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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
    JohnHanley  May 21, 2014

    Great subject for the next book! Very much respect and enjoyed Crossan’s research on this in The Birth of Christianity. Have you read it?

  2. Avatar
    Jim  May 21, 2014

    Somewhat related maybe? I’m currently reading Chris Keith’s “Jesus Against the Scribal Elite” and he devotes a chapter to methods of assessing the NT texts. Would you ever consider at some point posting on comparing the historical criteria method and the memory approach in terms of both the advantages and disadvantages of each?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 21, 2014

      Possibly. Chris is a big advocate of memory studies and the historical Jesus. I’m not convinced by the attack on the criteria though.

  3. Avatar
    kidron  May 21, 2014

    An interesting side note is not only how stories were remembered and relayed, but how the level of scientific knowledge of their times influenced the construct of the stories in the first place. For example, in a society where sickness was ‘known’ to be caused by demons or gods, how did this influence the stories of miraculous healing. Or in the example of the woman healed of a blood issue … how did she know she was instantly healed by touching Jesus garment? And for that matter how did they ‘know’ that those exhibiting demon possession were ‘healed’? Was there even the idea of a ‘follow up’ check to see if the exhortation was permanent?

  4. Avatar
    jgranade  May 21, 2014

    I think a book about how Christians appropriated the Jewish Scriptures for themselves may have broader appeal. Most people know that there is an Old Testament and a New Testament, even if they haven’t considered why or how they were put together as the Christian Bible. Personally, as someone with a background in educational psychology, the issue of memory and collective memory would be of interest, particularly with regard to the oral traditions about Jesus. So I would be interested in either topic.

  5. Avatar
    RodolfoL  May 21, 2014

    Prof. Ehrman,

    This is a fascinating area for exploration and I am very excited at the thought of a book discussing these matters being written in relation to the historical Jesus! It is interesting also because I have often pondered casually on this very same subject matter (I am not an academic) but I always thought the most interesting study of these questions could arise in relation to how Alexander the Great because Dhul-Qarnayn in the Qu’ran. Mostly because a certain amount of the literary evolutionary evidence remains extant in the form of the Alexander Romances!

    My favorite chapter in “How Jesus Became God” is the one containing your discussion of bereavement hallucinations; it would be interesting to see you work further in this direction. Are you familiar with Mark S. Smith’s “The Memoirs of God: History, Memory and the Experience of the Divine in Ancient Israel”? It also deals with *some* of these questions but from a much broader viewpoint.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 21, 2014

      Yup, I”ve used Smith’s work over the years. He’s a top-flight scholar.

      • Bethany
        Bethany  May 22, 2014

        I’m reading his “The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts” now after someone recommended it to me when I expressed an interest in learning more about, well, the origins of Biblical monotheism. I don’t have the background to follow everything he says but I’m finding it very interesting.

  6. Avatar
    prairieian  May 21, 2014

    Your idea sounds fascinating and it has parallels in today’s North American context as well. That is, aboriginal populations resist the “privilege” of white society’s documented approach to history and ascert that their oral traditions are equally valid written versions of the “truth”, whatever that might be. This perspective is increasingly found to be appropriate and hence to be taken into account at the judicial level. Needless to add, others deprecate the whole approach as rubbish, maintaining that if this model is adopted chaos will result with all kinds of “inconvenient” memories coming to the fore creating difficulties for pipeline routes, treaty interpretations and on it goes. I’m not sure what all this will imply for our dominent North American culture, but it will be uncomfortable, divisive and likely expensive. No worries, it’s just money.

    Apply this same sort of approach to religious matters, particularly the chasm of documentation between AD 30 and AD 50, and who knows what will come out of the study. The very absence of solid evidence, as you note, makes for very, very interesting speculation. It will also provoke very interesting positions taken with what you might dig up and conclude.

    My personal view is that I distrust oral traditions as I tend to think received interpretation and memory serves contemporary needs and interests. Inconvenient memory and interpretation are “forgotten”. I am not unaware that written documentation is very vulnerable to misuse and convenient selection, but at least there is the possibility of finding additional evidence that can contradict and invalidate such manipulation. Debate is hence possible and, indeed, happens all the time. This is healthier in my view than reliance on unanswerable assertions and conclusions associated with the oral tradition approach.

