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Where Did the Trinity Come From? Video Lecture.

Here is the third of my three talks that I gave last year at Coral Gables Congregational Church in (suprise) Coral Gables, Florida, on my book, “How Jesus Became God.”   This lecture deals with one of the most important questions in Christian thinking:  where did the idea and doctrine of the Trinity come from?  Good question!  I try to answer it in this video.  Enjoy!

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  1. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  September 2, 2016

    Excellent video!! Leads to so many questions! Here are just a few.

    Despite its claims to being a monotheistic religion can Christianity, in its historical way the faith has been lived out and practiced through the centuries, be considered a polytheistic faith in reality?

    How much has science contributed to the decline of Christianity? Science can explain so much of what occurs in the natural world that people no longer look to a deity for those types of answers.

    Did the theology/doctrine of the Atonement play any role in the development of the theology/doctrine of the Trinity, or vice versa? It seems to me they are interdependent on one another.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 3, 2016

      1. Yes, outsiders have often thought that it was polytheistic. 2. Yes, the rise of the sciences led to a huge crisis of faith, especially starting in the 19th century. 3. I don’t know that the doctrine of the atonement affected the trinitarian debates, but maybe someone can correct me. The trinitarian debates certainly affected how [people understood the significance of Jesus’ death (since he was fully God)

      • Liam Foley
        Liam Foley  September 3, 2016

        The theology of the Atonement seems to require the sacrifice of a sinless being, a “spotless lamb” was necessary…and essential. With Jesus, being divine, does it that bill. The theologies depend on each other and I have a difficult time thinking they grew independently of one another. But is there any proof of it?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 4, 2016

          You would need to look at the discussions from the time. I’d suggest starting with Rausch, The Trinitarian Controversy

  2. talmoore
    talmoore  September 2, 2016

    The Holy Spirit always seems like the odd man out in the Trinity. Funny how people are always debating how Jesus can be equal with God, when we have to remember that, technically, the Holy Spirit is also supposedly equal with God. Just like God, the Holy Spirit is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, eternal, and all that good stuff. But it looks to me like the Holy Spirit is merely shoehorned in for the sake of completion, as if having a two-headed god didn’t feel right, so the Church Fathers added in the Holy Spirit to make it a more satisfying three. The Holy Spirit is like the Jan Brady of the Godhead.

  3. Avatar
    rivercrowman  September 2, 2016

    What ever happened to Arius? Did he die of old age in exile? … Or was he poisoned on the sly by some priests who wanted to put a permanent end to his wrong doctrine on something so critical as The Trinity?

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    Matt2h  September 2, 2016

    Good stuff, as always, but are you giving short shrift to the Holy Spirit? That seems like an important part of the Trinity. What’s the whole story behind the Holy Spirit? What is the Holy Spirit? Where did the idea come from and how did it come to be seen as co-equal with God and the Son?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 3, 2016

      Yes, I probably am. And probably I’m doing what most theologians have always done! The Spirit had to be accounted for because of what Jesus said in John 14 and 16 about the Spirit coming in his place. (And other passages). Once it was decided that Christ was equal with God, theologians then had to explain what to do with the Spirit as well.

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    Colin P  September 2, 2016

    Only watched the first 10 minutes or so as arrived home late and time for bed, but love the natural way in which you delivered this talk. Am curious as to why a church like this invited you to come talk to them. I know sometimes you are invited to evangelical churches just so the minister or whoever can prove how wrong you are. But here they seemed keen to hear what you had to say in order to just understand things better. How refreshing! Is this common? Do they realise that your thinking might fundamentally challenge their deepest beliefs?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 3, 2016

      Yes, that kind of church crowd *wants* to be challenged!

  6. Avatar
    Tempo1936  September 3, 2016

    Great videos and presentation.
    Many Christians will Point to Matthew 28 and say that the Trinity is clearly stated in scripture.
    Matthew 28:18-19
    And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

    Professor, is this scripture at the end of Matthew likely an addition at some later date to fit predetermined orthodoxy ? Also why didn’t you mention it in your presentation.

    Thanks again for taking the time to share your knowledge in such a clear , honest manner.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 3, 2016

      I think it’s original to Matthew. But it doesn’t state the doctrine of the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity says that each person is fully God, equally so, and that the “three are one.” Matthew says nothing about that.

  7. Avatar
    tcasto  September 3, 2016

    I watched all three segments on YouTube before this last post. Made me wish you would make a visit to a local church. I’d be happy to invite you although I have no affiliation.

    I was interested to learn that Nicene did not address the Spirit, only the nature of Jesus as God. So when did the Spirit get added? I know the idea was introduced by Paul but when was it decided to be on par with the Father and the Son?

