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The History of Christianity: From the Disciples to the Dawn of the Reformation

The History of Christianity: From the Disciples to the Dawn of the Reformation

Course No.  6610
Course No.  6610
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Course Overview

About This Course

36 lectures  |  29 minutes per lecture

Christianity is the largest and most global religious tradition in history. For nearly 2,000 years, the Christian faith has remained at or near the center of Western moral debate and conceptions of human identity, just action, and ultimate meaning. It has both shaped history and responded to history, showing an extraordinary adaptability within greatly differing cultures. Its practice and influence appears in every land and every language, and one-third of humanity now affiliates in some way with Christianity.

How did this happen? How did a persecuted sect in 1st-century Palestine rise to command such a massive influence on human culture, imagination, and spirit? How did Christianity weather the first critical stages of its historical development and attain its fundamental and enduring cultural role?

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Christianity is the largest and most global religious tradition in history. For nearly 2,000 years, the Christian faith has remained at or near the center of Western moral debate and conceptions of human identity, just action, and ultimate meaning. It has both shaped history and responded to history, showing an extraordinary adaptability within greatly differing cultures. Its practice and influence appears in every land and every language, and one-third of humanity now affiliates in some way with Christianity.

How did this happen? How did a persecuted sect in 1st-century Palestine rise to command such a massive influence on human culture, imagination, and spirit? How did Christianity weather the first critical stages of its historical development and attain its fundamental and enduring cultural role?

Discovering the answers to these questions allows you to

  • understand one of the most significant and integral currents of history, and to correct misconceptions about Christianity’s past;
  • gain deep insight into the origins of Western societies, and to understand the relation of faith to politics, economics, and culture;
  • grasp how Christian institutions, theology, and liturgy originated and developed;
  • better comprehend the cultural present, where 7 out of 10 Americans hold Christian beliefs; and
  • deepen your appreciation of the majestic sweep of history that Christianity’s rise represents.

Speaking incisively to all of this and more, The History of Christianity: From the Disciples to the Dawn of the Reformation tells the phenomenal story of Christianity’s first 1,500 years, in all its remarkable diversity and complex dimension.

In the company of popular Great Courses Professor Luke Timothy Johnson of Emory University, you follow the dramatic trajectory of Christianity from its beginnings as a “cult of Jesus” to its rise as a fervent religious movement; from its emergence as an unstoppable force within the Roman Empire to its critical role as an imperial religion; from its remarkable growth, amid divisive disputes and rivalries, to the ultimate schism between Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Catholicism; and from its spread throughout the Western world to its flowering as a culture that shaped Europe for 800 years.

In 36 enthralling lectures, you meet the towering figures of Christian history, such as Paul of Tarsus, Augustine, the emperor Constantine, and Pope Gregory VII, as well as many other pivotal players—kings, popes, saints, monastic figures, scholars, and mystics. And you delve deeply into the rituals, doctrinal issues, and fascinating theological controversies that defined the faith.

The History of Christianity: From the Disciples to the Dawn of the Reformation brings to life a truly epic story, giving you a multilayered knowledge of Christianity’s origins, rise, and civilization-shaping presence in our world.

The Forging of a Global Faith

Across the arc of the story, you reckon with the historical and theological milestones that formed Christianity, including these seminal moments:

  • The Jesus movement: Investigate the passionate claims of the first believers to an experience of ultimate, transforming power—and the means by which the movement exploded in the decades following Jesus’s death.
  • Critical challenges to the faith: Witness the early Christians’ implacable commitment to the new religion, creating strong institutional and ideological structures even as they answered persecution through martyrdom and “apologetic” literature.
  • Christianity and empire: Learn how the faith, once it was instated as the official religion by Rome, expanded geographically under imperial authority; how Christian culture developed through architecture, art, and ceremony; and how the religion became fatefully enmeshed in politics in the interface of patriarchs, popes, and emperors from Rome to Constantinople.
  • Great controversies of theology: Dig deeply into the Trinitarian and Christological controversies that divided Christians between the 4th and 7th centuries, centering on differing conceptions of the nature of Christ and fiercely contested in the famous Councils of Nicaea, Ephesus, and Chalcedon.
  • The rupture between East and West: Grapple with the overlapping factors of cultural distance, misunderstandings, political rivalries, and doctrinal disputes that led to the final split between Orthodoxy and Catholicism in the 11th century.
  • The flowering of European Christendom: Experience the extraordinary richness of Christian culture in the Middle Ages, including the complex institution of monasticism, the glory of medieval cathedrals, the birth of universities, and the commanding presence of the papacy.

