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My Current Research Projects, 7/2019

I often get asked what I’m doing in my personal research – both long term and, well, what is it I actually do during the day?   It’s all related to the blog, so I thought I’d devote a single post to it, just a kind of overview of the kinds of things I’m working on.  Right now, as it turns out, it’s a wide range.

Tomorrow I’m off to Marburg Germany (I’ve been in London for most of the summer, so it’s a short flight) for an international conference of New Testament scholars, called the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas – i.e., Society for New Testament Studies.   It’s an annual affair, mainly of Europeans and Americans, that takes place over four days, with major lectures, less major lectures, and seminar papers.  The latter involves small groups of anywhere, I suppose, from five to twenty scholars discussing papers written in advance for an hour and a half each.

I’m presenting a paper I’ve been working on for about a month now on and off, on the Katabasis traditions in the early Christian apocryphal book called the Acts of Thomas.  Remember:”katabasis” literally means “going down” and it is used to referred to trips that a living person takes to the underworld before coming back to describe what she/he has seen.  There are two of these in the Acts of Thomas, one taken by the brother of the king of India to heaven, and the other by an anonymous woman to hell.  Very interesting.  Basic point of these experiences: you definitely want to go to one of these places and definitely do not want to go to the other.

I’ve written a 30-paper on them, showing how these particular texts relate in interesting ways to other famous katabaseis (the plural of the word) in other cultural and religious contexts: one from Homer (Odyssey book 11); one from Plato (Republic book 10); and one from Virgil (Aeneid book 6), all in order to show the range of conceptions of the afterlife in different traditions and the function of such journeys in the literature that contains them. This paper has been great fun and has shown me how I probably want to begin my book on the topic, the BIG project I’ve been working on for a couple of years now.

Completely unrelated: the past couple of weeks I’ve been spending most of my days writing lectures for my next Great Courses course on the “Triumph of Christianity.”  There are 24 lectures altogether, and the content will very much mirror what is in my book by the same name, all about how Christianity started out and grew – and grew and grew and grew, and how eventually it took over the entire Roman empire, to become the dominant religion of the West.  How did *that* happen exactly?

Even though the course is modeled on the book, the format will be completely different: I’m not following the same organization or structure, and the lectures all have to be written afresh:  I can’t just take over the language I use in my book, but have to provide completely new rewritings of everything.

I’ve been doing these Great Courses course before the company was called the Great Courses, back when it was The Teaching Company.  My first two courses were done in 2000, one an introduction to the New Testament and the other on the historical Jesus.  This will be my ninth course.   When I first agreed to do one, twenty years ago, I thought they’d be a piece of cake: Hey, I lecture *all* the time!  How hard can it be?   Oh boy.  They are hard.   Both to produce and give.   Anyway, I’ll be recording the lectures early next summer, but I have to actually get the course written now.  It’s all pretty intense.

Completely unrelated again, a few weeks ago I sent a couple of substantial book proposals (about 30 pages each) to my publisher for the next trade books (for popular audiences) I’d like to write. I’ve described them at length on the blog before.  The first I’m calling “Expecting Armageddon: The Book of Revelation and the Imminent End of the World.”  The second is a bit complicated because I ended up sending in two different prospectuses, with two options for what the actual focus and direction would be, even though both of them were about the relationships between Jews and Christians in antiquity and how these relationships turned sour very fast.  One of the prospectuses was directed more to the “rise of anti-Semitism” and the other to “how Christians stole the Bible” (that is, how did Christians wrest the Jewish Scriptures from the Jews and call it the Old Testament”?)

The final verdict on these proposals is not in yet, but it *looks* like what is going to happen is that I’ll write the Armageddon book.  The publisher in the end is not as enthused about the other one, in either of its proposed iterations.  Its’ not that they think it’s uninteresting or not worth doing – not at all.  It’s that they don’t think, given their enormous expertise about such things, that it has the same sales-potential as other books I could do.  SO, for now it looks like I’ll be doing the Apocalypse of John and its influence on the modern world, with the project after that yet to be determined.

Apart from that, most of my research focus for the fast couple of years has been and continues to be the katabasis traditions in early Christianity, and this is what I will be focusing on full time, I desperately hope, starting in August until I get the thing written.  This will by a scholarly monograph, written not so much for normal people but for abnormal scholars.   As many of you know, I spent all of last year working full time doing almost nothing but the research needed and planning it out.  I have a solid outline of the book now, and almost all the research has been finished.  I *think* I’ll need only a month or two to have it in shape to really start plowing into the writing.  We’ll see.

For now it has seven chapters.  I”ve been trying to figure out how to blog on it; I’m not sure it’s feasible because it would take post after post just to explain all the necessary background information.  But I may give it a shot.  It would certainly be challenging.  But in any event, I haven’t taken on a scholarly project of this scope and depth since Forgery and Counterforgery, some nine years ago now and am massively enjoying it, despite the intense focus it requires.

