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My New Scholarly Project

I have a lot more to say about the development of the views of the afterlife in ancient Jewish and Christian thinking – specifically, about how we got from an understanding that there would be a resurrection of the body (the view I’ve been discussing) to the idea that when a person dies, their soul (not their body) goes to heaven or hell —  the view most (not the *vast* majority, of course) people have today.   It’s a good thing I have a lot more to say about it, since, well, that’s what my next book is about!

But I want to introduce at this point a thread-within-the-thread, about a related topic (involving the afterlife and my larger understanding of it) that I am more fervently passionate about at just this time.   And to explain just why I’m passionate about it, I need to take a brief detour into my personal life.

I think that a good while back (last year at this time?  I don’t remember) I talked a bit on the blog about how I was seeing my career path at this stage in my life.   This school term (classes started yesterday!) marks my 30th year teaching at UNC.   I’ve been very active as a scholar over these thirty years.  As it turns out, I have published almost exactly a book a year over that entire time:  the book coming out in February, The Triumph of Christianity, is my 31st book; my first book Didymus the Blind and the Text of the Gospels [Really!], came out before I arrived in Chapel Hill.

As you know, I have published a wide range of books over that time: scholarly works (e.g., Orthodox Corruption of Scripture; Forgery and Counterforgery); editions/translations of Greek (and Latin) texts (The Apostolic Fathers; The Apocryphal Gospels); textbooks for college/university courses (The New Testament; The Bible); anthologies of ancient writings (Lost Scriptures; After the New Testament); and trade books for broader audiences (Misquoting Jesus; How Jesus Became God).

About a year ago I was feeling worn out, and started wondering: do I really need to produce a book every year?  Why is that?  I started feeling like I had little drive to keep producing scholarly works, translations of texts, or textbooks.  And I was thinking I wanted to enjoy life a bit more.

I should say, I enjoy life a *lot* as it is.  I travel an awful lot, to some rather amazing places; I go on hiking trips virtually every summer; I read a lot of fiction; I manage to get work-outs in three or four times a week; I spend time with my family – all to the good.  But still, I have a very (unusually) disciplined life, and I work a *lot*.  As you may know, being a university professor *can* mean just showing up to classes and teaching them.  But for someone like me, it means working from the crack of dawn until it’s time for bed, most days of the week.   And I started thinking: you know, I would love to have the free time to take more walks, to watch more sports on TV (when was the last time I could stay up to watch Monday Night Football???), to read more non-fiction outside of my field, to … just to live life.

And so I decided, as I think I announced on the blog, that my current plan was simply to write the next trade book on the Afterlife.  I could put two years into that, and since really it would take me only a year, I would have so much more time on my hands!

Well, as it turns out, that decision lasted less than a year.  I’ve been bitten by the research bug again, and now that the batteries are a bit recharged, I’m eager to write a scholarly book.  But it will be a book on the same broad area as The Invention of the Afterlife.  I am tentatively calling it: Observing the Dead: Otherworldly Journeys in the Early Christian Tradition.  It will be about narrative accounts that we have from early Christianity in which a person is given a guided tour of heaven and hell.  All of these accounts, of course, are anticipatory of the great Dante.  I won’t be dealing with Dante, but only with his early Christian predecessors, from roughly the first four or five Christian centuries.  And the new thread-within-a-thread that I will be now shifting into will be explaining what these journeys to heaven and hell are all about.

What initially motivated my eagerness to write a book like this was a very practical consideration.   As you know, professors at research universities (and most colleges) are given “sabbaticals” from teaching in order to pursue their research.  At UNC, faculty members typically get one semester off every seven years.  Next year is to be my year.  But as also usually happens, I would like to have *both* semesters off next year.   Having one term off is great (fantastic, actually), but having both terms off is more than twice as great, since really that means you are free from May of one year till August of the next – more than a full year.

To get the other term off, I would need to land some kind of fellowship.  There are several places that provide fellowships/funding that allow an additional semester (or an entire year) off: Guggenheim, American Council of Learned Societies, National Humanities Center; or at UNC, the Institute for the Arts and Humanities; etc.   But to get such a fellowship, one needs to have a bona fide and compelling research project, involving a heavy-hitting scholarly monograph.  (Writing a trade book or a college-level textbook would not work, since these groups are supporting the advancement of knowledge.)

