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Some Flak (Already!) Over My New Book

This week there was a brief but rather fervid flurry of posts on a Facebook discussion page I belong to over the announcement of my new book, due out March 1.  The reason it was brief is that after about twenty or twenty-five rather intense (and some of them rather insulting) posts, the moderator of the list took down the whole discussion.  And he was right to do so.  The comments had nothing to do with the purpose of the page.

The page is a very useful site for discussing issues related to “New Testament Textual Criticism.”  That, as most of the readers of this blog will know, is the technical field of study that tries to determine what the original text of the New Testament was based on the fact that we do not have any originals, but only copies made by later scribes, all of which have mistakes in them.  The page is devoted, then, to Greek manuscripts and closely related topics.

And what does my upcoming book have to do with any of that?  Well, uh, nothing.  And so the moderator took down the discussion and all the comments.

But the reason it was hot and heavy for most of a day is that one of the members of the page announced that I had a book coming out, and many people on the page were angry about it.  Some were angry that I had the audacity to publish yet another book (!); others were angry about the title (well, the subtitle) of the book.

This is the book I have discussed at some length on the blog, in which I deal with the study of memory in fields such as cognitive psychology (how and why people remember, misremember, forget, and distort/invent memories), sociology (“collective memory”), and anthropology (the study of modern oral cultures) as a way of trying to understand how the early Christians – in the decades before any of our Gospels was written — were remembering (or misremembering) the things Jesus said and did.

I have previously mentioned on this post that authors of trade books (that is, those sold to a wider general audience, as opposed to scholarly books or college-level textbooks) usually do not provide the published titles for their books.  Normally that is a matter of negotiation between the author and the publisher; or, even more often, it is a decision of the publisher.   Most of my trade books have not been called what I wanted to call them.  But in most cases that has been a good thing: publishers are experts at what to call books.  We authors are simply the people who write them.

In any event, as it turns out, for this forthcoming book – due out March 1 – the publisher did indeed go with the title that I original proposed, but they came up with a subtitle.  Subtitles are particularly tricky: you want them to be catchy and attractive, and to capture what is really interesting and intriguing about the book.   So this is the title and subtitle of the new book:  Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior.

The subtitle seemed (and seems) to me to be perfectly fair and accurate to what the book is about.  But it sent some people ballistic.

There were lots of complaints.  Some of them still have me scratching my head.

  • Some of the commentors said “Ehrman is just out to sell books” or is just “interested in making money.”
    • Now I am happy to admit, I don’t really object to making money; maybe it’s just me, but that does seem like a good thing, and my hunch is that most people who say that I want to make money probably also like to make money. There’s a lot that can be done with money.  If I had my way, about 6 billion people in the world would have *more* money.  Maybe we should do something about that.
    • But if what my critics were saying is that I “JUST” want to make money, I’m a bit taken aback. Do they mean that I am willing to sacrifice my intellectual and personal integrity in order to make money?  If that’s what they’re saying, we have a fight on our hands.
  • A related charge is that “he is just trying to sell books.”
    • I’ve talked about that “charge” on the blog before. Let me just say, in the current context, that I always have found, and continue to find, this kind of statement completely mind-boggling.  Are there authors out there who write books in hopes of NOT selling them?  Does anyone want her or his book not to be read?  So yes, if the charge is that I want people to read my books, then yes, I stand guilty as charged.  I am indeed trying to sell books.  My goal is for people to read my books.  That is why I write them.  I don’t write them just to amuse myself.
    • If, however, commenters who have said this have done so in order to complain about my title (and subtitle) then that’s a different matter. Yes, publishers want people to buy their books (they are a business, after all) (and anyone who doesn’t like the book-selling business can have one main recourse: don’t read books!).  And yes, they title the books so as to make people want to read them.  But what has that to do with me as the person who writes the book?  My guess is that when people make a complaint like this, they mean that I (the author) have chosen a title/subtitle that is completely sensational in order to get people to crack open the book.    That charge could possibly stick if I gave books their titles and subtitles and made sure they had nothing to do with the book but simply sensationalized a topic in order to deceive people into reading it.
  • That brings me to the subtitle itself, which I stand by even if I didn’t create it. I think the subtitle is accurate and not sensationalized.  Others disagree, and there have been two issues.
    • Some commenters were very (very!) upset that the term “the Savior” is found in the subtitle. They pointed out that I’m not a Christian.  So what right do I have to refer to Jesus as “the Savior”?   I was very surprised to see that this is an issue for anyone.  Suppose I wrote a book and in it referred to “the Christian Savior” or “the one Christians call the Savior.”  Would anyone really object?  Probably not.  In the subtitle of the book I am not referring (or meaning to refer) to my personal Lord and Savior, but to the one the Christians who passed along their ancient stories called the savior.
    • Others think that it is outrageous and incendiary to say that early Christians “invented” stories of Jesus. That is, they think it is outrageous and incendiary except when they themselves say it.   Does any thinking person on the planet believe that Christians did NOT invent stories about Jesus?  If so, then I’d like to see what they have to say about the stories about Jesus as a mischievous five-year old who withers his playmates when they aggravate him in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.  Of course the early Christians invented stories about Jesus.  Everyone admits that.  The only question is whether such stories could be found in the NT.  I think the answer is absolutely YES.  And my book is meant to show how we know that.  If people object to that idea without actually reading the book (which these people are doing), then it’s time for me to level my own charge about the lack of personal and professional integrity.

