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Why Scholars Aren’t Trained To Write Trade Books

In yesterday’s post I talked about how books for a general audience — trade books — get their titles.   I’ve decided that I want to say something more broadly about the nature of trade books, and I’m going to do so in a rather circuitous way, by talking about why most scholars don’t (and can’t) write them.  It’s not at all a bad thing that they don’t, in my opinion.  We only need so many books for non-specialists on the Big Bang, the Civil War, and the historical Jesus.  All told, we probably have more than enough.

Moreover – and this will be the point of this post and probably a few more to come — trade books are not what scholars are trained to produced.  Scholars are trained to write serious research for other scholars.   And that’s what they spend their lives doing: advancing scholarship for experts in their fields.  That’s not only what most scholars want to do.  In many ways, it is the only thing they are actually trained to do.

My graduate school training in many ways was typical, so maybe I’ll explain roughly how the training worked.

Every semester …

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Video of How Jesus Became God, Part 1 (of 3)
What Do We Call It? Coming Up with a Book Title.



  1. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  August 11, 2016

    Keep going. Some of it is familiar, but it is a subject worth going over again. The real question for me is how you learned to write “trade” books that are clear and concise. I wish I had a nickel for every time I have picked up a book and just could not plug through it because it was way over my head or just plain boring. Actually, to be honest, much of the Bible is that way. So, for you to think and write so clearly must have some sort of explanation. I guess a second question is why church leaders and ministers, by and large, seem to have no knowledge of, or even interest in, the basic intellectual foundation (textual and historical criticism) of Christianity even though they may have had 3 years of seminary training or even doctorate degrees? Anyway, “Misquoting Jesus” and “Jesus, Interrupted” absolutely changed the way I view the world and I urge new readers of this blog to start their quests with those two “trade” books.

  2. Avatar
    jhague  August 11, 2016

    Very interesting. Is another reason that scholars do not write trade books is because of the criticism from evangelical Christians? Especially those who are pastors in churches telling their members not to read these “harmful” books?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 12, 2016

      No, I don’t know if that has ever held anyone back or not. (Certainly it has held back evangelical scholars from saying what they really think sometimes!)

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  August 11, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, I know that scientists who write trade books for mass consumption often get a lot of grief from their academic colleagues, who accuse them of shirking their duty to advance the field and selling out for the money. But I think that such scientists who devote time to “dumbing down” complex scientific knowledge for mass consumption — Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, et al. — are doing an important service of bridging the wide chasm between the Ivory Tower and Main Street. And I think you’re doing a similar service. Do you get any grief from your colleagues for writing trade books?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 12, 2016

      I’m sure I do! But if so, it’s entirely behind my back, not to my face.

      • Avatar
        Rogers  August 16, 2016

        Hmm. The only reason I could see underlying that would be bascially jealously – you’ve been rather successful with some of the trade books and, well, have gained some public fame. Otherwise, why should any educated person look askance at someone that is educating more broadly? (Am still amazed at the time and effort you devote to this blog as well.)

  4. Avatar
    rivercrowman  August 11, 2016

    My father was a poor dirt farmer in northern Maine. He advised me to get all the education I could, “as that’s something no one can take away from you.” … I’m thankful Bart Ehrman got all the education he could, and so are many readers I’m sure who have discovered him in recent years.
    Steve Sutter

  5. Avatar
    JoshuaJ  August 11, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, you might be getting to this in a future post, but is it true that most of the actual manuscript evidence (extant copies) for the writings of early Church Fathers dates to around the Middle Ages? If so, wouldn’t these writings be just as prone to interpolation, omission, and other changes? Does this in any way limit the usefulness of Patristic evidence if your view?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 12, 2016

      Maybe not *as* prone (for reasons I’ll explain on the blog), but certainly prone!

  6. Avatar
    KathleenM  August 11, 2016

    Just a comment on why the testaments and documents we have may have been circulated under the names of others: By the time Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and some of the other books were being copied and passed around …. (Wasn’t it one of the Popes or Bishops who eventually called for 30 copies of a “bible” — so the homilies on Sundays in the 30 or so bishoprics would be of one and the same text/content?) … many of the original 12 apostles, Mary Magdalene and others were deceased, so that those folks weren’t in jeopardy of their lives. Therefore you could collect writings and call it the “Book of Matthew” for instance without getting on an emperor’s hit list if he happened to see the document.

