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.