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Writing a Historical-Critical Textbook that Isn’t *Critical*

Now that I’ve finished the draft of my book on the afterlife, and am waiting for readers’ comments, I am turning to a revision of my textbook: The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings.  It was first published in 1997 and this will be the seventh edition.

It’s hard writing a decent textbook (and not so hard to write a lousy one).   A constant struggle.  In breezing through blog posts of years gone by, I’ve seen that I was having the struggle precisely six years ago, when writing (the first edition of) my textbook on the entire Bible, Genesis to Revelation.  Now *that* was a chore.  And I was confronted by one problem in particular.  Here  is how I described it at the time.


Writing any kind of book whatsoever is really difficult. But each *kind* of book is difficult in its own way. I tend to write three kinds of books: scholarly works for scholars (not for general consumption!); popular trade books for broader audiences of intelligent adults; and textbooks for college kids. I’m now finishing up my new textbook on the Bible for introductory level classes. The audience is, basically, American 19 and 20-year olds. And I’m finding it hard!

There are several things that are just inherently hard for this kind of thing.  It is hard to take something that can so easily be made dull and lifeless and make it interesting and even intriguing.  It is hard to write at the right level so that the readers are treated like adults but not too much knowledge is assumed.  It is hard to take complicated ideas and concepts and make them simple and understandable enough for 19-year-olds who may be having the first introduction to the subject matter ever.  It is hard to write with both a good sense of humor and a sense of distance between you, the author, and the reader.  It is hard to know what among the millions of facts that are relevant to the task to leave out of the book altogether.  It is hard to tell a narrative that will grip the student-readers.  It is hard to make the book appealing at one and the same time to the 19-year-old who may nothing about the topic in advance and to the professor of the course who knows, or who thinks s/he knows, absolutely everything about it (so that it is at an introductory level and compelling for the student, but based on sufficient scholarship and insight to satisfy the professor).   Well, there are lots of other reasons it’s hard.  But it’s hard.  It’s gotta be hard – otherwise there would be lots more really good textbooks out there.  And how many good textbooks *are* out there?  In my field, not a whole lot….

But in addition to all this, I’m having one particular difficulty with this book.   I had it with my New Testament textbooks (I have two of them – one the first regular one, the other a shorter somewhat simplified version of it) as well, but now the problem is a bit exacerbated by personal circumstances.   The problem is …

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  1. Avatar
    mkahn1977  September 20, 2018

    Would it help or make any difference to put a disclaimer in the beginning, something like “this is a work of history and the historical method- not a work that promotes or defends theology”?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 21, 2018

      Yup — I have an excursus that makes that point. I need to tone it down a bit though.

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  September 20, 2018

    1. Your textbook on the New Testament is an awesome book which I keep rereading.
    2. Actually, I remain impressed by how you do “soften” your tone in all of your work and I often wish I could do better at that task myself. I find it very hard to be respectful to people when they are so dogmatic and certain about it all and consider anything that I may have learned, over decades of study, to be biased from the get-go. I try, but it is a struggle. So, just keep being who you are. You have done far more good than harm. The TRUTH really is important even if we don’t like it. The TRUTH can be much like the root canal I just had. People are just very sensitive about religious beliefs and that is just the way it is.
    3. I have a very cute and adorable grandchild whom we are going to have to homeschool because she has a complicated illness. Does your daughter still have a home school online program. If so, could you give me the website address. I looked at her website awhile back and liked it, but can no longer remember how to access it. Thanks!

  3. Avatar
    bensonian  September 20, 2018

    Personally, I prefer the scholarly books. I need to check things out and validate how well things are backed up and represented. You are obviously a very altruistic person; giving the proceeds of the blog to homeless and hungry people and donating so much of your time to help others. I will bet that your altruism drove you into the ministry; needing to save people from Hell, which if it exists, would be far worse than the pain any starving child could imagine. That said, how do you answer the ‘what if it were true’ question without getting all bent out of shape? If there is a Hell, and people who read your books are more likely to go there, struggling to hang on to the foundation of Christianity and finding themselves drawing straws to do so. What absolutely compelling, rock solid, impervious evidence do you have that convinced you to write these books knowing that many would reject Christianity and *potentially* end up in eternal Hell. As a highly altruistic person who spent a portion of your life trying to prevent people from going to hell; doesn’t this bother you that people may end up in eternal pain as the result of reading your books? I don’t mean this in a finger pointing, cruel or disrespectful fashion. I’m struggling to figure out how an altruistic and intelligent person such as yourself would be willing to take that sort of a risk. To me, if Hell really exists, and there is an antidote, no altruistic action on the planet would compare to the calling to share the antidote and hopefully prevent others (even 1 person) from eternal suffering.

    • Avatar
      Sabina  September 24, 2018

      Anyone who could so readily kick their Redeemer to the curb after merely being asked to genuinely examine a collection of millennials-old writings for discrepancies, must already have been standing upon shaky firmament.
      Use your own God-given or Not God- given noggin. That’s all the man is asking.