    …Also came across something about the original wedding feast in Cana being the betrothal of Mary Magdalene to John the disciple/evangelist – a wedding Yeshua attended and where he performed the first public miracle, probably after he had healed Mary of her ailment. A betrothal that may have remained just that over time – never a consummated marriage, much like Mary and Joseph’s relationship caring for Yeshua.

    I know Paul was for abstinence, and being a Catholic we have some of those same traditions today – marriages where folks abstain except in the case of desired conception. I know the many popular life-styles today might belittle such an idea, but we do know the BC/CE Hebrews did take childbearing and rearing seriously, even the Essenes seemed to have had some ritual “days” for consummating marriages, with men and ladies living apart at other times. This would explain the early stories of Mary Theotokos, Mary the Magdalene, and John going eventually off to Ephesus together–as a kind of family–after the crucifixion. (“Behold thy Mother.”) I think the name Mary was so common at that time, it’s hard to tell which Mary is whom in the gospel texts we’ve saved, Mary just meant “Pure,” as we say “Holy Father” or “Sister…so and so” for a nun in the Church. The best and worst of times…where people wanted to be “holy” or “pure,” as to separate themselves from the influence of the street violence, robbers displaced from their property and livelihood, and the new Roman ways, the excessive wealth of some of the Sadduces, the influx of military men living away from home, etc. We still say “Mary Most Holy.” And of course “Mary the Fortress” or of Magdala, some of the jews today say “my fortress” or “the castle” meaning the oldest woman in the family or the strongest–when they want help from Mom.

  7. Avatar
    JoshuaJ  August 11, 2016

    I have an unrelated question: Have you written about the use and implications of third-person omniscient narration in the Gospels, specifically in cases where events are recounted in great detail but for which there were no witnesses, or cases where it would have made no sense for witnesses to spill the beans after the fact or even be available for interview? For example, the “agony in the garden” is narrated in great detail (including the exact words of Jesus’ prayers), and yet the only possible witnesses (Peter, James, & John) were all asleep at the time. There are countless other examples (the plot to kill Jesus during the private meeting of the Sanhedrin, the secret meeting between Herod the Great and the Wise Men, etc.) In your view, does this support the idea that a lot of these stories are fabrications? If this is at all interesting to you, I would love to see you post on this sometime.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 12, 2016

      I have mentioned places where it seems comletely implausible that we have some kind of accurate report of a conversation (e.g., John’s account of Jesus’ trial before Pilate, where it’s just the two of them by themselves….)

  8. Avatar
    Jason  August 11, 2016

    My vote is to stick with it, as long as you bring it back around to the titles of trade books. I read the blog for the trip, not the sites. The sites are the trade books I guess.

  9. Avatar
    Jason  August 11, 2016

    Also, it struck me later to ask this: in light of your often made point that we don’t have any of the NT manuscripts, only copies of copies of copies and on and on… What about the patristic sources-do we have anything surviving from the actual hand of say Justin Martyr, Augustine, Eusebius, or Didymus the blind (and if so, how was Didymus’s handwriting?)

    • Bart
      Bart  August 12, 2016

      Yes indeed, this is part of the real problem with Patristic sources. We don’t have the originals of those either! But there are (complicated) ways around the problem, as I’ll indicate (or at least refer to earlier posts where I’ve discussed the problem.)

  10. John4
    John4  August 11, 2016

    Hey Bart!

    An off-topic question. 🙂

    I know that you share my love of Trollope. A Facebook friend recently suggested I try the modern mystery writer, Donna Leon. I did and have very much enjoyed her. Like Trollope, she writes literate genre fiction that transcends the genre to explore human character. I’d like to find other contemporary detective fiction writers and it occurred to me that you might have a favorite or two. Do you? Who?

