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My Research Goals for 2019

I occasionally get asked what I’m “working on,” and it seems like January 1 is a good time to lay out my research goals/directions for the year.  As some of you know, a couple of years ago I decided to cut back and become less busy with research.  That lasted a couple of months.  But, well, it was a *nice* couple of months.  Now I’m back in over my head – but enjoying that immensely as well.

I have four major research goals (at this point) for the coming year.

  1. Finish The Invention of the Afterlife. This is the trade book (that a few of you have read in draft!) that deals with the question of where the ideas of heaven and hell came from.  As I’ve mentioned before, 72% of Americans believe that there is a literal heaven, a place for blessed souls after death, and 58% in a literal hell, a place of torment for sinners.   The thesis of this book is that heaven and hell – as places of eternal reward and punishment for souls after they die – is not at all in the Old Testament, and it’s not what Jesus himself taught.  So where’d the idea come from?  Good question.  I try to answer it in the book.
    I finished writing the book months ago, sent it to readers (including five experts in the fields of Ancient Near East, Hebrew Bible, Greek and Roman Religions, New Testament, and Early Christianity), received their comments, made the appropriate corrections and edits, sent it to my editor, and received her comments.  Based on these, there are a few cleaning up operations still, and I hope to finish them off in the next couple of weeks.   Then the book will enter in production.   My guess is that it will be published next year (2020) about this time.  I don’t know what the actual title will be yet – that’s all down the road.
  2. Do all (most?) of my research for the scholarly book that I’m calling, for now, something like “Journeys to the Otherworld: Katabasis in the Early Christian Tradition.” This will not be a book for normal folk but for abnormal scholars.   I am on sabbatical this year working diligently on the research for the book, and am making very good but also frustratingly slow progress.  It’s a tough one.    I have made an editorial decision – which I am completely open to reversing at any point – to make it less of a *monograph* with a single thesis played out and argued over however many hundreds of pages (that’s what my books Orthodox Corruption of Scripture and Forgery and Counterforgery were) and more of a *collection of studies* on various aspects of katabasis in Christian texts.
    The term “katabasis” is Greek; it refers to guided tours of the realms of the afterlife.  For Christian texts such as the Apocalypse of Peter or the Apocalypse of Paul this entails tours given to a living person to see the blessings enjoyed by the saints in paradise and the gruesome torments experienced by the sinners in hell.   My book will be looking at different aspects of these traditions, from why something like the Apocalypse of Peter did not make it into the New Testament (I’ve done the research on that one) to how a pagan account and a Christian account, from about the same time, of a katabasis can both deal with the problem with living for material goods and the accumulation of wealth, but see/portray vastly different explanations for *why* this is a problem.  It’s actually extremely interesting.
    I had hoped to get this book written before moving on to the next thing, but that’s not going to happen.  The next thing is too pressing.  So I will try to do the *research* for this book for the first half of this year, set it aside while I do the next thing, then come back to writing it once the next thing is finished.  That seems to be how I organize my life….
  3. The next thing. I’ve decided that I want to write a trade book (for a general audience) that is (roughly) about the book of Revelation.  Specifically I am – and for a long time have been – interested in Christian interpretations of the book that argue that the End of Time is coming soon, within our lifetime, possibly next Thursday.  These interpretations are invariably based on detailed explorations of the book of Revelation (and other relevant biblical books).  And they have been around for a long time.
    I first became familiar with them when I was absorbed by the question as an evangelical Christian myself, who believed that Jesus was going to be returning to earth before the end of the 1980s (this was in the mid-70s), based on the massive best seller Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsay (the best-selling book in English in the entire decade of the 70s, apart from the Bible).   Later, another immensely popular book that came out in 1988 (1987?) argued that Jesus was returning that year; it was called “88 Reasons Why The Rapture Will Occur in 1988” – two million copies in circulation at the time, largely where  I lived in the American South.
    Near the end of the 1990s I started looking into the phenomenon of conservative Christians reading the book or Revelation as a blueprint for what would happen in their own time.  As it turns out, it’s not a modern phenomenon.  Such expectations were rife in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.   And the 1850s.  And the 13th  And the 10th century.  And the 2nd century.   And … and all the way back.
    My book will be about the modern phenomenon (maybe starting in the 19th century, and coming up to today), and show what the problem with this way of reading Revelation is.  I suppose the big problem should be evident to anyone with sense: of the thousands and thousands (millions) of people who have interpreted the book of Revelation to show what was about to happen in their own time, every single one of them, without exception, has been incontrovertibly *wrong*.  Why is that?  I’ll be arguing that it is not because they have missed one clue or detail or another and so messed up their calculations; instead, the very approach to Revelation *itself* is wrong.  It was never meant to predict what is to happen in our future.

