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Update on My Next Book: The Joys of Academic Writing

Last weekend I escaped from all the distractions of daily life in Durham to our mountain retreat in order to write.   I’m here in solitude, Sarah is in London for the holidays.  I’ll be joining her next week.   I have all the amenities of modern life here: but no TV, no neighbors, no noise, no traffic.

Writing is very hard under the best of circumstances.   But oh boy is it easier in the best of circumstances.  Most scholars find it literally impossible to write during the semester.  Just can’t do it.  You have classes.  Class preparation.  Students to meet.  Departmental meetings.  Committee meetings.  University commitments.  If you have a graduate program there is a constant flow of work: advising, scheduling, working with students on exams, directing master’s theses and PhD dissertations, helping students with pedagogy, counselling them about professionalization, reading their prospective conference papers and articles for publication, oral defenses, reading groups.  It’s a lot.   Then if you have an active speaking schedule or do other local service commitments… well not much writing gets done.  For most of the even best intentioned professors, very little indeed during term time.

The upside of the university professorship, of course, is the time off.  Holiday time is highly welcome, but most of the free time is spent first grading then getting ready for the next semester’s courses.  For most professors, the summer is the one time they can do any serious work.  A lot of my colleagues are so mentally exhausted at that point that it’s hard to do as much as they’d like, even if they put in the hours.

That’s why the beneficent cosmos created sabbaticals, time off from other duties to do research and writing.   It wasn’t so professors could watch soaps and eat bon-bons for a semester, or a year.  It’s so they can do what they’re getting paid to do: be active and productive scholars.

I have taken full advantage of my academic leave, and am now at a point where I can start showing it.   This ten-day retreat is my burst into it.

As many of you know, my current project is …

If you’re not a blog member, you should join!  You get five posts a week, almost all of them on intriguing issues connected with the New Testament and early Christianity — not the fluff you normally find on the Internet, but serious scholarship from a historical perspective.  Joining is cheap and easy, and all proceeds go to charities helping those in need.

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  1. Avatar
    BGreene  December 12, 2019

    Fantastic insight into a process I know nothing about. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Avatar
    Diane  December 12, 2019

    Hmm, wondering why the katabases of Enoch didn’t make the cut…?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 13, 2019

      For the Bible you mean? Good question. I guess it just wasn’t circulated or popular enough?

  3. Avatar
    mike.mcgowan  December 12, 2019

    Dr Ehrman,

    “Off to London for the holidays” – do you mean London, UK?

    If so, are you giving any talks there that the public are able to attend?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 13, 2019

      I’m afraid not. My wife is a Brit and we go over there a good bit for family. Maybe next summer I can have some kind of blog dinner though….

      • Avatar
        AndrewJenkins  December 15, 2019

        That sounds like a good idea and i would like to apply….
        Best wishes and Happy Christmas, Andrew.

  4. Avatar
    saavoss  December 12, 2019

    I know this I would be going beyond the scope of your project, but it would be interesting to add in an Eastern katabasis, such as either the Egyptian or Tibetan Book of the Dead.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 13, 2019

      Yes, I thought about it. But I ended up deciding that these had little relevance for the development of Christian ideas….

  5. Avatar
    Gary  December 12, 2019

    I am asking for a straight-forward answer from Mike Licona that I believe is critical to understanding the scholarship of evangelical scholars. Why won’t Licona *honestly* answer it? We know he believes in the “testimony of the Holy Spirit” because he says so on his facebook page.

    Question: Does Michael Licona, as an evangelical Christian, believe that the resurrected Jesus sent a spirit, the Holy Spirit, to “dwell” within him, “testifying” truths to him, including the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 13, 2019

      I don’t know the answer. My guess is that he would say yes, but that the historicity can be established on strict historiographic grounds as well, without faith or the Spirit.

    • Avatar
      doug  December 13, 2019

      People believe the “Holy Spirit” tells them so many different things, from love your neighbor to kill your children (yes, some people have really thought the latter and, tragically, acted upon it).

