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Ancient Mediterranean Religions?!?

Being trained in a PhD program in a seminary or divinity school is very different from being trained in a secular research university.   I know this full well, because my PhD was from Princeton Theological Seminary, but my graduate teaching has all been at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

I sometimes find it amusing that some of my critics attack my credentials for interpreting the New Testament because – they say – I was principally trained to be a textual critic, that is, not as an exegete  (one who interprets texts), but as one who uses philological analyses in order to study Greek manuscripts so as to reconstruct the oldest form of a text.  Those are two very different disciplines.  And the objection to my extensive discussion of biblical interpretation is that I wasn’t trained to do that kind of thing.

That is so wrong.   In my PhD program at Princeton Seminary, I never once


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New Testament Programs and Ancient Med.
Departments of Religious Studies



  1. Avatar
    Daniel Gullotta  January 14, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman, in terms of students who are applying for these PhD programs, do you think it is better for them to apply to schools where they could see themselves working?
    For example, if you are committed to the study of the ancient world and the rise of Christianity within a secular context, should you stick to applying to programs at secular universities?
    Or if you are committed to researching Christian origins as a historian of the Christian faith and for the Christian church, should you focus on applying only to seminaries and divinity schools?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 16, 2015

      Yes, it is a HUGE mistake to get into a program that is not exactly what you want. Doing a PhD is exhilarating. But it is also really, really hard, demanding, stressful, and painful. If you’re at a school or a program that is not really suited for you, it absolutely would not be worth it.

      • Avatar
        nichael  January 16, 2015

        Yes, this was something I didn’t fully appreciate until I started applying to grad schools.

        As an undergrad, you want to get into as good a school as possible, of course. But the specific school is much less important in the sense that any competent school should give you a good, solid foundation in the field.

        Grad school is completely different. Every graduate department is different, and the specific area(s) it focuses on depends on things like the professors in the department, etc. So the student is enrolling in that _specific_ department –or, indeed, in some cases a specific professor– in a way that’s quite different from what happens when you’re an undergrad. In short, you need to have a reasonably good idea what kind of thing you want to specialize in before you start applying to grad school.

        (And as Prof Ehrman mentions, “filtering” occurs on the other side as well. Accepting a grad student is a huge commitment from, and responsibility for, the school. If a school doesn’t think a student is likely to make it –either in terms of his/her basic skill or preparation, or his/her interest in what the department has to offer, it’s not worth it to the school to accept the student.)

        • Avatar
          nichael  January 16, 2015

          Or to chatter on a tiny bit more:

          As an undergrad you get a degree in a “field” (like physics or N T Studies); as a PhD student, you do research on a specific “topic” (like “hadronic fluctuations”, or “the Latin Ante-Niceness Fathers in Egypt”).

          • Avatar
            nichael  January 16, 2015

            “Niceness” should, of course, be “Nicene”. (Darn that auto-correct….)

          • Avatar
            Diane  January 18, 2015

            Oh, man, I was all excited to start reading up on the Egyptian Ante-Nineness Fathers!

        • Avatar
          Diane  January 19, 2015

          Darn you, autocorrect! That was supposed to be Egyptian Ante-NICENESS Faters!

  2. Avatar
    Bahtiyor Tuhtayev  January 14, 2015

    Oh thank you Mr. Ehrman. I have a Russian Orthodox friend from Russia, who just two days ago in a conversation with me attacked your credentials by saying that you are just a textual critic not trained in anything else. Now I’ll share your last post with him.

  3. Avatar
    jmorgan  January 14, 2015

    (This comment is off topic.)

    Is this true about Oxford University Press, and if so, any commentary?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 16, 2015

      wow. I don’t know. But I think I’ll find out. (Note: they say it’s only for children’s books. But still … sounds really extreme and letting terrorists determine rules of censorship. But I don’t know if it’s true or not.

  4. Goat
    Goat  January 14, 2015

    While it might seem self evident that at a state university the study of religion would necessarily take a different form than at a seminary or even a private university, your explanation is very elucidating. Before reading this thread I would have guessed that, regardless of their religious beliefs upon entry into the PhD program, few of your students would have developed a sufficient passion to propel them along that path without at some point having experienced a religious zeal similar to that which you experienced. I am curious to know how this has played out, as much in terms of those attributes or histories you have found among your PhD students as in what you have deemed essential or even desirable.