My plan is to start doing the serious research for this book in July or August.  I should think it would take a couple of years to write, altogether.  Assuming the world doesn’t end first.

  1. Finally, I have been asked to do another course for the Great Courses, on The Triumph of Christianity.  It will be 24 lectures, each of 30 minutes.  It will be based on my book, but it will be set up very differently.   I’ve just started thinking about how to do it.  This year I will need to write the lectures.  I’ll be producing the course in 2020.

So that’s my life ahead.  It should be a full year, but all of it is good.


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Blog Year in Review, 2018

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    godspell  January 1, 2019

    All three books sound like something I’d want to read (not a scholar, but I’m fairly abnormal). Sorry we have to wait over a year for The Invention of the Afterlife, but all good things…..

    2
  2. Avatar
    AstaKask  January 1, 2019

    The Jehova’s Witnesses have an interesting eschatology, with Satan being kicked out of Heaven by Jesus (who is also the archangel Michael) in 1914. I don’t know if they have a new book about Revelation out, but there was an old one called something like “the glorious message of the Revelation is about to come true” (I read it in Swedish, so I’m back-translating here).

    Do you think the Christian katabases were influenced by earlier pagan writings like the katabasis in Plato’s Republic or the one in the Aeneid? How much?

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  January 3, 2019

      They do. And yes, they were influenced by their predecessors a good deal. I’ll be talking about that in my forthcoming tradebook on the afterlife as well.

      2
      • Avatar
        myhourani  January 5, 2019

        Do you have any intentions on reflecting on Jesus in Islamic traditions? You often quote the impact Jesus has had on 2 billion followers, but I think his impact is greater than that. If you include the 1.8 billion Muslims, there are at least 3.8 Billion people who hold Jesus in high esteem, and based on ‘Lost Christianities’ and ‘Jesus before Gospels’, the Islamic Beliefs about Jesus seem to thread through the various ‘Christianities” that existed prior to the advent of Islam.

        • Bart
          Bart  January 6, 2019

          I”m afraid to acquire the expertise needed for me to say *anything* authoritative about Islam and the Qur’an would take many years of full-time study, and I’m involved with too many other htings to do it. Too bad! (And too bad I can’t explore in depth hundreds of other religions too! All of them deeply meaningful to their devotees. Life’s too short!)

          1
  3. Lev
    Lev  January 1, 2019

    Your book on Revelation sounds awesome! I’m really stoked that you’re planning on writing it, as I think a lot of people, even unbelievers, think we live in apocalyptic times (Sir David Attenborough has warned, for instance, about the dangers of the collapse of civilization due to climate change and the breakdown in ecology).

    May I ask when you plan to make your great reveal over the question you asked yourself about 2 Peter vs Apocolypse of Peter making it into the canon? I’m still waiting on tenterhooks!

    • Bart
      Bart  January 3, 2019

      As soon as I get back in the country — probably next week. I’ve been putting it off because I wanted to make sure I had all my reference books handy in case of questions. It will be an anti-climax though, I’m afraid, and possibly require only a post or two!

      3
    • Avatar
      Sooty  January 9, 2019

      “… as I think a lot of people, even unbelievers, think we live in apocalyptic times (Sir David Attenborough has warned, for instance, about the dangers of the collapse of civilization due to climate change and the breakdown in ecology).”

      The difference here being that Attenborough’s warning is backed by tons of data and reaches much farther than any particular civilization (they’re pretty collapsible, after all) to entire biotic systems.

  4. Avatar
    Adam0685  January 1, 2019

    There is also great interest in end times/ apocalyptic ideas outside the evangelical world in popular movies that are situated in post apocalyptic world’s

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_apocalyptic_films

  5. Avatar
    Boltonian  January 1, 2019

    Very interested in 3.

  6. Avatar
    tskorick  January 1, 2019

    “Possibly next Thursday” hahahaha!! Okay you got me there that was awesome. Happy New Year Dr. Ehrman!