In any event, the book is due out March 1.  I’m very excited about it.  It is a book that is very different from anything I’ve written before and I think it is dealing with an exceptionally important topic for anyone interested in the historical Jesus, the New Testament, or the history of earliest Christianity.


Press Release! Jesus Before the Gospels
How Consistent are Orthodox Corruptions of Scripture?

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Jana  October 18, 2015

    I’m sorry to read that once again you’re the target of ignorance. (No one has actually read the book and yet still believe they have some bases for bullying). I for one am wondering if I can preorder or if it will be available on kindle. I am excited. As I’ve written before, there are few personal intellectual and emotional gifts greater than incisive questions provoking spiritual and yes it is spiritual clarification.

  2. Avatar
    Xyloplax  October 18, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Very much looking forward to reading your new book, and congratulations on the impending release date. Now if you REALLY wanted to troll, you could have tried to get it released on Christmas or Easter, but that’s unsportsmanlike…

    I’ve been reading Oral Tradition as History by Jan Vansina, and some of the papers referenced in there. I look forward, as usual, to your impeccable bibliography. Do you have a few references you’d be kind enough to share for those of us who like to do some preparatory reading?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 19, 2015

      Vansina is terrific (especially his first book). Also you might consider reading the work by Jack Goody and Albert Lord.

  3. gmatthews
    gmatthews  October 18, 2015

    I saw the post on that group. Since a lot of the members are scholars or students I don’t think I’ve posted more than once or twice on there (preferring to see what those in the field say rather than trying to say anything myself), but I made an exception when I saw the ridiculous posts many were writing about your book.

  4. Avatar
    doug  October 18, 2015

    Based on what you’ve said about your book now and previously, I’ll definitely be buying it. It sounds like an honest, interesting, and well-researched book on an important topic.

    A fellow I knew wrote a couple of books that were heavily criticized. I said to him, “You must have a thick skin”. He replied, “No, I’ve just developed a few calluses”.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 19, 2015

      They’ve actually decided to go with something else now!

      • Avatar
        Scott  October 21, 2015

        No smores? Rats!

      • Avatar
        willow  October 23, 2015

        But, they’re keeping the subtitle, right? It would be such a shame to change it, for as descriptive and attention getting a subtitle it is.

      • John4
        John4  October 26, 2015

        Interesting.

        Yeah, I see that *Jesus Before the Gospels* is up for pre-order on iBooks now with a *blank* cover, lol.

