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Some Pitfalls of Writing for a General Audience

As I was pointing out, scholars in most fields often have problems with colleagues who write trade books.  It may seem weird to outsiders, but I explained one of the major reasons in the last post.  Another is related:  it is widely known that some scholars who start writing trade books never ned up doing anything else.  That is, they become popularizers of knowledge rather than producers of knowledge, putting all their efforts into reaching the masses instead of doing any research themselves.

Over the past thirty years or so this has certainly been true in the fields of New Testament and Early Christian studies.  Scholars who had very promising careers as researchers making advances in their fields have written a trade book, enjoyed the success of it and, especially, relished being in the limelight, and have more or less (often completely) given up any serious scholarly agenda.    They no longer write scholarly books, or scholarly articles, or review scholarly books for scholarly journals, or deliver hard-hitting scholarly papers that advance knowledge to scholarly conferences.  It’s all about popular books and lectures to lay people, who are not positioned to be able to evaluate what they are reading and hearing, to see if it passes muster or not.  An expert says it, good enough.

And so the scholar can more or less coast along, saying pretty much …

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What About the Original *Old* Testament?
Why Don’t More Scholars Write Trade Books?

39

Comments

  1. Avatar
    longdistancerunner  September 9, 2019

    That’s what happened in my sport of distance running.
    Back in the early 70’s Dr. Ken Cooper, Coach Bill Bowerman and Frank Shorters marathon victory in Munich brought running to the masses.
    Bowerman began to develop training shoes using his wife’s toaster to make the first waffle trainer and that led to Nike!
    Look where distancerunning and road racing is today!
    You are a pioneer as well.
    Just like Cooper, Bowerman, Prefontaine and Shorter.. only maybe you and others I presume, are lighting the fire for seeking truth and encouraging …. curiosity
    Which I think is a great thing.
    It’s fun to watch the cultist despair in this.

  2. Avatar
    stokerslodge  September 9, 2019

    Bart, can you determine which book or text of the Hebrew scripture Paul was referring to when he quoted these words in his first letter to the Corinthian chapter 1. 19 – “For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.” The cross reference is Isaiah 29.14 but the wording in Isaiah is does not match the wording Paul uses?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 10, 2019

      Yes, a lot of times the NT authors quote the OT in a form not completely familiar to us, either because they had a different version of it available to them or, more commonly, because they are rephrasing or even paraphrasing it. This is an entire field of study, the “Use of the Old Testament in the New.”

  3. Robert
    Robert  September 9, 2019

    Why the Yankees? You’re from Kansas, right? Or were you still harboring the dream of playing professional baseball while you teaching at Rutgers, and the Yankees were the most convenient* pro team to play for in the area?

    *Except of course for the Mets, but nobody would ever dream of playing for the Mets.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 10, 2019

      Right — as an older kid (George Brett years), the Yankees were the enemy. Actually, when I was playing baseball in high school, I was a Cincinnati Reds fan (Johnny Bench! And a host of others). But my first ever major league game was when I was about 7: Yankees against KC Athletics. Saw Micky Mantle and Roger Maris, etc. They creamed the Athletics, as expected. When I moved to Princeton in the late 70s, I became a Yankees fan. But was a huge fan of the Mets in the 80S, esp. 86. Watched every minute of the Series. Then when I moved to NC, in the late 80s/early 90s I latched on to the Braves. The pitching staff! Maddux, Glavin, Schmoltz. Wow. Now, alas, I never watch. How times change. Or rather, how there seems to be no time any more…. These days it’s all college basketball, NFL, tennis, and golf. I guess that’s enough….

      • Robert
        Robert  September 10, 2019

        Ah, yes, the Big Red Machine. I also go back even further and can remember my older brother and my Dad arguing at Crosley Field about whether the young upstart Pete Rose was as good as the old timer Veda Pinson

  4. Avatar
    jbhowell  September 9, 2019

    As a professional historian, a published author, and a college instructor, I am very glad you write numerous trade books. I took Greek in seminary, as well as Hebrew (I was a minister for 15 years), but never mastered either. I’m grateful there are scholars such as you, Larry Hurtado, and William Dever who can explain the intricacies of the New Testament, the history of the early church, Israel in the archaeological record, etc. I know and appreciate the value of scholarship, but I have always found it somewhat irrelevant if the general public is not informed to some degree. What’s the point if a reading laity doesn’t experience the information? Thanks for all you do!

  5. Avatar
    Boltonian  September 9, 2019

    Where would you say Vermes; Sanders; Finkelstein; Silberman; Friedman; and Shlomo Sands (all authors whose work I admire and have books by) fit on a continuum from, say, pure popularisers to pure scholars? I realise that some are OT specialists and that Sands is more of a general historian who has written about biblical history from time to time. Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 10, 2019

      I don’t know Sands’s work. The others are/were absolutely top rate scholars, who produce(d) scholarship as well as trade books.

