed in Egypt in 1945, consists of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus. Many resemble sayings in Matthew, Mark, and Luke; others are different. What were the sources for Thomas? x
  • 8
    Other Sources
    First-century pagan authors mention Jesus only twice, in passing. The rest of the New Testament outside the Gospels likewise adds little historical evidence. But there is a hypothetical source to consider—the now-lost document called "Q," from which both Matthew and Luke seemingly drew. x
  • 9
    Historical Criteria—Getting Back to Jesus
    How can the available sources be used to recover the words and deeds of Jesus? Scholars apply three specific criteria for establishing historically reliable material. In this lecture you learn about the first of the three. x
  • 10
    More Historical Criteria
    In addition to the criterion of "independent attestation," scholars use two others to help gauge the historical reliability of traditions about Jesus. From this lecture, you'll learn the logic behind these criteria and then you'll see how they apply to accounts drawn from both canonical and noncanonical sources. x
  • 11
    The Early Life of Jesus
    Using the criteria outlined in the preceding two lectures, which traditions about the birth and childhood of Jesus can be said to be historically authentic? x
  • 12
    Jesus in His Context
    The history of Palestine was a story of war and foreign domination. The Romans took over Israel about 60 years before Jesus was born. Different forms of Judaism had emerged too, though Jesus himself was aligned with no sect, and had deep differences with at least some. x
  • 13
    Jesus and Roman Rule
    Under Roman rule, some Jews embraced convictions that modern scholars group under the label "apocalypticism." According to this set of beliefs, God would soon smash the forces of evil and usher the chosen people into the divine kingdom. Did Jesus himself proclaim some such views? x
  • 14
    Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet
    Why have many scholars since Albert Schweitzer found this apocalyptic view of Jesus credible? How does it pass the three tests of historical credibility and help us to understand both the origins and the aftereffects of Jesus' public ministry? x
  • 15
    The Apocalyptic Teachings of Jesus
    Having assessed the case for considering Jesus in some sense a Jewish apocalypticist, you can turn to a consideration of some of the things he taught regarding the coming judgment and kingdom of God. x
  • 16
    Other Teachings of Jesus in their Apocalyptic Context
    It is with good reason that Jesus is widely regarded as one of the greatest ethical teachers of all time. By radicalizing the Mosaic commands to love God and one's neighbor wholeheartedly, Jesus presented a different understanding of what it meant to follow the God of the Jews from other leading teachers of his day. x
  • 17
    The Deeds of Jesus in their Apocalyptic Context
    Some scholars have begun to question the view of Jesus as an apocalypticist. This lecture examines two ways scholars have sought to explain evidence that would support an apocalyptic understanding of Jesus. x
  • 18
    Still Other Words and Deeds of Jesus
    Scholars need not deny the possibility of miracles to admit that historical research can never demonstrate their actual occurrence. Historians can, however, discuss recorded reports of miracles. Was Jesus widely held to be able to expel demons, heal the sick, and perform other miracles? x
  • 19
    The Controversies of Jesus
    Jesus often met with opposition. This lecture explores the traditions of Jesus' rejection and some of his disputes with the Pharisees. How did Jesus' radical emphasis on the command to love sit with Scriptural demands for ritual purity? x
  • 20
    The Last Days of Jesus
    There is better documentation for Jesus' final week than for any other period of his life. He went to Jerusalem at Passover. At the temple he caused a disturbance. Why? As Jesus kept preaching, local authorities arranged to have him quietly arrested. Jesus had a last meal with his disciples, warning them that his enemies were about to strike. x
  • 21
    The Last Hours of Jesus
    How precisely did Judas Iscariot betray Jesus? Jesus was not, after all, in hiding. Why did Judas betray Jesus? How did the local Jewish authorities investigate Jesus? Why did they turn him over to the Romans? x
  • 22
    The Death and Resurrection of Jesus
    How good are the sources for what happened at the trial of Jesus? Can they help explain why the Jewish authorities handed Jesus over to Pilate, who ordered immediate torture and crucifixion? Despite discrepancies in their accounts of what transpired at Jesus' tomb, all of the sources agree in important ways. x
  • 23
    The Afterlife of Jesus
    The first Christians were Jewish apocalypticists. They believed that God would raise the dead in the end time, and that Jesus—the first raised—was a major figure in this divine triumph over evil. What happened when people from different backgrounds began to join the church? x
  • 24
    The Prophet of the New Millennium
    If historians seeking to learn what Jesus said and did need to take his context into account as they examine his life, theologians and believers who are interested in appropriating that message need to scrutinize it in light of their own situations. 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 4.4 out of 5 by 87 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by A "Book" of Revelations I purchased this lecture series immediately after completing Ehrman's history of the canonization of the new testament. While there is some overlap, the Historical Jesus is far more detailed. In a word, Historical Jesus is outstanding. As noted in other comments, Ehrman is a self-professed agnostic, and a historian. He is not a theologian, and did not write the Historical Jesus to satisfy Christians looking for factual confirmation of their beliefs about Jesus and his teachings, as found in scripture. Ehrman challenges what he believes to be historical inaccuracies in the Bible, and supports those challenges with historical evidence. The result is a wonderful historical examination of Jesus the man, and of historical events that affected his life and teachings. The lectures are very thought provoking, regardless of your religious leanings. I must state, though, that If you are a dogmatic Christian, this may challenge some of your beliefs, though not necessarily your faith. Ehrman also addresses competing viewpoints, and attempts to refute views that he believes to be historically inaccurate with an abundance of supporting evidence. Well done, exceptionally educational, and very entertaining. May 29, 2013
