In this week’s Reader’s Mailbag I will be addressing two questions about me personally, and my work. The first has to do with my controversies with fundamentalists, and the second with which of my scholarly books would be accessible to a non-scholar. If you have questions you would like me to address in this format, let me know!
Professor Ehrman, did you anticipate such vitriolic attacks on your character from fundamentalists when you set out on your publishing career years ago?
I have to admit, I’m always surprised when I hear what a persona non grata I am in some Christian circles. Just yesterday I was doing a podcast interview for my new book Jesus Before the Gospels, the interviewer, a former pastor, told me that when he was in his conservative Christian seminary, as a student, he had been warned never to read any of my books, because I was trying to lead people astray. As always, I thought: How strange! I’ve never had as my purpose to lead anyone astray and I don’t see my books as anti-Christian.
I know that some readers – my atheist, agnostic, humanist, free-thinking friends (I consider myself all of the above, by the way) – may find that disappointing, because what they really want (not all of them, but some of them) is for me to “stick it to” the Christians. But I am not at all opposed to Christianity. I am simply opposed to any kind of fundamentalism (not just Christian). My books show why a fundamentalist understanding of the Bible simply cannot stand up under scrutiny. Anyone with a literalistic reading of the New Testament who insists that it cannot have any mistakes of any kind – no discrepancies, contradictions, or historical errors – is simply wrong, and can be shown to be wrong. But that is not an attack on Christianity. It is an attack on fundamentalist Christianity. Anyone who thinks that this is the same thing is him/herself a fundamentalist, either a Christian fundamentalist or an anti-Christian fundamentalist!
I did not start off my publishing career expecting to be controversial. Quite the contrary, I started by publishing hard-core scholarship for hard-core scholars. When I published my first trade book (for a general audience), Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, I had no plan at all to say anything that would rouse popular opposition or anger. I wanted to explain the view of Jesus that had been prominent among scholars for over a century, that Jesus was a Jewish apocalyptic preacher who expected the history of his world to come to a crashing climax within his own generation.
It turns out that is a highly controversial view (to my initial surprise), even though it is widely held among scholars, for two reasons: (1) it suggests (or, rather, points out) that Jesus was wrong in his expectation and (2) most people have never heard that before. They’ve never heard it because scholars have never told them.
My other trade books have also, for the most part, meant to communicate to a broader audience what scholars have said about the Bible. That’s true of my second trade book, Lost Christianities (which my wife claims is the best trade book I’ve written; it’s about the forms of Christianity that didn’t make it and how the controversies they sparked led to the formation of our 27-book New Testament), my most popular trade book, Misquoting Jesus (which is about the scribes who altered the manuscripts of the New Testament they were copying), and probably my hardest-hitting statement of scholarly views of the New Testament, Jesus Interrupted (about the discrepancies, forgeries, and other problematic aspects of the New Testament).
As time went on, I have said some things that I knew would be controversial – for example, my argument that there are indeed forgeries in the New Testament (scholars have long known this, but they are very reluctant to call them forgeries, even though that’s what they are and even though that’s what ancient readers would have considered them to be if they had known that the alleged authors of these books did not actually write them) or that Jesus was not given a decent burial by Joseph of Arimathea (as I argue in How Jesus Became God). But even these claims are not simply meant to stir up controversy: they are meant to embody the results of my scholarship, and they are based on evidence and argument, not simply on the wild opinions of a particularly liberal professor who teaches at a particularly liberal university.
So in short answer: no, I didn’t really expect to be all that controversial. I simply wanted, and still want, to present the results of serious scholarship to readers who have not had the opportunities to pursue research in New Testament studies as a career.
Which takes me to the next question:
Without having an actual copy in my hand, e.g. ordering online, which of your books (if any) have academic prerequisites, and which can even a layman read, popular audience or not?
Some of my books are the sorts of things you really would not want to look at if you’re not a scholar trained in the field of New Testament studies, specifically in the study of the Greek manuscript tradition of the New Testament. These would include Didymus the Blind and the Text of the Gospels (when people tell me “I’ve read all your books!” I’m always tempted to ask how they liked my book on Didymus. J ); The Text of the Fourth Gospel in the Writings of Origen (a book on a comparable topic); The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research (I co-edited that one); the fourth edition of Bruce Metzger’s book that I helped him produce, The Text of the New Testament; and, probably, my collection of (my own) essays Studies in the Textual Criticism of the New Testament.
Other books are meant for scholars but if you don’t mind working hard and slugging through a work of scholarship at a relatively deep level, these would be relatively accessible to a lay reader who is reasonably well informed about the field. I would include in that category The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament and Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics.
Other books are meant to be scholarly tools that could be useful to non-scholars as well, at least in part. Here I’m thinking of translations of ancient texts that I’ve done in which I include the original language (Greek, Latin, and Coptic) for scholars who want to see what the original-language text that I’ve translated says. That would include my two-volume Apostolic Fathers that appeared in the Loeb Classical Library and the volume I co-edited/translated with my colleague Zlatko Plese The Apocryphal Gospels: Texts and Translations. (Anyone who wants just the English translations of these Gospels, with simpler and less detailed introductions to each text, can get them in the volume we published for those not interested in the original languages, The Other Gospels).
Other books are textbooks for college/university students. I have two on the New Testament, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings; and The New Testament: A Brief Introduction (the latter is a simplified version of the former, shorter and less detailed) and one on the entire Bible The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction. Even though a lot of people may not be interested in using a college-level textbook, one value of these books is that they cover the entire set of questions one might have about the NT/Bible, and include bibliography at the end of each chapter for further reading on each topic/NT book.
Other books produced for college-classroom use are anthologies of texts that would be quite useful for broader audiences: The New Testament and Other Early Christian Writings (all the books written by Christians – including the NT itself – prior to 130 or so, i.e., in the first century of Christianity); After the New Testament (a large selection of Christian writings from the second and third centuries); and Christianity in Late Antiquity (co-edited with Andrew Jacobs, a collection of writings from the fourth and fifth Christian centuries). Again, these books all include bibliographies for further reading at every point.
All my other books are meant for a general audience. So take your pick!
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