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Can Biblical Scholars Be Historians?

Two interesting questions on this week’s Readers Mailbag.  If you have a question, just ask away!

 

QUESTION:

I just had a debate with a Mythicist who had no idea that any biblical scholar could be a historian.  I have to admit, I was just as ignorant of this fact until a little less than two years ago. How mainstream is it that biblical scholars are also known as historians? Maybe people think of biblical scholar–historian as two entirely separate entities.

 

RESPONSE

It’s a good question!  I would say that most biblical scholars in fact are not historians.  But some are.  It depends on what their interests and expertise are.

In most PhD programs in biblical studies – for example, those provided in seminaries and divinity schools – the training is focused principally on the texts of the Bible and their meaning.  The emphasis, in those circles, is on “exegesis,” that is, the interpretation of the Bible.  People trained like that are often adept at literary criticism of various kinds (or often of just one kind).  Often there is also a secondary emphasis on the theology of the Bible.  Theological training (at least outside of fundamentalist circles) is more closely related to philosophy.

Both foci have some ties to history, even though PhDs from these kinds of programs rarely are interested in history per se.  But there are yet other approaches to biblical studies that are more historically oriented, and there are indeed Bible scholars who are historians.  These scholars are not interested only in the interpretation and theological significance of the Bible, but also (or rather) in what the biblical texts can tell us about the history of the communities lying behind them.

There are a number of Hebrew Bible scholars, for example, who are particularly trained in and expert on the history of ancient Israel. In order to determine what happened, historically (say in the eighth century BCE, or the sixth century BCE, etc.).   These scholars utilize the biblical texts and all other relevant information – including archaeology, texts from surrounding civilizations (Egypt, Babylon, and so forth).  They are more interested in the social history lying behind the biblical texts (and their authors) than in the meaning of the texts per se.

So too with the New Testament, there are social historians who utilize the Gospels and other sources to write about what happened in the life of the historical Jesus or who focus on the letters of Paul and other sources to reconstruct the social history of the Pauline communities.

I would count myself in this latter camp, of biblical scholars who are particularly interested in social history.  But there are also some (very few) biblical scholars who are interested in broader historical topics of Christianity starting with Jesus and Paul and others at that time, and moving up well beyond that into the early centuries of Christianity.  That is where I have focused the vast bulk of my research for, well I guess for twenty-five years.

My expertise is in the history of Christianity from Jesus up to the early fourth century, not just the Bible.  This orientation is evident in a number of my books, but will be seen most clearly in the book that is coming out in November, the book I’m calling The Triumph of Christianity.  The book has very little indeed to do with biblical interpretation.  I do have one chapter on Paul’s writings – but not focused at all on exegesis but on what they can tell us about how Christianity was being spread throughout the Roman Empire during Paul’s missionary activities (who was he converting?  What were their religious beliefs and traditions?  What did he actually say to them to convert them?  What did he do/say that proved convincing?  How effective was he?  Where was he operating?  What was his modus operandi?  Etc.)

The other chapters are on later Christian history, outside the Bible – for example I have two chapters on the emperor Constantine and his conversion to Christianity in 312 CE and then his championing of Christian causes; one on how Christianity took over the empire to become the official state religion near the end of the fourth century under the emperor Theodosius I; chapters on what led up to Constantine in the second and third centuries as Christianity spread throughout the world (asking such things as how it spread, why it spread, why anyone found it convincing, what it was that people – both Jews and pagans –were converting from, and so on.)

So it is a rigorously historical book written from the perspective of a historian.  To get back to the question asked: most biblical scholars would not be able to write a book like that, and certainly wouldn’t be interested in doing so.   They have other interests and expertise.  But just as some biblical scholars are particularly adept at literary criticism or at philosophical enquiry, others are expert in history.  And I’m one of those.

 

QUESTION:

Bart, you’ve probably heard this before, but have you considered publishing your blog in book form? It could be done by subject, or perhaps by year. Such a book or books would give an added dividend for all your effort – if a publisher could be found. And profits could still go to charity. I can imagine many people reading such a book but not trawling through the whole blog.