    It’s the Labor Day weekend so I hope you are taking a well-deserved break.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 3, 2016

      Yes, once they worked out the relationship of the Father and the Son, they had to figure out what to do with the Spirit. Those debates were not as prolonged.

  8. Avatar
    Stephen  September 3, 2016

    Poor Holy Spirit! Relegated to one question in the Q&A. But we haven’t quite answered the question as to where the Trinity came from until we deal with this mysterious figure have we?

    Prof Ehrman what do you think of the idea that the concept of the Trinity was, at least in part, shaped by the fact that the vast majority of Christians at the point when the doctrine was being formalized were converted pagans? Didn’t the idea of three Gods in One allow them to more easily transition from paganism to Christianity? Wouldn’t they have resonated with the idea of a transcendent High God coupled with intermediary divine figures, concepts with which they would already be familiar?


    • Bart
      Bart  September 3, 2016

      Yes, once the Father and Son is worked out, then you have to figure out the Spirit. But no, when Christians were working these things out, most of the theologians were born and raised Christian, not converted from pagan roots.

  9. Avatar
    Wilusa  September 3, 2016

    Can you explain something that was completely new to me: people’s believing they had a body, a “soul,” and a “spirit”?

    *Who* believed this? Jews in Jesus’s time, or people in other parts of the Roman Empire? Maybe only centuries after Jesus’s death?

    How would they have *defined* a “soul” and a “spirit”? Nowadays, of course, many people think of a “soul” as the part of them they expect will survive death. (I myself think of that as a “Mind-stream.”) But what would “soul” have meant in Jesus’s time? Or two hundred years later? And I don’t understand the “spirit” reference at all.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 3, 2016

      The NT itself refers to bodies, souls, and spirits of people.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  September 4, 2016

        But what does it *mean*?

        And saying “It’s in the NT” tells me only that the belief (whatever it was) was held by at least some Greek-speaking Christians in roughly the second half of the 1st century CE. Not whether it was held by Jews in Jesus’s lifetime, or by Christians throughout the Empire centuries later.

        Now I’ve gotten to thinking…does it refer to what we call *ghosts*? (In my youth, Catholics still called the third person of the Trinity the “Holy Ghost” – a term I’m sure is etymologically related to German *Geist*, which I think means something more like “spirit.”) In the “body, soul, and spirit” terminology, did “spirit” refer to a *ghostly* apparition that might appear to people after someone’s death, the “soul” (if it was still within it) being invisible?

        BTW, I read – years ago – an interesting explanation of ghosts by a paranormal researcher named, I think, Loyd Auerbach. He said visions of ghosts may not always be hallucinations – there may really be something there, visible to at least some people. But ghosts are completely harmless, and they’re not thinking beings with “souls,” who need to be urged to “go into the light.” Except for being mobile, they’re more comparable to footprints or fingerprints a dead person might have left behind.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 4, 2016

          See talmoore’s explanation today and see if that helps.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  September 3, 2016

      Yeah, the ancient distinction between a “soul” and a “spirit” can be rather confusing to the layman. Let me see if I can help.

      The ancient Jews, for example, made a distinction between the nephesh or “soul” of an animal, and the ruach or “spirit” of a person. And that’s probably the most rudimentary way to think about it: that is, the “soul” is the part of an animal that makes it locomotive or self-propelled, if you will, while the “spirit” is akin somewhat to what we mean by the “mind” or the “intelligence” of a “thinking” being, such as humans.

      The Greeks and Romans made a similar distinction. For instance, we get our word “animal” from the Latin animus, which means something similar to the Hebrew nephesh and the Greek psyche; that is, it’s the “soul” of a creature that animates it and gives it “life”. Without this animating “soul” element (animus, psyche, nephesh, etc.) a thing wouldn’t be a living creature, but rather an inanimate object like a rock or a table.

      Now, our word “spirit” also come from the Latin spiritus, which literally means “breath”. But in the metaphorical sense, the “spirit” isn’t something that is part of a creature, but is an external thing that can enter and exit a body (as how one can inhale and exhale a breath). So in that metaphorical sense the Hebrew ruach (“wind”) is akin to the Greek pneuma and the Latin spiritus, in that it is an immaterial essence (some might call it a divine essence) that is independent of the body, and which, upon entering the body, imbues the body with certain abilities beyond mere locomotion.

      For example, the Holy Spirit (Ruach ha-Qodesh) imbues an individual with the ability to speak God’s words (i.e. to prophesy). The “spirit” is also given credit for allowing humans to talk, to reason (cf. the ancient Greek philosophers), to contemplate and act on moral principles…in other words, just about any mental quality that separates us from the other animals can be attributed to the “spirit” inside us. This “spirit” is what we traditionally mean by the “soul”, as in it can survive the death of the physical body, is immortal, and, in some philosophical and theological schools, may be regarded as an actual piece of the divine within us. Our divine spark, if you will.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  September 4, 2016

        Thanks for that great explanation!

