Early Christianity: The Experience of the Divine

Course No. 647
Professor Luke Timothy Johnson, Ph.D.
Emory University
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Course No. 647
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Course Overview

After 2,000 years, Christianity is the world's largest religion and continues to prosper and grow. What accounts for its continued popularity? Simply put, Christianity is powerful and persuasive as a religion. It offers a convincing personal experience of ultimate, or "divine," power.

In Early Christianity: The Experience of the Divine, Professor Luke Timothy Johnson maintains that the most familiar aspects of Christianity—its myths, institutions, ideas and morality—are only its outer "husk." In this two-part course, he takes you on a journey to find the "kernel" of Christianity's appeal: religious experience. You travel back to Christianity's origins, its first 300 years, to identify the elements that first made it appealing and which still hold the secret to its ability to attract new followers.

Professor Johnson is a former Benedictine monk and author of 20 books, including The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation. At Emory University, he has twice received the "On Eagle's Wings Excellence in Teaching" Award.

In his presentation, Professor Johnson employs scholarly techniques that have only recently been applied to religion. By combining such disciplines as history, the social sciences, and comparative literary analysis, you look at religious experience and behavior from a fresh perspective.

What is "Religious Experience"?

But if this course is about the nature and power of religious experience, what exactly is that experience?

You consider a variety of theories developed by the philosophers Alfred North Whitehead and Immanuel Kant, Emil Durkheim, the founder of sociology, and Sigmund Freud, before settling on a definition that will be used for the remainder of the course.

To better understand religious experience in Christianity, you then study it in the two religions with which early Christianity co-existed: Greco-Roman paganism and Judaism.

These lectures assume that patterns of behavior can be used to identify religious experience in antiquity. In this sense, all of life in the Roman Empire might be said to be a religious experience. Every human activity—civic, military, domestic, and personal—fell under the power and protection of gods who needed attention for life to be prosperous.

Prophecy and the healing of physical and mental disorders were regarded as revelations of divine power. Participation in mystery cults offered access to deeper realities, as well as social advancement.

In Judaism, religious experience was rooted in the symbolic world of Torah. These scriptures embodied central Jewish convictions such as belief in one God and a sense of themselves as a Chosen People. Torah also defined the ways in which these convictions were to be expressed, through such practices as circumcision and the observance of the Sabbath.

For Jews living in Palestine, religious life focused on the temple, the synagogue, and the family. Palestinian Judaism was also affected by the stress resulting from Greco-Roman oppression. Some Jews splintered into sects. This was accompanied by the appearance of new sources of religious experience:

  • Apocalyptic writings that offered hopeful visions of God's future
  • Intervention of charismatic miracle workers and healers
  • Prophets such as John the Baptist.
Sources of Religious Experience: Healing, Visions, and Speaking in Tongues

In introducing early Christian religious experience, Professor Johnson looks at questions that are new and intellectually exciting in the study of religion. Was Christ the founder of Christianity? Was Christianity's early growth due to his life and works or to his followers' powerful experience of his death and resurrection, their sense of having been transformed by the Holy Spirit?

You see how religious experience in earliest Christianity took on a variety of forms. Fellowship meals celebrated the presence of the resurrected Lord Jesus. Healing was a sign of God's presence in the world and could certify the healer as a saint. Prayer and visions provided access to, and confirmation of, divine power.

Many practices, however, created problems for early Christian leaders. For example, they rejected demands to add circumcision to baptism as an initiation rite in Christianity. This was due not so much to its use in Judaism as to the fact that it would make Christianity seem similar to pagan religion: a second rite would resemble the multiple initiation rites used by Greco-Roman mystery cults.

Similarly, many Christians saw glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, as a powerful form of religious experience, dating from the experience of the crowd at Pentecost. However, a variety of concerns, including that it could be confused with pagan prophecy or used by women to undermine male authority, quickly led to its marginalization.

Professor Johnson raises important questions. Did institutional development in early Christianity—the creation of its formal structure and creeds—eliminate important sources of religious experience? Or did it minimize certain practices in order to preserve, for millennia, other meaningful avenues of religious experience?

Finding "True" Christianity

There has always been a struggle between "official" Christianity—its institutions and political roles—and "popular" Christianity, which most directly connects Christians to religious experience. In the last lecture, Professor Johnson argues that official Christianity has been accepted as true Christianity due in large part to the way in which its leaders and reformers have defined it and the manner in which academic scholars have studied it.

