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Writing Scholarly and Popular Books on the Same Topic

As many of you know, I am now working on a scholarly monograph dealing with an aspect of the afterlife, on the heels of having written a “trade” book (that is, for popular audiences) on the topic more broadly.  The trade book is coming out in March, and will be called Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife; I am nearly finished researching the scholarly book — it’ll take another month or two — and then hope to have it written by the late spring.  It always takes much longer to write the scholarly than the trade books.  Lots of foonotes, among other things!   I don’t know what the monograph will be called: for now I’m calling it Otherworldly Journeys: Katabasis in the Early Christian Tradition.  I doubt if my publisher will let me use “katabasis” in the title, but we’ll see.

About five years ago I reflected on what it meant to write both popular and scholarly books on the same topic.  I’ve done it three times before in my career, and five years ago, in three posts, I described how the two books (each time) related to each other.  I thought that might be useful to repost, as I’m in the midst of doing it again.

After I wrote and published my PhD dissertation on Didymus the Blind and the Text of the Gospels, I, well, had no plans of writing a trade book about it!  🙂   (And I should say, about twice a week I get an email from someone who tells me that they’ve read “all” my books.  I’m always tempted to ask how they liked my book on Didymus the Blind!)   In fact, at that stage of my career, in my early 30s, I had no plans AT ALL, ever, at any time, to write a trade book.  I saw myself as a scholar’s scholar.  I worked in a highly technical area of New Testament studies, the most technical area there is – textual criticism.  And I worked in a particularly technical area even within that wider technical field, analyzing patristic citations of the New Testament.   It was hard enough to explain to people what I was doing, let alone get anyone interested in it.  And there was no way to make it accessible, let alone intriguing, to outsiders.  It was completely an inside job.

I did see my next book as…

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My Two Books on Forgery
Who Has The Answer For a Happy Afterlife?



  1. Avatar
    Stephen  August 25, 2019

    Ok I’ll bite. Why would the publisher of a scholarly monograph object to your using “katabasis” in the title?


    • Bart
      Bart  August 26, 2019

      Because no one knows what it means.

      • Avatar
        Stephen  August 26, 2019

        You mean the publisher doesn’t know what it means, right?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 27, 2019

          That’s true, they don’t. But they also know that most people — including scholars — don’t ever use the term. They want something more compelling.

  2. Avatar
    qditt  August 25, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    This is a question from your previous post on Isaiah. He seems to be the most referenced OT prophet to Christians, and I understand why, but what about his writings (and those of his disciples) made him so popular among Jews? Was it because writing started to take over oral tradition, or because the Assyrians posed the first major threat? Long question short, in your opinion, what makes Isaiah so much more “popular” than any other OT prophet (save Moses). Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 26, 2019

      I don’t think I realized he was! If he was, yes, it would be interesting to figure out why.

  3. Avatar
    mikezamjara  August 26, 2019

    Dr Ehrman

    I confess that I have only read your popular books in part because you scare me with posts like this. In your words what would be the most difficult part to understand your scholarly books for the people not in your field? Technical terms? nomenclature? ancient languages or what?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 26, 2019

      Yes, all three. But in reality, the scholarly books are not all that difficult. I wrote Orthodox Corruption in a way that a reader could read portions of all parts of it and get the argument extremely well, without going over the detailed evidence that proved it — and I explain what parts to read in the Preface.

    • Avatar
      quadell  August 29, 2019

      I’m a non-scholar, and I’m currently reading Ehrman’s “Forgery and Counterforgery”, written for a scholarly audience. It definitely reads like a Bart Ehrman book — it still has his wit and manner of speaking, and I’m enjoying it a lot. The main difficulties for a non-specialist are:
      (a) He frequently uses specialized vocabulary I’m not familiar with, like “teleology” and “antinomian”, so I have to look these up.
      (b) Sometimes he’ll jump right into discussing a work (like the Pseudo-Clementine writings) without giving an introductory paragraph on what it is, since his audience probably knows all about it. If I haven’t heard of it, I pull up Wikipedia or something and skim the introduction.
      (c) Occasionally he simply gives the Greek for a phrase he’s discussing, without translating, like δικαιόω. In a trade book, he would just give the translation, “justified”, but in a scholarly book, his readers presumably read Greek, and they would care exactly which Greek work he means. My Greek is really limited, so I just gloss over those parts.

      Anyway, that’s my experience.

  4. Avatar
    AstaKask  August 26, 2019

    I feel there’s a hunger for knowledge in the general population – look at all the the popular books about quantum physics or evoluiion over the last thirty years – and that the academic world sometimes doesn’t step up and explain what is they’re getting paid for. Which sadly leavs the field open to the Deepak Chopras of the world – people who sell deepities for a living (a deepity is a statement which has two different meanings – one trivial and true and one deeply significant and false – and which thrives on the confusion between the two).

    • Robert
      Robert  August 26, 2019

      Deepity, deepity, deepity that’s all folks!


    • Avatar
      cristianp  August 28, 2019

      I live in the Patagonia of Chile, and although we are at the end of the world, the Latin passion goes on with these issues. Therefore, in a world full of false information, the population is “waking up” from a long dream of misinformation. Thanks to people like Ehrman who give us more academic information. In the Latin world we have Antonio Piñero, from the Complutense of Madrid, who is almost homonymous with Ehrman

      • Avatar
        Lebo55  September 1, 2019

        Can I get any of his writing in English?

  5. Avatar
    Hormiga  August 27, 2019

    I have a question about the name Isaiah. Looking it up, it’s said to come from Isa + Yah, “Yah is salvation”. In the context of Isaiah’s time, taken to be the 8th Century BCE, what did “salvation” mean? It doesn’t seem likely it was anything like the later Christian understanding of salvation.

    So who or what was Yah supposed to save, and from who or what? And what form would the salvation have taken?

    (This isn’t a NT question, of course, but I thought you might have some insight into it.)

    • Bart
      Bart  August 28, 2019

      Usually it meant being delivered from anything that could harm or kill you.

  6. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  August 29, 2019

    For those new to the blog, “Misquoting Jesus” is a really good and very readable book.

    • Avatar
      mkahn1977  September 2, 2019

      That’s one of the books that shook my intellectual world! Wish I read this long before I even read The Case for Christ!

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