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Lost Christianities: Christian Scriptures and the Battles over Authentication

Lost Christianities: Christian Scriptures and the Battles over Authentication

Professor Bart D. Ehrman Ph.D., M.Div.
The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Course No.  6593
Course No.  6593
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  31 minutes per lecture

In the first centuries after Christ, there was no "official" New Testament. Instead, early Christians read and fervently followed a wide variety of Scriptures—many more than we have today.

Relying on these writings, Christians held beliefs that today would be considered bizarre. Some believed that there were two, 12, or as many as 30 gods. Some thought that a malicious deity, rather than the true God, created the world. Some maintained that Christ's death and resurrection had nothing to do with salvation while others insisted that Christ never really died at all.

What did these "other" Scriptures say? Do they exist today? How could such outlandish ideas ever be considered Christian? If such beliefs were once common, why do they no longer exist? These are just a few of the many provocative questions that arise from

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In the first centuries after Christ, there was no "official" New Testament. Instead, early Christians read and fervently followed a wide variety of Scriptures—many more than we have today.

Relying on these writings, Christians held beliefs that today would be considered bizarre. Some believed that there were two, 12, or as many as 30 gods. Some thought that a malicious deity, rather than the true God, created the world. Some maintained that Christ's death and resurrection had nothing to do with salvation while others insisted that Christ never really died at all.

What did these "other" Scriptures say? Do they exist today? How could such outlandish ideas ever be considered Christian? If such beliefs were once common, why do they no longer exist? These are just a few of the many provocative questions that arise from Lost Christianities: Christian Scriptures and the Battles over Authentication.

The Struggle Within Christianity

"This is a highly educational trip into the confusion that often existed in the early church and how the church moved from there to the point of a consistent creed," writes Harold McFarland, editor of Midwest Book Review. Professor Bart D. Ehrman, who has recorded The Historical Jesus and The New Testament for The Teaching Company, returns to lend his expert guidance as you follow scholars' efforts to recover knowledge of early Christian groups that lost the struggle for converts, and simply disappeared.

This course focuses on the remarkable fact that many of the struggles of early Christians were not against pagans or other nonbelievers but against other Christians. Professor Ehrman will introduce you to these groups.

The Ebionites were Jewish Christians who followed Jewish laws but accepted Jesus as the Messiah without believing he was divine.

The Marcionites rejected Judaism completely to the extent that they believed that the God of the Old Testament and the God of Jesus were two separate Gods.

And the Gnostics believed that there was one true God but that there were also many other deities. In addition, they thought salvation came not from Christ's death and resurrection but from secret knowledge, or gnosis, of who one really was, where one came from, and how one could return to the heavenly home.

Surprising "Other" Gospels, and a Remarkable Archaeological Find

The fascinating heart of this course is its exploration of the Scriptures that were read and considered authoritative by these Christian sects. Many now are either known or believed to be "pseudepigrapha"—forgeries written in the names of famous apostles.

Whatever their origins, these documents can be viewed as lost versions of the New Testament. They provide a fascinating opportunity to study little known and sometimes controversial Scriptures that might have become part of the Bible.

The Gnostic Gospel of Truth is one of the most powerful and moving expositions of the joy of salvation to survive from Christian antiquity. Ironically, its views are diametrically opposed to those that dominate Christian belief today.

The Infancy Gospels, such as the Proto-Gospel of James and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, describe events leading up to Jesus' birth and during his young childhood. Scholars are unsure whether they were meant to be taken seriously or merely served as entertaining fictions about a period of Christ's life for which other Scriptures provide little or no information.

The Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, unlike the book of Acts that is in the New Testament, focus on the lives and exploits of individual apostles. They provide legendary, imaginative, and entertaining accounts of the activities of Jesus' closest followers.

Among the Scriptures you will study are two that have gained a measure of notoriety. The Coptic Gospel of Thomas is the one Gospel outside the New Testament that has caused the greatest stir among scholars and public alike. Purporting to be written by the twin brother of Jesus, it consists of 114 secret sayings of Jesus that are the keys to eternal life.

