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Finishing my Work on the Afterlife

I am now virtually finished with all my research for my book on the afterlife, and after mopping up a few loose ends, I should be able to start writing next week.  It’s been a two-year adventure so far.

I always find it amazing how much you can learn in two years of intense research on a topic that you already know (or think you know) a good deal about.   The way I can check on how much I’ve progressed is by looking at my early notes on the topic.   Almost always, when I decide I’m going to write a book, I jot down all my initial ideas of what I want the book to contain, what kinds of insights I want to discuss in it, what direction I want it to go, how I’m viewing the topic at the time.   Then, at the end (now!) I look back at what I wrote at the beginning, and I think – this happens every time – Oh my God!   I was *so* ignorant and unaware!!

That’s kind of scary in its way, since the reason I wanted to write the book in the first place was …

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My First Taste of Critical Scholarship
How a Book Gets Its Title



  1. Avatar
    bradleybclark  July 25, 2018

    Professor Ehrman:

    I have read nearly all of your books and I like the fact that they are not overly academic. I find the footnotes valuable if I want to explore a point further. I have read the first two volumes of *A Marginal Jew* and L. Michael White’s *From Jesus to Christianity* (among other very good yet academically dense books) and I’ve always felt like you and Crossan have an unrivaled ability to make difficult topics easy to understand and enjoyable to read. Keep doing what you are doing!

    On another note…I have always wondered—and I thought this post presented a good opportunity to ask—whether you use refrence management software to create bibliographies and capture notes from the sources you read? Or do you take handwritten notes?

    Currently Reading: The Triumph of Christianity

    • Bart
      Bart  July 26, 2018

      Neither. I take notes on books simply on a word processor. I’ve found more sophisticated software simply intrusive and too much of a bother.

  2. Avatar
    Silver  July 25, 2018

    “Then, at the end (now!) I look back at what I wrote at the beginning, and I think – this happens every time – Oh my God! I was *so* ignorant and unaware!!”
    Forgive me if it is not appropriate for me to say so but I find it strange, nay sad and a tad unnecessary, to see you say “Oh my God”. As the master of language which I hold you to be, I’m sure there are other expressions you could use.

  3. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  July 25, 2018

    Your introduction to The Triumph of Christianity is one of the best I’ve read. You told a story about your own realization that the age of faith had come and gone. That made me all the more curious to know how it reached it’s zenith in the Christian West.

  4. Avatar
    ask21771  July 25, 2018

    How important was the city of rome itself to the Roman empire’s economy

  5. Avatar
    Sdibra  July 25, 2018

    In case you didn’t have enough on your mind, here’s another. Please for the love of all that is holy, narrate the audiobook yourself! I purchased the audio version of Forgery and Counterforgery and sorry to say but the narrator was horrendous. It’s ashame because I was really looking forward to listening to it. I have purchased your other works, especially the ones from the teaching company and enjoy your narration tremendously. The narrator from the Truimph of Christianity was mediocre, but the content was superb. I know you’re tremendously busy but trust me your listeners will thank you, especially me!!! Good luck with the work in progress and Godspeed!

    • Bart
      Bart  July 26, 2018

      Sorry, but it ain’t gonna happen. I did it with one of my books (on the Da Vinci Code, I think), and I hated it. It’s SO VERY BORING to read your own book, out loud, slowly, hour after hour after hour!

      • Avatar
        ardeare  July 26, 2018

        One of my favorite parts of road trips is listening to a good book. The narrators are truly trained professionals in their craft and have that innate ability to make the characters and ideas jump off the page.

      • Avatar
        Sdibra  July 27, 2018

        Fine, fine, I get it. But if possible try to screen the next narrator, sort of a quality control. *plus remember more and more people are using audiobooks, so it may be to your advantage numbers wise, just saying… Anyway keep up the great work and looking forward to your new book! Thanks.

        • Bart
          Bart  July 29, 2018

          I”m afraid I have no say in the matter. They usually don’t even tell me if they *are* doing an audio book!

    • Avatar
      ddorner  July 26, 2018

      I must beg to differ. I thought The narrator for “Triumph” was great, as was Mr. Jason Culp for his narration of “Interrupted.” (I’ve listened to it over a dozen times) Though I agree, a talented narrator can really make or break an audio book.

