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My Other Next Book

In my previous post I indicated that I am debating over my next trade book (for general audiences. The one I described there has to do with how Christians appropriated the Jewish Scriptures for themselves, leading to (and being implicated in) the rise of Christian anti-Judaism. It’s a fascinating topic, and I’m definitely planning on writing the book. But something else has come up that is driving my research right now instead, and I suspect this will be the next book. But I’m happy to hear your opinions about the value of doing one or the other first.

First I need to provide a bit of background. As I have mentioned a number of times on the blog, I am trying to alternate the kinds of books I write – hard-hitting scholarly work, textbooks for university students, and trade books for normal human beings. My next scholarly book was supposed to be a commentary on the early Greek Gospel fragments of the second century (the Gospel of Peter; Papyrus Egerton 2; and a bunch of Gospel fragments of which I would be *amazed* if you had ever heard!). I decided about a month ago that I would not write the commentary.

Here’s why. I had done a ton of work for it – -reading extensively in the field, translating all of the texts, considering their textual problems, and so on. And at the time (six weeks ago or so) I was reading (slowly!) an Italian commentary on the Gospel of Peter. And I simply realized: you know, I find this really boring! The way a commentary like this tends to work is that you go verse by verse through the book you’re commenting on, and if it’s a non-canonical Gospel you show how every sentence, every phrase, every word relates to what you can find in the New Testament Gospels (“this phrase is like what you find in Matthew, except that it uses this word instead of that word; it is less like Mark but also different because of x, y, and z; but it does have some close comparisons to John….” etc. You do that for three or four pages and then go to the next verse). This is highly important work for scholars. But I asked myself: do I really want to spend the next three years of my life working on this kind of thing?


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Background to the Interest in Oral Traditions
My Next Books



  1. Avatar
    drdavid600  May 20, 2014

    So you’re committed to writing about the oral history of Jesus, maintained by whoever did that, and about how the Hebrew Bible became Christian, which from your post yesterday is less straightforward than I would have guessed. I’d say it’s entirely up to your own bliss which to do next. Dessert first?

  2. Avatar
    Adam0685  May 20, 2014

    Although both your book topics are very interesting and necessary, my vote is you start with this one. It seems to be a natural progression from of some of your other works: Misquoting Jesus > Interrupting Jesus > Misremembering Jesus.

  3. Fearguth
    Fearguth  May 20, 2014

    Your plan to write a trade book about the oral traditions concerning Jesus from 30-50 CE hits my sweet spot. I would like very much to hear your thoughts about the form critics and form criticism, as well as the work of scholars like Birger Gerhardsson.

  4. Avatar
    James  May 20, 2014

    Sounds like a great decision! Would you keep it to a trade book, or would there be a scholarly treatment as well?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 21, 2014

      Not sure — it’ll depend on whether I find that I have anything to say to scholars.

  5. Avatar
    Shubhang  May 20, 2014

    Sounds like a fascinating topic to be writing about. I have to ask you a question perhaps related to the same. Mark’s Gospel is at pains to prove how dimwitted the disciples were and they didn’t recognize Jesus as the Messiah. You have posited though that Jesus did claim to be the Messiah in his lifetime, especially to his closest followers. How would this then square with the Gospel of Mark? Is it because, as you mention in your book, it’s likely that the earliest disciples of Jesus believed in an exaltation Christology where their Master was made divine by God after his death by the act of Resurrection and did not publicly proclaim him to be the Messiah (maybe they were afraid to do so due to Rome, or they could not square his death with their Messianic expectations)?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 21, 2014

      Mark had reasons of his own (much debated) to show that the disciples never *did* get it. But for him, Jesus was not simply the messiah of the coming kingdom (as for Jesus himself) but the messiah who had to be crucified and raised from the dead (a view Jesus did not have).

  6. Avatar
    starlight  May 20, 2014

    Fascinating. I predict you will be transformed by what you will learn while doing your research since these areas of brain research are expanding so rapidly right now.
    I also think it is a daring choice because you will need to deal with how to handle “subjective” information.
    Congratulations on what IMHO is a great choice.

  7. Avatar
    SelfAwarePatterns  May 20, 2014

    This sounds like it will be a very interesting book. It may have applications far outside of just Jesus traditions. Oral traditions exist all over the place. All kinds of ancient stories were transmitted orally, for decades or centuries, before they were written down. Insights into how they develop and evolve may be useful in understanding many of those cases, or even for modern day stories such as urban legends.

  8. Avatar
    ERHershman  May 20, 2014

    Very interesting. I would love to hear your response to the frequently-bandied-about claims of Kenneth Bailey’s articles on oral transmission, which get trumpeted so much by more conservative scholars.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 21, 2014

      Yes, I’ll decide whether ot deal with them or not; I think they are highly problematic myself….