 

RESPONSE

Yes, I have been asked this before and frankly the only times I’ve ever thought about it are when I’ve been asked about it.   There are several reasons I don’t think it’s practicable.  To begin with, I couldn’t simply publish the blog posts because of the length.  I’ve written something like 1,400,000 words on this blog!  That would be ten rather large books.  So that ain’t gonna happen.

But suppose I did a book with the highlights – just picking out the posts that I thought really said something of importance, or choosing ones that are all focused on a particular theme.   The insurmountable problem there is that these posts have been written for the Internet, for a blog, and not for publication in a book.  They are not polished literary products, the way you would like a book to be.  That would mean either that I would have to publish something that was substandard, which is against my inclination, or that I would have to put in lots of time to polish them, which would mean the book is not really a publication of my posts but something based on my posts.  But if I want to publish something based on my posts, why not just write a book on that theme?

Here’s the bigger problem.  I have to limit what I publish in book form for popular audiences.  Basically I’m on a schedule of publishing one trade book every two years.  My view (a view worked out in close consultation with my agent and my editors) is that any more than that would dilute the effectiveness of what I produce.  I can’t flood the market or anything I write will be given less attention (Yikes – here’s yet another Ehrman book this year….).   So I have to be very choosy about what I publish about and how I produce the books.

I just don’t think a collection of posts I’ve hammered out would be as interesting or effective as a book that I slave away on for two years.  So I’m disinclined to do it.  It’s a nice thought, I’ll admit!  But I don’t think it would have as much wide-spread interest as a one-off book.

 

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My Problem(s) With Fundamentalism: A Blast from the Past
What Text Are the Translators Translating?

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Comments

  1. clipper9422@yahoo.com  January 13, 2017

    Do you think that, in the future, the positions of historians such as yourself should evolve toward inclusion in University history departments and away from Departments of Religious Studies? Although I don’t see the point of or necessarily agree with everything that Hector Avalos says in “The End Of Biblical Studies,” I think one of his better points is that historical work involving the Bible should be integrated into history departments rather than be treated as separate and “special” because of the perceived sacredness and authority of the Bible.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 14, 2017

      Departments of Religious Studies are, as a rule, gloriously interdisciplinary. I have an adjunct appointment in Classics, for example; others have appointments in anthropology, women’s studies, Latin American Studies, and so on. I don’t think these departments need to be dissolved but to be promoted!

  2. clipper9422@yahoo.com  January 13, 2017

    Speaking of Avalos, are you familiar with his book, “Bad Jesus”? If so what is your opinion of it? Even many non-Christians consider Jesus to have a been a very good man and his ethics to be profound. I’m looking for an alternative, possibly more objective, view. All I’ve found so far are hatchet jobs by non-experts. I don’t know what Avalos’s scholarly reputation is but he does seem to at least be qualified.

    One reason I ask is that I can’t find this book in the Milwaukee Public Library System or at a reduced price for my Kindle. It’s pretty expensive and I’m trying to decide whether it’s worth purchasing.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 14, 2017

      I’m afraid I haven’t read it. He is trained as a Hebrew Bible scholar, but he does have a wide range of interest.

    • SidDhartha1953  January 15, 2017

      @clipper: Have you tried booksprice.com? I’ve found some amazing deals on used books there.

  3. RonaldTaska  January 13, 2017

    Hmm? I had not thought about the problem of flooding the market with Ehrman books. But there is a lot I haven’t thought about. Because your personaI posts are your best posts by far, I would love an Ehrman autobiography that blended your personal religious journey with your intellectual journey and summarized your basic views about Christianity and put it all together. The personal part would add some context to the intellectual part and make the intellectual, historical analysis more interesting not that it is not already interesting..