    • Avatar
      GregAnderson  July 30, 2018

      I agree; sadly, the narration of “Forgery and Counterforgery” is shockingly amateurish. I found it unlistenable.

  6. Avatar
    john76  July 25, 2018

    I think Homer’s tragic view of the afterlife is best characterized by his thoughts on Achilles when he says: “Life-giving earth has buried them” and 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, Odyssey,11.380, 624-28). As historian Jacob Burckhardt once observed, the Greeks were more unhappy than most people realize. I personally don’t believe in the afterlife. Just as ants, trout, chickens. etc. don’t go on to an afterlife, we probably don’t either. Most of what people call the soul/self is not eternal, but can be destroyed by such things as traumatic brain injury, while leaving the person alive in a “vegetable state,” which suggests that the brain is all there is, and there is no “soul” over and above that..

    • Bart
      Bart  July 26, 2018

      Yup, those are key passages! What a great story in Odyssey 11!

  7. Avatar
    Judith  July 25, 2018

    You have mastered making whatever you write interesting. “How Textual Criticism Became Relevant” posted August 22, 2015 proves it!

  8. Avatar
    prestonp  July 25, 2018

    “Jesus’ teachings of love, and mercy and forgiveness, I think, really should dominate our lives,” he says. “On the personal level, I agree with many of the ethical teachings of Jesus and I try to model my life on them…” Erhman

    Ain’t it grand? Even as a non-god, (nothing divine about the guy, all the claims otherwise excluded, everyone of them), Bart believes Christ should be the dominant influence in all of our lives! Ladies and gents, that is one big accomplishment. You understand that, right?

    “On the personal level, I agree with many of the ethical teachings of Jesus and I try to model my life on them…” Erhman

    Help me out folks. What is left of Jesus after everything about His divinity is dismissed? What ethical teachings? Apart from His miracles and everything He said and did related to His miracles and about His Oneness with and as God, when did He become a paragon of forgiveness, mercy and love? How do you distinguish between his humanity and everything else?

    I think the subject deserves a full, well documented, thorough, scholarly treatment. I don’t recall reading anything that Bart has written that supports this position and as someone who admires Jesus, to say the least, and in light of the estimated hundreds of thousands of variations in the N.T., the abundance of errors some intentional, some not, the alterations, all the people involved in the writing, from various places and with their different motives, the different languages used and the many translations produced over 1,500 to 1,600 hundred years, it would be quite a challenge and it certainly would be justified.

    Even as Bart has invested his very life into discovering the very truth about the New Testament and Jesus Christ, which ultimately led to his authorship of a number of very fine, very well written and received books, why not devote a small measure of the same resolute dedication to develop for the public at large the exact nature of his true personhood, the real Jesus? Inform the public what we can know about this one whose life should become a dominant influence in all our lives. Bart has convinced multitudes who he is not. As the one who should be the ruling force in our lives, tell us with specificity who he really was.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 26, 2018

      You might be interested in my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, or possibly even more germane, Jesus Before the Gospels

  9. Avatar
    prestonp  July 26, 2018

    However, in “Did Jesus Exist?” Ehrman presents a host of biblical and extra-biblical sources to make the case Jesus lived. He writes, “Together all of these sources combine to make a powerful argument that Jesus was not simply invented but that he existed as a historical person in Palestine.”

    In the book, Ehrman contends:

    Scholars are “almost universally agreed” that Jesus lived in first century Palestine and was crucified by a prefect of Judea.
    Independent accounts are needed for corroboration and counts 7 independent narratives within a hundred years of Jesus’ death: the four canonical Gospels, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter and the Papyrus Egerton 2.
    Other independent “witnesses” Ehrman points to are Paul’s letters; the speeches in Acts containing material that predates Paul’s writings; Hebrews, 1 and 2 Peter, Jude and Revelation, all books by different authors; and the writings of three early church fathers.
    Each written record relies on earlier written records or oral traditions that circulated among Christian communities. Ehrman stresses that certain Aramaic phrases in the Gospels dates the information to early first century Palestine, soon after the crucifixion, and corroborates aspects of the Gospel traditions. He notes that Paul’s knowledge of Jesus appears to go back also to the early 30s.
    These biblical or Christian sources are one part of the evidence supporting historians’ conclusion that Jesus is an historical figure, Ehrman concludes.