  9. Avatar
    James  May 20, 2014

    Oops! You said you didn’t know. Nevermind. : )

  10. Bethany
    Bethany  May 20, 2014

    This sounds fascinating! Speaking as a cognitive psychologist (though memory isn’t my area) I’ll be interested to see your take on it.

  11. Avatar
    doug  May 20, 2014

    Both topics sound very interesting. But how the oral traditions developed before the NT Gospels sounds like a more fascinating topic to me. This would help us understand how early Christianity developed and perhaps shed light on what Jesus’ original message had been. I imagine you are ready for the criticism of “Ehrman is passing himself off as an expert in psychology, etc.”, but I also imagine you would write in such a way as to try to head off that criticism.

    Follow your heart.

    • Avatar
      EricBrown  May 21, 2014

      Yeah, wait til Aslan hears about this. I was going to specify which Aslan, but then thought, naw, wait until either one does.

  12. Avatar
    JBSeth1  May 20, 2014

    Hi Bart,

    I think both book ideas sound great. I’d be very interested in reading both of them, but of course, you haven’t written them yet.

    In your book on the oral traditions, would you also touch upon a discussion of the similarities between the Jewish traditions and the Christian traditions (example: Jewish tradition, Passover lamb was sacrificed, blood of lamb was put on door post, to guard against death. Christian tradition: Passover “lamb of God” was sacrificed, the belief in the sacrifice of this lamb, through the crucifixion and resurrection, gives Christians eternal life which guards against death). There seems to be many of these connections.

    I know these concepts are more theological than historical, but they do give us another explanation of why Christianity may have developed in the way that it did.


    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 21, 2014

      I’m not sure what I’ll cover; in your example, the Christian tradition of course was based on the Jewish, since the Christains who came up with these traditions were (first) Jews….

      • Avatar
        JBSeth1  May 22, 2014

        Hi Bart,

        Like your concept of Jesus being buried in a tomb, I have come to wonder whether Jesus was actually crucified during Passover. Perhaps Jesus was crucified, but maybe not during Passover. Perhaps during the oral tradition, one story about Jesus that was developed was that he was the “sinless” one, who was sacrificed to God for the salvation of mankind. Furthermore, this story of Jesus was recognized as being similar to the Jewish Passover. As a result, when the Gospel writers told this story, they chose to connect it to the Jewish Passover.

        Now, I’m taking many liberties here, but I got this idea from your book, “Jesus Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium”, Chapter 2, where you talk about German Theologian David Friedrich Strauss and his concept of the Gospels as myths. Perhaps, this Passover story is just one of many myths that came out of the oral tradition and ended up being written in the Gospels.


        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  May 22, 2014

          It’s possible — but there are so many converging traditoins pointing to Passover (Mark, L, John, Paul)

  13. Avatar
    fultonmn  May 20, 2014

    Still reading HJBG, and just happened to get to your discussion of preliterary hymns and creeds the same day you posted this. Your look at the preliterary creed at the beginning of Romans is especially fascinating! Not sure if the oral traditions you’re writing about here are the same hymns and creeds you discuss in that book. It looks like in your prospective book you’re more interested in oral stories about what Jesus did while he was alive, as opposed to the tightly constructed creeds and hymns that seem to be about the significance of Jesus’ death and resurection. Perhaps they’re related? Either way, I’d be interested in learning more about what the very earliest Christians were saying about Jesus.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 21, 2014

      Yes, I’ll be dealing with the oral traditoins about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, not the later creeds based on him/them.

  14. Avatar
    gavriel  May 20, 2014

    Quite a few of your blog members have read some of your scholarly work, I think, and personally I use your New Testament Introduction as a reference book which I treasure very much (I’m not educated in this field and am no doubt a horrible amateur) . But it is your trade books that have made you famous to the general public all over the world! So they are important books, which at least for me served as door openers to some of your other books and to NT studies in general, which now is my favorite hobby.

    I would like the second option, please! The first one is interesting too, but I suspect that people in general find it less interesting than to learn the story of the oral traditions until and beside the gospels. “From where did the gospels come” is a sexy topic, and contrasted with the fundamentalist view, offer good marketing possibilities. It could be another best-seller. The first topic will definitely be harder to market.

  15. Avatar
    gsteidley  May 20, 2014

    Sounds like an interesting project. You might briefly look into the experiences of genealogists with respect to oral histories. Most families only have stories (oral history) going back to their grandparents / great-grandparents (two or three generations… a somewhat similar time frame to the pre-gospel period). The genealogist uses these stories (which are usually unreliable) to help determine facts. Some aspects of their experience might be helpful…. just a thought.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 21, 2014

      Interesting. If you have any bibliography on this, I’d be happy to hear it.

