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Writing to Become Famous?

I’ve been referring to the reactions that I received from my former classmates at Moody Bible Institute about some of my posts about what my experience was like there.  Some of them, as I indicated, warned me of future judgment.   Others made some a rather belittling comment:  that I have written my books simply because I have wanted to become famous.

My sense is that nothing I say would ever change someone’s mind if that’s what they are already inclined to think, but I do want to say something about the matter from my own perspective.

When I started out in my publishing career, I had no idea at all of becoming well known and that certainly was not a goal of mine.  Very, very far from it.   My goal was to be a widely respected scholar among New Testament scholars; I wanted to become a world-class expert on the Greek manuscript tradition of the New Testament.  I had no idea at all of reaching out to the general public in anything I wrote.   I never planned to write a book that would be suitable for the shelves of Barnes & Noble.   Quite the opposite.

As I’ve said before on the blog, my training was in technical areas of New Testament studies.   Most of my graduate courses involved exegesis – that is, interpretation of various biblical books.  But my real interest was in the field of textual criticism, the field that takes the surviving textual witnesses (Greek manuscripts, ancient translations into languages such as Latin, Syriac, and Coptic, and quotations of the New Testament in the writings of the church fathers) and uses them to determine (a) what the original text of the New Testament, as written by its authors, actually was and (b) how and why it had become changed over the centuries.

My dissertation was an unusually detailed and mind-numbingly detailed analysis of the quotations of the Gospels in the writings of the fourth-century church father Didymus the Blind.  When people tell me “I’ve read all your books,” I sometimes ask them, “Did you enjoy Didymus the Blind and the Text of the Gospels?”    Say what?

My goal after that …

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On Writing for A College Audience
The Threat of Judgment

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    sashko123  May 15, 2015

    “My sense is that nothing I say would ever change someone’s mind if that’s what they are already inclined to think . . .”

    On May 12, Andy Borowitz wrote an article “Scientists: Earth Endangered by New Strain of Fact-Resistant Humans” for THE NEW YORKER. I have really been interested in human psychology during the last two years, especially our biases. Studies relating to confirmation bias show how two opposing sides can read the same article, and each side comes away believing that the article on whole supports his own side; we minimize evidence against us and emphasize the evidence for us. Professor Ehrman, I’m guessing the other side will likely find your own statements about your intentions self-serving and will emphasize the evidence to conclude that your biography fits their own narrative. At the same time, they may characterize self-serving statements by Paul and others in the NT as highly probative evidence of a divine calling or of divine inspiration. I appreciate you writing for us here, though. Thought about writing about propaganda techniques in the Bible, perhaps including the use of unfalsifiable assertions and manipulation of human biases? Have a nice weekend.

  2. Avatar
    J--B  May 15, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Just wondering – Did you ever swear not to write a blog?

  3. Avatar
    rivercrowman  May 15, 2015

    Bart, I DO have a copy of your Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, but see I didn’t progress much beyond the Preface to the Second Edition! … I had already read my earlier-acquired Misquoting Jesus (my favorite) and had been “bogged down” reading your other (also easy to read) books. … At least I have a book of yours I haven’t read yet.

  4. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  May 15, 2015

    Maybe your former classmates are bothered by your likeability. If you were an atheist who was successful but arrogant or successful and immoral, they probably wouldn’t mind. You’re not supposed to be an atheist, biblical scholar who is both successful and likeable/moral/ethical. It doesn’t seem fair or just to them. Therefore, you did it for selfish ambition.
    Or maybe they’re jealous.

  5. Avatar
    rbrtbaumgardner  May 15, 2015

    Doesn’t it occur to them you are famous because people buy your books? Shame on you for writing about interesting topics in an engaging style an intelligent general audience will understand!

    • Bart
      Bart  May 16, 2015

      I know. As if someone ever wrote a book hoping no one would read it.