    All to say, I think you have a winner for a topic.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 21, 2014

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

      • Avatar
        fultonmn  May 22, 2014

        Your comment sent me on a quick look for law reviews on the topic of oral histories being used as evidence in court, and turns out that there are some issues presented. I wonder if there are any other lawyers haunting this blog who, upon being introduced to the historical criteria used by scholars, see parallels to our rules of evidence.
        For example, the criterion of dissimilarity reminds me of the “statement against interest” exception to the bar on hearsay: an out-of-court statement that runs against the interests of the speaker is probably reliable enough to admit. The criterion of independent attestation reminds me of our requirement for corroboration of out-of-court confessions. The law review article on oral traditions I found discusses the hearsay exception associated with reputation in a community as to boundaries and customs affecting land. I bet there are others, too. Ultimately, our rules spring from judicial experience with human nature and the ways of the world–not social science. But the conclusions look similar. I took history courses in college, but this blog and these books are my first look into the method of history. It’s as interesting to me as the subject matter.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  May 22, 2014

          I would love some bibliography on this — something an outsider can read about legal rules of evidence. Do you know of something off hand?

          • Avatar
            fultonmn  May 23, 2014

            I’m not aware of anything for non-lawyers, but the rules you’d be interested in are pretty easy to negotiate with a small amount of background info. The primary sources are even in English! I’ll knock it around this weekend and send something by email to get you started.

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  May 23, 2014

            Great! Thanks.

        • Avatar
          JeffinFairfax  June 5, 2014

          Fulton, I’ve thought the same thing about the connections between historical criteria and evidentiary criteria in a court of law (I’m a lawyer, too). In addition to the two connections you make above, a few other rules of evidence that might have bearing on oral testimony are impeaching a witness (destroying the credibility of a witness based on a lack of truthfulness in another area, a prior inconsistent statement, etc.) and (2) other exceptions to the hearsay rule, such as dying declarations (Christian apologists often ask why the apostles never retracted their claims of the resurrection when faced with death–though for all I know, they did, since any dying counter-testimony would hardly have been preserved in Christian tradition).

          And, Bart, you’ve probably already thoroughly considered this, but prior even to the risk of faulty memory is the risk of inaccurate perception, which only compounds the problem of testimony.

          • Avatar
            fultonmn  June 11, 2014

            Concur that historians probably have criteria that parallel many of our rules. I just don’t know enough about the method of history to know what those criteria are, or how they are expressed. Would be interesting to know.

      • Avatar
        prairieian  May 23, 2014

        A place to start is perhaps Tom Flanagan’s “First Nations? Second Thoughts” He has some comments on the whole business of oral traditions on pages 155-165 in my edition.

  7. Avatar
    Matt7  May 21, 2014

    Is it possible to detect an orthodox corruption of the oral tradition? If so, do you plan to include that in the book?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 21, 2014

      Well, there are definitely perspectives that are changing the traditions — but I wouldn’t call them “orthodox” at this early stage of the religion.

  8. Stroupe
    Stroupe  May 21, 2014

    Both ideas are excellent. I know you will do both and I will read both when they bevome available. I would prefer that this idea becomes reality first. It sounds like exactly what I’d like to read next.

    Thanks for all your books.

  9. Avatar
    GokuEn  May 21, 2014

    Prof. Ehrman, this might be slightly off topic, but I think it could be something worth doing (unless it has been done already). Unless you are somewhat knowledgable of any particular field, it is hard “from the outside” to know what are the most commonly accepted theories, ideas and beliefs within that particular field. This makes it so that from an outside perspective you might think there is a lot more controversy over a subject than there really is while in reality there might be a strong consensus.

    That is why in-house surveys can be incredibly helpful for outside people to understand what are the most prevalent ideas within a community of inquiry and where controversy really is. Robert Whaples has done that several times within economics and David Bourget has done that in philosophy just to give a couple examples. Why don’t you propose a similar project within Biblical Scholars? It would be really helpful for lay people to understand that things like the 4-source hypothesis or that there are pseudo-epigraphic books in the New Testament is not invention of some crazy fringe atheist group but that they DO constitute the majority position within scholarship. It could really, really help your attempt to make Biblical Scholarship more accessible to the public if in addition to your argument you could add “87% of surveyed scholars also agree”. It would also make it harder for ultra-conservatives to simply dismiss your case simply because you are an agnostic.

    If you are curious about the surveys I mentioned:

    Economics: http://econjwatch.org/articles/the-policy-views-of-american-economic-association-members-the-results-of-a-new-survey

    Philosophy: http://philpapers.org/archive/BOUWDP

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 21, 2014

      Interesting idea. Thanks.

      • Avatar
        nichael  May 21, 2014

        In point of fact, that’s _exactly_ what the original organizers of the Jesus Seminar were trying (or, at least, claimed to be trying) to do.

        Now it is certain true that many of their critics dismissed their efforts as simply trying to “determine the truth by voting”; just as it’s true that some of the JS’s members greatly overplayed the value and meaning of their conclusions. Likewise one is clearly free to disagree (strongly) with those conclusions.

