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After the New Testament: The Writings of the Apostolic Fathers

After the New Testament: The Writings of the Apostolic Fathers

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

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After the New Testament: The Writings of the Apostolic Fathers

Course No. 6537
Professor Bart D. Ehrman, Ph.D., M.Div.
The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
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4.2 out of 5
46 Reviews
60% of reviewers would recommend this series
Course No. 6537
  • Audio or Video?
  • You should buy audio if you would enjoy the convenience of experiencing this course while driving, exercising, etc. While the video does contain visual elements, the professor presents the material in an engaging and clear manner, so the visuals are not necessary to understand the concepts. Additionally, the audio audience may refer to the accompanying course guidebook for names, works, and examples that are cited throughout the course.
  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. The video version is not heavily illustrating, featuring around 30 portraits, photographs, and maps. Portraits give you a historical picture of apostolic fathers like Polycarp of Smyrna and Papias, while photographs of ancient scriptural texts lend a richer context to the writings of these fascinating individuals.
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Course Overview

The writings that make up the New Testament stand at the very foundation of Christianity. In these 27 books that represent the earliest surviving literary works of the young church, we have what eventually came to be regarded as sacred scripture, the canon of what was to become the most powerful and influential religion in the history of Western civilization.

But while Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and the other books of the New Testament are known to almost everyone, the writings that Christians produced in the decades that followed these earliest compositions remain shrouded in virtual anonymity—even though they are crucial to understanding the development of a religion that was shaped largely outside the pages of the New Testament itself.

As Professor Bart D. Ehrman points out, numerous doctrines that are familiar to Christians today, such as that of the Trinity, are not explicitly found in the New Testament. Neither are the church structures around which various Christian faiths, from Roman Catholic to Southern Baptist, are organized. And the ethical positions that form such a central part of Christian life today, such as those involving premarital sex or abortion, are likewise lacking in specific scriptural reference.

A Window to How Christianity Was Shaped

Who exactly were the Apostolic Fathers? Why were they given that name? Most important, what windows into the shaping of Christianity's canon, church hierarchy, and creed are opened for us with an understanding of works that include the letters of 1 Clement or Ignatius, the Didache of the Apostles, or the Letter to Diognetus?

In After the New Testament: The Writings of the Apostolic Fathers, Professor Ehrman answers these and many other questions as he introduces us to what is considered the most important collection of post-New Testament writings.

"The writings of the Apostolic Fathers are extremely valuable for understanding proto-orthodox theology, practice, ethics, ritual, social structure, reaction to persecution, and [Christianity's] relationship to the outside world. Without these books, our knowledge of the early Christian church is seriously impoverished. They are precious to anyone interested in learning about the history of early Christianity."

Proto-orthodoxy is the term Professor Ehrman uses to describe the theological viewpoint that would eventually win out and become the church's position. It wouldn't be accurate, though, to refer to the views represented by the Apostolic Fathers as orthodox—literally, "right opinion"—because at the time these works were being written, the argument had not yet been settled. The positions of the Apostolic Fathers represented simply one competing version of Christianity among many, and their eventual categorization as "orthodox" would be a retroactive one.

"The Apostolic Fathers are our earliest witnesses outside the New Testament for proto-orthodoxy with respect to the development of the canon, the clergy, and the creed. This form of Christianity came to be dominant, and ended up determining the shape of the Christian religion for all time," says Professor Ehrman.

Despite this key role, though, these are works whose influence has largely gone unnoticed, not only outside the faith, but within it, as well.

Largely Unread ... a Treasure Trove of Insights

"Most of these writings were unknown and unread throughout most of the history of Christianity," notes Professor Ehrman. "And, I might add, most of them are unknown and unread by most Christians today. Most Christians have never heard of these books, even though they're extremely important for understanding the development of Christianity after the New Testament period."

Professor Ehrman is the ideal candidate to rectify that situation, for Christians and non-Christians. A prolific author and lecturer whose previous offerings for The Teaching Company have ranged across the New Testament, the history of early Christianity—including the "lost" versions of the faith that were dismissed as the orthodox canon was being shaped—and the historical Jesus, he presents the material in a format that helps ensure that the importance of each work in the framework of Christianity's history comes through as clearly as its content.

