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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