    2
  7. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  January 1, 2019

    Do you find it odd that the percentage of people who believe in a literal hell is so much smaller than the percentage who believe in heaven? And did you encounter any reason for such a range?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 3, 2019

      I actually find it odd for the opposite reason — that well over half of Americans believe in a literal hell as a place of torment. The reason for more believing in heaven: hell as a place of eternal torment for, say, 15 years of bad decisions simply doesn’t make sense to most people. Quite the contrary!

      • Avatar
        Fredbauck  January 4, 2019

        The Christians in my environment tend to identify “eternal life” with eternal happiness or heaven. I can’t remember anything from the New Testament that would be a literal opposite of “eternal life.” Could it be that more people believe in heaven than in hell, because they don’t think hell is referred to in the Bible?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 6, 2019

          Closest things would be the Sheep and Goats in Matthew 25; Lazarus and the Rich man in Luke 16; and the accounts of the final judgment (and the lake of fire) in the book of Revelation. I will be dealing with all of these in my forthcoming book on the afterlife.

  8. Robert
    Robert  January 1, 2019

    “The term “katabasis” is Greek; it refers to guided tours of the realms of the afterlife. For Christian texts such as the Apocalypse of Peter or the Apocalypse of Paul this entails tours given to a living person to see the blessings enjoyed by the saints in paradise and the gruesome torments experienced by the sinners in hell.”

    It seems the term ‘katabasis’ may be based largely on pre-Christian literature when there would only be a ‘descent’ into the nether world below. Do some scholars propose a different term for Christian or other literature that also includes an ‘ascent’ into the heavens above?

    Perhaps a more interesting specific question: Do you intend to deal with Jewish merkabah literature (or Christian interaction with same) that deals with the heavenly travels and mystical visions based on Ezekiel or Enoch or Elijah? This might make for a good chapter in your work, perhaps one written by a Jewish scholar. If not, have you perhaps come across one or more really good comprehensive introduction(s) to this literature?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 3, 2019

      Yes, the complement is “anabasis.” I won’t be dealing with Merkabah because I’m focusing on the Christian materials and their pagan and Jewish antecedents.

      • Robert
        Robert  January 3, 2019

        Well, if you feel yourself starting to get depressed by focusing so much on the negative Christian katabatic, rememver the uplifting words of that old merkabatic spiritual, Swing low, Sweet Chariot, coming fire to carry me home …

  9. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  January 1, 2019

    1. It does look like a very full year, but then your life has always been that way.

    2. The dozen or so “Left Behind” novels are more interesting than I had thought and actually give “one” fairly accurate literal interpretation of Revelation. They are quick and easy reading.

    3. You left out your religious autobiography which would be interesting to a lot of us who have had a very similar journey to your journey maybe without quite as much scholarship..

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  January 3, 2019

      Yeah, I’m afraid that’s not in the works just now. Maybe when I have more life to talk about….

  10. Avatar
    brenmcg  January 1, 2019

    Just thinking again about the eternal punishment and reward subject – the line “the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched” is probably about bodily resurrection.
    If your body is buried where the worm that eats it never dies and the fire that consumes it is never quenched you have no hope of a bodily resurrection. The meaning is not that you’ll eternally suffer the torment of worm and fire.
    Not sure if someone mentioned that before?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 3, 2019

      I’ll be talking about what I think it means in my forthcoming book. Note: it doesn’t say that hte body feels torment forever, but that the worms and fires are always in that place.

  11. epicurus
    epicurus  January 1, 2019

    I would love to see a Great Courses series on the history of the modern evangelical movement taught by Molly Worthen. I really enjoyed her book Apostles of Reason on this topic as well as her recent Great courses series on Christian history from the reformation till now.

  12. Avatar
    JohnKesler  January 1, 2019

    For your book on Revelation, would you please include a section on preterism? Those folks realize that many (or all in the case of full preterism) of the events predicted in the NT were fulfilled by 70 AD.

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  January 3, 2019

      Haven’t decided yet — but it’s an interesting idea.

    • Avatar
      Ephraimlad  January 3, 2019

      I agree on this one: covering “Preterism”/”Fulfilled Eschatology” would be great. That’s what I came out of. Also, I’m interested in finding some confirmation to the claim that Revelation was lifted from the Sybillian Oracles, and whether Revelation traces back to Jewish apocalyptic sects as far back as 200 BC as a kind of apologetic as to why Yahweh had not yet intervened in their kingdom.