    BTW, I think it is extremely ironic that UNC takes Good Friday as a holiday and Duke, which has a seminary, does not.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 16, 2015

      A lot of students simply get interested in early Christianity for the same reasons that other get interested in ancient Greek drama, or the civil war, or medieval French literature. It’s interesting!

      On Good Friday: the story I heard when I came to UNC (it may be apocryphal) is that the day historically was taken off in order to allow them to play the annual faculty-staff softball game. (Which they scheduled on that day, of course, so they could take it off without calling it a religius holiday).

  5. Avatar
    Judith  January 14, 2015

    You can make anything fascinating!

  6. Avatar
    Tom  January 14, 2015

    This thread has been really interesting and I appreciate your doing it.

    You referred to a German teaching English literature. Were you thinking of Dr. Strauss at UNC?

  7. Avatar
    BrianUlrich  January 14, 2015

    This was striking to read. Off the top of my head, Marc Bloch discussed the idea and significance of a secular approach to Christian origins in his classic The Historian’s Craft in the early 1900’s, and of course Edward Gibbon had his typically witty comments on the matter in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire which I’ve occasionally used to introduce the idea to students. In Islamic Studies, of course, you’ve had plenty of westerners approach it in a secular way, including some Germans who also made contributions to the study of the Tanakh. I’d therefore always assumed that the idea one can study religion from a secular standpoint had been well ensconced in academia. It sounds like that was wrong, or that at the very least the seminary/divinity school world was unaware of it all.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 16, 2015

      Yes, I was thinking specifically about Departments of Religious Studies; in seminary, for example, we knew about William James. But we did not have our minds wrapped around consistently teaching religion in a secular way.

  8. Avatar
    Jamie L Rehmel  January 15, 2015

    Is there a really good book on the various Mystery Religions that surrounded some of the earliest Christian communities?

  9. Avatar
    Kevin Nelson  January 15, 2015

    Two questions:

    1) Would prospective graduate students be expected to already know Greek, or other languages of the ancient Mediterranean? Is there any fixed way of testing their competence in those languages? Or if students are allowed to pick up the language(s) after they arrive, what happens if they run into difficulty with that?

    2) Do students ever turn in papers that you find just plain unintelligible? If so, what do you do?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 16, 2015

      Yes, as I’ll explain in a post soon, students need to have Greek at a good level, and we usually look for at least one other ancient language and hope to find at least one modern one.

      No, my grad students never turn in unintelligible papers. If they couldn’t write, we wouldn’t admit them. (They send in a writing sample as part of their application)

  10. Avatar
    Steefen  January 15, 2015

    I was just reading, just last night, in Josephus and the New Testament by Steve Mason that the Romans were so concerned about shipwrecks that they took time to pray before and after voyages. Were there port Temples to some water travel God, maybe Neptune? What was sacrificed to a Sea God? Maybe water gods were smaller gods of the pantheon. Maybe when the Flavian Amphitheatre was filled with water, that was for games to a water god.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 16, 2015

      Yes, ports would have had lots of temples; I assume that Roman ports did have temples for Neptune, but I don’t know about it specifically.

    • cheriq
      cheriq  January 27, 2015

      I’ve found the account similarities (including timeframe – Festus/Felix as procurator) of the shipwrecks of “Apostle” Paul and Flavius Josephus fascinating!

  11. Avatar
    Steefen  January 15, 2015

    I’m so sorry people wouldn’t hire you when you were so worthy. I’ve gone through periods of job hunting where there was nothing more I could do to qualify myself in my field. For you, it seems things worked out well. Did you have faith (you know, you’ve done all you can do, no it’s in God’s hands as you still persist,) or did parents pray and have faith that things would work out well for you? Had you turned agnostic by then? Do you understand now, the job market then and why so many applications had to be completed generating so little interest in hiring you? Did you thank God after you did land a job? Do you thank God on employment anniversaries?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 16, 2015

      No, I didn’t have faith it would work out. I do understand why I wasn’t hired: maybe I’ll post on it. I wasn’t an agnostic yet, but I didn’t think God answered that kind of prayer, since if he answered my prayer to get the job he failed to answer a hundred other people, also qualified, who didn’t get the job. I didn’t think prayer worked like that. (It’s like praying you’ll win the football game; is the other team not praying??)

