History of Christianity: Lecture One—The Early Christians and Their Literature

This is a summary of the first part of twenty-four in the course on the New Testament presented by The Teaching Company. The lectures in this course are by Prof. Bart D. Ehrman, the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His expertise is in the Greco-Roman cultural environment of early Christianity and the textual criticism of the New Testament. For those who are interested in purchasing this course and listening to the complete lectures, please go to http://www.thegreatcourses.com.

Bart Ehrman has taught courses at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill since 1988. He says the New Testament is the most revered, and yet most unknown book of Western Civilization. This course is designed for those who want to know more about the New Testament using an academic approach.

This first lecture will cover why such an academic study is worthwhile, indicate the approach used in the study, what the objectives will be, and some of the major points of background information crucial to the study.

1. Cultural Significance of the New Testament

According to most historians, the New Testament is certainly the most significant book in the history of Western Civilization. The visual arts, as well as English literature from Beowulf through the 20th century, are replete with references from the New Testament.

Although it certainly shapes the religious views of modern Christians, it also affects the political and social milieu in which we live. References to the New Testament have been used in the previous century by both sides in the US Congress in debates about topics as diverse as abortion and nuclear disarmament, and were used in the 19th century to justify slavery, the suppression of women’s rights, and military intervention abroad.

There are many different denominations of Christianity, whose interpretations of Christianity stem not just from differences in geography, culture, and history, but from their different understandings of the New Testament.

In sum, Prof. Ehrman believes that it is worthwhile studying the New Testament from a cultural standpoint alone even if you are not a Christian believer.

2. Cultural Approach to the New Testament

There are three approaches to the study of the New Testament. The first approach (listed below in yellow) is a study of the text from the “inside out”, meaning someone who believes in the religion of Christianity. Since Prof. Ehrman teaches at a public institution, he feels it is not his place to teach from that perspective. The second and third approach (listed below in green) are studies of the text from the “outside in”, meaning someone who does not either believe or disbelieve in the religion of Christianity. The second approach studies the New Testament by showing how it has impacted culture throughout the history of Western Civilization. This is the approach taken by the cultural historian. The third approach, the one that Prof. Ehrman actually plans to take in the course, studies the New Testament in its own historical context, and is the approach taken by the ancient historian.

The benefit of the third approach will be that it will illuminate the difference between what the New Testament has meant for those actually living in that historical time and the usage to which it has been put throughout the history of Western Civilization.



1. Doctrinal This approaches the New Testament from the standpoint of a believer in the religion. That will not be the approach of this course. 
2. Cultural This approaches the New Testament from the standpoint of its effect on the society, economics, politics, and culture throughout the history of Western civilization.


3. Historical This approaches the New Testament from the standpoint of its own historical context (the Greco-Roman world of the 1st century AD).

The challenge of this third historical approach is a) suspending our own belief or disbelief in the teachings of the New Testament (i.e., disengaging approach #1 above) and b) suspending our own cultural biases with regards to the interpretation of the New Testament (disengaging approach #2 above). This is not easy to do, but is essential to determining what the New Testament might have meant to the people who were the original readers.

3. Background Information to the New Testament

Prof. Ehrman is surprised at how little people know about the New Testament, and this includes those who consider themselves believers in Christianity. He tells an amusing story about he gives a pop quiz to all of his undergraduate students at the UNC at Chapel Hill on the first day of class. This quiz contains basic information on the New Testament, some of which is summarized in the chart below. He has offered to buy dinner to any undergraduates who can answer as many as 9 out of 11 of the questions correctly, but in all the many years of 300+ students taking his course, he has only had to pay out ONCE!

Here is some of the basic information regarding the New Testament listed in the form of FAQs (frequently asked questions). New Testament is abbreviated as “NT” in the chart.

Frequently Asked Question Answer
1. How many books are in the NT? Twenty-seven (see section 4 below)
2. What language were the books of the NT originally written in? Greek (not Hebrew)
3. When were the books of the NT written? From roughly 50-120 AD (i.e., 20-90 years after Jesus’ death in 30 AD).
4. Who wrote the book of 1 Andrew? THERE’S NO SUCH BOOK IN THE NT! (many students will write “Andrew”)

I thought the last point about the curveball question about “1 Andrew” to be amusing, but it does shows the extent of ignorance among college-age students about the contents of what is essentially one of the foundational texts of Western Civilization, ignorance which Prof. Ehrmann says is unfortunately reflected in the population at large.

