By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Dr. Bart D. Ehrman returns to Wondrium for The Triumph of Christianity. His previous Great Courses included The Historical Jesus and Lost Christianities, among others. This may be his most important course yet.
Dr. Bart D. Ehrman, the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, teaches Wondrium’s new course The Triumph of Christianity. With Dr. Ehrman at the helm, the course focuses on the inception and rapid expansion of Christianity in the first three centuries C.E. The course’s journey proceeds from Judaism and other religions in ancient Rome to a Christian Roman Empire, shedding new light on how Christianity came into its own to arise as one of the biggest religions on Earth.
Of course, any educator plays a major role in education itself—learning requires a good teacher as well as good content. In an exclusive interview, Dr. Ehrman, who earned his Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary, spoke about his background and how it relates to his work on The Triumph of Christianity.
Breathing New Life into the Familiar
Dr. Ehrman has written dozens of books, including four New York Times bestsellers. His course The Triumph of Christianity is his ninth course for the company and an adaptation of his most recent book of the same name.
“It’s an adaptation of the book that I would say is more user-friendly, that takes the highlights of the book and condenses them into these 30-minute lectures,” he said. “It’s organized more chronologically in the course than the book so it’s easier to follow.”
So what sets this course apart from other studies of Christianity—even his own? Dr. Ehrman believes that in some historical and cultural aspects, this is the most important course he’s done in examining the subject. Ehrman used his unique experience and background to look at the radical shift that Christianity caused in Western civilization, which affects the religious and non-religious alike.
“If this hadn’t happened, people who are Christian now would be worshipping Zeus,” he said with a laugh. “When the Roman world became Christian, it changed everything: the government, the culture, society, philosophy, art, music, literature—Christianity was the dominant power throughout the entire history of the West since the fourth century [CE].”
Ultimately, the question Ehrman answers is how a religion that began with 20 Aramaic-speaking followers in the peasant class became the dominant force in the Western world for more than 1,500 years.
The Most Personal of Interests
Dr. Ehrman started life as a very religious person, drawn into Bible study as a teenager for personal religions. In high school he had a “born again” experience and became a Christian fundamentalist for many years. He studied the New Testament in graduate school and found his beliefs changing—in his words, he “ended up becoming a fairly liberal Christian” for many years until the mid-1990s. He’s no longer religious, but despite his shifting personal views, Dr. Ehrman remains stricken by the societal and cultural importance of Christianity.
“I’m completely passionate about the subject, about everything: the historical Jesus, the New Testament, Emperor Constantine’s conversion, just the whole shooting match of the first 400 years,” he said. “I think it’s so incredibly important because if we don’t understand the roots of our civilization, we’re not going to understand our civilization.
“I was an English major in college; you can’t understand English literature if you don’t know something about the Bible. You’re just gonna miss about half of it.”
Dr. Ehrman said that The Triumph of Christianity approaches the subject from a historical point of view rather than a devotional or testimonial perspective.
After doing his first Great Course, Dr. Ehrman was inspired to reach a wider audience than he had intended beforehand. While initially aiming to be a “scholars’ scholar,” he branched out to the general public. His book Misquoting Jesus, his best-selling title, examines the differences of the earliest copies of Biblical texts in hopes of parsing out misinterpretations of Jesus from more historically accurate depictions.
He is also the author of The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, which is the most widely used textbook in the United States for college students as an introduction to the New Testament. It’s now in its seventh edition.
“It got published in 1997 and it’s been the best-selling book in this market ever since,” he said. “I’m proud about being able to spread the knowledge of what scholars say about the New Testament more broadly.”
This book became Dr. Ehrman’s course The New Testament.
Dr. Ehrman is the author of 30 books and an award-winning religious scholar.