  6. Avatar
    rivercrowman  September 9, 2019

    Here’s perhaps a pitfall from a blog member who is part of your trade book audience — and likes details. In the comments resulting from your post of February 5, 2019 you said about the ‘who are you’ question(s) to Jesus “In Mark he says EGO EIMI, “I am.” (Both Matthew and Luke change it.)” … Is Jesus saying I am in Mark 15:2 or Mark 14:62, or both? And my optional bonus question please: How probable is it these exchanges are historical? Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  September 10, 2019

      14:62, yes. 15:2, no. Historical? I don’t think there’s any way some one who wasn’t there but was living 40 years later in a different country speaking a different language had any idea what was actually said in these contexts.

  7. Robert
    Robert  September 9, 2019

    “it is widely known that some scholars who start writing trade books never ned up doing anything else.  That is, they become popularizers of knowledge rather thanproducers of knowledge, putting all their efforts into reaching the masses instead of doing any research themselves.

    Over the past thirty years or so this has certainly been true in the fields of New Testament and Early Christian studies.  Scholars who had very promising careers as researchers making advances in their fields have written a trade book, enjoyed the success of it and, especially, relished being in the limelight, and have more or less (often completely) given up any serious scholarly agenda.    They no longer write scholarly books, or scholarly articles, or review scholarly books for scholarly journals, or deliver hard-hitting scholarly papers that advance knowledge to scholarlyconferences.  It’s all about popular books and lectures to lay people, who are not positioned to be able to evaluate what they are reading and hearing, to see if it passes muster or not.”

    I’m sure you do not want to tell us whom you’re thinking of here! But I suspect some of the same people would populate our lists. For at least a couple of the people on my list, I would already question how valuable their initial work was!

    • Bart
      Bart  September 10, 2019

      Yes indeed. Some of the most famous. But ain’t goin’ there….

  8. Avatar
    Apocryphile  September 9, 2019

    Ok! Why more scholars don’t do it is quite a bit less mysterious to me now!

  9. Avatar
    Nichrob  September 9, 2019

    I found you after watching the NPR series “From Jesus to Christ”. Had that show not been produced I would have left this earth with zero scholarly knowledge. Knowledge that I passionately need and desire. I believe it is a disservice to humanity, or crimes of against humanity, if the “information” is not distributed to the “public”. To conceal the “truth” is horrendous….

  10. Avatar
    Jimmy  September 9, 2019

    You would have given Willie Randolph a run for his money at second base.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 10, 2019

      Ha. Randolph was fantastic. Chuck Knoblauch on the other hand…. (OK, he was actually very good. He just sometimes couldn’t throw….) And Ran

  11. Avatar
    collettmp  September 10, 2019

    Sorry to ask an off-topic question… in your opinion, how likely is it that the canonical gospels were written by men, not women, given their historical contexts (even though they were written anonymously)?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 10, 2019

      I think it’s almost certain. Same with all the books of the NT. Women authors in early Xty were very rare. First, maybe Perpetua? Depending on whether her diary is authentic or not.

  12. Avatar
    mikezamjara  September 10, 2019

    Dr Ehrman

    If there are few scholars who do academic contributions and write trade books, there are even fewer scholars who also do public debates. Beside you, who else do that? I’ve seen you invite colleagues to do guest posts. Could you invite them to debate any interesting topic you disagree?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 10, 2019

      I’m not sure there’d be as much of an audience. I’m always debating evangelicals or fundamentalists, and their fans love to see them go at it. Not so much most scholars. If Mark Goodacre and I debated whether Q existed, we might get 20 people; if Mike Licona and I debate the resurrection, we might get 500. And so it goes. Mark, of course, is one of the top scholars in the world on the Synoptics. And is on the blog! Mike is more of an apologist, and that’s where the crowds tend to flock.

      • Avatar
        mikezamjara  September 10, 2019

        yeah, true… as you always say, they want someone to get creamed.

  13. Avatar
    crt112@gmail.com  September 10, 2019

    When it comes to biblical scholarship the general public has always been left in the dark. Books like ‘Evidence that demands a verdict’ were promoted as serious research when I went to church. Thank goodness trade books are being written so we can be informed and make inteliigent decisions.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 10, 2019

      Yeah, I know. His next book More Evidence that Demands a Verdict is absolutely awful. He simply didn’t know what he was talking about, on the most basic level.

  14. Avatar
    hankgillette  September 10, 2019

    If the scholars won’t deign to communicate with the masses, they leave a vacuum that is going to be filled by something. That something may not be good.

    There are a lot of people who want to know more about the world around them and the advances made by scientists and scholars. I’ll never read Greek or Coptic, but I am still interested in the latest finding and advances in Bible scholarship.

    Isaac Asimov had a very successful career writing popular treatments of many subjects, both scientific and non-scientific. He even wrote a book on the Bible! I credit that book with the beginnings of my doubt of the inerrancy of the Bible, and the existence of God.

  15. Avatar
    mombird903  September 10, 2019

    Perhaps all scholars should not write “trade” books only the ones who want to and who have the skills. Never-the-less, none should criticize those who do. I think too much time is spent bickering and criticizing rather than promoting new ideas and scholarship as a unified movement towards education. I have heard that in the science world there is a lot of back-stabbing and jealousy. That sets everything back, and holds up progress, IMO. Hoarding scholarship and thinking the masses are too stupid to comprehend (and some are no doubt) is like the 1% having all the money and the rest of us going without. Tell your critics, Bart, not to be like the 1%.