  6. Avatar
    Adam0685  May 15, 2015

    Ha. Some of these critics are probably jealous. And how does someone choose to become famous anyway? Many consider you an effective and engaging communicator so they buy your books. Do they want you to restrict the amount of books your publisher print and make your books limited editions???

  7. gmatthews
    gmatthews  May 16, 2015

    I’ve read your Orthodox Corruption of Scripture as well as two or three articles you’ve written for scholarly journals so I know how you write for your peers. I’ve also read books and scholarly articles by a number of other scholars. Some people have the ability to make their scholarly rhetoric flow at a level and pace that is easily understood and some do not. Some have extreme difficulty with this. In my opinion Orthodox Corruption, while still quite technical, flows on a level that makes what you’re saying easy to follow even if the reader doesn’t have the technical background of everything you’re writing about. I think it is for this reason that your editors asked you about writing a textbook and then eventually for a popular audience.

    For those that don’t fully appreciate what I’m saying here is a random example (ie., not cherry-picked!) of something that you wrote in Orthodox Corruption compared to another scholar who’s works I consider to be interesting, but very opaque and hard to follow.

    From Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, p.170:
    “The ingenuity of von Harnack’s argument has done little to create for it a following. On the one hand, Matthew has as much reason as Mark to stress the mockery of Jesus in his passion; he reproduces, for example, Mark’s reference to the robbers and others ‘reviling him’…”

    Again, very easy to follow what you’re saying.

    Now, compare this to something by Martin Hengel, whose book “Crucifixion” I’m reading right now. Hengel was a German scholar whose works, as far as I know, were always translated into English by someone else. I don’t know if the translations of his that I’ve read are just bad translations or if Hengel was, on the whole, hard to follow. Here is Hengel in the opening paragraph to his section on Docetism in “Crucifixion” (ie., describing how some posited that Jesus didn’t really suffer on the cross), p. 15:

    “With its paradoxical contrast between the divine nature of the pre-existent Son of God and his shameful death on the cross, the first Christian proclamation shattered all analogies and parallels to christology which could be produced in the world of the time, whether from polytheism or from monotheistic philosophy.”

    When I have to go back and read something like that a couple of times to understand what is being said then I consider the writing to be opaque. Maybe it’s just me though!

    • Bart
      Bart  May 16, 2015

      Yes, German is not an easy language to translate into pleasing English! And most German scholars, like most English scholars, are not adept at communicating with normal human beings.

  8. Avatar
    prairieian  May 16, 2015

    A couple of comments…

    First, those who criticise you for your success with a popular audience stikes this reader as sour grapes. It is a gift to be able to take a technical subject and translate it for a lay audience. The subject does not matter. The skill in being able to bring it to a reasonably well educated but non-technical audience is a wonderful thing. Stephen Jay Gould, for instance, in a completely different magisterium to borrow his usage, is another example. So good on you.

    Second, I think it critically important that the academic world interact and connect with the non-academic world. If all academics do is dispute one with another then what does it signify? Not much. However, taking the results of those disputes and presenting them to external audiences is enormously important. Disputes conducted in a vacuum are, well, vacuous and mean very little. Your ability to bring those discussions to that wider audience is very important.

    And, finally, I would say that the importance of your field – that is, early Christianity – is the icing on the cake. Your particular patch has significant resonance in the modern world and the insights you bring to bear important for the interpretation of a vital world religion. Your subject is not an arcane topic, essentially irrelevant to life. It is the polar opposite. The perspective you present is important and, I think, illuminates difficult topics extremely well. Thank you for that, and keep plugging.

