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The Scholarly Edition of the Apocryphal Gospels

In my last couple of posts I began to describe how my edition of the Apocryphal Gospels came about.   After having done the Apostolic Fathers in two volumes for the Loeb, I had decided never to do another translation project again.  Too hard!  But then, forgetting my decision, I thought it would be useful to have a Greek/Latin – English version of the early Christian non-canonical Gospels.  And at the urging of the editor at Harvard, submitted a proposal also for the Loeb Classical Library.  But the editorial board decided that they did not want to start publishing new editions of Christian texts in the series, since that would detract from its typical focus on Greek and Roman classics.   And so I was now interested in a project without an publisher.

I should say – this may not be widely known – that most of the time a scholar writes a book, s/he does not know who will be publishing it, or even if *anyone* will be.  This can be a source of real anxiety, especially for younger scholars who desperately need to get a book published in order to get a good teaching job or, if they have a job, in order to get tenure.    But for a big project like this, I was not about to put in all the work – I knew it would be an enormous amount of work – without being assured of a publisher.   So before beginning the project, I decided to secure a contract on the book.

Years, ago, Oxford University Press had told me that they would be interested in knowing about any books I wanted to publish:  scholarly monographs, textbooks, anthologies, and trade books.   And for a number of years, I did everything with them.  But I eventually decided to try a different publisher for my trade books, and ended up with HarperOne (my first book with them was Misquoting Jesus).   After doing seven books with them, I moved a few years ago over to Simon & Schuster for trade.  But most of my other things come out with Oxford.

Oxford is a fantastic press – by far and away the largest university press in the world, more than three times as large as the next larges (Cambridge) and many times larger than others (Princeton, Harvard, UPenn, Chicago, and so on).   They have a lot of muscle and publish and enormous range of books.   And so I approached them with the idea of a bi-lingual edition (well, tri-lingual) edition of the “Apocryphal Gospels” and they were eager to do it.  So I was set to go.

But then a thought occurred.

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A Readable Edition of the “Lost” (i.e. non-canonical) Gospels
Why It’s Hard to Publish a Translation: Blast from the Past



  1. Avatar
    stokerslodge  September 3, 2019

    Bart, In the early centuries of the Christian Era did people throughout the empire have a level of fluency in both Greek and Latin?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 4, 2019

      Not most people. Most could speak only their local native tongue (e.g., Aramaic in Palestine); the educated classes in the empire could speak Greek usually; those who were connected with Rome itself, Italy, etc. could speak Latin as well. But Rome didn’t impose Latin on other places.

      • Avatar
        dankoh  September 6, 2019

        That leads to a side question: Could Pontius Pilate speak Greek? Do we have any idea?

  2. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  September 3, 2019

    I know you have much on your plate, but it seems that an edition including the gospels left out, those in Syriac for instance, might be useful. More insight into the great variety of apocrypha. Maybe it could be done at the outset as a popular book? It really would be interesting to be able to examine the full range of such works.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 4, 2019

      Yes, it would be indeed. I’m afraid my Syriac skills were too paltry to do the translation. And since then they have rusted to the point of non-existence. But there are other books that do indeed include other gospels not found in our edition; You might check out the book New Testament Apocrypha: More Non-Canonical SCriptures by Tony Burke and Brent Landau. These include other Gospels in a range of languages, including such things as Armenian and Georgian!

  3. Lev
    Lev  September 3, 2019

    This sounds like an incredibly useful work for scholars. I’ve just read Zlatko’s (I assume?) introduction to the Gospel of Judas and he says that you identified “remnants of Jewish apocalyptic thought” there. Could you give us a sense of how influential this (Jewish apocalyptic thought) is on the gospel? Do you devote much space to discussing this in your book on GJudas?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 4, 2019

      Yes, I devote a bit of space to it. But I think everyone agrees that apocalyptic thought is not the *dominant* influence on the text.

  4. Avatar
    Nessiem Khozam  September 3, 2019

    Why did Athanasius of Alexandria choose the canonical Gospels, did the time of which those Gospels written has any thing to do with his choice? Or it’s just because of the teachings of it ?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 4, 2019

      He didn’t choose them, but inherited them. These were the four Gospels everyone in his (orthodox) tradition had accepted without question since the end of the second century.

  5. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  September 3, 2019

    I have heard it said many times that the church fathers chose the “right” four Gospels when compared to the other forty choices. If you had been on a 4th century ecumenical council to determine the content of the Bible, which Gospels would you have chosen? The four Biblical ones? The Gospel of Thomas? Which ones?

    Like most people in college, I took all kinds of stuff including Biblical Koine Greek, but foreign languages were so hard for me to learn. How in the world do you all master so many of them?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 4, 2019

      Ha! I haven’t mastered *any* of them. I just love studying them. Working on Homeric Greek now (I’ve only read the koine for 40 years!) and classical Latin, and it’s the best part of my day. But I’m not particularly good at them. I have colleagues, on the other hand — yikes! (And my brother is a superb Latinist; very helpful for his younger sibling, edging along slowly….)

  6. Rick
    Rick  September 3, 2019

    “Zlatko ….. started reading Latin when he was eight, and Greek when he was ten.”

    Reminds me of a lecture on the History of Economic Thought from,,, many years past. (Dr. Perry, University of Fla. mid 60’s) commented that John Stuart Mill also read Greek at the age of ten; and, spoke it for the rest of his life!

  7. Avatar
    forthfading  September 3, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Can someone be a great teacher at the college level without being a bona fide scholar? Can they teach what scholars are saying without having to do the actual scholarship themselves? Is there a market for such low level positions?

    Thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  September 4, 2019

      Not in major research universities or top-level liberal arts colleges. It was much more common about three decades ago in small liberal arts colleges generally, but these days such places expect their faculty to be doing high-level research. Not as much as in the top-places, since there is much more demand on their time from the classroom and spending hours with students. The best place for non-bona-fide scholars today is the community college, of which there are thousands.

  8. Avatar
    quadell  September 5, 2019

    We only have a small section of the Gospel of Peter (assuming it was originally an account of Jesus’s ministry and death like the canonical gospels), but it’s still long enough to get a sense of the author’s style and important themes, like his extreme condemnation of the Jewish people, for instance. Given that, do you think it’s plausible or likely that some of our fragmentary gospels may have once been a part of the same text? (I’m thinking of Egerton 2, the Fayyum Fragment, Oxyrhynchus 1224, etc.)

    • Bart
      Bart  September 8, 2019

      Yes, scholars have argued that. But never very convincingly. It’s always possible, of course, but the data are so limited with fragments, that there’s nothing convincing to suggest it.

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