Finally, the other thing I’ve been working on has been by far the most fun.  For nearly my entire career, my work in Greek and Latin has focused on the early Christian materials (New Testament; Apostolic Fathers; early Christian Apocrypha; other Christian texts of the first few centuries).   Among other things, that means my Greek is of the kind called “Koine” (the “Common” Greek of the time from roughly 300 BCE – 300 CE), even though I originally learned “Attic” Greek (the Greek of Athens in the classical period, that is, that used by the likes of Plato and the Greek playwrights you know if you know the Greek playwrights).   But I am not well read in classical Greek literature, and especially not in Homer.  Homeric Greek is very different from what I typically read, much older and, well, hard to figure out if you’re not actually trained in it.

So I’ve decided to get trained in it.  And in classical Latin.   I’ve been wanting to read deeply in Homer and Virgil, and lots of other authors.  Can’t do it without the languages.  And so I’ve been working intensely – a couple of hours every morning – on new kinds (well, the older kinds) of Greek and Latin.  It is *so* enjoyable, the highlight of my day, working on grammar and reading.   Both languages are improving for me significantly, and my idea is to get them better and better.  I’ll never be a true classicist.  But at least I can start reading the great classical texts I enjoy in their native language.  Fantastic.  (I’m sure this sounds a bit weird – if you can read Greek, can’t you read Greek?  And yes, I can hack my way through classical texts, but it’s a slog and not easy.  I’m not sure if you’ve ever tried reading Middle English, untranslated, let alone Old English.  But imagine asking someone who can read the newspaper well, but not much more than that, to try to read not just Shakespeare but Chaucer in the original.  Or even worse, Beowulf!  If you don’t know what’s that like, go online and take a look).

Anyway, these are the things I’m doing these days.  What a life I have.  Not everyone’s cup of tea, but absolutely mine.

Blog Dinner, Washington DC. September 6, 2019
Could Most People Write in Antiquity?



  1. Avatar
    AstaKask  July 29, 2019

    If there was one common misperception of your field of study you could dispel, what would that be?

  2. Avatar
    hakore3  July 29, 2019

    Oh, man!! That sounds exciting! It would be so awesome to be able to shadow you just for a few days. Dreams of an ordinary amateur layman 😀

  3. Avatar
    Hon Wai  July 29, 2019

    Amazingly productive schedule. You write cutting edge research faster than most people can read. While many people of your age would start to think about winding down to a quiet life, it seems your productivity is increasing.
    Do you ever see yourself retiring from academic work?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 30, 2019

      Not really. I see myself retiring many years from now (I love teaching too), but I have trouble imagining not wanting to do research.

  4. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  July 29, 2019

    WOW! Are you sure you are just one person? It seems that to accomplish all these things there would have to be a bunch of Bart clones running around! But whatever it takes, keep up the good work!

  5. Avatar
    flshrP  July 29, 2019

    Ah, the intellectual life. Can’t beat it.
    When I was an undergrad with a full academic scholarship, we were strongly encouraged to enroll in the Honors Program. Actually, strongly as in “required”. One of the books on the reading list was A.G. Sertillanges “The Intellectual Life: It’s Spirit, Conditions, Methods”, first edition in 1948. I read it in 1959 and since then have tried to apply that information to my own condition. My degrees are in physics, but in my lifetime I have managed to read most of the volumes in the Harvard Classical Library (about 4.5 feet of the Five Foot Bookshelf) and a few dozen of the books in the Loeb Classical Library. Of course, I read these volumes in English. One of the best investments of my time.

  6. Avatar
    TimKendrick  July 29, 2019

    I have to say I’m surprised and disappointed that the publisher isn’t as interested in your second (two-part) proposal, as to me that is definitely the more interesting one and something that I would have thought would have a huge audience. But they know what sells better than I do. But again, it’s very surprising.

  7. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 29, 2019

    Wow! I am exhausted just reading about your life Don’t forget the autobiography of your religious journey.

  8. Avatar
    fishician  July 29, 2019

    I can see why a publisher would be more interested in a Revelation/end-of-the-world book than one about anti-semitism/stealing the OT; people love the Armageddon stuff! Personally, I’m really looking forward to the afterlife book. Glad you have the chance to advance your professional skills; I’m a little envious!

  9. Avatar
    justinbezanson  July 29, 2019

    Is your trade book on the afterlife for lay readers still in the works?

    Sorry if you have answered this elsewhere but I have been away from the blog for a while and a search of the blog didn’t turn up an answer.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 31, 2019

      It will be published at the end of March. It’s in production now, as we speek.

  10. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 29, 2019

    Does the term Koine imply that this was the colloquial Greek used by ordinary, “common” people and that Attic Greek was a more sophisticated and eloquent Greek that more scholarly people used or is the difference between Attic and Koine Greek primarily one of the time period of the writing with Attic Greek evolving into Koine Greek much as Middle English evolved into our current English?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 31, 2019

      Yes, one evolved into the other, and as it evolved it did indeed become less sophisticated in ways.

  11. Avatar
    Bewilderbeast  July 29, 2019

    After I’d read this I had to go and lie down for a while. If I had concubines I’d have got them to mop my brow . .

  12. Avatar
    nichael  July 29, 2019

    With regard to the conference in Marburg:

    Just out of curiosity, what language(s) are papers presented in at an international conference like this?

