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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
    EricBrown  May 21, 2014

    I like both topics. Out of synch with most others apparently, I am more interested in the OT/NT topic. I think I have read more than one treatment on fidelity of oral traditions, including I think at length in one of Crossan’s books.

    I for one would like to have more background to support my discourse (with evangelicals I know) that one of their starting arguments, i.e. that Jesus was a widely-awaited fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy that the Jews just “didn’t recognize for hat he was — what they were waiting for” fails on first reading because (I contend) despite Christian views, the OT was never an anticipatory document in the eyes of contemporary theology (or at least not widely held to be).

  2. Avatar
    munsterh  May 21, 2014

    For me there are some critical questions I have which would be important to answer first before moving to the oral traditions:
    -Supposing that Mark was the first to write a written account of Jesus life -,why did he do this? Why did he write at a time the Jews were threatened in their core? Did the death of James and the Jewish alChristian community contribute to hisnmotivation. Why exactly didnl he portrait the desciples so negatively? Did he really take thebl Odysee as his blueprint? Who influenced him in his writing and message?,I think it is essential to get mark straight even to do people like me before moving to oral traditions. Maybe that’s all clear to scholars but I am still puzzled and fascinated by Mark

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    RonaldTaska  May 22, 2014

    Hmm? Two thoughts as follows:
    1. It’s always intriguing to me how my wife and I remember past events in our life in different ways. We both remember the specific events and agree that they occurred (we were married, we had two sons, etc.), but we remember the “details” of the events in markedly different ways.
    2. I would start with this second book idea first. Obviously, you would need to start this second book by explaining how scholars date the writing of the Gospels to establish that time had to pass before they were written and during that time oral transmission occurred. You would then have to review the 8 reasons you gave on your recent Great Courses tape that the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses thereby again documenting that oral transmission had to occur from the eyewitnesses to others who wrote the Gospels. I understand that the Gospels had to be written after the death of Paul or he would have quoted from them and had to be written after the destruction of the Jewish Temple or this destruction would not have been described in the Gospels. What I do not know and want to learn is why scholars date Mark first, Matthew and Luke next, and John last, etc. and how they date them to the first rather than the second or third century?.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 22, 2014

      Yes, I’ll have to deal with all that, you’re right. Maybe I’ll post on the dating question at some point….

      • Avatar
        RonaldTaska  May 23, 2014

        Obviously, because, as I have learned from you, Justin Martyr and Irenaeus referred to the Gospels during the second century, the Biblical Gospels had to be written before 150 C.E.

  4. Avatar
    rivercrowman  May 22, 2014

    Oral traditions about Jesus 30-70 CE sounds super. I keep all of your books in one place. The stack is about 15 inches.

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    dhjones1  May 22, 2014

    Obviously since I am an amateur at this, I don’t know how it would be possible put any degree of certainty on how Christian oral traditions evolved. I did read somewhere that Homer’s Iliad existed entirely in oral form before it was written down. Since you are the scholar I am sure you will make some good headway on the problem.

    That said, here is a timid thought: Tversky and Kahneman invented the notion of “conjunction fallacy” to show that people believe the joint occurrence of two events is more probable than either event. That is to say people will believe more in a complex story than a simple one. Applied to an oral history of Jesus, I propose that storytellers would be inclined to embellish the life and death of Jesus as time went on to make it more believable.

    Why humans commit conjunction fallacy is based on Tversky and Kahneman’s theory of how the mind organises itself into fast thinking (system 1) and slow thinking (system 2). Since fast thinking takes less energy than slow thinking, the brain can survive on less food, and so the brain wants to spend fast thinking on sorting danger signals. I suppose those primitives humans who were better at fast thinking survived better than those who were better at slow thinking (fast thinkers always see a “tiger” in the striped shadows and run, while the slow thinkers see the striped shadows and stop to make sure there isn’t a tiger lurking about). Unfortunately, fast thinking gives rise to many false beliefs and biases people hold.

    I tried searching in Kahneman’s 2011 book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, for how oral histories might be impacted by system 1 thinking, but didn’t find anything.

    After we find a good theory for oral histories of Jesus, I ask why did people involve themselves to do this. Apart from the Holy Spirit causing people to do what they did, was it a good way for people outside the formal economy to make a living?

    • Bethany
      Bethany  May 23, 2014

      Re: the conjunction fallacy. As originally proposed by K&T, the idea was that if you described (say) a woman, Linda, in a way that made her sound like she’s likely to be feminist, then people will say that she’s more likely to be a feminist bank teller than a bank teller (even though that’s impossible) because she *sounds* more like a feminist bank teller than a bank teller.

      Similarily, people will tend to say it’s more likely that Famous Tennis Player lost a match because he was sick than that Famous Tennis Player lost a match, because being sick provides a reason for why Famous Tennis Player lost a match.

      So it’s not just complexity, but specific types of complexity. For example, if no desciption is given of Linda, people will respond correctly that she’s more likely to be a bank teller than a feminist back teller.

      That said, I think that’s an interesting point: adding details that seem to explain why Jesus took an unusual action, or that make him seem more representative of a category the listener belives him to be in, would make the stories more plausible and thus presumably more likely to be repeated.

  6. Avatar
    tedandcarol1960  May 25, 2014

    Thanks for HOW JESUS BECAME GOD.