  6. Avatar
    nwoll  December 12, 2019

    Dr.Ehrman, in a conversation with a Christian friend recently, the topic of the intent of the Gospel writers came up. My friend insisted that there was nothing those writers could gain by penning false reports. They weren’t monetarily recompensed, and writing anonymously seems to indicate that they weren’t writing for fame or honor. Why else would they write the gospels, except as a history? (He argues)

    How would you respond?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 13, 2019

      I agree, they probably had nothing to gain. But your friend’s assumption is that they knew they were giving false information. That’s not the case at all. They thought what they said was true. Just as he himself no doubt says all sorts of things about, say, ancient Israel or Jesus that are factually not true — but he doesn’t know it. He says what he says because he thinks it’s true. Almost certainly that’s the case with the Gospel writers as well.

      • Avatar
        nwoll  December 13, 2019

        Thank you for responding.
        I guess I’m talking about when they employ literary devices, such as the sayings on the cross. Don’t scholars think that most of those sayings were invented by the Gospel writers (as opposed to being part of the oral tradition) to further their overall narrative?

        I suppose that’s the answer, but I would love to see a blog post on the intent of the gospel writers. It can’t be solely to record oral history, because each book seems to have a definite (and different) theme.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 15, 2019

          Yes, they were certainly invented. But there’s nothing that indicates these writers themselves invented such things, knowing they were false. More likely they were stories floating arund that they heard. I talk about this kind of thing a good deal in my book Jesus Before the Gospels.

  7. Avatar
    Bewilderbeast  December 12, 2019

    You have all the amenities of modern – civilised – life there: no TV, no neighbors, no noise, no traffic. Yay! Best of luck. May your thoughts and pen flow freely!

  8. Avatar
    fishician  December 12, 2019

    Already signed up for your UNC seminar on the subject in Feb. Looking forward to it, really interesting subject.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 13, 2019

      Great! It’s tricky getting all this research into four lectures, but I’m going to try to pick the most important and interesting stuff. We’ll see!

  9. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  December 12, 2019

    Although it can’t/won’t be part of your current project, I am wondering if (in you research) you encountered any concepts of katabasis in Eastern (e.g. Chinese) traditions/cultures.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 13, 2019

      I”m afraid I’ve never moved farther East than ancient Mesopotamia. But I’d love to know what’s out there! (There are certainly, in the modern world, traditions of Near Death Experiences in East Asia, which are interesting to compare with those in the West. Unlike the western versions, Jesus doesn’t show up in them! Well, unless the person is already a Christian)

    • Avatar
      ecafischer  December 13, 2019

      What is katabasis?

      • Bart
        Bart  December 15, 2019

        Sorry, I thought I defined it. It means “going down,” and it’s the technical term for narratives of a living person visiting the realms of the dead.

  10. Avatar
    rivercrowman  December 12, 2019

    Good to see you have an escape place in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 13, 2019

      And right next to the Smokies. Gorgeous part of the universe.

  11. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  December 12, 2019

    You are one of a kind and I have been privileged to know a lot of very gifted people. As Trump once said at the start of a hurricane: “Good luck! Be safe!”

  12. Avatar
    AstaKask  December 12, 2019

    So what do you hope to accomplish with this book? Is this fresh ground for academics or is it well-trodden ground but you have a fresh take on it?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 13, 2019

      It’s an interesting question and not easy to answer, since in some ways it is definitely yes and kind of yes. I think I’ll write a blog post on it! Thanks.

  13. Avatar
    ellispm35  December 12, 2019


    While you are writing new books, I’ve been reading some of your older ones. I just got through reading your book Misquoting Jesus and Luke Timothy Jones’s response book, Misquoting Truth. There’s one argument that Jones makes that seems strong to me, but I don’t know enough about the evidence to judge the merits of his claim.

    In Misquoting Truth, Timothy Jones makes a claim about the authorship of the Gospels. In a nutshell, he claims: “When each congregation received a copy of a Gospel, the congregation also received an oral tradition about the origins of that Gospel. As a result, when it became necessary to describe names and authors to the Gospels, every congregation connected the same author’s name with the same Gospels.” If it weren’t so, he says, we wouldn’t see a unity of title in the churches across the Roman Empire.

