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What Is My Best Book for a General Audience?

I recently received this question for the Mailbag, dealing, roughly, with my own personal feelings about my “best” work.

 

QUESTION:

A mailbag question that I am not sure I have read your thoughts on; what do you feel is your best published work for lay people and why?  Just curious!

 

RESPONSE:

Ah, this is a difficult question to answer.   The books you write are kind of like your children: you love each and every one of them with every ounce of your being!  And you’re not supposed to have favorites.  OK, but people do.

So there are three ways I look at this issue.  One is, what is the book that is most useful for lay people?  Another is: what is the book that most laypeople themselves have found most useful?   And yet other is, what do I myself think is my very best book for lay people?  I’ll try to answer all three.

Before I do, I need to be clear that I’m talking now only about my trade books for a general audience.  I write two other kinds of books:  highly academic books for fellow scholars and college-level textbooks for nineteen and twenty year olds.

Of these other kinds of books, I would say that my very best for academics is my book Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in the Early Christian Tradition.  I’ve very proud of that one.  It is a rather massive discussion of the literary pseudepigraphy in early Christianity, this widespread practice of writing books claiming to be someone famous (usually an apostle), knowing you were someone else, in order to deceive your readers and get a wider audience for your book.  This was by far the hardest and most rigorous book I’ve ever written.

In terms of textbooks, my most important, I think, is The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, which I refer to a good deal here on the blog.  It has been the most widely used book on the English-speaking market for over twenty years.  And I just about decided, at the time, not to write it at all.  I’ll have to talk about that on the blog some time.

But in terms of my trade books.  In terms of the book that I think most people have found to be the most useful, I think the answer has to be Misquoting Jesus.   My reason for thinking so is that it is far and away my bestselling book.   The actual reasons it became a best seller are actually kind of interesting and rather amusing, and I should talk about that on the blog some time.   But for now I’ll just say that to everyone’s surprise it became a best seller.  The reason everyone was surprised was because of its topic.  It’s about the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament!  Who in the world would be interested in that???   Well, as it turns out, lots of people.

When I decided to write the book, it was because I thought it was too bad that a topic of central importance to the study of the Bible, which had been a matter of serious scholarly interest for over three hundred years, was an issue that the vast majority of lay people knew absolutely nothing about.  But there was a good reason for that.  It was a highly recondite, technical field of scholarship – so recondite and technical that even most biblical scholars know only the very broadest aspects of it.  The vast majority scholars with PhDs in New Testament (I’m serious here) know almost nothing about the field called “textual criticism,” the scholarly effort of determining what the “original” text of the New Testament says given the fact that we have many thousands of manuscripts that all disagree with each other in lots and lots and lots of little ways, and occasionally in rather significant ways.

How can you get a PhD in New Testament studies without knowing anything about that subfield?  The reality is that the vast majority of biblical scholars do get PhDs without studying it!  And why?  Because it is a really complicated field, and its study for the past fifty or seventy years has been left to the very few hard-core nerds who really were interested in getting WAY down into the weeds in order to learn its intricacies.

When I told my friends and colleagues in New Testament studies that I was thinking about writing a book about it for a general audience they, literally, laughed.  You gotta be kidding!!

But my view was that (a) this was really important stuff (most of my friends agreed with that, but they thought it was “important” enough for two or three technicians to be trained in, not important enough for them to learn much about); (b) it is really interesting (none of my friends agreed with that!); and (c) most people know nothing about it (the certainly did agree there!).

When I thought about writing the book there was one big question for me – a massive question, one that I thought, and thought, and thought about.  How can I possibly make it both simple enough to understand AND really interesting?

Really interesting.  Really?  How?

What I decided was to think long and hard about why it had become so interesting to me back when I was nineteen.  I got turned on to the question of textual criticism even before I knew Greek.  I was fascinated with it.  I wrote a term paper on it my second year in college.  But why?  As I imagined writing the book I had to figure that out, thinking that if I could work out why I had been fascinated by a topic that almost no one knew about, I could extrapolate from that what others might find fascinating about it and put it in simple terms that everyone could understand.

And it came down to a simple reality.  There are very familiar passages in the New Testament that are among the favorites of readers of the Bible today, which were not originally in the New Testament.  They were added by later scribes.   And in fact there are thousands of differences in our ancient manuscripts of the New Testament.  And there are even some places where we do not know what the authors wrote, because we don’t have their originals but only these later manuscript copies of their writings, all of which differ from one another.