        But as the JS made clear repeatedly in their books, the bottom line here is not whether “Saying X is (or is) not authentic”, but rather that “80% (or 50% or 10% or whatever ) of our members consider Saying X to be authentic”.

        *That* is the “raw data” that they claimed to be presenting. And that data in itself, I would suggest, is quite valuable, completely independent of any specific conclusion.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  May 22, 2014

          Actually, my book will *not* mainly be about which sayings (or deeds, etc.) are authentic, although that will be a peripheral interest.

          • Avatar
            nichael  May 22, 2014

            Perhaps I wasn’t clear. The issue here is not about any specific topics.

            Rather, the poster above (GokuEn) suggested it would very useful for the public at large to be able to get a good sense of how widely held various “theories” are held among scholars in a given field.

            For example: “Virtually all scholars in the field accept this” or “There’s a lot of controversy about this” or “Virtually no one accepts this”.

            GokuEn suggested it would be very useful for the “non-expert” reader to have some way to “quantify” this sort of information. I.e.to get at least a roughly idea of whether an idea is something “all scholars know”, or if it just some crackpot idea, etc.

            I agree. I was simply trying to point out that is not a new idea. This is essentially, is what the Jesus Seminar were trying to do.

        • Avatar
          GokuEn  May 22, 2014

          The difference is that the Jesus Seminar is a self-defined group. What I had in mind (and what the people who did these surveys did) is to send a list of questions to as many Biblical Scholars who teach at universities/seminaries around the US. It would be nice to see how many adhere, say, to the Farrer Hypothesis rather than the 4 source hypothesis, how many endorse Markan Priority, how many believe in the Petrine Authorship of 1st and 2nd Peter, the authorship of Collosians etc. Also issues of historicity such as whether Jesus is better understood as an apocalypticist, a cynic, a zealot etc.

          You can also draw inferences from your data. For instance, are people who believe in the Farrer Hypothesis more likely to believe in the Petrine authorship of 1st Peter? By how much?

          I think a paper like that would be interesting both for scholars to know more about the “sociology” of their own field and it would do a world of good for non-experts to really know what is and what isn’t up for grabs. It will make easier for non-experts to see how far off both innerancy and mythicism are from serious scholarship.

          Just my two cents.

          • Avatar
            nichael  May 23, 2014

            I think this is a good point. There’s always will always be question about the methodology of how such data are collected. And it is certainly true the JS is a self-defined group. But, likewise, simply sending out surveys –without some control over who actually responds– is going to be biased towards folks who do tend to respond to such things (which is not necessarily going to be fully representative either).

            But I think we completely agree that such information would be very useful to have (if I can let my physics background show through, I’ve always thought of this as a way of placing “error bars” on the information. Of course, even if 99%+ of scholars agree on a topic that doesn’t prove it’s right; but that very fact –that “99+ agree”– is useful information in and of its own right.)

            And again, while there are no doubt improvements that could be made in the collecting and quantifying of such information, I still thing the JS made a good start. (In any case, vastly better than the other option; i.e. having the reporter on the evening news simply tell the listeners that a given topic is “controversial”…)

      • Avatar
        GokuEn  May 22, 2014

        I really hope either you or someone else in the field does something like this. It is really really painful to see the state of confusion that places such as internet forums and blogs have on this topic. From the outside all arguments sound plausible, from mythicism to inerrancy, and all sides are able to quote “experts” to back up their strange claims. I know that a simple appeal to authority is insufficient, but if there is some sort of mathematical tangible evidence that some issues are more or less a consensus within serious scholarship it would do a world of good.

  10. Avatar
    z8000783  May 21, 2014

    Oh no, I’ve now got to wait two years for this!

    Great stuff, I think this is such an important area, far more than arguing over whether the Gospels are accurate or not. This is the one to go with for me.

    I was interested to see though, that Beckham seems to call this ‘Form Criticism’ and says it has all been debunked – Jesus and the Eyewitness –

    Any thoughts on his views, Bart?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 21, 2014

      It’s Bauckham; and yes, the old views of the form critics are debunked. But NOT the idea that there was an oral tradition that radically affected the stories in circulation.

  11. Avatar
    magpie  May 21, 2014

    I would enjoy reading both of of the books you have in mind to write next. Your enthusiam for the second one comes through strongly in your text today. I have an idea that you will find much psychology and brain memory research to explain how tales are developed around events based on cultural context and individuals’ personal interpretations of those events. Always nice to have a bit of neuroscience to use in thinking about the human factors. Sort of similar to eyewitness testimony research, eh?