    He points out: “The identification of the author of a Gospel never varies in any New Testament fragment or manuscript that has its title intact. This unity of titles isn’t limited to one region of the Roman Empire – examples of this unity may be found in manuscripts from the western portions of the ancient empire all the way to North Africa, Egypt, and Asia Minor. [if there wasn’t an oral tradition of authorship attached to a Gospel,] Each church would have connected a different author with each gospel. Churches in Asia minor might have ascribed a Gospel to the Apostle Andrew, while churches in Judea might have connected the same Gospel with James or Jude.” But that’s not what happened.

    Can you please give me some help with this one? Thanks!!

    • Bart
      Bart  December 13, 2019

      It’s a great question, but like lots of great questions very complicated. I know a lot of people (including authors) like to have a one-line answer to an argument, but most good questions are harder than that. I deal with the question at length in my book Jesus Interrupted (pp. 102-12). I *started* answering it here as a comment, but my answer got longer and longer, and I realized I need to write a whole post on it, in part so others can see it. So I’ll do that! Very, very short answer (answeirng a question with a quesiton!): yes, by around 200 CE there was an oral tradition giving the names of the authors of the Gospels. But when did the tradition start? (There were also traditions that Jesus had been a mischievous Wunderkind, a bratty Son of God as a five year old, circulating at this time. Do we think those traditions are “original”?) Anyway, I’ll get to all that later in my post.

  14. Avatar
    Steefen  December 12, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,
    Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, in their book, The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts (2002) concluded the traditional archaeology of the Davidic and Solomonic period is wrong. Therefore, the Biblical David and Solomon cannot be historically accurate.

    Furthermore, the Saul-David-Solomon story is less than historically accurate and therefore they must be relegated to characters of historical fiction because the historically accurate Saul is Labayu, Labaya who was in correspondence with Akhen-aten, centuries earlier (Amarna Letters, discovered 1887). Because David must be connected to Saul, David is moved back from approximately 910 BCE to 1340 BCE or David did not succeed Saul, allowing Solomon and David to remain in the 910 – 880 BCE time frame.

    This weakens the historical accuracy of Jesus who was claimed to have been a descendant of King David. David is not firmly established in history at 910 BCE because Saul-Labayu/a wrote to Akhen-aten and correspondence is found in the Amarna Letters.

    Question #1: Not only from a genealogical perspective but from a broader historical perspective, the things that David and Solomon supposedly did could not have been done 300+ years earlier. David and Solomon of the 1300s BCE must have different biographies than the David and Solomon of the 910 – 880 BCE time frame?
    Question #2: That the bold line between David and Jesus has become a dotted line or even a broken line changes Jesus’ backstory, yes?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 13, 2019

      1. Yes, I completely agree with their analysis. Most of the stories about David and Solomon — virtually all of them — are legendary; 2. Yes, I think it’s impossible to demonstrate that Jesus was connected with David through a patrilinear line. That said:

      3. He was almost certainly connected to David through *some* kind of genealogical line, since virtually all Jews in his day would have been, given how genealogical lines spread over the generations; 4. None of that has any bearing on the historicity of Jesus or of anyhting he said or did (issues to be resolved on other grounds)

      • Avatar
        Steefen  December 16, 2019

        None of that has any bearing on the historicity of Jesus or of anything he said or did (issues to be resolved on other grounds)

        Six Degrees of Separation (film)
        The plot of the film was inspired by the real-life story of a con man and robber who convinced a number of people in the 1980s that he was the son of actor Sidney Poitier.

        Given two people, one who traces his family tree back, along a string of real human beings vs one who traces his family tree back to a character of historical fiction, the former has a better record of descent / record of ancestry than the latter. The latter is somewhat fraudulent, misrepresenting his record of descent. This does have bearing on the authenticity of Jesus.

        This is important New Testament Criticism.

        Let’s look at some verses relevant to Jesus as Son of David:

        Mt 1: 1
        Mt 12: 23
        Mt 15: 22
        Mt 21: 9 where Jesus is a Solomon figure as Son of David to be crowned king
        Mk 10: 48
        Mk 12: 35
        Jn 7: 42
        Romans 1: 3
        2 Timothy 2: 8
        Revelation 5: 5

        Let’s say the Biblical Jesus was a descendant of a 10th Century BCE northern Pharaoh (whose name means My star [not David’s Star] rises in my city [not David’s city] ) instead of a descendant of a 10th Century BCE King David, Jesus’ theological and biological anchor in pedigree would be disqualifying.

