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Personal Reflections: My Apocrypha Seminar at the National Humanities Center

If I had a fiver for every time someone who knows I’m a university professor says to me, “So, now you have the summer off!” – I’d buy an apartment on the upper West side. But it’s understandable, I know. The professorial life looks awful darn cushy: teach a couple a classes per semester, for fifteen weeks at a shot, and that’s *it*! 30 weeks of the year on, 22 weeks of the year off. Right?

Yeah, well, kinda.

To be fair, I should stress that it is indeed an amazing job and an unbelievable privilege to teach at the university level. I have colleagues who take it for granted, but after 27 years at it, I don’t at all. I know very deeply just how lucky I am. But it really is not (at least for anyone I know very well) a year-long boondoggle. Quite the contrary.

In one of my “series” of posts I’ve been trying to describe what it is professional scholars do, for those out there who wonder. So far I have done ten posts, explaining the various things that being a scholar typically entails, just to give an idea. I have more posts to go. It’s a long job description. But there are some things that some scholars do (that others don’t), and I seem to do a lot of those things. Like this month.

Last year I was asked if I would lead a three-week seminar at the National Humanities Center on a topic of my choice, for 15-20 college professors. And that’s what I’m doing with my life just now.

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The National Humanities Center is located just fifteen minutes from me, by chance, in the Research Triangle Park here in North Carolina.  It is the only free-standing institution dedicated to the promotion of research in the humanities in the United States (probably in the Western world, but I don’t know for sure about that).   Their *main* mission is to provide fellowships to 35 lucky fellows a year, so that they can take a sabbatical from their teaching and come to the Center (from around the country and around the world), spending the year doing nothing but their own research, day in and day out.  I had one of these fellowships three years ago, and it was absolutely amazing.  That was when I was working on my forgery book.   I went to the Center, where I had my own study (as did all the other fellows), and I worked, non-stop, with no phones or interruptions, all day, every day.  It was a scholars’ dream come true.

The Center also puts on a lot of programs of various kinds, including a seminar series in the summer called the Jesse Ball Dupont Summer Seminar.  There are two seminars during the summer, running simultaneously, for three weeks (the other one this summer is being led by Jim Engels, a professor of English at Harvard).  The seminars are funded by the foundation established by Jesse Ball Dupont, who donated lots of money to lots of colleges, mainly in the South.   Each year, each of these colleges is allowed to send two faculty members to one of these seminars; their way, and all their expenses, are paid by the foundation.  And they get to have a three-week seminar with an expert in a field of study about which they may know nothing – or may know a lot.

My seminar this summer is called “There’s More To It: What Early Apocrypha Can Tell Us About Christianity.”   I have sixteen seminar members, with a range of teaching and research expertise.  Several specialize in early Christianity, but others teach history, English, philosophy, music – a range of things.  The only requirement is that they teach at one of these colleges and have an interest in the subject.

The seminar meets four days a week for three hours a day; we have one day a week as a reading day.  There is a lot of reading.  I wanted the seminar to deal with primary texts (early Christian apocrypha – that is, roughly, the books that did *not* make it into the New Testament), and we have several assigned for each seminar meeting (tomorrow we are discussion the Gospel of Mary; the Coptic Apocalypse of Peter; and the Epistle of the Apostles).   Moreover, each day we have a historical topic that we address, on which there is yet other reading (in today’s seminar we talked about Gnosticism).

I will say something about the various topics in my next post.  For now, these are the texts we discuss throughout the course of the three weeks (the participants read them in English translation):

  • The Infancy Gospel of Thomas
  • The Proevangelium of James
  • The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew
  • The Jewish Christain Gosples (Nazareans, Ebionites, Hebrews)
  • The Coptic Gospel of Thomas
  • Papyrus Egerton 2
  • The Gospel of Peter
  • The Gospel of Nicodemus
  • The other “Pilate Gospels”
  • The Gospel of Mary
  • The Coptic Apocalypse of Peter
  • The Epistula Apostolorum
  • The Acts of Paul and Thecla
  • The Acts of Peter
  • The Acts of John
  • The Letter to the Laodiceans
  • 3 Corinthians
  • The Correspondence of Paul and Seneca
  • The Leter of Peter to James
  • The Assumption of the Virgin
  • The Apocalypse of Peter
  • The Apocalypse of Paul

It’s a great list of a lot of great texts!  If anyone reading this blog wants me to say something about any of them, just let me know.

