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Doing Research for a Trade Book

Before getting side-tracked on other things, I had started to say that I was at a good place on my book on The Invention of the Afterlife and to lay out how I actually write a book like this.  I explained how I choose what book to write next, and I talked about how writing a trade book is very different from writing an academic one.

I’d like to pick up there since I am at the end of a major phase in my preparation for the book, and would like to explain how I typically proceed.

Once you know what book you want to write next, what do you do next?  How do you proceed?   Of course any trade book that I decide to write is on a topic that I’ve thought about for many years – almost always for thirty or forty years, on and off.  Most of the time my trade books are on topics that I’ve taught about in undergraduate and graduate courses since the 1980s.  So I already have done a good bit of reading and thinking and normally have some pretty solid opinions about the topic.

But all of that is open to change as I do my research.  The key to the books is doing the research.  The basic rule for the research is that you have to read everything of importance to the topic –both ancient sources and scholarly books and articles written about them – before even figuring out what you’re going to say in the book.  And so the trick is knowing what to read.

It’s a trick that not everyone masters.  I have some grad students who …

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Self-Reflection on The Process of Writing a Book
The Tricks of Writing for a General Audience

62

Comments

  1. talmoore
    talmoore  May 25, 2018

    “it is oh so easy to be led down rabbit holes and never emerge”

    I can relate to this. I’m deep, deep, deep within the rabbit hole.

  2. Silver  May 25, 2018

    You say that you first read the most recent books on your intended subject. Having done so, have you ever found that these authors have done such a good job that you have nothing new to say and so have shelved the project?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 27, 2018

      Ha, great question! I’m always worried about that when I’m writing a scholarly book, but never a trade book, since I already have a good idea if the topic has been covered in a trade book that was successful. But I think I’ll expand on this — I’ll add the question to my mailbag.

      • Altosackbuteer
        Altosackbuteer  May 31, 2018

        It happened to me once.

        I wrote a little booklet calculating the date of the Crucifixion as being exactly April 3, 33 AD. I consciously didn’t want to find out what anybody was saying because I wanted my own work to be entirely original.

        Big mistake.

        So I published it — and THEN did my research. And I found that while I indeed had come to the CORRECT date of the Crucifixion — I got beaten to the punch by 16 years! Two scientists from Cambridge University UK had co-written a peer-reviewed article for Nature which calculated the same date I had — 16 years LATER!

        Well — no harm done. I since have expanded the booklet into a book which discusses the date of the Nativity as well — and the chapter for THAT book was based on my own peer-reviewed article on the subject which appeared in the December 2012 edition of Perspectives on Science and Christian Belief.

        And I since have become fast friends with one of the authors of that paper, Sir Dr. Prof. Colin J. Humphreys who, by the way, has expanded his own paper into a book The Mystery of the Last Supper, in which he brilliantly and scientifically RECONCILES the SEEMING disparities in the 3 Synoptic Gospels v. the Gospel of John — i.e., did the Last Supper occur on the first night of Passover (Synoptics) or the night BEFORE the first night of Passover (John)?

        (He concludes, ALL were correct. Jerusalem based its reckoning of Passover based on its new moon based calendar it picked up at the time of the Babylonian Captivity, while Jesus the Galileean reckoned Passover from a calendar [Humhreys argues] was used by the Jews BEFORE the Babylonian Captivity, based on FINAL sightings of the OLD moon. This would cause a 1-3 day difference in the occurrence of Passover or any day in the Jewish calendar. By arguing that Jesus was observing Passover a night earlier than Jerusalem, Humphreys thereby reconciles the conflicting gospel accounts.)

        I heartily recommend this book to one and all including Prof. Ehrman.

  3. RonaldTaska  May 25, 2018

    Wow! If you want to know the “truth” about things, wouldn’t it be easier just to watch Fox News all day?

  4. Robert
    Robert  May 25, 2018

    Speaking of graduate students and dissertations, my promoter eventually gave me a topic that I initially considered impossibly and ridiculously narrow. In fact, I ridiculed my own topic to my fellow students constantly and they all agreed and commiserated with me (usually while drinking Belgian beer). But, in the end, researching and writing on that stupid topic ended up teaching me more than I ever would have learned if I had stuck with my own ideas about what would have been so much more interesting to write about. More importantly, it changed my entire view of much larger methodological issues and produced original insights with far-reaching implications that have yet to shake the very foundations of New Testament scholarship!

    • Bart
      Bart  May 27, 2018

      Do you want to share with us what your dissertation was?