    Moreover, in that 2012 interview, he said those who claim Jesus is a myth miss an important point: if someone invented Jesus, they would not have created a messiah who was so easily overcome. “The Messiah was supposed to overthrow the enemies – and so if you’re going to make up a messiah, you’d make up a powerful messiah,” he says. “You wouldn’t make up somebody who was humiliated, tortured and then killed by the enemies.”

    Ehrman emphasized his only relationship with Jesus is as a “historical” subject of research. Still, he said Jesus teaches valuable lessons.

    “Jesus’ teachings of love, and mercy and forgiveness, I think, really should dominate our lives,” he said. “On the personal level, I agree with many of the ethical teachings of Jesus and I try to model my life on them, even though I don’t agree with the apocalyptic framework in which they were put.”
    Marilyn Stewart , Correspondent | 03 April, 2015
    Christian Examiner

    Bart, have you ever thought about such a book?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 26, 2018

      Yes, I’ve contemplated — and proposed ot publishers — a book called Life After Faith, where I would talk about my personal relationship to the Christian tradition.

  10. Avatar
    prestonp  July 26, 2018

    “He first points out that his Jesus book is written for lay people who are interested in a broad, interesting, and very important question. Did Jesus really exist? I was not arguing the case for scholars, because scholars already know the answer to that question.

    This strikes me, in the context where he is arguing the point, a bit of special pleading. He can’t use that “scholars already know the answer to that question” as an excuse for writing a book that does not present the scholarly evidence, for that is what is in dispute by those who disagree with him, and to claim that this is something that scholars already know, without saying precisely what it is they think they know, is worryingly misleading. Eric MacDonald (Who, BTW, has distanced himself from the new atheism).

    • Bart
      Bart  July 26, 2018

      I did present the scholarly evidence. You apparently didn’t read the book?

  11. Alemin
    Alemin  July 26, 2018

    I was originally under the impression that this was going to be a scholarly book, like Forgery and Counterforgery. Is that not the case? If you do 2 years of intense research for a trade book, what goes into a scholarly book?? (perhaps I was conflating this book with the one you’re going to write with the fellowships? What’s that one going to be on?)

    • Bart
      Bart  July 26, 2018

      No, this will be a trade book like Forged. I will then be working on a scholarly book on one slim aspect of the bigger issue, a monograph that considers the cultural and religious functions of the various katabasis traditions from antiquity (that is, the traditions that narrate a personal tour/visit to the realms of the dead)

  12. Avatar
    prestonp  July 27, 2018

    I agree with mainstream scholarship on the historical Jesus (e.g., E.P. Sanders, Geza Vermes, Bart Ehrman, Dale Allison, Paula Fredriksen, et al.) that Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet. Such a hypothesis, if true, would be a simple one that would make sense of a wide range of data, including the following:

    “John the Baptist preached a message of repentance to escape the imminent judgment of the eschaton. Jesus was his baptized disciple, and thus accepted his message — and in fact preached basically the same message.” “ex-apologist”

    Now that is funny. Among his proofs that Jesus was a failed apocalypticist, “EA” says that Christ submitted to John’s message. He even preached the same basic message as John.

    Let’s look closer at that. “The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!'” Perfecto mundo

    John gets it. Jesus is the Lamb of God and His mission was to remove the sin of the world. (Remember, that’s why He died.) How does EA rationalize those opposing facts?)

    I’ve repeated this a number of times and it is appropriate to do it here. The bizarro world theories that deniers contrive are much more difficult to fathom.

    “Jesus had his disciples leave everything and follow him around. This makes sense if Jesus believed that he and they were to be God’s final messengers before the eschaton.” EA

    That sort of proves He wasn’t God?

    “Jesus gathered twelve disciples, which is the number of the twelve tribes of Israel. He also said they were to sit on twelve thrones and serve as judges of the twelve tribes of Israel. This reflects the common expectation that at the end of days, all twelve tribes would return to the land. The twelve are a symbolic representation of restored Israel.” EA

    He wouldn’t do that as the Messiah?