The Rich Diversity of Christian Experience

In charting the remarkable rise of Christianity, you uncover the specific social and cultural realities that drove the development of the faith.

Early in the course, you locate the birth of the religion—and the movement’s powerful appeal—not in the life of Jesus itself, but in the first Christians’ life-altering experience of the Resurrection. You see how early Christianity was not “one thing,” grasping its startling variety of expression through figures such as the preacher Thecla, who dressed as a man and baptized herself, and in the extreme ascetic practices and ideology of the Marcionist movement.

You investigate the origins and deep influence of monasticism, its specific practices and ways of life, and you see how monasticism became the dominant formal expression of medieval Catholicism.

You travel the geographic expanse of the Christian world, from Persia and Egypt to Byzantium, Rome, and the British Isles, and you glimpse the lives of ordinary Christians in all eras, from the first, embattled Christian communities in Palestine to the sophisticated Catholic culture of the Middle Ages.

Faith, Politics, and Civilization

In the course’s middle section, the formerly countercultural faith becomes the pillar of the world’s greatest military and political power. Here you grapple with the tensions and challenges of this new role, as the Roman Empire “converts” and pagan sacrifice is declared high treason.

You track the rivalries of patriarchal centers, as the cities of Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople vie for supremacy within the imperial faith. In Byzantium, you witness the increasing intermingling of faith and politics, as the bishop Ambrose of Milan demands public repentance of the brutal emperor Theodosius I, and the emperor Justinian intervenes between factions contesting the true nature of Christ.

In the “Carolingian Renaissance” of 9th-century Europe, you see how the emperor Charlemagne responded to papal patronage by sponsoring ecclesiastical reforms and supporting the Latin Mass. And you observe how the papacy—aided by royalty and monk-missionaries—became the central force in bringing the Christian message to all of Europe.

Extraordinary Treasures of Christian Culture

Throughout the course you observe the profoundly literary quality of this faith, taking note of the diverse Christian writings in Syriac, Coptic, and Armenian, the formulation of Christian orthodoxy in the works of Tertullian and Irenaeus,the philosophical treatises of Clement and Origen, and the scholastic theology of Abelard and Thomas Aquinas.

You study the long and colorful development of Christian liturgy in the traditions of ritual, architecture, and public works. You taste the splendor and sensuality of Eastern Orthodox worship, with its ornate vestments, incense, and processions. You learn how the medieval cathedral embodied allegorical symbolism in its form, with its vaulted nave (from navis, “ship”) shaped as an inverted “ship of salvation.” And you observe the role of Christian art in the long conflict in Byzantium over the veneration of religious icons.

Finally, you witness the flourishing of contemplative mysticism in the dark era of the Inquisition, and you uncover the misuses of doctrine and forms of corruption that roused the first courageous reformers, boldly anticipating the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century.

A Story for the Ages, Masterfully Told

In recounting the astonishing narrative of Christianity’s unfolding, Professor Johnson draws on his own background as a passionate participant in this tradition, both as a former Benedictine monk and as a world-class scholar. In his powerful and evocative words, this grand tapestry of history comes vibrantly alive as he takes you to the defining moments of Christianity’s past.

In The History of Christianity: From the Disciples to the Dawn of the Reformation, you’ll look deeply into the nature and role of faith, the ethos of our civilization, and the core conceptions of identity and ethics that underlie the Western worldview. This is history in the most vivid and meaningful sense of the word: an inquiry into the past that opens a compelling awareness of our present—of our living origins, our ultimate horizons, our deeper selves.

