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My Upcoming Writing Plans: The Afterlife and the Afterlife

As some of you know, I sometimes try to work on two books at once.  I’ve actually tried *writing* two books at once, but doesn’t work too well.  (Writing part of one one day and part of the other another.  Yuk!)  But I can be doing research and planning two books at once, if they are on a related topic – one a popular book for a general audience and the other a scholarly book for academics.   That’s what I did about ten years ago now for my books Forged (trade book for general readers) and Forgery and Counterforgery (hard-hitting scholarship decidedly not for general readers).

Last summer I mentioned on the blog that I was thinking about doing that again, and now it’s for real – I’m doing it.  I wasn’t sure if I would because I needed to get a sabbatical from teaching to pull it off.  But I have now learned that I’ve been given a fellowship for all of next year at the National Humanities Center and so I will be on leave from all teaching and administrative responsibilities in order to work on the scholarly book.

My idea is to have the popular/trade book written first, before I start at the Humanities Center.  I will then spend the year doing intense research for the scholarly book.  Both will be on similar topics: ancient Christian understandings of the afterlife.

First: the National Humanities Center.   This is a wonderful – in fact, absolutely fantastic – institution.   It receives some funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and also raises private funds.   It has a number of functions, but the most visible and relevant to me is their fellowship program.

Every year the give about twenty fellowships to scholars from around the United States and around the world who are working in the humanities (everything from History to Philosophy to Literature to Art History to Musicology to Classics to … Religious Studies!) in order to free them up for a year to do research for a scholarly project (not for trade books or textbooks!).   They get hundreds of applications and have a rigorous winnowing process to choose the annual fellows.

Each fellow is provided with an office with phone, computer hook-ups, desk, table, chairs, book cases – and an amazing library service.  If a fellow wants a book or an article, the library staff gets it from a local university library and brings it in to the Center.  Most fellows get literally hundreds of books and articles over the course of the year, scarcely having to lift a finger for them.

The only requirements for fellows are that they do their work (at the Center) and have lunch with the other fellows every weekday.  That’s it.  Otherwise fellows are free simply to do their research.  (There are other things that one *can* do: public lectures to give and attend; reading groups; social occasions.)   But it’s absolutely fantastic, a year to do nothing (basically) but your own work.

Most of the fellows fly in and spends the year in local housing – going to the Center every day to read, think, and write.   As it runs out, though, the Center is located in the Research Triangle Park.  It’s twelve minutes from my driveway.

I had a fellowship there in 2009-10 and it was amazing.  I got so much done I still can’t believe it.  This was when I did all the research for Forgery and Counterforgery.  As with all scholars who work in my field, it meant spending masses of time working through Greek and Latin texts from antiquity and reading what scholars have said about them in English, French, and German.  Hard core work that people like me thrive on and *love*!

It is really hard to get one of these fellowships.   I’m unbelievably lucky now to have gotten two.  (One of my closest friends and colleagues, Elizabeth Clark at Duke [who works in Christianity in Late Antiquity], got three – but to my knowledge she’s the only one in the history of the place to pull that off; my wife Sarah [who works on Shakespeare] has also had two, so I was completely envious until now).

The popular book is the one I’ve talked about before on the blog – I was doing a long thread on it before I got sidetracked and then sidetracked from my sidetrack and then ….  Well it was months ago.  I’m going to be returning to the thread now soon, possibly next week.  I’m tentatively calling the book “The Invention of the Afterlife.”   It will deal with the question of where the Christian views of the afterlife come from, that when a person dies their soul goes to heaven or hell.  That’s not in the Old Testament, and it’s not what Jesus taught, so … why is it what everyone thinks?  (OK, not everyone: but traditionally in Christianity it’s what everyone has thought – for many many centuries. But why?)

The scholarly book will be on the early Christian accounts of people who were given glimpses of, or even guided tours of, heaven and hell.   I’ve also talked about that a bit on the blog – but I’ll say a few more things about it before returning to my general blog on the invention of the afterlife.   For now I’m just sharing my now-written-in-pen writing plans: first the trade book then intense research for a year on the scholarly book.  I’m totally thrilled!

My Scholarly Project on the Afterlife
Reading The Triumph of Christianity at Quail Ridge Books



  1. Lev
    Lev  March 8, 2018

    That’s awesome news, Bart. Congratulations!

