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History of the Bible: The Making of the New Testament Canon

History of the Bible: The Making of the New Testament Canon

Professor Bart D. Ehrman Ph.D., M.Div.
The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Course No.  6299
Course No.  6299
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Course Overview

About This Course

12 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

The New Testament stands unchallenged, in the words of Professor Bart D. Ehrman, not only as the "'bestseller' of all time," but also as the most important "book—or collection of books—in the history of Western civilization."

Yet how many of us, Christian or otherwise, are as knowledgeable about the New Testament as we would like to be? Even many who consider themselves Christian find themselves asking some—perhaps even all—of the questions so often posed by those who are not.

What different kinds of books are in the New Testament? When, how, and why were they written? What do they teach? Who actually wrote them? How were they passed forward through history? And, perhaps most important of all, why and how did some books, and not others, come to be collected into what Christians came to consider the canon of scripture that would define their belief for all time?

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The New Testament stands unchallenged, in the words of Professor Bart D. Ehrman, not only as the "'bestseller' of all time," but also as the most important "book—or collection of books—in the history of Western civilization."

Yet how many of us, Christian or otherwise, are as knowledgeable about the New Testament as we would like to be? Even many who consider themselves Christian find themselves asking some—perhaps even all—of the questions so often posed by those who are not.

What different kinds of books are in the New Testament? When, how, and why were they written? What do they teach? Who actually wrote them? How were they passed forward through history? And, perhaps most important of all, why and how did some books, and not others, come to be collected into what Christians came to consider the canon of scripture that would define their belief for all time?

In The History of the Bible: The Making of the New Testament Canon, Professor Ehrman offers a fast-moving yet thorough introduction to these and other key issues in the development of Christianity.

Drawing on the award-winning teaching skills and style that have made him one of our most popular lecturers—respectful yet provocative, scholarly without sacrificing wit—Professor Ehrman has crafted a course designed to deepen the understanding of both Christians and non-Christians alike.

"The New Testament is appreciated and respected far more than it is known, and that's not just true among religious people who consider themselves Christian. ...

"This set of lectures is designed to provide an introduction to the New Testament for people who recognize or appreciate its cultural importance, or who have religious commitments to it, but who have not yet had a chance to get to know where it came from, what it contains, and how it was transmitted down to us today.

"The focus in this course will be historical, rather than theological. The course does not either presuppose faith or deny faith. It's based neither on faith nor skepticism. ... It's simply taught from the perspective of history."

Learn How the Christian Canon Was Shaped and Shared

And it's an illuminating perspective, indeed, ranging across issues of language, oral history, the physical limitations of spreading the written word at a time when the printing press lay far in the future, and, of course, the theological forces that were shaping Christianity, molding a commonly accepted canon from the various expressions of the faith spreading across the ancient world.

All of these factors eventually produced a canon: the New Testament, whose 27 books can be grouped into four genres:

  • The four Gospels, the accounts of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus that we know as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, though all four were written anonymously, with authorship being attributed only by later Christians
  • The book of Acts, which is a historical account of the life of the Christian Church and its missionary efforts after Jesus' resurrection
  • The 21 Epistles, the letters written by Christian leaders—most notably, Paul—to Christian communities dealing with problems of faith and living
  • The book of Revelation, sometimes called the Apocalypse of John, which describes the end of the world, when God will destroy the forces of evil and establish a perfect utopia on Earth.

In exploring the forces that finally produced this finished canon, Professor Ehrman deals with far more than theology.

Letters, especially those written by Paul, played an important role in the process.

Although many of us associate letters with the modern world, Professor Ehrman explains that they were a common form of communication in the ancient world as well. In addition to being written on papyrus, they were also often cut into the surface of a wax tablet formed in a hollowed-out board. The recipients could then smooth over the wax and reuse it for a reply, sending it, in that era before postal service, just as the original had been sent, by giving it to someone they knew who'd be traveling to the appropriate community.

Because most people in the ancient world could not read or write, letters had to be dictated and recorded by someone who could, a process reversed at the other end, where someone would be found to read the letter to the recipient.

Letters were usually destroyed after being read so the media it was on could be used again, but if there was reason to keep them—as was the case with Paul's letters, which were meant to be read aloud to his communities—the letters would be copied by hand, circulated, and read aloud to small church gatherings.

The Role of Forgery in the Ancient World

The issue of pseudepigraphy, where works are not actually written by the person whose name has been signed to them—what we might call forgery—plays a large role in the development of the New Testament.

Professor Ehrman notes that there are reasons to believe that six of the Pauline letters of the New Testament are, in fact, pseudepigraphical. And the phenomenon was hardly unique to those writings. In fact, such forgery was common in the ancient world.

