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A Problem with My Textbook

Writing any kind of book whatsoever is really difficult. But each *kind* of book is difficult in its own way. I tend to write three kinds of books: scholarly works for scholars (not for general consumption!); popular trade books for broader audiences of intelligent adults; and textbooks for college kids. As I’ve repeatedly said, I’m now finishing up my new textbook on the Bible for introductory level classes. The audience is, basically, American 19 and 20-year olds. And I’m finding it hard!

There are several things that are just inherently hard for this kind of thing.  It is hard to take something that can so easily be made dull and lifeless and make it interesting and even intriguing.  It is hard to write at the right level so that the readers are treated like adults but not too much knowledge is assumed.  It is hard to take complicated ideas and concepts and make them simple and understandable enough for 19-year-olds who may be having the first introduction to the subject matter ever.  It is hard to write with both a good sense of humor and a sense of distance between you, the author, and the reader.  It is hard to know what among the millions of facts that are relevant to the task to leave out of the book altogether.  It is hard to tell a narrative that will grip the student-readers.  It is hard to make the book appealing at one and the same time to the 19-year-old who may nothing about the topic in advance and to the professor of the course who knows, or who thinks s/he knows, absolutely everything about it (so that it is at an introductory level and compelling for the student, but based on sufficient scholarship and insight to satisfy the professor).   Well, there are lots of other reasons it’s hard.  But it’s hard.  It’s gotta be hard – otherwise there would be lots more really good textbooks out there.  And how many good textbooks *are* out there?  In my field, not a whole lot….

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Peter, The Smoked Tuna, and the Flying Heretic
Possibilities for the Afterlife



  1. hwl  September 20, 2012

    Maybe one way to soften the blows is to say “on the other hand…” and present some of the explanations the conservatives come up with to mitigate the critical views. Who is the publisher?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 21, 2012

      Thanks. Oxford University Press, same as for most of my books (except my trade books these days, which I publish with Harper)

      • hwl  September 22, 2012

        I actually find the evangelical textbook ” An Introduction to the Old Testament: Second Edition” by Tremper Longman III (Zondervan, 2006) quite a decent engagement with critical scholarship. The positions are not the most plausible but not ridiculous either. Like you said previously at an interview, you take the view that when presented with the evidence clearly, intelligent people (with no axe to grind) will generally come to the right conclusion. The biggest problem is many lay Christians are never exposed to critical scholarship, hence are ignorant of problems of traditional Christian views of the Bible. That said, I am optimistic with popular sites like Wikipedia, it has become so easy to get exposure to basics of critical scholarship which are never raised in church sermons and Bible studies. I can imagine most intelligent evangelical lay Christians preparing a Bible study on a passage will be inclined to check a few details on Wikipedia.

      • hwl  September 22, 2012

        …and in some instances, when you say “on the other hand” and present the conservative response to critical views, you can allow the conservative voice to have the last word on the topic. Given you would have presented the critical perspective in a compelling fashion, the readers should come to the right judgment themselves.

      • hwl  September 23, 2012

        I think in your popular books, for example “God’s problem”, you present the fact that “the bible is not one thing but lots of things” in a solely negative light: it is a cacophony of contradictory voices hence provides little use for anyone trying to find answers to life’s problems. What is omitted is the positive perspective that the diversity of views on the same subjects give the Bible (especially the Hebrew bible) its enduring appeal. It enabled Jews in antiquity to survive through turbulent times, and hold onto its distinctive religion despite the inadequacy of previous religious views. The ambiguity of the texts allowed the Hebrew to be appropriated by both Rabbinic Jews and the early Christians in different directions. I think the concluding remarks by Christine Hays on the Yale Open Course provide a positive perspective to the diversity of the Hebrew Bible:
        To encourage the conservative readers to appreciate the diversity of the Bible as revealed by critical scholarship, they need to be provided with a perspective that sees diversity as a strength.