And so I started thinking about what might be a scholarly project that I’d be interested in pursuing, and it occurred to me that I was sitting right on top of one, one that would involve significant research in a major subfield of scholarship within the broader field of early Christian studies, one that has not been “overly worked” by scholars over the years.  So much of the scholarship on early Christian studies involves going over and over and over again the same terrain that other people have been publishing on for hundreds of years – e.g. the historical Jesus; the interpretation of the Gospels or the writings of Paul; the formation of the canon; the manuscript tradition of the New Testament; and so on.  All of these are vital areas of research, and I’m deeply interested in all of them – and there remains lots and lots to be done in them.  But I am at a stage where I want to focus on areas that have not been massively overworked over the years.

And so my new project, that I’m undertaking while continuing to do work on The Invention of the Afterlife, a study of the katabasis (= Descent to Hades/Hell) and anabasis (= Ascent to Heaven) traditions in the early church.  I am right now (today!) working on writing up a proposal for fellowships on the project to lay out what the project will entail.  I’ll explain it all in the coming posts.

If you want to see these coming posts, you will need to belong to the blog.  So why not join?  You’ll get tons for your money, and every penny of your membership fee (it’s less than seven pennies a day!) goes to help those in need. So join!

Could Moses Write Hebrew?
Do Later Manuscript Discoveries Ever Support Proposed Interpolations?



  1. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  August 24, 2017

    How exciting! Can’t wait to hear more about it.

  2. Avatar
    flshrP  August 24, 2017

    Hummm. Thirty books in 30 years. I’ve always heard that “publish or perish” is the rule in academia. I would say that you’ve taken the “publish” part to a new high. Very impressive.

    I know something about the effort it takes to get a book written and published. I’ve done that only once in my life. Going into that project I figured I could finish it in 12-18 months. It took nearly 4 years working 10 hours a day six days a week to do the research and get the thing written and edited.

  3. Avatar
    mmns  August 24, 2017

    All the best professor Ehrman for your fellowship project pursuit. Surely, when finished, it will be one of the most fascinating and eye opening scholary account on such esoteric topic.

  4. Avatar
    Wilusa  August 24, 2017

    It’s wonderful that you have such a passion for your field of work! I’m sure you’ll get a fellowship.

  5. Avatar
    Judith  August 24, 2017

    Am breathless with excitement over getting to hear all about it!

  6. Avatar
    nbraith1975  August 24, 2017

    Bart – Please include in your book a chapter on where the idea of human immortality came from. Specifically, the idea that when the human body dies the soul/spirit lives on eternally.

    My thoughts on this come from what Jesus told John in Revelation 1:17-18:

    When I (John) saw him (Jesus), I fell at his feet like a dead man. He laid his right hand on me, saying, “Don’t be afraid. I am the first and the last, (18) and the Living one. I WAS DEAD, AND BEHOLD, I AM ALIVE FOREVER MORE. Amen.

    It seems rather interesting that Jesus said that he literally “was dead” and at some point had his life restored. What specific “life” is Jesus talking about? The human life – consisting of a body or what?

    And what message was Jesus trying to convey to John? Giving himself as an example to John, that even after you die you can be brought back to life?

    But that begs a huge question; How can the Trinitarian god-man of Christianity die? Did their god-man literally die, as he clearly stated he did? And where does that leave us “regular” humans?

    • Avatar
      llamensdor  August 27, 2017

      Jesus said virturally none ot the things attributed to him in the John gospel. Unfortuately, an enormous part of Christian theology is based on this claptrap. A truly worthy project would be helping Christianity escape from its fidelity to John.

  7. talmoore
    talmoore  August 24, 2017

    Sounds like a plan, Dr. Ehrman. When I was reading the various Apocalypses and Testaments — such as the Apocalypse and Testament of Abraham — I was curious why there was such a dirth of research into this topic. The average person would probably be shocked to know how many of these ancient “journey to heaven/hell” documents exist — from both Jewish and Christian writers — and how popular the genre was in the time both before and after Jesus. I was. I think most Christians naturally assume Jesus originated all these ideas, when, in fact, he lived during a time when these ideas were already in vogue and were disseminated by other apocalypticists.