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    rburos  September 3, 2016

    Am I correct–

    I’m learning it was not religious blasphemy for Jesus to be called the Messiah while alive (as Bar Kosiba was called the Messiah by religious authorities for leading a military campaign against Rome), but it was blasphemy to call him the Messiah after he had been tortured and crucified.

    It was a political crime against Rome to call Jesus the Messiah, which is why they publicly killed him and asked him if he was “king of the Jews” and put the INRI placard on his cross.

    Mark’s purpose was to explain all of this away?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 3, 2016

      It wasn’t technically a blasphemy to call Jesus the messiah after his death, or against the law of Rome. It was just thought to be offensive and possibly incendiary.

  11. Avatar
    JSTMaria  September 3, 2016

    Hi Dr. Ehrman,

    When I consider where the Trinity came from, I can’t help but see it right there in Genesis 1 and 2. In Genesis 1 you have the “Spirit of God” (Ruach–breath/wind), then God the Father “speaking his Mind” and then YHVH (Lord) making it all visible and giving it names. Is this not where the Jews of the New Testament got their ideas of ONE God, three in essence since breath, mind, and body cannot be separate entities? Similar to the concept of body, mind, and spirit???

    • Bart
      Bart  September 4, 2016

      I’m not sure the “three in essence” is common in Jewish thinking.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  September 4, 2016

      Jews actually have a different way of “dividing” God — so to speak — while keeping him one. If you google “kabbalah” images, you should see what’s called a Sefiroth Tree, which is essentially a graphic representation of Kabbalistic emanationist cosmogony. (Yeah, I know those are big words, but this is a rather esoteric subject.) Anyway, at the very top of the Tree you’ll see the first three Sefiroth — Keter (Crown), Binah (Knowledge), and Chakhmah (Wisdom) — as the first three subdivisions of the Ein Sof (the “infinite” Godhead), and those can, somewhat, be thought of kind of like a trinity (I hedge to say it outright, because they are not truly analogous). Most of this Kabbalistic mysticism, however, comes from Medieval Judaism, but it has its antecedents in some of the schools of Judaism as far back as the time of Jesus. Anyway, this is probably the closest you’ll ever get to seeing a “Trinity” in Judaism.

  12. Avatar
    JSTMaria  September 4, 2016

    You once recommended Boykin(?) for reading and he was discussing how at the time of Jesus, some line of Jewish thought revolving around “two powers” of God existing and thus paving the way for the Trinity concept right from the get-go. Couple this concept with the Spirit in Chapter 1 and that’s where I get the idea. The anthropomorphism between the two chapters suggests a heavenly being with a mind, breath (a “living” God), and hand or power to create– thus, One God with three powers, I suppose. Isn’t three in “essence” just a funky way of saying three powers?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 6, 2016

      I don’t know of Jewish thinking from the days of early Christianity (as opposed to medieval Jewish mysticism) that God had three powers or was three in essence. The book you’re referring to is Alan Segal, Two Powers in Heaven.

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    JoeRoark  September 4, 2016

    Did, Arius believe that angels and any other heavenly beings were created before or after Christ, or that they had always existed?

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    Drayman  September 10, 2016

    First of all kudos to you to have found a way gain income from the study of ancient Christianity. I hope (truly) you are or become wealthy.

    I loved this presentation for its honesty. However, for many the “blessed discontent” it engenders is de-constructive to their ability to believe. I think that is a shame. I don’t know if you like Hans Kung but for me he helped me to focus on the essential theological/christologic demand of being a Christian. That is, in a very Pauline sense, that my relationship God initiates from God through Jesus Christ in the spirit. I reciprocate in faith to God through Jesus Christ in the spirit. If I am modalist, I’m good with that; if Trinitarian, so what! I would much rather establish relationship that worry about trifles of hypostasies, homoousia, Homoiousia, prosopons, persons, circumincession, etc, etc, etc. Despite all that denial, I love the subject.

    Now (finally) the question. Did Eusebius influence Constantine to reject Nicene Orthodoxy in favor of Arianism?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 11, 2016

      No, Constantine was in favor of Nicene orthodoxy; and Eusebius himself was not an Arian.

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    Marko071291  April 26, 2019

    Hi Bart! You stated that opponents of modalism admitted how this view was the most popular view at the end of the 2nd and during the 3rd century. Is this in Eusebius’ Church history? Can you point me towards a source? Thank’s!

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