Since all of the participants in the seminar are college professors who have very much wanted to come, read, and discuss, they are all smart, interesting, motivated, eager to talk, full of knowledge and wisdom, and intellectually generous.  Leading the seminar has been a lot of work (setting it up, preparing for each three-hour session, running the discussion, giving background lectures as needed, and so on), but very much worth it.  It is a dream seminar – everyone should be so lucky![\private]

My Apocrypha Seminar at the National Humanities Center: Part 2
Which Bible Translation Do I Prefer?



  1. Avatar
    Adam  June 12, 2012

    It’s amazing just how many stories circulating about Jesus’s words, deeds, and miracles in the books outside of the NT…some of the stories are bizarre and one wonders how the writer or collector of this tradition could believe it actually happened…

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  June 12, 2012

    Before I retired, I spent a lot of my life in academic medicine (psychiatry) in Durham so I am used to being around productive, hard-working people. But you take the cake, both with the three types of books that you write and now with your extensive blog which has much longer and more frequent entries than most similar blogs. Incredible! Do you ever sleep?

    I have finally read all of your blog entries and most of the books you have written for the lay public. I now want to tackle your textbook on the New Testament and some of the videos on your website. Even compared to most that I have been around, you are an extremely productive person.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 13, 2012

      Thanks! I don’t watch a lot of TV. 🙂

      Happy reading!

  3. Avatar
    proveit  June 13, 2012

    The entire list looks very interesting!

  4. Avatar
    gregmonette  June 14, 2012

    Hi Bart!

    I’d love to be a fly on the wall at that seminar course. I have a question: Can you discuss the value of verisimilitude for New Testament Studies? You are teaching a course on the Apocryphal NT and I would like to know how verisimilitude comes into play there. I remember when you debated Craig Evans back in January (2012) and you tried to trap him with asking him if the Gospel of Peter demonstrates verisimilitude (Julie thought that was pretty smart 🙂 That being said, I’m sure you would agree that a lack of verisimilitude shows that the text is probably late. How does verisimilitude in the Gospels compare to that in the Apocryphal NT? Does this come into play with the dating and reliability of the NT Gospels? Or does it help us find historically reliable nuggets in the Apocryphal NT documents? Thanks Bart!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 14, 2012

      Hey Greg! So … it depends on what you mean by verisimilitude. Uh, what *do* you mean? (I’ve thought since I met her that Julie had a good head on her shoulders 🙂 )

      • Avatar
        gregmonette  June 14, 2012

        Good question. How about this: “Verisimilitude” means that the contents of a particular historical writing actually match with what we know of the culture, people, place and period that it is claiming to describe. In other words, if an ancient document does not match with what we know of archaeology, geography, given names in a certain time period, or even the types of plants and animals that inhabited a certain region, this lack of “verisimilitude” shows that the text may not be very historically reliable.

        Ex: If the New Testament Gospels had the name Steve in them, they would demonstrate a lack of historical verisimilitude. I personally think that verisimilitude is more of a criterion of negation than it is a criterion which can establish historical authenticity. After all, any good writer of historical fiction attempts to demonstrate an awareness of the place, time, geography and culture they are trying to describe.

        I’m curious to read your thoughts on the value of verisimilitude in NT research?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  June 16, 2012

          Ah, OK! Yes, I deal with that at some length in my various discussions of the historical Jesus, but under a different rubric, which I call “contextual credibility.” This is the criterion that states that anything that cannot be plausibly fit into a first-century Palestinian context cannot be historically reliable. I would include, for example, the Gnostic discourses found on Jesus’ lips in sundry second and third century Gospels. But I would also include, among other things, the conversation that Jesus allegedly has with Nicodemus in John 3, where the entire discussion hinges on the double meaning of the Greek word ANOTHEN (does it mean “above” — as Jesus intends it — or “a second time” — as Nicodemus misunderstands), which cannot be replicated in Aramaic, the language they *would* have been speaking, had they had the conversation. The same criterion can be applied to lots of things besides discourse, of course, including historical and geographical references, etc.

          • Avatar
            gregmonette  June 16, 2012

            Have you found any periscope like that in the Synoptics? Good point on the John 3 story. John’s gospel is another kettle of fish entirely.

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  June 17, 2012

            Well, there are plenty of geographical and historical errors!

  5. Avatar
    brandyrose  August 10, 2012

    I would be interested in knowing more about The Gospel of Thomas and its relationship to/similarity to “Q”.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 11, 2012

      OK, I’ll add it to the list.

      • Avatar
        brandyrose  August 11, 2012

        Great, thanks! And I’ll take this chance to echo the other subscriber’s sentiment: I had no idea I’d get so much “bang for my buck” on this blog!

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