  8. Avatar
    Todd  August 24, 2017

    I do hope you still plan to write your original trade book idea regarding the afterlife or will your new book idea be appropriate to the non-scholar such as me ? 😁

  9. Avatar
    Pattylt  August 24, 2017

    Best of luck on obtaining that fellowship! Will you apply for more than one? I have no idea how the system works! 😁

    • Bart
      Bart  August 25, 2017

      Yes, there are four or five I’ll be applying for. But they are all insanely competitive, so an applicant is unbelievably lucky to get one!

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  August 27, 2017

        But nobody does it better…than you

  10. Avatar
    Pattylt  August 24, 2017

    One additional thought: I agree that many topics in Christian research have been done to death ( this only from my point of view!) Let me state up front that I am completely agnostic on the historicity of Jesus. I don’t think that we can know with great confidence from the current evidence BUT one thing that did excite me in reading Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus was how much I would like to see some of his theories expanded. A “what if” he were mythical how would we interpret Mark. Or Paul. Or the early church. From my point of view the scholastic community is so focused on denying the possibility that I feel they are missing out on potential areas of research. I understand that if you are convinced of the historicity, then mythicism holds no interest. I feel that is a loss of ideas. Remember, Moses was once real! I just like seeing all ideas explored, even if they are contrary to established consensus. Thanks for listening.
    PS: I am so glad you are going to write another scholarly work. I enjoy those the most.

    • Avatar
      Pattycake1974  August 25, 2017

      I lean toward there being a real man Jesus based on him being from the small town of Nazareth, the parables, and some of the sayings that go back to Aramaic. But it could be that it began as a revelation and the Gospels are about an actual person…or not.

      I agree there needs to be more scholarship for the possibility of Jesus being a myth. I read Carrier’s OHJ several months ago, but I felt like he was misconstruing parts of it (😡) and went over the top with his theorems and probabilities. Still, some of it was excellent. He may have reached the right conclusion for a lot of wrong reasons (ugh). He does have a bit of genius, but he’s been extremely rude and mean to Bart in particular. Price, on the other hand, has a whole lot of genius, is extremely nice, albeit, he does have lots of fringe, conspiracy-type ideas.

      • Avatar
        Pattylt  August 27, 2017

        I agree about Carrier’s personality. I try not to judge his scholarship on my personal feelings (hard to do sometimes and I think he hurts his own case because of it). One thing I do agree with, there needs to be an updated scholarly analysis of the evidence for Jesus’ existence with minimal ad hoc and assertions. Carrier hinted that some scholar may be working on one (he wouldn’t name him) and he was glad of it. I really think he wants the scholastic community to quit with the “Jesus was a ***” insert your preferred conclusion here. He is very dedicated to good history being done well. This is the Carrier I listen to. The personal one I ignore.
        I really don’t care if Jesus was physically on earth or was a metaphorical savior. I just want to know how much we really know and how much we are guessing. Is Bayes Theorem the answer to that? I think it can be abused too easily and too few understand it but by using its principles we get much better and more honest arguments. That is what I want.

        By the way, I was raised orthodox Jew and the idea of a metaphorical savior/archangel that speaks to us through scripture and visions is MUCH easier for me to see arising within Judaism than a human claiming to be one. Of course, I am familiar with a Judaism that arose after the 2nd temple, not before it. Big difference.

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  August 27, 2017

        The evidence is overwhelming that Jesus of Nazareth was a true historical figure who walked the earth from approximately 4 BCE to 33-36 CE. Who he was, who people thought he was, what he said, what he meant, what his goals were, etc. are all issues of legitamite inquiry, but there’s no reason to believe he was/is a myth.

  11. Avatar
    seahawk41  August 24, 2017

    Sounds like an interesting project.

