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Learning New Things

I am constantly awed by some fellow scholars,who have not just enormous range of knowledge about so many things but also an inordinate, almost insatiable curiosity.   There aren’t many people like that, but I know some.   At the same time I am regularly puzzled by people who simply have no curiosity about much of anything, who have strong opinions about lots and actual knowledge about little, who just don’t have any real curiosity or drive to find answers to anything.

I’m not talking about the BIG questions of life (Why are we here? What is the purpose of it all?  What should I be doing with my life? Etc. etc.) – although I do find it odd that so many people just don’t think about them.  But here I’m talking about knowledge in general.  People simply prefer to sludge through life without looking into anything beyond the headlines, without reading books, without finding anything worth looking into.

I suppose I too was raised that way and was that way for the early part of my life.  But I was bitten by the curiosity bug probably as a late teenager, and I’ve gotten increasingly infected over time.  I’d say I’m a somewhat unusual case, though – even though I’m interested in masses of things, more and more, (I find myself looking things up on the internet more and more, especially about politics, current events, and so on), most of my curiosity is unusually narrow and directed.  But at least it’s there, and I find it hugely energizing and exciting.

There’s no way I could do the average American thing of watching five hours of TV a day.  Who has the time?  Well, I guess most of us do!  But I haven’t watched an actual TV show, say, a sit com, many years.  I do watch high quality series, from Downton Abby to Breaking Bad to A French Village (the last of which, by the way, even though most of you will never have heard of, is absolutely FANTASTIC).  Even with these shows, I never take time out of the day or evening to watch them doing nothing else; I play an episode or two while working out on my cross-trainer, killing two birds with one stone since I need the exercise anyway….

Anyway, my actual range of serious curiosity is, as I said, narrow, but rather deep.   And expanding.  But not expanding in ways that virtually anyone else in the known universe is going – and for me that’s just as well.   I’m nerdy at heart, and am obviously a scholar both of religion and antiquity, and rather than expanding my interests into things I’m just, at the end of the day, not hugely interested in (although I certainly *could* be), by reading books after book on, say, the Italian Renaissance, or the rise of Hitler, or the great recession (I have read books on these kinds things, but for me, usually one book is enough; I’m not going to devour book after book on them), I’m developing my passions for antiquity.

Here again I’m unusually limited in my interests.  I certainly could become interested in ancient China or the ancient Near East (and I have read a good bit on the latter, but only because it is peripherally related to what I am intrigued by).   And – this may seem surprising – I’m not passionately interested in reading more and more books about the New Testament.  How many books on the same topics does one need to read to say – I think I’ll move on now?  I’ve studied NT literally full time for over 40 years.  I’ll obviously keep studying it, but it’s not my driving passion.

In part that’s because I have always felt completely deficient in my knowledge about just about everything *outside* of New Testament studies.   But of all the fields of antiquity that I’ve really wished I knew more about, it has always been the Greek and Latin classics that I’ve most regretted not knowing.  (You can see already that this is not the normal direction normal human beings take when deciding how to spend their time….)    My brother is a professional classicist (mainly a Latinist); I’ve known lots of other classicists; and I’ve always been deeply envious of the huge repertoire of ancient writings they have at their disposal.

So about six months or so ago I decided to bite the bullet.  When I was in college I studied classical Greek as my foreign language, before shifting to concentrate on the later form of Greek known as KOINE (the “common” Greek used from about 200 BCE-200 CE), which is where I”ve always done most of my work.  But I’ve never spent a lot of time reading the great classical works in Greek (apart from a bit of Plato); no Homer, or Euripides, Sophocles, etc. (in Greek; I’ve read them, of course, in English).  And I learned Latin many years ago, and have kept it up a bit – but mainly to read early Christian texts in Latin, including ancient Latin translations of the New Testament.   I’ve never worked on great Latin literature (Ovid, Livy, Virgil, etc.)

And so within the last half year I’ve decided to do so.  The work originated with my interest in the afterlife traditions in Greek authors such as Homer, Plato, Lucian of Samosata (the latter of whom I have read a bit in Greek).  Why not read them in the original?  If you’re doing serious academic work on them, you need to!   And then there are the Latin authors, such as Virgil, who was almost completely inaccessible to me.  Why not learn the earlier forms of Greek – Homeric, which is very different from the Greek of the New Testament, and literary Latin of, say the time of the early empire?

