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How Do I Get To Know What Is In the Bible?

There are a lot of people, billions, actually, who are interested in the Bible — either because of their personal beliefs or because they they realize its historical and cultural importance — but don’t actually know what it’s about.  The broader interest makes a good deal of sense, and not just for committed Jews and Christians.   After all, a good deal of the history of the West is tied closely to the Christian tradition rooted in the Bible.  And how can one understand Western culture without it?  Think about the history of art, music, and literature, for example.  Still, most people really don’t know the Bible.  By that I don’t mean they don’t know what scholars have come to learn about the Bible (that virtually goes without saying!); I just mean they don’t know what’s actually in the Bible.

One reason, of course, is that most people don’t read the Bible.  But an even more important one is that those who do read the Bible do not do so in order to learn what it’s about, per se.  They read it for personal devotion, comfort, enlightenment, and guidance.   That’s all to the good as far as I’m concerned.  But doing that usually means dropping down in one place or another – say the Psalms, or the Gospels of John, or one of Paul’s letters – and reading a bit, thinking about what it might mean for one’s faith or life, and then getting on with other things.

Again, I’m absolutely fine with that.  The Bible is a gold mine of valuable words of comfort and help and reflection that can take people out of the hard, confusing, or seeming meaningless rest of their lives.  All to the good!

But what if someone really wants to know what the Bible is *about*?   On one level, of course, the Bible is not about a single thing at all, but lots of things, with lots of different views about those things.   How is God portrayed in the Bible?  Depends which bits you read.  Christ?  Salvation?  Human life?  Proper ways to worship?  Moral responsibility?  Meaning of life?  Meaning of death?  Reality of afterlife?  It all depends what parts you read.

But still – what if one wants to have a sense for what the various parts of the Bible are about?  What if someone just asks you: Hey, what *is* the book of Exodus about?  Or Joshua?  Or Jeremiah?  Or Mark, Romans, or Hebrews?   Would you be able to say?   If not, how do you learn?

Most people think that textbooks are meant for classrooms and enrolled students, and, well, that’s obviously right.  But one excellent way to learn about a field you’re interested in is by seeing what is taught in an introductory course on it in a college or university.  And since most of us are not going to go back to school (think Rodney Dangerfield), the easiest way to do that is by reading a standard and widely accepted textbook in the field.   (Another way is to get the Great Courses course on it!  But the value of an actual book in your hands is that you can look something up easily – just use the index.  It is mch harder to do with a video or audio course.  Much, much harder — as many of us can attest.

A good part of my professional life has involved writing textbooks.   My first endeavor was in the mid-90s, when I thought, probably rightly, that I wasn’t seasoned and experienced enough to do it.  But I was asked by Oxford Press to produce a college-level textbook on the New Testament, I spent about three years doing nothing else (for my research), and it came out in 1997, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings.

For the book I wanted to try something different from what was already available in the flooded New Testament textbook market.  I wante to produce an introduction that wasn’t principally about the theology of the New Testament or about the books of the New Testament from a strictly literary point of view (two approaches I had no problem with: they just weren’t what I thought was most interesting or important).  My book would be a historical introduction, one that discussed the NT from the perspective of history, while, of course, dealing with both its theological and literary aspects.

The book ended up doing well, and now it is in its seventh edition (which just came out!).  Later I decided to write a simpler version of it for professors who thought the full edition was a bit too much for their students; this Brief Introduction to the New Testament has also done well and is now going into its fifth edition (which I just finished).   Then I wrote a college level textbook on the entire Bible, from Genesis to Revelation:  The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction, now in its second edition.  Half of that book is on the NT – so a far shorter treatment still.    And now I’m proposing a very very much shorter graphic textbook on the NT.  It keeps getting shorter and shorter!

I firmly believe that understanding the depth of a topic is really important.  Really really important.  And my longer regular textbook itself barely scratches the surface.   But sometimes someone needs a brief introduction.

And so how brief can it be?   WELL!   Recently a blog member sent me a clever summary of the entire Bible that she says has floated around for a while.  But I had never seen it.  I think it’s terrifically witty.  I don’t think I want to abbreviate a discussion of the Bible any more than this!  I hope you enjoy it as much as I did:

God made.
Adam bit.
Noah arked.
Abraham split.
Jacob fooled.
Joseph ruled.
Bush talked.
Moses balked.
Pharaoh plagued.
People walked.
Sea divided.
Tablets guided.
Promise landed.
Saul freaked.
David peeked.
Prophets warned.
Jesus born.
God walked.
Love talked.
Anger crucified.
Hope died.
Love rose.
Spirit flamed.
Word spread.
God remained.


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Comments

  1. Avatar
    dennislk1  February 14, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I believe this summary would make an excellent day 1 quiz to gauge your students’ knowledge for a course titled “The Christian Bible”.