  2. Robertus  September 20, 2012

    Teaching is a real art. Perhaps the best way is to guide the reader through a process where they have the opportunity to make a couple of discoveries on their own such that they can ask their own questions. Years ago, I taught 6th grade Sunday school. With some crayons and construction paper, they were able to discover the contradictions in the the two creation accounts in Genesis. Because they discovered it themselves, they were not resistent (or bored) with the whole process.

  3. dswolfe35  September 20, 2012

    Try boxing gloves. They seem to work for me!! LOL Are you going to make it an e-book so I can download it. I’m not a student but really enjoy your works. I have read both your popular and scholarly works. You have made the “birth” of Christianity an enjoyable subject to study. I now find it okay to feel the way I do about Christianity, Jesus and the Bible. You have explained the way I feel better than I have ever been able to. Thank You!!

  4. hwl  September 20, 2012

    I can imagine those Bible teachers were incensed at the way you tell the joke about sons of God mating with beautiful women and then God wiping out the giants. Never a good idea to tell a joke at God’s expense…

  5. donmax  September 21, 2012

    Good luck!

    What I suggest is something you’ve no doubt thought about already — telling your own story up front with honesty and good humor. Share what your life was like at nineteen and twenty years of age, but not in a cerebral way. Throw in some real life incidents among friends and students (and teachers?) that actually happened, whether in school or in church, things that can be entertaining and enlightening.

    Start off with a mini light-weight, off-the-wall biography loaded with personal experiences that somehow connect to the Bible, Judaism and Christianity. Give them something they can relate to that shows your obvious sincerity.

    Of course, they still have to take their medicine!


  6. maxhirez  September 21, 2012

    You’ll probably no more be able to soften the blows you deliver than you would be able to go back to being an evangelical. If a student is willing to learn it won’t matter how you say it, nor will it matter what you say to a student who is only willing to hear what he/she is familiar or comfortable with.

    In the meantime, I’d like to hear (read) one of these jokes that’s okay for evangelicals to tell each other but not for an outsider to tell!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 21, 2012

      I’ll try to remember one. Long time since I tried telling any!

  7. PaulH  September 21, 2012

    I’m very much looking forward to reading it. I picked up a copy of “The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings” from Amazon recently. A great read and well laid out from a historical perspective. I can’t wait to read your new textbook. I know very little about the Hebrew Bible, save for what books you’ve recommended on the subject, James Kugel’s “How to read the Bible” being one..

    At this stage of the process is there a release date in mind?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 21, 2012

      Hopefully end of next summer.

  8. Adam  September 21, 2012

    You have clearly shown by your effort just much you care about your students and that you don’t want to unnecessary offend them.

    I suspect most students who will read your textbook won’t know your story. Many will simply assume you are a Christian. As one who studied religion at a secular university, most still ask me if I’m a Christian – or assume that I am (I find it interesting that they only ask me if I’m a Christian – not a member of some other religion – probably because how I look. I never tell them what religion I studied early Christianity). As for those who have a high view of scripture, unless they are completly sheltered, they will be expecting to have their faith challenged. This is what I expected as a young hardcore evangelical. As your own experience shows, it is often only years later what you say might sink in.

    Writing a textbook on religion is not an easy task, that’s for sure.

  9. Dennis Steenbergen  September 21, 2012

    Let the evidence speak for itself and show pictures in the textbook when possible. I loved seeing your picture of Codex Vaticanus Graecus 1209 with the famous comment in the margin: “Fool and knave, leave the old reading, don’t change it!” Its proof. I understand its harder as a historian to give your opinion what probably happened though.

  10. jimmo  September 21, 2012

    Bart, I have been a fan of your work since I listened to your Teaching Company course on the New Testament six(?) years ago, and have grown to respect you and your work. Out of respect, I am going to be honest. Yes, you being you people expect what you say to be inflammatory *even if* it was not intended as such. I have lost count of how many Christians I have heard claim that you are trying to disprove the new testament, that you claim it is not reliable at all, is is “an attack on Christianity” and a lot of other nonsense. Most of the time they haven’t even read your stuff and are simply regurgitating what others have said. (or misintepreted what others said) I think a lot of times people see your name and immediately develop a preconception of your tone and intentions before reading the first word. I certainly do that myself with Habermas or WL Craig.