Moreover, his gift for being able to make his material feel approachable and contemporary, with no sense of dryness or the lingering dust of antiquity, leaves little doubt as to why he has won several teaching awards, including the Bowman and Gordon Gray Award for Excellence in Teaching. Though always respectful of the religious weight of his subject matter, he is never timid in putting forth ideas and theories, and the result is both fascinating and provocative.

He has designed the course for maximum clarity, presenting the writings of the Apostolic Fathers in pairs, with the first lecture of each pair examining a specific written work and the second exploring the broader implications the work reveals for the development of Christianity.

The Apostolic Fathers bear that name because 17th-century scholars believed them to be companions or followers of the apostles—people from the next generation who had known the apostles earlier in their lives.

Some of the 10 or 11 authors (the eleventh, Quadratus, is survived by only a single sentence) traditionally included in the collection of Apostolic Fathers are well known, including Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna; others are anonymous. But each of them casts invaluable light onto the shaping of the religion that eventually converted the Roman Empire and became the major religious force of the Middle Ages.

A Struggle for Power and the Beginnings of Church Hierarchy

The Letter of 1 Clement is written from the Christian church of Rome to the church in Corinth in reaction to a power struggle. The Corinth church's elders had been deposed by new figures of authority, and the letter seeks to restore the former elders. Since the Corinthians had been the recipient of two letters from Paul that were later to be included in the New Testament, and since those letters indicated the then lack of a governing board of elders, 1 Clement is extremely valuable in revealing not only the movement toward a church hierarchy that would be in place by the Middle Ages, but also the clear movement of the church of Rome, in barely half a century, toward the pinnacle of that hierarchy.

The Letters of Ignatius, the early 2nd-century bishop of Antioch, have a completely different flavor. Ignatius has been arrested for Christian activities and sentenced to face the wild beasts of Rome's arena. As armed guards are escorting him to Rome, he sends seven letters to the churches that have sent supporters to meet with him along the way—letters that reveal his deep concerns for the church he will leave behind.

Most major among those concerns is a warning against "false teachers"—those teaching the "Judaizing" forms of Christianity that insisted that being fully Christian required first becoming a Jew. Such teaching had been prominent from the church's earliest times, even within some of Paul's own congregations, and may, in fact, have been the earliest form of Christian belief. By the time of Ignatius, however, it was considered heresy.

In a fascinating sidelight later in the course, Professor Ehrman tells the story of a furious 17th-century pamphlet war waged over the subject of Ignatius's letters. The debate featured a virtually unknown 32-year-old named John Milton—writing more than three decades before his great classic, Paradise Lost—and Archbishop James Ussher, the most famous and respected biblical scholar of his time.

Milton challenged Ussher's use of quotations from Ignatius, alleging that the collection of 13 letters then attributed to Ignatius was actually replete with so many forgeries that there was no way of telling what Ignatius had actually said. In the end, the quotations used by Ussher were confirmed as accurate, but Milton also received some vindication, as the number of letters shown actually to have been written by Ignatius was reduced to the seven accepted today.

The 19th-Century Discovery that Electrified Biblical Scholars

But the coming together of the writings covered in this course didn't necessarily always involve controversy. Electrifying discoveries played a part as well.

Such a discovery was made in 1873, when a Greek scholar doing research in the Library of the Holy Sepulchre in Constantinople uncovered a manuscript that some early Christians believed belonged in the New Testament itself, but which had been lost for centuries. The book, The Didache of the Apostles, contained a wealth of information, compiled from other texts that may date back as far as the year 100, about how early Christianity was actually practiced.

The word "didache" means teaching, and the teachings it contains are allegedly those of the apostles themselves. In any case, the book provides information about early Christianity about which scholars would otherwise be totally ignorant, including details about church organization, the practice of religious rituals, and rules of Christian behavior. In fact, the Didache has sometimes been called a "church manual" because of its detailed instructions.

Sometimes, though, text in the early Christian world was treated in a very different way, as Professor Ehrman brings out in his discussion of the Letter of 2 Clement. Authored by neither Clement, the bishop of Rome, nor by the author of the Letter of 1 Clement, this misnamed book is really an anonymous sermon that is based on what Professor Ehrman calls a creative reading from the Old Testament's Book of Isaiah.

