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My Progress on the Book

I’m at one of my favorite points in the writing process for my next book.  Maybe it’s not right to say I’m at a point in the “writing,” since I haven’t written a word yet and won’t be writing a word for a while.   But writing is so much more than actually hammering out words on a keyboard.  The huge bulk of the work involves doing the research.   And I’m at one of my favorite points just now, the long transition period between one phase of reading and another, preparatory to the writing itself.

I’ve described various aspects of my writing process before, but I’m not sure that I’ve ever explained how I sequence my reading for a new project.   For me, it’s a two-stage sequence.  I’ll explain it in reference to the current book on the Christianization of the Empire (I’ve been calling it the Triumph of Christianity, but I’m not sure I’m happy with the title any more.  Doesn’t matter.  A book’s title is like the interior trim on the house you’re building – it comes very near the end, not at the beginning).

When we finally decided last summer that this would be the book I was going to do next (as I think I’ve mentioned: last summer there were four, count them, four, different books that I thought was each going to be the next one!), I plunged right into the research.   My first step was to re-read the classics that everyone who works in the field knows about, or should know about, books that I had read some years ago, some of which I’ve read more than once.  In this case that included such books as Adolf von Harnack, The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries (1902); Arthur Darby Nock, Conversion: The Old and the New in Religion from Alexander the Great to Autustine of Hippo (1933); the more recent classic by Ramsay MacMullen, Christianizing the Roman Empire (1984), and the controversial book by Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (1996).

I constructed bibliographies of relevant books, books dealing with Roman Imperial history; Roman Religion; The Spread of Christianity in the Roman World; Early Christian Missions; Opposition to Christianity by pagans (issues related to persecution and martyrdom); and related things.  And I started reading broadly in these various fields.  As I read, I run across references to other scholarship, other books and articles.  And when I read those, I found references to other books and articles.  Then I read those.  And so on and on.

I suppose there were maybe 150-200 books that I read, and…

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Who Counts as a Christian?
Life After Death in Rome, and other Questions. Readers’ Mailbag May 6, 2016

35

Comments

  1. Avatar
    PresterJohn  May 9, 2016

    Hello Bart,

    I humbly submit a few book name ideas…

    The Rise and Victory of Christianity
    The Rise and Triumph of Christianity
    350 Years – The Rise and Triumph of Christianity – 30CE to 380CE (Omit the dates if you plan to go beyond 380)
    350 Years – From Jewish Sect to Rome’s Official Religion

    The first 2 are slight plays on Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The second 2 are based on the idea of having a short main title. You can mix and match the subtitle phrasing.

    • Avatar
      Eric  May 11, 2016

      Bart will need much longer, multi-clause sentences if he’s going to try to evoke Gibbon! That, and scandalous footnotes.

  2. Avatar
    rivercrowman  May 9, 2016

    Thanks for the progress report. … I’m glad you’re the one doing this heavy lifting.

  3. Avatar
    jhanna2  May 9, 2016

    From your point of view, how did your dialogue with Michael Licona go? http://www.thebestschools.org/special/ehrman-licona-dialogue-reliability-new-testament/

    • Bart
      Bart  May 10, 2016

      The older I get the more I find these debates frustrating. I certainly felt good about my part of it, but the debate is set up so that by its very nature the other side can never admit you’ve made a good point and that they need to rethink an issue. It’s all about winning….

  4. Avatar
    kentvw  May 9, 2016

    So your “writing” is little more than borrowed thought… Sorry Bart does not sound like money well spent to me.. Is this what “scholars” do”? To be honest I don’t think you have an original thought in your head.. Must get tiresome..

    “when I know that there is a desperate need for me to be reading what I’m reading.” Oh my, the desperation!!!! Ya, like your waste of money “Great courses.” Bart I don’t believe in a *God either. But you need to dewad your panties on this topic.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 10, 2016

      I’m not sure why you want to be on the blog. If you are enjoying it, that’s fine. But if you’d rather not be, I’m happy to refund your money.

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  May 20, 2016

        The good thing about guys like kentvw is that he makes you appreciate how intelligent, thoughtful and courteous the vast majority of your correspondents really are.