        Well, I’ll be interested to see what they put on it in the end. I did like the “campfire stories” cover, though.

        Many thanks, Bart! 🙂

  5. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  October 18, 2015

    I’m sad that I missed the Facebook discussion and all its drama. I have to pay more attention.

    Anyway, it’s interesting that so many people who have issues with your work follow you on Facebook. I don’t agree with everything you put out there, but who does agree 100% of the time? After someone introduced me to MJ, I found a NT Textual Criticism FB page and asked a question about it. I had no clue people were going to lose their minds when I made the post.
    What I discovered is that most commenters (I think all of them on that particular post, except for me!) were male and studying NT textual criticism or major followers of NT textual criticism. They came across to me as your fans even though they griped you were trying to be self-serving by making money from books. You commented on the thread as well. They also seemed hurt. As strange as that sounds, they seemed hurt by some of your opinions as well as stating you are an atheist. Apparently, this statement was made in a video? Some of them were very upset over it.
    Of course, everyone wasn’t a fan, but my impression was more of disappointment and hurt than anything else.

  6. Avatar
    Judith  October 18, 2015

    For me reading that subtitle was jaw-dropping. Is it too late to change “of the Savior” to “about Jesus”?

    • Avatar
      Judith  October 19, 2015

      Or maybe even better would be “How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories”?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 19, 2015

      Not as catchy, I’m afraid! (“Jesus” is used in the title itself)

      • Avatar
        Judith  October 19, 2015

        You know I love you and your work, Dr. Ehrman, but am I the only one who thinks there’s a slight of hand in using Savior in the subtitle and perhaps a hint of sarcasm, too, if your book has some of the type stories I’m thinking it might? It’s very clever but to me (a believer) it’s appalling.

        • Bart
          Bart  October 21, 2015

          You may not be the only one! But I don’t see any slight of hand or sarcasm. None is meant!

          • Avatar
            Judith  October 21, 2015

            Thanks, Dr. Ehrman, and my apologies for misinterpreting the subtitle.

          • Avatar
            willow  October 23, 2015

            Nor do I, for what it’s worth. In fact, “their stories of the Savior” I feel, pays him a good measure of honor and respect.

  7. Avatar
    MMahmud  October 19, 2015

    Perhaps they want so badly for this to be true and for them to think of themselves as purified that they get hateful when confronted with clear proof against them. Perhaps it’s desperation.

    They literally refuse to listen. If they can shout down those they oppose they can prevent others from leaving their religion and it’s a lot easier to hold on to the myth you desire to be true if others also believe it as well.

    I am by no means speaking for all Christians obviously, but certainly for this very vocal minority which has no problem using very vile speech, insinuations and so forth.

    Just keep it up. You seek to investigate and deliver the news, the beautiful news of history to whoever is willing to listen.

    They, like their predecessors are seeking to drown out your voice as they drowned out voices in previous ages through whatever means they had.

    And they will fail, as they always have failed and sooner or later the truth will become clear.

  8. Avatar
    rbrtbaumgardner  October 19, 2015

    When you look at new religions, you can see how stories about the founders change and invented. I can’t think of why the same thing would not have happened to Jesus within early Christianity.

    • Avatar
      godspell  October 19, 2015

      But you can also see, I’m sure, how it’s hard for practitioners of a given religion to be objective about its founder.

      We’re far from objective about the Founding Fathers of the United States–people of vastly different political viewpoints go out of their way to say “The Founders agreed with my view”, even though it’s patently obvious that the Founders vehemently disagreed with each other on a myriad of issues, and much of our history has been shaped not by how they agreed, but how they disagreed.

      And we have lots and lots of writing from them, in which they made their feelings very clear, and yet we constantly see sayings ascribed to Jefferson and Adams and Washington that simply have no basis in the historical record.

