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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



  1. Avatar
    Beninbuda  January 2, 2019

    Godspeed in all of your coming endeavors Bart, which I trust, like your past efforts, will serve to remove several more veils from the opiate of the masses.

  2. Avatar
    nichael  January 2, 2019

    Could you say something about how you juggle/manage your workload when you have multiple, major research projects like this in play all at the same time –all of this setting aside other responsibilities, of course? (E.g X hours/days to each project? X days/week? Long blocks of time exclusively dedicated to a single project? Or…?)

    (I realize that there’s likely not a specific, well-defined answer to this question. and things, like upcoming deadlines, no doubt mean all bets are off. But, just in general.)

    • Bart
      Bart  January 3, 2019

      Yes, it’s tricky. For me the key is to set aside *chunks* of time for one project or another, and to focus just on that project during the chunk. In big terms, I will work on my Katabasis project (the research) until the end of June; then move to reading about the book of Revelation, focusing on it for the rest of the year. I will probably work on my Great Courses course on Sundays, taking a day off from the other work I’m doing the rest of the week….

  3. Avatar
    nichael  January 2, 2019

    I’m sure I speak for others when I say how interesting I find it when you share with us these glimpses into your “process” as an academic. Especially topics like this, involving your planning and managing of on-going and upcoming research topics. Thank you.

    Have you found that there are topics where you just have to say to yourself that, no matter how much you’d _love_ to research them, it’s just not going to happen in this life –at least if these other thinks are going to get done? (Are there any examples you’d be willing to mention?)

    • Bart
      Bart  January 3, 2019

      Millions. Two random examples: I’d love to be expert in other Scriptural traditions, such as the Qur’an. And to study the effects of early apocrypha in the Middle Ages. And lots of other things. But I’ve chosen to focus on what I know and to get to know it better. Most of my scholar friends do that to way to much an extreme (being experts only on Matthew, or Paul, or Revelation). Others are so far all over the map (the history of religion) they are jacks of all trades and masters of none. I try to reach a balance: lots of foci, but all interrelated in one way or another.

  4. Avatar
    nichael  January 2, 2019

    Concerning item #3 (the book on “Revelation”):

    1] Am I correct that this will be less a book _about_ “Revelation” itself, than about (the history of) how the book has been _interpreted_? (In particular, I ask this as someone who’s just started on Craig R. Koester’s new volume for the Anchor Bible series.)

    2] So far as we know, has there _ever_ been a time when the common assumption —among conservative believers– was that the end times _weren’t_ right around the corner? (“OK, we can relax; scripture tells us that nothing’s going to happen for at least the next couple centuries…”)

    • Bart
      Bart  January 3, 2019

      1. It will be both. I’m intersted in how conservative Christians interpret the text to show what will happen in our near future in *relation* to the historical reading of the text pursued by scholars. Koester’s commentary, btw, is superb. 2. Yeah, not so much. Some have always said “we don’t know when” — but even they tend to think “some time soon”

      • Avatar
        nichael  January 3, 2019

        As a footnote I’ll also mention (for those who might be interested, but might not know about it) that Koester also has recently done a very good Great Courses course on “The Apocalypse: Controversies and Meaning in Western History”.

  5. Avatar
    AstaKask  January 3, 2019

    Could you write a post about the methodology of historical research? I come from a STEM background, where you can always run the experiment again so I’m interested in the differences between that kind of research and historical research.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 4, 2019

      Ah, that would require a book! But yes, it’s very different since you can’t repeat the experiment of history. Once it’s done, it’s done. So you have to look for other kinds of evidence, principally written and oral records of what happened (all of which have to be weighed and evaluated: are they by someone who would know? close to the event? biased toward the subject? independently confirmed? etc.) and any material evidence. Its far more like a criminal court case (proving the guy done it….) than a chemistry experiment.

  6. Avatar
    fishician  January 3, 2019

    I suspect there is a connection or relationship between the end-time enthusiasts and conspiracy theory enthusiasts; similar ways of thinking about the world? Perhaps your research will touch on the underlying psychology?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 4, 2019

      Hadn’t planned on it, since it would take some serious psychological expertise. But it’s an interesting question. I’ll try to see if I can find any research on it….

  7. Avatar
    hankgillette  January 3, 2019

    In your previous description of the Apocalypse of Peter, hell seems superficially similar to the descriptions given by Dante in Inferno. Is it possible that Dante was at least familiar with this book, or is the idea that the punishments in hell will be in the form of ironic poetic justice just very common?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 4, 2019

      It’s usually thought htat he was familiar iwth and heavily influenced by the more popular work (known throughout the middle ages), the Apocalypse of Paul, which was itself based, in part, on the Apocalypse of Peter.