    • Avatar
      Fernando Peregrin Gutierrez  September 11, 2019

      In the world of natural sciences there is a huge competition for being the first to make an important advance in knowledge. The prize may be the highest award to the human intellect: a Nobel in natural sciences.
      There is also a lot of competition, although less, in textbooks. They are very expensive but if they are very good and reach popularity, millions of copies can be sold. An example: The Feynman Lectures on Physics is perhaps the most popular physics book ever written. More than 1.5 million English-language copies have been sold; probably even more copies have been sold in a dozen foreign-language editions.
      Finally, there is less rivalry and stabbing stabs in scientific dissemination books, since the field of natural sciences is many orders of magnitude greater than the studies of experts in manuscripts of the Bible.
      But … there are curious incidents. Jim Watson and Francis Crick shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology for the discovery of the DNA double helix structure. Watson wrote a booklet that sold for millions entitled The Double Helix, telling the complicated and fun story of their joint discovery. Well, the book starts like this: “I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood.” You can imagine the commotion that arose in the world of biology and medicine.

    • Avatar
      Bewilderbeast  September 11, 2019

      excellent analogy! *****

  16. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  September 11, 2019

    I think educating the public is a noble and worthwhile goal, especially in your field where there is so much out there that is just not scholarly. You really do it well. Keep going.

  17. Avatar
    Thespologian  September 11, 2019

    You echo many a speech of my own with precision in “students as consumers and professors are suppliers… Scholarship is now capitalized.” It holds greater weight in your shoes than mine. It’s a dangerous reality that needs attention. Thank you for sharing.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 12, 2019

      Thanks! BTW, I meant to ask you. What *is* a Thespologian??

  18. Avatar
    Bewilderbeast  September 11, 2019

    “. . scholars in most fields often have problems with colleagues who write trade books.” – I think that’s bad.
    “. . they become popularizers of knowledge rather than producers of knowledge, putting all their efforts into reaching the masses instead of doing any research themselves.” – I don’t think that’s bad. We need it. Us laymen.
    “. . continuing to produce real scholarship, trying to do serious scholarship and write popular at the same time.” – That’s ideal!
    Some total non-scholars popularise science and other disciplines and I think that’s great (I’m thinking of some non-academic science writers here). As long as it’s all on the table, we can judge for ourselves.The thing that would be really bad is if anyone is trying to pass themself off as something they’re not. PhD(only)’s honestly popularising? I’m OK with that. They will in fact reference the top experts as they speak. PhD(only)’s pretending they ARE the top experts? Dishonest.
    My wish is that many more top experts would (and as you point out, could), popularise.
    I am very mindful of the days when priests would discourage people from reading the Bible: NO! Don’t read it! We’ll read it for you!

  19. Avatar
    Steefen  September 12, 2019

    Hi Professor,
    You speak of two categories: scholarly books and trade books.

    I see 1) scholarly books and museum publications, 2) undergraduate textbooks, 3) graduate school textbooks, 4) Masters and PhD thesis books, and 5) books written by writers (personal essayists, memoir writers, reporters, public figures/influencers like Christopher Hitchens (who is no longer with us).

    Question
    A Brief Introduction to the New Testament (all undergraduate Intro texts are scholarly, yes?) seems to be a core book in an undergraduate curriculum.

    Given A) Continuing Education Classes, B) Undergraduate Classes, and C) Graduate Classes, should an instructor put the scholarly book Forgery and Counter-Forgery as a supplemental text only in the graduate course and just use the trade book Forged as a supplemental text for the undergraduate course OR would it be better to use Forgery and Counter-Forgery for both levels?

    For Continuing Ed, what it be your Intro text book with Forged instead of Forgery and Counter-Forgery?

    Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 15, 2019

      Yes, lots of different kinds of books out there — even more than you name! And yes, that would be how I’d assign the two forgery books. The Counterforgery is really for trained experts inthe field and would not be appropriate in other context.

  20. Avatar
    Silver  September 13, 2019

    You recently wrote “As scholars we’re not *trained* to communicate with normal human beings.”
    Surely, however, those of you who are teachers of undergraduates must have some considerable skill in imparting your knowledge, particularly at the beginning of degree courses when students are relatively ‘green’. Admittedly, lecturing orally may require a different skill set from passing on your knowledge in writing for lay people but in essence is there not some crossover (eg creating a syllabus and structuring the content of the curriculum) which should mean your scholarly colleagues should be able to write for a general audience?
    Also, do you find that those scholars who present courses for the ‘Great Courses’ series are also seen as beyond the pale?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 15, 2019

      We weren’t ever trained to teach, in my generation. So no, in fact, there are lots of teachers who do not actually have considerable teaching skills! And no, being able to construct a syllabus, or even being able to teach undergraduates, does not translate into an ability to write for a gneral audience.

      Interesting, teachers for the Great Courses are usually looked upon with envy rather htan disdain! Go figure….

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