In the last 15 years or so, new analytical methods have begun to be applied to the study of Christianity. Among these is the approach taken in this course as well as the fresh perspectives offered by women's history and social history. With these techniques, so-called "popular" Christianity may well come to be understood as real Christianity.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    Christianity as a Religion
    Among world religions, Christianity is both the best and least known. Its political and cultural importance in Western civilization is obvious. Its institutional arrangements, theological disputes, and moral teachings are familiar. Less clear is the reason that the Christian religion—despised by many and declared dead many times—continues to draw adherents from every nation. The study of Christianity precisely as a religion offers clues. x
  • 2
    What Is a Religion?
    Definitions of religion disagree even on basic points. Still, they can point us toward some true elements. A look at inadequate definitions that emphasize membership, ritual, belief, and morals serves to construct a more adequate definition based on a way of life organized around the perception of ultimate power. x
  • 3
    The Role of Religious Experience
    The topic of religious experience is problematic. Science has trouble with human experience as evidence, and the more religious studies tries to be scientific—using etic methods—the less attractive claims to religious experience—using emic discourse—seem. However, an analysis of Joachim Wach's definition of religious experience suggests how both etic and emic evidence can enrich such study. x
  • 4
    Sourcing Christianity
    Christianity drew from religious patterns in both Greco-Roman and Jewish cultures. Access to all ancient religious traditions is limited because of the nature of those traditions, the origin and nature of the sources, and the accidents of their preservation. A phenomenological approach that uses every available source and means of analysis enables the richest sense of Christianity as a religious experience and movement. x
  • 5
    The Imperial Context
    Christianity was born in the Mediterranean world of the 1st century C.E., whose several layers of culture—including ancient patterns resistant to fundamental change—affected the development of this new religion. Politically, the world was ruled by Rome; culturally, by Greek ideals. The ancient Hebrew national religion, Judaism, had spread across the Greco-Roman world and was the context from which Christianity emerged. x
  • 6
    Greco-Roman Polytheism
    Greco-Roman culture was polytheistic, and was permeated by religiosity of every sort. Religious behavior both reflected and reinforced the cultural system called patronage. The early empire saw a proliferation of such religious phenomena as prophecy, healing, and initiation into mystery cults. Even some forms of philosophy took on a religious character. x
  • 7
    Greco-Roman Religious Experience
    Extant evidence is slender, but indicates that people in Greco-Roman culture seemed to demonstrate the same range of attitudes toward ultimate power as people do today. Three examples give us a sense of genuine religious experience in antiquity. x
  • 8
    The Symbolic World of Torah
    Judaism in the 1st century was a vibrant and complex phenomenon. Diaspora and Palestinian Judaism show distinct characteristics, but even Palestinian Judaism was internally divided. All Jews, however, shared the same basic story, convictions, symbols, and practices, which can be called the symbolic world of Torah. The religious life of Jews in Palestine was polytheistic and revolved around three main loci: the Temple, the synagogue, and the home. x
  • 9
    Palestinian Judaism in the Greco-Roman World
    The competing sects of Judaism in Palestine expressed Jewish identity in response to Roman rule and Hellenistic culture through patterns of passive or active resistance. Sometimes these conflicts are so highlighted that the deep religious character of Palestinian Judaism is obscured. Four examples provide evidence for the consistency and variety of Jewish piety in Palestine. x
  • 10
    Judaism in the Hellenistic Diaspora
    Life in the Diaspora enabled Judaism to develop in distinctive ways. Most notably, it enabled an engagement with Greek culture that was more positive and pervasive. Alexandrian Judaism provides a glimpse of Jewish life in the Hellenistic Diaspora, with an increased importance of the synagogue, and a literature based on the Greek translation of Torah. x
  • 11
    Jesus and the Gospels
    The Christian Gospels offer at best a second-hand look at the religious experience of Jesus. We cannot recover the "historical Jesus," but we can draw some broad inferences concerning the Jesus of the Gospels from the judicious use of the deeds, sayings, and traits ascribed to him by those narratives. x
  • 12
    The Resurrection Experience
    A comparison to the founders of Buddhism and Islam sharpens the distinctiveness of Christian origins. It is not so much "Jesus' experience" that begins Christianity as his followers' claim to "experience of Jesus" after his death. The character of this experience can be approached through the claims the first Christians made about themselves, which involve the experience of a personal, transforming power. x