Dr. Ehrman shows how the allegorical mode of interpretation used in the sermon enabled the preacher of the sermon to make the words of the original text apply to the situation affecting his own congregation, even though the subject matter was dramatically different. This kind of "presentist" interpretation was not unusual then and persists to this day in the interpretations of so-called "prophecy experts." As Professor Ehrman points out, this practice of allegorical reading eventually came under fire, as church leaders came to realize that if the meaning of a text can be taken in nonliteral ways, such readings can be used to support "false" teachings as well as true ones.

An understanding of how those teachings evolved—and how Christians put them into practice—is one of the great benefits these lectures provide. After the New Testament: The Writings of the Apostolic Fathers is an extremely useful addition to the shelves of anyone who is fascinated by the history of ancient Christianity and its evolution into the dominant religion it is today.

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24 lectures
 |  31 minutes each
  • 1
    Introduction to the Apostolic Fathers
    The lecture introduces a set of works from the decades after the writing of the books of the New Testament that give us important insights into how Christianity was developing in its earliest stages. x
  • 2
    The Letter of 1 Clement
    Though written anonymously, this letter, supposedly written by a bishop, is clearly written by someone in the Christian Church of Rome to the church in Corinth to solve a major problem in that community. x
  • 3
    Church Structures in Early Christianity
    The lecture discusses the obvious changes in church structure implied by 1 Clement when it is compared to earlier mentions of the community of Corinth in the letters of Paul. x
  • 4
    The Letters of Ignatius
    The letters of this early 2nd-century bishop of Antioch make interesting reading—they hold the final words of a Christian anticipating his death and imminent martyrdom. x
  • 5
    Doctrinal Problems in the Early Church
    This lecture examines "Judaizing" forms of Christianity in the early church—forms that came to be labeled heretical because they insisted that being fully Christian required becoming a Jew. x
  • 6
    Still Other Doctrinal Disputes
    We look at the problems raised by "docetic" views, which maintained that Jesus was so fully divine that he could not be a human with real flesh and blood, but only seemed human. x
  • 7
    The Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians
    One of Ignatius's letters mentions a possible act of embezzlement by a church leader. Ignatius appeals extensively to the Scriptures and argues that the love of money leads to evil. x
  • 8
    The Use of Authorities in the Early Church
    Polycarp's letter to the Philippians is significant for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the extensive use it makes of earlier Christian writings as authorities. x
  • 9
    The First Martyrology—Polycarp
    Polycarp of Smyrna is arguably the best known of the Apostolic Fathers. This detailed account of his arrest, trial, and execution as a martyr, evidently written by an eyewitness, is our first surviving example of Christian "martyrology" (account of a Christian's execution). x
  • 10
    The Persecution of the Christians
    The account of Polycarp's martyrdom introduces a broader consideration of the persecution and occasional martyrdom of early Christians, and discusses the accuracy of several commonly held beliefs, including whether Christians were, in fact, widely persecuted. x
  • 11
    A Church Manual—The Didache of the Apostles
    One of the most historically influential writings of the Apostolic Fathers, the Didache (teaching) of the apostles—a work written at about the time of the New Testament writings—gave Christians ethical instructions for how to live and practice their faith. x
  • 12
    Ritual in the Early Church
    This lecture considers the early Christian rituals described in the Didache, examining how they developed in the preceding decades, starting with the life of Jesus himself, and how they came to be fixed features in the life of the early Christian community. x
  • 13
    Barnabas and the Opposition to the Jews
    We examine this long and intriguing letter—which was allegedly written by Paul's traveling companion but dates, in fact, from the early 2nd century—and consider whether it is fair to describe it as an early instance of Christian anti-Semitism. x
  • 14
    The Rise of Christian Anti-Semitism
    This lecture traces the roots of anti-Jewish attitudes among some of Jesus' early followers in considering the reasons why Christianity was so quickly transformed from a sect within Judaism to an anti-Jewish religion. x
  • 15
    2 Clement—An Early Sermon
    Not a letter and not by Clement, this work is, instead, an anonymous sermon—the first surviving sermon outside of the New Testament to come down to us from early Christianity. x
  • 16
    The Use of Scripture in the Early Church
    This lecture examines how Scripture functioned for the early Christian communities, which, rather than taking a literal approach to text, often read it in figurative ways. x
  • 17
    Papias—An Early Christian Interpreter
    Questions of interpretation discussed in the previous lecture make a natural segue into the fragmentary writings of another Apostolic Father, Papias, including a number of legendary details about Jesus and his followers. x
  • 18
    Oral Tradition in Early Christianity
    This lecture considers the issue of oral tradition versus written text, including the problem of the oral circulation of traditions, as stories tend to be changed and embellished in the process of retelling. x
  • 19
    The Shepherd of Hermas—An Apocalypse
    This lecture focuses on one of the most popular writings among the Apostolic Fathers, particularly its persistent theme of whether a Christian can have a "second" chance with God if he or she sins after being baptized. x
  • 20
    Apocalypses in Early Christianity
    The Shepherd of Hermas is thoroughly imbued in apocalyptic thought; this gives us an opportunity to consider the major tenets of apocalypticism in both Jewish and Christian sources and the importance of apocalypticism for the early Christian movement. x
  • 21
    The Letter to Diognetus—An Apology
    The final writing of the Apostolic Fathers to be considered represents one of the earliest surviving instances we have of a Christian "apology," or reasoned defense of Christianity, aimed at the faith's despisers. x
  • 22
    Apologetics in Early Christianity
    This lecture considers some of the charges leveled against Christianity and explores how Christians not only defended themselves, but went even further, maintaining that only followers of Christ could inherit eternal life with God in heaven. x
  • 23
    The Apostolic Fathers as a Collection
    We consider several of the key issues that have emerged, with particular focus on what the Apostolic Fathers can tell us about the three pillars of the emerging church: Christianity's canon, creed, and clerical hierarchy. x
  • 24
    The Apostolic Fathers and Proto-orthodoxy
    This final lecture considers the historical significance of the Apostolic Fathers, whose writings reflected views that would ultimately win out in the struggle over what the Christian religion would eventually become. x