    • Avatar
      bbcamerican  May 10, 2016

      Yes, kentvw, that is EXACTLY what scholars do. I’m wondering who, according to your personal definition, actually has an “original” thought? Dr. Ehrman certainly doesn’t need me (or anyone else) to defend him, his process, or his scholarship. They are all above reproach. However, your comment was both rude and uncalled for. I highly suggest you take up Dr. Ehrman on his offer to refund your money for membership to the blog if you are not a member to learn and provide constructive thoughts or comments. You don’t have to agree with Dr. Ehrman’s opinions on all things, but at least show some respect for his charitable work (which is the purpose of this blog), his years of scholarship and sharing information with the masses to which we would never have access otherwise, and also to all the other members of this blog. Your comments were completely out of place in a respectful place of learning, which I consider this blog to be.

    • Avatar
      shakespeare66  May 11, 2016

      If you had read all of Dr, Ehrman’s books, then you would find a great deal of original thinking. But you are not interested in the subject anyway. What you are interested in is spewing unintelligible nonsense that demonstrates your total lack of understanding what a scholar does. You would be better served spewing this nonsense on FB where you can troll all you want. Attacking an eminent scholar is just ignorant to say the least.

    • Avatar
      Vizzle  May 23, 2016

      Kentvw is a loser. That’s what scholarship is, using previous works to develop your own. Obviously one wouldn’t write a book on say the Persian empire without reading one word about the Persian empire. I’m not sure what his point is.

  5. Avatar
    godspell  May 9, 2016

    There’s been a lot of interest in this subject lately–a book just came across my desk at the library I work at. “The Patient Ferment of the Early Church”, by Alan Kreider.

    https://tabletalktheology.com/2016/04/14/slow-and-steady-growth-a-review-of-alan-kreiders-the-patient-ferment-of-the-early-church/

    He’s got an interesting (and very focused) take on the question of how Christianity grew so quickly. His thesis is that the Pre-Constantine church was very different in its values. It valued patience, and it placed a great emphasis on education, catechesis.

    But Constantine was not patient, and neither was Augustine–the values of the church changed in many important ways after Constantine accepted it. After them, the emphasis became more on establishing the church as a center of power and authority. Before that, the goals were different. Not geared so much towards this world. So the converts Christianity gained in those difficult early years, it kept. There was a sense of community that other cults could not replicate.

    Christianity grew for two reasons–because the Empire, still intact, provided it with a relatively stable multi-national environment within which it could propagate its ideas across a great part of the world–and because it provided a sort of counter-culture that questioned many of the values of that Empire–and let’s face it, many of those values were pretty damned questionable. We needn’t be nostalgic for the grandeur that was Rome. It was based on a great deal of cruelty and oppression. But sadly, Christianity was at least partly corrupted by the values of Rome, even as it changed them. I’m sure Hegel had something to say about that, but I find him incredibly boring, so I won’t check. 😉

  6. talmoore
    talmoore  May 9, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, I’ve been working on a novel about Jesus for what seems like forever (more like a few years), and over the course I’ve had to revise my process several times. It seemed like every time I had finished my research I came across another book or another theory that I had to investigate. Alas, when I came across Meier’s five-volume A Marginal Jew I told myself that’s it. Once I’m done with that I must move on from the research phase to the writing phase. But then I made the mistake of trying to back translate some of Jesus alleged words into Aramaic and Hebrew, and now I’ve fallen down that rabbit hole. So, alas, it feels like this project will never be done.

    As things stand now, I have about 200 pages of notes and a two-page outline of the book’s structure and plot. The plot has changed several times based on my on-going research, and the title has evolved to reflect changes to the plot. For example, the novel was originally going to be title The Testimony of Judas, and it was going to be from the perspective of Judas ratting out Jesus before Pilate. But then I realized the limitations of that gimmick and instead decided to go with the 3rd-person omniscient (the new tentative title is The Son of Adam).

    I was also stuck for a time trying to work out a plausible historical timeline on which to build the plot. I had a breakthrough when my research began pointing to two extremely important factors that could determine the novel’s narrative backbone (and, funny enough, the plausible historical narrative as well). These two factors are 1) that Jesus undoubtedly believed that the Messianic Age was right around the corner, likely arriving some time in 30 CE — probably between Passover and Yom Kippur of 30 CE; and 2) Jesus only began his ministry after John the Baptist was arrested and executed — which probably occured in either December of 29 CE or January 30 CE (there are a whole host of facts that lead me to this conclusion, which I won’t get into.)