    In my quests to find answers in the Bible, www. biblegateway.com is an excellent resource for searching for key words such as Angels, born again, New Earth, etc.

    Dennis Keister

  2. Avatar
    Silver  February 14, 2020

    For me a work of great skill (albeit considerably longer than your offering above) is ‘The Rhyming Bible’ by James Muirdan. This especially opened up for me books of the OT of which I had little knowledge. He also produced ‘Shakespeare in a Nutshell’ (also in rhyme), which might appeal to your wife (although it is not as good as his ‘Bible’).

  3. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  February 14, 2020

    Robert Price has a two volume set on the old and new testaments. I’ve got both volumes now and I’m reading the one on the old testament. I guess it’s too late, now that I’ve got the books, but would you offer any caveats that I ought to be aware of? That I probably should have been aware of before I bought the books?? He does have a kind of breezy style but that makes the reading easier. Years ago I forced myself to read through both old and new testaments and in many ways it was a disenchanting and disturbing and sometimes mind-numbing slog. In the end, I was somewhat appalled and depressed. I’d never read it before. I expected more. I thought, hey, if GOD wrote this book it MUST be a good read! No, it was not.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 16, 2020

      Well, he’s a mythicist (do you mean *that* Robert Price), so caveat emptor! Have you seen my debate with him? I, of course, prefer my own treatment in my introduction, The Bible, mentioned in the post. 🙂

    • Avatar
      tcasto  February 17, 2020

      Richwen90: I’m sure many others on this blog share your frustration with the lack of coherence and clarity in so many parts of the Bible. Bart’s research into the translation and transcribing errors goes a long way to explaining the how. What remains is the why; why do so many regard it as inerrant truth.

  4. Avatar
    fishician  February 14, 2020

    Clever, but sadly that’s about the level that most people know of the Bible! A few years ago I was at the NC Museum of Art and a mother was explaining to her son inaccurately what was going on in a painting of Jesus being crucified. I thought, how does one understand and interpret so much of Western civilization without knowing the stories of the Bible if not some of the theology? Maybe graphic novels, particularly if presented as simply telling of the stories rather than as evangelistic propaganda, like we learn Greek and Roman mythology, are a way to help future generations know some of this information and give our history some context that they might otherwise lack.

  5. Avatar
    nichael  February 14, 2020

    As I get older I’m finding that the more I read the Bible the more I’m surprised not so much by what _IS_ in the Bible but by what’s _NOT_ in there.

    (As a specific example, a few months back I took Prof Craig Koester’s Teaching Company course on The Apocalypse — which I’m following up by working my way through his Anchor Bible commentary on “Revelation” which my daughters gave me for Christmas. To paraphrase Will Rogers, the problem is not what folks –including me — don’t know; it’s what they know that just ain’t so.)

    • Bart
      Bart  February 16, 2020

      His commentary is the single best on Revelation! The real deal.

  6. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  February 14, 2020

    Quite clever!

    For several decades, I sought a way of putting it ALL together. Dr. Ehrman’s textbooks do that. I have read all three of them that he describes above. BINGO!

  7. Avatar
    veritas  February 14, 2020

    You are truly a wealth of knowledge and I admire how, in your own way, make everything accessible for everyone who wants to learn, believer or not. I have two questions; 1) In your Great Courses books you speak of in this post, what is the difference between the first edition and seventh? I see that the newer ones have, in some cases, less pages, have things been omitted or revised due to new findings on your part. 2) This may be more personal. What is your goal as Bart Ehrman and how you would like to be remembered ? I have a curious mind, thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 16, 2020

      1. Do you mean my Oxford University books? Great courses does audio/video courses, and I’ve done only one edition of each topic fo r them. The first edition had no pedagocal features, was in black and white, and needed serious improvement over the years, but the heart and soul is all there. 2. Mainly my good looks and boyish figure. 🙂 Actually, I’d like to be known as someone who did his best to help other, who was a serious scholar of Christian antiquity, and who helped disseminate knowledge of the NT and early Christaintiy to a wider reading public, probably in that order.

      • Avatar
        veritas  February 16, 2020

        Your wife accepted you, so the looks and boyish body contributed. Prof. Ehrman, today I was driving out in the country on a beautiful sunny winter day. I was listening to music and Tom Petty’s “Running Down a Dream” came on. Maybe one of the best driving songs ever. But oddly, you came into the picture as I listened to the words. How fittingly, it made me think of the journey you embarked on, like many of us, of religious mystery and the pursuit to answers wherever they lead. Here are the words from the chorus;” I’m runnin’ down a dream that never would’ve come to me
        Workin’ on a mystery, goin’ wherever it leads
        Runnin’ down a dream
        Yeah, I’m runnin’ down a dream that never would’ve come to me
        Workin’ on a mystery, goin’ wherever it leads
        I’m runnin’ down a dream.
        Maybe a consideration for your theme song during debates/speeches. 😊

  8. Avatar
    AstaKask  February 14, 2020

    Leaves out the great religious genocide at the the end of history, but otherwise not bad. And I salivate at the thought of getting GCP, but I live in the wrong country.