    Many thanks! 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  August 12, 2016

      I’m afraid I don’t read detective fiction — or much modern fiction at all. I did just finish Iris Murdoch, The Nice and the Good (fantastic!) and decided to reread Brideshead Revisited (also fantastic). But nothing in the “recent” line and nothing detective, I’m sorry to say.

      • John4
        John4  August 12, 2016

        Well, it *is* hard to beat Victorian novels. Thanks, Bart! 🙂

  11. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  August 12, 2016

    The PhD program for scholars sounds very intense! I’ve taken 5 Praxis (4 content, 1 teacher) exams and completed a Resident Educator Program (no exam for that–just a comprehensive portfolio that took a forklift to transport) that was monitored by the state. I obtained a Master’s in math and passed the required Praxis to teach it, but I did not learn Common Core math which most states have acquired. It’s like learning Spanish and passing the test to teach Spanish, only to find out when you step into the classroom, you’re teaching French most of the time! So now, you have to go back and learn French in order to teach Spanish effectively. It’s madness. Sorry, I had to rant for a few minutes.

    As for the post, writing for academics is very dry and not very interesting to the average person. Writing for a lay audience is even trickier. It requires the ability to convey complicated material in a way that’s understandable, but it also has to be engaging in order to keep the reader’s attention. That requires artistic style and creativity. Not everyone has that ability.

  12. Avatar
    Tempo1936  August 12, 2016

    Rigorous biblical scholarship and The Internet are creating massive problems for the traditional Evangelical churches.
    As the millennials go to college and learn the truth about their Bible they either Stop believing or have to find postmodern churches.
    This Has led to the Growth of mega-churches focusing on entertainment ,praise bands, simple praise songs and community networking (rooted groups).
    In The “kingdom now” theology , Jesus is portrayed as a kind ,humble ,considerate person who loves all people and all of nature.
    Followers are encouraged to do good works in their community and government agencies. Most churches now teach same sex marriage and open borders are consistent with Jesus teaching . Good deeds include helping the homeless being a foster parent and supporting migrants .
    End times is never mentioned The Kingdom of God is being righteous in ones heart. Yes we are repeatedly told That Jesus died for the sins of the world and that he wants all to be saved .
    We are to be thankful for what he has done for us. Church discipline is completely Ignored.
    These trends will only accelerate in the future. There is no going back more trade books and articulate scholars like Dr. E. Become Well known and accepted in our educated Culture

  13. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  August 15, 2016

    I’ll put in my 2 cents’ worth for not revisiting Didymus, unless you have new information or have changed your mind about anything. I searched “didymus” on the blog and found a series from Aug 2013 (interesting that you’re coming back to it almost to the day from 3 years ago). It might be useful to interested readers (I’m one) to post links to the relevant articles, since they do not necessarily come in an uninterrupted sequence — you digressed for a few posts to a question about Luke.
    I can appreciate that lay readers cannot get much from serious scholarly writing — I abandoned Orthodox Corruption etc. for that reason. I know you’ve published a trade book on the same subject, but I’ve not read it yet. Have you or some of your fellow scholars ever considered publishing a periodical to keep the lay public up to date on the implications of new scholarship? It might be a good antidote to all the mythologists and conspiracy theories (daVinci Code, etc.) out there.

  14. Avatar
    HawksJ  August 17, 2016

    So, I have a question about the research/work of PH.D. students, particularly dissertations, with respect to ‘advancing scholarship’.

    Is the work that a student produces before receiving his or her doctorate considered reliable? I’m assuming much of it is, but how do you know that without some history/background knowledge/reputation of the student?

    I know the answer is, on some level, that people like you review their work to determine if it was performed properly and if they drew the appropriate conclusions, but you are obviously greatly constrained in how much time you can devote to such an evaluation before you have to draw your own conclusions.

    How is that process managed? How is it determined what gets added to the body of knowledge/scholarship and what gets rejected?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 18, 2016

      Yes, the function of the expert-advisor is to determine if the work is genuine and valuable (and not simply repetitive with earlier research). That’s one reason why not every scholar is suitable to be a graduate student advisor.

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