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  January 16, 2015

        Can’t resist passing this story on. The late Phil Rizzuto – famous baseball player and, later broadcaster – was a devout Catholic with a well-developed sense of humor. Supposedly, someone once asked him, “Hey, if a player comes to bat and crosses himself, but the pitcher also crosses himself, which one does God favor?” Rizzuto promptly replied, “The one who put the most on the plate last Sunday!”

  12. Avatar
    jbjbjbjbjb  January 15, 2015

    I find this shift in the US you describe really interesting, and the job vacancy situation made me smile! Look forward to the next bit…

  13. Avatar
    sashko123  January 15, 2015

    “I never once took a seminar on textual criticism.”

    When they see this, they’ll start attacking your credentials as a textual critic. 🙂

  14. Avatar
    toejam  January 16, 2015

    A quickie!

    Luke 19:27

    What are your thoughts on the authenticity of this passage? I know a lot of evangelicals try to write it off as metaphor or all part of the parable. I’m actually curious about the possibility of scribal interpolation. The verse seems quite strange to me – tacked on to the parable after the “punchline” (v26) has already been delivered. I notice in BeDuhn’s reconstruction of Marcion’s version of Luke, he was able to reconstruct most of the prior parable (v11-26) but stops short of v27, and then is able to reconstruct most of 20:1-8. This *could* just be the result of the church fathers not quoting v27 in Marcion’s gospel, but given we are able to reconstruct the earlier and later gives me pause. I’ve just flipped through a tonne of popular ‘Historical Jesus’ books in my collection, and I notice most scholars don’t even mention it. I’m wondering what your views are on it, and whether there is any manuscript altercations from later scribes trying to soften it. Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  January 16, 2015

      Yes, it’s a very interesting verse. It does look intrusive in the parable. I think it is often thought that it marks a Lukan redaction — i.e., he inherited the parable which goes back to early days, possibly to Jesus, but in his own post-70 context he thought he would bring home one other lesson from it, against the Jews.

  15. Avatar
    nichael  January 16, 2015

    What a fascinating thread.

    If you think it’s appropriate, could you say something about why UNC –in particular– decide to go his route; i.e. establishing what one might call a more “secular oriented” general program.

    (That is, forgive my thinking in stereotypes, but as you yourself have said you are located in the buckle of the Bible Belt. If I had had to made a guess, UNC is not the first place I would have thought of as founding the first program of this type.)

    • Bart
      Bart  January 18, 2015

      UNC has always been a liberal island in the sea of conservative North Carolina. I’m not sure what the politics were like in 1946 though. But there were some forward thinking people — who probably, though, did not think that teaching religion in a university would be all that different from a divinity school. They thought that undergraduates should learn important information about “the faith.”

  16. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  January 16, 2015

    Four years without a job offer. What a struggle! I have heard of many others in the field also really struggling to find academic jobs.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 18, 2015

      Yeah, it’s not easy. And especially traumatic given the enormous outlay of money, time, and effort involved with getting the PhD. Then to have nothing at the other end of it — not good…

  17. Avatar
    Jimmy  January 17, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman you state that you were not trained in tc. How did you become so influential in the field? Was it just through writing good journal articles, conference presentations, or ……..? For example you are the editor or on the editorial board of serious publications. How did you get to that position? Just through your own hard work of reading, study, and writing? Or is there a big event that propelled that. I know this has way too many questions in it, but they are all driving at the same point. I apologize if this is too discombobulated.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 18, 2015

      What I meant is that I never had any graduate seminars in the field of my expertise. My learning was based on all my (massive) reading and my conversations with Bruce Metzger, a real expert in the field. I wrote my Master’s thesis in the field; then my PhD dissertation. I published the dissertation, and became intimately involved with the work of textual critics in North America and Europe. So that’s how I did it.

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