  9. Avatar
    Jacqueline3  February 14, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,
    While I find this website very interesting (after seeing your Great Courses material), it was reading through your textbook “The New Testament: a historical introduction to the early Christian writings” that truly pulled the subject together for me into a coherent whole.

    Good as this website is, you are forced to jump from topic to topic.

    I strongly encourage your readers to consider buying the textbook for a fuller picture. I’ve now moved on to “After The New Testament”, an anthology.

    Best regards,
    JK

    • Bart
      Bart  February 16, 2020

      Yes, I completely agree. You can’t get a systematic discussion from the blog! Just a bunch of posts on a very wide range of topics….

  10. Barfo
    Barfo  February 14, 2020

    I have the The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings…..5th edition and The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction. I have also read six of Bart’s other books (so far). I must say that even though I’m a junior college dropout, I find that the textbooks are my favorites, especially as a “go to” resource for discussion and study. I also enjoy the photographs in the textbooks:)

  11. Avatar
    mannix  February 14, 2020

    I have both the “Historical Introduction…” 6th ed. and “The Bible” 1st ed. I hope I’m not being impolite by asking if there are good reasons for upgrading either or both? Specifically, new information or any significant changes?

    I am somewhat surprised by the stated need for the “Brief Introduction…” I’m certainly no biblical scholar but in no way did I find the “Historical Introduction…” “too much”.. The proposed graphic text takes me aback a bit, but I’ll reserve judgement.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 16, 2020

      The major content and views are pretty much the same. There are improvements to make it better adn better, but esp. with the NT book, probably not enough to require you to by the new edition. The layout and structure of Bible 2nd ed. are very different in ways, but the content is pretty much the same (it’s much better as a textbook now, but no major changes in the information)

  12. Avatar
    Stephen  February 15, 2020

    Do you think we’re headed back to the way it was for centuries apparently, where the one or two literate people in the group read it out loud to everyone else? I hate to say it but in many places we’re near that now!

    • Bart
      Bart  February 16, 2020

      Literacy around here is 99%; I don’t think that’s goin anywhere but up.

  13. Avatar
    Damian King  February 15, 2020

    Hey Dr Ehrman, over the last couple of months, I have made many comments on several blog posts with questions that people (including you) have responded to. Is there any way I can see all the comments I have made on this site without having to go through all the posts individually? Please, help. Thanks

  14. Avatar
    ecafischer  February 15, 2020

    You know it’s amazing the things that suddenly resonate on a deep level with us folks. Reading this material is super satisfying and stimulating, as well as stretches my Ole Lady brain; I’m so grateful. It was also amazing to me to read that, sort-of, a poem that summarized the Holy Bible. The most amazing and delicious part was the last two words. It actually brought me to tears. Who’d ‘a thunk? Amazing.

  15. Avatar
    Levenson  February 15, 2020

    Hi just a few questions for clarification professor:

    Does heaven mean sky in biblical context? Or does that depend on the author?

    Lastly is it correct that the word “God” can be trace back to either Zeus or gawd (Canaanite deity of fortune)

    Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  February 16, 2020

      1. Yes, but these were not seen as opposed to each otehr. Heaven was the sky above what you can see. 2. No, I don’t think so. It comes into English from teh Middle High German Gott. But I’m not sure how it got into German. It’s not etymologically related to Zeus. Don’t know abouit a Canaanite deity of fortune, but have trouble imagining how that affected German linguistic usage without mediation through Indo-European roots.

  16. Avatar
    Niceguy  February 16, 2020

    My Kingdom is not of this world.
    I go to prepare a place for you.

    -Sure reads like Jesus meant on Earth-

  17. Avatar
    AstaKask  February 16, 2020

    What do you think the author of Matthew meant by “blasphemy against the spirit”?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 17, 2020

      Almost certainly he meant refusing to realize that the Spirit was the one empowering Jesus (as opposed to Satan)

  18. John4
    John4  February 17, 2020

    Thanks, Bart!

    I think I’d want to add the following between David and the prophets:

    Solomon templed
    Babylonians’ exiled.
    Cyrus restored.

    Many thanks! 🙂

  19. Avatar
    rburos  February 18, 2020

    I’ve watched all your Great Courses lectures, and read most of your books (I have most of a shelf devoted to you), to include your textbooks (entire bible and the new testament). So i couldn’t help but feel a bit like a traitor when I watched David Brakke’s Great Courses series “Understanding the New Testament”, but I gotta say he hit it right out of the park for me. I really recommend it either as a companion to yours, or dare I say, on its own.

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