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My Approach to Doing Research

QUESTION:

You’ve told us about reading book after book after book before you are chose to write your 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 what not to put into notes?

 

RESPONSE:

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 aint easy! All of us realized this all the 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); 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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Writing a Trade Book
Titles for Trade Books, Like Misquoting Jesus

17

Comments

  1. jhague  September 3, 2014

    I believe the method you mention is correct for getting the important information from books. Interestingly, I do not believe a person can read the Bible in this manner. 🙂

  2. ALIHAYMEG  September 3, 2014

    It almost seems like knowledge in certain fields is held for ransom even for those of us with advanced degrees. At least the latest research published in scholarly journals seems to be. In order to keep up with all of the latest research in all of the fields that interest me, it would require thousands of dollars per month in journal subscriptions.

    Is there any single journal that you would recommend as being representative of the most current and relevant work in your field? I apologize if this is a repetitive question.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 4, 2014

      Obviously there are lots. If I had to pick one that would be of use for highly educated general readers, for the Bible I’d say The Journal of Biblical Literature.

  3. rivercrowman  September 3, 2014

    Bart, I read your trade books cover to cover. But with the recent book Nature’s God by Matthew Stewart (2014), I had to skim through the middle chapters, but read the early and the final chapter. … The 566-page book convinced me that many of our founding Fathers (Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and Monroe), were Deists or agnostic/atheists. … He started out in his book emphasizing Ethan Allen and Thomas Young (pre-founders) and concluded with Allen.

  4. RonaldTaska  September 3, 2014

    Wow!

  5. walstrom  September 4, 2014

    With all of the natural “filtering”in academia (authors reading other authors and writing, then being read)
    a distillation process is inevitable. A gray, bland, monotone, tuneless monody pervades Theology.
    The Bart Ehrman iconoclastic approach–I would assert–has only been tolerated because you came out of the extreme conservatism of the evangelical wing of scholars. You quacked like their kind of duck, so you must have been a real duck (as it were.) You passed all the litmus tests. Now they are stuck with the prickly, omg Ehrman. Yours is an exceptional journey. Your audience has come alive; eyes holding wonder like a cup, as it were.
    Question:
    Where is there room for actual new ideas, perspectives, strategies, challenges? Aren’t those usually the purview of the brilliant oddballs who would find conformity of the University process ill-fitting? Doesn’t academic rigor risk losing something wonderful?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 6, 2014

      I’m not sure that serious theology is bland, monotone, and tuneless. It depends whom you read. I don’t think real theologians like Stanley Hauerwas or Rowan Williams would be identified that way. Possibly evangelical ones would be? I haven’t read any for years….

      • walstrom  September 7, 2014

        Yes, the Evangelical apologists such as Lee Strobel and Ravi Zacharias act more as knee-jerk antibodies (mangling a metaphor!) along with mind-numbing Rick Warren and John Piper who have created an industry of readers who merely want to defend against critics without understanding the ideas behind arguments in the first place. I worked in the Religion & Philosophy section of a used book store for 6 years. I talked to many, many devout and pious Christian fundamentalists. The fear of analytically thinking among them was palpable. Others, of course, were open-minded to the point of near blind acceptance of anything debunking Christianity! It struck me there was no room in such people for an objective search for history, paleontology, and rational discourse which the likes of Bart Ehrman bring to the table.
        Atheists such as Richard Carrier, as bright and intellectually vivid as he is, seem less interested in evidence than in gamesmanship, and gotcha.
        QUESTION: In your considered opinion, is there evidence of a trend anywhere among your students toward a calm, measured, falsifiable theologian of tomorrow who is more interested in naked fact than partisan spin?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  September 8, 2014

          I’m not sure what you’re asking. Is it whether theologians can be good historians and reputable scholars? The answer is absolutely yes! But my sense is that most evangelical/fundamentalist scholars would not fall into that camp.