      • Robert
        Robert  May 28, 2018

        Sorry, I signed an NDA with the future publisher. Well, OK, what the hell: The Delimitation of the Prologue of the Gospel of Mark. I used to joke that some people would write 1,500 pages on a one or two verses or even a single word, but my thesis was on where to place a space. But, in the end, one cannot understand the whole if one does not understand the beginning.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 28, 2018

          Delimitation, in the sense of how far it extends? Yup, for us biblical geeks, it’s an interesting question.

          • Robert
            Robert  May 28, 2018

            Yes.

  5. Steefen  May 25, 2018

    James alone enjoyed the privilege of entering the Holy of Holies to pray on behalf of the people. That is, James was able to function as some sort of Opposition High Priest, which indicates the extreme breakdown of normal authority.

    Dr. Ehrman, did the New Testament James do this? If so, the Jerusalem Church had some standing and James, by not finding the Official High Priest’s actions sufficient to call down blessings from God, continued the tradition of his brother, Jesus, of finding the Temple establishment reproachable. Do you agree?

    How is it explained that the New Testament does not tell us James went into the Holy of Holies to pray on behalf of the Jewish people?

    Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 27, 2018

      No, that’s only a later Christian legend. The historical James didn’t have access to the Holy of Holies.

    • Altosackbuteer
      Altosackbuteer  May 31, 2018

      Only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies, and even he only on one day of the year, Yom Kippur the Day of Atonement.

      But (as I argue in my own book about the 7 Laws of the Sons of Noah and their influence on the early Christian church), the original Jerusalem “church” was really a SYNAGOGUE — the SYNAGOGUE of the Risen Jesus — whom, I argue, then genuinely did believe had risen from the dead but did NOT infer from it that Jesus therefore was divine, which is the modern Christian logic. All they believed was that God, and not for the first time, had performed a miracle and had raised the man Jesus. They did not confuse a miracle from God with divinity itself. And it was for this reason that the rest of Judaism could tolerate their co-existence in their midst.

      As I argue in my book, the Apostle James, in light of the 7 Laws of the Sons of Noah, steered his “church” into complete harmony and fusion with the rest of the Jewish world.

      The decision the Apostle James made in Acts 15 — henceforth to allow Gentile followers of Jesus to be followers without full-fledged conversion to Judaism — not only did NOT mark the Jerusalem Church’s impending break with Judaism, but on the contrary, STRENGTHENED his church’s bond with the rest of Judaism.

    • Altosackbuteer
      Altosackbuteer  May 31, 2018

      Only the High Priest was able enter the Holy of Holies, and even he only on one day of the year, Yom Kippur the Day of Atonement.

      But (as I argue in my own book about the 7 Laws of the Sons of Noah and their influence on the early Christian church), the original Jerusalem “church” was really a SYNAGOGUE — the SYNAGOGUE of the Risen Jesus — whom, I argue, then genuinely did believe had risen from the dead but did NOT infer from it that Jesus therefore was divine, which is the modern Christian logic. All they believed was that God, and not for the first time, had performed a miracle and had raised the man Jesus. They did not confuse a miracle from God with divinity itself. And it was for this reason that the rest of Judaism could tolerate their co-existence in their midst.

      As I argue in my book, the Apostle James, in light of the 7 Laws of the Sons of Noah, steered his “church” into complete harmony and fusion with the rest of the Jewish world.

      The decision the Apostle James made in Acts 15 — henceforth to allow Gentile followers of Jesus to be followers without full-fledged conversion to Judaism — not only did NOT mark the Jerusalem Church’s impending break with Judaism, but on the contrary, STRENGTHENED his church’s bond with the rest of Judaism.

    • Altosackbuteer
      Altosackbuteer  June 4, 2018

      James would have been ineligible to enter the Holy of Holies because, by New Testament definition, he was a Son of David. This is assuming the Protestant interpretation of “Jesus’ brethren” is correct, and after Mary bore Jesus, she and Joseph commenced a normal marital life with other children.

      The New Testament defines Joseph as being a linear descendant in the male line from King David. That makes Joseph, and James, to be Yehudim, of the Tribe of Judah.

      But to be a High Priest, one needed to be a member of the Tribe of Levi. And, specifically, a sub-set of that tribe.

  6. forthfading  May 25, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Would it be beneficial for a doctoral student to align themselves with something you are currently interested in and heavily researching? I would think this strategy could really help the student take advantage of your work and expertise when writing their dissertation.

    Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  May 27, 2018

      No, it would probably be to their disadvantage, since whatever book I write out of the research may steal their thunder. But it *is* true that grad students usually write on a topic that the advisor has expertise in.

