The Greatest Controversies of Early Christian History

Course No. 6410
Professor Bart D. Ehrman, Ph.D., M.Div.
The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
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Course No. 6410
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Course Overview

Christianity has arguably been the most important force in the history of Western civilization. Whether we view it in religious, social, political, or economic terms, Christianity has deeply and integrally influenced the Western worldview and way of life, as well as our most basic notions of selfhood, morality, and ethics. Without the presence and role of Christianity, our world would be considerably different. As such, understanding Christianity is fundamental to understanding our civilization, our culture, and our origins.

In reaching that understanding, no era is more relevant than the faith’s first three centuries, when Christianity grew from a persecuted sect into a powerful religion. Throughout Christian history, compelling controversies have existed surrounding that early era. These controversies continue to puzzle scholars, theologians, and laypeople, bringing into question many common beliefs about the faith. Exploring them sheds light on myths and historical fallacies that obscure an accurate view of the religion. In their content, implications, and scope, the controversies are foundational for grasping how Christianity evolved to become what it is today.

The individual controversies covered in this course highlight disputed questions concerning both faith and history:

  • Was Jesus married?
  • Was Jesus the messiah predicted in the Jewish scriptures?
  • Was Paul—not Jesus—the real founder of Christianity?
  • Can the Old Testament be considered a Christian book?
  • Does the book of Revelation predict humanity’s future?

As a subject of study, the controversies of early Christianity serve as a window on the development of a global religion, and on the theological thought that forged its defining doctrines. In each case, the matters in question are historically significant, whether we are Christians, members of other religions, or nonbelievers.

Now, in The Greatest Controversies of Early Christian History, award-winning professor and New York Times best-selling author Bart D. Ehrman invites you to join him in a penetrating investigation of these provocative issues of Christianity. In this revealing inquiry, you’ll tackle 24 pivotal controversies from the most important formative era of the faith, investigating them with the tools of the historian and aiming to resolve them with academic rigor.

Applying probing detective work to the controversies of the early church, these lectures pierce historical fictions, distortions, and misconceptions that come to us not only from common understandings of the faith but from contemporary sources such as popular novels and films.

Drawing on the latest scholarship from many sources, this course examines a rich spectrum of subject matter, ranging from the circumstances surrounding Jesus’s birth to his death and resurrection, and from Christian experience in the crucial era following his death to important doctrinal controversies of the 4th century. Each lecture unfolds as a historical mystery, as you compare religious tradition, early Christian texts, and legend with the historical record, illuminating these highly charged matters of faith.

Witness the Dawning of a Global Faith

In each lecture of this course, you delve into a key issue in Christianity’s early development, highlighting contentious topics such as these:

  • Did the Jews Kill Jesus? In shedding light on this divisive question, study the political events surrounding Jesus’s arrest and trial in Jerusalem, and uncover the precise motives and role of the Jewish authorities.
  • Was Jesus Raised from the Dead? Learn about the theological meaning of resurrection in Jesus’s time, and grasp what underlay the extraordinary claim that he was raised from the dead and exalted by God.
  • Did the Disciples Write the Gospels? Explore the dating and attribution of the New Testament Gospels, our historical knowledge of the disciples, and the question of whether these men possessed the skills to create literary accounts of Jesus’s life.
  • Did Early Christians Accept the Trinity? Investigate the conception of Jesus held by his earliest followers, subsequent views of his divinity, and the evolution of the Trinity as a core doctrine of Christian faith.
  • Is the Book of Revelation about Our Future? Unpack this powerfully provocative text by studying the genre of ancient apocalyptic literature, Revelation’s connection to that tradition, and its intended meaning in the time of its writing.
  • Who Chose the Books of the New Testament? Penetrate myth and fiction concerning the formation of the New Testament, and trace how, when, and by whom the 27 books were chosen.

Gain Rich Insight into Christian Thought

Under Professor Ehrman’s incisive guidance, you analyze and clarify many of the primary elements of Christian theology. You dig deeply into the conception of the mashiach (messiah) in Jewish tradition, and the basis for the core Christian claim that a suffering messiah was predicted in the Jewish scriptures. In grasping Paul’s role in the early faith, you contemplate the key differences between the teachings of Jesus himself and the Christian view of his death and resurrection that has defined the religion. You also learn about the differing views of Jesus held by early Christian groups such as the Adoptionists, Marcionists, and Gnostics, and their role in what became Christian orthodoxy.