      Look at all the famous sayings ascribed to this or that person, that were actually said by some one else. P.T. Barnum is supposed to have said “There’s a sucker born every minute”–he didn’t. Voltaire is supposed to have said “I may despise what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it”–he didn’t. Both of them might have agreed with the ideas behind those saying, but those quotes do not originate with them.

      So this is not specifically a religious problem, or a problem relating only to ancient history. It’s a problem relating to the fact that things get garbled in transmission. And Bart is one of the people trying to ungarble the transmission. I don’t envy him that task.

  9. Avatar
    living42day  October 19, 2015

    In this book, do you address the evidence of how some gospel stories are based largely (or entirely) on OT texts? I’m thinking of stories like the triumphal entry, which essentially combines Zech 9:9 and Psa 118:25-26 as incident and popular response.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 19, 2015

      I touch on the issue, but it’s not a focus of attention.

  10. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 19, 2015

    Ugh! All this just from the title. What do they say about all of your contributions to charity.?

    I read an early draft of the book three times and it is a terrific book. A lot was changed during the oral transmission period. How could it be otherwise unless God just dictated or wrote the Gospels, like the Ten Commandments, and we have no claim of that?

    Having been greatly influenced by your books, I am often very unsettled by the criticism directed toward them with such vigor. I have finally decided that this just means that the subjects about which you write are very important to people. It probably means less charitable things as well. Why can some Christians be so dogmatically certain and mean? If they think something is wrong, they should just argue their case in a respectful and convincing way.

    I remain convinced that an overly literal interpretation of the Bible does much harm.

    Ugh!

    .

  11. Avatar
    shakespeare66  October 19, 2015

    I am sure that some of your critics will find fault in Paradise. What I find intriguing about the human psyche is that once the mind has attached itself to something, there is no shaking it from the foundations it has established. Fervent believers are the worst! Whenever one makes an argument against what they believe, they have incendiary ways of attacking one back, and ad hominem attacks proliferate. They have to somehow reduce this to your so-called insidious reasons for writing the book. In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the Ghost of Christmas Present has a lot of light emanating from his being, indicating that he has come to shed the light of truth. It dazzles the eyes, and some are just not ready for it. It blinds them despite the fact they are already blinded by their faith. Or, as Emily Dickenson shared,

    Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
    Success in Circuit lies
    Too bright for our infirm Delight
    The Truth’s superb surprise
    As Lightning to the Children eased
    With explanation kind
    The Truth must dazzle gradually
    Or every man be blind —

    In many respects, you have disseminated the truth gradually, but for some, it is too quick, too harsh, too much for those far right critics who stand by Jesus the way they want us to know him–perhaps in a faithful way, not a truthful one. They want all of us to see the “truth” they see, not what history has revealed about the life of Christ.

    I’m excited about reading your next book. It has truly been a fascinating journey learning about early Christianity through your work. As always, it is such a pleasure!

  12. Avatar
    jbjbjbjbjb  October 19, 2015

    I’m also looking forward to it very much. Given how much the subtitle could hurt some folk I would recommend switching the “the” and “their”. It’s not much, but I think significant:
    Current: Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented THEIR Stories of THE Savior

    Proposed: Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented THE Stories of THEIR Savior.

    Or even: Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented [NO ARTICLE] Stories of theIR Savior.

    By the way, saviour has a “u” 😉
    British John

  13. talmoore
    talmoore  October 19, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman, now you’ve got me curious. What titles did you originally want for some of your other books, such as Misquoting Jesus and How Jesus Became God?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 19, 2015

      How Jesus Became God was actually my title. I wanted to call Misquoting Jesus “Lost in Transmission.”

      • Avatar
        rivercrowman  October 19, 2015

        I notice the title “Lost in Transmission” was later used by Nicolas Perrin (2007) in his rebuttal to Misquoting Jesus.

        • Bart
          Bart  October 21, 2015

          Yup, stole my title! (Well, would have stolen it if I had used it…)

      • Avatar
        Judith  October 20, 2015

        Now that’s a title I would have liked! 🙂

  14. Avatar
    jdmartin21  October 19, 2015

    Of course they don’t have to read it! They just KNOW what it says. No need to read and analyze the arguments. Confirmation bias at it’s worst.

