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The History of Christianity: From the Disciples to the Dawn of the Reformation

Discover the phenomenal story of Christianity's first 1,500 years, with all its remarkable diversity and complex dimensions, as one of the most popular Great Courses professors examines Christianity's origins, rise, and civilization-shaping...
The History of Christianity: From the Disciples to the Dawn of the Reformation is rated 4.1 out of 5 by 59.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Course I had this course in reserve for a long while but wish now that I had done it earlier. Although Great Courses are usually pretty good I must say that I found this one to be the best yet for both coverage of the subject and the presentation style.
Date published: 2024-04-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Institutional Christianity Begs an Answer to WWJD The title I offer is far too cute, but I think that it gets to the heart of the questions raised in the last lecture. Analysis of religion as a system for propagating a world view is sterile unless it is examined in the context of the founder's intentions. What was Jesus' ambition for humanity? Muslim's consider Islam to be the "Middle Way" between the prescriptions of Judaism and the situational moral philosopher of Christianity. I think that this is a good way of characterizing Jesus' intentions: that we should each be guided by the quiet, still voice of love in our hearts. Even among the Apostles, few were prepared to hear that voice; the epiphany occurs only after the humiliation of the crucifixion. So: given how few were prepared to express that potential at the time of the founding, what is the situation at the time of the Reformation? What percentage of people read scripture? How many trusted their own judgment to the point that they would reject the teachings of an institution that oppressed their dignity? This is the only way to assess the performance of institutional Christianity. Most paradoxical, of course, is the fact that upon the success of that mission, the institutions must dissolve themselves. At some point, we need to ask, if we truly believe in the Second Coming, whether the dogma and creed of these institutions will be an impediment to the restoration of authority to the founder of the faith. I think that this course provides a solid basis for answering this question - for justifying the Reformation not as a reaction against Catholic corruption, but as evidence that the holy body of faith will shake off what restricts its growth into Christian maturity. For substantiating this conclusion - as well as juxtaposition with the example of those who bucked the tradition to follow their own redeeming inspiration - I highly lrecommend this course.
Date published: 2024-02-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great interesting course Professor Johnson does a very detailed and balanced presentation give3n the materials available. Even though Dr Johnson is a Roman Catholic churchman, and I am a Reformed Protestant, I think he gave a pretty reasonably fand air interpretation of the sources of material.
Date published: 2024-01-24
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Educational Definitively a good course, but a little too much detail for my taste and, at times, redundant and somewhat confusing. Professor Johnson's is a good lecturer nonetheless and I do recommend his course for those who wish to learn more about the "convoluted" history of Christianity.
Date published: 2023-11-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent survey! Very interesting and rewarding treatment of an important subject.
Date published: 2022-11-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Intriguing and engaging Content and presentation is excellent and led me to deep reflection. I was attracted to the "warts and all" approach rather than the idealised view of some church histories.
Date published: 2022-01-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wide and generous cultural perspective First may explain how I used this course. I did not follow the course, initially, in sequence but in conjunction with other courses dealing with similar periods of time; namely The Foundations of Western Civilisation, The origins of the Modern Mind, Great Ideas of Philosophy, The more tangentially courses on the Middle Ages and the Philosophy of Religion. Second may I provide some details of my own provenance; namely I am, by training, a Scientist, but also a student of the History of Ideas. I am a product of European Society, born of a German Jewish father and an Irish mother, and educated in France. The governing spirit of Hellenism is ‘Freedom of Consciousness’ that of Judaism strictness of Conscience’ [Matthew Arnold] Professor Johnson provided therefore an extra dimension to my knowledge and experience, and I found the course both illuminating and compelling; illuminating in that his width of ‘Spiritual’ and historical imagination and cultural sympathy was considerable and generous, compelling because he had historical breadth of perspective. I am not as sufficiently grounded in details, as one of your reviewers, nor do I wish to identify or detail some of the flaws; I am no expert. What I want to testify to is that this history of Christianity was both interesting sui generis and compelling because it provided insights and explanations, or both, of societies and cultures to explain the origins, growth, and ultimate success of Christian religious conviction which helps one to understand our intellectual condition. Taken in context of the other lecture courses which I attended, this course is to be highly recommend. One does not have to share the opinions to esteem the quality of the course. One does not turn to lectures to hear ones own opinions and expertise rehearsed or to grade the extent to which the lecturer echoes own own knowledge and experience, but rather to have a view of a problem and Christianity remains a problem, not only for none believers but also to enlisted believers. I can testify that this course provided me [at least] with a perspective on Christianity and its flourishing that I had not hitherto acquired and I recommend it very highly on that basis. Benedict Cowell
Date published: 2021-11-27
Rated 4 out of 5 by from An interesting and fascinating take. A definitely must course to take if you are interested in the history of Christianity. Just be forewarned the speaker does have a RC bias but it doesn't detach too much from the course.
Date published: 2021-06-25
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Christianity is the largest and most global religious tradition in history. For nearly 2,000 years, the Christian faith has remained at or near the center of Western moral debate and conceptions of human identity, just action, and ultimate meaning. It has both shaped history and responded to history, showing an extraordinary adaptability within greatly differing cultures. Its practice and influence appears in every land and every language, and one-third of humanity now affiliates in some way with Christianity. Now, in 36 enthralling lectures, The History of Christianity: From the Disciples to the Dawn of the Reformation tells the phenomenal story of Christianity's first 1,500 years, in all its remarkable diversity and complex dimension.