  9. Goat
    Goat  May 16, 2015

    Your statement that you swore that you would never write any commentaries on the New Testament raises a question for which I would greatly appreciate your help. I have profitted from William Barclay’s series of commentaries. In a preface he states: “The Daily Study Bible Series has always had one aim, to convey the results of scholarship to the ordinary reader. A.S. Peake has delighted in the saying that he was a theological middleman and I would be happy if the same could be said of me with regard to these volumes.” Here’s the question – can you recommend any commentaries by any “theological middlemen” that take a more scholarly approach than Barclay. Writers such as Crossan or Borg come to mind (I have a very limted knowledge of who writes along these lines for the benefit of lay people) but I am not aware of anything written by these or any others that would qualify as commentary on the New Testament (in the sense of guiding the reader through any given book in an orderly fashion) that shares the benefit of scholarly thinking and explicates a Christian theology. Understanding that this is outside your current field of study, I am hoping that this is a landscape with which you would nonetheless be familiar. I would be very grateful if you could point me in that direction.

    Here’s a second question more directly related to your post – before you gave up on Christianity as a matter of faith, why would you have been dead set against writing commentaries for the benefit of those who wanted to cultivate a faith consistent with scholarly understandings? I could more easily understand if you had said that it was simply not on the top of your list of things to do but the statement that you swore that it was something that you would never do suggests a gap in the story that is puzzling.

    As always, thank your for your time and consideration.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 16, 2015

      There are tons of commentaries out there on biblical books for non-scholars. Tons. I don’t have any great suggestions of ones in particular, but if you ask me about a name or two I can probably tell you what I think. Possibly the best thing to do is just to search for some (on a particular biblical book) and then google the author to see what his or her credentials are.

      • Goat
        Goat  May 17, 2015

        When I Google or search on Amazon for Bible Commentary I find tons of hits for authors who write commentary that accepts the Bible uncritically or nearly uncritically as historically accurate but cannot locate any that discuss what is likely to be historically accurate in a theological context. When it comes to Bible Commentary I am literally drawing a blank. In light of your statements that it was not critical analysis of the bible that turned you from faith but was, instead, your struggle with the concept of suffering, it struck me that you might be someone who could help me. Moreover, your recent sting of threads seemed to invite this inquiry. Any suggestions that you may have would be gratefully received.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 18, 2015

          Why don’t you try something like the Interpreters Bible Commentary series?

          • Goat
            Goat  May 19, 2015

            Thank you. I will give it a try.

    • Avatar
      sleonard  May 26, 2015

      Hi Goat,

      You might check out this blog:

      commentingonthebible.wordpress.com

      The guy is slowly translating and commenting his way through NT books. He’s been at it for several years now, and is currently working his way through his first gospel (Matthew). He is a Christian, but is approaching his project from a historical perspective and seems to me to be fairly successful on that point.

      Cheers

  10. ZekePiestrup
    ZekePiestrup  May 16, 2015

    Orthodox Corruption, that’s Scripture for me. First stratum. Another of your earlier works, Lost Christianities inspired a Phibionite House Party.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tApLXU8xcKM

  11. Avatar
    Jason  May 16, 2015

    Do you get the feeling that those Moody classmates would hesitate to make the same belittling comments about Crossan or Tabor (neither of whom to my knowledge have ever claimed to be atheist, but then again, neither of whom attended Moody if I recall.)?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 16, 2015

      No doubt. But they aren’t as threatening because they were never in the fold to begin with.

      • Goat
        Goat  May 17, 2015

        Based on my read of your popular writings and as much of Tabor’s works as I have read, or listened to, it seems to me that there is much on which you and Tabor would disagree – is that a fair statement?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 18, 2015

          Yes, we disagree on a lot. And agree on a lot! That happens with most scholars!

  12. Avatar
    godspell  May 16, 2015

    No offense, Bart, but you’re a lot less famous than Mike Huckabee, and any number of other still-practicing evangelical Christians–did Billy Graham become a preacher so he’d be famous? Much as I may disagree with many of his beliefs, I think that would not be a fair thing to say of him. Huckabee, I’m not so sure.

    I think that’s a pretty odd statement for anyone to make. Becoming a scholar of ancient history has never been what anyone could conceivably call the fast-track to fame and fortune. I was always taught that envy was a deadly sin.

