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The Marvels of Media Attention

My first trade book – that is, book written for a general audience, instead of for fellow scholars (academic monographs) or college students (textbooks) — was 19 years ago now, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.   I think it’s safe to say that when I wrote the book, I knew virtually *nothing* about writing a trade book.  My editor at Oxford University Press urged me to write it and I reluctantly agreed.

I was reluctant because I did not want to write for a general audience.  At that time I wanted to spend my life writing scholarship for scholars.  But I thought, well, why not – I’ll give it a shot.  But it was to be a one-off, not a career.

I didn’t really know the difference between trade books and scholarly monographs, except when it came to audience.  I realized that I would not be writing for experts like the guy in the office next to me, but for lay folk like the guy across the street.   I suppose that was pretty much all I *had* to know.  I wrote the book.  And then I started learning what trade publishing is all about.  That was thirteen trade books ago.

Much of my ignorance at the time had to do with the issue of why it is that some trade books sell in the hundreds of thousands and others in the … hundreds.   What makes the difference?

At first, originally, I simply assumed that …

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The Miracle of New Life
Fresh Air Interview Tuesday March 20



  1. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 21, 2018

    Terry Gross is terrific. In the past, I did a lot of commuting between clinics in the eastern part of North Carolina and listened to her coming home at night.

    Congratulations on being #18.

    With regard to your recent debate, it seems to me that the crucial question is how much is historical and how much is legendary about Jesus. I know you think Jesus existed and that we know a few things about Him and the rest is legendary. I also know that you think Moses was completely legendary. What do scholars think about this question with regard to Buddha and Confucius? I guess my basic question is wouldn’t the “history” of any important ancient person be mixed with a lot of legend?

    I was very upset to read online that the president of Wake Forest Baptist Seminary is accusing you of deliberately “deconverting” students and then he went into a long diatribe about the Bible. I found his accusation to be so untrue that it really irked me. I think that you probably have more tolerance for this stuff than I do.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2018

      I’m afraid I’m not well-read on the historical Buddha and Confucius. On Wake Forest Seminary: really? News to me!

    • talmoore
      talmoore  March 22, 2018

      I have read extensively in Buddhism and Confucianism, and I can tell you this much. There was absolutely an historical Confucius, but like Jesus much of the stories that have come down to us about him are legendary. As for Buddha, it’s likely there was an historical Gautama Siddhartha, but, again, much of the stories that have come down to us about him are legendary. Same goes for Lao Tzu, the purported founder of Taoism, who is even less likely to have existed, but even if he did, everything we know about him is almost entirely legend (for instance, we don’t even know his real name; Lao Tzu is Chinese for “Old Master”).

      There’s a consistant feature we find with all of these semi-legendary historical figures. Their fame tends to turn them into convenient mouthpieces for ideas they didn’t necessarily espouse. In the cases of Buddha and Confucius, there are examples of supposed events in their lives that are clearly legendary for obvious reasons (e.g. anachronisms, inconsistancies and contradictions) but that do contain an element of what those men likely taught that their disciples then developed beyond their masters’ intent. What tends to happen is their students — or more readily, their students’ students — will develop an idea that only existed in kernal or inchoate form when they received it, and then proceed to back-attribute it to their masters. This is where we get the idea of “schools of thought” that we see in cultures as disparate as ancient Greece and ancient China. For example, Neoplatonism and Neo-Confucianism are about as far removed from Platonism and Confucianism, respectively, as they are from each other, but they both attritute their central tenets to their respective founders, giving each school a built-in authority they would otherwise have to build from the ground up.

      In Bart’s “Forgery and Counterforgery,” for example, he shows how this exploitation of authority via back-attritution was used by those who believed (at least I think these forgers honestly believed) that they were expounding what they saw as the true philosophy of men like Paul and Peter and James. What Bart illustrates there is merely a slice of a much greater phenomenon of the development of philosophical schools of thought via pseudepigrapha in all cultures. For instance, was the Hindu Mahabharata really written by one man, the semi-legendary avatar of Vishnu Vyasa? Almost certainly not. But is the Mahabharata a later development of ideas that an historical Vyasa formulated and taught? Possibly. Or are the hundreds of dialogues of the Buddha or Confucius, as recounted in the Suttapitaka and Analects, respectively, genuine preservations of the actual conversations and ideas of the Buddha and Confucious? Almost certainly not. But they are clearly ideas developed on top of ideas those men originally formulated and taught their disciples. This could also be said for Jesus. Are the ideas we find in the NT a perfect preservation of what Jesus believed and taught? I’d be highly surprised if they are. However, looking at the trend in history, they probably reflect a further development of ideas that started with Jesus himself.

  2. Avatar
    11thStory  March 21, 2018

    Congratulations on a very good interview, selling success and insightful message that media like podcasts and radio can be the hopes and home of intellectually honest and respectful dialogue.

    It triggered questions regarding Paul’s conversion and wanted to know your thoughts. Why would Paul persecute the “church of God” that followed the Jewish law, like Jesus, and did not subscribe to a Gentile version of the Messiah? Why would the author or narrative in the book of Acts state that Paul was persecuting Jesus (“I am Jesus whom thou persecutes…”) and not the church? Unless the church was understood to be the “suffering servant of the Lord i.e. Isaiah 53?”