In assessing the role of early Christian literature, you learn about the earliest surviving versions of the New Testament, their numerous inconsistencies, and what can be said about their authenticity. You also look closely at the authorship of the New Testament writings, and the evidence of forgeries and false attribution within this iconic text. And you trace the ambiguous role in early Christianity of the Jewish scriptures, and how these books came to be accepted as the Christian Old Testament.

A Riveting Encounter with History and Faith

As a historical sleuth, Professor Ehrman takes the inquiry down many intriguing paths of discovery. In the course’s opening section you investigate provocative questions about the historical Jesus. Was Jesus actually born in Bethlehem? Was Mary Magdalene, in fact, a prostitute, and what was her true role in Jesus’s life and ministry? Is it possible that Jesus was married, to her or to someone else?

Among colorful and surprising episodes in Christianity’s rise, you probe the mystery of Didymus Judas Thomas, portrayed in the non-canonical Acts of Thomas as Jesus’s identical twin brother. You look closely at the record concerning Judas Iscariot to determine exactly what damning information he betrayed to the Jewish authorities. And you examine the accounts proposing that Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who presided over Jesus’s trial, was actually a secret follower of Jesus.

In The Greatest Controversies of Early Christian History, the issues you reckon with shed important light on the foundational texts of Christianity, the historical Jesus, the first Christians, and the remarkable story of the faith’s unfolding in its first critical centuries. With more than 1 billion Christians in the world today, these controversies intersect deeply with the living faith as it’s practiced today around the world, and with contemporary Christian thought in all of its facets.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 29 minutes each
  • 1
    Was Jesus Born in Bethlehem?
    Begin by considering why the controversies of early Christianity matter, and explore the critical difference between the perspective of the historian and the perspective of faith. Then grapple with the controversy over where Jesus was born, the historical indications, and the faith-based motives for affirming Bethlehem as his birthplace. x
  • 2
    Was Jesus’s Mother a Virgin?
    Belief in the virgin birth has been enormously important throughout the history of Christianity. Here, assess the theological underpinnings of this belief and the role of Mary as a divine figure. Investigate accounts of the Annunciation in Matthew and Luke, and grasp their reasons for claiming Mary conceived as a virgin. x
  • 3
    Did Jesus Have a Twin Brother?
    The question of whether Jesus had siblings divided early Christians, a controversy that survives to this day. Learn about the non-canonical Acts of Thomas and its account of the missionary Didymus Judas Thomas, portrayed as Jesus’s identical twin brother, and consider how early Christians might have thought about this. x
  • 4
    Is Jesus in the Dead Sea Scrolls?
    Discover the Dead Sea Scrolls as they shed important light on the historical Jesus and on Jewish life in his time. Learn how the scrolls express the worldview of Jewish apocalypticism, shared by Jesus, which anticipated the end of the age and the establishment of a new kingdom on Earth. x
  • 5
    Did Jesus Expect to See the World’s End?
    Grasp how scholars and historians have approached the historical accuracy of the Gospels, and track the developing critical view of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet. Contemplate the core tenets of Jesus’s teachings regarding the coming kingdom of God, and how his views threatened the social order of his time. x
  • 6
    How Close Were Jesus and Mary Magdalene?
    First assess the inaccurate portrayal of Mary Magdalene in novels and film, and trace the church tradition regarding her as a prostitute. Then review the known facts concerning Jesus’s female followers, Mary’s place in his ministry, and her likely role in his legacy both within his lifetime and afterward. x
  • 7
    Was Jesus Married?
    The idea that Jesus was married is purportedly supported by statements in the Talmud on ancient Jewish life. Investigate the marriage practices of early Judaism and the social reality of celibacy. Examine the role of apocalyptic thinking in affirming a life of celibacy, as seen in the teachings of Paul, the Essenes, and Jesus himself. x
  • 8
    What Secrets Did Judas Betray?
    For the last century, scholars have disagreed on the nature of Judas’s betrayal of Jesus. Delve into the historical record concerning the figure of Judas, and trace contrasting views of his motives. Review pertinent facts surrounding Jesus’s death and evidence that what Judas divulged to the authorities was a justification for destroying Jesus. x
  • 9
    Did the Jews Kill Jesus?
    The issue of the Jewish role in Jesus’s death became the basis for Christian anti-Semitism. To elucidate this crucial matter, investigate the events of Jesus’s final week in Jerusalem, the incendiary atmosphere surrounding the celebration of Passover, and the nature of the Jewish authorities’ response to Jesus prior to the trial and crucifixion. x
  • 10
    Was Pontius Pilate a Secret Christian?
    The ruthless Roman governor who ordered Jesus crucified has undergone a character change over the course of Christian history. Study portrayals of Pilate in Christian storytelling, the Gospels, and non-canonical writings as they seek to exonerate him from culpability in Jesus’s death. Grapple with these sources’ reasons for downplaying Pilate’s role in Jesus’s execution. x
