From Jesus to Constantine: A History of Early Christianity

Course No. 6577
Professor Bart D. Ehrman, Ph.D., M.Div.
The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
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Course No. 6577
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Course Overview

In a world where Christianity has been, in the words of Professor Bart D. Ehrman, "the most powerful religious, political, social, cultural, economic, and intellectual institution in the history of Western civilization," most of us have grown up believing we know the answers to these questions:

  • Were the early Christians really hunted down and martyred, with repeated persecutions for an illegal religion forcing them to hide in the catacombs of Rome?
  • Did the ancient Jews of Jesus' time always believe in a single, all-powerful God?
  • How did breaking away from their Jewish roots make Christians more vulnerable in the Roman world?
  • What were the origins of what we now consider the distinctively Christian liturgical practices of baptism and the Eucharist?

But do we know the answers? As this course shows, the answers are, in fact, quite surprising.

See How Today's Christianity Emerged

The traditional form of Christianity we know today includes beliefs, practices, a canon of sacred scripture, and even its own stated history, but it emerged only after many years of transition and conflict—with Judaism and with what can now only be called the "lost Christianities."

That term, of course, is familiar to anyone who has taken Professor Ehrman's earlier course, Lost Christianities: Christian Scriptures and the Battles over Authentication.

And now Professor Ehrman, whose previous and popular efforts for The Teaching Company also include The Historical Jesus and The New Testament, has created a course that places those forgotten forms of the faith in an even broader context.

From the Religion of Jesus to a Religion about Jesus

These lectures take you back to Christianity's first three centuries to explain its transition from the religion of Jesus to a religion about Jesus.

It introduces you to lost Christianities and their sacred writings. And it shows how many of those writings were originally proscribed or destroyed, only to be rediscovered in modern times.

You also learn how a single group from among many won the struggle for dominance, which allowed it to:

  • Establish the beliefs central to the faith
  • Rewrite the history of Christianity's internal conflicts
  • Produce a canon of sacred texts—the New Testament—that supported its own views.

From 20 Followers … to Two Billion

These lectures offer a fresh and provocative perspective on what are perhaps the most intriguing questions of all:

How could a movement originally made up of perhaps only 20 low-class followers of a Jewish apocalyptic preacher crucified as an enemy of the state grow to include nearly four million adherents in only 300 years?

And how would it eventually become the largest religion in the world, with some two billion adherents?

To answer those questions, Professor Ehrman examines Christianity from several directions:

  • The faith's beginnings, starting with the historical Jesus and the other individuals and traditions that formed the foundation of the emerging religion
  • Jewish-Christian relations, including the rise of anti-Judaism within the Christian church and the emergence of Christianity as a religion different from and ultimately opposed to the Jewish religion from which it emerged
  • The way Paul and other Christians spread the new faith, including the message they proclaimed and their approaches to winning converts
  • Hostility to the Christian mission from those who were not persuaded to convert and who considered Christianity to be dangerous or antisocial, leading to the persecutions of the 2nd and 3rd centuries
  • Internal struggles within the faith, as Christians with divergent understandings sought to make their beliefs the ones that defined the one "true" faith
  • The factors that led to the formation of traditional Christianity we know today, with its canon of New Testament scriptures, set creeds, liturgical practices such as baptism and the Eucharist, and church hierarchy.

Christianity's Evolution from Judaism

In tracing the process by which Christianity evolved from its origins within Judaism to become something dramatically different, Professor Ehrman discusses how most Jews simply weren't willing to accept Jesus as the Messiah.

Professor Ehrman conveys the Jewish perspective on what the Messiah would be like. And you learn how much of it was based on Jesus' own teachings, which the early Christians were attempting to alter in trying to gain Jewish converts.

But he also explains how early Christianity, even though it was increasingly at odds with Judaism, also found a degree of legitimacy under its umbrella.

Professor Ehrman points out that this was a time when ancientness itself was essential for a faith seeking acceptance. So as Christianity separated from Judaism, it sought a means of asserting ancient roots in its own right.

Learn Christianity's Argument for Its Ancient Roots

Christianity argued its ancient roots by retaining the Jewish scriptures and arguing that it was, in fact, the fulfillment of what those scriptures had promised.

Throughout these lectures, Professor Ehrman challenges old misconceptions and offers fresh perspectives on aspects of Christianity and its roots that many of us might have thought we already understood. For example:

  • The five common myths about early Christianity, including that it was illegal in the early empire and that Christians were pursued and persecuted: It was not declared illegal until the middle of the 3rd century, and was tolerated in most places, just as other religions were.
  • The belief that early Judaism was exclusively monotheistic: Although Judaism was unusual in the Roman world in that Jews insisted on worshipping only one god, you learn that there is good evidence that at different periods in history, Jews—like others in those pagan times—believed in the existence of multiple gods.
  • The development of the New Testament canon was as a way to both differentiate Christians from Jews and also create a body of text substantiating their views.
  • The roots of baptism and the Eucharist are in Jewish liturgical traditions and rumors about the alleged licentiousness of the baptism ceremony led apologists such as Justin Martyr and Tertullian to write publicly about those heretofore secret practices.
  • Wild charges of child sacrifices, cannibalism, and licentiousness were often made against Christians, and the persecutions that did occur.
  • Walter Bauer's research revealed that many forms of Christianity deemed heretical were, in fact, the earliest forms that could found in most places.
  • The movement by church scholars of the early 16th century to once again create from surviving Greek texts a New Testament in the original Greek, and how forgery often reared its head.