    Out of interest, I note that you read in French and German – can you speak these languages also? If so, have you ever given a public lecture in French or German?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 9, 2018

      No, I’m afraid I only know how to read them (and Italian) — like my ancient languages, I learned them to read, not to converse. Another dumb American!

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      Jolaporte  March 10, 2018

      Bonjour Lev, je suis un peu dans la même situation que vous. J’aimerais comprendre les différents documents vidéos. Mais ce n’est pas le cas. Lots de consolations : il existe sur YouTube quelques trop rares vidéos sous titrées. Il suffit de demander “Bart Ehrman français”.
      J’espère que quelques lecteurs auditeurs de Bart Erhman auront l’idée de prolonger ce travail. Ce serait tellement utile pour nous français, allemands, espagnols (il y a quelques vidéos en espagnol!) etc…
      Jo Laporte

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    Eric  March 8, 2018

    I always knew you were a swell fella. Now NHC has made it official.

    Glad you are returning to the afterlife thread. I sent this in a direct email, but for the benefit of other members, I invite their attention to Lucian’s “Dialogues of the Dead”, c. 120 AD, for a picture of concurrent pagan conceptions.

    (The humor also holds up well, both over two millennia, AND over the 110 years since the English translation I’m currently reading was done. Lucian was a satirist)

    • Bart
      Bart  March 9, 2018

      Yes, it’s fantastic. But get a more recent translation!!

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    doug  March 8, 2018


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    joncopeland  March 8, 2018

    Congrats, Dr. Ehrman! Looking forward to reading these books when they are published.

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    fishician  March 8, 2018

    A shorter, catchier title might be, “Hell, No!” When I read the Bible I see passages where one can read into them eternal torment, but they don’t explicitly state such a thing, and many passages seem to explicitly describe destruction (like the animals, 2 Peter 2:12; or consider the implication of John 3:16). But so many Christians seem to delight in the idea of eternal Hell. Perhaps your book will address why so many believers are so eager to believe in this terribly cruel idea?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 9, 2018

      I know — A God of hell and retribution seems to have more appeal than a God of love and mercy.

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        RVBlake  March 10, 2018

        I have noticed that True Believers do seem to delight in describing with loving detail the torments awaiting the Fallen Away. I have had devout Catholics and Bible-walloping Evangelicals both try to, unsuccessfully, persuade me to pore over written accounts by their favorite authors of grotesque visions of Hell. I have just started wondering why they thought it important that I in particular should be aware of this. Hmm.

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      Eric  March 9, 2018

      Play with that cool idea:



      Ehrman says “Hell, No!” to the Afterlife”

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        SidDhartha1953  March 12, 2018

        If it were for a Quaker readership, it could be titled, «Hell? No, Thee Won’t Go.»

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    flshrP  March 8, 2018

    Congrats on your selection for the sabbatical. It’s nice that the Center is nearby. It’s important for top-rank scholars to be able to sleep in their own beds every night :).

    When I wrote my book (a history of U.S. manned spaceflight) twenty years ago, I too enjoyed a lengthy sabbatical while doing the research and writing. It’s called retirement (after 32 years in the aerospace industry). The writing took 4 years full time. I’ve always been a stack rat so the research was super enjoyable.

    Looking forward to both of the products of your labor.

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    thenerdpaul  March 8, 2018

    Congratulations and best of luck to you!

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    Pattycake1974  March 8, 2018

    Very exciting. Congrats!

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    rmallard  March 8, 2018

    This fellowship sounds pretty great–congratulations and I look forward to your books that come out of that. And when your books come out I hope you do a book tour that goes through Southern California where I live.

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    nbraith1975  March 8, 2018

    OK Bart – So you’re gonna be a “fellow?” I thought down here in the south it’s called a “feller?” As in, you sure is a nice feller!

    Seriously, would the NEH allow you to hold a group session of us wannabe scholars to discuss your work and tour the center and most importantly – see what it’s like to be real scholar?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 9, 2018

      My sense is the that the NHC focuses on scholarly interchange with scholars. But certainly there are other venues where you can here scholars present the fruits of their labors (e.g., here at Chapel Hill, in the weekend Public Humanities Program)

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    godspell  March 8, 2018

    Glad you picked this one. It’s an area that needs more clarification. Both believers and unbelievers have very confused ideas about what Christianity has said about this. I’m not sure I fit into either category, but no doubt I could use some clarification as well.