  15. Avatar
    godspell  October 19, 2015

    Looking forward to the book. And of course it’s impossible to read all four canonical gospels objectively and not see multiple instances where the stories conflict–meaning that prima facie, somebody’s been making stuff up. We go from Jesus going to John (The Baptist) for baptism in Mark (a clearly submissive act on Jesus’ part), to The Baptist seeing Jesus in the John gospel, and then telling all his followers Jesus is Messiah, and there is no baptism. How can those two stories both be true?

    However, I have this mild critique to offer–now that you’re arguing more with Christians than with atheists (over the question of Jesus’ mere existence), there is the danger that we’re going slide backwards into saying “Well, how can we know anything? Shouldn’t we just assume none of this happened, until we can prove some of it did, which we never can do, therefore Jesus did not exist?”

    We can still agree there is very real historical information contained in the gospels, can we not? Because as you know, it’s not only scholars of early Christian history who have been using them as historical sources.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 19, 2015

      Yes, I’ll be arguing in the book about how we can know what is historical and what not.

      • Avatar
        godspell  October 19, 2015

        Somehow, what Jesus said or did is almost always a more controversial matter than (let’s say) what Mark Antony said or did.

        I was thinking this morning about his elegy for Caesar–one of the most influential public addresses ever made, as well as one of the most famous. And most of us hear it referred to and immediately think “Friends, Romans, Countrymen”. We know Shakespeare was just imagining what Antony might have said, because we have no transcript of the speech, merely descriptions of it written by people who did not witness it, who were not even alive when it was delivered, and would have had no written record of it either–Antony presumably delivered it off the cuff, and there’d be no notes, no newspaper reports. Merely hearsay evidence.

        And yet we all know basically what he said, and why he said it. It’s not controversial. We can argue all day long about whether it did have the profound impact on the Roman populace that it’s popularly supposed to have had, whether the people might have turned against Brutus and Cassius anyway (it’s not as if most of the city’s poor would have been present, or could have heard exactly what Antony said if they were there), but it’s a damned good story, and on the whole a convincing one. He changed the conversation–he made Brutus and Cassius murderers of a great and benevolent statesman, instead of defenders of the Republic against a bloody tyrant.

        Nobody will ever convince me Jesus didn’t deliver the Sermon on the Mount, and that he did not say fundamentally what the gospels depict him as saying. Because it has the ring of truth to it. It’s the kind of thing that people tend to report with some measure of accuracy. Which is not to say we necessarily know the whole story. We don’t know the whole story about Antony’s elegy either. We don’t know the whole story about anything that happened in the past. We don’t know the whole story about what happened last Tuesday.

  16. Avatar
    trudy  October 19, 2015

    I can’t wait to read this book! March seems so far away 🙁

  17. JDTabor
    JDTabor  October 19, 2015

    I love the title and the subtitle. Rather brilliant. I can’t wait to read it. Trusting our publishers is something we authors learn to do with time and experience. I just signed up for another year of your blog and am pleased to continue to follow along.

    • John4
      John4  October 26, 2015

      Well, hello James! Wonderful to see you here.

      John Muller 🙂

  18. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 19, 2015

    I also think you have been set up by ministers who for years have not taught the historical approach to the Bible and have taught that any who disagree with the literal interpretation of the Bible are evil and need to be opposed.

  19. Avatar
    dragonfly  October 20, 2015

    Can we assume these people have beliefs the oppose the concept of the book- ie. they believe in biblical inerrancy? Not sure why they would be complaining otherwise, but shouldn’t really assume anything.

    Do any of the proceeds of the book go to charity?

    Mythicists will probably have a problem with the book but be ok with it’s title. You can’t win can you?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 21, 2015

      Yes, most of them do. Yes, some proceeds to go to charity. Nope, can’t win!

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