I was looking through some old posts from years ago, and came across this one, which continues to be an issue for me.  It’s the kind of thing I continue to hear on occasion, and so I thought maybe it was worth approaching again.

Sometimes I hear someone criticize me, or another author, by saying “he just wants to sell books.”  That has always struck me as a very strange thing to say.  Of course I want to sell books.  Why else would I write books?   Would I want to write books so no one would read them?

What people actually *mean*by that comment, of course, is more snide and offensive.   What they mean is: “he will say anything in a book in order to get people to buy it.”  There may indeed be authors for whom this is true.   I can’t speak for them, only for myself.  This is a charge I really bristle at.

Almost no one of course comes out and actually makes the charge directly.  But it must be what they mean, since, as I just pointed out, no one actually faults someone for writing a book and wanting it to be read.  So how would you judge if an author is simply making sensationalist claims in order to sell books?   In other words, how would you determine if an author has sacrificed his or her academic and personal integrity in order to become rich and famous?  (For that’s what the charge means: the person has sacrificed integrity.)

In my view, one way to determine this is to see if the books the person writes promote wild, idiosyncratic, and reckless views without supporting evidence and without the backing of the academic discipline that they claim to represent.  There are lots of books like that, of course.  But you won’t find many like that written by bona fide scholars.

Just speaking for myself, it is so much the opposite of what I try to do when I write that I simply scratch my head when someone says that I am “just trying to sell books.”  What I find especially striking is that while some people make this objection, other people – or even the same people! – also complain that in my trade books for a general audience I “don’t say anything new.”   That is to say, I present established views of scholarship to a wider audience without trying to advance new views based on a fresh examination of the evidence.  So in what sense am I doing anything I can to sell a book?  (Not that I’m getting defensive here or anything…)

It is true that in most of my trade books this has been the case — i.e. that I’ve presented little that is “new” but explained views scholars have long held but others do not know about.  Sometimes I do advance new views, but not often — for example, in How Jesus Became God I did promote a couple of views that are not widely held (e.g., that Paul understood Christ to be an angel before he became a human), but they were not views that were central to the thesis of the book; the thesis and overall argument of the book was based on massive scholarship promoted for over a century).   My books have, as a rule, been designed to introduce lay people to the sorts of things scholars have said for a very long time OR that are debated among scholars but for which I have a strong opinion about which I explain (e.g., in the Triumph of Christianity, that it was reports of miracles that led to most ancient conversions).  But if that’s the case, how have I sacrificed my integrity by presenting sensationalist claims unsupported by evidence widely acknowledged within my discipline?

Here is what I think is the problem.  In my books I try to present the evidence in ways that are interesting and compelling.  And people who have other views find that threatening and off-putting.  So they charge either that I’m just trying to sell books or that I’m saying nothing new or both.

I think about this a lot with the first book I wrote that got much of an audience, Misquoting Jesus.  There has been a lot of response to the book.  There were five books written by evangelical Christians meant to be direct refutations of it.   The book has been disparaged by conservative Christians in debates and in lots of places on the Internet.  But what is striking is that there is almost no one who can point out a mistake in anything that I say.  (In fact, offhand I can’t think of a single mistake someone has pointed out, even though opponents say I’m “wrong”!)  That’s because I’m presenting what scholars have long known, even if they have been highly reluctant to tell lay people about it.   Here are my central claims in the book:

  • We have over 5600 manuscripts of the Greek New Testament, far more than of any other book from antiquity.
  • Some of these manuscripts are small fragments uncovered in trash heaps in Egypt, others are full length and magnificent tomes that have been around for centuries.
  • No two of these manuscripts (except the small fragments) are exactly alike in their wording of the various verses of the New Testament.
  • There are hundreds of thousands of differences of wording – called variant readings – in these manuscripts, some scholars say 300,000, others 400,000, most recently others are saying 500,000.
  • It is simplest to put the matter in comparative terms: there are more differences in our manuscripts than there are words in the NT.
  • Most of these variants, however, are insignificant, immaterial, and don’t matter for a single thing, other than to show that scribes in antiquity could spell no better than college students can today (much worse in fact, since they didn’t have dictionaries, let alone spell check).  The majority of our variants are in fact variant spellings and other trivia.
  • Some of the variants do matter, however.  Some of them matter a lot, affecting the meaning of a verse, or even of an entire book.
  • These would include such things as the story of the woman taken in adultery in John 7-8, and the last twelve verses of Mark, where Jesus appears to his disciples after the resurrection.  Neither passage was originally in the New Testament.

I said a lot more than this, of course, but these were the main points.  And which one of them is a sensationalist claim not backed up by evidence and years – centuries, actually – of scholarship?  So far as I know, not a single one of them.   This is standard knowledge among biblical scholars.  But lay people had never heard of most of this before.

And why is that?  In part because a LOT of biblical scholars have not wanted people to know because they were afraid it could hurt their faith in the Bible.   And in part because most biblical scholars who focus on this area simply were not interested in, or able to, communicate this kind of information to a popular audience.

A scholar who wants to communicate this information has to figure out how to make it interesting and show why it is important.  That’s what I tried to do in Misquoting Jesus.  Was it so people would buy the book?  Of course it was so people would buy the book!  Why else would I have written it?  This is really important information, and people need to know it – and have the right to know it.

Did I sacrifice my integrity by writing it in a way that was meant to be interesting?   For the life of my I don’t see how.  But, as I said: not that I’m being defensive or anything…