    I have a question that has nothing to do with this post. I am reading the 4th Edition of The Complete Gospels, and happen this week to be reading Q. There is a footnote to Q 4:9 regarding “the high point of the temple” to the effect that where on the temple this was supposed to be is unknown. That surprised me because I had read that it referred to the SE corner of the Herodian platform (or rather a structure that stood on that point), which is some 300 feet above the Kidron Valley. In fact, if you google “pinnacle of the temple” you will find a ton of references stating this, including pictures of that imposing point. My question is basically what gives here? Are the scholars of The Complete Gospels being very conservative? Is the stuff on the web someone’s idea but without evidence to back it up? Or what?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 25, 2017

      My guess is that the scholars of the CG are thinking that scholars who make a concrete suggestion are in fact actually just guessing. But I don’t know for sure!

    • Avatar
      llamensdor  August 27, 2017

      the high point of the Temple was the high point of the Temple, not the pitched roof of the structure including Solomon’s Arcade at the SE corner of the Temple complex. Any drawing or model of the Temple depicts the central structure including the Holy of Holies as the highest point(s).

  12. Avatar
    godspell  August 24, 2017

    Sounds fascinating.

    And time-consuming, but when the Muse speaks, we must listen.

    (Can atheist-leaning agnostics believe in Muses?)


  13. Avatar
    Stephen  August 24, 2017

    Where will you begin? Revelation? Ezra IV?


    • Bart
      Bart  August 25, 2017

      Not sure. Maybe Gilgamesh. Or Homer.

      • Avatar
        Stephen  August 25, 2017

        Ah, the precursors. That means you’ll probably spend some time with Enoch. I assume you’ll focus on those cultures relevant to the world of the Bible. So what about the Ancient Egyptians? The Book of the Dead, or the Coffin Texts or those mysterious and enigmatic works from the New Kingdom like The Amduat or The Book of Gates or The Books of the Sky?

        Ancient Egypt is a bottomless well and the shelves already groan but it does seem relevant. You’ve posted occasionally about your research methods but perhaps you should spend some time discussing how you decide what to leave out!

        • Bart
          Bart  August 27, 2017

          My sense is that the Egyptian materials (contrary to what one might think) played very little role in the early Christian tradition.

      • Avatar
        godspell  August 26, 2017

        Gilgamesh would be the logical starting point. And honestly, it’s all uphill from there, with regards to beliefs about the afterlife. I hope all Sumerians were not so depressed as the one who wrote that.

  14. Avatar
    The Agnostic Christian  August 24, 2017

    Have you ever come across David Bercot? He has been writing on the Early Church for decades too. Yu too would disagree sharply since he is ultra conservative and takes the early Church (his interview of it) as Gospel, but the interesting thing is he has written and spoken about the early Church understanding of the afterlife. It was shocking to a young Fundamentalist Evangelical to read that our spiritual forefathers believed so radically differently from ourselves. I always imagined the Apostle John walking into our little fellowship and feeling right at home, but it became obvious he would not have.

    I don’t want to promote him necessarily as I no longer agree with him in his conclusions regarding the early Church but you may be interested in having a listen nonetheless. He has has on Christ’s descent into Hades which is related to this one. https://www.scrollpublishing.com/cgi-bin/sc/ss_mb.cgi?storeid=*10aa1248a706bb410f4e&ss_parm=A0edb1ab3d2ac9908a631d351ba12cf2a

  15. Avatar
    Ana  August 24, 2017

    Well, Professor Ehrman, I guess this would be the only book of yours that I will not be reading. I am afraid that you will try to prove that afterlife is just a myth invented by ancient cultures and picked up by Christianity. I am not comfortable with that. I am 50 years old and just overcame fear of death. Actually my dogs cured my of it. They simply died. Their death was like death of children to me. The only hope I have is the hope that one day I will see them again. I believe that I will see them again and that’s what keeps me going. Anita Moorjani assured me that my dogs are still around me. They can hear me and see me and I will see them when I cross over. Many people have this hope. Be gentle on us, crazy people, that have no other tool to cope with emotional pain. I need to see my Charlie or life is nothing and death without afterlife is stupid. Be fair and at least admit ,as I believe you would, that you don’t know if afterlife exists or not.
    I hope I did not offend you. Just voicing concerns about potential damage that could be done to many fragile minds.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 25, 2017

      I fully appreciate your concerns! But the book will not be about whether there really is an afterlife. I have no more insight into that than anyone else! It will be about how views of the afterlife changed and developed over the years and centuries. (It’s just a fact that the view many people have today was not the view in, say, the times of the Hebrew Bible, for example)

    • Rick
      Rick  August 26, 2017

      If there is an afterlife, and it doesn’t have the Rainbow Bridge….. tell them not to wake me up…

      • Avatar
        Ana  August 27, 2017

        Same here. I don’t want any of it without my dogs in it.