These lectures are an engaging experience that will increase your understanding of Christianity today. They offer you a scholar's perspective on the origins of what Professor Ehrman describes as the most important institution in Western civilization.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    The Birth of Christianity
    This lecture introduces some issues essential to understanding how Christianity began, grew away from its Jewish roots, and ultimately became the most important religion of our civilization. x
  • 2
    The Religious World of Early Christianity
    This lecture introduces the pagan, polytheistic religions that dominated the early world and the most important Roman religion for the birth of Christianity: Judaism, the religion of Jesus and his followers. x
  • 3
    The Historical Jesus
    In the first of three lectures on the "birth" of Christianity, Professor Ehrman examines the life of Jesus of Nazareth, as referred to both outside the New Testament and within the Gospels themselves. x
  • 4
    Oral and Written Traditions about Jesus
    This lecture looks at how four anonymous authors who lived decades after Jesus recorded traditions that had been circulating orally over the intervening years, and examines the extent to which those traditions had been modified in the retelling. x
  • 5
    The Apostle Paul
    Based on a visionary experience of the resurrected Jesus, a Jewish Pharisee converts to Christianity and begins an intense missionary experience to win over non-Jews to faith in Jesus. x
  • 6
    The Beginning of Jewish-Christian Relations
    In the first of three lectures dealing with the relationship of Jews and Christians in the ancient world, we consider how Christianity started as a sect within Judaism, yet quickly became a religion separate from Judaism. x
  • 7
    The Anti-Jewish Use of the Old Testament
    How could most early Christians, who held on to the Jewish Scriptures as revelations from God, claim these Scriptures for their own when they did not follow many of the laws set forth in them? This lecture considers two key figures in the early Christian-Jewish debates. x
  • 8
    The Rise of Christian Anti-Judaism
    This lecture explores the social and historical situations that led to the rejection of Judaism by many Christians in the centuries after Christ. x
  • 9
    The Early Christian Mission
    This is the first of two lectures specifically exploring how Christianity became, in only 300 years, a world religion that commanded the attention and, eventually, respect of the Roman society and government. x
  • 10
    The Christianization of the Roman Empire
    In this lecture, we will move into the periods of the Christian mission after Paul to see how far and how quickly the religion spread, the reasons for its success, and its ultimate reach to the upper echelons of the Roman government. x
  • 11
    The Early Persecutions of the State
    In the first of four lectures dealing with persecution and martyrdom in the early church, Professor Ehrman examines some graphic early accounts and considers why these persecutions took place and the Christian reaction to them. x
  • 12
    The Causes of Christian Persecution
    This lecture provides a historical sketch of the course of persecution from the 1st to 3rd centuries, asking what motivated the two most common kinds of violence against Christians: grassroots persecutions and those ordered by the state. x
  • 13
    Christian Reactions to Persecution
    Many early Christians recanted their faith in the face of persecution, but many others stayed faithful to what they believed. x
  • 14
    The Early Christian Apologists
    This lecture examines the strategies of an elite group of Christian intellectuals who defended Christianity against the charges of atheism and immorality commonly leveled against them, focusing on the work of one of the most interesting of them, Athenagoras. x
  • 15
    The Diversity of Early Christian Communities
    This is the first of four lectures that will consider the wide-ranging theological diversity of early Christianity and the internal conflicts that emerged as Christians tried to determine once and for all the "right" beliefs and practices. x
  • 16
    Christianities of the Second Century
    Many groups of Christians in the 2nd century claimed to have the only true understanding of the faith, including three that are the focus of this lecture: Ebionites, Marcionites, and Gnostics. x
  • 17
    The Role of Pseudepigrapha
    This lecture considers several of the supporting—and usually forged—"sacred texts" possessed by the various groups of Christians arguing for their own version of the faith. x
  • 18
    The Victory of the Proto-Orthodox
    This lecture examines how the conflicts were waged between "heretical" forms of Christianity and the proto-orthodox Christians who eventually established themselves as dominant. x
  • 19
    The New Testament Canon
    This is the first of five lectures devoted to the question of how traditional Christianity—with its canon of Scripture, creeds, liturgy, and church offices—emerged out of the conflicts of the 2nd and 3rd centuries. x
  • 20
    The Development of Church Offices
    This lecture considers the movement from the charismatic organization of the early churches founded by Paul to the official church hierarchy in place by the end of the 4th century, with its elders, deacons, priests, and bishops. x
  • 21
    The Rise of Christian Liturgy
    This is an in-depth look at how Christian liturgical practices arose, particularly those that became virtually universal throughout the church: baptism and the Eucharist. x
  • 22
    The Beginnings of Normative Theology
    This lecture considers the development of a normative theology among the proto-orthodox, who insisted that believing the "right" things was essential for salvation and who took care, therefore, to formulate correct doctrine and differentiate it from false doctrine. x
  • 23
    The Doctrine of the Trinity
    This lecture considers the most distinctive theological development of early Christianity, the doctrine of the Trinity: God exists in three entities—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—who are equal and distinct but make up one God. x
  • 24
    Christianity and the Conquest of Empire
    This concluding lecture considers the character of Christianity at the beginning of the 4th century and its enormous consequences for the history of Western civilization. x