  4. ffg  January 13, 2017

    I just read your book, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenium. It’s now been about five years that I have read your books and those of other scholars such as John Shelby Spong and Peter Enns. As a former fundamentalist / evangelical I have found all the books very useful in different ways. There are a number of foundational Christian beliefs e.g. the creation accounts, the exodus, the fall, the authorship of the gospels, the virgin birth and so forth (my nuanced understanding of these texts now) which I can now intergrate with the rest of my human knowledge about how the world works. I think all of you can really assist the rest of us to make informed decisions. What has been troubling to me is how you and others are demonized whilst those Christian apologists who hold steadfastly “onto the faith once delivered to our fathers” are held out as heroes of the faith despite being in my view intellectually dishonest. My question to you – what will it take for “modern” biblical scholarship to reach the ordinary person in the pulpit.? In my view this is long overdue

  5. godspell  January 13, 2017

    I do a blog myself (not about religion), and it’s flattering when your readers say “This should be in book form.” But you’re exactly right–you don’t write a blog post the way you do a chapter in a book. They are different mediums, requiring different approaches. Obviously much of what you write here is drawn from your published writings, has a similar style, but it’s couched differently. And it doesn’t necessarily reach the exact same audience, though obviously there is (and ought to be) considerable overlap.

    And what would you do about the comments section, which I hope you’d agree is the liveliest and most engaging part of any blog. The purpose of a good blog article ought to be to stimulate discussion among its readers and its author (which can be educative for both). A book stimulates discussion in a manner far less direct and immediate, but hopefully also more enduring and consequential.

  6. talmoore
    talmoore  January 13, 2017

    I would ask mythicists what makes them think that historians can necessarily be religious scholars. I’ve noticed that by far the biggest problem that most mythicists have is that they are fundamentally confused about or ignorant of the Judaism of Jesus’s time and place. Richard Carrier, for example, appears to not understand 1st century Palestinian Judaism in the slightest. Robert Price, though being an expert in the NT, meanwhile appears to be generally unaware of the Judaism of 1st century Palestine. They both approach Christianity almost solely from the pagan angle, because, apparently, the pagan angle is all they know.

    • Rick
      Rick  January 15, 2017

      But he was a first Century Jew. Oops I forgot, to them he wasn’t….

  7. Jason  January 13, 2017

    Why did you choose to “stop” so to speak at the 4th century in terms of your expertise-did it have to do with the lack of interesting things happening in the dark ages or something?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 14, 2017

      I stopped there because the book is about how Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire, and that happened at the end of the fourth century.

  8. TWood
    TWood  January 13, 2017

    How would you rate N.T. Wright as a historian (on a scale of 1 to 10 let’s say)? I know he’s a theologian at heart (it seems so to me at least), but he also appears to have a good command of Jesus and Paul in a historical context (which seems to be the basis for his view that Jesus was looking for an earthly kingdom of heaven and his “new perspective on Paul”). But I’m interested in your scholarly view…

    • Bart
      Bart  January 14, 2017

      He’s a terrifically learned scholar, but more of an exegete/interpreter than a historian. He certainly knows a ton of history though.

      • dankoh  January 15, 2017

        You are more charitable to Bishop Wright than I am. I think he uses history only to the extent that it supports his theology and ignores or downplays it when it does not.

  9. Tempo1936  January 14, 2017

    Could you add to the mailbag a blog on Hanukkah and baptism?
    The Washington post had a few comments recently. Hanukkah was a minor celebration until the 18th century. The story of the everlasting oil for the menorah was not in first and second Maccabees and was first written down in the fourth century.
    Hanukkah was an embellished story about a miracle occurring in 160 CBE that Revealed the intervention of divine living God overcoming evil rulers.
    This led to a brief period where it Israel was an independent state.
    Israel sent out rabbi ambassadors to surrounding countries
    These rabbis told embellished stories about their all powerful God
    Pagans wanted to be part and associate with this all powerful God and converted to Judaism .
    Baptism was initiated as part of the conversion of gentiles to Judaism in foreign lands .
    So gentiles had their previous sins washed away and forgiven with baptism .
    Eventually these rabbis established temples Where Paul the apostle would travel to during his missionary journeys .
    So it appears the Maccabean wars had a lot to do with establishing The traditions associated withChristianity.
    This would be an interesting topic for you to add to your blog

    • Bart
      Bart  January 16, 2017

      I’m afraid Hanukkah lies outside my area of expertise!