So that’s what I’ve been doing.  Every day, for some months now, I start my day by getting up early, and after doing the blog, studying Greek and Latin for two or three hours.   And I have to say, it’s FANTASTIC.  I haven’t done something like this in a very long time, really learned something new.   OK, it may not seem to an outsider that this is “completely* different from what I’ve done before.  But learning the Greek of Homer, even though there are obviously lots and lots and lots of similarities to what I already know, is very different from what I’ve done before, and it is amazingly interesting and freeing.  And the Latin of Virgil: being able to read about the sack of Troy in Latin — really intriguing.

This decision and process has shown me several things:  (1) How much I completely relish learning new things, instead of retreading all the old things I already know; (2) How each of us really needs to decide how we want to spend our time, and then commit to doing it; (3) Why the Classics are Classics.  This is literature that has been “Great” for centuries, and for good reasons.   Among other things, great ancient literature can help us reflect on issues that continue to be relevant to life: How do we deal with the major obstacles we face in life?  Can anything good come out of the pain and struggles we constantly face? What does it mean to be faithful to family and friends?  What is it we most value?  And on and on.

When I was in graduate school, I had a teacher who said that she had a goal of learning something completely new every semester.  I thought she was nuts.  Who has the time?  I’m now finding, as a sexagenarian, that one needs to make the time.  At least I need to.   And I’m finding it one of the most exciting things I’ve done in memory.   Of course, most people would rather be flayed alive than have to learn the paradigms for Latin verbs.  But then these people can find their own passions.  And wouldn’t the world be a more interesting place if people discovered what they really were interested in and started pursuing it with passion?


An Opening for the Blog Dinner NYC August 27
Blog Dinner for NYC Full!

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    jeffmd90  August 18, 2019

    I thought this was going to lead into a promotion for The Great Courses Plus!

    2
  2. Avatar
    Neurotheologian  August 18, 2019

    Wow, Bart! That seems like a big shift. Your disicpline inspires me. I’ve just returned from Crete and visting the Minoan places at Knossos and Phaistos, the plateau of Lasithi and the Dicktean cave (as well as the more historically modern relelvant Island of Spinalonga). I have become fascinated in what ways the mysterious Minoan civilization influenced the early Greek empire – their culture, religion, mythology etc. I brought home with me a meaningful souvenir – a copy of the Phaistos Disc with its pre-linear A hieropglyphics – both remaining un-deciphered.

  3. Avatar
    AstaKask  August 18, 2019

    I absolutely think that the world would be a more interesting place and I think it’s inspiring that there are people who do study things just for the joy of learning, not necessarily because there will be any profit in it for them.

    Do you think there is such a thing as a Moral Event Horizon? That there are deeds so vile that there is no way back from them? Or should we be able to forgive anything?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 19, 2019

      I suppose what it means to “forgive.” Some actions, in my view, are inexcusable. I will say that nothing has happened to *me* that I consider unforgivable.

      2
  4. Avatar
    longdistancerunner  August 18, 2019

    Maybe it’s a cultural thing. Americans for the most part have no time for intellectual pursuits for the pure joy of improving ones intellectual capacity.
    We zero in on learning what the cave men zero’d in on. Hunting and Gathering. Acquiring stuff. And more stuff than our neighbors.
    Albert Speer, Adolph Hitlers Armaments Minister made this observation about the intellectual backgrounds of his guards who were guarding him in his Diary “ Spandau”
    “The American guard….a former football player…
    with a round good natured face…laughs all daylight.. was nicknamed Moby Dick.
    A Russian proposed the name Sancho Panza for this new man. But most of the Western Guards would surely be embarrassed if they were asked where that name comes from. While they ( western guards) content themselves with detective stories and crossword puzzles or merely sit half dozing, the Russians ( guards) study chemistry, physics and mathematics; they read Dickens, Jack London or Tolstoy and are remarkably well acquainted with world literature”-
    We Americans are too busy. Were out hustlin’

  5. Avatar
    seahawk41  August 18, 2019

    I just finished Ziony Zevit’s “Telling Biblical Tales”; he made this interesting comment: “Reading the Bible in translation is like kissing through tissue paper. You get some of it, but it is not the real thing.”

    I retired 6 years ago, and decided to learn to play the cello. I had taken lessons in 8th and 9th grades, but quit, and what with college, grad school, and then teaching physics and astronomy for 44 years, I didn’t have the time to go back to the cello. You are absolutely correct: learning a new thing is a wonderful experience, and in my case, a great way to keep alive in mind and body as I age.