    “There is a clear pattern of a successive watering down of Jesus’ prediction of the eschaton within the generation of his disciples, starting with Mark…” EA

    No watering down. It is absolutely fascinating to observe deniers create doctrine out of pure creativity. Why didn’t they alter the gospels further for more consistency? 

    I think the writers of the N.T. reviewed the work of their scribes to ensure they got it right. And, no one knows what a “Christian agenda” is, or they can’t define it. Seems to be a term that covers pro-Christian propaganda.

  13. Avatar
    prestonp  July 27, 2018

    Bart November 9, 2015
    Some time ask them what *evidence* they have for how the followers of Jesus died…Paul converted to be a follower of Jesus in possibly 32-33 CE

    Saul observed Steve’s martyrdom, left for Damascus, got hit on the head by God’s light, and became a believer, which means that Steve was put to death for his unshakable faith soon after the crucifixion. He was preaching to the Sanhedrin and got those boys pretty rattled and they just couldn’t help themselves. They smashed his body to smithereens even as he shown like a light and forgave them.

    That’s historical by golly. And the other boys were being whipped and threatened with execution. If it hadn’t been for Gamaliel, Pete was a goner. Yet, even coming that close to losing his life, he kept on keeping on, preaching Christ is risen everywhere he went. Why would he do that? He was as frightened as could be just a few days earlier. “I don’t know the guy! Are you kiddin? Never seen him.” At least he wept bitterly. The next thing you know, the gang wants to obliterate any sign he’s ever lived, and he’s sticks his chest out and remains steadfast. He ain’t going nowhere. (The thing is, God had just been there, passing through, and Pete was reminded that he had no reason to fear. He wasn’t going to make one thin dime off all this running around like a nut, either.)

  14. Avatar
    Lilly  July 30, 2018

    Two years of research, my goodness .I’m thoroughly impressed by the scholarship and discipline you have devoted to this subject. Dr. Ehrman, did your PhD dissertation take less time from start to finish 🙂

    Is there a tentative publication date , this one sounds like a particularity good read . ( maybe for Christmas Holiday’s )

    • Bart
      Bart  July 30, 2018

      Yes, my dissertation took about two years. But for the beginning phase of it, I didn’t have a day job — was doing nothing day and night but working on it. (Well, I did sleep and talk to my family; but no other work obligations; unlike my past two years which have been filled with lots of other things)

  15. Avatar
    Lilly  July 30, 2018

    A quick follow up : Is this trade book number thirty one ( or maybe thirty two ) you are now writing for publication ? And could you name a few of your favorite books , not necessarily regarding Ancient Christianity , that you would take with you on a long. long vacation ? ……thank you

    • Bart
      Bart  July 30, 2018

      Yes, this is book 32, counting all the ones I’ve written and edited. On a long vacation I typically take fictions, usually including some 19th century novel or other. This last one was unusual, I took Wolf Hall and the tragedies of Euripides.

      • Avatar
        Lilly  July 30, 2018

        Thank you again, I’ll let you get back to your writing. I’m looking forward to reading it when it finally completes its two year journey to my local Barnes & Noble .

      • Avatar
        Sixtus  August 3, 2018

        Euripides in the original Greek or an English translation? If the latter, which one? I would have taken a Loeb edition for easy access to both. Wolf Hall is a great read, btw.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 5, 2018

          English translation. I wasn’t reading it for *work*! I brought a couple of translations, including the edition produced by Peter Burian.

  16. Avatar
    mtelus  August 1, 2018

    After reading your “Why Should Faith and the Afterlife Matter? Readers’ Mailbag April 15, 2018”

    It gives me a better idea of what to expect. I found it fascinating that in the Old Testament, Jews believed the dead would go to Sheol, a place where both the just and unjust would reside in the afterlife. And when the prophets condemned Jews for making sacrifices to other Gods or for sinning, it was because Yahweh would turn his back on Israel and it had nothing to do with consequences a sinner would face in the afterlife. And every time the Jewish people faced tribulations especially at the hands of the the Babylonians, Greeks, etc…its because they were bring punished by Yahweh for making sacrifices to other Gods or for sinning.