4. The Books of the New Testament

The books of the New Testament were later attributed, that is, later claimed to have been written by either disciples or apostles of Jesus. Disciples were one of the twelve men whom Jesus chose to follow him; apostles were those who did not know Jesus personally but who felt that they were sent on a mission to spread the word about Jesus.

For example, of the four Gospels of the New Testament, Matthew and John were attributed to disciples of Jesus. The word “disciple” comes from a word meaning “follower.” Matthew was a tax collector who was a disciple of Jesus, and John was the so-called beloved disciple of Jesus. The books themselves do not claim that they were written by one of the disciples; these attributions were made by others later on in the 2nd century AD.

Other books did indeed claim to be written by one of the apostles of Jesus. “Apostle” means “one who is sent,” such as the apostle Paul. Thirteen of the 21 epistles in the New Testament claim to have been written by him, so he is very important to our understanding of Christianity. (In a later lecture, it will be discussed why scholars doubt whether all thirteen of these epistles were actually written by him.)

Here’s a chart containing the four categories or genres of books in the New Testament, together with the number of books in that category, and an explanation of what that category entails.


Number of Books

in the NT

Explanation of Category




Describe the life of Jesus and the beginnings of Christianity.




Describes the spread of Christianity by Jesus’ apostles and missionaries after the death of Jesus.




Letters written by Christian authors to other Christians (either individuals or communities) about the beliefs and ethics of Christianity.




Describes the end times, or the culmination of Christianity.

5. The New Testament Canon

The 27 books of the New Testament are the writings of the early Christians which survived and made it into the New Testament Canon. Bishop Athenasius of Alexandria in the year 367 AD wrote a letter listing the 27 books that we know now of as the New Testament. This was the first time anyone had set up what we would call a New Testament Canon or definitive listing of the books of the New Testament. Setting up a Canon meant that these 27 books and no others were to be officially considered as the scripture of Christianity. Note that this is 300 years after most of these books were written.

Over the next few decades, there were debates among Christians about what books to include or not include in the scripture. The criteria for considering whether a book could be included as part of the New Testament Canon were as follows:

Criterion Explanation
1. Authorship Books were considered if they were written by either an apostle or a companion of one of the apostles.
2. Time Written Books were considered if they were written around the time of Jesus, i.e., in the first century AD.
3. Distribution Books were considered if they were known not just in one locality, but throughout the Christian world as it was known at the time.
4. Theology Books were considered only if they coincided with the teachings of the early Church. This is the one of the most important criteria.

6. Non-Canonical Books of the Early Christians

There were, however, writings of the early Christians which did not survive, and therefore did not make it into the New Testament. We know of them only by reference in the writings of the early Christians. Other writings have survived until today but did not make it into the New Testament, and these are called the “non-canonical” books or writings. These writings include books of every category listed in the chart in section 4 above: gospels, acts, epistles, and even apocalypses.

An example of one of the non-canonical Gospels is the Gospel of Thomas. This was one of the most significant archeological finds of the 20th century related to the New Testament. It consists of 114 sayings of Jesus, some of which are similar to those contained in the New Testament, and some of which are quite unlike those in the New Testament, that contain Gnostic teachings. Gnostic teachings assume that Jesus was a divine being, but his mission was not to achieve salvation of mankind through sacrifice of his own life, but through the revealing of truth which would set mankind free from the prison of this material world.

This Gospel didn’t make it into the New Testament; neither did the Gospel of Peter which contains a narration of the resurrection of Jesus. (The New Testament talks about the aftermath of the resurrection, but does not narrate the resurrection itself.)

7. Conclusion

The 27 books of the New Testament are major religious and cultural artifacts. They are the earliest surviving documents for the most part to come from early Christians. They were regarded by these early Christians as representing sacred scripture. To learn more about the early Christians who wrote these texts, Prof. Ehrmann will take a strictly historical perspective. In the next post in this series, he will go into the Greco-Roman cultural context in which these works were written, which is the only way to understand them and situate them historically.


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