        Sure we can say, the Pharisees, the common people, the authors of Mt, Mk, Jn, 2 Timothy, and Revelation were all mistaken, nevertheless, the historical Jesuses: 1) the Woe-Saying Jesus, 2) Jesus of Gamala/Galilee with his mariners who fought Vespasian and Titus at the Battle of Galilee; and the Biblical Jesus all still existed.

        10 verses in the New Testament have lost some if not all credibility with David being a character of historical fiction, or worse, a 10th Century pharaoh who would know, via amduats, something about the valley of the shadow of death, comforted by thy rod and thy staff [any visit to a museum with an Egyptian wing would show the flail and crook symbol of resurrection, iconography of Osiris, Lord of the Resurrection].

  15. Avatar
    Gary  December 12, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman: Mike Licona has posted my full name, details about my business, and my geographical location in his recent guest post here on your blog. He has provided sufficient information for any right-wing nut job to track me down at my place of business.

    As a paying member of your blog, I expect my private information to remain private. Please instruct Mr. Licona to remove my identifying information from your blog immediately.

  16. Avatar
    Kmbwhitmore  December 12, 2019

    Have a well deserved holiday and Merry Christmas.

  17. Avatar
    veritas  December 12, 2019

    I recall reading a comment you had made about Albert Schweitzer on how he was studying in medical, writing a book and learning music all at the same time.. I am not sure if that’s the order in which you spoke of him.The point is he was a busy man. You sounded impressed by his work ethic and so was I. It does not surprise me when you say you love these challenges and balance your life/work commitments. Dan Dennett, probably said it best when talking about the secret of happiness, ” If you want to be happy, find something greater than you and dedicate your life to it “. Just curious, you may have answered this in the past, who has influenced you in your life/work the most? BTW, wherever you are it sounds your in tune with nature. Don’t hesitate to call upon us if a scribe is needed. Enjoy the most wonderful time of the year, Bart.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 13, 2019

      I haven’t had just one person who has inspired me in my work, but many many, most of whom you would not have heard of, but they include great 19th and 20th century scholars, in addition to Schweitzer, from F. C. Baur, to Walter Bauer, to Adolf von Harnack; Fenton John Anthony Hort and Brooke Foss Westcott; and my own teachers such as Jerry Hawthorne, Cullen Story, and Bruce Metzger. And many many others, all of whom had mind-boggling work ethics and complete dedication to their scholarship.

  18. Avatar
    Jeff  December 13, 2019

    I don’t know if you have already addressed this but have you considered the historical significance of mind altering drugs within the ancient religious traditions? We have a pretty good idea many substances we’re available as attested in: https://www.ancient-origins.net/opinion-guest-authors/drugs-ancient-cultures-history-drug-use-and-effects-006051.
    More specific, I personally think of the many auditory and visionary experiences depicted in both Hebrew and New Testament Scriptures that appear similar to those caused by hallucinogenics.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 15, 2019

      I don’t think we have the evidence to decide one way or the other. Our historical records are just way to sparse.

  19. Avatar
    santiago.torres3  December 13, 2019

    Prof. Ehrman,

    Will you be doing another guest spot on the Unbelievable podcast during your time in the UK? I really enjoyed watching the video of your last debate with Peter J Williams. Merry Christmas!

    • Bart
      Bart  December 15, 2019

      Not this time. But possibly after my next book is out.

  20. Avatar
    Hormiga  December 14, 2019

    > For this book there has been tons of English, of course, but also a whole lot of French, a good bit of German, and some Italian.

    Perhaps a bit off the topic of the thread, but do you find anything of use in the Iberian romance languages (Spanish and Portuguese and variants)? I assume that if you read French and Italian those wouldn’t be hard to pick up.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 15, 2019

      There are occasionally Spanish articles, but not as many as the other European languages.

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