    These factors have forced my novel into a set of inexorable plot points. One, it means Jesus only had a matter of months to “preach” the coming Kingdom, which means it’s ridiculous to think that Jesus thought he would preach to and save every worthy Jew (let alone every worthy gentile). Therefore, Jesus certainly couldn’t have thought his message was unique or necessarily special for salvation. He must have thought of his movement as only one of many that were being fostered at the time in order to save the righteous from oblivion.

    Second, while Jesus may have known his message was not unique, he may have believed that his mission was special, which is why he assembles a group of disciples and leads them to Jerusalem. He may have actually thought they formed a core of the future elite of the Heavenly Kingdom.

    And lastly — and most importantly — Jesus didn’t spend years wandering around Galilee teaching. If anything, he spends at most a few months wandering around the Galilee collecting followers (especially affluent ones who can fund the journey to Jerusalem) and he simply took with him everyone he had gathered up in the meantime before traveling down to Jerusalem. In other words, it was probably a much more ad hoc affair, without thorough planning and without a wholly worked out belief system (i.e. no developed moral system or theological tenets).

    Anyway, that’s the narrative backbone for my Jesus novel. And I’m itching to complete my research and begin writing this darn novel already.

    • Avatar
      Wilusa  May 10, 2016

      I know it will probably take you a long time to write it, but I’m sure many of us will be eager to read it!

  7. Avatar
    Gearyman  May 9, 2016

    I am looking forward very much for the publication of this book as it, for me, a fascinating period of history.
    In the mean time, i am wondering if you could direct me other publication that focus on the rivalry’s between the Jesus movement and the Christ movement which I read about in Barry Wilson’s book – How Jesus Became Christian.
    Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  May 10, 2016

      Yeah, I’m not so sure there’s much evidence for that; maybe write Wilson directly? I’d be interested in seeing what books he refers you to!

  8. Avatar
    JoshuaJ  May 9, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, I have an unrelated question, and I do apologize if I am out of order by asking it here. In your Focused Civil Dialogue exchange with Mike Licona, Dr. Licona makes the following comments in his Detailed Response (April 12, 2016): “Bart also observes that Luke contradicts himself at his ascension scene in Acts 1:3 by saying Jesus was with his disciples for 40 days after his resurrection and prior to his ascension. But this is also quite easily explained in view of the standard compositional devices of that day. Luke has obviously compressed his resurrection narrative.”

    My question relates to the fact that in virtually every English translation of the Bible, we find a footnote at Luke 24:51 that says something to the effect of “other ancient authorities lack the phrase ‘and was carried up into heaven.'” This suggests that there were early Christians who completely removed the ascension event from the Gospel, and footnote “m” at Luke 24 in the NABRE Bible gives us a hint as to why: “The Western text omits some phrases in Lk 24:51, 52 perhaps to avoid any chronological conflict with Acts 1 about the time of the ascension.” So my question is this: If it is indeed “obvious” that Luke is simply “compressing” the resurrection narrative, why then would early Christians have felt compelled to smooth over the timeline problems within the text by completely removing the ascension event from the Gospel? Wouldn’t these early Christians have recognized what Luke was “obviously” doing if compression was in fact a “standard compositional device of that day” as Licona asserts? If Licona is right, then why the need for a cover-up in the first place? Why else would the ascension event be omitted from certain Gospel manuscripts? Seems like an important detail to leave out.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 10, 2016

      Ha! Great point! I suppose Mike would say that it might be obvious to us but not to every early scribe.

  9. Avatar
    Todd  May 10, 2016

    As you do this, is your goal for the book simply to present what others have written in a unified and condensed form, or will you present new insights and conclusions that are uniquely your own so that someday another scholar might refer to your writing as having significant insights that others have not presented previously?

    In other words, will you present conclusions that may give us new understanding on the early development of Christianity?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 10, 2016

      It’s some of both. I certainly don’t agree completely with any one author who has written about this, although I have been heavily influenced by several (especially Ramsay MacMullen). But the book is not meant as a scholarly tome to advance scholarship for scholars. It is meant to deal with the issue in a way that is accessible to a general reading public. And so it will not be heavily footnoted showing where I agree and disagree with others. It will be advancing arguments not found in general-reading-public books on the topic, with my own distinctive “take” on how Christianity spread. It will not simply be a regurgitation of everything scholars already know though.

