A couple of weeks ago I published a post about how an author writes a bestseller (she doesn’t!  It becomes one or not for reasons other than the author’s intent or writing…) I remembered I had posted something on the topic years ago, based on a blog member’s question about my personal best-selling book, Misquoting Jesus, and why it did so well.

In some ways it’s a real puzzle.  The book is about Greek manuscripts of the New Testament.  HUH???  A bestselling book?  What???  (That, at least, is what all my friends said!)   But the answer relates to my previous post.  Here is the Q and then the A.


In your previous answer to me you indicated that what makes a bestseller, in the end of the day, is massive media attention.  My question now is what sparks this attention. In other words, why, out of all your books, did Misquoting Jesus receive a great attention from the media?



Ha!  It’s a great question.  I’ll start by saying that if there were a sure-fire formula for how to get media attention, every author in the planet would do it and we would *all* be on the NY Times Bestseller list!  But the reality is that there are (many) hundreds of books sold every day in English.  Every one of those authors wants to be on Fresh Air with Terry Gross and on TV talk shows giving interviews.  But well, do the numbers.  It almost never happens, since most of the big radio and TV venues happen just four or five times a week.

It happened with me on Misquoting Jesus, and as it turns out, it was almost purely a fluke, an accident of scheduling.

For those of you who are 

interview-radio aficionados, I don’t need to tell you that two of the biggest national venues are Fresh Air and The Diane Rehm Show.  These two seem to compete with one another – one normally playing during the day (Diane Rehm) and the other (at least everywhere I’ve ever listened) in the late afternoon/early evening.   I have been told that because they are in competition they mutually refuse to interview the same person for the same publication.  But I ended up being interviewed for both, within ten days of each other.  One of the schedulers simply made a mistake and didn’t realize I was on the other show.  That made a huge difference to my life.

My book Misquoting Jesus came out in the fall of 2005.  As you probably have noticed, publishers tend to publish their important books on religion either in the fall leading up to Christmas or in the spring leading up to Easter.  They judge that those are the most auspicious time for such books.  The media attention, if it is going to happen, almost always happens right away.

I was interviewed by Diane Rehm for an hour in her Washington Studio in early December, and taped another hour-long interview with Terry Gross long-distance at about the same time (I’ve been on Fresh Air six times and have never met her face-to-face; she does all of her interviews with the interviewee being in a different radio station in a different city, hooked up via cable).  The two interviews aired within ten days of each other.  That almost never happens; as I said, it was a fluke.

Someone at the Washington Post saw that this had happened and took an immediate interest in the book.  It’s a good thing they did.  It ended up making my career.   Misquoting Jesus, after those two interviews and a bunch of appearances on other much smaller radio venues, was on the NY Times Bestseller list, but only at #16.   The deal is that there are, every week, 25 books on “the list.”  But only the top 15 get printed in the Sunday edition of the NY Times.  What every author desperately wants is to be on the printed list, not the extended list.  They want to see their name in the Sunday paper!  And for weeks I was just barely missing it.  Erg.

The Post decided that the topic of the book was interesting enough that they wanted to do a feature article on me.  I got a call from one of their reporters, Neely Tucker, asking if he could come to Chapel Hill to meet with me.  I was reluctant at first – it sounded like a bit of an imposition on my hard-to-schedule time.  But I ended up agreeing, and oh boy am I glad I did.

Neely came and shadowed me for a couple of days.  We met in my office, he came to one of my lectures, he came to my home to look at my home study where I research and write and to talk to Sarah a bit, we had a few nice meals together.  He was a nice and very interesting fellow, and I had a good time.  But I wasn’t really prepared for what came of it.  What came of it was a longish article, in the Washington Post, on March 5, 2006, called “The Book of Bart.”  You can read it online.  It was very positive.

And it brought more attention to the book.   In a very big way.  The producers of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart saw it.  They called my publisher.  They wanted me to do the Daily Show.  Ai yai yai.  This was getting serious.

My publisher immediately arranged for me to get media coaching for the interview with an expert in such things in D.C.  I’ll talk about that in a later post (pretty funny story).  I went on the Daily Show.  Met Jon Stewart ahead of time in the Green Room.  We had a really nice chat.  And then live in front of an audience for the interview.  You can see that too on line.  I thought it went really well.  Jon Stewart *loved* the book and was unusually enthusiastic about it.

And that made all the difference.  For the next four days, the book shot up to be the #1 bestselling book on Amazon.com.   That is, it was the bestselling book in the world for four days.   It also shot up the NY Times Bestseller list, ending up, finally, at #5.  Stayed on the list for months.   And really launched my career as a trade-book author.  The rest, as they say, is history.  And in one sense it was all because of a scheduling fluke.  Go figure.   It’s all about the media attention.

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2023-04-28T16:01:53-04:00April 26th, 2023|Bart’s Biography, Book Discussions|

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  1. MarkWiz April 26, 2023 at 12:37 pm

    Dr. Ehrman, I saw this book in Borders back when they had a brick-and-mortar location near me. At the time, I was still a practicing ordained deacon, something I had been for 16 years. I had gotten to the point, however, that I was questioning my beliefs a lot. I was aware of conflicts in Scripture, traditional beliefs being taught as fact, and the like. I felt this need to peel the onion, to get down to the original core of Christianity. MJ was a crucial tool in my quest. Shortly after reading it, I delivered my what turned out to be my final homily. In it, I mentioned that a lot of what Jesus taught was reflected in other apocalyptic prophets of the time (a thought I had borrowed from your writing and, coincidentally, revisited in your most recent podcast). The following Sunday, my pastor (contrary to evidence) “corrected” my theme from the altar. That was the final straw for me; if faith and truth could not co-exist, it was time to go. BTW, my pastor’s final words to me were, “Stop reading; you’ll get in trouble”! LOL… Amen!