Could this be related to the sources from which the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were written? Or is it a Gnostic Scripture that was drafted later? Professor Ehrman weighs in with his and other scholars' best guesses.

Even more tantalizing, perhaps, is The Secret Gospel of Mark. Evidence for this remarkable document—a possible second Gospel by Mark, written specifically for the spiritual elite—was discovered by a highly respected authority on Christian antiquity, Morton Smith.

Smith's discovery may truly be an astonishing find. Then again, it may be an amazing feat of forgery. Adding to the mystery is the fact that the letter has been locked away in a library in Jerusalem and is unavailable for analysis by other scholars.

In these lectures you will also hear about a remarkable archaeological event: the discovery in 1945 of a treasure trove of missing Gnostic Scriptures at Nag Hammadi, an Egyptian village near the city of Luxor.

Consisting of 13 leather-bound volumes unearthed in an ancient grave by Bedouin camel drivers (the full story, which you will hear, resembles the plot of a bestselling adventure novel), the Nag Hammadi Library, as it came to be known, was a watershed event in the search for lost Christianities.

It proved to be an invaluable collection of original writings by Gnostic Christians. Scholars had known many of these only through references in written attacks against the Gnostics by such church fathers as Tertullian of Carthage (A.D. 200) and Hippolytus of Rome (c. A.D. 200). As you will discover, the library verified much that had been known about Gnosticism but also revealed significant misconceptions.

Are There Forgeries in the New Testament?

But: If all of these Christian Scriptures existed, how was the New Testament we now know put together and approved?

Who decided which books should be included? On what grounds?

How do we know that those who selected the final books got it right? If many of these writings were forgeries, how can we be sure that forgeries weren't included in the New Testament?

These are questions that naturally arise from the search for lost Christianities, and which make it such a new and appealing subject to study.