    Sometimes when you write, you make comments like “as any good scholar will tell you” or something similar. Things like that definitely could annoy some people who disagree as it would necessarily imply you feel they are not a “good scholar”. I could imagine that someone who reads a statement like that flips a switch inside and afterwards reacts to other statements in a similar way, even when the statement is not like that at all. Saying “as most scholars will tell you” instead, makes it ambiguous enough that you can later claim “most that I know”, should someone get their shorts all twisted up and complain about it.

    The book is yours. The opinions are mine.

  11. blruss0  September 21, 2012

    I find it enlightening that you teach in the middle of the Bible belt. I live in Kentucky and it is the same way here. I tell folks abut you and your books and they think it is anti-Christian. I have a Zoology degree and I have discounted the Biblical stories as fables and legends for a long time. I find your books fascinating reading and have learned much about the Biblical early writings in 1st and 2nd centuries.

    I appreciate how hard it is for you to write text books for college age students. I imagine some of your students were like you when you started. It is hard to tell them the opposite of what they have been exposed as Baptists, Methodists, Catholics and Church of Christ members.

    My wife is a Christian; and her preacher tells her to find the truth in the Bible. When I want to learn the truth, I read your books..

    Barry Russell

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 21, 2012

      You must have a *very* interesting household!

  12. apage  September 21, 2012

    Your observations sadden me. Ideas be challenged; especially in college. Unfortunately, many fundamentalist beliefs are so fragile that they need to be protected at all costs. The ‘My mind is made up, please don’t confuse the issue with facts.’ mentality is growing.

    As a believer, I cherish your insight. It challenges me; but isn’t that part of the growth process? We clearly disagree on God, but we share a passion for truth and learning.

    By suppressing contrary voices, they further the impression that to be a Christian, one must first disconnect the brain.

    Thank you for what you do. Please remember that not all Christians see you as the enemy.

    • apage  September 21, 2012

      Obviously, should have been, ‘Ideas should be challenged’ in the second sentence.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 21, 2012

      Well, I know my Christian mother still likes me. 🙂 Thanks for the words of encouragement.

  13. proveit  September 21, 2012

    I don’t know how you can do anything about those students who get turned off and “refuse to believe anything in the entire book.” I don’t think it is up to the teacher to convince the student of any truth whether it is physics, history or any other subject.

    Do you get very many fundies in your own classes? Do you get feedback from your students? Has the demographics or student feedback changed since you came out?

    Are the textbooks you have previously written, that bear your name, still selling well?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 21, 2012

      Not too many hard-core fundamentalists in my classes, but a lot of very conservative Christians from evangelical backgrounds. My reputation is out there, though, so they know ahead of time what they’ll be getting. I’d say the religious composition has held pretty steady in my 24 years here at North Carolina.

      Yes, my two textbooks do very well still. The longer one is the #1 best selling book in the market, and the shorter one is #3 best, last I checked.

      • theology64  September 23, 2012

        This is to Prof Bart from Angela Cepulis in England. This will only be a few words, but please bear with me.
        One has got to be cruel to be kind to a certain extent. Most students come into the lectures and Seminars as “bright eyed and bushy tailed”, but reality strikes in as the lectures and Seminars progress. I know that as i have been there. An example is of the “Masquerades in Africa”. To the indigenous people of that region, and the folklore that goes with it, lies the “gods” that are part and parcel of it. In reality, it is the complete opposite with, maybe, 1% part of the truth.

