A couple of days ago I asked members of the blog for some feedback about the current thread focusing on the development of the views of the afterlife in antiquity – the topic of my next book. And I’m really glad I asked, because it helped clarify my thinking considerably about the direction I am going to be taking in the book. For what it’s worth, it is *not* the direction I’ve been taking this thread. At least it is not in the *style* that I’ve been developing this thread. Let me explain.
When I give public talks around the country, the advance publicity often describes me as “one of the most controversial Biblical scholars” in the field. I’ve always been puzzled by that. I really don’t see myself as very controversial. The scholarship that I present in my public talks, and in my popular books, is simply widely accepted scholarship, the kind of thing that critical scholars of the New Testament and early Christianity have long known and quite frequently simply assume. The difference is that I actually *talk* about it, out loud, to general audiences. That makes me different from most scholars in my field. It’s not that my views are particularly unusual. It’s that I air them to the public.
When I think about popular books that sell well (not just books on the New Testament, or Early Christianity, or religion in general – simply books that sell well), there seem to be some common features (in addition to such obvious things as the fact they are written well by people who are presumed to know what they’re talking about). They are (1) about topics that people are interested in and (2) they often say things different from what people expect to hear because they are at odds with what people already think.
If a book is on a topic no one is interested in, then no one will buy the book. That is a simple reality that the vast majority of authors (i.e., those who do *not* sell best-selling books) have never realized. I myself, personally, have lived among academics my entire adult life – say, for the past 40 years, day in and day out. So I know how scholars think. And most scholars think that if they are interested in something that it must be interesting. You should never, ever go to a cocktail party for academics and ask someone what they are working on unless you (a) know what they do and are genuinely (for some reason) interested in it or (b) prepared to be bored silly.
Scholars of course have their passions. Virtually all of them do. But the vast majority of time these passions are not those of most normal human beings. That’s just the way it is. Even if I’m at a party with other New Testament scholars, or scholars of early Christianity after the New Testament, I usually have to brace myself for conversations about things that just aren’t all that inherently interesting. I could give gory details, but, well, I don’t want to bore you.
So one key to writing a popular book that sells well is to focus it on a topic that lots of people *are* interested in. But the other key (at least one other really key key) is to say something about the topic that people don’t already know, think, or believe, something that most people have never heard of before, even though if they had heard of it they would be interested in it. That’s what makes a book controversial: it says something over which others disagree.
Sometimes, when it comes to the New Testament or early Christianity, authors will go out of their way to be controversial. They’ll say flat out absurd things based on completely sloppy scholarship, either because they are not well-trained, widely read, or intelligent and simply don’t know any better, or because they do know better but simply want to sell a lot of books. All of us can probably think of such books with views that virtually no reputable scholar holds: Jesus never existed! Jesus was married to Mary Magdaleine and had babies with her! Jesus and his disciples ate hallucinogenic mushrooms! Jesus had sex with his disciples! And so on.
The reason I’m controversial is not because I propound wild theories that are discounted or not even entertained by other scholars in my field. It’s because I say out loud the things that most critical scholars know but either don’t say or don’t know how to say to a non-scholarly reading public. When I think back on my “controversial” books, they actually simply relate scholarship widely available in the academy:
Misquoting Jesus: we don’t have the originals of any of the writings of the New Testament but only copies made much later, usually centuries later, that all have differences among them, so that there are some places in the New Testament where we don’t know what they authors actually wrote.
Jesus Interrupted: the New Testament is filled with discrepancies and contradictions and historical problems.
God’s Problem: The Bible does not have a consistent explanation for why there is suffering but numerous contradictory explanations.
Forged: The New Testament contains books written by people who were falsely calling themselves by the names of famous apostles (i.e., they were not who they said they were).
How Jesus Became God: The historical Jesus did not consider himself to be God in any sense, but this was a view foisted on him by his followers after his death.
These are my five best-selling books. And all of them make claims that are interesting to lots of non-scholars with any interest in the New Testament, Jesus, Christianity, or religion at large, claims that are not particularly controversial in and of themselves, but are controversial only because most people have simply never heard such things. (OK, I will admit, in some of these instances my views are a bit more extreme than a lot of my colleagues – e.g., I think more books of the NT were forged than some other scholars do, and unlike them, I’m not afraid to call them “forged.” BUT the basic idea is one that all critical scholars share, and that’s the idea that is new to most other people. And my views even there are well represented in the academy and in published scholarship.)
As I have been talking about the afterlife here on the blog, I have not been packaging my comments the way I will when I write my book. I have instead been describing major issues in the scholarship that will underlie what I say in the book, once I start writing it. The scholarship itself may seem rather dull and uninteresting to some people, at least in relationship to the books that I’ve written. But the book itself, Inventing the Afterlife, will indeed be controversial in the way I’ve laid it out here. It won’t contradict what most critical scholars have concluded based on their research, but it will run contrary to what people at large typically think.
Just as one spoiler: I will be arguing that Jesus did not believe in heaven and hell.
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