  • 11
    Was Jesus Raised from the Dead?
    In approaching what is perhaps the greatest Christian controversy of all, learn about ancient views of the afterlife and the meaning of resurrection in the world Jesus inhabited. Investigate scholarship on visionary experience, and the role of visions in the conviction among the first believers that Jesus was in fact resurrected. x
  • 12
    Did the Jews Expect a Suffering Messiah?
    In this lecture, trace the early Jewish conception of a future mashiach as a figure of power and grandeur, and the Christian view that a suffering messiah was predicted in the Jewish scriptures. Study the relevant scriptural passages and the core arguments dividing Christians and Jews on this critical issue. x
  • 13
    Is Paul the Real Founder of Christianity?
    This lecture digs deeply into the distinction between the teachings of Jesus and the Christian view of his death and resurrection that has defined the faith. Learn about Paul’s theology and the striking differences between his and Jesus’s views of the coming kingdom, in grasping Paul’s precise role in the new religion. x
  • 14
    Did the Disciples Write the Gospels?
    The matter of the authorship of the New Testament Gospels has important ramifications for understanding the historical Jesus. Investigate the dating of the Gospels, our historical knowledge of Matthew, John, Mark, and Luke, and the question of whether they possessed the skills to have written such highly literary narratives. x
  • 15
    Does the New Testament Contain Forgeries?
    False claims of authorship for religious writings were common in the early church. First, trace the phenomenon of literary forgery in the ancient world, and its broad condemnation. Then study the range of New Testament writings of questionable authorship, and consider the motives for false attribution and how they were justified. x
  • 16
    Is the Book of Revelation about Our Future?
    The book of Revelation stands as a provocative focal point of the New Testament. To grasp its meaning and significance, learn about the genre of ancient apocalyptic literature, Revelation’s place in that tradition, and what its contents were intended to convey to people living at the time of its writing. x
  • 17
    Who Were the Original Christians?
    Here, explore the diversity of Christianity in the 2nd century, when multiple groups claimed to represent the “original” faith. Illuminate this issue by tracing the various forms of Gnosticism, the traditional conception of orthodoxy, and evidence that what we think of as Christian orthodoxy today was in fact a later development. x
  • 18
    Is the True Jesus in the Gnostic Gospels?
    This lecture highlights striking contrasts in theological conceptions of Jesus found among early Christian groups. With regard to Jesus’s divinity, uncover the views of the Adoptionists, the Marcionists, and the “separationist” view of Gnosticism in determining whether the Gnostic Gospels represent the understanding of Jesus’s earliest followers. x
  • 19
    What Happened to the Apostles?
    Stories about the later lives of Jesus’s apostles abound within the Christian tradition. Here, distinguish fact from legend by investigating the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, the non-canonical texts concerning Peter, Paul, Thomas, John, and Andrew. Evaluate these texts’ historical reliability and their significance for understanding Christianity. x
  • 20
    Was Christianity an Illegal Religion?
    The relationship of the early Christians to the Roman state is often obscured by historical inaccuracies and misperceptions. Learn about the variety of religious practices permitted by Rome, citizens’ obligations regarding social order and participation in the state religion, and perceptions of certain early Christian practices that led to the Christians’ persecution. x
  • 21
    Is the Old Testament a Christian Book?
    Investigate the place of the Jewish scriptures in the lives of Jesus and his followers and how Christian views of Jewish law changed during Paul’s mission. Trace diverse views of the Old Testament in the 2nd century in grasping how it became accepted as a Christian text. x
  • 22
    Did Early Christians Accept the Trinity?
    With regard to this core Christian doctrine, learn about the earliest theological understanding of Jesus by his followers, and track changing views of Jesus’s divinity in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Grasp the thrust of the “Arian controversy,” debated at the famous Council of Nicea, which clarified the Christian understanding of the Trinity. x
  • 23
    Do We Have the Original New Testament?
    Drawing on current scholarship and methodology, learn about how books were produced, copied, and circulated in the ancient world, and the role of professional scribes in preserving literary materials. Identify the earliest surviving texts of the New Testament, their inconsistencies, and what we can say about their originality. x
  • 24
    Who Chose the Books of the New Testament?
    Finally, delve into the intriguing question of how the final form of the New Testament came to be—who decided on the 27 books, when the decision was made, and on what grounds. Conclude by considering why Christianity, in particular, is prone to controversy and likely to remain so. 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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Reviews