      • Avatar
        shakespeare66  August 4, 2015

        I don’t have any bibliography, but I have an observation. My four grandparents had 14 children and none of them knew WHERE each of them was born! Over the years the children told stories about the origins of their parents to their children and then these children told the stories to their children. So I have lived this kind of oral tradition. I can tell you that much of what was orally transmitted was nothing but fabrication, with some truth. I personally did the ancestry.com research on the origins of my four grandparents and learned where they came from and who their parents were ( or in most cases, learned only half the story). What I am trying to say is that the stories that went around were embellishments and fabrications, and most of them were untrue. I had to convince many of my first cousins of the truth of their grandparents. Many were shocked to learn what the truth was of their origins. ( three of them were illegitimate). I then spent 60 days traveling around the country and visiting cousins and telling them what I had learned. They were most appreciative of learning what the truth was about the origins of their grandparents. I had lived 65 years of my life without knowing the truth of their births, and all 14 children of these two sets of parents lived their entire lives without knowing the birth origins of their parents. So I can understand how oral traditions can embellish and disseminate information that is simply just not true. ALL of the knowledge of our grandparents was never written down, but just told as oral stories.

    • Avatar
      magpie  May 22, 2014

      Along the same keeping of oral tradition might be the Navaho singers or shamen. I believe they must serve a long apprenticeship and spend a great deal of time memorizing the songs and rituals. Probably in other Native American tribes and other aboriginal peoples also have a similar method of keeping the old stories. For that matter, the Islamic madrasas practice of teaching rote learning of the Koran. Is there any literature on how reliable the memorization is at various times after the initial recitation is accomplished? On the interpretation of the text?

      Of course, there is the oft repeated tale of Gladys the cross-eyed bear from Christian primary church school to use as an example

  16. Avatar
    Joshua Gordon  May 20, 2014

    Do This Book Next. It would be a good Scholarly work, and IMO is sorely needed as a Trade book.

  17. Avatar
    nichael  May 20, 2014

    The article above prompts a suggestion which I think might be very helpful to the readers while (I hope) having a small impact on the amount of effort that you already generously devote to the blog.

    Would you consider occasionally posting an article on “What I’ve Been Reading”?

    As I say, I think many folks here would find this helpful, especially in cases like this (or for the other proposed book) when you are devoting a lot of effort to a specific topic.

    And to be clear, I’m not proposing “mini-book reports”; rather simply something like “Here’s a topic I’m currently looking into, and here’s a list of books/articles that I’m finding helpful…”

    (Although it may be useful to attach a “complexity score”; say, “1=OK to give to your grandmother” to 10=”Don’t even think about reading this unless you’ve done several years of Post-doc in linguistics”. No doubt any such list you would generate would be weighted heavily towards the high end but, even still, I think such a list could be useful to the readers.)

    Or, in the case of future posts (e.g. the mention of an article on Form Criticism above), perhaps a brief note like “In the meantime here’s something you might find it useful to look at…” (In this particular case, maybe Gerhard Lohfink’s marvelous little book?)

    Anyway, as I say, something to consider.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 21, 2014

      Interesting idea!

      • Avatar
        Rosekeister  May 24, 2014

        I want to second the “What I’ve been Reading” or “You might want to Check Out This Book” ideas. Since I’ve been reading your blog I’ve been keeping an eye out for books you mention as particularly good which so far have included Joel Marcus’ commentary on Mark, two E.P. Sanders books on Paul and Jesus and Judaism, and Raymond Brown’s commentary on John.

  18. Avatar
    TSkidC  May 20, 2014

    Awesome. I can’t wait.

  19. Avatar
    RespectfulAtheist  May 20, 2014

    Agreed. This should be your next trade book. It sounds even more interesting than the one on how the OT became part of the Christian Bible (albeit that sounds worthwhile as well). What is your working title for this one?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 21, 2014

      Haven’t come up with one yet!

      • Avatar
        nichael  May 21, 2014

        Maybe “Speaking of Jesus…”

      • Avatar
        Rosekeister  May 24, 2014

        How about “Lost in the Cloud: Oral Tradition and the Historicity of the Gospels”?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  May 24, 2014

          I’ll add it to the list! The problem is that publishers want the title to say what hte book is about, or else people won’t buy it (thinking, for example, that it was about meteorology!)

  20. Avatar
    fishician  May 21, 2014

    I have heard various versions of a story in which someone is saved from harm by a person, ostensibly an angel, that the person never saw but that others supposedly did. A friend shared one version on Facebook as a factual account, and when I challenged him on it, he swore it must be true because this happened in New York and the Christian he heard it from was a personal acquaintance of his from New York. It’s just amazing to me how quickly implausible stories get circulated as “gospel truth” by people too eager to justify their belief system. No doubt that was just as true in the 1st Century as now, maybe more so. So, any book you write about how stories became “history” would be worthwhile.

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