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How I Moved into Trade Publishing

I have been explaining that I started to write books for a broader audience not because that was some kind of goal in my life – just the opposite! – but because I came to think it would be a good thing to try to communicate scholarship on the New Testament to 19-20 year olds in a college-level textbook.  A couple of readers have commented that when my former classmates from Moody have indicated that I wanted (and still want) to write books to become famous, they were not referring to my textbooks but to my trade books for a general (adult) audience.   That’s exactly right – that is indeed what they were referring to.  The reason I’ve been talking about my first textbook is that this was the beginning of my quest to reach out to a broader swath of people.    Here in this post I’ll get to my trade books.

After I wrote my first textbook (I’ve now written three, and compiled three anthologies of ancient texts, in good translations, with brief introductions, also for college kids), I thought – OK, that’s IT!!!  Back to doing scholarship and only scholarship!   I did not plan on writing another textbook, and certainly not a book for a broader audience.

Then the same thing happened as happened with the textbook.   An editor pressed me and I finally agreed.   This was a different editor.   Half way through writing my original textbook, the book got handed off to a new editor at Oxford Press who had been brought on board to focus exclusively on textbooks in Religion and in Philosophy.   This is someone who became a friend, and is now one of my closest friends, as he moved to Chapel Hill some ten years ago (even though he still works at OUP in New York, long distance), Robert Miller.

After the textbook was finished, Robert called me and told me that he thought I should write a trade book (for a general audience) on the historical Jesus.  I told him he was crazy.   I had vowed never to write a general book on anything, and especially not on the historical Jesus.   No thanks.   He called me again about it.   No, I still wasn’t interested.  But in the interim I had started to think:  wouldn’t it be nice to have a book on the historical Jesus that didn’t lay out an idiosyncratic and personal view of the matter so much as the view that had been dominant in scholarship for nearly a century?

There were (and are!) lots of books about Jesus that are out there.  But…

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Authors Who “Just Want to Sell Books”
On Writing for A College Audience



  1. Avatar
    Todd  May 19, 2015

    After about 60 years, having graduated from seminary, having worked in three churches, and put in a stint of 32 years in public school teaching, I still didn’t know much about who Jesus was. Your book solved that problem.

    I have mentioned to a few scholars I know, including you, that, for me, the most important thing that a scholar can do is communicate their work to the general public in common language.

    I appreciate that you are doing that. It is an important part of a scholar’s work, in my opinion.

  2. ZekePiestrup
    ZekePiestrup  May 19, 2015

    Here’s a clip I just released with Prof Ehrman explaining the apocalyptic Jesus (via Ben Hur).

    Mark 9:1 to May 21!

    • Avatar
      rrogers  May 23, 2015

      Zeke, I appreciated your movie and the big hug Harold got in the end. That dear old guy will be missed. Sitting on the bleachers at Megiddo on 5/21/11 with some students and discussing Mk 9:1 and other NT apocalyptic texts was all the more memorable given Harold’s prediction. I hope no one actually lost their bankroll on his delusion. Your movie will become required for my university students in American Religion. Thank you.

  3. Avatar
    hmltonius  May 19, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman – I don’t know where to generate a new question so thought the topic of publishing might be close enough. Do you have any recommendations for Bible App Readers? Your suggestion to read passages horizontally in comparison has greatly enhanced my understanding of the bible and see that Olive Tree has this function where you can seamlessly compare gospel passages as well as different translations of the same text. The ASV and KJV come free with many other translations for purchase, including NRSV and original Greek and Hebrew texts, that you add to the in-app library.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 20, 2015

      I’m afraid that, as someone still living in the Pleistocene Age, I don’t! Maybe others here do?

  4. Avatar
    Tom  May 19, 2015

    I’m certainly glad you have been writing for us all these years. It has meant a lot for me.

  5. Avatar
    godspell  May 19, 2015

    I love general historical overviews. Even if it’s in an area I’m familiar with and have done specialized reading in. They can be hugely helpful in terms of reminding yourself of the general scholarly consensus in that area, as well as the divergent points of view. Plus they’re often just fun to read, because they’re not so bogged down in minutiae. Um, not that I’d ever say that of your more specialized books, obviously.

    History can’t only be written for historians. That defeats the whole point of the endeavor.

  6. Avatar
    hmltonius  May 19, 2015

    I meant original-language texts (Nestle-Aland) not “original” texts! A Professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College claims that for the first time, textual criticism can now be done with a mobile app based on the inclusion of the entire critical apparatus?

  7. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  May 19, 2015

    It’s obvious that you’re well-known among certain circles. Famous? Mmm, no. To say you wrote books about Jesus to become famous, even for a broader audience, is silliness. However, if you were approached to make a movie about your life coming from evangelical Christianity to where you’re at now, I would say you’d be VERY famous. Someone will figure out that’s a good idea.

  8. gmatthews
    gmatthews  May 19, 2015

    Speaking of book publishing….do you know if anyone is going to write a rebuttal to your new book like has been done with several of your previous books? Seems like this one will be a hard one to offer a differing opinion on…

    • Bart
      Bart  May 20, 2015

      I don’t know! But yes, there will be lots of differing opinions!

      • gmatthews
        gmatthews  May 20, 2015

        I meant differing opinions on how memory works. I know there are those who use memory studies to even support the historicity of the bible (!) so obviously there could be differing opinions on how one should use the studies you discuss in your book.

  9. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 20, 2015

    I am so glad that Robert Miller persisted. I wonder why the views of Bible scholars are so slow to drift down to the lay public? I think the views of scholars in science and medicine, in contrast, drift down to the public rather quickly, almost too quickly, sometimes even before the research has been properly replicated.

    • Avatar
      tms  July 7, 2015

      Part of the reason is that scientific research is mostly funded by taxes, and scientists recognize an obligation to tell the taxpayers how their money is being used. This also helps keep the money flowing.

      I also can’t help suspecting that at least some biblical scholars don’t want the public to have access to biblical scholarship, just as the church for a very long time severely punished anyone who translated the bible into the vernacular so that ordinary people could read it. This is only a suspicion, though.

  10. Avatar
    madmargie  May 25, 2015

    I think there are relatively few of us who want to know the real facts as they are known about the historical Jesus. Most Christians have their minds made up already and don’t want to be troubled to shift gears. My own sister had the traditional view of “I don’t want to know”.

  11. Avatar
    tms  July 7, 2015

    What’s wrong with writing to make money? Remember that Samuel Johnson said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

  12. Avatar
    Michael Sommers  July 7, 2015

    No one should ever (though people do!) write a scholarly book that does not advance our knowledge of a field. There is simply no point (other than getting tenure) to publish a book that states common knowledge. What’s the point? If scholars know the perspective and the data and the arguments, there’s no reason for someone to remind us of it.

    I find that very interesting. In the sciences there are entire journals devoted to review articles that summarize the state of various subfields; journals such as Reviews of Modern Physics or Physics Reports or the many different Annual Reviews of … series. The point is to let people who are not specialists in that subfield quickly find out what is going on in the subfield.

    • Avatar
      Michael Sommers  July 7, 2015

      The first paragraph was supposed to be a blockquote, but I guess that tag doesn’t work here.

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