    You came along at the right time with the right training and the right ideas–and you’ve taken more than your share of flack from both sides of the argument. Rare is the historian who wins lasting fame, but their ideas can live on after them, which is a sort of immortality. As long as people keep reading history, anyway.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 16, 2015

      No offense taken. I do not have a high view of my stature!

      • Avatar
        Jason  May 17, 2015

        I don’t know if I agree with the Huckabee comparison, and I’m from Iowa where he comes to annoy us politically every four years before dropping out and sparing the rest of ya’ll. Guy is annoying.

  13. Avatar
    madmargie  May 16, 2015

    Your books have helped change my theology over the years. I don’t care a whit whether you believe in a God or not.

  14. Avatar
    Steefen  May 16, 2015

    Re: Orthodox Corruption of Scripture. The book is not hooking me. I’m seeing 4 anti- types of corruption. A big block to getting hooked is the admission that the majority of corruptions are minor and of little consequence. Yes, scholars need to know the stuff under the microscope but where’s the beef? After reading a few amazon reviews, I’m not seeing chapter and verse boom, bam, stop. Does each chapter have something major, not minor, that a Christian needs to know? After we see the hot degree, then we can be drawn into a “court room” about who the corruptors were.

    For example, when Jesus became God’s son is hardly important given Jesus’ theology of always calling the God of Moses and Israel “Father.” I don’t think the debate in this presentation is God impregnating Mary for Jesus at birth vs God adopting Jesus on his baptism.

    It deserves our attention? Please list in descending order of importance the top 4 corruptions. Maybe they appear in your general audience books. If so, which general audience book captures the top 5-10 discrepancies?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 18, 2015

      It depends what a Christian wants to know….

      You might try my book Misquoting Jesus instead. If you’re not interested in scholarship, Orthodox Corruption is not for you.

      • Avatar
        Steefen  May 18, 2015

        It’s not that I’m not interested in scholarship, I’m interested in the scholarly treatment of the most weighty issues. In Misquoting Jesus, an amazon reviewer quotes you from page 207-208 of that book:

        Was Jesus an angry man?
        [of interest to me, even if in Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (OCS)]

        Was he completely distraught in the face of death?
        [of interest to me, even if in OCS]

        What should get me a publishing contract are these issues:

        1) Was he distraught about the impending destruction of the Temple if you address that somewhere.

        2) I, as an essayist and public speaker, have a problem with Jesus not sweating blood over Jerusalem surrounded by armies and the Temple being destroyed. He probably was distraught over that [emphasis being added] and then came up with the cannibalistic remembrance and the consumption of blood which turned God’s face from him, his Son of Man movement, and the followers which stayed with him after he instituted that affront to Lev. 17: 10. According to John’s gospel he did that way before the Last Supper which puts a whole different spin on why Orthodox Temple Authorities needed to get rid of him for just cause. And the Babylonian Talmud would be absolutely correct in finding fault in Jesus for leading people astray: leading people away from the face of God.

        Textual Criticism is woefully incomplete until we reconcile Lev. 17: 10 and the Jesus of the Gospel of Matthew and wherever else Jesus is linked to scriptures in the Hebrew Bible. Jesus’ affront to Leviticus 10 causes one to lose the Sunshine of God’s Face and to get excommunicated from God’s people. (This needs to be in edited scholarly and trade/mass market books, in Wikipedia, discussed at the Society of Biblical Literature, and much more.) Writing to be famous? This is the issue that can come forward. My time spent with Jewish scholarship shows there is a need for the issue to be discussed in that circle as well. This is a major (big, big, big as Oprah would say) theological issue.

        • Avatar
          Steefen  May 18, 2015

          typo correction: Jesus’ affront to Leviticus 17: 10…

      • Avatar
        Steefen  May 18, 2015

        Yes, Misquoting Jesus shows mention that it’s likely “woman caught in adultery” episode was added. So I would think that is in Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, yes? You explain it with more scholarly detail in Orthodox Corruption than in Misquoting Jesus, yes?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 19, 2015

          No, Orthodox Corruption is not about every textual change in the New Testament, but only those relating to Christological controversies of the second and third century. Important changes not relating to those controversies are not discussed — since that’s not what the book is about!