  • 13
    Movement Meets World—Five Key Transitions
    Christianity's rapid spread across the Mediterranean world in the first generation of its existence is even more remarkable given that it had to accomplish five transitions immediately: geographical, linguistic, cultural, sociological, and demographic. The Acts of the Apostles provides a narrative framework for Christianity's emergence, and shows the role played by such religious phenomena as baptism, fellowship meals, healings, speaking in tongues, visions, and prayer. x
  • 14
    Ritual Imprinting and Politics of Perfection
    Baptism, early Christianity's ritual of initiation, can usefully be compared to such rituals in ancient Greco-Roman and other cultural systems. Such comparison provides perspective on the conflict reported in two of Paul's letters—Galatians and Colossians—between the apostle and members of communities who sought circumcision in addition to baptism. x
  • 15
    Glossolalia and the Embarrassments of Experience
    Forms of ecstatic speech were part of Hebrew and Greco-Roman tradition. It is not shocking, then, to find glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, as a manifestation of spiritual possession in earliest Christianity. More difficult to answer is why such a powerful expression of the Holy Spirit's presence should be so quickly marginalized in Christianity. x
  • 16
    Meals Are Where the Magic Is
    Evidence from Greco-Roman and Jewish cultures testifies to the peculiar power experienced by participants in meals. The cultural contexts, however, offer a number of possible antecedents to Christian practice. What, then, was the precise meaning of the Christian meal? What is the appropriate way to interpret archaeological and literary evidence? x
  • 17
    Healing and Salvation
    Physical healing and exorcism are major components of Jesus' ministry in the Gospels and play a large role in the Acts of the Apostles—both canonical and apocryphal. In early Christianity, healing is associated with five distinct motifs. They are a sign of divine presence, of the healer's compassion, of stages of spiritual transformation, of restoration to community, and of faith. x
  • 18
    Access to Power—Visions and Prayer
    In all ancient religions, visions and prayer represent the two-way traffic between humans and the divine. The prayer of Jesus and his followers offers clues to their perception of that larger reality. The reported visions of Jesus, Stephen, Peter, Paul, and John provide glimpses of what they experienced. x
  • 19
    The Holy Community
    From the beginning, Christianity took the form of an organized community called the church (ekklesia). A major challenge to the new religion was establishing its boundaries. It needed to signal its distinctive character in contrast both to Greco-Roman clubs and Jewish synagogues. Metaphors for the church—God's Temple, Body of Christ—indicate some dimensions of early Christian self-understanding. x
  • 20
    The Community’s Worship
    One of the most important ways in which religion organizes existence is through ritual. In the New Testament, we catch glimpses of baptism, Eucharist, kinship language, foot washing, and the holy kiss. In the 4th century, Christian worship begins to create the elaborate sanctification of time known as the liturgical year and the sacramental system. x
  • 21
    The Transforming Word of Scripture
    Christianity's relationship to Scripture has always involved a tension-filled dialectic. Its first "Scripture" was the Torah shared with Judaism, which Christians reinterpreted in light of the paradoxical experience of the crucified and raised Messiah, Jesus. The decisive moment in forming the Christian canon came in the mid-2nd century, when Gnostics promulgated an alternative version of Christianity. x
  • 22
    Teachers and Creeds
    As religious communities expand, they tend to develop structured patterns of belief. Earliest Christianity was characteristically simple with respect to structure and creed. The Gnostic crisis of the 2nd century—together with the prophetic movement called Montanism—forced the issue of belief and structure. Orthodox Christianity located authority in the teaching office of the bishop, and developed the "rule of faith," which eventually became the creed. x
  • 23
    The Power of the Saints
    Christianity has retained its original power and a radical—and sometimes subversive—edge in the saints, who remind Christians of the priority of religious experience. The term "saint"—meaning "holy one"—was applied in the New Testament to all members of the community. Over time, the term began to denote Christians of extraordinary charisma, virtue, wonderworking, or transformed life, who revealed the power of the Resurrection and the humanity of Christ. x
  • 24
    Christianities Popular and Real
    There is an enduring tension in Christianity between official religion—which is all about controlled power—and popular religion—in which power eludes official channels. Official religion claims to be real religion, tending to despise the popular. Academic study of religion tends to follow the same path. Only recently has scholarship paid due attention to popular forms of Christianity. x