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Your professor

Bart D. Ehrman

About Your Professor

Bart D. Ehrman, Ph.D., M.Div.
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...
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After the New Testament: The Writings of the Apostolic Fathers is rated 4.1 out of 5 by 46.
Rated 2 out of 5 by from disrespectful of his subjects I bought the course on video, and have seen several other Ehrman courses and found them informative and enjoyable. this one, however, is spent making fun of his subjects, smirking at the fact they were willing to suffer for their beliefs. the information would have been useful if he had stuck to his subject, but I really couldn't get past his amazement that people like Ignatius or Polycarp actually bought it. The fact that they were willing to be martyred for it seemed to indicate to him how deluded they were. I think this is my last Ehrman course. A far better choice is Lost Christianities, where he is respectful of his subjects.
Date published: 2017-10-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Ehrman Hits One Out of the Coliseum I digress before my review. Reading the reviews of any of Professor Ehrman’s courses is always both entertaining and frustrating. Entertaining in that many of the reviews both positive and negative contain quite colorful ways of supporting their arguments and frustrating in that so many of the negative reviews do not review the course but simply dislike a course on Christianity given by a non-believer. Although there were plenty of criticisms of Dr. Esposito’s course on Islam, none that I recall thought that Professor Esposito was or was not qualified to teach the course based on his religion. Likewise the reviews of Professor Muesse’s course on Hinduism consistently failed to comment on his religion or lack thereof. Professor Dorothy Armstrong, as much as she loves the legend of King Arthur manages to give 24 fascinating lectures on the subject without being required to believe in the King, just as Dr. Elizabeth Vandiver can examine Homer and Virgil without believing in Achilles or Aeneas. What I want in a course is for the professor to have a deep understating of the subject matter and a passion that is conveyed to those watching or listening. Belief in non-technical subjects is not the issue: scholarship is. Here Professor Ehrman delivers on all counts. While for me this course is not as fascinating as some other courses on religion (e.g. “How Jesus Became God”) I probably learned more than in most other TC courses on religion, no doubt because I knew less. As always Dr. Ehrman conveys his deep knowledge of his subject matter to his audience in fairly simple terms, without condescension. The course examines each of the Apostolic Fathers and their writings in turn, followed by a lecture (sometimes two) examining the implications of those writings on Christianity at the time, as well as how they may have influenced the religion over the years. For example the two lectures following Ignatius that examined the doctrinal problems occasioned by the early church were fascinating and informative. I would think anyone interested in the history of the early church, believers and non-believers alike would be interested in these accounts of the doctrinal disputes and how they came to be resolved in what is now considered to be orthodox or mainstream. The whole course contains one unknown gem (at least to me) after another. For example, I had not really understood the reasons behind Barnabas’ anti-Semitism and how that came to affect the church’s subsequent views on the Jews. And while I was familiar with some of the other early writings such as the Gospel of Thomas, the “Shepherd of Hermas” was entirely unknown to me, and that led to a discussion of Apocalypses in general that I found enlightening. Another subject that I would think anyone would find interesting, regardless of his or her religious belief. Just so with the discussion following the “Letter to Dionetus”, an early Apology. Professor Ehrman presents Apologies for Christianity in an evenhanded manner, that should offend no believers. Professor Ehrman’s delivery style is clear and easy to follow, although I do think that his occasional attempts at humor would fall a bit flat to many listeners, although I enjoyed them. If you listen to this course as you would a course on anthropology, that presents contrasting views of the subject under discussion some of which the professor believes and some of which arouses his skepticism, but both of which should be understood, you will be well rewarded.