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36 Lectures
  • 1
    The Historical Study of Christianity
    Begin by contemplating the massive historical trajectory of Christianity, as well as contemporary ignorance of its past. Consider the value of historical study of Christianity for reassessing the past and charting a path to the future. Look also at the methods and role of the historian, and the sources and limitations of historical knowledge. x
  • 2
    The First Cultural Context—Greece and Rome
    Understanding the cultural contexts of early Christianity is fundamental for grasping its history. Investigate the culture of the Mediterranean world in which Christianity was born, the legacy of Alexander, and the features of Greek politics, religion, and philosophy. Also learn about the nature of Roman rule and imperial order in the region. x
  • 3
    The First Cultural Context—Judaism
    Judaism is the most important cultural context for early Christianity. Contemplate the circumstances of Jewish life in ancient Palestine as well as in the Diaspora. In particular, examine cultural and ideological factors that divided the Jews, the tensions they faced between assimilation and separation, and their resistance to Greek culture and Roman rule. x
  • 4
    The Jesus Movement and the Birth of Christianity
    Consider the resurrection as marking the birth of Christianity, as rooted in the claims of the first believers to an experience of ultimate power and transformation. Also assess the contradiction perceived by his contemporaries between Jesus as the source of divine life and the degrading manner of his death. x
  • 5
    Paul and Christianity’s First Expansion
    Christianity spread with amazing speed in the decades following Jesus’s death. Begin by observing how this expansion happened and the broad adaptations Christianity made in a relatively short period. Then investigate the role of Paul’s letters as a primary record of the convictions, culture, practices, and troubles of the early Christians. x
  • 6
    The Diversity of Early Christianity
    This lecture notes influences in early Christianity beyond the pivotal figures of Jesus and Paul. In particular, investigate the differences in conviction and perspective in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Compare the four Gospels’ distinct interpretations of Jesus’s role, as well as their convergence on the nature of his character. x
  • 7
    The Unpopular Cult—Persecution
    In tracing the Christian “age of persecution,” begin by examining the prior history of repression of both Jews and philosophers, and the problems posed by the Christians for the world around them. Study the evidence of early Christian persecution by the Jews, as well as the most significant persecutions by Rome. x
  • 8
    Forms of Witness—Martyrdom and Apologetic
    In the 2nd and 3rd centuries, martyrdom and apologetic literature responded powerfully to the persecution of Christians. Investigate the phenomenon of martyrdom as the perfect form of discipleship, in the actions of martyrs who exalted in their sacrifice. See how apologetic literature created a reasoned case for Christianity in the wider world. x
  • 9
    Extreme Christianity in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries
    Radical forms of Christianity continued the movement’s original diversity in even more dramatic ways. Trace early accounts of wonder-working, and Christian social behavior that upset traditional mores. Also learn about ecstatic experience and asceticism, and the dualistic rupture of matter and spirit in Marcionism and Gnosticism. x
  • 10
    The Shaping of Orthodoxy
    Here, identify the pivotal factors that secured the framework of Christianity, defining an orthodoxy based in tradition and reason. In particular, study the role of Irenaeus of Gaul in establishing the canonical scriptures, the rule of faith in one God, and the religious authority of the bishops. x
  • 11
    Institutional Development before Constantine
    Christianity’s growth, accompanied by its development of solid social structures, finally positioned it as an irresistible force. First, trace the movement’s broad geographic expansion and increase in numbers. Then learn about its hierarchical structure of clerical orders under the supreme authority of bishops, and regional spheres of influence within the religion. x
  • 12
    The Beginnings of Christian Philosophy
    Early Christian philosophy emphasized the religion as a way of moral transformation, and initiated a serious intellectual discourse with the wider world. In this lecture, grapple with Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen, whose substantial writings and teachings gave birth to an authentically philosophical form of Christianity. x