    • Avatar
      Hogie2  October 1, 2018

      “What absolutely compelling, rock solid, impervious evidence do you have….”

      How exactly does one come up with “rock solid evidence” to prove that an invisible, imaginary place does not exist? What “rock solid evidence” do you have that evil gremlins won’t take you to their underground lair and burn you with eternal cigarettes if you don’t believe in them? Kind of hard to prove a negative.

      It seems to me that one would want this standard of evidence before believing in such an irrational, despicable, and unjust doctrine as eternal torture for the simple “crime” of not believing based on poor & insufficient evidence, especially if you plan on teaching children such nightmarish nonsense.

  4. Avatar
    obrienma  September 20, 2018

    Mailbag Question?


    I just finished Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet. Reading how Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist suggests a subordinate/superior relationship has made me wonder about Jesus’ praying in the Bible. If Jesus was a pre-existent being who was co-equal and “consubstantial” with the Father (as the new Catholic wording says), whom exactly would Jesus be praying to? Do any of your books (or blog posts) address how Christian theologians explain Jesus’ use/need of prayer as part of an all-knowing/all powerful tripartite deity?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 21, 2018

      Even in trinitarian thinking, God the son still speaks with God the father, and on earth that naturally happened by means of prayer; also Christians have long thought that Jesus’ prayers are an example for Christians to follow, so it’s a kind of model to be followed rather than something Jesus actually needed to do.

      • Avatar
        jdmartin21  September 21, 2018

        “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” This is an example for Christians to follow and not something He really, REALLY wanted to happen?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 23, 2018

          Nope, I wouldn’t say that. The orthodox position is that the incarnate Christ really was a human, with human limitations, desires, and fears. Otherwise he *wasn’t* fully human.

  5. Avatar
    DavidNeale  September 20, 2018

    Indeed. I always think it’s terribly unfair that evangelicals paint you as some kind of anti-religious crusader. As I understand it (though I’m no expert!), the majority of your views (with the possible exception of your view on the empty tomb) are perfectly mainstream in historical Jesus scholarship. And you’ve always made it very clear that you aren’t attacking anyone’s faith but are simply presenting historical conclusions.

    In fact I was thinking about this recently when I was trying to track down a copy of Maurice Casey’s “Is John’s Gospel True?” published in 1996 – which seems to be out of print and unavailable everywhere. As I understand it the book is a full-on attack on the historicity of John – but I can’t see any sign that it attracted any interest/controversy among the wider public (if it had, it would presumably still be in print!) It’s curious that 20 years ago these matters evidently didn’t attract the media and public attention that they do now. Unless I’m mistaken. (I was 7 years old in 1996, so I don’t speak from a personal recollection of the time.)

    (To be fair, I would find it impossible to reconcile the conclusions of critical scholarship with being a Christian. But clearly plenty of people, including scholars, manage it!)

  6. Avatar
    flshrP  September 20, 2018

    “You see, ya can’t please everyone, so ya got to please yourself” (Ricky Nelson, “Garden Party”, 1972).

    Read Gibbon “Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire” to see how a master of the historical literary genre handles religious topics with a tone that’s simultaneously seriously erudite, humorous, mildly sarcastic bordering on the disdainful, and quizzical.

    “Of the numerous religions of the Roman World, the people held that they were all equally true, the philosophers that they were all equally false, and the magistrates that they were all equally useful”.

    In one short sentence Gibbon nailed the lid on the coffin of organized religion.

    That type of facility with the English language is what makes Gibbon’s opus a masterpiece of both history and literature.

  7. Avatar
    fishician  September 20, 2018

    Would it help if you started out saying that you are being intentionally provocative in your book because we only learn by having our beliefs challenged, not by having our beliefs reinforced over and over again (which has been my past experience in various churches). Although it sounds like you’re really not trying to be provocative; it’s just perceived that way by some. But saying something like this up front might disarm those who would accuse you of a sneak attack on faith. (And how did you condense the Old Testament into 8 chapters?!!!)

  8. Avatar
    Stephen  September 20, 2018

    Is there a gentle way to tell kids raised by fundamentalists that there is no historical evidence for the Exodus or that the gospel writers weren’t eyewitnesses? Don’t you just have to lay it out there and let the proverbial chips fall where they may?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 21, 2018

      Yeah, I pretty much do.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  September 21, 2018

      This reminds me, last week I was having Rosh haShanah dinner with my family, who are all pretty much orthodox at this point. I’m probably the only atheist in the family. And during a heated discussion about the historicity of the Torah, my cousin turns to me and says, “You would take the word of archaeologists over the writings of your own people?” And I replied, without hesitation, “You bet your f***ing a** I would.”

  9. Avatar
    darren  September 20, 2018

    What you’re talking about is a growing phenomenon — people increasingly don’t evaluate information based on whether it is true, but instead evaluate the person providing it. If the person is compromised in their eyes, they discount it.

