From Jesus to Constantine: A History of Early Christianity - Bart D. Ehrman Bart Ehrman writes about very interesting subjects in (usually) an interesting way and he's probably quite good in a seminar but, Lord, he's not a good lecturer. Which is the worst thing I can say about this collection of lectures produced by The Teaching Company for their The Great Courses series (which is only part 1, bringing us up to c. AD 250, and a final talk about what caused the persecutions).

I have a pretty good, generalist's background in the period from my misspent graduate days and later reading so I didn't learn much new in a "macrocosmic" sense; I did, however, learn some interesting things on a "microcosmic" level:

The Apostle Paul (lecture 5): Though he would have cringed to be so described, Paul was one of the greatest innovators in religious thought and was decisive in turning Christianity from being a purely Jewish apocalyptic sect into something that appealed to Gentiles. He first elevated Jesus' death and resurrection as the keys to salvation, and first argued that it came not by observance of the Law (no matter how "good" as it came from God) but by faith in Jesus.

Origins of anti-semitism: Ehrman focuses on two important themes the emerged in the expanding Christian community. The first is Justin Martyr's, who argued that the Law was given not as a sign of Israel's "chosen" status but as a sign of punishment - these Jews were too recalcitrant and stubborn and needed to be strictly kept in line. Jesus was always present in Scripture but the Jews never discerned him (e.g., "Let us (i.e., God and Christ) make man").

The other point of view Ehrman brings up is represented in the Epistle of Barnabas, whose author argued that the OT wasn't even Jewish - It was instead a prefiguration of Christ not to be taken literally (as the Jews had been doing for thousands of years). A view, which taken to its logical conclusion, would hold that the Jews had never been chosen; that status had to wait until Jesus came to set the Law's interpretation correctly and then it fell to his followers, the Christians.

Christian evangelism: Ehrman also covers the latest research into the spread of Christianity as if you're not a believer, the new religion's success needs more explanation than "it's God's plan." Here, he mentions Rodney Stark's book The Rise of Christianity. Stark is a sociologist by training and his early work focused on modern religious conversion - that is, why do people convert? He took the techniques and results from that research and applied it to antiquity to show that many of the same reasons applied: alienation and efficacy. Converts, for some reason, feel dissatisfied with their native religion + the new faith shows that it makes a positive impact on the converts' lives. Once even a small group makes the conversion, they raise their families in the new faith. Relatively soon, a group of c. 50 followers of Jesus becomes 2-3% of the Roman Empire by AD 300.

Another point Ehrman brings up here is that pagan (or Jewish) religious culture was not moribund. Graeco-Roman culture was entering a period of religious enthusiasm and ferment (similar in some ways, perhaps, to today), whose wave Christianity rode successfully.

Roman persecution: The final point I'll mention is the Roman government's response to Christianity - They largely tried to ignore it. No systematic persecution by the authorities is attested to before Decius' in c. AD 250. The chief problem, from the Roman viewpoint, was Christian refusal to offer cult to the Emperor but it wasn't that big of a deal before the crises of the third century. Before then, most governors followed Trajan's advice to Pliny - don't seek the Christians out but if you do find a cell, and they don't make offerings to the Emperor, execute them.

Despite Prof. Ehrman's deficiencies as a lecturer, I'm definitely going to pick up Part 2 from the library soon.