    I like both your ideas for your next book(s) I especially would like to learn about the connections between the early Christians’ use of the Old Testament and the earliest oral tradition. Did the early followers of Jesus search the OT for stories or prophecies that they could adapt to back up their beliefs? Were prophecies taken out of context? What about Blaise Pascal’s claim that God purposely tricked the Jews into expecting a
    Messiah who would be an earthly king ?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 26, 2014

      Yes, those are issues I would be dealing with. Though not the idea that God wanted to trick the Jews so as to condemn them!

  7. Avatar
    Markalan  May 27, 2014

    I personally like the first book idea as the one for you to begin next. Lately, I have been hearing in the news about crime and memory. Line ups and even eyewitness evidence is proving much less accurate than originally thought, you might want to add this into your study on oral traditions passed down.

  8. Avatar
    sstein02  June 1, 2014

    Bart, Christians appropriated the Hebrew Bible, but they completely ignored everything that Jews did after the Hebrew Bible. There is a belief that Judaism was in an infertile period during Jesus’s life and that Jews have not created anything worth while since the Hebrew Bible. I shouldn’t have to tell you that is just not true.

    I bring this up partly because of a response I gave to a Christian commentator who said that Christians should look to the New Testament instead of the “Old Testament” for their opinions on the death penalty. I brought up the fact that if one reads the Talmud and other rabbinic writings, the rabbis made it impossible to actually ever execute anyone for murder ever. For example, one needed two actual witnesses to a murder in order to execute any one for murder. The panel of judges had to be in complete agreement , there could not be one dissenting judge in order to execute someone. It may not be as poetic as Jesus, but it was just as effective as ending the death penalty. An “eye for an eye” was almost immediately interpreted to mean monetary compensation for an eye. Yet, Christians remain willfully ignorant. Even liberal Christians resort to anti-Jewish tropes when opposing the death penalty. I couldn’t get any response to my comments. No one was willing to say anything to me.

  9. Avatar
    JeffinFairfax  June 5, 2014

    Both of these topics sound great and I’m sure would be well-received, but “How the Christians Stole the Bible” sounds immediately appealing to me. I’ve tried to point out to Christian friends how the New Testament so often completely twists “Old Testament” passages for its own ends (like Isaiah 7.14, which cannot conceivably have been intended to be predicting anything remotely like the Virgin Birth). But is development of a tradition in a new direction really “theft”? What Matthew does to Isaiah, the Chronicler does to the author of 2 Samuel (2 Samuel 24.1; 1 Chronicles 21.1), taking a story and changing it in a significant way to fit a new understanding. Can a religion ever be stabilized and remain a living tradition?

    The topic of oral tradition sounds great, too. I think it’s interesting that two of the greatest teachers of the Western tradition–Socrates and Jesus–left nothing in writing for future generations. I think of how Socrates prefers “the living word of knowledge” over mute written works in the Phaedrus, and how the Christian texts say, “In the beginning was the (spoken) Word . . The letter kills but the Spirit gives life.” There’s a wealth of material in this oral/written divide. Assuming that Jesus could write or could at least find a scribe to write down his words–why would he choose not to? For the direct social impact of teaching in person over the more indirect, less personal method of writing? Because he expected the world to end very soon, and books are for long-term thinkers? Because people were less mentally lazy and better at memorization? And what of the whole “secret” tradition, from the Eleusinian mysteries to the “secret” Gospels to the Druids, with the oral transmission of the teaching being a key method for keeping it secret?

  10. Avatar
    Rosekeister  June 8, 2014

    Will you be addressing James Dunn’s book “The Oral Gospel Tradition”? Despite interesting thoughts about how there is no “original” traditional story, he feels that the essential elements of the oral tradition are not just accurate but rigorously accurate. Conservative Christians will be referring to his book for the next 100 years to prove the accuracy of oral tradition. Do you think this is an example of a Christian scholar finding arguments to support the conclusion he wanted to find since there was never any doubt what conclusion he would draw from his research?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 8, 2014

      Yes, I will. I think in fact the traditions were changed significantly, and often invented.

      • Avatar
        Rosekeister  June 11, 2014

        Will you have a section, perhaps a major section, on how oral tradition naturally changes over time to match current conditions? Most commentaries recognize this but often speak of it as though the author or redactor was consciously choosing stories to reflect current conditions rather than a natural unconscious progression of a story to change as it is told and retold to reflect current conditions.

  11. Avatar
    gavm  June 11, 2014

    a very interesting and important book. i would be keen to read this. I must admit im very surprised at the limited knowledge/interest in memory and processes in the transmission of information in NT scholars. its very very relevant to early christianty (and history generally)

  12. Avatar
    spiker  February 5, 2015

    Great idea!

    I recently listened to a fascinating lecture by James Dunn
    based on his work, Jesus Remembered and wondered How a debate
    between the both of you would play out. It would be interesting
    if you posted entries while doing your research; particularly
    as it would give a reader of the finished work more to go on.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 5, 2015

      Yes, we disagree on a good deal! But he is a very productive NT scholar!

      • Avatar
        spiker  February 6, 2015

        Admittedly, I am a bit slow witted-it took reading DJE 3 times before I appreciated how solid it is.
        You’ll be pleased to know I gave my sister and her daughter a copy( I don’t know if they are fundies, BUT they have been taught that OT violence was just God training us up)
        At any rate, I don’t know Dunn’s argument well enough to evaluate him.Dunn, however,
        is perhaps the only Christian scholar that doesn’t seem stuck in the Lee Strobbel/ William Lane Craig school of critical thinking. To be sure, the topics(form criticism etc themselves are fascinating) I happen to think you’re right and do not think Dunn can produce evidence to refute the “telephone model” A debate would be fascinating.

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