  13. Avatar
    stokerslodge  January 1, 2019

    Re the book of Revelation:
    Bart, could you shed any light on the seven spirits mentioned in Rev 1.4 ? Is there any common ground among scholars or theologians as to who these seven spirits are? Also, I notice that (in it’s footnote) the NIV says: “That is, the Sevenfold spirit”. Is that a more accurate translation of the Greek text, and what are the words sevenfold Spirit meant to convey? Thank You

    • Bart
      Bart  January 3, 2019

      I haven’t looked at it specifically for a long time, but I assume since seven is the perfect number it means that these seven represent the entire spiritual realm surrounding his throne.

  14. Avatar
    slpuckett  January 1, 2019

    Thank you! The two subjects I end up appending to my “Bart Ehrman” Google searches the most are the afterlife and the book of Revelation.

  15. Avatar
    caesar  January 1, 2019

    There’s a passage in Revelation that I think makes it pretty much impossible that it’s referring to our times, and I wonder if you would agree. Rev 22 10 says NOT to seal the words of the prophecy because the time is near. Futurists will say that means near in God’s perspective. But you can’t say that here because of Daniel 8 26…DO seal the words of this prophecy(chapter 8 only)… because it concerns the distant future. Daniel 8 describes the Greeks defeating the Medes and Persians, and then describes Antiocus IV….events up to the year 165 BC. Even assuming a 6th century BC Daniel, the angel tells Daniel to seal the prophecy because it concerns the distant future, 400 years…and then the angel in Revelation says do not seal the prophecy because the time is near…at least 2000 years later. So the angel thinks 400 years is the distant future, and 2000 years is near? Obviously Revelation 22 is derived from Daniel 8 here. Does Rev 22 10 disprove the futurist view, all by itself?

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  January 3, 2019

      Yes, I think the author thought hte time was near, based on this and other verses — not 2000 years off!

      1
  16. Avatar
    Petter Häggholm  January 1, 2019

    Do all (most?) of my research for the scholarly book that I’m calling, for now, something like “Journeys to the Otherworld: Katabasis in the Early Christian Tradition.” This will not be a book for normal folk but for abnormal scholars.

    As an abnormal layman, I very sincerely hope that you will make the same decision as for Forgery and Counter-forgery and include quotations in translation rather than (just) Greek (&c.). I may not be qualified to read scholarly works critically, but that doesn’t mean some of us blog readers don’t want to buy and read them. F&CF is my favourite book of yours (and fairly accessible with Forged! having explained much of the high-level stuff on a more accessible level).

    1
  17. Avatar
    JRS  January 2, 2019

    Dr.Ehrman, regarding your new book on the book of revelation and modern interpretations of it. Very much looking forward to this and I would also been interested if your research covers the Jehovah’s Witness interpretation of Revelation, which I have found to be quite unique (but still unreliable). They have a study book that is quite substantial.

  18. Avatar
    Silver  January 2, 2019

    Re ‘The Invention of the Afterlife’ – if you hope to tie up the remaining tweeks in the next two weeks so that your book can then go into production, why is it that that will take a year before publication, please?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 3, 2019

      That’s typically how long it takes to publish a book — in part because there is a lot involved in converting an electronic file into a hard-back book, and in part because publishers are doing lots at once and there is always a backlog and queue.

      3
  19. Avatar
    Gary  January 2, 2019

    Off topic question: I am in an ongoing discussion with mythicists regarding the issue of whether or not a “suffering/dying messiah” concept is present in the Hebrew Bible (OT). Even though many Christian Bible scholars may believe that such a concept exists, for example in Isaiah 53, I had always understood that the overwhelming majority of Jewish scholars reject such a concept. These mythicists state that there are now a number of Jewish scholars who DO believe that a suffering/dying messiah concept existed in the OT and that this concept was espoused by some Second Temple Jews. They use this as evidence that the Jesus Story could be mythical. Here is a link to a list of scholars who hold this view (Christian and Jewish). What is your response?

    https://vridar.org/2018/12/14/modern-scholars-on-pre-christian-jewish-beliefs-in-suffering-messiahs-and-saving-deaths/

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  January 3, 2019

      My view is that no Jewish scholar ever thought this until the Christians started arguing it. Those((very few) who think it now have been heavily influenced by Christian views.

      2
  20. Avatar
    clifh  January 2, 2019

    Glad to hear that you plan to do another Great Courses lecture series. I’ve been using them for adult Sunday school classes. I know they’re a lot of extra work on your part to write the lectures to fit the 30 minute lecture format.

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  January 3, 2019

      Yeah, they’re an unreasonable amount of work. But one is always glad to have done it, once they are finished.

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