Rated 5 out of 5 by A foundational lecture for the study of Jesus. Professor Erhman does a great job and I'm sure would draw much interest to a second edition comprising of another 36 lectures. And Professor Erhman, its ok to tell the world that you believe that Jesus was somehow more than a man... Take care. September 9, 2014
Rated 1 out of 5 by Agnostic teaching the Da Vinci code The teaching company has a self-proclaimed agnostic teaching some of the most important Christian courses like this and the New Testament, but not Islam, Judiasm, or evn the Old Testament. Why? Being catholic but having spent several decades with protestant and catholic biblical scholars, Erhman's comments are easy to discredit and are pop Di Vinci code. August 23, 2014
Rated 4 out of 5 by Who Was Jesus? CONTENT: Obviously, Christianity changed the Western world completely in relation to the classical age, and at the center of this change is one central figure – Jesus. What do we know about Jesus? Professor Ehrman tells us that in fact we know very little; at least from the historical perspective. The course starts by outlining the literary sources from which we may gain a historical understanding. These include the canonical Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, other non-canonical Gospels, the writings of Josephus Flavius (Jewish general turned roman historian) and others. Many of the sources are intrinsically inaccurate in telling the story of Jesus for several different reasons: Many of them were written quite a substantial time after Jesus lived, and they were passed down in oral tradition, making it much harder to keep an accurate account. The texts were written with the Hellenistic culture as the backdrop, and in that culture there are many myths of extraordinary humans becoming gods and performing supernatural deeds. The fact is, that for historical purposes there are rather few sources that one can use if one is looking for the historical facts regarding Jesus. After getting acquainted with the sources, Professor Ehrman outlines the guidelines for judging the historical believability of the texts. Naturally, there is no way of doing this without a shadow of a doubt so the procedure is similar to a trial proceeding – we try to gain enough evidence to present a compelling case either supporting the historical validity of the text or its invalidity. Three criteria are presented. The first simply states that the concept that if a story is independently attested to in different sources, its historical authenticity is higher. If a text describes events things that are against the interests of its authors – there is a good chance that those events actually occurred; why else would the author have written them?! Lastly, if the texts don’t make sense in the historical context of Judea of the first century under Roman rule, they probably aren’t valid. Simple enough… However, using these criteria professor Ehrman shows that huge portions of the canonical Gospels are probably not to be trusted as historical texts. The later the text was written the more its believability falls into question. So of the Gospels, Mark is the most believable historically, followed by Matthew and Luke, and finally John. So, finally, who was Jesus?! It appears that Jesus was definitely Jewish and thought of himself as being a part of the Jewish administration. He does not appear from the texts to have tried to found a new religion. He probably spoke Aramaic and possibly some Greek. He probably did not raise a huge following during his own lifetime, in fact there were other people in that era who claimed to have divine properties and probably had larger followings. He was probably an Apocalyst – believing that judgment was near and that divine judgment would occur his generation (in this belief, he was also not alone within the Jewish sects of that time). He probably was arrested by the Jewish Priestly authorities after causing a commotion in the holy Jewish temple and accusing the priests of corruption, given over to the Roman authorities, tried by Pilot and quite quickly executed. In Professor Ehrman’s opinion, Jesus was probably executed because he told the Romans that he is in fact the Messiah and that this information was gained from Judas Iscariot (his betrayal of Jesus), but he concedes that this is not well established. So finally, we are left understanding that there is not that much that we can consider “known” about Jesus in the historical sense. Professor Ehrman tells us that historical study is really “silent” regarding the REALLY interesting aspects of Jesus such as his miracle workings and his resurrection. Of course these are the very aspects that give him his Divine properties which are really most important – historical study can neither prove them nor disprove them. I am currently listening to another TGC course on Jesus by Professor Johnson titled “Jesus and the Gospels”. There, Professor Johnson contends that the historical approach to understanding Jesus is extremely lacking because it leaves us with an “unusable Jesus”, to use his term. He instead adopts a literary method for trying to understand Jesus. I would have to agree that for a religious person the historical approach would probably be very lacking. LECTURER: I found Professor Ehrman’s presentation to be clear and structured. I found it easy to follow the lectures, and the content was very interesting. However I felt the presentation was actually quite dry. I would have appreciated a bit more wit. Certainly there are other lecturers in the TGC that I enjoyed more listening to. July 13, 2014
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