  6. walstrom  September 10, 2014

    Question:
    Among scholars from fundamentalist denominations, and in the Evangelical community, is there a lack of intellectual honesty (i.e. unwillingness to be wrong if evidence warrants) or, is there a corruption on some other level (i.e. Pentecostal TV Evangelists for example) which creates a crisis of deliberate wrong-headed-ness among the rank and file believer?
    On a secondary level, when denominations such as Jehovah’s Witnesses publish and distribute the New World Translation (proprietary, in-house translation) and refuse to disclose who the translators are–is this trend of do-it-yourself, boot-strap epistemology rotting the fiber of Christianity–or–has it always been this way?
    What exactly (in your informed opinion) is the state-of-the-art?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 10, 2014

      I know very few scholars who actually think they are wrong about something they think or believe. And I don’t know why the Jehovah’s Witnesses have that policy. I’d love it if someone could tell us!

  7. walstrom  September 11, 2014

    I’m a former member of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I think I can elucidate the policy adequately.
    No baptized Jehovah’s Witness has ever been awarded a post-graduate academic degree by an accredited institution in the field of Biblical Greek or Hebrew. It would, therefore, be embarrassing to expose this by giving the names of amateurs. The strategy of including the name “Jehovah” in the New Testament is and has been an ongoing issue.
    A member of the Governing Body (Ray Franz) defected and wrote two books exposing various insider information.

    The New World Translation committee consisted of four members of the Jehovah’s Witness religious sect. Their names and scholarly qualifications are as follows:

    Nathan Knorr: President of the Watchtower Society (no academic training in any Biblical language)
    Fred Franz: (no academic degree in any Biblical language, though he did study Greek for two years at the University of Cincinnati)
    Albert Schroeder: (no academic training in any Biblical language)
    George Gangas: (no academic training in any Biblical language
    ________________________
    The various publications (Watchtower magazine and Awake!, etc. discourage members from “higher education” because “time is short” until Armageddon. It has been short since 1914. Oops, it is 2014. Well, it must be much, much shorter now:)
    ____________________

    QUESTION:
    Is there any justification for replacing God and Lord in the New Testament with “Jehovah”?
    re:
    Argument #1: The New Testament contains frequent quotes from the LXX (The Septuagint; an early Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament).

    Argument #2: Ancient manuscripts of the LXX had the name “Jehovah” either in a transliteration or in Ancient Hebrew characters (YHWH) preserved in the text.

    Argument #3: When quoting from the LXX, the New Testament writers would always have preserved the divine name, since using substitutes (such as “God” or “Lord”) for the divine name is an unscriptural practice.

    Argument #4: At some point in the second or third centuries A.D. all references to the divine name must have been removed from the text of the New Testament by the scribes.

    Argument #5: Therefore, when the NWT translators insert “Jehovah” into the New Testament text in place of “God” or “Lord” they are not really changing the Bible, as some allege. They are really only restoring what the text must have originally said before it was altered by the scribes in the early centuries A.D.

  8. sleonard  September 21, 2014

    Question about the PhD exams: The last of the five you mentioned was:

    “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).”

    What is the thinking behind this exam? If it’s not directly in their field, it seems like it would be a distraction rather than a benefit.

    Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  September 22, 2014

      Ah, good question. The reason for that exam is that it gives the student breadth within his/her scholarly expertise, so that s/he is not simply a narrow scholar who can talk/research/teach one thing, but has broader intellectual knowledge, curiosity, and expertise.

  9. Rick
    Rick  September 24, 2014

    Dr. Ehrman, apologies if you have answered this before… but, when you research material in its original language, say Greek or Hebrew, are you mentally translating and thinking in English or can you think in the old languages. I have multilingual friends who think in several languages which I find amazing. How does the mental process of the translator/reader impact the potential for missing nuance?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 24, 2014

      Well, I’m not fluent in ancient languages the way a bilingual person is in, say, French and English. But when I read ancient texts, I do try to think in the other language. That’s easiest to do when the language is not overly difficult!

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