  7. galah  May 25, 2018

    I much believe that the historical Jesus was a living breathing human being just as many secular scholars do. But I’m pretty sure that, whether secular or not, we’re all going down a rabbit hole.

  8. Telling
    Telling  May 26, 2018

    Hi Bart,

    There’s a novel idea with roots in metaphysics, with new support from biocentrism (that is, Science), of a dream-state beginning, manifesting from this internal source into what we call the “physical world”. Such turns our knowledge upside-down, “facts” arising from the creation of imaginary dreamed myths, not the other way around as is believed. That is, our world arising from the imagination, there are no facts, but for what was imagined — no permanent structures.

    On another note, please enjoy this video link. I suggest you take note of the whole presentation: lighting, camera angles and focus, mic placement and sound, and authenticity of the performers, happening in an old barn.
    https://youtu.be/iFe8k5ZrAFs

  9. mikezamjara  May 26, 2018

    off topic

    Dr Ehrman could you suggest me which in your opinion is the best translation of the bible in spanish?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 27, 2018

      I’m afraid I don’t know!

      • mikezamjara  May 28, 2018

        thank you Dr Ehrman. Do you know someone that could know?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 28, 2018

          I’m afraid I don’t off hand. Sorry! Maybe just find the most recent one(s)?

          • mikezamjara  May 28, 2018

            thank you again Dr.

      • NulliusInVerba
        NulliusInVerba  May 28, 2018

        Coincidentally, Prof. Ehrman, I was just wondering what languages you read besides Greek, Hebrew, Latin and German.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 30, 2018

          Well, I don’t read any languages very well. I couldn’t live without dictionaries. But I also read French and Italian.

  10. randal  May 26, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman: I’m almost finished with Triumph of Christianity and must admit that you’ve persuaded me again. I’ve been ambivalent about whether Constantine’s conversion was real or just a ploy to unite the empire. I must say that I now think it was real and if uniting the empire was a consequence, good for Constantine. Until someone else can convince me it wasn’t real, I’m sticking to it.

    This isn’t the first time you’ve change my thinking. I used to think that Jesus was more of a social reformer along the lines of JD Crossan and Marcus Borg. But I’m thoroughly convinced now after reading your books, listening to your Great Courses lectures and this blog, that Jesus was first and foremost an apocalyptic preacher and teacher. He was certainly a social reformer, but that was because society had to get ready for the coming kingdom. I don’t think that I’ll ever change my mind on this one.

    Thank you again for another great book and I cannot wait for the heaven and hell book. I’ve been wanting to learn more about the subject for a long time.

  11. ellispm35  May 26, 2018

    How do you take notes: pen and paper, laptop, dictation?
    And, most importantly, what is your organizational method — ie, how do you possibly keep track of hundreds of pages of notes on various issues?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 27, 2018

      Lap top. Organized in appropriate folders and subfolders, and fully searchable!

      • hoshor  May 29, 2018

        Hopefully you are backing up all of your data! 😉

        • Bart
          Bart  May 30, 2018

          On the cloud. With hard backups! I learned my lessone back in the early 80s, when I lost a chapter of my dissertation!

  12. Stephen  May 26, 2018

    What edition of the GILGAMESH did you use?

    thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  May 27, 2018

      I’ve used several, including, among them all, the handy edition of Stephanie Dalley.

  13. bluesclues  May 26, 2018

    After looking at your reading list from ancient sources it occurs to me that it might be more accurate to append the working title “The Invention of the Afterlife” with “in Western Thought/Religion”? Or maybe with “in Christianity”?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 27, 2018

      I guess titles by the very nature of things are *always* inaccurate — they are short versions of what a book is about in just the fewest words possible.. The accurate title for this one would be something like “The Invention of the Views of the Afterlife Held by 52% of Americans in 2014.” (!)

  14. john76  May 26, 2018

    Homer details how Achilles, a great hero of the Iliad, would rather “live working as a wage-labourer for hire by some other man, one who had no land and not much in the way of livelihood, than lord it over all the wasted dead (Homer, 11.380, 624-28).” It was important for later writers to replace this Homeric tragic perception of the afterlife because it wasn’t conducive to a happy hoi polloi

  15. bwithers55  May 26, 2018

    Thanks for mentioning Dale Allison. I just ordered Night Comes: Death, Imagination and the Last Things. -bw

  16. rivercrowman  May 27, 2018

    Based on the eighteen other books of yours I’ve read, I’m confident this one will be as excellent as the rest.

  17. Actual_Wolfman  May 27, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Just out of curiosity, how many books would you say you read for your new trade?

    Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  May 27, 2018

      I suppose I’ve read all or parts of 150 or so? I”m not sure, haven’t really counted!

      • Actual_Wolfman  May 27, 2018

        Very impressive! I’m looking forward to it. Any idea on when we can expect the finished product? 2019? 2020?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 28, 2018

          My *guess* is early 2020, but I don’t really know. I hope to have it written by September, gods willing.

  18. Telling
    Telling  May 28, 2018

    Researching Paul, I’m finding disagreement among historians regarding his Jerusalem visits, because of timeline issues when comparing Acts and his letters. Do you have a favored theory on reconciling this?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 30, 2018

      I think Acts wants him regularly associated with Jerusalem because it wants to focus on how salvation goes forth from there, the sacred city of Israel. But Paul himself does not indicate he went there much — just twice.

      • Telling
        Telling  May 30, 2018

        Thanks Bart,

        that’s interesting, and you’ve given me an idea that can help further the message behind the historical novel I’m writing.

        One more question, if you don’t mind. I’m wondering how you fit in the famine relief visit, second visit mentioned in Acts. I find historians combining it with his first visit, or his second visit mentioned in Galatians, and even a third visit (Acts has the timeline wrong). Where would you place this visit if it even happened?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 31, 2018

          I don’t think it’s possible to reconcile the visits in Acts with the visits Paul himself mentions in Galatians. My guess is that the author of Acts just didn’t know his itinerary very well.

          • Telling
            Telling  June 2, 2018

            I appreciate your comments.

            I mentioned I’m writing an historical novel where Paul is creator of the Salvation message, whereas a knowledge based Jesus message loses out.

            I believe now I can show Luke spinning his timeline for theological reasons, which I think can satisfy my intention of writing an historical novel that can satisfy serious historians like you AND be believable to ordinary Christian scholars.

            I’m not sure what to do with Paul’s famine relief visit in Acts. Is it best to assume that it didn’t happen?

          • Bart
            Bart  June 2, 2018

            For a work of fiction, I would say it doesn’t matter much.

          • Telling
            Telling  June 2, 2018

            Okay, thanks, Bart.

            But when my novel comes out and becomes a great bestseller you cannot then say “that’s not true”. Ha ha, kidding. Thanks very much.

          • Telling
            Telling  June 3, 2018

            With your help I think I have a suitable answer for my historical (fiction) story.

            You mentioned that Luke was trying to tie Paul more closely with Jerusalem.

            I’m having Paul send Barnabas for the (45AD) famine relief visit mentioned in Acts, Paul staying in Antioch because of Peter’s continuing hostility toward him and a fear Peter might not accept the relief moneys from him (he’s teaching a wrong message of Jesus crucified, not the true knowledge-based message). It’s an important visit, so Luke includes it in Acts but adds Paul in the itinerary for the reason you give above. The Collection was, after all, Paul’s idea .

            The troublesome Acts/Galatians controversy is now resolved. This can only be done using fiction (ha ha).

      • Altosackbuteer
        Altosackbuteer  May 31, 2018

        In his Handbook of Biblical Chronology, Finegan argues that Paul’s first visit to Jerusalem (Acts 15) occurred in 49 AD, and the second visit (Acts 21) was 6 years later in 55 AD.

        The purpose of the first visit was to argue that the new Nazarene movement should allow Gentiles to convert to the new movement without first converting to full-blown Judaism. Paul WON this argument; the Apostle James authorized him to preach no Mosaic Law, but ONLY to the GENTILE followers of Jesus. And in doing this, James not only was not beginning the separation of Christianity and Judaism; instead he was STRENGTHENING his movement’s bonds with the rest of Judaism (as I argue in my book on the subject).

        The reason for the second visit was because the Jerusalem Church had caught wind that Paul had been a naughty, VERY naughty missionary. Not only was he preaching to the GENTILE converts that they need not follow Mosaic Law — and this he was PERMITTED to do — but he was ALSO preaching to JEWISH converts to the movement that THEY TOO NEED NOT follow Mosaic law any longer.

        Paul had EXCEEDED his license, for he was NOT permitted to do this.

        So James and the Jerusalem Church summonsed Paul to come to Jerusalem to answer for himself. Was he or was he not preaching this FORBIDDEN doctrine?

        Evidently, a) Jerusalem was not certain whether Paul had done this, and b) Paul himself MUST have DENIED doing it — which makes him a LIAR — because the Apostle James (Acts 20) proposed that Paul demonstrate his innocence by submitting to a Purification Test, which Paul agreed to.