That was fascinating to me as a nineteen-year-old, for a very simple reason.  I thought the very words of the Bible were inspired by God and inerrant in the originals.  But we didn’t have the originals.  That drove me to find out more about it, and eventually to become a textual critic.   And I decided that could be the “hook” I used to discuss the matter in my book, to get others interested.

OK, I see this single post answering a simple question is going to turn into multiple posts (I’ve dealt with only one of the three issues I raised at the outset, and have not finished with that one yet).  So there will be more to come.

If you belonged to the blog you could get posts like this (and posts unlike this) all the time.  So why not join?  It won’t cost much and all money goes to charity!  


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Pontius Pilate: A Sensitive Guy….

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Comments

  1. Judith  January 28, 2018

    So good!!!




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  2. talmoore
    talmoore  January 28, 2018

    About a quarter of the American population believes the Bible is the literal, inerrant word of God. That may not seem like a lot of people, but that’s still almost 100 million people. I would think that your seemingly recondite trade book on the textual history of the New Testament was so popular for this very reason.




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  3. nichael  January 28, 2018

    If I might throw in my two cents as to which books I, personally, have found the most useful.

    1] Number one is clearly the Introduction to the NT in that it provides such a good –and essential– foundation for addressing all the other material.

    2] Number two would have to be “Jesus, Interrupted”. To be clear the issue is not that book simply points out the “contradictions” in the NT, but rather it provides a firm basis for reading the NT as a collection of individual works, each of which can be appreciated and understood for its own point of view and purpose.

    (A close runner-up would be “Misquoting Jesus”, because I personally found the whole topic of textual criticism to be so fascinating.)




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  4. swaffbls  January 28, 2018

    Just read Misquoting Jesus twice! It was easy to understand and very thought provoking. Also, thanks for the chuckle on page 77 where, after noting that some Greek manuscripts had allegedly been sold to a rocket maker, you add: “[this] shows that the  study  of  the  Greek  manuscripts  of  the New Testament  is  not rocket science.” Nice touch of comedic relief sir. Lol




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  5. Robby  January 28, 2018

    I just decided to break out my highlighted, dog eared, marked up and written in copy of Misquoting Jesus and re-read it again. Repetition is the key to retaining.




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  6. Wilusa  January 28, 2018

    I read “Misquoting Jesus” so long ago that I don’t remember much about it. But I’m sure that *title* was “inspired”!

    Having myself been an agnostic for many years, I know which of your *topics* have interested me most:

    Learning that Jesus was an apocalypticist.

    Learning by what stages he came to be regarded as divine.

    Learning that the four canonical Gospels weren’t written by “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John”…how they came to bear those names…and that they have irreconcilable differences.




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  7. rivercrowman  January 28, 2018

    I just read a portion of “Forgery and Counterforgery” today. Your New Testament textbook I consulted yesterday. My favorite trade books are the same as those among the five that made the best sellers list: “Jesus Interrupted,” “Misquoting Jesus,” then later, I snapped up “God’s Problem,” “Forged,” and “How Jesus Became God.” I have and have enjoyed the rest of them though. I thank you for the entire stack.




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  8. pmwslc  January 28, 2018

    Misquoting Jesus was the first of your books that I read, and I guess my curiosity was originally sparked by the title. That little book opened my eyes to the broad field of scholarly biblical study. I was amazed that I had never heard most of the stuff you present in Sunday School or other church functions! Since then I have read most of your other books, and have developed a much more balanced understanding of Christianity. Thank you for your continued efforts to bring new and better perspectives to a broad audience, both in your books and in this blog.




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  9. mark1947  January 28, 2018

    My favorite is “Misqoting Jesus” and the book I most often refer to friends.




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  10. Seeker1952  January 28, 2018

    I found “Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium” to be the most enlightening. Do you see a need for a new edition of this book or isn’t there much of anything in it that needs updating?




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    • Bart
      Bart  January 29, 2018

      Trade books *rarely* are granted a second edition, since there isn’t enough of a market (most people who would want it already have it).




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      • nichael  January 29, 2018

        Following up on this thread a bit, I have a suggestion for a possible blog post:

        For those who have read the various “trade books” what would you suggest, in each case, might be a useful next book for those of us interested in “taking a step toward the deeper end of the pool”?

        (I realize most of the books have quite good and extensive bibliographies and notes. And, speaking personally, I’ve found these very useful and the source for much further reading. But still, I’m sure a knowledgable, friendly hand pointing us in a specific direction would be appreciated by many of the folks here.)