    Would you consider investigating the similarities and differences between the adoption of Christianity with the rise and development of religions for which we have fairly good documentation? I am thinking of Mormanism, Jehovahs Witness, Scientology, and perhaps some of the prosperity promoting churches as all have come into being in the last two hundred years. I think much of the growth of these religions and patterns of social acceptance would tie in nicely with your research into psychology.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 21, 2014

      Yes, the research on eyewitness testimony is really interesting — and completely unknown to most NT scholars! Even ones who want to stress the importance of eyewitness testimony….

  12. Avatar
    kazawolf  May 21, 2014

    Memory: self-storytelling, with variations, usually to favor the point of the story!

  13. Avatar
    Arlyn  May 21, 2014

    I’m thinking you may have been the fly on the wall at a recent family reunion and noted the diversity of memory of what happened when we were young. Found that interesting did ya? I did, talked a good bit with my wife about the phenomenon and how, why such variant memories could come to exist. I’m in agreement that it would be an interesting read.

    The stolen OT text would also be cool but perhaps to a smaller audience. Christians transformed the tribal God of the Jews to a Christian God, it seems matter of fact that His scripture came with him, except to the Jews of course.

    As to writing about Paul, doing so without speculating (attempting to make sense of the man) it seems to me would be hard for a historian. You might have to put on another hat for such an effort and that might wait until your next life after a historian.

  14. Avatar
    madmargie  May 21, 2014

    Sounds fascinating! I will be sure to read it!

    Some people I know believe that in the ancient world, people committed to memory every event they encountered and memorized those events without any change. Somehow, I doubt that. The gospel stories sound exaggerated to me. For one thing, I doubt miracles. It sounds like those who “remembered” those stories embellished them to give Jesus even more authority. I will be interested to see what conclusions you come to.

  15. Avatar
    Wilusa  May 21, 2014

    I find these concepts hard to understand…i.e., I find it hard to understand how they’ll help you make more informed speculations about what actually happened during Jesus’s lifetime, what was thought ten years later to have happened, and so on (how beliefs had morphed in twenty years, thirty years, etc.). But if you think it can be done, I’m all for it.

    Right now, I think I’d be more interested in the early Christians’ appropriation of the Jewish Scriptures. But that’s just because I have a better understanding of what you could do with that topic.

  16. Avatar
    KevinBradshaw  May 21, 2014

    I love both ideas for trade books, and the latter would be a great scholarly book as well (one that would be cross-disciplinary involving not just new testament scholarship, but psychology, cognitive science, neuroscience, philosophies of science and mind and on and on).

    The former book idea is one I was hoping someone would write. Because I don’t have the educational background to just pick scholarly works on New Testament and read them, I read the books for a broader audience and the text book treatments, then move on to the more specialized literature. In your book Forgery (I believe) you dedicated a part of a chapter to how the Jewish scripture was reinterpreted by Christians. But a broader treatment of all the major issues for a general audience would be great.

    The latter idea I think would make a great trade book, but for selfish reasons I’d like a scholarly treatment. I’ve become interested in the gospel tradition and the chasm between what historical research can establish about the person Jesus and what is believed about Jesus as a matter of Christian faith. I also am deeply passionate about inter-disciplinary fields of cognitive science and philosophy of mind, They wouldn’t seem to overlap but, in terms of the oral transmission of the miracle stories and teachings and how they may have changed, they do.

  17. Avatar
    EricBrown  May 21, 2014

    How do we remember things?

    I just read today about a study in which people who at some time in their life had visited Disney World were told about a case in which a visitor was claiming to have been “groped” by the Bugs Bunny mascot while there.

    16% of the subjects of this study recalled having been themselves groped by Bugs Bunny at Disney World.

    Bugs is not a Disney character.

  18. Avatar
    andrew0410  May 21, 2014

    That sounds very interesting. Comparisons with how stories get transmitted in contemporary Christian circles could prove suggestive.

  19. Avatar
    fmurphy925  May 21, 2014

    Dr Ehrman: Given your decision noted above, I highly recommend you read an article titled “Partial Recall” written by Michael Specter in the May 19, 2014 issue of the New Yorker. I’m confident it will complement your current research on the psychology of memory, i.e., many of the most recent work/players in the field of memory neuroscience are discussed. Good reading.

  20. Avatar
    Hank_Z  May 21, 2014

    Bart, this is the trade book I would prefer reading first. The issue is vital to how the Gospels say what they do. And now the specialists in the three areas you mentioned have terrific tools and excellent information that did not exist until recently.

    Bringing this together in your book would be a terrific read…and could stimulate more thinking, discussion, and controversy (never a bad thing for a trade book) than most of your prior books.

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