    • talmoore
      talmoore  January 16, 2017

      As a Jew I can tell you that Hanukkah is actually a minor holiday and only took on a higher importance as a reaction to the rise of Christmas. Hanukkah has basically become the Jewish Christmas.

  10. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  January 14, 2017

    I hope that your blog can at least be preserved. I can totally see people two hundred years from now having an interest in learning from it. It could be studied or even be made into its own college course! And everybody who’s anybody *knows* that you knew beforehand who the Antichrist would be and embedded a code inside this blog for people to figure out. Only those who can understand will understand.

    🙂

  11. SidDhartha1953  January 15, 2017

    There’s an online translation called the NET Bible that has some 60,000 translators’ notes, plus commentary by Thomas Constable of Dallas Theological Seminary. Are you familiar with Constable? Are his scholarly credentials good? Have you read any of the NET Bible? If so, do you think it’s a decent translation?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 16, 2017

      I’m afraid I don’t know who he is, but if he is at DTS I would bet his comments are all fairly predictable.

  12. Jana  January 15, 2017

    Is your “Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet” a combination of both? History as well as Biblical?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 16, 2017

      I would say it is a historical study of the biblical texts.

  13. DavidBeaman  January 16, 2017

    I am looking forward to reading The Triumph of Christianity. Your books contribute greatly to my faith, which has a basis in as much fact as can be known or reasonably derived. Since I believe in God as being real and who functions within the context of his own creation, your work, as well as other scholarly work in history, archaeology, anthropology, sociology, the hard sciences, et cetera, contributes to my understanding of God, Jesus, Judaism, and Christianity. I guess that’s ironic considering your agnosticism toward there being any deity and atheism toward traditional views of deity.

  14. Steefen  January 17, 2017

    An investigative reporter can examine the New Testament for the quantity and quality of the history it contains.
    1) On reincarnation and resurrection, the New Testament does not hold up in the fields of Psychology and Science. 2) On the census for Mary and Joseph, the New Testament does not hold up in the field of History. 3) On Jesus forgiving the woman caught in adultery, the New Testament does not hold up in the field of biography. 4) On Jesus’ two family trees, the New Testament does not hold up in the fields of genealogy and biology. Fifth, there are significant omissions in the New Testament compared to Josephus on Pontius Pilate: Jesus gets upset about money changers in his Father’s House but he does not get upset about Pontius Pilate using his Father’s funds for an aqueduct? He does not go to Cesarea with his disciples to bare his and their necks before Pilate in protest of effigies of Caesar placed by night? Jesus has nothing to say about the conversions of Queen Helena and Prince Izates–Prince Izates who like Jesus had a father who received vision communication about his birth?

    The New Testament can speak about the census but not set the stage by telling us the atmosphere of rebellion in which Joseph and Mary found themselves? “Judas of Galilee was a Jewish leader who led resistance to the census imposed for Roman tax purposes by Quirinius in Iudaea Province around 6 AD.[1] He encouraged Jews not to register and those that did had their houses burnt and their cattle stolen by his followers.[2] He began the fourth Philosophy of the Jews.” Judas and Zaddok’s group of zealots were theocratic nationalists. Theocratic nationalism was a hallmark of the fourth philosophy.

    Dr. Ehrman, was Jesus’ Son of Man Movement for the Kingdom of God/Righteousness an act of theocratic nationalism?

    Second, see: Wikipedia’s entry on social history
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_history

    A social historian is not a general practitioner of history. In the history of Palestine, there is a Jesus of Galilee with a band of mariners who loses a battle against General Vespasian. There is a governor of Tiberias, located on the Sea of Galilee, who learns Greek to write history–and we wonder how the gospels are written in Greek? A social historian is distinct from a military historian or a political historian.

    Dr. Ehrman, a social historian would not be concerned with the military historical issue of Jesus and the band of mariners killed in battle?

    A social historian would not be concerned with the political history and biography of Jesus, governor of Tiberias who learned Greek to write history and whose historical writings were criticized by Josephus?

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