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        • Bart
          Bart  January 30, 2018

          It completely depends on which pool you’re interested in swimming in (i.e. what you’re interested in pursuing)




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    • justyn  January 31, 2018

      I think perhaps the only one of Bart’s trade books I haven’t “read” is Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, because there is no audiobook edition.

      Bart, how about a 20th anniversary edition released next year (with audiobook)?




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  11. seahawk41  January 28, 2018

    I got several good laughs reading this!! I have never tried to write an intro text, but having taught intro physics and astronomy many times, I’ll say right off that your intro to the NT is very well done: readable, informative, etc. I’m comparing it to what I thought (when still teaching) to be top notch intros to physics or astronomy.

    Regarding your fascination with textual criticism, I have to say that in another timeline I could well have gone there myself Fascinating stuff!!




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  12. Gary  January 28, 2018

    Off topic question: Christian apologists often appeal to Gary Habermas’ literature search regarding the Empty Tomb as evidence that the majority of scholars believe in the historicity of the Empty Tomb. I know that you believe that the majority of scholars probably do believe in the historicity of the Empty Tomb but do the majority of scholars accept Habermas’ literature search as evidence for this majority scholarly opinion? Or, do they posit that since he has never released his methodology and the details of his study, his work on this topic can not be used as evidence for this question of historicity?




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    • Bart
      Bart  January 29, 2018

      My sense is that Habermas is well-known and respected in evangelical Christian circles but not outside of that. Apart from evangelicals, critical scholars typically don’t think you can “prove” the resurrection.




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      • Gary  January 29, 2018

        I see. But related specifically to the historicity of the claim that Jesus’ tomb was found empty, do scholars recognize Habermas’ study as a valid confirmation of a majority scholarly opinion on the historicity of the empty tomb or do they reject his study because he has not released his research for outside review?

        I ask for this reason: I accept the majority opinion of experts on all issues on which I am not an expert. If the majority of scholars believe that there is sufficient evidence to believe in the historicity of Jesus’ empty tomb, I will accept that majority opinion. But, if Habermas’ study is considered flawed or inadequate by the majority of scholars, then I do not feel obliged to accept his claim that majority scholarly opinion supports the historicity of the Empty Tomb.




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        • Bart
          Bart  January 30, 2018

          To my knowledge non-conservative scholars do not generally read the work of Habermas. They tend to stick to the writings of critical New Testament scholars.




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          • Gary  January 30, 2018

            So: When Christian apologists tell me that the majority of New Testament scholars believe in the historicity of the Empty Tomb based on Habermas’ research, I can tell them they are wrong?




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          • Bart
            Bart  February 1, 2018

            You can tell them that the majority of NT scholars have never *read* Habermas (and may not even know about him).




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          • Luke9733  February 18, 2018

            Is N.T. Wright more respected among critical scholars? I’ve seen his name come up a few times, but I also know he’s argued that Jesus’ was resurrected historically (specifically in his book “The Resurrection of the Son of God”).




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          • Bart
            Bart  February 18, 2018

            Wright is certainly far better known — one of the premier NT scholars in the English speaking world. Conservatives tend to adore him, and non-conservatives…not.




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  13. anthonygale  January 29, 2018

    Misquoting Jesus was the first of your books that I read. I literally stumbled upon it walking through Barnes and Noble, picked it off the shelf, and after reading the back decided to buy it. That goes to show a good title makes a difference! I’ve read several of your other books. I think that my favorite may be Jesus Interrupted, but that and Misquoting Jesus are definitely my favorite two (also the first two I read).

    Mentioning Misquoting Jesus reminds me…I very much enjoyed the discussion whether Jesus was angry or moved with compassion in Mark 1:41. After reading the gospel of Mark again, I noticed that in Mark 6:34 (in the story of feeding the five thousand), Jesus is also said to be moved with compassion in a context it seems plausible he could be angry. Jesus and the disciples seek rest, haven’t had a chance to eat, and try to go to a deserted place but the people follow. The sheep without a shepherd comment seems consistent with pity, but perhaps he was annoyed with them, like a parent annoyed with a needy child? Or got hangry and needed a nap?

    If being moved with compassion was original, do you think that would make it easier to believe he was moved with compassion in Mark 1:41? I’m sure that Jesus indeed felt compassion at times (even Mark’s Jesus). It just struck me that the disputed word (is it the same in both places in Greek?) occurred in another context that Jesus being angry seems plausible.