  • 13
    Imperial Politics and Religion
    Christianity made a dramatic turn in the 4th century, becoming the established religion of the Roman Empire. Investigate the pivotal roles the emperors Diocletian and Constantine played in this; in particular, Diocletian’s political reforms, which refashioned imperial authority, and Constantine’s bold initiative to place imperial power behind the church. x
  • 14
    Constantine and the Established Church
    This lecture follows the complex process of the “conversion” of the empire to Christianity. Track the bold actions of Constantine in his patronage of the new faith, as well as the definitive imposition of Christianity under Theodosius I. Then, examine the benefits and stresses of the faith’s new role. x
  • 15
    The Extension of Christian Culture
    In the religion’s new context, see how substantial territories became Christian through conversion under imperial authority. Then explore the church’s expanding “liturgy” of public acts, incorporating architecture, art, ceremony, and pilgrimage, as well as the religious rituals of the sacraments and the celebration of the biblical past. x
  • 16
    Monasticism as Radical Christianity
    Monasticism exerted an enormous influence on Christianity from its inception. Trace its development in 3rd-century Egypt, and learn about the elements and principles of monastic life. Observe the appeal of this alternative culture that allowed Christians to express discipleship in a more radical, rigorous existence. x
  • 17
    The Emergence of Patriarchal Centers
    In the 4th and 5th centuries, prominent cities competed for authority within the imperial religion. Look first at the reasons for the early primacy of Rome, and Constantinople’s later emergence as Rome’s rival. Then study the rivalry of Antioch and Alexandria, and how they opposed each other in both intellectual and religious terms. x
  • 18
    Theological Crisis and Council—The Trinity
    Complex doctrinal disputes divided Christians in the 4th through the 6th centuries. Here, track the 4th-century controversy over the divinity of Jesus and the resulting Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople, key events in establishing the orthodox view of the equality of the Father and Son, and the nature of the divine as Triune. x
  • 19
    Theological Crisis and Council—Christology
    The controversy concerning the Trinity raged through the 5th and 6th centuries, now focused on the nature of Christ, the God-Man. Follow in detail the bitter opposition of two convictions—Christ’s dual nature as both human and divine versus his singular divinity—leading to attempts to reach accord through imperial and papal intervention. x
  • 20
    The Distinctive Issues of the Latin West
    In grasping Christianity’s development in the Western empire, investigate two major controversies, Donatism and Pelagianism, rooted in questions of moral rigor and personal holiness. Then, grapple with three religious leaders who shaped Latin Christianity: Ambrose of Milan, Jerome, and the monumental figure of Augustine of Hippo. x
  • 21
    Expansion beyond the Boundaries of Empire
    This lecture counters the tendency to think of Christianity as a European religion, charting its extensive geographical spread through the 6th century. Trace its Eastern expansion from Persia to Ethiopia, noting each region’s rich and diverse Christian literature. Witness its historic encounter with Germanic tribes and extension to the British Isles. x
  • 22
    The Court of Justinian and Byzantine Christianity
    Here, evaluate the extraordinary legacy of the emperor Justinian of Byzantium. Follow his conquests to restore the greatness of the empire, his economic and legal achievements and patronage of art. Also study his interventions in religious affairs and his role in the growing rift between the Chalcedonian (Western) and Monophysite (Eastern) churches. x
  • 23
    The Rise of Islam and the Threat of Iconoclasm
    In the 6th and 7th centuries, Byzantine Christianity faced both external and internal pressures. Track the dramatically rapid spread of Islam through military conquest and the threat it posed to the Byzantine Empire. Learn about the continuing theological controversy over Christ’s nature, and the century-long battle over painted representations of Jesus. x
  • 24
    Eastern Orthodoxy—Holy Tradition
    This lecture uncovers the remarkable cultural riches of the Orthodox tradition. First, see how a 9th-century Byzantine mission established Christianity in Russia and Ukraine. Then, delve into the compelling Orthodox rituals of worship, Orthodoxy’s deeply integral monastic tradition, and its distinct form of contemplative mysticism, known as “Hesychasm.” x