Luke Timothy Johnson

I strive to make philosophy accessible and lovable to everyone. If everyone embraced philosophy, the world would be a much better place.


Emory University

Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson is the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Emory University's Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, Georgia. Professor Johnson earned a Ph.D. in New Testament Studies from Yale University, as well as an M.A. in Religious Studies from Indiana University, an M.Div. in Theology from Saint Meinrad School of Theology, and a B.A. in Philosophy from Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. A former Benedictine monk, Professor Johnson has taught at Yale Divinity School and Indiana University, where he received the President's Award for Distinguished Teaching, was elected a member of the Faculty Colloquium in Teaching, and won the Brown Derby Teaching Award and the Student Choice Award for teaching. At Emory University, he has twice received the On Eagle's Wings Excellence in Teaching Award. In 2007 he received the Candler School of Theology Outstanding Service Award. His most recent award is the 2011 Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion for the ideas set forth in his 2009 book, Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity. Professor Johnson is the author of more than 20 books, including The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels and The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation, which is widely used as a textbook. He has also published several hundred scholarly articles and reviews.

By This Professor

Great World Religions: Christianity
The History of Christianity: From the Disciples to the Dawn of the Reformation
The History of Christianity: From the Disciples to the Dawn of the Reformation


The Historical Study of Christianity

01: The Historical Study of Christianity

Begin by contemplating the massive historical trajectory of Christianity, as well as contemporary ignorance of its past. Consider the value of historical study of Christianity for reassessing the past and charting a path to the future. Look also at the methods and role of the historian, and the sources and limitations of historical knowledge....

31 min
The First Cultural Context-Greece and Rome

02: The First Cultural Context-Greece and Rome

Understanding the cultural contexts of early Christianity is fundamental for grasping its history. Investigate the culture of the Mediterranean world in which Christianity was born, the legacy of Alexander, and the features of Greek politics, religion, and philosophy. Also learn about the nature of Roman rule and imperial order in the region....

28 min
The First Cultural Context-Judaism

03: The First Cultural Context-Judaism

Judaism is the most important cultural context for early Christianity. Contemplate the circumstances of Jewish life in ancient Palestine as well as in the Diaspora. In particular, examine cultural and ideological factors that divided the Jews, the tensions they faced between assimilation and separation, and their resistance to Greek culture and Roman rule....