    2
  6. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  August 18, 2019

    Thanks for giving us a piece of your mind. 😉

    1
    • Avatar
      doug  August 19, 2019

      I’d give you a piece of my mind, but I don’t have much of it to spare.

  7. Avatar
    Fernando Peregrin Gutierrez  August 18, 2019

    I was born not knowing and have had only a little time to change that here and there.

    —Richard Feynman

    2
  8. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  August 18, 2019

    In terms of literature that will stand the test of time, I’m reminded of an old Star Trek episode in which Kirk and Spock discuss great literature. Kirk mentions Virgil and Homer and Harold Robbins. And Spock says: “Ahhh! The immortals!” So what I notice about Homer, for instance, is that he told a story, an exciting, imaginative, adventure tale. I think then of “modern” writers who are very subjective and concerned with minutia. Stephen King might have a better shot at literary immortality than Gide or Camus or even Proust!

    • Bart
      Bart  August 19, 2019

      Interesting. But I’m pretty confident King will be a period piece….

  9. Avatar
    gbsinkers  August 18, 2019

    Totally agree about learning new things. My son, who is a flight attendant, happens to be home right now and my wife and I commented this morning over breakfast about how he is so interested in so many things. He listens to educational podcasts for fun! Many people assume that since he is a flight attendant he is not bright but they don’t know that he has a Bachelors degree and graduated with honors. For him, this job allows him to experience the world in ways most of us never get the chance to do so, meeting people of every stripe and culture and to travel the world for free! He also watches a LOT of sports and Netflix too but those things will often introduce him to something that he will dig into more. But if you want to talk to him about history, climate change, economics, politics, religion, social justice, etc. he can certainly participate, contribute and possibly dominate. He has a very broad base of knowledge but at more of a shallow depth than you Bart. And he is only 28! His mother and I are also very big readers and try to stay current but I swear he teaches me something each time we get to see him. Last year he and I went to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. They have a German U-boat there that you can tour. He had read multiple books about it and wanted to see it again (he saw it on a Jr. High field trip previously). We paid for a guided tour but I swear my son knew more than the tour guide and he was pointing out things on the submarine that the guide missed! As we walked around the exhibit, he gave me detailed accounts of some of the main men associated with the boat and how it came into our possession. It made our trip very special. If people would turn off the TV, especially the news channels, and visit the library once in a while what a difference it would make in their lives and our world.

    2
  10. Avatar
    flshrP  August 18, 2019

    Either you have curiosity about the universe and what’s in it or you don’t. There’s probably a genetic component at work here. I’ve always been a nerd with an excess of curiosity. I think you can tell a lot about a person by what they read. Here are my current magazine subscriptions:
    Biblical Archeology Review– since the early 1980s
    Aviation Week and Space Technology–since the late 1960s. I’m a retired aerospace engineer with degrees in physics and engineering physics
    Sky and Telescope–since the 1960s. Built my first telescope at age 12. Much later built a small observatory on my ranch in northern CA
    World War II magazine–since the late 1980s. I’ve always been a WWII buff. Read the multivolume histories of the Army and Navy operations in that war plus dozens of other history books on the subject
    A few books on the side table next to the LazyBoy recliner:
    Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow
    Mark W. Moffett, The Human Swarm
    James S.A. Corey, Abaddon’s Gate–vol 2 of “The Expanse”. IMHO the best science fiction in print or on TV in the
    past 20 years
    Edward W. Kolb and Michael S. Turner, The Early Universe
    Darrell W. Ray, Ed.D., The God Virus–How Religion Infects Our Lives and Culture
    Kurt Wenner, Asphalt Renaissance: The Pavement and 3-D Illusions of Kurt Wenner
    Mark A. Vieira, Into the Dark–The Hidden World of Film Noir 1941-1950
    Plus many, many more on several tall bookshelves.

  11. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  August 18, 2019

    I think your first paragraph describes the Dunning-Kruger Effect: people who know little think they know it all and people who know a lot think the more they learn the less they know..

    1
  12. Avatar
    Bewilderbeast  August 18, 2019

    I had to lie down for a while after reading that. But I’m OK now. I’ve done something similar – lower key, but similar – (I’m also in my 60’s). Always been very keen on nature and ‘learnt’ a lot, but now doing an actual course on bird biology. And loving it. Cheers!