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Your professor

Luke Timothy Johnson

About Your Professor

Luke Timothy Johnson, Ph.D.
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...
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Early Christianity: The Experience of the Divine is rated 4.1 out of 5 by 57.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An amiable review to the scriptures. Sheds new light on the material. Highly informative and enyoyable to watch.
Date published: 2017-03-11
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Ho hum Been a while since I went thru this course , so I don't go into details here. I do remember that I got very little out of this material : way too much 'fluff' and too little substance. It felt like going to the dentist trying to complete the chapters. I was a little surprised also at the number of mispronunciations of ancient world names/places.
Date published: 2017-02-25
Rated 2 out of 5 by from The title hooked me in. The presentation was PhD material. Not what I hoped for! Too philosophical, too involved and deep for the common man. Sorry I bought it.
Date published: 2017-02-14
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Some Good, Some Bad I had great expectations for this course. On some counts I was pleased, but I had some problems which may or may not be of concern to others. Overall I would recommend this course to someone interested in a useful perspective on early Christianity. LTJ has constructed a viewpoint from which to organize information about early Christianity that does afford some genuine insight. I enjoyed this. LTJ is knowledgable and his lectures are well organized and progress in an understandable fashion. There is value here That's the good. Now the bad, First, as others have said, the introduction is overly labored. This leads me into my general difficulty with LTJ. His presentation style is generally way over done. Not only are points labored beyond the needs of clarity but I felt I was listening to someone who enjoyed listening to himself a bit more than he should: -Explanations are labored and overly drawn out. -When he speaks, LTJ has some odd quirks of pronunciation, an accent or a slight trilling that is to me an affectation and plainly distracting. -Long quotations in Greek are used when it is impossible for the student to appreciate and which add nothing to the issue at hand. Quotations in another language are useful when there is a focus on a word or phrase key to an idea, which the teacher can then draw out. LTJ frequently uses quotations as a decoration for what he is saying. I found the above to be tiresome. While academics can come off as a bit too isolated from life, rarely is this a real issue. It is an issue for LTJ. This makes the course hard to enjoy while listening.However, I did enjoy the material while reviewing it myself. That made it valuable to me, I hope it does for other listeners.
Date published: 2016-10-22
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Long Introduction The introduction to this course was longer than necessary. Almost gave up on the course. I still haven't finished the course.
Date published: 2016-10-08
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great coverage of an unknown piece of church hist With knowledge of the book of Acts and church history since the reformation, this fills in a big hole in my knowledge without pushing any of the catholic/protestant buttons. It helps understand the trinity issues and the gradual settlement on 'orthodox' Christianity. Particularly interesting to see the vitality of the North African, Egyptian, and Syrian branches before the spread of Islam.
Date published: 2016-06-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Loved it! This professor has a passion for the subject, no doubt. It's full of information that he keeps exciting through his enthusiasm. My grandkids even paid attention to this professor!! Highly recommended :)
Date published: 2016-02-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Balanced and Delightful I have listened to this lecture series twice now, and I find Dr. Johnson's contextualization of early Christian experience imminently intelligent and valuable. The course begins slowly with thoughts about religion in general and a brief sketch of Greek religious practice in the first century. This approach allows an almost sociological description of the life of the early church (as intentional communities, or ekklesia) that nicely balances what I already knew. One thing I appreciate about this and other courses by Dr. Johnson is his scholarly use of the New Testament sources as primary (or sometimes secondary) historical documents, to be read on the same footing as, say, Josephus. While he may be a believer himself (his stance is consistently respectful), his use of these sources not as Divine Writ but as records left by the earliest Christians of their own lives.
Date published: 2015-07-18
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Different than expected This course covers early Christianity as experienced by the first Christians. There are 10 lectures of background information before getting to the topic at hand. Although the background was relevant, I would have enjoyed more on early Christianity and less background. I would have enjoyed more individual examples from the earliest sources on the religious experience, in addition to the generalities covered. Once the background is complete, Professor Johnson looks at what the experience of Christianity was actually like on a variety of topics ranging from meals, worship, healings, rituals, etc. His approach is refreshing in that instead of a dry scholarly view, he wants the listener to understand the experience of actual people, so as to understand what Christianity was like for them. The main point of the course is that Christianity as an experience has power in people's lives and this is why they do what they do. Religion is that which organizes time and space around that which is perceived to be ultimate power.
Date published: 2015-06-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Early Christianity: The Experience of the Divine Professor L T Johnson's lectures were outstanding.
Date published: 2015-02-01
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Very educational and enjoyable This lecturer presents the historicity of early Christianity in terms that seem without much bias. He raises points that I've never previously considered. This is not a course for a fundamentalist seeking support for that viewpoint but is more oriented toward the orthodoxy. I recommend it very much!
Date published: 2014-11-16