      • Avatar
        Todd  May 10, 2016

        Thank you for your reply. This is a special area of interest to me. I look at the core of what Jesus taught and did, and then look at the state of Christianity today and wonder how we came to be what we now are from when it all started. I have broken with the contemporary church in dismay. I will be very interested in reading your new book.

  10. Avatar
    chupacabra  May 10, 2016

    I would just like to thank you for sharing the behind-the-curtain of non-fiction writing. It humanizes a process that often seems arcane and inscrutable to the layperson. I’m sure it’ll turn into something great, as usual.
    One question: how many hours per day do you read? do you find it hard to keep concentration while reading? Do you need to walk every so many minutes? I’m just trying to gauge whether you have never dealt with those problems or you just found a way around them.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 10, 2016

      Different days, different hours. But I constantly am breaking up my reading, to improve concentration; and so I read different things during the day, and interpose lots of breaks for coffee, email, and so on, to keep my mind fresh.

      • Avatar
        chupacabra  May 11, 2016

        How many minutes, on average, can you focus on what you are reading before your mind wanders?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 12, 2016

          It *really* depends on what I’m reading. Serious scholarship, I can’t read without a break more than 45-50 minutes, unless it’s really intriguing. But the idea of taking a quick break is that it restores the mind….

  11. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 10, 2016

    An incredible amount of reading and work.
    I have been trying to understand the path of Biblical canon formation through various synods (393 CE synod of Hippo Regius) and councils (363 or 364 CE Council of Laodicea and the 397 CE and 416 CE Councils of Carthage). Is it possible for you to provide a short summary of such councils as regards to canon formation some Friday?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 10, 2016

      Wow — that would be a great topic! But I’m afraid it would take a lot of work: I haven’t done that kind of survey (in my notes or in my head) for nearly thirty years now! (I never have taught this kind of thing, and so it’s not all fresh)

  12. Avatar
    asdfjkl  May 10, 2016

    Really enjoyed reading about your note-taking process. Being a fan of your trade books and debates, I find synthesizing information from different sources cogently is one of the things you do best!

  13. Avatar
    Wilusa  May 10, 2016

    When I read about your “highlighting and underlining” things as you read them, I realized you must have been reading them on a computer (or a “device” of some kind!). How *do* you get access to all these things? Have *all* the source materials you need to consult been put “online” somewhere by earlier scholars? Or do you have to go to some lengths to get your hands on actual *books* – or even manuscripts?

    (I’m remembering doing research in libraries long ago – reading things on…microfilm? Yikes – I’m not even sure what it was called! But research was *not* a pleasant experience in those days.)

    • Bart
      Bart  May 12, 2016

      No, I buy the books and photocopy the articles. All part of the professional expense (for me).

  14. Avatar
    clifh  May 11, 2016

    It appears I’m too late to add to your reading list. I hope the following book was included since it viewed the rise of Christianity through the lens of money and wealth.
    “Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD” by Peter R.L. Brown
    Link to my review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/631377912

    • Bart
      Bart  May 12, 2016

      Yup, it’s an important (and very big) book by the premier scholar of late antiquity in the world!

  15. epicurus
    epicurus  May 12, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman,
    You noted that you hate the notating part, putting the highlights into a word file.
    One trick I’ve done the last few years is to use an app called Genius Scan on my iPhone to take a picture of the highlights or sticky notes shaped like arrows in the margins pointing to the quote or paragraph. It allows you to crop each page picture down to just the area you want. You can do this when finished the book, or sometimes after reading each page. When finished, it can combine all the highlights into a pdf, that I can either print off, or send to my iPad or laptop to read.
    I bought a pack of sticky notes shaped like arrows. I place the sticky beside the the quote or paragraph in the margin, and write the page number on the sticky so I know what page it is from.
    I also take a picture of the book cover, and the first page with the publisher info etc so If I’m officially quoting I have all the required info.
    Worth a try, if it does work for you and is to your liking, it would save a heck of a lot of time and typing.

  16. Avatar
    JoeRoark  June 15, 2016

    All scholarship is dependent on the sources that are available. To not read what has been written by others who are capable would require any book to be composed of ALL original thinking – based only on ‘thinking’ (these are usually called novels).
    I have several of Bart’s books and have enjoyed his approach, and have further assumed that’s how he reached his conclusions- by study and thought. The opposite: no study and no thinking would not lure me to buy.

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