  • 25
    From Roman Empire to Holy Roman Empire
    Now follow the dramatic political events that marked the transition from imperial Christianity to medieval Christianity. Witness the rise of the Germanic people called the Franks, under a series of powerful rulers culminating in the pivotal figure of Charlemagne. Study the structure of a new form of society: feudalism. x
  • 26
    Benedictine Monasticism and Its Influence
    Benedictine monasticism played a foundational role in the shaping of medieval Christianity, and it continues to thrive today. Take a deep look at Benedict of Nursia’s Rule for Monks; its principles of obedience and humility and detailed prescriptions for monastic life, promoting monasteries as centers of both Christian discipleship and learning. x
  • 27
    Evangelization of Western Europe
    A spectrum of powerful figures fueled Christianity’s expansion in the West. Reckon with the contributions of the popes Damasus I, Leo I, and Gregory “the Great” in strengthening the papacy and Latin Christianity. Also study the seminal work of the missionaries Saint Willibrord and Saint Boniface, and the monk-scholars Bede and Alcuin. x
  • 28
    The Great Divorce between East and West
    In the 11th century, relations between Orthodoxy (East) and Catholicism (West) were severed, a schism that has remained for more than a thousand years. Here, explore the intricate and complex contributing factors, including cultural distance, centuries of political-ecclesiastical rivalries, and the doctrinal disputes and power plays leading to the split. x
  • 29
    Monastic Reform
    Investigate the appeal of monasticism in the medieval world and why this dominant institution in the Catholic West required constant renewal. Look at three famous medieval monastic houses and the key reforms each implemented in their quest for a more complete realization of the ideals of the Rule of Benedict. x
  • 30
    Cathedrals and Chapters
    The majestic cathedrals of European Christendom are a key to medieval Catholic life. Study the two archetypal cathedral styles, Romanesque and Gothic; their iconic architectural features; and their symbolic structure. Learn about the rituals of worship, cathedral “chapters” (staff), and the multiple social functions of these grand edifices. x
  • 31
    The Crusades
    The Crusades to recover the Holy Land from the Muslims represented deep ambiguities in Christian identity. Grasp the nature of these conquests as combined religious mission, popular movement, and political calculation. Then study the four most critical Crusades; their objectives, varied outcomes, and ultimate failure in both political and religious terms. x
  • 32
    Papal Revolution
    This lecture follows the ascending power of the papacy in Christian Europe. Assess the careers of two “super-popes,” Gregory the VII and Innocent III, as they aggressively consolidated papal authority in both religious and secular spheres. Learn about the Franciscan and Dominican orders, noting their role as instruments of papal policy. x
  • 33
    Universities and Theology
    Our contemporary universities have their origins in medieval universities that were entirely Christian. Trace the rise of universities in the West—their functions, curricula, and the development of scholastic theology with its methodology of dialectical reasoning. Assess the expression of Christian thought in the theology of Thomas Aquinas and John Duns Scotus and in the poetry of Dante Alighieri. x
  • 34
    The Great Plague
    The 14th century saw a period of natural and human-caused disasters that negatively affected society and the church. Track the extreme hardships of the Black Death, prolonged wars, and the terrors of the Inquisition. See also how the same era produced a flourishing of Christian mysticism and the beginnings of humanist literature. x
  • 35
    Corruption and the Beginnings of Reform
    By the late medieval era, systemic dysfunction within Christianity led to efforts at structural reform. Grasp the critical issues the church faced in the practice of theology and liturgy, as well as in deepening political and moral corruption. Learn about the courageous early reformers, whose daring voices anticipated the Protestant Reformation. x
  • 36
    The Ever-Adapting Religion
    The course concludes with reflections on the numerous cultural adaptations Christianity has made on its path to becoming a “world religion.” Contemplate the challenges posed to the faith in its journey from the Reformation to the modern era, and the question of Christianity’s identity within all its cultural permutations. x