Rated 4 out of 5 by from LTJ Delivers a Unique Study On Early Christian LTJ is one of the better religion professors at TGC. Generally more scholarly than tabloid nature of Bart E. which TGC seem to promtoe so much. Where many courses on early Christianity focus on the historical events, LTJ focuses on the central event (the Resurrection) and what flowed from it. Revisionists like to pretend this event didn't happen or minimize it, but then have a hard time explaining all that came after it. LTJ starts by giving the the cultural background in the first few lectures before getting into the main material. There is a lot of interesting material here on how religious experience drove the church into rapid growth and how the church embraced those experiences with various traditions. He also touches on the failures of the search for the "historical" Jesus. "Historical" here meaning those who try to redefine Jesus as just some wandering sage or something and strip all divine experiences from his life. LTJ gets a little more into this in his "Jesus and the Gospels" course. Sure there are a few missteps, like claiming Acts has some fiction mixed in fact just because Luke uses some contemporary writing styles. And he's not real clear on some comments on the Resurrection. But these and a few other things can be overlooked because there is a lot of value in this course's approach.
Date published: 2014-10-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from eye opening I learned so much from this course. It was a little more in depth than a standard beginner course, which I appreciated. The course takes the fascinating tack of looking at the subject of early Church development through experience of the Divine, that the experience of early Christians was as valid, if not more valid, than the approach of more conventional (more scholarly?) approaches. What was a revelation to me, and made great sense when I saw it that way, was that the success of Christianity (which really, from a practical point of view should have failed) was due to this divine experience. The other eye opener for me was the extent to which even the Christianity we practice today, the structure of our liturgy, is grounded in Judaism. I loved it and will look for other courses by this professor.
Date published: 2014-10-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Resurrection Power Play AUDIO DOWNLOAD Professor Johnson in this course provides another contextual gem. It is all really interesting, except for some major missteps, in my opinion, on the Resurrection, that will likely set believers’ teeth on edge. Professor Johnson not only delineates for us the world in which Christianity developed, most notably the extensive and often complex Greco-Roman and Judaic conditions and influences, but, most importantly, deals with early Christianity and its growth from a novel perspective, one that he notes is “highly debatable” among scholars. Rather than relying on the usual historical and/or theological focus, Professor Johnson “…attempts a phenomenological analysis of early Christianity [using] history and social sciences, as well as comparative literary analysis, to look steadily and seriously at religious experience and behavior [, the] basic premise [being] that a connection exists between the two, and that by tracing patterns of behavior, we can detect the experience that organized them” (Course Guidebook, Page 1). There is just too much to this course to adequately summarize. What I liked best, however, is how Professor Johnson hones in the key issue: “…It is not so much ‘Jesus’s experience’ that begins this religion as his followers’ claim to ‘an experience of Jesus’ after his death…which involve the experience of a personal, transcendent, transforming power” (Page 47). Indeed, “The Resurrection experience accounts for the power and paradoxical character of early Christianity…The claim that an executed criminal was the source of ultimate power and life for all humans is both attractive and outrageous…The nature of this claim accounts for distinctive features of earliest Christianity: its sense of immediacy and newness, its reconfiguration of sacred space and time, its focus on transforming power, its need to come to grips with the human Jesus, and its difficult translation into consistent moral teaching.” (Page 49). What follows are the development of distinctly Christian practices of baptism, speaking in tongues, fellowship meals, healing, visions, and prayer, all admittedly traceable to “…the contexts of paganism and Judaism - similar to each, different from both” (Page 13), that are dealt with by Professor Johnson in some of the best developed and most thought-provoking TC lectures I have encountered. It must be noted that it takes Professor Johnson quite a while to get to the main event, so to speak, as nearly half of the course deals with context, from arriving at a definitions of religion and of religious experience, “… a response of the whole person to what is perceived as ultimate, characterized by a peculiar intensity, and issuing in appropriate action (e.g., becoming a Good Samaritan)“, Page 12; the availability and usefulness of sources; the Greco-Roman world and polytheism; and, in three stellar lectures, Judaism in all its diversity and surprising attractiveness to Gentiles (many of whom, put off by requirement of circumcision, became the first Christians). This slow start may be a turn-off for some, but I think it well worth one’s time to get this background. I suggest that after lecture one, skip to twenty-four. Though not a summary of the course, it does provide an insight into Professor Johnson’s position, some might say biases, by such comments as the following: * “Much of Christian history can be told as the story of the struggle between the poles of the charismatic and the institutional, the popular and the legitimate.” (Page 90) * “Learning to see popular religion as real religion changes the perception of Christianity entirely” (Page 91) * “The answer to the question with which this course began—‘How can Christianity continue to survive and thrive when it has been attacked and discredited in its Scripture, its ideas, and its morality?’—now becomes apparent: Christianity’s capacity to draw adherents remains the same as in the beginning, based in the convincing quality of its claim to transform lives through the experience of power.” (Page 93) Despite the phenomenological focus, Professor Johnson expertly sketches early Christianity and how it presaged developments down to our own day. Notable here, in describing the growth of structure and doctrine (which, Professor Johnson emphasizes, is a peculiarity of the Christian religion) is where we learn about such Apostolic Fathers as Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna, and such early writings as the sharply contrasted ‘Shepherd of Hermas’ and the ‘Didache’ (Teachings), as well as the development of the Christian community and its worship. Perhaps the most interesting part of all of this history for me, however, is Professor Johnson’s treatment of the “Gnostic crisis of the mid-2nd century” (Page 84), along with Montanist movement that “…forced the issue of belief and structure” and the ensuing “ideological” struggle over the Scriptural canon, in which “Montanism and Gnosticism represented a radical claim to the experiential” (Page 86). While measured in analyzing these two movements, Professor Johnson does pronounce the Gnostic writings “weird and oogey-boogey” (Lecture 22 Audio; my apologies to Professor Johnson for the spelling). There is not a great deal that I have to criticize about