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  14. Silver  January 29, 2018

    Re Paul and Jesus: Paul claims his mission was to the Gentiles whereas Jesus said he was sent ‘only to the lost sheep of Israel.’ (Matt 15:24). Do you think that Jesus’ message was subsequently changed by the gospel writers to the Great Commission to conform to Paul’s activities?




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    • Bart
      Bart  January 29, 2018

      Not just to Paul, but to all those taking the gospel to the non-Jews.




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      • rburos  January 30, 2018

        Could it have been a literary device, meaning until Easter Jesus was only preaching to Jews while after the passion it went to the world? Could one say it was less “changed” and more “developed” or “revealed”? The difference is overly subtle, I know.




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  15. RonaldTaska  January 29, 2018

    Very interesting! Keep going! I am afraid that there are lots of issues that scholars have been studying for hundreds of years that most lay people know absolutely nothing about. I think, unfortunately, anything that questions established beliefs gets ignored. “Misquoting Jesus” was a very important and readable book for me, It was quite a “baby.” One to be proud of.




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  16. jmmarine1  January 29, 2018

    I’m with Charles Hill (quoted below), my favorite book is The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture.

    ‘In the early nineties I was given a book on the Muratorian Fragment to review. At the time, I didn’t know very much about the formation of the NT canon per se. But having spent a great deal of time in the second century for my dissertation, I found several of this author’s conceptions about the second-century writers to be at odds with those I had developed. The experience of writing that review, along with some other things that were happing in scholarship at about that time (Bart Ehrman’s The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, for example), convinced me that the issues of canon and text were ones where there might be a real need for scholarship.’
    http://evangelicaltextualcriticism.blogspot.com/2016/03/etc-interview-with-chuck-hill-part-1.html




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    • Bart
      Bart  January 29, 2018

      Yes, my book motivated him in part because he was *opposed* to much of it!




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  17. SidDhartha1953  January 29, 2018

    I should think textual criticism would be of interest to any reasonably curious person who reads for pleasure or self improvement, not only sacred scriptures, but any work that has been subjected to editing and revision. Mark Twain, for instance, allowed his wife Olivia, until her death, to censor all his manuscripts. I doubt the “originals” of any of those works can be entirely reconstructed. That, to me, is a national tragedy.




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  18. Daniela Araújo  January 29, 2018

    Love all your books, and i just want to know when ur new book will be released in other languages?




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    • Bart
      Bart  January 30, 2018

      It’s being translated into several already (including Hungarian!).




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  19. gwayersdds  January 29, 2018

    Personally my favorites are “Forged” and “Lost Christianities”. My interests lie mostly in how orthodoxy became orthodoxy and how the Bible we use today came to be the orthodox way of believing.




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  20. Boltonian  January 29, 2018

    Just checking my bookshelves, I see that I have four of yours sitting alongside six by the late, great Geza Vermes. The four by you are: Misquoting Jesus, through which I discovered you, so to speak; Did Jesus Exist; How Jesus Became God; and Jesus Before the Gospels: I have also ordered ‘Triumph.’ MJ has to be my favourite because it was the book responsible for opening up a fabulous new world (this blog) to me.




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  21. silvertime  January 29, 2018

    I understand that the titles of your books are heavily influenced by your publishers, however I think that the titles appeal to both believers and nonbelievers. It seems that they are designed to suggest that the books do not attack either position. However, your prominence and reputation over the years now tell the potential reader what to expect from your analysis. I have read all of the trade books, and look forward to reading your college text very soon




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  22. TimKendrick  January 30, 2018

    The book of yours I’ve most loaned to family/friends who know little about the historical Jesus is DID JESUS EXIST? because it briefly covers the whole range of the field, sort of an overview that’s simple and easy to follow.




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  23. rburos  January 30, 2018

    Misquoting Jesus was your first book I had read, heavily recommended by a friend of mine who also showed me this blog. All of your work is pro-Christianity (yes your work sometimes shows how the mainstream is getting it wrong, but I never read venom in your writing), but I know several who use this book in particular simply as ammunition for bashing the established church(es). Although you can’t control who reads your work or how, does this affect you in any way?




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  24. mannix  January 31, 2018

    I have bought your Bible text, NT Text, and just got After the NT. I have read others but will confess they were from the public library. Always on the lookout for new ones, but as others have done, should probably take out and re-read a few.




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