I am going to take a break from my thread that has been dealing with which books from Christian antiquity I would most like to have discovered. I haven’t gotten very deep into the thread: basically my answers so far have been: the lost letters of Paul, the letters of Paul’s opponents, and Q. There are a lot more that I’d like to discuss, and will discuss relatively soon. But for now I’m going to break off into something else, because I am at a crucial point of my research/writing and I want to deal with that for a while.
As many of you know, I have spent almost all my research time for more than a year now working on issues of memory. I have now read all that I need to read for my next book, a trade book for a general audience, on how Jesus was “remembered” by early Christians in the decades before any of the Gospels were written. My plan is to start writing on Tuesday. Gods willing, I’ll have the book in draft by the end of April. The idea is to have it published next year about this time, early spring 2016 That’s the normal timeline – it takes about a year for a book to appear once it has been written.
So I want to devote some posts to the book, both to the how I have gotten to this point in my work on the book and to the content of what the book will cover. In this post I’ll say something about what got me started on the topic.
After I finished writing How Jesus Became God a couple of years ago I started to work on what at the time I thought was going to be my next serious research project. A couple of years before that I had written Forgery and Counterforgery, my scholarly monograph on the use of literary deceit in the first four hundred years of Christianity. I had decided that I was not interested in doing anything more on forgery – it had been a big book that had taken a lot out of me, and I felt like I had said just about everything that I had wanted to say. And so what should I do next for a serious project?
I try to keep three things going in my head at once, three kinds of books for three kinds of audiences: a serious scholarly work for my academic colleagues, a trade book for the Barnes and Noble crowd (among whom I proudly number myself), and a college-level text book for undergraduate students. I pretty much knew what my next trade book was going to be – a book on the rise of anti-Judaism in early Christianity, which approached the issue by dealing with the disputes between Jews and Christians over the meaning of the Hebrew Bible/Jewish Scriptures. The way I was framing this book in my head was around the question of how and why the Christians ended up with an Old Testament, a book they insisted was “theirs” (not the Jews) and yet which they refused to follow (kosher food laws, festivals, Sabbath, and so on).
And I had a pretty good idea what my next textbook was going to be. I had just recently finished my college-level introduction to the Bible (Genesis to Revelation); and I thought that my next one would be a history of Christianity in the first three centuries, from Jesus to the Emperor Constantine (and the Council of Nicea). But I didn’t feel particularly compelled to make that a top priority just then.
Instead, I wanted to devote myself to my next major research project. I had long before decided that I was done (for now? forever?) working in the field of textual criticism – that is, the field that reconstructs the oldest or “original” form of the Greek New Testament and tries to understand how and why scribes changed the texts they were copying. There was and is a TON, an absolute ton, of work that needs to be done, and continues to be done, in that broad and highly technical field. But I had worked in it for 30 years and thought that this was enough. There were other scholarly fish that I wanted to fry. But as I said, I had decided not to do further work in forgery either; I had worked on that long enough too. What then?
Years ago I had agree to do a project that I had continually put off – in fact, I had a book contract to do it, and for one reason or another, even though I regularly did reading that was related to the topic and produced books connected to it, I had simply never devoted all my energies to. And so, in the winter of 2014, I decided to make it my top academic priority. This was to be a scholarly commentary on the early Gospel fragments that we have preserved in Greek.
The most famous of these fragments, and the real reason I wanted to do the commentary, is the very interesting and important Gospel of Peter, best known for its account of Jesus’ resurrection where he emerges from his tomb taller than a mountain with the cross appearing behind him and speaking to heaven. It’s an amazing text.. But there are other important Greek Gospels fragements as well. There is the significant Papyrus Egerton 2, and the so-called Jewish-Christian Gospels (i.e. the Gospel of the Nazarenes; the Gospel of the Ebionites; and the Gospel according to the Hebrews), and a number of small snippets of texts that have been discovered in Egypt, in places such as Oxyrhynchus. I was supposed to write a detailed commentary on all these works, in one volume. My thinking was that half of commentary, at least, would be on the Gospel of Peter, which I had studied and researched for years; and the other half would be on everything else.
I had done a lot of the preparatory work for the commentary. That was one of the reasons I published (with my colleague Zlatko Plese) two editions of non-canonical Gospel texts (Apocryphal Gospels and The Other Gospels), to give me an excuse to examine the textual bases for these Gospels and to produce a fresh translation of them. And so, a year and a half or so ago, I started doing my serious work on the project for the commentary.
But then something happened that has never happened to me ever in my life. I decided part way into the project that I simply didn’t want to do it. And so I withdrew from it. I’ll explain why in the next post.