30 min
The Jesus Movement and the Birth of Christianity

04: The Jesus Movement and the Birth of Christianity

Consider the resurrection as marking the birth of Christianity, as rooted in the claims of the first believers to an experience of ultimate power and transformation. Also assess the contradiction perceived by his contemporaries between Jesus as the source of divine life and the degrading manner of his death....

30 min
Paul and Christianity's First Expansion

05: Paul and Christianity's First Expansion

Christianity spread with amazing speed in the decades following Jesus's death. Begin by observing how this expansion happened and the broad adaptations Christianity made in a relatively short period. Then investigate the role of Paul's letters as a primary record of the convictions, culture, practices, and troubles of the early Christians....

31 min
The Diversity of Early Christianity

06: The Diversity of Early Christianity

This lecture notes influences in early Christianity beyond the pivotal figures of Jesus and Paul. In particular, investigate the differences in conviction and perspective in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Compare the four Gospels' distinct interpretations of Jesus's role, as well as their convergence on the nature of his character....

30 min
The Unpopular Cult-Persecution

07: The Unpopular Cult-Persecution

In tracing the Christian "age of persecution," begin by examining the prior history of repression of both Jews and philosophers, and the problems posed by the Christians for the world around them. Study the evidence of early Christian persecution by the Jews, as well as the most significant persecutions by Rome....

30 min
Forms of Witness-Martyrdom and Apologetic

08: Forms of Witness-Martyrdom and Apologetic

In the 2nd and 3rd centuries, martyrdom and apologetic literature responded powerfully to the persecution of Christians. Investigate the phenomenon of martyrdom as the perfect form of discipleship, in the actions of martyrs who exalted in their sacrifice. See how apologetic literature created a reasoned case for Christianity in the wider world....

29 min
Extreme Christianity in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries

09: Extreme Christianity in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries

Radical forms of Christianity continued the movement's original diversity in even more dramatic ways. Trace early accounts of wonder-working, and Christian social behavior that upset traditional mores. Also learn about ecstatic experience and asceticism, and the dualistic rupture of matter and spirit in Marcionism and Gnosticism....

29 min
The Shaping of Orthodoxy

10: The Shaping of Orthodoxy

Here, identify the pivotal factors that secured the framework of Christianity, defining an orthodoxy based in tradition and reason. In particular, study the role of Irenaeus of Gaul in establishing the canonical scriptures, the rule of faith in one God, and the religious authority of the bishops....

30 min
Institutional Development before Constantine

11: Institutional Development before Constantine

Christianity's growth, accompanied by its development of solid social structures, finally positioned it as an irresistible force. First, trace the movement's broad geographic expansion and increase in numbers. Then learn about its hierarchical structure of clerical orders under the supreme authority of bishops, and regional spheres of influence within the religion....

29 min
The Beginnings of Christian Philosophy

12: The Beginnings of Christian Philosophy

Early Christian philosophy emphasized the religion as a way of moral transformation, and initiated a serious intellectual discourse with the wider world. In this lecture, grapple with Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen, whose substantial writings and teachings gave birth to an authentically philosophical form of Christianity....

30 min
Imperial Politics and Religion

13: Imperial Politics and Religion

Christianity made a dramatic turn in the 4th century, becoming the established religion of the Roman Empire. Investigate the pivotal roles the emperors Diocletian and Constantine played in this; in particular, Diocletian's political reforms, which refashioned imperial authority, and Constantine's bold initiative to place imperial power behind the church....

29 min
Constantine and the Established Church

14: Constantine and the Established Church

This lecture follows the complex process of the "conversion" of the empire to Christianity. Track the bold actions of Constantine in his patronage of the new faith, as well as the definitive imposition of Christianity under Theodosius I. Then, examine the benefits and stresses of the faith's new role....