Lecture Titles

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  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
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  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 152-page printed course guidebook
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What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 152-page printed course guidebook
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider
  • Timeline

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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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From Jesus to Constantine: A History of Early Christianity is rated 4.1 out of 5 by 90.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Solid Scholarship As always, Dr. Ehrman provides solid scholarship about important issues for historians dealing with the life of Jesus and the history of the church - not for the faint of heart in the Christian community!
Date published: 2019-08-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An excellent overview of early Christianity I am an avid fan of Bart Ehrman and have read several of his books and viewed several of his lectures. This series of lectures provides an accessible introduction to the history of early Christianity.
Date published: 2019-08-13
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Enjoyable course I have done several course on early Christianity & each one has a slightly different emphasis. Dr Erhman’s approach seems to concentrate on the historicity of the ancient sources and makes a good companion to other courses. Well worth the time.
Date published: 2019-02-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Forensic Historicity of Jesusology This set of lectures examines the detailed history of the creation of Christianity by examining the historical events and writings from about 30 CE to the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century...a scant 300 years. These lectures are not about faith or spiritualism. They are about Dr Ehrman's careful and methodic tracing of the actual facts surrounding the origin of Christianity, today's largest religion, by examining followers of an obscure, itinerant, Jewish apocalyptic preacher (who left no written records of his life or his apparent ministry). These followers (most prominent being Mathew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter and Paul...though there were a whole lot more later on), recorded the teachings of this man named Jesus into letters and documents, some of which later became the New Testament, a major foundation of the Christian faith. The rise of Christianity from followers numbering around 20 people in the mid 1st century to as many as 2 million in the early 4th century to more than 2 billion today is so amazing...even more so, when the roots of this religion are exposed. Basically it began as a sect within Judaism (Jesus lived and died a Jew) that held a worldview that maintained that the present age is controlled by forces of evil, but that these will be destroyed at the end of time, when God intervenes in history to bring in his Kingdom, an event thought to be imminent. This is still a common theme in nearly all Christian churches today. While Jesus' life and teachings were perhaps unremarkable, it was his apparent resurrection after his crucifixion by the Romans that rocketed him to stardom and cemented his place in history as the son of god. All this was made possible through the extensive writings from the apostles, principally Paul, written from 10 to more than 90 years after the execution. There are no first hand accounts of these sources, as any historian would say...and the accounts written by the apostles do not always agree with one another. The focus of these lectures in the end...and emphasized by Dr that without the support of the Roman Empire, namely the conversion of Constantine to Christianity, the Roman world may well have increased it's persecution of Christians to the point of outlawing the faith and destroying all the 'holy' texts that today are held dear to the faithful. The ultimate 'what if' that boggles the mind. Highly recommended (as are the really great reviews from some pretty smart folks in the Great Courses cadre). Sales and coupons are historically blessed.
Date published: 2018-06-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Bart Ehrman's lecture are GREAT! Professor Ehrman's extensive knowledge and enthusiasm for his subject makes these lectures a real pleasure. I have taken a number of his courses. They are all great.
Date published: 2018-04-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great course I am very happy with the course, the outline, the lecturer and the bibliography
Date published: 2018-03-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting course I have greatly enjoyed this course. The real value I have received from the course is a new perspective on the times of the New Testament. I think that Prof Ehrman was objective (fair) and thoughtful in his presentation of the material. The real test: I listened to it on the way to work and I looked forward to it every morning! I did not agree with everything in the course, particularly the view that Jesus had of his return; I do no think he taught his disciples that his return was eminent but that is a long discussion. Great course!
Date published: 2018-03-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Still Great The Second Time Around I purchased this course four years ago and enjoyed it immensely the first time I watched the video lectures. I decided to watch it again in preparation for Ehrman’s new book on the early history of Christianity, and I was struck once again by the accessibility of his teaching style. This course got me hooked on Ehrman’s. Purses and I have listened to them all over the past few years. One thing I will say regarding this course specifically: You should opt for the audio version over the video version. There are few visual aids provided in the video version of the course that enhance the viewing experience, and the audio version of his other courses are excellent, so potential buyers should save themselves a few dollars and buy the cds or the audio downloads.
Date published: 2018-02-15
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