    [Also out of curiosity, if you don’t mind my asking, what modern languages do you have “under your belt”? For example: …could present a paper in? …could listen to a paper in? …could write a paper in? ?…could read a paper in? …could carry on a conversation in? Etc?]

    • Bart
      Bart  July 31, 2019

      English, German, and French. I can present in English! I could *read* a paper in the others, but I would not be able to follow it orally without a written text in front of me.

  13. Avatar
    nichael  July 29, 2019

    With regard to the “Revelation” book, will you be doing a section on the modern “apocalyptic mythology” of people like Hal Lindsey and the “Left Behind” folks?

    And assuming that’s the case, will you be explaining the “reasoning” behind these various beliefs?

    For example, a topic that was discussed here a month or so back was the tenet that the “Jews must first take back the Holy Land before Jesus’ second coming”, but virtually none of these writers explain *why* they believe this to be true. It’s simply stated as fact (with no mention of, say, 2Thess and “the Man of Lwalessness”).

    (I realize you will have other things on you mind, but it would be nice to have a convenient summary these things.)

  14. Avatar
    nichael  July 29, 2019

    With regard to your “polishing” of your Classical/Homeric Latin/Greek, would you mind saying something about what texts or other resources you’ve been using?

    (Just asking: Do you know Pharr/Wright’s “Homeric Greek”?)

    • Bart
      Bart  July 31, 2019

      Yes, Pharr was a great educator. I’ve been using the Homeric Grammar based on him and his edition of the Aeneid, to get myself started. The goal, of course, is just to be able to read it all….

  15. Avatar
    mannix  July 29, 2019

    Will be looking forward to adding to my Great Courses collection of your lectures. Do you recommend reading the book (“Triumph…”) before the “movie”?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 31, 2019

      Yes, the book has more information; the course would be a great way to secure the most important points.

  16. Avatar
    Jon1  July 29, 2019


    In the Gospels, when Jesus appears to someone and then disappears, *where* do the Gospel authors (or their audiences) intend/think Jesus went? To the underworld? Up to heaven? To an invisible parallel dimension on earth?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 31, 2019

      Ha! They never say — and probably it doesn’t even occur to them to ask.

      • Avatar
        Jon1  July 31, 2019


        In answer to my question about *where* the Gospel authors (or their audiences) intend/think Jesus went in between his appearances to various people you said, “*probably* it doesn’t even occur to them to ask”. Your answer seems reasonable but, hypothetically, if some people *did* ask such a crazy question, what do you think their answer would be? One possibility I was thinking of is that, based on the pre-Gospel belief that Jesus had been resurrected and immediately translated up to heaven to be with God ( 1 Cor 15:4; Phil 2:9-10), some might think Jesus came down from heaven for each appearance and returned there after each appearance. On this possibility, John 20:17 has Jesus say during his first appearance to Mary, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father…’”. It seems possible that when Jesus visits the disciples later that night (Jn 20:19) Jesus has already ascended up to heaven and has returned from heaven, with the same sequence happening again a week later in Jn 20:26. Do you think this is plausible? The only other possibility I can think of is that some thought Jesus appeared and disappeared from some kind of parallel dimension on earth, but is there any basis for this in Jewish thought?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 2, 2019

          I’m afraid I don’t know. I suppose they think he went to heaven, yes.

  17. Avatar
    jdub3125  July 29, 2019

    Back to the determination of authorship of the NT letters: is there any similarity of techniques used compared to those of Mark Glickman at Harvard, who has studied which Beatle was the (primary) writer of each of the Lennon-McCartney songs?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 31, 2019

      I’m very interested in the Beatles, but I don’t know Glickman’s work. (I do know that Lennon and McCartney later disagreed, all the time, about who did what, song by song, usually each of them taking more of the credit!)

  18. Avatar
    epistememe  July 29, 2019

    Ambitious to say the least, but it all sounds like an enjoyable way to spend one’s time. We all benefit from your passions and are thankful you have them.

  19. Avatar
    BrianUlrich  July 29, 2019

    That a book of such crucial social relevance as the origins of Christian anti-Semitism might not get written because of a publisher’s projected profit margin is frustrating.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 31, 2019

      It’s as much about survival as margin! The only way they can exist is by not going bankrupt!

  20. Avatar
    XanderKastan  July 29, 2019

    You learned Attic Greek before Koine? Was that in high school? Before or after you had a passion to be able to read the New Testament in its original language? ie, Why did you start with the Greek of Plato rather than that of Paul?

    • Avatar
      XanderKastan  July 30, 2019

      p.s. Maybe not clear from how I worded it, but I am just curious about how much difference there is between “Attic” and “Koine” Greek and if you were interested in learning classical Greek even before your “born again” phase started and/or if perhaps “Attic” Greek was taught in your high school. I was assuming that at Moody or Wheaton, any Greek classes would be “Koine”, or is that not true?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 31, 2019

      It was in college, and I took it to be able to read the New Testament. But the college wisely knew that it was important to learn Attic: if one does, Koine is not difficult to adjust to, but it is difficult to go the other direction. (The college was Christain — Wheaton — but the course was taught in the classics department)

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