    I suspect the idea of resurrection and people returning to God in Heaven was probably from Jews being exposed to other cultures and incorporating their belief systems.

    Will you cover how these Jewish sects transitioned their Old Testament beliefs to those of other cultures and religions? And what was the sentiment?

    I’m not sure if in the New Testament if the Jews were portrayed accurately. From what Paul writes in the Pauline Epistles, there might be some truth to the behavior of Jews towards other sects, but was it more nuanced or was it that cut and dry?

  17. Avatar
    Jarold  August 5, 2018

    Dr Ehrman, I note your references to primary texts (Ancient Near Eastern, Greek, Roman, Jewish, and Christian sources). I then googled [homer afterlife] to get a clearer sense of what you are looking for. Why do you omit Eastern sources such as Buddhism and Hinduism? The conventional depictions of heaven and hell (Homer, Christian, etc) are anthropocentric, and couched in a subjective, human-historic context. But the Eastern perspective makes room for a scientific narrative that incorporates much of what we know about quantum mechanics, cosmology and culture (and Eastern religions’ references to karma).

    The universe is a big place, currently, conservatively, guesstimated to number about 2 trillion galaxies (averaging 200 billion stars per galaxy). This suggests that there are a great many karmas (heavens and hells and everything-in-between) to be reincarnated into. Of course there are a number of assumptions to explore (nonlocality of self, QM, cosmology, the connection between personality and culture, semiotics, ontology, phenomenology, etc). I’m not sure that Judeo-Christian-Muslim foundations are equipped to address that.

    The semiotician Charles Sanders Peirce provided a compelling framework from which to examine Christianity. If you haven’t done so already, Peirce is definitely worth looking into. I personally regard him as the “Isaac Newton” of mind science.

    Bottom line: I have a problem with the notion of God as sky-daddy, who passes judgement on matters of good and evil. Eastern religions are much less inclined to take the sky-daddy route. The question of reincarnation relates to the question… if I, along with millions of other people, entered into THIS culture not knowing anything and then having to learn my culture, does it not follow that exactly the same thing will happen with my rebirth? We re-enter our next lives with the same innocence with which we entered into this one. By contrast, the Homerian/Judeo-Christian notion of heaven and hell as places of reward or punishment are contrary to this notion of innocence in rebirth, and I find that to be problematic.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 6, 2018

      I won’t be dealing with other traditions of teh afterlife (e.g. in Eastern religions, or even in Egypt) because my interest is with where the views of Christians today, the majority of people in the West, come from. If I were to do an exhaustive analysis of *all* the religions, it would need to be a multi-volume book!

  18. Avatar
    Ficino  August 8, 2018

    Professor Ehrman, if you can reveal this, I’m wondering how your research on the afterlife has led you to assess the work of the late Alan F. Segal on the afterlife. What I’ve read of Segal so far seems quite good.

  19. Avatar
    billw977  August 9, 2018

    I like the way you share your feelings and emotions and everyday life events in your posts and your books. It’s like taking the reader along in your adventures and discoveries. You once wrote that you felt cheated out of a “normal” life when you were younger attending Moody and Wheaton. Yet how many of us envy the road you traveled but were unable to for various reasons. With you sharing your experiences and knowledge we can sort of live vicariously through you and still gain a little of the knowledge you have learned. Life changing knowledge….maybe unbeknownst to you, the God you don’t believe in is still using you.

  20. Avatar
    Lilly  August 12, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, as someone who has been writing professionally for years now , do you sometimes suffer from writer’s block ? As an editor and professor you have probably looked at hundreds, if not thousands, of student’s term papers. Is there any advice you could offer inspiring authors or people just wanting to improve their skills ? For example, is over writing a common problem , where less is better .

    • Bart
      Bart  August 13, 2018

      I’m so lucky that I never have had writers block. On the contrary, the words flow as fast as my fingers can move, and it’s been that way for 20 years or so. My best advice to learn how to write well is to study carefully the writing of authors that you think are especially good, trying to see “how they did it” — even at the sentence level. How is this sentence — and the ones that follow to make up a paragraph — written and structured? And how can *I* do that? Then start trying.

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