        What i am trying to say Prof Bart is use your INITIATIVE and heart-felt intuition in relation to 18 and 19 year old students. I also know, by reading and looking at your arguements, that you are genuingly not “going against Xtianity”, but you are looking at it in relation to History. I cannot describe this in this blog, but i do understand what you mean. As an Academic knows, one has to put forth an un-biased approach, and also putting forth an arguement with respect to others points of view, but also arguing with the case in point. It is a ‘fine line’ especially when teaching 1st year students.

        I have lots to comment on, but i will leave it for another time. Take care, and may your brain-cells never wither !! ha, ha….

  14. RonaldTaska  September 21, 2012

    I understand the problem. I have read most of your popular trade books and now have read about 150 pages of your New Testament textbook. I have also heard you talk in public several times and seen many of your debates that are available online. I love your books. I do, however, know many who find your books to be quite offensive and I have no idea how you have withstood the intense criticism so far. In the fields of science and medicine and psychiatry, in which I was trained, critical, high-level texts are what are studied. With regard to Bible study, it is quite different. The intellectual level is much lower and the critical nature is toned down in favor of “group think.” It is even more so in church classes than in university classes. I think, however, that what you are writing is so important that you need to just keep plugging away the best you can. I do think it is of interest that three people can review the same historical facts and one remain a devout Christian (like Metzger), one not know what he/she is, and the third become an agnostic leaning toward atheism. How and why does this happen? Usually, in science, the review of the data leads most to very similar conclusions or it is not science. Religion and politics are just not as reasonable and intellectual as we would like for them to be. To be honest, some of the blows cannot be softened. It is never good to shake the faith of another, but a major part of the problem is that churches, rather than teaching an inerrant Bible, should teach the stuff that you teach and then explain what one is supposed to conclude from this stuff. So, in essence, churches have set you up by teaching Biblical inerrancy which absolutely cannot be supported historically. Thus, what churches should do is to teach that the Bible is not inerrant so now here is what we do with this information. So, keep doing what you do so well. It does more good than harm. Those who disagree are not going to be very affected by your writing. Those who agree will continue to learn, Those who are waffling are the problem. The problem is that if Biblical inerrancy is not challenged, then it continues to lead to harm such as justifying the oppression of women’s leadership in services or justifying the suppression of gay rights. I do think that some of us who have been so disillusioned by the church teaching of Biblical inerrancy have a tendency to lash out at that teaching and prove it wrong again and again. The trouble is that all of our sources of historical information can just be discounted as being “liberal” so no matter how much historical information one presents, it is just not taken seriously. I hope this paragraph has been helpful and supportive of you in some way. Hang in there! I would like to know how you resolve this problem. Peter Enns writes a blog on “Rethinking Biblical Christianity” which often deals with these same issues.

  15. Jacobus  September 21, 2012

    I am obviously not an American. The first time I got to do with one of your writings was your essay in the first edition of the Gospel of Judas. What I liked was that, despite some of the sensationalist hype (that had even, in my humble opinion, rubbed of on our essay), your writing was informative and engaging. I then read your books “Lost Christianities” and “The Lost books of the Bible” as well as prof. Metzger’s “The Text of the New Testament” which you co-authored in the last edition. I do find the tone of these books different from the more popular books like “Misquoting Jesus” and “Forged.” (I’ve read most of your other books, except your college books, which is basically for 19 year old Americans. I am not sure how it will fare in a South African University.) I would suggest not to oversimplify and to give a few minority stances on issues (which you have probably done). I do think that there are some tags that is difficult to get away from. In South Africa Police officers are usually not highly respected. As a full-time chaplain (paid by the SA Police Service), I find that when introducing myself as a police man, I get ignored (which is fine by me). It does seem that in the USA, there are huge “for” and “against” crowds (be it a product, person etc.). The popularisation of current research in theology is important, but becoming a celebrity seems to have some downside. I hope, prof. is able to resolve some of the objections.

  16. manya  September 22, 2012

    I say write as you write and let them learn as they learn. The value of truth is much more vital than comfort. Perhaps the students don’t need “looking out for” (I wish I had not been “bubbled” when I was studying theology at a fundamentalist institution). Had I been challenged sooner, it would have saved me years of believing falsehood..a terrible waste.

