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How I Do My Research

I often get asked how I go about doing my research for a book I’m writing, especially the scholarly ones.  One question people ask on occasion: do I take notes on what I read?  If so, how?  I dealt with the question on this date six years ago, in answer to a specific question.  I still follow the same system today.  Here is the question and my response!


You’ve told us about reading book after book after book before you even begin writing a book. I’d appreciate your sharing a little info on how you take notes during all of this reading.  And how do you decide what to make notes on and what not to put into notes?



Right – this is a very big issue for scholars in the Humanities, since what we do, for the most part, is read books and write books.  So knowing how to read books is very important.  In particular it is important because there are so *many* books to read (not to mention articles – there are even more of these).  How does one master the massive amount of scholarship that is out there, on any one problem?  Every year, for example, there are dozens of books and articles written about, say, Jesus, or the Gospel of John, or the writings of Paul, or – pick your topic. So if one has not kept up with scholarship on, say, Jesus, for ten years, and wants to get back into it, how does she do so?

It ain’t easy!  All of us realized this way back in graduate school.  For our graduate preliminary exams it was a big issue.  Graduate PhD exams are called a variety of things: “Prelims” because they are preliminary to writing a dissertation; “Comprehensives” because they are to cover fields of inquiry comprehensively; or sometimes just “PhD exams.”  So the deal is this.  In the U.S., in a typical Humanities program (such as our program in Ancient Mediterranean Religions at UNC, where students can focus on early Judaism, for example, or New Testament, or early Christianity, or Greco-Roman religions or philosophy, and so on), a PhD student enters the program, takes seminars for two years, and then prepares for exams.  The exams take about 6 months to a year to prepare for. There are five exams in my field in different areas that a student has to master.  For a student in early Christianity, e.g., they would be these: 1. Language exam (for example, Greek, Hebrew, or Coptic; the student is assigned a passage and has to translate it and explain the grammar, without a dictionary); 2. Greco-Roman religions (other than Christianity and Judaism); 3. History and Literature of Early Christianity exam (for example, covering the NT and the apostolic fathers; or the second century; or the third century; etc.); 4. Dissertation exam (in whatever field they will be doing the dissertation in – Gospel of John; Historical Jesus; textual criticism; early Christian apocrypha; Apostolic Fathers; early Christian apologists; whatever); 5. Outside Field exam (in any area other than their main area of expertise (for an early Christianity person that could be early Judaism, Hebrew Bible, literary theory; women’s studies – anything that is not directly in their field).

So for each of these areas, students have to master a bibliography.  And that in a sense is the beginning of a life-long task of mastering bibliography, which can never be finished, because scholarship is being produced all the time.  So how does one read everything that needs to be read?

When I was in graduate school …

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At Last. Jesus and the Son of Man.



  1. Avatar
    dalefriesen  September 3, 2020

    Thank you that was very helpful.

    My question is from the other end. Do you find it frustrating knowing that you have put so much time into a book and that the reader will not read it completely and “skim” it?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 4, 2020

      Not really. That’s not the reader I’m writing for.

  2. Avatar
    AstaKask  September 4, 2020

    What do you look for in a grad student?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 6, 2020

      Unusually high intelligence, drive, good work ethic, passion for the topic, and creativity.

  3. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  September 4, 2020

    Very informative, thank you.

  4. Avatar
    fishician  September 4, 2020

    Wow, thanks for the tip! Now I can go to the book store and read the intro and conclusion of various books and pretend to be a well-read person! But you point out that this assumes you are already familiar with the subject matter, so as soon as somebody asks me a probing question about the material, I’m sunk. Maybe I should leave this technique to the scholars.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 6, 2020

      Well, you could certainly try! Let me know how it goes…

  5. Avatar
    Poohbear  September 4, 2020

    And yet, for all this reading, you appear to have little knowledge of issues that I raise. Often you can’t bring yourself to publish what I write, or even to delete POV’s that weren’t even going to be published.
    I attended a rural community this week with state guest speakers and video conferencing on pros and cons of GM technology. I felt compelled to speak for the simple reason I was the only one present who supported the tech. I felt I had a room full of Bart’s – all these people heavily read up on the opinions of others, and preaching to the converted.

  6. Avatar
    Hon Wai  September 4, 2020

    ” I have a hard time remembering what I’ve read, say, two days later. ”
    Really? From following your interviews, articles and books in the past decade, I have always been under the impression you have a photographic memory.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 6, 2020

      Ha! I wish I did. For me it’s more work than synapses.

  7. galah
    galah  September 4, 2020

    ” (a) it seems like too much of a chore (since I just put all this energy into reading the bloody thing and have trouble getting up the energy then to take notes on it that day)”

    Is this language allowed in America? 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  September 6, 2020

      Actually, most Americans don’t know “bloody” is a vulgarism, but just think it’s a funny word the Brits use.

  8. Avatar
    veritas  September 5, 2020

    Thanks for sharing Bart. I’m wondering a couple of things ,1) are criticism of books permissible, even to the point where an author gets accused of bad/fiction information? 2) Do you ever get a book’s interpretation wrong, on what the author actually means ? I guess what I’m asking is, how does integrity/honesty play out in publishing books or is all and everything permissible ?

  9. Avatar
    WaterfrontSunrise  September 6, 2020

    Dr Ehrman, do you make use of speed reading techniques, like these people who train themselves to read lines of text without having to scan their eyes across the page? I’ve tried for scholarly research but I find it difficult.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 9, 2020

      I don’t. I can read fast, but not as fast as others and certainly not speed reading. My problem is not just eye speed, but being able to take in what my eyes see. For me, that takes time.

  10. Avatar
    AndrewB  September 8, 2020

    Very interesting. I have a couple of questions: 1. How novel an approach was this when Metzger taught it to you? I’m presuming it revolutionized your productivity . . . 2. Did you find it difficult at first to highlight your books? I don’t know if I could bring myself to mark up a book, even if it greatly increased my productivity.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 9, 2020

      1. No, it’s been around for a long while. But I shoudl stress: some books you have to read VERY carefully, word for word, sometimes several times! 2. Not at all. I would never mark a library copy, of course, but my own books are mine. If I want a non-highlighted book, I can just get another copy. But I’ve never ever felt the need to do so. The highlights help me look through it again later. Significantly help!

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