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Luke Timothy Johnson
Ph.D. Luke Timothy Johnson
Emory University

Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson is the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Emory University's Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, Georgia. Professor Johnson earned a Ph.D. in New Testament Studies from Yale University, as well as an M.A. in Religious Studies from Indiana University, an M.Div. in Theology from Saint Meinrad School of Theology, and a B.A. in Philosophy from Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. A former Benedictine monk, Professor Johnson has taught at Yale Divinity School and Indiana University, where he received the President's Award for Distinguished Teaching, was elected a member of the Faculty Colloquium in Teaching, and won the Brown Derby Teaching Award and the Student Choice Award for teaching. At Emory University, he has twice received the On Eagle's Wings Excellence in Teaching Award. In 2007 he received the Candler School of Theology Outstanding Service Award. His most recent award is the 2011 Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion for the ideas set forth in his 2009 book, Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity. Professor Johnson is the author of more than 20 books, including The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels and The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation, which is widely used as a textbook. He has also published several hundred scholarly articles and reviews.

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Reviews

Rated 3.6 out of 5 by 11 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by The History of Christianity: From the Disciples to This was my first course from Great Courses. It was dynamic. All I knew about the past history of Christianity was what I learned at school, which I thought to be quite comprehensive, however, I learned a lot. It is regrettable that people today do not seem interested in or value Christianity, I believe the time is coming when we should be concerned about it. I have now listened to this presentation five times and it gets better each time. As a Brit, at first I was perturbed by the mispronunciations but got used to the presenter and thoroughly enjoyed listening. Thank you so much. I am looking forward to purchasing more courses, however, as an 80 year old I am on a very limited budget and must wait for the cut price courses. Thanks for the opportunity to comment. October 2, 2014
Rated 3 out of 5 by Bring back the lectern; lose the teleprompter I concur with earlier comments regarding the change in the form of presentation. I have viewed many other courses by Luke Johnson with great pleasure and profit. His ease at the lectern, with his notes and his live audience, is palpable and serves his obvious expertise and enthusiasm. The new format, with him pacing back and forth on that Oriental rug, flicking anxious glances at the camera and the teleprompter, actually undermines his presentation. We see an ill-at-ease, over-precise person talking too loudly, and this prevents us from seeing him as the learned scholar and outstanding teacher whom we have come to know and to expect. It is probably too much to expect that this material would be presented again in the old format, and that is too bad. September 30, 2014
Rated 2 out of 5 by Disappointing To his credit, LTJ, confessed in the beginning of these "lectures" that he was, like most teachers, influenced by his background, i.e., a former Roman Catholic priest and Benedictine Monk. Well, in this presentation he lived up to the former rather well. I have three problems with this series. Two are academic and the third is style. Let me address the last first. I purchased the CDs because I like to listen to teachings on my commute in the mornings and evenings. I could hardly get through this series because it was so obvious he was not lecturing; rather reading a script word-by-word. It was not the LTJ I have listened to in lectures previously. Now for content: I find it interesting that in three quarters of Church history the professor mentioned half of the Christian population less than a dozen times and they were all one line statements. His patriarchal perspective completely avoided mentioning the women in our history, let lone honor them. If I were a woman, I'd be insulted by this...and rightfully so. The second area that was disappointing was the absence of any criticism of the Roman Catholic Church outside of the sale of indulgences that brought on the Protestant Reformation. Dr. Johnson, you are a much better teacher than this. I have studied your work and this is not representative of the work you have done in the past. June 29, 2014
Rated 3 out of 5 by Presentation Flawed I don't like the new lecture format. He's much more engaging in previous courses where he is lecturing to real people rather than reading from a teleprompter (like he is forced to do in this course). He's wooden and obviously uncomfortable with switching from camera to camera/teleprompter to teleprompter. It's 100% easier to listen to than watch him in this course. I don't understand why The Great Courses discontinued his "Early Christianity: The Experience of the Divine" - a MUCH better course and presentation. May 15, 2014
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