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24 Lectures
  • 1
    The Diversity of Early Christianity
    Modern Christianity is widely diverse in its social structures, beliefs and practices, but this diversity is mild compared to the first three centuries A.D., when Christians disagreed on such basic issues as how many gods there were, or whether Jesus was human, divine, both, or neither. x
  • 2
    Christians Who Would Be Jews
    This begins by considering key terms used in the course, such as orthodoxy and heresy, followed by an introduction to the Ebionites, who maintained Jewish practices while believing that Jesus was the messiah. x
  • 3
    Christians Who Refuse To Be Jews
    This lecture examines the Marcionites, a group of heretics diametrically opposed to the Ebionites. Using the apostle Paul as his source, their leader, Marcion, insisted that true Christianity had nothing to do with Judaism. x
  • 4
    Early Gnostic Christianity—Our Sources
    The Gnostics believed that special knowledge brought salvation to souls trapped in the evil, material world. Before 1945 and the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library, information about this widespread group of Christian sects came almost solely from the writings of Irenaeus, Tertullian, and other church fathers who opposed them. x
  • 5
    Early Christian Gnosticism—An Overview
    This lecture provides an overview of the Gnostic religions. It considers their possible origins within a Judeo-Christian tradition that maintained that God had created the world and controlled it. This was hard for some Jews and/or Christians to accept. x
  • 6
    The Gnostic Gospel of Truth
    One of the most intriguing documents from the Nag Hammadi library is the Gnostic Gospel of Truth. It does not relate stories about the life of Jesus, but instead celebrates the "good news" that Jesus brought. The views of God, the world, Christ, and salvation here stand in stark contrast with those that became orthodox within Christianity. x
  • 7
    Gnostics Explain Themselves
    This lecture considers two writings that attempted to explain the Gnostic system to outsiders. Ptolemy tries to show that neither the one true God nor the Devil could have inspired the Old Testament. In the Treatise on the Resurrection, the anonymous author insists that, contrary to the claims of proto-orthodox Christians, the resurrection is of the spirit, not the flesh. x
  • 8
    The Coptic Gospel of Thomas
    The Gospel of Thomas is the most significant Nag Hammadi document. It consists of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus, with no reference to his miracles, death, or resurrection. x
  • 9
    Thomas' Gnostic Teachings
    Understanding the Gnostic story can help explain the teachings in the Coptic Gospel of Thomas. Rather than the savior who dies for the sins of the world, Jesus is portrayed as the divine teacher who reveals the truth necessary for salvation. x
  • 10
    Infancy Gospels
    The Gospels of the New Testament say very little about Jesus' life as an infant and young boy. This "lost period" is the subject of several early Gospels, however, including the Proto-Gospel of James, and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. x
  • 11
    The Gospel of Peter
    A fragment is all that remains of the Gospel allegedly written by Jesus' disciple Peter. Early writings proclaim it a forgery. This description of Jesus' trial, crucifixion, and resurrection is both similar to, and strikingly different from, canonical accounts. x
  • 12
    The Secret Gospel of Mark
    In 1958 at the Mar Saba library near Jerusalem, scholar Morton Smith found a fragment of a letter supposedly written by the 2nd-century church father Clement. It indicated that a second edition of Mark's Gospel existed, and was intended only for the spiritually elite. Is this letter authentic or a modern forgery? x
  • 13
    The Acts of John
    To some extent, the noncanonical Acts are modeled on the Book of Acts in the New Testament. They differ, however, in that each is about only one of the major apostles in early Christendom: John, Peter, Paul, Andrew, and Thomas. x
  • 14
    The Acts of Thomas
    The Apocryphal Acts resembled the ancient romances (novels). While the Christian Acts use many of these conventions, their goal is to counteract the views that the romances embraced. x
  • 15
    The Acts of Paul and Thecla
    One of the most popular apocryphal accounts from Christian antiquity involved the conversion and exploits of Thecla of Asia Minor, an aristocratic woman who converts to the Christian faith through the preaching of Paul. x
  • 16
    Forgeries in the Name of Paul
    A number of letters survive that are credited to the apostle Paul, but which were clearly fabricated. This lecture considers two sets of such correspondence. Evidently forged in the fourth century, these letters were meant to portray Paul as equal to the greatest minds of his day. x
  • 17
    The Epistle of Barnabas
    The Epistle of Barnabas is not considered forged. Although later attributed to Paul's traveling companion Barnabas, it is actually anonymous. This is one of the most virulently anti-Jewish treatises of Christian antiquity. x
  • 18
    The Apocalypse of Peter
    This lecture examines an Apocalypse of Peter completely unrelated to the one previously discussed. This is a proto-orthodox composition that represents the first surviving narrative of a guided tour of heaven and hell, a forerunner of Dante's Divine Comedy. x
  • 19
    The Rise of Early Christian Orthodoxy
    The standard definition of orthodoxy was proffered by the 4th-century church father Eusebius. He maintained that orthodoxy was the view taught by Jesus and his apostles. x
  • 20
    Beginnings of the Canon
    Christianity was unique among religions of the Greco-Roman world in emphasizing the importance of belief instead of cultic practice, and in its insistence that it was the only true religion. The formation of the New Testament canon can be seen as a development among Christians to root their beliefs in the teachings of Jesus and his apostles. x