the course, but what I do have goes to the heart of Professor Johnson’s treatment of the Resurrection and should be of great concern to believers. I was put off by his claim that Jesus’s death as a “criminal” is analogous to that of a Gary Gilmore or Timothy McVeigh becoming after death “…the powerful presence that shapes my life” (Lecture 12, Audio). Talk about “oogey-boogey”! But, there is even more, as Professor Johnson leads us down the garden path on the Resurrection to claim that the sources (recommending the NT Epistles over the Gospels) affirm that it occurred “outside of time” (Lecture 12 Audio), that it was “…less a historical happening than an eschatological event” (Page 49). This certainly clears the way for the theme of power and his focus on the Holy Spirit, as the “central symbol” for early Christians, “transcendent” and described as “an energy field” that one is “caught up in” (all in Lecture 12 Audio). While Professor Johnson mentions the crucial post-Resurrection role played by the Holy Spirit, he does not use the term ‘born again’ anywhere that I can determine. This seems odd, as he does not duck such other potentially hot-button issues among Christians as speaking in tongues, divine healing, and the role of women, from Christianity’s origins to the present. While I came away from this course feeling like I had learned a good deal and have a much better understanding of Christianity’s origins and why it spread so rapidly, widely, and peacefully, and why it is continues to grow, I feel disappointment about Professor Johnson’s position on the Resurrection. I had a similar queasiness about some key interpretations in his ‘The Apostle Paul’ TC course (see my review for details). Nevertheless, this is an exceptionally informative and thought-provoking course.
Date published: 2014-08-29
Rated 4 out of 5 by from This puppy is not for everyone. Audio download. Dr Johnson's EARLY CHRISTIANITY: THE EXPERIENCE OF THE DIVINE is the product of a deeply learned mind. Nevertheless, it will probably disappoint unless you are clear about Dr Johnson's extremely narrow topic. Johnson feels, like many contemporary scholars of religion, that creed (a body of beliefs) is only a small part of living religion. Faith for most sincere and active believers is a regular encounter with "ultimate power". And since most people are not mystics, they experience this power through community rituals that stir them deeply. This shift from "religion as belief system" to "religion as ritualized, non-rational experiences" follows in the wake of developments in psychology, sociology and anthropology that started over a century ago. It is also deeply influenced by our growing understanding of mature and pre-modern religions as experienced by their followers. Believers meet in groups large and small, participate in certain rituals, and achieve a senses of power and self-confidence they quickly lose if they forsake the group. For the early Christians, these rituals included common meals, storytelling, dramatic healings, "speaking in tongues", and initiatory baptism. At the same time, there was a growing tension between these bottom-up, spontaneous, extravagant and emotional events, often led by charismatic, itinerant preachers, and the need for top-down authority and structure. The nascent Church soon accepted the necessity of standardized creeds, liturgies, texts and priestly offices. Non-uniformity encouraged dissention and heresy. ________________ OK, so far so good. Johnson explains all of this with his usual clarity and eloquence. But then things start to meander. Is this a course about 1) a specific moment in time in the history of Christianity? Or 2) early Christianity as an example of the experiential nature of all religions? I for one was left unsure. 1) If his goal is to give us a more rounded portrait of early Christianity, the picture we get is warped by the absence of the more Jewish Jerusalem community under James, of the Gnostics in Egypt and all the other Christian "flavours" then in existence. In effect, he assumes that the ultimate victory of the Bishop of Rome determined the most viable form of Christianity. Or maybe the "winning side" supplied us with more documents. Either way, his focus on one form of Christianity among many should have been made clearer. 2) If his goal is to explain the experiential nature of Christianity, the limited primary material left to us by the early Christians make them a poor test case. Johnson ends up projecting sociological theories on a few scant quotations. Much better to look at Christianity in modern America or Europe where information is abundant and verifiable. But, of course, this is not Johnson's specialty. ____________________ To sum up, this is a detailed course on the ritual nature of a certain branch of early Christianity. If this is a topic of interest to you, Dr Johnson is a fine guide who expresses himself very well. Audio versions are sufficient. The guidebook was also excellent. Believers among you, especially those seeking relief from TTCs other "early Christianity" expert Dr. Bart Ehrman, will probably be disappointed. Most Christians I have met in my admittedly limited experience, tend to adopt an a-historical position: God is the same being from Genesis to Revelation; Jesus' thoughts and that of his apostles are identical to those expressed in "our" Church and so on. From that perspective, Johnson's antiquarian musings might feel as relevant as a biologist's enthusiasm for a newly-discovered ant species. I'm exaggerating, of course. I actually liked EXPERIENCE OF THE DIVINE and think highly of Dr. Johnson's work. And in any cocktail party, you will find me wide-eyed and fascinated next to the talkative biologist.
Date published: 2014-03-09
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Experience of the Divine? Very Little Professor Johnson really knows early Christianity inside and out. Moreover, he is a lively and engaging speaker. I always learn from him. That said, I was disappointed by one glaring failure of this course. The blurb says “he takes you on a journey to find the "kernel" of Christianity's appeal: religious experience.” He does not start doing this until half way through the course! Of course I understand that background historical information is necessary, but 11 or 12 lectures of a 24 lecture course? The course does not live up to its title of “The Experience of the Divine.”
Date published: 2014-03-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Exceptional! In this series of lectures, Professor Luke Timothy Johnson describes the very beginnings of Christianity, from say 50 AD to the 4th century, with an emphasis placed on the earlier years. Highlighting religious issues, his discussion is an excellent complement to the course offered by Professor Kenneth Harl entitled ‘Fall of the Pagans and Origins of Medieval Christianity’ which is more strictly historical. Professor Johnson is very knowledgeable, very organized and very pedagogical. What makes him stand out further from other lecturers is that he clearly has spent much time meditating and integrating his material, striving towards what can only be labeled wisdom. Despite this, he appears perfectly aware that all will not agree with him and refrains from any appearance of conceit. His sources include not only Scriptures but other ancient writings, archeological finds and theoretical works on the nature of religion. This leads to a variety of original positions which are well defended but may at times surprise the listener. Though it dates back to the 20th century, this course remains very pertinent and is recommended to all interested in religion and history.