To illustrate how widespread the practice was in the Greco-Roman world, he relates a telling example about Galen, the Roman physician and prolific writer whose philosophies dominated medical practice for more than 1,000 years.

One day, Galen writes, he overheard an argument at a Roman book mart between two men, debating whether a particular book attributed to Galen was indeed one of the many he had written. It wasn't, and the experience proved so typical that he returned home and began work on still another volume: How to Recognize Books That are Written by Galen.

In discussing why ancient Christian authors, although deeply religious and moral, might engage in similar deceptions, Professor Ehrman draws on the many reasons ancient writers engaged in the practice, which might include motivations that while deceptive, might be, in the writer's mind, as "pure as the driven snow."

One 4th-century Christian author, for example, puzzled as to why Seneca, the most famous philosopher of his time, never mentions Jesus, Paul, Peter, or anything about Christianity anywhere in his works, actually forged a series of letters between Seneca and Paul, to show that Paul was working at the highest levels of philosophy the ancient world had to offer.

A Revealing Look at the Book of Revelation

One of Professor Ehrman's strengths is his ability to recreate the context of the times in which the canon was being assembled so that a student can understand what the message of each written work would have meant to ancient Christians.

Though the book of Revelation, for example, has often been used as a blueprint of our present and a predictor of our future, he presents it, instead, as an example of the ancient genre known as apocalypticism, and he shows how people of the time would have understood its symbolic descriptions in terms of events transpiring in their own day.

These lectures are a compelling introduction not only to the development of the canon, but to all of the forces that would play a role in early Christian history.

A Note to Our Customers

Professor Ehrman's courses for The Teaching Company have been enormously popular and include After the New Testament: The Writings of the Apostolic Fathers; From Jesus to Constantine; The History of Early Christianity; The Historical Jesus; Lost Christianities: Christian Scriptures and the Battles over Authentication; and The New Testament.

We asked Professor Ehrman to create this shorter course to help introduce his fascinating explorations of early Christianity to customers who have not yet enjoyed his work, and we believe it will be just as useful and enjoyable to existing students as new ones. Nevertheless, if you have purchased all or some of his existing courses, you should expect some duplication of material.