    • BDEhrman April 27, 2023 at 4:42 pm

      Whoa. Thanks for this. I hope it’s all been good since.

      • MarkWiz April 30, 2023 at 8:00 pm

        Mostly. Along with the theological questioning, I was going through a personal crisis concurrently. I felt as if God were beating up my kid. One can’t read from the pulpit on Sunday, “Ask whatever you will of the Father…,” and then shrug when prayers go unanswered. As crisis follows crisis over years, those bromides (“Everything happens for a reason,” “When God closes a door, He opens a window,” etc.) made me want to scream. As a friend of mine in a similar situation put it, You don’t go through hell and come out the other side without re-examining your faith. For years, I was angry with God, but I eventually came to realize that the source of my anger was how Christian interpretation of Scripture had defined Him. I’ve come to see Christ as a wise spiritual man who taught that love of our fellow men is essential. The purpose of faith (if it works for you personally) is inner strength to get through what you need to. However, I can’t redefine God in any meaningful terms that work for me.

  2. cstu April 26, 2023 at 10:53 pm

    9/11 also helped create a lot of people skeptical of religion who were eager to learn the truth about Christianity (the pejorative “New Atheists” as apologists call them).

    “Misquoting Jesus” was also a great title.

    • sLiu May 2, 2023 at 8:16 pm

      USA responded in opposite what true followers of the New Testament would.

      Lies and revenge!

  3. Cole April 27, 2023 at 12:40 am

    Question not related to this post: In your last Misquoting Jesus episode you said Jesus taught that what matters was following his words, but you don’t have to know Jesus to know his words. What Bible references are there to support that? I know of Matthew 7:21-23, but that sounds like kind of the opposite: knowing Jesus but still not entering the Kingdom of God. Thanks in advance!

    • BDEhrman April 27, 2023 at 4:53 pm

      I was referring to the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. But there are other indications: “People coming from the East and the West” who will enter into the kingdom.

  4. notforcing April 27, 2023 at 10:01 am

    The next time you’re debating an apologist, tell them that you do believe in miracles, because one happened to you.

  5. spikenstar April 27, 2023 at 7:24 pm

    There are more than a few talented authors out there. Some get discovered and some don’t. I’m glad you got your shot and made it. You were ready to take off. You have quite a background in all the studies and languages. You built a reservoir of knowledge and found an excellent way to share it. I think the timing was right. I was thirsty for knowledge about the Bible and religion. I think many other people are too. The Sunday School setting was set up to reinforce the established Church position. It was good to find a writer who was not set on trying to reinforce or criticize the Church’s doctrine but just explaining what happened from a historical point of view.

  6. Silver April 28, 2023 at 10:06 am

    Do you think that it is purely a coincidence that the poor man in the story of Lazarus and the rich man and the brother of Mary and Martha are both named Lazarus or is there somehow a link, please.

    • BDEhrman April 29, 2023 at 8:39 pm

      It’s sometimes thought that the story about the rich man and Lazarus who had both died circulated, wiht a question of whether Lazarus could be brought back to life to testify to the truth (as in Luke), eventually transformed into a story about Lazarus dying and and being brought back to life as a witness to the truth (as in John). I personally think that’s probalby right.

  7. tcasto April 28, 2023 at 7:38 pm

    My introduction to you was a DVD with your lectures on MJ. I still have the notes I took. It came at a time when I was trying to find my way. I even started to write a book, Faith Without Religion. Your example gave me the confidence to dispense with any reliance on a supernatural being.

  8. mechtheist April 30, 2023 at 7:11 am

    Never heard those radio shows, I got turned on to your writing the way I usually find new authors of non-fiction to read, a citation in a book by another author I like. I thought it was Dawkins’ God Delusion, not having my copy handy, I asked ChatGPT and it told me no, and then said it couldn’t find any of your works cited by Dawkins and that surprised me. Having had ChatGPT make some really bad mistakes, I don’t know if I should believe it.

    It seems like the fluke was the trigger but the real impetus to your rise to best seller heights was Neely, I hope you at least send him a fruitcake every Christmas. You also shouldn’t discount the fact that you’re just really good as a speaker/lecturer, you can get really passionate at times, it almost sends chills down my spine every time I hear your description of Jesus’ last words in Mark.

  9. david May 10, 2023 at 9:31 pm

    Re “My best selling fluke.”
    I time-stamp all my books when I buy them. My earliest one or yours, purchased in February of 2007, is “Misquoting Jesus.” This blog thread prompted me to look up my notes, and I find that I was motivated to buy it after reading a review by Tim Callahan in the Vol 12 No 4 (2006) issue of The Skeptic (see http://www.skeptic.com).
    I wonder how many others of your blog followers found your works via freethinker and skeptical societies and periodicals.
    By 2010 I had found, bought, and read all of your general audience books available at that time. I’ve added every one since, including “Didymus the Blind.” I enjoyed that one for the insight it gave me into the scholarship of your profession.
    Keep them coming, Bart!

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