  13. Robert
    Robert  August 18, 2019

    Amen! My oldest son is getting ready to start his fifth year of Latin as a senior in high school (it’s a public high school, which unfortunately does not offer Greek) and we are evaluating Classics programs. He’s decided to major in Classics in college with a minor in history. I swear to God (whether he exists or not) that I never, ever pushed him in this direction. I was very surprised, albeit pleasantly, when he told me in the 8th grade that he was going to study Latin as his foreign language in high school. He did tell me recently that he was, of course, influenced by me in pursuing this course, even ‘though I never encouraged him to do so. Put me down as a proud Dad!

    1
  14. Avatar
    forthfading  August 18, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Would you enjoy branching out and teaching classics? Seems like you could sort of retire from NT teaching and side step into classics. Maybe teaching undergraduates (you always love teaching your intro class to undergraduates). You have left an amazing mark on the field of NT studies, and even succeed at the popular level (that’s about as rare as hen’s teeth). I am sure UNC would love to have you or Duke. The blog would still keep you studying and publishing NT information (or we would riot). Any thoughts?

    Thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  August 19, 2019

      Actually, I am an adjunct professor in the classics department at UNC, but I’m obviously extremely restricted in what I’m competent to teach.

      1
  15. Avatar
    AndrewJenkins  August 18, 2019

    Ave Bart, nos ignari te salutamus!

  16. Avatar
    qditt  August 18, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    It’s good to hear you’ve found something that reinvigorates your mind! As much as I love religious history, I’ve found new interests in exploration, and revolutionary (political) history. Of course, it’s fascinating to see how they all relate. I.e., “paganism, and Christianity.”

    A common thread I have found in just about any history, is that once a person has reached their “pinnacle” accomplishment, they almost always find themselves in a crisis wondering what to do next? “I’ve made it to the moon!! What now?” “I’ve reached the arctic! What now?” “I’m a war hero! What? The war’s over?!? Now what will I do?” These stories almost always end in tragedy.

    We always need to set new goals, create additional interests, and find new ways to stimulate the mind. I think I can speak for most of your subscribers that we are happy for you, and excited to hear about what new discoveries and lessons you will most certainly find!

  17. Avatar
    Boltonian  August 19, 2019

    ‘The unconsidered life is not worth living,’ Socrates.

    Strangely, my older brother (estranged, alas) is a classicist also, and he inspired me to spend some time in my early 20s between jobs, in Crete, the Peloponnese and Rome, mooching about ancient sites. My interest in Mediterranean history is still with me 40 years later.

  18. John4
    John4  August 19, 2019

    Congratulation, Bart, on your language studies!

    A couple of years ago, you talked about cutting back and watching more sports on TV. That didn’t last long. You got excited about your katabasis thing and off you went again, lol. Learning enough to read Virgil and Homer for pleasure sounds like a better fit, I think.

    I retired two years ago, having taught school for the previous twenty years. I didn’t much want to retire. I was the senior teacher at my school and it was a very sweet job. But, I retired so we could move up to New York City to help out with grandkids we have up here (now aged four and six). And it’s been great. I didn’t try to start over at a new school up here. Instead, I learned Biblical Hebrew from a church here that has a program for teaching the Biblical languages to the laity. It’s been *very* fulfilling. I haven’t watched sports (or anything else, lol) on TV, really, since I went off to college, lol.

    Enjoy Virgil!

    (I know very little Latin, but I did *teach* it one semester when our Latin teacher left unexpectedly at midyear, lol.)

    • Bart
      Bart  August 20, 2019

      Ha! Sounds great. Hebrew can take up a lifetime! I’ve gone on to other things myself. I also once “taught” it (not Latin). Yikes….

  19. Avatar
    csisco  August 19, 2019

    I can’t possibly be the first to suggest this, but given your dearth of sitcom watching AND your current book project, you need to start binge watching “The Good Place.”

  20. Avatar
    catguy  August 19, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    You ask how many books can there be on the NT? I ponder the same thing about End Times eschatology but the Christian bookstores have shelves and shelves on that topic. Once you master the classics in Latin and Greek you can do more Great Courses. I have most of the ones you have done on NT and related religious topics. So when you retire (or do academics ever retire?), you can spend more time teaching in these new disciplines.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 20, 2019

      I know — and I can’t find a Christian bookstore near me (any more) to browse the shelves to see them all! Need to locate one (the only ones that used to be here went the way of most independents….)

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