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12 Lectures
  • 1
    The New Testament—An Overview
    The course begins by addressing some of the basic facts about the New Testament: which books it contains, when they were written, in what language, and by whom. x
  • 2
    Paul—Our Earliest Christian Author
    The Epistles of Paul are the earliest books of the New Testament, predating even the Gospels. In considering the realities of writing a letter in the ancient world, we discover some interesting issues that affect how we understand Paul's Epistles and the other writings of the New Testament. x
  • 3
    The Pauline Epistles
    This lecture looks at some of the major teachings of Paul's Epistles and shows how he shaped his theological and ethical views in light of the problems that had emerged in his burgeoning Christian communities. x
  • 4
    The Problem of Pseudonymity
    This lecture considers the broad problem of pseudonymity, or forgery, in the ancient world, and applies our findings to the Pauline letters of the New Testament to see if any, in fact, were written by Paul's followers rather than Paul himself. x
  • 5
    The Beginnings of the Gospel Traditions
    This lecture looks at the roots of the Gospel narratives in the oral traditions that were spread throughout the Mediterranean in the years after Jesus' death, examining how they might have been modified and what we can know about their historical accuracy. x
  • 6
    The Earliest Gospels
    This lecture examines the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, considering what sources of information were available to their anonymous authors, their overarching messages, possible discrepancies among these accounts, and whether they can be trusted as reliable historical documents. x
  • 7
    The Other Gospels
    There were many additional accounts of Jesus' words, deeds, death, and resurrection that were not included in the New Testament. This lecture discusses the reasons why they were excluded, and examines two of the most important of them in greater detail. x
  • 8
    Apocalypticism and the Apocalypse of John
    This lecture examines the Apocalypse of John, otherwise known as the Book of Revelation, explaining both the religious view known as apocalypticism and the way the book's symbolic descriptions would have been understood in the context of the times. x
  • 9
    The Copyists Who Gave Us Scripture
    Why were the books of the New Testament circulated? What made Christians eager to read them? This lecture explores the rarity of a book-based religion in the Roman world and the significance to early Christianity of the decisions about which books to accept as authoritative. x
  • 10
    Authority in the Early Church
    The need to have written authorities for faith and practice is ultimately what drove Christians to construct a distinctively Christian canon of Scripture to add to the existing Old Testament. This lecture explores how Christian leaders decided which books to include in this canon. x
  • 11
    The Importance of Interpretation
    Even as Christians began to agree on which books were to be accepted, they were confronted with the dilemma caused by differing interpretations. This lecture examines the ways early Christians interpreted these texts, with special note on the problems raised by "figurative," and not simply literal, readings. x
  • 12
    When Did the Canon Get Finalized?
    The lecture examines how, why, and when the canon of 27 books was finalized, and includes a look at some that almost made it in, such as the Apocalypse of Peter—and some that almost did not, such as the Apocalypse of John. 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 out of 5 by 84 reviewers.
Rated 4 out of 5 by Thorough and Informative This is the 5th course I have taken with Professor Ehrman. My objective, having already completed the similar course covering 24 lectures with Professor Luke Timothy Johnson, was to gain an insight into the creation of "canon" of Christian scripture from the perspective of an historian. This is a fascinating course and highlights the piecemeal way in which the canon was developed and emphasises that this took decades and perhaps centuries. Athanasius in 376 is the first recorded instance of the current 27 books of the Bible being listed as the canon. Professor Ehrman examines some of the competing versions of Christianity that were present in the first two centuries after the departure of Jesus from this Earth. The course guidebook was detailed and helpful when reviewing a lecture in preparation for the next one. The course was also structured well in that it dealt with the Gospels, Pauline epistles as well as the book of Revelation. As always it is vital to recall this is an historian's approach to the Bible and its creation and not an examination of the truth claims within the Bible. Notwithstanding that we do not have any of the originals of the 27 books and that there are many discrepancies in the thousands of copy manuscripts we have, the wisdom and depth of profound knowledge and inspiration within the Bible remains a wonder of the world. Definitely recommended. February 28, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Interesting downloaded audio version In this course, Prof. Ehrman presents a brief review of the New Testament. Prof. Ehrman was clear in his presentation. He was well organized and provided a nice bibliography. I enjoyed his sense of humor. He does an excellent job of making the New Testament more understandable by placing it in historical context. I particularly enjoyed his discussion of the Pauline Epistles. Based on what other reviewers have said, it is probably most important to understand that Prof. Ehrman is an agnostic (based on his statements on the Colbert Report). If one cannot tolerate the New Testament being presented by a non-believer, then one should likely steer clear of this course. I enjoyed this course, but it was primarily a 12-lecture summary of what was presented in Prof. Ehrman's 24-lecture TTC course, "The New Testament." There is very little new material presented in this course. I would recommend this course to those who wish a short course on the New Testament for those willing to spend a bit more time, please consider TTC course "The New Testament." Actually, with the importance of the New Testament in western culture, please consider getting several of TTC's course by both Prof. Ehrman and by Prof. Johnson. August 3, 2012
Rated 5 out of 5 by EHRMAN'S EXCELLENCE Again, Dr Bart Ehrman scores big as a biblical historian of major importance. This is a powerful series of only 12 lectures on the New Testament canon with detailed references to the various writings by 2nd-century Christians which did not make it into the bible, and about which many people are entirely unaware. It must be stressed that Ehrman uses the specific scientific approach of the historian. He is not looking to attack Christianity or to preach his own beliefs -- and this where, I fear, some reviewers may go astray. The course is titled "History of the Bible"... and Ehrman delivers superbly. This may not be comfortable viewing for some Christians. The lectures are presented very fluently by a scholar who is extremely familiar with the subject matter and who can read biblical writings in the original languages, such as Greek and Hebrew. We are, I feel, most fortunate in having a professor who makes his points very clearly and fairly, who emphasises critical aspects, who is able to inject a little humour where appropriate. Another excellent course of tremendous value: highly-recommended! May 20, 2012
Rated 5 out of 5 by Great Ehrman course to try first The History of the Bible is a great short course [Audio]. I have since tried some Ehrman courses on DVD, and I think that his courses are just fine on Audio. His ‘Jesus to Constantine’ is a broader history than this focused history on the bible. I did not find the overlap distracting, one can enjoy both courses. I also have his Historical Jesus course. If you purchase several, you will certainly experience overlapping material. I am just fascinated by the dialectic that TTC has made possible by offering courses by Ehrman and Luke Timothy Johnson on overlapping subjects. Watch both views on New Testament and Christian history, and strap in for an intense discussion of the subject matter. Neither mentions that other, but watching them back to back is quite an experience. The “Experience of the Divine” pairs well with “Jesus to Constantine”, and one could follow-up these courses if you enjoy History of the Bible. Ehrman uses a strictly historical approach, and it becomes pretty clear that he is a skeptic, but never he is never explicitly so. This course is a great one to start given its brevity and focus. It reviews the documents available to historians from the time of Jesus and Paul. The gospels are reviewed very briefly, but with an eye to what is known about their authors and when they were written. The punch line, of course, is that the oldest of these documents was written decades after Jesus’ death, and that the New Testament, assembled in its current form, dates more than 300 years after Jesus’ death. It is a story, in part, of an oral tradition that is later recorded in written form. This course is a story about where those documents came from, and a bit about the documents that were rejected from inclusion. October 16, 2010
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