The Greatest Controversies of Early Christian History is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 57.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Greatest Controversies of Early Christian Hist The professor explains the subject matter of each course so well, that I don't have any problem following him without the course materials. I have purchased several of his courses through the years and really appreciate this teacher. I like the way he presents religious subjects, both as a history teacher and as a person who cares about the faith and beliefs of his students. Thank you and keep "teaching great courses"!!
Date published: 2018-12-05
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Weak arguements, some glaringly weak I was hoping for some critical academic though on these controversial issues. I did not find it. This was a very weak series. The arguments were full of holes, some glaringly obvious. The lecturer states he will not approach the course from a theological perspective but a historical perspective, yet he constantly drifts into the theological. In the first lecture (was Jesus born in Bethlehem), one of his big complaints is that Luke mentions a census as the reason Jesus was born in Bethlehem, yet the lecturer claims there was no census and in fact was never a "world wide census" because the dislocation of people would be too disruptive on the Roman Empire. First, there were multiple census, and there were multiple "world wide census", that's just basic documented history. There is some discrepancy in timing, but the Romans most definitely performed multiple census. Second, if the lecturer is correct and there was not a census, then if Luke invented a census it would be obvious to the readers of the 1st century. Some lectures were little more than secular opinion, such as the lecture on the virgin birth. How do you address a subject such as the virgin birth and Mary's immaculate conception (which is not in the Bible at all, its a Roman Catholic belief) from a historical perspective anyway? The lectures also seem biased at times against the religion of Christianity. That impression was strong enough that I researched the lecturer and looked into some of his books. While he tries to remain academic, my conclusion is that he is biased. Overall, not a good series. I am returning it. .
Date published: 2018-10-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Only for the faithful The title fits the experience , very Controversial , better have a lot of faith in what you believed before !! But good food for thought and learning.
Date published: 2018-08-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Not Suitable for Sunday School There is not one correct Christianity today, and there never was one. That is the thrust of this course. Since the religion’s beginning Christians have argued over the meaning of Jesus’s teachings, the significance of his crucifixion, and his relationship to God. In this course you may be surprised to learn that some believed Pontius Pilate died as a Christian martyr, that the discarded Gospel of Thomas makes out the disciple to have been the twin brother of Jesus, who sold him into slavery, that the Gospel of Mark in its original form ended without a resurrection, that the famous story of Jesus saving an adulteress from execution by calling “Let him who is without sin throw the first stone” didn’t appear in the Gospel of John until the 12th century, and that some believed the Christian God was distinct from and superior to the Jewish God, and so wished to discard the Old Testament. Along the way Professor Ehrman uses analysis of the New Testament to reconstruct the historic life of Jesus and the very early church. There WAS in fact a real Jesus contrary to mythicist claims that he was entirely fictional; no one would have fabricated a messiah who failed to mobilize Judaea against foreign occupation and then suffered execution. He was probably really born in Nazareth—an obscure backwater village--rather than Bethlehem. Jesus did preach that the Son of Man (a divine figure) would come to judge mortals and introduce a new kingdom on Earth, but when he decided that he himself would be that king and told the disciples in private, Judas betrayed him to the Sanhedrin, who turned him over to the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate, who whipped and killed him. The first generations of apostles, including Paul, fervently believed Jesus’s promise that the world would end soon. As we know now, the world refused to go away, and the church had to reshape its hierarchy and doctrines for a long-term existence. Early Christians seem to have believed that Jesus was “adopted” by God at resurrection or baptism; the idea that he—as the Son of God—was co-eternal with the Father as part of a Trinity—first appeared with Tertullian in the third century AD. The first Christians had nothing more than the Jewish scriptures, which at that time were still not solidified into today’s Hebrew Bible, and it took more than a generation before they realized they might need their own scriptures. Competing groups generated spurious gospels, pseudo-apostolic letters and apocalypses. More than three centuries passed before the church hierarchy narrowed down this body of work to the New Testament canon in its present form. There is much here to discomfit Christians who insist that the Bible is literally inerrant. The gospels were not written by any of Jesus’s disciples, who were likely illiterate Aramaic-speaking peasants with no Greek. Instead later anonymous authors drew upon stories about Jesus that circulated for a couple generations after his death. As Ehrman points out, orally transmitted tales usually change with each retelling, as