28 min
The Extension of Christian Culture

15: The Extension of Christian Culture

In the religion's new context, see how substantial territories became Christian through conversion under imperial authority. Then explore the church's expanding "liturgy" of public acts, incorporating architecture, art, ceremony, and pilgrimage, as well as the religious rituals of the sacraments and the celebration of the biblical past....

30 min
Monasticism as Radical Christianity

16: Monasticism as Radical Christianity

Monasticism exerted an enormous influence on Christianity from its inception. Trace its development in 3rd-century Egypt, and learn about the elements and principles of monastic life. Observe the appeal of this alternative culture that allowed Christians to express discipleship in a more radical, rigorous existence....

29 min
The Emergence of Patriarchal Centers

17: The Emergence of Patriarchal Centers

In the 4th and 5th centuries, prominent cities competed for authority within the imperial religion. Look first at the reasons for the early primacy of Rome, and Constantinople's later emergence as Rome's rival. Then study the rivalry of Antioch and Alexandria, and how they opposed each other in both intellectual and religious terms....

30 min
Theological Crisis and Council-The Trinity

18: Theological Crisis and Council-The Trinity

Complex doctrinal disputes divided Christians in the 4th through the 6th centuries. Here, track the 4th-century controversy over the divinity of Jesus and the resulting Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople, key events in establishing the orthodox view of the equality of the Father and Son, and the nature of the divine as Triune....

29 min
Theological Crisis and Council-Christology

19: Theological Crisis and Council-Christology

The controversy concerning the Trinity raged through the 5th and 6th centuries, now focused on the nature of Christ, the God-Man. Follow in detail the bitter opposition of two convictions-Christ's dual nature as both human and divine versus his singular divinity-leading to attempts to reach accord through imperial and papal intervention....

29 min
The Distinctive Issues of the Latin West

20: The Distinctive Issues of the Latin West

In grasping Christianity's development in the Western empire, investigate two major controversies, Donatism and Pelagianism, rooted in questions of moral rigor and personal holiness. Then, grapple with three religious leaders who shaped Latin Christianity: Ambrose of Milan, Jerome, and the monumental figure of Augustine of Hippo....

30 min
Expansion beyond the Boundaries of Empire

21: Expansion beyond the Boundaries of Empire

This lecture counters the tendency to think of Christianity as a European religion, charting its extensive geographical spread through the 6th century. Trace its Eastern expansion from Persia to Ethiopia, noting each region's rich and diverse Christian literature. Witness its historic encounter with Germanic tribes and extension to the British Isles....

31 min
The Court of Justinian and Byzantine Christianity

22: The Court of Justinian and Byzantine Christianity

Here, evaluate the extraordinary legacy of the emperor Justinian of Byzantium. Follow his conquests to restore the greatness of the empire, his economic and legal achievements and patronage of art. Also study his interventions in religious affairs and his role in the growing rift between the Chalcedonian (Western) and Monophysite (Eastern) churches....

29 min
The Rise of Islam and the Threat of Iconoclasm

23: The Rise of Islam and the Threat of Iconoclasm

In the 6th and 7th centuries, Byzantine Christianity faced both external and internal pressures. Track the dramatically rapid spread of Islam through military conquest and the threat it posed to the Byzantine Empire. Learn about the continuing theological controversy over Christ's nature, and the century-long battle over painted representations of Jesus....

30 min
Eastern Orthodoxy-Holy Tradition

24: Eastern Orthodoxy-Holy Tradition

This lecture uncovers the remarkable cultural riches of the Orthodox tradition. First, see how a 9th-century Byzantine mission established Christianity in Russia and Ukraine. Then, delve into the compelling Orthodox rituals of worship, Orthodoxy's deeply integral monastic tradition, and its distinct form of contemplative mysticism, known as "Hesychasm."...

30 min
From Roman Empire to Holy Roman Empire

25: From Roman Empire to Holy Roman Empire

Now follow the dramatic political events that marked the transition from imperial Christianity to medieval Christianity. Witness the rise of the Germanic people called the Franks, under a series of powerful rulers culminating in the pivotal figure of Charlemagne. Study the structure of a new form of society: feudalism....