  8. Avatar
    rmallard  January 3, 2019

    Loved reading this post because I am interested in the book of Revelation. Being nearly the same age as you, and because I went through an intense though brief period of religious devotion, I found the book of Revelation compelling and often wondered if the Antichrist’s mastery of the planet was somehow fractional (such as 2 thirds of countries under his dominion) and had outlined a novel along those lines. I also have to say that I am interested in your scholarly book as well although I don’t know if there is going to be too much assumed knowledge.

  9. Avatar
    Andreas.  January 3, 2019

    I have a question regarding the afterlife concept. Sorry if this has been asked before.
    How likely do you think it is that the Persian Empire introduced the idea of heaven and hell into the jewish religion?
    I’m reading a book by Bijan Gheiby at the moment. The book is called Zarathustras’ Fire: A cultural history.
    The author claims, the concept of the fight of good against evil in form of a good and a bad deity and reward or damnation in the afterlife was first made up by the Persians.
    The author also suggests, that Cyros propped up Israel as a buffer state and his succesors became increasingly missionary. E.g. they dictated what kind of rituals were ok and what was not acceptable and did indeed meddle in other peoples religions.
    Do you think this is plausible?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 4, 2019

      I’ve considered it, but for reasons I explain in my book, I think it’s unlikely. for one thing, Jews did not start speaking of heaven and hell and resurrection until well over a century after teh Persian period, whereas if the Persians were responsible for it, you would expect to find it earlier in the Jewish sources.

      • Avatar
        Pattylt  January 4, 2019

        I find this interesting! I would have thought the opposite…that new ideas would take a while to percolate and develop before being syncretized into the writings or beliefs? Is there evidence of ideas from other religions that we know were borrowed from outsiders being rapidly embraced vs only slowly coming into the faiths of the borrowers?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 6, 2019

          My sense is that if they do percolate into the new religion over time it is because there is steady and regular contact with the “other.” That’s the problem: Persians really weren’t on the scene in Palestine when these views developed in Judaism.

  10. Avatar
    J--B  January 3, 2019

    Just in case you need some comic relief from your katabasis research, I recommend Mark Twain’s “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven”.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 4, 2019

      Ah, read it years ago — but worth another reading! fantastic.

  11. Avatar
    jeffmd90  January 4, 2019

    Another Great Course, fantastic! It was through an advertisement in a history magazine a few years ago that introduced me to The Great Courses and it has been an incredible journey. Your course on “The Historical Jesus” was a revelation and I have never looked at Christianity and the Bible the same way since. As a comparison course I also listened to Luke Timothy Johnson’s course on the “Literary Jesus”, are you familiar with his work?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 6, 2019

      Yes, indeed, I’ve known his work (and been acquainted with him) for many years. He and I have very different views on some things (well, lots of things) but he’s a fine scholar.

  12. Avatar
    Boaz  January 4, 2019

    Slightly unrelated issue. You say you use your own translation of the new testament. I guess it is not commercially available but certainly worth asking. It would be great to read it. I use NRSV for my study.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 6, 2019

      I”ve never written out a translation (THAT would be a lot of work). I just read it in Greek and translate it in my head.

      • Avatar
        Boaz  January 6, 2019

        Thanks. Remarkable indeed. Just one more question – how do you or any professional translator choose and get the right greek version of the NT? I understand there were many manuscripts discovered and they are different in terms of content and time of writing. Many of them incomplete and none of them original. Is there any “official” greek version which is used by translators or modern bible creators for translation into modern languages?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 7, 2019

          Ah, long answer that. I better post on it! (Short answer: there is an edition done by a team of world-renowned scholars that sets forth what, in their considered judgment, word for word, the oldest form of the text is, the one closest to the originals)

          • Avatar
            JohnKesler  January 7, 2019

            Does any English-language translation use this edition as the basis for its translation, or does each translation committee have its own idea about what constitutes the most accurate form of the text?

          • Bart
            Bart  January 8, 2019

            They all use it. (Except extreme fundamentalists)

  13. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  January 14, 2019

    I used to have a copy of “88 Reasons….” My ex and I used joke it should be subtitled, “and One Reason He Won’t.” Of course the final chapter would be very short: “Because he didn’t.”

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