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