Date published: 2017-07-14
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A thorough review of early apostolic writings Although the Professor did an excellent job presenting these writings, they were not what I thought they would be. I think I was expecting something more along the writing of St Augustine of Hippo. However I learned from the lectures and I am glad I purchased these lectures.
Date published: 2017-05-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A concise pertinent review of a difficult topic. Discussion of the early history of any religion is difficult. Dr. Ehrman has a unique ability to present the pertinent aspects of Christianity in a manner that most everyone can understand and still appreciate how a particular topic fits into the overall scheme of historical development of that belief system. He adds his own enthusiasm to what may otherwise be a dull topic & gives it a new life.
Date published: 2017-05-14
Rated 4 out of 5 by from History or Blasphemy? I'm dismayed that we even have to consider the question that I've chosen as my title. I'll say up front that I happen to be a believing Christian. Unlike some reviewers, I did not find Prof. Ehrman dismissive of or disrespectul toward traditional Christianity. Rather, his focus is on his topic: The writings of the Apostolic Fathers (early Christian leaders). If you are looking to hear what you already believe echoed, then you will be disappointed in this course. But if you are interested in learning something, this course offers a rare peek into the apostolic writings that did not end up in the Bible. Contrary again to what is claimed in some reviews, Dr. Ehrman examines in detail the writings of ten post-New Testament Christian leaders and thinkers and touches in less detail on a number of others. The course provides a fascinating insight into early Christian concerns, practices, concepts and personalities as Christianity spread from Palestine into (and eventually conquering) the Roman world. Prof. Ehrman's style will strike different people in different ways. I found him a little awkward at times as a lecturer, especially when he tried to crack a joke. Personally, I think he could have benefited from a more scripted approach. Others, however, will appreciate his conversational and friendly style. Prof. Ehrman, a former fundamentalist who now describes himself as a "happy agnostic," does not come across to me as anti-religious. Rather, he confines his lectures to the literature at hand and his interpretation of it. On a few particulars, my interpretation naturally differs. But we're talking about peripherals. The heart of Dr. Ehrman's course, despite frequent understandable venturing into Prof. Ehrman's speciality of Gnosticism, is precisely what it is advertised to be: An examination of the post-New Testament early Christian writings. I recommend it to curious Christians and non-Christians alike.
Date published: 2017-03-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from If you want to learn and understand This course is for those who wish to gain understanding and appreciation of a penetrating view of the early Christian world.
Date published: 2016-11-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Ehrman on Apostolic Fathers As with his other lectures on biblical studies, Dr. Ehrman provides a very strong historical track of the Early Apostolic fathers, their writings, and their influence on the history of the early Christian Church. In this lecture, only very specific, and the most famous, of the writings of the early church fathers are discussed; what is not there in breadth is there in depth. Each lecture (or series of lectures) gives the listener great information on the current track of the Christian Church, and how the writings were responded to at the time and over the course of the next several centuries. For those interested in Early Church History, I can highly recommend not only this series, but any of Dr. Ehrman's other lectures on the various topics presented.
Date published: 2016-10-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Another Great One from Dr Ehrman I have taken several other courses by Dr Ehrman and this one is every bit as good as the others, if not better. I learned some new stuff that wasn't in the other courses and this is exactly what I'm after as I try to understand the time & people of early Christianity. Dr Ehrman is enjoyable to watch and very thorough in his explanations. I recommend this one highly.
Date published: 2016-10-15
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