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2018

      I think the “body of Christ” is in some sense understood to be Christ.

  3. Avatar
    The Agnostic Christian  March 21, 2018

    That’s great Bart! Glad to hear it! I hope it continues to sell like hot cakes and many more thousands get to read it and understand the quite natural (but still fascinating) history of the world’s most successful religion.

  4. Avatar
    fishician  March 21, 2018

    Congratulations on the jump in sales. It’s nice to know people still listen to good things and buy good books.

  5. Avatar
    Judith  March 21, 2018

    So happy for you!

  6. Avatar
    godspell  March 21, 2018

    You were too polite to say it, so I will.

    Books that are poorly researched and badly written top Amazon’s sales charts on a regular basis.

    Yes, media attention, but also there has to be an audience for it. A niche. People are still interested in religion, even people who aren’t religious themselves. Because even people who come from religious backgrounds know very little about their religion’s history, there’s curiosity to appeal to. Just setting the record straight, with sound historical scholarship, written so that lay people can understand it, will sell books.

    But for every book like that, there will be a hundred ‘true crime’ exposes.

    My advice would be to look for evidence that Paul (very hot now, he’s got a movie out) was a serial killer. (By ‘look for it’ I mean ‘make it up’ I can’t spell everything out for you.)

    Paul says he ‘persecuted’ Christians–nobody knows what he means by that–could it be code? Perhaps the epistles are all written in code! His confession to an endless litany of crime!

    Suggested titles:

    Through A Glass Bloodily
    Put Away Childish Things
    Marry Then Burn
    All Have Sinned
    The Wife Hath Not Power of Her Own Body (it’s got a certain Fifty Shades ring to it)
    I Died to the Law

    Really, the possibilities are endless.

  7. Avatar
    Boltonian  March 22, 2018

    Do you plan a visit to the UK as part of your publicity drive? Steven Pinker has been all over our mainstream media promoting ‘Enlightenment Now,’ which I am sure has done wonders for sales.The book has been reviewed (some good, some bad, some indifferent but mostly positive) in lots of national publications here. I have bought both this, which I am reading at the moment, and ‘Triumph.’

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2018

      No plans. It’s an interesting cycle. It’s *because* his book is so prominent that he gets those media invitations (not the other way around).

  8. John4
    John4  March 22, 2018

    Warmest congratulations, Bart.

    I didn’t listen to the Fresh Air interview (I’m pretty much a text kinda guy, lol). But, I did thoroughly enjoy your book.


  9. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  March 22, 2018

    Wow! I had no idea Terry Gross is that influential. Or maybe it’s that the same people who listen to NPR are just the ones who would love your books, if they hear a good interview about them. I would be interested to know if an appearance on The Daily Show (w/Jon Stewart) or The Colbert Report ever had that dramatic an effect on one of your books’ sales. Too bad neither is around any longer.

  10. Avatar
    rivercrowman  March 22, 2018

    Great radio interview. Bart has a knack for thinking on his feet, or while seated.

  11. Avatar
    Steefen  March 23, 2018

    I would not have believed it, but you said it: “with The Triumph of Christianity. I got a good review in the NY Times (first time for me to be reviewed there!).” What? You’re just getting reviewed by the NY Times?

    That cannot be true. Are you talking about the Sunday NYT Book Review Section only? All the books before Triumph of Christianity were never reviewed in any NYT newspaper?

    I used to be a big fan of C-SPAN BookTV and watch their coverage of say the Los Angeles Times Book Festival. Please let us know if you get an hour on BookTV.

    Have you done a TED Talk? TED Talks have NPR radio coverage.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 24, 2018

      Yes, I was referring to the NYT Book Review, which is the main venue for review. Never been reviewed there before. Either have 99% of the other authors in the English speaking world! And no, I”ve never been invided for a TED talk.

  12. Avatar
    BartyD4all  March 23, 2018

    Can you put up the NPR interview on the blog?

  13. Avatar
    mannix  March 26, 2018

    Have you ever felt the need for a Second Edition for any of your trade books? More directly, have you felt that any information in your original editions needs updating, correcting, or clarification? You have mentioned in the past your thinking on certain issues has changed over the years…should that also be indicated in a future edition?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 27, 2018

      Trade books almost never appear in second editions. It just isn’t financial feasible for the publisher.

  14. Avatar
    Prizm  April 2, 2018

    Reminds me of YouTube. Unless you get a shout-out by an established YouTuber, your channel will usually struggle like hell, even though you put out quality content.

    Greatly compounding the issue for Bart is the fact that he puts out a niche medium (books), for a niche subject (New Testament history/criticism), which greatly narrows down the percentage of potential buyers. So, well done for getting this far 😀

    Bart, I don’t know if you’ve crunched the numbers for viability, but I’m sure there’s a lot of people outside the US that would love to see you give a lecture in person (Australia, UK).

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2018

      I’m always open to invitations. 🙂 (I’ve lectured in England a few times, but it’s always to academic audiences; one problem is that there is not a huge interest in religion in the UK outside of church and academic circles)

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