30 min
Benedictine Monasticism and Its Influence

26: Benedictine Monasticism and Its Influence

Benedictine monasticism played a foundational role in the shaping of medieval Christianity, and it continues to thrive today. Take a deep look at Benedict of Nursia's Rule for Monks; its principles of obedience and humility and detailed prescriptions for monastic life, promoting monasteries as centers of both Christian discipleship and learning....

28 min
Evangelization of Western Europe

27: Evangelization of Western Europe

A spectrum of powerful figures fueled Christianity's expansion in the West. Reckon with the contributions of the popes Damasus I, Leo I, and Gregory "the Great" in strengthening the papacy and Latin Christianity. Also study the seminal work of the missionaries Saint Willibrord and Saint Boniface, and the monk-scholars Bede and Alcuin....

29 min
The Great Divorce between East and West

28: The Great Divorce between East and West

In the 11th century, relations between Orthodoxy (East) and Catholicism (West) were severed, a schism that has remained for more than a thousand years. Here, explore the intricate and complex contributing factors, including cultural distance, centuries of political-ecclesiastical rivalries, and the doctrinal disputes and power plays leading to the split....

31 min
Monastic Reform

29: Monastic Reform

Investigate the appeal of monasticism in the medieval world and why this dominant institution in the Catholic West required constant renewal. Look at three famous medieval monastic houses and the key reforms each implemented in their quest for a more complete realization of the ideals of the Rule of Benedict....

30 min
Cathedrals and Chapters

30: Cathedrals and Chapters

The majestic cathedrals of European Christendom are a key to medieval Catholic life. Study the two archetypal cathedral styles, Romanesque and Gothic; their iconic architectural features; and their symbolic structure. Learn about the rituals of worship, cathedral "chapters" (staff), and the multiple social functions of these grand edifices....

30 min
The Crusades

31: The Crusades

The Crusades to recover the Holy Land from the Muslims represented deep ambiguities in Christian identity. Grasp the nature of these conquests as combined religious mission, popular movement, and political calculation. Then study the four most critical Crusades; their objectives, varied outcomes, and ultimate failure in both political and religious terms....

30 min
Papal Revolution

32: Papal Revolution

This lecture follows the ascending power of the papacy in Christian Europe. Assess the careers of two "super-popes," Gregory the VII and Innocent III, as they aggressively consolidated papal authority in both religious and secular spheres. Learn about the Franciscan and Dominican orders, noting their role as instruments of papal policy....

29 min
Universities and Theology

33: Universities and Theology

Our contemporary universities have their origins in medieval universities that were entirely Christian. Trace the rise of universities in the West-their functions, curricula, and the development of scholastic theology with its methodology of dialectical reasoning. Assess the expression of Christian thought in the theology of Thomas Aquinas and John Duns Scotus and in the poetry of Dante Alighieri....

31 min
The Great Plague

34: The Great Plague

The 14th century saw a period of natural and human-caused disasters that negatively affected society and the church. Track the extreme hardships of the Black Death, prolonged wars, and the terrors of the Inquisition. See also how the same era produced a flourishing of Christian mysticism and the beginnings of humanist literature....

29 min
Corruption and the Beginnings of Reform

35: Corruption and the Beginnings of Reform

By the late medieval era, systemic dysfunction within Christianity led to efforts at structural reform. Grasp the critical issues the church faced in the practice of theology and liturgy, as well as in deepening political and moral corruption. Learn about the courageous early reformers, whose daring voices anticipated the Protestant Reformation....

32 min
The Ever-Adapting Religion

36: The Ever-Adapting Religion

The course concludes with reflections on the numerous cultural adaptations Christianity has made on its path to becoming a "world religion." Contemplate the challenges posed to the faith in its journey from the Reformation to the modern era, and the question of Christianity's identity within all its cultural permutations....

33 min