Date published: 2013-11-24
Rated 4 out of 5 by from another viewpoint Enjoyed watching this course. I'd been primarily approaching Christianity from an historical perspective. This course material approaches it from a more experiential standpoint. You need both.
Date published: 2012-12-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very good presentation Good well rounded presentation with lots of facts and insights without being preachy. Very informative about the historical and cultural context.
Date published: 2012-10-02
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Christianity From The Outside In This is not a course about early Christian doctrines or theology or the early Church's institutional history and major players, though those matters are necessarily touched on. Nor does this course take a position on the truth of the resurrection of Jesus or the validity of Christian belief generally. Rather, this is a course about the people who believed in the truth of the resurrection: the experiences, practices, and behaviors of early Christians in the context of their times and cultures. Professor Johnson uses a wide variety of written and archaeological sources -- not only Christian, but Graeco-Roman (pagan) and Jewish -- to examine what early Christians did, said, and thought. Professor Johnson uses phenomena such as baptism, community meals, speaking in tongues, prayers and visions, healing, and (before Constantine legitimized the Christian "cult") martyrdom to help understand what early Christianity was and what drew ordinary people to it. Professor Johnson's conclusion from examining this evidence is that Christianity first grew, and continues to survive and thrive two thousand years later, because of the religious experience it offers -- what he calls "the experience of the divine." Listeners/viewers less interested in philosophy can safely skip the first three lectures of this series, which consist of musings about religion generally that do nothing to advance the course topic, but perhaps serve as a warm-up exercise for the remaining lectures of this otherwise excellent course.
Date published: 2012-09-24
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good start (I think) As with many Teaching Company courses, I came away from this with more questions than I had before listening. That's good because before this, I didn't know enough on the subject to know what questions to ask. I would not say the course is comprehensive, but it is an excellent starting point for the subject of Christian history; as well as Jewish history, which I thought was an added bonus. Dr. Johnson is likable and easy to listen to. I agree with some reviews in that the professor has a tendency to ramble a bit, but I was able to get around that since he always gets back to the subject. I also got the impression sometimes that he was auditioning for a play, but again, he always gets back on track. I have no problem recommending this course to anyone interested in the subject.
Date published: 2012-08-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A rare gem I have just finished listening to this course for the second time and came away from it as impressed as I did the first time. This is a profoundly insightful look into the cultural contexts of early Christianity and the ways in which the religious claims it made differentiated it within that context and continue to differentiate it now. At its heart is a claim no Christian will dispute - that the resurrection of Christ changed everything. Professor Johnson explains the ramifications of this in patient detail with a delivery style that betrays his deep engagement with the subject matter. There are moments with which the orthodox Christian will have some problems. Johnson's description of the Holy Spirit as an 'energy field' seems dangerously New Age-y to me although I think I know what he is getting at;and the number of parallels he draws with Graeco-Roman and Jewish culture do sometimes leave one wondering if Christianity is saying something new and distinctive at all. But I don't think this detracts from what was for me an experience both spiritually and intellectually renewing.
Date published: 2012-08-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A good history course For those looking for a religion course dealing solely with early Christian practices, this isn't really it. Although a number of the later lectures cover that topic, this course is, instead, a phenomenal history course, dealing with the historical foundation of Christianity - what was there when it started, how it came about and how it evolved during the first 3-4 centuries, based upon what was already in existence and what was happening. One of the nice things is that it shows very well how Christianity did not form in a bubble, without any influence but Jesus, his disciples and the Jewish bible but was influenced by all sorts of surrounding factors, which is only to be expected but tends to be glossed over. It can be a hard course to work though, especially later on but it's well worth the time spent.
Date published: 2012-07-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from What an Engaging Teacher! The material is presented in such a well-organized fashion that it flows together easily. I loved the details and the comparisons. He started out looking nervous, but a few lessons in and he was animated - as if he couldn't wait to tell us this exciting information. I loved it, and looked forward to it each evening.
Date published: 2012-05-26
Rated 1 out of 5 by from NOT RECOMMENDED The lecturer obviously is in love with the sound of his own droning voice, and with verbosity: he uses a hundred words when twenty or thirty would suffice. I found him excruciating to listen to. This course is purported to be on "Early Christianity"; in fact it is mistitled ~ it is rather a cultural history with religious reference to the start and early days of Christianity. I did not need one full lecture on "What is a religion?", by the way. At the start of lecture 11 (yes, ELEVEN), the professor states "You may be thinking that it's taken us a good while to reach Christianity.". Yes, precisely! Even then he rambles on with little offshoots, tangential thinking ~ almost anything to delay getting to the MEAT of the matter. Frankly, I became infuriated with this man, was tempted to scream at the screen "Get on with it!". When he did get on with it, it was strained and laboured, dull and uninspiring. This is one of the least worthwhile courses I have bought; I cannot recommend it to anyone. It should be discontinued by The Teaching Company, unless it is given to another lecturer to handle. Dr. Bart Ehrman leads the way in lecturing on Christianity. I'm afraid Dr. Luke Johnson trails pathetically.