        And Paul ALMOST got away with his bluff, but on the final day of the test, he was recognized and outted by Jews (who may or may not have been believers themselves), which caused the riot which came to the attention of the Romans who placed Paul into protective custody, thereby ending his missionary activities permanently.

        • Telling
          Telling  June 6, 2018

          Hi Altosackbuteer,

          Regarding Paul’s visits to Jerusalem, using Paul’s letters as our as most trustworthy source, I conclude:

          1. Paul’s first visit to Jerusalem (AD 34/35) is told in Acts 9:26 & Galatians 1:18

          2. Paul’s second visit (AD 49) is recorded in Acts 15 and Galatians 2:1

          There may have been a famine relief visit in AD45 that didn’t include Paul’s presence (but perhaps his participation in gathering a collection).

          Bart’s response to me on this thread regarding Luke’s agenda when constructing Acts influenced me, as did his and other historians logic based claims that Paul’s letters should be more reliable than Acts, and should therefore take precedence.

          I am interested in your response.

    • Altosackbuteer
      Altosackbuteer  June 6, 2018

      In his Handbook of Biblical Chronology, Jack Finegan says that Paul visited Jerusalem in 49 and 55 AD. That latter visit would have been sometime in late spring, since Acts of the Apostles says that Paul was in a hurry to get to Jerusalem before Pentecost (Shavuot).

      • Telling
        Telling  June 9, 2018

        This timeline cannot be true, because Paul says in his letter to the Galatians that 14 years elapsed between his two visits (or 10 depending on how you count)

  19. galah  May 28, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, do you think it would be unethical for a layperson to write a non scholarly book to share some of his or her interesting discoveries that aren’t publicly known, if that’s possible?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 30, 2018

      Unethical? No not at all.

      • Altosackbuteer
        Altosackbuteer  May 31, 2018

        I did precisely this, and recently sent you a copy of my book about the Jewish doctrine of the 7 Laws of the Sons of Noah and how these laws actually influence certain passages in the New Testament.

        • galah  May 31, 2018

          Altosackbuteer, what’s the title of your book and where can I buy a copy?

          • Altosackbuteer
            Altosackbuteer  June 4, 2018

            Ah — thank you for asking.

            Go to my website, which is a GoDaddy generic website. The Address is:
            http://www.thesevenbignoahidelaws.com. This will give you more contact information, and will give you much more info about the books themselves.

            You can go directly to Amazon and look under the author name James Nollet. But I recommend ☺ visiting the website first.

            My first book is about calculating the dates of the Nativity and Crucifixion. The methodology is scientific, not at all any arcane method of counting Bible verses. It breaks new ground (as far as I know, anyway!) in that I can PROVE, ASTRONOMICALLY, that the Last Supper COULD NOT POSSIBLY have occurred on ANY Thursday night in the ENTIRE range of possible years of the Crucifixion — and, therefore, a simple reading of the Synoptics’ texts — Last Supper, Arrest, Trial, Crucifixion, all happening within 24 hours AND on the first day of Passover — CANNOT POSSIBLY be true. The Gospel of John has the right of it.

            My second book is much more important. It demonstrates the effect and impact upon the very early history of the Christian movement, of the 7 Laws of the Sons of Noah upon the course of Christian history and upon certain passages in the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles. The 7 Laws are well-known in the rabbinical world, but unknown outside. Yet, they profoundly impacted the early Christian movement.

            There are certain passages in the Gospels and in Acts (specifically, 15 & 21) which cannot be correctly or properly understood if one doesn’t know about the 7 Laws, but which become clear and easy to understand if one does. Christians therefore SHOULD avail themselves of the knowledge I share in this book, since they have a great interest in learning their own scriptures as best they can.

  20. craig@corbettlaw.org  June 2, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I was reading The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright, (2009) lately and found something I
    wanted to send you. You may have found this already. I found it to be interesting.

    In Chapter 3, at page 56, Wright writes about the Polynesian belief in the afterlife.

    In the notes (page 493) he cites:
    Notes 33-36
    Handy, 1927
    Williamson, 1937

    In the bibliography,

    Handy, E. S. Craighill, 1927. “Polynesian Religion.” Bernice C. Bishop Museum Bulletin 34.
    Williamson, Robert W. 1937. Religion and Social Organization in Central Polynesia.
    Cambridge University Press.

    I didn’t find that he has indicated the origin of the belief in the afterlife, or
    how long ago it was. This might be of interest to you in your research for the book.

    The oldest belief I know of is from the ancient Egyptians, although I remember something
    about the early Greek philosophers and belief systems.

    I enjoyed The Triumph of Christianity. Great work.

    Best wishes.

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