  • 21
    Formation of the New Testament Canon
    Contrary to popular belief, the canon of the New Testament's 27 books did not emerge at the very beginning of the Christian movement. Although written during the 1st century, or soon thereafter, it took 300 years before these books were declared to be canonical. x
  • 22
    Interpretation of Scripture
    Deciding which books to include in the canon was not enough to ensure the proto-orthodox understanding of the Christian faith. There were numerous ways to interpret the books of Scripture, and the early Christian centuries saw numerous debates over interpretation. x
  • 23
    Orthodox Corruption of Scripture
    Of the nearly 5,400 copies of New Testament writings that survive today (in the original Greek), no two are exactly alike. All of the available texts were copied by hand. Some of the discrepancies appear to have been intentional. x
  • 24
    Early Christian Creeds
    The final lecture considers the formation of the Christian creeds: statements of faith to determine what was true (orthodox) and what was false (heretical). The well-known creeds of the 4th century, such as the Nicene Creed, developed from earlier formulations known as the "Rule of Faith," and from confessions by converts before baptism. 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 4.7 out of 5 by 80 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Remarkable Subject Matter. Excellent Presentation. This course opened my eyes to the diversity of thought in the early Christian movement and does a wonderful job at introducing what I consider to be the greatest tragedy of Christianity - the creation of an "orthodox" cannon which necessarily excludes very beautiful (and more meaningful) symbolic interpretations of the literature. Ehrman's clarity and passion make this course a fascinating trip back in time, giving us insights that have the potential to radically alter both our sense of history and spirituality. March 5, 2013
Rated 5 out of 5 by Excellent Presentation, Better Topic This course gets one thinking about how modern "orthodox" Christianity (still multifarious in its beliefs and practices) emerged from the primordial stew of early Christian thinking. Who's to say, but that for slightly different accidents of history, the Christianity of today would bear little resemblance to itself? Professor Ehrman is well-organized and provides an excellent bird's-eye view of early competing interpretations of Christianity that either didn't survive to the modern day or were subtly or not so subtly incorporated into the more orthodox views of our own day. Very captivating. Don't miss this one. February 8, 2013
Rated 5 out of 5 by A Seldom-Heard Part of Christian History For someone interested in learning about the development of Christianity in its early years, this course is essential. Prof. Ehrman provides us with insight into several early Christian theologies -- ideas that today would be rejected as not just heretical, but so odd as to be classified "wacky", but which in the first centuries of Christianity were accepted by a substantial number of Christians and which featured their own scriptural foundation. These are concepts that one will never learn in today's churches (whether Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant), but that nevertheless helped shape -- if only in opposition -- the accepted theology of today. Prof. Ehrman's lecture style is engaging and dynamic. This topic is one in which he is one of the world's leading researchers, and his command of the details of the topic are in evidence everywhere. Yet, for someone who has read many of these "lost scriptures" in their oldest surviving languages (Greek or Coptic, in most cases), he is able to convey the ideas embodied in them clearly and concisely in a form I found fascinating to listen to. He also places the ideas within their historical context and gives us a good sense of why they are more than just "dead end theologies," but rather have importance in understanding how early Christians thought. The accompanying booklet includes several maps and a chronology that are very helpful, particularly for the modern day reader trying to figure out where many of the ancient cities are located. I highly recommend this course to anyone interested in how Christian thought developed and what beliefs failed to make it into what we today accept as standard Christian belief. It is a very useful complement to a study of mainstream Christian theology. April 3, 2011
Rated 4 out of 5 by Fascinating Analysis This is the 6th course I have completed with the redoubtable Professor Ehrman and it is one that I happily recommend. The idea that there were competing interpretations of the meaning of the life and Resurrection of Jesus is not necessarily well known outside academic circles. Professor Ehrman skilfully surveys a number of these competing views from the very early age of Christianity. This includes those that did not view Jesus as divine(the Ebionites) as well as those who focused on his Divinity and de facto downplayed his humanity(Marcionites). In addition the coverage of the Gnostics(focusing on secret knowledge as the means to liberation from this world)was very expertly summarised. Professor Ehrman also took us through various apocryphal scriptures-covering the above competing view points- and listening to how these were discovered was enthralling. The manner in which proto-orthodox Christians(ie those whose doctrinal views would become normative until present times)attacked the views of the Gnostics, Ebionites and Marcionites was also intriguing. I would like to have had more lectures devoted to a more in depth discussion about the theological conflicts between these different views. Furthermore having listened to 5 other courses I did find some of the material in this course had been covered -albeit in part- in amongst those other courses. Nevertheless I would recommend this course to anyone who wants to appreciate the diversity within early Christianity. May 14, 2014
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