  16. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  August 25, 2017

    Wow! I wish I had the scholarly chops to be able to understand it when it’s published. Do you expect to add to the understanding of Dante? Do you think Dante knew of the sources you will be examining? Maybe in a few years you can follow up with a trade book to balance the *Heaven Is for Real* type drivel.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 25, 2017

      No, I won’t be dealing with Dante, only with the first four or five Christian centuries (and the predecessors among pagan and Jewish writers).

  17. Avatar
    James  August 25, 2017

    I understand that another professor (likely an adjunct or perhaps a graduate student) can pick up your undergraduate classes while you are on sabbatical, but how do your Ph.D. students fare? Do you effectively take them along for the ride as research assistants for your book project? Do your graduate seminars simply go on hiatus for a year?

    Perhaps you cut a deal with Mark Goodacre: “Hey, Mark, if you cover my Ph.D. textual criticism seminars this year I’ll do the same for you next year.” Given the intellectual and scholarly firepower resident at both UNC and Duke, I imagine that Ph.D. students drive both directions somewhat regularly.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 25, 2017

      Ha! I can assure you, Mark would not at all want ever to teach a PhD seminar in textual criticism!! But our students regularly do take seminars at Duke and their students take seminars at our place. And we serve on each other’s committees. During the year I’m off, I would continue to work with my grad students; I simply wouldn’t be teaching any seminars. (there are plenty of others to take.)

  18. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  August 25, 2017

    I told you the retirement would not last …. You are an amazing man and have more than earned the right to do whatever you want to do. But you seem happiest when you are churning out a project or two or three. You have certainly changed my life rather dramatically for the better. At a time when I could not find anyone who would take my religious journey and questions seriously, I found a review of “Misquoting Jesus” in my local newspaper. That hooked me on your trade books and textbooks and reading them changed everything and I mean everything. It was so refreshing to have someone out there who was working on the same obvious questions that intrigued me and you, of course, backed up each of your points with piles of evidence. Thanks again for your many contributions and carry on….. You will keep working until you finally take up golf full time.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 27, 2017

      I probably told you that about 17 years ago I was having trouble figuring out why I wasn’t getting much work done, and then I added it up and realized I was on the golf course for over 20 hours a week. (!)

  19. Avatar
    RoddyN  August 26, 2017

    The past month or so I have been wavering in the faith, resulting from a lot of conversations with naturalist and agnostics who had some talking points I could not provide good answers to. That being said, I know deep down I am still on the fence because I do not want to be wrong about an eternal afterlife. But even if the premise of Christianity is true, I have no idea what denomination, dogma, or rules of living to go by…everyone is all over the map. Really, it was the fact that I have no idea what true Christianity is supposed to look like, and that naturalism has some great arguments is what led me to where I am today.

    Bart – You make some great arguments and I am inclined to side with your position. I bought a couple of your books and I have been reading them over (Jesus Before the Gospels and How Jesus Became God). I do appreciate on how you seem to just be relaying the facts opposed to weaving ideas to make the reader come to a certain presupposed hypothesis.If I decided to officially walk away from the faith, I hope you have your facts straight.

    Truth is, there are so many competing ideas I do not know what to really do with any of it…it is an information overload and I am not sure who has it right.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 27, 2017

      I know, it’s difficult. At some point you just have to decide who has the most convincing case. Wish there were an easier way! (It’s true for all of us reading about thigns we are not expert in, from astro-physics to nutrition to the civil war!)

  20. Avatar
    Eric  August 31, 2017

    As I’m sure you know, Anabasis is also the name of a great work by Xenophon which also has the peculiarity of being the underlying inspiration/mythos of the cult favorite movie “The Warriors” (“come out and plaa-aay”).

    I understand “anabasis” literally means “the going up”, which in Xenophon’s case meant the going up of a Greek mercenary army into Mesopotamia, although 90% of the story is about their trying to get back home (just like the Warriors).

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