in the children’s “telephone” game. For this reason, any gospel is unlikely to be an accurate account of Jesus’s life. Worse, the four gospels contradict each other at many points, as one can see with a “horizontal” reading that compares a given incident in two or more of them. Still worse, more than five thousand New Testament manuscripts that we have today contain two hundred thousand to four hundred thousand variations due to accumulated copying errors, attempts at corrections, and deliberate alterations. There is little or nothing inerrant here. My only objection to this course is that much of it repeats content in two other Ehrman courses I have watched or listened to, The New Testament and After the New Testament, as well as a third one I plan to borrow later, Lost Christianities. If you have those three courses, you probably can do without this one. There are still more courses that may overlap with this one and each other: The Historical Jesus, How Jesus Became God, and History of the Bible: Making of the New Testament Canon.
Date published: 2018-07-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Awesome Lectures!!! A must listen!!! I love this unbiased and factual lecture series. ALL non-Christians and Christians alike should hear this "message" to better understand what they are a truly ascribing to. Some of the facts will challenge our blind beliefs in our particular brand of Christianity, but this is good. All beliefs need to be tempered by solid facts and reality. This is basically a "just the facts" of early Christianity, and nothing else. An absolute must listen to by all!!
Date published: 2018-07-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting Perspective This historical perspective will not appeal to those who believe the bible is the literal word of god as it exposes these books as the work of men. I enjoyed it very much and will take more of of his courses.
Date published: 2018-06-27
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Sorry, but No This course is a waste of Dr. Ehrman’s considerable talents. Unlike his other The Great Courses (TGC) offerings, this is religion clickbait. This is a one-sided rant rather than a scholarly investigation. This course consists of 24 questions about the first three centuries of the Christian Era. Some of these questions are pertinent: Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Does the New Testament contain forgeries? Did early Christians accept the Trinity? However, as often as not, the questions seemed designed more to incite than to illumine, more salacious than scholarly: Did Jesus have a twin brother? How close were Jesus and Mary Magdalene? Was Jesus married? Was Jesus born in Bethlehem? The methodology is fundamentally flawed throughout this entire course. At the outset, Dr. Ehrman excludes all matters of “faith” and restricts his inquiry exclusively to matters of “history.” However, the fundamental essence of Christianity is its claims about a divine entity, which is precisely what a “historical” inquiry explicitly excludes from consideration. Thus, a “historical” analysis alone cannot possibly provide balanced insight into this or any other religious subject. Further, by excluding all matters of “faith,” he is imposing his standards on his subject. True historical scholarship examines its subjects in their own terms, which Dr. Ehrman adamantly avoids. It should be noted that practically all other TGC courses on religion go out of their way to examine the subject religion in its own terms; Dr. Ehrman could have done so here, too, but he refused. Thus, we learn less about the subject than we learn about Dr. Ehrman’s opinions. Also, by examining a religion solely in historical terms and by excluding all matters of “faith,” he can, at best, consider *what* happened and not *why* it happened. Thus, he neuters his own message; he deprives it of any meaning. Finally, Dr. Ehrman’s approach is anachronistic. Sometimes, when Dr. Ehrman refers to “the greatest controversies of early church history,” he is not referring to controversies that were debated in the early history of the church. Rather, he is referring to *modern* controversies using *modern* standards about assertions made during the first three centuries of the Christian Era. Further, he accepts conclusions only from what he calls “scholars,” by which he means so-called “critical scholars” (a term he often uses and with which he identifies) who contest accuracy and divine authority of the Bible. He explicitly excludes evangelical Protestant scholars, whom he derisively calls “fundamentalists,” (none of whom self-identify as “fundamentalist”) and he pretty much ignores Roman Catholic and eastern Orthodox scholars. Dr. Ehrman is a very good lecturer. I recommend his other The Great Courses offerings. He is a former evangelical who is now either agnostic or atheistic and this is woven throughout all of his offerings. This should not deter anyone from listening to him but it is important to know where he is coming from in order to hear what he wants to communicate. This is available only in audio format. Visuals would have added nothing.
Date published: 2018-05-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Enlightening!!! I have studied Bart's lectures for some time and this series is probably the best. I started out on a quest for the truth and have not been disappointed. Bart lays out the facts and without an agenda, other than to educate the student, he exposes the myths and misinformation surrounding the scriptures. I heartily recommend this series to anyone who has a hunger to know the real facts behind the scriptures as we have been taught.
Date published: 2018-05-16
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