          • Avatar
            Steefen  May 19, 2015

            Thank you professor.

            Wikipedia:
            Bishop J.B. Lightfoot wrote that absence of the passage from the earliest manuscripts, combined with the occurrence of stylistic characteristics atypical of John, together implied that the passage was an interpolation. Nevertheless, he considered the story to be authentic history.[18] As a result, based on Eusebius’ mention that the writings of Papias contained a story “about a woman falsely accused before the Lord of many sins” (H.E. 3.39), he argued that this section originally was part of Papias’ Interpretations of the Sayings of the Lord, and included it in his collection of Papias’ fragments.

            Now for your contribution:

            Bart D. Ehrman concurs in Misquoting Jesus, adding that the passage contains many words and phrases otherwise alien to John’s writing.

            I found something interesting in this entry that I don’t think you’ve blogged about:, diacritical marks. This gives us a view that you not only know ancient languages but ancient editorial/scholarly/study marks!

            “In the Septuagint column [Origen] used the system of diacritical marks which was in use with the Alexandrian critics of Homer, especially Aristarchus, marking with an obelus under different forms, as “./.”, called lemniscus, and “/.”, called a hypolemniscus, those passages of the Septuagint which had nothing to correspond to in Hebrew, and inserting, chiefly from Theodotion under an asterisk (*), those which were missing in the Septuagint; in both cases a metobelus (Y) marked the end of the notation.”

            Early textual critics familiar with the use and meaning of these marks in classical Greek works like Homer, interpreted the signs to mean that the section (John 7:53-8:11) was an interpolation and not an original part of the Gospel.

            (I hope people don’t do as I did and think you were the first to discover the pericope was an interpolation. Yes, people reading Misquoting Jesus may have heard about it for the first time from you, but it seems to be very old news.)

  15. Avatar
    Mark  May 17, 2015

    Yes, you certainly chose that well-trod path to fame – become a NT academic, lose your faith and write truthfully about your ideas, without disparaging other who disagree. When is your movie biography coming out? I think Liam Neeson could play you. The could call it – Faith: Taken Away.

  16. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 18, 2015

    I am so glad that your editor at Oxford University Press persisted three times. Your New Testament textbook is really terrific both in format (with all of the boxes) and content.

    With regard to your critics, I am sure that if someone offered a criticism of something that you have written and backed it up with convincing evidence that you would appreciate learning something new and would change your view of the given topic accordingly. That is what scholars in all fields do. That is the nature of scholarly work. Unfortunately, there seems to be little criticism of this sort. Instead, the criticism is mostly one of “ad hominem” personal attacks which are judgmental, condescending, “belittling,” unkind, and just plain nasty and surprisingly unChristian. Most of us who have asked questions in churches have experienced very similar, if less widespread, reactions. I know it is not easy, but just duck and keep plugging away!!! Minds are difficult to change, even with evidence and reason, but some change.

  17. Avatar
    deadkennedy  May 18, 2015

    I feel for you.

    You are either a pop culturalist writing for the fame and money or a liberal academic out of touch.

    I think you do a good job of bridging the gap.

  18. Avatar
    Forrest  May 18, 2015

    I am not sure where else to put this question to you. I recently was in a candid but courteous discussion with someone who has more than a casual understanding of the NT. For this specific discussion we were discussing the authorship of the Third Gospel. I believe this person senses it was not written by Paul’s traveling companion the Gentile physician, however his response was “What difference does it make?” I think he was asking that question to himself as well and not trying to minimize the issue.

    What is your take and or response to these types of questions?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 18, 2015

      It has made a different for scholars who want to argue that his account of Paul’s life and mission was written by an eyewitness.

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