  12. talmoore
    talmoore  March 8, 2018

    Sounds awesome, Dr. Ehrman. I have to say I’m envious — not because of your freedom to do research, but because of the great environment in which you get to do it. As I’ve mentioned before on the blog, I too spend most of my day doing research. I do odd jobs to pay the bills (which is why, when we met, I wasn’t able to give you a clear CV) and because of that I live a relatively spartan lifestyle. That spartan lifestyle allows me to spend most of the day working on my three volume magnum opus (the outline I have so far suggests between 1,500 and 2,000 pages) which I hope to be a complete Spencerian reconstruction of all social science. Like Spencer, it will start with rock-bottom “first principles” and build up to a complete system (think Spinoza’s Ethics). To give you an idea, volume one will be called “On The Origins of Morality by Means of Social Selection” (an obvious nod to Darwin) that will be both a scientific theory on social and moral foundations, and a philosophical exposition on ethics. Next volume will probably be called “On Power,” and will be in one sense a scientific theory on social structures and dynamics and in another sense a philosophical treatise on politics. The last volume has the tentative title of “Institutions of the New Utopia” (a play on Calvin’s “Institutions of the Christian Religion” and Robert Nozick’s “Anarchy, State and Utopia) which will be a complete thesis on economics and the “perfection” of the human community. I don’t see myself finishing this work anytime soon. I’m at least ten years away from completion.

    Anyway, enjoy your sabbatical. I can’t wait to read your book on the afterlife.

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    Adam0685  March 9, 2018

    Great news! Congratulations!

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    Epaminondas  March 9, 2018

    Congratulations Bart. I suspect the most valuable aspect of your fellowship will turn out to be the one-year time limit.

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    RonaldTaska  March 9, 2018

    Wow! You have really earned this honor. Congratulations!

    The “News and Observer” had an article by D.G. Martin on 3/6/18 asking “Who Are Today’s Public Intellectuals?”

    I sent him your name writing of your importance in summarizing important religious issues through a series of trade books and textbooks in a way that the public can understand them and become educated about them. That has been quite a service. Keep going!

    • Bart
      Bart  March 9, 2018

      Very kind of you. Many thanks. (I have known D.G. for many years; he’s interviewed me a number of times for his radio show.)

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    Wilusa  March 9, 2018

    Wonderful! My Internet connection has been on and off for a day or so. Glad it came to life so I could read this good news!

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    Hormiga  March 9, 2018

    > on leave from all teaching and administrative responsibilities in order to work on the scholarly book.

    A bit of a metaquestion: If the Tooth Fairy offered you an unlimited sabbatical, nothing but supported research and writing, satisfactory pay, conference fees and travel expenses from now on till death do you part, would you take it? Or do you see the teaching and administrative stuff adding to your life experiences and perspective enough that you’d want to keep them, at least to some extent?

    (I had a chance to drop off the Wheel about twenty years ago, did so and have been pursuing my own interests ever since. Haven’t regretted it for a moment, but can see that other folks could make a different call.)

    • Bart
      Bart  March 11, 2018

      Yes, that would be called retirement with a good pension! But at this point I really love the classroom still, and will probably keep teaching for the foreseeable.

  18. webo112
    webo112  March 9, 2018

    Congrats Professor
    I am looking forward to reading these two books.

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    JohnMuellerJD  March 10, 2018

    Super Congrats! But wondering, would it make more sense to do the academic book first and then the trade book? What if after all your extensive research you uncover something that differs from what you already put in the trade book. Did anything like that happen with Forgery?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 11, 2018

      My academic book will actually be on a topic that I’ll only be touching on in the trade book, so it won’t be a problem. And no, didn’t run into a problem with Forgery either. For the most part that’s because I do all the *major* reading even before the trade book. The academic book is based on much more specific and detailed issues that would not be particularly relevant for a general audience.

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    pmwslc  March 10, 2018

    I, for one (of many), sincerely appreciate the popular books you have written. By basing them on critical scholarship but writing them for easy understanding by a broad audience, you are performing a much needed function in our society. Congratulations on your fellowship and the further work it will facilitate. I look forward to learning more about how the concept of an afterlife originated in Christian thought.

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