Date published: 2012-03-14
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Mysteries unveiled First off, I should note that Professor Johnson is my favorite instructor in the TGC’s Religion category. This course, while not straightforward in its approach, comes together at the end and you get a quietly satisfying WOW feeling. I can’t believe how much is packed into these 24 lectures. Some of the lectures were more engrossing than others, but on the whole, I felt the historical coverage to be pretty interesting. As this is not a survey course, you do have to put on your thinking cap and be patient. Before embarking on this journey, you should take note of the title. It’s important to consider that the first half is actually about the roots of early Christianity (Judaism and Greco-Roman religion). It is not until the second half that he tackles the theme of the subtitle, Experiencing the Divine. And this part basically covers the first 300 years of early Christian practices. So, this one is more like two 12-lecture courses. Also, to get the most out of this course, you need to forget about being a Christian or even a non-Christian in today’s modern world. You need to step outside your usual life and imagine yourself living in the outskirts of the Roman Empire at the start of the first millennium. It not only makes for an interesting vicarious experience but also gives you a different perspective as you go through the lectures. There was a question or goal stated at the onset of the course: “How can Christianity continue to survive and thrive when it has been attacked and discredited in its Scripture, its ideas, and its morality?” This is succinctly answered in the concluding lecture, and you’re left to reflect on how the previous lectures support this position. I could definitely listen a second or third time.
Date published: 2012-02-15
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Misses the mark I did not walk away from this course with the essence of the Christian beliefs or values...This is not a course in religion, or even 1 religion...It is rather a history course covering various religious rituals, of "paganism", Judaism, and Christianity cira 30-300 AD....Too bad it is listed under religion. Somewhat disapointed. -Joe
Date published: 2011-12-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Game Changer! This courses is awesome! It addresses Christianity in many different views and really gives you a thorough understanding of not only the historical perspective but also the experiential perspective which alot of course lack. The professor covers the main topics of Christianity and mentions how each topic was potentially taken into the extreme or disregarded. Topics such as baptisms, resurrection, tongues, and visions were very well covered and explained not only through a Christian perspective but also through the eyes of the Grecco Roman world. The professor gives all the perspectives and views possible but at the end usually explains his own without an ego! He gives you all the information to decide for yourself without making his know as a fact. I wish more courses such as the Old Testament and the New Testament were taught by Luke Timothy. I would also recommend the Apostle Paul course if you liked this course.
Date published: 2011-04-27
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Did the course achieve its goal? I found the course very dull for many of the lectures but also found that it was interspersed with some flashpoints of brilliance. There are things in the course that he really doesn’t address such as whether Christianity become the world religion it is today because the early Christians were great marketers to a Roman Greco world of a highly regarded Jewish religion. And regarding the title of my post, I wonder whether the course answered the question as to why Christianity is the major religion it is today. I think that the idea of the Christian experience as a factor is valid, but there are so many other factors to consider that I am not sure that he proved the point that he was seeking to prove.
Date published: 2010-11-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Kind Heart- A Keen Mind I have listened to several of Dr. Johnson's Teaching Company courses and two things always jump out at me when I listen: a kind and sympathetic hear for the pursuit of truth in Sacred Scripture and a keen mind for a detailed exposition of what he is discussing. I have listened to all manner of courses in the Teaching Company catalog, from history to economics, and Dr. Johnson brings a sympathetic approach to his discussions, and this helps inform my faith, but yet, his analysis is forthright and balanced. His study on the Mystical Tradition in a 36 lecture course also by the Teaching Company is similar where Dr Johnson thoroughly engages in each of the three religions he discusses: Judiasm, Christinity, and Islam. He approaches the subjects as a person of faith: a believer. In this way, assuming the listener is not taking a strictly academic approach to the subject, he moves the discussion along points of common agreement. I find an amazing contrast to Dr. Johnson's approach-- Dr. Bart Ehrman's approach to the study of scripture. Dr Ehrman, in addition to authoring several popular books, also has several courses now offered through the Teaching Company. Amazingly, both Professors, at least to my ear, even have similar speech habits and styles of speech, and cover in their different courses, alot of the same ground. Dr Ehrman to me (and I think he would readily admit this) takes a more academic approach--almost a strictly historical approach to scripture, and at times is a bit cold and detached (Dr Ehrman probably wouldn't agree with that but that's my take). At times, in Dr Ehrman's course on "the Apostalic Fathers" I found him to be a bit derisive and somewhat mocking in tone in discussing the early writings. His books also have this tone at times, which once again looks at these texts from a historical perspective, and not with the sympathy for their inconsistencies that Dr Johnson will at times give the very same material. Its really which approach you sympathize with: from a believer's willingness to accept the rough edges vs. the skeptic who at times does not find the writings of the Old and New Testament to be consistent, coordinated and convincing. Dr Johnson's approach I would say is "faith seeking understanding", with no worries that Dr Johnson's dogma or his personally held beliefs intrude in any way in his approach to the material. I would say that I enjoy listening to Dr Ehrman when his skepticism does not rise to the surface in his commentary. With Dr Johnson, there is no "editorialism" shown in his commentary, at least not to my ear, but you know where his heart is. As a believer who shares Dr Johnson's Catholic faith tradition, I find that comforting---since it is academic and prayerful.
Date published: 2010-04-01
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