  17. RonaldTaska  September 22, 2012

    After sleeping on the issue, I have a suggestion. Christian apologists are often very good at reconciling discrepancies and contradictions in the Bible. You can soften your books some by including a lot of such views. For example, in John, Jesus disrupts the temple early in his ministry rather than late in his ministry. You could include that some reconcile this discrepancy by contending that Jesus disrupted the temple on two different occasions and so on and so forth with the different genealogies, different birth narratives of Jesus, different empty tomb accounts, etc.

  18. toddfrederick  September 24, 2012

    I’ve read two of your recent books and am finishing up on your book concerning Jesus’ existence. I too wondered about you stating that you are an agnostic and no longer a Christian, but still maintain that you are not bashing Christianity and lost your faith for other reasons than the issues you discuss in your books, and continue to work feverishly on new material. That mystifies me more than the Biblical mysteries. I would personally like to read a short biography of your journey from fundamentalism to agnosticism, the specific reasons for your losing your faith, what kind of Christianity you may think is valid in our age (if any), what you define as Christianity and agnosticism, and where you think your road is taking you. Not only would such a book, or article for this blog, be interesting but also helpful to persons such as me who are going through similar struggles with faith.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 24, 2012

      You can find some of that — the autobiographical part — scattered through three of my books. In Misquoting Jesus I talk about how I stopped being a fundamentalist. In Jesus Interrupted I talk about why I became a very liberal Christian (without a high view of Scripture). And in God’s Problem I talk about how I left the faith altogether and became and agnostic. What I don’t do (some have suggested I should) is talk about what kind of Christianity strikes me as perfectly valid for those who do not want to reject historical knowledge yet still believe.

      • toddfrederick  September 24, 2012

        Thank you for the response. I’ve read your autobiographical comments and when I’m finished with the current book I will read God’s Problem. What I am interested in is what you haven’t said, that is: “what kind of Christianity strikes me as perfectly valid for those who do not want to reject historical knowledge yet still believe.” That is what I’m dealing with now. I was working in churches in the 1960’s (have an MDiv from a liberal seminary), dropped out of the formal ministry and went into public education for 30+ years. I came to the conclusion while working with churches that there was nothing I could say to my congregations with any authority concerning scripture and was left with sermons dealing with either social action causes or with solving everyday problems on a self-help counseling level. Now, about 40 years later I am dealing with the same issues and can’t seriously say that I am a “Christian” though I constantly study and am involved in social justice activities, more as a humanist. Sometime I do hope you will address the issue that you are reluctant to discuss. I’m looking for insight along those lines, as I’m sure others are as well. Your books, and those of others recently, especially James Tabor and Barrie Wilson, are giving me even more insight to what happened in the previous 2000 years to transform the simple passionate message of Jesus to what the churches are today. Please keep writing. Blessings.

  19. SJB  September 25, 2012

    Wow I guess I’ve been out of school too long. I thought the purpose of an education was to wake the students up. To challenge them. To enlarge their perspective. To make them think!

    Do the professors who reacted negatively to your book believe they’re there to entertain the students perhaps?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 25, 2012

      I don’t think so! I think they prefer for the students to discover the problems themselves, rather than to be “told” that they exist. It’s a good point, but it’s hard to do that with a textbook (much easier in class).

  20. Vridar  January 8, 2013

    I’m a recent member and am surfing back posts and comments. This is a very late comment on this topic and I’m not sure of protocol, but here goes.

    Your dilemma concerning authenticity is something I’ve been interested in for some time. I follow a very liberal Bishop and many have been concerned about his beliefs. My contention is he needs to cloud them otherwise he looses a faction of his base.

    When I heard of your agnostic statements I was concerned you might loose some base. I didn’t think about your dilemma with textbooks.

    BTW, I’m enjoying the blogs. You are one of my heroes.

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