  10. Avatar
    turtlepc  September 20, 2018

    Dear Dr. Ehrman,
    Perhaps you could insert a (*from a Faith perspective: …) in red ink… between para or in the margins.. and it would read something like: Alternatively, from an evangelical/faith perspective keep in mind that -soften the blow- allowing someone to slip back into a self-denial rebuttal to what we have as evidence/etc. – historical perspective. I don’t know – but I understand what you are saying and it does seem difficult. I wouldn’t get into the weeds with the “apologetic tone” but it might be a way to reduce bias?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 21, 2018


    • Avatar
      Sabina  September 24, 2018

      Smells of the dreaded P.C. “Trigger warnings” that college professors are having to disclaim at the start of class in this, the 21st century, lest they injure the more emotionally fragile among their students, and end up ostracized on social media or, worse, ousted from their posts. I thought college was about becoming an adult and opening up to new ideas.

  11. Avatar
    Sixtus  September 20, 2018

    Along with usual refreshing of the bibliographies and reading recommendations will there be any major additions, deletions or recastings in the new edition? Will you, for example, cover such non-discoveries as the Gospel of Jesus and the more recent early mss of Mark? Or expanded coverage of archeological discoveries, non- and otherwise? I have a 4th edition and am trying to decide whether to start saving my pennies for the 7th.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 21, 2018

      I haven’t decided yet! Working on that over the next couple of weeks.

  12. Avatar
    James Chalmers  September 20, 2018

    Maybe one way to approach the problem is by analogizing it to a basic Christian belief–that Jesus is divine and is fully human. What believers do in fact, I think, is to slide away from “fully human” and lapse into heresy. But still they don’t want to deny that Jesus is fully human–he has to be if he/He is to save US. Or they can be reminded why he has to be fully human.
    Then anyone can see the difficulties of maintaining both Jesus’ humanity and his divinity.
    Similarly scripture is both the Word of God and sixty-six books written by human beings. It’s not like God to err. But to err is human. God could have just sent Scripture our way by creating and depositing a pile of papyrus somewhere, but instead he inspired the authors of sixty-six books, and didn’t even make provide us with a definitive version of any of the books but obliged us to pick and choose from different versions. Sometimes signs of human error are unmistakable. And should we erring humans expect anything else from books written by creatures like us? Well known evangelists, I suspect, somewhere or other have denied a direct dictation theory of Scripture. If even they go that far in acknowledging the humanity of it, maybe that’s an opening.

  13. Avatar
    Stylites  September 20, 2018

    OK. I am not a 19 year old. I am a 79 year old. However, I have read thoroughly both your textbook on the Bible and the one on the New Testament. With the exception of fundamentalism (for which you can be forgiven) I cannot think of a single instance where you attacked anyone’s faith or for that matter defended it. What you did in a superb fashion is tell the reader what happened based on what resources we have. Of course you brought background to this narrative, explaining what the sources are and the culture of the times. If anyone has problems with this, it is indeed their problem, not yours. I thought the Old Testament portion of your Bible text was better than the texts I have read that deal only with the Old Testament. Your New Testament text is in a class by itself. Nothing else comes close. I write this not to make you feel good, but to urge you to continue doing precisely what you have been doing. Just give us the facts. You do that in a clear, consistent, and often entertaining way. The reader cannot ask for more.

  14. SteveSeven
    SteveSeven  September 20, 2018

    I enjoyed your debate with Michael Licona on the reliability of the Bible. It was very impressive to see just how much a conservative scholar is willing to cede in public now and I think you can take a lot of credit for that.I am sure he wrote his book to answer many of the points you have made and he met you more than halfway. It was also good to see how the audience can engage with discrepancies and still hold their faith. I saw you cringe when Licona mentioned that, although Jesus doesn’t call himself God in the synoptics, he forgives sins and controls the weather which only God does.
    My point is that if you write a foreword to the effect that the academic study is historical-critical and faith is something else and perhaps refer to Licona and mention that he has been able to maintain his faith then perhaps your student readers will feel better about placing question marks over every word being inspired. .. Licona even ceded that John changed the crucifixion day to make Jesus the “lamb of God”! That is a big concession for him to make in that context-even if he did quickly justify it by adding that Paul had already taken the theological step. This will make. your main goal of getting people to think critically more palatable and that is the start. One question: Was John 19:31 added by a later scribe?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 21, 2018

      No, it looks like John 19:31 was always part of the text.

  15. Avatar
    swaffbls  September 20, 2018

    I think once your intentions are clear, any reasonable reader/student will be more open to where your historical-critical arguments lead – even if it takes them down a road that challenges some of their fundamental beliefs. In other words, if the reader feels that you are simply after the truth and have no other agenda (which unfortunately get projected on your work often it seems), then the reader will relate to that and be more open to follow where your honest, intelligent research takes you.


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